17 May 2018

Third Degree Burns

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet.....






In June 1971, as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, I bought Barbara Goulding's unused copy of Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, even though the national poet of Scotland was not on my syllabus.  I must have looked at it, but I have to say that, until recently, the book has remained little thumbed....




I guess I was attracted by a hazily understood reputation of the bard.  But neither then, nor when I returned to Lancaster in 1984 for a second degree, did I unravel the references to Poosie-Nansie, Souter Johnie, or Tam o' Shanter.  






Robert Burns was born in a small cottage in Alloway, on the 25th January 1759, merely a day before Australia Day (and my birthday....)  




His father and mother are buried in the yard of Alloway Auld Kirk nearby, and, to paraphrase something I heard someone say recently, if they were alive today they would be turning in their graves to see the grandiose monument and magnificent museum dedicated to their eldest son, which are just a step away from the rough and ready cottage that William had built himself on a small parcel of land....







Even though the boy has parked his bike outside....






Robert's father, a stern calvinist, did his best for his children and, despite the rigours of farm life, he ensured that education was not overlooked.  Robert learned to read and write and was fluent in both English and Scots, though as he grew he may have had conflicting thoughts about learning...

'O Man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Mis-spending all thy precious hours,
Thy glorious, youthful prime!'

Man was Made to Mourn







Robert and his brother Gilbert worked as ploughmen for their father, but also managed to form a debating society in Tarbolton which they called the Bachelors' Club.  

At the age of 22, in 1781, he went to Irvine to learn how to dress flax, one of the crops his father was growing.  He was there for six months, and made the most of Templeton's bookshop, though at the same time he also became acquainted with whisky and women....







After their father's death in 1784, Robert and Gilbert took on the lease of a farm in Mauchline.  Robert also fathered a child which, as he didn't marry the mother, he brought into the household.... one of fourteen children he acknowledged.....

About the same time he met another local girl, Jean Amour, who, early in 1786 became pregnant, though in the same year he was courting one Highland Mary... unfortunately, however, by October Mary was dead.

On July 31st 1786 John Wilson of Kilmarnock printed 600 copies of Scottish Poems by Robert Burns, which became an overnight success.  On the back of this, and without care for Jean Armour who had given birth to twins, Robert set out for Edinburgh in November of that year.






In Edinburgh Burns was a hit.  The Ploughman Poet charmed and intrigued society, and on 21st April 1787 the First Edinburgh Edition of his poems was published - and 3000 copies were printed.

With glowing eyes and a steady gaze, as well as a captivating voice, Burns was irresistible, and affairs and passionate friendships ensued.  However he didn't stay put in the city - he made tours of the Border counties and of the Highlands - and before too long he felt the need to find a job, and to provide for Jean Armour, who had managed to produce a second set of twins by Robert, although both of these swiftly died.

But, in 1787, Burns married Jean, and, in June, he set up home at Ellisland Farm on the banks of the Nith, near Dumfries, where, in December, the house was finished and he was joined by Jean. 






Here, amidst family life, the difficulties of a poor agricultural existence (Robert switched from arable to dairy after a year) and the training he underwent to become an exciseman, Burns wrote some of his best loved verse, including the rollicking yarn, Tam o' Shanter, a tale that may have had some personal experience behind it.....







But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white - then melts for ever....









The tale ends as drunken Tam is carried across the keystone of the Brig o' Doon by his faithful mare, Maggie, chased by a howling band of warlocks and witches, who grab at Maggie's tail:


The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.








But, as 'twas well known, the devil's brood dare not cross a running stream, so....


Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man, and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear:
Remember Tam o' Shanter's meare.








And this was not the only example of Robert's care for animals.  On Seeing A wounded Hare Limp By Me Which A Fellow Had Just Shot At is another of his Ellisland poems, composed by the winding river Nith...

And many a reluctant GCSE pupil will know To A Mouse (On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, November 1785):


Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie....







If only for the lines:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!








And so to Dumfries, where, after three years of struggling with the land, Burns moved to become a member of the First or Port Division of the Dumfries Excise, and lived with his family at 11 Bank Street, now preserved as a museum and memorial to the poet.




