Thursday, 29 April 2010

Ziggifield Follies

They had proceeded thus two or three miles further when on a sudden Clare became conscious of some vast edifice close in his front, rising sheer from the grass. They had almost struck themselves against it.

'What monstrous place is this?' said Angel.

'It hums,' said she. 'Hearken!'

He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tone, like the note of some monstrous one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the structure. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally...

'What can it be?'

Feeling sideways they encountered another tower-like pillar, square and uncompromisuing as the first; beyond it another and another. The place was all doors and pillars, some connected above by continuous architraves.

'A very Temple of the Winds,' he said.

The next pillar was isolated; others formed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage; and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.

'It is Stonehenge!' said Clare.

(Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Ch. 58. Angel Clare and Tess Durbeyfield attempt to escape by night from the murder Tess has committed.)

I was taken once as a child to Stonehenge. It wasn't impossibly far away from Titchfield, a village between Portsmouth and Southampton, where I lived and went to school between the ages of 5 and 13 and which I count as my true home, to which I should like to return at the end. Provided you went by day and didn't crash into it at night by accident, as Hardy's characters did, you could run about inside it, dodge and hide, jump about on the collapsed stones. Or, if you were sensitive to the texture and origin of those extraordinary granite blocks, you could run your hands over them and marvel at the energy and determination of the ancient people that brought them here from South Wales. Not to mention the incredible maths needed to construct this massive solar calendar.

J. and I went there last March, on our way from Slough to Corfe Castle. English Heritage have taken it over now, and you can only appreciate this extraordinary witness to our ancestral civilisation from a safe, roped-off distance. As an Englishman, I feel disinherited by English Heritage. I know I shouldn't. I know I shouldn't object to paying. I know I shouldn't be reluctant to share this part of my birthright with coachloads of tourists, many from clearly alien backgrounds. But I daresay the original guardians of Stonehenge were even stricter about who could be admitted and on what conditions. Maybe things haven't changed much. Maybe I was very lucky to have been a child at a time when there was free and unconditional access. Maybe I've just become a mean old git. Oh dear. That it should come to this.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Staying longer than to breakfast (Conclusion)


So Mary McDiarmid died and left behind her inexplicable mementoes of her being, which lingered long after her death in about 1980 and may still be present in Geddes Village: the once-pungent scent of her udder-salve chilblain ointment, the sounds associated with her bedtime routine. These had disturbed the people who moved into the house next door, where we had lived for years until just before Mary died. They had called an exorcist in, to no avail, which didn't surprise me at all. If the spirit of Mary still hovered about her end of Geddes Village, it was anything but evil. In the end they left, and a family called Scally moved into what had been our old house.

Diane Scally (above, standing with her daughter Laura in 1990 outside No. ½ Geddes Village), an excellent cook, turned it into both the Scally home and a little eatery which she called The Woodland Restaurant. The dining-room, with room for about 20 covers, was our old sitting-room. Our family thought it would be suitable place to hold my mother's 80th birthday party, and it was during the organisation of it that I first met Diane.

I told her that we used to live there. Very guardedly, she began to ask certain questions. Had an old lady ever lived there? Or a soldier?

I told her that the dining-room we were then standing in had once been home to an aged and very slovenly woman called Jessie Ross, who must have died twenty years before. Then, of course, there was Mary, who had lived next door.

Did either of them ever come into this house? Diane asked.

Jessie, never, I replied. But Mary did, often. Every day, practically, for some reason or other. Just to know the time, or whether the postman had called yet, or to bring us the local paper, that sort of thing. She chatted freely, but never outstayed her welcome. She just liked it in our house, especially in winter. It was warm and light, there was always a cup of tea, and so on. She used to bring little presents for the children that they weren't terribly interested in, a couple of Rich Tea biscuits or a few imperial pan drops. She used to babysit sometimes. We didn't ask her often, because generally we would be back well after her bedtime. She went to bed quite early.

Diane asked what Mary looked like. I said she was small, neat, apple-cheeked with a healthy complexion, had her grey-to-white hair gathered back into a bun, and almost always wore a dark blue overall.

