Hello, Is There Anybody in There?


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A Jaunt into the West Country Part 3


You’d think Britain’s centre for secrets would be, well, secret. But the first thing you see as you drive into Cheltenham on the A40 is “The Doughnut”; the huge, space age structure that houses GCHQ or Government Communications Headquarters, to give it its full title. I wanted to take a photograph for the blog but didn’t. It wasn’t fear of a bunch of spooks descending upon me to beat me senseless and rip the inner workings out of my camera. No, it was simply that there was no-where to park on the main road. It is a hugely impressive building, though one wonders just how difficult it would be to disguise it from attack. From space it must appear as a graduated target with extra points for hitting the jam in the middle.


As a country we’re not sure how we feel about GCHQ. Are they there to protect us or to snoop on us? Which way are they looking? Just how powerful are their instruments? They can obviously read this, if they want to, but are they actually monitoring it as I write? Are they able, as has become the urban myth, to watch us through the lens at the top of our screens, even when it is switched off, and do they use this to learn our passwords or just to try and catch us out at inopportune and compromising moments?

Playing word association games with friends brought up “sinister” as the most popular word to sum up GCHQ. “Frightening, ominous and disturbing” weren’t too far behind. If you play the same game with the words “Bletchley Park” you get: “heroes, code-breakers, enigma machines, Alan Turing and shortened-the-war”. Yet they are essentially the same place. Both are Spy Central. The Buckinghamshire Mansion was originally requisitioned in 1938 to house less than 100 men (MI6 was almost exclusively male at that time). By the end of the war more than 10,000 people were working there. The site wasn’t suited to so many. They had out-grown both the original buildings and the famous temporary huts, and there was no-where for them to live their lives outside of their duties. Intelligent people require a stimulating environment and Bletchley Park was rapidly being absorbed into Milton Keynes. With Victory in Europe the search began to find a place to re-locate. With the on-set of the Cold War, (and the encroachment of concrete cows) the need took on a degree of urgency.


What was required was a new home that satisfied an exacting wish-list. It needed to be

  • A single site that could house the entire listening operation and a very big work-force.
  • About 100 miles from London with good communications links to the capital. London itself was seen as too vulnerable to attack.
  • A large town that could attract and absorb a large, highly educated work-force and provide suitable facilities for culture, relaxation, shopping and leisure.
  • Land that already belonged to the government, preferably with pre-existing office accommodation.
  • A place that had ready laid telegraphic cables.
  • A place that would allow expansion.
  • A place where there wasn’t a great deal of industry or other activity that could quickly absorb the capacity to communicate with the outside world and lure away the workers.

DSC_0037Serious consideration was given to Oxford and Cambridge, The Bedford/Leighton Buzzard area, Norwich, Liverpool, Manchester, Shrewsbury, Exeter and Bath.

One by one they were ruled out. Exeter a little too far from the capital, Shrewsbury not big enough to absorb the work-force, Norwich too near a large number of RAF stations that might require prior use of communication lines and also attract enemy attack. Oxford and Cambridge were ruled out as having too many other pulls on the academics and Liverpool and Manchester because industrial development would result in too much competition for jobs.


Cheltenham had good road and rail links, was a large attractive town that already had a high percentage of graduates and the facilities to absorb a whole lot more. It had housed huge American bases during the war including the headquarters of The Services of Supply (SOS). When these re-located to France after the D-Day landings they left behind government owned land, office accommodation and miles of underground communication cables. The original move of American forces from London to Cheltenham in 1942 was planned as absolutely top secret. Special trains were laid on from Paddington and to avoid anyone accidentally getting on the wrong train, Paddington station staff had helpfully plastered the carriages with signs that read “US Forces to Cheltenham”. I suppose this is in-keeping with housing the secret services in the most prominent building for miles.

DSC_0044Modern day Cheltenham has four claims to fame; as the country’s centre of spying, as a glorious Regency spa town at the foot of the Cotswolds, as the centre of national hunt (fences) horse racing and the home of some of Britain’s leading cultural festivals. 110,000 people call Cheltenham home and there are almost exactly as many of them who work for GCHQ as there are who don’t work at all (6,200).

It had long been an ambition to go to the Cheltenham Festival in March and enjoy watching the very best of national hunt racing. Huge crowds are drawn from all corners of the country and almost as many pack the ferries from Ireland. For reasons that I have never quite understood the more high profile the horse racing event, the higher percentage of out and out drunkenness. People don’t get squiffy at the races they get absolutely pie-eyed, off their faces, pissed; and it isn’t a particularly lovely sight.

DSC_0040Whether it be Royal Ascot, Goodwood, The Ebor meeting at York, the Grand national at Aintree or the festival here in the Cotswolds you cannot get away from people who seem to leave sense and dignity behind at the gates. Enormous effort and considerable expense gets poured into dressing for the occasion and then additional sums of money go into putting sufficient over-priced beverage into the stomach to spew over the green sward. Drunkenness is no respecter of class and background at the racecourse. You’ll find drunks in Alexander McQueen and Givenchy gowns and you’ll find young women staggering on heels from New Look and dresses from TK Maxx. With drunken men there is a tendency to increase boorishness for every hundred pounds spent on a suit.

DSC_0071These days you’ll find me watching my horse racing on the rails at Cartmel and Worcester and rarely watching the classics at more celebrated racecourses. I love the sport and have been known to down a pint or two in my time but I’ve always found a day at the races goes better without huge displays of public drunkenness.

I still watch The Festival on the telly though. It’s one of the delights of being freed from the working week. Here we get a grand sweep over vast crowds in a delightful setting and detailed information and close-up views of the finest horses in training. I like the way Channel 4 present racing, I like the way they find insiders with the ability to express their knowledge articulately while retaining the vocabulary and ethos of the sport. I rarely bet on horses but have measured out my years on gold cup winners. Arkle was my first sporting hero; his annual battles with Mill House and Stallbridge Colonist are my earliest sporting memories alongside the Clay/Liston fights. In recent years I’ve cheered home Dawn Run and Burrough Hill Lad, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and Best Mate. I even named a car I owned after Garrison Savannah when I found the registration plates matched. I sold it when the vet’s bills got too high. Our friends  in the north were the great aunt and uncle of trainer Michael Dickinson and when he saddled the first five to cross the winning line in 1983 I almost felt a sense of personal pride and would have been thoroughly ecstatic if I hadn’t had my money riding on Wayward Lad (the one that finished third).


I find my hotel, park up and wander happily up and down the streets of a town that has more than its fair share of attractions without ever quite selling those attractions to me. But what do I matter? The people look affluent and contented on a May Bank Holiday. They move around in couples and seem to be obliged to keep inside age bands. Older people sip cappuccinos in the many coffee bars, middle aged people are at the jazz Festival and the young, as young are won’t to do, are displaying in prominent places. Cheltenham isn’t short of attractive parks and avenues in which to go parading.


Tea Before Evensong


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A Jaunt into the West Country  :   Part 2

 Tewkesbury Part Two

Mrs Craik must have had a good eye for detail. She was a brief visitor to the town and captured the streets and alleys with the accuracy of an historian. Much of the early action of John Halifax, Gentleman takes place in the unique set of alleys that still lead off the main street every twenty yards or so.  The novel is set around a tanyard, and leather goods were always made in the town. At one time there were large forests nearby, which not only gave the town timber for building, but satisfied the greedy appetite for tree bark that tanning requires. One legacy of tanning can be found in the Old Black Bear Inn which has some remarkable leather ceilings. I passed through here on a long cycle ride in 1996 and was regaled by a hearty barman. When not pulling pints he was actually a music student, at the Royal Northern College in Manchester. He was home for the holidays and saving up for a double bass. It didn’t take him long to swing into tour guide mode.


“Visitor to the town are you? Well, I suppose you’ll be wanting to know a little of the history of the place.” And without waiting for a response he was into the part of his speech that he obviously felt was excellently well penned and had taken great pains to con.


A high security grave and an example of a building where the wrong sort of brick was used. The machine pressed, identical bricks create a lifeless building. Unfortunately it is directly opposite the Abbey.


