Tuesday, July 31, 2007

There was a crooked man...

A little postscript to my last post...
(And for a few excruciating moments I thought it was the last post...)
I spoke about this beautiful 17th century house with its low ceilings, but a few days ago it wouldn't have mattered had the ceiling only been 3 feet above the floor. That's because I was on my hands and knees, in considerable agony, unable to straighten out my back.
I had "slipped a disk."
It has happened to me once before and I can say it is not my idea of fun.
For the first couple of days I could only shuffle slowly, hunch-backed, a few yards at a time looking like a man of 85 and feeling like a man of 90. (Well, I have to imagine that since I've no idea yet what it might feel like to be 90, and, of course, I may never know.)
Thankfully I have been improving steadily and once again look more like a specimen of homo sapiens than neanderthal man. (i.e. my knuckles are no longer dragging along the floor.)
But, hey! Every cloud has a silver lining.
It has meant that I have been able to indulge in a binge.
NOT binge drinking (the dubious 'pleasures' of which I've never really understood and which would not have mixed well with the painkillers) but binge reading.
I read five books in four days, including two books introduced to me by Emma- 'Blue Like Jazz' and 'Searching for God Knows What' - both by Don Miller. I hadn't read any of his stuff before but I'm glad now that I have.
Can't say I agreed with everything. Come to think of it when I look back I don't agree with everything I've ever said myself! But both of these books are definitely worth reading. I especially like Miller's emphasis on the importance of story.
The way I see it words create worlds.
It's no surprise to me that the Biblical creation story begins with God speaking and bringing things into being with His word.
Sadly we human beings are probably more skilled at using words to tear down and destroy than we are at using them to create. But it remains true that in the hands of a skillful writer words create worlds.
I'm on my sixth book at the moment. (Each has created its own new and unique world for me.)
I have to say that the latest Harry Potter book is not featured in my binge, but I know that one of the reasons for the success of that particular series has been the ability of J.K. Rowling to create a world of characters and places and events that many children (and many adults) have been able to enter into.
Yep, words create worlds...
but I'll not say what word, if any, passed my lips as my back went out of joint and I slumped to the floor... :-)

Friday, July 27, 2007

There was a crooked house...

Right now I am somewhere in England. (You don't need to know where.) All I'm going to say is that I am in a thatched house, a house that was built around 1630.

Can you imagine that? The oak beams that form the skeleton of this amazing dwelling were first put into place nearly 400 years ago. And who knows how old were the trees from which they were formed? These wooden beams above my head could well be 1000 years old!

I love this house. I love the fact that no two rooms on this house are on the same level. I love the fact that actually nothing in this house is level... or upright. There are no perpendiculars; no horizontals. Everything sits at a weird and jaunty angle. As you make your way from one room to the other you almost feel as if you are seasick, or at least on a rolling ship. It is hard to move in a straight line. It is made all the harder by the fact that some of the ceilings are very low. I guess people in Shakespearean times were smaller than they are now.

I've stayed in this house before and know exactly what it is like when you crack your head off an oak beam... several times. That's why now I walk around in a semi-foetal position... just in case.

Sometimes I feel like a hobbit.

What I like most about this house is that it has no straight lines. I have a good eye for the perpendicular. I hate to see a picture hung squint on a wall. But here it wouldn't matter because the walls are not straight. The whole house is a sort of living, moving thing. It feels organic and natural, not mechanical, nor clinical, nor man-made.

Of course, when you think about it, there are very few straight lines in the nature. Even the horizon is a curve. So this house feels like a part of the natural world, rather than a construction of human beings, although, in fact, that is precisely what it is. I marvel also at that. We have our wonderful new technologies and feats of civil engineering but how many 'ordinary' houses built now will still be standing in 400 years time?

I've commented before on our need to work in harmony with nature rather than always trying to shape it to our ends. This is something that is becoming ever more vital as we see the effects of some of our previous misadventures and exploitations of the natural world. (I happen to believe that climate change is a reality and that recent floods, not too far from here, are part of the pattern.)

I also think that life itself rarely happens in straight lines. Even the paths that God may lead us on are often long and winding roads rather than straight and wide motorways. It's what makes life interesting and challenging.