And it is here that I enter the University of the Third Age, inspired by Burns to the third degree....  I find, amongst the articles on show or for sale, a copy of Eddi Reader's deluxe edition of the Songs of Robert Burns.  Eddi was born in Glasgow though her family later relocated to Irvine, where Burns had learnt to dress flax.  She became a musician, travelling round Europe and then settling in London for a while, where she sang with Annie Lennox, and then topped the charts with Fairground Attraction, whose drummer was my old pal Roy Dodds, who spent many a mispent moment with me, Joe, Ben et al in The Festival Hole, infamous club in 1960's Berkhamsted.....

Since London Eddi's career has taken her around the world, including to Hollywood, and she is currently on tour in the UK.

It is the Robert Burns album that inspires me now, however.  It was recorded with some of the finest folk musicians, including Roy on percussion, and also with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  It was premiered at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the Celtic Connections Festival in January 2003, but released as the Deluxe edition in 2009.  The arrangements are beautiful, but it is Eddi's hauntingly beautiful voice that cuts across the centuries and breathes the words into living thoughts, wild birds in the treetops and the wind....







Robert Burns lived a relatively short life, but he made his mark, and his verses still inspire and console over two hundred years after his death.  I am only sorry I didn't look more into the book I bought all those long years ago....  

So, to make up for lost time, and to commune a little with the soul of the departed bard, I pay my respects at his mausoleum in St Michael's churchyard..... 









And then I step down the narrow lane off Dumfries High Street that leads to the Globe Inn, the howff where Burns spent many an hour, wining, dining, and courting Anna of the Gowden Locks....


Yest're'en I had a pint of wine,
A place where body saw na;
Yest're'en lay on this breast o' mine,
The gowden locks o' Anna....





It's not too late.  There is still time, I hope, to appreciate the works of this particular poet man:


 The winter it is past, and the simmer comes at last,
And the small birds sing on eve'ry tree:
The hearts of these are glad, but mine is very sad,
For my love is parted from me.

The Winter it is Past



 


And though he no longer scratches poems on windows with his diamond ring, he has left us enough to be going on with, and more.  I hope his love of love will perhaps touch such souls as come together in the near future, (such as some who may marry on May 19th, in Camden, if not in Windsor....)


And I will love thee still, my dear,
'Til all the seas gang dry.
'Til all the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun;
And I shall love thee still, my dear,
Though the sands o' life shall run.....






As Eddi Reader writes in her liner notes: What a wonderful thing that man did.... to write a song that makes everyone sing together and hold each other at the dawning of a new year, in ALL languages... and he never got to see it... God bless his soul.


We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
For auld...
For auld lang syne.









4 May 2018

Journeys with 'The Waste Land'

On Margate sands....




HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME


Journeys with The Waste Land is the title of an exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, though by the time you read this it will probably have closed.





On Margate Sands.
I can connect 

Nothing with nothing.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Journeys with 'The Waste Land' is a major exhibition exploring the significance of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land through the visual arts.

In 1921, T.S. Eliot spent a few weeks in Margate at a crucial moment in his career. He arrived in a fragile state, physically and mentally, and worked on The Waste Land sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter....




 on Margate Sands. 




The poem was published the following year, and proved to be a pivotal and influential modernist work, reflecting on the fractured world in the aftermath of the First World War as well as Eliot’s own personal crisis.








I have come to Margate to see this exhibition, and to explore the town, as, despite many personal crises and several wars, I have never been......







The little I knew of Margate was that J M W Turner (Timothy Spall) spent some time here, with Mrs Sophia Booth, a particularly accommodating landlady; the ashes of Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) are scattered off the end of the breakwater here at the end of Graham Swift's Last Orders; Tracey Emin was brung up here (sic); and Thanet (the area) is one of the most deprived in the UK (though there is no connection between this fact and the previous one: Mad Tracey from Margate.  Everyone's been there - an appliqué blanket, fabric from clothing provided by friends, 267 x 216 cms, executed in 1997 -  fetched £722,500 at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 16 October 2014).....







I don't know whether T S Eliot liked seafood, but I enjoy cockles with the camera-shy potential next Mayor of Margate, who tells me that the Japanese tourists (Margate is in the Japanese guide books) like their oysters.....






