A month into a new year and there are still many restrictions and uncertainties in our lives. I always feel disorientated in January, as if I have been propelled a little too abruptly across the calendar changeover. Creativity has been at a low ebb, and many of my writer friends have said the same. Anything that tweaks those grey cells in a positive way is therefore most welcome.
At the time of writing, I’m doing some virtual gardening. NRK is showing Gardener’s World. This series is from 2018, so dear old Nigel the dog is still following Monty Don and his wheelbarrow. I love learning about the different plants and seeing what people can achieve in all seasons and weathers. I will probably never get to own a garden now – and truth to tell, I had an on/off relationship with it when I had one in the past – but I’d love at least a balcony and a few pots or window boxes. Also unlikely unless I win the lottery!
What I can say with certainty is that simply being able to watch these gardens evolve on TV is like balm to the soul right now. Calming and relaxing – the power of nature. There are some very pretty and well-designed tiny gardens dotted around even here in Bergen city centre. I like to wander past and check out progress. As we are currently experiencing the coldest January for over ten years, there is not much sign of even a brave snowdrop yet.
One programme in particular caught my eye – featuring the Bosco Vertikale in Milan. Two high-rise blocks where an architect has created practically a vertical forest, trees and bushes planted on every level, right in the city centre. There are so many environmental benefits to this. The trees also provide welcome shade, and a home for accompanying insect and bird life. This is a real move in the right direction. And respect to the “flying gardeners” who carry out all the maintenance suspended from ropes!
I’m still working my way through the pile of books I awarded myself, and I received an exciting new collection of notebooks as well. One, gifted by my daughter, is full of a series of paint shades, one or two per page, complete with their evocative names. The idea is to approach a page per day and write or sketch whatever is inspired by the colours. I find it works very well – a form of automatic writing flowing freely for five minutes. Already, reading back over the last weeks, I see some nuggets of ideas for possible use later. Keeping the grey cells perky! Now I’m considering similar lists which could be utilised to kick start the imagination. If you think about it, seeds and plants often have names which should make a writer’s “what if?” muscle kick in. And I just discovered there is a miniature tulip named Lady Jane. Hmm. I wonder….
The ideal food in this chilly weather is a homemade soup. Also ideal, from my point of view, because you can eat with one hand whilst reading a book. It is great for utilising leftover root veg, for example. Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to flavour combos. I have just produced an oven-roasted tomato and a cream of potato and celery, but the current favourite is the wonderfully-named Mulligatawny.
This year, whilst we are still so short on company and chances to celebrate being together with friends, I decided it was even more important to pay proper respects to the poet Robert Burns, on Burns Night. Burns Supper for One. At home. Miraculously, there is one place in Bergen where they make traditional haggis. I’ve no idea how this came to pass, but anyway, I gratefully collected a small one. (As you know, the little devils are hard to catch…) I have been lucky enough to enjoy a proper haggis supper, complete with the ceremonial piper, on two occasions at Moniack Mhor, the Writing Centre near Loch Ness. Current restrictions have prevented me attending any more courses there so far, but I remember fondly the good times experienced with new friends. We’ll meet there again! I toasted the memories with my wee dram and even posted a video of my reading of “The Poem”, Address to a Haggis. Max was suspicious of my new accent but discovered, to his delight, that he loves haggis (though without the whisky sauce).
Animals are such a comfort. Whenever I find myself wearing a huge smile on my walks, it is usually because I have just met a new four-legged friend. Yesterday it was one cat and two dogs. We communicated and I continued on my way, the better for it. No wonder animal visits to the sick and elderly are so highly valued. I just watched a puppy gambolling in the snow, not quite able to coordinate his long limbs but just loving life. I laughed. Max, watching out the window, looked scornful. The expression he reserves for dogs or my attempts at yoga.
Gardens return to my attention. The more I watched these programmes, the more I saw parallels to the writing process – to life. What elements do you want to bring forward? A garden shouldn’t be too predictable or safe. Which plants – or words – suit the conditions you have? (Like hair maybe: work with what you have, develop it) Maintenance – the boring weeding (or editing) yields results. Protect and nurture tender beginnings. You need to adapt. Sometimes you need to radically and brutally prune. How painful it is to cast away pages you have worked on – only later to realise how much your work has blossomed as a result. And as writers are often told, add in some wildlife or animals. They add depth and a whole new play of characters.
There is no such thing as colours that don’t “go” with each other in nature. Why do we get so bothered about that? Look around you. Variety in planting, like writing, is more interesting. Monty Don says remember to stop and take in the garden – keep assessing and enjoying. Reading back bits of what you have written aloud lets you feel the shape of it, as well as the pace. Much like photography, don’t forget to look behind you! The affinity between gardening and writing just keeps appearing to me as I watch: make sure you don’t give it all away in one go. There should be a surprise around every corner. Expect the unexpected! Take care of your tools – that means the writer too. Don’t forget that handy trompe l’oeuil effect – works both in a garden design and in a novel.
Hopefully at the end of all that hard work you can sit back and watch your efforts bloom for a while. It is true that gardening and the craft or writing is hard work and takes perseverance. Watch out for pests! Dont get distracted down the wrong garden path, or stay admiring your one prize plant for too long – others are quietly getting out of control (like the mint). Thank goodness that most of us still have access to the world outside our doors (unless in quarantine) and are free to watch Nature getting on with it, as she always has. I look forward to the birdsong and those first green shoots. Meanwhile, brighten up with some flowers. I have yellow tulips on the table. Their proud, determined colour is stunning, and brings hope and resilience into the room. February- wipe your feet and come in! Welcome!
As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m an Autumn child. Earlier in life, I might have preferred Spring. Yet here in the North Spring is an uncertain, undefined being, never wholly within ones grasp. It can be bestowed and retracted at the whim of the Norse gods. We learn never to entirely banish the winter clothes to the back of the cupboard. This year we had a flurry of snow on June 1st. Some years, Spring seems to be on holiday abroad.
Autumn, or Fall, brings glories of colour, a less intense heat and the return of Scandinavian “hygge”. Plus yet another birthday. For us in the orchestra, it generally heralds a new beginning – our new season. This year, the world is a very different one. Incredibly enough, the Bergen Philharmonic has adapted, often at the eleventh hour, and maintained a flow of livestream digital performances since April. With conductors, soloists and programmes subject to overnight quarantine or travel changes, flexibility has been stretched to the utmost. But everyone – musicians and administration- has dedicated themselves towards ensuring that the music continues. Maintaining a digital presence from early on was vital for morale and for clinging to one constant in a scarily changing world.
Fellow musicians around the world have dug deep and found new reserves of creativity in order to present themselves online. There is a very real sense of community and solidarity in the Arts world. All of us, desperate to keep going. We will not be silenced. Despite the uncertainty, tragedy, fear and anxiety unleashed by Covid 19, we have often become more resourceful and resilient. Dancing a fine line from one day to the next, sanitiser is our new fragrance, distance our new norm. We become used to leaving our phone numbers everywhere we go, to having a supply of face masks. To thinking twice about many things we used to take for granted. Here in Norway, we have been relatively lucky. It is no real hardship to have to contain ourselves within this long country, rich as it is in breathtaking scenery and wild places to explore.
I of course miss my short flights to Scotland, and especially the postponed return to another week of writing at Moniack Mhor, near Loch Ness. I miss making new friends each time I go – the support and opportunity to learn more. I was nervous the very first time I stood up to read my work aloud in front of the circle of fellow writers in the crackling firelight of the Hobbit House. I had pushed myself into the unknown. It paid off. The appreciation and encouragement I received there was something I very much needed, and has since kept me going, validating my inner urge to write. I await eagerly the re-starting of residential courses there next year.
