Sunday, 29 July 2012

At Excel

Olympic tower

First view of Olympic tower against a stormy sky yesterday.

Ladies bike race

The ladies bike race field rounding the bend at Brompton Cross

It is sunshine and showers on this, the second day of the Olympics 2012. There was even a great clap of thunder as we approached the barriers to watch the ladies bike race field speed by. This time we knew the form: a series of a dozen or more police motorbikes, greeted with friendly cheers, and some official cars come by. First we spot the police helicopter overhead, then, as the race starts, two TV helicopters hovering over the field as it comes closer. There were fewer members of the public lining the road than for the men's bike race yesterday, but there was a good deal of friendly banter including with three very big policemen who arrived on their bikes this time to stand by the barriers near us and one smaller one who was on his walkie talkie. Our three policemen shouted out 'hello Alan!' to one of the heavily helmeted, booted and no doubt body-armoured police motorbikers who rode past us flashing their blue lights and sounding their sirens ahead of the racers. I have not been to any of the great state occasions such as any royal wedding or the jubilees other than to sit in Hyde Park for the Golden Jubilee so I am impressed by the sheer good nature of the crowd, at how many children and babies there are with their Mums, Dads and nannies (grannies not child carers). One member of our group said he spotted Elly with Zac on her shoulders on the TV. Everyone is prepared to chat, and a biking enthusiast explained to us why Mark Cavendish failed to win the men's race yesterday - that all the other teams ganged up on team GB forcing them to be ahead the whole time and lose the advantage of being in the slipstream in the middle or even towards the back of the field. Or that was what this man said. I never knew until I watched this year's Tour de France that pedal biking was a team sport, but now I do. News later of the ladies hockey from Excel. For now, a nice cup of tea after watching The Lorax cartoon with the family.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

bikes and parallel bars

Men's Olympic road race field coming round the bend at Brompton Cross

Men's gymnastics day at 02, north Greenwich

The day started well with watching the men's road race from the Fulham Road just by the Michelin building at Brompton Cross, then we got a river boat down to north Greenwich for the men's gymnastics. Team GB did really well at the gymnastics, the city looked wonderful from the river and Cafe Rouge do a mean croque monsieur. Hockey tomorrow! ps A reassuring note: at Embankment Pier, a couple were handing out postcards of the Houses of Parliament on behalf of the Muslim For Peace Association.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Your Olympic correspondent

Warrington Bank Quay

Your correspondent's notebook and Kindle
Preston station
Your Olympic correspondent here, well I am well on my way to the Olympics. What is there literary about the Olympics? Well the Greeks had a word - the original word -  for it and a type of poem called the Pindaric ode. We will not dwell on that for the time being. The atmosphere was very festive on the train from Lockerbie to Carlisle. A fellow passenger was on her way to London not for the Olympics but for the Proms. Another group from Moffat were heading to York to celebrate a birthday at York Races Ladies Day. There were men in pink top hats made of cardboard, and a woman wearing a white shiny riband across her t-shirt that read 'Mother of the Bride'. Now that I am on a packed train on my way to Euston, so far all I have seen in the way of dressing up is a youth wearing a false beard. The sun is shining and the only tiny worry I have is how to get from Euston to my lodgings in southwest London with a wheelie case containing survival kit for two weeks, my handbag, my backpack containing my laptop and the remains of my picnic (bacon buttie, tomato, cheese slice and an apple). I usually get the tube but changing from one line to another involves lots of stairs. I have walked it (from Euston to southwest London) once, but that was without a wheelie case.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Green view

Green view

The view from my bedroom window, of the birches in full summer leaf on the mill leat, is beautiful enough to tempt me to lie in, like Marcel Proust author of A La Recherche de Temps Perdu (Recollection of Past time)who spent most of his adult life lying in bed. There is another good book by a man who was confined to his room: Voyage autour de ma chambre (Journey Round My Room) by Xavier de Maistre 1763-1852

The reading ram

Ram sans spectacles
Just had a fabulous session at WeeSleekit our web designers where Nicky put spectacles (horn-rimmed I assume) on the Moffat ram with the tag 'Better for reading here'. Great fun - also, do not miss the astonishing image under 'Future Events'. You will be amazed