Monday, July 23, 2007

We are sailing

On Friday evening I did something I haven't done for about 30 years....
I went "doon the watter in the Waverley."
This is a colloquial Glasgow expression referring to a previously popular activity enjoyed by Glaswegians. It meant sailing 'down the water' (i.e. down the River Clyde) usually in a paddle steamer.
When I was a young boy in the 1950s, living in Port Glasgow (about 30 miles downstream from the centre of the city) I used to watch these steamers regularly from the window of our house and at that time I knew each of their names and could identify them all- The Queen Mary II, The Jeanie Deans (her chief engineer was a neighbour of ours) the King George V, and The Waverley, among others. They sailed to such exotic locations as Campbeltown, Tighnabruich, the Kyles of Bute, Rothesay, Millport etc.
Sadly, there is now only one survivor of these more leisurely days - The Waverley- now the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.
The original Waverley was in fact sunk at Dunkirk, but a replacement was built in 1947 and it was the last of the Clyde steamers to go out of service when "going doon the watter" went out of fashion and holidays to Majorca and Ibitha became the preferred option. A group of enthusiasts have managed to keep the Waverley going, however, and sailing down the Clyde has become something of a novelty again.
It is, of course, a very different river now. Once it was a noisy, bustling waterway on whose banks were being built some of the world's largest and best ships, like the great Cunard liners. Now the only ships built on the Clyde are warships.
It was a beautiful evening and I really enjoyed the sail, especially as we glided past the place where I was born and I was able to see it from a completely different angle.
I always enjoying seeing familiar places from an unfamiliar perspective, whether that is from the air as you come in to land or from the sea or a river, or just from the other side of the street.

I think too often in life we imagine that we know a place, or a person, or a truth, (or even God) when in actual fact we have only seen them from one particular angle, and in one particular light. It's the job of poets and artists and musicians, and maybe occasionally preachers, to shake us out of that complacency and waken us up to the fact that there is always more, so much more, than we saw before.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Eviction order

I suppose I could begin this post by asking for suggestions as to what the mystery object in the photograph might be, but I won't this time. I'm sure it is would be much too easy for you to work out.
What would be much harder, though, would be for you to guess where it is now, where it was before, how it got to where it was, and how it got to where it is. Confused? You will be.
But let me begin by recounting a tale of 'The Clearances.'
Actually, I'm not talking about the Highland Clearances though there are a couple of tenuous and superficial similarities.
A couple of summers ago, we had to have one of the large trees in our garden cut down because it had become dangerous. The only problem was that the tree in question also served as a residence for a number of creatures, including a family of squirrels. Needless to say the squirrels evacuated of their own accord as soon as the chain-saw gang set about their work.
Obviously they were quite happy with the neighbourhood and looked to relocate nearby. They quickly found a very suitable location in the roof of the adjacent church hall. In fact this particular large hall has more than one roof. The original roof, still intact, had, some years ago, been covered over with a secondary metal roof. The squirrels had managed to create an entrance for themselves through the wooden fascia of this secondary roof and had made themselves quite at home in the gap between the two roofs. A very spacious and no doubt very sheltered spot.
Of course, they were never happy with the small front door, and soon decided to create a back door, two sets of french windows and an emergency exit. To be honest it was sheer wanton vandalism! Some creatures just have no respect for property.
Anyway, the time had come for another eviction order to be served. Not a chain-saw gang this time, but a roofing company. As soon as the scaffolding went up and even before the work began, the squirrels packed their bags, ordered the removal vans and 'flitted'.
But they didn't take everything with them. (No one ever does.)
What you see in the photograph is something they left behind... between the two roofs.
What is it?
You must have guessed by now.
It is a school tie; one which no doubt belonged to our youngest daughter and which at some time or other probably hung on a washing line until an enterprising squirrel identified it as a potential duvet and removed it to the nest. That is where it was, and how it got to where it was. Where it is now is lying on the grass beneath the newly restored fascia, after having been cleared out of the roof space by the builders.
I wonder, do squirrels sometimes wear a tie in the evening?
Actually, although I do have to wear a tie quite often, especially on formal occasions, it is one of those items of clothing that seems to me to be totally pointless. What are ties really for?
Now that is a question you might consider giving an answer to.
And while you're thinking about it, spare a thought also for the suggestion recently made in Italy that removing your tie could help a little with tackling the problems of global warming.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Long live the King

It seems no one has told the Post Office on Islay that we have a 'new' monarch.
Only since 1952, of course.
So it might be considered a little rash and hasty to have replaced all of the post boxes so soon. Oh, in case, any of my non-British readers haven't a clue what I'm talking about, have a look at the photo above of a post box on the wall of Laphraoig Distillery on Islay.
Above the opening for "Letters Only" you will see GVIR which refers to the late (some might say very late) King George 6th.

