Sunday, December 9, 2007

She piddles, she fins

Or something like that. She does both in between bouts of full-on dragoning, but she also wakes up in the wee small hours with a feeling that she ought to get up and Get On With It. Like why am I lying around in bed, pray? Don't I realise that there's stuff needing made?

Had a brief foray into The World of Seasonal Commerce last week. Tooled round various children's toyshops, growing more bleak and unseasonal as the minutes rolled past. All around lay pink plastic, batteries, fake pets rolling over and playing dead, more batteries, muzak, cheesey songs with tone-deaf celebs exhorting us to feel guilty for our affluence, long queues managed by idiots who plainly enjoy the power of going as s..l..o..w..l..y.. as they can get away with before a sudden stampede of enraged shoppers club them to death with the latest Harpy Otter Deathmask with Light-up Gonads ( takes 37 AA batteries, not included) and people looking utterly miserable... 

Coming back home with a few bags of toys I barely had time to do a quick Witch Baby cover rough and then rush back out again to go to the Society of Authors' Winter Party. Jeez.  Being self-employed and in straightened circumstances means that days which pass without earning diddly-squat are days on the debit side of the Great Ledger Book. If these kind of days aren't spent doing something worthwhile like spending time with one's children, walking on a beach or climbing a hill, then they are wasted days. Wasted. Spending a day shopping is not good for my soul.

And the food at the Winter Party was the wrong side of atrocious. Next year I should offer to do the catering - I'd probably make more in one evening than I do in a whole year of selling books. Plus I had a robust discussion with a right-wing fund manager who spent most of the coffee and mints course proving what a fine fellow he was, and how he knew better than the IPCC about the likely outcome of runaway climate change. My pet subject, hijacked by a fuckwit? Oh, joy.

Let's draw a veil over that, shall we?

The knitted dolly in cotton glace for my youngest daughter is progressing nicely. Two legs, two arms, a pair of pants and half a torso are done and dusted. Must go do some more. The youngest daughter is the same child for whom I knitted the jumper at the top of this post. Amazingly, she still loves it. Amazingly, it's still in one piece. 

Monday, December 3, 2007

I knit and fiddle not

Not that I'm slacking, but the action on my dragon book has ramped up a tad, and of an evening when I would normally hit the keypad and start to blog for Caledonia, I've been collapsing on a sofa with a chunk of Green & Black's white chocolate in my mitt. This is having predictably disastrous consequences for my complexion and waistline, one of which is expanding while t'other is maculating, or peccabling or whatever you call it when someone old enough to be a grandmother starts developing zits on her chin due to chocolate excesses.

The knitting urge has collapsed temporarily due to the deep tedium of knitting a seemingly endless and boring man's sleeve in unrelenting Jaeger dark green dk wool. I say unrelenting because the eventual recipient of this sleeve ( at current rate, in the year 2097) was not wooed by the beauty of Kaffe Fasset's little circles pattern and opted for the plain jumper sans ornament, sans teeth, sans everything. 

Today I came to the conclusion that what I need is a hideously tight deadline to knit to, and not to knit the sodding sodding sleeve any more. So. It's tucked away on its turbo pins and I'm already beginning to hyperventilate with the sheer excitement of doing Something Else and doing it in time for Christmas. Today I phoned John lewis in Edinburgh and begged them to go out back and hunt for some glace cotton so that I can knit a doll for my littlest daughter. John Lewis being what it is ( a family-owned concern which has hauled itself into the 21st C while still clinging to some rather 20th C practices in the middle of achieving vast commercial success)  I was patched through to a slightly breathless lady of, I'm guessing, middle years, who puffed into the stockroom, clanged around with a set of metal stepladders, and found two balls of the right stuff for me to be able to begin a New Thing.

The yarn will come in the post, but in the meantime, I'm embroiled in making gaberdine and grosgrain bags for the extended family's presents. Every year we give each other home-made things - advent candle wreaths, jars of mincemeat, stollens, knitted hats and shawls and assorted things that show We Care, but Are Inept.

Sort of thing. The gaberdine bags came about after trawling the web one night and finding myself on the compelling site dedicated to Modbury, the town in England that eschewed the use of any plastic carrier bags, and showed the reasons why you might want to join their campaign. Rather than bore the arse off everyone with proseletising zeal, I thought it would be better to make carrier bags of such outstanding durability and uber-chic that none of my family would ever want to be seen with a plastic bag ever again. That was before I discovered how damn hard it is to make uber-chic anything. (q.v previous years' attempts at hats, shawls, etc.)  This, or these ( as in the bags) as well as the dragon book are why I haven't knitted or fiddled for a wee while. The bags (all seven of them) are nearly all sewn together and awaiting decoration.  Not being a natural seamstress, the air around my sewing machine is still blue, although nothing like as bad as the air surrounding my kitchen the year I made home-made hampers for all family members. 

God. What a laff that wasn't. To this day, I only have to mouth the word 'hamper' and my entire family begin to twitch.  They were hampers born of the long dark teatime of the cook's soul. They were hampers of such byzantine effort and complexity that the hampees ( I know, there is no such word) looked more haunted than delighted at the gift. Hampers contained bottles of creme de cassis, corked and sealed and labelled with illustrated labels; pickled pears; a tiny decorated bag of organic hand-made cantuccini; jars of marmalade, blackcurrant jelly and green tomato chutney; stollen and if that wasn't enough to make your eyes cross,  everything was arranged in baskets inside of which were nests  made from the shreddings out of my studio document shredder. 

What the hell was I thinking of?  

Haunted by the spectre of dyspepsias to come, the hampees accepted these monsters with cries of polite terror. Oh - you shouldn't've. Too right. Heavens, what a lot of trouble you've gone to. Alas, yes.  Whatever, never, never again. My family made me swear an oath upon my sacred cantuccini recipie. I will never make hampers for Christmas ever again. Gaberdine bags are a breeze by comparison. 

Well, maybe a bit stronger than a breeze. Let's say a force five.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

www stands for

world without wildlife.

This is what I was raving about in yesterday's blog. It's only part of a much wider double page spread. All the dragons are surveying their drowned world, and this chap ( or chap-ess) has just chopped down the last tree.

What a laff, eh? Whoever said children's picture books were 'light' didn't know what she or he was talking about. This is such a sad book, with such a tough message and in my heart of hearts I am beginning to wonder if it's all too late. Then i take hold of myself by the scruff of the neck and Get On With...hoping.

The soundtrack to paint this picture was Joni Mitchell's latest album ,'Shine', and the title track in particular. It's a perfect 'fit'.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

whisper it - I'm so proud mk 2

Apparently one is not allowed to use the words 'Stitch and bitch' without seeking permission from the originator of the phrase. People have been sued for heaven's sake.

So. Ahem. Without seeking permission from camp-Stoller or whatever, the knitters of Shetland have sensibly gone ahead and retitled the group ' Makkin' and Yakkin''.The Makkin' was always the dialect name for knitting, and yakkin' speaks for itself, so to speak.

So there. My baby grows up and changes her name. Sounds about right to me. Soon she'll start staying out all night, smoking and having underage sex, but me, I'm a tolerant parent. I'll try my best to celebrate her independence, her determination to do it all Her Own Way, her desire to march to the beat of her own drum, but inside ( sniff) I'll always remember that first rainy, dark night when she was born in an upstairs room in the HQ of Shetland Arts.

Talking of which, Donald Anderson from Shetland Arts phoned yesterday to check that I'd had all the relevant bits of paper that I need in order to be paid my writer's stipend for the residency, and in conversation he mentioned that there was snow on Ronas Hill. This, dear reader was almost enough to make me beg, cajole or even bludgeon my entire family into putting our house on the market and moving to Shetland toot sweet. Snow? What might that be, pray?

I remember snow. I remember big snow - serious snow - fourteen foot snowdrifts, endless ski-able hills outside my door, snow that lay for the entirety of Christmas and beyond, snow that inspired my eldest child to build a snow dinosaur that stood taller than me, and longer than our family car. Snow that was playpark, menace, inspiration and danger all rolled into one. Snow that nearly killed my baby daughter and me one cold March day when my car went into an uncontrollable speedy slither and launched itself straight onto the prongs of an oncoming snowplough. Snow that appeared in so many of my picture books from Back Then that I can almost document from those illustrations when, exactly the snow stopped falling in our county.

Snow that makes you glad to be inside. Snow falling when you're tucked up under a warm quilt. Snow that hushes the roads, stop traffic and turns our world into a landscape straight out of Breughel. Snow on ronas hill had the effect of making me desperately homesick for an island that I only know in part.

In the meantime, I'm painting the dragons as if time is running out. The climate change illustrations reached their hideous climax with a spread in near black and white. A drowned world populated only by dragons and jellyfish. A volcano erupting in the distance makes the land look prehistoric, but it's not. It's our land with six degrees of warming. It's bleak and pitiless, but as a concession to the small children for whom this book will become night-time reading, I left out the methane hydrates and general apocalyptic vision of Mark Lynas's terrifying book 'Six Degrees. Our future on a hotter planet'.