My daughter can attest to the fact that I have an uneasy relationship with computers. She will often get a message from me along the lines of “Help! Where did my work disappear to??” I grew up with pen and paper, and I still do much of my writing longhand before a first edit as I enter it onto the laptop. But the fact remains that the Internet has been a lifeline in lockdown and beyond. We have had remote orchestra meetings, kept in touch and taken part in online festivals. It has been moving as well as entertaining to watch everyone learning to adapt. I watched, for example, ballet dancers attending their regular morning class from their kitchens or even balconies. Edinburgh Book Festival went online, as did Bloody Scotland – the festival of crime writers in Stirling. I have loved “meeting” authors and getting that buzz of inspiration as they discuss their methods. I have indulged my fascination with forensics and absorbed new knowledge on a variety of subjects. We have been channelled into a new kind of participation, a new community many of us have not yet fully explored. I feel a greed for words, facts, impulses which find outlets in various mediums of creativity. Perhaps because, in an otherwise uncertain world, these things are available to me – ingredients for me to use as I wish. Wigtown Book Festival on the West Coast of Scotland was also represented. Shaun Bythell of The Bookshop has kept a daily book quizz going all through lockdown, aided in the background by Captain the cat, the real whiskers behind the business.
The Irish Chamber Orchestra and my friend Oonagh Keogh sent out a delightful video featuring some very attractive front doors opening to reveal the various orchestra members who lived behind them. A bit like a musical advent calendar. We in the BFO did a performance of Grieg’s piano concerto together with a soloist who was actually playing in Iceland! The magic of technology. BBC Sports presenter, Andrew Cotter, had me in stitches with his deadpan commentaries featuring his two labradors, Mabel and Olive. Quite a few of us waited eagerly for his latest ones to pop up.
Away from the laptop, I have been devouring books. The latest is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, winner of the Womens’ Fiction Prize this year – alive with so much detail and with a truly gorgeous front cover. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a much respected historian and has delivered a weighty tome on The Romanovs, a subject which has always fascinated me. That will take me a while to digest thoroughly. Also on my current pile is a book in Norwegian, Hardanger, by Marit Eikemo. I’m delving into those short stories in coffee breaks. Added to all the reading, plus my writing, along came another burst of art. I don’t paint or draw regularly, but I do experience times of inspiration when I see a subject and already it pops fully formed into my head, the medium I will use and how I will achieve it. Like a piece of writing, it often sits up there for a while until the day that it bursts out onto the paper, completed quite quickly. The itch has to grow and mature first! I get a lot of pleasure out of the process of drawing or painting, and out of the knowledge that it is a continual learning process. Just like writing or music. There is still much to be discovered. I feel as though my thirst for learning grows more with age. Hopefully it will keep those grey cells healthy.
In the BFO, we came back to work at close to full size in August, opening appropriately enough with Dvorak’s “New World” symphony. It was a heady, unreal but oh-so-welcome experience to set foot on our stage again in front of our first live audience for a long time. The thrill never dies. Every time that I go on stage and make music, I feel how right it is. Whatever life throws at me, that at least is where everything comes together and I am at home. It is in my blood. Thanks to my parents’ efforts, I became a musician and have found my natural element, making music together with others. And live music needs audiences. We feed off each other. There is a chemistry present which brings a performance to life, a life which evolves and changes shape from one evening to the next.
We know how lucky we are. Especially now. Culture can be seen as non-essential in times of crisis by some politicians. I beg to differ. The Arts are present in our every day, in some form or other. Remove all trace of them and their absence would be deafening. Amongst the shifting sands of the Now, we humans crave that constant – we crave beauty and solace. In this new sharp-edged world where touch is so limited, and for some, wholly absent, we need that which touches our hearts, lifts the spirits, comforts and enriches our senses.
For many of our fellow musicians, especially freelancers, this is a time of dire struggle and uncertainty. As it is for the whole industry of professionals who work largely in the background in lighting, sound, filming and producing large events. Their livelihoods are being choked by the restrictions on large gatherings.
I hope we can look forward to a gradual lifting of restrictions and closer to a return of a more normal life. The seasons keep turning meanwhile, golden piles of leaves dancing in the wind gusts. An unexpected bonus of warmth arrived here this weekend, scarves were briefly loosened. Ingredients for homemade soup await my attention tomorrow. For now, time to curl up with a book and a cat. And some music.
The second banana loaf of lockdown has just emerged from the oven. Max sniffs the air. He will try anything. My thoughts fly all over the place these days. I get distracted considering a jar of lentils. Getting creative and even more economical with food is just one ingredient of these strange times. Against a backdrop of snow, rain, wind (yes it’s one of those days) there’s a rollercoaster of emotions. Tears come without warning. Inexplicably. Watching fellow musicians in Oslo having their jobs put on hold and wondering when our turn comes. Life as we know it is cancelled.
Max is confused. The rhythm of his naps is disturbed. All the same, he wants to be involved. In, and on, everything. His furry presence is a lifesaver. Another being in this empty place. Trying to find my own rhythm, to stick to a rough schedule. Some days it is all too much and worry gets the better of me. Uncertainty is all around us. Easter is cancelled. Festivals are cancelled. Maybe summer will be cancelled. Any positive thing becomes a highlight, turns the day tulip yellow. That elusive Bergen sun. Walking to the deserted harbour and feeling the brightness burn through my eyelids brings the return of perspective. Indoors, panic shortens the breath, encloses.
I enjoy time at home, but I have already been there for a considerable time before lockdown began. My back has taken time to heal. Soon I will carefully begin the process to build back up to full playing strength. I have tasted enough of my own company for now.
Everything is magnified in isolation. Especially noise. The whining complaints of the refrigerator. My upstairs neighbour, also stuck at home. Pacing the room constantly with every phone call. Eight steps across. Eight steps back. I try to think charitable thoughts as my wine glasses rattle and the pounding echoes in my head. I listen to music. Watch films. Sometimes I want to be able to think. And write. I’m aware that irritations are magnified so I resist the urge to write said neighbour into my crime novel. Breathe.
Technology now IS my friend, allowing me to balance out the horrors of the world crisis with the blossoming absurd humour popping up as an antidote. There are many toilet roll jokes. Yes, even here there has been a rush on them in shops. As someone points out, if you need THAT many toilet rolls in a week you should be speaking to your doctor urgently. And not about Covid-19. Apart from nurturing my own Pythonesque sense of humour, the internet allows friends to reach out to each other. Hearing from someone lightens the day. We exchange reading suggestions or news of others we have heard from. The community that we were is intact still. And enlarged by contacts as far apart as Ireland, Australia, Canada. Distance shrinks online.
Oh yes, there’s also the yoga. Missing my physio, I unroll my mat and attempt a basic online class. The expression on Max’s face is priceless. I’m embarrassed. Yes, well, I’m just beginning, I tell him. And my still numb and weakened foot doesn’t quite want to obey.
I find myself desperate for flowers. On the rare trips out to get groceries I bring tulips home. Their vibrant colour draws me in and makes me smile. I try to organise my table and desk with enticing vases full of spring, candles and my pile of waiting books. It would be easy for a day to escape me in the company of one book. So I try to ration it. I learn things, practise in my notebook. I hang a list on the wall of writing tasks completed and, in some cases, submitted to competitions. Deadlines give structure to the drifting days. I try new genres – flash fiction and poetry. And I submit my first poem written in Norwegian.
I also have music waiting to be transcribed into cello duos for a future project. More importantly, I’m keeping a journal, making entries most days. This is cathartic and will be a useful insight later on. We are living through extraordinary and devastating times. We will not be unchanged by them. We will have learned much, our priorities and perspectives will be altered by what we have lived through. I hope the world will be a kinder place, that we will consider one another more. We owe it to those who didn’t make it, and to those who have fought to save us.
Right now nature seems to be bursting out like never before. Listening to the blackbirds song from my windows is calming and precious. The days pass in an absurd jumble of highs and lows. I dig deep for those highs. Today we had an online meeting – the whole orchestra and management team. No mean feat for those of us who are still challenged by technology. One after another of us needed assistance to get literally onto the same page. Only the leaders of the meeting were visible, but feeling the virtual presence of my colleagues reduced me to tears for the first few moments. How I have missed the “us”, the teasing, the challenges and the companionship. The striving for the same goal. The sense of common achievement. Our beloved Kari’s soup in the canteen. The birthday songs. And of course our faithful audience, both in the hall and online. As society is dismantled piece by piece, we find out how much we value the arts and culture. Like nature, it enriches our lives. We need it in this tough world. Today I felt some hope at last. We will be making music together again. In the not too distant future.
