We’ve been given fair warning, illustrated by that folklore tale, but we’re going to build a house made from bales of straw. It’s official now because we’ve just spent £385 applying for planning permission – and we don’t chuck that kind of money about easily.
I’ve spent the last few months researching straw bale houses, and doing all the drawings. If you can buy your bales dry, it seems, and keep them dry, then plaster them in lime mortar, there is no reason why they shouldn’t last for between 100 and 200 years.
What about fire? No problem, ‘traditional’ concrete-block built housing schemes are starting to incorporate straw bale walls every so often as a fire break. Flames just can’t get through the buggers.
Rats? They’re not attracted to the bales because there are no seed heads. And they won’t gnaw through the lime to make runs because the lime is so caustic.
Here is an artist’s impression of the house we hope to build. It incorporates a ‘studio’ underneath in which this particular artist can continue to fail to make an impression. Hurry – you have until the early days of October to object to it.
Just a thought… next year, right? …if you’d like to learn how to build a straw bale house …or to teach us how to do it …we’d be extremely grateful for your help. Or guidance.
Since May we have been living back on board our sailing boat and on one memorable occasion, as we walked along the low water beach, Linda found the world’s biggest Oyster. She thought it was a stone, at first.
It weighed just over a kilo.
Fortunately for the Oyster Linda doesn’t eat Oysters so she popped it back where she found it. Unfortunately for the Oyster I saw where she put it. It was delicious.
Here in Cornwall, in the words of Coleridge, summer has set in with its usual severity. Never-the-less, we’re enjoying it very much between showers, and have even made in-roads into the sanding and varnishing jobs we neglected for so long. People are beginning to recognise the old girl: they motor up to us calling out “Is this the boat that featured in Phoenix from the Ashes?” We tell them coyly that it is …slipping-in that there is a second book out …copies of which we happen to have on board …then we tell them that we will let them have a copy if they can match our generosity by letting us have nine quid. I know it’s shameless – but the way we look at it is that every book we can sell is another straw bale for our house.
If you’d like to buy us a straw bale for our house you can order them from Amazon, or even better get a signed one – perhaps including a dedication for a friend – direct from my website. Or you can send us a straw bale – mark the back of the envelope ‘Radio 4 straw bale appeal’.
I’m beginning to get interested in horse-riding again.
Of course, it’s good exercise …get’s you out and about and all that – but I’ve had some of my best laughs whilst riding.
Take the time we lived on Exmoor and my mucker Steve came down for the weekend with his family. We all booked a ride and were issued with our horses and because Steve is such a big chap he got a big horse; lucky boy. I can still remember his face as he looked up at it for the first time; he didn’t say anything but you could see the thought-bubble: Oh my f–king god …and knew he was in for two hours of hell. We all did really, and that was enough to start me off. Laugh? …and the ride hadn’t even begun yet! Talk about value-for-money…
Steve very bravely mounted his horse with the help of a three-stage ladder we borrowed from a passing fire truck, and from atop the beast we heard him call down to ask the name of his horse …I think he wanted to get on ‘first name’ terms with it; You’re on ‘Fury'; the girl called back up to him, using her hands as a hailing trumpet. I watched the colour drain from Steve’s face – there was another really good belly laugh right there – but I daren’t let it out …I was in pain with trying to keep it in. Never mind Steve – I wasn’t sure how much of this I could take. The ride started and we hadn’t gone very far before we noticed that Steve was missing …so we turned back and found him and one-half his horse – the other half was stuck in a Beech hedge, browsing. Steve was pulling on the reins in a half-hearted sort of a way, pleading with it to come away, but he wasn’t being sufficiently assertive because he didn’t want to make it angry.
We put Steve at the front for a bit, after that, where we could keep an eye on him but, bite-by-bite, the horse fell back to last place. It was heartbreaking, really, to know that Steve had paid good money for this, but wasn’t having a lovely time. As for the rest of us, we were thriving!
