Thursday, 28 July 2011

Men of the North

Laid low yesterday by a mild virus (that will teach me to go anywhere),I have been re-reading Tim Clarkson's Men of the North, which is rather a depressing wakeup call about how very little can be known for certain - as opposed to romantically wished or guessed - about the British kingdom of Strathclyde. This British kingdom was ruled from Dumbarton Rock, until it dwindled and faded from about 1085 onwards until the last reference to 'Brets' in a law sorting out customary penalties for killing someone or the price to be paid on marriage during the reign of Edward I in 1305 , and would probably have included Moffat from time to time when the kingdom's fortunes waxed. It is a curious fact that while the Scotti were Irish, the 'Welsh' ( an Anglian word meaning 'the other lot' ie the original inhabitants of these islands) were British. The Brits themselves referred to each other as 'Cumbrogi' (fellow countrymen), in the course of history coming to mean people who lived in Cumberland/Cumbria. More later.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Where were we?

So: here we are on July 27. I've been in North Berwick with my bucket and spade, with a short side trip to New York for a family wedding Fri-Mon last weekend. The family wedding was well worth the trip - since you ask, I went from Glasgow on the direct Continental flight departing 9.0am on Friday morning, back more or less at the same time on Monday. the flight goes to Newark which now has a train service into Penn station, central NYC. I walked to my hotel a few blocks north to stretch my legs, and rendezvous'd with my sister. We sat under a Swatch umbrella at a Swatch branded table under the overpass by Grand Central sipping iced tea, catching up. Dinner that night was with members of both bride and groom's families in an open air courtyard at a restaurant called Flatbush Farm in Brooklyn. We all got on like a house on fire, and only extreme exhaustion drew me away at what was by then 3am my time, back to my room overlooking the beautiful Chrysler building. On the day of the wedding, I went to meet my cousin Jacky and my sister at Balthazar a French brasserie in West Broadway on the lower west side for eggs Benedict, then off to a meeting with friends of Alexander Men to talk about our conference to be held in Moffat Sept 14-17 2012. The wedding itself took place at 6.30pm in a beautiful rural setting, at an 18th century mill deep in the NY Botanic Gardens. The couple, both artists, had invented their ceremony which was conducted by a friend licensed to carry out marriages. Food and drink flowed while photographers did their stuff, then we went upstairs for a sit down dinner and the speeches. Outside, the air was a balmy 23 degrees. Inside the air con was so fierce that we huddled in shawls - luckily we had been warned to take plenty of warm clothing because of this bizarre American habit. The following day, Sunday, the bride's grandfather hosted a relaxed brunch at a restaurant in Bryant Park, a lovely green space right in the centre of the city, after which I went with my overnight bag to Grand Central jumped on a subway train to Penn and thence to Newark for my flight. Everything like check in was done online and by bar code either one's credit card or passport before joining the shuffling queue to go through security. At this point it dawned on me that I could take my bag on board with me to save waiting at baggage reclaim at Glasgow. We landed about an hour early and I was back in North Berwick by 10am on Monday. Forgive me if this is all incredibly old hat, but I do not travel much any more and it has changed so much in the past few years. What did I think about New York, a city I have known for nigh on 50 years? Well, I have to say my impression is of a city settling into post-imperial status - by no means a write-off, but let's say already a latterday Rome. The verve and perfectionism is still there, the haggling and negotiation at every turn, including with taxi drivers whatever it said on the clock. All this leaves me not much time to report on our Moffat Book Events progress meeting yesterday, which was very upbeat, lots of new ideas and we now have a very exciting programme more or less on the theme of 'transformation' for our Oct 15 event. A major innovation will be our children's session, led by chairman Adam Dillon and Angus 'Moffalump' Sinclair with storytellers to be announced. Moira Cox will be revealing the hidden code concealed beneath our choices of everyday dress: a handbag, bangle and necklace might be the 21st century equivalents of combat equipment, military rank and Celtic torque! Tina Fox will be marshalling our volunteers, and Ruth Tittensor will help us down memory lane with the help of Moffat's own 100 objects. This is me, Mrs Boudicca of School Lane signing off until tomorrow...

