Thursday, 22 December 2011

'Twas The Night Before Christmas

'Twas the Night before Christmas was first published anonymously this day (Dec 23) 1823 in The Troy Sentinel, New York City.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Christmas Fairytale

I was listening to a World Service broadcast early this morning and heard a fascinating story about Eowyn Ivey, a young writer in Alaska. She works in a bookshop part time, and one day was putting a Russian fairy tale Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) onto a shelf. Snegurochka goes with Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost - pictured in my post on Sunday Dec 18) in Russian folklore. She opened the book, found herself drawn into the story, and was inspired to write a novel. She abandoned the project she had been working on for five years, and within a few months had completed 100 pages of her story. She met a book agent for a two minute 'pitch' slot at a writer's conference in Homer, Alaska who asked to see the book so far, and to cut a long story short now has a prospective best selling book deal Her book is being 'trailed' with a charming short animated clip online - see What a wonderful story for Christmas! I have ordered a copy of the book which comes out in the UK on Feb 16 2012.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Update on planning for our MBE May 2012 event

There was a programme subcommittee meeting yesterday to progress plans for MBE's May 26/27 2012 event Beyond The Garden Gate. Thanks to Marilyn, our MBE project manager, we will soon have a seasonal greeting as our new home page on our website, with mentions of the events we have planned. In another part of the wood entirely, a fascinating series on BBCR4 on word derivations yesterday revealed the connection between 'pooling' resources and 'scooping the pool'. They come from an old French gambling game involving throwing stones at a chicken (a 'poule'). The kitty that was won by the player who scored a hit became known as the 'pool'. Hence also the reason that the game similar to billiards is also known as 'pool'. Who would have guessed?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Meaning of Fife

The Dumfries-based landscape artist Charles Jencks has designed a massive land art installation for a disused quarry in Fife, entitled The Meaning of Fife. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to disapprove of feeble puns, especially if they are attached to colossal works of public art. The piece itself - details are in the public domain - maps the Scottish diaspora in Canada, the USA, Australia, China, south America and so on. There are interesting meditations on maps in the essays of Jorge Luis Borges the blind anglophile Argentinian writer of genius. According to Wikipedia: His work embraces the "character of unreality in all literature".[3] His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, animals, fictional writers, religion and God. His works have contributed to the genre of science fiction as well as the genre of magic realism, a genre that reacted against the realism/naturalism of the nineteenth century.[4][5][6] In fact, critic Angel Flores, the first to use the term, set the beginning of this movement with Borges's Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy) (1935).[7] Scholars also have suggested that Borges's progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination.[8] His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil. When my library is unpacked, which I hope will be early in 2012, I will track down the conceit in which Borges imagines a map-maker who eventually devises a map that is the same size as the territory it seeks to record.

Getting Ready for Christmas

I finally felt like getting ready for Christmas today. I texted my decorator and he came straight round. He likes to be left to get on with it his way, so I made myself scarce and sat in my bedroom by the window reading Will Self's Walking to Hollywood. Harry's signature decorating style includes the rather postmodern draping of my furniture in table cloths of various sizes and colours. He likes tinsel and fairy lights, but not - unaccountably - Ruby the veteran Reindeer (who sings and jiggles her head around when her batteries are in) or Ded Moroz - Grandfather Frost - the yellowing Russian folk figurine of even earlier date.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Authors v Book Festivals

Two articles about book festivals, book signings and book events generally caught my eye this week: one was in the Winter 2011 issue of The Author magazine, by Simon Hoggart, parliamentary sketchwriter of the Guardian, and another, by gardener and garden writer Anne Wareham, was in today's Dec 17 2011 Daily Telegraph. Simon Hoggart's piece begins: 'The worst literary festival I ever attended...' and continues describing a whole catalogue of snubs, parsimony on the part of organisers and - crucially - failure to sell more than a handful of books at a variety of book festivals, including Edinburgh. Anne Wareham's piece lists a whole year's worth of travel to promote her book, including an even worse catalogue of humilations and pointless excursions to bookshops for signings where nobody came, and 'appearances' where nobody asked any questions. According to Simon Hoggart, what makes up for these shortcomings are two nights with his partner at the organisers' expense in beautiful surroundings (such as Keswick) and delicious meals with the other interesting people- such as other writers. Interestingly, this is what Anna Pavord cited in her message accepting an invitation to be part of our May 26/27 2011 Beyond the Garden Gate event: what a treat it was to be wined and dined with other authors at a Scottish castle at a book event in the Borders. All this gives one pause for long, hard thought. Simon Hoggart winds up with: Festivals are fun, and for real writers (as opposed to us journalists) they're a chance to get out of the lonely study and meet other writers. But they couldn't exist without us, and it's about time the performers laid down a few reasonable but clear ground rules.' I have been offered the hospitality of The Author's columns to write a reply in their next Spring 2012 issue on behalf of book event organisers, so watch this space.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Why Am I Still Here?

