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.

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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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