10 December 2009


Had a hell of a busy week, starting off with the Steve Earle gig at Perth Concert Hall. I went with Claudia Massie and her brother (and the Spectator's political blogger) Alex Massie. Steve Earle has just released an album of Townes Van Zandt covers and was great. Very good banter, especially his tale of Townes' horse Amigo and the trips they used to make across mountain ranges. Steve said that the day Townes had to sell Amigo was the day "he started dying". Quite emotional stuff as Townes was Steve's hero and became a mentor, collaborater and friend. Great gig and another winner for Perth which seems to do well for a northern-central small Scottish city.

Then off to Edinburgh to catch a lecture at St Cecilia's Hall on the Cowgate entitled "Scotland's Historians: the Development of Eighteenth Century Historical Studies" with Tom Devine, Chris Smout, A.I MacInnes and C.A Whatley all speaking, chaired by Brian Lenman. All very august and distinguished professors in their field and a fascinating subject, but having been spoilt by the much more dynamic Richard Oram and Michael Penman at Stirling University, these men seemed rather stuffy and spoke awkwardly and frankly, badly. Typically, many academics who look so good on paper are very disappointing when put in front of an eager audience. By the end of the talk (I left before the questions) I counted at least five very suspicious nodding heads - by that, I mean amateur historians driven to deep and untroubled sleep by the woeful presentation on show. However, I encourage you all to read these professors books - they are wonderful.

After this made a rather dismal paella round at Fleur MacIntosh's house, the lady behind Godiva and go-reborn about which I have written reams. Check out the go-reborn shop in the Princes Street Mall and Godiva on the Westport off the Grassmarket. The large quantities of wine used to wash the paella down seemed to do the trick, then I was out and the night of Edinburgh was my oyster.

I prised it open and took a big, voluptuous bite.

Back in the country now and up to my eyes in mud, horses, dogs and fog, all of which I will write more about later.

04 December 2009

The Return of the Food Blog: Moules & Kedgeree at Dudley Drive

Took a trip to Glasgow to catch up with an old friend and his Spanish girlfriend, and was immediately waylaid by a table-full of tapas – ensaladilla rusa, smoked salmon on toast, chorizo, Parma ham, blue cheese on biscuits, pizza, olives and feta, and a nice bottle of Rioja. The next day a plan was formed to venture to the Kelvingrove Museum where we were treated to a rousing organ solo (plus a close up of the organist’s feet) and a reverential visit to the skeleton of the Baron of Buchlyvie. He was possibly the most famous Clydesdale stallion to stalk the fields of Stirlingshire and is spoken of in hushed and hallowed tones in Buchlyvie itself, where blogger resides.

We went to the Alan Beveridge fishmongers on Byres Road and purchased smoked haddock, smoked salmon, kipper fillets, a bag of mussels and left grinning inanely. Then it was next door for a handful of limes, a bag of flatleaf parsley, onions and garlic.

The plan was to make a big steaming bowl of moules with garlic, white wine, cream and parsley and wash it down with the Martin Codax Albariño I got at Peckham’s and follow it an hour or so later with a steaming bowl of kedgeree and some more rioja. Some call us greedy. Some call us blessed by the hand of a foodie god. Whatever. Here´s what we made, and by golly were we a happy bunch of sailors. Kedgeree is an Anglo-Indian dish purportedly taken to India by Scots and traced back to some Macdonalds in the 1790s. This seems somewhat apocryphal to me and I prefer to believe it was invented by Indians and stolen by the Victorians. Diana Rigg´s mother Beryl, stationed in Jodhpur in the 1930s, made it with sultanas and tinned sardines. Our version is slightly richer and inspired by Delia Smith´s recipe from her book ‘Fish’ (BBC 2003). Also, managed to get hold of some enormous duck eggs on Byres Road which ups the ante a wee bit.
The moules were unable to be photographed as they leapt wildly down our throats.

The food was unreal:
Fry garlic and onion gently in olive oil
Add huge amounts of white wine
Add mussels, put lid on
Wait til they open
Add lashings of cream and loads of flat leaf parsley
Cook a wee bit more
Eat with loads of bread and white wine
Poach the fish in milk for 10 minutes
Hardboil four humongous duck eggs
Seperate fish and keep milk aside
Fry garlic and onio in olive oil
Add rice
Add fishy milk to rice and some hot water
Leave rice to simmer on low heat for 15 minutes
Flake fish and chop up positively gigantic duck eggs
Add loads of flatleaf parsley (chopped)
Top with a gutsy dollop of creme fraiche
Put wine in glass
Photos by Andrew Faraday Giles and David Daker. Wine not included.

14 October 2009

Paper X

I've got some poems published in this, a great publication with a bloody good attitude towards dissemination of artwork. More soon.

28 September 2009


Michael Kearns has finally published his historic tome 'The Drama of AIDS: My Lasting Connections with Two Plays that Survived the Plague'. This poem to celebrate that, and to remember all my brothers who were lost.

It is ostensibly about Katharine Hepburn.

I’ll let you into a secret. I’m not a fan
of the pricks that ask for a hymn or a
gin-bottle memory of me and my African
man so I drive about booted up like a
soldier, head up and my chin out like
a hunting rifle
foot on the gas
and a whisper so the crowds don’t
part: fill her up, please, spat out in tiny
Kate, Kate,
Calm the voice, tone it down or
you’ll hitch that hick on your knife-
sharp suit; this fruitcake’s got me doing
a Hepburn high kick but like I told him I’m
just passing through. Clatter Kate he called
me, stilting tower-high down Sunset in his
textbook memory with my stilettos
weren’t stilettos kid but knives on the soles
of my feet to deal with the wives.
What a
schmuck.) I’m your biggest fan; here we go
again, just pour me the damn juice. I’m
an ass - and this cut-out moose for an attendant?
He wobbled like a set-piece and clocked me
feather-thin which is all
I can muster these days.
I’m old.
He’s all slick with grease-monkey gumption
and a pot of gold and a box-set and in debt
to my career so I told him:
Buster, stick to the pumps.
I could have pushed him over with my pinkie

and when the sky came down like a fist
the winded revelation went something like
this: you ain’t got more smarts than me Miss
Hoity-Toity so get off my ass
Damn, boy’s a
pro. But if I’m not good to go in five seconds
I’m finding a cop
and he laughed a big meaty laugh, I said get off my
ass Miss Kate
and I had to laugh too,
jazz-bop and
bamboo-lined booths and the grooves with me in my
uptight fishnets and a cigarette on a stick with
Mister Tracey fug-bound,
mouthing something quick.
Those were the days.
I have a life kid, so fill me up
then I’m highway-hugging ‘til I hear singing.

Spencer, oh how the boy talked of Spencer,
queer little pump kid with Hollywood’s back bars
and fast cars and an old film-star in his
forecourt, filling me in and sucking up the fame:
an addled dame and a boy with an eyeful
on her angles.
I’m getting tired

Every kid’s got a Tracey in their soul, a Tracey-
sized hole that makes them drive a state or two
to fill it up.
That’s on the house, not like you deserve it but
like I say
and he turns away too quickly.
I can hear the smoky sounds of a faraway
jazz night, boy, but I won’t tell you
that, right? Better put up a fight and like I said I’m
only passing through.
Thanks kid. I shove on the old Hepburn
grimace: nice pumps, shame about the face.

Gas, AFG

23 September 2009

The Green Gallery, Buchlyvie

Colliding Tides, Roseanne Barr

Just popped in to peruse my acquantaince Roseanne Barr's work currently showing at the hidden gem Green Gallery in Buchlyvie, fifteen miles from the city of Stirling. Near Buchlyvie I have made my home, hence the bucolic posts and rhapsodic tales of countryside living. I went with blog friend Claudia Massie, her of the incomparable landscapes and featured many a time in this blog. Both artists are fresh from a triumphant run as finalists in the Jolomo Awards earlier this year, and Claudia has spent the summer as part of the 'go reborn' project and also showing at the Flaubert Gallery in Edinburgh's Stockbridge (see earlier posts).