Friday, 8 July 2011

Arthur (and Merlin)

I am nearly at the end of Alistair Moffat's Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, which quotes from our other Oct 15 2011 guest, Nikolai Tolstoy's, The Quest for Merlin. Both books advance convincing arguments for the tales of Arthur and Merlin as being based on real British people active in this part of Scotland in the 6th century. Like the map on the Southern Uplands Partnership, the beautifully hand drawn map of the south of Scotland on the frontispiece of Arthur shows the river Clyde foreshortened - in this case, absurdly showing the river rising in Lanark instead of at the Crookedstane where the Daer and the Potrail Water meet. There is an ancient house between the two small rivers that become the Clyde, called Watermeetings and I suspect there must be some archaeology buried under or around the house, if 'Myrddin...held to the Druidic belief that water-meetings were magically powerful'(Arthur p125). A fascinating chapter on trees and their connection with the 'stick' alphabet, Ogham - where letters of the alphabet are associated with a particular type of British native tree - gives rise to speculation about the unpopularity of the Forestry Commission's favourite: the Sitka spruce. This introduced tree, native to every other country in the world on the latitude of Britain, evokes a unique and apparently visceral hatred, unlike any other utilitarian crop introduction such as the potato. I have been worrying away for years to address the source of this passionate resentment, which is far too widespread and lies far too deep to be reached by rational argument eg about spruce's usefulness. I now think that Alistair's chapter on the central role of trees in pre-Christian British belief and culture provides the answer. Every native British tree - the birch, rowan,alder,willow,ash, hawthorn,oak,elder, ,hazel,and yew (along with whin - gorse -, vine,ivy,and elder) was associated with a letter of the runic Ogham alphabet made up of stick-like marks across or to left or right of a central line, as well as with medicines and fundamental uses, properties for burning on a hearth and so on. Our Oct 15 2011 event is entitled 'The Roots of Scotland's Family Tree' - how appropriate in light of the tree-related culture and beliefs of our ancestors.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

How a book was made

A digital, updated version of the book I co-edited with Ann Shukman in 1996, Christianity for the Twenty-First Century. - the Life and Work of Alexander Men is about to be made downloadable as an ebook/Amazon Kindle. For this second edition, I have written a short account of how the book came to be made.
Here's is how it happened:

In 1990, the Director of the All-Union International Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow, VGBIL,- an immensely powerful institution at the forefront of the drive for liberalisation in what was then the USSR -, Mrs Ekaterina (Katya) Genieva, introduced my daughter Abi to Fr Alexander Men, who was Katya’s close friend, colleague and parish priest at Novaya Derevnya where she had a weekend dacha. By this time, Fr Alexander had a weekly prime time TV programme addressing general historical, cultural and philosophical as well as religious questions, and was giving lectures on a wide variety of topics every day of the week at halls and auditoriums in Moscow and other big Russian cities. He had been allowed to visit Rome where he met Pope John Paul II and was due to go later in the year to Germany with General Secretary Gorbachev as part of a select top level retinue. Abi was living with Katya and her family while she studied voice at the Conservatoire as part of the language practice requirement of her degree course in Russian at Swansea University. Katya had become a friend of our family over the 10 years that I worked alongside my husband John Roberts, being both a Russianist and a long-standing (since 1962) member of the Great Britain-USSR Association of which he was Director.

At Easter 1990, Abi decided to be baptised by Fr Alexander, so I went out with my daughter Elly to meet him and discuss details such as her baptismal name. News of his death came by fax to our house on the morning of Sept 10, the day after he was attacked with an instrument now believed to have been a sappers spade as used by the Soviet special forces, on his way to take morning service . Abi was devastated and I was also deeply shocked. We had been expecting him in London the following week where he was due to speak at a conference at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. I was invited to give an instant assessment of the scale of Russia and the world’s loss on the BBCR4 Sunday programme that weekend. One of my oldest friends, Robert Dudley, who was then a publisher of Christian books, offered to publish a cycle of Fr Alexander’s Easter sermons Awake to Life to which his parish priest Richard Harries (later Bishop of Oxford, now Lord Harries of Pentregarth) wrote an introduction; later, Robert came out to Moscow for the ‘presentation’ of the book, and met Katya.

A couple of years later, I was in Moscow, again on literary business, staying at the Patriarch’s hotel, built originally to accommodate the dignitaries who had come to Moscow in 1988 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Christianisation of Russia. I came down to breakfast one morning and sat at the communal table with John Bowden, director of SCM Press and translator and publisher of the Bonhoeffer letters. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned Fr Alexander Men.

