Sunday, 29 May 2011

Alexander Men and G.K.Chesterton

Today is the birthday of English author G.K. Chesterton, inventor of English detective Father Brown. The Father Brown stories were the favourite light reading (along with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple) of Father Alexander Men, the reforming Russian Orthdox priest who I was privileged to meet and who was murdered - probably by agents of the state church - on Sept 10 1990, five months after he had baptised my elder daughter Abi. Father Alexander was on his way to take morning service at his church in the village of Novaya Derevnya ('New Village') northeast of Moscow not far from the seat of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate at Sergiev Posad - the equivalent of our Canterbury, when (deducing from the evidence) he was stopped and asked a question which caused him to open his briefcase and put on his spectacles. He was mortally injured by a skilled blow to the back of the head, probably with a sappers' spade, a sharp instrument used by the (then) Soviet, now Russian, Special Forces. The story of his life and samples of his work are to be found in Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century: the life and work of Alexander Men co-edited by myself and Ann Shukman (now of nearby Elshieshields, Lochmaben)and published in the UK by SCM Press in 1996. The book is for sale in Creativity , Well St, Moffat or direct from me. I also co-wrote with Russian theatre director Mark Rozovsky a play about the affair based on T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral called A Russian Rehearsal which was put on at the equivalent of Moscow's West End at the Theatre At the Nikitsky Gates and which continues to tour as part of that theatre's repertory. Sadly, T.S. Eliot's widow Valerie forbids its performance outside Russia because she does not allow the use of any of her late husband's texts in other work. Anyway, back to GKC, who was born Gilbert Keith Chesterton in London (1874). He was a large man, well over six feet, and rotund. He disagreed sharply with many people, most notably H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but he was so agreeable and full of good humor that he kept them as close friends. He was also remarkably prolific, writing fast and scarcely editing what he wrote. He considered himself primarily a journalist, and he wrote 4,000 newspaper essays; he also wrote some 80 books -- books of fiction, criticism, literary biography, and theology -- as well as several hundred poems, about 200 short stories, and several plays. His best-known character is Father Brown, a detective-slash-priest, who features in several short stories. He dabbled in the occult as a young man, and he and his brother tried out the Ouija board, but eventually he returned to the Church of England, and converted to Catholicism later in life; his thoughts on religion influenced much of his writing. His book The Everlasting Man (1925) contributed to C.S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity.
George Bernard Shaw was his good friend and verbal sparring partner. They rarely agreed on anything, but disagreed amicably. Chesterton wrote of Shaw, a modernist, in Heretics (1905): "If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby."
He made his points with wit and paradox, and in such a large body of work, there is no shortage of quotable material:
"The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane." (Orthodoxy, 1908)
"Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." (Tremendous Trifles, 1909)
"Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it." (The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908)
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."
(The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911)
(information about G.K.Chesterton courtesy of The Writer's Almanac)

Friday, 27 May 2011

John Muir, the tree and me

John Muir recorded in his diaries what a fan he was of Picea Sitchensis, the tree I grow in south Lanarkshire, and the tree we use to make our Zacharry's spruce beer. His aims overlap with that of Borders Forest Trust at Corehead, Moffat, as follows: on this day in 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club in San Francisco at the prompting of journalist Robert Underwood Johnson, and served as its first president until his death in 1914. One of the original aims of the Sierra Club was to encourage urbanites to leave the cities and experience nature; as he later wrote in Our National Parks (1901), "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." He hoped that once their awareness was raised, they would pressure their local, state, and federal governments to preserve the wilderness. "It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods," he wrote, "trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time -- and long before that -- God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools, -- only Uncle Sam can do that."
What Muir did with words, Ansel Adams did with photographs; as Wallace Stegner said, "A place is not fully a place until it has had its poet. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada have had two great poets, Muir and Adams." Adams first visited Yosemite in 1916, when he was 14, two years after Muir's death. He served on the Sierra Club's board of directors from 1934 to 1971, and his photographs of Yosemite played a role, much as Muir's words had, in ensuring its preservation.
Though the Sierra Club originally concerned itself mainly with California and the West, it opened an office in Washington, D.C., in 1963, and began conservation efforts nationally and internationally. Its mission: "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives." (information courtesy of The Writers Almanac). I took the family to Yosemite 25 years ago. One night in our cabin, where the bedrooms were divided by thin wooden partitions three of us were woken by Abi shouting 'Stop snoring!'. We all awoke with a start to discover that Abi, meanwhile, had gone back to sleep. It was on that trip that we drove from LA where I was working at the time, up the coast to San Francsco and first saw wind turbines. They lined the ocean side of the road for mile after mile, , disused and rusting - an experiment before their time. On Thursday (May 26), Elly and I went to an event organised by SAOS - the Scottish Agriculture Society (I've forgotten what the 'O' stands for) at Dunblane to hear about their scheme for collaboration between rural businesses such as ours. Examples were given of how small makers can form into groups for marketing and distribution. We were encouraged to submit samples of our spruce beer and shoots to various specialist outlets - how we fare will be reported here in due course. I have also started work with a publisher on a a big book, on a subject dear to my heart, none other than the heroic tree with the initials 'p.s.'.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A tree at risk; another spa