Here on the West coast of Norway, the unexpected turns up regularly in the shape of distinctly unseasonal weather. Although four distinct seasons seem to have become unfashionable. This past month or so required amphibian clothing, along with the kind of coat that could be at once not too cold and not too hot. Add an umbrella resistant to sudden lift off and dust off the sunglasses for that one day we experienced sun. Ok, two days.
Also unexpected this month was a whole lot more reading time than I had bargained for. I was admitted to hospital for surgery on my back. I may have needed spare clothes and toiletry essentials brought to me, but I was, as ever, well-armed to face idle moments with a book, notebook and pen. Once the butterflies had been herded into at least one corner of my stomach, I decided this would be just another writer’s observational exercise. As usual, the running commentary inside my head kept me amused. Like taking notes without the pen, handy when getting a cannula fitted. Or four. I mused on the potential – or necessity – for trolley driving tests for porters as we rattled down corridors, scraped inelegantly around corners into lifts, accelerated down a ramp – brake, BRAKE! I asked my current porter with only slight irony whether he had to take a similar test to taxi drivers, to find his way around the huge hospital. This seemed to amuse him. Our journey to the MRI suite involved at least three trips in lifts and apparent miles of corridor. I was lost already. I quite enjoyed the novelty of being on a speeding bed. I lay back and reflected that the passing lights and ceiling tiles gave a movie scene feel to the whole thing.
And then there was Brad Pitt. I kid you not. The radiographer was a dead ringer for a Brad Pitt with spiky grey hair. And a huge film star smile to match. The butterflies came out of their corner along with what I presume was a foolish grin. Hopefully the imaging did not extend to seeing my thoughts. I find it hard to fight claustrophobia inside the tunnel so I was impressed to have a mirror rigged onto the scanner to reflect the massive tv screen behind it. I spent the duration of the scan pretty relaxed and watching the downhill ski. Upside down. Well – it was a winter Saturday in Norway. Brad popped his head out to wave goodbye as my new porter propelled me back up to the ward.
Skiing was also on in the Neuro day room. I was back in time to intercept lunch. Saturday in Norway is also rice pudding day. Enjoyed with the enhancement of a knob of butter, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. I tucked in. A different winter sport was now showing. I took a moment to reflect on the irony of watching a fragile human hurtling down the luge track on what looked like a tea tray- from my present surroundings. It looked like a recipe for disaster that could keep both Neuro and Ortho busy for hours.
I was glad that I had been so enthusiastic with the rice pudding when I got the instruction to fast. My inner monologue was kept busy as I got into the distinctly unlovely hospital pyjamas. Clearly not designed with fifty percent of the population in mind, with button gape and absolutely no acknowledgement of hips. But I had some more fun with the bed controls, trying for the best combo of sitting or lying. None of them, at this stage. The surgeon appeared out of nowhere at the foot of my bed. He had arrived on his scooter. Of course he had. He wanted to operate asap because I had both numbness and reduced strength in my leg and foot. I asked him to explain the procedure to me. He whipped out a pen and sketched it out on my bedsheets: view A, and view B from above. Whilst it did indeed resemble a cross person on a bicycle, I felt reassured by his calm manner. I also still felt like a jelly, but I needed the surgery, which would be the next morning.
During the night I became preoccupied by the sounds around me – a persistent snoring duet from the two women on either side, each trying to outdo the other. And the biblical weather front outside, angrily howling and lashing hail against the windows. The arrival on the roof of the emergency helicopter, three times, the clatter and growl of the engines as it squatted there like a giant baked potato. Rattling cups on a passing trolley, the whump of the lift nearby. I fell asleep finally around five only to be awoken before eight to get showered and ready. It felt unreal. Another ride on the bed up to Neurosurgical on the seventh floor and this time a two-bed room. The fierce embrace of surgical stockings and the waiting. No saliva left, fantasizing about a good old cup of tea. Then the alien atmosphere of the operating theatre, trying not to register the metallic roll of instruments or the various machines “Oh we don’t use them all!” Answering questions about my height, my weight – “too much”, reaching for my last bit of humour. The theatre nurse who held my hand tightly and talked to me about music. My feeling that I was on an unstoppable train. A pair of kind blue eyes as I Breathed In.
Waking up shaking, I was wrapped into a heated blanket and resumed observing from within my cocoon of relief. It was a twilight zone of muted light and beeps. I thought of Monty Python (the machine that goes beep) and smiled. Every fifteen minutes, a chorus of blood pressure monitors shattered the peace. I watched my readings upside down behind my head, trying to gauge the passage of time. The surgeon appeared again – minus his scooter – and professed himself pleased with the results. Time passed in my cosy, woozy world.
Back at last on the ward, riding on my euphoric drugged cloud, a nurse brought me that longed for cuppa. That most British answer to everything. I gave fervent thanks for Mr Lipton and said yes to food. I was in time for supper. Pizza Grandiosa is mocked by some as a national dish of Norway, beloved by students and nevertheless as far from proper pizza as you could get. But right now, it tasted like heaven. I could hear bagpipes coming from outside my room. Morphine does strange things, I thought to myself. It turned out to be coming from the day room tv relaying winter sports – yes, apparently nothing else was on tv. I couldn’t quite get my foggy brain to connect bagpipes with skiing but decided it must be a feature of a medal ceremony. More cups rattled by as bagpipes merged with the not so discreet patient phone call next door. “HÆÆ?? KA FOR NOKKE?? KA SA DOKKE???” (What??? What did you sayyyyy????) I subsided amongst the pizza crumbs and drifted off into a strange tartan-flavoured dream.
A few weeks earlier, I attended the LitFest here in Bergen, showcasing writers and poets from all over the world. An evening of poetry brought the medium to life for me in a way I had never previously experienced. Poetry performed by the poets themselves was a revelation. Added to that, how vivid these works were in their original language! We listened to Sami poets, with traditional joiks sung. Poems in Arabic, Russian, Spanish, German, Norwegian, Mandarin and English. Fascinating to me, the music and rhythm of words. I wandered home in the dark, illuminated from within. Inspired.
One of the featured authors was Diana Darke, a Middle East specialist who has written for, amongst others, the BBC. Her book made it to hospital with me, although I’m only now able to sit comfortably enough to concentrate on it. My House in Damascus is a moving and very revealing insight into life within the Syrian crisis. An insight most of us never get from the news reports we are fed. It is a worthy new addition to my book collection and has broadened my latest selection of tv documentaries. Having been in the Middle East, hiking in the occupied Golan, I’m curious about the region. Diana Darke lays bare the humanity, the lives of ordinary people living under impossible challenges. Alongside the crime books and thrillers I enjoy analysing, I also maintain a diet of books that open my mind, give me new insights and understanding.
I suppose you could say I started the month with culture and ended with suture! Plenty of food for thought, along with experience of expertise and kindness – the nursing staff were dedicated and quite wonderful. I have been lucky. And now, rest and recuperation. Hopefully, the Unexpected will take a little break.
January is a strange month. A kind of hangover (literal or otherwise) of the previous year. The decorations and lights stubbornly cling on in many of the houses I pass on my walks. Leftovers of too many foodie treats sit smugly in my fridge, challenging a renewed attempt to “be good”. The darkness of a morning is profound, intimidating. And the temptation to simply hibernate is strong. It remains my least favourite time of year. The flip side of this comes with my love of reading. The antidote – along with a cuppa – to All Things. My usual Christmas present to myself is a stack sufficient to last me a few weeks. The ability to escape the world and become willingly submerged in that of a book is one I developed early on. I relish it even more now that I understand and explore the structure.
My local book store here in Bergen released the latest Peter May crime novel into my eager hands only days after publication in the UK. Twenty four hours later, I reluctantly returned from Southern Spain and Gibraltar. No more pages left. He never disappoints. Perfect pacing, structure and twists, together with his legendary ability to engage the senses. My vertigo kicked in violently as the characters stepped out onto the glass-bottomed walkway on the sheer Rock.