I commend to you Why Am I Still Here? by the under-appreciated Welsh biographer and man of letters Roger Lewis. Lewis's sequel to his best-selling Seasonal Suicide Notes combines irascible commentary on everyday life, arranged by month January-December, interspersed cleverly with short paragraphs about his family. The family sketches, including of a series of extraordinary aunts, are illustrated by grainy black and white photographs of his subjects, as in W G Sebald. That the sign of greatness in writing is the capacity occasionally to make one bark with laughter, or at least smile, is the theme of an interesting essay by Sam Leith in the exceptionally interesting Winter 2011 issue of The Author, the quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors. Roger Lewis writes in the same issue, deploring the crowd mentality of commissioning editors in a line of descent from 'Grim Cambridge don, F R Leavis' ,who - mistakenly in Lewis's view - promoted the notion of consenus in judging literary merit. One does not have to agree with all Lewis's opinions to appreciate his distinctive voice, backed by a lifetime immersed in life and literature. For instance, he revels in Rules, my late father's favourite eating -house on the southern fringe of Covent Garden, which I consider a bit of a tourist trap, too tarted- up since its glory days of moth-eaten red velvet banquettes and dusty hunting prints. Never mind.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

American Role Models

There are unexpected connecting threads between the announcement of the death in Paris of the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co, the US Bill of Rights, Edna O'Brien, Paradise Lost and Gone With the Wind, as follows:
Shakespeare & Co was Sylvia Beach's Paris bookshop, made famous in the 1920's and 30's as a meeting place for writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound ( 'il miglior fabbro' -the master wordsmith - in Eliot's dedication to him of The Waste Land). After Beach's death, the bookshop moved to new premises where it was eccentrically run for 60 years by George Whitman, who has died aged 98. Whitman famously allowed aspiring writers to stay, sometimes for up to seven years in one case, in exchange for working in the shop and reading a book a day. Breakfast pancakes were served every day to all comers, and wodges of cash were hidden in the shelves. The shop continues under the more conventional management of Whitman's daughter, another Sylvia. The US Bill of Rights was adopted on this day in 1791, guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, the press and other protections for the citizen. Edna O'Brien, born Dec 15 1930, was inspired, by hearing read out loud the first few lines of Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms, to write her own first novel, in three weeks, The Country Girls (1960). A later, similarly semi-autobiographical novel, The Lonely Girl was made into a movie The Girl With Green Eyes starring Peter Finch. Her first book was publicly burned by the priest in her home town in County Clare, and all her books were initially banned in Eire. There is to be a Hollywood version of Milton's Paradise Lost. Lastly, it was on this day in 1939 that Gone With the Wind starring Vivien Leigh and Clarke Gable opened in Atlanta, Georgia. Due to the 'Jim Crow' regulations in force at the time, the black members of the cast were not allowed to sit with the white ones for the screening. I saw the movie, aged 13, on two parts on successive nights, from the dress circle of a converted theatre in Malmo, Sweden, where we had anchored to dry out during a sailing holiday in the cold, wet summer of 1957.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Hail and Farewell

