The Hare, the Heron and the Professor: a story for ‘children of all ages’

Late one Spring evening, with the sun’s rays slanting low in the sky, the Professor took a walk around his garden. He paused for a moment to admire the view to the hills beyond. Then something in the grass caught his eye.

Lying next to a stone that had been warmed in the sunshine was a small brown, furry creature. It was keeping very still. At first he thought it was a rabbit. Perhaps a sick rabbit, as it showed no sign of movement.

The Professor decided it was better to leave the little creature in peace for a while. Maybe it would feel better after a good sleep. He’d come back to check later.

Then, as he slowly set off with his walking stick, there was a sudden movement to his left. Gathering all its strength, that small animal was now dashing off and heading for some oak trees across the garden.

As he watched, the Professor realized this was no poorly rabbit. Quite the opposite. In fact it was a very healthy young hare! Its long legs, tipped with white, were covering the ground at great speed and its beautiful red-brown soft ears were standing up straight and catching every sound.

The Professor was delighted. Such a lovely animal to have in the garden he thought, even if it might nibble at some of my vegetables!

Next day the Professor was heading for the garden pond. At this time of year, he knew the water would be full of life. He had a list in his mind of things to look for. Tadpoles, dragon flies, water snails, newts, frogs and toads.

The pond was shaped like a large teardrop. To the left tall silver birch trees swayed in the breeze. To the right was the summer house, catching the best of the sunshine.

Nearby was a little wooden jetty with a very small rowing boat tied to it. The boat’s name was Tarka, after the otter in a story the Professor had always loved when he was a boy.

He stood and gazed on the watery wonderland, feeling content.

Then came a slow movement at the edge of the pond. Long neck pulled back into its chest, a grey-blue bird with the spindliest of legs, began to rise into the air. Its wings were doing a sort of back-flap to help with lift off. It gave a single squawk from a very long beak and then turned and flew away, looking slightly annoyed.

It was a sight he’d seen many times and it always thrilled him. The Professor was watching the Heron. He’d interrupted the bird’s search for lunch and now it was heading off to a quieter feeding spot.

A few days later the Heron and the Hare met for the first time. They shared their enthusiasm for life in the Dumfriesshire garden. Heron had been there for a few years now. Hare was a newcomer, but a welcome one. Each had the feeling they were going to get along just fine.

Quite soon they fell to talking about the Professor.

He’s a very distinguished academic, said Heron, but he’s also quite down to earth. He’d far rather spend his time here in the garden than on some University committee or other. He seems to like looking very closely at things around him.

Heron explained that during the lockdown, she’d seen the Professor very early in the morning standing at a window. He was watching as she tucked into a rather delicious eel, newly speared out of the pond.

Hare had his own story. A couple of evenings past, the Professor had  peeped around the beech hedge by the vegetable patch, just as the little chap crouched there, getting a delicious bite of new lettuce leaves.

On both these occasions, it seemed that the Professor had in his hands a small red notebook, which he pointed towards them. What could it be for, they both wondered?

Next day as he was doing some weeding among the flower beds, the Professor saw the Heron and then the Hare

Both times he reached for the small red notebook they’d talked about. It took him precious seconds to retrieve it from his coat pocket, then he held it towards them, looking  quite serious.

But somehow the moment seemed to be lost. No sooner seen, but the Hare had gone. The blurred white blob of his tale merging into a patch of long grass. The Heron, always a shy bird, was just a smear of grey-blue lifting herself from the side of the pond, like some mysterious creature from the prehistoric past, but impossible to identify.

In each case their departure was watched by the Professor, standing disappointed as the Hare and then the Heron disappeared from view. He muttered something about just wanting to get a good snap of them,  and with a sigh, put the red notebook back into his pocket.

When they next met, Heron and Hare got into a discussion about the Professor and the curious red notebook. Why, they asked each other, did he hold it up with both hands and point it towards them?

If it happens again, it was agreed, they must rush off even more quickly. For their own safety!

Then, one  beautiful day that Spring  the Professor was out in the garden, exploring and enjoying all the new plants that were emerging.

Heron rushed off to find Hare. The two crouched behind some tall irises and peeped through the stems to see what he was doing. The Professor had his red notebook with him and was pointing it at different flowers and shrubs.

From time to time he even jabbed the notebook with his first finger, tapping away, gazing into the distance and then tapping again.  It’s important to capture these things when you see them, he said to himself.