Another author on my list who whisked me away from the perpetual rain was Chris Hammer, in his book Scrublands. Set in the unforgiving Australian outback, the unfolding drama grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and held me there, parched, burning my fingers on every inanimate surface. The hopeless, endless dry. I reached for my waiting glass of water in Norway – lucky for me – and continued the story. His description of the sun, which “…hangs over Riversend like a sentencing judge”, is stark. The book is a masterclass in how to repeatedly emphasise the merciless heat without ever seeming to do so. Show, don’t tell
I love that recognition of a truly excellent book, found in the profound sense of disappointment on reaching the end. And the impatience for the author to hurry up and write the next one. Write the book that you want to read, or so the advice goes.
Then there are books that are, quite simply, perfect. That could not have been written any other way (like great film music). And that will sit on my bookshelves, to be returned to as old friends throughout my life. I found one such gem in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy. The combination of simple but profound text and Mackesy’s pared-back sketches is deeply moving. His ability to convey the essence of each animal and the child in only a few bold strokes of the pen is powerful. It is a gift within a book. A rich message of love. I cried over it as I cried over The Velveteen Rabbit.
January for me has been punctuated by rain. The relief of absence of lethal, icy walks has been tempered by the ever-present soggy umbrella. Nearly every day so far has been wet – and windy. Which makes use of said umbrella a fruitless sport. Umbrella carcasses sprout from waste bins and hedges in colourful ridicule. The irony of this relentless rainfall was not lost on me whilst following daily reports of the bushfires and drought down in Oz. My squishy heart was seriously squeezed by the plight of Australia’s wildlife. What to do? In a matter of days, groups of crafters began to emerge online, joining hands throughout the countries of the world and reaching out to our Australian brothers and sisters. Hubs sprang up here in Norway and I was galvanised to dust off the sewing machine and locate my crochet hook.
The sheer volume of injured and orphaned animals required industrial supplies of bedding, mittens to allow burnt paws to heal, nests, blankets and pouches. I cried more tears at each progress report we were sent, at pictures of shocked little ones clinging to a dead parent or having their wounds dressed. The efforts of carers, medics and fire fighters were inspiring and ceaseless. And out of the devastation has come reassuring evidence of an epic tide of goodwill, of enduring human spirit that has almost overshadowed grim world affairs and frustrating, unreliable politicians. It is unstoppable, apparently even when confronted by so many obstacles. January became that little bit less dark. And in the space of a few weeks, supplies have reached a level sufficient to have reserves for the future, in many areas. There can be no doubt that continuing climate change will necessitate reaching for those reserves. Meanwhile, I’ve remembered how to crochet, made nests, animal beds and some hanging joey pouches where orphaned roos and wallabies can feel safe as they recover. It has been a real pleasure to see people everywhere using craft skills to offer help. Crossing country and language divides with a common purpose. Encouraging also to see photos of fresh green shoots persisting to emerge from the ash and devastation.
New shoots are celebrated at Imbolc, the ancient festival marking the beginning of Spring and coming up around 2nd of February. Which, realistically, is yet a long way off here in Norway! The unusually mild winter thus far has certainly confused the plant life. I will keep an eye out for heartening signs on my walks over the next weeks.
So to the last recommended book on my pile. I’ve spoken before of my fascination with words strange and new to me, and their origins. A Word for Every Day of the Year, by Steven Poole, was clearly meant to come and join my collection. Today’s word is Ouphe. Meaning – an elf or goblin, rooted in the Old Norse alfr (elf). This in turn came to mean a changeling, or dimwitted person, and finally – oaf. Interesting. And thus I get to learn at least one new thing each day.
Recently I came across another Scots saying – I’m as fit as a lop (a flea). I recognised the origin of this word in Norse again – loppe is flea. I really enjoy metaphorically turning over stones and finding what lurks underneath. Being a word detective, I suppose!
Of formal “New Year resolutions” there were none in this household. None that I’m aware of. I can’t speak for Max. Naturally though – and informally – a few thoughts were marshalled into order as the wheel of the year turned. Mostly along the lines of avoiding temptation of the caloried kind, trying new walks, new things. It basically distilled down into the following: Be curious. Do better. And – vital advice for writing, from Messrs MacBride and Guthrie – Don’t be boring!
Somehow I have been catapulted from October into December, landing in an ungainly heap and brandishing Christmas “To Do” lists. The whirlwind activity of our achievements through November was enough to relieve the average person of breath. An intense workload that left me unable to remember which day it was . I feel I’ve only just come up for air. But it culminated in one of the high points of my orchestral career.
Dedicated work produces results. A two week odyssey into the world of Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. We had previously performed the work at both Bergen and Edinburgh festivals, so we stepped back on board at an already elevated level. Knowing it inside out, we could bring greater depth and weight into this multi-faceted opera. The genius of Britten is revealed in his unerring ability to embrace the timeless theme of a petty, insular community ostracising someone who is “different”. Whilst maintaining a self-satisfied attendance at church and thereby observing the niceties. Britten doesn’t shy away from peeling back the layers of the ugliness lurking within us. Throughout, the untamed forces of nature – wind and sea – are captured by the orchestration. I can almost taste the sea salt on my lips, feel the lash of spray, the greasy rocks under my feet – hear the mocking cries of seagulls. When you live a piece of music so intensely, you wear it daily. It was a running commentary to all my (brief) activity outside rehearsal. Popping out to buy coffee (“Mind that door!”) or an hour or two at home (“we’ll do our knitting by the sea”).
The camaraderie between all involved in the production evolved into a real affection where there was already mutual respect. Our own choir was joined by several others, all amateurs, showing exceptional commitment to the project. Following a performance on home turf, we took the production to Oslo. I opted to take the train both ways, a seven hour trip through fairy tale winter landscape. The snow thickened into a whiteout glare by the time we reached Finse, the highest point on the line. We deposited passengers at isolated points, some of them gliding away on skis to remote wooden cabins and certain peace. I tried to read, write or knit, but often abandoned the lot to simply stare out at the eerie ranks of snow-burdened pines, so memorably captured by Norwegian artist, Theodor Kittelsen. A favourite work of his depicts a solitary bird perched on a tree and viewing the vast whiteness, saying in awe “It’s snowing and snowing!” Exactly my reaction as our long train snaked and swayed through the cold silence. Travelling in this way, you start to get a feeling for the sheer distances in Norway. And I haven’t even travelled the actual length of it yet either.
Oslo Opera juts out almost into the sea, the angle of descent allowing for people to walk up onto the roof itself – an impressive piece of architecture. As usual it takes a while to get our bearings. Yup. Every time. I spot colleagues in one corridor and then again in the next, bewildered. “Have you seen…?” “Where are the wardrobe cases?” and the usual “Have you found the toilets??” This, despite the signs painstakingly distributed by our advance crew. We are disorientated. We wander past parked sets for Hansel and Gretel, trying not to scrape our shins in the gloom. And at what point shall I eat the salad I brought with me…?
On site general rehearsals are about balancing in a new acoustic. Added to this, offstage players have to be placed for the right effect. More adjustments. At least we have enough room to play without crashing into each other. Or getting a viola bow in the eye. Spirits are high. We’re ready. Brushed, lipsticked, polished and warmed up. The Oslo audience cheers and gets to its feet some three hours later. A massive success which bodes well for London. There are also free drinks in the foyer. Concentration is thirsty work! Sadly no Oslo critics made the effort to attend , but we and the capacity audience present know that tonight we showed beyond a doubt what we “Westlanders” from over there can do.
No rest for the wicked, they say – or the victorious. Come Monday morning, we are straight into double recording sessions of Peter Grimes for Chandos. Now to capture that performance freshness and zest under the beady eye (or ear) of producer Brian Couzens. Again and again. Tightly planned so as not to wear out voices or keep soloists hanging around unnecessarily. We give everything. And more. Starting at ten in the morning is a tad unfriendly for singers. I pass mezzo, Catherine Wyn Rogers and joke around with the sung phrase “Good morning, good morning!” She laughs grimly and quotes back at me “more like ‘Murder most foul’ at this hour!” Every staged sound effect also has to be recorded, even Catherine’s retreating footsteps off stage, which sets us giggling. The soloists preserve at all times a great sense of humour which we appreciate and reciprocate. Some of their lines require a lot of text delivered with exact timing. Tripping over tongues is inevitable after multiple takes and provides light relief along with comical expressions. We know pretty much every word by now. This is a very different kind of concentration – there’s more tension in the body, with awareness that any accident or unwanted sound could ruin a hard-won take. But by Wednesday night, PG is in the box – a recording to look forward to.