“This hostelry dates back to the reign of Edward the Second and first served flagons of good ale to thirsty travellers in the year of our Lord 1308. The pub has the distinction of being the oldest in the entire county of Gloucestershire and in addition to it’s ancient leather ceilings and creaking floors, boasts its very own ghost in the headless figure of a defeated Lancastrian soldier from the Battle of May 4 1471; a battle that concluded the famous Wars of the Roses. Proceeding through the door and to your left, and crossing the main road,  you can find the Roses Theatre where much loved, English, comedian Eric Morecambe became ill after performing there in 1984; later dying in Cheltenham General Hospital in the early hours of the following morning.” and on, and on. A splendid barman and one whose capacity to listen was all that stood between him and popularity.


The Battle of Tewkesbury was one of the most significant in our history and continues to resonate. Yorkists were on the verge of taking power in the Wars of the Roses through victory at Barnet in April 1471. The Lancastrian army was in disarray and was actually making a tactical retreat to join up with supporters in Wales when the River Severn blocked their path. They were refused entry and a safe place to cross at Gloucester, knew they didn’t have time to lay siege to the city, and were making their way up river to the next bridge, when they were caught up by the White Rose vanguard. The Yorkists were actually outnumbered two to one but had more guns; at that time still a very new technology on the battlefield. The guns didn’t actually kill many of the enemy but they put the fear of God into the Lancastrian forces. The killing was horrible. Over two thousand Lancastrians fell on a small patch of ground still referred to as “Bloody Meadow”. The “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard III is delivered in the aftermath of this battle which ended the unhappy reign of Henry VI and gave Yorkshire a conclusive victory in this earliest of Roses matches.

DSC_0014It saw Edward IV firmly seated on the throne and it promised many years of peace and prosperity to a country that had been ravaged by war for over a century. It wasn’t to be. With hindsight it was never likely. Tewkesbury was a bloody battle and the killing went of for many days afterwards in the form of summary executions and mopping up operations. Much of the killing took place inside the abbey church which later had to be closed and re-consecrated.  Within 14 years the armies of York and Lancaster were to clash once again at Bosworth: a battle that did end outward civil strife for generations but at a considerable cost. The first victim of that battle was truth and the second, civil liberties.

DSC_0029Where rivers flood you inevitably get rich alluvial soil and Tewkesbury became a centre for the growing of cereals long before the agricultural revolution. Barges carried the grain and milled flour out to Bristol and up river to Worcester and Stratford. The original mills are long gone but the river front is still dominated by a rather impressive Victorian mill and warehouse. The water meadows, on farms known locally as Hams, (its where we get such place names as Rotherham, Birmingham and Oldham) also provided rich grazing for cattle and sheep. The milk going to the cheeses that are synonymous with the county. (Incidentally you can get single Gloucester cheese as well as the better known double Gloucester. There are various theories* as to why it is called “double”. To me it would just sound wrong if it wasn’t. 


I get the impression of a settlement at ease with itself. A place with a willingness to appear in its scruffs because it is relaxed and  because it doesn’t quite realise that is a near perfect example of the small English country town. There have been some ill-advised developments over the years (the sixties shopping precinct near the Bear is quite appalling) and there is a pull, at shop window level, to look like every other town. Look above the ground floor though, and you have a jewel of a town with heritage by the sackful.


In 1996 I was on a cycle tour of England and arrived in Tewkesbury during  the European Football Championships. This was the “Football’s Coming Home” tournament held in England and the Black Bear hosted equal numbers of English and Dutch fans for a memorable match between the host nation and the Netherlands. Small knots of “In-ger-land” supporters gathered around the bar and happy Dutch families, decked in orange, held sway around the tables and chairs. I sat somewhere in the middle supping English ale and talking (in very broken Dutch) about Rembrandt and Johan Cruyff. It was a night when the England team played out of their skins as  Sherringham and Shearer knocked in two goals each before Patrick Kluivert got a Dutch consolation which kept Holland in the tournament at the expense of Scotland. The Dutch families showed dignity in defeat. The In-ger-land fans were not so gracious in victory and for a while things looked as though they might get ugly. Voices were raised. One suggested that the visitors from the Netherlands were no longer welcome, one challenged all comers to a fight and a musician player from behind the bar helped everyone re-gain their bearings: “Proceeding past the market cross you come to the site of one of the oldest Baptist chapels in the whole of Great Britain. Nearby you will find a Quaker Burial Ground dating back to 1660…”


Ah, Tewkesbury. It was founded in Saxon times, flourished for a century or so before being wiped off the map by invading Danes. It was re-born under Norman rule when the great abbey was built and flourished up until the Reformation. The Benedictine Monastery was the bringer of wealth to the area and when it was dissolved the town fell into a period of quiet survival which saw alternate periods of prosperity and want. The main street has fine buildings from every era that money flowed into the town.  Though all of this, the great square Norman tower of the abbey stood immense and proud. Since World War Two the whole area has enjoyed a comfortable living and the population has grown steadily. At the time of my visit the country was getting ready to go to the polls and blue was very much the colour. Poverty and need has always been kept out of sight around here.

I enjoyed a gentle stroll and a cup of coffee at a table that allowed me to watch the town go by. It was busy with the May Festival and as I’m not one for the crowds  I got back on the road to Cheltenham and beyond that to Somerset and Devon. I had noticed though, that on Thursday there was sung evensong at the abbey and planned to repeat my detour on the way back home in order to hear that.

DSC_0008I arrived back at four o’clock on Thursday to find Tewkesbury in its working day clothes. With an hour to spare before the service I entered the Abbey Tearooms (a retro-café that would appeal to anyone with an interest in old comics, teacups and vinyl 45s). The tables were full of contented, affluent families out for an early evening meal and talk was of the election.  It seemed to me, from what I was able to glean, from snatches of conversation, that socialism was unlikely to prosper this time around.** The meal was rather good though and it was with a tummy as tight as a drum that I took my place for Choral Evensong.DSC_0540

In the abbey the choir were being put through final, exacting rehearsals by a choirmaster who had the happy ability to be able to insist on perfect singing while making it all good fun. I have never seen a happier choir, and rarely heard a better one. When rehearsals finished a very old, very well turned out, lady whispered conspiratorially as to where I might find a cushioned seat. It couldn’t have been better. The anthems reached the very vaults of the abbey with a beauty that would have pleased William Byrd and Thomas Tallis themselves. The readings were given by an ancient lady who had learnt her diction from the Edith Evans school of consonants and rolling rrrrs. There was nothing hasty here. As the choir left, the organist took over, and  the very pews shook in appreciative vibration. If you ever get the chance to attend Evensong at Tewkesbury, take it. It is a truly wonderful experience.



The Ceiling above the choir is unbelievably lovely.


* Four theories as to how Double Gloucester got its name

  1. The milk was originally skimmed twice
  2. Double cream was added to the milk during the cheese making
  3. It took milk from two milking sessions to make a cheese
  4. The finished cheeses were twice as big as single Gloucester cheeses

** The Conservative candidate did indeed find himself elected with a comfortable majority

Tewkesbury: Where Avon Meets Severn


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A Jaunt into The West Country :  Part 1

Tewkesbury Part One 

As I ease onto the motorway, Nathaniel Parker is describing what happens to Farmer Oak’s face when he smiles. I’m not a huge fan of talking books but the radio is in its mid-morning lull. A few days in the south west of England begin with a little bit of Wessex. By the time we clear the roadworks at Pinxton, Farmer Oak has been wooer, rejected lover, lost his farm, his stock and had to shoot his dog. Some people find Thomas Hardy books a bit gloomy but then some folk don’t listen to Country Music for the same reasons. To manage without Merle Haggard would significantly reduce the pleasure of living; to do without Thomas Hardy would be a tragedy.