Quietly, Heron and Hare stepped back, disappearing into the surrounding landscape. They were still very puzzled by it all.

Next time they saw the Professor, he was snoozing. Not surprising, it was a gorgeous warm afternoon.

Over the pond, two damsel flies were conducting a courtship dance. They hovered, darted, swerved and moved off. Only to be back moments later.

The Professor was oblivious. Eyes closed, he was sitting outside the summer house in his favourite wicker chair, dreaming of the world’s great gardens.  Hare and Heron were watching from the reeds.

Then suddenly the red notebook on his knee made a noise

The two friends both agreed it must be music. They listened intently. Then suddenly the music stopped and in came the loud voice of the Professor. He was looking at some lights shining on the front of the notebook and he seemed to be speaking to someone.

Yes absolutely, I need your technical advice, the Professor boomed. I have these two very striking creatures living in the garden – a Hare and a Heron. I just want to get one good shot of each of them. But try as I might I can’t. I’ve almost decided to stuff the whole idea. Can you help?

Heron and Hare turned and looked each other in the eye. Alarm was written all over them. He’s trying to kill us, they screamed in unison! And with that they cleared off as fast as they could, on foot and by wing, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the now scary Professor.

Surely, mused Hare next day, when they had calmed down a bit, the Professor can’t be someone who would harm wild creatures like us? I can’t imagine he would want to stuff us to decorate the summer house. He seems to love his garden and all the things that live in it. Maybe we should ask him to explain what he’s doing? Give him a chance to explain himself?

The two friends decided to leave a message for the Professor. One that he would find on his morning  walk. They  fastened it to the summer house door.

Dear Professor

Can you come to a picnic here at noon today? We will organize the food. Please bring your magic red notebook.


Heron and Hare.

At the appointed hour, all three gathered in the summer house.

Professor, said Heron, before we enjoy our picnic, we need to talk to you about something quite serious.

Please do go ahead said the Professor, obviously intrigued by all this attention.

It’s not easy to say this, but we’ve been afraid that you are planning to harm us in some way. We’ve seen you with your little red notebook, talking about snapping and capturing things.

Worst of all we think you are planning to shoot and stuff us, said Hare.

But why ever would I want to do that, came the astonished reply.

Because we heard you tell the red notebook these things, said the alarmed Heron.

Oh no, said the Professor, horrified. He pondered for a moment. I think there has been a terrible mistake.

Please explain, chorused Hare and Heron.

Well you see, for days now I have been trying to take a photograph of each of you. I can’t get a good snap as we used to call such things when I was a boy, it’s just been impossible to capture a clear image. For every time I get the chance, you clear off, quick as a flash, leaving only a blur on my screen. 

Your screen? Questioned Heron. Yes that’s right. On my smart phone.

Not the red notebook? Asked Hare.

Well I suppose you could call it a notebook. It does so many things. But for this purpose it’s a camera.

But you said you wanted to get a shot at us, protested Heron. What else could that possibly mean?

I’m afraid there is a word here that has popped into the wrong place. What I said to my friend on the screen was that I want to get a shot of you. It’s a sort of fancy way of saying take a photograph.

You see, he continued, words are terribly important. If we misunderstand or half hear something, we can get into a terrible fix.  I think this is what has happened here. Perhaps more than once. You’ve been unnecessarily alarmed by words like snap, capture, shot and stuff. For example, when I said that word, I meant stuff the idea, forget about it. Not stuff you!

So you weren’t trying to shoot us at all?

Only with a camera! I wanted to get a precious photograph of each of you to share with my grandchildren. They’ve been hearing lots from me about Heron and Hare in the garden, but they live a long way away and have been desperate to see you!

Heron looked at Hare in amazement. Hare looked back, about to giggle.

They broke into smiles and hugged each other, delighted at the story.

So now, said the Professor, may I have the honour of taking your photographs, using the er … red notebook?

Of course they replied. Whereupon each of them struck a dignified pose, which was duly snapped by the Professor in two charming shots.

All three tucked into the food. The Professor enjoyed some beautiful scones, freshly baked. Hare munched on a rocket salad. Heron had a delicious eel sandwich. There was elderflower cordial to drink.

Afterwards, all three sat back, pleasantly full.

Then suddenly Hare said – but what about a picture of you Professor. Could you do that for us?

I can do better than that replied the Professor.  Then he moved beside the Heron and the Hare, stretched out his arm and pressed a button on the notebook.