Yesterday (Wednesday May 25)thanks to prompt responses from Marilyn and Moffat Online, I walked across the playing field with Bob Opray of Moffat's Flood Watch Group to inspect the oak tree on the south bank of the Birnock Water whose roots have been exposed by erosion when the storm water rushed down the burn on Monday and Tuesday. Whose responsibility might it be to make sure the damage is contained and repaired so that this tree does not fall across the burn? SEPA perhaps. As we crossed the road, Bob pointed out a drain blocked by leaves and twigs blown off the birch trees during the storm. I have lost my way with Candia McWilliam's What To Look For in Winter. It is too painful, inexplicable, sad; it made me feel dizzy and reach for something simple, like a railway timetable or a cookbook. Off with Elly today to Dunblane Hydro - another spa town. We have a meeting with Morrisons and Sodexco to talk about distribution of our Zacharry's spruce beer.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Candia McWilliam and Carol Lee

Now for Candia McWilliam's doorstopper What To Look For in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness. (I sped-read to the end of Alistair Moffat's The Faded Map yesterday, intending to return to it at more leisure and keen to get to grips with Candia's memoir). I had a colleague, Carol Lee, on a newspaper many years ago who, like me, became a writer of books and like Candia suffered a similar (or should that be analogous), acute, physically disabling failure of faculty which also - how interesting - for a while prevented her from writing. In Carol's case, it was that she suddenly found one day that she could not use her hands and lower arms. In Candia's it is that in 2006 while acting as a judge on the Booker prize, her eyelids closed over perfectly functioning eyes - a condition known as blepharospasm. Carol Lee describes in her memoir Crooked Angels how, after many weary months and years traipsing from one specialist to another, she finally found relief in an unexpected quarter and recovered her arms' function by being helped to remember an episode in her childhood where her father shut her in a trunk. Carol has turned her attention recently to the Moors Murders, her new book Witness from Random House is out 2nd June. My next book is The Spruce Cookbook a Scottish-Swedish co-production. I particularly enjoy spruce jam or preserve - watch out for the recipe when the book is out next year.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Moffat anatomised

Moffat is a fascinating town which appears to the newcomer to work like a Swiss watch, a mysterious and efficient mechanism. How are decisions made? Who runs Moffat? I am gradually learning, by asking, observing and by taking part. The names of some 'elders' (in a secular sense) have been recommended to me for background. Helping to get the Book Event off the ground has given me a privileged view into Moffat's innards, and the workings of the regional and national arts establishment; another benefit is that it has caused me to get in touch with friends from the distant past such as Julia Eccleshare, doyen of UK children's books. I have asked her to recommend books for young readers on the Arthur myths and have invited her to come up for Alistair Moffat's walk to the Devil's Beef Tub on July 2. I have put V S Naipaul aside for a day or so and am reading Alistair's The Faded Map, making a mental note to quiz him about a persistant tendency to describe Brytthonic - the language of the majority of the aboriginal inhabitants, including those of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, as 'Old Welsh'. Is it a reluctance to use the 'B' (Britain/British) word? I also hope to interest him in making a study of the upper Clyde valley which, living as he does in the Borders, he knows less well than the valleys of the Annan and the Tweed. I spent a satisfying couple of hours yesterday updating the list of books I have written, translated or co-edited for the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and Public Lending Right. I have a tally of 14, to which I hope one day to add the Diary of a Book Festival organizer. At Andrea's suggestion, I have been in touch this morning with the Manhattan and New York chambers of commerce to see if they have any institutional memory of John MacAdam father of modern road building and buried in Moffat churchyard. As a young entrepreneur in America in the 1770's, he co-founded the first New York Chamber of Commerce. Yesterday, the air pressure was so low and/or the wind so high that I could hardly get my front door open, a rare experience. There was also a leak from rainwater being driven through the rather complicated roof gable which started to drip through the ceiling upstairs on the landing, thankfully not my problem because I only rent this house. At Auchinleck on Sunday I sat next to Diana Athill the memoirist, now, like my mother, in her 90's, who recently wrote about the unexpected pleasure of moving into a care home - something which many dread but which I (aged 67) can also now appreciate, as the importance of personal possessions and status to my identity recedes and other pleasures - living for the day, friendships old and new, 'making a contribution' etc become central to my life.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Blown away

