My new world of work requires me to wear shoes. Shoes! And makeup. I need to wash my face and put on clothes before I start typing every day. Hair? That’s still a bit deranged but there’s only so much preening I can handle.
There are no more early morning strolls along the coast, boiling the kettle for that third cup of coffee, putting on the washing machine, checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, a couple of news websites and WordPress before typing my first sentence. Then stopping mid way to have another quick peek at Twitter. My walking boots, fleeces and down jackets are currently… resting. Read more
My mission this week involved driving 150 miles through some of Scotland’s most glorious scenery to interview salmon farmers on the far west coast. I’ve been deprived of snow all winter in my frost-free, east-coast cottage, removed from mountains and the spectacular raw wildness of the west. I jumped at the chance.
I saw snow alright, on the tortured hills of Glencoe, the mighty Buachaille Etive Mor guarding the entrance to the notorious narrow pass. Late afternoon sun broke through the snow clouds to create lighting effects that accentuated the drama – if that’s possible in such a place. I followed labouring lorries loaded with straw bales bound for livestock farmers on the islands. And I stopped to get close to ducks looking longingly for food.
And the work? A ride on a boat; questions about how salmon farmers handle protected predators like seals (scare them, deter them or shoot them). And finally a sea loch-side hotel and a sleep within hearing distance of the tide.
“I simply must touch it’s curly wool and give it a cuddle,” the woman cooed, pushing past me. “They’re sooooo beautiful.” Her wide-eyed husband appeared equally besotted. “Like teddy bears,” he murmured, as he joined the stampede. “Adorable.”
And that appeared to be the universal reaction to the sheep breed dubbed the “cutest in the world” when I went to record radio interviews at an agricultural show yesterday. Even the dyed-in-the-wood (no pun intended) Scottish farmer who’d imported them from Switzerland admitted that he’d fallen in love with them. And if the attention at the show was an example of the public’s reaction to his new enterprise, he’s on to a real winner. But for sale as pets, not pies.
They’re called Valais Blacknoses, they look like giant cuddly toys, they wear giant tinkling bells round their curly necks and the spectators who hung around desperate for a cuddle (with the lambs, not me) were so carried away they made fabulous interviewees.
Never work with children or animals, they say, but the latter sure works for me. And yeah, I can’t deny it, they are pretty cute.
Does anyone have experience of burying bodies? Preferably in peat? Was anything dropped in the grave that was incriminating?
I’m addressing writers, you understand, not murderers. And no, these aren’t questions I expected I’d ever have to ask but an unpredicted twist in my almost completed story means I’m having to rewrite a section and I’m struggling to find a likely item that would survive long enough to date the grisly event back in the late 1970s when the body is eventually uncovered in 2014.
I know this isn’t the time for reflecting on dastardly deeds, but perhaps in a spare moment, while you’re choosing presents, watching a nativity or humming a carol you might give some thought to my dilemma which is currently driving me to drink; mulled wine, as it happens – there has to be some seasonal cheer in an otherwise murder-riddled festive period.
The scene is a remote Scottish moor and the baddie, a mature male farmer, disposes of the evidence without considering that the blanked-wrapped body will ever be found, so he’s not too careful. Peat bogs are exceptionally good at preserving items but it doesn’t need to incriminate him, just anchor the event in the period.
Oh, you want to know if there’s a reward for the most useable information? Well, I could name one of my characters after you so that you’d be immortalized in a …ahem… bestseller.
How about it?
I’ve written the last paragraph.
It’s just the beginning and it’s not even a full first draft, but it feels like an achievement and I need to share it. Writing’s a lonely business and most of my pals suspect I’ve been loafing around and reading novels these past eight months. My “book” has become an in-joke! And that’s absolutely fine because I’m not comfortable describing myself as a writer… yet! Journalist? That’s different; I’ve spent 30 years being paid to write and broadcast.
But finishing the last chapter gives me the impetus to start editing, rewriting and checking on facts. I’ll be more confident in contacting all the professionals who’ve helped so far and I’ll speak to others. There’s still so much to do, and many words to write, but at least there’s a structure now. I can finally see the light.
I started my research in March and took chunks of time out to walk and travel but other than that, writing this story has been my “work” this year, and I’ve learned a lot. It was a mistake to start without a plot but then I didn’t know there were going to be so many words! And I hadn’t a clue how it would end – until it did.
I hope I’m not tempting fate by setting a deadline now, but I intend to have a first draft by the end of the year. And when my family come home at Christmas I hope I’ll have the courage to show them what I’ve been doing all these months.
Now there’s a scary prospect.
I’ve traded superfast Wi-Fi and a reliable phone signal for a log fire, candles and a cottage door that opens onto a Highland beach.
On my first night here I fell asleep convinced that through the bed, the floor, the foundations and the sand I could feel the vibration of the waves on the shore just a hundred yards away. On a wild day I will certainly hear them smashing against the pier.
I know the tide times now; I know when to walk so the rock pools and seaweed will be uncovered. My mind and body are becoming attuned to signals that are natural rather than electronic. No bleeps.