The changing fortunes of Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene and Farmer Boldwood keep me engrossed from the Nottinghamshire spoil heaps to when the grey outlines of the Malvern Hills sweep the western horizon. First intended stop is Cheltenham but I’ve got happy memories of Tewkesbury and have often thought to turn off the motorway and give the town another visit.

julie Christie Far from the Madding Crowd Schlesinger

“If it’s under 6 miles I’ll drop in,” I tell myself. It’s less than two and I’m in luck. It’s the day the town celebrates the battle that ended the Wars of the Roses and put the town on the map, and into the history books. Everywhere I look there are re-enactors and people who are drawn to a telling of history that allows you to hang a tankard onto your belt and call your wife a wench. It’s supposed to be the biggest gathering of it’s kind in England but I have no difficulty finding a place to park. Right outside the free museum. It is a fabulous building from the outside. Inside it has lots of big print boards, that ensure you don’t absorb too much information, and a large papier maché battlefield with a couple of thousand meticulously painted toy soldiers.

I like to absorb a sense of place and read my history off the fronts of old buildings. The re-enactors have taken over fields and erected a tented village and set a sentry guard of a splendidly decked out elderly couple. It seems a pity that after re-creating costumes with the care and precision of a wardrobe mistress at Elstree, both of which involve a leathern purse, they are seated behind a fake wood table and are collecting payment in a tupperware box.


The festival has taken over the choir end of the abbey for a concert of music from the time of Henry VI. You have to pay to get past the rood screen and the music doesn’t improve as you get closer to the instruments. I suspect enthusiastic amateurs. I detect a serpent, a viol de gambon and maybe a crumhorn or two. If it’s authentic my opinion of the fifteenth century will take a knock. Keeping my fiver safely in my purse I peer up at the roof of the nave and wonder if it is a little out of proportion with the power of the columns supporting it. It’s spectacular and beautiful. Vaulted roofs are a thing of eternal delight to me, but one can’t help feeling that the columns were meant for an even more imposing crown.  Alec Clifton-Taylor is of the same opinion.

“In the nave the vault, though fine in itself, is too low: it seems rammed down onto the great Norman piers like a lid.”*

There is huge strength here and I am put in mind of an American footballer with muscles to spare and no neck. Above the choir and beyond the columns, the proportions are as near perfect as makes the head spin. Best to sit forward and face the east if you want to enjoy this church.


The fact that the abbey church is still standing is a tribute to the people of Tewkesbury. This was the central glory of a Benedictine Monastery and was due to suffer the same Reformation fate as sister houses namely; that they were reduced to ruins and the land granted to a rich local in return for a hefty payment to the crown. The people of Tewkesbury clubbed together and divvied up the £453 to Henry VIII and claimed it as their parish church. It’s a bloody impressive parish church!

Tewksbury is a handsome town situated where the Rivers Severn and Avon meet (That’s Shakespeare’s Avon). Charles Dickens allowed the Pickwick Club to put up at the Royal Hop Pole Hotel. It’s been quite a hostelry in its time and, if you ignore the tawdry signs advertising cheap beer and two for one meal deals, still looks the part. I somehow doubt if Messrs  Pickwick, Snodgrass, Tupman and  Winkle  would be much impressed with the delights of a twenty-first century Weatherspoons. Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs.) Craik; who would have been remembered as one of the great Victorian Women novelists if Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and a gaggle of Brontes hadn’t all written much better novels; wrote and set John Halifax Gentleman in the town (re-named Norton Bury). It’s not a bad book. Worthy in style and content, where an abandoned orphan tries to make his way in the world. The title may give some clue as to how successful he was. An adaptation kept us in front of the telly in 1974 and gave us all our first view of the splendid Gwen Taylor.


Without this blog I never would have read it and I would have missed out on a book my mother would have liked very much. You can draw an accurate map of the town from the descriptive passages and the author paints scene after scene of great world events as enacted on the streets of Tewkesbury and the surrounding valleys. In Mrs Craik’s world trouble is never very far away and the respectable lives of the characters are threatened by every dark cloud that ever crossed the country. Religious intolerance, Napoleonic wars, bread riots, corrupt parliamentary elections, the threat of industrialisation, the reality of the same industrialisation, small-pox and the advance of medicine (thanks to Gloucestershire’s own medical hero, Edward Jenner), the arrival of the railways, economic crises, floods and the advance of the United States as a second global super-power are all woven into the plot and bring with them imminent disaster and ruin. Fortunately Tewkesbury has John Halifax to fight them off one by one and save the town. If he hadn’t had such an unfortunate start in life I’m sure he cold have saved the entire world.

The novel over-stretches itself as Tewkesbury wasn’t the best place to view the changing world from. It played a part in the agrarian revolution and was a centre for the corn trade up to the eighteenth century; the big navigable rivers meant it was something of a transport hub between Bristol and the Midlands. But it played very little part in the bigger revolution that followed. Thomas Telford built a lovely bridge across the Severn at Mythe (in its time the longest single span in the world)


“But when, a few years later, the Birmingham to Bristol railway was built, it by-passed Tewkesbury and went through Ashchurch, where to this day many Tewkesbury people go to work. It is only two miles away, but that was far enough to result in the Industrial revolution giving Tewkesbury a miss.”**

The fronts of the buildings are almost all of interest and all show some care and attention. You have genuine timber framed houses and fake timber framed. You have porticoed rooflines and cruck framed slopes. There is splendour and wonder for the student of architecture. It doesn’t shout at you and demand to be admired, as it can in prettier towns, and there is plenty to interfere with the beauty in the unwanted presence of inappropriate signs and street furniture; but there is a great deal in a fairly small space, and the crown jewel is the abbey.


This is an ancient town and one that owed it’s early prosperity to wool as well as corn. A parallel can be drawn with Stamford in Lincolnshire but it is in contrast with that town that much can be revealed about Tewkesbury. The first contrast is the absence of stone built houses. There obviously is plenty of stone. The abbey has enough for many a small town in itself. (It would be the largest and most splendid parish church in the country if you don’t count Westminster Abbey and Beverley Minster but the stone was quarried elsewhere and brought here on barges). Here in Tewkesbury only the grandest homes are stone-built.


Even the Abbey House is only stone-fronted. The walls to the rear are timber framed or brick.



The second contrast is where Stamford expands evenly in all directions, Tewkesbury is a strange linear Y shape. This is partly geographical and partly historical. The rivers form a Y.  Both the Severn and the Avon are apt to flood and to flood on a huge scale. Flooding was an even bigger problem in earlier times (In John Halifax, Gentleman one of the eponymous hero’s first acts is to save his master’s tannery from a great flood) and the layout of the town is one that follows contour lines most precisely. The rivers thus restricted building on two sides. Manorial and monastery lands restricted growth on the others. This is a town where space has always been at a premium and one delightful result of this is that people built upwards and outwards and backwards. Many of the houses have three or four storeys, some the upper storeys extend beyond the floor beneath (jetties) and behind the fronts are numerous alleys (originally housing poorer families and small workshops). The alleys are still there, still very much in use for residential and other purposes and add to the flavour and character of Tewkesbury. I know of no other town that has them.



* Six English Towns by Alec Clifton-Taylor p 72

** ibid p90



Cambridge: A Photographic Record


Day Tripping

I visit towns to explore them, and what I discover creates a desire to write; to have some sort of a record of the place and what I know. I’ve been to towns that have allowed me to believe, easily, that I already know quite enough about them; too much in some cases. Cambridge isn’t one of these. I don’t think it would be possible to know too much about Cambridge. Every few years I feel the need to go there and just walk around. On Thursday I went to Cambridge to visit a friend; one who drew me back into acting and someone I hadn’t seen for far too long. I have no intention of writing about that meeting but I thought I’d share a few photographs of the city in term-time on a wet Thursday in May. It was a very good place to be.


Students’ bicycles: Christ’s Pieces


They are actually a very friendly bunch in Cambridge. Lots of smiles and very little profanity even when someone is pointing a camera at you.


Christ’s Pieces


This is a bookshop, not a library.


Master’s House. St John’s College


Holy Sepulchre


Punting on the Cam


Now that my friends is a gateway!


Yes it is 2015


Where the carols come from on Christmas Eve


The Senate House


Would you have studied harder if your college had looked like this?


My discovery of the visit. I’d never been to the Fitzwilliam before. Next time I go this is the only place I’ll visit. A superb museum and gallery.


A stunning room with some staggering works of art. Here I was among eighteenth century English painters: Hogarth, Gainsborough, Stubbs ( that fellow understands horses!)