If you have no idea what I'm wiffling on about, can I recommend that you read Mark's book? But hurry up - tick, tick, tick, there may not be as much time to change our wicked ways as we used to think there was.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I'm so proud

Yup. That's our baby. It takes its first unaided steps and staggers into its local library. Gosh. Such an intelligent child too. My only regret is that I won't be there to enjoy it, but hey, hope you like my poster. Right now I'm having a tension square, so it must be time to down tools and go drink coffee....

Thursday, November 1, 2007

not chilled

First of November and I'm in a t-shirt, feeling the unseasonal heat. Outside, a confused ceanothus is putting out little blue flowers and some of the fruit trees, I swear, are budding. Oy veh, people. Do we mention the ten ton gorilla in the room or shall we just continue to pretend we don't have to change our Wicked Ways?

Make me good, lord, but not just yet. Let me just burn more carbon, eat the fruits of some thousands of airmiles and turn a blind eye to the slave labour that produced five pairs of socks for less than the cost of that lump of coal I'm about to throw on my home fire to keep it burning.

Cue the Carmina Burana in all its dramatic glory - as a soundtrack for my current mood, it's hard to beat.

So. I won't talk about the gorilla tonight. I won't mention the fact that I have a motheaten heap of warm sweaters, unworn for three years, waiting for the weather to turn cold. I won't speak about the possibility of going for a swim in the sea at the weekend, without courting frostbite. In November. I won't talk about the landslide currently blocking the road that rejoices in the name of Rest And Be Thankful but which should be renamed Can't Take Any More Precipitation So Am Turning Into A Mudslide In Protest.

Went back to the gym last week and revisited all that fun equipment designed for the express purpose of torturing one's flesh into some semblance of fittitude or full-on buffery. Not entirely sure that my flesh has got the message, given that it prefers to lie on benches groaning fitfully and revisiting every insult paid to its tender pillowyness. sudden and brutal rediscovery of stomach muscles was beyond painful. Every cough brought a squeak of dismay as newly awakened muscles shrieked in protest. The gym had been repainted, which was all a bit dazzling given that it was only six a.m. Why white? Why not a pleasant inside-of-eyelid maroon? Urrrgh.

Nothing much had changed. Everyone was the same shape they'd been when I left eight weeks ago. Some of them were more sun-tanned, some of them had recovered from injuries and were giving it big licks on the treadmill, some of them were pleasantly surprised to see me back again. It was every bit as soul-less and isolating an experience as it sounds. Just another place where I don't really fit in despite three years of trying to make conversation. Still, it gets results.

Went for my first longish run since my horrible foot injury in May. Michael and I went to Aberlady beach ( bird sanctuary, no dogs, no dog-poo but loads of birders/twitchers/ornithologists) and he walked very fast while I ran. and gasped. And sweated and heaved. A thousand deaths were died, including my i-pod which did its flaky lock-up nonsense, and since I had no breath for running, let alone looking down and futzing around with a bit of crap technology, I had to run for the first twenty minutes in silence. Yeeeeurggggghhh. I'm one of those pathetic runners that needs music or else I spend every second trying to bludgeon myself out of packing up and going home. Fun times. NOT. Then, miracle of miracles, the i-pod self-healed and suddenly there was thumpy music with big bass action and I was off in a cloud of kicked-up sand like the nasty bloke on those old Bullworker ads.

Phwoarrrrr. She lives. She runs. She whizzes past weird posses of twitchers stationed all along the beach with their bins and 'scopes hopefully not trained on Lesser Beetroot Wheezers, or Small Gasping Coldtits or that rare winter visitor to our shores, the Blissed-Out Earbud Waggler.

Friday, October 26, 2007

being unfaithful

Ah, Fiddle and Pins. Erm. Drink? Have a seat? Um... No, I'm fine. Well, yes, but.....

I've got something to tell you. You might want that drink after all. We've been seeing each other, fairly regularly since, what - June? July? Whatever. Oh, you've got the exact date when we first started, well, whatever.

So. It's been great. No, really. It's been uh....real. Oh, why am I so crap at this stuff? You'd think serial philanderers like me would have the exit strategies down pat. No. I didn't mean that. I'm being ironic. Sort of.

Whaddya mean I'm being immature? I've been away for what - a week, and already the accusations are flying? what did I do/ Or, more importantly, what did you think I did? God. Grammar is leaving me. So. i'll stop faffing about and give it to you straight. I've, uh....

Another drink? Ice? Lime? Think I'll join you.

Okay. Here we go. Last week I had an approach made to me by a very big and gorgeous blogsite/community thing. I have to admit, I was asking for it. gagging, even. I may have made some moves in its direction myself, but hey, I never thought I'd, so quickly.

Oh, be still, my beating heart.

And when it happened - it was like a thunderbolt. We're talking about thunderbolts in my in-tray, you understand. Wouldn't want you to get the wrong end of the stick and start thinking that I was sleeping around. Heck no. It's far, far worse.honey, I can't put it any plainer that I have been blogging promiscuously. Dipping in and out of anything and everything that takes my fancy. I never knew that it could be like this, though...

Yes, I know this is hard for you. I'll try and wipe that blissful smile off my face. No, it's not a smirk.

So. how did it begin? Just a little invitation from frecklegirl. Oh God. I was weak. i was flattered. heck, I'm human. I couldn't resist. I didn't use any protection. I just, uhhhh, went for it. And, damn, it was good. But hey, you don't want to hear that, right? Oh, but if it had happened to you - you'd've fallen for it too.

You wouldn't have? What d'you mean you don't knit? What's wrong with you?

I knew you wouldn't understand. that's precisely the reason I did it. Because this big gorgeous website/community/blog thing understood exactly where I'm coming from. I didn't have to say left a bit, up a bit, oh yeah, that's it, ohhh, mmmmhmmm. It knew. Intuitively.

So. If you're okay with me going off-blog for my weird knitting needs, then I'm happy to remain faithful to you in terms of my inner thoughts, wishes, dreams and all that stuff. I mean I'll still tell you about my knitting stuff, but I'll save the really passionate, perverse and full-on yarn and pins stuff for my Significant Other.

Ravelry, dot com. Was there ever a sweeter name? Listen to the wind, it calls raaaavelllllrrrryyyyyyy. Ooops. sorry. I get a bit distracted at times.

So. Yeah. More later. Work, the mainland and all that stuff is, as predictwed, swallowing me whole. Speak soon. Mwah, mwah.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tesco Dire (ct)

Now I know I'm back.

Last night found myself idly leafing through an unsolicited and unwelcome brick-like catalogue from that well-known superstore and laughing with an edge of hysteria at the volumes of utter crap within its one thousand unecessary pages. Did you know that you can buy forensic face-reconstruction kits for your children to play at being...what? Kay bloody Scarpetta?

Oh. My. God.

Or that the Disney High School Musical Studio ( 'learn moves and songs') is marketed for ages six plus? Six? SIX? High School Musical Mystery Date is slightly better - it's for ages 7 plus. I guess they can put on condoms by then, eh?

Have we grown so utterly desensitised to what childhood is about that we can tolerate this? Let's hope not. I'm going to log on to the page and ask some pointy questions. Care to join me?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

the eye of the roost

Not sure if I'll be able to remain upright once this boat enters Da Roost which is the choppy stretch of water between Fair Isle

Geography not my strong suit. 

So. I'm in the bar, nervously necking g&t as if there's about to be a drought. We sail in forty minutes and an hour after that I'll find out if I'm going to survive this trip without redecorating my cabin.

Packing up all my earthly goods took far, far longer than I'd anticipated. This is in part because I had brought at least twice what I required sartorially, gastronomically and work-wise. Plus, I have contributed my small share towards Shetland's tourist economy in buying stuff to bring back to my little girls. And I have also received gifts aplenty. And yeah - I can't bear to throw anything out if it looks like it may come in useful at some future date. Oh jeez, my poor car.

Where 'stuff' is concerned, I need to cultivate a serene and chilled Buddhist ideal of non-attachment. I need to learn how to let go. What has also taken far longer than it should is my paranoia regarding leaving my car stuffed to the roof with goodies ( electric violin, artwork, computer, i-pods, notebooks,  favourite cashmere jumper, best of irreplacably best coats, hillwalking gear, oh heck I could never replace the current contents of my car) in the centre of wicked and sinful Aberdeen ( well, this is according to a good friend and Aberdeen resident who regularly warns us to strip our car of consumer durables every time we go visit him - me, I'd've left all manner of crap wilfully displayed on the dashboard, but not any more, no way, not now.) I'm stopping briefly enroute home to my wee girls so that I can take my youngest son out to breakfast for, bless his little pointy head, he has promised to rise up out of his student pit on Sunday morning at 8.00 a.m. to come and have breakfast with me.

I know. This is not normal student behaviour, especially not on the other side of Saturday night. I haven't seen him since I left to come to Shetland ( once the boat sails, I'll have to amend that to       'since I left to go to Shetland'. Past tense. I used to live on Shetland, once upon a dream) and I won't see him again until his Christmas break, so this breakfast will be doubly precious ; in a family of five children, having one child all to oneself is a rare treat. 

That is, if he gets up on time. 