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Hay Fever

Yesterday it rained all day, but now the sun is out.
Yesterday it rained all day and I have hay fever. But overnight I took my antihistamine tablets and some paracetamol and today the sun is out.  I downloaded a book 'The Last American Man' by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of 'Eat, Pray, Love'), about a US woodsman, to read when I have finished reading  'The Enigma of Arrival' later today. We collected half a beakerful of rain in the red plastic beaker left out on the patio yesterday. I could write a novel about this place, I'll tell you all about it later.

A Forthcoming Event

Scary stuff to look forward to!

Things to do on a wet day

Rain-soaked atrium with scientific rain measurer (red plastic beaker)
It is a wet day in North Berwick, and it occurs to me that one of the best arguments for learning to read is when you find yourself in circumstances where there isn't very much else to do. Mind you, we have a long sloping corridor in our holiday house, ideal for indoor games such as badminton or tennis with a soft ball, or catch. We used to play sardines, the game where one person goes to hide and the first person to find them hides with them and so on until the last player discovers everyone packed - for instance - inside a wardrobe. This dates me, because a modern wardrobe would probably fall to bits or topple over if anyone got inside, let alone six or seven people. Then there are paper and pencil games such as 'hangman', where it is a race between finding the letters to fill in a series of dashes that make up a word and completing  a figure - hat, head, body, arms and so on dangling on the end of a rope. or 'consequences' where you pass pieces of paper round, folding them down between each round with
  'so and so met so and so' 'he said to her' 'she said to him' and 'the consequence was' and 'the world said...'. And 'I Spy'. Do other cultures have versions of these games, I wonder? Before falling back on watching the recording of 'Despicable Me' for the tenth time.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Enigma of Arrival (2)

'The Enigma of Arrival' by Giorgio di Chirico
The title of the painting by Giorgio di Chirico,  'The Enigma of Arrival' was chosen not by the painter but by the French poet Apollinaire. I once followed the path of Apollinaire to northern France, to the Western Front battlefield where he received the head wound that led to his eventual death a few years later.  I was following a trail that started with a quest for the origins of the UK Forestry Commission on those same battlefields. There was a shortage of wood for the trenches that threatened the Allied war effort. Unbelievably - well, perhaps only too believably - , French forest owners charged the British army a premium to cut down the trees needed to shore up the miles of tunnels and trenches, latrines and field stations that dotted the landscape. The man charged with securing the timber was Simon 'Shimi' (Lord) Lovat, who knew most of the landowners from his pre-war forays to the gambling tables of Biarritz.It was the young firm of MacAlpine brothers that got the contract to build the wooden sheds for the British army at Etaples in Normandy, site it is now thought of the 'vector' between pigs, poultry and men that caused the virus known as the 'Spanish flu' that killed more young men worldwide than the war itself. Apollinaire was much loved, unusually for a genius.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Enigma of Arrival

I don't re-read books very often, but I'm re-reading 'The Enigma of Arrival' by V S Naipaul. There is a mysterious incantatory quality to it. He is writing ostensibly about a place in Wiltshire, never drawing a crude lesson but somehow making universal sense.  This book and his 'Among the Believers' explains why he is a Nobel laureate and other descriptive writers aren't. Gold to Naipaul in the rural rides event of the cultural Olympics

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Green Road into the Trees

Here in our Roman holiday villa near Dirleton I am reading a v enjoyable new book by Hugh Thomson 'The Green Road into the Trees'. I recommend it unreservedly because it is well-written, full of personal observations and opinions (not all that I agree with, but that doesn't matter, in fact it makes it all the more interesting), a 'state of England' book. The author decides immediately on his return from another journey to walk from Abbotsbury in Dorset along the Icknield way, an ancient track leading northeast to the Norfolk coast. Along the way he meets new people, dances with hippies, stays with old friends and remembers dead ones, reminisces about his own life and the history of the land he is walking through. This is a book with an informed point of view;  it is a love letter worth all the more because its author has travelled widely and has perspective. A vignette towards the end encapsulates the tone: Thomson sips some coca tea (that's coca not cocoa) musing on the astonishing Bronze Age finds being made at Flag Fen, on the beauty of England and the robust kindness of its people, its pubs and hidden corners . Come to Scotland Hugh and do the same for us.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

North Berwick

Mason's mark, North Berwick steading, carved on stone set on corner of ochre- coloured wall, as in Pompeii.