Then that's very strange. In fact it's uncanny, Diane said. She said she'd known about the noises next door, but this was something different. When Laura was four or five she seemed to be having some kind of relationship with a little old lady in a rocking chair up in her bedroom. "I didn't put much into it at the time. There was no reason to. You know how children invent things. She told my son Nicky - he's much older, and in the Navy - more than she told me, about her hair in a bun and her blue overall and keeping on talking so that Laura couldn't get to sleep."

Diane had mentioned a soldier, and I wondered what this was about. She said he came occasionally when she was alone in the house, so she was reluctant to tell anyone about him 'in case they thought I was stupid'. He was always by the window. She couldn't say what he looked like, apart from having dark hair. Otherwise he was indistinct. She thought from his uniform that he came from the First World War. What was most obvious, however, was not only the smell of his cigarettes but the sulphury smell of matches when you strike them. He wasn't in the least threatening or frightening. He was a gentle person and she was always pleased when she knew he was there.

This meant very little to me, until my mind went back to Mary's house in the old days, while she still lived there. She had practically no decoration, but I remembered that on the wall she had a double page spread colour photo torn from a 1930s magazine like Picture Post of the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose (i.e. the Queen and her late sister) and, in a card frame on the mantelpiece, a sepia photo of a soldier in puttees and a flat peaked cap.

* * *

I make a sentimental journey back to Geddes whenever we're in that part of the world. Geddes Village hasn't changed all that much. No. ½ Geddes Village has been gentrified and is now called Mary's End. Maybe this is commemoration enough, as all other vestiges of her seem now to have disappeared. Others can attempt explanations of all these things, if they want to. Count me out. The only conclusion I've come to is that hauntings, if that's what they were, don't always bespeak evil.

(I've had particular fondness for this story for the best part of 20 years. When I came out of education - long, long before retirement age - and moved to France intending to scrape a living by writing, this story was the first article I sold, to a monthly called The Scots Magazine. Thank you, Mary. One of their staff artists added the illustration below. Mary's features weren't nearly so sharp, she was shorter and plumper; Laura (who later became a close friend of my nephew Mark) didn't have curls. But the dormer window is reasonably accurate.)

Friday, 23 April 2010

Staying longer than to breakfast (4)

When we heard that Mary McDiarmid had died we were all very sorry, my (then) wife B. and our two children, for whom she had sometimes babysat when they were little. When we left No. 3, which I had called Cruachan, Mary was still in No. ½, frail but active and still as kindly as ever. I hope she never realised how dependent she had become on us. She took to coming to see us more and more often, without it ever becoming a nuisance, for a chat and a warm, a cup of tea and maybe some hot water to take home in a bucket, together with maybe a ham sandwich or a slice of sponge for later. Our relocation to a place about 20 miles away called Kinloss (which many will have heard of because of the large RAF station there) was tinged with regret, even guilt, at leaving Mary behind. Who was she going to turn to?

Then we heard that the Laird had re-housed her further down the village, at No.5, where there was water and electricity and where it was claimed she would be much more comfortable. I'm afraid she wasn't. We went to see her a few months after she'd been moved. She looked grey and shrunken, withdrawn and unwell. She died not long after, I believe in the Town and County Hospital in Nairn.

What had impressed us most about Mary was her essential goodness. Without being in any way remarkable, without having achieved anything that the world would consider an achievement, without having had children, without having been further south than Aberdeen, without having done anything except spend a working lifetime of domestic service, without being anything but what the local people call a 'wee wifie', nevertheless she was a quiet, simple, uncomplicated person blessed with a natural goodness.

* * *

Two or three years after Mary's death I had to go back to Geddes Village for a business appointment with someone who, I was surprised to discover, now lived in what had been Mary's house. It was my first return since her death, and I wasn't in the least prepared for what I found. Firstly, on approaching Mary's old front door I became aware of a curious scent, fleeting and not particularly strong, a slightly oily, ointmenty smell reminiscent of camphor and wintergreen. It was unmistakeable: it was Mary's chilblain ointment, the udder-salve her father had used for his cattle. How could it possibly still linger?

My host, an executive with local radio, welcomed me in. I mentioned the smell to him. Yes, he said, it came from the box hedge in front of his house. I didn't know what to think about this, but felt very diffident about charging it to Mary's account; it was unthinkable that the scent could have lasted so long after her death.

