I had hoped to be blogging rather more regularly by now. Unfortunately we’re still not properly settled in Aberdeen, and currently working with intermittent access to the internet. I’m busy with the new job and various writing projects, trying to squeeze the words in between work, food and sleep. My hypergraphia, which trundles along for most of the year but usually goes for broke in November/December, was a month late this year, and I’ve been frantically scribbling things I can’t use since just before Christmas. It does get in the way.
Both Frood and I will be attending Hi-Ex in Inverness at the end of March, seeing as how it’s practically just up the road. If any fellow writers/artists/comic fans/circumstantial-cyclists want to say hi, he’s the one with the beard and I’m the one with the black right eye and the Pictish tattoo. We’d love to meet you.
As has become something of a tradition over the past couple of years, we’re spending Christmas away from (temporary) home in the company of family. As is also something of a tradition, we’re spending the holiday season in the back of beyond where there is almost no phone reception, so if you have sent me any text messages wishing me good cheer and I haven’t replied it’s not because I don’t love you any more: I haven’t received it. We do, however, have wifi and this year I brought a laptop so I can continue writing.
The lodge where we’re staying is amazing. Seriously amazing. I could live in a house like this quite happily. The only thing that could make it better is if it were a lighthouse, but I’m being picky. The weather so far has been fairly grim and dreich, so the light has been far too poor for taking photographs. Still, I snapped this shot of the view from the upper balcony in an effort to show the spectacular view of the torrents roaring constantly in the background. We sleep with the window open.
Yesterday Frood and I went out with the parents on a short but windy, wet and enjoyable bike ride to explore a little. Needing something that would fit on the rack, and with most of the noble steeds in storage, I was obliged to bring Shackleton, sporting his brand new wheels (more on that particular saga later). The thing is, I’ve put the Hutchinson Gold Cross tyres on him in preparation for the snows, and I left the 16 tooth sprocket on, so he’s currently rolling around with gear inches in excess of 70. This would be fine for the hill-free streets of Aberdeen, but out here in the wilds the roads come in lumpy. I think we did all of 6 miles yesterday and my legs are no longer speaking to me. I am seriously out of practise on fixed!
Finally, here is medium-sized Stitch (still on his Scotland tour) wearing the Stitch slippers Nick and Candice got me for my Christmas:
It has been a month of big changes. When we moved to Scotland — a return to home territory for me but a new country of residence for Frood— we initially lived in Fife. I was born and mostly raised in Fife (even if my most potent childhood memories are all of the west coast, Highlands and Islands), so the territory was one with which I was gratefully familiar. It’s hard enough making a change of job that significant without having to learn a new geography as well, at least when the job requires a good local knowledge.
After a year or so I transferred to Edinburgh, as Frood was working there and was tired of the lengthy commute and the seasonal rail fares taking up a significant chunk of his monthly pay. We’ve been living and working in and around Edinburgh for four years, which is by no means the least time I’ve spent in any one place, although it’s towards the bottom of the scale.
I am restless by nature, easily bored and always looking for the next intellectual challenge. I doubt I will ever be satisfied with going in to work to do the same thing day after day. My comfort zone is not static. It’s more of a bouncy castle, floating in a swimming pool on the deck of an ocean liner in the middle of a storm.
Fortunately, just as my feet were growing itchy again, the desire to get back to dealing with the technical specialisms of water pricking at their otherwise insensitive soles, an opportunity came along.
This month we’re in the process of upping sticks and moving to where granite rock glistens in the salt spray of the North Sea and radon seeps from the ground in quantities insufficient to have any significant health implications, never mind be enough to activate the Marveliser (dammit). Here the local tongue is the Doric and I will be as linguistically handicapped as Frood, for my knowledge of the Doric starts and ends with poorly-remembered episodes of Scotland the What? from an old audio cassette we used to have.
I have managed to get lost three times in the last week, a decent sense of direction apparently being insufficient when there is a complete lack of familiar place names and/or landmarks. I am learning that it gets dark damnably early, especially since the clocks went back, and that the warnings about it being cold did not take into account the preferences of a cryophiliac like me. My ride to work in the mornings is short enough that I arrive before I’ve really got going. The supermarkets have the same names above the entrance and yet their selection of goods is both entirely expected and unfamiliar: along with the dubious pre-packed pizzas and DVDs for £3 I can buy daikon radish at the Morrison’s on King Street —an item of exotica never seen in Granton’s Waterfront Broadway store— and, wondrous wonder, CR2032 batteries, yet I cannot buy gluten-free plain flour there. The Sainsbury’s in Berryden, in addition to the usual range of chocolate and teabags, sells special handles for poach pods but doesn’t have any Spanish smoked paprika or Clearspring white miso.
