Monday, 26 November 2012

On the dangers of flyting the Devil

Long ago, so the story goes, the Devil was making his way through the glens of Fife carrying a load of rocks. There he came upon Maggie, leader of a coven of local witches who, for reasons unexplained, began flyting him, that is scolding him in rhyme. What was she thinking! True to type the Devil didn't take kindly to the insult, dropped his load and set about chasing Maggie. He caught up with her on Bishop Hill and, with a thunderbolt, devilishly turned her to stone, where she stands to this day.

Carlin Maggie: a reminder
not to flyte with the Devil
It is only one variant of the story and it is hardly unusual. From the lost lands of Lyonesse off the Cornish coast to the clashing giants of Hermaness on Unst our islands abound in accounts of the supernatural. In a neatly self-proving circle, distinctive natural landforms provide both prompt for and evidence of the tales. Carlin Maggie stands bruntly on her crags overlooking Loch Leven testifying to the veracity of the Devil's passing. By return, his intolerance of her taunting gave convincing explanation for a local landmark to generations of our forebears who knew nothing of geology and weathering.

But the tale of Carlin Maggie has other resonances, older and deeper than the moralistic scold-meets-Satan commonplace of the Middle Ages. There are carlin stones to be found in many parts of Scotland, from Orkney to the Galloway Forest, wherever Scots was spoken in place of Gaelic. Carlin is usually translated as witch or hag these days, derived from the same root as the English churl, but it also has affinity to the Cailleach of Gaelic folklore. Cailleach meant originally 'the veiled or hooded one' and it too features frequently in the placenames of the Highlands.

One way to understand the Cailleach is as a feminine embodiment of winter, an old woman of the moors who, in countless Highland folktales, imprisons the goddess of summer, her sometimes daughter, sometimes alter-ego, in a perpetual seasonal tug of war. Thus the life-giving and destroying forces of Nature are portrayed as essentially female, like the swelling mounds and clefts of the mountains themselves. The Cailleach is, therefore, quite literally as old as the hills.

Admittedly Carlin Maggie is more phallic than feminine; forty feet of impudent dolerite looking for all the world like a refugee from Easter Island. But it is arguably no accident that she stands guard over the Paps of West and East Lomond Hills, just as the similarly breast-like Paps of Glencoe and Jura each have their Cailleach. So Maggie has her roots in a very deep past indeed; one where the hills gave suck and long before the Devil of the Christian tradition went walkabout. Perhaps Maggie's flyting of him had less to do with his stealing her rocks and is more her protest at the imposition of a new religion.

A few decades ago Maggie lost her head. A violent storm lashed the scarp of Bishop Hill one night and by morning her topmost stone had toppled. So she's not as permanent as all that. One day she'll go the way of her neighbouring columns, for gravity is not to be denied. But for now she stands as a pagan monolith while our awe of the Devil has waned somewhat. Victim or survivor depending on your viewpoint, she is well worth the climb.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The importance of being startled

'Surprise is everything with me. When I go to bed at night I give myself instructions to startle myself when I wake in the morning.'

Ray Bradbury from the Afterword to Farewell Summer

Last month saw the death, at the age of 91, of one of the twentieth century's truly original storytellers. Ray Bradbury has had a reserved seat in the theatre of my imagination ever since it began to put on productions of its own. I don't think it is overstating it to say that my childhood stumbling upon his stories helped to make me what I am. The ways in which I see the world, find my paths within it and express what I have to say, were all influenced by the ways the characters he invents do the same.

Reading or, better still, being read Ray Bradbury as a youngster was always a wide-eyed, white-knuckle ride. First get their attention! is golden rule number one of the storyteller's art and Bradbury, with his signature cocktail of macabre fantasy sci-fi thriller - bookshops should have a section for unclassifiable - has a knack for opening lines that can silence a class of hissing schoolchildren in an instant. 'The seller of lightning-rods arrived just ahead of the storm' he tells us at outset of Something Wicked This Way Comes and at once we crave to know more, just as the boys in the story can't stay away from the malevolent traveling funfair that arrives in the storm's wake, whatever their hearts may tell them.

'It was a pleasure to burn.' The six word opening sentence of Fahrenheit 451 has surely become one of the most celebrated in science fiction literature. It is as detached and matter-of-fact as the daily routine of the novel's firemen who, in a nightmarish subversion of today's heroic firefighters, start fires to destroy books rather than extinguish to save them. Fire is bright, fire is clean, burn everything! But what would happen if one of these men stopped to read? Bradbury asks. Montag the fireman does just that and his world is changed forever by the power of the printed word.

I remember how it all began. A young bearded English teacher opened a book and began to read to us. He was a skilful narrator and we liked his choices. Through him we had met the moomins and later the hobbits; wholesome folk who warded off the evils of the world with their resourcefulness and practical democracy. As well as hearing about them, we drew them and modelled them in play-doh, dressed up as them and invented our own dramas in which they put in guest appearances, behaving in heroic ways that I like to think would have delighted Jansson and Tolkien. As we grew older this teacher's introductions grew darker to match our appetite: enter Grendel and his mother; enter the morlocks of HG Wells' far off future; enter the triffids bent on doing us no good. With him we tramped the wastelands of Mordor and the cobwebbed corridors of Gormenghast Castle.

But on this day he began thus: 'Quite suddenly there was no more road.'  Whatever classroom diversions we were up to stopped at once. This, girls and boys, is Ray Bradbury. He already had us by the lapels of our blazers. The tale was called The Scythe from a compilation of short stories deliciously entitled The October Country. (October is 'a rare month for boys' Bradbury tells us with a twist of Hallowe'en in the prologue of Something Wicked.) The Scythe is a neat take on the grim reaper. Set somewhere in Kansas corn country, a farmer is condemned each day to cut the inexorable tide of corn in the knowledge that each ear is a human life, his own kin among them. The language is gorgeous and unexpected; the blade of the scythe 'sings crimson-wet'. I remember rolling those words around my tongue for weeks afterwards, crimson-wet, oh yes!

Hearing The Scythe was an awakening for me, a dawning that language could be relished for its own sake, for the sounds it uttered and the shapes it took on the page. It is poetry really; 'memorable speech' as WH Auden defined it; a clutch of perfectly chosen words that conjour images with an exactness and economy that whole paragraphs of dull adjectives fail to do. In Something Wicked the boys, who run everywhere, never walk, are described as 'scissors and elbows' and in an instant Bradbury has them in all their wiry, frogs-and-snails, cusp-of-puberty energy. In Fahrenheit the torched books die 'flapping pigeon-winged on the porch' while we watch horrified and impotent.