It's soon to be farewell to the out -of -date Moffat Book Events home page advertising our Oct book event and hello to a new look for 2012. Keep tabs on the website around next Tues and Wed. I am housebound this week with a couple of packs of antibiotic so it will be a case of A Journey Round My Room a la Xavier de Maistre (1871). I suffer from a chronic physical condition called bronchiectasis, originating from very early childhood when my lungs were damaged - one worse than the other - by pneumonia. Some people, including myself until it suddenly became life-threatening, think that pneumonia is on a continuum where a cough and a cold are at one end, and pneumonia at the other. No. When you have pneumonia, your lungs pack up to a greater or lesser extent so that your whole system, all your vital organs and your brain are deprived of oxygen. This is highly inconvenient. I have begun to learn to recognise the symptoms which I can describe as feeling a) extremely unwell but also b) spaced out (the result of the aforesaid lack of oxygen reaching the brain). Even so, I was sitting - clearly not my usual breezy self - on a sofa in London on Saturday evening and had to be told by my elder daughter to go to bed, go straight to bed and not to pass go etc. My doctor and my medicine are in Moffat so I came straight back north the following day and will be lying low for the necessary week.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Moffat then and now

"Moffat residents 'clean and decent'
Residents in Moffat in 1837 were described as 'particularly clean and decent'.
The Statistical Account of that year also praised the way that townsfolk spoke: "Their language is among the best samples of English to be found in any Scottish village."
It goes on: "There is hardly any smuggling or poaching, and low and gross acts of immorality are seldom heard of in Moffat."
It includes facts about daily life in the town, such as:
curling, bowling and billiards were popular sports
a subscription and circulating library operated locally
there were two daily newspapers
no houses were uninhabited
There was no manufacturing industry but the town could boast plenty of services, ranging from 50 weavers, six shoemakers, six tailors and eight merchants, to one watchmaker, two bakers, five masons, six wrights and one surgeon.
And it was also a popular tourist destination, thanks to the location of the Moffat well.
According to Graham's Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century: "In spring there meet round the little wells of Moffat a throng in their gayest and brightest from society in town and country, sipping their sulphur waters and discussing their pleasant gossip ... city clergy, men of letters, country gentlemen and ladies of fashion and the diseased and decrepit of the poorest rank, who had toilsomely travelled from far-off districts to taste the magic waters." (reprinted in Moffat News Dec 8 2011)

175 years later, in December 2011 a letter to The Scotsman confirmed:
Your article on successful 'themed' towns in Dumfries and Galloway omitted a notable example: Moffat. Our theme, admittedly as yet unacknowledged as a brand, is 'hospitality' – we have the greatest number of pubs, cafes, restaurants, B&B's, and hotels of any town in D&G. Plus, remarkably for a town of our size (2,499 residents), we have virtually every other civilised amenity on or just off our high street: a bank; a library, two GP surgeries; vet; churches; chemist; deli; co-op; ironmonger; convenience store; clothes shops; gift shops; hairdresser; butcher; baker; book shop; blacksmith; garages; garden centre; newsagents; post office; beauty parlour; physio/osteopath; jeweller, a cottage hospital and a police station. Many of these are housed in a magnificent collection of Georgian buildings associated with the finest flowering of the spa, which spanned three centuries from the 17th –20th century. We were also once the reserve venue for the Wimbledon All England Championships – the real ones ie croquet not tennis.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Society of Authors Christmas party

The Society of Authors in Scotland Christmas party in Edinburgh was faintly reminiscent of a gathering of archers after the invention of the flintlock, or of farriers once Henry Ford's Model T in any shade of black was bowling along the road. The atmosphere was convivial and civilised and the words 'ebook' were on many lips. Before I left Moffat, by McEwan's bus, someone asked if I would know many people. Writing, on the whole, is a solitary calling, but I guessed correctly that I would know one: Aline Templeton, who was one of our guests in April at our MBE D E Stevenson event. The group on my table included an academic author from a Scottish university and a travel writer. It was agreed that, alongside the euro crisis, the sudden loss of authority by Putin in Russia following blatant vote-rigging and consequent demos was a game-changing development. Appropriately, last night I watched a DVD of Moonlighting, Jerzy Skolimovski's 1982 film about a group of four Polish builders working - in those pre-Berlin Wall, pre-EU days, illegally, - on a house renovation in London. Three are kept unaware by their foreman ( played by Jeremy Irons) that the Russians have invaded their country. Every period detail of the film is telling, from their arrival at immigration to the supermarket where Irons daily risks arrest for shoplifting. At the bus station in Edinburgh, and on the bus, I was struck by the friendly, chatty village atmosphere that prevails, in stark contrast to present-day London. As the credits rolled, I saw that the late great poet Christopher Logue had played a cameo role as 'workman'.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Full circle

