Waiting for Godot…

The Gas Man Cometh
(or Druid Theatre’s production, “Waiting For Godot”, Royal Lyceum theatre, Edinburgh.
Image copyright: Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images. Found here).

Today was the second attempt at a “smart meter” installation. This meant considerable disruption: the second afternoon taken off work to be at the house to greet the much-vaunted, never seen, engineer.

The first time it happened, at least there was the text and apologetic phone call. “Sorry, but the engineer has been delayed on another job. Will need to reschedule.” We rescheduled.

The automatic system is brilliant. Every day a text and email to confirm the impending appointment, peaking at two a day (though this may have been entirely my confusion, caused by picking up emails on mobile devices.)

This morning, 07:30, a final confirmation reminding me of the importance of giving up (another) half a day’s wages. I duly complied, and at the allotted time sat waiting in eager anticipation of the imminent arrival of the engineer.

Four hours later it became increasingly obvious that the long-waited-for engineer was not going to show up. Right to the last second of his window (for which it was incredibly important I be in the house), with no call, text, or email to indicate that he was not coming, hope remained high.

Five minutes past the time: a timorous knock on the door.

“The engineer!” cried the wife.

Leaping from my chair, I welcomed in…

…a charity worker. I am now sponsoring a disadvantaged child in some underprivileged, underfunded hell hole somewhere in deepest, darkest, Scotland…

Imagine my surprise, then, nay shock! when the anticipated apology for the no-show engineer, pinging into text and email notification, turned out to be a request for feedback.

“Oh, dear,” said the wife. “You’re going to enjoy this…”

Not as much as I would have enjoyed the thrill of seeing, in real-time, my live usage of electrons surging into the property directly from the Scottish Power grid, half a day’s wages, or an afternoon frolicking, carefree, without the hefty responsibility of waiting for someone who would never come…

And if you don’t understand Beckett’s masterpiece now, you never will…

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When plans fall around you

Woah. What a week.

First was the unexpected email last Wednesday: “Um, we forgot all about you and we only have two slots left until February. Can we come on Friday? Or on Monday?”

Why, of course. “It’s not like I had anything else planned.”

I plumped for Monday. The weekend was entirely lost in reviewing legislation, generating compliance reports, and banging my head against the wall of colleague indifference. As a bonus, the IT guy phoned on Thursday to arrange a Saturday crash of all systems…

Monday was… alright. New auditor. Got to break them in gently and, as they have no idea what it is you do, they get easily distracted. Mainly by tea, and carefully sculpted open questions about their life, career, hopes and aspirations. (Careful though. By the third visit, they’ll clock what is happening, and go all Dementor on your ass…)

Cloistered in the meeting room we were having a jolly good time, interrupted only by the occasional far off scream, the odd thud at the foot of the stairs, and a most disconcerting dragging sound. If we’d been less focussed, we might have thought to pop our head out the door to investigate which body was being hastily stashed in the broom cupboard but somebody else was sure to have things under control.

Should have known…

Roll up this morning, with the Monday (pre-auditor email) to-do list clasped firmly in sweaty hand, “There’s a couple of things…” Yes? Cut a long story short: the day was spent with the unexpected joys of exporting five units, importing seventeen, preparing three shipments without any idea which boat they’d be loaded on or whether said boats would get to the consignee on time.

Much of the afternoon was spent sobbing gently in the arms of the shipping agent who was desperately trying to keep up with the veritable forest of paperwork flying in his direction (not helped by the software deciding, inexplicably, to forget how to add up the columns of pounds, shillings, kilos and pence).

Maybe the Monday and Tuesday to-do lists can be discretely placed in the circular file? Or should today be treated as Monday? But that would make Friday Sunday, and I need it to be Saturday already…

Step back. Breathe…

Found at ImageFlip

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Longing for home

Home turf
Copyright: Philip Bowes

It’s odd how it catches you, sometimes, off guard.

The picture on the right is an image I’ve often tried to capture, usually without success, so when it popped up on a social media group I’m a member off, it kind of took my breath away.