I suppose one generous way of looking at this is to see it as a refreshing alternative to what normally happens when Government Departments are restructured leading to a complete and costly corporate-image makeover.
I guess the philosophy is that if it is still working - why replace it?
Perhaps we need a little bit more of this sort of thinking. It might mean that we produce much less waste and pollution. Sadly, I fear the concept of 'planned obsolescence' is too deeply ingrained into our psyche in the Western world.

However, on the subject of post boxes, and UNplanned obsolescence...
I have recently chuckled my way through Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Big Country"
In one of the sections he lists various examples of stupidity and the seemingly inane advice that is often printed on American products (such as instructions on an electric iron not to use it in conjunction with explosive materials.)
But I'll let him tell you the rest in his own inimitably humorous style:

"Until a few days ago my instinct would have been to chortle richly at people who need this sort of elemental guidance, but then three things happened that made me modify my views.
First, I read in the paper how John Smoltz, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves baseball team, showed up at a training session one day with a painful-looking red welt across his chest and, when pressed for an explanation, sheepishly admitted that he had tried to iron the shirt while he was wearing it.
Second, it occurred to me that although I have never done anything quite so foolish as that, it was only because I had not thought of it.
Third, and perhaps most conclusively, two nights ago I went out to run two small errands - specifically, to buy some pipe tobacco and post some letters. I bought the tobacco, carried it straight across the street to a Post Office letter box, opened the lid, and deposited it. I won't tell you how far I walked before it dawned on me that this was not a 100 per cent correct execution of my original plans.
You see my problem. People who need labels on pillarboxes saying 'Not for Deposit of Tobacco or Other Personal items' can't very well smirk at others, even those who iron their chests or have to seek lathering guidance from a shampoo hotline."
[Bill Bryson: Notes from a Big Country, 1999]

So here's a challenge to you, and your willingness to confess your own stupidity...what's the most bizarre thing you have ever accidentally dropped into a post box?

PS. Looks like the Islay post box may not have been cleaned much since the days of King George either.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Signs and wondering

Most of the distilleries in Islay have their names very prominently displayed, usually in huge black letters against the whitewashed walls.
However, Bruichladdich (pronounced broo-ich-laddie) is different. It's name is spelled out on the ends of old whisky vats.

But as we drove past it for the first time on our way from the airport to our B & B, I realised that even allowing for Gaelic's inexplicably irrational forms of spelling (designed perhaps to discourage most non-Gaels from trying to learn the language) there was something not quite right. But since it was raining very heavily at the time and we were more concerned to find the place we would be staying, we didn't stop.
I was determined, however, that we should go back at the first opportunity and take a closer look. I began wondering if some local youths had decided to play a prank and move some of the barrels so that those who were leaving, having just been on the distillery tour, might turn around to take a last look, and wonder: "Did I have too much of a good thing in there?"

It was when we approached it for the second time that my wife very cleverly realised that the name was simply spelled backwards.
Gaelic spelled backwards!! I mean, what is that all about?
It's enough to drive you to drink...

Ah, so it's a marketing ploy then!!

Of course, the puzzle is very easily solved once you recognise the pattern.
Life itself is like that. As human beings we are always looking for patterns to try and make sense of the world we live in: but often these patterns just do not seem to be there and nothing fits.

Had I looked at the Bruichladdich sign in a mirror, of course, the pattern would have been immediately obvious.
Trouble for us is that much of what we experience in the world seems already to be like mirror-writing, and we need it to be put the right way round before we can make sense of it.
As St. Paul wrote: "What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror, then we shall see face to face." [1 Corinthians 13:12]

And I promise you, I didn't just reverse the photograph in Photoshop!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Too much of a good thing?

On the basis that you can never have too much of a good thing (though sometimes that may be a questionable assumption - see below*) here is another little dose of Islay serenity. This is Port Charlotte with the evening sun dropping down behind.

The food at the Port Charlotte Hotel was pretty good, even the bar meals. I had a delicious sea bream one night, cooked to perfection. However, getting a table is difficult on evenings when there is live music and you really ought to make a reservation in advance, but if the staff can squeeze you in they will.

*The bar offers 143 very fine malt whiskies at prices ranging from under £5 to over £70 a shot. Needless to say I was not able to assess the full range on offer. This may be one instance when you could easily get too much of a good thing!

