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 other bloke) 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 at this point why the bean seller wouldn’t just plant the beans himself – but we are to take no notice of either ‘doubt’ or ‘doubters’ – let people scoff – for we will soon be standing in the very entrance to the mines of Solomon.

For the next thirty years I asked every stranger I met if they could sell me five magic beans for a cow – yet no matter how I placed myself in opportunity’s way no one ever offered to sell me their beans.

I had all but given-up when one day just as I was 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 handing over his cow in exchange for five unlikely-looking beans to a stranger on a bridge – beans which were to make him wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice …and his mother a happy and proud woman.

I know that you will be as surprised as I was that this book ‘Unleash your Picasso’ turned out to be a book about art.

Nothing daunted, following its advice 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 – 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 – but since there weren’t any beanstalks, 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.

Yet it didn’t make me rich: 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  - or worse I discovered that they’d died at some point during my work.

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 read it, to 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…

DSC_2525

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.

DSC_2378

 

 

Pass in the night…

Disappearing round the headland - thanks Piers Murray-Hill

Linda wasn’t up to a voyage, so Mr Chesworth came up along, instead. We left Lagavulin at six one morning, sails up – no engine – and wafted silently out of the harbour. I looked back often at our Hebridean Island home, but the weather was so right for a voyage that nothing now would make me turn back.

An hour later the wind died. We had to get to the North Channel – that neck of water between Northern Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre – whilst the tide was tumbling South, so we turned the engine on. I’m always a bit surprised when it starts.

By mid afternoon we were off Belfast and popped in for fuel – the wind was forecast ‘light’ for a few days and, who knows, we might have to motor all the way to Cornwall? At the entrance to the Marina the engine died so we sailed to the fuel pontoon. It’s not behaviour they encourage …but the girl who served us dismissed our transgression with an hospitable flutter of her hand. She was girl-next-door-gorgeous…and happy as a lark.

‘I’ve got the best job in the world.’ she told us.

She offered us a berth for the night which after a struggle with my emotions I turned down – fumbling with £35, and doing the paperwork would have bought us another 10 minutes in her company.

We set off again at five pm, engine on, sails up, whirring our way down the coast of Ireland. At midnight my Mum sent me a text from Cuba, where she was on holiday. ‘How was I getting on?’ Just fine thanks. I helmed the boat through that night, skipping bed, because I was having a lovely time.

We couldn’t see Dublin the following day. We should have been able to if it wasn’t so hazy over the land. We pressed on South. We were aiming to get through a narrow passage of water – 4 miles wide – between the rocks off South West Wales, marked well out to sea by The Smalls Lighthouse, and an entirely imaginary obstruction on the other side. Imaginary, but dangerous enough: Traffic Separation Schemes aren’t marked on the water with buoys – instead they’re marked on the chart. They are motorways for the juggernauts of the shipping world. Looking at the wilderness of water around you, you wouldn’t know that you were in one until a tanker steamed over the horizon, coming straight for you, bow-on. So we wanted to avoid that bit …nearly as much as we wanted to avoid the rocks.

Into the Fal, Linda back on board, staying ahead of a Fog Bank.

It’s hard to steer a boat exactly downwind, by hand, for hour after hour – the boat doesn’t like having the wind coming from behind, anymore than a Peacock does, and constantly tries to turn to face the wind. When we lost concentration we broke some gear. But the ships we saw – perhaps bound for Liverpool – went wide and clear.

The engine failed again in the late afternoon – I didn’t even bother to find out why …it didn’t matter because the wind drove.

That night – or that morning – we were escorted by Dolphins from half-past three until ten past five. The moon shone silver onto the sea, and the black backs of Dolphins tore holes in its surface, blew, and punctured it again as they crashed back to the deep.

At dawn we passed the lonely-looking Smalls Lighthouse. A yacht – the first we’d seen – passed behind us heading for Milford Haven, a large harbour on the South coast of Wales. Half an hour later he was gone.

During the day, which began bright and windy, we ploughed a trough ever further offshore into the Celtic Sea. By late afternoon the wind grew light, and we were drifting. I’d just announced to Mr Chesworth that I was going below to see if I could get the engine going …when over his shoulder I noticed a great shape rise out of the water like a submarine missile that’s run out of steam, and crash back in. It was a whale – possibly a Humpback – broaching. It did it five more times. I was more impressed than Mr Chesworth – he was telling one of his stories and resented the intrusion.