To the first Boswell Book Festival of biography and autobiography at Auchinleck house yesterday, on a gusty day of sunshine and sharp showers. It was bitterly cold but that did not blight the experience. Impressions are of a place unaccountably once abandoned, now loved again (it belongs to the Landmark Trust which has restored it), with unrivalled views across brilliant green countryside across to Arran; an exquisite house, a baby variant of Dumfries House just up the road and possibly by the same architect and builders. We (Susan Garnsworthy who kindly gave us a lift in her car; Marilyn Elliott; Andrea Reive and myself) were allowed to park right near the scene of the action because of Marilyn's mobility issues. The event had the charm of experiment and being new, but with all the right ingredients: interesting speakers, skilfully introduced - we had booked to hear Alistair Moffat on Scottish DNA and Candia McWilliam on her memoir What to look for in winter. Alistair managed to compress the message of his detailed book into the phrase: 'We are all immigrants' - we will be going to hear him again at his own Book Event in Melrose in June. The unspoken question that follows from his discovery is: so - if Alistair, a famous Scot, is actually 'English' - his DNA on his father's side is Anglian/Bernician - what constitutes identity? Culture, of course - tradition, custom, language. Candia was a revelation. I had expected someone cold and hard, instead she was large and cosy, wry and vulnerable. I bought her book which she personalised with a flourish under my name like Elizabeth R's signature. All the way there in Susan Garnsworthy's car and all the way back we talked about the Moffat book Event and how we can associate ourselves with everything else Moffat is seeking to achieve through the Initiative and other local organisations, from the Town Hall renovation (the Pump Room was once a Reading Room and still houses the library) to the Corehead project. By the time Susan dropped us off, the sun was blazing and the sky was blue - it was therefore thought appropriate to fish the first bottle of rose of the season out of the fridge, which I sampled with great pleasure.

Saturday, 21 May 2011


I have finally picked up The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by V S Naipaul. This is prep for going to hear Naipaul 'in conversation' at the Royal Geographical Society next week - my sister's birthday treat. She and I might have become South Africans: in 1947 our father took us with our mother on a trial visit with a view to emigrating. His father's two sisters had gone out and married South Africans, so we had - have - close relations out there. For better or worse, my mother wouldn't take that step so my father commuted for some years between the businesses he had started in the UK and southern Africa (Rhodesia and SA). He used to fly out on the airline then known as BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) via Rome, Alexandria, Salisbury,capital city of the country known then as Rhodesia after its founder Cecil Rhodes, now Zimbabwe, then finally to Johannesburg. If you ever walk west from Victoria rail station to the coach station, you will see a building on the opposite side of the road with the BOAC logo still above the entrance way, which used to be the check-in for BOAC (now BA). My sister flew out to Cape Town last night to finalise arrangements for the publication of her latest collection of photographs, Origins (see We used to see my father off from Croydon or Blackbushe, when the airline terminal was just a corrugated iron shed in a field. This dislocated life continued until the inevitable happened and my father fell for an air hostess, or more properly the VIP receptionist in Johannesburg and after a messy period of attempting to keep both ends going she gave birth to my half sister, there was a divorce and they married. I remember that 1947 visit quite vividly: there was an apricot tree in one corner of the modest bungalow we rented near the zoo; the ripe apricots fell and got squashed under the tree. We went to the zoo nearly every day with our Scots nanny, Peggy, who hated the sun on her pale freckled face. My mother, then aged 30, also a pale-skinned Scot, was a distant figure, exuding a faint air of disapproval. Christmas that year was memorable for the presents: I (aged 4) got a thrilling round white plastic handbag. There was a fancy dress party at the golf club and Santa Claus (my uncle Joey) gave rides in his little airplane. In those days, the star presents even once we were back in northwest Kent were those from overseas, beautifully packed outfits from our Italian aunt in Canada, preserved fruits from South Africa. More recently, I took issue with the editor of the Royal Scottish Geographic journal for publishing a series of articles which seem to suggest moral, political and cultural equivalency - including, for instance, that treatment based on primitive belief systems are of equal efficacy as those based on scientifically-arrived western medicine - possibly true for some mental ailments but surely not for bacterial or viral diseases such as cholera, malaria or AIDS. My own impulse to go back to university to study for a science degree in 1975 arose from trying to understand the disturbed behaviour of the young children, some of them recent immigrants, who I was teaching in a so-called 'withdrawal class' at a south London primary school. The reviews of The Masque of Africa were hostile, objecting to Naipaul's revulsion at the dark heart of African belief, the cannibalism and the cruelty. The 'conversation' (to be held on May 31) is therefore of personal interest to us both. Alistair Moffat's book on Scottish DNA which will feature at our MBE Oct 15 2011 event recapitulates what is now known: that we all came out of Africa, and I am going to hear him speak later today at the Boswell Book Festival at Auchinleck.