I woke up wondering if my life was going to describe an arc, parabola or trajectory in the material sense that I was born into a world where one was cold and hungry a lot of the time - not because I was underprivileged but because we were all cold and hungry more or less from 1944 when I was born until 1958 when my father, on a whim, sent me to school in Switzerland. At home we were cold - no heating upstairs; coal fires in the downstairs rooms; coal fired Aga. Food was filling and bland: shepherd's pie, rice pudding, 'custard' made with powder etc. I was sent away to school aged 7 where it was equally cold and there was still rationing so we had 2 ounces of butter a week distributed in little pots with our school number on. You could blow the whole lot one teatime or there were school champions who could keep their supply going nearly the whole week, by which time it was rancid because the pot were kept in the dining room at room temperature. We had a sweet ration which was doled out on a Saturday too. At my big school on the Weald of Kent, it was so cold in winter that water froze inside the dormitories and many fellow students suffered from chilblains. We used to stand next to the big old radiators for some heat and stamp our feet to keep the circulation going. The diet was so appallingly short of any fresh vegetables or fruit that I developed chronic constipation - a typical meal would consist of baked bean pie followed by 'Dead Man's Leg' - a pastry roll with jam and custard. Life as a student in Oxford in the early 1960's was equally spartan; we subsisted on a dreadful diet of faggots (the cheapest nourishment known to man) and cheap fags - meaning cigarettes not gay men. Some of our best friends were gay men, of course, but we were unaware, until one by one they succumbed, not long after, to AIDS. The first to go was Luis, a charming Puerto Rican who was a guest at our first spectacularly inept 'dinner party' my flatmates and I gave. To us, making and serving a meal for five or six was like splitting the atom. The meat - was it duck? - was indequate and inedible; we managed to cook some frozen peas and maybe we made a trifle for dessert? I cannot remember. We knew nothing about wine, so bought the cheapest gut rot, probably rough Spanish red because we remembered ( thought vaguely) that red went with meat. Our other guests included a delightful history don from Balliol, Maurice Keen and perhaps David who is now a very senior city lawyer, specialising in mediating in international corporate legal disputes. Two of my four flatmates have 'gone before': one was murdered in France by persons unknown in the first long vac after we all went down, and another died early from a combination of self neglect and alcoholism, leaving her magnificent family house to the National Trust. Privilege is not a passport to happiness or even, in those days, comfort. Perhaps the opposite.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Wild Excitement

Wild excitement yesterday! I noticed a 10cm shoot growing from my 'orchid' - a tiny plant which came into my possession sometime late in 2009 or early 2010. I think it was a present from one member of the family to another, and it was left behind in my flat where I was then living above Manse Furnishings. The tiny, exquisite bright purple florets fell off one by one and I would have chucked it but there were signs of new green leaves so I spared it. It moved with me to Milburn House in Sept 2010 and has sat on the windowsill of my little first floor kitchen ever since, neither quite dead nor in full vigorous plant life. This summer, concerned for its welfare, I even went into the garden centre and tried to buy some appropriate compost to repot it. To her eternal credit, the lady behind the till refused to sell me any, insisting that these fragile plants like to be cramped and starved. How right she was! Four months later, a flower shoot has emerged and I have pinned it carefully to the narrow stake which once held the (now dead and brown) previous shoot and flower head, using the tiny plastic clip that does not damage the shoot. This gardening exploit set me thinking about the garden I am going to make at 21 Well Road, behind our new offices and a workshop. I made a four square grid with 'low' and 'high' maintenance at either end of the vertical line and 'practical' and 'pleasure' on the horizontal. What would please me best is a garden that somehow complements the pretty mid 18th century building we have restored, both in appearance and for use, whether as a meditation walk, a 'hortus conclusus' or a patch to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers, with perhaps a few chickens. Speaking of vegetables, yesterday I rescued all the blackening carrots from my wire basket in the hallway (kept there because it is cool) and one withered parsnip. I roasted some in the oven, adding an onion, and the rest I browned first in oil and butter, then added water and boiled them with a chicken stock cube. I also roasted a squash. Inspired, I then browned two beef olives in a frying pan with some sliced garlic, added some carrots and their liquor and a bay leaf. When the beef olives were done, I removed everything with a slotted spoon and added some couscous grains to the gravy and feasted on the result. In the evening, I had egg mayo with beetroot salad - a magical combination that I commend to you, with possibly a freshly baked potato, butter and plenty of freshly ground pepper. I have hung my Christmas wreath on the front door and last night it snowed. Moffat looks beautiful