I got the engine, it ran for an hour; then I coaxed another hour out of it, then gave up. We drifted.

That night was dark, the moon hidden behind clouds. When Mr Chesworth was in bed, a cluster of lights came over the horizon amongst which I spotted both a red and a green light. That’s not good news. The red and the green lights of a ship indicate which side you’re looking at – if you can see both, it’s heading straight for you. I didn’t worry unduly because it was still a long way away; and in any case these things usually sort themselves out. Furthermore, at sea a vessel under motor has to give way to a vessel under sail.

Ten minutes later it was closer, and I could still see both its red and its green light. Having calculated that he would just squeak by to my right, I kept to my left – but we were sailing at 1mph, so I couldn’t help much. By his lights I knew he was working, and should have looked up the particular arrangement of lights he was exhibiting to see what work he was doing …but I was tired, this was my third night without sleep. I should have called him on the radio to announce my presence …but the radio wasn’t working. When he came too close I should have motored out of his way – but the engine wasn’t working. It’s unusual for two boats to approach so close together sixty miles offshore.

Suddenly his spotlight came on, intensely bright; and began straking the water all around me. At last he’d noticed something on his radar, dead ahead, and was trying to find out what it was. A moment later he’d got me, the light was so bright it hurt my eyes. I heard raised voices. The light scanned the water to my left, urgently, found it clear, then kept me so brilliantly illuminated that my sails seemed to be glowing in the darkness. More raised voices, a roar of engines, and suddenly the vessel swung into the water on my left.

My feeble attempts at keeping out of the way had left my boat at a standstill, rope and sailcloth hung limp around me. Now, with the vessel clear, I bent low under the sails to see ahead, and to get myself back on course. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes – there in front of me was the dark hulk of an unlit boat, slicking across my bow, filling the horizon, towering over me. I say unlit – it had one small red light in front, but that was so far to my left that I didn’t notice it at first. It curved past me, silently, quickly.

The lit boat I had seen was towing this dark hulk on a line which might have been a quarter …even half a mile long. The lit boat would have passed me on my right-hand side – the tow line would have snagged me; the un-manned towed vessel would have run me down. No one would have realised what had happened. No one would have known where to start looking for us.

Towing vessel, on passage, Land’s End to St David’s head …thank you for maintaining a diligent watch.

I had a brainwave about how to get the engine started, and began work at 3AM upside down in the bilge. By six I’d got it going and I begged it to keep going until we got to the Longships Lighthouse off Land’s End – if it did we would just get round with the last of the tide …if it didn’t we’d be pushed backwards again. Four and a half hours later I found myself a bit closer to the Lighthouse, and the rocks on which it sits, than I had intended – perhaps 100 metres away …just then the engine failed. Well, I only asked it to get me to the Lighthouse.

A wind sprung up – a bit more wind than we needed really – for the next thirty miles, with too much sail up, we galloped past Penzance, and across Mounts bay. It was as though Caol Ila, our boat, had just realised we were back in Cornwall, and was sprinting for home. We passed five Chinese cargo ships lying at anchor – imaginatively given names like: 7; …23; 42; and 17.

Traditional Cornish Boats - Looe lugger

I dropped Mr. Chesworth off at the town quay in Falmouth, under engine, thanked him, and pushed off, then the engine failed again, leaving me drifting amongst a dozen craft at anchor. I pulled out a sail, managed to draw clear of the docks, dropped my own anchor off the smart village of Flushing, and rowed over to visit John and Pam on board their boat for a G+T, and a floured fillet of Mackerel in a soft bread Roll. Possibly one of the best meals I’ve had.

The sequel to Phoenix from the Ashes – which I hope will be called Linda’s Boat is Painted Green – has been written; I’m editing it now. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available. I hope it won’t be too long.

Thank you to everyone who has posted their review on Amazon. I’m honoured, encouraged, and taking notes of the bits you like. If you can think of something that should have appeared in the first book, but didn’t, this is the last chance to mention it so that it gets into the second book. For example, someone very wisely suggested ‘A map’.

Waiting for the tide to go out to scrub the bottom.

loading up with winter fuel

Justin

Beginners luck…

A bird looking at something behind me…

I’m becoming a real birder, me.

It all began a couple of months back when Linda and I were indulging ourselves with some Oolong Top Fancy in the garden. I couldn’t help noticing her skin already had goose-bumps when a chilly breeze arrived and began vibrating the perigynous tubes of her Fuchsia. She slipped indoors for our wooly hats.

