Durham Cathedral

I know very few things. One of them is that good days should be cherished for who knows quite when you will need to remember them and hold them close. I am fortunate that I’ve had many good days in my life. About ten years ago, I was having a bit of a tough time. One Friday afternoon, with the next day free and no earthly idea of how to fill it, I was sitting just by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, in fact in the close that looks onto the MSPs offices, the ones with the thinking pods in the windows. I was thinking of one of my favourite books, Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson, and in particular the section about Durham. Bryson raved about Durham and I hadn’t been before. I thought and I marched straight up to Waverley Station to book a ticket. The next day, I was on the train, just about to get off, and I got my first glimpse of that Cathedral on the hill. I walked right up to it and straight in. On that bright May morning, I walked around the Cathedral, looking up at its ceilings, down at its marble floor, and I realised that things were going to be okay. They were, as it turns out. Ever since, Durham has been very special to me. I don’t get there as often as I used to; geography mostly to blame. Nearly a decade on, I can’t help feeling the same peace as I did then.

I am not religious. If I am anything, I prefer to be like Norman MacCaig and be a Zen Calvinist. Durham Cathedral is one of the most significant churches in the Church of England, not natural Zen Calvinist territory by any measure. It is certainty when the world, the universe and everything else is everything but. Maybe that’s why I like to go there and think. I’ve sat there in wooden pews and come away with grand plans to sort out my life, even if they don’t actually pan out the way I intended. These days, I’m happy just to think and to look. If I come away with any clarity, I’ve got lucky. When I was there recently, my abiding thought was that my backside was square and I couldn’t sit there any longer. So, I moved.

The Cathedral is a place which needs to be appreciated in different ways. On foot, on the move, it needs a couple of circuits to see the familiar haunts, to look and down at the right moments, the right windows and plaques, the zig-zags and pillars. Then I sit. Often for a while. Then I walk around again. I make sure I see St. Cuthbert’s Shrine, thinking of how he preferred the waves and solitude of Lindisfarne to more refined cares. I usually stop by the tomb of the Venerable Bede and think of the line I read in a book by Alan Bennett once, sung by Dame Maggie Smith in revue about how the Venerable Bede could hardly spell and barely read. Sometimes, like when I was last there, I sit in the cloisters, the only bit I take a photo in deference to the big signs, and think of Harry Potter, scenes of which were filmed there. I’m not awaiting my Hogwarts letter, it would just be nice to visit.

When I was last in the Cathedral, I was talking about the Battle of Dunbar, when the victorious Cromwellian forces marched 3,000 prisoners to Durham, some destined to die within its walls, others executed while some were transported to America as slaves. There’s a plaque in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. Nearby is my favourite window, the one dedicated to Archbishop Ramsey, the Transfiguration Window, brown with a shaft of light in the middle. I always like to find the sweet, self-reverential touch where the Cathedral appears in the window. The Millennium Window nearby, more modern with its images of northeastern life, reflects its colours on the stone on sunny days, like the ceiling above the nave where the light shines in on its curves.

As I said, I’ve been fortunate to have many bright days. Durham has factored in quite a few of them, like when I was there during the Lumiere Festival a few years back and images from the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected on the walls. Or when I was there during a heatwave at the end of March, walking by the river in shorts. I never fail to thrill at the sight of the Cathedral as I approach, even if lately I’ve come by road, which is almost as good. It’s the best building on Earth and I’m just glad I’ve been, on cold winter days and long summer ones, in all moods and hues, to sit under its ceiling and admire it, admire the world around, really, and live life just a wee bit brighter from having been there.

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The turn of the year

Yes, it’s December. The lights are up, the adverts are on, the end of the year is in sight. The daylight is brief but vivid. The night lights are garish. At the moment, it’s cold, bracing and just plain baltic. The leaves are on the pavements and yet autumn is behind us. Winter is upon us.

I find this time of year difficult. I like natural light and the fact we have had cold, bright days recently helps me get over that it’s dark before ‘The Chase’ comes on. I also heartily dislike the Christmas build-up. I like the day, the time off is wonderful. I don’t like that it starts earlier and earlier. Plus the forced jollity. Plus the lights and the loudness. I was stood, thankfully in daylight, by the Edinburgh Christmas extravaganza in Princes Street Gardens for a few minutes the other day and it was bad enough. The cheesy 80s pop music being pumped out the speakers was possibly in breach of the Geneva Convention. This time of year is hard for a great many people. It’s a time for reflection as the year slows down and it can be about what we don’t have rather than what we do. The newspapers last Friday had a statistic about how 60,000 older people in Scotland will spend Christmas on their own. Too many people are lonely in our society. There will be many people just wishing for January. I’m definitely one of them.

