Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/Netley Centre/Ness Book Fest Family Treasures Workshop October 2019 – tutored by Vee Walker

This gorgeous ‘goonie doggie’ was brought along to the Netley Centre by its proud owner

My privilege to tutor a group of very able writers with varying degrees of experience this week.

Our aim was to allow ‘family treasures’ – not necessarily objects of great value’ – find a voice. We spent two hours working hard on different techniques: exploring the known lives and stories of the objects and dipping our toes into the fiction just beyond that.

The result is some fine pieces of work. My pleasure to post them for you here (without comments, just for the joy of reading them). If others come through I will add them too.

Thank you Margaret, Alex, Alastair, Janie, Carol, Glennis, Sheena, Helen, Rachel, Rebecca and Hazel-Ann for your hard work and enthusiastic response at the morning workshop and to the Ness Book Fest team for inviting me to host it.

Thank you too to the Netley Centre folks who took part in such an enjoyable workshop in the afternoon, too.

If anyone would like to attend a similar workshop (some techniques repeated) which will be focusing more on characterisation I will be taking part in Word on the Street Festival in Dingwall at 6pm on Friday 18th October in HighFlight bookshop – first come, first served, I am told!

All copyright remains with the author of each piece.

Over to you and again, well done.

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Pedalling to Victory

A fictional account of how my grandfather, Peter Coupar, became Scottish Cycling Champion in 1926

 by Carol I Walker

Peter and Joe Coupar never showed the slightest interest in becoming blacksmiths like their father and older brother.  They were inclined to the view that horses were a drain on time and resources.   Why, the brutes needed feeding, grooming, watering and cosseting in return for a fast gallop.  Their bicycles, however, demanded no such attention, sitting ever ready, ever compliant and willing to eat up the miles of Forfarshire’s rural highways, giving few arguments and requiring little maintenance. 

            When the spoked rubber shod steeds had been hosed down and oiled, the young men pored over linen- backed maps and plotted their next adventure – the carses and glens of their homeland lay at their fingertips and even Dundee and beyond beckoned.  Crossing the River Tay on the ‘Fifie’ ferry from Broughty Ferry to Tayport took them into the Kingdom of Fife.

            The brothers were scunnered.

            “Nae a’ it’s cracked up tae be”. 

            “Aye, nae King in sight.” 

            Some days they hurtled through Glamis, Meigle and on to Coupar Angus and down into Dundee.  The bicycles birled to the click of gear and chain with little brake employed, such was the joy in speed.  Yet when the Powrie Brae out of Dundee loured over them, steep and relentless, they ate up its challenge, urging each other to climb and pedal and climb.

            “Come on ya big jessie,” Peter would shout at Joe.

            And Joe would reply, “I’m on yer back wheel ya tattie heid.  Canna leave me behind.”

            And so a fierce rivalry blossomed with each brother vying to be the first – to be the first at the bottom of the hill, to be first at the top of the hill, to be the first to reach the next village, to be the first to arrive home.  Each brother claimed he was the fastest cyclist, and their outings became more competitive.  Friends and family assured each brother that they were surely the fastest, but the brothers were shrewd enough to know that familial peace in Coupar household lay behind such assurances.  

            One day, on returning from a sortie into Glen Clova, the brothers passed through the well set up town of Kirriemuir when Peter, a wheel in front of Joe, yelled and pulled on the brakes. In a flurry of dust and confusion Joe, red faced and spluttering, skidded to a halt beside him.

            “Are ye wise man?” Joe demanded. “You nearly couped me o’er.”

            Peter had stopped by Charles Lyon the Ironmongers’ shop and was pointing at a notice in the widow that read: “The Kirriemuir Agricultural Show” and further down amongst attractions such as ploughing matches and champion Clydesdale horse classes, Peter had read “Bicycle Races”.  

            “I’ll race you at the Kirrie Show.” he said pointing. “Then we’ll see wha’s the best!”

            “You’re on!” Joe shouted back as he peddled off. “Beat ya home, dunderheid!”

Note: both Peter and Joe became champion cyclists in the years around 1926

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THE HATBOX BELONGING TO LUCY ELLEN FOSTER

by Janie Thorburn

The misty reek of the railway station fills my nostrils.  Coal smoke and creosote.  The rain-streaked, smudgy window.  I peer anxiously amongst the grey crowds and see the porter carelessly loading the motley collection of leather, canvas and wooden luggage aboard the train which will carry me to… I know not.

Take care!  The familiar wooden hatbox, proudly burnished to a chestnut sheen, the lid modestly adorned with metal trim, contains precious snapshots of my life, at least as it was.  It now announces its new destination.  Paris. 

The train heaves from the platform and I reflect on what I have left behind as the thoughts come spilling through my mind.  The fresh, scented fields of barley and corn; the land stretching for acres providing both income and employment; the workhorses, Beauty and Sergeant.  Farm Hall.  The children, Thomas, Lucas, Margaret, Michael.  Nanny for the younger two, the elder boys ploughing their own furrow.  A comfortable, orderly, country life.  Lucas Foster an educated man, a fine judge of hunters. Respectable and respected.  Kind.  Too kind perhaps.

