Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Sunday Spent Plotting

Quite a long time ago – back in August of last year in fact – I wrote a post called "putting Scotland on the map" – and had the audacity to call it ‘Part One’ ! It was an attempt at an introduction to an idea that was running through my mind about trying to tell the tale {as I understand it anyway} of how Scotland came to be populated, how those populations developed into tribes and how the language that arrived, changed and survived can be traced through its use in describing the geographical features and the naming of the land, its shapes and contours as men developed the skill and ability to navigate around and through the landscape those peoples inhabited.

I was quite pleased with the result but quickly became scared off trying to tell the tale when I really thought about how much work was involved. For one thing, it's not a subject I've ever studied or even suggested that I understood – not that that's ever stopped me before from trying to tell a tale and I really like the thought of this story which comes from my love – and collection – of antique maps of Scotland. Over the months this post has had a fairly regular number of hits, mainly coming I think from the image of an old map of Scotland that I used as a header being picked up on Internet search engines. Being a curious sort of guy I like to know what's being read or not on the blog and I occasionally see a post listed that I go back to read in the footsteps of the viewer. This has made me feel a bit guilty that I've never followed up on this story but also reinforced the amount of work I would need to do to do it justice. Despite that I think that this may be my next project for the blog. A couple of years ago I wrote the story of 153 {Bomber} Squadron RAF across the last few months of WWII due to my father's involvement in the tale and these have become probably the most frequently visited posts in the blog to date with the exception of hits on the on-going "Sunday posts" weekly poem series.

Perhaps because of the guilt described above I've found myself delving into my collection of books on the history of Scotland, particularly those parts relating to language and landscape and beginning again to connect those threads which I remember feeling were the most important. Hopefully the information will filter through the brain cell and emerge in some kind of order.

Meanwhile here is how I started all those months ago.

'The North Part of Great Britain called Scotland.
By Herman Moll. Geographer, 1714.'

Imagine a time before Scotland: before Britain: before countries. There are no cities and no towns. No great castles or villages mark territory or give any sign of habitation, not even the tiniest of hamlets is to be seen. No bridges span the estuaries of the rivers Forth or Clyde and no ships, great or small, make their way up the rivers. There are no roads or railways and the skies are untouched by aeroplanes. No man-made light-spill masks the view of a night sky filled with a huge vista of stars and planets tracking across the horizon in the perpetual slow reassuring pattern that marks the changing seasons. The only tracks across the land are tiny and infrequent, made by the feet of wild beasts more often than those of any man.

Beneath that double cone of Arthur's seat there's no Edinburgh spilling down to the river. To the east, in the distance, North Berwick Law stands untouched and no lighthouse blinks across the water from the Bass Rock. No ancient tribal citadel can be seen on the crest of Traprain.. The land is covered by heavy deciduous woodland reaching back to dark hills and moors that rise up in the distance. Pine forests exist only far off to the north where the mountains can be seen in the distance, glimpsed from the top of the dead volcanic plugs that will come to be called Traprain or North Berwick Law. Far down the coast where the river becomes the sea and land turns towards the south and the spot I will live thousands of generations in the future, beside a place that will one day be called Dunbar, a slim column of smoke is the only recognisable sign of life.
Here - finally - is a sign of man.

Near the sea, between the water and the woods, is a house. It is a small, crude thing to our modern eyes yet it's the culmination of generations of experience and millennia of skill with its walls made from small branches of trees woven together and covered with mud built around a framework of a few solid wooden posts. The roof is pitched and roughly thatched with brush over a small hearth where a fire burns and smoke collects beneath the roof until it finally makes its escape by seeping through the thatch. In this smoke hang small pieces of fish and meat strung from the relatively low ceiling. We know all this because 10,000 years in the future archaeologists will find the post-holes and enough information to reconstruct the building at Skateraw and will name it the oldest house in Scotland. Of course the man who built it and the family who live here have no idea of that. They would have no concept of such a timescale and the house is probably only designed to last a few months until they move on to the next place, guided or driven by available food supply and weather conditions.

They are the first people; hunter-gatherers whose life is dictated by the seasons and the availability of sufficient food to sustain them as they comb the shoreline for molluscs or shellfish, or net fish and trap eels in the shallows of the sea or the nearby river using a small round boat constructed of hides stretched over a supple frame of light wood. They are expert in finding nuts, fruit, or herbs in the woods and trapping animals for food and skins. Despite the fact that they are clothed in hides and use many wooden and bone tools we call this the Stone Age simply because their stone artifacts are the most common sign of their passing  because of the durability of the material they are made from. While they have many more skills and expertise, the natural materials they also use don't survive the vast expanse of time except in extremely rare and precious circumstances. More often we find worked stone hand axes or evidence of their ability as flint nappers.

