Video: This is crogging…

Crogging

Crogging

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.

very distinguished

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.

Best Wishes

Justin

 

 

Dying in harness…

Taking part in a live TV Debate

Taking part in a live TV Debate

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. 

Well, HARDLY!!

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.

Glyndbourne loaf

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.

Eurovision loag

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.

Yorkshire loaf

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.

Last chance to read Phoenix before settling down with the brand new Canvas Flying or even a signed personalised copy.

Duchess unveils Queens Portrait…

Quite a lot of chalk went into this one - I wouldn't mind but it's quite expensive.

Quite a lot of chalk went into this one – I wouldn’t mind getting some of it back out again.

When I saw the Duchess of Cornwall unveiling a Portrait of Her Majesty the Queen (not one she’d done herself – it was daubed by some one else) it shamed me into realising that it’s hight-time I unveiled some of my own masterpieces, for the enjoyment of nations.

For the avoidance of all doubt let me explain that each of the images you are about to see are of the same person; and that none of them are the Queen – regal though I have managed to make my sitter look.

A regal scowl

Regal scowl

If not the Queen, who is it? you ask …and I would fain tell you – nothing would give me more pleasure – but I’m afraid my sitter has asked to remain anonymous. ‘If you are going to show that load of crap,’ she said; ‘for Christ’s sake don’t tell anyone who it’s supposed to be – otherwise you can do with them as you please because no one would ever guess – even if they and I were exhibited side-by-side in an empty and desert land - who the f__k they were’.  A plea for anonymity if ever I heard one.

I used to read a lot of self-improvement books with titles like: ‘Become the success you know you are’; ‘The one minute millionaire’ andJack and the Beanstalk‘. It seems that you, me – all of us, in fact – have the ability to make ourselves fabulously wealthy …though not all at the same time. If we would just sign over everything we have in return for five magic beans, we’ll be on our way. You may wonder why the bean seller wouldn’t just plant the beans himself – but we are to take no notice of our nagging doubts – let people scoff – for we will soon be standing in the very entrance to the mines of Solomon.

For thirty years I asked every stranger I met if they would sell me five magic beans for a cow – yet no matter how I placed myself in opportunity’s way everyone was hanging on to their beans.

I had all but given-up hope when one day, turning from the bric-a-brac stall in a dusty charity shop, a book caught my eye - ‘Unleash your Picasso’ it commanded. In an instant I recognised that this was the moment I’d been waiting for …these were my beans. It was a fairly tatty copy so I baulked at paying 20p until I remembered how Jack had hesitated before paying one cow for five unlikely-looking beans to a stranger on a bridge (I see now that the bridge was symbolic because those beans were to make him wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice …and his old hag-of-a-mother a happy and proud woman.

I began to turn the pages of my new book. Piccasso, it explained, was an artist who made shed loads of money by painting pictures of people with their eyes in unexpected places – like Flounders. The drawings made Picasso look a complete moron – to say nothing of his sitters. At last, a band-wagon I could climb on.

I bought myself some pastels and without any qualification for doing so – nor need of qualification – set myself up as a pastel portrait-artist and went to visit the Queen. She was out when I got there which was a set-back from which I’ve never really recovered.

If you squint your eyes until they're shut - you'll get the full benefit of this image.

You have to squint your eyes until they’re completely shut to get the full benefit of this image.

So I stopped people on the streets of Bayswater offering to ‘do’ them – but people in London are quite busy and although there was an initial lukewarm interest in my proposal, when they learned that I meant ‘do their portrait‘, I found that no one had at their disposal the necessary two or three days it would take for me to complete my work. For a while it looked as though I would fail right there. Then a little voice in my head asked: ‘What would Jack do?’ The answer came to me in a flash – there weren’t any beanstalks so I shinned up a drain pipe, climbed through a window, and found myself on the renal ward of the Hammersmith and Fulham Hospital – which was filled with people who had no plans to go anywhere for the foreseeable. Business was brisk, no-one capable of speech declined my offer.