Cultural and consumable differences aside, what has struck me the most is something both more and less mundane:
That’s the view from my office window. This is my lunchtime run route.
I think I’m going to like it here. I hope Frood will, too.
Now I just need to find somewhere selling Celestial Seasonings Apple and Cinnamon Spice tea.
I have a couple of pictures for you today and not many words to go with them. The first is a photograph of a red squirrel. He was on a tree above the Falls at Acharn, which when we visited were frozen into a cascade of sharpened, jagged teeth and chaotic, amorphous, billowing pillows of sugary ice. I will post pictures of that when I’ve decided which are the best.
My mum thought this little chap was playing peek-a-boo around tree. To me he looked more like a celebrity fleeing the paparazzi, and I was lucky to get a shot of him at all. He was last seen scampering across a fallen tree under the bridge to escape our enthusiastically pointing fingers. The red squirrel is up there on the shortlist of Scotland’s iconic animals, along with the Highland Coo and the haggis. I’ve always assumed that Ratatoskr was a red.
This second picture I took on a horrible, grim, dreich day when the snow was starting to soften and melt. Frood was attempting to stack rocks on the shores of Loch Tay and grumbling about the soft schist and cold fingers. I was disappointed by the light and lack of things to photograph. And then I saw this:
I am not entirely sure what process caused this ice formation, with its fat drops hanging from the brittle, delicate sheet above. I could hazard some guesses and have pondered it at length. And yet, at the same time, I am content to have found a moment of startling and unexpected beauty and captured an echo of it as a souvenir.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Christmas this year was spent on the south shore of Loch Tay, at Bracken Lodges. Frood and I were both working on Christmas Eve, as well as doing the Christmas dinner, so by the time we got home from work and got everything packed and into the car it was quite late.
It was also incredibly cold. And snowing. We’d had an early start on the back of a month of early starts, which, coupled with my insomnia, meant that I knew that the drive was going to be a tiring one before we started. I did seriously contemplate leaving it until the morning, but I knew Mum and Dad would be disappointed, so I HedTFU and got on with it.
Because the weather had been extremely wintry for several weeks the outer lane on the M90 was restricted width and there was no hard shoulder. The A9 wasn’t much better. There was too much snow. It was also -15°C, which is down around the point where grit stops working. I own a Ford Mondeo Estate, front wheel drive and back-end heavy, and it’s a pain in the ass in slippery conditions, so I was driving very carefully. The other issue we had is that the CD player in my car broke sometime last year, swallowing several of my CDs in the process. There is no MP3 player port so we’re reduced to listening to whatever we can find on the radio.
At the turn-off towards Aberfeldy we hit the roads that hadn’t been gritted adequately and, coincidentally, I became fed up with the interminable club dance tracks Scott Mills was playing on Radio 1. Classic FM was out because it was non-stop little boys singing carols, so I took a gamble on Radio 2 and found a fascinating documentary about Kenny Everett. For the next 45 minutes we minced along the road at about 20mph, discovering that Kenny did all of his special effects using just two tape decks — including the 8 part harmonies in which he was the only one singing. The world turned gradually more and more surreal as Captain Kremen’s Granny turned up and the snow kept falling.
Part of the route coincided with the road I’d ridden during the Aberfeldy Sprint, and I remarked that I’d been faster on the bike. That’s how carefully we had to drive.
At Kenmore we turned onto the narrow, single-track road that winds along the coast of the loch. By the time we got to the other side of Acharn I was really tired, and suffering from continually peering at a frosty road in low visibility with nothing but dark vegetation, the occasional dry stone wall and lots of snow either side of me. The road there was so slippy that I had to concentrate even harder on maintaining momentum over the ice without going so fast that the car slid out of control down the steep bank to the right and, for all I knew, straight into the water.
Frood had been using his GPS to track progress, but kept getting confused between distance to destination and distance to next junction, so I’d been given several conflicting miles to go messages. After what felt like the whole of eternity I asked Frood to call Mum and ask her if this place had a sign or something, because I was sure we’d missed it.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “She says there’s a big blue Christmas tree right at the entrance and you can’t miss it.”