The mingling thoughts of home are a gentle contrast to the puzzling, bustling scene in which I now am placed.  ButI must put these thoughts aside and gather the fortitude to face my new ‘home’, meet my employer. 

Safe from the grime of the journey my fingers close on the white, laundered gloves waiting in my pocket as, with apprehension, I ponder what challenges lie ahead for me.

Farmer’s wife, widow, soon to be Housekeeper.  All that is familiar and secure lost through the kindness of my husband and the betrayal of a friend.  We have known misfortune through the vagaries of weather and harvest but this is beyond that which I have faced alone. 

Lucy Ellen Foster shall master the task with quiet dignity and courage, knowing that the bonnet, the lead soldier, the Bible, the child’s bracelet held within the sturdy hatbox provide the thread to all that is precious.  A thread that will not be broken.

**********

Sweetheart Brooch

by Glennis McClemont

A ‘diamond’ wing sparkles, caught by the light, unfurls from a laurel wreath promising victory in a world at war… an almost unbelievable reprise from the one in the not too distant past.

The garland encloses the letters AG – Air Gunner. Count the ‘diamond’ feathers. Thirty, perhaps? A twinkle for every sortie made by a ‘Tail end Charlie’ in a Lancaster Bomber roaring over the North Sea enfolded in a blackness stabbed by trails of orange flak out to destroy. Ping! Ping! The fuselage is strafed. Forty years later the sound brings the Tail Gunner out of a deep sleep, sweating and trembling. The bedroom radiator makes the same sound. Ping! Ping!

It’s a lonely position, lying aft, separated from the rest of the crew in a claustrophobic, freezing space with only a covering of Perspex between now and eternity.

The Lancaster drops its lethal load and turns for the English coast, the crew inwardly willing the tower of Lincoln cathedral to appear.

Breakfast in the Mess. Bacon and eggs. The Gunner evades, cannot afford to engage the thought that Jimmy, his fellow Jock from Rutherglen was an empty place at the table this morning.

He thinks instead of Margaret. The sweetheart brooch is his pledge to her. She’s in Lanark with her family, she’s listening to every Radio News broadcast, knitting, knitting, smoking, drinking ersatz coffee, more knitting, more smoking, most of all she’s waiting, waiting….

**********

CROFT HOUSE ETCHING

by Alastair Cunningham

This etching is a representation of a bothy on Scotland’s north west coast.  The bothy is part of a hamlet of three once-homes that look over the sea towards the village of Lochinver.  It is just a short and cruel gaze back across the bay to those richer lands on which these crofts’ inhabitants had been permitted to live until the time of their eviction during Sutherland’s clearances.  It has always been an empty place, where ravens outnumber humans and sea eagles sometimes fly.  There is nothing here to interrupt the milky way from its shining.  The land is called Camas Coille, which translates  as ‘bay of the wood’ – though until my time there had been no trees here for generations.

The etching is not a representation of what is there now.  Since the copper plate was scratched in the early 1960s, the bothy has been repaired, the drystone wall rebuilt and a copse of trees planted.  The etching shows a place in need of a loving that has since been lavished.

It is not a perfect representation of what was there when it was drawn.  The hill behind has never been that steep.  In reality, it is a whaleback hump of boulders left by receding ice.            

I am not sure of the coastline across the sea either – though I have spent less time tramping those hills and so cannot be so definitive about their true profile.  It is, however, a family treasure for what it purports to show.

It shows a building that had been vacated about twenty years previously, at the start of the 1940s: abandoned when life in this place with neither road nor boat access had become too hard and the last widow had left home for a new life in Lairg.  As a mark of tough times, her husband had died from an infected boil and left her with four children and no income beyond the few vegetables grown on the croft.  The land looks pretty barren to me but could apparently support strawberries in a good year.  Good years were too rare, so she left.  By the late 1950s the roof was caving and the floor a swamp of dead sheep.  My father bought it and worked to stabilise the ruin.  I spent a childhood of summers here: drinking of the vast skies, keeping the fires burning and playing my part in keeping the roof attached to the gables.

It is also treasured by me because of how it was made.  My dad produced this work during an evening class printing: he was always annoyingly good with his hands.  He died a decade ago and now his ashes are incorporated in the trees we planted.  I think of his alder as the biggest most gnarled tree of the copse.  But that is a son’s imagination more than a measurement.

**********

ALEX CHOSE TO WRITE ABOUT A SCULPTED UPTURNED MARBLE FOOT WHICH WE USED IN AN EXERCISE. THIS IS A REMARKABLE PIECE OF WORK AS ENGLISH IS NOT ALEX’S MOTHER TONGUE.

The Foot

by Alexandra Dold

I can almost feel how sore the foot was. After all, she must have been kneeling in an uncomfortable position for a long time. A position women nowadays would gladly sit in, as long as it’s called yoga and fits with their wannabe healthy lifestyle.

However, she didn’t do it gladly. She had been sitting on her knees with her foot outstretched like this for over five hours now. The floor had felt cold beneath her naked feet initially, but not any more.