A group of us opts to travel a day early to London, where we will present Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall. Having time to spare ahead of rehearsal is grounding and a welcome break. I stroll across the river in crisp, bright weather, heading for my favourite bookstore with a coffee reward along the way. Covent Garden bristles with decorations and the mingled scents of pine and mince pies. No sign of any hot chestnuts yet. Down Bow Street with images in my head from Dickensian illustrations. I keep walking down Piccadilly and beyond. Carnaby Street is wonderfully mad, with illuminated jellyfish and shrimp dangling weirdly overhead. It feels good to be here. This city has seen so much and I love the history of it. Londoners are tough and resilient, mainly chirpy and helpful despite the overwhelming crowds. I’m certainly getting my steps in. The tracker on my phone congratulates me for my activity achievement so far, managing to sound only slightly condescending.
It’s a good job that our hotel has a thousand rooms because the whole orchestra and combined choirs are now in residence. Refreshed on concert day and post Full English, I take the short walk to RFH under the looming London Eye. I’m as likely to get on it as I am to skydive. Or enjoy Brussels sprouts. Each to his own. Another code to remember at the Artists’ Door, more corridors and lifts. This time, clothes, instruments and stage are all on the same floor. Brilliant. Reunited with the cello – which seems in an unusually good mood – I take my place on stage. We do our usual spots. The acoustic feels dry. And the stage itself is freezing cold. We are sold out tonight, so that should help.
Just a few hours later, having wallowed in the bath and nipped past Marks and Sparks for more salad delights, I’m back. Backstage is buzzing. Vocal warm ups follow me down the corridor and I dodge around lurking horns and trumpets doing their thing. Bass players are doing their famous lightning change half inside the bass cases. Mostly outside. No nonsense with trekking to the changing rooms for them. Five minutes to go and everyone is onstage watching the last of the audience squeeze into place. The choirs are wrapped around above and behind us. It’s a big moment.
Ed bounces on, the soloists take their places. As the drama unfolds, I can sense sizzling around me – from our concentrated brains and from the audience sitting in legendary silence, totally hooked. Getting a roar already at the first interval sets the tone of the evening. This is going to be Something. And it is. There’s a stunned silence following the last note as Ed holds the strands of magic a little longer – then the audience erupts. On their feet and cheering. It’s a rarity. I’m feeling electrified by their response – moved to tears by what we have just done. And proud. So proud. Our Norwegian orchestra came to London and conquered. We all hug each other when the audience finally lets us go. Instruments are packed down for the long road trip back to Bergen in our truck. Beer is handed out, traditional at the end of a tour. We are giddy with our success, still stunned. Popping out like a cork from a bottle through the Artists’ Door into the chilly night and excited chatter. We move on to the nearby favourite musicians’ bar under the rail bridge. The red wine goes down smoothly, the first of many toasts. We have to be up early for our flight, but we all want to linger, savouring the bubble, the culmination of so much hard work. And what a reward! By the time we are back in Bergen, all of London’s press has started to heap praise and stars on us. This was sensational, all are agreed.
Thanks to everyone who enabled us on this voyage. Especially our world class stage crew – simply the best!! And to Benjamin Britten for this unforgettable opera – I think he would have been quite pleased with us…..
Despite a dizzying assortment of weather offerings in the last months, it’s safe to say that autumn has settled its mantle here over the West coast of Norway. Flooding, epic rainfall, landslides, yet mild temperatures. The tail-end of Dorian made the use of a hairdryer redundant by the time I reached Grieghallen.
Whilst the rain is lashing, the itch begins to manifest itself. And persists as I start “making things cosy.” The cushions change their covers…something rustic and inviting. Out comes the woollen throw (Max already has first dibs on this). Candles resume their places. A bowl piled with the current fruit in season (plums). And I start making soup. Current favourite – bean, tomato and spinach with a zing of harissa. I seem to be embracing my inner vegetarian. The digestive system approves.
The hygge is on! That special form of Norwegian cosiness….coorie, in Scotland. I try to resist that resulting itch. But it succeeds in leading me inside the wool shop, shelves glowing with rainbow colours, tempting as the old-fashioned sweetie shop of my childhood. I get this urge every year at about this time. I’ve produced a few sweaters over the years. The thrill and satisfaction of completion is the same one writers experience. Most of my colleagues are far more proficient with wool than I am. I watch in fascination (and envy) as gorgeous garments evolve from their needles.
I get that earthy feeling of going back to basics when I knit – to these home crafts taught to most of us as we grew up. The pride in that first pair of wonky squares which became a shoulder bag. In purple. How I laboured over it. So slowly that i despaired and my mother pitched in to add considerable centimetres. I was constantly lured by glossy pattern photos of finished items. It seems that I am still susceptible.
The selection of wool types, quality and colour combinations has expanded to become a true art form. My local Aladdin’s cave displays “rare breed English” wool, alongside Icelandic and Norwegian varieties. You can get tweed-effect, silk blends or alpaca. Even yarn incorporating yak hair. My fingers drift down the shelves where every variety seems to squeak “Pick me!” (Do balls of wool have squeaky voices?)
Texture is the first thing I choose. I’m smitten by the Icelandic yarn, which reminds me a little of a much-loved (and much-missed) Faroese sweater which I want one day to recreate. Faroes wool is expensive and hard to get hold of, unless online. I love colours which reflect the landscape. But my eye is distracted by an alpaca mix, wonderfully lightweight, which reminds me of the piece of Harris tweed I couldn’t resist this summer. There’s a grey-blue greeniness to it that is drawing me in. I reluctantly leave the Icelandic shelves, decision made.
I do have a slight habit of collecting all that I need for a project and moving on to the next one before the first is complete. Ah well. A bit like my mind really. Flitting like a butterfly from one idea or thought to another. Automatic writing exercises, in my case, are quite astonishingly diverse. I’ve seen my daughter’s eyes glaze over a few times as I jump from one subject to another in speech. It’s all perfectly rational inside my head, quite logical. But of course sounds in reality totally random.
This time however, my knitting project has a new dimension. I get to create one thing whilst mulling over another in my head. Thinking time. Time to consider my writing projects, to see where my mind leads me, and to unravel the plot knots whilst my hands are doing the opposite of unravelling! Choosing wool colours is like rearranging characters….Oh, add in THAT one and how does that change things? Or…what if I do THIS??
Multi-tasking again. The orchestra takes our production of Peter Grimes to Oslo in late November, before London the following week. I decided to take the train there and back, partly to be eco-friendly where I have an option. And partly because it’s the low-stress choice for me. Seven hours on a train is time I can use productively. The knitting and notebook will join me, along with the imagination. Yes, Girl (ok…Woman) on a Train. Now where could that lead me?
But first….a new week at Moniack Mhor in which to be creative. And a chance to chat with those Highland cows down the road…..
You have to expect the unexpected when travelling. So my eyes widen only slightly on discovering that our six carriage train has been inexplicably reduced to four. Despite all six being fully booked. My fellow tourists are still frothing at the mouth halfway through our journey from Glasgow to Oban. Welcome to Scotrail. The ticket inspector has not dared to appear, but the Hospitality Assistant, Amber, is understanding and and good-humoured in the face of chaos. The extra baggage piled up with displaced passengers perched on top makes it impossible for the refreshments trolley to be wheeled along. Amber assures us she will be stationed at the far end, where we can purchase…..ah yes….anything but tea and coffee. She is now not permitted to dispense hot beverages in case we injure ourselves walking back to our seats. Hollow laughs all round. Those who have been cheated out of a seat are referred eventually to Scotrail for possible refunds. Right. Best of British with that one….