We were met by Andrew Walker, husband of the inspiration behind the Green Gallery, Becky Walker. He gave us a marvellous tour of the gallery which is set in fab surroundings in the village of Buchlyvie. They've quite recently moved from a place in nearby Aberfoyle and here the bespoke space is a gleaming light-filled old Coachhouse with a spectacular sculpture garden. Outside in sweeping fields a shepherd was a work with his three sheepdogs, and the grounds of the house at Ballamenoch where the gallery is situated are pretty special.

Becky herself shows various exhibitions every year and apart from Roseanne Barr, other well-known local artists such as Marion Drummond, Rowenna Laing and Francis Boag can all be found here. For a more comprehensive list check Becky's website.

It's wonderful now I'm out in the sticks to find such a thriving art scene, situated as we are between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the Green Gallery is well worth a look.

For more info about Becky Walker, the lovely Walker family and their space out here in Buchlyvie call 01360 850180, or email greengallery@sol.co.uk, or find more details and directions here.
More art posts (mostly Edinburgh based) are available and updated regularly on my 'go reborn' collective blog which you can find here.

22 September 2009

Cormac McCarthy: The Road

In anticipation of the new film with Viggo Mortensen, possibly the finest man ever to exist (actor, poet, multilinguist and craggy beauty - ooft), and because of my love for all things American or rather americana I bought this on one of my forays into the big smoke. I'd read 'All the Pretty Horses' and 'The Orchard Keeper' and various others and loved the wide, sweeping images of the States and, of course, anything with cowboys and horses is generally good. Fact. I even liked the movie 'No Country for Old Men', although found Javier Bardem's role as a Wild West Uncle Fester somewhat bemusing and unfortunately hilarious.

'The Road', as my mother would say, is a different kettle of fish. It is clearly a McCarthy book - those staccato rhythms, glaucous images of nature and monosyllabic characters all stand out as his trademarks - but the subject matter (a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by fire) is something new. His nameless characters in a featureless landscape managed to evince such emotion from yours truly that I spent two hours wandering around the streets of Stirling thinking the world had ended. It is, admittedly, quite easy to do this in Stirling, being as it is a semi-wilderness, but it is the kind of book any writer would give their teeth to get close to creating.

Now any book I read after seems clumsy, pretentious and longwinded. Strangely when I started 'The Road' I though his habit of piling up short sentences was to be his downfall, but the build up of tension obviously works as I could not put the book away. It is not often that you come away from a book feeling so entirely ravaged, wretched and yet strangely elated, and it shows a master at work when the cityscape you are trudging around is blurred out and you are left lost in a landscape straight out of a book. Very pleasing, in a way, and the best kind of escapism.

Can't wait for the film - of course there are shallow reasons, but one must never overlook ogling as a pointless pastime. Cormac McCarthy is probably the best American writer of his generation, all things considered, and now that he's captured the future of our human race so succintly as well as the past and present, he seems to have reached heights previously undisturbed.

The film also stars Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron. Checking out the cast list I notice a chap called Mark Tierno bagged the role of 'Baby Eater' - a clue as to what you might find on a post-apocalyptic menu.

20 September 2009

The Hot Seats at Gartmore Village Hall: Bluegrass Explosion

Since I've moved out here to the wilds of Stirlingshire, it's been all hare-watching, buzzard-stalking, horse-riding and deer-creeping. But my pal, photographer, journalist and mountain rescue expert supremo Ian Dawson suggested we take a hike over to Gartmore Village Hall and catch the Hot Seats, quite a coup for such a tiny village. Apparently, however, Gartmore is quite the bohemian hideaway and has a thriving music scene. If the Dawson family are anything to go by, with Finn Dawson at their helm with a youthly grin, Gartmore is alright. Yeehaw.
The Hot Seats are quite simply breathtaking. They dived straight into a old-time bluegrass set which had the red-faced audience, bathed in the glow of candlelight and wine for £8 a bottle (the delights of Gartmore!), whooping and hollering for more. I chummed up with Indie and her girlfriend, two folksters from Aberdeen who had come down especially for the Hot Seats set and they were not disappointed - more on them in later posts.
Here is how the Hot Seats describe their sound: "Their original music is simultaneously hard to classify and instantly identifiable, combining the virtuosic soloing and tightness of bluegrass, the band-driven rhythm of old time, the jerky bounce of ragtime, and the swagger of good old rock and roll. Add some eastern melodies, a few modernist ideals, and an uncanny feel for comic timing, and you begin to approach this sound".
For the audience at Gartmore, hardcore fans at the back clearly appreciated this, but the general feel of old-time americana and the Hot Seats hilarious and at times surreal banter pleased a crowd who may not know their fiddle from their double bass but certainly knew how to party.
I felt pretty honoured to have been present at such a band's performance - a real treat and a lesson in bluegrass and roots. It's been a while since I've seen such dextrous fingers! They're in the UK for a while so catch them if you can.
The latest Hot Seats album 'Retreat to Camp Candy Temptation Island' available to buy here

16 September 2009


Holy cow! What a summer it's been. Now, as always, onwards and upwards - I'm just trying out some stuff for the Sunday Times Short Story Competition as last night I dreamed I won huge amounts of money and spent it all on Scottish castles and priceless vintage champagne - considering the ST are shelling out £25,000 to the winner, and that my dreams are always haunting vignettes in an otherwise stagnant pit of despair - I'm saying - let's do it!

For those addicted to irony, here's a repeat of my past triumphant fuck-off-fest 'Futurism'. Geddit?

There´s a bed, an alarm clock and a line of

uncounted sheep waiting to eke me out of this dogme

dream I keep having, but each time I doze off to

'Action!' I´m Lars von Try-hard directing my past lives -

ugly heads rear, a hydra´s memory bank

muddled with washed-out faces and words

blurring the Icelandic soundtrack that tick-tocks in tongues

with me reflected in the camera lens. The rooks, overused

set pieces from some Streep bird-woman epic,

shift and bustle heavily and scowl, cowls and wings sticking

my Oscar-worn face like butter to the dream. I´m

stuck in strips and run criss-cross over

the set, lines on a hangar floor with Nicole

barking up from the grid, the dogme dog that lost

her cue. (Off-set she´s no less off world, woof after

method woof in her caravan while I switch

the late night channels to Cruise control). If like me

you´ve been living in a box for the past few years – not

that "out of the box" fandango that preaches bungee-jumping,

bongs and brave new worlds – then tomb raiders and

movie stars are still God and I´m walking

a never-never path slung together

by mountains, spit and trouble. Look me up under

dream-weaver to the stars, Google-heads, I can afford to

delicately duplicate verse, line after line, dropping geek-by-

night mysticism and lit by top of the range lamplight.

You can watch me every time I make a mistake and

continue dying, one more talking head

nodding to the tumble and fall of the universe.

Futurism, AFG

11 August 2009

Dead Close to Nature 4: Ron Falconer

Text Colour"...I toss and turn that night in bed. I feel the presence of the outside world closing in on what has been our domain. A cold breeze seems to move through the hut and a deep shiver touches my anxious body."

As a teenager I remember poring over Thor Heyerdahl’s famous studies of the Polynesian people and their supposed migratory habits – his tales of tribal emigration from South America to Easter Island and the long- and short-eared peoples, his immersion in Pacific island culture and his ability to see beyond the daily grind have stayed with me over the years and informed my view of our world history and scarred culture ever since.

I was thus pleased to meet Ron Falconer, a Scot who was affected by similar tales of derring-do as a young man, and even happier to discover he has published a memoir charting his time as the ‘guardian’ of a Pacific atoll named Caroline, later to be made famous as renamed ‘Millenium Island’, the first place to be hit by the year 2000. Falconer was delighted that I described him as 'socially eccentric', but he is purely normal in his own way, of course, with a very clear method to his 'madness'. "I'm on my own path", he told me, and not many men can say that with conviction.

