The summer of love

Saturday early evening she closes the shop. Pulls down the blind, the summer light still pouring in above the door. After cashing up the till, her hand is shaking slightly as she removes £7 and pushes the grubby notes into the back of her purse.

There isn’t much to Sunday.

Her son Michael spends ages on the telephone to his fiancé, going over final details for their wedding. When he’s not doing that he’s combing through back issues of Trout and Salmon magazine, on a vicarious and unending fishing trip. Meanwhile John, the aspirant art college student, has the Beatles new LP on the stereogram. It plays and replays as the arm lifts up, swings back and settles again on the already crackling grooves. There is one song that troubles her each time she hears it. Nothing troubles Stuart, the youngest. He has been following the Test match at Headingley: England versus India, engrossed in batting averages and bowling figures.

Her husband reads the News of the World, snoozes after Sunday dinner and watches the London Palladium in the evening. Then bed.

Monday the shop is always closed.

With everyone gone from the house, she gathers up her large grocery bag, drops the latch and steps out onto the pavement. Turning the corner she heads towards the Co-operative Stores. Like so many times before, putting together a mental list of ingredients for the evening meal as she goes. Reaching the shop door, and grateful for the absence of people on the street, she keeps her eyes straight ahead and walks on. Today will be different.

At the local railway station she buys a ticket. No one is about on the platform. The guard nods. She climbs onto the train and chooses the cleanest looking seat for her journey. As the carriages cross the river Tees at Victoria Bridge, she thinks of Stephenson’s Rocket, which everyone round here calls the first steam train. Today she is retracing its inaugural run.

Darlington station is dirty and noisy. Big trains push through heading north and south, forcing you back from the platform edge. She could be in Edinburgh by afternoon, London by evening. Or maybe still here, dead on the tracks.

She reaches into her purse and finds the address, on a piece of paper hidden under the small change. The landlady had sounded friendly on the telephone. She’d booked a single room at a reasonable price. Cash on arrival if you don’t mind.

At home the bright evening sunshine can’t cope with the darkening mood. Where is she? Not like her. Did she go to the hospital to visit someone? Worry quickly turns to annoyance. It’s not fair with the wedding coming up next month. Great start to the exams I must say. How do you think I feel? By nightfall he makes a decision. If no word comes by the morning, he’ll ring the police.

Tuesday’s dawn light creeps into the boarding house bedroom.

She has been here since the previous afternoon. Thankful for the kettle, some milk and a few biscuits. Summoning up her courage, she descends the stairs to the dining room. A lone fellow guest nods but fortunately doesn’t make small talk. She declines the fried breakfast, asks for tea and toast, leaving most of it behind as she gets up to go.

The police station ‘phone is ringing. He explains what has happened. We haven’t seen her since yesterday morning when we all went out of the house. Can you give me a description asks the officer. I’ll put a call out. Let me know if she turns up at home. They usually do.

She is on a bus. It’s a short ride from here to Richmond. She has no idea what is drawing her to the pretty town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, except perhaps the complete contrast with the place where she lives. She spends some time by the river Swale, the clean water of the falls bubbling down, full of life.

Money still in her purse, but she can’t face the thought of a bed and breakfast landlady. As the evening coolness draws in she makes her way across the bridge and through a park. Beyond there is a cricket ground. The ghost of a smile flicks across her lips. She knows about cricket grounds. It’s not locked. She goes through the gate, walks to the back of the score box and lets herself in. She pulls a few sacks over her and tries to sleep as the rafters creak and a mouse scurries about among some old practice nets.

At home they sit and brood. No word from the police. No search they can organize for themselves, except for around the town. But no one wants to explain to the neighbours that she’s gone missing. Their irritation is growing at the bother of it all. He picks up the Sunday paper, yellowod by the sunshine that streams through the window. Then quickly puts it down when he reads about a woman’s body found in a layby last week. Just off the Great North Road. A man is in custody on suspicion of murder.

Early Wednesday she creeps out of the cricket ground, light headed and hungry, in need of a change of clothes and a hot drink. In a public toilet she conducts a makeshift wash, wetting her comb and dragging it through her hair, until it hurts at the roots. The mirror is dim and blotched, doing nothing to enhance her exhausted look. She goes back and sits by the waterfall, warmed a little by the weak morning sun.