Today and yesterday have been a long unwinding, rewinding of the steps leading up to my arrival, reversing and unravelling it and turning it into departure. Yesterday began with a pre-recorded interview about the residency with Mary Blance for Radio Shetland's book programme ( tx 1st November) The interview was recorded at her kitchen table in amongst her teetering mountains of review copies, ( Mary scales the peaks of literature while Andy, her other half, scales the peaks of Britain's mountain summits) her generous coffee pot, neon kettle and freezer that had to be turned off since its motor was making a bid for stardom on the airwaves. We spoke of everything, but only a fraction of this will make it to broadcast on the 1st November.

By which time, mainland life will have swallowed me whole. Living for a brief spell in Shetland has given me a real hunger for living on an island - a hunger that we do not have the means to satisfy right now. I'll come back to this later because it is a thread of wishing that has woven through my life ever since I was a little girl and first stepped foot on the island of Mull. There have been a few islands since then, but Shetland has sunk a deep hook in my heart. Later. Much later. We will find a way back to the garden.

The engines rumble and thrum underfoot. Time to neck my medicinal gin and head outside to watch the land disappear off the starboard side. And say a little prayer to the small demon of mal-de-mer ; please let me not redecorate my cabin. 

Friday, October 12, 2007

the sea will wave goodbye

The last three days have been full of farewells : to the children I've been working with for the past six weeks ; to the friends I've made ; to colleagues I've worked with and lastly, to this magical place. I'm saving my final goodbye for Shetland itself, for the land, for the shore and for the sea. Tomorrow, if there's time after I've packed, I'll take myself somewhere beautiful and say thankyou. Just Shetland and me without anything or anyone in between.

Leaving is very odd. I guess because I've looked forward to doing this residency here for so long, I'm wondering how life-after-Shetland will be. After all, I won't have it to look forward to any more. Being here has exceeded my expectations, but also has been utterly consonant with what I'd hoped I might find. Does that make sense?

One of the best things that I've found here is people who have said exactly what lies in their hearts. People who have opened up and let me in. To be allowed to share in the secret territory of another human heart is a gift. For this, and for many hours of laughter, conversation and occasional silences as comforting as a feather sofa, thankyou.

Saying goodbye to the two classes of children with whom I've shared six intense weeks of work was emotionally rigorous. My P7 class at Brae Primary had all collaborated on a book which they gave to me on my last day, and insisted that I read out loud to them. I got as far as page two and my voice went all squeaky and to my horror, I began to cry. Far from embarassing my children, my leaky, snuffly, squeaky metamorphosis seemed to delight them, and they became even kinder, even more honest and loving. I will miss them enormously - I can see their faces in my mind as I write. The next day brought more tears as I said goodbye to another class of P7's, this time at Scalloway primary school. Again, my shift into sniffling, voice-wobbling tearfulness seemed to amaze and delight them.

And I have to tell you that I'm now the proud possessor of more chocolate than I can eat in a year.

Later, Noelle and I were the entire cast of the Culture Club show on BBC Radio Shetland - one hour of 'magazine' format radio, with the pair of us having a blether on the airwaves, hopefully sounding as relaxed as if it was one of our many heart-to-hearts and chats which have whiled away the miles as we trekked hither and yon across Shetland and over to Fair Isle. Except, thankfully, without any Holy Fuuuuck moments like we had when our tiny airplane appeared to launch itself straight off a cliff into the sea on departure from Fair Isle. Frankly, it was the only thing to say under the circumstances. Trust me, you'd've said something similiar.

However, for this broadcast, Noelle and I were models of maidenly decorum.
Well, she was, anyway. I vaguely recall muttering something about writing children's books because I'd also tried to write adult novels and found myself completely unable to get my characters across the threshold of the bedroom and in between the sheets because language, for once, failed me. He put his...she felt her...they....nope, can't do it. You can hear us courtesy of the Beeb's listen again service which will stream us straight to your computer for one calendar week after broadcast. Then it gets consigned to oblivion.

So I'm here, in the dark, with the sea slapping at the wall outside my little shed, thinking that this is probably the last time I'll live quite so close to water. Tonight, when I came back home my spirits were heading into the fold-up-your-tray-tables-and -prepare-for-landing-mode but when I opened the big windows onto the sea, a seal's head broke the surface of the water only ten feet away from where I stood. The appearance of the Wild in the middle of my 21st century fit of the blues was exactly what was required to lift my mood.

Bye, bye seal.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stitch & Bitch Shetland No. 1

Well, it worked. Shetland's inaugural Stitch and Bitch was an evening of delight. I have to say that on the bitching front, everyone was a little shy - as far as I could hear with my ears swivelling like radar dishes, nary a word was spoken that could be classed as 'bitchy' but I suspect everyone was on their best behaviour since it was the first night. Doesn't do to unveil your Inner Harridan right from the get-go. Timing is all.

BBC Radio Shetland gave us several advance mentions with hefty emphasis on the second half of the name, so that it came out like stch 'n BITCH, but whether due to that or due to the email campaign conducted by Shetland Arts or even the poster I drew, it worked. Twenty three women signed up to be counted. They turned up in the darkness of a rainy Shetland evening and sat down, then from baskets and bags, pulled out an assortment of wonders - Shetland shawls, Fair Isle socks, complicated things knitted on four pins ( they are called 'wires' here) then, somewhat intimidatingly, everyone got on with the business of knitting like experts. Everyone apart from me, that is. They were all so workmanlike, so professional, that I stopped blabbering like a fool and started counting frantically to cast on a double-stranded monstrosity of unevenly matched yarns then began to knit an 'easy' lace.

That bird never flew. That dog never ran. That lace doesn't exist. Easy? Oh, puhleeeeeaze.

Needless to say, I fell completely silent for about ten minutes of deep and total concentration, whereupon I couldn't stand not joining in with the chat going on around me, and that's when my 'easy' lace went to hell in a handbasket. Next but one to me was a Fair Isle knitter doing things that should be outlawed with three yarns, two pins and nary a glance at what her hands were doing.

Oh, weep. She even stopped and unhitched her 'makker's belt' and lent it to me to try and see if I could manage to knit any better with one of my wildly gyrating needles anchored in a belt. Hard to tell. I knit so badly, the only thing that I'm really sure would improve matters would be if I could have an extra pair of hands grafted on alongside the set I came with. Even then, I'm not sure that would improve mattters.

The evening was delightful, and having been one if its midwives, I felt really pleased and proud as our baby took its first breath. In the manner of the good fairy conferring her gifts upon the newborn princess, here are the blessings and wishes I would bring to heap upon its dear little head.
Long may it continue.
May it go from strength to strength, and may it hopefully acquire some male knitters to leaven the mix.
And if there is anyone out there granting wishes tonight - PLEASE can the magical essence of the Fair-Isle Knitter Who Didn't Look Down somehow rub off on me and transform me from being a cack-handed fumblethumbs into someone who knits beautiful and original things in her own lifetime. The 'in her own lifetime' is, I fear, key.

Monday, October 8, 2007

finally, six days to go

Wouldn't you know it - after five weeks of arsing about with dialup, tonight the world of broadband made itself accessible. In short, I plugged in and it played, dammit. Shouldn't moan, but, oh, REALLY. Why now, when I have to go home in six days? All those nights I could've been logging onto all sorts of stuff that normally I wouldn't have the time to look at due to the demands of home and hearth. Well, heck.

However, I don't want to overburden this blog with photos, thus rendering it as slow to upload a slow thing. As slow as I am on the last bit of a really boring hill. Do we have to? Are we there yet? Is this another bloody false top? God. Urrrgh. I hate hillwalking. My feet hurt. Can I take my rucksack off and pick it up later? Can you carry my rucksack? Can I lie down and make pathetic bleating sounds? Have you got any chocolate in your pocketses?

Yeah. That slow. So, having looked through my photos, I can say in all honesty, hand on heart that I am the world's crappest photographer. Landscapes are not my thing. I can do you a lovely bit of close-up grass, dripping peat bog or a nice cobweb, but anything further away usually has a drunken horizon and a distinct lack of focus. So. We won't be offering any of that, then. Except, I couldn't resist this bleak and colourless photograph of some dramatic stacks off the shore at Fethaland ; otherwise known as the walk with the big Bull.

Tomorrow is a Big Day. Tomorrow is the first night we roll out Stitch and Bitch in Shetland. Nervous? A little, but I'm hoping it comes together mainly because people are curious, friendly and have come along because of a shared love of the craft. Or the art. Or should that be the Craft and the Art? Oh heck. What to wear? And far more importantly, what to bring? I have six inches of boring dark green sleeve on my pins ( the Kaffe Fasset little circles motif reduced to a border thing) or I could come with yarn and pins and begin anew. Or...

And do I bring The Shawl so that everyone can fall about laughing at its gauche ineptness? Might be good for a laugh. Might get everyone to loosen up, if only to explain to me where I went wrong. So catastrophically wrong. Oh. My. God. Don't get me started... Perhaps if I talk my way through the shawl*, people would get some idea of where I'm coming from and why I think the idea of Stitch and Bitch is so brilliant.

Will report back tomorrow and if I can manage to take one decent photograph, will show and tell.