Flint, with its ability to be worked and flaked into razor edged cutting implements is found only in a few places, yet traces of its use found widespread across the land shows a degree of organisation and cooperation in finding and trading such a precious commodity. So adept are the people here at napping this flint that they create and use tools so tiny and delicate that they will be called microliths and will be used as an academic point of difference in identifying them from their counterparts across continental Europe who produce tools only of a more substantial size. This skill may tell us that flint was a rarer commodity on this island and necessity has driven the inhabitants to use every scrap of such a precious material.
Beyond a few stone tools and precious few examples of other materials being worked we know almost nothing about these people. We don't know what language they spoke or how they viewed the world they lived in, what kind of society they had or just how far each group roamed in the search of the food they needed to live .We have no image of them on the walls of caves showing them in the midst of a hunt. No record remains of the stories told by their firesides. Their songs are long silenced and their names unknown. Of all the people who will come later the first people leave the lightest trace in the landscape. Beyond the tools they leave behind there are only a few glimpses of the people themselves; a set of petrified footsteps where a small family group of adults and children once crossed an ancient beach; the space left among thousands of flint shards that mark the ancient knee and foot places of the man who hunkered down millenia ago to concentrate on his task.

They first appear at the end of the last ice age having migrated from continental Europe across what is now the North Sea but at that time was one continuous landscape until rising sea levels created the islands of today. The climate they experienced was warmer and more temperate than ours and foodstuffs, especially around the coast and lowland woods filled with larch, birch, oak and hazelnut were plentiful for most of the year, but they also had to contend with the threat of wild animals such as bears, wolves and boars in their never-ending search for sustenance.

In time the first people will become the various tribes of Celtic peoples scattered across the land and as such will help shape and name the landscape they live upon and which undoubtedly shapes them in return.

That will be thousands of years in the making, but they have begun the process of putting this little place known as Scotland on the map.

See you later.

Listening to.

The Sunday Posts 2012

Australian Tim Minchin delivering an animation of his beat poem 'Storm'; be warned - it does contain some strong language - but it deserves inclusion. I really like the vibe of the piece and am a bit of a fan of his shows.

 I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Missing You Already.....

It seems wrong and really petty to complain about being too busy to blog after having been unemployed for so long but that’s how it seems at the moment. I work, come home; spend a little time with G and sleep. There's not enough hours in the day. The adjustment to full time work from full time nothing has been a shock to the system - albeit a welcome one - that I've not yet coped with. A full working day, even with the limited travel compared to my last job means that I’m out just as daylight is building and return when it’s beginning to fail towards evening again, exhausted with the newness of it all and the amount of information I'm trying to take on board.  Maybe in a week or two when the days have stretched a bit and the light is better I’ll feel a bit better too; like I’ve not missed the whole day and the gloom is sending subliminal messages of sleep to my unused to work self. Hopefully too the lighter nights will encourage me to get out more and take more exercise, to relax and energise myself. We both are taking the opportunity to get out for walks on days off together and that's been great but I know I need to do more. Some good news though is that some weight has begun to come off me again with the walking and the activity of a working day. For the first time in many years I'm comfortably into a smaller size of trousers. What a confidence boost that was! To a large extent the insomnia which has plagued the last few years is also gone – permanently I hope – and I’m sleeping like the proverbial baby for the large part. At the moment though I’ve neglected the blog a bit, relying on a couple of pieces which I’d pre-scheduled to at least keep up with ‘The Sunday Posts’ slot. In fact I have the next few months already programmed in as far as the poems are concerned and have even forgotten some of those I’ve selected so I’m kind of looking forward to what transpires there too.

The new job is going well so far. I now work for a charity supporting people who suffer from autistic spectrum disorders, so I’m spending time learning about these conditions and the impact they have on their sufferers. I’ve been working with some great people and getting to grips with the role and its responsibilities. Unfortunately I’m also a bit conflicted as just as I started work a job appeared working for Children’s Hearings Scotland – a dream role which I just had to have a crack at – and I put in a quick last minute application which I’m waiting to see if I get any response on. That’s kind of taken the shine off the new job at the moment as I feel a bit torn between the two. Aw well, it will all work itself in time, and at the moment I’m earning again which is a great feeling.

