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 hours 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 a magazine called Trout and Salmon, 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.


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, five 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.

You can listen to a podcast of me reading this story at:

The eel

I was walking round the garden just before dusk on All Souls Day, when something at the edge of the pond caught my eye. I immediately thought the predatory heron had been in action and perhaps left behind some part of its prey. A closer inspection showed that the eel which lay there, for such it was, appeared unharmed and with no sign of damage from that stabbing beak.

It was a beautiful elver, maybe ten inches long. Pigmented in colours of grey and brown from its elegant dark head to its finely tipped tail, it was also mottled with greens and blues, that seemed to refract in the low light. A yellowish-brown belly, looked soft and vunerable.

The elver seemed semi-comatose and made no effort to wriggle away. I lifted it gently and placed it in the pond water. Here it gave a couple of casual flicks and then disappeared without a ripple, beneath the duckweed and into the darker depths below.

The whole business took less than a minute. I had no phone with me to take the obligatory photograph. Nothing remained to tell of the elver’s presence.

But next morning I woke up thinking about that eel. Was it preparing to leave the pond or was it arriving there from the nearby burn, just a few yards away? The recent rainfall had been substantial. The burn, trickling and gentle in summer, had become a raging torrent hurtling over the weir at the bottom of the garden. I’d read that eels can move some distance in wet grass. I concluded that the elver had somehow left the boiling spate of the burn and was heading for the tranquility of the pond. Last year I had seen the remains of eels caught near the same spot and I’d even filmed a gruesome episode when the heron was endeavouring to kill a large specimen, fully two feet in length and newly taken from the pond waters.

Had I put the elver at risk? Possibly. But in recent days I’d seen the heron sitting patiently below the weir, clearly with food on its mind. So there were hazards in the burn too. This elver, it seemed, had run that gauntlet successfully, battling its way through the currents of a makeshift fish ladder at the side of the dam, whilst simultaneously avoiding the fatal jab of the bird’s bill.

I felt admiration for the elver. It had made the successful ascent of the Pennyland Burn. Before that it had swum up the River Nith, avoiding the dangers of cormorants at the ‘Caul’ weir in Dumfries. Before that, no less, it had completed a marine journey of formidable dimensions.

For the eel spawns in the western Atlantic in an area known as the Sargasso. Such a beautiful word. It conjures up a mass of eels swimming intertwined, as a raft of seaweed floats above them, the sargassam, from which the sea takes its name. Bounded only by circulating currents and touching no land, the Sargasso Sea seems a beautifully enigmatic place for eels to procreate.

From the Sargasso, transparent larvae of Anguilla Anguilla drift north east on the Gulf Stream until they reach European shores. There they transform into evocatively named  ‘glass eels’ that grow on in river estuaries and brackish water before metamorphosing into the juvenile stage, known as the elver. Over the next few years the elvers live in burns, rivers, lakes and lochs where, on reaching maturity, they are known as ‘silver eels’, from their shining white bellies. They are now ready for the reverse transition from fresh to salt water and for the 5,000 mile return journey south west. En route they will again face many threats, natural and anthropogenic, as the cycle continues.

So I hope the All Souls elver will now settle in the Dumfriesshire garden pond and, avoiding the heron, grow large in a rich habitat full of dragonflies, frogs, water beetles, leeches and snails. Who knows, perhaps I will see it again one dusky evening, by then as a silver eel, slipping out of the pond, heading for the burn, and beginning its epic migration to the spawning grounds, where it will reproduce – and then die.

Note: The featured image was taken recently on the River Nith in Dumfries, and appears here by kind permission of Keith Kirk.

Podcast: You can listen to me reading this article here:

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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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