This year I have almost a fortnight off. Last year I managed a couple of day trips over the time and greatly enjoyed the quieter buses and trains. A few years ago, I even went to Dublin right at the very start of January before I went back to work. This year the football fixture list has plonked three Hibs games between Saturday 23rd December and Saturday 30th December. Between those I hope just to sleep, read, write, spend time with my family. I am genuinely indifferent to presents – I also have far more stuff than I actually need – so I will enjoy other people’s instead, since as ever you can’t buy inner peace or world peace. A freezing cold day in North Berwick, which I enjoyed last year, or a trip anywhere else is worth more to me than anything you can wrap up in paper, in any case.

December is the end of the year. A new year will begin soon. As we look back, it’s nice to look forward too, resting up for the new adventures that will soon ensue. The piercing blue of the sky this time of year is enough light for me, never mind all the bulbs and LEDs.

Further reading –

The Humanist Society of Scotland publish a very good newsletter called Humanitie and they have an article in the current issue about how humanists celebrate Christmas. On the website, they illustrate the article with one of the ways I like to celebrate the festives, the wonderful ‘Muppet Christmas Carol’. Here’s a link – https://www.humanism.scot/what-we-do/humanitie/humanists-celebrate-christmas/

Clearing out my inbox

Whenever I see an idea that might work for my writing, I usually send myself an e-mail. Sometimes they come from Twitter or the Internet more generally. It means that my inbox gets clogged with potential ideas, some goers, others really not. A wee while ago I wrote a post which sought to get some of them out there – Commonplace inbox – and I felt it’s time to do it again. Some might still appear in a post sometime in the future, however, but I have the feeling the time might have passed for others.

Forth Bridges from Silverknowes

At the start of September, the new Queensferry Crossing opened, the third bridge across the Forth between South Queensferry in Edinburgh and Fife. It’s a stunning structure, fitting in quite well with the existing Forth Road Bridge and the mighty Forth Bridge, the one with the trains. Everybody and their granny in the Scottish press was writing about the new bridge and briefly I was going to but didn’t get round to it. One angle, covered in The Scotsman, was about how 50 years ago the Forth was traversed by a ferry, only stopped by the opening of the Forth Road Bridge.

Berwick

Another potential idea was derived from a piece from The Daily Telegraph, entitled ‘Why do so few people visit Berwick-upon-Tweed?’ Since I read it, I’ve been to Berwick and I have a lot of time for the place more generally. It is a strange place, not quite Scotland, not quite England, and it has a lot of fine buildings, plus the views to the Cheviots, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne as well as out to sea. LS Lowry went there for his holidays. Plus it has a brilliant old-fashioned stationers where on my last visit I bought an OS map which got put in a black paper bag. Go to Berwick.

I also had a notion to write about the Caledonian Sleeper, the night train that runs from London to various parts of Scotland. I’ve been on it three times, from Edinburgh to London in the seats then from Glasgow to London and back in a bed, which was a fair bit more comfortable. The seated journey was memorable because I didn’t sleep at all. Get a bed, if possible. It was worth it, however, because I was then (and still am) an Open University student and at some ungodly hour I saw Milton Keynes Central out the window and waved at my university’s campus as I passed by. My preferred mode of travel to London is an early train down then the last one back, since at least I can sleep in my own bed without the juddering of wheels over train tracks.

Steve Silberman is an excellent writer, writing with insight about autism, amongst other things. I follow him on Twitter and in my inbox just now is a link he Tweeted to a TED talk with the wonderful heading: ‘Why autism is sexier than you think’. It can be, in the right context, you know. Good lighting in my case.

Sticking with Twitter, I follow the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who has recently taken to Twitter with charming missives about words and their resonances. Much nicer than all the other miserable bollocks happening in the world right now. Two recent favourites are ‘geophany’ and ‘genius loci’, defined as an epiphany of insight about a particular place and the atmosphere and character of a particular place respectively.

Kevin McKenna writes for various newspapers including The Scottish Daily Mail (boo, hiss) and The Observer. I don’t always agree with his politics but I’m a believer you should read folk you disagree with. One of his Observer pieces that struck a chord with me was about whether Scotland’s islands are experiencing a resurgence due to tourism and infrastructure advances. I also have in my inbox just now a brilliant feature article from Susan Swarbrick in The Herald about the plane landing on the beach at Barra, something I would dearly like to see one day.