*Talk my way through the shawl? You could drive a truck through the shawl, so holy and mistake-riddled is it. Sigh.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

elastogirl goes to Ultima Thule

Finally hauled out the contents of a little cardboard box called the Pilates Bodyband Kit, subtitled 'for sad gits who delude themselves that nearly five decades of becoming one with your sofa, booze and fags can be undone by the mere application of the contents of this small box'. Yeah, well. I bought into it nearly two years ago and it has lain in silent reproach in a back bedroom which also goes by the other name of Mum's museum of unused body sculpting artefacts that we don't talk about. 
Must have been bored or a passing cloud drizzled a shower of diluted masochism instead of rain or something. I mean it's not like I spent the whole of this Sunday in navel-gazing, chocolate consuming and general lounging in a feckless fashion and was in dire need of Pilates to do penance for being so couch potato-ey. God. If only.
No. I was up early hurling kit in a rucksack, ready to hit the hills again, this after a hideously strenuous Saturday when I trekked the ten mile round trip to Uyea which is a tidal island of spectacular beauty, but on which one can come horribly unstuck if one gets the tides wrong. I arrived at high tide, so there was no chance of crossing over to the island, but just to gaze down, down, down to it ( did I mention that to get to the tidal bar you have to abseil down a slippy cliff? No? Guess what? Neither did my guide books, damn their eyes)
Anyway, I was pretty buggared before I got up early this morning and hauled myself over the island of Yell and onto the island of Unst and drove to the northernmost car park in the UK and walked out onto the headland at Hermaness. In the teeth of a gale. Across featureless peat bog of a particular stickyness to make each step weigh ten times more than it should. Then, with no warning, the peat bog gives way to sheep-cropped grass and then - whoa, jeez, to sky. Sky by the acre. There are no signs saying 'this is the Edge of all things' or 'mind out, fumbledyboots' or even '739 witless hillwalkers have fallen to their deaths here, so don't make yourself the 740th, eh?'
Steep, it was. Beautiful, too. According to the os landranger map ( sheet 1, ref 600165) this spot in the middle of the back of beyond even rejoiced in the name of Toolie, but hey, Unst has a village called Basta and nobody has altered the roadsign.
Down at the foot of the cliffs the sea was lashing the rocks, but this was made all the more awesome by taking place in total silence. The guidebook had promised puffins, gulls and deafening birdsong, but today was too windy to encourage such clamour. I skirted the cliffs until I came across two sheep doing the Head-Butt of Doom over the exact ownership of a particular blade of grass - a dance which was likely to bring not only the sheep but me as well rolling and bouncing across the grass only to tip to our deaths on the rocks below. I carried on, but headed inland for safety. And on and up Hermaness hill under the harsh chatter of ravens trying to persuade me to ferk off and leave their territory alone.
And what a territory it is. The most northerly point in the UK. There's a tiny lighthouse ( Muckle Flugga) out there on the guano-clad rocks, and beyond that, there's a little rock called Out Stack and that is all she wrote. That's the North. The Northiest Northness of Northern Scotland. 
So I turned back, headed up to try and find a tiny bit of shelter and toasted it's Ultimate Thulity with a wee dram. Then looked at my watch and realised I was going to have to leg it back to the car at a rate that wasn't consonant with navigating peat hags, but which might just get me back to the first ferry in time to make it and thus also make the second ferry back to Shetland.
So after a day like this, why the Pilates? I have no idea. The box held a video and three elastic bands. It signally failed to also hold a wee note saying Oy veh, and for this you paid how much? So I slung the video in and before I knew it I was in a world of Antipodean svelteness and new-age nose flutey music and I was doing weird things to my tush with a vast swatch of elastic.
Go figure. Some things you just can't put a price on...

Saturday, October 6, 2007

a flight to Fair Isle

I realise that 'fessing up to having been flown out to Fair Isle isn't going to earn me many friends among knitters, walkers or twitchers/birders, but hey. I was paid to do it, okay? Put that axe down, would you? And I guess if I mention that I met the last hand-knitter of Fair Isle sweaters to live on the island ( the sweaters made on Fair Isle are machine made, these days) and that I also met her lovely husband who spins the yarn for her on - take a deep breath - spinning wheels he makes himself, I imagine I'd better start running now. While I'm at it, I'd better change my name, burn my fingerprints off and go into the witness protection programme, hmmm?

Yes. I know how lucky I am. I had to keep on pinching myself as Annie and Stuart took me into their home and showed the kindness of their Fair Isle hospitality to this idiot from the South. I babbled like a fool, I yibbled for scotland and i generally behaved like a complete gushing twit, but I was stunned. It was like I'd been floating in space for years and suddenly was invited onto the bridge of the Mothership. It was as if time stopped, reversed and we were back in the 40's before the war. A time when Fair Isle was populated by crofters, knitters, spinners, shepherds and fishermen. Frequently all of these roles were played by individual people ; all of them - to use a hideous 21st C term - multitasking to get the day's work done. I'd wanted to meet a Fair Isle knitter because the woman who runs the yarn section in John Lewis in Edinburgh had raved about the Fair Isle method of using one hand to do the 'british' method of knitting, while the other hand busied itself with the 'continental' method. Presumably while one foot was drafting out War and Peace and the other was giving Shiatzu massages to the dog...whatever, I wanted to see this in action for myself. 

So. On arrival at this incredible island which rears out of the sea, all vertiginous cliffs and green sward on top and deepcut geos, with, I swear, the shortest landing strip I've ever seen - clean underwear, anyone? - we were whisked off in an elderly white Volvo taxi to the school, a trip of approximately 2.5 minutes. The plane was miniscule - six of us, including the pilot, crammed, and I mean crammed into a tiny twin prop beastie, not unlike Icarus's prototype before he improved the design. Oh. My. God. 

Handbags went in the boot/ trunk, which was, basically, the back of the plane with a tarpaulin stretched between it and the passengers. In with the handbags were boxes from Amazon dot co dot yoo kay, plastic kinder boxes full of food for the bird observatory on the island, cardboard boxes with perishables and cardboard boxes full of assorted foodstuffs and my portfolio with all of the roughs and some of the watercolour artwork for 'The Trouble with Dragons'. And a zip-up bag crammed full of picture books. 

Fair Isle primary school was our destination. School roll - six. Nursery - three. Total island population - seventy plus assorted guests, birders, more birders and tourists who come to learn how to spin with Stuart and assorted indigenous spinners. The sun came out to welcome us, so my impression of the island is a tiny nubbin of green-topped rock, thrusting out of the sea, full of light and birds in abundance. Not that I saw a whole lot, due to being fully employed with all of the schoolchildren for most of the morning and some of the afternoon. 

The children are the lifeblood of the island. When they grow up, they go off-island to high school in Lerwick. I asked the most imminent candidate for educational-exile how she felt about her upcoming uprooting. 'Can't WAIT,' came the reply. This beautiful child is the great grand-daughter of Annie and Stuart, knitter and spinner and wheel maker who allowed me into their home after I'd finished at the school.

Stuart's wheel-making studio is a back room in their house, full with a family of wheels made from irocco(?), walnut and even a recycled window frame. Wheels, I realised have the same character as violins - each one a personality of its own, each one a presence that belies their mere wooden nature. As we spoke, Stuart spun, showing how thick and how fine he could spin a yarn. Fiddle music on a stand behind him prompted me to say that my Dad makes violins, as does Stuart's son, Euan. He asked if I played, and I admitted yes, but very badly, to which he replied - oh, if you'd brought your fiddle we could have haed a tune. 

Next time. I'm going to practice and practice till I can limp along behind him. Post-Shetland mission statement number one. Practice fiddle, then book ticket back to Fair Isle.

Stuart also mends sad and battered wheels, and he produced two tiny hanks of what looked like pale brown sewing thread. He'd found them wrapped round the business end of a wheel he was mending. They were yarn, spun so fine that they were thinner than one-ply which is the gossamer spider-web they knit shawls from in this part of the world. At this point I felt like some kind of blundering idiotic fumblethumbs who not only cannot play fiddle but can barely knit unless it's with yarn the weight of steel hawsers. To which Annie's advice was - practice. She also said that the kind of twin handed, twin method knitting produces unevenly stranded yarns across the back of the work, so she was not wildly impressed by my handwaving, blurty explanation of something I hadn't seen but had only been told about by the lady in the yarn shop in John Lewis.

Post-Shetland mission statement number two. Practice knitting more. Better. Finer. Faster.

I laughed out loud when Annie looked straight into my eyes and said - I wouldn't have tried to learn to knit when I was your age. She meant she wouldn't have had the patience to work her way up from fumblethumbs to faintly competent and then to her current phase of Zen Master Black Makker's Belt Order of the Gossamer Weavers at the Gates of Dawn.

She's right, but I like challenges. What she didn't know that as well as wanting to join the order of the Zen masters BMBOGWGD, I also want to rewrite their constitution, invent a foot-operated row counter, have a yarn named after me and save the world. Compared to which, learning to knit Fair Isle, stranded multicoloured, multiple yarn patterns that don't bunch up like an maiden aunt with haemorrhoids is a mere bagatelle.

We flew out of Fair Isle with three hand-spun hanks of yarn gifted to me from Stuart. One in Fair Isle white 
(creamy white), mourit ( cafe au lait, but on the darkish side) and Fair Isle black ( the deepest, richest darkest cocoa with 70% cocoa solids dark brown). The hanks smell of air in the same way that air dried and wind-blown sheets and pillowcases do.