A wizard idea

As I mentioned yesterday, at our mind-mapping/brainstorming session at the Moffat Initiative on Thursday afternoon, we were asked to come up with the big new thing. I offered the Moffat Book Event, mentioning the Merlin theme of our October 15 2011 event but that was not considered 'new' enough. I fell back on my 'Tate Moffat' or 'Moffat Modern' idea as a use for the Old Academy which is a magnificent building of its period, and would make an excellent home for an art gallery. My maternal grandfather Willie Gordon with his brother worked for Tate & Lyle, so I would gladly endow a 'Gordon Room', a 'Gordon lecture' or even a 'Gordon bench' to sit on to admire some piece of contemporary sculpture. We might offer a home to the excellent, currently Glasgow-based Sharmanka, run by Russian-born exile Ed Bersudsky supreme master of dark, sometimes political mechanical works of art in the tradition of those penny in the slot machines on the pier. Art galleries have become less hushed reverential temples and more hospitable and welcoming, open to learning and creativity, than before. Places as far apart in the UK as Margate and Wakefield have recently opened new galleries - why not Moffat? Richard Demarco is at Aldeburgh this weekend, but will no doubt have some intriguing ideas to share when he returns. A propos Merlin: Katherine Clemmens at the Moffat Book Exchange reminded me today that there is an ongoing BBCTV series aimed at a teenage audience which will probably start again in the autumn, with Richard 'I don't believe it' Wilson playing the eponymous shaman/sorcerer.

According to Wikipedia: 'a ten-episode fourth series was confirmed on 25 October 2010 and was rumored to be going to air in early 2012, later than its usual slot in autumn so that it wouldn't clash with the BBC's other prime time drama Doctor Who running in the same period.[16] In March 2011, this was revised and the series was extended to the standard 13 episodes, with the show's star Colin Morgan confirming it would air in autumn 2011 just in time for our next Moffat Book Event - hurrah! Or should that be 'wizard!'.[17]