He said: ’You are the third person to have mentioned that man’s name to me on this visit (he was in Moscow at the invitation of the Patriarch, to advise on publishing). When we are both back in London, we must meet to discuss doing a book’ .

When Bowden came to see me, I had laid out on the dining table all the materials I had. Then and there, we decided what form the book should take:- a series of characteristic excerpts of his work, to be chosen by someone close to him whose judgement was considered sound by others in his immediate circle, with a biographical introduction giving the reader an idea of his life and character.

Having signed the contract with SCM, I went back to Russia to start the process of collecting sample writings, sermons and excerpts from his books. His followers were largely still in shock or in hiding, fearing that the same fate might befall them. Communications both within Russia and to and from the outside world to Russia at that time were extremely difficult: telephones were rationed and bugged, photocopiers, where they existed, were kept in locked cupboards to which only authorised persons, party trusties, had a key. Mobile phones, of course, did not exist. As an example of the kind of precautionary steps that were thought necessary: following Alexander Men’s death on Sept 9, I went out to Russia in October 1990 to attend the traditional ‘40th day’ services, which included a ritual meal at Novaya Derevnya, attended by a crowd of clerics including the Metropolitan and Gleb Yakunin plus only three women: Fr Alexander’s widow Natalya Federovna; Katya Genieva and myself. Before I left, I was asked to take back to England a suitcase full of tapes, videos, photographs and other materials because it was feared that the KGB would try to destroy them all. The man nominated to select the material for the SCM book was Fr Ignatiy Krekshin, then one of two monks who were sent to occupy a monastery near the Tchaikovsky estate at Klin 60 miles northwest of Moscow. I went there in the depths of winter, with a car and driver provided by Katya, as discretely as possible, in deep snow. Fr Ignatiy gave me a sheaf of papers typewritten and photocopied to be smuggled back to London to be translated.

For most of 1992, John was in the process of retiring & in 1993 – the year of his actual retirement - I was teaching at the university of Yaroslavl. In 1994, we moved out of London into the house at Crookedstane Rig we had built in my forestry plantation, later to become my home, in the southern uplands of Scotland. For the book, I had gathered together a team of volunteers to attempt translations of the texts and they were of a pretty mixed quality. Due to the other pressures on my time and my own limitations as a translator/editor, the time came when I turned for help to Ann Shukman, who took over the business of producing a professional translation and writing a well-researched biographical note placing Fr Alexander in his time. Others – Richard Harries and Cardinal Lustiger who had met Fr Alexander briefly en route to meet the Patriarch -, and Abi also provided material. The book launch in 1996 was held in Oxford and attended by Rowan Williams then Bishop of St David’s in Wales.

An international conference revisiting these events, and debating what lessons can be learned for the conduct of successful ministry in a largely secular culture is planned for Moffat in Sept 2012.

Charitable status

Moffat Book Events' charitable status has edged closer - we are now looking at the final draft of our application. The association’s objects are:to promote the advancement of the Arts, Heritage, Culture and Science of Moffat and District. I have been in touch with both Nikolai Tolstoy and Alistair Moffat, both scheduled to appear at our October 15 event, suggesting they share a platform to discuss the evidence for placing the events of the Arthurian cycle in the south of Scotland as both argue in, respectively, The Quest for Merlin (Tolstoy) and Arthur (Moffat). In another part of the wood, on Monday (July 4) the architect of the Eden Project, Michael Pawlyn, came up to meet a group of us concerned with the fortunes of the Upper Clyde valley and to prepare a bid for Community Benefit funds to make an imaginative hub for outdoor and indoor activities, to attract visitors and enhance everyone's lives. Rural transport and employment prospects are on everyone's minds, and the Clyde windfarm represents an opportunity to address that. Over a sandwich lunch, Michael gave a short PowerPoint presentation showing how architecture can take brilliant problem-solving ideas from nature, giving as an example a building in the desert on the edge of the sea in North Africa, which makes fresh water from the design on the roof (evaporating the salt away) to water plants within, and is turning the land around it greener in the process. He also showed how benign closed-loop systems can work. Examples he gave were: first a project in Yorkshire in which unwanted cardboard packaging is collected from restaurants, turns it into bedding for equestrian businesses, the waste enriched with manure is then composted to produce worms for feeding to a sturgeon farm which in turn yields caviar to sell back to the restaurants. This particular project employs the disadvantaged: the disabled, former drug users and others who might otherwise be a cost to society. Another example was a restaurant in Amsterdam where food served in the restaurant is grown in a greenhouse along the side, and waste from food is used to feed fish which are also in turn on the menu. After lunch, we set out to explore the area - it was blazing hot and the whole landscape shimmered under the blue sky. One of our number is an expert campaigner hoping to re-open the train service to some of the many little railway stations such as at Elvanfoot, Crawford and Abington along the Clyde, so we went to look at the sites where the stations used to be. In Abington there is a beautiful 50-acre site belonging to Scottish Centres, which used to be a holiday camp for children from the cities, and is now disused - potentially the site for a new 'hub' from which people could set out to explore the area along heritage trails, whether on foot, by bike, with llamas, or on horseback. We will soon have miles of new hill tracks provided by the nearby Clyde windfarm and archaeologist Tam Ward from Biggar Museums Trust, who over the past 10 years as a volunteer has more or less single-handedly unearthed the astonishingly rich historical remains peppering the land, has 15 heritage trails already in mind which will lead to a concentrated richness of relics. Electric vehicle recharging points will be provided in the confident expectation that visitors will want to be in the forefront of the green, low-carbon economy. Watch this space.