Perfect peace for students of theology


We stopped into a church: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were there first.

DSC_0004 DSC_0008 DSC_0024 DSC_0026 DSC_0030 DSC_0038 DSC_0042 DSC_0052 DSC_0078

More Matter For a May Morning

Being the 72nd and Last Post of my

Journey into Scotland

Everywhere I went in Scotland, I met people who were proud of their culture and happy to bring a friendly pedaller up to speed with what I should be reading and watching if I truly wanted to become au fait with life north of the border. A drunk near the Burns’ Memorial in Alloway ordered me to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I hadn’t even sought his opinion. Mind you, he also threatened to kill me with a knife. I was paying close attention. A nurse near Crianlarich took my notebook off me and wrote a long list. I’ve probably still got the notebook as it’s not the sort of thing I throw away. From memory, it contained two books by Robin Jenkins: The Cone Gatherers and The Awakening of George Darroch.


At Soldier’s Leap, Killikrankie – I’m the one with my hand up


“They don’t teach any Scottish history in English schools. It’s a shocking omission. None of our history. And when was the last time a class read a Scottish book in one of your literature classes? No. As far as education in England is concerned, we don’t exist.”*

He went on to add the names of Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks to my reading list. I wasn’t short of advice.

I’m a believer in the power of the novel, above all other arts forms, to give an insight into a culture. Well, not a single novel. Too small a sample can give a very distorted picture. I read Lanark and I read Unlikely Stories Mostly by the brilliant Alasdair Gray and I thought them wonderful. I’d already read Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but I added Sunset Song from his Scots Quair and I’ll soon complete the trilogy with Cloud Howe. I read both of the books by Robin Jenkins and by that time I was on a roundabout with one book suggesting its successor. When I began this project I’d only dipped my toe into the water. Now I’m fully immersed and ready to have a go at swimming across the wide stream of Scottish literature. The country has only produced one winner of the Booker Prize, but that says more about the metropolitan tastes  (and backgrounds) of the judging panel. If I were to choose my shortlist of the best 100 books published in Britain over the last fifty years it would contain at least twenty Scottish titles. Here are a few that I have read especially for this journey.

Simon @ Carter Bar '87Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie

It’s a hoot. I laughed my way through it and immediately ordered the dvd of the 1949 film. The writing isn’t perfect, the characters are over-drawn to the extent of approaching caricature, the setting is idealised and, like Dylan Thomas’s The Outing, makes a bunch of men getting drunk sound almost fabulous; my experience is that it is rarely thus. But it has magic. It pulls together it’s different strands (it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t set in wartime) to make a very special weave. Very few books have made me laugh more than this one. I hasn’t made me want to drink whisky but it has provided a more than ample substitute.


Sutherland at sunset

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

The book describes an almost idyllic isolation in the north west of the country. A touch sentimental. A touch from a previous time. I bought this with paper-round money when I was 12. I think I would have enjoyed it then. I certainly enjoyed it 44 years on. I like human company and I like being left alone. But I would hate to live without animal companionship. The real achievement of this book is as a celebration of what animals bring to us.

Also serves as a first-rate wildlife guide to the north west of Scotland.

How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

Caused controversy when it won the Booker. The sniffy reviews caused Kelman problems later on when looking for publishing deals. A rare case of winning the Booker closing doors for a writer. It opened doors for other writers though. This is brilliant. To manage the first thirty pages is impressive, to write the entire novel in faultless, poetic, realistic, crude, funny, genuine language is an immense achievement.

What did the gripers want from a novel? Storyline – gripping; characterisation – superb; language – as good as it gets; settings – you’re there! I’ve waited a long time to read this novel. It was worth the wait.

Sutherland-001The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Sadly Iain Banks died last year but he left us with great  grace and dignity.

This is the first book he published and the only one I’ve read so far. It certainly held me, it un-nerved me and it surprised me. It seemed gruesome and I wondered at the wisdom of having it on the English syllabus in schools and then I watched the news and realised that it was no more x-rated than the lunch-time bulletin. What makes it disturbing is the voice. Sustaining this voice throughout is quite something. It isn’t a fun read but it is a worthwhile one.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I’m glad I read this. It seemed dated at first and has fallen out of fashion (it is dated but you soon get into the trick and rhythm of the language), and the story seemed a little slow in getting going. The Prologue is worth reading at the end as well as at the beginning. A history of the Highlands told through the history of a few square miles.

It reminded me most of DH Lawrence (also fast falling out of fashion). It most nearly resembles The White Peacock and it is a much better book. For all its limited geographical range it paints a broad canvas. It is a great rough pastoral to go alongside Wordsworth’s Leech Gatherers and decrepit huntsmen and idiot children. It is a great picture of the First World War and its effects on the people far from the monstrous anger of the guns. It is a magnificent telling of the end of Crofting. It is a great Feminist novel. It is modernist and determined to speak with a Scottish voice and it is in this that it has aged badly. The style interferes with the narrative flow (ironic for a stream of consciousness) and the Scottishness is of a 1930s vintage. It may succeed in always making you aware of itself as a human construct but this prevents me (at least) from becoming totally immersed in, what is otherwise, one hell of a story.

Farr Bay East-001

Farr Bay

Hebridean Connection by Derek Cooper

A personal description of the western islands by the burgundy voiced former presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

A well written account of the Hebrides as a place to live and work with much less time for those who come in search of their own idyl (and bugger up everybody else’s by bringing a guitar and a passion for making crap out of shells); and much, much less time for those who use their obscene and ill-gotten wealth to play the landowner at the expense of real people and a real way of life.

Perhaps a few years out of date but I haven’t come across any thing more recent that is anything like as good.

The First Fifty: Munro Bagging Without a Beard by Muriel Gray

Buy this book and read it. End of review.

Portrait of Orkney by George Mackay Brown

A near perfect gentle guide. George Mackay Brown is the ideal companion. It’s an afternoon stroll or a morning walk rather than a detailed archaeological exploration. A pleasure. (Bonus fact: Robert Frost’s grandmother was an Orcadian.)

Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington

Christopher Brookmyre gives a much better summation of this brilliant book than I could do so I’ll unashamedly print his. “A surreal portrait of Sixties Glasgow, related via the keen – if well-bevvied – eyes and coruscating patter of amateur philosopher, father-to be and diligently dedicated waster Tam Clay. The essence of my home city finely distilled; every dram is a relished drop.”

culloden 2


Scottish Journey by Edwin Muir

A gem of a book that takes you around a Scotland reeling from the blows of the great depression in the company of someone worth listening to. A companion piece to JB Priestley’ English Journey and a worthy one. Like Priestley he deliberately travels to parts of the country that tell different stories, that have suffered differently in the economic turmoil of the times. Muir has been criticised for waxing political as he wanders among Glasgow Slums or talks of farm labourers’ struggles under surf like conditions; their wives dying in childbirth to avoid the cost of a doctor or refusing to take time off to become ill because they know it will cost a livelihood; in the end it costs a life. How can a sensitive and caring man wax anything other than political? (Priestley certainly does as he visits Tyneside).

Here is a proud Scot who doesn’t care for the cult of Burns and Scott (though he admires both as writers). A man who resents the wrongs done to his countrymen, who is happy to point out the good when he comes across it…and he comes across plenty… and who sees a great need for change (and who sees hope in that need).

The book is a pleasure to read and a warning to myself that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a true travel writer.

Oh, and the prose is as beautiful as you’d expect from a true poet.

Thurso Home Front Door

Outside my old front door


I read plenty more but I think that gives a flavour. I learned an enormous amount by cycling around Scotland the autumn of 1987. I went off in search of myself and came back a different person. The more I discover about Scotland the more I like it and the less I seem to know. At 10 miles per hour you see so much and there is so much to see. Every day revealed a landscape as different from the day before as Norway is  from Portugal. And my education has continued through this writing. In school’s there is an old saying that if you really want to know something, then you should teach it. A good teacher should be a good learner else what are they in the classroom for? I’ve found the same thing to be true of writing. I’ve discovered as much about the country by writing about Scotland as I did by visiting.