In the mid-ground, the land my uncle wrought his entire working life, replete with burial mound and ancient hill-fort lying on the ridge. In the background, the hill another uncle worked; its virtually concave aspect, a constant source of wonder in my youth.

Home turf was but a couple of miles from this vantage point, yet the views couldn’t be more different. Tucked into a valley at the confluence of two rivers, all that was visible from the house was little more than the hump of terminal moraine left behind from the last ice-age.

Copyright: Alan O’Dowd

You can just see the house at the end of the track in this image. I was surprised when I visited, at the tail end of 2018, to discover the rewilding of the river. The trees on the left of the track represent nature regenerating herself, and you can just make out a splash of colour that was the river we could usually be found in, “up to no good”, during the long summer months. When we weren’t seconded, that is, to spreading a new layer of gravel on the track!

The changes, too; of byre into a boardroom, of the barn into a car park, and stables into housing; were a welcome surprise: so many similar farm buildings, when the land was turned to forestry, have been left to fall into ruin.

Although it hasn’t been home for nearly forty years, the pull of the land of our childhood can often seem unbearable. Going back, of course, is another matter entirely…

Posted in Early stirrings, Landscape, Self Awareness | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

All Hallows Eve

Turnip Lantern by Patrick Murdoch

It’s almost upon us. That most Scottish of warding traditions, which, having crossed the Atlantic, has returned, a wee bit sullied, yet nonetheless popular.

Marking the end of the summer and the beginning of winter, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was considered sundered on the night before the Feast of All Saints; effectively allowing the dead to walk among the living. It was also a night on which the “people of the air” (the fairy folk) held a great conventical, and it was, therefore, just as important to avoid causing offence to the Fey on Halloween as it was to exorcise the spirits of the dead.

As protection against any evil abroad, bonfires were traditionally lit. All hearth fires were extinguished and then relit from that communal bonfire. Lanterns, carved from a turnip, were used to keep wandering spirits away from the home (the ease of utilising a pumpkin for the same purpose loses something through lack of effort expended to keep evil out!)

Guising, by which children dressed up and pretended to be evil spirits; effectively allowing them to move, unmolested, among any actual spirits abroad. Visiting neighbouring houses thus disguised, the child would receive an offering in order to keep evil from the house.

As a festival marking harvest end, Halloween was largely a rural tradition, which included many elements, now largely forgotten, of using the potential of the night to divine future happiness, or otherwise; particularly by those (both male and female) yet to be wed, by means of various charms and spells. It was a night of much merriment, with many a tryst…

One unusual custom, usually conducted early in the night, was for courting couples to enter a kale field with their eyes closed, hand in hand.  The first plant they encountered was pulled from the ground. The characteristics of the plant they chose; size (big or small), shape (straight or crooked), the girth of the main stem (or lack thereof); was considered indicative of what the young lady should expect on their marriage night. In addition, the amount of dirt adhering to the rootball reflected the financial fortunes of the match and the taste of the heart gave a clue to the disposition and natural temper of their partner in marriage.

The night then continued with a visit to the barn where the young ladies would pull three random stalks of oat from the stack. If the third stalk was missing the grain at the top of the stalk, then they were destined to enter the marriage bed “un-maided” beforehand; a “prophecy” no doubt often abused to the young man’s advantage that very night!

A favourite charm, whilst sitting around the fire, was for sweethearts to place a pair of hazelnuts together on the fire. Whether the nuts burned quietly together, or “spat” apart in the heat, was considered a reflection of the future path of their courtship.

Young ladies, sweet on a young man who showed her no attention, could slip out alone to the dying embers of the communal fire to cast a spell to divine whether he would ever turn his head. Throwing a bolt of blue yarn into the embers, she would wind the yarn back out of the ashes. Should the other end be caught on something she could demand (of whatever “spirit” held the other end of the yarn) the name of her future spouse.

Another way of divining a future spouse was that of “eating an apple at the glass.” Again, this was done alone, with a candle in front of a mirror. By eating the apple whilst combing her hair, it was believed that the face of her future spouse would appear in the mirror as if peering over her shoulder.

