Sunday, 29 April 2012


Rhubarb. It's great cooked with ginger and some sugar. I bake mine in the oven. Got some locally grown on Saturday from the greengrocer in the High St. The furthest away from home I ever ate rhubarb was in Tashkent, where it grows wild on the hills and they call it a herb or medicine. I have photographed the dish with Molly Peacock's magnificent, thought-provoking memoir, a poem in prose on the life of the 18th century artist Mary Delaney: '...a collage about collage, and a meditation on sexuality, friendship and creativity.'(Victoria Glendinning, quoted on the back book jacket). One of the most surprising, rewarding and excellently-written books I HAVE EVER READ.

To Recuse

A new - old - verb has suddenly hit the headlines: to recuse. This is what David Cameron claims he did with respect to the News Corporation's proposal to buy the balance of shares in - in other words to gain 100 per cent control over -  BSkyB. The dictionary definition of this useful word is to remove oneself from, usually in the context of a judicial process eg because of a conflict of interest. The noun recusant was used in England in the 16th century to describe those, usually Roman Catholics, who refused to attend Church of England services. Church attendance was compulsory in those days, like wearing head covering of the appropriate kind. Vestiges of these social mores once subject to the sanction of the law linger in 'dress codes' - should one wear a hat eg for a wedding? for a funeral? A decision about what to wear is often a matter of how you show respect for others, or for the occasion, or not as the case may be. I remember distinctly the frisson that ran round a formal reception with royalty present when a young, rich, titled (Hapsburgs, as I seem to remember), recently-married couple ran hand in hand in jeans and flip-flops round a room full of women in formal attire and men in dark suits.Their wealth, youth and exuberance, in their honeymoon' bubble'  excused them, but they were clearly violating an unwritten code, they were in flagrant breach of etiquette. Society depends on people keeping to not only the letter of the law, but the spirit. Oscar Wilde once said that Britain was the homeland of the hypocrite and our only protection of our hard-won freedoms is an independent judiciary, an elected parliament, and a free press. Here endeth the lesson. Amen

Thursday, 26 April 2012

D&G Literature Development Forum

It is a perfect spring morning in Moffat - pictured above: the old mill leat looking west along Burnside and (top) birch trees on the leat. Yesterday was the first meeting at Gracefield, Dumfries of the Literature Development Forum. There were thirteen of us round the table, representing Wigtown Book Festival, CABN (the support organisation for creatives in D&G), the four arts hubs, The Bakehouse, Moathouse Brae, Moffat Book Events, the University of Glasgow's Crichton Campus and CatStrand. The forum will be a regular (we're not sure yet how frequently)opportunity to meet, to receive information, exchange it and generate synergy between our component parts. One early fruit of our networking, I hope, will be a book launch event in Moffat in July, to coincide with an exhibition at The Moffat Gallery of black and white photographs of Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden in south Lanarkshire - the book is about an artist who wove clothes out of grass with a poem by Chrys Salt of The Bakehouse. I was also given a reading tip by David Borthwick (representing the University of Glasgow literature and creative writing): Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens - an essay on the human condition. I read and enjoyed Pogue Harrison's Forests - the shadow of civilization when it came out some years ago. My reading list for my holiday was a mixed success. Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers was quite literally like reading a railway timetable, the plot turning entirely on a dreary catalogue of calculations about whether any of the five suspects could have travelled on various branch line trains; the new biography of Wittgenstein aroused in me three quarters of the way through a rebellious refusal to find out any more about this tortured man who could not seem to find peace or fulfillment however much he tossed and turned and gave away. However - and this is a crucial 'but' - I do think he was onto something when he said that there were events and emotions where words fail, and in these circumstances 'one must remain silent'. Ray Monk's biography of Becket, in my view, is not particularly well written. Andrew Wheatcroft's 'The Enemy At The Gate' is so packed with information that I could only manage it in bite-sized chunks washed down with lighter stuff. I started my Anne Tyler download (I was reading everything on Kindle) Back When We Were Grownups and found the scene set, of a family at odds for various familiar - even understandable - reasons too much like real life for relaxation. The first page of the Norwegian thriller, Per Petterson's To Siberia did not grip me possibly because of poor translation. I came to Kathleen Jamies Sightlines late in my travels, but when I did, I was rewarded by her gentle humour and vivid descriptions of her interesting adventures in unexpected places such as the whale room of Bergen's Museum. As I said at the beginning, it is a perfect spring morning here in Moffat: blue sky, no wind etc so I will get myself out and about now.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Kathleen Jamie - Sightlines