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Like the fowls

I was most delighted and relieved to read in The Writer's Almanac this morning (Friday May 20): It is the birthday of French writer Honore de Balzac, born in Tours, France (1799). Balzac maintained a superhuman writing schedule, and the slavish hours he kept are a main subject of his correspondence. In an 1833 letter, he wrote: 'I go to bed at 6 or 7 in the evening, like the fowls. At 1 in the morning, I am awakened, and I will work until 8. At 8 o'clock I sleep again, for an hour and a half. Then I take some slight refreshment and a cup of pure coffee: and then I put myself once more in harness.' This uncannily resembles my own sleep patterns since I was able to choose them ie since starting to live on my own after 40 years of marriage. Unfortunately, unlike Balzac, I am still waiting to write my first doorstop blockbuster. The Writer's Almanac, which often inspires this blog, pops free into my inbox every day with a poem (read by Garrison Keillor) and some literary history. Yesterday a fascinating exercise was held at the Moffat Initiative, designed to enable those members who attended to sift out priorities for the year ahead. Moffat is a successful small town, with a great number of activities and good community communications in the shape of Moffat Online/Let's Live Local, the Moffat CAN initiative and innumerable clubs, societies, sports etc. There are buildings in the town that could do with refurbishment or redevelopment: the derelict Mercury Hotel which shames the south entrance to the town; the Institute, the Town Hall (formerly the Pump Room) and, shortly, the Grade II former Academy building. Suggested uses for the Academy include a 'Tate Moffat' or 'Moffat Modern'. The moderator of the Initiative's brainstorming session by chance had worked with Johnny Watson, East Lothian's king of potato seed merchants at Skateraw, where a similar modern art collection, including works by Richard Demarco and other living contemporary artists has been mooted. A modern art gallery, or gallery for modern art seems to have become the 21st century equivalent of a spa building or conference centre, either a 'destination' building in its own right such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the celebration of a world famous son such as the Turner at Margate or the Hepworth at Wakefield , the conversion of a building such as Tate Modern (power station) or the Baltic flour mill at Newcastle. The Initiative itself must shortly become self-financing, a bracing exercise that will no doubt bring out the best in us.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


My copy of Ian Edwards' Woodlanders arrived yesterday. It is beautifully produced, only marred by a very silly, because uncharacteristic, photograph of Sitka spruce on page 11, a typo describing Sitka spruce as growing on a '100km' instead of '10km' wide coastal strip of the American north west and the absence of a chapter on our delicious and refreshing Zacharry's Spruce Beer and Scottish spruce essential oil. This curious, unfair and unscientific slant, to judge from Ian's comments on Sitka spruce during our walk at Corehead last Saturday (May 14) does not reflect his personal opinions and must therefore be due to some other hidden editorial hand. If Sitka spruce were an ethnic minority instead of a hard-working introduction this would be frowned on, and not be allowed. A propos: I am now fixed up to go with Susan Garnsworthy, director of DGarts, to Auchinleck on Sunday, to hear Alistair Moffat talking about his new book on Scottish DNA and (her suggestion), Candia McWilliam on hers. I confess, as chair of Moffat Book Events, to being green with envy to see that the Boswell Book Festival at Auchinleck is a) being held in a beautiful Landmark Trust building, James Boswell's former family home, and b)funded by LEADER and a local mining corporation. I now subscribe to Senchus, Tim Clarkson's blog about medieval and Dark Ages Scotland which yesterday focused on the Kingdom of Strathclyde and a major new research project to cast light on who was doing what and where in the area where I have been growing my commercial forestry business for 28 years and made my home for the past 17 years.

Bram Stoker at Watermeetings, Upper Clyde valley

On this day (Wed 18th May) in 1897, Bram Stoker staged a live performance of Dracula at the Lyceum Theatre in London in order to protect the theatrical copyright.Bram Stoker used to stay at Watermeetings, the farmhouse which stands between the Daer and the Potrail Water - in effect, where the Clyde river starts in the valley below my house,Crookedstane Rig. He was part of the travelling entourage of Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, the two greatest actors of their day. The other member of the team was Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl who was Ellen Terry's secretary. Ellen Terry had the first fan club of any performer. The other members of the entourage were Ellen Terry's children, including Gordon Craig who she named on a whim after Ailsa Craig the rock (an extinct volcano core) that curling stones are made of which stands between Scotland and Ireland off the Ayrshire coast; he was illegitimate, so she had to choose a surname for him. This celebrity group stayed at Watermeetings because the wife of the farmer there was a former actress from Sir Henry Irving's company, whose father was the post master at the nearby village of Abington - she had come home to marry the farmer at Watermeetings, a much older man. In her later days this lady owned the first motor car in the district. Anyway, back to Bram Stoker:
Stoker was the overworked manager of the Lyceum, where he kept long hours planning the company’s seasons, organizing overseas tours, managing financial records, and undertaking secretarial duties for the Lyceum’s founder, the famed Shakespearean actor Henry Irving. (When Stoker died in 1912, obituaries predicted that he would be best remembered for his association with Irving.)
Yet Stoker worked on Dracula in his few spare moments over the course of six years. And on this day, just a few days before the book was published, Stoker hastily pieced together large sections of the book for a stage production. The play was billed as Dracula; Or the Undead and was performed for theater employees and lucky passerby. It lasted four hours. The final decision to call the book simply Dracula was made almost literally at the last minute. (some of this info courtesy of The Writers Almanac)