Today I have a few hours to spare as I am working a two till ten shift, which is part of a regular rota, and early dayshift tomorrow and then I'll be off on Sunday which can't come soon enough. So, have a good day folks, enjoy the start of the weekend and maybe I'll find a moment or two on Saturday to catch up a bit more both here and with your blogs.


See you later.
Listening to:

Monday, 20 February 2012

I Remember You.

For Dad, who died three years ago today and who taught me much.

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe,
I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.
Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, 'tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.
But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men's fellowship and wiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles!
You may tell that German College that their honour comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant's fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

The Old Astronomer to His Pupil
By Sarah Williams

Photo by Alistair.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Sunday Posts 2012

If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
and leave the yellow bark dust
on your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers floating over you.

The blind would stumble, certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe under rain gutters,


Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbor to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler's wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
-- your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands in saffron,
disguised them over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers...

When we swam once
I touched you in water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
You climbed the bank and said

this is how you touch other women
the grasscutter's wife, the lime burner's daughter.

And you searched your arms for the missing perfume
and knew what good it is to be the lime burner's daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in an act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of scar
you touched your belly to my hands in the dry air and said 

I am the cinnamon peeler's wife.
Smell me.

The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife 

By Michael Ondaatje

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Sunday Posts 2012

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

'Fire and Ice'
By Robert Frost.

Photo - Loch Rannoch at dusk, Scottish Highlands, Jan 2012 By Alistair.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Meeting Jane.

The other night there was a documentary on TV about  RAF Bomber Command in WWII. A fellow blogger sent a text to say that it had made him think of my fathers story and that he'd tweeted some links to stuff here on the blog about it. Last night we watched it ourselves. Sympathetically presented by Ewan MacGregor and his brother Colin {Who had been a bomber pilot in the modern RAF} one of the most poignant parts for me was the initial reaction when Ewan climbed into the rear gunner position of a Lancaster in full WWII kit. He was clearly uncomfortable and stunned by the lack of movement available , the claustrophobia and the poor chance of getting out if in trouble.

 It made me think about when I met 'Just Jane' - a Lancaster - for the first time......

This was what I posted back in Feb 2010

As I become more and more engrossed in researching the 153 Squadron posts covering Dads squadrons last few months of WWII  I come upon the stark reality of  loss of life. I'm trying to understand how these men managed to come to terms with the fear that must have been part and parcel of daily life then. To be honest, living as I do in an age where danger isn't part of my existence, I've been struggling to understand how anyone could cope with having to face prolonged fear, and I mean fear, not the anxiety that's the closest I can find to relate to it from my place down the years, cloaked in modern comforts and affectations, protected by nurture, education and lack of experience.

I'll never forget the first time I walked up close to the end of a Lancaster, past the twin dorsal fins and with Dads rear gun turret coming properly into view. I remember that frisson of boyish excitement, the pull of an adults curiosity and a very acute personal sense of sadness and regret that I was doing this without him beside me to ask the questions that would obviously come up. The ground crew - now I know to call them 'erks' - working on 'Just Jane' at East Kirkby Air Museum had waved me over the barriers on request that quiet afternoon and had simply returned to their work, leaving me to it with a plea to 'scarper sharpish' if anyone else came in as they weren't strictly supposed to let the public get so close. "It's the only way to see the tail gunners position though so come on in." Just a middle aged man with a camera and a story of a relative who flew in these planes long ago.

'Just Jane' East Kirby's iconic Lancaster.

For them, just another day. For me something quite different.

I approached the Lancaster from the front. I knew what one looked like, its iconic image had been welded into my little-boy-long-ago fantasies of 'playing war' from a hundred half remembered films and books. {Though I didn't know then my Dad had been part of the story.} The reality of getting close to one was different. Clearly from an older age, it reared up, enormous, solidly propped on its front wheels, wings stretched wide across my view, holding out four huge engines, three propeller blades like swords 'en-garde' to protect each one. Above me, the perspex panel of the bomb-aimers position stared back blank and dispassionate, inviting neither respect or approbation, a mute witness to sights untold. Higher still the two guns of the front turret pointed gently upwards and beyond, the bubble of the pilots canopy sat high off the ground. The gaping belly of the aircraft was shown to me with the same message a scorpion gives when it lifts its tail overhead. 'Stay away. I mean business.' Today though, with its bomb bay open and a trolley of tools underneath, any threat was moot and faded, gone to the vets.