Nowhere in Bradbury's copious legacy - he wrote over 500 stories - is his joy in language better displayed than Dandelion Wine. It was his first full-length novel and, I think, the best he did. Hardly science fiction at all (libraries have to shelve him somewhere I suppose), Dandelion Wine is one of the most perfect portraits of growing up I have ever read, right up there with Huckleberry Finn and some of the best bits of Stephen King. I first read the story of twelve-year old Douglas Spaulding who, one summer, learns that he is really alive, when I was not much older myself. I still have the copy, spine broken, pages held together with tape. I can't bear to part with it although it is far too delicate to read. Since opening dysnomia... last year a quotation from Dandelion Wine has graced the margin. It could be a page lifted from my teenage diary.

Late in life Bradbury published a slim sequel, Farewell Summer, although he had begun it more than fifty years earlier. Douglas Spaulding is still a boy, thirteen now, receiving instruction about life through a series of confrontations with the elderly residents of his Illinois home town. In the novel's afterword, entitled The Importance of Being Startled, Bradbury explains how many of the greatest friendships of his life had been with people in their eighties and nineties. 'I welcomed the chance to ask them questions' he says, 'then to sit, very quietly, saying nothing and learning from their responses.' I remember as a child being simultaneously intrigued and frightened by the dimly lit  autumnal world inhabited by the very old, a true October country.

Ray Bradbury lived to reach his own nineties. I have sat quietly but intently listening to him all my life, will keep on doing so now he is no longer among us. The scythe in his tale of the same name bears on its blade an inscription. 'Who wields me - wields the world!' it says. It could equally be a motto for the story and the storyteller themselves. For what is our world made of, if not stories?

Ray Bradbury
22 Aug 1920 - 5 June 2012

Monday, 12 March 2012

Mixing metaphors

How strange for the world to have turned
and be facing the other way again.
Why do we sleep through these great rotations?
The night sky sometimes likes a good conversation,
and gives me plenty of time to speak before thinking.

from Syzygy by Rachael Boast

Have I slept through the great rotation? It does not feel that way to me. For I have been busy and attentive, watchful below the surface. During winter months the soil is not half so dead as we might believe. It may not yield to boot or hoof but dig an inch below the iron clods and life is teeming in miniature. Likewise under insulating pond ice and in the clenched buds of the hedgerow. Relative warmth lingers. It is a veneer of sleep, skin deep.

Not so much a hibernation then as biding time, trusting to be patient and not forcing things. Words do not respond well to being forced, at least mine don't. There are no blowsy hothouse flowers in my lexicon. Faced with the skinning winds of winter my words are rockery alpines, hunkered down in tight whorls of botanical geometry. I have heard tales in bad years of small songbirds setting aside their territorial rivalries and bundling together to stave off the cold, as Antarctic penguins do. There is a slowing, yes, but no chance of sleep. To sleep is surely to die.

Sometimes words are obedient and come when I whistle. Other times not. Other times they are away somewhere in the long grass, lying low, waiting for their moment to spring a surprise. When the game is up they come lolloping home, all ears and muddy paws and playful slobber. Then they can make me laugh and cross in equal measure. And every once in a while the words come in gluts; big windy blocks of verbs and tenses and clauses that set the flags snapping and the hallyards rattling. There is nothing to be done but let out all the reefs and surf home on a long reach. Those are the rare days.

Interviewed recently on the publication of her first collection of poems, Sidereal, Rachael Boast quotes from Joseph Brodsky: 'Being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience, it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation.'  Boast rails against the verbosity, the profligacy with words with which our spin-driven, vox-pop world is raddled. Poetry offers an antidote, a stripping back.  'When poems seem clean and neat, that's because there's been enough preparation' she says.

Winter is a time of preparing. There is nothing wasteful about the season of economy. So when the words don't come it is not a cause for worry. I hold off whistling for a while, until the grass is grown long enough to hide in. I make fast and wait for the first riffles of breeze to lift the burgee, for the soil to soften and the wrens and robins to shake snow from their feathers and remember to sing their old quarrels. And then when the buds swell and the words come, I hope they will be clean and neat.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Halcyon days are here again

'The Gods their shapes to winter-birds translate,
But both obnoxious to their former fate.
Their conjugal affection still is ty'd,
And still the mournful race is multiply'd:
They bill, they tread; Alcyone compress'd,
Sev'n days sits brooding on her floating nest:
A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,
Calms ev'ry storm, and hushes ev'ry wind;
Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,
And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.'

from the Metamorphoses of Ovid translated by John Dryden et al

The storms of the past few weeks have blown themselves out for now, and in their place is the pellucid stillness of the approaching shortest day. The Halcyon Days are here, the name given to the weeks either side of the winter solstice when the wind dies and the sea flattens.

The Greeks of antiquity told a tale of a bird of light that made a floating nest on the sea each midwinter. The tale survives in Ovid's great poem Metamorphoses. He relates how, out of grief for her drowned husband, Alcyone threw herself into the sea but was lifted up and turned into a bird by the gods. Husband and wife, both now birds, are reunited and each winter build a nest on the sea to lay a clutch of eggs. It is fortunate that Alcyone's father, Aeolus, is the keeper of the winds and they are held in check for the seven days it takes for the eggs to hatch.

The bird of light is most usually identified as a kingfisher and this is recalled in its generic name Alcedo, a latinised form of the Greek Halcyon. It is perhaps a strange coincidence that midwinter is the time of year when kingfishers are most likely to be seen at our coasts, when the inland rivers where they usually fish may be frozen. And whatever the truth of Ovid's tale, it is certainly the case that the solstices, the pivots of our solar year, are more often than not periods of welcome tranquility in our generally unstable weather.

Halcyon Days: winter calm on the Dundee waterfront

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Facing up to cyclone Friedhelm

Cyclone Friedhelm. Image from Wiki Commons
There have been warnings for days. Meteorologists have been tracking an unusually active kink in the polar front over the north Atlantic. Such extratropical cyclones, to give them their technical name, are commonplace. They are the dominant weather feature of our islands, bringing moisture laden air, brisk westerly winds and alternating cold and warm fronts in seemingly relentless strings. They queue up over the ocean, one behind another, waiting to dump their cargo of rain on our already sodden ground. But Cyclone Friedhelm is out of the ordinary, a once-in-a-decade storm.