I only felt ready to read Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie's new collection of meditations and memories, just before dawn this morning, as we were approaching Maloy on this last day of my round trip sea voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes. Her genius is gently to release one's own capacity to remember, and see the world and one's life in it afresh. Such is the power of her writing, that when I put the book down to go and fetch an early morning cuppa, and looked out of the window at the serried rows of houses built on the steep slope up from the quay, I was instantly reminded of many other such early morning arrivals at ports from the west of Scotland, to the 'panhandle' archipelago of Alaska and the islands of Greece, with pleasure at discovering a pattern. Jamie does not over-write. She draws you in to an apparently slight anecdote; intrigued, you read on and are rewarded by a sense of recognition, the greatness in apparently small things, life relished and its mysteries shared. I warmed to Jamie when I heard her being interviewed by Jenny Murray on BBCR4's Woman's Hour about Sightlines and  she explained simply that, like runners, writers of prose have their optimum distances - and hers - as a poet -  is the extended essay. I think she may have even mentioned the word count. 3,000 words? I forget. But she has certainly 'found her distance' with this book and its predecessor, Findings. It is an exquisite early spring morning here in Norway, the sun is fast shedding its warm bright light on the spruces and crags of the coast as we thread our steady way south through the archipelago of islands towards Bergen.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Norway Notebook - summing up

The Richard With docks at Bergen tomorrow, at the end of our round trip up the coast of Norway north to Kirkenes on the Barents Sea. I have made a few notes for anyone who might be interested.
  1. Service: Because the Hurtigruten service is just that - a service for mail, passengers and goods -there is a pleasant overall sense of being part of something useful,not just rubber-necking.
  2. Safety:Very professional, totally reassuring. There was a comprehensive safety drill for staff one day when most passengers were ashore on a trip, and a helicopter rescue drill another day. Judging by the number of small fishing boats darting in and out of every harbour, and the number of pleasure craft waiting for the summer season, seamanship is second nature to Norwegians.
  3. Hygiene: Bordering on the obsessive, which, knowing what we do now about bugs, is as it should be. 
  4. Staff: No-one can be good at everything, and when I am at sea I value safety and professional seamanship far above obsequious waiters and waitresses. My hunch is that, like the Portuguese (another great seafaring nation), the Norwegian genius is not best displayed waiting at tables or serving behind the bar. There is a certain 'take it or leave it' attitude, which has its own charm not least because it reminds one of home. See also 'Downside' below.
  5. Weather: At this time of year the weather apparently is often good (according to one passenger from Northern Ireland who is on his 6th trip). We have had 12 days of more or less unbroken calm and at times extremely hot sun.
  6. No crowds: both the ship and the many ports we called at are less busy than in the summer peak season. 
  7. Cost:It is significantly cheaper at this time of year than in peak season May, June, July and August.
  8. Contrast:There is a delightful contrast between the cosiness, not to say luxurious comfort, of the ship and the extraordinary wild scenery - like the alps or the Himalayas -  passing right outside; not in the far distance, although that too, but very often right outside the window.
  9. Fellow Passengers:There is something very soothing about the fact that most passengers are not English, and so their conversations in (say) German or Norwegian are just a hum in the background. We are mostly elderly, which can be a bit depressing as we gather at the door of the dining room as if at the gates of heaven. There is also the slight awkwardness, skirted around gracefully in the Hurtigruten guide book, that the retreating German army in 1944, under orders from Hitler, burned every house and destroyed every particle of infrastructure north from Tromso. It must be extraordinary for a German more or less anywhere in Europe to be faced with these stark historical reminders wherever they go. This circumstance is rendered all the more pointed and poignant now when, despite her best efforts, Germany is once again in the firing line with regard to the euro currency crisis. Caught between the Scylla of inflation and the Charybdis of 'squeeze', she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't bail out the failing economies of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy - and, some would add, France. The only time I have heard German voices raised was when a woman in a group sitting at the next table in the ship's library was (I gathered) expressing her exasperation at the euro situation. That said, there has been a sprinkling of younger couples, some with babies in prams and parties of excitable school children as we have gone along. Because this is a service calling at many ports every day sometimes only for 15 minutes to allow passengers (and their cars) on and off, there is a very welcome diversity of occasional workmen, in their oilskins and rubber boots or businessmen in suits simply using the ship like a bus.
  10. Wildlife: There are lots and lots of different sorts of seabirds, including sea eagles, I have seen one dolphin (or it might of been the smallest sort of whale), one sea otter in harbour. To my surprise and in complete contrast to the west coast of Scotland, not a single seal.
  11. Downside: A couple of days ago, a dreadful (to me) saxophonist played mournful versions on Deck 7 of 'middle of the road' hits as we entered every harbour and steamed through one of the most spectacularly scenic narrow passages between towering cliffs. In the words of Mrs T, 'No!No!No! No!' Also the snooper I discovered in my cabin looking at my laptop, which has meant that I now carry my laptop with me everywhere and at all times in my backpack.
  12. Food:Delicious, frequent, plentiful.
  13. Drink: Staggeringly expensive. One ill-advised bottle of very ordinary Chilean rose on the first night (not drunk all at once, I hasten to add) cost me £47. A small glass of house white costs 75 krone, nearly £10. Is our Chancellor of the Exchequer missing a trick? On the plus side, once you buy a Hurtigruten tin mug with lid you are entitled to refills of free tea and coffee day and night for the whole trip. 
  14. Dating:For the lovelorn lady passenger, there is a surplus of single elderly gents. 
  15. Dress Code: Check shirts, jeans, upmarket shell suits, jumpers, zipper jackets, fleeces, gilets  trainers and loafers are the order of the day and night. Almost no-one 'dresses for dinner'. When they do, they look out of place. Los Angeles has triumphed over Lingfield, Lille and Lubeck.
Would I do it again? Hmm. It has certainly been wonderfully relaxing, not least because of our extraordinary luck with the weather. And I was lucky with my dinner companion, M. Poirot, who I hope will be visiting Moffat in June on a tour of the UK already arranged with friends from Belgium. We will see.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Bram Stoker in south Lanarkshire, Scotland