 I passed slowly, curiously, under the wing and down the flank, sentimentally running two fingers down its skin, noticing the flush rivets holding the dark metal together, on below the turret of the mid upper gunner poking up above me and past the stark metal ladder and the dark opening that let crewmen enter their frightening world. I noticed for the first time the reality that while Dad would have turned left, climbing over the internal spar of the tail to reach his place, the others would all have turned right.

My walk to, and then along the side of this plane had turned it from icon to reality. I could feel the strength and undeniable presence of its bulk, could smell the tyres and the oil from the engines. Rubber, heat and old smoke. It gleamed pristine in a way that something 70 years old shouldn't do. It said, "I am still here. I am still ready."  Every angle and plane gleamed. Light reflected and shadow highlighted detail not normally seen; door handle; engine port access points; suspension struts; hydraulic pipes; exhausts long coloured with an engines heat. I stopped and looked back along the side and up over the starboard wing and saw its shape created to catch the lift, minimise the drag, to carry the weight of a full bomb load, the cowling over an engine hunched still with power yearning to be released. An old athlete still on the blocks.

I came around the dorsal fin and there was the pod holding the rear gun, the perspex bubble where my father would have sat. No wonder they called it "tail end Charlie". He must have felt like he was sitting in a glass bubble outside at 20,000ft. The thought made my blood run cold, a feeling which remained as I got closer and saw the reality of that tiny space filled with the mechanism to control the two guns that gaped evil mouths at head height. I noticed strangely, although the rest of the aircraft had mainly been above me, fate had delivered the point I wanted to see most at practically waist level. The turret sat overhanging the rear wheel and I could see now some of the things Dad had told me about before he died; the steel doors which closed him off from the rest of the crew and behind which he had to hang up his parachute due to lack of space; the perspex panel in front of him which he had removed to improve vision even though it nearly froze him to death; the chutes which funnelled the used shells out of the aircraft. He'd spoken about the lack of space for his legs with all the hydraulics for the guns and turret and the tiny seat he would sit on for eight to ten long hours sometimes. How difficult would it have been to get out of there quickly had the need arose, stiffened by hour after hour of relentless, bitter cold of high altitude in the unheated turret?

I turned my back to the plane and stood close in beside the turret trying to replicate his position and I began to feel his fear of flying low level over land or sea, skipping waves, treetops and telegraph poles at 200mph, seeing danger only when it had passed, aware of how much might still be ahead, how speed would be frighteningly exaggerated close to ground or water. I could feel his isolation and understand how wonderful it must have been to be high above the ground, above the clouds and feeling like it was just you all alone in perfect solitude. How sometimes he felt closer to God. How, with many planes close by in the dark, he feared being hit by other aircraft. How his stomach lurched when they hit the slipstream of another plane or the Lanc leaped upwards when the bombs released. I thought how literal was the 'blind' panic of being coned in searchlights and I saw that while the rest of the crew looked forward he looked only back. He was the last one home. I began to understand where he could look for danger and why he feared what was happening behind those doors where he couldn't turn to see or what lurked beneath his feet on dark nights. I wondered how he must have felt knowing that when a fighter attack came it would almost certainly come from behind. I wondered if he knew as I now did that the casualty rates for tail gunners was almost 70%.  70%?  Surely he couldn't have known that?  My stomach clenched melodramatically. How could any human being cope with that level of stress?  That was when I began to think about how much they all had to be fearful of, how long a flight could be and how those men could sustain control not just across one mission but repeated over days and weeks and months of terrible experience.

There were many strains on them, many ways for fear to manifest itself or to have to be coped with beyond the actual mission itself; the fear of repeated selection for missions, of long hours between finding yourself listed on battle orders for the day, mission briefings and take off, anxious waits for clearance to go - sometimes crewed up sitting on taxy ways waiting ages for a green light to show from the caravan at the end of the runway, wishing it was over - and the more insidious fears; fear of being seen to be afraid, having to bottle it up to crew, family and loved ones to protect them, fear of men who showed signs of breaking or broke under the strain to be classed as LMF [lacking moral fibre] - mercifully few under the circumstances. What had it felt like seeing losses of men and machine posted, seeing belongings cleared and beds lying empty, in new faces arriving.