Sunday, 3 July 2011

A Walk with Alistair Moffat

Alistair Moffat led a well-attended walk organised by Borders Forest Trust's man on the spot,Ed Glenwright to the Devil's Beef Tub on Saturday, a fine still day and -amazingly- few midges. Alistair went out of his way to emphasise what a significant period the Reivers represent in Borders history, brought about by the collapse of political authority following the defeat of the Scottish army at Flodden. Armed gangs, criminal families, roamed at will raping and stealing until the accession of James VI following the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth I restored unity to the two warring kingdoms. At one point, Alistair paused beside a large sheep stell and I asked him if he had ever heard the rumour that these drystone wall features in the landscape, situated in varying places and of varying sizes, were derived from formulae invented by the 17th century mathematician Sir John Napier. It is always claimed that stells are for sheep to shelter in or other sheep related functions, but this theory has flaws. My house looks out onto a hillside where a neighbour keeps his blackface flock, and never once in bad weather have I seen a sheep sheltering in one of these edifices. I have a stell on top of a hill, quite small and round with very tall walls - quite a different shape from the one I can see on the opposite hillside. I suppose they were handy for a man to shelter in to treat a sheep or a lamb if it were in trouble, and mine had a very ancient, rusty broken bucket lying beside it which suggests some kind of utilitarian purpose. The ground up there is marshy, evidenced by the reeds growing in and around the stell but there is no burn. A mystery. On Sunday I went across to Elshieshields to continue making plans with Ann Shukman for an international conference to celebrate the life and work of Alexander Men, one of the twentieth century's martyrs who I met just before he baptised my elder daughter at Easter 1990, a few months before he was murdered in circumstances reminiscent of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral eight centuries before.

Friday, 1 July 2011


Victory for Moffat CAN in the People's Jubilee Lottery competition was the great news in my inbox this morning. This is a terrific boost to the whole town, and reflects great credit on all concerned. I expressed my delight by doing some cooking, putting together a beetroot salad with wilted spinach and toasted pinenuts, preparing some new season's turnips to reheat with streaky bacon (a winning combination, with parsley), baking a potato and a packet of hamburger patties in the oven and cooking some courgettes. All this food preparation is not because I am expecting a siege, but with fine weather forecast, and a busy day out and about tomorrow I hope not to spend another minute in the kitchen. I also bought some particularly juicy- looking cherries from the market stall; had I not got so much in the larder already, I could have bought far more: broad beans, celery, lettuce, nectarines all looked mouth-wateringly delicious. Zac came over to watch a Ben 10 DVD and lost it down the back of a radiator, but did not seem too concerned. I put out a little tasting plate with some cubes of beetroot, squares of hamburger, toasted pine nuts and sliced apple for him to try. He looked carefully at the beetroot, which I explained tastes quite sweet ('like jam?' he asked), and sniffed the pinenuts closely but opted only for the sliced apple. I will finish this now because I am watching an exciting men's semi-final at Wimbledon between Tsonga and Djokovic. Life isn't only about books.