Falconer’s book, with the tagline ‘escaping to a life in paradise’, may appear to some as just another travelogue, another excuse to fill readers’ heads with impossibly perfect places and actions as we languish in our cityscapes, not daring to question the ongoing slog. Falconer is a pleasing guide, however, and his book is realised with a well-drawn mix of perception and strong-headedness, not to mention a tragic ending, that lends it gravitas in a field overladen with well-meaning hippies armed with a pair of clogs and no common sense.

Like my hero Thor Heyerdahl, Falconer is straightforward in his quest, although he mostly puts aside science and academia for a comfortably personal quest, to leave behind the chattering classes and move with his small family (wife Anne and two small children Alexandre and Anais) to the Caroline Atoll. His boat, the Fleur d’Ecosse, he built himself. Falconer’s use of the present tense makes for quick and witty writing – although he is wont to go off on tangential light philosophical musings, these do not deaden the pace of what is a constant battle for survival.

I love Falconer’s honest portrayal of this beautiful place, and the proof that he presents us that our wasteful society continues to wreak irreparable damage on the planet – Falconer is able to escape the most obvious trappings of this for a while, but in the end even the Caroline Atoll is affected by the shrinking planet and he is forced to leave – the tragedy I wrote of earlier.

It is a tragedy, and although Falconer would not be so trite as to catalogue his deep sadness, the time, love and philosophy he puts into this small corner of the world must have left him with a feeling of frustration and powerlessness.

This book is a must-read for all of those who have any understanding of the importance of man’s interaction with and respect for nature, and who have any time at all for a single man’s dream, which these days is so easily swallowed up in a dream created by society, a dream that we no longer control. Falconer is one of life’s true originals and this book is important, sadly, as a memoir of a disappearing world.

Sad, but true.

'Together Alone' by Ron Falconer is published by Bantam

09 August 2009

Club Jolene

Heads up for any 'heads' who might read this blog. I have metamorphosed from poetry-guzzling power ranger into fizzy deejay for one night only with my pals down in London - and here's the info.

I think you ought to come.

I really do.


06 August 2009

Claudia Massie @ The Flaubert in Edinburgh

Friend of this blog Claudia Massie charges onto the Edinburgh art scene yet again with a joint exhibition alongside the excellent Camilla Watson (at the Flaubert Gallery in Stockbridge). They are showing from tomorrow the 6th August their 'Highland/Lowland' exhibition and Claudia will also be painting up a storm at the highly anticipated 'go-reborn' project in the Venue Studios on Calton Road.


27 July 2009

go reborn

Introducing ‘go reborn’, Edinburgh’s pop-up guerrilla collective, who are bringing to the capital a collaborative and creative space & showroom for one month over the festival.

Godiva Boutique owner Fleur Macintosh has revolutionised the vintage and recycled fashion scene with a massively successful made-to-measure line currently flying off the rails. Her hardcore one-off mentality within Edinburgh’s fashion scene has been aped but never mastered, and this summer we take it a step further with the ‘go reborn’ initiative.

Located in the iconic ex-Venue on Calton Road, this unique central hub of creative excellence will also showcase art, design, nu-media and crafts with local and national artists. Projects include creating live canvas work which ‘go reborn’ fashion designers will work up on-site, turning out finished wearable products for visitors to witness first hand. Visual artists and musicians will also feature at special bespoke functions. At ‘go reborn’ you can expect seminars and events showcased in a top class space towering over the festival with a majestic view of the Crags and from our turret watch Edinburgh sprawled out beneath.

Pop-up culture is by nature elusive. But when it does appear, oozing out of the pavement cracks, something very special occurs. Think Fritz Lang-inspired Tunnel 228, a 15-day culture happening in the bowels of the English capital that shook London to its very core. Even The Clash’s Mick Jones has taken advantage of the supernatural pop-up beast and opened a temporary rock n’ roll library for treasure-hunting geek enthusiasts. Fashion weeks across the globe have started to embrace the pop-up culture, with surprise stores springing up in vacant lots across cities full of flamboyant one-off pieces. Anyone can enter a pop-up store, if they can find it, and its short-fused life is born, burns and dies like a comet, quick, frenetic, hot and brilliant. Pop-up is something that grabs its barrio by the scruff of the neck and shakes it - it comes out of nowhere blazing art guns and laughing wildly.

· The ‘go reborn’ collective bring you their vision

· A trailblazing pop-up space for the Edinburgh Festival.

· A creative time-out bubble for passing art lovers and fashion foragers

· A boutique with many of Godiva’s top designers showing and selling their beguiling garments

· Live canvas work, digital art, installations

· In house graphic designers, photographers and nu-media specialists

· Pop-up, come in and go - reborn.

17 July 2009

Drugs Made Pauline Vague

Before I sit down to have a gay old time with this little classic, I just wanted to update my blog. This blog hasn't appeared in pure diary form many times since it's conception, so will not bore you too much with the trivial details of my life. Suffice it to say, it is possible I may be as glamorous and mysterious as I think, but I might just be a couch potato who's run out of Harlan Coben books.

There’s been a mammoth break in blogging whilst I await the outcome of interviews with artists Emma Wesley (based in London) and Sarah Smith (based in Edinburgh). The questions are hanging in the ether until either a paintbrush is put down or blogger-boy manages to drag his carcass out on the streets and be proactive. Edinburgh is damp and grey sometimes startled by periods of summer that lift the city; for here in the city I am, and no more whisperings of leaves out by the Ochils in Stirling. Stalking up city streets with the promise of fun, eyes, shops, feet, music and the spires of Edinburgh is not a bad way to spend the summer.

I’ve been well impressed by a singer called Alela Diane , who sings of haunting American wastes of snow, mornings bright white as diamonds; this song click here is quite amazing. I found it at the Nine Bullets blog, which has the most mind-bogglingly fascinating collection of Americana and folk and country and other excellent stuff, a place to savour.

The blog title comes from a Stevie Smith poem that holds the immortal line: "Drugs made Pauline vague/ She sat one day at the breakfast table/ Fingering in a baffled way/ The fronds of the maidenhead plant."

We can only hope living in the city for the summer won't turn me into 50 Cent or worse, Morrisey. The call of the wilds is strong and in a month's time I'll be back trotting through the green shires of Stirling and whistling an inane tune whilst smoking a cheroot.

26 May 2009

Jolomo Awards: Interview with Claudia Massie

Artist Claudia Massie is well known to this blog. Despite the danger of my blog becoming a Massie family fanzine, it is necessary to support her art due to her brilliance and the desire to recognise deserving talent in these blog pages.

She is a finalist in this year's Jolomo Foundation Awards, a competition "established by the artist John Lowrie Morrison in 2006 to support, encourage and promote the painting of the Scottish landscape".

So here's Claudia Massie in interview with the AFG blog:

What is your artistic background?

I trained at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2000, BA(hons) Drawing and Painting. My studies also included a six month scholarship at the Facultad de bellas artes at the University of Salamanca.

Your earlier stuff was much more urban - have you rejected that style completely or does your current painting still retain some of that?

The shift of focus from urban to rural subjects is chiefly a result of moving from the city to the country. I paint what I see around me, and currently that is a rural landscape. Also, having spent a few years working with the urban landscape I found it good to have a new challenge, one which encouraged a different approach both technically and mentally. I think that my work with architecture still has an impact on my style as I feel there is still quite a strong structural composition at work in the rural landscapes.

How do you see your painting developing?

My painting develops with every painting I do. I have practically everything still to learn and can only continue to improve, refine my skills, and push my work forward. Time will tell where it all goes but hopefully it'll be a good place!

What do you say to journalists who write of 'Jolomo' as a reactionary and traditionalist? (see Times article here)

Well, I guess that would be a fair assessment really, but it is not neccasarily a bad thing is it? Having met the man, I can assure you that he is someone with a real love, and knowledge, of painting. Why should he be interested in conceptualism if he doesn't like it? It's not in the same field really so it's a bit like knocking a classical music lover for not buying Eminem records. (Personally, I like Sibelius AND Eminem.) I'm not sure how much other, more fashionable and acclaimed artists are doing to help the next generation, so perhaps people should bear that in mind too. Jolomo is actually trying to help other artists.