A great many people have dropped by to read chapters and leave messages. Some of you have been with me through the whole 100,000 plus words (and who knows how many photographs?) All I can say is thank you; I have really enjoyed your company, appreciated your likes and comments and hope that I have given you a few new views of a very auld country.

* Some Scottish writers have made it onto the English Schools’ Syllabus; among them are Anne Fine, Iain Banks Liz Lochhead and Robert Louis Stevenson. Liz Lochhead adding something very different as you don’t get many words with a double h in them!

The End


Bouldering on the Ridiculous


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A Journey into Scotland : Bibliography Part Four

Geography and Geology

Bouldering: Definition: The sport of climbing without ropes or other technical gear on boulders or relatively small rock faces. (Which is pretty much how I regard my ability and knowledge as a geographer)

I left school when I was 16. It wasn’t that I was giving up on learning. I always had an idea that I might want  top-up at some time. It was just a huge desire to get off someone else’s carousel and  find one of my own. Anything I did find wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least I could write home. In reality I was progressing from one job to another just as soon as each revealed that it didn’t have much to reveal. A girlfriend took me to the theatre about this time and that excited me more than what I was doing for a envelope of notes and coins and a payslip. Between jobs I signed on for some courses at night school. It wasn’t a sudden kindling of ambition but I was drawn to the warmth of the promise of a better place.

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

Camping on the strand, Arisaig

I didn’t stay out of work for long (standing in line to be quizzed, probed and insulted by a junior clerk in return for a giro cheque wasn’t my idea of a good career move) and the enlightened powers that be, at the technical school, informed me that I was going to have to decide which A level to drop because they couldn’t allow someone in full-time employment to take three. I quiver at the stupidity of this decision but at the time I accepted it. (It was half way through the second year of study). I couldn’t give up English Literature. I didn’t think much of the class and less of the teacher, but as it consisted of reading books and thinking about them it wasn’t a much of a burden. The same was true of British Government and Politics. This was a rattling good shindig with angry young voices once a week. So out went Geography, despite it being with the nicest bunch of people, and the fact that classes would as often take place on the moors as in the college.

In reality it didn’t make a big difference. I soon found myself working shifts and couldn’t make very many of the classes anyway. To get the certificates required  personal study. The college got a course fee and an empty desk most weeks. I did ok. I’d secured a passport to higher education if I ever needed to use it. The certificate said I was pretty good at understanding books and governance. There was nothing to show for 18 months of learning about incised meanders and soil profiles; geomorphology and plate tectonics. Well, nothing outward anyway. I’d bought the books and continued to buy the books. The teacher gave me a reading list and said the pity was not being able to take a geography degree. Not caring much for badges I read them anyway and topped them up with late night Open University programmes delivered by strange men with long hair and tank tops. I wasn’t finished with earth science.

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

You cannot get away from landscapes, in life or in art. In galleries I like a human face or two but you’ll more often find me standing before a painting of the ocean or some mountains. In music, I travel readily into Beethoven’s woods or Sibelius’s lakes or the wide open spaces and cloudscapes that Copeland reveals (once he’s got past the bloody hoe-downs!). My favourite westerns wouldn’t work without the epic settings. Odysseus is all very well but it’s the journey we’re really interested in. Give me the rock and the whirlpool. And the passion has remained. There are two things to admire in any landscape. The first being the way it is and the second, how it got to be that way. You can take them one by one or you can take them both together.

All of the early geography books, including the world atlas, were given to charity shops before they became outdated. One, at least was by Harry Robinson who I later got to know and like very much as he taught at the polytechnic where I spent 18 months as a caretaker. One was emerald green and turquoise which isn’t much help as publishers like inappropriate colours for geography text books. So they all belong in that part of my bibliography that has to go down as “stuff I learned from books years ago but just which books, I cannot remember.” A bit like someone asking “How do you know that?” when you get a question right on University Challenge*. “What do you mean “How do I know that?” I just bloody know it.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you've watched the Harry Potter films.

Glenfinnan: you will have seen the viaduct if you’ve watched the Harry Potter films.

My second job in teaching was as a history master. Nobody quibbled. My second last job was teaching geography. The teacher in the next classroom liked causing problems and questioned my qualifications: three quarters of an A level, a degree in the humanities, thirty years in the classroom, a hill-walker and canoeist and a lifelong passion for the subject. She was a PE teacher who’d been shoved into the department  when she found she couldn’t keep up on the netball court. I never questioned her right to teach…but many of her students did.

The head of department was a fine geographer (as was the head teacher)  and we enjoyed long chats about delivering the subject. He knew what he was doing and I was happy to follow his schemes to the letter. He used the Geog 123 series of textbooks from Oxford University Press and they were excellent. They came with all sorts of extras of an interactive nature and were popular with classes working together and students learning independently. When I was at school our teachers wouldn’t accept new fangled theories about the movement of the earth’s surface. In this school, even with an English teacher in charge, the students were all pretty well-versed on tectonics  and knew more vulcanology than we required, at a much higher level in 1975, by the end of year 8 (aged 12/13). It was impressive to be a part of.

Glencoe 3

As a brick-layer I’m happy to split stones but in the field I don’t carry a hammer. Up in the wild north-west of Scotland you don’t need to hit anything to be awed by the rocks. As an aesthete I was thrilled; as a poet, inspired; as a geographer I was in seventh heaven.


Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell

In Scotland I was more taken with the story of the the development of geology as a subject than by the geology itself. The whole of this academic discipline grew out of Scotland, brilliant Scottish minds and Scottish rocks. This book has been over-taken many times by modern geologists but Charles Lyell was one of those giants who allowed others to stand on his shoulders in order to see a little further. Charles Darwin advises anyone reading On the Origin of Species to put his book aside until you have read Charles Lyell. As a lover of art and literature I was drawn to the book by it’s reported influence on George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin among others. I enjoyed it as much for what it revealed of the scientific process as for the advances in geological thinking it contained.

Principles of Physical Geography by Arthur Holmes

I’ve had a copy of this for years and it has been quite a companion. In fact it has been my substitute teacher and go-to guide for anything that puzzled me about what goes on under the grass and heather. It was only when researching my re-telling of the story of geology in Scotland that I discovered just how important Holmes was to that very story. My copy is a fourth edition. The first edition, published in 1944 gave the world his reluctantly published hand-sketched drawings explaining how convection might (just might) explain the movement of the earth’s land masses (they didn’t become known as plates until 1968). It’s a university level text book; and a weighty tome. I haven’t read it from cover to cover but I have left tea stains and biscuit crumbs on more than half of its pages. If it isn’t the last word for the current generation, it is the last word for this enthusiastic amateur.

Professor Iain Stewart : Making Scotland’s Landscape BBC

I came upon these accidentally and very possibly when looking for some post pub late night television. They became must-see programmes and form the framework of my own telling of the story of rock science. Thanks to Youtube these are readily available and (again with tea and biscuits) I settled down and watched them, one after another, with a fat notebook and a fast moving pen. Seldom has a subject been so well expressed to a general audience without either simplifying or patronising. Iain Stewart has followed Michael Wood into that rare club of academic television presenters who are almost as much admired for themselves as for their knowledge of subject. I wasn’t over-bothered about his boyish good looks but his enthusiasm and love of subject went along way with me.


to be continued…


* My wife also left school at 16 and later forged a successful career as a teacher. Between us it is rare that we don’t score between 20 and 40 on University Challenge. And that’s only counting the ones we get before the students answer. Let’s hear it for the drop-outs!