The result was immediately there for everyone to see. On the screen looking happy and content were the smiling faces of all three of them: Hare, Heron and Professor.

I believe it’s called a selfie, said the Professor. So now, after that terrible misunderstanding about words, you can see we are all friends. Captured in the little red notebook!

With thanks to Miriam, Teo, Maisie, Mike and Sue, for their comments and advice.

Five days at the Fringe: first performances of Cicely and David

Here’s my journal of 16-20th August 2022 at the Edinburgh festivals. The shows are back with ‘in person’ audiences and the place is buzzing. Meanwhile, I’m in a dual state of excitement and trepidation.

The reason? 16th August will see the premiere of my first play: Cicely and David. It tells the story of a Polish migrant, David Tasma, who is dying from cancer in post-war London, estranged from home and family. A brief, intense relationship with his social worker, Cicely Saunders, helps him to find some resolution to what he feels has been a worthless life. In the process, an idea is born that later changes the face of modern end of life care.

The journey of the play from ‘page to stage’ has been peppered with great people and enthusiastic collaborators. Together, we have gone through the gamut of detailed preparations and demanding logistics involved in bringing a show to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Now everything is to play for. Literally.

Maybe I will see you at one of the performances? Saturday is sold out, but there are some tickets on the remaining days.

You can follow events ‘live’ each day here, so please keep in touch.

Tuesday 16th August

The cast and crew are using up final precious moments to rehearse their bows and acknowledgements. I’m sitting in the fifth row back, more nervous than I can remember in a long time.

The directors declare we are ready to go.

The space is cleared, the house lights go up and the audience begins filing in, quickly filling up the small auditorium.

The doors close and we are off.

It’s the culmination of a long held dream: to write a play about the founder of the modern hospice movement, Cicely Saunders. The stage is lit, gentle piano music drifts in. It’s happening.

I’m struggling here to capture the next 60 minutes. A team of drama students have combined their efforts to stage my play, interpreting it through youthful imagination, and with no prior assumptions about the phenomenon of palliative care.

I’m thrilled by the result. The production brings movement, drama, humour, sorrow and hope to my words on the page. I am listening hard and watching intently to what is happening on stage. But I also have an antenna out for the audience reaction. Like me, they seem caught in the moment and held by the performance.

When the end comes the applause ring out and there are cheers. The house lights come back on and I see tears being wiped away. My 13 year old daughter turns to me and gives the ultimate accolade: ‘Dad, it was much better than I thought it would be’.

Wednesday 17th August

Today I walk to the venue feeling calmer and more at ease. On Heriot Row, I pause for a moment at the elegant town house where Robert Louis Stevenson once lived. That great writer who was no stranger to illness and who died aged 44.

At the venue, the directors again guide the cast through the choreography of the final scene. One of the actors spends time alone on the set, getting into role and checking movements, here and there. The support team are content. Yesterday the logistics worked for them and there was praise for the attractive programme and the sprig of rosemary inside it – a reference to the opening scene in the play (the remembrance herb).

With everything ready to go, the production crew have tested the props and lights and seem relaxed, even breaking into a quiet song in the minutes before the audience arrive.

Onstage the action flows beautifully. I pick up on slight changes from yesterday. Here and there a line is given a little more time, greater urgency, or a stronger hint of irony. I guess this is the peculiar treat for the playwright, to hear the script breathing, unfolding and subtly changing from one performance to another.

The audience contains familiar faces. There are people here who know a great deal about hospice and palliative care. I pick up on nods and gentle nudges where reference is made to some clinical issue, some hospice concept, or the work of a palliative care pioneer.

The story of Cicely and David contains a fair bit of information. I’ve sometimes worried if my rendition is too didactic. So it’s reassuring in the evening to read on Twitter the words of a medical student from the Philippines who has been at today’s performance and who even quotes a line from it:

Couldn’t hold back tears while watching ‘Cicely and David’ at #EdinburghFringe


I was reminded of the immense privilege we doctors and nurses have to be with our patients in their final moments.

‘Hospice is a way of doing rather than a physical place’

Thursday 18th August

An hour before the play is due to begin, all tickets are sold. The crew have a settled air about them and there is banter and smiles in anticipation of today’s performance.

In my seat I seem to be surrounded by palliative care experts. The person next to me is a doctor who trained at St Christopher’s Hospice. Once again I spot people who have come from a great distance.