Inside Turner Contemporary I get to know some of the locals - in this case John Davies's My Ghosts.... (a collage of images significant to me - people loved and lost, those wronged, those missed....)







Before becoming involved in the artworks and objects chosen by The Waste Land Research Group.  It is a fascinating and rewarding collection, especially (for me) where illustrations link clearly with either the period of The Waste Land or they pick up on one of the themes, a good example being Edward Hopper's Night Windows, 1928....

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.....
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays.








Or William Lionel Wyllie's The Goodwin Sands, 1874....

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers.  As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.







Or Paul Nash's The Shore, 1923


And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street,
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishermen lounge at noon.....








Your man himself is present, too, in this case painted by Edgar Holloway in 1934, when the artist himself was only 20.....








Though without the maestro's mandoline.....








It's a shame you may not see this exhibition, though I believe it will be re-staged somewhere else later this year....








But there's more to Margate than the shed by the shore....  The people, for instance.....








Scott, for example, is as friendly as can be at The Fez, and he rings down to The Lantern Cafe to make sure that Liz will be able to feed us.....








And indeed she is.  Her Bubble and Squeak, with egg and bacon, is a rare treat, especially as, with Carol's permission, she brings it in to us next door at The Harbour Arms......








Outside, in the rain, there's just time for a look round.  Pink seems to be the predominant colour:








Even the trees by the remarkable Tudor House are pink.....






And, despite it's patina of age, the 4.6 million shells in the Shell Grotto have a pink tinge.  No one knows how old this extraordinary place is (it was 'found' in 1835) but my guess is that it was the burial chamber of an Etruscan Pearly King.....








The Theatre Royal is the second oldest theatre in the country, which may be why Gerry and the Pacemakers performed here last year....







But all is not old, nor,

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying.....

There is Yasmin.....







Who smiles, and chatters; who grew up here and loves the place and is just the best antidote to a Waste Land......

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings....


Thank you Margate!





Waste Land?  What Waste Land?




30 April 2018

RSPB Mull of Galloway

Not just for the birds....




It's a long drive, from anywhere, to the Mull of Galloway. By the time I finish my two-week placement as a volunteer with the RSPB I have clocked up nearly 1,000 miles, but then there aren't (many) gannets in Harpenden.....

Trouble is, when I arrive there is, quite literally, virtually nothing to see....




Which is why, I assume, they put a lighthouse here, complete with foghorn, though this was last operated in anger by the resident Lighthouse Keepers of the Northern Lighthouse Board back in November 1987.




Fortunately, following the acquisition of land and buildings at the Mull of Galloway by the Mull of Galloway Trust in 2013, and with the help of local retired engineer Steve Burns, the three Kelvin K2 diesel engines and associated compressed air system have now been restored and every Sunday at one o'clock the glorious blast can once again be heard (providing, ironically, there's no fog!)



Sadly, this doesn't help me find the RSPB visitor centre, but happily a stonechat is on hand to assist me....






And so here we are.....






Volunteering with resident Community Engagement Officers, Botswana Dave and Rob Conn....






Then, the clouds lift, and a Force 8 gale blows the seas clear, so now I can see the Isle of Man.....






And the lighthouse.....






And some birds:  kittiwakes brave the sea spray.....






While gannets skim the waves....






And herring gulls scan the water for anything to eat.....






The wind drops and the 80 metre cliffs support guillemots, razorbills and nesting shag.....





While on the water below courting couples razor-bill and coo.....




Chaperoned by a synchronised pair of  ravens....





It is early in the year, and the spring is late. The water is cold and food for the seabirds (sand eels, small fry) is still scarce, so nesting has not yet begun in earnest, though two and a half thousand pairs of gannets can be seen readying themselves six miles out on Big Scare, and the kittiwakes are collecting mud and grass to tread down into their creviced platforms.  


In the patch of willows in standing water below the visitor centre passing warblers and the occasional chiff chaff can be seen....





And the still brown heathers are alive with meadow pipits....





And handsome masked wheatears, showing their smart backsides (from which they get their name - white rear - or arse if you prefer...) when they flit off.....