When he failed to turn up at a gate half an hour after that I turned back and found him about a mile behind – horse in hedge, again. Steve seemed pleased to see me after so long – though I think he would have been pleased to see anyone …bit of company, like: Yoost, come and give me a hand, mate. He said, using my nickname and getting all chummy. I thought he was doing terribly well not to get cross with me, considering I was biting my lip so hard it was bleeding.
Then came an awful roaring noise from further along the track, which startled his horse. Two youths on motocross bikes were coming along the lane, full-pelt, spiralling up the dirt in their wake. Steve’s horse bolted, it’s eyes, I noticed as it galloped past, were as round as saucers. And then, blow me down, I noticed that Steve’s eyes were as round as saucers too …and seeing both heads wearing identical expressions, mounted one on top of the other, is one of my most treasured memories. You can’t buy memories like that, And at twenty quid with a horse ride thrown-in – you can’t very well go wrong.
Anyway, this is as a prelude to saying that having lived for eight lovely years in the Hebrides, we are moving back down south to where we come from – to Exmoor. We’ll be living back on board until the autumn, but we’re in the process of buying a plot, on which we are going to build a straw bale house. I hope to God a horse doesn’t eat it.
Living in the Hebrides has been wonderful:
It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin I tear with my own hand. (Khalil Gibran)
We’re getting some right spooky sunrises at the moment, here in the Hebrides – have a squint at this:
A travel podcaster from the USA took me into deep waters the other day with his line of questioning. Just when I thought I’d got every question about our travels off-pat. He was interviewing me about Canvas Flying Seagulls Crying- but not only did Nathaniel Boyle ask me new questions I’d never heard – he never actually asked me any old ones.
His website is packed with stories and well worth a browse.
You know I was saying that I’d started writing a book about living on a Hebridean Island and earning my living from amongst the world’s thriftiest people? Well, I’ve got about a third of it nailed so far – though it does have to pass through the ‘quality control’ of Linda’s scrutiny …if it survives that I’ll post a bit of it here so that you can see the way it’s going. Actually, it would be really handy to have your feedback – let me know if your up for it and I’ll personal-mail you a little chunk …only if you promise an honest review, though. If you approve of it, I’ll begin the grind of finding an agent and publisher – much more daunting than writing it …struggling to be remotely interesting.
Speaking of islanders, here is a piccy of Linda with John and Mary – a mother-and-son team who grow award-winning vegetable …and give nearly all of them away …just so you know what proper islanders look like:
Linda, John, Mary, and some competition leeks.
I spent six weeks last summer sawing and splitting 12 tons of firewood ‘cos Linda and I are too stingy to turn on all the storage heaters. Looking at the pile (scuse my stupid pose) I thought it might last us two years – but it’s been so cold and blowy on the isles there’s hardly anything left and it’s only the first week in February. I’m wondering if we’ll survive our hibernation.
I hear that Cornishman Jethro’s shutting down his club because no one thinks he’s funny any more …pity, he’s always made me laugh. Mind you, he can’t be struggling that much because he’s going on tour, catch him while you can. One of his jokes gave me a chortle just the other day. I heard it, appropriately enough, when I was down in Cornwall, staying with friends and seeing if our boat was still afloat – this is one of Jethro’s jokes, this is …see if you like it:
Last week me and Denzil went out for the evening’, and we had a few pints, so we thought t’would be better to catch the bus ‘ome. So we went down the bus station, and there was no buses runnin’ – t’was that bloody late. So Denzil says he got an idea – he says, spose I go into the depot and steal a bus? I says: Good idea!, I says that’s a bloody good idea that is! I says; I’ll stay here, lookout, and you go into the depot see if you can steal a bus. Well he was gone bloody ages – I heard all this revving – and he was gone bloody ages, he was. And I heard all this revving, and when he came out with his bus, I says to him, I says: You’ve been bloody ages, you ‘ave. I’ve been standing here and you’ve been bloody ages. He says I know I ‘ave – but the bus with Penzance written on it was right at the back.