Partick Subway

I also have quite a few articles and links about this great city of Glasgow. Two relate to a Streets of Glasgow walk I would like to do but haven’t managed yet along Cumberland Street in the Gorbals, which has some interesting architecture and public art. I also have a link from the excellent History Girls about murals in Possilpark Library, which I still haven’t seen – read their blog for more details. More controversially, an article also nestles in my inbox from Friends of the Earth about air pollution on the Glasgow Subway. In the pipeline, so to speak, is an idea I’ve had to walk the length of the Subway above ground so that will be relevant for that. What might also be relevant is an article from BBC News where the owners of the bus company McGills complain that government should do more about getting folk on buses than trains. In some of that, they have a point, though as a frequent user of McGills services myself, I would humbly suggest they stop making passengers their enemy and consider giving many of its drivers customer service training plus in some cases route knowledge.

VisitScotland recently announced that they intend to close 60% of their tourist information offices across the country. There is an element of sadness in that, since folk will lose their jobs and there will be some who will lose out on information about Scotland who may not have Internet access or a phone signal, come to think of it. I myself have used their services regularly over the years, though not for a while, plundering their stocks for the occasional day trip idea or bus timetable. Their staff are always very helpful and knowledgeable so it’s a shame that VICs will be closing. Then again the iCentre in Glasgow seems to move every year which seems counter-intuitive.

I think that’s my inbox a fair bit emptier now. I’m not sure how to keep it from filling up again, maybe saving links to Facebook instead or just writing them down in my notebook. Or simply reading less but I’m quite sure that won’t catch on.

Tea or coffee? Neither, thanks

I can count on one hand how often I have a hot drink in any given year. The British, certainly the Scottish, way is that everyone, but everyone, does either tea or coffee, sometimes both. I don’t. If I take a hot drink at all, I would take a hot chocolate. If absolutely pushed, I would choose tea but that happens on average once every two or three years. I’m autistic and one of my sensory sensitivities is food and drink that is too hot. Plus coffee is rank but that’s nothing to do with the complications of my noggin. It’s just rank. It smells nice but it tastes like metal filings, whatever is put in it.

Very often, whenever I go to training courses or cover somewhere new, I get told two things. Where the toilets are and where the tea and coffee are kept. I usually am grateful for the first but roll my eyes at the second, looking around for alternative liquid. I can think of two courses this year alone when I had to nip out and buy juice. In a place I don’t know, I have come to expect there will be minimal provision for the increasing number of folk who don’t bother with tea or coffee. I get told with considerable frequency after I say I don’t like tea or coffee that this one’s young relative or that one doesn’t take tea or coffee either. Yet people don’t cater for that. We live in a binary world, apparently. So, the rest of us have to bring our own.

Having said that, in the last few weeks, I’ve actually had more hot drinks than I have in years. It’s been cold plus I wasn’t feeling well last week. I indulged in rancid Lemsip substitutes and very much better hot Vimto, even if that’s less nice when accidentally spilled over one’s hand when trying to sit down at the football. At another football match, I had no fewer than two cups of hot chocolate in a futile attempt to keep warm. I can’t take hot drinks when they’re freshly made. Usually 10-15 minutes does me to get it into the Goldilocks zone. I understand that whisky needs to be savoured and drunk slowly in most cases. A hot drink is much the same for me. I like to taste it. With Lemsip or its imitators, however, there’s only a brief window when they’re sort-of hot and acceptable and then they go cold and absolutely honking. These have to be rushed, against my mouth and particularly my tongue’s better judgement.

Before you think I treat my body as a temple, in common with most denizens of the library world, and the museum world before that, I run on sugar. Chocolate, mainly. I don’t do much fizzy juice any more. I love Irn Bru but drinking it too late in the day keeps me up at night. Plus my IBS has been triggered by very fizzy juice in the past. I don’t do energy drinks either since they smell awful. If I need a hit of caffeine, I will go for a can of Coke but again that’s not so often.

At social functions, too, the choices can often be binary. I was at something recently and when I walked in, the choice was a glass of Prosecco or orange juice. I don’t like wine so orange juice was the default choice, even though I prefer apple myself as orange can be quite acidic. Later in the evening there was a bit more choice in the sense that there was red and white wine kicking about but still only the one non-alcoholic choice, good old OJ.

I appreciate that times are tough. There isn’t money to fund options for every taste. But something beyond the two choices, be that tea or coffee or alcohol and fruit juice, wouldn’t be hard. There’s only so many bottles of Oasis that can be smuggled into training courses without folk getting offended, or thinking I’m an alkie. Plus there must be tea and coffee sufferers who might want a change. Make it happen, folks.