She had no idea how it all would turn out; she was only a slave girl. All she knew was that the artist would not picture the crusty bits on her smelly feet, she was only the model.

The rich looking at the finished piece of art would never connect her to it.

********* 

Time travelling in Tarradale…

Archaeologist Lachlan McKeggie of Highland Archaeology Services is irrepressibly enthusiastic, even in the face of a driving deluge (hence the rather dark photos).

I should first explain that while fascinated by the past I am not an archaeologist, or even a historian. I am also slightly dyscalculic (like dyslexia but with numbers) so don’t expect many dates or measurements in this blog.The words I have retained from Lachlan’s empassioned if soggy guided tour today are ‘big’ and ‘massive’ and ‘important’. Oh, and ‘old’. Very old. That will do for now.

This major three-year Heritage Lottery Funded archaeological dig led by NOSAS (North of Scotland Archaeology Society) has peeled back the skin of a stubble field not far from Muir of Ord to reveal a tantalising glimpse of the Black Isle’s distant past.

It all began with the crop circles. Where soil is disturbed, even millennia ago, it can change what grows above it. Where ditches were dug around long-vanished structures, when seen from above they can still show in barley growing above today.The site was a massive place of burial, they think. Round ditches, square ditches, some smaller, some vast, most dug with a respectful distance between them and any other. Dug over centuries, perhaps over millennia, neolithic, mesolithic, Pictish. Above them would have risen burial mounds – ‘barrows’.

Each, according to experts, containing just one body? I found this unlikely for the size of ‘enclosure’ revealed (confusing term, as this is very much a 2D landscape today after centuries under the plough). Who knows though how a tribe might have wished to commemorate the memory of a great leader? The protective ditches, the great mounds above, are all gone today. Just an elusive echo of them remains in the subsoil.

Mention of the word ‘body’ above will instantly trigger thoughts of the Pictish Man discovery in Rosemarkie in recent years. Cave conditions are very different from an open, cultivated field. It was not to be at Tarradale, where the acidic soil has eaten through every bone, every tooth, rendering the bodies, quite literally, as dust to dust.The later Pictish burials (which may or may not be the square ones, some with curious open corners) are likely to have been early Christian. No bodies and no grave goods – did belief in a heavenly afterlife supplant the need to ‘pack for the journey’?

So does this lack of ‘finds’ reduce the achievement of this epic dig? Not in the slightest. These shadows of past structures here allow us to wander in our minds, ghostlike, between the barrow burials of Tarradale. We can do this with the conviction that the evolving succession of cultures – the ancestors of some of us – who chose to bury their dead at this site were real, with mighty men and women among them. They desired to cherish their memory, just as we do our dead today. Clear evidence of a belief in an afterlife.

Most poignantly, no digging has as yet been carried out at the very centre of the largest enclosure to be discovered. ‘Good practice’, said Lachlan as the rain dripped off his nose. Something has to be left to future generations, perhaps with new technological techniques allowing better analysis.This dig will continue to reveal its mysteries through investigation of samples as the comfortable soil settles again over this ancient burial site and time rolls forward in Tarradale.

http://www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk/excavations2019.asp

The end of the road, or almost…

Goodbye my friend. You have kept us safe on Highland roads for over a decade…I acquired you very much second hand from a garage on the Carse.

Your first owner was allegedly fond of a wee dram or two, hence the key scratches in the approximate location of the handle…We had our knocks but you kept me and my family safe and comfortable too – how I will miss your heated seat back this winter, old lady!In you I careered around Scotland to film Scotland’s Stories, braving giant anthills in Culbin Forest and off-road moorland tracks at Mar Lodge…You stood patiently outside in all weathers while rare lichens anchored themselves in your nooks and crannies…I was fond of all your wee quirks – like your ever-illuminated lights and the way you screamed whenever anyone other than myself tried to start you with the dodgy key held together with a rubber band…In the end, the rust got to you and even Fraser at Campbells Garage shook his head at the thought of welding on to thin air.

Not the scrapyard, though. Not yet. You’ve earned your Viking burial, old girl. Enjoy your next incarnation at the Stock Car Races in Golspie with lovely Matthew your final owner at the wheel.

We might even pop up and watch!

Nil desperandum with the wartime Walkers…

I come from a family which has a dodgy Latin motto, silver cutlery with a crest and album upon album of faded photographs of stern people standing in front of an assortment of ugly houses. All these are accompanied by an inexhaustible supply of stories of the dark deeds and derring-do of my forebears. A rather similar background, by the sound of it, to that of author Annabel Venning.

To War with the Walkers is a well-named and well-constructed family history memoire, all about the real and metaphorical journey taken by six siblings through the Second World War.

After Major Tom’s War, my novel about my own family’s Great War, was published almost exactly a year ago, I remember a kind bookshop manager scratching his head and saying ‘Cracking read, but not sure where to put it.’ He could not decide whether it belonged within the memoire, historical fiction or military history sections. Publishers Hodder & Stoughton may experience similar frustrations with the sales positioning of To War with the Walkers.