Later, in a café off the market square she nurses a pot of tea and a scone. Towards five o’clock the staff bustle around, wiping down tables and chairs until she gets to her feet, leaving her money with the bill and adding a sixpenny tip. The manageress bids her a friendly goodbye.

Tears welling, she begins to feel afraid as another evening presents itself. A few regulars are waiting for the Ship Inn to open. One calls out to her as she passes. Come and have a drink with us lass. She quickens her pace and turns the first corner she reaches. There are footsteps behind her. Then a female voice at her shoulder.

You look in a bit of a state, pet. Do you want to come back to the café for a while? I’ve closed up and there’s just me there now.

More tea and this time a proper sandwich. You look like you need it. Just settle yourself there, I’ve plenty to do.

Like an honoured guest, she eats alone. Slowly. Reviving a little.

The woman comes through from the kitchen. Now, that’s brought your colour up.  I’m Doris by the way. It looks like you might be in a spot of bother.

She nods. Yes, I am really. Don’t know why I’m here. It just all got too much.

I can see that.

Three teenagers in the house. My husband home for dinner and tea on the dot every day. In and out all the time with his work. He’s an electrician. And then there’s the shop.

The shop?  Yes, it’s at the front of the house. We live at the back. It sells electrical goods, lights and heaters, plugs, fuses, all that sort of thing. When the three boys were all settled at school I wanted to go out to work. But he suggested a shop. It would help his business he said, and I could stay at home.

Oh.

I enjoyed setting it all up, but I realise now I was building my own prison. That was five years ago. I run it by myself, six days a week. Last Saturday I just couldn’t face it any more. On Monday I walked out. Left them to it for a while.

Well it might do them good. You don’t miss the water ‘til the well runs dry. Don’t rush back just now. I tell you what. You can stay here for a night or two. There’s a spare bed made up. I’m just by myself, it’ll be no trouble.

Oh I couldn’t do that, at least not without paying. I’ve got money.

Oh keep that. One of the girls is off tomorrow. How about you help out in the kitchen for a bit? We have a good laugh in there, especially when things get busy. What do you say?

She wakes on Thursday in the small bedroom. Rested but nervous. She should go home now. But Doris is right. They can wait.

They are leaving the house, getting on with the day. He broods as he fries a piece of bread for his breakfast, a cigarette at his lips. The others organize themselves, preoccupied. No one mentions her.

The café kitchen is a new world for her. She is one of three women who keep busy, slicing ham, grating cheese, buttering rolls. Cakes and scones come out of the oven to cool on racks, wafting delicious smells around the small space. Doris flits in and out with the orders. No one asks questions. They make jokes, raise an eyebrow as certain customers come in, thumbs up when they go out. Her guard begins to come down. She likes the atmosphere and the others can see she is a good worker. When her lunch break comes she’s ravenous.

The afternoon is quieter and Doris tells her to take a walk. She goes to the waterfall in the sunshine and sees one or two now familiar faces, drawn like her to the current and spray, hoping it will wash away their troubles. One catches her eye and then looks away.

In the evening she eats cottage pie with Doris and afterwards they drink a glass of ruby port together. She feels pleasantly sleepy after a remarkable day.

At home everyone is out. No one can tolerate the thick atmosphere of resentment that now fills the air in each room and won’t go away.

On Friday morning she is back with the team in the kitchen, like she has been there for years. Her apron washed and put on the peg, ready for her. The morning flies by. Busy and friendly. At 2pm, the rush over, Doris asks her to post some letters. She drops them in the pillar box, wondering if she should be writing home, to tell them she is safe, doing ok.

Happy to stay out longer in the sunshine, she takes a detour by the waterfall. The sunlight is playing on the spray, bouncing in all directions. She looks for her usual dappled spot among the trees. Just then two figures get up slowly from their bench and walk towards her. She thinks to run but feels rivetted to the ground. They are police officers in uniform.

Late afternoon on Friday, the shop bell rings.

Can’t they see we’re shut he says testily, getting up from his armchair. Three silhouettes are etched in the frosted glass. He unlocks the door. The two police officers are side by side. She is standing in front of them, hemmed in against escape. We’ve brought your wife home. Can we have a word inside?

They sit in the living room, uncomfortably perched on the edge of their seats. They can’t piece together where she has been all week. She says nothing. There isn’t anything the police can do except write a report for the files. The officers soon leave.