Bridies

I have some nice news to share. I’ve known about it for months but finally I can share it here. Each year, the Scottish Book Trust run something called Book Week Scotland, with hundreds of literary events up and down the country over a week at the end of November. The last few years, the SBT have published a book, or this year an eBook, on a particular theme for Book Week Scotland. This year’s is called Nourish and I have a piece in it. It’s out on Monday 27th November, available from the Scottish Book Trust’s website. It should also be downloadable from your local library’s eBook downloading service, if you live in Scotland. Have a read.

Steak bridie

The story of the steak bridie begins, as most things do with me, with going to watch Hibs. The Hibees were away to Dunfermline Athletic a year or so ago and in the lead-up to the game, folks on the Hibs messageboards were mainly excited for the chance to sample some mysterious creation called a steak bridie, which I hadn’t before encountered. Their manufacturer, the Fife bakery Stephens, runs the food kiosks at Dunfermline. Being a curious sort, I pitched up at East End Park and joined the (long) queue nearly an hour before the game started. Two bridies were promptly purchased and swiftly consumed. They were utterly glorious. My next visit to East End Park again saw me get bridies.

Since then Hibs have been promoted so trips to East End Park aren’t on the menu any more. Instead whenever I go to Fife I make a point of going to a branch of Stephens and getting a bridie or two. That was what I did one day in May, when I went to Kirkcaldy, leading to the events described below:

I jumped off the bus at Kirkcaldy and straight into the bakers to get a couple of steak bridies. Even in the rain, I wasn’t caring as I did the Scottish version of al fresco dining – eating hastily on the hoof – biting into the first bridie, savouring every fibre, every molecule of the meaty pastry perfection. I paused for breath and that small second was all it took for a seagull to swoop straight in and swipe the bridie right out of my hand. It was so deft I barely saw it happen and the next thing I knew there was the said gull across the street, tearing into the remains of my bridie. I heard a boy go “Whoa!” in awe at what had just unfolded. I was just dazed, stunned, and for a moment I could have burst into tears since I had been looking forward to steak bridies all the way from Glasgow, no, for days. Instead, I merely offered a few choice expletives, laughed, then walked on like a good sensible adult. But I guarded the second one with my life and scranned it almost in one, watching left and right as I did so just to make sure.

(From the Scottish Book Trust website – http://scottishbooktrust.com/writing/nourish/story/bridie)

The threat of avian attack hasn’t deterred me, though. I’ve even had a bridie in Kirkcaldy since, and survived a marginally happier and fatter man.

Story as read at Nourish launch event, 2nd November 2017

The Nourish book is excellent, by the way, with pieces from published authors like Liz Niven and Mary Contini as well as other folks from around the country. I’ve had the distinct pleasure to meet a few of them and you should read their stories. The ones about vegan sausages, tongues, chickens and brambles, plus the onion rant, are particularly good. I’ve read it a couple of times now, the first on my iPad and the second in the very limited edition printed book copy that sits beside me now. When I read it the second time and reached my page, it hit me how amazing it was to be selected for the book, especially as part of a diverse and talented bunch of scriveners. Some of the stories are very funny, others quite poignant. I very much encourage you to download a copy, skipping page 65 should you wish. For those who are blind or visually impaired, there is even an audio version, produced by RNIB Scotland. If anyone wants a cure for insomnia, my voice has been committed to record as part of it. If you are in a cafe at an Historic Scotland property or in various eateries around the country this week, you might come across it on a rather flashy menu card. In whatever form, please do read it and enjoy.

Digest: September 2017

View from Portobello to East Lothian
September was a fairly quiet month, travel-wise, with most of my forays out for football. My first trip out of the west in September didn’t come until Saturday 16th September, when Hibs played Motherwell at Easter Road. I took a diversion on the way to the ground to the Eastern Cemetery, to visit the grave of Dan McMichael, the manager of Hibs when they won the Cup in 1902. McMichael’s grave wasn’t marked until 2013, made right by the efforts of the St Patrick’s Hibs supporters club. He had died during an epidemic of Spanish flu in 1919 and due to the numbers of folk succumbing, graves weren’t being marked. It’s an interesting story and I’ve written a post which will appear in the coming month about that walk.