It is a rainy day and the scenery around us is at its moody best. I keep expecting to catch sight of an extra from Outlander emerging from the trees. Mist has let her skirts fall in folds, leaving occasional hints of mountain peaks. Enticing tracks and trails, where surely midges lie in wait for the unwary. Man has mercifully left less imprint up here. The landscape reveals strange age-old shapes, humps and hillocks…..dark, secretive forests. It slips effortlessly into the “brooding and dramatic” as proclaimed in tourist literature. Our four carriages having further reduced to two at Crianlarich (the rest of the train heads up to Fort William), we rattle up the track, rain fatly splattering the windows. Newly-shorn sheep graze on, undisturbed. They’ve seen it all before. Dalmally station is a profusion of delightful eccentricity…..figures of sheep, sheepdogs and pheasants peer through a burst of tubs and bright flowers. We pass Loch Awe, white-frothed and dark. The open train windows bring welcome freshness to the crowded carriage. They also bring in wet leaves. Summer growth has encroached on the line as the train squeezes through at speed.
I spend the night in Oban. The weather remains blustery and not unlike home in Norway, so I reason that some whisky tasting will revive me. My accommodation happens to come with a frankly impressive wee bar downstairs. The proprietor, John, informs me that it includes his own personal whisky collection. I decide that a day in the doubtful embrace of Scotrail has entitled me to a decent single malt in recompense. My carefully considered choice prompts John to remark that it is his particular favourite, the last dram of that bottle, and that he may be about to weep. He says this with a twinkle in the eye so I commiserate with a grin. Whisky is properly savoured in the mouth before swallowing…..that way you avoid the burn. They say. I feel the inner fire…..
The crossing to Mull is smooth, luckily for this poor sailor. I even manage a cup of tea and shortbread. The sun has decided to end the rain nonsense and heats us up on deck. Vicious gusts of wind try to remove the hair from my head. Good job I’m not into high-maintenance coiffure. Wash’n’go. Trump’s hair spray would be no match for this wind….
I see the scenery as a succession of watercolour washes, distant hills blue-grey, fading in and out of the picture. Sudden brilliant shafts of sunlight striking the white of boats and isolated houses. The locals sit quietly with their shopping wheelies and dogs, fresh from a mainland trip. Some talk about their dental appointments or visits to the main stores. There’s only a mobile dentist on Mull, I’ve heard….
Arriving at Craignure, I board the bus for the forty minute trip up to Tobermory. I’ve struck gold with the driver who proves to be a hoot. We meet a works vehicle on the narrow road. It looks tight. “BREATHE IN!” cries the driver. General hysterics and visions of the night bus in Harry Potter. There’s a sign by the road “Beware …. otters crossing”. I long to see one of these enchanting creatures but they are notoriously elusive. Next time I visit, I will go on an “otter potter” with a guide. Even getting up at five am to see them would be worth it. The bus driver keeps up an informative banter the whole way up, pointing out seals, birds and sheep…..”look! One sheep!”….whilst negotiating the winding road. The foreigners are bewildered by his broad accent. Some have brought the equivalent of the kitchen sink … others look woefully under-prepared for the unpredictable weather.
My B and B is some distance out of Tobermory itself, so I’m lucky that I’ve hit two of the driest days, although I’m prepared with waterproof gear in my pack. The walk in takes about 25 minutes, fiercely uphill on the return journey. Island peace is something else, something that slows the heartbeat and the racing thoughts. A calmness where the loudest noises are the bubbling stream and constant hum of bees. The richness of vegetation triggers my hayfever, long dormant in Norway, but I don’t care. That warm grass smell of childhood is strong and soothing. I pass a field of over a hundred cows, working hard on their contributions to the famed cheese and ice-cream. They consider me carefully. And get back to grazing. Sheep dazzle with their shorn summer coats, evidently feeling lighter and frisky.
I meet very few people and even fewer cars, but a passing cyclist calls a cheery hello which I catch in his wake. Signposts are also in Gaelic. I’ve been learning a few words and phrases, fascinated as ever by links between languages, origins of words. I listen to it on the dedicated tv channel. The stream has become roaring falls which supply some hydro power, although most power still comes from the mainland via deep sea cables. Down Eas Brae, which is nearly vertical….a workout for later….and I’m in Tobermory. Every bit as colourful as advertised.
What you don’t get from the tourist pictures is the simply mouth-watering smell of fresh fish and chips. That rich promise from childhood days at the seaside and a time when no rules interfered with the proper wrapping of newspaper. It never fails, that evocative bank of sensory memory. Add to this the wildflower and honey scents of the highland soaps on sale. And that rich tang of seaweed that grips you by the nose and stays deep in the lungs. Something both primal and life-affirming. As a child, I was vaguely repulsed by the black bobbles and slimy green strands, fastidiously trying not to step on them. I feel as though I also smell the peace here……it’s like leaning back and floating on warm water, as if we are in a different, kinder time zone. It relaxes the shoulders and cushions my steps.
Seagulls as large as small dogs stalk the pier, crying harshly to the skies and jealously defending their looting rights. A man yelps as a gull makes a mid-flight raid on his open fish supper box. The bird crackles in triumph from the roof of a parked car. A local woman mutters at the sight of a tourist feeding the gulls, which unfortunately encourages them further. “Yon daft wummin is gie-in it breid an’ all!” I sympathise. The birds are as bold as any I’ve encountered. They try intimidation tactics but I stand firm. They are not getting even a crumb from my ice-cream cone. They glare at me and retreat to find an easier victim.
Tobermory is a delight to the senses, even with a constant flow of visitors. I willingly give myself over to exploration of the rich local seafood. Crab, langoustine, salmon, mussels, all are superb. And of course that cheese. I talk to a few locals, some of them incomers, part Sassenach like myself. They are immensely content with the move here. I naturally sample a stave of whiskies at Tobermory distillery, instructed by a knowledgeable university student. She’s lived here for five years. It is, she maintains, rather dead here once the tourist season is over. I sense that has something to do with her youth and need to still experience city life. I myself can see the vast appeal of peace in such nature … although for me that means mainland coastal living and not being at the mercy of rough sea crossings. Crafts and artwork flourish on the island and I can certainly see the inspiration. It makes me itch to write and draw. I’m still thinking about watercolour washes….
I walk out to the lighthouse, two kilometres of paths with steep drops down one side along the coast.
Rubha nan Gall lighthouse was built in 1857 by the Stevenson brothers, the same family as the author, Robert Louis. They also built the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, which has been beautifully restored and is now an enticing holiday let. I sit with my sandwich from the bakery, perched on a grassy tussock beside a rockpool. I listen to the waves, lazily slapping to and fro near my feet. There’s only a gentle breeze to cool the sun’s heat. Birds call and wheel above me. A ferry passes on its way north west…..maybe to the Outer Hebrides. And then the silence. I write in my notebook for a while, the perfect spot for getting my thoughts onto the page. I could stay here, perfectly happy, all day. The arrival of other visitors….and the realisation that the nearest toilet is back in Tobermory…..sets me back upon the trail. A cool, green corridor that opens up onto spectacular viewpoints. It could be a bit treacherous when wet, but for now, the path is stable. I leave a grateful contribution towards the upkeep of the path at the gate…..there’s a collection box shaped like a lighthouse.
Towards evening and my dinner reservation, I opt for a bit of local gin research. The bar fills up with a few holidaymakers and some locals. Snippets of conversation wash over me as I consider the contents of my glass: “Aye, he was deid but he wisnae RIGHT deid, ye ken ….” Or “Och they modernised it and made it worse.”
After a triumph for the tastebuds, I start the hike back to base in a delicious evening sunlight casting low across the fields. Farm dogs are barking and children playing, free and safe here as childhood once felt. The sheep sound like someone pretending to be a sheep, which makes me laugh out loud. I baaa at one nearest the fence and it replies. We have a conversation. The same thing happens with an inquisitive horse in the next field. I quite often prefer animals to some humans, so it seems natural that I communicate with them. Finally I pass a wind turbine and turn into the garden. My hosts have chickens who oblige with breakfast eggs and stalk the garden area. They also have Willow, the dog, who collapses gratefully against my legs as I greet her. Morar is a potter and artist…..examples of her work decorate the house and garden. It’s a peaceful place, unassuming and simple. I lie with the window open, listening to owls.
