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Posts from the ‘Family’ Category

Surviving the season with a blast from the past

Thermals… tick. Down jacket… tick. Gloves, scarf, hat… tick.  Boots, double socks…

The damp and darkness of a Scottish winter have driven me indoors to pore over my 2013 diary for a fiery blast of southern sunshine. This time last year I was in the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia where the temperature was 46 degrees; unbreathable and unsleepable and the most extreme heat I’ve ever encountered.

On Hogmanay 2012 I’d caught the Prospector train from Perth for a seven hour journey east across barren land, the train track accompanied all the way by the essential water pipe from the coast that the sceptics said could never be built. And on New Year’s Day 2013 I joined my brother in the truck he drives for hundreds of miles every week, over ungraded red roads, all the way out to the remote gold mines.

We explored deserted settlements and abandoned mines where there’s nothing but a few sun-faded signs to hint at the P1030053gamble that went into the building of pioneering prospector towns like Kanowna, just an hour’s drive from Kalgoorlie.  I ventured out of the cab for a few minutes at a time to poke around the weather-beaten posts that marked ancient claims and to see how the props of solitary digs and the dreams of desperate men had crumbled to dust.

The unrealised expectations that had been invested in these harsh places just 100 years ago made me wistful. The prospect of riches had attracted an optimistic community of people who build homes and hotels, formed social clubs and a football team, a fire service and a Salvation Army. Children went to school here. Yet despite enduring the discomfort and sacrifices the dream ultimately failed to deliver. And now the inhospitable land that was once home to a town full of miners and their families has been returned to nature with only a few dents in the ground to show for all the expectation and effort.

P1020910By contrast, just a few miles away, the Kalgoorlie Super Pit still continues to yield gold, ever since  three Irishman stumbled across a huge nugget in 1893. Around 50 million ounces of gold have been mined here and the dumper trucks which look like worker ants in the huge scale of the pit still appear to work 24 hours a day.

Kalgoorlie-Boulder was once one of the biggest cities in Australia and home to the “richest mile on earth”. And some of the characters you meet on its streets even now look every bit as desperate and determined as the 19th century photographs of prospectors on display in the town’s museum.

There were a few of these men in the Broad Arrow Tavern too, an outback pub where we retreated indoors in the relative cool and drank pint after pint of iced water and I, the unacclimatised Scot, tried to stabilise my soaring body temperature.

P1030022 Maybe that cool dark Scottish rain pelting the window tonight isn’t such a problem after all.  I’ll just throw another log on the fire.

Home is … chocolate cake in the tin

It’s been two years since I baked a chocolate cake. And two years since my younger son left to travel around New Zealand.

But I’ve just finished decorating the cake I baked this morning because … he’s on his way back! Both my boys are coming home today – and what is home without a chocolate cake in the tin?

My mother baked every day when we were growing up. Like many Scottish families at the time we ate “High Tea” rather than dinner. Lunch was the main meal of the day and when we ate at 5.30pm, straight after the afternoon milking,  it was a savoury dish followed by a cup of tea and a selection of Mum’s scones, pancakes, “angel” cakes with sponge wings, sultana cake, and sometimes shortbread or Victoria sponge.

Occasionally there would be rich Sacher Torte or her pièce de resistance, an apricot tray bake which was in such demand at local  charity “Bring and Buy” sales, a black market formed amongst the local clientele and  it was auctioned and hidden before it ever reached the sale table! I have her (classified) shortbread and pastry recipes but I’ll never match her skill or lightness of touch.

I look back now and wonder a) how none of us became obese and b) how she found the time to bake on top of managing a large family and helping run a farm. The answer to a) is probably that we all did physical work on the farm and portions were small by today’s standards. And as for b),  I realise now that, in part at least, baking was her creative outlet. Mum never ate the cakes or sweet things herself and we took the home baked food for granted;  anything “shop bought” was regarded as inferior. Her delicious food was always devoured. But I wish we’d praised her more.

I’m living in a rented house at the moment with all my favourite dishes and utensils packed away in storage, so I’ve had to borrow the tins and the beaters today, and make do with strange bowls and tools. That’s my excuse for the cake not looking perfect.