Monday, 16 May 2011

A date with Creative Scotland

SEPA are in a strop because they have no record of my pumping water up for 17 years from the Nunnerie Burn to the house I live in. This is despite being a rate payer for all that time and regularly having the water tested. Heigh ho. Their attention was drawn by major waterworks - silt traps, baffles, filters etc - courtesy of SSER, made necessary last week (to enable me to continue to live there and for us to go on making our Zacharry's drinks and essential oil) now that the trees have gone from the hill behind to make way for the Clyde windfarm, the biggest on land in Europe. I am reading My Life So Far by Denis Foreman, who grew up in Craigielands, a big house near Moffat, between the wars. His memoir reminds the reader how change is part of all our lives, SEPA please note. One of the aspects of Ian Edwards (RBGE) observations as we walked round Corehead last week that most delighted me was that it is no good trying to 're-create' landscape. We have to live in the present with an eye to the future if we are to survive and do ourselves and the natural world justice. People sometimes wonder why my face goes purple at the mention of the words 'Forest Commission'. Well, it's not because they planted lots of Sitka spruce trees. It's because they utterly failed to explain why. (For that, read my little book Sitka Spruce published by Sage and available now only by contacting me). It is no secret that I support the selling off of these forests, planted as a strategic resource after The Great War and in ever-increasing numbers after WWII because in both world wars our country risked losing the battle for want of soft wood. We didn't need oaks, elms, beeches, rowans, birches,alders,yew trees or chestnuts. It was conifers - and Sitka spruce is the one that grows best here in these temperate climes. Access to woodlands will not be affected because of our right to roam, and in my view private landowners such as myself are better custodians of the land than a massive bureaucracy.My BT mobile crashed on Sat so I have had the interesting experience of living without it now for three days, the fourth being today (Tues May 17). I was panic-stricken at first, and bereft. Now, on Day Four, I am utterly accustomed to not being 'in touch' with the whole world all the time everywhere I go. It is something of a relief, in fact. Off shortly for a meeting with Creative Scotland to discuss the potential of Crookedstane Rig as a location for film makers. Oh, and someone called Nathaniel Moffat popped up on Facebook this morning, so I hope to recruit him as a member of our Book Events. Pip pip.

Boswell anniversary

From The Writer's Almanac: On this day in 1763, Samuel Johnson met his future biographer, James Boswell, in a London bookshop.Boswell was an aimless 23-year-old wannabe writer, but the only subject he could think to write about was himself. Johnson was 53 at the time and a highly regarded writer and scholar.
Their first meeting was not auspicious. They quarreled about a mutual friend and didn't part on good terms. But Boswell attended one of Johnson's parties a few weeks later and Johnson warmed up to the ambitious young man. They talked at length at the party and went on to become close friends. Boswell began to record everything Johnson said and did for the biography of Johnson's life that would consume him for almost three decades.
Johnson died in 1784. Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791, and it quickly became a best-seller. But Boswell's later years were by my most accounts unhappy. He felt like a literary failure, despite the success of the book, and he spent his free time drinking. He was a garrulous drunk and people were afraid to confide in him lest he spill their secrets while he was sloshed. He died in 1795 while at work on the third edition of Life.
Today, the word Boswell is used as a synonym for 'constant companion'; of Watson, Sherlock Holmes says, 'I am lost without my Boswell'.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Spruce shoots