What plans/projects do you have outside of your landscape painting?

All I really want to do is paint as much as I can. In a fantasy world I would also become a competent photographer, but right now it's just about the paint.

Claudia's work can be seen this weekend (29-31 May) at Lloyds TSB head office, 120 George St, Edinburgh. 10am - 5pm as part of the Jolomo prize shortlisted artists' exhibition.

In August she will be exhibiting with Camilla Watson at the Flaubert Gallery, Edinburgh

22 May 2009

Allan Massie - Surviving

Last week’s blog about Newton and the Oliphants of Condie threw up an interesting book, John Buchan’s ‘Witchwood’. One of John Buchan’s greatest admirers is Allan Massie, who wrote the foreword for the recent edition of Buchan’s book. ‘Witchwood’ deals partly with the struggle for survival in seventeenth century Scotland against the horrific popular sway of the witch-prickers and the extreme Puritanism of the anti-royalist Covenanters.

"Surviving", Allan Massie tells me, "is something that becomes increasingly difficult."

Vagabond Voices, a splendidly-named imprint operating off the Isle of Lewis, should find survival amongst tyrannically large publishing houses slightly easier now they have Massie’s latest novel to shout about.

The project seems a laudable one, and I am intrigued and impressed by this marriage of best-selling author and exciting, quirky publishing house, and am keen to honour Allan Massie’s request to disseminate ‘Surviving’ across the web, this blog being one such outlet, to help this worthy venture (and to embrace the technological netherworld - this from a man who revels in a life of dogs and seasons and the quiet might of the Borders).

This novel appeared rather unexpectedly; Allan Massie has been better known in recent years for his historical fiction, but his love affair with Rome receives a modern treatment in ‘Surviving'. This wistful, often biting novel surprises in its searingly honest portrayal of alcoholic ex-pats in Rome. The misplaced misfits of the novel are all numbingly human, their lives, sex and daily habits muttering and mulching uncomfortably under a Roman sun.

Massie introduces a bevy of characters in this ensemble piece where life between AA-meetings is played out around the piazzas and warm streets of central Rome. Massie’s ex-pats are a haphazard crowd, single people living in the aftermath of alcoholism and the daily struggle to not have a drink, blessed and cursed by the wisdom brought on by years, the naïve beauty of youth, the sad slow passing of time. This comes across as entirely credible. These characters, being human, are always given the chance to deal in redemption, and the slowly unfolding semi-tragedy is bathed in the glow of lazy Mediterranean Fate that glories in the minutae: life may be a battle to keep your head up, but spaghetti alle vongole and a glass of sparkling water and a battered copy of one of the Maigret stories can make it, if only momentarily, bearable.

The central motif of a writer setting down his addled thoughts is pleasing, a tender, even plaintive melody that rounds this brave novel off nicely:

Grief zur Feder, Kumpel – Grab your pen, mate.

That’s an admirable way to survive.

'Surviving' is published by Vagabond Voices and is available through their website

16 May 2009

Dead Close to Nature 3: Newton of Condie

Near a tiny village called Forgandenny in Perthshire we found a ruined house looking out over the valley, extended out back into two very new farm sheds. A wide arc of parkland surrounds the house, bordered by a walled step in the manner of great country houses. A great many old and dramatic trees stand widely spaced in front of what is still an imposing edifice. However, blackened inner walls suggest a fire and the place is neither signposted nor visited, at least I have never seen a soul there except the multitude of hares that live in the surrounding fields, four, five, six at a time seen all through winter and now spring, enormous beasts, strange of nature, taller than, and after careful watching nothing at all like, a rabbit. Hares have, after all, consistently been revered as spirits, possibly malign, definitely powerful, unpredictable, secretive. Hence this house took on a strange significance for me over the months.

Newton or Newtoun (latterly Condie) is a common enough estate name in Scotland, but this house and its ambiguous name introduced for me a muddle of research. It has also lived through some of the most tumultuous times in early modern Scottish history and thus finding the house began a kind of treasure hunt that I haven’t really solved. It was certainly an exercise in taking in the various tracts on the house found online, the joys of the Scottish Parliamentary Records and various parish records, but also knowing how to read this evidence and discount winsome yearnings from Oliphants overseas (and Oliphants closer to home) and strident presumptions by many an interneteer, myself included.

The house, although much added to over the years, was probably built about 1545. I asked Pip Blair Oliphant, a modern day descendent, about the house:

"The house in Forgandenny I am aware of but is not, despite it's claim, the seat of the Oliphants. This is a place called 'GASK' located in Perthshire which is no longer owned by the family either. Also, there are two different sets of Oliphants - The 'GASK' Oliphants, of which I am one, and the 'CONDIE' Oliphants who are from a different line. This house may be claimed to be their family seat, but I would question any sources as there is a good chance it was once owned by an Oliphant, which is different from it being anything more significant than that."

Thus there are various Oliphants amongst the landed Scots - the Oliphants of Gask and those of Condie are two. The Gask Oliphants settled not far from Newtoun near Gask in Perthshire not far from Crieff, but are directly connected by intermarrying with the Condie Oliphants at least until the eighteenth century. There are also Oliphants from Kinneder in Fife, who descend from the Condie Oliphants, and presumably various others. Here we will just concentrate on the Condie branch and this house and its times. In the seventeenth century Newton changed hands a few times amongst a small group of Scottish nobles and was involved in some pretty dodgy dealings.

Newton had been an important Perthshire noble house for almost a hundred years, and had seen two or three reigns already – James V died in 1542, and thus this house was built under the reign of James V’s faithful and not entirely unsuccessful wife Mary of Guise. It saw the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. James VI began to rule his kingdom with “the pen” from London when this house reached its quarter century, and Newton was acquired at this point by the first of many Laurence Oliphant(s) of Condie, 1601 being a mooted date, just two years before the Union of the Crowns and the dilemma that posed for Scotland and its nobles with its transfer of central power. It is clear that the house exchanged hands at this point (through purchase or inheritance) and although some sources suggest some Oliphants built the house themselves, it is only at the end of James VI’s reign that it is possible to prove the house passed into Oliphant hands, and it is suggested the so-called ‘first’ Oliphant of Condie, Laurence, bought it from one William Colville, and his wife Lilias Graeme whose relations we hear more of later. I imagine old Laurence as a portly and well-behaved courtier who kept things straight at Newton, and Laurence’s sons keep Newton for a few generations, but there was one (possibly whisky-guzzling – or insert your own apocryphal fact here) rogue Oliphant male who had decided enough was enough some time in the middle of the seventeenth century and stabbed his mother. Or possibly an evil step-mother. Here begins the sordid history of “the tower and the manor place and the...lands” of Newtoun.

Although one source has it that the strange events at Newton occurred at the end of the seventeenth century and only one year after the Revolution of William and Mary and the panicked flight of James VII to France, it seems certain that the violence occurred in 1648, a year before Charles I was beheaded by the English.

Let me just set the scene for you. Scotland has been upset by war for years and gripped with religious fervour. After James VI trundled off to England to rule Scotland from the wrong side of the border in 1603, court life broke down – or certainly was a shadow of its former vibrant self. And with the advent of the printing press not only were the nobles feeling left out, but thanks to John Knox, George Buchanan and later righteously moody Scots, the people started to make their voices heard. Scotland had, since the Reformation was set in motion in the late 1550s, rejected Catholicism and embraced Presbyterianism. But later kings were a bit lacksadaisical, to say the least, in adhering to the desire of the people – sound familiar? Mary used religion like a great big heart-shaped but petulant toy, but by being a private Catholic and marrying a bisexual Catholic (there are a surprising amount of them around) she had obviously decided that Rome was her best bet. James VI brought the bishops back. And then Charles I disastrously ignored the Kirk by introducing an anglicised Prayer Book. His opposers – the Covenanters - were getting pretty annoyed. The National Covenant consolidated religious and political grievances against Charles I who spent his time in London brushing his wigs and looking haughty and terribly well-bred.