I know. This goes beyond luck and into a whole new territory. I am blessed.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

what a difference a day makes

I feel as if I've been to the ends of the earth, or back at the beginning of time, depending on your point of view. If only I could upload photographs I could show you, but due to the limitations of dial-up, you'll have to paint the pictures yourself, people. You're going to need a palette of sky blues and  grassy greens, plus that particular shade of mediterranean turquoise more commonly associated with warm seas, but frequently found on the NW coast of Scotland. A clear, glassy turquoise, then. Cerulean blue and a hint of cadmium yellow ought to produce the colour in question. Last of all, an ashy volcanic black and a crisp foaming white like snow-in-the-sea.

A day of sun and shadows chasing across the widest skies. Walking on high clifftops on the oldest rocks in Shetland. Black rabbits scurrying away from our approach, sea birds turning below in an endless, effortless gyre. Conversation, laughter, some exceedingly bad jokes ( mine ) inelegant clambering ( also mine ) over a series of stiles and fences and assorted obstacles, all the better to gaze in awe at the dramatic coastline where the sea has shaped the landscape with almost unimaginable power. 

I love walking on old volcanic rock - it's so grippy underfoot, offering no possibility of slippage for walkers of a nervous disposition. The sun came in and out, the wind-scythed grass looked like old velvet, the sea pounded and crashed below, occasionally booming like the one o'clock gun off the ramparts of Edinburgh castle. 

Sorry. What the hell is that doing here, pray? Swiftly relocate head from Princes Street back to Eshaness.

Walking further inland we found a vast gash in the land, plunging down to a beach linked to the distant sea by a long subterranean passage. As the tide came rushing along the passage you could feel the boom rising up underfoot. The sea has found a way into the very heart of the land here, insistently pounding at its deep subterranean spaces until they surrender. I saw the sea at its most benign today, but later, over soup and bacon rolls ( a very Scottish Sunday lunch) I saw a photograph of a winter version of the same view we were currently enjoying under a September sun. The sea of winter is a very different beast. A feral, pitiless sea. A dark grey monster seemingly unrelated to the foaming, swirling turquoise beauty outside. 

Shetland is doing its seductive best to capture my heart, and I am enchanted. Under this autumn's mellow sun, it's almost possible to forget that only a short time ago my world had shrunk down to a landscape carved out of various shades of deepest, forbidding presbyterian grey.  At each turn and twist in the ribbon of road that winds from Northmavine to Sunburgh, every glimpse of the sea is a pool of light in the darkening landscape. The last of this perfect day turns to a pink dusted dusk on Meal beach and as the light fades we return homeward to the evening's slow collapse into night.

What a difference a day makes. Thankyou for sharing it with me. 

Saturday, September 29, 2007

on the battlements

Definitely a night for wordless music and a deep whisky glass. Pass this one by if you haven't been divorced and have never had to do the merry dance of Sharing The Children. Really. Trust me. Scroll on down, this one's not for you.

For the remainder, all you battered and tattered little band of people who've had part of themselves torn away by an infernal engine called dee, eye, vee, oh, arse, well, heck,  gather round, throw another log on the fire and help yourselves to whisky. 

Finally tonight, after months of feeling that something was about to change, got a phone call from my ex-husband to confirm that he is leaving town and heading up North. In previous, hellish times, this would have been cause to crack open a bottle of champagne and toast his speedy departure, but now, with the our old battlefield grassed-over and the memory of the horrible wounds we inflicted, just that -  a memory - it's odd to think that I'm the one left behind, manning the Fort.

The Fort is a depleted thing. Once a busy, thriving concern when the babies were small, now it's a ghost-Fort, with just three of us, my partner, my eldest daughter ( the youngest is thankfully too young to remember the Bad Old Days) and I, left to remember the battles, the troop movements, the no-go areas and all the ghastly fall-out that used to litter our path through the wreckage of a family life. Wind blows down the corridors, and litter gathers under the wheels of a rusting tricycle. These days, the Fort is surrounded by a land in which I have absolutely no wish to remain. So part of me is deeply envious of my ex-husband's escape bid. Part of me wishes that I'd been the one to move first. I heard, with a sinking heart, the real pain in my daughter's voice when she said - well at least you're not going to move away, Mum. 

Oh, but I so want to. All of me yearns to leave, to find an island or a highland place, far from aspects of our world that more and more I fail to understand or feel a part of. All of me wanting to leave but knowing that I can't. At least not yet. Not until eldest daughter has grown up and gone, and youngest daughter is old enough for a move not to be The End Of The World, Mum, how could you do this to MEEEEEEEE? 

So. I can't have freedom, yet. I'm stuck here in the Fort, holding the damn thing. Why am I holding this Fort? It's not as if it's in any danger of imminent invasion. The sentries have all gone to get different jobs, and there's not so much as a single pitchfork left with which to defend the battlements. But instead I find myself like a hamster in its wheel doing an endless repeat cycle ; a seemingly endless patrol round the sodding battlements, noting bloodstains here and there, observing how the buckets of pitch we drizzled over the heads of the incoming hordes of Visigoths ( or perhaps just tides of luvvies, thugs and assorted wags ) have left their indelible stain on the stonework. Patrolling the battlements of the ghost-Fort, vowing that nothing will drag me up to the airy attic room where the children's clothes are stored, interleaved with tissue and lavender, stored as if by preserving wool and cotton I can somehow, preserve and save them, my children.  The battlements are, in truth, a bloody chilly place to be on a dark autumn night. I'd far rather be downstairs with all of you, watching sparks rise up against the night sky ( the roof could use some repairs, I fear, but hey - it's a Fort and who among us can afford to repair a Fort-roof?) and sipping at a glass of whisky. 

So why am I out here? Because inside the Fort it's suffocating. Because out here, I can't see much beyond the yellow sodium lights of the cage I feel I'm in, but out here, at least I can feel the wind on my face and taste the rain. And besides, in truth, I'm not really back at the Fort yet. I'm here, in Shetland, removed from all this Drama going on back home. But...

But I have to go home soon. Back to the cage I built. Or Fort. Or whatever you want to call it. The life that hasn't fit for years. The absolute aching loneliness of years and years and years of waving, and smiling and trying to communicate. Of sending out a little signal into the darkness and waiting for an answering one in return. Thing is, here, in Shetland, there's a distinct possibility that I've picked up some answers to my signal. Faint ones, sure, but answers just the same. Given more time, I could explore each and every signal and who knows, maybe the darkness might recede a little. There is life, Captain, but perhaps not as we know it.

But I have to go home soon. And the signals will grow fainter and I'll tell myself that they weren't really answers after all, and the howling loneliness of the Fort will descend again, and night after night, I'll be up there on the battlements, peering out at the distant sodium lights and remembering what it felt like to live, albeit briefly, at sixty degrees North.

So. Yeah. Tonight's cheery little threnody has been brought to you courtesy of Dee-Eye-Vee-Oh, arse with orchestral accompaniment from the nice Mr Bowmore of Islay.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

generate to irritate

For the past three nights in a row, my little shed on the shore has
woken in the wee small hours to the thrumming and rumbling of heavy
machinery. In the absolute silence of a Shetland night, such sounds
are magnified tenfold. Noisy nights could be expected if this place
was a vast urban conurbation, but it's not, it's a small island where
the sheep probably outnumber the humans. At the first sound outside,
I woke in darkness, wondering what on earth was going on. Voices,
splashes, sounds of metal ringing on stone and under it all, a
generator rumbling and coughing into life. In the pitch black of a
Scalloway night, my neighbour had turned on floodlights and could be
seen hurling concrete into a mixer with gay abandon prior to doing a
spot of recreational wall building and pickaxe wielding. He was doing
this a scant thirty feet away from where I clung to the edge of my
futon and profoundly dammed his eyes.

Monday night, the show began at 2 a.m and finished at dawn. Tuesday
night was a later performance, beginning at 2.40 a.m and finishing at
dawn. Last night it began at 3.15 a.m. and by then I was so sleep-
deprived and desperate, I climbed downstairs and phoned the police.
Curtain came down twenty minutes later. There were no encores.

Yeah, I know. You think I should have gone out and spoken to the
insanely insomniac concrete-mixer and pick-wielder myself. You think
it was a bit...cowardly and mean of me to sic the law on him? You can
see it, hmmm? You would've done that, eh? Got your clothes on,
grabbed a torch ( it's pitch dark out there - no streetlights - the
floodlights are for his benefit, not for community illumination) and
gone next door to remonstrate with a neighbour you've never met. A
very strong neighbour ( you should have seen the vast stones he was
hefting around - phhhwoarrrrrr) with a pickaxe. Yeah, right. Sure you

So. Silence blankets the shore tonight. I'm flailing around in a
sleep-deprived fog, trying to stay awake long enough to draw a
cartoon promoting, announcing and introducing the first meeting of a
Stitch and Bitch group in Lerwick. I hope I have cojones enough to go
back to the shop where I was initially rebuffed for enquiring as to
the possibility of there being such a group already in existence in
Shetland. Go back to the shop and ask if they'll be good enough to
put up the poster that I ought to be Getting On With instead of

The idea behind the S & B being that if you build it, they will come.