She was ages looking for those hats – I’d forgotten to tell her I’d sellotaped them to the walls of the oven. Very occasionally an idea comes to me which – if only people listened – would improve lives: Sellotaped to the walls of the oven those hats will keep the heat where it belongs and reduce the number of times it switches itself On …wastefully illuminating the ‘On’ light.

Back in the garden, as I waited, the first pangs of loneliness wracked my frame. A Winnet fluttered down from the Fuchsia and onto Linda’s end of the plank of wood we laughably call our Garden Seat. It hopped around a bit, cocking its head to admire its reflection in the eight coats of High-Gloss Yacht Varnish – then it looked up at me and winked. That did it for me…

Two birds standing near to each other, lost in thought...

So we nipped over to Jura yesterday to do some Twitching, as we birders call it. Regular readers of this blog – and I’m proud to see that there is one - will remember that we’ve only just returned from a few days on Jura …but the ruinous expense of a second visit to the wildest, remotest part of that island was immediately rewarded by the sighting of a pair of Fire Crested Merganzas – they are extremely rare …they may not even be listed in your bird book. I certainly couldn’t find them in mine.

A bird flying and whistling to himself... (or herself)

For the next two hours we saw nothing at all – or nothing to speak of: a pair of Upland Moa; a Red Moustached Fruit Dove; …a crowd of Great Auk wandered by at one stage, followed by a Dodo – just one …which didn’t bode well for the Dodo. But we stuck with it and our patience paid off at last when we spotted, first of all a Robin …then a Thrush.

My Optimax 1000 birding-glasses have Zirconium-Coated lenses. You’ve got to have the right gear – I know they’re several thousand pounds more than most people are prepared to spend but I don’t see them as a luxury; to me they’re an essential bit of kit and I never now take them off, preferring them around-the-house to my glasses. They’ve transformed my driving, too – I now anticipate traffic-problems several counties ahead …and I’m first to spot parking-spaces – but they’re long gone by the time I get there. That’s caused more than a bit of road rage, that has – people get shirty when they arrive back from an afternoon’s shopping and find you just pulling-up, claiming to have spotted that space first.  But a bit of advice: there’s absolutely no point in your going a-twitching and simply taking with you the cardboard tube from a roll of Aluminium foil with a magnifying glass stuck in each end. No point at all – you’d be wasting your time …and I speak from experience.

A booklet, thoughtfully included in the box by the manufacturers of my Optimax 1000′s, has turned me into an expert birder virtually overnight. It is a four-page pamphlet entitled The Bird Watchers Bible - a grand claim which appears to be born-out by it’s having apparently been translated from the Hebrew.

Next up we saw a White Eared Wheat Chaffer and I thought to myself ‘That’s funny – what’s he doing here in the middle of June?  He shouldn’t be here …not yet.’ A quick check through my Binoculars revealed the true circumstance, however, and I could see immediately that what I’d taken to be a Wheat Chaffer was in fact a long-handled rake carelessly left out in someones garden. I confidently crossed ‘Wheat Chaffer’ off my list of sightings – but it was a pity because Wheat Chaffers aren’t thought to come this far West …indeed, the one I thought I saw hadn’t.

A bird with different coloured feathers...

But where one door closed another opened – sitting on the handle of that rake I noticed a pair of Choughs – an absolute treat because you won’t often see two together. We’ve all seen one on its ownof course we have …if only because the top-shelf magazine happened to fall open at that page …but how many of us can put our hand on our heart and say we’ve seen two together? I can!

A bird with something in its mouth…

Once I’d got the Object-lens Calibration harmonised with my extended Field-of-View Scopes I scanned the horizon and had frequently to catch my breath! – we tallied: Four Spotted Coots;  a Skeet; Three Croon Warblers; a Black and White Minstrel; and just when I was beginning to get dizzy with only ‘exotic’ sightings, along came a good old Sparrow – though I could see from the stains on his plumage that he’d been blown off-course from the Kumtag Desert where he’d been eating Goji berries. That, or he’d just come from a market in West Kensington. If they have markets in West Kensington? Perhaps it was a souk.

Exhausted but happy, Linda and I got up to leave and only then did I that discover that I’d been lying on a Silver Bearded Plover!

I love birds, me!

Chicken for dinner!

Can’t wait to try that oven…

Justin is responsible for Phoenix from the Ashes …and very soon, another lightweight read.