Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A heather coloured mist

A heather coloured mist descended in front of my eyes just now. The speaker on BBCR4's Thought for the Day refered to the Emperor Constantine as having 'failed to subdue the Scots' in 221AD. Imagine the hilarity if someone in such an honoured position (I'm talking about the speaker on Thought for the Day, not the Emperor Constantine) referred to the Vikings discovering 'the USA' in the 7th century AD. George Orwell believed in the importance of words, and how their use (or misuse) can support or insidiously corrode, public discourse. Using the term 'The Scots' in the sense of the realm of Scotland ruled over by one king is anachronistic and misleading if we are talking of any period earlier than the 11th century. Before David I (who had been brought up in the Norman court but was I think at least partly a Scot), there were the tribes and kingdoms (plural) of North Britain, not least the British kingdom of Strathclyde based at Dumbarton Rock. It is a lively matter of debate among historians why a sudden outbreak of Scottishness, an acute desire to be identified as 'Scottish' broke out around the time of William Wallace, and the reason is usually given to be the unfortunate behaviour of Edward I 'Longshanks' and his son Edward II who should have known better.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Our Oct 15 2011 event

Moffat House Hotel - Sat 15 Oct 2011 - 9.30am-6.0pm

Contemporary Identity

- an entertaining exploration of personal and national character

Jeans or genes?

The team at Moffat Book Events have come up with another sparkling day of inquiry and amusement, for the under-fives to the over-50’s. The theme this time is who we are, and how to find out if in doubt. The top lineup on October 15 includes: children’s storytelling, a visit from The Guardian’s Children’s Books Editor Julia Eccleshare, an investigation of your genes by Alistair Moffat author of The Scots - A Genetic Journey and House of Colour’s clothing expert Moira Cox on when (if ever) to wear jeans – and if so, which colour top to put with them.


0930 – 1030 Who Am I? Who Are We? Who Are You? Identity through storytelling for children aged 3-12 with Rev. Adam Dillon and Angus Sinclair

1030 – 1100 Coffee

1100 – 1200 Julia Eccleshare, Children's Books Editor, The Guardian recommends her top selections from the latest crop of children’s books

1200 – 1300 Alistair Moffat on The Scots - A Genetic Journey – and beyond

1300 – 1430 Lunch break

1430 - 1530 Presentation of self – how to discover and make the most of your personal identity - Moira Cox , House of Colour expert

1630 - 1800 Moffat Book Events traditional afternoon tea.

Tickets from: DGArts ( 01387 253 383 Moffat Books – 5 Well Street, Moffat. DG10 9DP 01683 220 059

For further information contact Marilyn Elliott 07885 444 120 or email

See also

A sunny day in Moffat

Renowned garden and parks historian Magda Salvesen Schueler inquires from non-hurricane ridden NYC about Moffat's open spaces. I hope she will visit when she is next visiting her sisters in Scotland, one of whom lives in Symington and who I met at Traquair last weekend. My sister was the administrator at the Richard Demarco gallery in Edinburgh in the heady days of 'Strategy Get Arts', and Joseph Beuys, he of the strips of leather and blobs of tallow. Magda's husband John exhibited at the Demarco Gallery, and she inquires wistfully if I know the fate of one of his watercolours my mother bought fifty years ago. My mother doesn't have it, nor does my sister, nor do I. I suggest Magda tries my brother. Talking of siblings, my half sister Caroline was on Woman's Hour yesterday on the programme devoted to women aviators. Caroline is a champion helicopter pilot and has worked as a commercial airline pilot, although now has returned to her first love (and originally her planned career) of medicine. My daughter Abi called in with her husband on her way back from her run on the Fringe (Abi Roberts Takes You Up the Aisle - and, yes, I'm afraid it is a double entendre). They were both full of beans, but looking forward to getting back to Durham to unpack before setting off for more 'gigs' all round the country, and to touch base with her agents in London (one for standup/cabaret; one for voice overs). She does an eerily accurate Celine Dion as well as Marge Simpson and the dog from Scooby Doo. I am twothirds of the way through Olivia Laing's To the River, glad to be reading it slowly. It is beautifully written, in a good way ie not just endless dragon flies and buttercups and showers of rain, but quite a lot of history (battles), social history, literary history (Virginia Woolf) and meditations on love and loss.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

From our New York correspondent - Irene: a first hand report

From our New York correspondent: 'I'm afraid I have a very anti-climactic account for you that prompted thoughts of "hurricane? what hurricane?" this morning. S and I woke up to find the weather completely still and even a ray or two of sunshine peeking through the clouds, in stark contrast to reporting on the New York Times which painted a rather different picture of the city still gripped by the storm.