We have seen that the emotional content of the play is having a marked effect on some in the audience. Not everyone who comes works in hospice. So in her opening welcome our producer, Jo Hockley, draws attention to this and lets people know that she and a couple of people from the Marie Curie organisation are around after the show, if anyone feels the need to talk.

The play begins and on this third performance is reaching a new level. The whole cast seem to give more space to their lines. It’s in those spaces that we the audience find greater depth and meaning. Each actor has a palpable relationship with us as well as the other characters in the play. When the play ends no one in the audience moves for at least a minute.

There is huge warmth in the room afterwards, and once again I talk to proud parents, delighted with what their sons and daughters are achieving with David and Cicely. As one of our undergraduate directors said to me: ‘we set out to tell the story of palliative care, and that is what’s happening’.

Late in the evening I spot our first review. You can find it here (just scroll down, the shows are in alphabetical order). It’s a great boost to our efforts.

The comments on social media are also coming thick and fast now. This was my favourite of the day:

A story about love, a love story, a story of feminism. A timely reminder of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve yet to do. And I really loved the rosemary.

Maria McGill

Friday 19th August

The rail strike hasn’t affected attendance at the play. We are sold out. As they file in, I spot a couple of retired people who I know worked with Cicely Saunders, but in the main the audience looks younger and unfamiliar to me.

For the crew there is an additional logistic today. The performance is being filmed. When word went out about the show a few months ago several people started asking us if filming was a possibility. Many who wished to see the play couldn’t travel to Edinburgh, and perhaps a film would be useful to local hospices for wider education or fundraising purposes. We have been fortunate to get sponsorship to support the costs.

As I watch the play for the fourth time, I take on a more authorly gaze. I make mental notes of the best lines as well as some that could be improved. I wonder if small changes might heighten the drama. I was at a book festival event this morning where an author declared his love for the ‘back story’. I wonder if more of that could be introduced for my four characters. There will be time enough to ponder those things in the coming weeks.

For now the atmosphere in the room is visceral and requires no analysis.

Afterwards everyone must leave the space quickly to make way for the next show. But upstairs people linger in the foyer or on the street outside. Several gather in the bar. I’m there for another hour, listening and talking.

There is someone who was drawn to hospice volunteering though personal experience and is now reading in depth into the life and work of Cicely Saunders. Another young person approaches me for a word. She has no connection with the palliative care world or knowledge about it. She has come to the play because her parents were from Warsaw, David Tasma’s home city.

One older man tells me ‘I lost my wife to cancer. I found it all very emotional, very emotional. But in a very good way’.

And once again there are proud family members, thrilled with what their sons and daughters have achieved on stage or in the production of the play. As an academic, I have a slight feel of graduation day.

Outside as I make my way back to my family, the skies open, the wind gets up and there is a blast of rain that whips in from the Firth of Forth. I make no attempt to seek shelter. Lifting my face to the elements I feel thankful for those precious moments, spent with others, immersed in the story of Cicely and David.

Saturday 20th August

At 1pm we learn that for compelling reasons a member of the five person cast will be unavailable this evening. One of our co-directors immediately steps forward. A new costume is found and the show will go on.

By the time I reach the venue, crucial scenes are being rehearsed and to my astonishment the players seem relaxed and confident. It is a remarkable testimony to our group of student actors. How I have marvelled this week at their professionalism and passion.

The performance is full of light and shade. Cicely Saunders’ post-war encounter with the dying David Tasma in her first year as a hospital almoner is the central drama out of which the emergence of the modern hospice concept takes place. The play tells this story. It also lays out the principles of hospice and palliative care. It is intended, in David Tasma’s own words, to touch our minds and hearts. I think it has succeeded.

Tonight the audience pick up on the humour. The players respond in kind.

The emotional temperature is raised, and everyone in the theatre can feel it.

The final scene brings catharsis.

Afterwards, the conversations and reflections roll out as they have done each evening. People share their own stories of connection to the play, its characters and storyline.

Thanks to our sponsors, we have covered all of our production costs. This means that all proceeds from ticket sales, topped up by a leaving collection, will go to the Hospices of Hope Ukraine Appeal – around £4,000.

Afterwards, the whole team joins together in a Stockbridge pizzeria. We are all still animated. Toasts are made and impromptu speeches given. There are cards and gifts. Many of the team thank me and the producer, Jo Hockley, for taking them on. We thank them in return for taking us on.