Most important of all the staff are very friendly, especially the owners, Grahame and Isabelle.
I had a good chat with one of the barmen, Alan, a Yorkshire man who had come to love Islay and its people so much that he decided to go and live there permanently. (not the man in the picture by the way)

Don't worry: I'm not going to post all of my 'holiday snaps.' (I took about 500 in 4 days.) But I'll probably share a couple more over the next few days.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hebridean Jewel

Just to let you appreciate how even four days on Islay is a real holiday here is a picture I took of the view from our B & B on Tuesday morning.
Admittedly there were other moments when the view was only of the inside of a cloud, but those times make the moments of serene beauty and majestic simplicity such as you see above all the more breath-taking.
Life is like that.
Sadly, I think too many people spend too much time remembering and complaining about yesterday's clouds, or fearing tomorrow's rainy forecast, to savour today's glimpse of heaven.

Water of Life

You haven't heard from me for a few days because we've been on holiday (vacation) for a few days on the beautiful Hebridean island of Islay (pronounced Ai-la, for those who may not already know.)
It really is a spectacular place whatever the weather - and, believe me, we had every kind of weather, usually within the space of 15 minutes. Never mind "four seasons in one day," in the Hebrides you get four seasons in one hour!
The picture above was taken at Machir Bay- a long wide stretch of empty sand onto which pound the Atlantic breakers. At one point it became busy... two other people and a dog joined us!
Of course, Islay is famous most of all for its whisky. Although a small island there are nine distilleries producing some of the world's most famous malt whiskies. Clearly, these were places that had to be explored.... purely for the purposes of research, you appreciate.
I must confess, however, that after the first distillery tour visit which we undertook, I emerged legless.

Lest anyone misunderstand me, though, I should quickly point out that I am referring to the state of my spectacles- one leg of which somehow got bent after I had placed them down somewhere. Foolishly I tried to restore them to their former shape only to find the leg snapping off completely.This was, to say the least, inconvenient. (Actually, that's not exactly how it put it at the time but we'll leave that to your imagination.) The problem is, I need to wear my glasses for driving and although my wife did much of the driving (especially after visits to distilleries...) I still had to do my share. I discovered that one spectacle leg was usually sufficient, as long as I didn't shake my head about, which, fortunately is not something I tend to do when I am driving anyway.
Out among the public however it was a different story. For even though there are not usually very many members of the public around on Islay to bump into, I did feel a bit foolish wearing my monopod spectacles. It's not a fashion that I expect will catch on soon.
Another problem emerged which I had not anticipated. I wear vari-focals which means that different parts of the lenses are shaped for different distances. Not usually a problem - you simply point your nose towards whatever you are looking at and, normally, this results in you looking through the correct part of the lens, whether it is viewing something in the distance, something close-up, or something in between.
It works very well as long as the spectacles are horizontal. And for that to be assured at all times, you really need two legs. (So do the spectacles.)
Sometimes the glasses (because of their decreased quantity of legs) were not always exactly horizontal but what I didn't realise was that my eyes were actually working hard to compensate. I only realised it when I took the spectacles off on on occasion while I was walking. Suddenly nothing was in focus, and it was as though I were wearing someone else's glasses. The ground in front of me swirled and rippled and buckled. It felt as if someone had turned on special visual effects. I nearly fell over. [By the way, I had not been visiting any distilleries at this point!!]
It was a very weird sensation. Reminded me of that song lyric "I feel the earth move under my feet" though it was more like "I see the earth move in front of my eyes."
Weird sensation.

When you visit a place as wild and beautiful as Islay the very last thing you want is to be unable to see, so I was very relieved that it was only the leg of the spectacles that had broken and not the lenses.
I was reminded also of the profound words of the blind Helen Keller who once said:
"The worst calamity: 'To have eyes and fail to see.'"
Sadly, there are many who enact such tragedies daily.

Sadly, too, there are many whose vision is horribly distorted. We flew over to Islay from Glasgow Airport a few hours before it became the target of a terrorist attack. On our return we saw the damage that had been inflicted and could only imagine how much more awful it would have been had the plan of the perpetrators actually succeeded.
How can anyone, in the name of their God, ever think that blowing up innocent bystanders (or even guilty ones) is a righteous act? And, if it turns out that those so far arrested are guilty... how can it be that people who have trained to save life can treat life so casually?
Thank God no one was hurt, apart from one of the alleged bombers.
Members of the public made sure they didn't get away. On a lighter note, one of my favourite quotes from the incident was this: "Only in Glasgow do suicide bombers need rescued from the locals by the police."