Stuff and Nonsense


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A Journey into Scotland  Bibliography Part Three

The West Coast : History Books

It’s impossible to give a full inventory of the source materials for this project. Most of this blog has come straight from the reservoir of memory; and this includes memory of books read, lectures attended, galleries visited, films and television programmes watched and conversations enjoyed. Obviously it also includes what happened along the roads of Scotland in 1987. Being something of a compulsive reader and naturally curious, I’ve always enjoyed finding things out. Cataloguing knowledge may suit the writer of the school curriculum or Mr Dewey in his library but, to me, there has only ever been one subject; and that is stuff. Knowing stuff has always felt like a good thing. It’s nice to know a little more and to this end, I have failed to be a respecter of the confines of my own discipline. This could lead to the accusation of being a Jack of all trades and master of none. Guilty Your Honour!

loch lomond 2

Why is he pretending to know about geology and geography? How can what he has to say about the past be true history when he isn’t an historian? Well, I cannot necessarily sing, but I can do a pretty good impression of someone who can. Why not share enthusiasm when you’ve got some to spare?  I cannot look at a hill, a holt, a wood, a river valley without wondering how it came to be like that. I cannot read a newspaper without hearing echoes from the past. Teachers have helped too. My favourite geography teacher says that it is the fact that her subject contains all other subjects that is its main appeal. As a student, and occasional teacher, of words, I feel the same. A student of science  can only talk about what is: a student of poetry and philosophy  can talk about what could be as well. It’s all stuff and knowing it makes me feels like I’m fulfilling my purpose. Like oxygen, it’s good to suck it in; it feeds the system. Each of us can only draw in so much; there will always be an infinite amount we don’t breathe in, that we don’t know or even consider not knowing. We are each our own fruit and to strive towards ripeness is all.

rannoch moor 2I’ve written this whole thing to find out. To find out things that I didn’t know and for that I have been a frequenter of libraries as well as my own study. And that is the purpose of this appendix; to acknowledge a debt to other writers, academics and friends. But it is also written to find out and catalogue what I did know without realising it. It has been a Socratic project where the slave boy has shown himself more capable than he had previously contemplated. To know more at the end than at the beginning would be a measure of success. 

The Songs we Sang at Primary School

The music lessons we had at infant and junior school would all be classed as satisfactory, at best, by a twenty first century inspector. For the inspector’s clip board wouldn’t have boxes to tick for all the good things there were about them; merely the absence of what he/she is looking for. We went to the music room, (a room whose only distinction from our normal classroom was the presence of a Lancashire County Council standard school-issue piano) and got out our songbooks and sang. All of our teachers retired at the end of the year they taught us; something of a coincidence and nothing to do with the undue strain our class put on the nervous system. It does, however, show just how old-fashioned our education was. Up until the age of 10 all my teachers had left training college shortly after the first world war. We didn’t study Victorian education in history lessons but we re-lived it on a daily basis; right down to the slipper or the sharp crack across the knuckles with a ruler for losing concentration.


The song-books were just about holding together. They were nothing short of a golden treasury of the English and Scottish folk tradition. Cecil Sharp could have saved himself years of trekking around rural villages if he’d merely opened the music room book cupboard. In out-of-school life we sang Beatles songs (then freshly in the charts) and Peter and Gordon and Herman’s Hermits. In music lessons we sang Tom Bowling, Cherry Ripe and John Peel. And we ventured into Scotland too and it was memories of these music lessons that had me belting out full verses and choruses of Loch Lomond, Annie Laurie, The Presbyterian Cat and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose as I pedalled a contented way from Dumbarton to Mallaig. On my way to Kilmacolm I serenaded crows and sheep with “In Kirkintilloch there’s nae pubs and I’ll sure ye’ll winder why. Well, me brother and me we went on a spree and we drank the pubs all dry, all dry. We drank the pubs all dry.” Pedalling down Glencoe I was singing “The Campells are Coming Yo Ho! Yo Ho!” As I approached Ullapool my lay was to “Come Buy my Caller Herring”. On the way south I rattled out the Carlton Weaver and the Braes of Killikrankie. I got a couple off  Corries LPs but most came straight from those music lessons. We sang hearty boys and we absorbed huge chunks of our culture. Thank you to Miss Kitchen and Miss Wren who only pretended to be able to play the piano, and to Mr Whitney who really could.


Neil Oliver: historical romance in cargo trousers

History Books

The History of Scotland by Neil Oliver (television series and accompanying book)

I was delighted when I found out that the BBC had finally got round to making a series of programmes about the history of Scotland and transmitting them at a time when people were likely to be watching. I had mixed feelings when they chose popular, long-haired archeologist and presenter of Coast, Neil Oliver as the man to do it. The series, and the book, are excellent on the ancient history of the country. The enthusiastic Mr Oliver is able to paint bold canvasses from long before the land thought of itself as a country; from Calgacus sending the Roman legions fleeing back from where they came at the battle of Mons Graupius through the setting up of the clan system up to the establishment of a single nation. He tells the story of Wallace and The Bruce and Bannockburn exceptionally well and with the relish of a proud Scot. It is with the establishment of the House of Stuart (or Stewart) that he begins to waver and perhaps a modern historian should have taken over at this point. First class on sweeping legends and drawing some truth out of mythological figures; less good on the known and the well-documented. Still the series is worth getting and watching in full box set indulgence. In England we still get our Scottish history distorted through an English lens. Oliver at least gives Scotland its rightful precedence in the story.


I delved into countless other books from Simon Schama’s History of Britain which is excellent once you get past Schama himself (a delightful, authoritative and charming presence but a huge presence nonetheless) to Magnus Magnusson’s 600 page labour of love. This is eminently readable and as amiable as we always found our favourite Icelandic on Mastermind. But it is, shall we say, a little loyal to the royals. I’m not sure if he ever became Sir Magnus, but it wasn’t through lack of deference. To paraphrase the quizmaster, I’ve started the book but I’m afraid I haven’t yet finished it. (Actually I’ve used it to dip in and out of to give a different perspective and to add a little flesh to the bones).

I’m a big fan of (and occasional donor to)  Wikipedia. I think it a magnificent resource and every time I have heard Jimmy Wales interviewed on the wireless I have been impressed. However, I’ve tended to use it as a series of signposts rather than as a storyteller. I figured that anyone who wanted to know what Wiki says will probably look it up for themselves.

I’ve also used the various volumes of the Cambridge Cultural History of Britain edited by Boris Ford and Brewer’s Britain and Ireland, an indispensable volume whether preparing a holiday, an outing or merely wanting to find out about the folk-lore of a place or the origin of a name. Christopher Lee’s “This Sceptered Isle” was written to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It’s a complete history of Britain and tends to view Scottish history though any impact it had south of the border. Enjoyable nonetheless not least for the magnificent lesson in pronouncing consonants offered by Anna Massey. It may not be the most comprehensive history lesson but it gives an insight into elocution RADA style.

to be continued…

These Are Scottish Roads: Please Keep to the Left


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A Journey into Scotland

Part Two of the Bibliography

The South West of Scotland

Selected Poems  :  Robert Burns

I bought my copy of this book at a church hall jumble sale when I was an impressionable teenager. I have always been drawn to the presence of the poet in the verse. A funny, satirical, observant, subversive voice that celebrates the verities of decency and the pleasures of youth. A voice in tune with the natural world and critical of hypocrisy, vanity and cant. Just as every Englishman over the age of forty loves to have an opportunity to sing along with Lee Marvin’s gravel delivery of Wandrin’ Star from Paint Your Wagon, there isn’t a true-blooded Englishman who doesn’t get pleasure out of trying out his Scottish voice and Burns is a place to try this out.

Who hasn’t twisted their vocal chords into their best celtic snarl to observe a “wee sleekit, cowrin’ tim’rous beastie” ? or to pipe in the
“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”?

The well known poems are rightly famous but his reputation, as a poet, rests upon a considerable body of work and he is one of the poets who repays reading his verses at length. I’m sure Scots would rightly cringe at our feeble attempts to imitate a Caledonian brogue but these poems simply have to be read aloud and you would kill them if you gave them your best RP Donald Sinden.

The Auld Brig o” Doon


Burns is most associated with Ayr and in particular the village of Alloway where he was born but he spent significant periods of his life in Edinburgh and around Dumfries. He is for all of Scotland and he has a true Scottish voice: intelligent, articulate, musical and not slow to point out the faults of the ruling classes. There is something wonderful in encapsulating the superior vanity of the upper class lady in church, with her finery outshining the rest of the congregation, and keeping them in their place, only to have the effect under-mined by a louse crawling out from beneath her collar. She sees everyone looking up to her admiringly. Everyone else sees someone to keep clear of.