Genealogy is now hugely popular, with millions of profiles and interlinked family trees posted on portals such as Ancestry.com. Hundreds and thousands of viewers tune in for every new episode of Who do You Think You Are? This new literary genre of high-quality genealogy fiction and novelistic memoire surely now merits its very own shelf.

To War with the Walkers (no relation, by the way) is non-fiction, if only just. At times its author cannot resist giving her characters rather more of a voice and personality than one might expect from a memoire: or perhaps that is because a run-of-the-mill family history memoire can often prove just a tad dull.

Not this one.

As her great-aunt Ruth lies within the crumbling rubble of the Blitz, stoically awaiting death, for example, the reader will also taste the dust and danger of her ruined hospital at the back of his throat.

The grand-daughter of one of her book’s key protagonists, Venning is completely within her rights to make it come alive for the reader however she chooses, and her work is all the better for it.

She has brought together a journalistic thoroughness combined with a deep personal sensitivity to her family’s many personalities, all set against different backdrops within the global theatre of war, 1939 – 1945.

As a genealogist I found myself flicking through the end matter on the hunt for a family tree (to check who was who) but by the last few pages could see why inserting one might have proved a spoiler for the poignant ending.

The parents of the six Walker siblings, Arthur and Dorothea, were both products of the Great War. When she attended Cheltenham Ladies College, Dorothea might well have been told not to hope for marriage, as there were insufficient supplies of surviving men to go round. The woman delivering that sobering lecture would have been one of the formidable spinster sisters Maud and Ethel (Etty) Winnington-Ingram, my own great-aunts, both of whom taught at Cheltenham during and after WWI (and who feature prominently in Major Tom’s War).

It was perfectly natural to desire as many children as possible post-war, ideally sons, to replace those who had been slaughtered. Dorothea and Arthur more than did their duty with four boys, Edward, Harold, Walter and Peter, and two girls, Ruth and Bea.

As Arthur and Dorothea had lived through the Great War, how hard it must have been to see cherished offspring being sucked into the toils of another conflict so soon, either directly, as soldiers (Edward, Walter and Peter) or indirectly (doctor Harold and nurse Ruth), while beautiful, languorous Bea finds herself a handsome American serviceman.

I know more about the First World War than I do about the Second for obvious reasons. I not only enjoyed To War with the Walkers but also learned a good deal, particularly from reading the chapters covering the three soldiers’ wars, which both horrified and fascinated me. I was shocked for example to discover that certain Sikh troops were lured into working with the Japanese with a false promise of Indian independence.

Venning’s grandfather, the ruthless and dapper Walter, who seems to have inspired admiration and hatred in equal measure, was exceptionally well drawn. His brother Peter’s descent into hell as he is transferred from camp to camp at the hands of the Japanese reminded me of the compelling David Bowie film, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The family motto, Nil Desperandum, never despair, was never so apt as there.

Venning does not shrink from examining the mental health consequences of conflict, both in those who fight and those on the Home Front, male and female alike.

This is genealogy-based writing at its best and as an author of fiction – one step further on from family history memoire – I can hear a film script begging for release from this excellent book too.

Highly recommended.

Hodder & Stoughton, £20

Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/War-Walkers-Soldiers-Extraordinary-Survival-ebook/dp/B07JH1ZGSV&ved=2ahUKEwjQo8rO9bvkAhW_VRUIHXwfCTkQFjAAegQIBhAB&usg=AOvVaw2TjMTbjwSbyT2QgRKgi0d4

The gentle joys of making breakfast…

I have been earning my living for almost 20 years as a heritage consultant. I have enjoyed the vast majority of my contracts, which have taken me all over the UK and Europe, and led to quirky activity such as writing a play about the success of Captain Scott’s Antarctic exhibition for the RGS or looking at the impact of slavery on museum collections. My need to write – and eventually Major Tom’s War – grew out of some of this story and collection-based work. Much of the more run-of-the-mill contract content was report-based, however, and that has become more and more demanding and formulaic as the years have gone by. I am half sick of planning, said the Lady of Shalott.

Although I will keep doing more of the fun stuff, I sincerely hope I have written my last big interpretive report.

To fill the gap, I am making lovely people some rather splendid breakfasts in our new AirBnB set-up called The Chanonry Bolthole. It is incredible to be able to base life around such a simple transaction. I use fruit and vegetables from my garden and eggs from local hens as much as I can. Il faut cultiver son jardin…

I provide a clean comfortable bed and a nice breakfast made with local ingredients and my guests depart with a smile on their face. It is as simple as that. Doing this (and doing it well) makes me absurdly happy. This feminist has even taken to enjoying the ironing, shock horror!

It is not dull or repetitive (I cannot say that about some of my interpretive plans). I enjoy my guests’ stories, of course, whether they are from Skegness or Ealing, the Basque region or Australia, the USA or France. Every single person who comes sees the Highlands with fresh eyes. I am able to find out what they like and nudge them in the direction of unusual things to see and do which I know they in particular will enjoy. The satisfaction is immense. I really do wish I had done this years ago!

Once my guests have gone, I am free to write knowing that my two spare rooms have bought me that precious writing time.

