The host and the special wine

The big moment was imminent. For weeks the host had been rehearsing in his head how the evening would end. I knew this because every morning when our paths crossed at the school drop-off he’d had something to say about the special wine that would conclude his next dinner party.

It was to be a Burkheimer Feuerberg Kesselberg Spätburgunder Eiswein, some ten years old, and emanating from the Baden region of Southern Germany. These details and more besides were tripping off the host’s tongue with increasing facility in the days before the meal.

I learned how the grapes for this model of vinous perfection must be picked whilst frozen and how they are heavy with sugar because Baden is the warmest wine growing region in the Federal Republic. It was explained to me that this white dessert wine would be so delicious that no food could be served with it, for nothing should detract from our intense and unalloyed pleasure in its consumption.

It was a big build up, right enough.

And now here we were on an Autumn night in the 1980s. The starter, main course, cheese and pudding had been dispatched. All the guests had several glasses before them – the legacy of wines matched carefully by the host to each course of the meal.

A feeling of wellbeing prevailed among us.

When the host left the dining room and returned moments later, he was holding with infinite care the cherished wine, and assuring us it was at the optimum temperature.

He circumnavigated the table with ease, deftly pouring for each guest a modest measure into beautiful Roemer glasses, selected specially for the Eiswein. A practiced twist of the bottle ensured nothing dripped to the table or was wasted.

The person to my right sat with reverence while the host poured. The sense of anticipation was mounting as I, the final guest, was about to be served.

It was at this point that my neighbour, who could contain himself no longer, raised the newly charged glass to his nose, sniffed deeply, paused, and then threw back his head in a moan of delight.

Seeing such enthusiasm even before the wine was tasted, the host was palpably pleased, indeed distracted. Half speaking to my ecstatic neighbour, he proceeded to pour for me.

Thus it was that our sommelier made a fatal error.

Instead of the green stemmed Roemer, my drink glugged into a much larger glass, to whit one from which I had not yet finished a rather good claret.

Seeing his mistake, the host looked on in the epitome of incredulous horror. For once he was speechless.

Taking my time to fill the silence, I smiled, looked around the table at my aghast companions, and then made to speak to our host in the friendliest of tones and in a way that seemed commensurate with the situation. There was only one thing that could be said:

“I beg your pardon, you never promised me a rosé Baden. 
Along with the white wine, you’ve gone and mixed a drop of red this time”. 

From scalpel to story: creative reactions after surgery

It’s curious how a moment of creativity can sneak up on you by surprise. After months, even years, of struggling with an idea that will simply not allow itself to be realised, something changes, and the floodgates of the imagination are opened.

Here’s how it happened in my case, quite recently.

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Alan McClure: creator of songs and wielder of words

I first met Alan McClure over 10 years ago when I read a review of a CD from an upcoming trio called The Geese. I quickly bought a copy and was rewarded with a selection of songs that combined wit, insight and enthusiasm with great tunes and memorable choruses. The acoustic band was quickly booked for my infant Kirkmahoe Concerts series, where one spring evening they delighted a small but discerning audience in Dalswinton Hall. That evening I had a feeling much more would emerge from The Geese over time, and perhaps not least from their main songwriter – Alan himself.

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Play-writing as a shared endeavour 

When I first set out to write a play, I envisaged it as the lone writing task, par excellence. I thought of someone like Henrik Ibsen, exiled and working alone with only his dramatic imagination to guide him. The prospect was uncongenial.

I called my friend Jo Hockley, who had once produced a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, and asked her to join me in the enterprise. She readily agreed to review my drafts, offer insights and comments and generally take an interest in the project. Quite soon a former student of mine, Erin Craighead, an amateur actor and budding playwright herself, came on board in a similar way. 

Suddenly my playwriting ambition was housed within a team of three people, whose members were keen to work together. I was no longer on my own.

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Hazel Campbell: at the stroke of a brush

The year was 2010. Heading to our favourite cafe/gallery in Castle Douglas one gloomy Saturday, we paused at the front window. A large watercolour painting was mounted on an easel and seemed to be lighting up the whole High Street.

Electric blues and vibrant greens shone out around a quirky white cottage. In the foreground, as if on a window ledge, was a pot of purple flowers, itself decorated with a red heart. The sky looked like the northern lights. The whole painting exuded a sense of energy, yet at its centre was a sense of quiet, rural calm. In an instant, Dr G strode into the shop and within moments she had made a purchase.