When it came to handing over my bill I found that my subjects claimed that my likenesses either made them ‘look’ ill, or else it made them ‘feel’ ill. On one occasion I myself had the uncomfortable feeling that the portrait on which I was working made my subject look ‘lifeless’, but when it was finished I found that he had actually died – so I knew I was getting somewhere.

Part of this images is very good, but I've never been able to work out which part.

Part of this images is very good, but I’ve never been able to work out which part …is it the jumper?

I’ve got another unfulfilled ambition that you could help me with! My second book Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying comes out in about ten weeks and in order to give it the best start in life I was hoping you might do two things for me: Post this link Phoenix from the Ashes onto your FaceBook page (or similar) and tell everyone what a jolly time you had reading it (lying if you have to), and how fervently and earnestly you wished your friends might obtain all its benefits for themselves; and secondly I have an ambition to get 100 personal reviews of my book on the Amazon review page. Saying a few words about how the book struck you, personally, is highly influential to would-be buyers of the book. At the time of writing there are 46 reviews for it – so if you’ve read the book and not yet reviewed it, and feel you could help me up my beanstalk by writing a line or two about your experience of the book – you’d be helping an undiscovered writer (and artist) find his Giant.

STOP PRESS – Had you thought of sharing this blog with a friend?

Best Wishes

Justin

My FaceBook failings…

looking gleckit...

looking gleckit…

Some of my FaceBook friends have lots of friends, causing me to struggle with feelings of insignificance that I am just one of 1250.

I have 33 friends, and if I’m being entirely honest I’m not absolutely sure who two of them are.

In an attempt to match my popular friends, I tried to find 2000 photographs of myself, pouting. I blew the dust off old photo-albums and found six of me trying to be something I wasn’t, and another of me looking Glaikit – I’ll show it to you here, but I’m buggered if I’m posting that one.

Trying to imitate my more-sophisticated friends I was looking for photos of me drinking blue liquid through a straw from an interesting-shaped glass whilst sitting under the shade of palm-frond parasol on a sandy beach in an exotic location wearing a challenging expression for the camera …as if to say why-on-earth would you want to take a photo of me drinking Creme de Viollette on a paradise beach in Fanuaa Lavu – the everyday hum-drum of my tedious life?

I can’t post photo’s of my children because I don’t have any children, either. I can’t remember if I never had any – or if I had one once but left it somewhere – so, no photographs of it being force-fed chocolate mud cake and Coca Cola whilst lying with its feet up on the white-leather sofa of a five-star hotel Foyer in a city far away.

Someone posted a photo which gave me hope – it showed the empty and echoey interior of a brick-built room – it may have been the Badminton court of a sports centre, hired for a party – and had, at the far end, two middle-aged academics slumped over half a pint of beer, looking as though they’d just missed the last bus home. It was captioned: Party in full Swing! Surely I could do better than that? – but the last party I went to had cheese footballs and a couple of tins of Watney’s Party Seven on the sideboard.

FaceBook are kind enough to ‘suggest’ posts, and send me something called PKR which is a computer-generated image showing a group of tattooed riff-raff – no offence to any of them – who I wouldn’t be seen dead with, seated around an oval table of green baize, playing cards, wearing string vests, body-piercings and hanging with vulgarly ostentatious bling. This must be target marketing?

And I regularly get posts advising me that my selfless friends have ‘given a life’ in Candy Crush or Juice Cubes. How long must I wait to hear that their generosity has been rewarded, and that one of them has got a life?

Not being smug – but I get a lot of contact requests from young women whose bosoms are a wonder to medical science. So many in fact that FB makes them form an orderly queue for my attention, exhibiting thumbnails of them down the right-hand side of my page. They pose for the camera on sofa’s which are so low it’s impossible for them to be discreet. All well-favoured by nature with curves and furtive smiles, I imagine they must be swarmed every time they go out of their front doors by equally vital young thews, like bluebottles around a ripe chop. Yet an accompanying message assures me that these girls don’t give a hoot for ‘young’ men and can’t wait to get themselves into a relationship with a bad-tempered, wrinkly, 50-something – which, apparently, is where I come in.