Bliadhna Mhath Ùr – Happy New Year PS I don’t own this photo and no one seems to know who does, so I can’t ask for permission to use it. If it’s yours – can I use it, add a photo credit …or should I take it down?
If you’re a herbivore, you can safely skip this first paragraph. As a meat-eater, there are a few cuts which are so scrummy they knock me off my perch. Breast of Pigeon is one; whiskied pheasant (as per Pru Leath’s Cookery Bible) is another; Fillet of Beef – outstanding, but I can’t afford it very often …but as for fillet of Venison – Haysoo Kreesto, as the Spanish say.
Since moving to Scotland we have it at least a dozen times a year. You see, here in Scotland deer live wild on the moors – none of your organic nonsense – this is the real thing. To cook: place an old steel frying pan and a little Olive oil straight into the fire-box of your wood burning stove, then wait until the oil reaches ignition point and bursts into flames. Throw the steaks into the pan, swoosh them all around in a failed attempt to put the fire out, continue cooking for 60 seconds. Then turn them over, and cook for another sixty seconds. Allow to stand for five minutes before serving (just long enough to give the chips their second fry). I recommend a sauce made from fried onion, garlic, stinky stilton, and cream. If that is not the best thing you’ve ever put in your mouth – I’ll pay for you to have a gold filling. Nay bother with all the money I’m saving by buying venison at less than half the price of farmed beef.
I don’t own this image either – but in fairness to the bloke that owns the one above (or woman) I thought I’d better spread the load. Int she got lovely eyes? I stare at them all the time – though I’ve managed to get it down to about an hour a day.
Over christmas we were on board the good ship, but came ashore for a couple of days to eat Goose, Peking Duck, and Prawn Curry (not all on the same plate). The days after Christmas were perishing (-6c, thick frost on deck). I let off a distress flare on New Year’s Eve – I’m not advocating that kind of behaviour – it went in the wrong direction, drifted over the town and nearly caused some distress …but I can’t say too much about it in case someone finds my pyrotechnic on their roof where it burned for about a minute setting fire to all the crappy bits of plastic the seagulls carry up there to build nests. The owner might put two and two together, and this blog will incriminate me. Best to change the subject.
At last – here’s a photo I do own. This is the island’s GP, Chris, doing his morning surgery. (on trees, arf arf). Out of all three photos, only Chris will ask me to take his down. (There, that should ensure it stays up;)
Creative Scotland have made me an offer of funding – I fell weeping on their neck and kissed it. Look out for a third book – you will of course be the first to hear about progress if you keep checking back to this blog …or I think you can register – though I’ve never mastered it.
A chap’s just written to say parts of Canvas Flying was so funny it reminded him of PJ Wodehouse …head bows, humble, thank you.
Justin and Scooter – neither of whom look really comfortable
Linda, Scooter and I wanted to wish you a very Happy Christmas and if we don’t do it now, before the weather sets in, the post will be cancelled and you won’t get it in time.
You’ll need good teeth for one of Linda’s Crab sandwiches
You see, here on the Isle of Islay, in the Hebrides, 25 odd miles offshore from the wild west coast of Scotland, we’re about to be locked down by a storm which is set to last most of next week. Then the ferry will be cancelled, no post leaves the island, and nothing comes in. By day three the shelves of the Co-Op will be bare, and then we all have to eat Seaweed and Limpets. If it goes on for six days all we islanders get together and begin to draw lots to see who gets sacrificed.
Scooter will be alright now that the farmer has put his cattle on the moor. He goes off around midnight to check his traps and doesn’t come back until dawn. I smelt his breath yesterday – it was beef steak cooked over a camp fire …then I noticed that my tent had gone, and some pans were missing.
The good news is that we are just a fortnight away from the shortest day – so summer is just around the corner! Hurrah! I can’t wait to spend time on board again…
Between power cuts I’m working on a few anecdotes for my next book which will be about living in the Hebrides and trying to earn my living from the world’s thriftiest people – I’ll be on it full-time from January – if I secure Creative Scotland funding. When that’s published I’ll probably have to leave the island.
