Tag Archives: history

The cool air between the pines

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D, A and I went walking this weekend in the woods of Chatelherot, close to where A lives. These were the old hunting grounds of the Lords (and perhaps ladies?) of Hamilton – the woods were kept and cultivated as an environment for deer and foxes.

 

Pictures of the forest, calming on a Monday. Take a deep breath, imagine the creaking of the branches. The flittering sounds in the leaves and red flash of robins. The streaming sunlight turning to washed-out white as the clouds are blown overhead. Here to the right is oak and beech:

 

oak and beech

 

oak

 

Some of the oaks have been dated to the 1460s, when the parklands were planted, though the mounds around these wood monsters were shaped by iron age hands. Modern hands had tied a yellow ribbon round the branch of the tree below. And a millennial has been included for scale:

 

for scale

 

Sometime around the Second World War, Norwegian pines were planted – the giveaway is how all the trees in certain parts of the forest are around sixty to seventy years old and planted in straight lines:

 

in the pines

 

stairs to heaven

 

We walked the eight kilometer trail which rises and falls, crosses the Green bridge over the river Avon, and climbs up to the rim of the valley, before returning to Chatelherot itself – a grand frontage which overlooks Hamilton, and which despite appearances, was never more than kennels for the hounds and a dining room and chambers for the hunting party.

 

Chatelherot

 

chatelherot front view

 

The sunlight was high and the sky was blue and dashed with white cloud. It is almost Spring, it says – the 18th century buildings, the green short grass, the families out walking, the children rolling down hill, shrieking happily. Or if no Spring comes this year, it is promising something else. A good Summer, perhaps. A chance at a pause. Saying, wait. Look. Breathe in and out.

 

A good walk in a dark and light place. The smell of pines and a sheep farm. The steady, strangeness of ancient trees. A long field rolling out towards the townships.

 

chatelherot fields

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Love Letter 6 – ‘Edinburgh, Scotland’

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‘Edinburgh, Scotland’ appeared in ‘I <3 _____: Everywhere is the New New York’. Here it is in full, with pictures from previous posts:

 

To begin with, every city is about the people, of course. But in Edinburgh, the city is more about the interplay of stone, weather and light. The people have coursed through this space in its various forms for at least twelve centuries, but the stone and the weather and the angle of the sun outlast them all.

 

It’s easy to say we don’t have four seasons here, that we lack definites. Summer is cardigan weather most days. Winter, umbrella. Spring is much the same, and Autumn. But we do have two distinct seasons: the season of light and the season of dark.

 

In Winter, we wake to dark at eight, to bluish haze and the egg-yellow glow from the windows across the shared back green of our tenement.

In Summer, morning is at four, striking against the cliffs of Salisbury Crags. Stark outlines, warm tones against a keening pale blue, like a 1930s hand-drawn postcard version of itself. Dusk at eleven.

In Winter the dark comes knocking at four om, and some days it feels never light at all.

This is how we know our year, by the way the light or dark shapes our buildings, our volcanic rock.

 

From the summit of Calton Hill; Arthur's seat, Salisbury crags (the long diagonal cliffs) and at their feet the Scottish Parliament (among other structures)

From the summit of Calton Hill; Arthur’s seat, Salisbury crags (the long diagonal cliffs) and at their feet the Scottish Parliament (among other structures)

 

There’s something mournful about the city. I remember reading the writer AL Kennedy calling it a sad place, saying that she couldn’t live here through all that restrained sadness. I understand, yet here I am.

 

North Bridge towards Princes Street and the Balmoral Hotel

 

It’s cold and the sky lips the hill of Arthur’s Seat. The commuters walk down the blue and red North Bridge from the high-leaning higgledy of the Old Town over to eighteenth century New Town. The Crags and the Seat overlook them, leaning back in their mist. The commuters keep their hands in their pockets, their scarves neatly tucked at their throats.

 

Below, the train station, jimmied Victorian, glass encased, wonders if there will be another jumper from the bridge, remembers the days of steam and of ‘North Britain’. The grey shipwreck of the Scottish Parliament, off by the cliffs, whispers, wheesht. Shhh. Says, now really. We’ve more to show than those days.