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death, on April 20 1912, of Bram Stoker the author of Dracula.Bram Stoker used to stay at Watermeetings a house near Elvanfoot in south Lanarkshire with Sir Henry Irving, whose secretary and business manager he was, and Ellen Terry, when they were touring Scotland with their theatre company. The fourth adult member of the party (Ellen Terry also travelled with her two children out of wedlock, one of whom - Gordon - she surnamed Craig after the rock) was Ellen Terry's secretary- cum -fan club manager  Eleanor Marx, daughter of the notorious political economist. The connection with a farmhouse in a remote valley in the southern uplands of Scotland is that a member of the theatre company in London was born in Crawford, a small village next along from Elvanfoot in the upper reaches of the Clyde, the daughter of the postmaster. After enjoying a brief period of success on the stage, she returned to marry a wealthy farmer many years her senior and would host the Terry-Irving entourage on their tours of Scotland. The River Clyde does not rise, it simply becomes the great river at an arbitrary point: the 'Watermeetings' after which the house was named, where two small streams, the Daer and the Potrail meet.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Shipboard reading

Pictured above and left (to the right of centre by the water's edge, the two-stage plain white building with red roofs): the furthest north medieval church in Norway, at Trondenes near Harstad, originally of wood then stone; said to be built near the place of the first Norwegian Christian baptisms in 999, in a nearby pool.

At the time of writing the Richard With is tied up alongside the quay at Harstad. The sun has broken through some desultory clouds, and it will soon be too hot to sit here by the big glass window of the ship on Deck 4 where the wifi is. I am still reading Andrew Wheatcroft - our MBE chairman's - The Enemy at the Gate, about the 17th century Ottoman siege of Vienna and its knock-on effects; Ray Monk's new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein - whose tortured life, combining the espousal of ascetic spirituality (including a spell living in a Norwegian fjord) with an addiction to junk culture, continues to exercise a horrid fascination - and the new biography of Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim by John Guy. This voyage has been accompanied on the TV screens dotted about the ship, by the trial of Breivik the mass murderer last July, first in Oslo and then on an island near Oslo, of 77 people. He was revealed yesterday as having hoped to kill all 500 people on the island, and to cut off the head of the former Prime Minister of Norway who one assumes was either on the island, or had planned to pay a visit to the summer camp taking place at the time.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A snooper in my cabin