Or was it so unthinkable? When I told him that I'd lived in Geddes Village for years, he brought me up to date. After we'd gone, the Laird had sold both Mary's (to him) and Cruachan next door. The people who had bought our old house hadn't stayed very long, he said. They'd been most uncomfortable. Oh, the house was comfortable enough: it was the noises that eventually drove them out.

What noises? I asked.

Ghoulies and ghaisties and things that go bump in the night, he said. No, joking apart, there wasn't anything visible, but there were all these thumps and bumps and scrapings, like someone heaving furniture about. I heard them too, sometimes, but I never found them disturbing. They seemed to come from a downstairs room that's now our kitchen. Maybe that explains the running water, too.

Water? I asked, as distant memories of Mary's bedtime routine surfaced.

Yes, he said, they often heard running water at night, even at times when I was away. It sounded like someone peeing into a pail, they told me. Anyway, it all upset them so much that they had the place exorcised. But it didn't do any good. Eventually they couldn't put up with it any longer and they decided to sell.

It occurred to me then that I (and B.) were the only people in the entire world who could offer any explanation, however improbable, of this. Should I share Mary's secrets? I think I was so horrified by the idea of exorcism associated with the gentle soul that had been Mary that I preferred - then - to keep it to myself.

I asked if the new people next door had had similar experiences. They certainly have, he said, but you'd better ask them yourself...

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Staying longer than to breakfast (3)

Mary McDiarmid lived at No. ½ Geddes Village, in what had been the schoolhouse until a larger school was built nearby in the 1900s. An aged lady called Jessie Ross lived in rank squalor at No. 2, which was the old schoolroom with a small lobby and office adjoining. Jessie was taken into care shortly after I moved into No. 3., leaving behind a remarkable collection of pink corsets. There was no No.1.

Mary was a neat and kindly single lady who had devoted her adult life to the service of successive Lairds and their families at the Big House. Her first language was Scots Gaelic. She never married, although she may have had a liaison with a First World War soldier, whose sepia photograph was pinned to the wall in her house. She would have been in her mid-70s when I first knew her. She lived without water, sanitation or electricity by her own choice, preferring to keep her domestic arrangements as she had always known them. She cooked meagre meals, mostly porridge (which she referred to as 'them') and mince-and-tatties, i.e. mashed potato with boiled mince, on a Calor gas cooker. In the evenings she lit paraffin lamps and read the papers, the Sunday Post, the Aberdeen Press and Journal and on Tuesdays The Nairnshire Telegraph, a paper so concentrated that it was - and still is - commonly known as the 'one minute silence'. Once a week Mary got out her sit-up-and-beg bicycle from her shed and rode it a mile or two to her brother's, where she had a bath.

Several years after I got married and the children arrived we got permission from the Laird to expand into No. 2, where Jessie had lived. The clearing out of Jessie's and the everlasting corset bonfire are tales for another day, but when work was finished the old schoolroom made a very pleasant family sitting room, and the office just beyond became my study. Until I started working late in there I hadn't realised that Mary's bedroom lay the other side of a pitch-pine partition through which sound carried easily.

At about 9.30 in the evening there would be extensive rumblings and scrapings, the sounds made by someone heaving heavy furniture about. This would be Mary securing herself for the night by manhandling a chest of drawers against the door. Then - at first to my deep embarrassment, which made me loath to use the study at night - came the unmistakeable sounds of her night soil bucket being used.

By the time we were thinking of moving away from Geddes Mary had become aged and fairly infirm. We looked after her general welfare, but it was clear that she would need someone to look after her once we had left. In winter she was beginning to suffer from chilblains, so badly was her house heated. She used to rub her fingers and toes with an ointment which smelt strongly of camphor and wintergreen. It was an udder-salve, something her farmer father had sworn by. Winters were hard in Geddes, and the snow lingered long into the spring. (In the photo below you can see Mary's shed on the left, our two kids, our house Cruachan with the dormer windows we put in and the snow-blanketed village stretching down to No. 6.)

When we left the Laird moved Mary out of No. ½ and into No. 5, further down the row of cottages, which was empty and where there was water, sanitation and electricity. It didn't suit her. She didn't last the winter. However, she lived long enough to be guest of honour at the Geddes Rural Women's Institute 40th birthday celebration. Inexplicably, her image in the press photograph of the event - I've copied it above - started to fade after her death. Although Mary is sitting in the middle, she has now all but disappeared.

However, it soon became clear that there were much starker reminders of her existence...