It did rain quite heavily and there were some strong gusts last night but our sleep wasn't interrupted and our preparations (stocking up on food and water, buying plastic sheeting, filling up the bath tub with water per Mayor Bloomberg's recommendation) were all for nought in the end. It seems there was some flooding as the result of 'storm surges' in low-lying coastal areas such as downtown Manhattan and parts of Long Island, but nothing very severe. The city certainly took it very seriously as did more residents. All public transportation was shutdown yesterday at noon and is still not running today. Supermarkets were thronged with shoppers (lines zigzagged through the aisles, bread was in very short supply) and flashlights and batteries were near impossible to find.

We haven't been for a walk yet so it could be there is more damage that we can see from our windows but at the moment it seems a case of the media reporting on an alternative New York reality'. (report ends)

Here in Moffat a dry day is forecast, and I must make an appointment for a routine check up with my dentist. Ah. The utter, utter bliss of the quiet life. Oh! And my elder daughter Abi and her husband are coming across from Durham for tea.

A snake called Weenie -

Harry went to collect his 6th birthday present from a pet shop in Carlisle yesterday. Weenie (to rhyme with 'Irene') is a corn snake about 30cm long and has warm light and dry accommodation rivaling any in Moffat, plus a bark effect log to hide under and matching water bowl.. I am sorry to say that he/she (too young to tell) eats baby mice. But there you go. That's nature. Get over it. Meanwhile, across the other side of the Atlantic, for once the expected anti-climax - that Hurricane Irene had changed course and petered out over the ocean - looks as though it hasn't happened. The trajectory is straight over New York city and then Boston. The friend who had booked himself into a motel a safer distance from his house on the Hudson river just across from NYC arrived to discover that contrary to the promise made when he booked, there is no emergency generator. Whenever I read about people moving to a safe(r) place, I am reminded of the hapless couple who emigrated to the Falkland islands for fear of a nuclear war in Europe - just before the Argentines invaded. Also, the English doctor on my sailing holiday this summer who had moved to Christchurch, New Zealand to get away from it all, just before the earthquake which destroyed the city, including his flat. A propos watery things: I am really, really relishing To The River by Olivia Laing, subtitled A Journey Beneath the Surface which has drawn me in with its mixture of nature description and her moods, and literary references. Very well done indeed. The bad news is that my boiler has broken down, so I have no hot water. The good news is that Andrea Reive has identified a speaker for our April 2012 Moffat Book Event: Michael Wickenden - the gardener at Cally Gardens, Gatehouse of Fleet. An approach is to be made at a planned visit there en route to or back from the Wigtown Book Festival on Wed Sept 28. Anyone interested?

Friday, 26 August 2011

A distant hurricane

Hurricane Irene is advancing on New York, and, on Facebook, friends in that neck of the woods are reporting plans to get out of her way. One, who lives on the Hudson River just west of NYC, is heading north to a motel 'for a couple of days'. Nature, eh? For a moment, an opportunity to pause and consider the colossal forces which can suddenly threaten a home, a book collection, the warm bed and dry clothes. I was astonished to see that beautifully printed blue and white signs have appeared on the streets of New York, showing people which way to go to evacuate the low lying areas. For an event that happens once in a lifetime they have printed signs! What superb organisation! I spare a thought, too, for a child who has already in her short life known the terror of 9/11 - she and her Mum were on their way to her nursery when the first plane struck - and now, living in the lower west side will probably be setting off again with her mother to safety elsewhere in the city. Not everyone knows that the oddly curving Broadway which runs the length of Manhattan island follows the track of an existing Indian trail, a survival from when the first white settlers arrived. Back in Moffat, the Beef Tub was the subject of this morning's BBCR4 Open Country programme. I approve of planting trees. I love trees. Trees are a Good Thing. Why, then, the need to justify planting them as the 'recreation' of a landscape which ( correct me if I'm wrong) ceased to exist because of climate change 5,000 years ago? The birches that once grew on these hills fell and became peat because the climate became cooler and wetter. That's it.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A Challenge to my Readers