Dan McMichael’s grave in the Eastern Cemetery, Edinburgh
The following day was Doors Open Day in Glasgow and my dad and I went to various places across this great city. The first was an unexpected surprise, a curious step into a memorial garden dedicated to the victims of the Arandora Star sinking in 1940. Scotland is a very multicultural country and particularly over the last 200 years, we have seen people come here from all across the world. Many of them were Italians. During the Second World War, however, Italy and the UK were at war and many Italians living in Scotland were interned or sent off to Australia or Canada. Some of them were on the Arandora Star, which was sunk by a German vessel off the coast of Donegal. The garden featured tall mirrored glass pieces around a water feature. This was to symbolise the elegance of the liner and the torpedo coming in to sink it. The glass featured various apposite Biblical and poetic quotations. Around the walls of the garden were plaques about Catholicism in Scotland as well as about the Arandora Star. On Doors Open Day, there was a mannie there talking about the Arandora Star and he was excellent. The garden is open every day and I urge people to go have a look. We walked along the river to the Riverside Museum, a fine place but absolutely mobbed since it was a nice Sunday in September. As we came past the SECC, we could see and hear lots of sirens from the Riverside. Given that the Parsons Green bomb had been left on the London Underground only a couple of days previously, we could be forgiven for being on edge but it turned out that the emergency services were at the Riverside as part of Doors Open Day. After lunch, we went across town to Provan Hall, in Easterhouse, a couple of manor houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, now managed by Glasgow City Council. Stevie, the tour guide, was amazing, giving an incredible tour which brought the place alive and it was a true Horrible Histories-style tour, probably the best I’ve had in a long while. Back across town to the Botanics and we had a wander there before dinner.

Arandora Star garden, Glasgow

Provan Hall
The following Tuesday night I was back in Edinburgh for football. I travelled through a bit sharper and had a meander around the New Town. I stopped for a few minutes to admire the sphinxes on top of the Royal Scottish Academy on the Mound, which I hadn’t really looked at before. I took a turn around Charlotte Square, now recovering from the Book Festival, and towards Northumberland Street, Broughton Street and Forth Street. On a whim I decided to go along Annandale Street to see where the Lothian Buses depot is, which is a series of big sheds with the logo of the various Lothian companies on the front of one of them. On the way was an Islamic centre with various interesting quotes etched on the side.

Royal Scottish Academy
That Saturday Hibs were playing Ross County in Dingwall, a place I had never been to before. I got a bus to Inverness and had a walk along the river before getting the train to Dingwall. I’ve been watching a YouTube series called All The Stations recently (more about that in the upcoming posts about Wemyss Bay and also the one called Stations) and that stretch of line, including Beauly which has a very short platform, was quite familiar to me from that with the Cromarty Firth to the right as the train moved to Dingwall. Dingwall itself is a nice market town though the football seemed to be the main event in the place. The bus ride back to Glasgow was very long but pleasant just to read and write.

I was off that Monday so I decided to go off to Edinburgh. On the way, I decided to take a diversion via ferry. Over the summer, the Govan Workspace was running a free ferry shuttle from Govan to the Riverside Museum just across the Clyde and to my discredit, I had not been on it despite bunging them some money. I decided to put that to rights and I enjoyed my 30-second journey immensely, despite the grey and the gloom. I got a train from Partick to Queen Street then another to Edinburgh, where I had decided to go for a walk in Holyrood Park. I am not a climber so Arthur’s Seat was not on the agenda. I decided instead to walk up to Dunsapie, up the back of Arthur’s Seat, familiar to me from walks from my primary school, which is about a mile away. I sat there on a rock for a while before heading back down. I got a bus from Meadowbank back into town and spent a very enjoyable hour in the National Museum of Scotland, lightly grazing and wandering rather than getting bogged down in one display in particular. NMS is one of those places where I can only concentrate for so long since it has a lot of stuff. I had forgotten how good NMS is in its breadth and depth.

Govan ferry

Dunsapie

National Museum of Scotland

Millennium Clock, National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland
On Saturday, Hibs were playing at Celtic Park. I walked there from Central Station, particularly liking being around Glasgow Cross with its tolbooth spire and high buildings.

Glasgow Cross
So, that’s September. I was off for the start of October so a few posts have resulted from those adventures which will appear in the coming days. Thanks again to all readers for their comments, likes and follows. Toodle pip.

Posts published –

Morrison’s Haven

Walk this way

Cardonald

Membership

When you’ve written better before

Names

My favourite beach: Belhaven

Reading more often

Brougham Castle

Glasgow vs. Edinburgh

Make it rain

Signposts

Fidget

Hello,

I am currently on a week’s leave so rather than go through a hiatus like I did in August, I thought I would share a few older posts from the blog archive, beginning with this one, about fidget toys. Since I wrote this one, a fidget spinner was left at my work and I can be found playing with it on occasion. Still doesn’t beat a pen, though.