Of course it is a short season – and Brexit is bound to have an adverse impact on bookings next year – but I am very glad to have made this life change.

Next year I plan to host some writer stays here for folk who need a bit of one-to-one support or just peace to write/edit. Not a formal retreat, more of a creative sanctuary. Keep an eye on http://www.facebook.com/ChanonryBolthole for offers and updates!

The not-so-gentle art of telling people what to think

In Britain we are familiar with the concept of propoganda. In Major Tom’s War I write of how Tom is appalled when he hears of the rape of German nuns, which has him describing the enemy as ‘brute beasts’. 100 years on, we know this to have been a calculated piece of motivational propoganda, which clearly did its job, and yet was still a lie. It was communicated through visual representations (drawings of nuns cowering before bayonet-wielding Germans) and newspaper reports by journalists who were either ‘in on it’ or content to pass on a story they were given rather to report something they had witnessed.

We study propoganda in school and think of it in terms of posters with strong visual messages communicated through words or images or a combination of the two. Traditional marketing grew out of propoganda. Today, however, we have ‘nudge’ to contend with too.

Nudge shapes the way we think through a number of small suggestions embedded within other media – rather than clearly and openly, as something with which we can make a choice to agree or disagree.

It can be as subtle as the taming of errant locks. What might the flattening of a Prime Ministerial candidate’s hairstyle say to us all subliminally? Ah, look. He’s settling down. Taking the job seriously. That’s good. No – that’s nudge.

In nudge, tiny nuances of language count too. If a pro-Brexit focus group says that it wishes Westminster would ‘just get on with it’ then you can bet your bottom dollar this wording will be reflected in speeches from those at the top.

This is nothing new. The whole political fiasco since the Brexit referendum is not, I believe, the comedy of errors it appears to have been, but a change of leadership which has been clinically planned. It began when a gullible David Cameron was duped by his old school chums into calling the catastrophic and manipulated vote on European membership. Dice have been thrown since, yes, but those dice have always been loaded.

If you have two political candidates standing against each other in a leadership context, one, say, called Robert Smith and the other Peter Jones, they should have equal media coverage, yes? Peter Jones is consistently referred to as Jones, or by both his names. Robert Smith, however, has friends in the media: he used to be a journalist. His pictures are everywhere. He isn’t ever referred to as Smith but as ‘Bob Smith’, more likely ‘Bob the Job’, after a hilarious Jobcentre incident, or just plain Bob, like he is the bloke from next door. This is in spite of the fact that his real name is Rupert St John Roberto de Smythe.

We all know Bob’s bluff and cheery ways, or think we do. The papers love him. He can do woefully crass and stupid things, but we have been conditioned by nudge to think that he’s a bit of a laugh, that he’s one of us.

He’s not, of course. He’s a power-hungry millionaire who surrounds himself with people who can manipulate the way we think. Peter Jones, a worthy but boring ex-dentist, doesn’t stand a chance.

Supposing a national newspaper wrote a piece about how youngsters from deprived areas of London are being given access to a top public school? Fantastic for these hard-working pupils and their visionary parents, and an enlightened school, one might think. But embedded within that article are dozens of references to none other than good old Bob the Job, who happened to be educated at the same fine establishment. Very subtly the language equates ‘Bob’ with the young, bright, ambitious lad from the sink estate. But they are not the same and the timing of the appearance of the piece can be no coincidence. Nudge.

Bob takes power by assembling a ‘war cabinet’. Bob is ‘getting on with it’. Bob admires Churchill and if he manages to nudge us all over a cliff on October 31st this will be heralded as a D-Day-esque victory and a ‘proud day’. What would my grandfather Tom, a real soldier, think of such twisting of reality? That’s easy. In 1918 he was already talking about ‘disgusting politicians’.

I identify as European first, a Scot second and a Briton third. Brexit will render me partially stateless. I object to an imperfect yet peaceful Europe being cast in the role of the Third Reich. I can imagine those Bob has employed writing the ‘war cabinet’ concept on a brainstorming wall in Sharpie and standing back to nod and smirk agreement.

So why talk about ‘Bob’? Because the people hunched in the shadows who are collecting social media data on behalf of those now in power will not have their algorithms set to ‘Bob’. Our reactions are being monitored as well as manipulated. And I am afraid of what is happening to my poor country, our fragile democracy, right now.

Three ways to resist nudge:

1. Ask ‘why now’ when any opponent of the new regime is suddenly alleged to be perverted, or corrupt, or incompetent.

2. Consider ‘who benefits’ from the same allegations or indeed any piece of unlikely positive pro-Brexit news.

3. Believe what you believe, for as long as you possibly can. And care about being able to do so.

Thoughts on the Piccadilly Line

So – London again! It is very hot and humid and I have stupidly boarded the Piccadilly (which the WordPress gremlins endearingly keep changing to Piccalilli) Line with neither a bottle of water nor a book. I was rather hoping for some lovely #PoemsontheUnderground but alas I can only see betting ads from my narrow seat. Which leaves me with only the perusal of the Piccadilly Line linear map for entertainment over the next hour.

