Sunday, October 28, 2007

Just a bit of fun 

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Henry Moore at Kew 

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


I mentioned a while back that, following our visit to the reconstructed iron-age crannog on Loch Tay, I was inspired to begin a simple story – the first, I think, since my school days! To begin with, I wanted just to describe life in a crannog, but in a livelier, more immediate way than straight, objectively descriptive discourse. It seemed like a good idea to describe it through the eyes of a teenager, and to illustrate the scale of the construction works by centring the story on the building of a new crannog.

However, in looking through a child’s eyes, and seeing only a very simple view, I overlooked something fundamental. A crannog would have been home for a large extended family – up to 30, they say; it would have been inconceivable for a family of five, as in my story, to have set out on a journey to construct a new home of this scale for themselves. Such a major civil engineering undertaking as building a crannog would surely have been a communal activity. But that would entail a much more complex social context. To be realistic, the scale of my story and its world would have to expand considerably.

Now that I know that in order to make anything of this I have to pull it apart and start again, it seems okay to post it here. It’s flawed; not so fundamentally as to be irretrievable, but the base assumption is unrealistic.

There; I’ve distanced myself from it sufficiently now that it can see the light of day. I’m still keen to do something with this idea, but it needs more work. This fragment will grow no further, but it may yet spawn a new creation.

These are the words of a teenager looking back to the time when his family set out to build a new home of their own, in the Scottish highlands of 2,500 years ago.

As soon as the worst of the winter was over, we moved out. The snow was still thick on the ground which meant we could build sledges to haul our possessions. We didn’t have a lot, but too much to carry on our backs in one go and we didn’t reckon we’d get back anything we left behind with that thieving uncle of mine. He even tried to stop Pa taking a bit of fire in a pot; he said he’d made it and that meant it was his fire and we couldn’t have any of it; we’d have to make our own. As if it made any difference to him! Pa had had enough of him by this time though. My uncle may be bigger, but me Pa’s got a different kind of strength; he just stared at his brother straight in the eyes with a look like granite and continued staring, taking his eyes off him only for the slightest instant, as he stooped to scoop some embers into a pot. There’s a special magic fungus in the bottom of the pot which keeps the fire going; it’ll glow for days and you can light tinder from it with just a few puffs of breath to start it off. After the goats, it’s the most valuable thing my Pa’s got.

So there we were. No home, our few possessions – furs, skins, tools, plus the poles and skins of our tent, and of course the fire jar, all strapped onto two sledges, with a third carrying food supplies and our cooking pots, together with feed for our few goats who huddled miserably together on the shore.

Me Pa, me Mam and me big brother set the sledge harnesses on their shoulders; me and my sister were in charge of the animals. I’d been looking forward to this moment all winter; stuck in the smelly, smoky crannog nearly every day I’d grown sick of their arguing. It was always just short of an all-out fight – they wanted to I’ll bet, but there are some unspoken rules about what you can and can’t do in a crannog. At the centre stands a hearth, made of stones and clay, and a fire burns there day and night, every day of the year.

Now a crannog is built of timber and roofed with thatch; it takes many men many months to build; fire stand at its heart and we both love and fear the fire – as my Pa says, it both gives us its warmth and protection and has the power to take both of those away.

To fight would be to risk kicking fire around the dry bracken on the floor and destroying everything we have. We keep a pot of water to throw on any sparks that might light the bracken, but the rule is absolute - you don’t fight in a crannog. So once or twice they’d gone to the shore to settle their argument in the traditional way, battling with timber stakes as thick as your forearm and taller than themselves. I remember one stormy afternoon; I think their tempers had risen to match the howl of the wind outside. It turned out though that the storm was a bigger enemy to both of them than either was to the other; they returned after a while bedraggled and shivering and it seemed to me that maybe their battle against the elements and given both an opportunity to rid themselves of their anger; they returned side by side and for one rare moment you could see a flicker of a bond of brotherhood between them.