The next three posts, appearing on Wednesday, Friday and a week from now, will be about a walk in a dear, perpetual place, murals in Paisley and an urban ramble. Suitably varied, I’m sure you’ll agree.

As befits someone who spends a lot of life writing, I carry at least two pens at pretty much all times. Of course this is also useful when I am working since libraries never have a functioning pen when one is so required. They are also useful for when I need to find what the scientists call local coherence, or in other words when I feel slightly awkward or overwhelmed and need to focus on something else. Just yesterday I was at a social gathering and I took out a pen, just for a second, and pressed its top, open and close, just once. It didn’t involve much conscious thought and it was all done in a matter of moments. I even do it sometimes walking along the street. I used to get told off before going to job interviews for always having a pen in my hand. But then again not having a pen in my hand might have led to Donald Trump-esque hand gestures to emphasise whatever points I was trying to make so there’s always an argument to be made on both sides.

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Pens
It’s why I just laugh when I see kids with the latest in-thing, fidget toys. I’m autistic. I’m the king of fidget toys. At various points, I’ve experimented with figurines of Wallace (from Wallace and Gromit), keyrings, S-loops that are used to hang paintings and elastic bands. Indeed I went to the gym recently with an elastic band still around my wrist from work. Fidget toys are interesting looking, sort of like a safety protector for a plug socket but flat. I have seen shops around the place with signs saying ‘Fidget Toys Sold Here’ and it makes me grin broadly each and every time.

It’s strange seeing the world slowly come round to one’s way of thinking. At the moment designer stubble is fashionable. Shaving too often bothers my skin so I inadvertently keep to that particular trend. A wee while ago, ‘geek chic’ was all the rage. I’ve had glasses since I was 10 and I don’t dress like David Gandy anyway. Or look like him or any other male model. That wasn’t a problem either. When I joined Facebook a few months ago, I found that people I went to school with spent their weekends with their families going around castles. Castlebagging is a real term to describe this thoroughly intellectually and spiritually enriching pursuit. It was written about in the papers a few years back and at the time I felt momentarily irritated at the thought of carpetbaggers filling up good castles when I had some of them to myself for years.

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Castle. This one is Warkworth, in Northumberland
Recently the (very worth reading) Anonymously Autistic blogger shared a link on Twitter to a Kickstarter for something called a Fidgi Pen, or a fidget toy disguised as a pen. I didn’t know there was funding available. I just buy pens and they do the business. As I was thinking of what to write next just now, I played about with a Berol Handwriting pen that I bought in a pack of three from the supermarket for a couple of pounds. No disguise required.

It isn’t always easy to know when you fit in. I am 27 now and I have reached a point when I somehow function in society just fine. I wear clothes for comfort rather than fashion. My glasses were expensive but that’s because I need them to see. I wear Skechers shoes (as written about here – other shoes are available) because they are comfortable and don’t hurt my feet. I generally do okay with people. I am not that confident but that’s okay. Indeed with some people that makes the situation more bearable. In society more generally, the fact that fidget toys are popular with neurotypical bairns can only be welcome. We can only hope that the world changes ever more to embrace our unique way of thinking, rather than just tolerate or accommodate it.

In praise of being alone

Sometimes I am inspired to write posts by what I read. The other morning, I was catching up with a couple of months’ worth of entries from Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin and came across one of the many cracking, succinctly-phrased lines from that magnificent volume:

‘Every now and again you find yourself slipping into a little pocket, a little envelope, of country that is unknown to anyone else, which feels as though it is your own secret land’.

Connections sometimes emerge between different things I read and what I have read previously. One of my favourite poems is ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats and Roger’s words about secret lands remind me about that isle, being alone in a bee-loud glade and peace dropping slow. Then it occurred to me that Nan Shepherd had written in a similar vein in The Living Mountain, the book that rivals Notes From Walnut Tree Farm in being what I would take to a desert island. Nan Shepherd writes about a particular loch high in the Cairngorms and writes that its ‘inaccessibility…is part of its power…It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness’.