But if you build it in the middle of the bloody night, your neighbour
will grass you up bigtime.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

rainy Monday evening

It's dark, the day has been put away, the work all done - the
children tucked up with a long-distance word from their mama and I'm
wrapping myself around Martin Taylor's sleepy, smoky jazzy riffs for
late-night grown-ups and wondering if I'll ever get to be good enough
to improvise a few of my own. Today the fiddle part of Fiddle and
Pins was hauled out blinking into the grey daylight of a wet and
misty afternoon, actually a wet morning too and probably, after I
finish here, an unbelievably wet evening as well. Last night's concert
reminded me that music can be the best company ever, even if you're a
crap musician like me. One of the joys of electric violins is that
while I'm going through this hideously discordant re-acquaintance
with my fiddle, I'm near as dammit inaudible.

Trust me, this is a blessing. On an acoustic violin I'd sound ten
times more ferkin' awful than I do now. But now, I can saw away and
feel like I'm really sounding not too bad, mainly because all I can
hear is whatever genius I'm jamming ( I use this word loosely) along

It does give me a completely illusory feeling of playing well, and at
this stage in the game, that can only be a good thing, because if I
could really hear what I sounded like, I'd consign my little black
bendy fiddle to its case and never let it see daylight again. So
today I've played along with Afro Celt Sound System, Charlie Haden &
Pat Metheny, Martin Taylor, Martyn Bennet and Jesse Cook. In my
imagination I'm up there in front of a wall of Marshall amps, speaker
towers, decks and...oh do shut UP, you at the back, I know I'm a sad

Today the World of Real Work As Opposed To residency work sent an
email wondering if I'd had any thoughts regarding a cover for The
Trouble with Dragons. I hear the sound of distant whips, I fear. It's
odd, having crossed the tipping point of the residency and cantering
towards the home run enables me to hear what has largely been
inaudible until now. And what do I hear, pray?

Money talks
I can't deny
I heard it once
It said 'Goodbye'.

Amazing how I've managed to tune out the normal background hum of
money-related anxieties. I really feel about a million miles away
from all that nonsense. But, alas, we have to eat, shoe the children
and keep the roofs from blowing off, so perforce, I have to nail my
nose back to the grindstone. I mean I haven't exactly been taking it
easy, but I have taken time out to do stuff that feeds the soul
rather than the maw of Mammon. I don't want to give the false
impression that the residency has been one long sojourn in the Big
Easy, but I am all too aware that pretty soon I'll have to re-engage
with The Moderately-Sized Difficult.

Cue the Cajun music. Ma jolie blonde va gris maintenant. Zydeco
filles go wahhhhhh. Iko, iko stay here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

ms. mouse heads for the hills

 You know, I could get used to this solitude stuff. I rolled out of bed extra early this morning even though it was Sunday, trying to squeeze in a hillwalk before heading back into Lerwick to see two concerts, one of which kicked off at two thirty. Therefore,  I had to lope up the hill at a rather accelerated pace and down again in order to get back in time to do a quick change from woman of the mountains into woman who listens to jazz in her lunchtime. Actually, not too much change there, except I never wear lippy on a hill...

So. Victorious, I am being. I climbed Ronas Hill ( Shetland's highest) in the teeth of a small hurricane. God, it was windy. And not from the carpark halfway up Collafirth Hill, but from sea level. The honourable ascent. And yes, it's only half a Munro, but hey - I was completely on my own, and even half a hill can kill you if the weather turns foul and you trip and break something. So. Me, myself and I plus an unfeasably heavy rucksack ( in which were an A&E unit, three Sherpas, a portable generator, a twin oven Tranga, three pounds of egg tagliatelle and 250ml of Perigord truffle sauce, a Siberian goosedown bivvy bag, a month's supply of 70% cocoa solids Valrhona, a Blackberry, three i-pods, one pair of circular needles and four balls of kidsilk haze yarn and a Nice Young Man) climbed the hill. 

At the top I could see the skies rushing towards me were that shade of grey that promised  serious precipitation possibly accompanied by a blanket of thick cloud obscuring all obvious landmarks. But I have a lush's tradition of having a celebratory swig of whisky on finally wheezing my way to the trig point, so, nervously and very, very quickly, I necked my malt and headed off, back down to safety. And not a moment too soon. Literally, once I was safely on the road down from Collafirth Hill and turning to say thankyou to all four points of the compass ( Oh, do stop sniggering at the back. I know. Ancient hippies r' us.) the heavens opened. Rain, wind, in quantities to be seriously alarming higher up the hill, but from where I was, just noisy, wet and forcing me into a kind of jog-trot ( tricky in hillwalking boots) to deliver me soggy but very happy back at my car twenty minutes later.

And later...a concert to celebrate the life of 'Peerie' Willie Johnson ( Shetland's beloved guitar player, who was known and loved the world over) with, oh bliss, Martin Taylor playing guitar with his band. If this is the solitary life, bring it on...

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Okay. That's it. I'll have to come home.

Today, at the gym, my precioussssss noisypod died on me, and no
amount of rescucitation and restoring and restarting and reloading
can bring it back from the dead. I am, as I speak, digging it a very
small grave and will consign it to the great Apple in the sky just as
soon as I come up with an apposite piece of music to hum at its funeral.

All suggestions welcome.

A pod-less planet looks pretty bleak to me. Not to mention the sheer
impossibility of doing any exercise whatsoever without the noisypod
to fire me up and set me going. What? No music? Phwoarrrr. Fergeddit.
In that case, I may as well sit back on my couch in the potato
position and commence The Consumption of Chocolate. Tried to log on
to Apple and buy a pale, shuffling substitute, but couldn't even
manage to do that. Dial-up is crap for online shopping, a fact which
has saved me a fortune, but which, as of now, is a royal pain in the
ass. I want a pod, and I want it, if not now, then next week, weather

I'm trying to make light of this but...inside I'm looking down the
long Black Tunnel To The Time of Complan and Zimmers. Is this the
beginning of The End? First the i-pod goes, then the i-sight, closely
followed by the i-deas and on and on, until the floor is littered
with teeth, hair, prostheses and the only thing left to look forward
to is when Nurse swings by to turn the l i-ghts out.

Opened a little red box posted from home and discovered two posies of
sweetpeas, only slightly crumpled after their long journey to
Shetland. This tender gift reduced me to a state of hiccuppy sobs,
which I'm sure was not their sender's intention. Sweetpeas now
gracing my table in a teapot, their petals unfolding in soft shades
of pink and lilac. A little reminder of a garden that is still
blossoming a long way south from here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

deafening hush

Sunday afternoon, growing a tad bored with the utter silence of my own company, I set off again, ever intrepid, up a hill, across a trackless peat bog/ heath, compass in hand, in search of a high ridge walk marked on my map with a clearly drawn dotted line. This dotted line, or its equivalent, an obvious track, was guarded by not one but five mangy sheepdogs who came running to surround me in a faintly menacing huddle. One of the collies had a single glaring blue eye, which did not reassure me of its owner's good intentions. Another of the collies was the same size as a bear. One of the collies turned out to be a vast black labrador. Hey. There were five of them and one of me, so being a wuss, I took the road less travelled. I did the nonchalant very fast powerwalk away from the dogs and took an alternative uphill path. This meant forging my own route, compass in hand just like yesterday, eyes peeled for signs of BULLS. After a morning of rain, today's wet landscape was dotted with variations on the malevolent tussock*. As I leapt and splashed my way across this moonscape, I wondered , not for the first time, what the hell I was doing spending a lazy Sunday afternoon engaged in such strenuous pursuits. Then the sun slid out from behind a cloud, the beautiful wide seaview opened up and I remembered why I love walking the high airy places. 

The silence, the solitude and the wide open spaces are breathtaking. The alone-ness is okay too - not what I'd choose, given my 'druthers, but a similiar solitude to the one that I've lived with for most of my working life. Just because I recognize it, doesn't mean I like it, though. Alone-ness can so easily shade over into loneliness. Yeah. It was bloody lonely. Across a narrow channel of water lay Burra, the last place my colleague Harry Horse looked out on before he killed first his terminally ill wife and then himself. That kind of enormity and terrible finality made my view of his beloved landscape all the more meaningful , and also all the more lonely not having anyone to turn to for a simple human touch - a hand on my hand, an arm around my shoulders. Something to pretend that we are not alone. Even if, in truth, we are. 

Sat on a rock and drank Lapsang, ate oatcakes, blew nose and pulled myself together. I looked out over the top of the ridge to the fragmented landscape of many little islands, stacks and nameless rocks, each standing alone, all of them linked by the waters of the pale blue sea. I'm guessing that Harry was beyond any form of connection, beyond being able to reach out and say - help me, I'm drowning. I'm guessing that his wife was his lodestar and that he simply could not bear to find his own way through his life without her. 

The sun on my face and the wind in my hair remind me of the promises, the miles and the life I still have to live. Travelling hopefully. That's what I intend to aim for - not the arrival, but the journey itself.

*These are clumps of grass which protrude from the swamp, seem to offer firm footholds but the moment an unwary walker commits to one of these babies, it tilts sideways forcing you to overbalance and slide into the swamp.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

true north

Had an intrepid day today. Screwed courage up to the sticking point and set off, map and compass in hand, to go to Northmavine and beyond, to the point of Fethaland. This was sparked off by having finished ( at least I think I've finished, but hey - we've been here before a few times before, she said without the faintest hint of bitterness) the copyedit/rewrite of Witch Baby v. 48.93.00. Let's move swiftly on, shall we?