I was not in the airiest or most trusting of moods yesterday, having discovered one of the chambermaids standing at my desk in the cabin at my open laptop, which I had left closed to charge it. I asked her her name, which she gave me, adding 'I was not...' (leaving the sentence unfinished). I told her how angry I was, and, shaking with emotion, unplugged the laptop (which I had gone to the cabin to collect because I had discovered there are points all the way along the skirting of Deck 4,the one which has wifi, where I could continue to work watching the beautiful scenery go by while also charging the laptop). It did not help that I had just finished reading a detective story: Dorothy Sayers' Five Red Herrings, nor I suppose, when it comes to it, that I spent 30 years of my life visiting the Soviet Union where such activities were assumed to be the norm. But Norway? On a respectable cruise-cum-mail ship? I was shaken. To further affect my mood: I am half way through reading Ray Monk's life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man whose whole life was consumed by the need constantly to examine his motives at fever pitch in order to do the decent thing. In my heightened state, I went straight with my laptop to reception where I reported the incident. The woman on duty nodded and assured me the matter would be dealt with. Four hours later I went back to reception and found someone more senior with lots of gold braid on her uniform on duty. I explained again what had happened and she started to fend me off with (to my mind) irrelevant comments such as that there were 'a lot of new people'. Then along came the head housekeeper, and we asked her if the incident had been reported to her. A conversation took place in Norwegian, and I could tell that the housekeeper, shrugging, was saying - using a gesture - that the girl had told her she was 'dusting' the laptop. I intervened and said that you do not stand with a laptop open, that had been left closed, looking at the screen to dust it. Moreover, I said shaking with rage, you appear to have accepted her version of events rather than mine. I went on to make feeble threats about the leaving the ship. So, having now slept on it: what to do? I could leave the ship today, but have decided that would be to cut off my nose to spite my face. I have told as many people as I can on board what has happened, so that they can take whatever precautions they think appropriate to prevent such a thing happening to them. The detective in me, the watcher of Murder She Wrote and Columbo on daytime TV asks: what was the girl doing at my laptop? There is no wifi in the cabins, as she must surely have known. Who was she? The housekeeper muttered something about 'a lot of new people'. What if it had been discovered that the name she gave did not belong to any of the housemaids, and the girl herself, following the incident, had vanished (we were in port at the time, and there was a safety drill while nearly all the passengers except me were known to be ashore on a long excursion) during which now that I come to think of it the doors to the saloon I was sitting in closed automatically. At the time I entered the cabin, had she been downloading information from my laptop - and if so, what possible interest can my photographs and correspondence about meeting friends at cinemas or what sort of gate to put in my new garden be to anyone ? Or maybe she was uploading something, to be retrieved later electronically? Might my recent emails to and from Russia in connection with our conference in Moffat in September have been encoded in some way and she was the operative sent to retrieve it? Had I world enough and time, all this might have become the kernel of a best-seller. As it is, I am going to take the coward's way out. Not, I hasten to add, by jumping overboard, but by continuing to sit quietly by the enormous plate glass windows of this comfortable ship, watching the scenery slip by under blue skies and on a calm sea, reading my books and eating three excellent meals a day.

Monday, 16 April 2012

More from the snowy wastes

Here (below, left), lit by the evening sun yesterday, is the famous 20th century 'ice' cathedral at Tromso, part of the re-building of the whole town which had effectively been completely destroyed and its population dispersed during WWII. We left Tromso last night and stopped briefly in Hammerfest (pictured above left) early this morning before continuing on our way to the North Cape, Europe's most northerly point. There are expeditions tomorrow to the Russian border by snow scooter from Kirkenes which lies (believe it or not) to the east of Istanbul and Cairo. I am reading two books alternately, both painful in their own way and both with Vienna, in a sense, at their core: The Enemy at the Gate, an account by Andrew Wheatcroft, historian and chairman of Moffat Book Events, of the last big push west in the 17th century by the Ottoman Turks, and the new biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Ray Monk