He walks into the living room, where the rest of the family are huddled in anticipation. Mam’s home, he says. Stuart, will you pop out and get us all fish and chips? That’ll be the easiest thing tonight.

So what happened? John over the meal. Where’ve you been?  It wasn’t fair just clearing off like that. You could have left us a note or ‘phoned or something, says Michael. Stuart sits in silence, his food congealing on the plate.

Your mam got into a bit of a fluster about balancing up the till. That’s all. It’s nothing to fret about. So finish up your tea everyone. She’ll be opening the shop tomorrow, won’t you pet? Always a busy day, Saturday.

The value of letter writing

I’ve read many more letters than I’ve written. I can say this with absolute certainty. Some years ago I took on the fascinating task of editing the correspondence of Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. After sifting through an estimated 7,000 items, I put together a book of letters in which I had selected about one tenth of the total and arranged them to tell the story of her life and work.

Cicely Saunders (1918-2005) wrote letters on a phenomenal scale. With more than half an eye to posterity, she kept copies of them too. Neither of these is true for most of us today.

Yet the letter can be a joy to receive: ‘Too much! I’ve got a letter …’ sang Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band on taking delivery of a billet doux from the USA one day in the 1960s. The writing of a letter also brings its pleasures, as authors from Austen to Hemingway to Orwell have acknowledged. Lewis Carrol enjoyed letter writing so much that he wrote a nine point guide to doing it well, But the pleasure of letter writing is not restricted to the literati.

For the last nine months I’ve written a letter each week to a person I only know slightly. Several years older than me, he lives alone, is in declining health and has been struggling with the added constraints of the pandemic. The weekly task of writing to him, which might seem a guilt-inducing chore (‘oh no, the week is almost over and I haven’t written yet!’) has in fact become an enriching and pleasurable experience. I know he gets my letters and enjoys reading them, as I think do his daughters, who get to peruse them on visits to their father; but I expect and receive no letter by way of reply. I don’t have a problem with the asymmetry, rather it makes my task both easier and more interesting.

There are several aspects to the process.

The material elements are important. I’ve acquired a quantity of A5 writing paper. Having the stock by me means there can be no excuse arising from the search for paper. My weekly missive covers both sides of A5 in full, never more nor less.

I write with a fountain pen. It’s nothing fancy, a well known brand I’ve used since school days, costing about a tenner. But the pen gives a sense of occasion and purpose to the writing. Paper and pen together are the tools of my letter writing craft.

I constrain my writing to thoughts or experiences that have occurred in the previous seven days. This way I avoid possible repetition, as I don’t keep copies of the letters, so can’t check back to what I’ve said previously. I also hope by this means to have something fresh to impart to my reader each week. My subject matter ranges from the quotidian rhythms of domestic life to earth shattering events of major geopolitical import.

For the relatively short time it takes, I give the letter writing my undivided attention. I don’t make a draft of the letter, preferring to let it emerge as pen touches paper. But this means the seven or eight paragraphs must flow confidently, even as their content is forming in my head. Having completed the act of writing, there is a sense of catharsis and satisfaction that is enhanced by placing it in the envelope, writing the address of the recipient, and applying the stamp.

Finally, I like to prop up the newly prepared letter, like a small trophy, somewhere prominent in the kitchen or near the front door. That way I don’t forget to post it.

Most of us still write letters at some time in our lives. I wonder if youth and old age are the periods when we are more likely to do so? In the former, to the objects of our affection, and passion. In the the latter, to far flung friends and family, retaining and rekindling old acquaintances. There are exceptions to this of course!

Over a lifespan we might write letters in search of employment. Likewise, an occasional letter of complaint or outrage may issue forth. Or we might write some lines of thanks or deep gratitude for an act of kindness, hospitality or exceptional care. A letter of condolence may be a sombre duty we sometimes take on. Whilst a letter of congratulation to someone on a recent success, is the most lightsome of tasks. Letters serve many purposes. I’m reading Pat Barker’s Union Street at the moment, and noticed that one of the children, Kelly, is adept at forging letters to school, in her mother’s hand, the day after playing truant.

Letter writing is said to be in secular decline, but paradoxically has increased during the pandemic. Pen pals are back in fashion. The plop of a handwritten letter onto the door mat is again something to anticipate.