I first came to North Berwick in 1950, 62 years ago. I was the same age as my eldest grandson, Harry, is now. I was given a set of left-handed golf clubs and had my first golf lessons with Andrew Peacock, the pro at the golf club here. Sadly, I remember nothing of that visit although I seem to remember the clubs lingered on for quite a while after that visit until they disappeared into another left-hander's possession. We are staying on an arable farm just behind Dirleton, between Gullane and North Berwick. If I walk out of the door and a little way along the farm track, I can see the exotic cone of North Berwick law sitting beyond the field of ripening barley. The house we are renting is like a top of the range roman villa,made out of some old steadings. All along the south side of the house runs a wide sloping corridor with glass walls, beyond which there is an atrium featuring a shallow amphitheatre, where we could put on a Greek tragedy if the mood takes us, a low wall and beyond that, the lawn of an enclosed garden with wide herbaceous borders, box-lined paths, espaliered fruit trees and enormous clumps of common kitchen herbs such as mint and rosemary. This miraculous shangri-la is situated through the farm yard and along an unmade track. We have none of us ever stayed in such a wonderful place, which came about through chance: we had rented a property near the beach at North Berwick, but on the day before we were due to leave on holiday, we had a call from the agent to say the place was uninhabitable because the drains had failed spectacularly. Not only were they blocked, but an attempt to clear them had blown jet black foul-smelling material back into the house, even as far as upstairs through the sink of the upstairs flat. 'We can offer you a nicer property' the agent said 'It's not right on the beach, but it's nearly brand new. Our heart sank when we looked at the photograph which made it look like something run up by a spec builder for an executive estate in Surrey. But with three young children, three adults and an elderly dog all longing for sea air and (to be honest) a call to Center Parcs had confirmed that all they could offer anywhere in the UK was four days in the week beginning July 23 - there was nothing for it. 'We'll take it' we said and made vows to each other that whatever it was like we would put our best holiday feet forward and make it fun. Our roman villa has underfloor heating, immense quantities of red hot water day and night, power showers, a hot tub, wi-fi, and one of those TV screens in the kitchen like a home cinema. Well - it is a HD home cinema. Unbelievable. So far we have managed only to set off the sophisticated smoke alarm system once (I was grilling bacon) and I had to ring the farmer to discover how to open the window in the roof of my bedroom (via the remote next to the one for my TV, of course). We may stay here, for the next 400 years, until a messenger arrives from Rome to say the vandals are at the gates.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Dept of weird coincidences and medicinal plants

Here at the department of Weird Coincidences, I can report the following: my battery-powered watch stopped at exactly midnight over last weekend Sat June 30th/Sun July 1st. When I woke up, I looked at the face, and stared at it for some time before realising why there only appeared to be one hand on the dial where once there had been two.  I took the watch in to the jewellers here in Moffat for a new battery the other morning, left it in the shop and went off to the greengrocer and the newsagent. I came back into the shop, the watch was ready so I paid for the new battery and put the watch on. 'Hold on', I said, seeing that the hands were still both on the 12... 'It's exactly midday' said the assistant. Spooky or what?