 

It’s sometimes easy to get lost in the layers of the cake. How do we live here? It’s true that in Edinburgh, people are polite and reserved. That they won’t fight you so much as shake their head at you, judging. They are conservative in ways that defy the modern notions – socially progressive, politically too, they will purse their lips at someone speaking loudly in a cafe, wryly say, “oh that lot, there they go again.” The goth and punk kids stalk their limits of territory on Cockburn Street and Hunter Square. The arts fall within certain limitations, though artists are always there, pushing quietly back.

 

Festival time, in August, is the carnivalesque, the moment of sanctioned release. Here come the Irish, English, North Americans to tell us jokes and paint themselves silver. Here are the writers with books coming out, and issues to shuffle and spark. Then, when the month goes, most of them go too, and the grey stone re-solidifies, and the sounds muffle til the New Year. Hogmanay. A Viking longboat is dragged down North Bridge on a river of burning torches, then set alight by the unfinished pillars on Calton Hill. The dark is there, pressing tightly round us. History, of another part of the country altogether, really, pressing too. Dark at 3:40, that last first day of the year.

 

fireworks

 

Beyond the feast days, it is a quiet city. Sometimes the breweries tang the air, bagpipes play on the street corners in the centre. Sometimes it’s a fraction of a scent or a reedy song you hear. Passing as you are under a wide dark bridge, up a cobbled narrow wynd, you become liminal, neither in one year or another. Adrift between the walls. The cities is entirely itself. It has grown and fossilised and now all that can change it is the weather, the light. Forces greater than human endeavour.

 

A roundabout of graves, in the centre of the kirkyard's road

 

You could go into a kirkyard to see the gravestones, think: did you all feel the same? How little and how great a space you had to slip yourself within? The green, black stones are silent, it’s one-thirty and there is no sun. A great inevitability. But you’re already here, within the weather, breathing clouds. A narrow space in your own body. A line in the book of history, though your name itself might not be reported.

 

Right now. Here. Edinburgh. A yolk-yellow light beams from your own window, charming a rain-harried passer-by.

 

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More of London, snow

Le Grande Foyles

Le Grande Foyles

 

Some fragments – a journey is never really complete when retold.

 

But here they are, gathered a bit.

 

A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of its fine bookshops, and Foyles was the perfect place for a wander on a gnawing cold day. I picked up Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, her essays/pieces on love in Classical and other literatures, but didn’t buy it then. I’m blessed at the moment with an abundance of books to read. Some old – The Twelve Chairs, which I mentioned a while back, The Polyglots by William Gerhardie, kindly sent by Melville House Publishing when I was stricken with a chest cold – and some new -Errantry by Elizabeth Hand is burning in my TBR pile.

 

The dim unheated grandeur of Westminster Hall

The dim unheated grandeur of Westminster Hall

 

On our third day, D and I went to the UK Parliament, and were lucky enough to be admitted to watch Question Time, that day on the subject of Education. We saw Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education (in the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government), snidely and blandly shoot down questions from the opposition and obsequiously respond to the ‘aren’t we great?’ questions from his own side. Education is a devolved issue – meaning that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for how the system is run here, so it was quite hard to care too much about school district issues South of the border.

 

Later on, the big hitters appeared. PM David Cameron made a statement on the Algeria hostage situation, and Ed Milliband, opposition leader, said a few things too. I played ‘spot the politician I recognise’ which was a fairly short game, sadly. Little of any real heft was said, but when I read the newspapers later and found it interesting to see the various interpretations of the puff. Overall, I was very glad to have gone, but the pomp and ceremony does not feel like it belongs to me. The divisions between the nations are there, and though we have a lot in common, I will always hope for Scotland to go its own way. Come the 2014 referendum or later.

 

tower of london

 

This, if you are unfamiliar with London, the famous Tower of-. We passed it every day before crossing Tower Bridge, but never went in. There was an element of resistance in this – in both our minds, growing up, the tower of London had been – well – a tower. Tall and menacing, with rooks circling the heights, dank cells lining the circular walls. I suppose the Shard filled that imaginative space. You can see it jutting in the background of the picture.