Friday, 2 December 2011


I became involved in a mini controversy on Facebook yesterday about whether the word 'tad' is (or was) an Americanism. I held that it is, and found a reference via Google that supported my belief that the word came into English from America during my lifetime. The debate veered off into whether it is an age thing (if you are old, 'tad' is an Americanism; if young, then it is English) at which point I gave up.

My daughter went to Glasgow yesterday and reported that the shops were heaving. Will history divide our lives into BC (Before the Crunch) and AC (After the Crunch)? I have visions that, whereas we are being encouraged to feel relatively protected - cushioned as we are by sterling from the euro crash - , there is a darker scenario: democracy disappears from Europe in favour of the coercive rule of technocrats, the worst possible combination of French and German bossiness. How near the surface are lingering resentments and regrets following the outcome of WWII? Is Nicholas Ridley's Spectator prophecy to come true?

(From Wikipedia: On 14 July 1990 Ridley was forced to resign as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry after an interview published in The Spectator. He had described the proposed Economic and Monetary Union as "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe" and said that giving up sovereignty to Europe was as bad as giving it up to Adolf Hitler. The interview was illustrated with a cartoon depicting Ridley adding a Hitler moustache to a poster of the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. While Ridley was not one of the most powerful government members, he was regarded as a Thatcherite loyalist and his departure was a significant break in their ranks. Margaret Thatcher herself had to resign four months later. Some commentators point to Ridley's resignation, its manner, and the European issue at its core, as leading indicators for the next decade of Conservative Party politics.)

Lunch yesterday at Brodies to discuss progress on the Moffat Book Events Sept 2012 conference. I had done a Jeremy Clarkson (ill-advised use of irony) by prefacing an email to my lunch companion: 'No! No! No! No!' - a quote from Margaret Thatcher whose biopic starring Meryl Streep is being promoted on TV. Clarkson's scripted sally on The One Show was delivered quite clearly and deliberately in two parts: first, he said how blissfully quiet London was because of the strike, restaurants empty therefore easy to get a table etc, then 'in the name of BBC balance' he went into the rant about taking the strikers out to shoot them. End of.

My Dinner with Andre

I watched a DVD of My Dinner with Andre last night. The film,directed by Louis Malle, consists of a conversation over dinner between Wallace Shawn, an actor and writer and his friend Andre Gregory. The first long section concerns an account of a bizarre acting class which took place in a forest in Poland. I think the director Jerzy Skolimovski is mentioned as having organised this for Andre. Jerzy directed Moonlighting, of which more another time. Spookily, in the course of a riff about whether theatre is still capable of delivering a level of experience capable of changing hearts and minds, Wallace Shawn cites Gordon Craig, who I had been writing about earlier in the day.