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Into the Arctic

We crossed into the Arctic circle yesterday morning, (marked by a silver globe on a rock, pictured below, left) and some of us later underwent the ceremony of having ice cubes and cold water ladled down the back of neck inside our jumper by King Neptune (seen above, left) to mark the occasion. The boat was packed yesterday (Sunday April 15) with day trippers making the journey between the Lofoten Islands and Bodo, using the jacuzzis and running up and down the stairs. This morning (Monday April 16) the ship appears semi-deserted, a handful of passengers at breakfast as we steam on northwards towards the North Cape. Monsieur Poirot, my dinner companion, went ashore at Bodo and returned to report that it reminded him of East Germany, not in a good way. After my initial enthusiasm for the uncomplicated mix of passengers, I am having second thoughts. The passengers and crew are entirely white northern Europeans, and most of us are elderly; a sort of Bognor/Bad Regis nursing home on the waves. Most of us seem to be taking our 'holiday' terribly seriously: jostling grim-faced to take pictures of landmarks and - on my return, in good time, from the walkabout at Trondheim I was actually pushed aside as I neared the ship's entrance by a fellow-passenger charging behind me up the gang-plank to get back on board. I thought the only explanation for his otherwise inexplicable action was that he must have a pressing need to get to the loo. But no, once he had shown his plastic cabin card (that doubles as a charge card on board) he lingered to chat to a woman in the hallway. Anyway, these passing thoughts aside: it is a beautiful calm sunny day again, and the sun is shining hot through the glass as I sit typing by the window on Deck 4 with a mug of coffee beside me. There is a satisfaction that we, the fare-paying holidaymakers, are making a contribution to this essential seaborne delivery/ferry service; we make frequent short stops at small ports all the way along our route. According to a girl in the excursions office, Hurtigruten is a private company subsidised by the state. Employment as a permanent member of staff is considered an achievement. She is on a temporary two-year contract, and she pointed at her male companion saying that he has recently been confirmed as a permanent employee. They work 30 days on and 30 days off, and every other Christmas. Overall, including in the Norwegian tabloids that are on sale in the little shop/cafe hangs the spectre of last summer's mass murderer who went berserk(a good old Norwegian word) first in Oslo then on an island where Norwegian young socialist party members were holding their summer camp. The papers are running articles, inviting readers to examine their consciences with regard to the aspirations of the accused , who has been declared sane and fit to stand trial. I have managed to get to the end of Dorothy Sayer's Five Red Herrings, which must be the most tedious unthrilling 'thriller' ever written. Much of it is written, for the apparent amusement of the (assumed middle class English) reader in 'Scotch' dialect, there are horrifyingly routine assumptions about class and nationality, even a dash of anti-semitism, as sent up definitively by Alan Bennett in his magisterial Forty Years On as the 'snobbery with violence' genre exemplified by John Buchan. My personal interest in this is that I believe these attitudes effectively were the death of my working class grandfather on my father's side. He gained entry to UCL to read engineering, and passed out top of his year with a fellow student Alexander Gibb. Together they formed a partnership and Grandpa was in charge of the works to extend the naval dockyards at Rosyth before and during WWI. The newspapers of the time recorded that Norwegian granite was used for this project, so it came to mind as we passed a quarry yesterday. According to my father, Grandpa found the pressure of socialising eg at shooting parties and the like, as he was catapulted into the upper reaches of Edwardian society, too much to cope with. He was depressed, too, no doubt, although he was exonerated at the subsequent inquiry, by the memory of many casualties at an earlier job he was in charge of - the enlargement of the dockyard at Newport South Wales, where shuttering collapsed to deadly effect. Anyway, he took to drink and died in Portadown, northern Ireland, where he and a new partner had been commissioned to widen the bridge.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Norway Notebook (2)