At about this moment a deer bounded across the path, eyeing us using that backwards glance they give things they don’t like but have ascertained aren’t really predators and couldn’t catch them anyway.
“Grand,” I replied, trying to get my heartrate back to normal after controlling a slight skid under braking.
Ten minutes later there was a dip in the road followed by a slight rise. As we crested this the deer was back and I couldn’t believe my eyes.
It had a blue arse. There was a deer, all delicate legs and waggly ears, looking at us backwards, and there was a bright, electric blue glow where its arse was.
I goggled at this like… Well, like you would imagine anyone goggling at a deer with blue light streaming out of its arse. I wondered what in the hell it had been eating.
After a moment the deer hung a sharp left but the blue light didn’t. There was the Christmas tree and there was my mum, standing at the side of the road waving her arms in the air.
I can’t remember the last time I was that relieved to arrive anywhere mostly intact. And, even knowing that what I saw was the light of the Christmas tree, what I remember and always will remember of our drive up north for Christmas is a deer with bright blue light coming out of its arse.
I spent Christmas and New Year with Frood and my parents — my brother and his girlfriend Candice joined us for New Year. Like last year, my parents had rented a place somewhere far away from work: this year it was on the south shore of Loch Tay, at Bracken Lodges, a little way along from Acharn. It was a beautiful setting, informed by mountains and water and, for most of it, thick drifts of snow and sheets of ice. I’ve brought back more than 200 photographs, and it’s going to take me some time to go through them all and choose the best ones.
This is one of my favourites so far:
2010 has been an interesting year, to use the word in the context that Pratchett used it in, if I recall correctly, Small Gods. It has gone incredibly quickly — it seems to be no time at all since we were sitting in the lodge at Erigmore for last year’s Christmas — and in some ways it has been one of the longest years ever. It has certainly had its ups and downs and it’s one I think I shall chalk up to experience rather than relishing in fond memory.
I’d like to think that 2011 will see an upward rather than a downward trend. For the time being I am going to consider that in life’s game of Play Your Cards Right 2010 is what happened when Mr Forsyth turned over the four of spades.
Onwards and upwards.
I find winter endlessly fascinating. Already people are complaining about the snow — SNOBEPOCALYPSE — and looking forward to the thaw. Not I. I love winter. Autumn is my favourite season, because it’s full of smells and textures and sensations and promises. Winter, though… Oh a proper winter steals my heart away and puts it in a crystal box and whispers “You can have it back if you’re a very, very good girl.”
And this year it has been a Proper Winter. We’ve had snow for weeks now, the roads icy beneath their demerara-sugar-and-beaten-butter slush; the fields white as a laundry powder commercial; the light so clear and brittle it feels like an entirely different world from the usual dreich greyscale of eastern Scotland.
I took this picture while out in the field. I was at Aberlady Bay, a nature reserve in East Lothian, not far from Gullane. There was thick ice covering the bed of the estuary, grey and organic-looking, as if an alien lifeform had oozed along there and left a trail; and these amazing circular structures of pancake ice on the surface. I didn’t think I’d ever get to see pancake ice in the wild. I must have been a very good girl indeed.
Autumn is my favourite season but a proper winter feels like coming home.
Winter has come to Scotland and it has decided to make a proper go of it. We’ve had snow every day since Friday, and it has settled. Anyone who has seen any news relating to the UK recently will have seen that this is the earliest we’ve had weather this severe in a long time.
I was out in the snow with Andy Gates at the weekend, jumping up and down in the snow in our Vibram Five Fingers:
Andy said something that made me smile: a good way to decide whether you’ll like the barefoot Vibram experience or is if you’re a puddle jumper. If you’re a puddle jumper you’ll probably like them.
Unfortunately since then our communal boiler has broken down, meaning that heating and hot water have gone out. It’s bloody cold here. I can’t get to work, so I’m stuck at home and I’m wearing four layers as well as a hat and gloves. The engineer is struggling to get through the snow to fix it.
For that reason, here is a picture I took during warmer weather, of a sad old bike parked outside the supermarket. Whenever one of my machines accuses me of neglect (naming no names, Shackleton) I show him this picture. Makes me feel better, anyway.
What gets me is that the chain isn’t as slack as I’d expect on a bike that badly maintained. Maybe the rear axle has rusted into the drops. I love the way the front light is held in place with duck tape, too.