I was delighted on Sat (May 14) to hear from Ian Edwards that Michelin -starred chef Andrew Fairlie had rung him to ask where he could obtain spruce shoots for his restaurant at Gleneagles. I have been campaigning for years to bring the culinary and aromatic qualities of this tree to public notice, from farmers markets to food events in Edinburgh. What seems finally to have done the trick is the emergence of Nordic food as the big new thing, via a Danish chef at Noma in Copenhagen. I have now contacted Andrew myself and await an order for our Zacharry's (sponsors of Moffat Book Events) organically-registered spruce shoots - a delicacy akin to Jersey potatoes, samphire and asparagus - and our other spruce-based products such as our spruce beer (above left). Ditto a visit from Ian to our brewery and distillery in the forest, in preparation for an item he is shooting for BBC TV's Countryfile programme in July. Meanwhile, Jim is busy in the forest making 2,500 bottles of spruce beer for Elly and me to take out to potential outlets within a 40 mile range of the forest - a triangle with Glasgow and Edinburgh to the north and Carlisle to the south. Andrea has suggested that we write a Spruce Cookbook - what a good idea.We are a 'start up' with a staff of four: Jim, Elly, me and Russell who can do anything from build you a house to brew you a beer. Our research and box-ticking on various certificates and clearances from authorities including the US Food and Drug agency goes back 10 years from a visit I paid to Sitka and spent time in the spruce forest with Native Americans learning what I could about their traditional uses for the tree, followed by much time picking up the threads from the European point of view. Spruce beer was brewed on board the ships exploring the west coast of America to ward off scurvy, ditto for the troops on the east coast of Canada when severe prolonged winters deprived British soldiers of access to Vitamin C -rich fruit or vegetables. Far earlier, there are records of spruce beer being drunk in medieval Northampton, where you will still be asked 'would you like a spruce?' - meaning a refreshing drink of any kind. You heard it here first.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Walk at Corehead

Sat May 14: A well-attended 'ethnobotany' walk today with Ian Edwards of Edinburgh Botanic Gardens round Corehead, organised by Ed Glenwright of Borders Forest Trust, owners since 2009 of the land. Ian explained that his job for 27 years at the gardens has involved travelling round the world discovering how plants are used by the various native inhabitants; currently he is focusing on Bhutan the little-researched Himalayan kingdom. We started down by the stream and Ian talked about the grove of alders, explaining that they do not so much prefer wet habitat as tolerate it. He indicated the leaves of meadowsweet which will flower soon, and wild sorrel, a tasty salad leaf. Most hunter gatherer societies such as the people of the Pacific northwest eat a lot of meat and fish - by coincidence, BBC R4 had interviewed Elisabeth Luard that morning, who lives in Wales and she had said that whereas people cannot eat grass, they can eat sheep which do eat grass. Ian showed us pig nut, which is good in autumn when the root has swelled, young beech leaves and wych elm flowers which tasty nutty - a bit like walnut. Unlike Australia, Scotland has very few poisonous plants - there are dangerous funghi and a few more such as Arum Maculatum. Young bracken 'fiddles' are eaten widely throughout the world, and the sweet ends of reeds or rushes, used otherwise for lighting. Thistle leaves and stems can be eaten when young and the colourless little leaves found under mature thistle leaves in the autumn. We found plantain, violets, primroses,tormentil and celandines (pile wort), and nettles - all used either as food or in medicine. We paused by a grove of conifers where a raven was croaking or crooning to discuss the Sitka spruce. Ian pointed out that Britain lacked a conifer capable of withstanding the cool wet climate and the Sitka spruce fitted that niche. It was better to look at what grows now than to try to recreate an imagined (or actual) landscape of years past, and the Sitka spruce can be used from its roots (baskets, hats, boxes) to its shoots (for jelly, preserving berries, tea and flavouring for a drink akin to ginger beer). It was good to hear an independent expert signing the praises of the tree we grow up at Elvanfoot - apparently Andrew Fairlie the Michelin 2 star chef at Gleneagles is looking for spruce shoots as part of the rage for foraging and Nordic food fomented by Danish chef Rene Redzepi at Noma, his restaurant in Copenhagen, widely considered currently to be the best restaurant in the world. Ed has organised another walk in July to Corehead and the Beef Tub with Alistair Moffat to learn about the reivers cattle rustling there in years gone by, and we hope to arrange a hike to nearby Hart Fell with Nikolai Tolstoy at our October 15 Moffat Book Event to see the rumoured abode of Merlin.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Kingdom of Strathclyde