We docked at Trondheim shortly after dawn, on a cloudless, bright sunny day, and had until 12 noon to explore on foot - I have posted lots of pix on my Facebook page. Since then, we have been steaming through the archipelago of small islands, sometimes in astonishingly narrow channels between enormous granite rocks, rounded by the pressure of ice many millions of years ago. Most of the passengers seem to be Norwegian, and the rest of us are German, Australian, British, French and - in at least one case, to my certain knowledge, because he and I are sharing a table for two at dinner (the only mealtime with set seating) - Belgian. My dinner companion does not in the least resemble the TV detective Hercule Poirot. He is a retired engineer, a widower who, since the death of his wife two years ago, assuages his single state by globetrotting. He is booked on a tour of Scotland in June, following an itinerary devised for him by a Scottish friend who lives, like my engineer, in Bruges. It is the most relaxing holiday I can possibly imagine, amazing scenery viewed passing continuously from the comfortable seats on deck or below through picture windows, wonderful weather and the quiet continuous babble of people mainly speaking Norwegian, a language I do not understand. Every now and then we pass a small fishing boat. Every little flat piece of ground and inlet seems to have small brightly-painted houses with their pitched roofs and quayside, boatsheds and slipways. Lastly, and possibly more controversially, there is the unquantifiable sense that one is in a country with no real need for tourists. Norway is blessed with such vast quantities of oil and gas, to add to their established industries of fishing and mining that everyone is well off. Nevertheless, all the staff on the boat are Norwegian, from the captain to the chambermaids. The art on the walls in Norwegian. Everything one eats seems to be grown, fished or reared in Norway. There goes the announcement of the first sitting for dinner - see you later!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Norway Notebook

I booked online, early one morning, several months ago, on impulse, in response to an unsolicited email to travel on the Norway 'Fast Route' (Hurtigruten) mailboat service that plies daily from Bergen in the south to a port in the Arctic circle near the Russian border. About a week ago I got cold feet about the trip. What on earth was I thinking? I hate snow. At this time of year, my heart leaps at the sight of daffodils, leaves appearing on trees and every prospect of spring. I realised with a sinking heart that I was actually going to be travelling backwards through the seasons into late winter. I wondered out loud if the company would give me a rain check to - say - June. But a combination of fatalism and inertia led me to board a plane yesterday for Bergen. At the last minute I put my insulated winter boots in the case. We boarded the mailboat yesterday afternoon and the news is: I'm glad I came. The scenery is spectacular, the weather is fine and the route is wonderful. Like the west coast of North America and Scotland, there are islands that we weave among, as well as fjords that penetrate extraordinarily far into the interior. The boat - one of a fleet of twelve vessels of varying ages and sizes, is named after the founder, in 1893, of the fast marine mail service, Richard With. Like on a plane, there are screens dotted around the ship showing where we have got to. For a small outlay, you can buy an insulated mug that you can refill at any time with coffee or tea from dispensers on every deck. This morning at 6.30am they were opening up the jacuzzis at the stern on my deck, and I regret not bringing my bathing suit. The food suits my taste: Scandanavian, healthy, buffet-style. In a moment of madness, last night I bought a wine deal that entitles me to a different wine every day to go with the dinner menu. This afternoon we dock in Alesund, rebuilt entirely in 1904, following a fire, in the Art Nouveau style. Time for a coffee....

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Born in 1911

I attended the funeral of my father's former secretary Gladys Moore in Chichester yesterday. She died a few days short of her 101st birthday. Her extended family (she and her husband Jimmy had no children of their own) had brought Gladys's photograph albums to the wake, which showed holidays in Dorset and days out in Epping Forest; Gladys carefree, young and beautiful, sitting on the grass or riding her bike and exploring Germany in the late 1920's. Despite her obvious academic abilities, and not unusually for the times (my own father left school aged 16), due to family circumstances, Gladys left school aged 14 and went to work as a clerk for a shipping company; she studied commercial languages (French and German) at night school and acquired extraordinary clerical abilities - very fast shorthand and typing. She progressed to the civil service, married and after WWII joined her husband (who had been posted there during the war)in East Africa. In 1950, she joined our family company in Dartford, Kent where she remained a key member of the team for nearly 40 years. Widowed in 1975, she eventually retired and set about for the last quarter century of her long life on a programme of adventurous travel, by coach,train and plane through Europe and aged 90 to India where she rode on the back of a motorbike and on an elephant. My sister was invited to speak at the funeral about her contribution to our lives, and had discovered that at the time of Gladys joining the family firm, in 1950, it was on the point of financial collapse. It was due in no small part to her steady and energetic personality that order and balance were restored, and she remained at Dad's right hand through the years of prosperity to come. My own outstanding memory of Gladys was when she accompanied me aged 12 to spend a week with a French pen friend whose name and address I had found in a bottle washed up on the beach at Poole in Dorset. The girl who was the same as age as myself had sent me a tiny black and white photograph which showed a lithe tanned girl standing with one foot on a low wall at St Juan les Pins. Mrs Moore and I arrived at the Gare du Nord and to Mrs Moore's consternation, the family turned out to be very tanned indeed- they were from the French colony of Guadeloupe. She excused herself and rushed off to a telephone to take further instructions from my father which were 'let the visit go ahead'. I spent a week with Any and her family - her father was a senior executive at International Harvester - at their house at Chalons sur Marne. We visited the WWI battlefields, where I distinguished myself by refusing to go down into the dugouts, shouting to the tour guide 'Monsieur, je suis froide' (I am frigid); we ate horse and made an overnight trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower (we slept on the floor of an aunt's - a milliner at Christian Dior's - work room). Thinking about this episode yesterday, I have resolved to see if I can track Any down and find out how she has fared in the long interval since our correspondence petered out.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