Indeed, many of the spells cast that night were devised for this purpose and involved a variety of props; ranging from hemp seeds (cast with the words “I sow thee, I sow thee, and him (or her) that is to be my true love, show me!” at which point the individual was to look over their left shoulder to see a vision of their future spouse); through carrying out the actions of “winnowing nothing” (three times) in the barn to see an apparition, and an indication of their station, of a future spouse pass through the barn; to traversing thrice round a barley stack in order to catch a vision of a future spouse in your arms. All of these spells had to be carried out alone to be successful.

Some spells were considered “social spells” and were often quite complex.

One such, the last of the night, involved dipping a left shirt sleeve into a south running spring, rising at the junction of three properties. The diviner then had to go to bed in sight of the fire, in front of which the wet sleeve had been hung to dry. At some time near midnight, an apparition of the future spouse would appear and turn the sleeve to dry the other side.

One of the most detailed involved three dishes; one filled with clean water, one with foul water, and the final left empty. The dishes were arranged in front of the hearth and the blindfolded person was led to them. They were then invited to dip their left hand in one of the dishes. If they by chance dipped in the clean water, their future (husband or) wife would come to the marriage unsullied; dipping into the foul water indicated their spouse would be a widow(er). If the empty dish was chosen then they would remain unmarried. This divination was completed three times, with the arrangement of the dishes changed each time.

As rural populations migrated to towns and cities, the folk traditions of the young adults fairly quickly disappeared. Little could remain beyond the children’s dress-up, the bonfires, and the lanterns.

~~~

This summary of lowland Scots traditions largely gleaned from Robert Burns’ “Hallowe’en”, one of his longest works, which contains in the introductory notes of the 1786 “Kilmarnock Edition” a clear indication that even by 1785, when he was writing, that many of the traditions were no longer generally considered.

“The following poem will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but for the sake of those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the country where the scene is cast, notes are added to give some account of the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland. The passion of prying into futurity makes a striking part of the history of human nature in its rude state, in all ages and nations; and it may be some entertainment to a philosophic mind, if any such honour the author with a perusal, to see the remains of it among the more unenlightened in our own.-R.B.”

The full poem (along with a handy translation for the non-Scots speakers) can be read here.

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It was the moon that did it…

Full Hunter’s Moon
Copyright: Katie Theule

…hanging there in her fullness; already rising so far north since her brief flirting with the equinoctial horizon. Then today, past full but still ripe, high overhead; a ghostly image against the brightest blue of mid morning’s cloudless sky.

How many notice her in her daylit garb?

I have a clear memory of the first time she caught me out; I must have been 8 or 9. I wasn’t really aware of stopping in my tracks and staring, slack-jawed at the unexpectedness of it.

The moon was meant to be out at night. What was it doing up there in the middle of the day? It was my father who shook me out of the reverie, “What are you doing?” He looked up, laughed, “Oh!”, and carried on with whatever it was he was doing.

She still catches me unawares, occasionally. Somewhere in between, I seem to have adopted a habit of just nodding in appreciation, thanking her, and hardly ever get caught open-mouthed at the wonder of her.

Others continue, oblivious. Should I stop them, point out what they are missing? Would they care?

Daytime moon.
Copyright: NASA/Bill Dunford

~~~

Part of the “Solstice of the Moon” series.

 

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The only constant is change

Road out of the village.
Postcard shared by Mike Renwick here.

This is a street scene my ancestors knew well. It’s one of the main roads out of the village nearest to the place I grew up. It hasn’t changed all that much since the picture was taken in 1906. If you were to visit today, you could easily find the spot at which that early photographer stood.

What intrigued me when I saw it, is the obvious wheel marks made by passing carts and coaches; so clearly visible in the packed dirt road.

My great grandfather was brought up a few miles from this spot, son of the gamekeeper on a large country estate. He spent his entire life on the estate, working for three generations of the same family.

Carriage and Two (2 horsepower).
Copyright AVictorian.com

When I was poking around, tracing branches of the family tree, this didn’t really surprise me. Family ties to the country estate system were incredibly strong. Indeed, five generations, down to and including my grandfather, were born, lived, worked and died on the same estate.