I am not a mountain climber. One day I would like to but it hasn’t happened yet. The last time I was in a place and felt I was in a secret land was when I was walking in the John Muir Country Park near Dunbar a month or two ago. I was amidst the trees and was back in the midst of my childhood, feeling entirely at peace in this place. Being alone there wasn’t a bad thing because I could think free about my time there long ago without being confined by words or sharing the experience with someone else. I spend a lot of my life putting things into words but sometimes there’s times when words aren’t needed. John Muir wrote once that ‘writing is a cold medium for heart-hot ideas’ and it’s true a lot of the time. Putting this idea into words has been harder than thinking it but that’s true most of the time, I think. Hedderwick isn’t a secret place. It’s near the A1 and many people walk there every single day. Some kids had a party to celebrate their exams finishing the other week. There is still a resonance and meaning there that is unique to me, for no one else has my particular set of life experiences and filters to see them through. It still felt like a secret land, particularly for much of the time I was there when I was alone with my thoughts in the dunes between the trees.

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There is a major difference between being lonely and being alone. I have known both. Being with someone else doesn’t mean you can’t fully appreciate a particular place. Indeed a shared thought can build a better insight. Being alone helps me recharge. That walk in John Muir was brilliant, in no small part because I was alone and able to think for hours, to be where I was, to enjoy that and process the last few months since I was last in Dunbar. I always think better when I’m a wee bit removed from life and being in a perpetual place only made it better that particular day. I can’t arise now and go, unfortunately, since I have a life and work and stuff like that. But I can do what Norman MacCaig did. He lived most of the year in Edinburgh but spent his long summer holidays in Assynt. When he reached Assynt, he ‘fattened his camel’s hump’ with inspiration and ideas to fill his poems for the rest of the year. I do the same whenever I travel and particularly when I am back in East Lothian. Even a glance across the Forth from Fife or on a webcam can satisfy any yearnings if my stores are low. It isn’t quite a secret land but it will do for me.

 

 

Wallace and Gromit

Recently it was announced that the actor Peter Sallis had died at the age of 96. He played Norman Clegg on the long-running pish Sunday night ‘comedy’ Last of the Summer Wine, but to many of us he is better known as the voice of Wallace, the inventor and cheese fanatic from Wallace and Gromit. For those poor souls who have never encountered Wallace and Gromit before, and you truly haven’t lived, Wallace and Gromit is a series of animations involving a madcap inventor and his dug who is much, much smarter than him, produced in clay by Aardman Animations and created by Nick Park. It is meant for children, really, but since I grew up with it, I suppose I can justify keeping an interest. I identify more with Gromit than Wallace, since he is silent and a rolled eye can say so, so much, but there are so many great Wallace lines. One of them appears on the mug I drink out of and it pretty much sums up my outlook on life, taken from A Grand Day Out, when they go to the moon on a Bank Holiday to look for cheese:

‘It’s like no cheese I’ve ever tasted’.

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My Wallace and Gromit mug next to my alternative mug bearing the visage of Sir David Gray

I haven’t watched Wallace and Gromit in a few years. The last time was watching A Matter Of Loaf and Death, including one of those fabulously cheesy names, Piella Bakewell. But my most recent W&G experience was at Blackpool Pleasure Beach about three summers ago. It was a birthday present. I had never been to a theme park in my life and there I was with my family at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I went on my first rollercoaster at the age of 25. But a major highlight was going to the Wallace and Gromit ride, where you sit in a slipper and get guided around a medley of scenes and lines from the various W&G films. Quite seriously, a life highlight. Even more so was the adjoining gift shop where I spent sixty British pounds on T-shirts, keyrings and plush toys. I still wear my grey T-shirt bearing the red glove worn by the Penguin on the Wrong Trousers from time to time. Anyway, a souvenir of the day was the photo I got took with Gromit. It is one of the few photos of me in my house; one of the others is me with the Scottish Cup. We actually waited until the galoot in the Wallace suit went for a fag break before pouncing to get a photo with Gromit. It’s still on the mantelpiece, pride of place.

I’ve liked Wallace and Gromit since I was a kid. I’m autistic and having a fidget toy has always been important for keeping pace with the sensory overload that is life as I know it. When I was a kid, I used to have keyrings mainly but for a while it was a little figurine of Wallace. I lost it, though. We used to walk our dog each night across Winterfield Park in Dunbar, in all weathers and all year, even in the dark with a torch. One of those dark, dark nights, I lost Wallace. The day after I carefully combed the park though it was nowhere to be seen. Somehow when I went back to school, one of my teachers produced another one. It wasn’t the same somehow but the thought was there.

A few years ago, I had a job I didn’t like. Everyone has one on their CV. It was not long after I had been to Blackpool Pleasure Beach and on my desk was not only a photo of me with Gromit but also a Gromit soft toy. It kept me in touch with my childhood side and looking to Gromit from time to time reminded me of happier times.