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”

My journey took me on an evening cycle along the very route followed by Tam O’Shanter in my favourite of the better known verses. Happily I wasn’t in the same state as Tam (Burns like many of his fellow Romantics was a powerful advocate of the dissolute life and the power of drink). The ride led ultimately to the superb Auld Brig ‘o Doon which was lit by a slanting evening sun when I reached it. An ancient bridge over the River Doon. No finer spot could be devised for a story of witches.

Burns' Cottage Alloway (Near Ayr)

Burns’ Cottage Alloway (Near Ayr)

A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid

My friend Laurence and I used to walk the moors above Saddleworth taking it in turns to recite verses of this poem to each other. He was from Bray near Dublin and I was from Barrow in Furness. The poem is beyond Burns’ use of the Scottish dialect. Here MacDiarmid helps to develop a new form of literary Scottish called Lallans. With our various Irish and Northern accents we loved the sounds we could get out of the words. The poem is now regarded as one of the most important of what became the Scottish Renaissance. It’s a state of the nation work and one that is informed both by a desire to establish a new Scottishness and by MacDiarmid’s communism. (As students at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s we were very much in the spirit of Marxism that was the beating heart of that institution).

Looking towards the Isle of Arran from Ayr

Looking towards the Isle of Arran from Ayr

The poem contains a warning that an understanding of Burns’ shouldn’t be taken as a Scottish birthright. That the Ayrshire Bard is mis-applied throughout the world by bogus scots (and almost certainly clumsy English twerps like me). There is something angry about MacDiarmid that we loved, even though we suspected the anger was as much directed at us as at anybody.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is aabody’s property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’s be the last a kennin haund to gie –

Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And aa their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin

Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

Power Without Principles by Jimmy Reid

Jimmy Reid became a hero to me in the 1970s. His is a voice we don’t hear anymore in these most political of unpolitical times. Today the dominant political creed is of understanding the need for greed and justifying it on the flawed principle that if you let a few people become unbelievably rich and powerful they might sprinkle a little of their great wealth on the undeserving poor. That we should shuffle along being grateful that we also (or so runs the trick) can have our dreams and that good things go to those who deserve them. I found a copy of this in a Sheffield Library and read with equal admiration and disillusion as he points out what everyone came to loathe about New Labour (he wrote these essays in 1997 when everyone was cheering the odious Blair to the rafters). I didn’t have my ticket with me and didn’t take the book out. A huge pity as the book is now very hard to come by.


We loved Jimmy Reid for having principles. For understanding the dignity and value of the working man. He was brought face to face with Kenneth Williams on the Parkinson show which allowed the brilliant comic actor but seriously flawed human being a supposed equal platform with the Scottish trades unionist. Williams dominated the encounter through his inability to shut up. That a great man should be put on a light-weight talk-show to debate politics with a reactionary member of the Carry-On team seems to say something quite tragic about the truth behind truth in modern Britain.

Scottish politics are light-years ahead of English. They had sign posts where we settled for weather vanes. They maintained principles of decency and integrity. We ended up with politicians run by news baron(s?) who blow whichever way the current wind takes them; who would as happily trade on hate and fear as right and wrong. Jimmy Reid may never have been given the platform he deserved but he remains a hero of mine.

Scottish Journey  by Edwin Muir

OK so it’s another man of the left on a tour of Scotland. Did you expect me to take “The Astute Observations on the Economic Condition of the Celtic Nations” by Mark Thatcher with me in my saddlebag? I’m drawn to those who tell a Scottish story that they know from personal experience. I was led to this book by reading George Mackay Brown’s Portrait of Orkney. Muir is a fellow Orcadian and made his journey as Scotland was still reeling from the First World War and on the verge of the second. In the words of academic TC Smout “Muir held up a mirror to the face of Scotland all those years ago. It is frightening to see so many recognisable features in its glass.”

Dumfries and Galloway CottageI gained an insight into Scotland through Edwin Muir as well as finding him a clever and amiable travelling companion. He intensified my dislike of injustice and (on a lesser theme) justified my reluctance to find very much to like in the works of Walter Scott. (Or at least in Scott himself.)  He also painted a Scotland with so many different facets and faces that I became reluctant to define anything as Scottish or to talk of Scottishness. (A reluctance I seem to have (at least partly) overcome.

A wonderful book.

To be continued…

The 2 Rs: Reading and Riding


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A Journey into Scotland  :  Epilogue and Bibliography


To all intents and purposes my journey ended in Malton. I did ride from there to Huddersfield but have few memories and no pictures. I was very keen to complete the journey and was unimaginative in my choice of route. Bypassing York and skirting Leeds to the south gave me several hours of uninterrupted traffic through the less impressive parts of two great cities. From Leeds to Huddersfield I passed through the various stages of the West Riding Woollen Industry: tailoring, heavy woollens, shoddy and mungo, fine worsteds.


Journey’s end was an anti-climax. I’d cycled from Barrow where I was born to Huddersfield, where I finished school and started work, via the north of Scotland where my formal education commenced. Round about 1500 miles via many curves and detours. When I got there, my father and brother looked up briefly from watching football. “Oh, hello Sime. Put the kettle on could you?”IMGP0744The obvious train journey from Huddersfield to Exeter was to change at Staylybridge and Stockport (now officially a ghost line) but I couldn’t take a bicycle on this route. So, after a night in the old family home, I got up early to pedal to Halifax to catch a train to Preston. It was supposed to be a short hop of a bike ride but actually contained the two nearest misses of the entire journey. I was lucky to get to Halifax at all.

Back home in Exeter I completed a score for a stage version of Don Quixote, performed in some clubs which were the predecessors of open mic nights and rehearsed a show for the arts centre. I was making money from all of the creative activities I was engaged in; singing, acting, writing. Not enough to be a responsible parent but maybe that would come. This is what I would have to give up if I went into teaching. What was it to be? Feeding my creativity or feeding my family? I applied for a  single teaching job and got it. I left the profession from time to time to pursue various creative ventures, and when they offered me enough money to pay all of my bills and have a little left over, I retired.

In all of that time I have only been back to Scotland once, on a day trip to Berwick and up the River Tweed. I want to return. Writing these chapters has turned photographs and memories into a decent set of notes. All the time I have been writing I have been reading about Scotland and thought I’d complete the story with a round-up of the books I’ve read. I had, at one stage intended to repeat the journey and write a serious book about Scotland. But there are already many very good books about the country and the best of them are written by Scots.

IMGP0748I met a male nurse in a pub on the banks of Loch Lomond. We got talking about Scottish writers and Scottish history. Like me he’d divided his education between English and Scottish schools and bemoaned the absence of Scotland from the English curriculum. He was right in 1987 and he’d be just as right now. We have one of the great European cultures just over our northern border and we ignore it. The average English person knows more about America and Australia than they do about Scotland. Part of my intention in writing this has been to put this right for myself and I feel enormously enriched in so doing. Scotland had given the world great literature, great scientists, geologists and economists. About the only Scottish culture we get in England is a series of broadcasts from the Edinburgh Festival (a hugely English decampment to the Scottish capital every August) and an OMG! Yay!!! hogmanay celebration again from Edinburgh, again featuring thousands of English tourists.

My Scottish bookcase was a battered edition of Robert Burns, an un-read copy of Whisky Galore and a couple of books of story-telling history by John Prebble (a Canadian). In the past year, I’m pleased to say that I’ve now read a shelfful of Scottish novels, immersed myself in Scottish poetry and song and found the time to read some books of history and travel in this great nation. I’ve ordered and studiously watched box sets of documentaries. I’ve also seen the Scottish show us how to make politics real. The referendum process gave Britain its first vibrant political debate since James Callaghan left power. To see it cause fury, then admiration and finally relief in the English press was engaging and entertaining. To see how the same press and English politicians turn their fear and admiration into scorn and derision has said a great deal more about England than Scotland.

Bibliography Part One The Lake District

I bagan and ended in the north of England. The first morning of my ride took me right by (and into) the cottage where I was born. The early stages were all in the Furness fells and the Lake District. I’m reasonably well-read in the famous lakeland poets so I took the opportunity to find out more about some lesser known Cumbrian writers. I read my first Melvyn Bragg novel, completed a Hunter Davies I’d begun years earlier, re-read an anthology of Irvine Hunt poems and set about a bit of serious reading of the life and works of Norman Nicholson.