Watching its progress on an animated meteorological chart is a sinister experience. It appears to snag on the southern tip of Greenland before breaking loose, heading south of Iceland and on a collision course for Scotland. All the while the depression is deepening. Isobars crowd thickly in ever decreasing circles, a black hole, a malevolent eye. I tap the barometer glass for the third or fourth time this morning and the needle jolts abruptly. Atmospheric pressure has dropped by more than twenty millibars in a matter of hours. In the fridge a bottle of sparkling water looks fit to burst.
Suck. Anish Kapoor's bottomless vortex.
at Jupiter Artland

Across the country schools and offices are closing as Scotland braces itself. A steep pressure gradient means wind, great howlings of wind that rampage around this profound puncture in the atmosphere. I liken it to one of those clever donation boxes you sometimes see in museums. Roll your pennies down the shute and watch them spiral faster and faster into the vortex before being gobbled up. And then I remember Suck, a disturbing piece of landscape art by Anish Kapoor. Suck is a great funnel in the ground, but sealed behind a cage so its bottom cannot be seen, only imagined. It may go on to the centre of the Earth, or forever.

On the east coast the worst will not arrive until dusk but already hailstones drill against the windows. Outside on the street the wind slides traffic cones like striped playing pieces on a giant game board. But Friedhelm is only limbering up. By lunchtime the news is reporting a gust of 101mph on the Tay Bridge adding, almost unnecessarily, that it has been closed to all traffic. The Aonach Mor ski centre boasts 130, but the prize goes to the Cairngorm Plateau clocking in at a frightening 165mph, not quite a record but close. Colloquially the Scots are calling it Hurricane Bawbag which, if you speak any Scots, you will know is hardly a term of endearment.

I cannot get to work, there are no trains. But I venture out and the assault is instant. Looking up the clouds are moving so fast it seems as if the triple steeples of St Mary's Cathedral are tumbling. The streets are strewn with cardboard and dead umbrellas. And then a new experience for me. For the first time in my life I am quite literally swept off my feet. Turning the corner I am taken from behind by a sudden squall and find myself dumped without dignity on the wet pavement. Unhurt, I can only laugh along with witnesses at the absurdity of it and think myself fortunate not to be on Aonach Mor or the Cairngorms.

Friedhelm, or Bawbag, rages well into the evening, roaring through the bare trees and punishing pedestrians with volleys of hail. By 10pm the worst is past and I pick my way home through a debris of roof slates and snapped branches. Mercifully it seems nobody has been seriously hurt, although there have been some lucky escapes from burst rivers farther south and there is temporary misery for those left without power. Next day the story is told in sequences of dramatic pictures on internet news sites: towering waves, wrecked wind turbines and the inevitable felled trees. Cyclone Friedhelm will be a storm talked about for a long while in Scotland, at least until the next one.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Ghosts of gone birds

I was fortunate while in London to catch the very end of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition at Rochelle School, Shoreditch. The visual exhibition is the focal point of a programme of multimedia events which aims, in the words of the project's creator Ceri Levy, to 'raise a creative army for conservation.' Ghosts has attracted an impressive array of artists, famous and less so, and asked each of them to 'breathe life' into an extinct bird or birds of their choice. The results are exciting in their variety and ingenuity, testament to the limitless power of birds to fan our creative flames.

Time was when taking photographs in galleries and exhibitions was a capital offence. Not so these days and Ghosts positively encourages the publicity of amateur photographers uploading their own images to social networking sites. So I have no qualms about reproducing my photographs of prints by Ralph Steadman, one of the exhibition's most prolific contributors. Steadman's birds have all the caricaturist's hallmarks; scratchy lines and ink blots, grotesque humour and precarious vulnerability. Other than Leonard Baskin, I cannot think of an artist who captures the 'essence' of a bird more intuitively in his work. It is not surprising that both Steadman and Baskin collaborated with Ted Hughes, for whose 'red in tooth and claw' nature poems their art is the perfect complement.

Steadman draws birds that are both real and imagined. Alongside the egrets and grebes and parrots are made-up birds with wicked names like the Nasty Tern and the Needless Smut. There is perhaps a nod in the direction of medieval bestiaries here, those lavishly illustrated menageries of fantastical creatures compiled in the silence of monastery scriptoria; a touch too of Jorge Luis Borges' erudite but playful Book of Imaginary Beings. It may just be me, but I even sense hints of Dr Seuss, whose One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish was a staple reading aid of my childhood, populated with lovable and laughable pets with conveniently rhyming names.

Behind his sly humour Steadman has another purpose, however. For every extinct bird that history has recorded there are dozens of others that will have passed into oblivion without our knowledge, unnamed, undocumented and therefore unlamented. As another contributing artist, David Taborn, explains: 'I started to ponder over the 'unsung' birds whose state of extinction left no evidence, and for whom a memorial to the 'unknown bird' would be appropriate.'  Steadman has taken the unknown bird and given it form and name. Who's to say that his Gob Swallows and Once Bittern are any less plausible than the giant moas of New Zealand? Even Dr Seuss' creations are hardly more comical looking than the dodo.

Whatever his motives, Ralph Steadman has been truly kindled by the Ghosts project. Initially commissioned to contribute a single work, his prints keep coming and he has quipped that extinct birds 'have more character than today's politicians.'

The show at Rochelle School has finished now but Ghosts goes on building its creative army. You can buy prints and follow developments on the project's website

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The end of a day

Across the dunes and salt margins of Aberlady Bay darkness advances swiftly. There are no roses or carnations in the sunset, only chrysanthemums, russet and old gold like the drapes of a stately bedroom. A constant wind has blown all day. It comes from the west but carries the crystalline bite of winter. It whips the expanse of grey grasses into waves that mimic the sea. The tide is on the full and the sea is foaming, booming. Gulls lift from the rocks and are hurled away instantly. 

Inland the dry wood of buckthorn bushes rattles and creaks. It looks dead but the stems are heavy with orange berries that glow unnaturally bright in the failing light. As I pass I send up flocks of feeding winter thrushes, clacking fieldfares that the wind quickly scatters. Higher still and there are geese; hundreds of birds in undisciplined squadrons that have risen as one from nearby fields. There are no syllables in human speech that accurately express their calling. Perhaps they sing of the Sagas of the far north.

The moon is barely two days old. It is the closing bracket of a parenthesis written in stars as yet unseen across the heavens. Occasionally the wind brings a shrill, panicky piping of oystercatchers and the liquid notes of a solitary curlew. Around here they are still called by their old name by some folk; whaups. It captures their plaintive fluting exactly. Our predecessors knew a thing or two about birds. Back at the car my face glows from the flaying wind and there is salt on my lips.