But in the age of texting, emailing, and messaging on all manner of platforms, there is a sense that letter writing needs more encouragement. This the thinking behind the fairly recently established World Letter Writing Day, which happens on 1st September each year. The idea is to encourage us to pick up a pen and write to someone, devoting time, thought, and a measure of skill to our efforts.

Perhaps you know someone who would like to receive a regular letter from you? If you commit, maybe you will find satisfactions in the process that you can’t imagine at the outset. It may be worth trying. With a pen, a sheet of paper, an envelope and stamp, a true act of compassion is at your disposal.

Trevor Leat – a weaver of dreams

I first met Trevor Leat in his studio-workshop, on a Spring Fling event, several years ago. He was sharing the space with Natalie Vardey at the time and the contrast between his willow work and her jewellery showed off the remarkable skill and invention of both. Over the years I have made a collection of Trevor’s smaller works and also given away some pieces as gifts. There have been trugs and baskets of various kinds, most recently a beautiful apple picker, elegantly shaped and providing the perfect blend of beauty and practicality. We also have a decorative swirling circular piece that sits above a doorway in the house and which I look at every morning as the day begins.

I don’t know Trevor very well but always enjoy my conversations with him when we bump into one another at some event, in a gallery, or most likely at a concert. He and I share an enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band and the subsequent work of Robin Williamson. I see Trevor at my Kirkmahoe Concerts, where, until the pandemic, Robin performed annually from 2010. When we meet between times Trevor and I always seem to fall into some arcane conversation about our shared love of that strange and eclectic music.

Trevor epitomises aspects of the artistic and artisanal work that flourishes in Dumfries and Galloway. He always seems to be busy, whether near or far. He values a sense of place. His work is a paradigm of sustainability. He is unfailingly unflustered, with time to talk and to share his thoughts. His work has a seasonal rhythmn that is reflected in the things he creates.

So I was delighted when Trevor agreed to this interview in my series about inspiring people living in south west Scotland. Characteristically, he answered my questions between bursts of activity and travels to other places, and told a fascinating story. I hope you enjoy this encounter with a Galloway artist and maker who through the medium of willow has unleashed not only a remarkable skill, but through the work of imagination, has also become a weaver of dreams.

Where did you grow up and when did you first discover an interest in making things with your hands?

I grew up alongside the River Thames and remember as a young boy collecting wooden lolly sticks from the bins and pavements, these I used to crudely weave little rafts to float down the river. My family relocated to Hertfordshire where the open countryside and woodlands became my playground to build dens and tree houses and live a kind of feral life in the summertime.

What sort of education did you have and did it influence your future pathway in any particular way?

My secondary school education was mostly geared around sport. Then I took up sociology and literature at college but dropped out when music and art and the ‘back to the land’ movement became my passion. This was the early seventies, so just after the hippie revolution of which I was just too young to be a part, but it certainly was an influence on the direction I was to take.   

What was the pivotal time and place where you discovered an interest in and a talent for working with willow?

I moved to Galloway to form a small commune with friends in 1975. We were trying to be self sufficient in a naïve way.  Basketmaking seemed like an interesting craft to learn and needed very little initial finance once some willow had been planted. I made contact with a retiring basket-maker in Brampton who taught me the basic techniques.  The commune lasted only a couple of years and for one reason or another we returned to the south. Some years later I moved to the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. Initially it was to be a part of the crafts team that the owner had assembled. I stayed on the Island 10 years, mostly working as the estate manager for the Laird. But I did make some baskets and taught others how to! My experience of living on Eigg among Gaelic speaking crofters, the never ending summer sunsets, the wild storms of winter, the white sandy beaches and the sound of the rolling Atlantic waves stays with me.  

You occupy a fascinating space between making functional things and creating sculptural works of art. How does one influence the other?

Returning to Galloway I focused on developing my craft, making traditional baskets and garden structures. I began planting willow beds on a few farms. I play the fiddle and joined a ceilidh band.  This led to meeting Alex Rigg, who joined too as a percussionist. However Alex is much more than that.  He is a physical performance artist and designer and we began a series of collaboration projects making furniture and large scale willow and steel sculptures for festival and performance events including Edinburgh Hogmanay and locally, The Wickerman Festival.  We made work in France Germany and and Austria.  We still work together occasionally. 