For once, I appeal to my readers for ideas, however whacky,for uses of two perfectly sound buildings set in an incomparable landscape in the southern uplands of Scotand but now so near to wind turbines that you can hear them turning. The noise is like a heavy truck rumbling up the road. Right outside. The noise is such that no one in their right mind would go there and pay good money to rehearse a string quartet, lie on a rubber mat doing yoga, try to read a book or sit on the (newly extended) deck gazing at the landscape. Unless they were deaf already. Those of you of a critical turn of mind may be muttering: what did she expect? They're turbines, for God's sake. Well, I really didn't think it would be so loud. I had stood under turbines (smaller, admittedly) in Ardrossan as preparation - in fact, I was taken by the developers before signing the contract to experience for myself what the effect of the turning blades was. Maybe I fooled myself into thinking that the prevailing wind would carry any sound away (the house and barn face southwest, where the wind usually comes from, and the turbines are behind the house). Anyway, I was wrong and the naysayers were right. It's really, really noisy. So: suggestions please.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Ruby Wax

I went to Ruby Wax's show in Edinburgh yesterday (Udderbelly E4 in Bristo Square) and would highly recommend it. A packed audience appreciated both the message - that mental illness, such as the disabling depressions Ruby herself suffers from episodically, is poorly handled socially, attracting less understanding and sympathy than if you break your leg or get cancer, - and the wit used to put the message across. Ruby is a skilled and dynamic performer, ably supported by Judith Owens at the piano whose songs provide a counterpoint to Ruby's hilarious, angry and sad commentary. I now have five books on the stocks: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran; To the River by Olivia Laing; where we were going and what we were doing (sic) by Damion Searls; The Masque of Africa by V S Naipaul; Guerillas, also by VSN. This is wrong. I should read one book at a time. I need to practice time management and 'mindfulness', as recommended by Ms R Wax. Today I have sent proposals to Scottish publishers for my new book, about going from one deeply unpopular activity (occupation of a commercial spruce plantation) to another: installation of three vast wind turbines. Am I bovvered? You'll have to read the book.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A good clear out

I had a good clear out of clothes yesterday, producing five black bin bags full of clothes that are too small, too big, too old or just unworn for so long that it is time they grew up and left home. The magician who made this possible (left to myself, I would be discovered twenty years hence buried in a mountain of things that 'might come in handy one day' - in other words, a hoarder) - is called Moira Cox, Moffat's House of Colour resident. Some years ago, my mother and sister in Kent discovered HoC, to such good effect that my two daughters and I signed up for a full day of fun. For those who have never experienced it, the process involves an eye-opening session choosing the colours that do the most for you, - a game played by all present as each 'victim' in turn sits centre stage and has an endless variety of coloured silk scarves placed round their shoulders. These 'best' colours turn out conveniently to fall into one of four groups grouped for handy reference under seasons. For example, one of my daughters is 'winter', which is clear bright jewel colours, one is 'spring' - pretty pastels - and I am warm 'autumn'. It was a life-changing day for me, because I had got stuck in 'safe' black, which did nothing for me whatsoever. That's the other thing HoC does at the outset: decide whether you are basically a black and white person or an ivory and brown - I am the latter. Then you do your style, based on body shape and temperament - I am 'classic', which means no frills. You can also be helped choose makeup, accessories and so on, and this can be a continuing process to enable you to keep looking smart season by season to keep you shipshape. Suffice it to say that as soon as Moira left, I got online and two new tops, a long length cardigan and a pair of olive coloured trousers are winging their way through the post as we speak. I have started to write what I hope will be a funny book about going from the grower of the most unpopular tree in Britain to the proud possessor of three enormous wind turbines, working title: Enemy of the People or Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire, to be illustrated by Lizzie Rose, the Scottish landscape artist who has just completed the second year of a residency Documenting Change.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Books, bikes and borders