But really, I doubt the boys will notice.

Following autumn paths

The river paths are a bit neglected these days; wooden bridges hang by a thread, fallen trees need to be scaled and the bracken and heather have started to encroach. But I’m drawn to that sense of decay, the knowledge that they’re slowly being reclaimed by nature.

There are no barriers, no signs, no people; just generations of history and memories.

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“Break a leg!” they said. And he did.

Three weeks ago it wasn’t looking good.

My artist son was in hospital in Germany, his leg badly broken and out of action for at least three months.

It was painful and inconvenient but his most pressing problem was that the theatrical installation that had been commissioned for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had still to be built.

Professionally it was unmissable. But time was short and the welding, lifting, cable laying, ladder climbing, transporting and other heavy-duty work would be impossible for him.

P1000858Word got around. His friends pulled out the stops,  his girlfriend was a trouper and  Cryptic, the theatre company, paid for an assistant to work under his direction.

I flew back from Canada to provide the wheels and food and was allocated space for my sleeping bag in a Bohemian cupboard under the stairs!

The local supermarket became familiar, I negotiated my way round the industrial estates of Glasgow to find electrical warehouses, filled my car with the most fragile equipment, loaded vans, blacked out windows, crawled around moving cables (first time I’ve had “housemaid’s knee”)  and – with an hour to go before the preview opened – I even mopped the theatre floor.

Others contributed so much more. But Robbie’s the star; a talented artist who’s uncompromising about his work.

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The show  combines music, light, mechanical choreography with “found objects” and the lightening impact of a caged Tesla coil  to create the spectacular assault on the senses. It is dark and sinister, it makes you fear for the future but then, unexpectedly, it can make you laugh out loud. Some of the beats stay in your head for hours. It comes with no interpretation or explanation. It provokes.

His nocturnal lifestyle proved challenging (and the cupboard had its limitations) and apparently I did a bit too much “mothering” but it has been a privilege to help and be part of the team over the past three weeks . The memories will last a long time – not least a last exhausted evening we spent sipping curative Lagavoulins in an Edinburgh bar. His pals are great, we’ve had endless stops for beers and laughs, the preview night was emotional,  and the opening night on Friday …. a full house.

He did it. And now he needs to keep on hobbling in and doing it every day until the 25th of August.  Robbie Thomson. Ecstatic Arc. Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Summerhall Arts Centre. He broke a leg.  (And just look at that shiny floor!)

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Missing my global family

It was 7am at Glasgow Airport.  From far back in the queue I watched my son and his fellow creatives pass through security en route to Berlin to produce work for the theatre tent at Fusion festival near Hamberg.

He appeared to be in deep discussion with an inspector about a suitcase of LED lights and other electrical equipment he wanted to carry on board. Finally the case was repacked and he was waved through, free to travel a few hours east.

His brother, meanwhile,  is thousands of miles south, in New Zealand where he’s writing music, earning a living and snowboarding.

And I boarded a flight west across the Atlantic to Canada where I’m spending a few weeks writing some more chapters of my story.

So for the moment we’re a family on different continents, living in parallel time zones, engrossed in our own creative worlds.

And it’ll be another six months or so before we’re reunited.

I can’t wait.

Memories in a bottle

Denmark was smørrebrød, bikes, bacon-wrapped dates, Carlsberg, chocolate-covered liquorice, green fields, grand architecture. And great people.

Our camino memories came flooding back; the laughter, pain, churches, pilgrims, bedbugs and blisters  – enhanced, perhaps, by the Spanish vino tinto on the table and a dram of Benromach, the malt from my “home” distillery in Moray.

No matter where in the world you are, everyone is prepared to try whisky at least once and this one evokes memories.

I grew up near Speyside and when I was little I’d sit on my father’s knee as he drove a tractor and trailer the five miles from our farm to Benromach distillery to collect draff, the distillery by-product that’s used for cattle feed. And as we waited for the trailer to be loaded a half glass of clear liquid would be poured out by the distillery manager for Dad.