I see that both Phoenix and Canvas have now been published as talking books, by Audible. It sounds funny to hear someone reading me my life. The wonderful people at Audible have given me free-codes for ten copies of Phoenix to give away to you – if you’d like one please leave a request here in the form of a reply to this blog – or send me a request at: firstname.lastname@example.org – there are no dead-easy competition questions to answer – if you’d like one just ask …first come first served.
I hope you have a very happy Christmas. And may I be the first to wish you and those you love a very happy New Year, too? …I wish you all you wish yourself.
Looking back over my life I begin to see where it all went wrong.
When I first became crippled by a desire to write, preventing me from flourishing elsewhere, I thought I’d better learn how famous writers had triumphed, and see what lessons there may be for me in their success.
A recurring theme, I discovered, was that at some stage before stepping into the spotlight of world attention they’d accepted a part-time job, like, way below their station. Dickens, for example, glued labels onto bottles; George Bernard Shaw obtained the way-leave agreements which allowed telephone wires to be strung all over Britain; and before he wrote the Bible Jesus used make tables and chairs.
Before receiving international acclaim for her ‘Famous Five’ series of children’s books, J K Rowling used to milk goats in support of her early career.
Having learned their secret I rushed out to apply for a shelf-filling job in the scabbiest Cash and Carry I could find in Devon. Mein Gott!… I found a corker! Customers arrived in sagging Volvo estates with no exhausts or MOT’s; staggered into the building in egg-stained jogging bottoms, fag-on, to emerge some 20 minutes later carrying boxes of synthetic food for a ‘hospitality’ business which was surely one Food Standards Authority visit from bankruptcy.
The C&C operated from a poorly lit warehouse where the manager (blue nylon suit, bacolite glasses, gammy leg) limped about with a clip board looking threateningly at anyone who came inside his radar. He was closely attended (it was safer to go in pairs) by a malnourished irritable-looking women in her thirties whose smug expression suggested she had always known she would one day rise to the position of supervisor if she just maintained her brutal lack of compassion for people who had fallen on hard times. Behind their backs, staff openly mocked their passing.
I breezed in and asked ‘the manager’ if it would be possible to have a word with the manager? The manager – for it was he – was unmanned by the directness of my approach. His jaw fell and he looked at me, uncertainly, as though I were a police detective. No one spoke. By way of answer his assistant who had been looking me up and down without finding anything to like, tossed her head in the manager’s direction – with the meaning: ‘That’s him …speak.’
I smiled insufferably; told him that I was studying to be a writer, and asked if he could give me a job filling shelves? More silence followed. The only sound the ear could definitely discern was the ‘snap’ of a mousetrap going off at the back of the warehouse, having caught another thief, and taking this earliest opportunity to punish it, capitally.
‘Give ‘er your name and address – we’ll be in touch if we need someone.’ With that he shuffled on to deal the pressing business of running a failing cash and carry.
Twenty years later I haven’t heard back – that’s why you haven’t ‘heard’ of me yet. But if you know a struggling writer just starting out in their career, direct them to this blog so that they can mine its rich seam, and have for themselves the benefit of its invaluable advice.
You could help them and me still further by buying them a copy of Phoenix from the Ashes – which is a bloody good book, actually. Don’t worry – it’s not about writing, or about boats. If you already own several copies of it, try: Canvas Flying… You can get a signed copy of from my website – they’ll only rise in value as I become known. Or if you’ve got any sense you can get a copy without paying postage from Amazon – though you may have to buy another low-priced item so that the value of your basket comes to more than a tenner …I bought an ironing-board cover from them recently for under a fiver, and I’m quite pleased with that.
Barbara Cartland – struggling to be a writer. Critics preferred her darning.
I’ve just applied to Creative Scotland for a grant to write a third book. It’s about moving to a remote Hebridean island and trying to earn my living from amongst the worlds thriftiest people. I’m conducting a poll …could you leave a message stating whether you think this is an interesting development, or whether you think they shouldn’t waste their money?