I decide to take a trip to visit Iona. The weather has disintegrated into persistent rain and wind, but the locals are unfazed. “Aye, ye’ll no’ melt,” says one. True enough. “‘Tis just a wee bit o’ Scotch mist.” Right. Our coach driver for the lengthy drive across the southern part of Mull is Anndra, a form of Andrew in Gaelic. He keeps up a fascinating commentary about the history of the islands and current state of living there. He also promises to sing us a Gaelic song. Much of the road is single track with passing places. Anndra remarks darkly that there ought to be a mandatory driving test for all visitors to the islands with cars, as many of them haven’t a clue how to use the roads. Too many of them use passing places as photo opportunities, which is dangerous.
The crossing to Iona is only ten minutes by small ferry, but as we lurch from side to side, I concentrate on not feeling dizzy. Rubbish at sea then. Which is a shame. I’d like to live on an island. In an ideal world. If I made my living from writing. Ha ha. Iona is quietly stunning beneath the mist and rain. Even in this weather, her turquoise waters are visible. There is one main street and a sprinkling of gift shops plus a fish restaurant. Further from the shore, I wander past the lush community garden where produce is grown that supplies the hotel. And I spot a few items for sale at the gate, with an honesty box. This is common in rural areas and a pleasure to see. I’m here as a tourist myself, but I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable about the disruption caused by a constant flow of visitors. Not all of them are respectful. As evidenced by plaintive notices in back gardens, asking people not to use their cameras on the occupants. They do have a right to privacy. And yet I spot a woman wandering into a private garden and snapping away near the back door. Tourism is a lifeblood for the island, and yet it cannot be easy to live alongside what it unleashes upon the inhabitants. I usually manage to evade the groups and do my own thing. Much preferred.
I pass the Abbey without entering. It looks far from peaceful today and I take more pleasure from being outside in the bracing air, taking in the atmosphere. Certainly each island seems to have its own “feel”. Entering a craft shop for a quick peek at the gorgeous tweeds, I stoop to greet the cat on duty next to the Open sign. She’s having none of it. Thoroughly fed up with people today. Can’t say I blame her. I settle for the boost of a Gaelic coffee as I wait for the ferry to return. Yes….that’s coffee with a wee drop in it.
We settle damply back onto the bus for the return journey across Mull. I’ve chosen the opposite side of the bus so I get a fresh view. The wild, undisturbed scenery of southern Mull is addictive. From seaweed-strewn shores and sleepy villages to imposing glens and roaring waterfalls. Here and there are revealed the ruins of old crofts and blackhouses. In Mull museum I stared at a chilling map, revealing the huge number of settlements and villages which once covered the land. And then the brutal list of clearances. Landlords decided that sheep were more profitable on the land than people, and so families were evicted, many forced to emigrate. The irony is that now the land is largely empty, with few sheep or cattle. The Forestry Commission is a major employer. Timber, I’m told, even gets exported from here to Scandinavia, and to Ikea. Incredible.
The driver pipes up again: “Ye know whit they say? Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky!” Can’t argue with that. They’re fond of sayings here. I came across another strange one: “Ye’ll no’ sell yer hen on a rainy day!” Hm. We manoeuvre past the local post van, a wee white dog keeping a watchful eye from the passenger seat. “And on yer left….that’s Cory, the Highland Coo posing nicely for ye….”
Back in Oban at the ferry terminal, I nip into the café. They specialise in local produce and a very warm welcome. “Aye, how are ye the day? Whit yer fer? Coffee is it?” And delicious scones….. Everywhere I go on this trip, the response is always “nae bother” … it’s no trouble. Kind of sums up the welcome I feel here. I have but scratched the surface on two of the islands. There is far more to be discovered. The less easily accessible. The remote. The place for imagination. And a wee dram. I will most definitely be back.
Freyr, one of the Norse gods who has responsibility for rain and sun, spent much of May having a laugh at our expense. In fact, he must have invited his friends along too. We were subjected to every possible weather variation. As I shivered in snow in the first week of May, I could almost hear them up on their respective clouds. “Ah go on now….throw in a bit of hail and wind! That’s it…look at them! Haaaa ”
The following week we were bewildered into stowing the umbrellas and shoving bare white toes into sandals. As usual, I got sunburned in my excitement at seeing the Big Yellow Thing in the sky. A week later, it was back to nine degrees and pessimism. Impossible to gauge when to finally pack away those winter woollies.
I’m beginning to think….cautiously….that those gods have tired of their game. For now. Maybe they went on holiday. In any case, summer temperatures are creeping back into Bergen. Regularly overlaid and sprinkled with rain, just to guard against complacency.
I am to be found sipping a latte (yes, it’s a coffee moment) in the cool breeze outside a simple café, out of the way of Bergen’s bustling centre. I need no book. I am observing the pages of life turning all around me. A whippet yawns expansively, then trots after its owner. I love whippets ….their delicate, fine-boned structure and narrow, intelligent heads. Tail curving apologetically against the back legs. Dappled coat. In the other direction, an enormous wolfhound seems to take its human out for a constitutional.
An abundance of tiny toy dogs, so fashionable and oh so yappy. Bred to the point of fragility …. I worry they will get stepped on. Electric cars, passing with that creepy science-fiction whirr. Sparrows eyeing me hopefully. I have no food.
There’s a rare telephone box across from the café, overshadowed by the rack of pristine electric City bicycles. It looks like a relic from another age, familiar yet unfamiliar. I expect the clumps of tourists will soon stop to click away, as they do at even the most unexpected corners. Packs of them swarm and cover the city, often stopping in the middle of a road for the perfect photo. The same one replicated throughout their group.
I navigated with difficulty past them to reach this café. Around me sit handfuls of tourists of the quieter, more considerate variety, content to sit like me and drink in the atmosphere. Languages fly over my head as I catch a salty whiff of the nearby sea. Seagulls are bold and cheeky, stalking in close and keeping an unblinking eye out for opportunity. Now the air smells new green and warm, with a hint of the North never far away. People wander, many hand in hand. On some days it feels as though the world in front of me is full of couples. A stroll together, a chat, a giggle, then sharing the silence. They pass me by as I watch.
Norwegians love their hotdogs almost as much as we Brits love our cuppa. There’s just one place in Bergen I know where they really are something else. Rumour has it that even the King has made a pit stop there when in town. The smell is more appealing to me in summer weather, conjuring up a holiday, outdoors atmosphere.
The National Day has just passed, and the locals take a pride in sprucing up their window boxes and entrances. I enjoy wandering past a succession of restored wooden front doors, intricately carved and lovingly painted in bright, smart colours. There’s a cat sprawled inside a window box, squashing the heathers therein. He mews a greeting as I pass but doesn’t stir.
Bergen is at last full of green again. I find trees comforting and soothing. Like benevolent beings, calmly observing, absorbing. On damp evenings, I listen to the blackbirds singing joyfully through my open windows. There is reassurance in a tree. It will be there, most likely, long after I’m gone. I’d rather a tree planted than a gravestone, for sure. A wagtail hops out of my path. A cheeky little bird that always makes me smile. I count the things on my walks that make me smile. Earlier, I walked by a man who went down on his knees to spontaneously embrace his dog. Man and hound, in total understanding and affection. I smiled all the way to Grieghallen.
May was an intense working month for the BFO….hence my delayed post. The International Festival here naturally involves the orchestra, as indeed it should, usually in concerts of the off-the-beaten-path variety. But we managed to pay homage to our beloved Grieg, along with some exquisite and rewarding Mahler.
Latterly, we have been recording with our familiar Chandos team from the UK. Their professionalism and respect produces fruitful and fulfilling weeks, which will later translate into another stunning CD. Recording sessions make different demands on us, notably of stamina and concentration. The discipline to jump straight into a segment of the work and deliver a clean and convincing account of the music. Again and again with the same intensity. We are drained by the end of a week, but the sense of achievement is enormous after the last take as we hear producer Brian intone his famous word, “Marvellous!”
