Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92



It’s been a busy (and fraught) couple of weeks so apologies this blog comes a little late. My personal disposition has not been helped by world events unfolding in the media but I have to say, it does provide rich material for novels. The Trump administration trying to deflect attention from their involvement with Russia by accusing Obama of wire taps and, not content that Michael Flynn fell on his sword for them, they’re now labelling him a ‘foreign agent’. The new travel ban, the erosion of human rights, the lies…in the past a publisher might have said that it’s too much for one novel, that all those things happening more or less simultaneously is completely unbelievable. Not now.

We here in the UK fare no better: Brexit, the deportation of non-nationals who’ve lived here for years, the new rules regarding asylum seekers brought in (and effective immediately) when attention was on the Budget. We also have a new re-introduction of selective schools and schools who don’t enter some students for exams for fear of lowering the school’s overall ratings in the league tables. The world as I know it is going mad. So it got me thinking about a perfect world, what that would look like and who it is perfect for.

I can’t remember ever being called perfect before by anyone – family, partners, friends, colleagues – until Monday. I was having my monthly foot MOT (a luxury, I know) when  from nowhere my practitioner said, ‘I love working on your feet – your toes are still very flexible, the skin nice and soft, and there’s no damage from shoes. They’re perfect.’ I suppose at my age after standing for most of my working life, dancing away a good part of it and the rest spent hiking or running half marathons, that’s quite an achievement. But are my feet really where I want the perfection to be in my life?

I have succumbed, as so many women do, to notions of imperfection because my body was not the right shape, tone, strength. Even though I know it has nothing to do with my identity and it doesn’t define me, I still catch myself checking my image in the mirror and eat less when my waistbands start getting tight. One weekend, during a bout of depression, I decided to treat myself to a beauty therapy. I chose an organic mud wrap. I was first measured then slathered from chin to toes in mud before being wrapped in clingfilm and left in a darkened room for about an hour to relax.

The treatment was ‘guaranteed’ to help you lose 3 inches or your money back, but the 3 inches were accumulative from different parts of the body. When my treatment was finished I was measured again. I hadn’t lost the 3 inches, only 2, and the area where I’d lost most was 1 inch from my neck, which could least do with losing anything. Not quite the result I expected (or wanted). I didn’t get my money back, despite their ‘guarantee’, but it did make me laugh. Eventually.

In my perfect world everyone would be nice to each other, there would be no poverty, wars, abuse, discrimination, huge corporations owning half the planet and no-one would do anything to damage the climate, over-fish the seas, pollute the earth and her water, abandon children or mistreat animals. But if the world really was like that I’d soon become bored. There’d be no drama, nothing to write about, nothing to fight about or defend, nothing to strive for, no need to do inner work to self-improve. Life would be monochrome and what feels perfect to me wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for anyone else. Yet the perfection I seek is not found in the world behaving in a way I want it to, but in the small random moments that may not go according to plan but teach me something.

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. Eugene Kennedy


On The Road Again

I love travelling. I don’t travel well and get a lot of motion sickness, apart from when I’m in the driving seat, but nothing will ever really stop me from moving about and experiencing slices of this wonderful planet we inhabit. This weekend I’m heading off to The Netherlands to stay at my brother’s place in the south, near Vlissingen. He’s moved to a new flat in a nearby small town, so there’s plenty to explore and discover. I’ll also be starting to write my third novel, without the distractions of phone calls or housework, but will be spending a lot of time outdoors on his bike. It’s too hilly here for me to use a bike (I’m too decrepid) but out there it’s a dream of flatness and cycle lanes. Exhilirating.

What I love most about travelling is meeting so many people and hearing their stories. It’s not unusal to hear the life story of someone sitting next to me in the departure lounge or on the plane, and these stories I carefully store in my cheese-grater mind. A lot falls out, but the best bits stay to be recycled later as a character or an event in one of my novels/stories/poems. People-watching is great fun and as so many of flights get delayed, it’s interesting to see how different people cope with the situation. You get the ‘Do-you-know -who-I-am?’ self-important response, the satisfied-pessimistic ‘I-told-you-something-like -this-would-happen’, the  blamer ‘This-is-your-fault – if-only-you’d-listened-to-me-we’d-be -on-the-earlier-flight’ and the one when travelling with children ‘Please-let-us-go-before-I -kill-them’ response. My own is a rather fatalistic ‘Ah well, as long as we get there safely’.

A good game to play at these times is to take one or two people and imagine what they’re doing there, who they’re meeting and where they’re going. I’ve been playing that game so long I can’t remember ever travelling and not playing it. Apart from being fun and passes the time, it also cranks up my imaginative powers. I always keep a small notebook handy and in this I jot down ideas, words or phrases that capture me. Very useful fodder for later thought, particularly with a memory like mine.

Last summer, when I drove across America along Route 66 with my friend, Pat, we had lots of fun playing the game. It was delightful to be able to bounce idiotic ideas off each other and reach scenarios that dissolved us into tears of laughter. Much better than tears of frustration.

Delays are part of the journey, although if my flight to Schipol is delayed I will miss the last train to Vlissingen and have to spend the night in the airport. You can’t bed down or sleep there, so I have to pretend I’m meeting someone off a flight until I can catch the first train out at 4am. No doubt there’ll be plenty spies, undercover police, debutantes, brain suregeons and international jewel thieves to keep me awake and amused.