It’s a real honour to park our boat against the historic Cornish stone quay known as Roundwood because for over two thousand years vessels have been arriving at this very spot propelled by the wind. Back along it was trading boats loading tin and copper from Cornwall’s famous mines that moored five-at-a-time at the ramps you can see built into the quay’s three sea walls. The ramps facilitated loading by cart.
Although the quay fell into redundancy in the 1800’s the National Trust keeps the block granite walls, quoins and capping stones pristine for occasional visitors by boat – together with those on foot, camping or barbecuing …all are welcome to enjoy this piece of history and the romantic setting of the spot seems to unbend people – there’s always a convivial murmur of conversation emanating from those who have come to sit in the sun and pass some time. And because guards are down, you’re guaranteed to meet interesting folk on Roundwood.
Tying to a tree keeps the boat upright when the tide goes out.
We’d arrived to do some supermarket shopping and, having our car near-by, were just returning from our trip, along one of those thread-like Cornish roads which only ‘local knowledge’ reassures you will eventually get you to your destination, when we turned a corner and found the single-track road blocked by a yellow car, apparently parked-up. Inside, an elderly lady sat quietly eating a sandwich. Seeing us, she waited until a convenient moment in her meal, then set down her sandwich on the passenger seat and through her dazzlingly polished windscreen we recognised the actions of someone preparing to start the engine. To allow her generous room to pass we pulled onto the muddy verge on our side so that she could sail through on hers. But she didn’t. She crawled toward us until she was alongside, wound down her window, and then turned her engine off …taking up her sandwich again.
I wound my window down.
In 1963 I bought a painting… she began, but was interrupted by our dog who, hearing a strange voice, woke up and began barking. Shut up, dog! she snapped, over my shoulder, before resuming her story: In 1963 I bought a painting by Margaret Eastwood, called Cowland’s Creek …so years ago I decided I would one day visit the spot to see if I could find the very place the artist sat. I found it alright, but guess what?… (here she took a bite from her sandwich for dramatic effect) – there was no water! Is there usually water in Cowland’s Creek? In my painting there is – but now there’s only mud!
We sympathised with her disappointment; told her it was low tide, and suggested that if she returned in a few hours she’d fine water in the creek.
Oh well, I’ll come another day. she said airily. Anyway I was just driving away when I saw a rabbit sitting right in the middle of the road, blocking my way, eating his lunch. He wouldn’t move, so I thought ‘Alright then, I’ll join you …I’ll sit in the middle of the road and eat my lunch!
What with observations about the Newlyn Group of Artists; the wisdom or otherwise of investing in Art; together with sundry remarks about what lovely weather we were having just then, it was another five minutes before we were allowed to continue our journey.
This boat used to moor at Roundwood …100 years ago.
That evening, still tied up to Roundwood Quay, whilst preparing dinner we heard a knock on our hull and climbed on deck to find a terribly-well spoken man in his sixties apologising for the noise he and his friends were making. We hadn’t heard a thing. Looking across the quay I noticed a huge motor boat had arrived, and from it came the occasional sound of mirth. At its stern flew the White Ensign …you can only fly one of those if you are a member of Britain’s poshest yacht club …the Royal Yacht Squadron. It’s one of those Great British Institutions that simply refuse to open their doors to riffraff, and the Queen gets last say. Later that evening we found it in our hearts to accept an invitation that Charles (we’d learned his name) had made to join him and his friends for drinks.
The white ensign. I’d quite like one of those.
In conversation we established that both he and my father had served as Commanders in the navy – though not at the same time …my father died twenty years ago, and was in his eighties, then. Charles asked for my father’s name? Tyers I said. The name didn’t ring any bells, so he wandered away to turn the sausages, leaving us to ‘mingle’. Five minutes later he was back carrying a plate of perfectly-cooked sausages and offered me one. As I chose, he pointed an accusing finger at me with his other hand; You’re father was Secretary of the Naval and Military Club; he said.