In 1643 the Covenanters and the English parliamentary Protestants had signed the Solemn League, a treaty to unite them against the royalists. However, Cromwell and his New Model Army took against the Covenanters, saying they hadn’t kept their side of the Solemn League and by defeating Charles I without them, no longer needed them. The Covenanters split into two factions, the moderate Engagers and the mental Radicals. Cromwell defeated the Engagers at the Battle of Preston and by 1649 the ‘Kirk Party’ of the Radicals had complete control of Scotland; think witchhunt trials, men killed at war, families divided and the might of the Scottish Kirk. An excellent tome about this time is John Buchan’s ‘Witchwood’, a dark, oppressive tale of the suffocating religious Puritanism that gripped Scotland. It’s gripping and scary stuff.

Phew! For a moment there it looked like the Covenanters would take control of the Three Kingdoms. Nearly, ye bastards, nearly. In 1649 Cromwell had Charles I beheaded, something that shocked the Scots as regicide had never been part of the deal. The Scots broke any ties with Cromwell’s radical regime and named Charles II king – a move which has been touted as “unilateral hypocrisy”. There ensued an attempt to install a ‘Godly Regime’ and any remaining Engagers were purged from society.

Here we meet a certain Dame Geillis, or Giles, Moncrieff. Sometime in the 1630s or 1640s she married Sir James Oliphant of Newton, her second husband. His second son, George, was the aforementioned rogue Oliphant male. Why did he lose it with his stepmother and stab her, or at least try and stab her, forcing Dame Giles ask the Parliament “to repossess the supplicant to the tower and manor place of Newton and to the lands of Newton from where she was violently ejected”? Annoyed some tarty upstart had married his good old Dad? Wanted the estate for himself and thought the best way would be murdering the old bag? (It was very possible his father had died after marrying Dame Giles – did she slip him a dodgy mickey finn?) Had he been driven mad by war? We do not know his age, but it is easy to imagine a stately madam, a staunch Presbyterian – an Engager or a Radical? – or perhaps a royalist with a locket of Charlie in her garters - pissing off her wild young stepson enough to force him into attacking her. The emotions were running high back then, the Scottish Kirk split up by both religion and politics, and George might just have said one day near Christmas in 1648: “Stepmother, dear, if I hear the name of that tyrant Charles one more time I’ll be forced to stab you in the face!” “King Charles!” she squeaks bravely. And stab her he apparently does.
She survives the attack and takes her case to court. George disappears. To the New World perhaps? Killed in the wars broken out across the Three Kingdoms? He is seemingly untraceable, because since the court orders nobles of Dame Giles’ acquaintance “to cause apprehend the said Mr George and incarcerate him to remain in prison during the parliament or their committee's pleasure”, nothing has been heard of him as far as I can tell.
By 1691 and the Revolution of William and Mary, Newton has passed to Solicitor-General James Graeme, one of the middling sort who bought it with his lawyer money – some sources suggest that it was here that an Oliphant stabbed his stepmother, hence the house being bought by Graeme, but it would seem this source is misinformed. A James Graeme of Newton was witness to the marriage of Laurence Oliphant of Condie to Lilias Oliphant of Gask, a marriage that united two powerful Scottish noble families. His son sold it to James Moray who in turn, five years later, sold it to Lawrence, sixth of Condie, and the house takes on its name of Condie when it is incorporated into the large estates of said Oliphant.
Condie burnt down sometime in the eighteenth century. But that’s another story.

Photos by Claudia Massie

Thanks to Dr. Kirsty McAlister of Stirling University

Thanks to Pip Blair Oliphant

23 April 2009

The History Boys

I watched 'The History Boys' and whilst waiting for Dead Close to Nature 3 to be completed thought I’d better comment. It’s a film from a play by Alan Bennett about some post-A’ Level students cramming for Oxbridge and the three teachers who coach them. Richard Griffiths (very hard not to see shades of Uncle Monty) is brilliant and flawed as the from-the-heart old-fashioned master who fondles the boys’ balls on the ‘lift home’ on the back of his motorbike. He encourages the boys to think for themselves, challenge the truth, sing old songs, re-enact classic films and dissect the throbbing, romantic heart of learning. The more cerebral and antagonistic young teacher encourages them to craft snide but brilliant treatises on history with the emphasis on challenging norms and manipulating the politics of academia. Frances de la Tour is the ballsy lady teacher who keeps it all together and emanates solid, motherly and eccentric power.

Eccentricity is Bennett’s calling card, and the quirkiness is delightful, witty and weird. However, the underlying acceptance of ball-fondling and its very theatrical treatment of young school boys is pretty shameless. The gay relations are all tortured and the teachers, both homosexual, struggle with their sexy feelings for the boys. The one gay student is in love with the school hunk. There are several hunky boys in the film, and they all exist with a jolly ribaldry that is unrealistic but pleasingly idealistic – ‘if only all school boys were so enlightened’ is the message here, but they are not. The romance was heart-warming and coy, but I’d rather see a realistic treatment of adults vs. children – especially in a school environment. Griffiths is taking advantage of the boys, which is clearly not damaging for them within the pretty scope of the film. But the teachers are damaged humans who make bad choices and do not respect their responsibility for the boys social and sexual education. Thus homosexuality is something they must brush under the carpet (they could just not perve over school boys and go to the local gay bar) and the only homosexual child character perpetuates the ‘sins’ of his gay role-models. Let's bring it back to the law of the jungle.

Hot stuff, savannah life. Takes
your head off sometimes.

(head off, blown slow-mo off
with a smoking rifle – its bang-

bang a bathetic
sunny mini-boom muffled and

murmuring in its sleep).
Rules of the herd: keep your

horns to yourself and if you’re
lucky you’ll get a shag followed

by grass and a dust bath. Nice.
However, some antelopes

have morbid tendencies: “Going
to wet my whistle, Bob” one brays

before heading to the waterhole
and face to face with old-

school retribution. Tonight,
Graham (not his real name)

you will meet your pretty bloody
destiny in the gob of a croc.

I’m just tearing some leaves
off a low bush, thinking

of beetles and grass and the
whispering of the grass with

all the beetles beetling, when
a spasmodic blush spreads

down the inside of my hind leg
and along my long back

muddling the thought somewhat.
I get a hard-on about my

best friend, a shiny-coated
buck with an excellent record in

surviving where the waterhole is
concerned and

also knows the best grass, beetles etc
– cool.

I’m following in a long line of repressed
Beta-antelopes who get kinky

down time grazing it up
with the macho, grazing it

up before they make their
way to separate spots in the

shade. I am the gay antelope who
muzzles up to his pal, horny,

mounts on his back for a
second with a lustful glint, before
sliding off,

ambling away grunting, head
down to grass with that oryx look in my eye.
Antelope - AFG

Bennett seems to imply that even in this idealistic school scenario he has created, repression must exist. His romance is tainted by a foolish subscription to social stereotypes that he so stylishly avoids when speaking of learning itself, with the marvellous classes and the boys deep desire to learn, improve, flourish. But this education is stunted by Bennett’s acceptance of ball-fondling.

The young teacher who falls for top dog Dakin is better – he is drawn in to Dakin’s flirting but as he realises that he could be barking up the wrong tree and immediately withdraws, realising what he imagines is not really what is happening. But later he organises a blowjob date with the boy when school is finished. Pretty horny stuff but fizzles out at the end and never happens. Surely his duty was to say – “well, there is nothing wrong with boys giving each other blowjobs – in fact, it’s the shit – but we aren’t going to do it as I am your teacher and you are my student”, and then in the words of Erykah Badu, “see you next lifetime”. And perhaps a bit of sexual education, a pat on the shoulder and home to your perfectly functional relationship or your dog or your life – which is separate from forming the mind of the young.
Maybe I sound like a reactionary bore but there is a line.