I continue to make figurative work  which is sometimes large scale. I start with building a strong armature using steel to increase strength and durability. Then using a mixture of willows, I begin the process of  weaving the body. I use some basketry techniques  but the overall effect is more random. It is like drawing in 3D, each willow rod acts like a pencil line and so slowly the form is developed, woven layer upon layer, allowing the flexible long rods to flow and create a feeling of movement.

Your work must be very physical. What are the specific challenges of working with tough materials with your hands and do you use any special equipment?

On larger sculptures I am working from scaffolding so the working process becomes slower. Working so close it’s sometimes hard to see what is shaping, so a return to ground level is necessary to view the whole work and the different perspective it offers.  All the materials have to be carried up ladders to the working platform form and secured from being blow off by the winds, so it becomes quite physically demanding. The reward is always the moment that I take the scaffold down and the sculpture stands free for the first time. 

Where do you source the materials for your work and what are the processes of gathering and preparing them?

I have around 1000 willow stools that I’ve planted using cuttings. I have several varieties that I have chosen for colour or length of growth. These I coppice every year usually in February. I cut them down almost to ground level and carry and bundle them for transporting back to my workshop. Here they are stacked outside to dry and season before being stored inside.  The drying process usually takes two or three months depending on the weather conditions. The willow will then need to be soaked before use to make it flexible again. In its freshly cut state, willow is not good for weaving baskets as the rods will shrink as the sap dries causing the basket to become loose. It would also make the basket heavy at first.  But for sculpture this isn’t an issue particularly if the work is to be located outdoors so it can be used ‘green’.  Growing and harvesting the willow is another arduous and physical process but I enjoy the cyclic nature of it and the connection with the seasons. It’s also sustainable and I like  being able to work with material that I can grow.

As you mentioned, you are fiddle player too and a lover of music. What are your musical influences and do they shape what you do in any way?

‘Seasons they change’.    I still play fiddle and banjo with  The Roving Pedlars, a  ceilidh band. We play mostly for weddings and community events. I learnt the fiddle while I lived on Eigg, again playing at ceilidhs on the island.  I had learnt to pick out tunes on the mandolin years before with a group in the south modelled on The Incredible String Band. In  fact it was the fascination with the ISB that originally drew us to Scotland to form the commune like them! (they lived together in Innerleithen).  Other influences are from traditional music from around the world but particularly Scotland and Ireland. I also listen to Nick Cave, Brian Eno, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Leonard, Bob. So quite a mix!

Of the many works you have created, which are the most memorable for you and why?

It’s hard to pick a favourite sculpture of my own. The early Wickerman sculptures made with Alex were particularly fun and impressive. It was  a new challenge to us to make nine metres high work, so that brought a sense of achievement and pleasure.  My favourite solo piece was for the National Trust at Bodnant Garden in Wales. It was to commemorate the Suffrage Movement, and is called ‘Unbinding the Wing’. My design was of a strong and tall, (7metres) swirling women with arms outstretched releasing some white doves. I enjoyed the making experience at Bodnant. Situated near an oval pond, the sculpture was captured in the reflection upon it.  It was a beautiful location to be invited to work.

What is the greatest satisfaction you derive from your work?

As I mentioned earlier, the special moment for me is when I take down the scaffolding and see a large sculpture standing free and alone for the first time. It is like taking the chains away and letting the figure loose! 

To learn more about Trevor and his work, please go to his website:

http://www.trevorleat.co.uk/

Or contact him at:

Trevor Leat, Minnoch, Main Street, Auchencairn, Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway, SW Scotland DG7 1QU
tel: +44 (0) 1556 640161 | email: info@trevorleat.co.uk

Spring Fling

Adrian was standing at the back of a metal-worker’s forge. A demonstration of decorative ironmongery skills had just ended and as the heat of the fire died down, the large crowd was still murmuring its admiration. Suddenly, a voice tinged with irony filled the space. ‘We are soon going to take some photographs for publicity use by Visit Scotland. So if by chance you are with someone you perhaps shouldn’t be, then you might want to leave now’.

Several pairs of eyes looked at each other in flickers of mild alarm. Some couples quietly drifted apart and made for the exit by different routes. But Adrian’s companion, Amanda, held his gaze from the far side of the workshop. Weaving her way through the crowd she strode purposefully towards him. Entwining her arms around his neck, she kissed him extravagantly, perhaps for just too long to be convincing. ‘Stuff this for a game’ she laughed, as she took his hand and moved towards the door, winking saucily at the photographer.