 

regents canal 1

 

This is Regent’s Canal where it runs through Shoreditch. D and I went walking along it with London transplant, G. Later we would spend the day inside a cosy pub with her and C (who I’ve also talked about before), to hide from hours of snowfall. I took a fair number of pictures here, the unnatural beauty (I almost said natural, as if anything in London is natural) of the canal highlighted by the wooly skies and frosting of snow. But I’ll save those for another day.

 

The last image I’d like to leave you with is of the English countryside seen from the train North. At times we had white-out conditions, something I have not seen much of, and so still seems magical. A ghosting landscape, seen in passing and without name. That’s what I like about traveling, when you move so fast you cannot commit much to memory, just the flittery glimpses. The other side of that is when you stay so long in a place that every paving stone is mapped out – but that’s Edinburgh, for me. More pictures of that city when the cold and dark release their grip.

 

england in the snow 2

 

 

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Back from the South

sunny snow day London

 

D and I have returned from a Christmas present trip to London. London snowbound and prettier for it, but harder to get around. In fact, one day we spent most of our time in a pub in Hoxton with friends, watching the snow blanket the streets. I’m still weary from our long train journey back up, and from walking on the icy streets, and seeing so much and so much. Lots of photos to share, so this will probably be a two parter. The first thing we did after dropping off our bag was to head to the familiar but wonderful British Museum to see all the lovely bought, looted, relics of Empires old and modern:

 

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

 

The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon

The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon

 

Ancient Egyptian Ram God resting his head on a king

Ancient Egyptian Ram God resting his head on a king

 

Beyond the Museum, D and I wandered the cold streets taking in the distinctive architecture:

 

The colourfully named The Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub

The colourfully named The Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub

 

 

A street south of the river, with the ghostly Shard Building above

A street south of the river, with the ghostly Shard Building above

 

 

The Shard at night

The Shard at night

 

One of the running discussions of our trip was the Shard building itself, which we saw every morning and every evening as we walked back to our hotel. It’s probably been said elsewhere, but whoever designed that building was clearly going for ‘evil megacorp lair and/or inter-dimensional space portal’. It looms, it glows malevolently at the heavens.

 

But aside from awe-inspiring solitary buildings, the city as a whole impresses upon the viewer with its hard, dull edge. It’s a city worn into shape over hundreds and hundreds of years. Londinium. In the right light, it itself glows in its own gloom.

 

Northwards across the Thames, with the Tower of London to the right

Northwards across the Thames, with the Tower of London to the right

 

More to follow, when I’ve recovered a little more.

 

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Looking for Dr Livingstone + interview news

Edinburgh cityscape

 

Today D and I made our way back to the National Museum of Scotland with the aim of walking through the exhibit on Dr David Livingstone, explorer, missionary and abolitionist. True to his reputation, he was a little hard to find. The exhibit was tucked away on the third floor of the new part of the museum. It was interesting, if a bit piecemeal.

 

Livingstone was born into a cotton mill worker family, and worked at the mill from the age of 10. An exceedingly bright boy, he was taught to read and write, then taught himself Latin. He saved up enough money to go to University in Glasgow, but to save a penny on the cart fare, had to make his way on foot up the river clyde from Blantyre every morning. Good training for his later rambles around Malawi and southern Africa. There was a video, filmed in Malawi, talking to residents there in the Malawian town of Blantyre – they seemed happy with his legacy there, of his pacts with local tribe leaders to end the East African-Indian Ocean slave trade.

 

But I am suspicious of heroes, particularly of strong men of the British Empire who, regardless of whether they were doing good themselves, went into ‘the dark continent’ with the aim of opening it up to Europe.  There wasn’t a lot of analysis, and only one dissenting voice was lightly mentioned, that of John Kirk, the botanist who traveled on one of Livingstone’s expeditions. Livingstone was, it seemed, a hard leader. And then there was that famous meeting with Stanley, where the presumed Dr Livingstone refused to come back to Britain, and later died in a village in Malawi of a nasty combination of Malaria and Dysentery.

 

Well, whoever he was (D wants to read his journals now), we saw his little navy cap and his nice sketch of a fish from Lake Malawai.