Months of preparation and teamwork have brought a remarkable result. We all wonder what tomorrow will feel like.

For my part, I’m optimistic the play will live on and grow. Following this first production, I hope it will serve as a new platform to promote the message of palliative care – everywhere, and for everyone.

For more information about ‘Cicely and David’, including access to the script, please see:

My play reaches the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The year was 1947. David Tasma was just 40 years old. A Polish migrant who had fled his homeland weeks before the Nazis invaded, he’d spent the war years living on the margins of London life, eventually finding employment in a Kosher restaurant in the West End. When peace came he hoped for better things. Then came his diagnosis of inoperable bowel cancer. As his illness advanced his biographical pain increased. He was estranged from his family, fearing most of them had perished in the death camps. He had lost connection with the Jewish faith of his forefathers. He felt he had achieved nothing in life. He longed for love and for reconciliation. Then into his world came a newly qualified social worker, Cicely Saunders. She first met David in the outpatients department of St Thomas’s Hospital and later found time to visit him when he was admitted to the Archway Hospital. Over a few months, an intense and elusive relationship developed between them in which Cicely sought to help David find closure before he died. Their encounter had a remarkable legacy. It inspired her to learn more about the care of dying people and eventually to conceptualise a new model of hospice care that would develop into a global social movement. Remarkably, David’s fear that his life would leave nothing behind was to prove groundless.

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of a play I’ve been writing. It will receive its first performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month. The story behind the play goes back some time and has several aspects. Its realisation is a huge tribute to the spirit and energy of collaboration.

I first met Cicely Saunders in 1995 and knew her for exactly the last decade of her long life. Like many others I was drawn to this charismatic woman who had been a nurse, a social worker and a doctor. By founding St Christopher’s, the world’s first modern hospice, she had created a new and compelling approach to care at the end of life. It was a beacon of inspiration to countless others. As an academic, I wanted to understand her story, to ensure that it was properly recorded and to assist in the preservation of her remarkable papers, diaries, books and letters. By the time of her death in July 2005, we had got to know each other well and I was in turn, well advanced with my goal.

I had been uniquely privileged to have access to Cicely Saunders’ personal archives. She had given her time freely to take part in two dozen interviews that ranged over all her major milestones as well as the nooks and crannies in the backroads of her life. I’d had unfettered access to her correspondence. By 2005 I’d edited a book of her selected letters and preparations were complete on an collection of her publications, During the final years, my interviews with her had intensified, going deeper. For now a third volume had been agreed. Cicely had entrusted me with the task of writing a post-humous biography.

That book was some time in the making and eventually appeared in June 2018, marking the centenary of her birth. The trilogy, along with a clutch of related academic papers, was in many ways the high water mark of my involvement with the life and legacy of Cicely Saunders. The work received positive recognition from her admirers and was cited by academic commentators. Over the years it found an audience at literary festivals and at special occasions and anniversaries in the hospice calendar.

But despite all this, I still felt there was something else that could be done. Something that would reach out to a wider public and tell Cicely’s story in a new way. So in early 2021 and after much pondering, I made a decision. I would try to write a play capturing the genius, the vulnerability, the contradictions and the sheer determination of the woman who almost singlehandedly invented not only the hospice movement, but also the modern field of palliative care which sprang from it.

I knew an enormous amount about Cicely, but I knew nothing about play writing. I called my old friend, palliative care pioneer and theatre enthusiast, Jo Hockley. As a nurse, she had worked with Cicely in the 1980s. Jo had also successfully produced the play Shadowlands at the Edinburgh Fringe. She immediately understood what I was thinking, and in the Spring of 2021 our shared endeavour got underway.

I began writing synopses, and drafts of scenes. We talked about play production and its practicalities. Soon others joined in the process and supported us along the way. We progressed from readings over Zoom, to workshops with local school drama students and amateur theatre groups. As others read and commented on my script, I was helped to refine the story and to uncover ways in which to dramatise it.

Key to everything was the advice and enthusiasm of staff and students in drama at Queen Margaret University (QMU) Edinburgh. A day there with them exploring the script in January of this year was transformative and set the whole venture on an exhilarating path. The script had resonated with a knowledgeable and insightful group. Jo and I began to feel that it might indeed make its way to performance, or ‘from page to stage’ in theatre parlance. By April three final-year students came forward with a proposal to co-direct the play. They enlisted actors from QMU and Edinburgh Napier University and drew in production people from the student body. By June rehearsal plans were being made and from the start of July the sessions began in earnest. Everything was in place and a venue had been booked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for five shows in August.