He was! I beamed, How did you knowthat?
Your father gave me a bollocking! He said, and his voice carried with it the distant ripples of a wound inflicted 40 years earlier. For my own part, I was utterly thrilled to meet someone who’d met my father – after all I’d only met him a handful of times myself. I’m going to write to the Royal Yacht Squadron and see if all of this qualifies me for free membership.
Seven year’s worth of unlikely meetings with strangers on sea walls are recorded between the covers of my books. Further examples of salty illustrations can be viewed on my website.
Protesters prevent a Tall ship from using the wind as a means of propulsion
We’ve been away, in Cornwall. Weeks on end of scraping the barnacles off our Galleon and rubbing down all the varnish-work with crappy little bits of sand paper, worn thin through labour. Joyful though it was to be messing about on the water with the sunshine tanning our backs to leather, sometimes the work seemed never-ending and we felt overwhelmed. Then one of us would turn to the other and point out that Rolf Harris would give his right arm to be where we were …thanks Rolf – we drew new energy from that.
48 Tall Ships arrived in Falmouth on August 28th. I don’t know if it was organised that way or merely a coincidence …but you didn’t have to be ‘boaty’ to enjoy the once-in-a-generation spectacle. I took some photo’s:
We’re home again now, but I’ve got to go back soon because I’ve left some unfinished business behind. I was sawing down a Cedar Tree for a replacement mast and it didn’t go very well. It wasn’t my tree to saw-down, and it was a dead-quiet morning so I had to wait until someone made some noise in the world before I could fire-up my chainsaw. Just then a helicopter flew low overhead making a helluva racket and allowed me to get my first cut in. I waited nearly an hour for the next diversion – that turned out to be some cloth-head in a motor boat without an exhaust. It sounded like he had a cargo of Chinese Fire Crackers and hadn’t noticed that someone had lit them. Lovely morning like that – ruined …in went the second cut as he passed, and my tree began to fall, nice and slow. I watched it smugly until it fell into the waiting arms of a Beech tree, and stayed there. It’s still there now; so I’ve got to go back with some rope and try to get it down before it falls on some unsuspecting trespasser.
This photograph of a Cedar was taken 700 miles away from the one I cut down – so as to disguise my whereabouts.
On Thursday it befalls me to decide Scotland’s future. I’ve done some pretty irresponsible things in my time so to be honest it came as a bit of a surprise when the Government and Scottish Assembly asked ME to decide their future. However, I never could resist an appeal for help – they’ve given me until tomorrow to make my mind up. Mary Pitcaithly will announce my decision on Friday.
Hercules, who I think of as my nearest comparator, was only given ‘seven tasks’ – mine just keep coming.
A Prussian warship patrols the Port of Falmouth. Poor weather delayed its arrival by almost 200 years.
Thank you for your generous emails about my latest book Canvas Flying… Thanks, too, if you have posted a review on Amazon, or if you intend to review it.
If you would like a boxed-set of Phoenix… and Canvas Flying… – both signed, but without the box, please let me know here on my blog, or by getting in touch on my website.
There are a number of farming expressions here in the Hebrides not in national use – though they deserve to be. One of them is Crogging.
A Crogger is someone who catches sheep in a pen and hands them to a sheep-shearer. A good Crogger will arrive at the shearer’s side with a fluffy sheep at the very moment the shearer finishes working on the bald and bloodied one he has between his legs, and which he is about to release back into the wild.
I’ve done a bit of crogging myself:
On the face of it the word Crogging seems to be of little use outside this rural industry. But I remember walking into a beauty salon here on the island and asking: ‘Do you do men?’ …you can say things like that in the Hebrides without the least fear of your question being misinterpreted. The salon was set up in the lean-to utility-room of a low island house and my question echoed briefly around its concrete walls. In the chair having a lovely time until I walked in was a plump island beauty of about 25. As she turned to scowl at me I noticed that her hair was littered with bits of tin foil which tinkled against each other with the movement, like a wind chime …and that the disapproving look she threw me was immaculately drawn in the black curve of her eyebrows and red twist of her mouth – new pastel on spotless canvas. Next moment I fell backwards from the smell of shampoo and ammonia.