Numbers seemed to be important markers - getting past the psychological 5th mission to become an experienced crew seemed inordinately important and the insidious perception of higher risk of disaster when nearing the end of a tour of 30 ops as the law of averages swung against survival. A few good experiences could reduce tension by inspiring confidence while just as conversely a run of narrow escapes could practically debilitate or give someone 'operational twitch'. To cling to an irrational belief that it 'wouldn't be you', but some unknown other crew who's 'number was up' was what kept men going. Language hid the reality of an arbitrary death. "Going for a burton", "bought it", "had it" and "getting" - or "gone for the chop" are familiar phrases to me from a Dad who habitually used language learnt in those days but applied it in much different situations in later life.

Some turned to religion, some turned away. Many turned to alcohol and boisterous games or childish pranks when drunk to deaden the senses, and to some extent a great deal of leeway was given to the men in recognition of the high levels of strain. Many turned to human comforts and the release that casual sex would bring. Some turned to superstition with carrying of emblems or tokens, or in actions and routines that had to be religiously carried out. Many touched the aircraft - some peed on the back wheel before leaving - or repeated movements, phrases or prayers; quietly took bags in which to privately collect their vomit. Some wrote songs and poetry, told jokes or smoked desperately, talked about anything other than what was uppermost in their minds, looking ahead only to the successful conclusion of another 'do'; avoiding any long term planning and trying to put thoughts of others out of mind for the time being to be able to deal with the reality of the coming nights work. I felt the bond between the crew that had been described to me. How shared experience and the need to survive depended on each other and allowed - needed even - confinement of closest emotional contact within the 7 crew members and exclusion of others, especially those at risk of contaminating you with LMF. I began then to understand the lack of compassion that could be shown to those poor wretches who simply ran out of courage.

This is in direct contrast to our culture today where we want to get everything out in the open as a means of understanding. A culture where you never have to cope on your own. The culture of the victim where responsibility is shared as a means to help minimise or deny involvement and especially to avoid culpability. It was very different back then where the reality of war and societies acknowledgement of it, was so close and so much more personal than now. Their previous generation had gone through WWI and stark reminders sat in family photographs of those lost or damaged 'doing their duty' - not something that would have been considered unusual then as it is today. There was an infinitely greater expectation for people to do their duty than now, where we question everything and everything is held up for critical and inconclusive review.

I find it hard to reconcile the father I knew with the youth who looks back at me from the few wartime photos I have, even though some confirmation came from Dad himself. I can't see the quiet, gentle, peaceful man that was my father, but what he was prepared to do can't be denied. It was a different world. Perhaps that's what made him who he was, but perhaps even more there is mileage in the sentiment of  a small embroidered plaque in Scampton Church dedicated to the Squadron. It's where services were held and where some of their lost boys are buried.

That day there was one final twist as I eventually moved away from the aircraft to some of the information boards about the men and the Squadrons they had served in. I wandered around looking here and there at fading photo's of young men locked in time, quietly engrossed in thoughts about who they were and what they'd experienced when I turned round one section and came face to face with a photograph containing my Dad from long ago.

After that I really had to go for a coffee and a sit down.

see you later.

Listening to:

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Sunday Posts 2012

They met and they talked where the crossroads meet,
Four men from the four winds come,
And they talked of the horse, for they loved the theme,
And never a man was dumb.
The man from the North loved the strength of the horse,
And the man from the East his pace,
And the man from the South loved the speed of the horse,
And the man from the West his grace.

So these four men from the four winds come,
Each paused a space in his course
And smiled in the face of his fellow man
And lovingly talked of the horse.
Then each man parted and went his way
As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with peace in his heart
And loving his fellow man

They met the next year where the crossroads meet,
Four men from the four winds come;
And it chanced as they met that they talked of God,
And never a man was dumb.
One imagined God in the shape of a man.
A spirit did one insist.
One said that nature itself was God.
One said that he didn’t exist.

They lashed each other with tongues that stung,
That smote as with a rod;
Each glared in the face of his fellow man,
And wrathfully talked of God.
Then each man parted and went his way,
As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with wrath in his heart,
And hating his fellow man.

'Odium Theologicum'
By Sam Walter Foss

Photo - Memorial to The Cathars, Minerve, France - By Alistair

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Edie - A Dog Rescued

I've been getting an awful lot of hits over the last week by people searching for 'Edie - A Dog Rescued'. It seems to link back to something posted quite a long time ago and using a link to another blogger which no longer works. I've no idea why this is generating interest now unless there is something more on the story doing the rounds these days - but - if you're looking for this story - here are the video clips which were on it at the time. Hope this is  what you are looking for.

The Sunday Posts 2017/Mince and Tatties.

Mince and Tatties I dinna like hail tatties Pit on my plate o mince For when I tak my denner I eat them baith at yince. Sae mash ...