The Whispering Poet by Kathleen Jones

A fine and inspiring biography. One that left me wanting to fill in the gaps of my reading of the Millom poet. The biographer never intrudes, uses her source material sensitively and has a poet’s understanding of her subject and the landscapes and industries (and illness) that inspired it. 

Norman_Nicholson_photo_credit-Millom Discovery Centre

Portrait of the Lakes by Norman Nicholson

It seems a pity that so many people read Alfred Wainwright when so few read Norman Nicholson. One is a true writer, a true lakeland man who knows how to express his thoughts on the whole of lakeland. The other is an outsider who points out the obvious to those who need the obvious pointing out to them. If you come from Cumberland, Westmoreland or Furness you will much prefer this. Written by one of our own and written with the pen of a true poet. We should cherish him.

Selected Poems  : Norman Nicholson

Many of the twentieth century poets I like the best are reflected in the work of Norman Nicholson. He had his influences but I’ll fight a round with anyone who would deny his influence on others. You’ll find the musical cadences and rhythms to match Dylan Thomas and an understanding of man married to the landscape that characterises the poems of RS Thomas. You’ll catch the morning hare or trout of Ted Hughes and, perhaps above the rest, (and he came after) the linking of the people’s lives with landscape, social and economic history and politics and geology of Seamus Heaney. He also gives a remarkable sense of the glory of being alive that perhaps is best expressed by one who very nearly didn’t make it. (And who ever afterwards had to count his every breath). Here is a poet who captures the pastoral in it’s truth; not necessarily beautiful, but permanent and ever-changing. But also the industrial man-made glories of pit shaft and smelting shed. My favourite poems are of the southern lakeland fells and passes and, particularly his poems of Millom.

We think of Lulworth Cove or Granchester or Upper Lambourne or Rydal Water when we think of English poetry. We should think more often of the Duddon and the little industrial town almost overlooked even by those of us who were brought up across the estuary.


Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

One of the best children’s writers of the last hundred years and a man who knew and loved the Lake District. The setting around the Coniston fells and on the waters of the lake is as much a part of the book (s) as the Walker family or their adventures. I spent many hours and days in similar parts of the region and no matter what I was doing, be it sailing sticks down a stream, riding the Windemere steamers, acting out episodes of The Last of the Mohicans, they were worth doing because of where I was doing them. Ransome brings the landscape as well as lakeland people to life. The charcoal burners who tend to Roger’s ankle and show the children a pet adder may easily have been the gamekeeper who showed me a buzzard’s nest and taught me how to sneak up close to grouse. Ransome sets some of his books in East Anglia and these are every bit as good as the lakeland ones. For lovers of the lake district though, let me highly recommend; Swallowdale, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post. The Picts and the Martyrs is also set in lakeland but I haven’t read it (yet).

Badger on a Barge by Janni Howker

Another book that captures what it was like to be brought up and spend your childhood in the southern lakes. There are some excellent stories in the much under-rated book. Seriously admired by writers; largely ignored by teachers. I taught it to several classes who all loved the books and who all produced much excellent writing in response. I didn’t read it especially for this journey but did enjoy dipping back in and finding that the title story still got tears welling-up.

The Comedy World Of Stan Laurel by John McCabe

Have only dipped into this as yet. A full project on Stan and Ollie is a potential future venture. I’m slowly filling the shelves in preparation for that.

To be Continued…

Blow Out the Candles

Mostly Concerning Food

It’s been a quiet week here in Derbyshire and food hasn’t been uppermost on our minds. For those of us still involved in the teaching of children it is the busiest time of the year. For those of us involved in moving the property forward it has been an opportunity to get outside and take advantage of the good weather to get some of those external jobs done. For those of us concerned with chasing balls and collecting sticks it has been a fabulous time and for those of us most concerned with the preparation and eating of food, it has been a quiet time.

A lot of sandwiches have been made, a few cans opened, some previously cooked and frozen meals have come out of the freezer and the local takeaways have seen more than average trade from us. But there have been a few decent meals to share and record. Not a vintage collection. But if this is going to be a record of what we’ve eaten at home, then it ought to be an accurate one.

IMGP5032Saturday saw Huddersfield Town’s last home match of the season and Charlie and I made our way up to Yorkshire to lend our support. A big crowd was anticipated and I suppose 17,000 isn’t negligible. Once I’d collected tickets there was time for a wander round town and lunch at Neaverson’s. A Texan Burger (not quite sure the Dallas version would be exactly the same as the Huddersfield one) and a portion of fish and chips did perfectly well. The atmosphere was friendly and the service cheerful.

IMGP5034The game with Blackburn Rovers ended in a 2-2 draw and a number of fans duly ignored announcements not to run onto the playing surface at the final whistle. It was an entertaining match and a very good-humoured pitch invasion. We haven’t had a huge amount to cheer this year; at least let us celebrate the fact that it is nearly all over. We are one of the most successful clubs in the country but we remain one of the least successful in the last 56 years. We’ve won bugger all during my life-time!

IMGP5048DSC_0001The week began and ended with cake. Since giving up smoking I’ve developed a sweet tooth. It is a constant delight to be discovering the delights of cakes and puddings at the age of 56. I was never particularly fond of sweet things as a child so the whole thing is a tremendous novelty.

DSC_0003Genuine Bury black pudding and an egg over-easy. There may be better black puddings than those from the Lancashire town but any puddings carrying the Bury name are pretty good indeed.

DSC_0004I’m a huge fan of the food produced at the Welbeck Farm Shop but I’m afraid these fancies are nothing like as good as they should be. You cannot fault the presentation but for £3.50 a cake, you expect taste and texture to match. It’s still a newish venture. Lets hope they improve. The meats, the hams and the cheeses are world class. The patisserie should be.

DSC_0006Mind you, that doesn’t include the doughnuts. These were everything a doughnut should be. the round one had a generous helping of a really tart lemon curd inside and was really nice. The ring doughnut was the best I’ve eaten for a long time.

DSC_0008Dear old Marks and Spencer seem to have expanded their speciality section in their Meadowhall branch. These macaroons were a treat on top of a pud and every bit as good for stealing every time I passed the tin.

DSC_0010I’m not quite so convinced of these Marrons Glacés. The whole product is impressive with the sweets triple wrapped in quality exteriors all inside a balsa wood box. I’m just not quite sure I like Marrons Glacés.

DSC_0011On a more plebeian level, I do like a cooked breakfast. I perhaps didn’t need this many beans but this is how many come in a can and I’m not very good at saving small amounts in the fridge under cling film. I have an agreement with Jolly that what I can’t manage, she can have. We work well as a team.

DSC_0013As I mentioned above, the ham from Welbeck is very good. Not good enough to stop me boiling my own for special occasions, but good enough that I don’t need to use supermarket deli counters any more. And yes, I do like mustard.

IMGP5010I haven’t emptied my pocket camera for a while. This picture of a ferris wheel in the middle of Nottingham dates back to the winter months. It has nothing to do with this food section, but I like the picture and want to include it. Please let me know if you think I should have left it out.




DSC_0017A packet of fruit-de-mer from Lidl, lightly cooked with chopped onion and an orange pepper and served with noodles was a quick and very tasty mid-day meal. I’d been working in the garden and it was really nice to eat my lunch in the garden. (I’m enjoying the novel; big fan of Lynne Truss).

DSC_0018Also from Lidl come those ready wrapped sushi. Not bad at all for the price.


Welbeck sausages taste just like the sausages we got in the sixties; and they were from an excellent butcher in Ulverston called Parkinsons. With good bread, a first class sausage sandwich.

DSC_0052We had two birthdays in the family this week but, because of illness and work commitments, we weren’t able to celebrate them until the weekend. The onions in this flan were softened very slowly until they were sweetness itself. The crust is an all-butter pastry. The filling is eggs and double cream with a lot of double Gloucester and Parmesan cheese.

DSC_0065A cheerful plateful to celebrate a double birthday.

DSC_0067And of course, two cakes to follow.



Have a lovely week. Simon


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