 

I enjoy visiting the museum, which has free entry, and it’s a good thing too. Coming in the new year, after I’ve finished this second ms (May at the latest, I hope), I will be going there a lot. And to the grand Central Library on George IV bridge. Research for novel number 3. It is going to be about a strong, egotistic leader and her followers, and set in the wastes of Edinburgh. I’ll not reveal too much more before I have an outline in place. As you can see from the picture above, there’s a certain atmosphere to the city in winter – a soft harshness – which I want to learn and replicate for my postapocalyptic version.  Anyway, that’s enough for now.

 

The other piece of news I have is that Smokelong Quarterly is coming out next week. In it will be my Edinburgh-based flash, ‘Boy Cyclops’, and an interview with me (first ever interview!), facilitated by the excellent writer Casey Hannan. (Casey’s book, Mother Ghost, is available on pre-order from Tiny Hardcore Press. His writing is really beautiful and weird and compelling, and I’ll be picking it up when I can).  When Smokelong goes live I’ll link to it here, and you will have lots to read, should you wish.

 

Finally! Don’t forget to submit your photograph for my competition! The deadline is the 31st of this month.

 

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Flowers in the dark

 

I don’t know what type of flowers these are (wild garlic perhaps) – they are growing along a side path to a wealthy and hidden mews/servants’ quarters housing development across the road from Loch Lomond. My friends and I were staying at the adjacent youth hostel, a former mansion built in 1866 and given to the people by a group of American G.Is who stayed there during the war and fell in love. The grounds are gorgeous in that slightly overblown, just clipped back into order sort of a way. The mansion itself – well, that’s for another post. But here is a picture in the grandness of the dark:

 

There is something a little unsettling about flowers growing in the dark, I think. Though they do all the time, those which cannot entirely close up their petals. I’m thinking of boundaries again. 10.30pm. Dusk, when these pictures were taken, is so long, it is like another form entirely – day, night, dusk, dawn, each given their full place in Scotland, in Summer.

 

 

It’s something I missed while living in the states. NYC in Summer is the most accepting or kind at dusk, but this time is contracted, happens at 8 or so. The gloaming is an unsteady time when everything is beautiful in a poignant way.

 

 

Perhaps I’m embuing it with symbolism equivalent to the Cherry Blossom season in Japan, I do not know enough to say (only that I would love to go to Japan, to the mountains, to see early morning blossoms falling slowly in a moment that seems to extend into infinity and is in fact so brief). Perhaps there should be a little light mist or smirr too. Perfection is sometimes an element of the weather.

 

 

 

More on the mock-castle and adventures in hillwalking another time, when I’ve fully recovered from the whole thing.

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The (semi) secret garden

 

Thanks to some crossed wires, D and I thought we would be viewing a flat off the Royal Mile today (turns out ‘next Monday’ was the Monday after next). It happened that the flat overlooks Dunbar’s Close Garden, a beautiful, peaceful courtyard modeled along a traditional 17th century Burghal design – somewhat Italianate, with herbs and hedges arranged in symmetry, surrounded on all sides by old town houses and walls. While we were walking, we noticed a few visitors, obviously locals, popping in to have their lunch, escaping the bustle of the Canongate outside.  They sneaked out as slyly as they arrived, glaring a little. Obviously intruders are rare beasts here.

 

We moved further into the garden, cold in the sun, the air full of the smell of sage, I think, or young rosemary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope you’ll forgive me for flooding this post with images. And if you are a native Edinburgher, forgive me for giving this sort-of secret away. Perhaps you’d like more? If you’ve never heard of the garden and you are still more in need of images, Vivian Swift has a lovely post on Dunbar’s Close garden, and the site, Nothing to See Here gives a little more background of how this place came to be made.

 

We really hope that the flat near here works out (find out next Monday, all being well), although two more viewings, both in distinct parts of the city, have been added to the list. One, we struck off later in the afternoon – another damp ground floor flat to the South. Onwards though. It’s easy to keep our spirits up in Spring, with still more to see, more disappointments and small joys, ahead.

 

In keeping, one last sight today. Up a little way from Dunbar’s Close is a whisky shop. Walking home, we saw this old gent sunning himself by the malts:

 

 

He shuffled himself down on his four paws, quite ready for a good long snooze. And home it was for us, to rest (though sadly not to write, with my head fuzzy with a bad cold) and to plan.

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