Excitement over, inside the car Amanda studied the route as they headed for the next stop on their itinerary. It was to be the studio of a ceramicist in the western hills, a specialist in making non-functional pieces in vivid colours and mixed media. Jewellers, willow weavers, watercolourists and cushion makers were also on the carefully prepared route, for later in the day. Such was the variety of their annual visit from Manchester to Galloway to spend time at the much acclaimed three day open studios event, known as the Spring Fling.

They had been doing this for the last five years. It had all started from a slightly drunken heart-to-heart at a college reunion. Since then, Adrian’s spouse, Sarah, had come to believe he was on his yearly ‘writing retreat’: re-drafting and finessing his latest academic paper for publication. Knowing how important this was for his work, Sarah seemed totally understanding and never complained about the arrangement. Two days before, Amanda’s partner, George, had cheerfully seen her leave on what he took to be a long-standing, once a year, wild camping trip with some of her old friends from school.

Amanda and Adrian’s time at the Spring Fling was a whirl of meeting artists, makers and creators of all stripes. The slightly prurient pleasure was to see these people in situ, to enter their inspirational places, and to connect their work to the sites of its production. Some lived up pot-holed tracks in tiny bothies, others in handed-down family homes of faded grandure. Many offered delicious home-made cakes, scones and good coffee, to a steady stream of visiting arts and crafts enthusiasts from far and wide. The weekend was a cultural tour de force with a dash of anthropological observation thrown in for good measure. All in all, the Spring Fling never failed to disappoint.

Nor did the personal excitement of Amanda and Adrian’s special time together. Yet they were quite rational about it, functional even. Meeting only once a year, their relationship never developed to another level and remained firmly in its metaphorical box.  It was an arrangement that suited each of them and about which they were utterly discreet. Save for the odd lapse, like at the metalworker’s.

Of course, they comprehensively enjoyed sleeping together for three nights each year, delighting in bodily re-acquaintance and the re-newed frisson of smell and touch. Yet they lived untroubled within these parameters and never transgressed into any talk of a life together. Between each Spring Fling their text messages were sporadic and largely innocuous. Two former college pals keeping in touch for old time’s sake.

On the last evening this year,  they made for a favourite seafood restaurant, tucked into an old warehouse by the harbour in a small fishing village.  The scallops and lobster there were fresh from the sea and the owner had a surprisingly good wine list to match. Taking no chances, they had booked a table in a small alcove that ensured privacy, but didn’t spoil their view of the adjacent tables, and the boats beyond.

It was a scene almost clichéd in its charm. They had once said it would make a wonderful post-impressionist painting: Diners by the Harbourside. Tonight, as previously, it was engaging and full of life; but eager to order, they quickly turned their attention to the menu, choosing their preferred dishes along with a regular bottle of Macon Lugny to match.

Only as they sipped the perfectly chilled white wine and smiled in appreciation at the amuse bouche, did they lift their eyes to survey the animated scene before them.

Then it happened.

‘Look’ said Amanda, anxiously pointing with a sideways movement of her eyes. Adrian waited briefly before casually turning his gaze towards the harbour window. There, sitting at the best table, was not (as he had instantly feared) some third party acquaintance, but rather, champagne flutes in hand, an adoring couple, each staring into the others’ eyes in barely concealed mutual passion. Two lovers, quite openly displaying their shared intensity of feeling in a way that Amanda and Adrian scrupulously avoided. The Spring Flingers looked at each other in mute astonishment as the full realization slowly dawned.

Then the man and woman at the window leaned in, kissing gently and lovingly. There they were in a moment of complete bliss. A new type of Spring Fling was being enacted before the onlookers. The loving couple was Sarah and George.

Science and sustainability: Dr Emily Taylor

In the early Summer of 2009 I was preparing a move from Lancaster University to take up the position of Head of Campus for the University of Glasgow in Dumfries. I was fulfilling a long held ambition to make Dumfries and Galloway my home, after years of spending time here in the holidays and at weekends. On a bright June morning I couldn’t believe my luck that I was driving west towards the Galloway Hills to attend an ‘away day’ with a group of people involved in the Crichton Carbon Centre, one of our partner organisations on Campus.