A reading list for cold creek-creeping

I now have quite a few suggestions for books to take on my voyage on a mailboat up the coast of Norway.

My friend Barty suggests Dorothy Sayers' Five Red Herrings 'to remind me of Galloway'.

Katherine from the Moffat bookshop says: 'anything by Anne Tyler (her favourite novelist) and The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies, if you can get it, as it really needs an extended journey to give it your full attention......'

The main man at John Sandoe writes
Some quick thoughts towards your Norwegian trip:

The fiction of Per Petterson and Jan Kjaerstad - I can give you more info if you want, but they are two internationally acclaimed contemporary Norwegian writers (leaving aside the Scandinavian crime phenomenon).

A biography of Wittgenstein (Ray Monk's) - he spent a lot of time chilling his toes & frying his brain by a Norwegian fjord, but of course Norway is a very tangential aspect of his life.

Bishop Seraphim Sigrist suggests Kristen Lavrensdatter and Thomas Browne (whose Religio medici I studied at uni, and remember fondly not least for his theory that badgers have legs shorter on one side of their body than the other, the better to make their way across hill slopes).

"The Norwegian Feeling For Real" - an anthology of contemporary Norwegian poetry and fiction. This was the 6th Leopard anthology published by Harvill about 10 years ago. It's out of print now but could easily be got secondhand - although not by Wednesday, I fear - and is a good cross-section of recent Norwegian writing (which is very good).

Finally, you may have seen in our new catalogue a book by Kathleen Jamie called "Sightlines", a collection of wonderful essays about - well, wonders: the natural world, thinking... What I did not say, as I recall, in my blurb for the catalogue, is that a couple of the essays have to do with the whale museum in Bergen (Norway). I would urge you to read this, it's a gem.

My brother Henry introduced me to Kathleen Jamie's work several Christmasses ago with Findings (2005). I remember how my heart sank at the unprepossessing (to me) cover and what I feared would be uncongenial subject matter. But I was entranced. I hope to meet her later in the year in connection with a University of Glasgow project on perceptions of the environment.

Finally, I commend Susie Boyt's meditation in this weekend's FT, on the eve of her own departure on holiday. I share her dread of holidays, and seriously considered ducking out of my Norway expedition on the grounds that early April is an insane time of year to go to sea, plus I hate snow. But my sister urged me to go with the floe (sorry) so my woollies are packed.

Friday, 6 April 2012

a bit of surly philology

Two misuses of our great language have recently come to my attention: the word (noun and verb)'hike' and 'magical'.

In last week's online Scottish Review the following error occurred in an article about a failing investment company:
'Mr Gilbert, his deputy chief exec and the financial director each took a hike of £100,000 a year.' It is true that the verb to 'hike' can mean to elevate, hoist, adjust as in 'she hiked up her skirts' (eg to climb a stile). But 'take a hike ' usually means 'get lost' in the sense of 'go away' ' make oneself scarce' either literally or metaphorically. It belongs to the same family of injunctions or imprecations as 'Get a life'.