I offer these pictures with love to my dearest friend J. Yesterday her mother died after a long and, at times, bloody-minded battle with illness. J has flown over the sea to be with her. The end of a day is not the end of all days.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The 'wanton Lee'

'Wiv a ladder an' some glasses
You could see to 'Ackney Marshes

If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between.'

chorus from The Cockney's Garden words by Edgar Bateman

On a day like this it is easy to understand why the watercourses of our cities hold such timeless appeal. It is a Sunday. London has woken to fog but a weak November sun keeps promising to find an opening. I am on the Hackney Cut of the river Lea in the east of the city. The narrow boats are mostly shuttered tight but steam from their flues betrays the occupants, no doubt cooking up a hearty weekend breakfast. There are plenty of cheery 'good mornings' from runners and cyclists, dog walkers and even the occasional canoeist. The water itself is glass smooth, ruffled only by paddling coots and swans. This is the other side of London, London slow, a respite from the relentless onslaught that is England's capital.

The Lea (or Lee) is one of the few London tributaries of the Thames not to have been buried underground and built over. For once city submits to river and not vice versa. Historically for much of its 40 miles it formed the boundary between the counties of Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire and even today its marshy hinterland, with surprisingly few bridges, interrupts the London sprawl creating a distinct rift between Tottenham and Walthamstow, Hackney and Leyton. But its wandering course, from a vague source somewhere near Luton to its union with the Thames at Canning Town, has been a focus for human meddling almost from the time of the first settlers. Ambiguity over the spelling of the river's name, compounded by successive Acts of Parliament, is only one of many knotty controversies to entangle this short stretch of water. But however spelled (and Anglo Saxons would have shrugged at our fussing over it) we can note that both Luton and Leyton derive their names from it.

The Hackney Cut, begun in 1770, straightens a two-mile kink in the natural curve of the river, taking excess water and completing the medieval drainage of Hackney Marsh. It is only one of many projects down the centuries which have sought to impose human 'improvement' on the river, to tame what Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene described as 'the wanton Lee, that oft does loose his way.'  Stories go that King Alfred drained the river's lower reaches in 895AD to cut off supplies to Danish invaders encamped upstream. Whatever he did, the Lea remained unnavigable for centuries afterwards. Since then it has been diverted and re-diverted many times to accommodate mills, filter beds, reservoirs and all manner of industry. And the work goes on, as recently a section of the river has been canalised to promote a greener means of transporting heavy construction materials to and from Olympic Park in readiness for London 2012.

If I lived in London I would, by now, have walked the Lea from end to end as Diamond Geezer has done and documented on his fascinating blog. I am grateful to my friends, justifiably proud Eastenders, for taking the time to show me the exciting places on their doorstep. Among the scrub land there is natural and industrial heritage aplenty. Signposts beckon to nature reserves and historic landmarks in all directions but on this occasion there is time only for a short walk south to Hackney Wick where the 'natural' river returns from its meanderings to rejoin the artificial channel. Through the fog the new Olympic Stadium unveils slowly, pristine and ghostly pale behind its high security perimeter fence. There is no seeing to 'Ackney Marshes wiv or wivout glasses but the skeins of mist drifting vapourous over the Cut make me regret not carrying a better camera than that on my mobile phone. With perfect timing the sunlight fingers open a chink, the water is pinpointed with diamonds and the scene takes on an eerie monochrome effect.

On such a day it is easy to forget the Lea's notoriety for pollution (hydrogen peroxide is frequently added to re-oxygenate the water after sewage outspills); it is easy to set aside the blight of social alienation on surrounding housing estates (debate and finger-pointing goes on in the wake of this summer's riots in Hackney); it is easy, too, to ignore deeply divided public opinion about the whole Olympic project. On such a day as this the Lea is restored to simply being a river, a ribbon of water made beautiful not by human effort but by the alchemy of the elements.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Perthshire's autumn blaze

It would be remiss of me to allow autumn to pass without getting all lyrical about the colours. But after the wordiness and (some have commented) gloominess of my previous post it may be better to let my photographs do the talking this time around. At this season I can think of nowhere better in Scotland to enjoy the spectacle of natural fireworks than Perthshire. The highlands arrive abruptly on crossing the boundary fault a few miles north of Perth and all of a sudden fertile rolling dairy pastures are left behind and ahead lie the thickly wooded glens and inclines for which the county is justly renowned.

Perthshire boasts some superlative specimen and heritage trees including strong contenders for the tallest, oldest and stoutest in the land. Most famous among them is the wizened and hollowed old sessile oak that grows at Birnam. A pity it is not nearly ancient enough to have been witness to Macbeth's nemesis but it is a relic of the oak forest that Shakespeare set marching upon Dunsinane, thus fulfilling his witches' divination. In more recent times the Birnam Oak has been dwarfed by a monstrous neighbouring sycamore, a mere stripling at 300 years old.

On the opposite bank of the river Tay from Birnam, Dunkeld is one of those places where all the ingredients for Pre-Raphaelite picture postcard perfection have conspired to come together. No wonder that John Everett Millais was drawn time and again to visit, painting landscapes like Chilly October that are typically autumnal in tone. The town is laid siege by trees on all sides; trees that serve as lofty roosts for ospreys in the summer and that smoulder with golds and ochres and snag the lingering mists in autumn. A meeting place of rivers and pocked with small lochans, Dunkeld is a natural amphitheatre in which the trees somehow muffle the droning traffic of the A9 while accentuating the mewing buzzards that wheel high overhead.

There, I am already breaking my pledge not to be wordy! I'll shut up now and let the pictures speak for themselves.

Picture perfect Dunkeld

Monday, 7 November 2011

Safety in numbers

'This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.'

from The Hollow Men  TS Eliot

By one of those curious juxtapositions that help to make life interesting I found myself on the train the other day reading two stories each of which provided an unwitting commentary, of a sort, on the other.

The first was topical: the free newspaper carried a photograph of a newborn child under the headline 'seven billionth baby' and an article about the onward march of the human population. Interestingly the paper chose to picture an infant who looked suspiciously pink and European and probably, therefore, not a good candidate for the actual seven billionth entrant to the human race. Nevertheless the article made alarming and apocalyptic reading; the jaw-dropping rate at which our species is proliferating and the resultant strain upon the planet's natural resources and our tolerance of each other.

The second story was historical: I read about the life and, more poignantly, death of Martha. By the time she died in Cincinnati on 1 September 1914 Martha had become something of a tragic international celebrity. She was certainly one of a kind. You see Martha was a pigeon, a passenger pigeon. Her death in a zoo cage brought to a close the drawn-out inevitability of the extinction of her species. The world had watched powerless to prevent it, realising too late that captive breeding programmes were doomed to failure.