At the time of his marriage to my great grandmother, in 1894, his occupation was listed as a coachman. I kind of like the idea that some of these wheel tracks might have been left by him.

1930 8 Litre Bentley
(200 horsepower and not a shovel in sight).
Copyright: SuperCars.net

His death certificate shows his occupation as retired Chauffeur. When I discovered this, it felt like a natural progression.  There is a picture of him somewhere, in all his livery, sitting on the running board of a 1930’s Bentley.

What struck me most, regarding his career progression, was the incredible amount of change that he had witnessed through his life. To have gone from supervising the stables, a sedate, horse drawn existence, to be at the wheel of a machine capable of 100mph, hardly seems feasible in one lifetime.

Yet, when that picture was taken, he was probably about my age. When I started my career, computers were not regularly seen in the workplace, let alone available to the public. The idea that we would, today, be carrying in our pockets a mobile communications device, with access to such a vast world of knowledge, was inconceivable. In an odd way, our lived experiences fundamentally overlap.

Whether we embrace change, fight it, or remain ambivalent to its passing; the one thing that we are incapable of doing is to stop it. We can either grab the wheel, and wrestle with the new (even if the roads we travel only allow a stately 40, and we never get to experience the full throttle); or cling ever more tightly to the reins which, if only we knew it, now served only to hold us back.

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When it’s not your time…

A friend shared the video below on social media: a while ago, it must be said, as I found this festering in the drafts…

It reminded me of the sheer number of “near misses” that seem to have called, on an all too regular basis. I’ve already shared one such instance, involving the all too real possibility of finding the fast way down a mountain, here. It’s probably the only case, I recall, in which a physical sensation, with no apparent physical causation, was involved. That, and a very loud command…

It was the point in the video when we realise “he might be OK”, that caught my attention; having had a not too dis-similar experience myself.

I was, of course, riding far too fast on a winding, single-track road when the sheep (singular) popped out of the ditch and stood square in the middle of the road: daring me. There was only one way to go – I popped into the ditch…

The joy of having survived the unexpected off-road trip, without breaking something important (like a wheel, a front fork, or a leg…), was soon replaced by the realisation that the brakes were proving fairly inefficient. Aqua-planing down a mossy ditch has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

“Oh, well. It’s not like I have to stop fast,” I thought. The drag of the water would slow me down to an orderly halt eventually. This ditch went the whole length of the road… I had all the time in the world…

That’s when I realised that, up ahead, there loomed a rather hard looking culvert. Necessitated by a sheep crossing, obviously looked upon with some derision and generally disregarded by the intended users of said crossing, it was fast approaching and there was no way that I could stop before…

When they say “your whole life flashes in front of your eyes”… well, they’re wrong.

What actually happens is: time stands still.

One hundred yards of mossy ditch, which until that moment had been flashing past in a blurry haze, became a hyper-real vista composed of infinite shades of deepest green, every soft plant hair and blade of grass stood out; if I hadn’t more pressing things to worry about, I could have counted every one. Inexorably, the lichen-encrusted rampart, topped by dancing sedge and purple flower heads, crept ever closer.

I was wearing more during my attempt than Alex Francis (it IS Scotland after all).

The inevitable impact resulted in a perfectly executed triple somersault, pike, with half turn: though I say it myself, and it was only witnessed by one startled sheep. The residual momentum caught me off guard, and I completed the impossible gymnastic feat with a cheeky backward roll, before landing on both feet facing the direction I’d just come.

That slow-motion effect is primal.

In that state, there is no panic, no fear. Just calm, dispassionate, almost disassociated, observation of the minutiae of events as they unfold. The moment is realised in its most fundamental expression. We are at one with the event, at one with the landscape, and completely, utterly, alone in the all-pervasive silence.

In modern society, such events tend to revolve around vehicular incidents; my most recent near-miss was described here, and the most dramatic made a cameo appearance here.

Curious expression – “near-miss”: most definitely implies a successful hit. Perhaps it’s these “near-hit” events which most powerfully focus the need to remain aware of the fragility and impermanence of our own existence…

…whether they teach us the urgent need to take greater care, as we careen towards our common destination, is another matter entirely.

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