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.

a resounding pheeeyoo

Well, we made it. There were some rather hideous bits at four o'clock in the morning, but as dawn broke over a grey and ( yes, aargh, I was quite right to worry that it might be a mite choppy) white-capped sea, I knew I was going to escape the embrace of Messrs. Rrralph and Huuey. 

At least, this time I escaped. For, when I weaved my way downstairs to breakfast ( a banana and black coffee because I couldn't get the bloody foil off the milk in my weakened state) I asked the purser if the crossing had been, in the scale of one to ten, a five, say? He looked at me as if I'd sprouted tentacles and laughed rather nastily. That was  the easiest, smoothest crossing all month, he said. Ah, I said. When you going back? I replied mid-October. More nasty laughter. He said (damn his eyes) better start worrying now, then.

Oh, how we laffed.

For the short times I managed to fall asleep in between bouts of wondering if I was going to be sick NOW, my dreams were weirder than weird. This lack of quality sleep rendered me too weak to defoil my breakfast milk and also turn the key in the door of my new harbour hut. Barely recognised Donald when his car drew up alongside mine in the rain. Oh, the rain. Drove to Scalloway on autopilot, following Donald's tail-lights and feeling utterly disconnected. Jet lag? Pfffff. That's for wusses. Real travellers get ferry-lag. Stared at Donald as he reeled off a list of directions to some Blues Festival gig in a village somewhere out there in the Shetland outer fringes, but eventually I had to confess that none of the directions were getting through, or if they got through, they promptly slid noiselessly off my teflon-coated brain. Donald very sensibly left me to it. It was either that or stand in the rain watchinmg his brand new writer-in-residence turn to an amoeba in front of him. Didn't have a nap, like a sensible person, but began to put my new harbour hut in order. Consequently, I've been going through this day like a half-shut knife, and even had a fit of the weepies coupled with a bout of acute homesickness. But hey. I'm better now.

And I'm unpacked. Got my 12 days solid playtime of beloved tunes up and running, got artwork out, started to reorganize the bonsai galley-kitchen. Sadly, did not manage to attain broadband nirvana. Couldn't even scrape a pass with dial-up, so, once again, this message is going out late and part of a batch with the wrong date on it. Kinda cosy, huh? Just me, myself and I for now. 

Pulled myself together sufficiently to begin masking off artwork on the first spread of 'The Problem with Dragons '. Even though it was grey and gloomy outside. Where are my daylight bulbs now, pray? Let's hope there are some brighter days, because I need masses of light to paint, especially with my diminishing eyesight. As the afternoon grew late, I downed tools and took myself off to walk on an amazing isthmus which is lapped by improbably turquoise seas on both sides. Turquoise despite the fact that it was chucking down and I had been forced to zip my outer layer in a fashion that made me look like I was off to the international train-spotting/ Goretex jousting championships. What the heck are turquoise seas doing out on an afternoon like that?

Five minutes after my boots hit the white sand of St. Ninian's Bay-Bigton Wick, a black dog came running at me, scrawny and desperate looking. I braced myself for shredding with menaces, but the poor mutt only wanted companionship and adopted me on the spot. So. Nothing like a dog to validate a solo walk on a day typifying 'Scotland's weather - what else can it throw at you - rocks?' I've never seen a dog that chased seabirds with quite such desperation before. And no matter what the wind did, her hackles stayed up like porcupine quills for the hour and a half she kept faith with me. So - the black dog of St. Ninian's Isle, huh? It's probably famous. Probably the spirit-being of a long-gone writer-in-residence who fell prey to the Drys. 

With this in mind, I headed back to my little harbour hut and poured myself something pleasant out of a green glass bottle, before crawling up into the sleeping platform for an extended wrestle with that old duvet and duvet-cover combo. Outside, the wind is trying to tear my hut off its moorings and hurl it into the sea, but d'you know what? It won't succeed. Tonight, my bed will not pitch and yaw. 

the opposite of landfall

Outside my rather disappointingly square porthole ( aren't they supposed to be round?) the land on the eastern edge of Scotland is slipping away into the night. Can there be anything more romantic than sailing into the darkness to arrive at an island destination by dawn? Romantic as all get out unless, say, one happens to wake up sometime on the North Sea/Atlantic with an urgent need to void one's stomach of all contents. Let's hope that this scenario remains firmly in the realm of fiction. 

As the boat prepared to sail, it reabsorbed its leashes and tethers ; huge wrist-thick ropes that snaked oilily across the deck, winched in past capstans by scarily vast turning piston-things ( yup, your reliable, accurate narrator is back - stick with me, you'll learn nothing at all) obeying grey levers and barked commands, but mindless in their rope-y animation like a nest of hemp anacondas. All this nautical activity watched by the smokers who, since The Ban, are forced by their need for nicotine onto the rain-lashed decks, there to suck furtively on their faggins as they shiver. 

I wonder if they're still out there fagging? The land has just gone, the orange lights of civilization winking away to be swallowed up by the dark. Now the sea will strut her stuff. Over my solitary dinner, eavesdropping on other conversations, I learned that the metal rings under the dining table are to hold your chairs down in the event of what is coyly referred to as 'turbulence'.

Please, please not tonight. 

As we pulled out of Aberdeen, complete strangers stopped on the shore and waved. People flapped white towels at us from the upper floors of high-rises. Cooks and waitresses came out of shoreside restaurants to watch and wave dishcloths as the Shetland-bound ship sailed off. All of us on the outside deck were included in that farewell. Shades of the Railway Children, the geriatric, aquatic version. Goodbye lighthouse. Wooo, it's daaaark outside. I sit in my tiny cabin, tapping away in the comforting glow from my laptop, soundtrack tonight is Donald Fagen's 'Nightfly'. Smoky, soft jazzy tunes which are the aural equivalent of  tobacco. There's something delightfully comforting about listening to music over earbuds while you're whisked off into the night. My all-time favourite place for such 21st C pastimes is on trains, the faster, the better. Especially since they have the outstanding virtue of not going up and down but along. Wearing earbuds and listening to music is like surrounding yourself with home, like stepping into a musical cloak of invisibility. Coupled with the knowledge that as you listen , you're getting to your destination makes me want to crow with delight at mankind's ingenuity.

Mind you, standing on deck, all I could smell was burning hydrocarbons. This may be a greener mode of travel, rather than flying, but it's a close-run thing. This vessel is little more than a mondo stink-pot, as its engines rumble and its funnels belch their grubby exhalations into the sky. Now we've left the coast, there is a fair bit more movement going on, and the wet world outside sounds louder than before. The synchronized dj in me cues up Cat Stevens' House of Freezing Steel from 'Catch Bull at Four'. Nope. I don't know why I do this stuff either. I did spend rather too much working time before I left, downloading music to my laptop. This was, technically, time when I ought to have been keeping the wolf from the door rather than inviting it in to boogie, but now, out at sea, I'm grateful to the wolf-entrancing part of myself for having the foresight to amass an extra 350 odd tunes to tide me through whatever comes.

And who knows what that will be... for this, my dears, is an adventure, and once embarked on an adventure, you have to follow it and see where it will lead. I'm sure when Cat Stevens was recording this album, he could never  have predicted that in the new Millenium he'd convert to Islam. He was on an adventure too. 

As are we all.

G'night. I'm off to a rocking cradle, first I've been in since I was tiny.