When I heard about Peter Sallis’s death, it reminded me of the place Wallace and Gromit has had in my life. Off-the-wall humour, quirky and detail-orientated, the world is the richer for it. As it was for the life of Peter Sallis.

 

 

Edinburgh Waverley

‘This train is for Edinburgh Waverley. This train will call at Croy, Falkirk High…’

I hear this refrain with considerable regularity, the voice of Fletcher Mathers relayed across the Scotrail service I’ve just boarded bound for the capital. Waverley is the main railway station in Edinburgh, sitting in Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of the Castle and much of the city centre sitting high above. At the end of the platforms facing towards Glasgow, you can see Princes Street, the National Gallery and the Bank of Scotland offices. If heading south, you get a view of Governor’s House, the last remaining part of the old Calton Jail that once sat where St. Andrew’s House, the Scottish Government premises, are now. Governor’s House isn’t visible from Regent Road – it is the tower that sits on a rock, pretty much only visible from the eastern end of Waverley Station. An underrated perspective you get from Waverley is when you step onto Market Street. Facing you is the old Scotsman building, now a luxury hotel. The printing presses would have been juddering to life and producing the public prints just across from the station.

The first glimpse of the capital that many get on leaving Waverley is walking up Waverley Steps towards Princes Street. Many folk of course take the escalator that was recently installed when the station was tarted up. The Steps were covered over since the top was the windiest place in Edinburgh, the product of walking up from a valley onto a busy, bustling city street. At the top of Waverley Steps, look left then right. Left you get a glimpse of Edinburgh Castle high up on its rock and Princes Street stretching out with buses, trams and all else; right you get Register House, Leith Street and up to Calton Hill, the Nelson Monument and the folly. There is also the Balmoral Hotel just right there.

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I have spent a lot of time in Waverley in my life. One of my most vivid childhood memories is from when I was a kid. I was diagnosed as being autistic when I was 6. It required several trips to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children (otherwise known as the Sick Kids) in Edinburgh. On one of them we were standing at the door of an intercity train when we were delayed because one of the roof tiles had smashed above us. I have memories of when my school class used to go to the outdoor education centre in Linlithgow and walking up the platform for the train, looked after by one of the older girls in the class. We also went on a magical mystery tour to Dunfermline, which I think I’ve written about here before, and came to Waverley the week before to sort the tickets.

As a day tripper, Waverley soon became even more familiar as most Saturdays, then most weeks, I darted from a (normally late) train from Dunbar across the station to a train some place else. When I started going to the football again, the spirited walks from Easter Road to Waverley in time for the train started too, this time late at night to catch the last train I could get for my connection back in Glasgow. Scotrail, naturally, put on engineering works later at night on that line last year meaning that the last train I could get back to Glasgow was not only 10 minutes earlier but went via Bathgate and Airdrie, taking longer.

The quickest, though not always the easiest, way to get from Dunbar to Edinburgh was by train. Trains were infrequent, mostly every two hours in both directions, though of course the last year or so I lived down there saw Scotrail introduce a more regular service. The last train to Dunbar on a Saturday night from the capital used to be 7pm. It is now about 10pm, I believe, though for many years, my day trips usually had to be curtailed by 7 so I could catch the last train home, an intercity train invariably full of folk heading for hen or stag dos in Newcastle. Or home from hen or stag dos in Edinburgh. Either way there were loads of drunken Geordies. Nice.

Regardless how often I’m there, arriving into Waverley gives me a great thrill every time. It’s a combination of being in a dear, familiar place, the hustle and bustle, the brightness from the glass roof and just the spirit of adventure even if my reasons for being there are prosaic and dull. The appeal continues even while I sometimes grate my teeth at the ‘Heart of Midlothian’ emblems that appear within the station. Waverley is one of very few railway stations named after a novel and to be fair they have acknowledged it well with loads of Walter Scott quotes, hence the hearts. The quotes are great, the endorsement of Ian Cathro’s mob really isnae. I think Network Rail has realised this and some of the station’s signs are now green, just to sate those of us on the side of the angels.

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Edinburgh is the city I was born in so I have a special relationship with the place, even while I call Glasgow, its great rival, home and contentedly so. Undoubtedly the best way to enter our capital is by train, so you can walk up Waverley Steps and hit Princes Street, even if you might want to be off it pretty rapidly. Any station named after a novel is fine with me, especially one where you can go pretty much anywhere in the country with not much difficulty and definitely one which shows off its city to its best effect from whatever angle.