I continue on my walk, past the wonderful array of boats moored in the harbour, their owners enjoying a well-deserved “utepils “, or “outside beer”, on board. They don’t seem to care that the rain is back. Onwards, past a hotel disgorging a bunch of bewildered tourists who are anxious about what to wear. In a city where you can get all four seasons in one day, I can’t blame them. Someone stumbles out in unfamiliar new hiking boots. Likely product of a bulk buying session in Millets. “It’s trying to rain, Joan!” That sounds so typically British that I giggle, enjoying the moment.
Rattling along ever narrowing roads in Gordon’s minibus with six strangers, I’m slightly apprehensive about what lies ahead. A week in the middle of nowhere (The Scottish Highlands) with twelve writers who are surely more experienced than I am. We round yet another bend and finally Moniack Mhor is revealed, white and nestling at the bottom of the track. We are 1000feet up and the wind tries its best to knock me over. And then we are absorbed gratefully into the warm farm-style kitchen, welcomed by Angie and Rich. We settle in, awkwardness melted away by the wine, snapping logs in the burner and the embrace of squashy sofas. The last few participants are blown in the door and we are complete – a very appropriate 13, ready for our Crime Writing Week.
Around a long refectory table warmed by candlelight, we get to know our tutors, Stuart MacBride and Allan Guthrie, over a delicious moussaka. I tell Allan that our paths have crossed before – as youngsters on the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of Scotland course. And I produce the photograph, him clutching a bassoon and me, a cello. Our careers have since taken us in very different directions, but music was there at the beginning.
After dinner, we find our way through the darkness to the Hobbit House, a straw bale studio. There is irresistible charm in its circular structure and smoky log cabin smell. The tutors lay out the schedule of our coming week and what it entails. The excitement ramps up a notch. I can’t wait to begin.
As I’m in a twin room, I’ve been based down in the adjacent cottage where the tutors occupy the upper floor. I’ve struck lucky with my roomie, Charlotte, who is here from Edinburgh. It turns out that we get on well, and our residency of the ground floor proceeds in light-hearted and friendly co-ordination.
With a nine thirty workshop start, I’m up early, curious to explore. The ferocity of the wind has calmed somewhat, although the lines of daffodils are still bobbing and dancing a frenzy. There’s something special about the Moniack air. At first, the silence is thick and absolute – a deep peace that drops the shoulders. Then one by one I hear the curlews, the contented sounds of the horses in the field. The nearest one looks up and considers me, still chewing. He tosses his head at his companion. “Lookit. ‘Tis another of ’em. And no’ even a carrot tae be seen. Prrrrrrh!” I am clearly found wanting.
Snowy peaks still stretch above the early mist. But Spring has certainly arrived, despite the chill. Banks of gorse blaze an impossible yellow as I trudge up the path for breakfast. A cup of tea warms the body and puts my brain into gear. I’m going to need it. We potter around between toaster and stove. Heather arrives with more fresh eggs from her chickens – they taste glorious. We ponder the unfamiliar stove top. Why isn’t this ring reacting? Remembering my frustrations with computers, I remark darkly “Error. Pan Not Found!” Charlotte and I giggle as we discover our mistake and set the eggs to boil. We start to match names to people – and discover a lot of us start with J. This could be tricky. Some have travelled a short distance – others have come as far as from New York. And I of course made the trip from Norway. We’re all at different stages of our journey as writers, but we’re here with common goals. To learn. To improve. To be inspired.
It’s the start of an incredible, unforgettable week. A week of eagerness, intense brain activity, blankets, giggles, weather, emerging friendship – and achievement. We work hard. Workshops until lunch, followed by individual tutorials, then time honing our work in progress (WIP) and homework, followed by evening workshops. Total immersion and few distractions. And opportunities to wander off down the road and chat with the Highland cows. Who seem equally unimpressed with me. I can’t really see their eyes under the gingery fringe, but something about the tilt of their horns tells me all I need to know. Yup. Another writing student. Pish. Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have locked onto their wavelength. She informs me that communing with the cows has produced an inspiring new direction for her WIP. There’s inspiration to be found around every corner. I feel coccooned from the current harshness of the world, transported to another, gentler reality. There is clarity of thought here. I’m gaining tools, absorbing so much.
Stuart and Allan are gifted and compelling tutors. Humour is never far away and sometimes I ache from laughing. But we have also become a solid group. We listen to, encourage and applaud each other. We share our anxieties and questions. And we have no need of a clock. As morning coffee break approaches, our noses twitch – home-baking smells reach out from under the kitchen door to reel us in. We fall upon Jillian’s shortbread and scones. Such a welcome treat. And back to work. We cover a lot of ground. I feel my brain expanding with all that I’m learning. I’m excited, in heightened awareness and so very glad that I took the steps to come here. I feel alive and curious about everything. More enticing smells herald lunch – a giant farmhouse spread which includes baked potatoes or quiche, salad, cheeses and fresh bread.
We each have two one to one tutorials throughout the week. These prove enormously helpful, rich in advice and reality checks. Every writer has to learn not to be precious about their work – to be willing to chop and change and even scrap huge chunks. It is painful but healthy. Choosing to have my sessions earlier in the week gives me plenty of time to get my brain whirring, re-thinking and re-drafting.
After the first night, we take turns in teams to prepare dinner. The recipes and ingredients are laid out already – all we have to do is cook, serve and clear up. The Wednesday Team, with Yours Truly on board, set to work and produce (we reckon) superlative Balsamic Roasted Sausages with veg and sweet potato mash. Fruit crumble rounds off the meal. Cooking in a team proves to be good fun, particularly in the later stages when we feel an accompanying glass is in order.
On Wednesday evening, we are joined by our guest speaker, forensics expert Professor Dave Barclay. His presentation is so fascinating that we forget about bedtime. Here is the perfect opportunity for 13 crime writers to discover how best to kill off their fictional victims and leave little or no trace. Having consulted on cases all over the world, Dave is a mine of information. Forensic science is an area that intrigues me – I could sit there listening and watching all night, but another early start is approaching. Dave keeps us on the edge of our seats, a speaker with a natural humour yet practical approach which eases a raw audience through some fairly gruesome scenes.
Our final night dinner is memorable – haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce. My ears catch faint sounds from outside as we wait…..could it be?….yes! To everyone’s great pleasure, our haggis is piped in expertly by young Mitch. I admit to a tear in my eye as the haunting pipes skirl around the table. Zigurds does the honours with an impressive delivery of To a Haggis by Robert Burns. After which we raise a wee dram and toast “Slàinte!”
Following the haggis dinner, we file into the Hobbit House to each give a reading of our work. Reading aloud for up to five minutes feels like a long time. I’m nervous. I have radically changed my work, bearing in mind the tutors’ advice and all that I’ve learned – but will it work? What will they think? One by one, we read. I’m enthralled and impressed by my fellow writers, the scenes they conjure up and the talent in the room. So much variety. When the tutors tell us they are impressed by how much we have improved in a few days, I feel relief and pride in our achievements. It’s early days but we have put new knowledge into practice, been boosted and given confidence to continue learning the craft. What a week!
The weather has improved throughout our week, sun making the white walls sparkle. I’m up early, unwilling to miss a moment of my last morning. Fat bees buzz in the gorse, and a large hare lollops without haste down the hill. The horses are too busy grazing to bother with me. I breathe in the warmth, squinting out at the mountains, now a blue-purple haze. It feels like a piece of paradise and I don’t know how to leave.
The staff at Moniack Mhor are treasures. Nothing is too much for them. It seems as though they have thought of everything. There’s always a roaring fire in chilly weather, advice on hand, help when you need it. All delivered with warmth and generosity. Many thanks to Rachel, Heather, Angie, Rich, Laura, Jillian – and Nicky, who led us on a beautiful walk up above Loch Ness. Special mention also to the various dogs – Mac, Koko and the lovely Cashew.
And last but by no means least, a huge thank you to Stuart, Allan and Dave. I’ve gained so much from this week and I’m determined to get cracking and keep working on my writing. As for Moniack Mhor – I will be back just as soon as I can!