Species become extinct all the time but the loss of the passenger pigeon, like that of the dodo and the great auk, has become emblematic. They are icons of failure; the collateral damage of human excess. The passenger pigeon perches on our shoulder like a conscience, its decline inextricably bound up with the ascendancy of the modern United States. There are enough eye witness accounts to be able to say with reliability that it was once one of the most numerous birds on the planet. Flocks estimated at several billion birds blacked out the skies over mid-western states, taking many hours to pass overhead. But during not much longer than the span of a generation of Americans the passenger pigeon vanished utterly from the Earth.

Like the pigeon we humans are a highly social lot, 'birds of a feather' one might say. Nearly half of our seven billion companions already live in urban areas and the proportion is growing by several percent every decade. To be sure, there are many practical and economic advantages to living in close quarters but there is also a strange psychological illusion going on. We are a profoundly monophobic species, believing against all evidence that we are safer in a crowd. Surely nothing bad can happen when there are so many of us? Or if something bad does happen, surely it won't be me who is picked off?

There is an interesting double survival motive being played out here, the communal and the selfish: the first says 'we are safer if we stick together'; the second says 'I am safer if I stick with you.' Somebody once quipped to me that if you are crossing a field with a friend and encounter a bull, you don't need to be able to run faster than the bull, only faster than your friend! I replied that if my friend and I ran in opposite directions perhaps the bull would be confused enough to allow us both to leave the field unscathed.

Martha in 1914. Silent messenger
that all things must pass
It is sobering to think that when I was born the world's human population was less than half what it is today. Forward projections are controversial and there are many variables, but the trend is still upwards. 'Where will it all end?' has been our biggest preoccupation ever since Homo sapiens learned to think for itself. And again the question has both personal and collective dimensions. In his post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, Australian novelist Nevil Shute portrays the final days of the last handful of people on Earth. Far from hysterical, they occupy their last moments with mundane, matter-of-fact sorts of things like fixing cars. The book takes its title from a line in TS Eliot's poem The Hollow Men which itself ends with one of the bleakest, most devastating lines in literature.

There are photographs of Martha in her final days in Cincinnati zoo. She perches quietly alone, mateless. It is almost impossible to look at them without imbuing her with human foreknowledge. After she died her body was preserved and stuffed. Nowadays she is somewhere in the vaults of the Smithsonian Institute, no longer deemed worthy of display. Europe was at war when she died. At the very end the world's attention was turned elsewhere, intent on another carnage. And so with Martha the teeming billions of the passenger pigeon passed out of history, not with a bang but a whimper. We should be careful.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A showcase for relics

Through the middle of Paris runs the Seine, a fine river. In the middle of the river is an island where the first settlers, the Romans, found safety. In the middle of the island is a palace, the Palais de la Cité, home to successive generations of the Capetian monarchy. And in the middle of the palace, at the very heart of the city, is a glittering gothic jewel casket - the Sainte-Chapelle. Ask those generic creatures the man-and-woman-in-the-street to name the famous attractions of Paris and the list is likely to be succinct and predictable. Saint-Chapelle probably won't feature in the top ten, but in a city endowed with so many riches it may well stand as the finest of them all.

Saint-Chapelle is two chapels built one above the other. The lower, a vaulted crypt dedicated to Our Lady, is a delight of plaster and paint hosting some of the oldest surviving wall paintings to be found in the city, although rather damaged by floods and its use as a grain store during the Revolution. Sadly the mystical effect of this space is today diminished by the siting of a large gift shop in the body of the chapel itself. But enough remains to imagine how it must once have looked, before removal of the altars and funerary slabs from the floor.

These days the upper chapel is reached by a narrow and unassuming spiral staircase in a shadowy corner of the crypt. It leaves visitors quite unprepared for what they are about to witness and the gasps are audible as successive climbers step out into the space above. Its dimensions are modest enough: 104 feet long, 34 feet wide, a single nave of four bays ending in a seven-sided apse. Nothing especially remarkable so far. But then we come to the statistic that truly marks out Sainte-Chapelle as a wonder of the world: 6,458 square feet of stained glass with barely a supporting pillar between each window. The upper chapel is an engineering marvel, a cage of shattered light in which words and numbers cease to be important. All we can do is stand in awe. We might be in heaven, or close to it, which was the intended effect. Because Saint-Chapelle was built for one purpose - to house the holiest relics in Christendom.

In 1239 King Louis IX of France, a young man not long come of age, newly married and with ambition aplenty, bought the crown of thorns of Christ's Passion. The seller, Baudouin II de Courtenay, the last reigning emperor of Constantinople, was in desperate straits touring Europe with a begging bowl to raise the cash needed to fund the defence of his realm. Louis paid a high price, one hundred and thirty five thousand livres, but it was an astute political investment calculated to make his seat of power a beacon of Christianity for centuries to come. For him personally it also secured canonisation, the only French king to achieve a place among the ranks of saints. Other relics were to follow, splinters and a nail from the True Cross. Louis spent a further one hundred thousand livres on a vast gilded reliquary to contain his precious  purchases. Every year, on Good Friday, they were displayed by his priests in an act of solemn piety.

Today the relics are gone, relegated to the treasury of Notre Dame a short walk away. Louis' expensive reliquary was unceremoniously melted down during the Revolution. But miraculously through all the nation's upheavals Sainte-Chapelle remains, its slender filigree steeple (the fourth in all) an elegant feature of the Parisian skyline. The stained glass has been officially declared a national monument inseparable from the architecture. During both World Wars the windows were taken down and they have been painstakingly restored, panel by panel, ever since.

With binoculars, a detailed guidebook and plenty of time, it would be possible to pick out all the biblical and apocryphal stories told in every lancet and roundel, stories that would once have been understood by all without the need for such interpretation. But on a sunny day it is better to stand in the centre of this dazzling space and let the kaleidoscope of light play all around you. Perhaps I am not the average man-or-woman-in-the-street, but for me Sainte-Chapelle is the Parisian number one.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Parisian interlude

A combination of other demands has conspired to keep me away from these pages in recent weeks, some necessary but dull, others entirely pleasurable. But dysnomia.. has never been far from my mind and I have dropped in from time to time to find a steady trickle of page views in my absence. So as usual, thank you to all my visitors, occasional or regular, and hello to Iraj as a new follower. You are most welcome.

Among the entirely pleasurable diversions this month was a five day stay in Paris, coinciding with an unexpected return to summer. Under cloudless skies and temperatures hovering close to thirty degrees Parisians did the only sensible thing, gave up any pretence of work and headed for the public parks and street cafés in their thousands to watch the world pass by. Meanwhile the French press voiced characteristic disdain of its national rugby team at the World Cup, as erratic on the pitch as they were turbulent off it. And France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, told us all in the final days before giving birth to a daughter (the first baby born to a serving president) how she was gasping for a cigarette. It was all so wonderfully French! 