The house in south Lanarkshire where I lived until I moved to Moffat two years ago overlooks Watermeetings, where Sir Henry Irving and his partner Ellen Terry, giants of the Victorian stage, used to stay with their entourage: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl, Ellen Terry's secretary who ran her fan club, thought to be the world's first), Bram Dracula Stoker, Henry Irving's secretary and Ellen’s children, her daughter and illegitimate son Edward Gordon Craig (surname plucked whimsically after his mother saw Ailsa Craig the volcanic core rock nicknamed Paddy's Milestone, one of the world's two sources of curling stone granite, sitting off the coast of Ayrshire) whose portrait can be seen hanging in the foyer of the Moscow Arts theatre. Craig was the most celebrated theatre designer of his time. Their presence as a touring theatre company in Scotland was directly due to religion. Severe post-reformation Scotland abjured theatre, (indeed Christmas itself was first celebrated only in 1947 as a public holiday in Scotland, when shops such as Jenners began tentatively to put Christmas scenes in their windows) so the only theatre was provided by touring companies such as Henry Irving’s.There is also quite a lot of talk in the film about Findhorn, the eco community in northern Scotland. There is a comical aside by Gregory about a university production of The Bacchae that brought to mind a tragi-comic episode in my own life. Towards the end of my second marriage, on the occasion of our wedding anniversary we booked tickets to see a play at the National Theatre. When I arrived, my about to be ex-husband broke the news to me that for some reason that play had been cancelled and we had been offered (and he had accepted) tickets for The Bacchae instead. Connoisseurs of classical drama will know that the plotline of The Bacchae is the savage pursuit and dismemberment by enraged female spirits (the Bacchae of the title) of the protagonist. Ahem.

Thursday, 1 December 2011


I noticed yesterday that at one of the December 2011 weekly meetings of Ph D students at St Mary's College Institute for Theology, the Imagination and the Arts (ITIA), St Andrews university, someone is going to speak about the American farmer-philosopher and author Wendell Berry. In 2000, I flew to Baranov Island in Alaska from my home in Chelsea, where I lived two or three doors down from the poet Kathleen (On a Deserted Shore) Raine. The purpose of my visit was to explore the native territory of a tree – Picea sitchensis - I grow as a commercial timber crop in south Lanarkshire. Kathleen had founded an organisation called Temenos, of which Wendell, a close friend of Kathleen's, was a member (as was I). As I left my house to go to the airport, I saw Kathleen and waved to her. On my arrival at Sitka, I discovered that the Island Institute was holding a literary festival, and walked into a room where Wendell Berry was telling the audience about a visit to Kathleen in London, and in particular about the fact that our shared back gardens had once formed part of St Thomas More's country estate, therefore how the little weeds and wild flowers we found coming up in them were in all probability descended from that time. When he finished his talk I put my hand up and explained that my garden was virtually next door to Kathleen's, and how I had seen her the day before. I had had no idea before I arrived that Wendell Berry was to be in Sitka. I classed this experience under 'synchronicity' and regarded it as a sign that my life was somehow 'on track'. On a less elevated plane: I was moved yesterday to write to the BBC TV quiz programme Only Connect pointing out that they had mis-spelled the word borshch - Russian beetroot soup - with an unnecessary, non-existent 't' at the end in an item about words of increasing length that only have one vowel. The combination of the four letters shch in English are represented by one consonant in the Russian alphabet. It occurs in the name Khrushchev - the first two letters kh are also only a one- letter consonant in Russian. A classic example of concision in Russian is the two word message sent by one Russian to another when the Soviet Union collapsed 'Neuzheli dozhili' - rendered in eleven in English: Is it possible that we have lived to see this day.

Machiavelli's Lawn

Yesterday at our Moffat Book Events meeting to progress plans for our May 26/27 2012 event themed on 'gardens', Carolyn Yates, our Dumfries & Galloway literary development officer, loaned me her copy of Machiavelli's Lawn. This clever little book, written and illustrated by the staggeringly good-looking and talented Mark Crick turns out to be the third in a series whose predecessors are Sartre's Sink and Kafka's Soup. The first item in the Machiavelli collection is such a brilliant parody of Raymond Carver's style, that, as yet unaware of the author's - the series - shtick, I assumed it was by Carver himself. Mark Crick not only writes brilliant parodies, he illustrates each short exercise with a drawing or painting in the style of Durer, Hockney, Klimt and so on. A very clever pastiche of artists and authors - I am amazed that I had never heard of the series or the author before. The committee has added his name to our invitation list. By way of a liber pro quo I gave Carolyn one of several copies on my bookshelf of A Scottish Feast - a collection of excerpts from real novels and stories with accompanying recipes that was compiled and published twenty years ago in aid of some good cause - perhaps the Society of Authors in Scotland? The rain has stopped at last, and I have been able to remove the metal waste paper basket from my stair where it stands to collect drips from the skylight above during heavy rain. It is a token of how much I love living in this house that I now regard this as a quaint, enduring characteristic not something to be repaired.