I went to Books, bikes and borders - an intriguing mixture of politics, outdoor activities and literature - on Sat Aug 20 and Sun Aug 21 at Traquair House, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland and home of a branch of the British royal house of Stuart (James I & VI, Charles I, Charles II, William and Mary). The current chatelaine of Traquair,Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who hosted the event, gave a sneak preview of her own forthcoming book on the life of the house and its inhabitants over 400 years and introduced her former history tutor from university: the controversialist Dr David Starkey. He made two entertaining, instructive and thought-provoking presentations : one on royal marriages in Scotland and England; the second with Ming Campbell, Allan Massie and moderator Lord Steel on the future of Scotland. At this second event, following observations by Allan Massie about the predicament of families such as his own, where spouses and children come from or now live in different parts of the UK, I asked if there could be a show of hands in the packed auditorium (a tent in front of the house). Since, like Massie, my family is a mongrel mixture - in my case, of Welsh, English and Scots, - it was gratifying to see (judging from the sample in the tent yesterday) that there is a very considerable number of us in the same boat. I bought To The River by Olivia Laing, who was very well interviewed by James Runcie the director of the Bath book festival. Her book is an account of a therapeutic (both mentally and physically) walk along the River Ouse in Sussex, combining meditations on water and rivers in life and literature with nature observations. Andrea Reive was also at the event, and we revisited the possibility of making gardening the theme of our Moffat Book Event in April 2012. This prospect may be improved by a providential encounter with Kirsty Maxwell Stuart, Catherine's aunt by marriage, a former near neighbour when I lived in south Lanarkshire, whose sister Magda is a Professor of Garden History in New York. The political strand included a platform of experts debating the future of Zimbabwe, Pakistan: is it a failed state?; the future of Afghanistan and the merits of reconciliation as opposed to justice in the peace processes in Ireland and between Palestinians and Israelis on the west bank and in Gaza. Enjoyment of this remarkable event was greatly enhanced by the journey to and from Traquair from Moffat, along remote rural valleys with water always present - the river, and St Mary's Loch - between hills, purple with heather at this time of year. A visit tomorrow to Edinburgh to visit a new great nephew and go to Ruby Wax and my daughter Abi's shows on the Fringe.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Memories of the coup

One of the leaders, and the spokesman for, the hardline coup twenty years ago against Gorbachev in the then Soviet Union once had supper in my kitchen in London. Gennadi Yanaev was one of a constant stream of Russians who visited us in the years that I was working on cultural relations for an organisation funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth office. Most of the visitors I helped to host were not politicians, but writers, film -makers, musicians, gardeners, scientists and actors. I cannot now remember how or why it was that Yanaev arrived for shepherd's pie one evening, dressed in a black leather jacket and shades. At the time he was the titular head of a Soviet trade union. Imagine our surprise when he appeared, hands shaking uncontrollably, on TV with his fellow conspirators to announce the re-establishment of control by the 'old guard' against the modernisers. For what it's worth, I suspected at the time, and still think, that the situation was more complex than appeared on the surface, that Gorbachev might not have been an unwilling 'captive' - but I have no evidence other than some curious body language as he was descending the steps of the plane that brought him back to Moscow when the coup collapsed. Russians are demonstrative, and there was no hugging or kissing with the reception party who met him. Had the whole thing been a charade staged for public consumption, to facilitate a retrenchment from perestroika? The question lingers, and far from being treated as a returning hero, he was a busted flush; Yeltsin took over, things went awry. Now the state security's representative -Putin - is back in firm control, reputedly following a deal done with the 'oligarchs', that they could run the economy so long as the 'okhrana'/KGB manages law and order. I am reading, and very much enjoying, what we were doing and where we were going, a collection of short stories by Damion Searls who I met in Aldeburgh in January.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