The sexual politics are ultimately quite poignant; that homosexual and straight men usually experience some kind of frisson, sometimes it is acted upon and sometimes not. Young men are brimming with hormones, and are ambiguous. Bennett makes them erudite but rather than honest they are rather too adult. It is only frustrating afterwards as during the film you are entertained enough for it not to matter.

The gay boy is shy and retiring and hopelessly romantic. His idol is sexually active, the coolest boy and effortlessly confident. Here the case is of a shy person falling in love with confidence, physical and social brilliance, which I find a key feature of gay-straight obsessions. Gay men are always going to have flirtations, even sexual experiences with straight men. Indeed married men love it. However, just as women are rejected by men and gay men reject women – so gay men in turn are rejected by straight men. It’s life, Jim. So I don’t think that we can excuse the paedophilia-lite that is expressed in Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore mooning around after teenagers. But the keening desire? Well, that still exists.
And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.
From It Aint What You Do It’s What It Does To You – Simon Armitage

Being quite unaware, I mean dead-
asleep to it, I didn’t keep to it that
promise I made you when it was all
moony out and my heart was racing.
I couldn’t have meant it, that
moony night you were bracing your
feet either side of my head as I lay
back against a rock facing you and
you were up for it, out on the moor
with no-one around to see it. That was
a dark night, that night you had
read that your bones would crumble
the same as mine and it made you
hurt just to wait for it. Like the man
said, fate’s at work out here and
anyway I want to jump your bones, lucky
there’s no-one around to see it.
I make myself dead-asleep to it, eyes
shutting out stars and you getting up
and dancing to it and pulling me up and
you don’t swing me round like I’d
hoped but hold me tight, like you need it,
which is better but I ease my way out,
smiling. We were nearly there. Not
the sound of tomorrow, the sound of
the morning that hawks up the garbled
throat and the two-ring warning of an
alarm calling us back to the city,
we are suckers for that, you and I.
We’re dead-asleep to it, put it away in
a minute and we’ll sleep on it, I’ll
sleep on it and fuck tomorrow, I promise.

Shut up and Dance - AFG

13 April 2009

Dead Close to Nature 2: Rabbit Capital of Scotland

I invited you to bucolic Scotland, and so bring you to the ancient royal burgh of Stirling, the “'brooch' which held Scotland together”. We have been enjoying some pretty special Springs days of late, and the flying things have been up and soaring.

Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at hive-mouth.
Crawling in prone stupor of sun
On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,
Still wings, each
Magnetised to the other,
Float orbits.

From March morning unlike others – Ted Hughes

Stirling is historically crucial to Scotland as a nation for obvious reasons, but whereas five hundred years ago Stirling and Edinburgh were equal in stature, Stirling has since developed very differently from the capital. “I prefer Stirling now, I preferred Edinburgh then” is hardly world-class critical comparison, and also presumes on having a Highlander-type of immortality, but it is mine; you all ought to make your own and tell me about it. Stirling’s mistreatment in the twentieth century in terms of architecture is quite severe. The city lying on the volcanic ridge, the old town, has character – a key player is the Darnley Coffee House, devoted to syphilitic buccaneer Henry Darnley, everyone’s favourite bisexual Catholic and Mary, Queen of Scots, second husband; the castle is breathtaking, more so than Edinburgh, as when it appears amongst the mist when I’m getting the number 12 up the Carse (snigger) the whole vista is gloriously dark and its soundtrack would be Tina Turner’s ‘Better be Good to Me’ accompanied with warmongering whoops and the clashing of swords.

However, Stirling seems to suffer from being rather disjointed – the Thistle Centre may be a glittering mall palace inside, but it is an incomprehensible concrete mass out. The bridge over the railway is sweeping and new-looking enough to be quirky. It also has character and Stirling has surprising niches just like any town you begin to love with the passing of time, despite its defects and because of them. Two places I recommend in Stirling are Eurasia, a good if small Asian halal supermarket on Barnton Street, and Europa Music with its quirky staff and old-fashioned front. Note there are no nightclubs in this list – the only time I visited ‘Dusk’ I ended up in a break-dancing dance-off and slid the length of the floor roaring like a bear.

If you spelt it with an ‘a’
It would improve immeasurably
You know -
Like the bird sans pareil
That flickers rainbow
Bright from its nest,
But is seen as a commonplace
Pest understandably.

My experience of Stirling is centred around its University. Stirling University campus was built in the sixties and lies at the foot of the Ochil Hills. The layout is only inspiring in its natural beauty, a great deal of effort not having been put into the architecture nor indeed the parkland’s basic landscaping. The central loch is a stunning and effecting prospect with the hills rearing behind it, the gardens are kept in perfect order and there are an abundance of loch-side walks and views to Ben Nevis along the Carse from the nearby Wallace Monument. It’s real genius lies in its sheltered silence, its misty mornings, and its micro-climate in the Spring (and, one imagines, the summer – unless some terrible reverse effect takes place) which I, the swans, the ducks, the crows, and the monumental rabbit population (who sunbathe and nibble grass in profusion), enjoy immensely.

The vixen springs
The sparrow sings
The mole grins in his trap
The eagle swings
Her brazen wings
The bunny has a crap
Another Attempt at a Nature Poem, But Don’t Worry, Ted – Adrian Mitchell

In fact, the more I think of it, the more Stirling University resembles a lost world cradled in the crater of a volcano, except instead of lava the irritating and ultimately lethal rumble you hear from time to time is the carousing youths vomiting in the lake and barbecuing in a frenzied, bestial kind of way that leaves chunks of raw meat and glass shards like teeth for the ground staff in the morning. Here lies, dear readers, one reactionary’s prime example of the problem with the jeunes of today. They should perform a litter-pick, it’s the civil thing to do. I am the last person to naysay madcap booze-induced flytipping, but part of the hangover’s curse is the tidying-up and it may not be rock & roll, but a black plastic sack sets off head-to-toe leather from the night before admirably. Gobsmackingly, it is illegal for students to litter-pick for Health and Safety reasons! I insert here a pained grunt of disbelief coupled with a sickening sense of foreboding. However, look on the bright side, rock-stars! Throwing rubbish is an accepted side effect of rebellion! Fuck the rabbits and their wide-eyed brethren! Eat glass and die bunny!

The horrors of modern life. Hopefully they will all develop into recycling adults who in turn feel strangely guilty and panic-stricken when the recycling mountains are seen on the news – we can but wonder why we didn’t just throw it on the pavement in the first place. But NO! Think of the rabbits. And their wide-eyed brethren.
Photographs by Katie Evamy

06 April 2009

Dead Close to Nature 1: Portrack House, Dumfries

This begins a series of blogs about Scotland and its evolving landscapes and history. If you believe (although I hardly see how you could) that the Borders and Central Scotland are in fact the fiery gates to a nauseatingly folkloric hell-world, then you should turn away now. This is the Dead Close to Nature Blog. I know! So catchy and hardly funny at all – a perfect tone to match my seriously gingham all-in-one country smock and killer farm boots a juego.

You’ve never heard of me, I dare
Say. Well, I’m here.
Voice from the Tomb (5) – Stevie Smith

Blogging is a morbid format for anyone wanting people to read what they write – it is a license to bombard a virtual audience with whatever the blogger wants, and the complaint stands that this destroys the ‘proper’ writing process and its dissemination. It does, however, democratise a literary world rife with nepotism, greed and snobbery. I’m all for the latter – as I said to my old friend Cybill Shepherd the other day: “Cybill”, I said, “Vive la Democracie, don't you think?” And she of course agreed, with tears in her eyes. Blogging gives a pathetic sense of community to its wide-eyed slave the blogger, however fantastical, and the billboard slickness of the computer screen renders everything in a finished glow, ready to post off into cyber space. 'Dead Close to Nature' is a rural blog so that should neutralise some of the high-falutin’ ideals and get down to what is important in life: hares, hills and hip flasks. It should be read whilst wearing a good country coat, sturdy boots and listening to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ on full blast. A blog with a dress-code! But I digress:

‘Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten –
That’s an unbeatable hand!
But this is football.’
Adrian Mitchell

The Scottish lowlands have for many centuries been a highly cultivated area. Even the moors with their sweeping heather and dark squares of pine forest have represented an industrial landscape for hundreds of years. Think Easter Island but with slightly less disastrous consequences, that is if you don’t regard the demise of the Scots pine a disastrous consequence. However, by means of reparation, you can make a pretty fair pact with the countryside by carving a garden out of it.