Peregrine and kestrel hunt round here and migrating greylag geese pass overhead....






I see buzzards around, though one of them seems too large and powerful to be a buzzard as he disappears out over Luce Bay before I can get my binoculars....  Could that have been a sea eagle, I wonder?  Inland, over the Forest of Galloway, I see another large bird of prey launch itself amongst the firs. Again, probably a buzzard, but a very large, heavy one if so.  But I definitely see red kite there.....  So beautiful.....




It's not just about the birds, however.  Apart from the presence of roe deer on the reserve, standing out against the sea....




Or leaping, perfectly camouflaged (like the brown hare also found here), up the hill....




There is a lot going on.  The RSPB is about conservation. Without suitable habitat there will be no birds. But without suitable habitat there won't be anything at all. So the RSPB is not just about birds - it is the largest nature conservation charity in the country, consistently delivering successful conservation, forging powerful new partnerships with other organisations and inspiring others to stand up and give nature the home it deserves. The RSPB is a charity, founded in 1889 and run by a council of volunteers. 









The visitor centre at RSPB Mull of Galloway attracts some 20,000 visitors a year, and apart from welcoming people and informing them about what can be seen on the reserve (which is part of a much larger Site of Specific Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation) the work here involves fund raising and encouraging membership of the organisation.  Dave and Rob are engaged full time in this, and as a volunteer I am there to lend a hand as well.

A number of those I speak to, however, seem to equate the RSPB with the National Trust and English Heritage and speak of having been a member but not having used it that much, having visited the reserves near their home, and therefore having exhausted the value of membership.  

This is an understandable argument, but it is a mistaken one.  The point of the RSPB is not that it gives you free parking and free entrance to a wealth of attractions preserved in aspic.  I think (and this is my personal view) that the point of the RSPB is that without this organisation (and its partners) there soon won't be the richness and variety of natural life that is in itself a reward, part of the wonder of living....






I enjoy visiting ancient buildings and interesting homes, but to enter a stately doll's house where the family have succumbed to the rigours of death duties is to engage a sense of social history and to shed a tear in the empty room where Timmy's trunk lies, next to the rocking horse, left behind when he went to war.  You look at a large brown portrait of a fat man in a waistcoat, and perhaps of a woman held up by whalebone.... and you pass on, careful not to disturb the teasel on the chaise longue...

With the RSPB your membership is different.  You do get goodies for joining, and a regular magazine, but the essential thing is that 90% of your contribution goes to work with the land, conserving the habitat of the flora, fauna and avifauna that makes life really worth living.






Of course you can also volunteer...  I have just been honoured with a silver swift and certificate in recognition of 5 years' volunteering with the RSPB.  In this time I have probed peat in Sutherland, counted geese at dawn on Islay, guarded ospreys overnight in the Cairngorms, cleaned up tern nesting sites on Coquet Island, cleared reedbeds in Norfolk, watched for bitterns and marsh harriers in Lincolnshire, litter swept in Cumbria, kept an eye on Peregrines at Symonds Yat and cleaned out sheep pens in Wales.....  And everywhere I've made new friends and learned more and more about birds and their world. 


There are lots of ways to get involved and give nature a home with the RSPB.



And now, after a long day on the Reserve, it's time to head back to Drummore for the evening.  There's a shop, here, and three pubs.  One of them, The Queens Head (sic) claims to be Scotland's southernmost hotel, which gives a new slant on the meaning of going south...  A sign in the window says "HOT BEER, LOUSY FOOD, BAD SERVICE..... WELCOME, HAVE A NICE DAY."  Irony is a strong point in the locality.





Opposite is the King's Hall.  At least this has an apostrophe....





But down the road, on Shore Street, there's The Ship Inn, where Bill & Jennifer will look after you (if they haven't gone to bed) and even magic up a lobster (if the wind is in the right direction....)





And then, after a wee dram, there's time for a wander by the harbour at sunset....




Before dodging the traffic and the crowds to get back home to Stair Street, the main thoroughfare to Stranraer...






Where my dreams are full of feathers....








With thanks to Rob and Dave, 
and to the RSPB generally....








https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/mull-of-galloway/