The second utterance that gave me pause for thought was the description on the radio today of science being 'in the best sense, magical'. In my book, science and magic are quite literally opposites. One - science - belongs to a school of thought, or method, about how the material world works, and reliable ways of discovering and predicting repeatable phenomena within certain clearly defined limits. Science involves transparent observation, experimental design and statistical analysis of the results. Magic trades on mystery and mumbo-jumbo. So what did the speaker mean 'in the best sense'. I think the speaker is a lazy user of the language, and was trying to say that science is wonderful.

BBC shame

On today's (Good Friday April 6) BBCR4 Today programme, Alan Little did one of those 'look back in angst' pieces about covering the Bosnian conflict, in his inimitable (I hope) doleful voice. He recorded his feelings of guilt at the death of a young cameraman from Zagreb who was working alongside him when killed, who Little said they nicknamed "after Chaucer" 'Mr-Valiant-For-Truth'. Well, Alan, to quote another BBC programme, I have news for you. Mr-Valiant-For -Truth is a character in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, written oh a mere 250 years after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. So easy to get one pilgrim thingy mixed up with another eh? It is not so much that Little mis-attributed M-V-F-T that irks me as the knowledge that not one of the four, five, six - however many editors, sub-editors and other beady-eyed politically correct individuals involved in recording Little's piece and slotting it into the programme, not to mention the presenter, Evan Davies, spotted the ludicrous error. But was it ludicrous? or do I belong to the last generation of generalists who might be expected to know my Chaucer from my Bunyan? I do remember being faintly shocked when one of my daughters explained in the 1980's that her geography class was calculating how long it would take a fictitious African villager to collect water from a notional well a mile distant from her imaginary village, rather than where Africa was.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A Very British Life

On Monday, a very British life was celebrated in Eltham, south London. My cousin Mary's partner, Colin Gilmore Smith was born in India in 1944, of two Anglo-Burmese parents. Colin's father worked for the timber merchants Montague Meyer, and, after the end of WWII, was posted with his wife and Colin to Sarawak. In 1953, aged 9, Colin was sent on his own to school in England, on board a merchant ship taking timber to the UK. The school was Eltham College Luckily for Colin, the father of another small boy at the school had himself had to be separated from his parents (in Hong Kong) at a young age, and took Colin under his family's wing. A group of four boys made firm friends with Colin, and they spoke eloquently at the memorial service in the school chapel after the funeral. It was a large gathering, many of whom were of a similar vintage to Colin, some younger because he made a great and continuing contribution to the school after the tragic early death of his own son Miles aged 16 in a road traffic accident. It was a remarkable day; the sun shone brilliantly in a cloudless blue sky, and many people remarked without irony how much Colin himself would have enjoyed it. His life was in many ways a hard, even tragic, one, but through force of character and with the help of many devoted friends - including my cousin Mary - he triumphed, being of a determined and apparently extrovert temperament. The ebullient 'life and soul of the party' was, of course, only half the story, as his closest friends pointed out as they struggled with their own emotions during their tributes to him. There was laughter and not a few tears at Eltham College chapel on Monday. RIP.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Off to Eltham

I'm off shortly to Eltham, for the funeral of Colin, my first cousin Mary's partner for many years. I heard yesterday too of the death of my father's redoubtable secretary, Mrs Gladys Moore aged just short of 101. Mrs Moore had remarkable gifts, and one of her great achievements was her retirement during which (a widow) she travelled incessantly on coaches and trains.
There is a clutch of interesting birthdays today: Hans Christian Andersen, Casanova and Emile Zola. People such as Charles Dickens, used to dread Hans Christian Andersen coming to stay, because he was a terrible bore and once installed in the spare bedroom would show no sign of leaving. Many of his stories are cruel, sad and frightening, but The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes, Thumbelina, and The Ugly Duckling remain world-beaters, immortalised by Danny Kaye in that Hollywood musical. Emile Zola, the French 19th century novelist was inspired by Charles Darwin to write long inter-related sagas of an extended family's life. A friend of mine who teaches English as a foreign languages to celebs and VIP's once received a telephone call from the Sardinian footballer who was then a star of Chelsea FC, Gianfranco Zola. My friend who had read the novels of Zola at university but knew nothing about football said : 'That's a famous name' which the footballer took to mean that he had made the name famous. We thought that was funny at the time, but he was probably right. Casanova said: I loved, I was loved, my health was good, I had a great deal of money, and I spent it, I was happy and I knew it.