It’s getting dark early at night and it’s quiet; I hear nothing through the thick old walls of this fisherman’s cottage so for the first time in months I slept beyond 6.30am today. And 7.30.
At 8.30 I woke slowly to tranquility I haven’t experienced for years. Is this the return of a natural body clock that isn’t disrupted by the reflex rush to check gmail, Facebook or Whatsapp before breakfast? For the next few months there will be no wakening up to read the BBC news or regular bloggers over a cup of tea. No more crumbs of toast in the keyboard.
For two days now I’ve been writing without distractions and I’m sitting tonight down by the hearth with candles burning. No music. No radio. Just the crackle of the logs and the smell of wood.
It’s what I wanted, but going cold turkey and withdrawing to a life without instant access to knowledge, friends, research and trivia is confirming just how many waking hours I’m wasting by clicking and mindlessly browsing. Random notions to price international flights I’ll never catch have to be dismissed. But will that mean I read more or write better? I guess I’ll find out.
It’s still too early for a full hibernation so in the morning I’ll walk to the library to send emails and this update and by the time you read it I’ll have returned to Internet exile. Temporarily.
But if I no longer inhabit a virtual world do friends and readers still exist? If I can’t see you, can you still see me?
I’m just wondering.
The autumn migration is under way; the geese are back and filling the skies above me, wave after wave of dark wavering skeins, honking and hooting as they search out and settle in to their winter quarters around the Cromarty and Moray Firths
I’ve been on Nairn beach every morning and evening this week, powering along the sand as my new dogsitting customer, Harley-the-Golden-Retriever pounds through the waves; crazy-happy, beautiful dog
And I’m not alone in stopping to admire the synchronized flight.
“Save your energy for flying!” One woman called out as the sky grew dark and the decibel level intensified above our heads.
They sound excited to have arrived after their journeys from the Arctic Circle, Scandinavia, Greenland and Canada and use their vantage point to scope out the roosts and fields – where they’re not always welcome.
They pass over, still bickering and swerving, swapping places to avoid fatigue among the flock. Here it’s mainly Greylags but there are Pink-Foot, White-Fronted Geese and Barnacles – over 700,000 of them migrating to Scotland every autumn. Last year at this time I was wandering among flocks of Canada Geese on the shores of Lake Ontario, the water sparkling in the autumn sunshine. Great memories.
Whatever the species, they represent the most exciting time of year. October has always been the month of new beginnings; leaving home, starting university, beginning new jobs, embarking on big travel and adventures.
It’s the month when anything might happen.
Sparkling Lake Ontario
They’ve become an obsession.
Their remoteness has always been a draw: the feminine outlines or brutal ridges, the ruins of summer sheilings on lower slopes, the heather in autumn and the beauty of winter snow can’t fail to inspire, but this summer they’ve somehow filled all the space in my head and called me in the way the Camino de Santiago did last year.
I go to bed with a bundle of maps then pore over routes on the internet. My dreams are full of the tops I’ve climbed or the views of other hills I’ve seen from summits during the day. I check mountain forecasts and have my car permanently packed with camping gear in readiness for a rapid escape.
Heaving my body up more than 3000ft in the space of a few hours isn’t a pretty sight: there’s the red face, the sweat, endless glugging of water from hill streams, stops to catch my breath and internal debate about why the Hell I’m doing it. For pleasure? Really?
But then when the view opens up below and there are just a few feet to go to the cairn on the top the pain is forgotten.
Yesterday, after resisting temptation for months, I bought the Scottish hillwalkers Bible: The Munros. It was my consolation for being back in the city after two days when I camped near Tyndrum and climbed Beinn Dubhchraig and Beinn Oss, two lumps of hill which were shrouded in mist in the morning but cleared to spectacular sunshine just as we reached the second summit. A few days earlier I’d climbed Ben Lomond and the weekend before it was Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas.
Before they were all just names: iconic views from below or pictures on calendars and in coffee table books. Now I can stare up and remember: I’ve been there and it was so much more beautiful from above.
It might be a temporary phase, a passing passion. But “The Book” is open beside me and my socks are almost dry on the line.
If the sky is clear tomorrow…
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.
My new pal, Granville-the-photographer-who-doesn’t-like-to-walk, sat down beside me as I sheltered from the rain in the Lerwick museum coffee shop.
The Shetland Isles are littered with professional and amateur photographers from all over the world and you trip over them in graveyards, on hillsides, behind cliffs and down by the shore snapping otters and seals.
I first met Granville lurking round a standing stone on Unst. Next it was on the Yell ferry crossing. And then he turned up again today. We’re clearly old friends now so I suppose he felt he could be blunt.
Anyway, we’d been sitting talking about places we want to visit and he mentioned Venice. I said it was high on my list too but because it was such a romantic destination I was putting off and waiting to go with someone special.
He raised an old grey eyebrow. “Well, if you’ve still to find him I wouldn’t leave it too long,” he mused.
Just say it as it is, why don’t you, Granville of the great name.