Back in those days a bottle would last a year in our house  but Dad drank this full-strength  alcohol neat every time. And then back on the tractor and on his knee, driving at 20 mph up the road to home, he would  be so happy!  It took another ten years before I equated that merriment with the liquid that looked like water.

Benromach closed down for a few decades but has re-entered the market with whisky that’s distinctive amongst the other  Speyside malts. That’s why I always take it as a present on international adventures.

Well no,  if I’m honest, it’s all about the memories; it’s link to the best of times in a blissful childhood.

Celebrating in Santiago

P1000625We sat down to tapas and wine at a sunny street café, just whiling away a couple of hours, watching the Santiago world saunter by. What a luxury!

Robbie and I ate calamari, gambas in garlic, olives and pimientos de patron, washed down with vino blanco and cervesa then wandered slowly along to the Pilgrim Office to join the queue for our Compostellas. It stretched all the way up the stairs and there, just arrived, were some of the best pals we had walked with over the previous weeks! We had a great reunion and as they went in search of beds we duly visited the relics of St James and wandered the streets of this hard-to-navigate old city.

P1000633We all gathered in the evening; Nathan and Carmen, Irish John, Donald, Suzanne, Brian, Elaine, Patricia and so many others at a huge happy table. A few us went on for a drink in a late bar then, under a full moon in the cathedral square, we gathered for photos beside the central shell embedded in the stone cobbles which marked the end of the Camino.

Robbie caught a flight early in the morning then I went back to the Cathedral while it was still almost empty, such a contrast to the day before. I sat quietly in a pew near the front, just reading, resting and absorbing the atmosphere for more than two hours, barely noticing the gathering crowds or that I was gradually being squeezed into a corner of the seat.

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The rest of the day was spent meeting up with pals in the streets, sitting down to share wine and tapas and then drinking mojitos till late with friends including Andreas, Lisette and Bibi.

John and Patricia were on the same flight as me to Stanstead where we hugged and said goodbye.

And it was only then that I realised my Camino was finally over.

I had my pilgrim passport full of stamps, a slimmer, stronger body, a journal and brain stuffed full of memories, experiences, email addresses and phone numbers.

Besides, I wasn’t really travelling alone: as my itchy back testified, I still had the company of the bed bugs.

A solitary voice and tears at the Pilgrim Mass

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Without breaking our stride we walked straight up the steps, out of the sunshine and into the Cathedral.

It was noisy and busy which made it difficult to concentrate on the enormity of the moment. I had been 31 days on the road, walking towards this place.

I unhooked my pack, sank into a pew, undid my boots and waited…

For what, I wasn’t sure. I was grateful to be here of course; for the strength and fitness that made it possible to walk 500 miles; for the friends made along the way; for the story and tradition of the road we had walked and for the special gift of Robbie’s company over the last week.

We wanted to share the experience with his brother so we called him in New Zealand.  Robbie went to find water and still I sat there, gazing at the extravagant gold altarpiece built to glorify St James. Waiting.

It was only 10.45am but already people were filling the 1000 or so seats. Friends and familiar faces from along the way arrived, wandering dazed down the aisles, and we greeted one another and hugged. It was emotional. Visitors, pilgrims, nuns and locals packed into every space and still more arrived and crammed in around the walls. The chatter and sense of expectation grew louder. Then we were hushed.

And the nun sang.

IMG_0766The pure sound of a solitary voice echoed round the ancient walls. We listened, captivated,  then tried to copy her as she taught us to sing alleluia to the beautiful cadences.  The magnificent organ heralded the arrival of the priests. And the mass began.

At the end the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro was lowered to the fanfare of the organ then the tiraboleiros – the red coated attendants – took up their positions on the ropes and began to pull downwards. The choir sang. I hadn’t dared hope we would arrive on a day when the Botafumeiro was swung. Scores of people rushed up the aisle to watch and photograph it as it picked up speed and rocketed over our heads, drifting streams of smoke as it flew.

P1000638And then it was over. We laced up our boots and loaded on our packs.

We still had to find beds for the night.