I read through those posts one-by-one to see what gold-dust I’ve become; then notice an ad urging me to save for my funeral.

At last! A name has been chosen for the sequel to Phoenix from the Ashes ...and the winner is: Canvas Flying, Seagulls Crying - and it comes out in about three months. (God, I hope you like it.)

Big thanks to Matt for rinsing-out-of-me this latest instalment of my blog …and a big Thank You to you for reading it.

Best Wishes

Justin

Stag in the Garden

Searching for morsels under the mineral lick

Searching for morsels under the mineral lick

I went to the Barber Shop in Lochgilphead, on the West coast of Scotland, and as I walked through the door the Barber – a Glaswegian in her forties who doesn’t suffer fools gladly called out: It’s appointments only on a Wednesday. So I apologised, then left.

But I’d only taken a few steps when I realised that I had an hour to kill, and thought it might just be worth asking if there were any unfilled appointments …even though – as anyone who lives there will tell you – ‘hours’ in Lochgilphead die only very slowly, and in a great deal of pain.

And anyway it’s not as if you can pop down the road and try your luck at the next Barber Shop because the ‘next’ Barber is in Oban …40 miles away. That’s not 40 ‘ordinary’ miles, by the way, that’s 40 miles on the A816 …if you’re a brave and experienced driver you’ll get up to second gear, sometimes – cutting the journey time down to just three days.

I know the ‘A’ denomination makes it sound important – but it earned it by being the only road. It even has a junction with a Drover’s road from which no one has emerged in the last 100 years …beating Cow’s arses with a stick.

Although the A816 has been ‘adopted’ (Ahh!) by the council, it’s really just a cart track with Tarmac on it. In places. For forty miles your motor vehicle must stitch its way busily over hills and around hair-pin bends, during which your arms and legs will be working like pistons. It’s the only road where you’ll see lay-by’s full of drivers trying to catch their breath.

So if you’re standing within a few steps of the Barber in Lochgilphead – even though it’s a Wednesday and ‘Appointments Only’ – it’s still like having a bird in the hand. I popped my head back round the door to enquire after any unfilled appointments, noticing as I did so that the Gentleman in the operating theatre had half his hair missing, and would soon be turned back into the wild, shiny bald.

‘Just a thought…’ I chimed; ‘have you got any appointments free?’

‘Yes’; she said; ‘I can do you in about ten minutes.’

I sat down and picked out one of the information pamphlets she had on a revolving stand – it looked to be about ten minutes long, and told me how I should react if my son tells me he’s Gay.

‘I wondered if I could have the back and sides very short, and nothing off on top’? I asked her ten minutes later.

‘No, you can’t…’ she said; ‘that would be a mistake …you want to look foppish – don’t you? I nodded. ‘You’re too old for that look – I suppose you want to look like Hugh Grant?

I nodded again. ‘…someone once said I look like him.’

‘You? …like Hugh Grant? …were they blind?  …and in any case, even Hugh Grant doesn’t wear his hair like that anymore.’

As she ran her fingers through my hair, pulling ‘are-you-sure?’ faces at me in the mirror, I spotted the very moment when she arrived at a decision, and wondered what it could be. For four minutes great clumps of hair whizzed through the air as though she was mucking out a stable; she cut my hair exactly as I had requested …out of spite.

So now I look like Snap – off the Rice Krispies box.

I promised regular reader Stickitoffee I’d post a picture of Islay in January. So I’ve been waiting, and waiting for a corker – but mud isn’t very photogenic. And not much else happens in January – we don’t even get snow, really …not like you’d expect in Scotland. It’s the Gulf Stream, innit?