‘Mens night is Tuesdays …six to seven;’ the hairdresser called irritably over her shoulder, without turning.
The following Tuesday evening I sat amongst the lumpish bony-shapes of other island men. We hid behind one another, with our backs pressed against the wall. The only time I remember being part of a more hopeless and abandoned bunch of chaps was when I attended a city hospital which dealt with men’s issues.
‘Right – who’s next?’ - the Hairdresser’s Mum appeared from the kitchen wearing an apron with bits of pastry on it, carrying a broom. She was as clammy and as cheerless as a cold plum-duff and stood there wheezing from the effort of her journey. No one spoke.
‘Was it you, Donald?’ (Donald is pronounced ‘dough-nulled’ in the islands).Dough-nulled mumbled something about it being Angus, Angus was sure it was Hector, Hector swore he’d seen Ferguson when he arrived, and Ferguson said it was a full house when he came in. Hairdresser’s Mum came at Ferguson with her broom and drove him into the shearing seat. This is ‘Crogging’.
When I’d been crogged, the hairdresser flourished the nylon shawl which was to protect me from falling hair into the air like a bull-fighter does before meeting his foe – thus freeing it of all its grey hairs which fell lightly down onto my jumper, my trousers and into my mouth when I inhaled. Then she tied it around my neck so that I could breathe, but only just. ‘What was you wantin’?’ she asked.
Now, that question is merely a social nicety – it’s like ‘how are you?'; ‘what kind of dog is that?’ or ‘aren’t your children a credit to you?’ – the world has yet to produce a barber who, having asked it, ever listened to the answer. If moved to reply the correct answer is: ‘A haircut, please.’ …but I like a bit of chat when I have my hair cut – it’s a nervous thing – so for the next five minutes I made suggestions about shape, colour, texture, body, hair irons, cyclic follicular activity, androgens, keratin, and scrunch-drying.
By the end of my discourse the hairdresser’s lower jaw, and that of her mother, had gone slack and they were beginning to dribble. Then there was a ‘bump’ as someone in the queue slid from his chair to the ground in boredom. Normality was restored by a whirr from the clippers which passed over my head from one ear to the other – like a harvester through a field of wheat.
I’m quite chatty, and since the hairdresser was almost mute I thought I’d employ a little role-reversal and ask her all the questions Barbers usually ask their clients …it didn’t go very well: I began by asking her if she was here on holiday? She seemed surprised and threw a furtive glance amongst the queue to see if I was here with my parent or guardian.
‘I stay here…’ she found herself saying. (On the island we talk about ‘staying’ somewhere, rather than ‘living’ somewhere.) That answer naturally suggested another question – a question I’m always asked when I’m on the mainland, and have just informed someone that I live on a Hebridean Island: ‘Really! Tell me …what-on-earth do you find to do for work?’
‘I’m a hairdresser.’ she said, self-consciously, throwing another look into the crowd.
‘You must meet a lot of interesting people?’
‘It hasn’t happened yet.’
I had a long think about that answer, and the next thing I knew, my ordeal was over. In the mirror I threw my head first to one side then to the other. Very distinguished.
I wonder if Kim Jung-un has ever been crogged – he certainly looks like he has.
I’ve just received advanced copies of Canvas Flying, SeagullsCrying. This link will take you to the home page of my website where, if you’d like a signed copy, you can enter your details, and receive the book a smidgen before anyone else does. Having said that, Amazon have already discounted it by over a quid – we all love a bargain – and you can get the same 228 pages of entertainment by clicking here – though I won’t be able to sign it for you. I don’t mind where you get your copy – I just hope that you will get one because I was thinking of you during the whole of the year it took me to write it. In fact, it was you that kept me going really.