So. I'd spent waaaaay too long staring at a  Mac screen and wanted to blow some cobwebs away (plus somehow lose the pungent aroma of curry which had enveloped my good goretex ever since I unwisely took it with me to dinner at Gurkha's Kitchen). I made a flask of tea, grabbed oatcakes and an apple, the relevant o.s. sheets and headed out into the grey. 

Drove and drove and drove like a geriatric version of a boy racer with Afro-Celt Sound System throbbing inside the car. Drove past Mavis Grind ( pronounced 'grinned') a famously narrow neck of land separating the Atlantic from the North Sea, carried on and on, across moorland, into a wilderness of grasses, heathers, lochins and convoluted coastlines. Sadly, the best views out to sea had their full complement of fish farms, but hey. The road ran out at Isbister where it was time to boot up and get out there. 

Gulp. Map in hand, off I went uphill only to find a gate barring my path. No problem, except the gate bore a BEWARE OF THE BULL sign. 
I have to explain that phobia no. 2 in the Debi list of things-that-freak-me-out is cows, bulls and other bovine lifeforms which have to be passed on walks. Phobia no. 1 is mountain ridges with what to me looks like lethal exposure on either side. This said, I would walk back up a Munro with evil ridges that I'd just descended rather than cross a field of cows to my car. I am petrified of cows. Look. Don't sneer like that. I had at least one of my children without any pain relief whatsoever, so I'm allowed the odd irrational fear, okay?

So. I turned round and found an alternative pathless route, skirting chasms, crossing squoggy marshes, tacking back and forward from coast to hill and going up and down and up and down needless ascents and descents until I finally hauled out my compass and realised what direction I should be heading in. All became clear ( ish) .The landmass across the sea on my right was the island of Yell. The sea frothed and crashed against the coastline and I imagined being wrecked off those unforgiving sheer cliffs, and how you'd not be able to escape the sea, and other cheerful thoughts. This was to overwrite my even more cheery thoughts about the BULL which probably hadn't read the notice on his gate and was undoubtedly ambling happily on the rocks and hills over my head, just waiting for a ditz in blue goretex to climb up and Make His Day.

Then I saw the path ahead, and the map fell into place in the way that maps have never done for me before, and I began to feel like the Intrepid Brave Pathfinder instead of the Lost Lady Writer. Picked up my pace and headed north to where the path ahead dropped spectacularly to a view of seas, and a green island (Fethaland) joined to the mainland by the thinnest neck of rocks and grass. Met an Irish couple at the last but one gate, clambering into waterproof trousers and hats. They'd heard the weather forecast and were dressing accordingly. They also had seen the BULL, a highlander with big horns. Gulp. I'd been trying to convince myself that rumours of his life were greatly exaggerated, but here was proof that he LIVES. 

Onwards. Down to the sea, where I saw an otter loping across a meadow, and then to a pile of vast rocks flung along a sand spit, which form the neck of land joining the island to the mainland. The Atlantic beachside was dramatic and magnificent, windswept and forbidding at the same time. There were poignant reminders of human frailty in the path of Time's great entropic eraser: collapsing dykes and cottages standing as the last evidence of there having once been a thriving human settlement there - apparently the ruins are those of the  summer-houses of deepsea fishermen, abandoned in the nineteen forties when, presumably they had better things to do than catch fish. Took loads of photographs, climbed up to an unmanned lighthouse, carried on a bit beyond onto grassy clifftops where the faint path petered out completely. Being a wuss, I felt sick with vertigo looking over the edge to the rocks below and the stacks jagging out of the sea ahead, so I turned back south. 

Back down at the ruined settlement, I stopped, sat down, drank two cups of Lapsang, ate two oatcakes and felt complete. There was the possibility of BULL out there, but at that moment, the now, the ever-present perfection of that instant in time was as good as it was going to get. 

The rain rained, the wind blew, the BULL lurked, but I found my way back along an almost invisible path which leapt out at me because I was mapreading. Yee-haw. Compasses rock. The mist descended, just enough to make me almost weep with terror when shapes of beasts reared out of the distance, but in the skewing of scale that occurs at twilight, they turned out to be sheeps not BULLS. Thank the lord.

The apple I ate in the shelter of my car, the apple of victory over map co-ordinates, northings, eastings, boggy bits and BULLS, was the best apple I've eaten all year.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

paper ballerinas

Okay. Got my groove back. Or whatever it's called. 

Wrestled with demons yesterday, then beat them into submission. My efforts were aided by the arrival of a small box of apples, individually wrapped in tissue paper, each picked off trees on the West coast and posted before the dew had time to dry. Opening the box  released a perfume of apples so intense I could almost imagine myself standing beside the trees, watching as each fruit was picked. These old varieties of apples are my favourite part of the late summer harvest ; a part I'd thought I'd missed by being here, in Shetland. 

This morning, the herring gulls were a strident chorus of feathery shriek alarms, waking me long before my alarm gave its digital chirrup. When the gulls land on my roof, they're only a few inches away from where I sleep in the rafters. They sound heavy ( man ) as their pink feet crash onto the tiles. Seen up close, they are enormous, their beaks viciously yellow, their heads performing exorcist-like rotations as they scan all incoming traffic for its calorific value. 

Over dinner last night, I learned the art of turning a napkin into a ballerina. Yeah, I know. For this I travel over seas and oceans? Actually, yes. For this gentle transformation of trash into keepsake, I think it may well be worth going the distance. But since you're being so sniffy about it, then I won't tell. Suffice to say, all twelve of us at the table had a go at folding, tearing, tweaking and twisting our napkins into these delicate little paper ballerinas. So pretty were they, that our Nepalese waiter returned our table with a fresh stack of napkins and asked to be shown how to do the ballerina thing too.

Since then, I've made a few ballerinas, but my ones look as if they have gout. Or a goitre. Or elephantisis. They bulge in all the wrong places, which, as anyone who knows me will attest, Will Not Be Tolerated. Bulges R Not Us. I'm working on achieving the perfect, long-legged, curtseying, wide-skirted version. In paper, not flesh, although if making perfect paper ballerinas has a knock-on effect on my bulges, then hey - bring it on. I may even sneak out and buy a whole sinful packet of napkins to practice upon, all the better to achieve perfection. 

Talking of which, I'm trying to work through the last edit of Witch Baby which must be the final edit v. 48.9.13. Part of my problem with this edit is that the copy-editor's comments are written in the margins in the smallest type I have ever seen. I waved it under Donald's nose and we agreed that whatever it is, it has to be waaaay smaller than 9 point, which means that my eyesight is frankly not up to the job. Peering and blinking and, I have to confess, occasionally cursing like a sailor, I'm trying to get to the place where I can go - FINIS. 

Every time I think I'm there, the light changes, the shadows rush towards me and the cool, clean water I was about to dive into turns out to be sand. I am so very weary, and it's so very disheartening to discover I still have miles and promises and all that Frosty stuff to go. And I can't get on with discovering what I'm going to write about in response to being here, to allow whatever that may be to rise to the surface until I've finished with v. 48.9.13. 

So. Note to self: Brains will be cudgelled. Eyeballs will be forced into focus. Will nail self to chair until it's done and dusted and then....

then I'm going to go and walk for a very long time, hopefully up something high, or, if that's not possible, along something beautiful, and I'm going to attempt to put myself into a suitably receptive frame of mind which, I'm hoping, will allow whatever's out there to arise and show itself. At least, that's the plan.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I have to hope that there's more to life than the evidence of my
eyes. To hope that there is a greater world beyond the temporal,
beyond the world of the senses, beyond this world of 'stuff'. Some
days I can believe in the vision of an emerald green beyond; other
days I shudder to think that the home planet and all her wriggling,
striving, breeding billions are all there ever was, or will be.

Today, your upbeat narrator has some difficulty in finding any joy in
counting herself as part of the human race. Today, I am revolted by
my tacit collusion in the horrors going on in Iraq. Had I not been
reading the Guardian's recent extracts from Naomi Klein's new book
'The Shock Doctrine : The Rise of Disaster Capitalism' I could
cheerfully have continued forgetting that every day since Iraq was
invaded, there has been a dirty war rumbling away on the other side
of the world.

In the interests of my own mental health, I am quite good at
forgetting. Some things are too foul to bear too much daylight being
shed upon them. Some things are too shameful to be spoken of.
Forgetting is easier, tidier and allows me to sleep at night.
Thankfully, I don't have to deal with this kind of stuff every day of
my life or else I would be unable to continue with the simplest of

Like drawing breath.

Every time I fill my tank, every time I turn on a light, every time I
buy some manufactured item without an impeccable pedigree ( hand-
crafted from local ingredients, grown organically, harvested by well-
paid workers, minimally packaged etcetera ; though the 'sourcing' of
such faultless items is an exhausting task in itself, so sometimes I
lapse and buy something with a potentially dirty history) every time
I connect ( as a consumer) with the world of big business, I am
connecting with the same world that is raping the people and the
country of Iraq.

Ergo - I am part of the problem. Therefore, I am responsible. Tracing
back the lineage of suppliers of our everyday goods can lead to the
uncomfortable truth ; we are all part of the problem. With the best
will in the world, some of us have been buying goods from the same
companies who are making billions in the 'rebuilding' of Iraq.