Then this morning, on my third slice of toast – thickly spread with some surprisingly good home-made Seville Orange Marmalade, and accompanied by coffee so strong that when you get to the bottom of the mug you find a quarter of an inch of silt – I was unburdening all my woes to Linda – I find that Breakfast is a great time for a bloody-good moan, closely followed by Lunch and Dinner – when what should I see walk past the window but a Stag, with two of its friends.

Three Stags and a Petrified Tree

Three Stags and a Petrified Tree

Now that is an Islay picture for January – the Gamekeeper told me why: There are 2000 deer on this part of the island, but in the summer months you hardly ever see them unless you climb way up into the hills. From there they have a vast panorama of unspoilt moor; they can see you coming from miles away, and being shy, all you usually get to see is that curious white bum-patch galloping over the horizon so far away they might as well be ants.

But in the winter not much grows at the tops of the mountains and they are forced down to lower ground to forage. When things are really bleak they will come right down to lonely homesteads like this one; and once here, show a particular interested in mineral licks left out by the farmers for their sheep and cattle – together with any scraps of feed-supplement that may have been overlooked.

As for taking photo’s of Deer – if you stand motionless next to something big – like a house – you can watch them at leisure …because all they see is a house. After a month or two they become used to the sights and sounds of civilisation: someone putting the rubbish out; a dog barking; a car passing – they don’t even mind really busy days on which there have been five or six cars …they simply lift their heads, locate the source of the sound, give it a minute, then continue grazing.

By Spring they seem reluctant to return to the hills, eventually plucking up courage to come right up to the house – by day – they stand in the garden and take a disdainful interest in the Brassica’s you’ve spent a week planting …then they sample a dozen of them or more before finding one that’s really worth eating.

Call this a vegetable patch?

Call this a vegetable patch?

By the pring they're fearless.

By the Spring they’re fearless.

Spring? Spring seems too big-a-thing to be hoped for, just now.

I dreamed there would be Spring no more, That Nature’s ancient power was lost. (Tennyson)

Thank you if you are a new or recent visitor to this blog – particularly if you have arrived here having read Phoenix from the Ashes. And an even bigger thank you if you are a regular.

Justin

Living with the Rats…

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain

You can’t beat living close to nature. Fresh air, the breeze in your hair, and a carpet of frost on the ground. So much for conditions indoors …what’s it like out?

Unbearable, it seems …because this recent bout of cold has brought a family of rats into the house for shelter. You can’t stop them getting in – the house is 150 years old with rubble walls and no real foundations. Consequently all manner of burrowing creatures turn up indoors from time to time, either deliberately or by accident.

We hear the rats running triumphantly between the ceiling joists above our heads, exploring their new home; or working night-shifts, gnawing at something behind the wainscotting. And this morning Linda found a scattering of turds by her washing machine. I don’t want to offend anybody’s religious sensibilities, but that washing machine is to Linda what a fat, incense-burning deity is to people who live in the Far East – she worships at it several times a day. It’s her pride and joy. ‘Washing things’ is Linda’s act of religious purification – a tithe to the Gods – and when some rat comes along and craps in front of it she takes a very dim view.

I’m not too bothered about the washing machine, truth to tell, but what had the rat eaten to produce its excretions? …My tubers!

In the darkness of the Utility room I had a box of Potatoes – Maris Piper main crop (Solanum Tuberosom – I reproduce those words from the label in case they mean something to someone, they may be something to do with the variety, or Solanum Tuberosom may be the name of the packer) – all chitted and ready to plant …now there are just a few broken shoots left lying on the ground. The rat stole our potato peeler and a litre of Vegetable oil, lit himself a camp fire using the wood from our skirting boards …and then fried himself a shed-load of chips.

That rat is going to get his come-uppance: it happens that our dog, Scooter, likes nothing better than spit-roast Rat …so I’ve given him a skewer, a pile of twigs, and some Hot Chillie Sauce, and let him have the run of the Utility room.

Even as a puppy Scooter never missed a thing...