I am just getting towards the end of Tim Clarkson's The Men of the North, subtitled The Britons of Southern Scotland. I sent for the book, inspired by the curious circumstance of the red and blue patches on the post-May 5 electoral map of Scotland in the otherwise yellow sea of SNP north of the border. Until I had read Clarkson, I thought that the area might match the ancient kingdom of Rheged but it is more like Strathclyde - sometimes refered to as Cumberland (the land of the cymry or fellow countrymen), the British kingdom based at Dumbarton Rock or Alt Clud. What very strange names they had, the British kings: Arthgal; Rhun; Dyfnwal;Amdarch - with a sprinkling of Malcolms and Owains by way of welcome familiarity. Some of my previous information has been corrected for instance that it is now not thought that the Scots came over from Ireland but were an aboriginal Celtic tribe in their own right speaking Gaelic not Brittonic based in Kintyre. It is impossible to precis a book so densely packed with names and dates, in effect a critical review of the latest research consensus concerning the tribes occupying 'North Britain' between the 9th and 12th centuries. I was disappointed that the reference to Merlin does not associate him with Moffat, but does cite in the bibliography The Quest for Merlin by our guest Count Nikolai Tolstoy at the Moffat Book Event on October 15. Clarkson also mentions the theory that Abington in South Lanarkshire just up the A74(M) from Moffat was the site of the killing of Cuilen, king of Alba, by a warparty of Britons led by Amdarch or Radharc in 971 - only to dismiss it on the grounds that Ybandonia is more likely to have been in the vale of Leven. My late mother-in-law was amused when, on a walk with a small boy he eventually said to her: 'Why are you telling me all this?'. I don't know what she said, but my reply is: 'because it interests me'.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Dog lost and found

Flo, the 12 year old family Cairn terrier went missing on the hill yesterday. At 11.30am she had been sitting quietly in the yard ignoring the hens, then - there she was, gone. My son in law looked high and low for a couple of hours before calling for reinforcements. Flo has recently had treatment for a dislocated back leg, struggles with stairs and gets puffed crossing the road into the park. She couldn't have gone far.....could she? At seven pm a relieved telephone call: she had run a mile along forest roads to inspect the source of digger noises where work started yesterday on our water supply. Meanwhile, a visit I had organised for today, Tues May 10, for the architect of the Eden project to visit Crawford and the Upper Clyde valley was cancelled when our local archaeologist mistook the date (he had thought May 10 was yesterday). This may be a blessing in disguise. because whereas yesterday was definitely 'sunshine and showers', today, as I write, is 'showers' not to say downright wet. My focus today is to consider with creative writing tutor Eryl Shields the role that might be played by writers, as opposed to readers, at our book events, a meeting postponed from yesterday. As far as the map of the May 5 voting pattern goes, I now wonder if we may be looking at the boundary of the ancient British kingdom of Strathclyde.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Back on dry land

Back on dry land on Friday morning May 6. During the week at sea, I finished Francis Pryor's The Making of the British Landscape and began seriously to read Alistair Moffat's The Scots: A Genetic Journey, both apt background reading to the SNP landslide in the elections last Thursday May 5. My reaction to the post-election map was 'did voters follow the tribal boundary of Rheged?' Alistair replied "no, the Antonine Wall". Because our business is forestry, I usually welcome rain. On board a small boat exploring the nooks, crannies and lochs of the Firth of Clyde last week, I found a history of one of the boat-building firms on the Clyde. The list of construction materials included 'Pacific spruce', the tree I grow and is grown in its millions through the British Isles including Ireland north and south. The reason for this preference is simple: the climate of our islands is remarkably similar to the tree's native habitat along a 10-mile wide coastal strip of the north west Pacific coast of North America from Alaska where it is the state tree as far south as Oregon and Washington State. In its homeland of Sitka, I have witnessed how it grows alongside companion plants such as skunk cabbage, which I was glad to see flourishing in the beautiful woodland gardens of Ardkinglas on Loch Fyne, which I visited on my cruise. Talking of companions: on three separate occasions in my adult life to my knowledge, I have become aware, or been made aware of members of a group who were not quite who they seemed to be. The first time was when I campaigned for the liberal candidate in one of the Chelsea wards during the so-called 'who rules Britain' General Election called by Ted Heath in 1974. We were a very small group, led by an impressive young man who lived in Glebe Place, who revealed to us all in the pub where we gathered on election night that he had been set leadership of our group as an exercise by his employers, to learn how to infiltrate the political process. Looking back, I might have gone to the newspapers (I had not long before worked as a reporter myself) but I didn't. The second time was during a retirement course I attended with my husband in 1993, when at the end one of six or seven couples were revealed as 'sitting in' as preparation for working for the organization who ran the course. Thirdly, during the cruises I have enjoyed in the past three years exploring the west coast of Scotland on converted Irish fishing vessels taking eleven passengers and four crew, from time to time a passenger has either declared themselves or it has become evident that they were not quite straightforwardly a fare-paying passenger - for example, a travel writer will introduce themselves as such but on other occasions putting two and two together, other connections can be deduced.