And now I am busy sifting through a few hundred photographs of this most photogenic of cities. What to choose as the highlight? I may have to opt for more than one, to follow in a day or two. But for now I just wanted to check in once again to dysnomia... It's nice to be home.

Parisian heatwave - early October sun on the Left Bank

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Eye to eye with an eagle

'The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.'

Matthew ch6 v23 (King James Bible)

Getting up close - eye-to-eye close - to a bird of prey is an unnerving and thrilling experience. Even in the field, through binoculars or a telescope, that unblinking stare fires back a warning. 'I am on a short, fierce fuse' it says, 'you have been warned.' With a few exceptions raptors lead a solitary, highly territorial life. Being eyeballed by one it is easy to understand why. They are definitely not for trifling with.

Having a large bird of prey perched on my wrist sends the adrenalin up another notch. A leather gauntlet feels barely adequate to protect against talons capable of generating enough force to crush bone. I try not to stare, for fear of provoking her, but there is a world behind those eyes that is incomprehensible and irresistible. It is like looking at a Mark Rothko painting; there is a yawning primitiveness that beckons me to step through the canvas.

Golden Eagle. Her heavy brows protect her eyes against wind
and dust, giving a characteristic penetrating stare.

The vision of raptors is legendary, proverbial. 'Eagle-eyed' we say, or 'hawk-eyed'. The udjat, or Eye of Horus the falcon god of the sky and hunting, was one of the most powerful symbols of the ancient Egyptians, the all-seeing eye worn on amulets as a source of royal protection. So just how well can a bird of prey see? It is a question that is almost impossible to answer without making comparisons with our own eyesight.

It is an unwritten law of nature that almost everything is a compromise. Things evolve to be just good enough to shorten the odds of survival, no more. Resources are directed at what is important, at the expense of things that are less so. Nature is not interested in perfection, only pragmatism. Take the golden eagle for example, what can we say about her?  To start with she hunts during the daytime and from a great height. Even more than those murderous talons, eyesight is the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. The light receptors on her retinas are packed so densely that she has a resolution six to eight times greater than humans. She also perceives rapidity of movement that would leave us shrugging. A television screen appears solid enough to our slow eyes but try taking a photograph of it. In the eyes of a diurnal raptor it would flicker on and off distractingly, just as it does to the camera.

High speed killer. Aerial strikes by a Saker Falcon at 200mph
require pinpoint accuracy. The slightest error spells disaster.

So she has high resolution, high speed imaging, then where's the catch?  The receptors in her eyes don't function well in low light. Visual performance tails off sharply at dawn and dusk, forcing her to roost. The receptors also lack the pigmented oil droplets found in many other birds, so her colour perception is mediocre at best and she cannot see in the ultraviolet spectrum like many other birds (or us). Her plumage provides a clue here; birds of prey are not brightly coloured as a family. Why waste energy on what they cannot see? Colour is unimportant when zeroing in for the kill, so colour discernment is sacrificed for what really matters - needlepoint precision.

Not windows to the soul then, as the anonymous author of Matthew's gospel might have us believe, but the eyes of the eagle, falcon, hawk and harrier are chinks of light through which we can spy on nature at work. It is an unsettling world of stimuli untroubled by notions of morality or compassion or beauty or hatred. And that makes it quite beyond our ken; utterly alien, utterly compelling.

Monday, 19 September 2011

A ring of bright mushrooms

Gavin Maxwell was left unimpressed by chanterelles. In Ring of Bright Water he recounts them growing in profusion near Camusfeàrna, the fictitious name he gave to his home in the West Highlands. But he describes them as insipid and flavourless, not worth the bother of collecting, 'their beauty but skin-deep, more appropriate to the magic of moss and fern and rushing water than to the table.'

Mostly chanterelles and a few edible boletus
By his own admission Maxwell wasn't much good at identifying wild mushrooms and, unsure whether what he had collected was safe to eat, disconsolately consigned his haul to the rubbish pit. It was perhaps a wise precaution if in doubt, especially as he lived alone (otters excepted), but such a shame. If he was truly coming upon chanterelles in such quantity then they were a lucky find indeed. It is not that chanterelles are especially rare, far from it, but they are quite localised and have a tendency to grow in inaccessible locations. Last year I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day hanging upside down on a precarious river bank in Galloway trying to pluck the yolk-yellow trumpets that seemed to grow quite deliberately just out of reach.

On that day I went out with a seasoned forager who knew just where to look. Chanterelle haunts, I learned, tend to be closely guarded secrets. Contrary to Gavin Maxwell's lack of enthusiasm, many hunters prize them above all other species and for a short season in late summer / early autumn the race is on to find the golden treasure. Hotels and restaurants will pay a fair price to suppliers willing to brave the mud and the midges, so no wonder the best locations are not generously broadcast.

A few inedible Russula on the right
As our eyes grew accustomed, once we knew exactly what we were looking for, they were unmistakeable. The colour alone is enough to identify them, rich yellow-orange like they had been freshly squeezed from an artist's tube of oil paint. The wide gills run into the stem giving them their classic horn-like shape. They have a rubbery texture and smell faintly fruity. We got a good catch that day and they weren't for sale.  We lived on chanterelle omelettes and chanterelle risotto and chanterelles on toast for days and they were delicious. I can only assume Gavin Maxwell wasn't cooking them right. The tasty compounds they contain are fat and alcohol soluble, so they are no good for boiling. Frying in oil or butter or with a little white wine brings out all the goodness. And if you need a further justification for eating them, they are a valuable source of vitamins too.

Gavin Maxwell was quite an adventurer, traveling widely in the Middle East in the 1950s and trying his hand at all kinds of escapades including a spell of shark farming! But fungi he grew up to treat with suspicion. Consequently the rich supplement to his diet of tinned food that grew all around him at Camusfeàrna went 'unmolested' to use his word. They were left 'to flourish among the ferns and dappled sunlight of the birches by the burns and the hidden waterfalls, their many hues of violet and green, red and orange, nibbled at by discerning and appreciative rodents'.  Oh well,  suum cuique pulchrum est (to each his own is beautiful) I suppose.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Season of mists

'Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -'

from To Autumn  by John Keats

English poets have always been bewitched by autumn. Shakespeare, Keats, Browning and Blake, Clare and Rossetti, dozens of others - they have all turned their pens to sonnets and odes in honour of this most poetic of seasons. They have personified it, as Keats does above: 'Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;' They have found deep melancholy in its declining days, beneficence in its harvests, gothic frisson in its festivals and rituals. And, of course, they have mined it for countless metaphors of death.