Monday, 19 April 2010

Staying longer than to breakfast (2)

There was never any lack of house-guests at Cruachan, mostly fellow students and fellow members of the Southampton amateur dramatic society I belonged to, enjoying for a few days here and there what Deepest Nairnshire had to offer. To my great regret the delectably-bosomed Alison, who graced this blog several weeks ago, never made it so far north. In place of a visitors' book, which I still feel is an thoughtless imposition on anyone's regard for truth, the stair wall was turned into a place for any visitor to write whatever he or she wanted, lines of verse, observations on the neighbours, intimate and I suspect mostly invented confessions, lists of people the writer had come to escape from, horoscopes, cartoons, paradoxes, acrostics, arithmetical problems, or maybe just their signatures.

Later, when I was married and the flow of such guests stopped, this autograph wall was covered over with then-fashionable purple hessian. This pre-marital period was consigned to archaeology; the inscriptions are probably still there. By that time, too, many other things had changed. The old Laird died, and with him my £4 yearly rent. The new Laird, his son, said he was sorry, but times were hard and he found himself obliged to double the rent. My grandfather died, leaving me some money which I put towards installing 'the electric', water and sanitation. The Elsan was emptied for the last time, at dead of night, accompanied by appropriate verses from the Penitential Psalms. We put dormer windows in upstairs. We acquired the use of some overgrown waste land opposite to make a garden. The back garden was laid to vegetables and soft fruit. Every improvement, however welcome materially, was a step towards a dull respectability I occasionally had strong urges to burst out of. One stormy night the white-and-yellow porch, now sporting a set of antlers, blew down. Maybe this was a metaphor for this tendency to break out.

When these improvements were complete and Cruachan had become a family home instead of a part-time retreat for musicians, alpinists, Thespian sleepers by day and devotees of loud military music, the Laird sent his man of business round. I feared another doubling of the rent, but there was no such problem: for obscure tax reasons it was better for the Laird to offset the cost of the improvements against the rent. We lived in that house for a further ten years rent-free.

In due course she who was to become Mrs Blue Cat and mother of the Blue Kitten arrived. What had been the Elsan parlour became her bedroom. She's in the photo below, in the garden we made. The cottages pictured above were numbered, bizarrely, No. ½ (from extreme left to the door), No.2 (from the door to the right-hand drainpipe, where Cruachan started). Ours was officially No.3. So was next door the other side.

All this saga is leading up to the extraordinary story of the person who lived in No.½.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Staying longer than to breakfast (1)

Despite rumours that last week J. and I had gone to Morocco, Cambodia or Ireland, we had only gone to Scotland, where we go once or twice a year mostly because certain family members live there, not one of them with a single drop of Scottish blood coursing through their veins.

We went to Nairn, a pleasant little town on the southern shore of the Moray (pronounced 'Murray') Firth, and apparently the largest town in the Highlands after Inverness. I lived in Nairn for a few months some years ago, unaware that Dr Johnson, who passed through with Boswell on their journey to the western islands of Scotland in 1773, hadn't been very complimentary about the place:

'...we travelled on and came to Nairn, a royal burgh, which, if once it flourished, is now in a state of miserable decay ... At Nairn we may fix the verge of the Highlands; for here I first saw peat fires, and first heard the Erse language. We had no motive to stay longer than to breakfast...'

Roughly 200 years after Dr Johnson's visit I spent a couple of summer months in Nairn looking for a cottage I could call my own. After much exploration of the Nairnshire hinterland on an old motor-bike, itself in a state of miserable decay, I found a row of cottages a few miles inland. No. 2 seemed to be empty. (It's pictured above, after I'd painted the porch white and yellow and called the place Cruachan, which I understood was Gaelic for 'a heap of stones'.) The neighbours, one of whom did indeed speak the Erse language (i.e. Scots Gaelic) as well as English, suggested I should approach the Laird.

It turned out that the Laird was away, staying with his daughter in Wiltshire. Despite the immediate inconvenience, I was glad to hear this: it implied that his horizons were a little wider than the Deepest Darkest Caledonia I found myself in. He came back a few days later, and agreed to rent me the cottage for £4 a year, with the first quarter's rent payable at Lammas (August 1st) and thereafter at Martinmas, Candlemas and Whitsun.