I do not want to disappoint my fellow Trustees at Moffat Book Events, so here is an item about rhubarb, just as you predicted:

See within for more about rhubarb and other Russian stuff
It’s the ‘love it or loathe it’ staple of the British diet in the form of tarts, crumbles and fools;  what actors in crowd scenes say to each other, and the protagonist of a popular children’s animated film and book series: rhubarb shelters  an unexpected wealth of  Scottish-Russian cultural history.  This medicinal herb was introduced from Russia to our shores by Dr James Mounsey, born at Skipmire, Dumfriesshire in 1710. Mounsey was one of a series of Scottish doctors who served the Russian Tsars for a period of 150 years 1704-1854  as their personal or court physicians. After a very eventful career, Mounsey retired to Rammerscales , a fine mansion he had built himself near Lochmaben, D&G. 
The House that rhubarb built

Monday, 2 July 2012

My Mantelpiece

There is a BBCR4 call to us to describe what is on our mantelpiece. This is a nod to Mass Observation, the organisation that had the foresight over 70 years ago to invite members to describe theirs in the name of future generations of social historians.
Here is what is on mine, from left to right: orange pig made from a quarter litre milk bottle, bought from my friend Anthea's shop in Notting Hill some years ago; behind the orange pig is an Easter card from my daughter Abi's mother in law Pauline who is gravely ill - the card only arrived by hand a couple of weeks ago and I keep it there to remember her; glass bottle with spills in an aromatic liquid labelled French Lavender; postcard from Scottish artist Duncan Macaskill 'A Man's A Man For A' that, a portrait of the artist's father Neil MacDougall MacAskill; postcard 'Meleze' coloured drawing by John Ruskin of a member of the Pine family sent by my sister when she was staying at Brantwood Ruskin's house in Coniston; Summer 2012 invitation to the Kilmorack Gallery near Beauly Invernesshire - cover painting 'Sea Island Line' by Lizzie Rose, sometime artist in residence at Crookedstane Rig; invitation to Evensong at The Tower of London in September 2012 organised by the Friends of the Anglican Centre in Rome; invitation to a fundraising concert for the Prisoners Education Trust; invitation to tea from the Provost of University College London; small glass container, probably an old Glu chocolate pudding pot, containing a quantity of coloured marbles; small Russian wooden doll from a nesting set; invitation to new works exhibition by Moffat resident Gill Shreeve at The Dancing Light gallery - illustration 'Moments on a Mountain'; postcard of Fiesole from an Australian professor of economics; postcard of The Level Crossing by L.S. Lowry from my cousin John, the model railway fanatic (and inventor with others of the Spey Rolls Royce aero engine) propped up against a yellow milk bottle pig, stable companion to orange pig see above; postcard from Storm Studio in Moffat; raffle tickets for Wigtown Festival Company (to be drawn on Sunday 7th October 2012); good luck Red Poppies card from friends Robert and artist Lesley Maddock on the occasion of the opening of The Moffat Gallery. Atop the early 19th century gilt overmantel looking glass is a smiley pink pig whose head nods if you touch it. Draped over the far right hand corner is a mobile phone charger, a Blackberry which I hope soon to trade in for an iPhone.
What is on your mantelpiece is supposed to be a glimpse into your soul. This glimpse into mine bears this out: any one considering these items could easily work out that I am a Christian who supports many charities, I was educated at UCL, am greatly attached to my family and many old friends, whose interests strongly include the visual arts and that I have a streak of attraction to ephemera, objects that raise a smile, demonstrate playful invention. I also love scent and once lived in an early 19th century house (hence the overmantel). And there's definitely something going on about pigs.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Something sensational

I spent a lot of time on trains over the weekend, so took plenty to read* - on my Kindle. I particularly enjoyed two essays in the latest issue of Granta. One, by Gary Younge is on the  - on the face of it - unprepossessing subject of growing up in Stevenage. Younge manages to turn this into a terse, unsentimental 'page-turner' of far greater fascination than many more ostensibly exotic and exciting subjects.  Younge does not shout or strike attitudes, but his story is - unusually in this Granta collection - a quietly devastating firsthand account of the collapse of a society. Stevenage should be proud of him. Another is 'Silt' by Robert Macfarlane, a masterly, marvellous piece of writing about a dangerous and beautiful walk called  the Broomway across the Maplin Sands. Taken together, these  two authors remind us that setting out with a plan is sometimes not enough;  we can only see so far ahead, and survival can depend on chance.
*the title of this blog alludes to Oscar Wilde's quip that he always took his diary on a train journey in order to have something sensational to read.