My Facebook page is linked to Action For Happiness who send me cheerful messages several times a day. It’s uplifting to know that there is someone out there who cares about me and tries to keep me chirpy – but I nearly choked on this morning’s message. Stop comparing yourself unfavourably with others; it said – you’re fine just as you are.
I’m not ‘fine’ at all …and I’d like to seize this opportunity to tell you why: Many years ago, when I was an attractive and charming youth with easy banter and a wide circle of friends, I watched them leave me one by one as they found themselves employment. Left alone I realised that I, too, should probably consider what I was going to do with my life. I mulled over the career choices which yawned open to me with feelings approaching horror; but eventually came to see that there was one job especially suited to me. Purpose-made for the serious-minded candidate and very demanding, it would certainly be rewarding if I could ‘pitch up’ to it.
Moreover – no one else was doing it. Oh – one or two dabbled at it on their weekends off, but none had ever settled down to make a career of it. I rose from my seat of contemplation a changed man whose mind was made, and the very next day begun my career as a Loafer.
On Stage at Glyndbourne
Just as the world needs people who will stand at the cutting edge of industry, sparks flying over their shoulders; it needs managers to make sure that those doing the work keep doing it; back room boys to decide precisely where they should do it; canteen staff to keep them fuelled and lubricated so that they can keep it up for eight hours at a stretch; transport staff to take them home when it’s done, and to bring them back in the morning; religious leaders to assure them that it will all be worth it in the end; and cleaning staff to sweep up all the dead sparks, cigarette butts and dropped sandwich-filling so that everyone can begin afresh tomorrow.
Yet foremost amongst all this industry the role of the Loafer is often overlooked: it’s as plain as the nose on your face that if some people are ‘doing’ the work, there absolutely has to be someone who isn’t …who never has, and who never will. Their sole purpose being to maintain the Yin and the Yan …to keep the world in balance. Yet as the loafer plies his trade (or hers …it’s an equal opportunity) he finds that although he is an inspiration to some, he is an irritation to others! Why the loafer should be thus despised for simply going about his business I have never yet discerned.
When folk watch me toil I read the expression on the faces of some of them as envy …wishing perhaps that they’d gone into my line. Others allow their bottom jaw to fall as they patiently wait to observe what it is a Loafer actually does – to catch him in action, so to speak, and settle once-and-for-all a long-running dispute they’ve been having in the pub. Yet there’s always a minority of scoffers who watch me with contempt having convinced themselves – in an old-fashioned sort of way – that I’m not working at all.
Working at the Eurovision
That hurts because I’ve thrown myself into Loafing as few have thrown themselves into their careers. And by long continuance, and daily practice – if you will excuse me this small conceit – I’ve become very good at it. Some people tell me I’m a ‘natural’. To those others who just don’t seem to ‘get it’ I make my achievement plain using this comparison: By sheer dint of hard work I’m like the Neurosurgeon at a London Hospital who is at the top of his game – yet who began his knife-craft as a deck-hand on a Trawler, gutting fish.
I have wondered from time to time if I might be in line for promotion, so that instead doing all the work myself I could stand back a bit and guide some energetic youngster as he bubbles his way to the surface – but no promotion ever came. No matter – my job has become automatic with me so that each day, even after all these years, after a long sleep and a late breakfast I find myself picking up the reins from where my weary hands dropped them yester-eve.
Taking part in the Peasants Revolt of 1524
But now I’m going to tell you something quite shocking …and this goes to the very heart of why I’m not ‘fine’ as I am: In all the years I’ve worked I have never received a penny for my labour! Not a penny have I received in compensation – and that’s why I find the Action For Happiness remark so risible. My friends – those who left me to find my own way – have all got themselves into a position whereby, having made a stash, they’re beginning to observe a prick of light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a well-feathered retirement. Whereas I will have to continue working throughout my retirement. It’s not my purpose to swell your bosom with charitable thoughts in my favour, stuffing generous cheques into envelopes mentioning me as the payee – but in all probability I shall have to work for the rest of my life …in truth I shall probably die in harness.