Thus it was that the work of Hazel Campbell found its way into our home. It is my pleasure to enjoy that painting multiple times each day as I go in and out of my house. It is the first thing visitors see on arrival and the last thing they view on departure. Fastened to the wall with strong mirror plates, it has become almost a part of the building itself.

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Karen Campbell – a writer’s story

Photo credit Kim Ayres

Back in the early months of the 2020 lockdown, like many others I was using enforced isolation to broaden and deepen my reading. I found myself reaching out to the works of authors I was aware of, but had not yet ventured towards. In this context, that spring I became immersed in a novel about wartime Tuscany. A story of divided communities, and cultural strain. A story of violent and mounting tension. And yes, also a story of love. The writing was luminous, sharply observed; the characters compelling and demanding; the historical details, mainly new to me, peppering the storyline, but never obscuring it. I read the book slowly and with respectful attention. Two years later the hardback copy still sits in a pile by my favourite chair, something to be returned to, its vivid passages re-experienced, its deeper implications re-explored.

The novelist in question is Karen Campbell. The Sound of the Hours, is her seventh book and the eighth is soon to appear. Through my links with the Atlas Pandemica project, in which artists and writers developed cultural interpretations of the unfolding consequences of COVID-19, I also discovered her remarkable set of short stories and reflections based on the experiences of Council workers during the lockdown periods of 2020.

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Art, memory and the lobster pot

It is a bright, dry day in October 2021, the full palette of autumn is fully established, and there is still plenty of warmth in the sun. With me are two friends from southern Norway, Lisbeth and Einar. We are spending the day together, drinking coffee in my Dumfriesshire home, exploring the Dalswinton estate, and eating lunch at Thomas Tosh in nearby Thornhill. The highlight of our excursion is to be a visit to CAMPLE LINE, a small gallery in Nithsdale, where I am a charity board member.

At the gallery, the three of us encounter for the first time the work of Tonico Lemos Auad.  His show consists of just 12 pieces. The largest are in an upstairs room, where some are suspended from the wooden rafters of what is a former textile mill. The exhibition is beautifully constructed. The work and the place that contains it seem uniquely at one. It is clear that the artist understands the building. So I am only half surprised when I learn that Tonico is also an architect.

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Circles of trees: an ‘arboretum’ in the making

​The idea of the arboretum came about in 2015, when I had the opportunity to take a long lease on the field adjacent to my home in Dumfriesshire. ​Having secured the arrangement, I began to ponder how to proceed. Almost two hectares in extent, the field had been set-aside for years as rough pasture. Long coveted, it now seemed a rather daunting responsibility.

Fortunately it did not daunt my ever practical friend Artur Nalepko, who assured me of his assistance and know-how. My principal idea was to plant trees, though I wasn’t sure which ones or in what groupings or pattern. The rather grand term ‘arboretum’ came a little later,

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The Christmas Eve dinner: a mystery story

The motorway is down to one lane in the deepening snow. I’m in a convoy of vehicles making cautious progress as we all head north. Driving home for Christmas.  

I reach the Scottish border. The Gretna outlet store, now re-named Caledonia Village, is crammed with last minute shoppers. I take the next exit, heading west into Dumfries and Galloway. That little corner of Scotland that no one elsewhere seems to know much about.

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Barry Graham and the spirit of Loch Arthur

Over the last decade I have taken many friends, visitors and colleagues to the Loch Arthur Farm Shop, in Beeswing near Dumfries. I’m always pleased when the visit coincides with an opportunity to chat to Barry Graham, who in the interview with me below tells us his intriguing story.

One challenge I have had at the Farm Shop is how to introduce him to others. Occasionally I have used the term ‘majordomo’ as a title, though as the interview will testify, that is far from being the right descriptor. ‘Inspiration behind Loch Arthur’ is another phrase I’ve used, though as we shall see that doesn’t quite capture it either.

His own words tell a good story. “I am the person who knows the most people who I don’t actually know”. For my own part, I am certainly one who beyond a sketchy knowledge of Barry’s varied roles and responsibilities at Loch Arthur, until now knew very little of the person. Which is why it is such a pleasure to present here this account of aspects of his life and work.

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