Even as a puppy Scooter never missed a thing…

Owing to a power cut we had breakfast by candle light this morning – I don’t know if it was the storm that knocked the lights out, or whether one of our rats had chewed through the ‘live’ wire. If the latter, you’d expect a slight smell of barbecued rat – which there was – but that could have been Scooter chalking up his first success.

Oh God this is painful: Scooter hasn't caught the rat yet - so I looked through my entire photo collection for a picture of a rat, and the closest I could come was 'Ratlines'. And before anyone points it out - even I can see that the Larboard Fore Topgallant Studdingsail Sheet has been incorrectly belayed.

Oh God this is embarrassing: Scooter hasn’t caught the rat yet – so I looked through my entire photo collection for a picture of a rat, and the closest I could come was ‘Ratlines’ …And before anyone points it out – even I can see that the Larboard Fore Topgallant Studdingsail Sheet has been incorrectly belayed.

Candle-lit brekkies

Candle-lit brekkies

Thanks to everyone who has written a reader review of Phoenix from the Ashes on Amazon. Having topped 40 reviews it has elbowed its way past the The Holy Bible – English Standard Version. You would bring me tears of joy if, as someone who has yet to share their views about Phoenix… online, you posted your review, and helped it overtake the King James Version.

Does everyone have a Novel in them?

THE PLANTET OF THE DOG-BIRDS.  A novel by Notta Hope

THE PLANET OF THE DOG-BIRDS.
A novel by Hope A. Bandon

Does everyone have a Novel in them?… asks the BBC on its website introducing the story of National Novel Writing Month – which ends today. Oops.

It’s an event in which participants try to write a 50,000 word Novel – most examples of which will be, in the words of Publisher Scott Pack, ‘…pants’. Some, he says, will be OK. A few will be very good. One or two may be great.

On a side panel in the BBC article, writer Elmore Leonard gives his top ten tips …pure juice for everyone who dreams of penning a great book. His first tip is Never open a book with the weather. The best example of ‘How not to’ is famous: It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets… - it opened the Novel ‘Paul Clifford’ by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, published in 1830.

Having dealt with the first sentence – and with only 49,987 words to go – he cautions against using any other word than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Out go ‘…she whimpered’; ‘Michael admonished gravely…’; and ‘she said, giving utterance to formerly private thoughts’. You can almost feel your Novel getting in trim.

Leave out the parts readers tend to skip‘ So out go long descriptions of places and people. Readers like to build their own pictures of characters and find it annoying when a character introduced three chapters ago, who they can already see in their mind’s-eye, turns out to have a beard. Long descriptions of things can really help to build toward the oh-so-distant word-count you’re aiming for … and if they must go what should we replace all those lost words with?  Action, apparently.

And in his action he allows the use of only two or three exclamation marks for every 100,000 words of prose …and notices that people who use a lot of exclamation marks also use the word suddenly – another thing on his blacklist.

‘Action’ and dialogue. Readers don’t skip dialogue. So here’s the key: Writing a great Novel, is really about writing great dialogue …Justin declared, rather self-importantly.

It’s worth noticing that all his techniques are designed to help him, as Author, remain invisible …to help show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. To ‘remain invisible’ as a novelist is the holy grail of writing. I’m itching to get started – yet also quite grateful that I’ve got 11 months of loafing before next November comes around and I have to begin.

This November I was doing a spot of roofing work. Who’d have thought you could work on a roof, two hours North of Aberdeen, in November? Yet here in ‘chilly’ Scotland the weather has been almost tropical – well, by comparison with what you’d expect. Apart from yesterday when severe gusts of Wind and Hail interfered with my attempts to put under-felt on the roof.

Up here, just now, it doesn’t get light until after eight, and you can’t work outside after ten past four – so the days aren’t too long …but to be honest I’m finding it all a bit arduous. Banging nails in bits of wood has taken it’s toll on hands which have become softened by years of failed attempts to write my Novel; and by summers spent swinging the tiller of our boat as we wind up leafy creeks with smiles on our faces. Not only that but I’m waxing old in years – I’m 53, you know? …and roofing is work which should really be left to proper young, bona-fide, hairy-arsed roofers.