It was billed as a ‘green skies’ meeting and these enthusiastic folk welcomed me into a territory that was relatively outside my comfort zone for a specialist in medical sociology and end of life care: climate change, carbon capture, and the vast range of mitigations that might be adopted to influence global warming. In the years that followed I worked closely with the ‘CCC’ team, as I came to know them. From my point of view the jewel in the crown was a ground breaking Master’s degree in Carbon Management, which we ran jointly and which paved the way later for a much bigger environmental studies development at the Dumfries Campus.

So it was with great pleasure last summer when, newly freed from full time academic duties, I received an invitation to join the three-person board of this dynamic and innovative local charity. I took up my Trustee duties in November 2020 and my first meeting was with Dr Emily Taylor, the CCC General Manager and a graduate of that self-same Carbon Management degree. Our paths had briefly crossed in my first year at the University of Glasgow.

Continue reading “Science and sustainability: Dr Emily Taylor”

Responding to loss in the time of COVID: the Shoreline to Shoreline project

A few months after my father died in the spring of 1993, I was in north east Scotland, visiting friends. One afternoon, some of us took a walk along the banks of the River Deveron. Lingering with my younger son, we stood just where the waters become tidal, fossicking among beautiful pebbles and bits and pieces on the river bank. Then wordlessly, and in a moment of ‘timeless now’, we chose a couple of boat-like pieces of driftwood and pushed them onto the water. Slowly they left us in the shallows, were picked up by the current and drawn out into the waters of the cold North Sea, gradually disappearing from our view. I remember well that strange moment when they could no longer be seen.

It was a small and spontaneous ritual that came back to me when I encountered a project called Shoreline to Shoreline, the creation of artists, Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman. Working as part of a team in the Dumfries and Galloway based Atlas Pandemica initiative, they have been exploring experiences of loss in the early phases of the pandemic. Along with others in the team, they want to understand some of the manifold ways in which COVID-19 has been shaping social experience and to look for creative responses that might be supportive, and perhaps point to a kinder world as a result.

Continue reading “Responding to loss in the time of COVID: the Shoreline to Shoreline project”

Emma Dove: through the lens and beyond

A person in the American palliative world that I much admire, once told me she never ignored an enquiry from someone who wanted to make a connection with her work. For who knows what may come of it? The approach is one I have tried to emulate over the years, though it seems somewhat at odds with the instrumental ‘work smart’ ethos that pervades so many organisations today and is unsympathetic to serendipity. So when out of the blue I received an email in autumn 2018 from a person interested in a new project I was developing with colleagues in Japan, we arranged to meet at short notice, just before she was due to fly out to Tokyo. The person was Emma Dove. The meeting place was Thomas Tosh, already featured in these interviews.

Over coffee and scones and with my nine year old daughter listening-in attentively, I learned something of Emma’s background, skills and interests. Trained in film and with a strong interest in photography, she had been drawn to a concern with end of life issues as a result of her personal experience. Working on an arts project with collaborators in Scotland and Japan, she was interested in death cafes, cultural representations of dying and death and the ways in which art might contribute to debate and understanding.

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A good lunch

The meal had undoubtedly been a pleasure. Five friends gathered together in late Winter for a traditional Sunday meal, accompanied by a first rate Rioja and rounded out by dessert and good coffee. Emerging from the hotel, and with the exception of the driver, they each had the recognizable glow that results when wine and hot food come together in the middle of a cold day.

They were an unlikely quintet, the physician, sociologist, philosopher, anthropologist and surgeon who were now strolling from the hostelry and into the nearby side-streets of a picturesque Scottish fishing town.

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Caring for children – Lynne Murdoch

Our daughter started sessions in nursery pre-school some years ago. We were lucky at the time to also find a place for her at the childcare service provided by Lynne Murdoch, from her Nithsdale home, in the village of Thornhill. Over the years Lynne’s team has been a great resource for our family – providing support when needed either before or after school, during the school holidays, and even occasionally at weekends.

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The Transporter

Sean was always caught on the ebb tide. Here he was now, barrelling across the grammar school quadrangle with his characteristic rolling but sad gait. A shock of red hair falling down in a long spiky fringe concealing his sorrowful brown eyes and pale, pensive face. 

I caught up with him just as we entered the physics lab. We sat together on tall stools along the fourth bench from the front. The seating arrangement made it easy to leave a sizable gap without being unkind. This was 1965, long before social distancing, but it was prudent, nonetheless. 

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