Autumn is a long season and an extravagant one. It begins in abundance, the swelling coffers of the crop. It is fat and wealthy and dripping with gold. Keats' bees are duped into thinking warm days will never cease because 'Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.' But plenty begets excess. Excess begets wastefulness which, in its turn, begets decay. By way of this profligate sequence Nature re-stocks the pot for a repeat showing. There is eternity in rottenness, the indestructibility of elemental matter.

Autumn is ripe for poetry because of the way it assaults our senses. Keats knew it and reaped it in some of the most concrete poetic lines he ever wrote. He makes us taste the plump hazel shells 'with a sweet kernel'; we watch with him the long autumn sunsets that 'touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue'; we hear the 'wailful choir' of gnats and the bleat of full-grown lambs, and we are there with him by the cider-press, patiently watching 'the last oozings hour by hour'.  It is a rich pudding of a poem, every line as o'er-brimmed as the cells of his bees.

To Autumn is not a long poem by the standards of the romantic poets but, over a reading of its three stanzas, months have gone by. We are not told directly of the passing of time, it is more subtle than that. With each verse the temperature of the adjectives becomes colder. The industrious bees of the opening verse have, by the poem's close, given way to the gathering swallows, twittering in the skies. And there Keats breaks off, on the brink of the birds' departure. It is a master stroke on which to leave us. The laden apple trees under a 'maturing sun' have been harvested and in their place a winnowing wind stirs the chaff on the stubble fields.

I sat reading To Autumn on the waterfront in Dundee the other day. The sky was distinctly autumnal and a ragged mist snagged in the trees on the opposite shore. I know there are brambles and blackthorn bushes heavy with ripening sloes on that shore. As I read a sudden breeze brought a skittering of crisp sycamore leaves along the path, blotched yellow and black. They passed, the breeze vanished and the sun was once more warm. It was a little taste of what is to come. We are on the cusp.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Out with a bang

So that's that then. The season of Edinburgh festivals is over for another year. It ended, as it always does, with an exhilarating firework display to music on the castle rock. There can surely be few more dramatic settings for such a show, and for those not fortunate enough to have tickets to Princes Street Gardens the city centre has many fine vantage points from which to coo and gasp. This year, in keeping with the theme of the International Festival, the music was chosen for its eastern flavours; the composers, mostly Russian, drawing their inspiration from the Orient. Each year the most appreciative cooing and gasping is reserved for the waterfall, a magnesium white cascade that tumbles and bounces down the bare black rock.

For me the Firework Concert is one of those punctuation marks in the calendar by which time is notched. Whatever the weather it signals the end of summer. As the echoes of the last detonations fade, as the streets clear of spectators and the convoys of road sweepers get to work, there is no longer any denying it - autumn has been heralded in. The concert starts at nine o'clock. A month earlier and it would have been unthinkable to start so early but by now the days are shortening alarmingly. Our wobbly Earth has lurched onwards, like a homebound drunk, veering to the winter side of the street

By Monday morning the streets had returned to normal and Edinburgh's daily traffic of suited commuters and shoppers and schoolchildren went on their way. The city is never without tourists but things get decidedly quieter for a while after the fireworks. At Haymarket railway station and in the queues for the airport shuttle it suddenly seemed as if everyone was heading for the exits. And just as suddenly it again becomes possible to book a table in a restaurant and the buses run more or less to time without throngs of disorientated sightseers asking for directions. It doesn't last long. There is just time to draw breath before the first Christmas displays appear in shop windows. No sooner has the temporary seating on the Castle Esplanade - for the past month home to the Royal Military Tattoo - been removed than the skating rink and big wheel will arrive in the gardens. And so the Edinburgh year rolls on.

Invariably the tourists I meet seem genuinely wowed by my home city. They have travelled the globe to be here and Edinburgh doesn't disappoint. Despite the weather doing its level best to rain on everyone's parade, despite the eyesores of the perennially stalled tram project, and the rash of lowest-common-denominator gift shops selling every imaginable Scottish cliché, despite the litter and traffic and scaffolding and street clutter, they are left with an overwhelming impression of an elegant city. I feel very proud and privileged to sit with a coffee in the Canongate, or to stroll along the Water of Leith to Stockbridge and be able to say 'I live here'.

Edinburgh is a wealthy city. But much of its money is sterile and corporate, sealed off behind faceless legal and financial institutions. Tourism brings money too, lots of it. But more importantly the tourists bring vibrancy and colour and life. During the summer festivals the streets are buzzing with their excitement. There's a certain class of Edinburgh resident who gets very sniffy about the festivals but I am not one of them. Of course there's plenty of mediocre art among the thousands of shows on offer, some of it very hammy, some of it pretentious and excluding, but there is also a lot of fun, energy, talent and idealism to be found.

So, summer 2011 goes out with its traditional bang. It won't be long before next season's programmes start arriving through my letterbox. All those things to choose from and all on my doorstep. That's something I hope never to grow complacent or nonchalant about.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A border raid to Lindisfarne

Returning to the Whin Sill briefly, here is a photograph taken last weekend of Lindisfarne Castle, built on an isolated tooth of whinstone on Holy Island. Beblowe Crag, as this fang is known, is like nothing else on the generally low lying grassy island, accessible by a tidal causeway from the mainland. It is an instantly recognisable landmark for miles along the Northumberland coast.

The castle was first built in Tudor times, a fort to garrison English soldiers for defence against border raiders from Scotland. 'Marauding' I believe is the preferred term in this part of the country. It seems impossible for heritage bodies to mention the Scots without portraying them as marauding, rather overlooking that these were times of hostilities on both sides of a fluid border. Defending the island's haven was a headache Henry VIII had largely created for himself when he dissolved Lindisfarne Priory in 1537 during his vindictive and indiscriminate purge of the nation's monasteries, thereby bringing to an end nine hundred years of monastic life on the island.

The fort has seen some colourful occupants down the centuries, none more so than Captain Rugg. Renowned for his ebullient hospitality and monstrous bottle-nose (the two may be linked of course), the Captain composed rhyming ditties to Charles I, signing himself 'The Great Commander of the Cormorants, the Geese and Ganders of these Hallowed Lands.' For Holy Island has always been a place renowned for its wild birds, ever since the days of St Cuthbert who befriended its wildfowl.

As relations between the English and the Scots improved the castle's military importance declined although it continued to house modest numbers of troops right until the 1890s. By then in severe disrepair, it was occupied briefly by coastguards before being abandoned altogether. And this was how Edward Hudson found it while holidaying in 1901.

A year later Hudson, who was later to become editor of Country Life, had acquired it and at once hatched a plan to turn the castle into a summer house. He excitedly summoned his gifted friend, the already established architect Edwin Lutyens, and between them they contrived to convert the vaulted dormitories, corridors and batteries into an Edwardian holiday home.