 

Scottish roofs are low to the ground. Fortunately.

Scottish roofs are low to the ground. Fortunately.

Phoenix from the Ashes - that extraordinary adventure story framed in song by Joanne Eden will be joined next June by a sequel which still has no name. To be honest I found it easier to get the publisher to accept the book than accept any of the fifty-odd titles I’ve offered them …some of which were yours. Have you got any more suggestions? Please. Even really whacky ones. Preferably really whacky ones.

The best view until last Tuesday…

Hmmm, Isn't there something odd about this photo?

Hmmm, Isn’t there something odd about this photo?

Driving 200 miles across Scotland last weekend, we discovered a brand new Film Set scenery over every hill. Now, I’d live here.. one of us would say; then ten miles later: Now, I’d really live here; …then, not much further on, it was: God! …look at that! – I really would live here! When we’d run out of ways of expressing our amazement we were forced back to a simple: I’d live here, too.

Trouble is, in Scotland the sky isn’t always blue; the mountains aren’t always white-capped – though their feet are always planted in forests of endless green – and although crashing waterfalls take your breath away seen shortly after a deluge, they seem a bit threatening during one.

Disgorge

Disgorge

Not only that but the A9, which is one of Scotland’s arterial roads, is ‘gated’ – imagine gating the M6 – but right here red and white painted gates are tied back out of the way ready to swing across the road next time there’s a blizzard. We take that as a warning of what conditions can be like if you live here.

A long way from home.

A long way from home.

The route we took from Kennacraig to Port Gordon wound through the mountains on tiny roads where if you got a flat tyre and opened the boot to find that the spare was flat as well, you’d starve to death before they found you. Looking at the empty space all around, you’d think that no one had set foot here if it wasn’t for the Pylons.

For years there has been a rumbling argument in Scotland about the wisdom of installing super-capacity electricity cables overland, when they could be buried out of sight, underground.  But eventually the overlanders won the day, and they are just now in the process of erecting 10,000 Eiffel Towers – the only man made objects in wilderness which has remained unspoiled since the morning of the second day when God said: Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, until a week ago last Tuesday.

And not just the Pylons – access roads to each Pylon have been scratched out of bare rock, all fenced-in so that you know you’re straying onto private property and shouldn’t be; and in case you were wondering whose property there are signs, big as city hoardings with corporate logo’s bragging of what has been achieved.

God! I wouldn’t live there. Even though every third house you pass in that annexed slice of heaven is for sale, and prices are rock-bottom now the Pylons have gone up.

Singer/songwriter Joanna Eden has recorded a song about the story in Phoenix from the Ashes. We are thrilled to bits …we have to stop ourselves from showing-off about it. I always dreamed that someone would one day sing about me …though I never thought it would be because my house ‘went on fire’, as they say in Scotland.

I swear to God when Joanna Eden sings the birds fall silent to hear her.  I’ve posted one of those MP3 ‘play’ bars on my web page but I don’t think it works for everyone.  If you don’t get the play bar when the page loads on your device, and you know where I’m going wrong – I’d be enormously grateful if you could steer me onto the right track. I am the ‘Webmaster’ for my own web site – you see what happens when technology gets into the wrong hands?

Is that first photo better seen standing on your head?

 

Old photo

Torrabus Farmhouse

Torrabus Farmhouse

Did I mention that a year or two back a chap of about fifty with a Glaswegian accent pulled up in a car and asked if it was OK to park at the bottom of our drive?

He was deferential and petitioning – you know, in that way when you want everything to be ‘all right’? So we got chatting to him and it turned out that his Dad used to live in our house in his late-teens. His Dad was now 80, stone-deaf …and here he was, in the car – on a visit to the island from the Mainland to show his son some of the important things in his life.

So we invited them in and the old boy wandered around explaining to us what each room ‘used to be’ when he lived here. We sat them down for a ‘wee dram’ and the old man – still wiry and fit, mind – pulled a tiny old black and white photo from his wallet, no bigger than a postage stamp. It was of him and a previous farm tenant standing in the front garden after the ‘youth’ had been up to the loch and caught a wild brown trout.