Heathrow. I remember the sheer devil-may-care thrill (and expense) of flying to London from Inverness with my mother for the first time circa 1974 en route for South Africa where my sister then lived, my only ever exotic childhood holiday. Before that, our travel between the Capital of the Highlands and the Capital of the Other Bits was via a rattly and unreliable overnight sleeper service with an all night bar – cheap (then) and enormous fun. You could perch on the cover of the wash-hand basin in your tiny bunk berth, fling open the window and stick your head out to smell either the mountains or the motorways, depending on direction of travel.

When I worked (or rather slaved) for the National Trust in the 1990s, Osterley Park was a regular haunt. I was responsible for events in the region which included thumping great music and firework events for thousands to the backdrop of music by the Glenn Miller Band or the Bootleg Beatles at Osterley. The property manager there at the time was a witty chap named Barry who had a nice line in withering put-downs.

Lovely parkland – but the house itself always left me cold, possibly just as its original owner and architect intended. It shouts ‘I have piles of money and influence and a classical education to boot and you can just tug your forelock and scurry back to your dingy hamlet, serf.’ Good thing NT owns it inalienably, otherwise it might have been acquired by one of the new cabinet as a summerhouse.

I grew to know Gloucester Road and South Kensington well in the mid-1980s when I worked as an educational walking tour guide with a company who had better remain nameless. I would don a bright beret and stride forth with my brolly aloft, leading my hapless charges from their arrival station to their very inexpensive hotel in the vicinity of these two underground stations.

One day two lads came back up out of the basement with an aggrieved expression and after repeatedly telling them not to make such a fuss, I investigated to find their room was ankle deep in water and plaster from the ceiling above.

Although the role had its frustrations I became very fit, walking all over London, learned its history and in particular navigated its museums, which was to lead to my first ‘proper job’ with the Imperial War Museum.

Then, approaching the other end of the Piccadilly Line, Wood Green. Neither wooded nor green but a better bet than East Finchley, its Northern line counterpart. Why these two stations? Well, we had bought a flat in Muswell Hill, which is a nice part of the burbs but has no underground station of its own (the clue is in the name). I therefore used to board a W7 (or was it the W3?) bus for Alexandra Palace and then duck back into Dukes Avenue under the old railway bridge.

And finally, Cockfosters. I have never actually been there but my mother once shared a joke of her father’s with me (which is how I knew he had a sense of the ridiculous when I came to write #MajorTomsWar). It may possibly have come from a Punch cartoon.

First man standing to a second man in a very crowded Piccadilly Line train:

‘Excuse me, Sir, is this Cockfosters?’

‘Good Lord, Sir, no – it’s mine.’

Evie’s genes four generations on…

Graduations, eh?

Many parents of bright offspring will sit through one at some stage, moist of eye and empty of wallet. After three hours of applauding until our palms spasm we watch our beloved child-no-longer emerge from all the jovial pontificating to set off down the river of life in a leaky one-person kayak. As we are used to their presence on board our comfortable cabin cruiser where everyone has a personal life jacket, it is all rather unsettling.

My elder daughter justgraduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on Friday 5th July 2019. She did so in style, with a First Class Honours Degree in Classical Singing.

This is not (or not wholly at any rate) a proud mother blogpost. It is also a reflection on history, and genetics, and those inescapable moments in life when both nothing and everything changes forever.

Evie in Major Tom’s War and many of the women in our family are strong, bright and irritatingly selfless, all too willing to give up our own ambition and identity for some greater good.

Both my grandmother’s and my mother’s futures were derailed by global conflict.

And before the twentieth century, the family tree is scattered with bored, clever women, who married because it was expected of them, and who read poetry, and wrote letters, and embroidered, and painted exquisite watercolours of flowers, all to fill the yawning hours.

If you have read Major Tom’s War then you will know that Evie longed to be a concert pianist but became instead a nurse, wife and mother.

Evie’s daughter Numpy, my mother, was all set to travel to France to study when Tom shook his head at the storm clouds of war and forbade it. She became a superb teacher, but it was not where her heart lay.

Most heart-rending of all, as a prize-winning boy treble, my late brother was offered the role of Amahl in the Christmas Opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by its composer Gian Carlo Menotti. My father, a fine musician himself, turned it down. He said my brother did not have the right temperament. Perhaps he did not, but he still had an exceptional voice. Through his doubtless-well-meaning action my father denied my brother the right to try. His life could have been so utterly different.

Even in my own past I am aware that some of the life choices I have made were shaped within choices made by others. Friday’s graduation therefore had hidden emotional depths for me, as I saw it as a moment celebrating complete freedom and infinite possibility.

It is of course quite possible, even probable, that my lovely daughter will choose not to become a professional musician for her entire career. What she does next is up to her.

Even if she decides to settle in Outer Mongolia to herd yaks, I am still elated that she has had the support and opportunity to study within the creative arts for her music degree. I am so grateful that she lives in a time of relative peace in a culture where women can be utterly independent in life.