The result is a virtuoso design of twisting staircases, galleries and niches, filled with decorative artefacts and furniture, some designed by Lutyens himself, and feeling as if it had been carved out of the rock rather than built upon it. Lutyens style has been described as 'Romance without Period' and it is certainly hard to pin down, combining Norman arches and herring bone brick floors in a design that looks at once modern and medieval. Later, Lutyens invited his former patron Gertrude Jekyll to design a walled garden, quite an achievement in this wind-scoured, salt-bleached landscape.

Ever since St Cuthbert's mortal remains failed to decompose Lindisfarne has been a destination of pilgrimage and on the day I chose to visit I was far from alone. However, this day the crowds had not come to see his shrine or the renowned illuminated gospels. They had come to see those who harrassed his peaceful Christian retreat. English Heritage, in whose care the remains of the Lindisfarne Priory are entrusted, were staging a re-enactment of Viking raiders from the seventh century. Vikings, it seems, have rarely been more popular and the car parks were brim full of spectators up for a spot of rape and pillage.

I arrived at lunchtime when the Vikings were taking a break from raiding to have a smoke and a Mr Whippy while catching up with their mates in Scandinavia on their mobiles phones. Call me grumpy, but historical re-enactments of this type have a tendency to arouse my latent misanthropy. I don't usually have difficulty suspending my disbelief but there always seems something so... so what? ahistorical, I suppose, about such dramas. I simply cannot forget that underneath their sackcloth and chainmail these characters are wearing wristwatches and nail varnish and M&S underwear. I acknowledge this is a failing on my part and I was clearly in the minority.

So I took my misanthropy for a walk around the island and fortunately for me these Vikings seemed content not to stray too far from the facilities. Holy Island's justly lauded beaches, sand dunes and grassy meadows were left largely uncolonised. Among the tall wind-riffled grasses and the comical cooing of eiders it was not difficult to see why this beautiful island was favoured for a monastery. The word 'Farne' derives from the Celtic for a place of retreat. I would not have been at all surprised that afternoon to have come across St Cuthbert himself, crouching among his beloved birds. You see, my imagination is quite intact.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A floral lexicon

'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine.
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:'

from A Midsummer Night's Dream : Act 2, Scene 1   William Shakespeare

A few months ago I read Olivia Laing's first book To the River in which she describes her walk the length of the river Ouse in Sussex one scorching midsummer week in 2009. It is an enjoyable debut and one that is hard not to describe in riverine metaphors as it leisurely meanders through Laing's varied literary interests, mirroring her earthly journey. Chief among these is Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941 and whose ghost stalks the author's footsteps over the course of the 42 miles from source to sea.

Common Knapweed
The Sussex Ouse is not one of Britain's great watercourses. Gentle and sluggish for the most part it has known moments of violence, Woolf's suicide aside, and has witnessed some turbulent history including devastating floods. The river's name is deliciously onomatopoeic, summoning images of brackish estuarine mud, and Laing speculates on its origin. Ouse is a common name for rivers in England and most likely derives from the celtic usa which simply means water. Its similarity to other river names - the Ure, Aire, Wear, Wyre, Usk, Esk, Isis, Erewash etc - suggests a common ancestor. But there are other theories, foremost among them that the name may derive from La Rivière de Lewes as the major town through which the river flows.

Lady's Bedstraw
However, I digress before I have even started. My chief reason for mentioning Olivia Laing's book is that some of its most bewitching passages recount the wild flowers she encounters as she walks. Laing is knowledgeable about floral botany and she identifies each species with enviable facility, reciting their names with a reverential slowness that falls in with the pace of her footsteps. Riverbanks are rewarding places for flower hunters, offering rich habitat and abundant variety. There are successions that change with soil and shade and season, so a walk among meadows and hedgerows is never the same twice.

In a twenty-first century, urban Britain there is something mysterious and occult about flower names. Like the rivers whose margins they populate they have arcane and ancient origins mostly lost to us. They are words only half-remembered, harking back to a time of monastic herbalists and alchemists, pregnant with lore and liturgical significance. Aconite, agrimony, asphodel... they should be in every serious Scrabble player's arsenal! Shakespeare's fairies knew them all, as quoted above, where Oberon describes in floral terms to the mischievous Puck the place where he might find his Titania sleeping, in order to teach her a lesson about love. Equally, Macbeth's hags might have tossed them into their bubbling cauldron, cooking up a dark magic.

Common Comfrey
Betony, bedstraw, burnet... discovering flowers forces us to slow down, to cease from marching on, to take notice of the smallest detail. Perhaps one day I might stumble upon Titania who there sleeps 'sometime of the night. Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;' Apparently there are more than 140 different plants and flowers referenced in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Some literary historians have cited the wide botanical familiarity in his language as evidence that the Bard did not work alone, that he engaged specialist researchers. I prefer a simpler explanation. He grew up a country lad who wrote at a time when the names of wild flowers were still part of the vernacular, within the vocabulary of common folk. He employs flowers both literally and emblematically and he expects his audiences to be familiar with them and to understand their symbolic significance. 'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance' Ophelia says, and Elizabethan or Jacobean playgoers would at once have heard this as premonitory, for rosemary was thrown onto coffins by graveside mourners.

Devil's-Bit Scabious
Celandine, centaury, comfrey... I lack Olivia Laing's broad knowledge to always identify on the spot what I see. But with the aid of my camera and a bundle of guidebooks I can afterwards hope to put names to most of what I find. It's a pity but to some extent digital photography has supplanted the need for the field notebook and the art of meticulous observation in situ. As I look at the photographs later, from the comfort or confines of an armchair, I am back there walking the riverside path, drinking the aroma of damp earth, hearing the electric crackle of dragonflies, halting every few steps to examine yet another of nature's inexhaustible designs for seducing pollinators. These are a few of my pictures taken on recent river path walks.

Olivia Laing's admiration for tenacious weeds is especially palpable, describing with glee how quickly they re-colonise land laid waste by human vanity or destructiveness. In weeds we find true eternity. 'The rosebay willowherb swells up through the ruins of law courts and cathedrals, the dandelion marches across battlefields and infiltrates the gardens of mansions... these weeds have come and will come again, time immemorial, time without end. It is as well to remember this, for humans believe against all evidence in stasis...' This is wonderful, persuasive writing and I hope to be able to tell her so, for tomorrow I will meet Olivia Laing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Above all I want tell her how much I enjoyed meandering with her along the banks of her chosen river and to thank her for helping me to slow down and expand my floral lexicon.