That's the same country we destroyed from the ground up. It exists
beyond the grey images on our television screens. Or, should I say it
existed. Now it's a war zone of our own making. Every time we filled
our tanks, we were part of it. Every time we did nothing to stop the
war. Every time we silently colluded, turned away from the carnage
and taught ourselves to forget. Every time we self-medicated with the
many drugs we use to keep our forgetting at an acceptable level. We
read on, skipped channels, scrolled over the bits about collateral
damage and turned instead to the accounts of a houseful of human
puppets jerking about to the dictates of the media.

There's an obscenity at the heart of our society that fills me with
horror. Every time I connect to the internet, my inbox fills up with
foul matter which I am forced to wade through to get to my work-
related emails. This is the same foul matter that we wade through in
our newspapers and televisions in order to get to the stuff which
interests us. We are drowning in a sea-tide of foulness, and slowly,
inexorably, we are developing an ability to ignore it, to tune it out
and not to let it upset us. We are slowly adapting to a climate
change within the human spirit. This kind of adaptation is dangerous
in the extreme. For if we lose the ability to empathize with our
fellow-humans, then we lose part of our humanity, and that, as
history has shown, is very bad news indeeed.

Only connect, someone once said. It's one of my favourite
instructions for how to live this life. Connect ourselves to every
living soul, connect to our beautiful planet, connect to the fact
that we are all part of one vast, living organism. All of us,
connected. Each of us responsible for each other.

Monday, September 10, 2007

movies and shakers

An air of exhaustion hangs over my little shed by the sea. Too much
excitement for one weekend, or for one girl. Regrets have I none.

As well as doing two full-on children's events* at Wordplay
( Shetland's annual book festival), my past four evenings have been
spent hurling food down my neck in time to leg it across Lerwick in
time to watch special screenings of several films curated for
Screenplay ( Shetland's first film festival) by Mark Kermode. Mark's
next venture almost as soon as he lands back on Blighty is to fly
out to the US and interview Neil Young of the nasal voice and less-
than-cheerful-subject matter songwise.

Yeah. That Neil Young. Anyway, watching Mark's choice of films and
hearing the directors and editors of said films come up on stage
after the screenings to talk to him about their work was utterly
fabulous. Although I was dragging myself back over the hills to
Scalloway at ungodly times of night under the red and unblinking eyes
of the windmills, it was well worth it. Even the films I didn't like
were worth staying up to watch. Much in the same way as writers and
books are demystified by seeing authors at book festivals, so too
were the films and their auteurs. Ken Russell was programmed to
appear, but was taken ill shortly before the film festival began. His
editor Michael Bradsell came, though, and talked long into the night
about what it was like to be involved with making such screen
classics as 'The Devils' and 'Women in Love'. Both shown in their
restored, uncut, director's cut version.

I won't bang on and on about what that was like except to say that
the banned orgy scene in 'The Devils' faded into near risibility
beside some of today's tamer episodes of that godawful live-action
television series which I refuse to name. Mhmmm. That one. Actually,
come to think of it, Ken Russell actually appeared on said godawful
etcetera. Make your own connections there.

Also saw Ian Rankin-inspired 'Reichenbach Falls' ( weird seeing Ian's
beloved Edinburgh used as a backdrop when I'm in Shetland. Did not
feel even remotely homesick) which was a neat bit of entertainment
made on two quid, three buttons and a paperclip. Heard the director
and producer discuss how one goes about putting together seventy-five
minutes of film on an impossibly tight budget. Also saw 'The Flying
Scotsman'; the true story of the young clinically depressed cyclist
who cobbled together a racing bike made out of old washing machine
parts and went on to break world records with his Frankenstein creation.

Also heard some astonishing poetry written in response to the work of
several craftspersons. In some cases these collaborations were true
marriages of heart and mind - a poem about a selkie, with all that
implicit elemental erotic imagery coupled with the lush softness of
a hand-felted piece cut to resemble seagrasses. To call this a scarf
and the words a poem, is to miss the point, I think. Then there was
a bookbinder who bound a brutal and brilliant work about war into the
form of a ziggurat which unfolded, accordion-like to reveal series of
black and white pared-down images illustrating the escalating menace
in the poet's words.

Then had my socks blown off by singer-songwriter Lise Sinclair's
launch of her cd 'Ivver entrancin' wis'. And it was. As was I.
Utterly entranced by not only Lise's voice, but the songs for voice
and cello and harp which she had composed and sung in response to a
selection of poems, old and new. Collaboration across the disciplines
appears to be key. As one who has worked for her whole life on her
own, I find the notion of working closely across the artforms to be
pretty revolutionary. Obviously, I don't get out much, or even enough.

Then there was the crack in the green room. Or should that be
'craic'? What is the Shetland equivalent? I think those were some of
the best conversations I've ever had in my entire working life. Damn.
It was so good you could've bottled the spirit and sold it as a
Distiller's Cut. Normally, the green room is the last place you'd
want to be before an event, except when you're performing, there's
nowhere else to go. Whooooo. I've been in some hideous ones -
watching famous authors getting hammered on bathtubs of champagne,
famous authors turning up with their own homeland security, famous
authors air-kissing anyone they think they can use, famous authors
demanding drugs, famous authors being famously prick-like...yeah,
well, you can imagine how gruesome that can be. Compare and contrast
the green room at Shetland where a tableful of persons with literary
pulling-power were discussing their favourite soups and how we could
all give up the daily grind down the word-mine and initiate
Shetland's inaugural Soup Festival.

My ribs hurt from laughing so much. My throat sounds like I've been
chewing gravel. The bags under my eyes have got bags...and I confess,
I haven't touched the fiddle or the pins all weekend.

Tong peas is what I say.

* By full-on I mean Little Red Riding Hood ( the Shetland version
would sound something like Peerie Rid ) taking a shark to her Granny,
who lives in a concrete hut (with some resemblance to a public
toilet) a long way away along the beach. The beach and the hooded one
were mine, but the rest came from my audience of loudly inventive
persons of small stature.

The other part of full-on was a small excursion into live dragon-
birth complete with grunts and heavings. Hey ho. All in a day's work.
Nnnnrgh, uh, uh, uh, nnnnnrghhhh....pop, waaaaaahhhhhhhhh.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

only connect

Finally worked out how to plug a into b by undoing x and substituting p. And huzzzah - we have an internet connection.

On the floor of my little Shetland abode is a tangle of cabling which might possibly have previously belonged to Emerson Lake and Palmer. The fact that all this snaky stuff is located directly below my sleeping platform (1) is a tad alarming. Better not fall down the ladder in the middle of the night, only to become ensnared in cables and crash to the floor again. That would only confirm my status as village idiot even more irrevocably in the eyes of the local population.(2)

Despite being in knitter's knirvana, I'm coming up against blank wall every time I try to find something like a group. My bleatings of -isn't there a 'stitch and bitch' here?- are met with polite puzzlement. My search to find the fabled knitter who divides her time between Shetland and New Zealand produced a disappointment so acute I almost sat down and wept in the wool shop. The knitter in question sails off to Aberdeen tonight and then flies out to NZ next week. I won't meet her after all, and I had rather hoped that she might be able to introduce me to a coven of proper knitters who might pluck my pins out of my trembling hands and say - look, pet, here's how it's done.The lady in the knitting shop who passed on this information referred to there being a 'sooth-moothed' weavers and stitchers thing at a gallery/woolmill in the west of the island. By sooth-moothed, I infer she meant 'soft-southerners with their interfering appropriation of Shetland inter-generational crafts'.

You have to admit, sooth-moothed is a hell of a lot easier to say.

After she said that, I decided it was time to go. Today, in the pouring rain , wind and lowwwwww clouds, I drove to find this woolmill. Got there, only to find it had closed today to take down an exhibition, so there was no contact made there either. The drive had meant to encompass a walk, but it was so disgustingly cold and wet and dreich outside that I couldn't face it. The mill is situated nest to a rare stand of trees ( Shetland is not known for its forests), so that was a lovely find because I've lately realised that I need reference points from the natural world to convince me that we're moving from season to season. Trees are the perfect thing.

In the absence of climate markers, you understand. It rained in the spring, it rained in the summer and now it's autumn, guess what?

1. Sleeping platform. Yeeees. This is, technically, a misnomer. It's a toss and turn and twitch fitfully platform. With scant futon involvement. On a futon-as-biscuit scale running from Carr's Table Water through to Custard Creams, I'd say I was sleeping on a Rich Tea. Need I say more?

2. First hour on the island, I went to the village store to buy milk for the cup of coffee which I was hoping would reorientate me to my true Italian nature. So. I am shy. Stop snorting at the back. I AM shy. At first. I've never been here before. I don't want to stand out, so I'm wearing deepest battered goretex and wellies, just like everyone else. I'm in the shop, making my purchases, thinking - hey, this is cool. Here I am in my foreign destination, and nobody knows who I am. I might even be a local and it's great mobile text alert went off somewhere deep in a pocket ( one of twelve, three of which are so inaccessible, amputation of arms is necessary to access them) in goretex jacket) and in loud tones, everyone was treated to - 'rrrrr, message from the Dark Side there is'.
Oh. My. God.