Amid all the junketing and the tossing of mortar boards of the graduation we adults often feel just that little bit older as we watch our young ones bob off down the river. Oh, we know it must be so, but we still mourn the moment, even if only just a little, and quietly. The Penny Falls has just shoved us that little bit closer to its merciless edge.

The rest, however, is all pride, and joy, and laughter.

The Living Dead at Forsinard Flows…

Anyone who has read Major Tom’s War will ‘get’ how important my forebears are to me.

Like Tom, my grandfather, I had an unsatisfactory father. When I was six or so Mum gave up on her philandering husband and packed me into her Austin A40 (together with a witless Dalmation named Bobby, the family portraits and almost all the photograph albums – the one of Tom and Evie’s wedding she left propping open the door of the marriage she fled).

We turned our noses Highlands-ward. She had family on the Black Isle. I had never been there.

The journey took three days, via various compassionate friends. I got lost on a housing estate in Manchester and was miraculously found by Bobby (so not an entirely dim dog then). We took on more oil than petrol, since the Austin dribbled a leak.

It got colder. Then it snowed. It was the winter of 1968. We drove through Drumochter behind the snowplough, arriving at Drynie in a blizzard as Jack Russells bounced and barked at my aunt’s windows.

Although I have lived both in England and Europe, the Highlands have been home home ever since. I tend to regard my English place of birth as an unlucky quirk of fate.

And the Black Isle is where Mum died, on the 5th October 2005. No-one forgets the day their mother dies.

And yet, somehow, even in those first hours after it had happened, I knew she was not altogether lost. Something of her remained, and that something was, and is, indestructible.

From time to time I become aware of her presence, usually when I am alone and out of doors, or driving. I would hesitate to call it Soul, although it is both bright and beautiful. Energy perhaps comes closer. The author Sally Vickers describes it as a sheerness of presence.

Mum comes to visit me less frequently now, as perhaps she feels I need her less as time passes. But travelling back from Orkney this morning, I realised with a strange flutter of the heart that she was there once more. A whisper remembered or half-heard. Why not go a different way… where does this road go? Shall we? Oh yes, why not, let’s!

So I eschew the direct route home, the NC500 camping cars and roadworks of the A9, for the empty and undulating 40 miles of passing places on the Melvich to Helmsdale road through Forsinard Flows.

A sigh of contentment as she settles in for the journey.

I should have driven straight past the RSPB visitor centre – and do so at first – but then I hear the faintest sound of disappointment from the passenger seat. I find myself undertaking a many-pointed turn in the road.

The interpretation has changed since I produced the last iteration for RSPB back in the early 2000s (fun facts about carbon sinks, zzzz). I like what is there now rather better.

I should have left it at that, of course. A quick look round. Instead my legs, atrophied from too much recent computer work, found themselves striding out through the peatlands. The coiled outlook tower on the horizon resembles a broken stump of fossilised bogwood.

Oh Mum, I say. For goodness’ sake. It’s raining.

You are not made of sugar, comes the familiar response.

I give in.

The peatbog has a delicate, speckled skin of life topping chocolatey depths as the heather and moss decay into aeons of fragrant peat, gobbling up carbon and keeping it safe.

A duckboard path winds to the new tower. The path floats over the sopping peat on unobtrusive black recycled plastic sleepers, keeping the wood above water even in the wettest winter. Clever stuff.

I find myself slowing down, breathing more deeply, forgetting about the sixty-odd miles still ahead.

I stop and stare at the sphagnum moss, in all its shades of emerald and gold and crimson. Something about sphagnum reminds me of vividly undiluted jelly cubes, or perhaps it is just the ancient quiver of the peat beneath that I recall: the old flagstone paths once quaked here where one trod.

Bog cotton flickers. A cold wind is rising from the grey hills beyond.

Forsinard was nicknamed Frozen’Ard by troops on the Jellicoe Express heading north. Not much better today, and it is June. Midsummer. Climate change?

Sssh, says Mum. Don’t spoil it. Look!

Too sluggish to escape my lens, sand lizards are doing their reptilian best to bask on the exposed ends of the plastic sleepers. One big chap has lost his tail and I wonder how.

A heron, says Mum.

Another lizard, darker, with an elegant striped tail, is perhaps an expectant mother full of little leathery eggs. Protecting herself if not the future of her species, she is flattened against the plastic, desperately trying to blend in as she warms herself.

We watch her bright eyes, her tiny flickering breaths. She watches us right back, praying that her camouflage works and that we will not dart at her with a dagger bill to swallow her whole.

How do you think she sees us?

Two unfathomable gentle giants, we smile and leave the little dinosaur to rest, in peace.

When Mum walks with me, my vision becomes doubly acute. I can see every fragment of lichen-crusted peat, every wisp of heather and sweet bog myrtle.

I say their names out loud, threading my mother a string of millefiori beads as we walk: milkwort, tormentil, sundew, chickweed wintergreen (oh, look, look, a carpet of little stars…).

I return to the car refreshed.

On the drive south somewhere between the reserve and Helmsdale, as the light changes from inland grey to brighter coast, she takes her leave. I feel her go: the faintest pressure of her hand on mine as I change gear.