This seemed reasonable to me, so I moved in immediately, piano first, followed by a few sticks of furniture mostly bought in a local auction room. These included a massive armchair with the imprint of an enormous, size 15 boot on the seat and a metal button engraved 'Northamptonshire Constabulary' hidden down the side. A Camping Gaz stove and a paraffin heater. And, since there was no electricity, water or sanitation, a chemical toilet, an Elsan. This was little more than a large metal drum with a seat, which you prepared for use by pouring in a few inches of water followed by a blue sanitizing liquid which you could get quite hooked on if you sniffed at it for any length of time. I can't say I ever discovered any house-guest kneeling before the Elsan for this purpose, possibly because whenever guests needed to use the Elsan, which was very noisy indeed as the drum tended to act as a kind of resonator, I was required to drown the noises off in the Elsan parlour by sitting at the piano and playing loud, military music.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Memories of Morocco

Just to let you know you haven't been forgotten...

Back soon.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Hilbrë, Stopper Lane and Creme Eggs

We're on the move again, courtesy of Mr Ryanair. At least, for the outward journey. The return in about a week will be courtesy of Mr Rianayr. I never thought of this when I was writing about palindromes last autumn.

There are clues to where we're going in the photos.

We're going to see my mother for an interim visit before her 100th birthday celebrations in December. Apparently you don't automatically receive a telegram of congratulations from the Queen these days. You have to apply for it, I expect enclosing your birth certificate.

Her birth certificate will reveal that her middle name is Hilbrë, not that there's any secret about it. She was so named after a sandbank, or maybe a low-lying island, just off the Wirral, which was a favourite place of her parents. I've never been there.

Yesterday a cousin brought me from Silverdale, in Cumbria, the Methodist Hymn Book which had belonged to my paternal grandfather, a man I never knew. (At least, he wrote his name inside it, over the previous owner's name, which you can just make out as 'D.East 1915') It has a hymn-tune in it called Rimington, which was written by his uncle, so my great-great uncle. This tune, to the words of Jesus shall reign, where'er the sun, was sung at a Lancashire Fusiliers drumhead service after the capture of Jerusalem in 1918.

This great-great-uncle also wrote a hymn-tune called Stopper Lane. He was inordinately fond of the dominant 9th. Musicians will know what this is. It's the harmonic equivalent of Cadbury's Creme Eggs.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Bum steer

I mentioned a carload of witches interfering with the traffic the other day.

Here's something in similar vein. It's not me driving (nor is J. the passenger) and I'm sorry about the zany laughter at the end.


Happy Easter, everyone.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Nailing an anomaly

A few weeks ago I was writing about St Francis of Assisi, a man of such outstanding goodness that towards the end of his life the stigmata appeared on his palms, insteps and side. (The stigmata are the scars of the wounds made by the nails that held Jesus to the cross and of the gash made in his side by the centurion's spear.)

A stimulating scholarly debate followed. Crucifixion was a common method of execution in the ancient Roman world. (The 19-year-old Julius Caesar, captured for ransom by Eastern Mediterranean pirates, promised to crucify every one of them. And eventually he did.) Experts in anatomy and ancient history claim that to prevent a condemned man falling off the cross, he would have to have been nailed to the wood through the wrists and ankles. Nailing through the palm wouldn't support the weight of the body.

But the stigmata have been traditionally depicted on the palms. Palms or wrists? Dave and I went to the earliest existing account of the crucifixion, in the Greek of the New Testament. Would there be a distinction between the Greek for 'hands' and for 'wrists'? Certain that scholars would have discovered it if there was, all the same I thought I'd found something significant.

The Greek for 'hands' appears several times as χειρας, cheiras. But once or twice we get χερσιν, chersin. Aha. Could χερσιν possibly mean 'wrists'?

In our bookshelves few books gather more dust than Abbott and Mansfield's Primer of Greek Grammar, a relic of several year's worth of Greek at school. The dust blown off - I took it outside - it became my bedside browsing for several nights. I didn't get very far, because I usually fall asleep after a page or two, but eventually I found what I was looking for in an obscure footnote.

χερσιν, Mr Abbott and Mr Mansfield told me, was an irregular form of χειρας. (For grammarians, the dative plural form.) So, 'hands' after all. No mention of 'wrists'.

Perhaps I shouldn't meddle in these things.