God etc

Well, the 'G' word and the 'C' word and the 'R' word were all mentioned once or twice at our MBE planning meeting yesterday for an international conference to be held in Moffat Sept 14-17 2012. The inspiration for the conference is a man called Alexander Men, a casualty of the failing Soviet system - he was murdered on his way to take an early morning service at his country church one September morning in 1990. Men was no ordinary parish priest. He was a polymath, reading in seven or eight languages, a scientist who took a university course in biology only to be denied the chance to graduate because he had enrolled as a curate equivalent in the Russian Orthodox church, a strictly state-controlled organisation, then and now. There is convincing evidence that he was murdered by two members of the Soviet Special Forces, on orders from a section of the Russian powers that be viscerally opposed to Men's ethnicity (he was born into a Jewish family, and baptised as an infant with his mother) and outward - looking Christian faith, his courage in refusing to be bribed or bullied. In 1994 I co-edited a book of his writing, entitled Christianity for the Twenty-First Century with Ann Shukman, a neighbour here in Dumfries & Galloway. An eBook version will soon be available because the paper version is out of print, and not currently available on general sale (I have a limited number of copies of the US edition which I am happy to make available to anyone who asks). Our steering committee was considerably strengthened yesterday by Donald Smith, who runs the Church of Scotland's John Knox House/Netherbow theatre and Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Donald is a longstanding Men fan, with whom I have worked for many years on one project or another. The idea of the conference is to celebrate Men's genius for engaging with the arts - particularly literature and film (his parishioners included celebrated Soviet artists and intellectuals) - and science, using his own lightly-worn knowledge and personal charisma to persuade everyone he met that Christianity need not be dull, sectarian,mean-minded or obscurantist, but a firm foundation on which to build contemporary communities. Look out for a conference website soon.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Chaos and anarchy

'Once you remove cultural restraints you have chaos and anarchy.' A quote from Prince Kassim of the royal house of Buganda in V S Naipaul's The Masque of Africa, subtitled Glimpses of African Belief'. This is peculiarly appropriate reading, in light of the recent riots and looting south of the border in England. The book has been wrongly criticised for making modern Africa look foolish and superstition-ridden. On the contrary, it is a subtle and penetrating account of what has happened to a society faced with similar challenges to our own. Reviewers failed to see this application near to home. Kassim continues: 'People put under this will do anything ...They will do anything and at the same time they want the technological advances of the world. The race for these technological advances has replaced culture'. Moffat Book Events today is sitting down to explore the practical modalities of involvement with an international conference being planned for next Sept 2012, on the interface of our secular society with the positive side of our Christian heritage. At a recent family wedding I attended in New York, the young couple had invented the ceremony in consultation with a friend authorised to conduct weddings. After the ceremony I fell into conversation with friends of the bride, and was musing about the absence of any reference to a greater power such as God, to which the husband replied: well, there's family. A propos, I have discovered Julian Fellowes' TV series addictive Downton Abbey which I had been avoiding until now, and worked my way yesterday through all 3 DVD discs of the first series. The story concerns both a literal family, - people related by marriage and birth - and a virtual family, which is their household and village. The first series examines the social changes affecting a landed estate in the years immediately before WWI, and how various members meet the challenges of events including death, love, duty and betrayal. The law is rarely invoked; issues such as petty theft and bullying are dealt with by consent, authority is exercised by people such as the butler and the owner ('custodian' as he prefers to describe himself) of the estate. But the force of the series is that it is not merely a delightful escape; like my other favourites Murder, She Wrote and Miss Marple, it faithfully reveals how beneath the beautiful facade - and the vision - of an orderly, paternalistic society seethe the recurrent 'worms i the bud': the envious troublemakers, the human frailties - pride, vanity, sibling rivalry, lust and revenge.