I borrowed his photo and asked if they could come back the next day because an idea had just occurred to me of something that I could do to make the visit a bit more special. When they came the next day I pulled a fish out of the freezer and took an identical photo of him standing in the same spot as he’d stood 62 years earlier …and then put the two together. Here they are:

 

'Lyn', on the left, as a striking youth of 17 or 18 standing in the front garden. Lyn is a boys name in Scotland.

‘Lyn’, on the left, as a striking youth of 17 or 18 standing in the front garden. Lyn is a boys name in Scotland.

Here he is 62 years later, aged 80, standing on the same spot - but with his son this time.

Here he is 62 years later, aged 80, standing on the same spot – but with his son this time.

Bloomsbury have been in touch to say that they laughed out loud at my second book, it wasn’t like them to laugh out loud, and that they would publish it next summer.  They didn’t like the title though, so the search goes on.  Can you come up with something suitably irrelevant? It doesn’t have to be the best thing since sliced bread …just get us all thinking along new lines.

I’ve re-painted my web site – do you like the colour?

My old mucker Stevie – who knows a thing or two – tells me my blogs need to be shorter, and more frequent.  Could you help me in that endeavour by dropping me a comment any time you notice that seven days have elapsed without the appearance of some new fascinating trivia about life on a Scottish Island?  Thank you.

Next week – the incomparable singer…

Early warning…

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there’s a storm coming…

We were walking the dog around the Loch by torchlight the other night, up on the moor, when he started barking to let us know he’d ‘found’ something. We followed the noise, caught up with him, and there the torchlight picked out a Cow up to its shoulders in water, with its back-half stuck in a kind of water-filled trench - brick-built and excavated deep so that water can be drawn off by a nearby distillery, even when the Loch is quite low. The Cow would have been dead by morning – but an hour later the farmer put a halter over it’s head, we tied lengths of rope together, and he dragged the Cow (‘Beast’, as islanders say) out with a tractor – none the worse for its experience.

Dog-barks can be useful, it seems …although I’ve always found them to be a bloody nuisance. If there’s a Sheep fastened into a patch of brambles by its own wool – Scooter barks until we’ve cut it free. If there’s a Snake on the path – he barks until we’ve beaten him away from it with a very long stick; and if the Game-Keeper arrives at our house – he barks until we’ve got him face down on the ground, hands tied behind his back, and we’ve disarmed him.

There are false alarms: he barks at Seal’s on a rock in the belief they’re dogs whose legs have come off. He barks at Hedge-Hog’s because it might be a rat stealing Linda’s hairbrush. And he goes absolutely bonkers when you put a cardboard box on your head in case you’ve got a disfiguring illness.

We find it shocking to get a wet nose against our bare thighs when we’ve been asleep for an hour and he joins us in bed to tell us that the house is dangerously cold. And it’s a nuisance this constant demand for exercise  - I mean what the hell are we doing walking round a loch after dark anyway? 

DSC_1609

Neither does this early warning system come cheap: Seven hundred quid up front, four hundred for programming (which never really works), followed by five-hundred quid a year to power it up with Lamb-flavoured kibbles. Then there’s the Vet’s bills every time he leaps over a barbed-wire fence and leaves his reproductive equipment swinging from the top-wire.

He’s barking now because Michael fish says there’s a storm coming.

Linda’s worried about our boat in the storm now that it’s in Cornwall, 700 miles away. Only yesterday, in the sequel to Phoenix  (which I have just finished writing – Hurray! – and which I hope will carry the title Linda’s boat is Painted Green, now that Linda catches Crabs has been scornfully dismissed) I was telling the story of what happened last time we tried to get back on board our boat in a storm …even if we could get there, I’m not sure I would risk my life again.

Oh god, there’s another cow in trouble… this one’s got a tree stuck on its head.

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