The whole thing has been exhilarating and life-affirming for me. Emerging from lockdown and transitioning into ‘retirement’ I’ve found myself working outside my comfort zone, meeting new people, learning about drama, theatre making and play writing. The enthusiasm of the actors, directors and production team is an inspiration. Their hours of effort, attention to detail, team spirit and motivation are herculean. When I attended a rehearsal 10 days before the first performance, I was astonished and delighted to see how they had interpreted my script, introducing movement and increasing its drama. Watching the scenes unfold, more than once I felt the tears welling up.

The palliative care community has also responded with great commitment. We have received personal and institutional gifts of sponsorship to cover our production costs and to allow the play to be filmed. A taster from Scene 1 has been performed at a palliative care conference. We know that lots of palliateurs and friends of Cicely will be coming to the performance in Edinburgh. Some hospice organisations are already in conversation with me about how they may use their own productions of the play for wider public engagement and fund-raising. So I am hoping the script will travel and have a life of its own well beyond the ‘premiere’.

Curiously, the Edinburgh Fringe is celebrating a major landmark this year: its 75th anniversary. In the summer of 1947 as it began, the festival coincided exactly with the moment when Cicely Saunders first met David Tasma. Seventy five years on, the encounter between Cicely and David remains a story for our time. So I am delighted, (and trepidatious) that it is now about to be shared through the medium of theatre. I hope to see you there.

Tickets for the play are going fast (16th to 20th August at 4.30pm each day). You can book them here:

With thanks from me and our producer Jo Hockley to:

The cast – Serena Park, Michael Johnston, Tegan Smith, Jaimie Busuttil, Arlene Mckay

Directors – Caitlin Truscott, Meghan Wallace, Caladh Walker

Design and Tech – Alex Shanks, Danny Menzies

Music – Kath Bruce

Our sponsors – Dr Fiona Graham, Gilbert Archer, James and Antoinette Galbraith, Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, St Columba’s Hospice, Marie Curie, Irish Hospice Foundation, St Christopher’s Hospice, Highland Hospice, Cicely Saunders International, Marie Curie, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

All ticket proceeds will go to Hospices of Hope – Ukraine Appeal

The frugal academic

Gary lived alone.

A social scientist, he was good at structures, patterns and policies, but less adept in the world of relationships.

Gary’s minimal approach to intimacy was echoed in the frugal aspects of his living arrangements.

His home was a bungalow, well below his pay grade. Among his few luxuries was a pair of binoculars for birdwatching. He was a stranger to foreign holidays and his tastes in food and drink rarely went beyond the staples of the British diet.

By the standards of the day it’s true that Gary had a rather large television. Placed directly in front of it was an over-sized fake leather armchair that could be tilted backwards to push out a foot rest. To the right of the chair was an upturned Watney’s Red Barrel party beer can, now doubling as an occasional table. That completed his ‘lounge’.

Gary was content with this approach to domesticity, which characterised all the rooms in the house and even the contents of his fridge.

Visitors could be seen swivelling through 360 degrees, curious at the absence of functional or decorative accoutrements. He never noticed their bemusement.

Tonight Gary had a special guest. An American colleague had arrived early for the national sociology conference. Until now he and Gary had only known each other via the email. Gary had invited him over for a drink.

As he poured the beers, Gary began to explain a recent misfortune that had befallen him. He had been burgled.

The perpetrators had got in through the kitchen window and stolen a watch and some cash from his bedroom.

Gary had no experiences of break-ins and was still feeling shaken by it over a week after the event. Recounting what had happened, he was touched by the American’s concern.

‘I can understand totally’ said the visitor. ‘To feel that the private space of your home has been invaded by external, perhaps threatening agents must feel somewhat like a violation’.

‘Indeed’ mumbled Gary.

‘To have malevolent strangers touching, perhaps pruriently raking through your personal possessions, must be a high level form of transgression’.

‘Absolutely’, came the weak reply.

‘But then in addition to the special importance of losing the watch and the annoyance of the stolen money, to think that they would be so bold as to steal most of your furniture – that’s the final insult!’.

Gary, ever the minimalist, shuffled his feet and looked down at the floor in silence. He felt grateful for the American’s sympathy. ‘Thank you’ he said.

It was the least he could do.

The host and the special Baden 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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