I would never say don’t go, and I try not to think it, for if she did not, I might never again feel her return: and that is unthinkable, for her occasional presence is a joy and a wonder to me.

Where does she go? To be with my brother, somehow, I think. But that is a story for another time.

And for now I am safely home.

My take on the Saint Magnus International Festival… for those who have never been to Orkney!

I honeymooned in Orkney back in the 1980s. For the geographically-inept, this is the lower of the two island archipelagoes which appear to exist in the boxes in the mouth of the Moray Firth on the map.

After a disastrous first night in the Ayre Hotel, which had builders deconstructing the room next door, we decamped to a friendly B&B in St Ola on the hill above Kirkwall. There, I fell in love with Orkney – and sadly my new husband fell in love with the idea of reliably sunny, warm, dry holidays almost anywhere else.It does not always rain in Orkney – but sometimes it does. We tried another holiday there en famille 20 or so years ago when it rained for an entire fortnight, but still Orkney somehow draws me back. When the vast skies do clear there is nowhere more beautiful and uplifting to be on Earth. It makes my heart dance just to board the Pentalina at Gills Bay and cross the Pentland Firth.I am ashamed to admit that I only attended my first St Magnus Festival two years ago and I was doubly smitten. It provided the hefty hit of immersive international culture I sometimes pine for in the mainland Highlands: I love Scottish music and culture too but once in a while I need more.

And of course attending the festival means an excuse for a few days of complete escapism in a natural and historical environment I love.This year, glory be, the loose theme was 1919 and the aftermath of the Great War – so I was invited to speak.The Festival, founded by composer the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is now in its 43rd year. It is also truly international: not just performers but also many of the audience come from all over the world.

I shared a friendly fish and chips with Linda from Toronto on Saturday night, queuing for them at the ‘good’ chippy along with the rest of Kirkwall (evening meals out can be a challenge) before she headed onwards for Shetland.On Sunday I spoke in the plush cinema at the ‘Picky’ centre – rather a good turn-out – perhaps they thought I was one of the other guest speakers?This time my volunteer ‘victim’ was the lovely Martin, a devoted St Magnus Festival fan of ten years’ standing who comes up from Lancaster every summer. Yes, Reader, I executed him, but he was very nice about it and we shared a fudge brownie afterwards.And oh yes, I did indeed check whether Terry Waite was in the audience before this photo was taken.

Arriving early and signing books at the Orcadian bookshop later in the week meant an opportunity to savour some of the other Festival delights too.Here is a glimpse of the Peace Gardens Trail which enabled us to explore Papdale Walled Garden, Happy Valley (an inspired place to use!) and Woodwick House with a variety of musical and artistic interludes. At the end, a violinist and percussionist on vibraphone played Spiegel im Spiegel with sunlight and birdsong streaming through the upper windows and I sat there listening with tears rolling down my cheeks – I know it doesn’t take much! – but a blissful release from a stressful few months of work.Poet Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take read from his poetic work.Its gnarly roots probe dark and uncomfortable places in Highland culture. Inspired by his lecture, I explored my own metaphor for the St Magnus Festival.

To me it is like a fine tablecloth, spread over the ancient driftwood table that is Orkney, once a year. The table can serve perfectly well as a table without it, and one leg occasionally mutters that it has no need of a fancy tablecloth which is only thrown over it for the benefit of outsiders: but the other table-legs quietly enjoy their bonny annual covering.

Orkney is enhanced and transformed by its time of adornment as the St Magnus Festival.

This is no frilly, frothy, lacy tablecloth either – no lightweight festival this – more a fine white linen, the very devil to iron, embroidered with ever more fantastic and complex designs each year.At the end of the festival the tablecloth is removed, shaken, folded and carefully put away until next year. The memory of it resonates, just as the single notes of the haunting James MacMillan piece I heard performed today at the eery old Town Hall Kirk in Stromness still pulsed, long after the key was struck.

Mary Bevan, Joseph Middleton and William Thomas gave us a superbly chilling selection of Anthems for Doomed Youth.The annual miracle of St Magnus is brought about by an army of volunteers, a quirky selection of venues, some very good performers and the Festival team, led by Alasdair Nicolson, who was always destined for greatness (our paths crossed during our schooldays).My own personal highlights?

A robin turning a Telemann duet into a trio in Papdale Walled Garden.A visceral response to Robin Robertson’s unsettling first poem. Watching the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra percussionists perform Fanfare to the Common Man and other mighty percussive pieces with barely a flicker of emotion: the definition of cool. Spiegel im Spiegel as already mentioned. The sheer ubiquity of trumpeter par excellence Tom Poulson (or should I say the Poulson Twins?).Tomorrow night’s performance of Alasdair Nicolson’s Govan Stones (almost but not quite its premiere).

And then of course watching the ‘Cattieface’ owl and hen harriers hunting across my friend Caroline’s wild field, as starlings mass into hit mobs to startle them, the port of Kirkwall spread out beyond. I have to return to normality tomorrow. If you can come to the last few days of this festival, you won’t regret it.

And if you have never been to Orkney, make your plans for 2020 now…