The Official Secrets Act

Happy 100th birthday to the Official Secrets Act. I signed it in the 1980's, having responded to an advertisement on the front page of The Times, inviting women interested in being able to keep their own car on the road, change a tyre, top up the oil, water etc. It was my second husband who worked at the coal or chalk face of Cold War Anglo-Soviet relations who suggested casually that I might find it interesting. Looking back, it seems to me that might have been convenient for all sorts of people for me to have signed the Act, however remote the ostensible purpose. As a result I was for some years - and am still eligible to be - a member of the Special Forces club in London's Knightsbridge. The club is decorated with photographs of heroes of the WWII Resistance movements in Europe, and of course Russians were (no doubt still are) welcome guests because they were on the same side as us. Needless to say, I had no lessons in car maintenance and remain none the wiser about the mysteries of internal combustion engine. Enough said. I discovered a forgotten emergency supply of Erythromycin on top of a chest of drawers in my bedroom, and so have switched myself onto that from the pathetic Amoxycillin, which causes the hardened bacteria in my lungs to laugh contemptuously. I feel better already.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Time for reflection

I am making what I can of an enforced period of rest, and therefore reflection, while the penicillin gets to grips. I turn the TV to Murder, She Wrote and Miss Marple for uneasy reassurance. I have seen most episodes of both series more than once, and yet the combination of formulaic fantasy crime plus retro style draws me in like comfort eating. By way of balance, I have re-started V S Naipaul's Masque of Africa, subtitled Glimpses of African Belief. After The Enigma of Arrival and A House for Mr Biswas (read on board the Bessie Ellen as she alternatively motored in winds too light for sail or bucked her way in a Force 6 across the Irish Sea), I am getting the hang of Mr N. He is our contemporary, and therefore I can identify with the landscape: the food, the clothes, the ways of getting from A to B in a way impossible with Proust or Dostoievsky in whose league he belongs. I am mulling over the news (which I will be going up to confirm for myself first hand tomorrow) that the noise from the blades now turning for the first time (they were attached while I was away) on the nearest wind turbine, behind my home on the hill, is most certainly audible as a distinct 'swish' from the house. If true, this may mean reviewing plans to organise working visits next year for paying guests to learn how to distill essential plant oil from our trees. and brew traditional spruce 'beer' (as in ginger beer). I looked at a mind map of Moffat this morning, in readiness for generating some ideas on one side of a sheet of A4 paper to be discussed at a forthcoming meeting of the Moffat & District Community Initiative. The map has a section headed Health & Well Being, listing only physical recreational facilities. I propose to add 'spiritual and intellectual' to these. I am aware that walking, bowling, golf, fishing, singing in choirs gardening and cooking do feed these needs - but think that they should be listed for their own sakes. Watching the debates on TV about the riots in England, listening to Any Questions and reading the opinion pieces in the newspapers makes one wonder how and why Moffat works as a community. Should we codify the formula and pass it to the powers that be?

Friday, 12 August 2011

At sea

I just got back from sailing from Oban to Falmouth via Waterford on the south coast of Ireland. I hadn't been on a sizeable yacht or sailing boat since the family boat Tiercel was sold in the 1960's but once on board it seemed like yesterday. Everything you brought aboard to wear immediately becomes damp. The bunk is cramped and uncomfortable. The rocking of the boat makes you sleep well. I was seasick. An enormous pod of dolphins played alongside us, diving under the hull and using the slipstream of our wake like teenagers on skateboards. Ropes are called 'sheets' and you need to remember four sorts of knots to use for 'making fast' in various circumstances. I forgot to take sun cream so my face was badly burned - the sun did shine some of the time. It took us three hours to motor up the estuary to Waterford in southern Ireland from the sea - an astonishing distance inland. Among our number were the stage manager of the Globe theatre, a man rendered temporarily homeless by the NZ earthquake, the father of a well known standup comedian and a senior executive from freight forwarders DHL. We were divided into watches of four hours (for example I did: 8am to 12 noon; 8pm to midnight). The owner of the boat and one of her crew made the most delicious meals for the 15 of us aboard,morning noon and night in a tiny galley - some of the best cooking I have ever enjoyed. I staggered ashore with a chest infection and got to London just in time for the riots on Monday night. Worried texts began to arrive from north of the border: get out of there while you can. I hastily brought my travel plans forward and jumped on a train to Lockerbie, got a prescription for penicillin and for once found myself relishing the pitter patter of rain in Moffat's peaceful streets. It's good to be back.