The gardens at Portrack in Dumfriesshire, designed by Maggie Keswick and Charles Jencks, continued by Charles, John and Lily Jencks, and executed by the head gardener Alistair and his team, is a constantly evolving dynamic project that marries reverence of the history of the existing garden with a flight of science and fantasy. Since my last visit five years ago the garden has been much added to; a bridge that is a comet shooting into a copse, with ground that actually gently moves when you walk on it; a triangle of black-and-white painted poles (a primitive clock? a black hole? a pagan dance-floor?) looking back over the house with moss-covered mushroom-shaped wide-arching steps leading back to it; the old railway bridge turned into a sculpture hanging over the River Nith and the railway re-sited to flow past a record of the Age of Scottish Enlightenment by serpentine green hills; a row of trees recording the history of Scotland, no less; Fishhenge, a man-made stone circle – stone spiral - that is the start and beginning of universes by the riverside.

Portrack is so obviously committed to the continuing genesis of the garden in its theoretical and physical entirety that the sensation of walking the garden has an almost hypnotic effect – it is a benign place, and a humbling experience. It is also a learning experience which is accessible even for strangers to the theory and work behind the garden. Portrack’s sheer majesty, contrariness and precision, its utterly ballsy and barmy exuberance, are exciting and infectious. I fully recommend a visit; this year’s single open day is on May 3rd.

Many snapshots stand out: a heron landing on the top of a spiralling hill at the base of the uphill waterfall 'The Universe Cascade'; the carefully careless log sculptures that dot the hinterlands of the garden; the drip-drip of water under the railway bridge, one of the many irregularities the garden threw up that were received with glee by the Jencks; two yellow wagtails dipping and playing across the causeway on the lake by 'The Snail'; a gigantic swan flying low and loud along the river past 'Fishhenge' as we dragged driftwood from the stone skeleton; covering up plants with muslin for the night under the warning of frost; listening to Gram Parsons whilst nestled in the trees looking out over the valley; standing on the old railway bridge and waving madly at the passing trains; examining purple-sprouting plants that grow in profusion in the greenhouses like something out of C.S Lewis’ ‘Out of the Silent Planet’; waking up to all this in the morning, rolling a cigarette and stepping out into the garden.

Anyway. Everyone will have a different opinion about it, but mine is keenly favourable. However, to give a sense of balance read Stevie Smith’s unlikely assault on Iberian art – just goes to prove beauty is in the eye of the beholder:

Dr Peral
In a coat of gray
Has a way
With his mouth which seems to say
A lot
But nothing good to hear
And as for Dona Ysabel Corbos de Porcel
What a bitch
This seems to me a portrait which
Might have been left unhung
Or at anyrate slung
A little higher up.

The Spanish School - Stevie Smith

Finally: Portrack also boasts one of the few remaining successful red squirrel populations, which added to my list of key fauna to see this spring, my healthy obsession with hares aside, of which more (as always) later.

Photographs by Nicole Eldredge

18 March 2009

Amorphous Blob as Mature Student

Hands up if you have ever appeared
Student-styled in long jeans and a tee

Ready to learn whatever at University
But you are ten years older and weird

Your smile is no good, it’s ancient
It’s the gaping maw of time

Preserved in age-old watery brine
So they’re hardly going to be patient.

My hand’s up all the time anyway
I should have it tied to the light

That hones in during the night
On the things I strictly mean to say

Written up in a well-meaning hand.
This hand! The one that’s not aloft,

I mean, is constantly rubbed soft
By the scribbling of notes, as the sand

Pours madly through the hourglass.
In the first learning hour of the morn

Where the chicks, tiny and half-formed,
Squirm under their desks in class

Eyeing me with either admiration
Or chagrin, as the enormous mitt

Rises heavenward – shit!
Possibly I am hated by the nation

Or at least these nubile young,
Homework ever incomplete, they’re

Done in by booze and my hefty pair
Of hands whose work is never done.

Inmates have taken to calling me
Jesus, for the beard and upright

Hands, one imagines; they fight
To light my fag – oh, the vanity!

Holding court: “Those ten years of rout
Have stood me in terrible stead

I always want to go to bed, dead
Tired from the daily grind and clout”

A pip squeaks: “How actually old can
You really be, bearded man-God who

Came from a misty distant past, those two
Working hands a-flutter?” “Young man

I am but nine and twenty.”
Unexpected gasps all round

Since then, silence abounds
I think I’ve told them plenty.

16 March 2009

The Amorphous Blob Is Rejected Twice In One Week

Crapola. Poem after poem sent to thrilling mags, and none of the high-falutin' buggers want to publish them. Lucky I'm not bitter. Sadly I have spent so much time gorging myself to satisfy the food blog I resemble a balloon. AND - they have taken to calling me the Amorphous Blob. In retaliation for this terrible treatment, I punish you with this:

If you had a choice
Amidst the haste and noise
Which would you choose:
Or poetry?
(Perhaps you’d prefer booze?)
Zesty wine consumption is known
To leave you dying all alone
Chewing on gristle and bone
And none of your mates phone you.
And also
News – that gristle makes you fat,
All that poetry
Requires is that you jump
Off a roof top
Or other such drama
To re-imagine your karma.
The good news is
This blog gives you both
No need to commit hara-kiri
Just bring out the piri-piri.
Poetry is far more
Than eating.
And drinking.
Phew. I think I'd better

04 March 2009

Food Blog Fourth Edition: Curry Diary

Opening the door –
‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’
Snow morning.

Today the blog is interspersed with Japanese verse called Senryū, developed in the latter half of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), a style that “deals in distortions and failings” as opposed to the original mysticism of the tanka and haiku. Thus, mysticism aside, it is time to attend to the stomach. Patty Neil, famed curry tiffin creator of Selkirk and authoress of a fantastic book on Asian cuisine, is once more my inspiration, as she has been in the past. Apologies for complete lack of authenticity, it is possible I will go to hell, but as the senryū goes:

Judging from the pictures,
Hell looks the more
Interesting place.

And I always like to see my cup as half full; the triumph of good will over authenticity:

‘She may only have one eye
But it’s a pretty one,’
Said the go-between

My father was born in Pune, India, where my grandparents, Martin and Mary Giles, lived a basic lifestyle in the fifties. Post-war, post-England, it seemed a wild place, but a tonic after the hell of “our” war as they call it, and all that unthinkable loss; this as opposed to the “first” war – where Mary’s mother, my great-grandmother, lost her first fiancé. She didn’t marry again until much later, agreeing on her marriage by letter and giving birth to Mary age forty. Martin (a engineer in the Navy during the war) lost two brothers, two amongst millions. In India he was in charge of a railway junction, and they lived in a small house hidden away in a valley that was sodden in the monsoon season, then sumptuous, then barren in the dry. There was a wallah for everything, and the hierarchy of servants was typically Indian in its idiosyncratic breadth and precision. Father tells how he was suckled by an Indian wet nurse; “bloody rubbish”, was Mary’s reply. Mary tells of one day at bath time how a snake oozed up through the plughole, a wallah dispatched to kill it as she shrieked dripping from the bath-tub. Martin often still calls Mary the Memsahib, and their house in Devon is full of memorabilia that has been imprinted on my visual memory from a very early age, coupled with bits and pieces from Mary’s childhood in Thailand, where my great-grandfather lived and worked in the twenties and thirties. The great golden Buddha on an oriental chest in the lounge watches over us all with a fat, benign grin on his face.
Martin and Mary went on to own various hotels in England, most famously the George in Hatherleigh, where Mary was chief cook, counting Ted Hughes as a regular amongst others (see Crow blog). Martin manned the bar along with five thirsty children, so never be surprised when the wine flows at a Giles family gathering (and indeed on any other occasion), as it is something we have been brought up with. Mary and her lobster thermidor and mussel chowder are legendary, as are her wild cries from the kitchen as she wrought her arcane magic and put out a chip-pan fire or two.

It is not surprising, therefore, that my life has always known good food, and in particular has contained some very exciting curries. I always rather enjoyed telling my Spanish friends when I lived in Madrid that Indian food was the most popular cuisine in Britain. Not only does it hold a certain pleasing post-Colonial irony for me, but it also knocks the tall tale on the head that British cuisine is a dry and tasteless food desert. Of course even native British cuisine does not need to be, but Indian food, or comida hindú as the Spanish call it, is internationally renowned enough, and exotic enough, for Spanish friends to stop any harping on about how terrible British food is. (Their spice and heat threshold is low, however, and only the mildest korma suits the average Spanish palate.) Fish and chips have a lot to answer for, but trying to tell a Spaniard that even that can be matchless is a fruitless affair.

After a week of feeling a pressing coup de vieux (I had plunged into Ted Hughes’ Crow feet first, with exhausting, questionable but ultimately relieving results), it was time to stop the porridge and salad diet, equally ignore my longing for pie after pie after pasty after pie, and get cooking.
Last night was curry night chez blogger. I was cooking for me, and me alone, with plenty of good radio on 4 (as long as I didn’t need to hear about Fred the Shred and his £650,000 a year – galling ), Golden Virginia for crafty fags, a look-out on the rain from my study-room window, and the lone white rabbit who lives below my window hopping about, a ghost amongst his sandy brethren. Very satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, I love to have guests, but there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that the bottle of red wine has only your name on it, and those steaming pots of curry too. As Greta Garbo would have said in all her glamour and celluloid wisdom, I vanted to be alone.

As it’s such a sweat,
He cooks a whole gallon –
The bachelor.

Possibly the best curry I have had this century is my father’s boiled egg curry, so hot it makes your ears bleed. None of that brightly coloured gloop served in some British Indian restaurants, but a freshly-turned out curry served with a lightness of touch. Rosie Jenkins, friend and oboeist for the Northern Sinfonia (and first oboe for the Mumbai Symphony Orchestra – so she also knows curry) and her sister Katy Karpfinger, world traveller and fellow brass player, will testify to this. One night in my Yorkshire home village, the incomparable Gilling West, Katy, Rosie and I downed red wine as the ridiculously good coriander-covered dragon-dish did its good work. My father has India in his blood.
Anyway, last night’s curry: Blog-chicken. I can’t really give it a proper name as I didn’t follow a recipe, but I am pretty sure Madhur Jaffrey would not have turned her nose up at it:

Fry up the chicken breast pieces in garlic, onion and olive oil. When it starts to look cooked put in fresh ginger, cumin, garam masala, turmeric, crushed coriander and fennel seeds (and fresh chilli depending how hot you would like it – I put it in plenty but not enough to get the eyes bleeding – sorry Dad ) and get it all nicely browned. Alternatively you should marinate it in the same and add more spices at the point of cooking. Chuck in some veg. I put courgettes, carrots and potato. I think some peppers would have been nice, and some aubergine*. I toyed with the idea of okra but it didn’t compute. Add chicken stock (in my perfect world I’d always have a pot full of bones slowly boiling on my Aga in the farmhouse, a bestselling book on the lists at all times and a bay tree outside the back door. Otherwise, cheat), a tin of tomatoes, tomato puree and a bay leaf or two (cheated there too, but an enormous bag only costs 69p at the Asian supermarket). Season. Cook it away on a low heat for an hour and a half or so, taking the lid off if there is too much liquid. Turn it off and leave it for a day; put it in the fridge when cooled if you are feeling energetic (note: I am channelling Nigella here, but there is something to be said for her sluttish and extremely enjoyable sex-before-freezing philosophy that agrees with this dish and many more). I always leave any stew-type dish or soup for a day, it seems to collect more flavour.
The night of the curry feast, make the daal. Again, this is not the classic recipe but it works well for me. Red lentils, crushed garlic, chicken stock (I used a cube), cumin, coriander seeds, fennel (you may have noticed I got a job lot of fennel seeds at the Asian supermarket) and a little salt. Bring to the boil. Leave to simmer until a smooth-ish paste. Chuck in tons of chopped fresh coriander and squeeze in some fresh lime juice. Check seasoning. Also, after reheating the chicken curry mix in lots of chopped fresh coriander – key ingredient – and the aubergines if you read the footnote.

The rice turned out all right. One cup of basmati, two cups water, bring to the boil and turn right down or off (presuming you’re electric, if gas, down, naturally). Leave to sit for as long as possible, at least 15 minutes. Some cover it in a tea towel while it sits. The Artist heats up an enormous cauldron of water, throws in the rice and drains it, and I have to say her rice is generally faultless. To recap: everyone has their rice fix, but this way pretty much always works for me. The easiest way I have ever cooked rice, however, was when I worked in a restaurant – in a rice cooker. Perfectly separating rice with a smile on its face and no depressive soggy streak.
Serve the curry on a big platter with lime pickle (my latest find is Ahmed Foods Lime Pickle in Oil: Product of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – always a good cause to support unless you’re a Sri Lankan cricketer - with enormous and pretty hot chunks of lime, and the ingredients in Arabic – authentic – I think so! – and all for the price of £1.29), cold natural yoghurt, more chopped fresh coriander and a couple of hard boiled eggs if you want them. Somehow, probably due to my upbringing, that seems incredibly authentic, but is pure Yorkshire stinginess. You may also wish to lace it with silver or gold. An kitsch old cookery book of Mughal cuisine which the Artist thought for years was a plush book with crap photos of food WITH SILVER FOIL UPON IT (ie some weird misplaced Mughal love of Western modernity, or a very lazy chef who made it impossible to change said photo before deadline pre-Photoshop) is actually posh Indian food made even posher by covering it with slivers of silver and gold THAT STILL LOOK LIKE LEFTOVER KITCHEN FOIL. But precious metals they are, possibly even served by a naked man-servant as you lounge in a throne on an elephant’s back. We can but dream.
REPLETE? If not, finish the wine. I had a Californian Zinfandel which was less than average but I prefer to wash back curry with red wine, rather than cold and soulless beer. If you’re still not full, you are a glutton and I salute you. Cut a fresh, ripe mango in half, squeeze a lime over it and add a touch of sugar if you have a particularly sweet tooth. I then picked up a book the Artist had ordered me to read: Geoffrey Household’s ‘Rogue Male’, a book I immediately fell headlong into, dreaming of dirty secrets and an inhumanly-damaged human with a desire to hunt the ultimate big game. Chief objectives leading to escape are the following:

“Item: I had to shave off a four days’ beard. That was far from being the mere prejudice of an Englishman against appearing in public with his bristles. If a man is clean shaved and has a well-fitting collar and tie – even reasonably dirty – he can get away with a multitude of suspicious circumstances.

Item: Gloves. The ends of my fingers had to be shown while paying money and taking goods, and they were not human.”

Item: An Eyeshade. My left eye was in a condition that could not be verified without a mirror. The eyelid had stuck to a mess of what I hoped was only blood.”

Glad I gorged first.

* Aubergine tip: chop them up into thick slices, salt them, brush them with olive oil and put a blob of Tabasco on each one. Then grill them (both sides) until golden and joyful. Alternatively put them in baking tray, salt them, squeeze on the juice of a little lemon or a big lime and plenty of olive oil and leave them until crispy and golden (again, turn them – there is devil-may-care sluttish and there is just plain laziness). Then add them to the curry the next day at the point of heating up. See how your aubergines have become small, dark, firm-but-not-dry discs of sumptuous, voluptuous desire. Thank-you Delia.