It didn’t last though. Within days they were bickering like old women, and growling at each other like bears hungry after winter. So now that we were finally on our way, it was a relief to be putting all that anger behind us. All the same, there was also the matter of a warm, dry, comfortable crannog we putting behind us as well. There’d be weeks, months maybe, of roughing it in the open before we’d have a proper dwelling place of our own. (How little did I know then! In reality it was nearly two years). As the younger of the two brothers, it was my Pa who had to move out, once it was clear they couldn’t live peaceably together; there’s never been any argument about that. The rights of the first-born are absolute. You have to have rules, you have to have set ways to live otherwise everyone would spend their lives arguing and fighting and we’d starve because no-one would be out getting any food. So – being second-born – I learned that one very early on. Course, my sister was born before me, but she doesn’t count; she doesn’t get anything. Maybe her man would join us too; another pair of strong hands would make a big difference. But I reckoned he didn’t want to take third place in someone else’s crannog – he wanted to be big chief himself, he did. We’d see. The nights curled up in his furs all by himself were going to seem cold and lonely.

Anyway, like I was saying, I’d been looking forward to the adventure – no more arguments, a new home, a chance to prove I was as good as the men – but as we trudged along the bleak, dark shoreline I suddenly felt very small, very alone, very aware that there were just five of us and out there in the woods would be wolves who’d love to make a meal of our goats – or even of us. That’s why we had to have the fire – we’d be camped out several nights before we got to the next loch and couldn’t risk not being able to get a fire going, even though my brother’s an expert fire-maker.

If this was a hunting trip, it would only have been a couple of days journey to the next loch. We’d have gone up through the forest, across the moors and over the pass between the mountains. But that would’ve been impossible with the sledges, so we had to take the long way round, following first the edge of our old loch, then alongside the river, until it met up with the river coming down out of the next valley, and up that valley until we came to the loch. It took longer, too, because the days were still short; we were only just at the tail end of winter. And although one person could just about haul a sledge over easy ground, there were places where it took three to manage one sledge and we had to take them one at a time.

It was on our very first night out that we lost one of the goats to the wolves. Looking back now, I can see that my Pa didn’t really know as much as I - or he – thought he did about this kind of travelling. When I was a kid, I though he knew everything about everything; I thought he was the greatest hunter, the greatest fire-maker, the greatest fighter there’d ever been. Even though he was a second-born. But looking back to that first night with all of us in the open, I can see now that a lot of it was bluff. We’d never undertaken anything like this before, and he was making up a lot of it as we went along. So when we camped for the night, we set out the poles for the tent, spread the skins over them, took the fire inside but left the goats outside, tethered to stakes set between the tent and the shore. Maybe Pa wasn’t thinking straight; it had been a big day for him and I daresay he was feeling the pressure of being truly the head of his own household for the first time. Me Mam told him he was stupid, the goats ought to be in with us, but once he’d set the stakes there was no going back on his plan; he’d lose face.

They might have been alright if one hadn’t got loose. It couldn’t have been long after we’d fallen asleep – the howling of the wolves woke us, and it had disturbed the goats too. The ground by the shore was stony; the stakes couldn’t have been set properly and one must have worked loose as the goats tried to get away from the howling. Stupid animal must have run straight into the wolf’s jaws. We brought the others in the tent with us after that. At least they helped keep it warm. Pa wasn’t too happy though; kept muttering about wolves having full bellies whilst ours would be going empty. It was she-goat that got taken; meant we’d loose milk as well as more baby goats.

That was the worst night; after that things seemed to settle down into a routine. We heard the wolves, but we kept camped out of the trees, either by the loch – it goes on for miles – or by the river. In any case, we had to stick close to the water as that was the only place we could get the sledges through. It would have been bad enough in amongst the trees trying to thread our way through the maze of trunks and fallen branches, but in the thickest parts of the forest there was hardly any snow on the ground; at least by the shore there was enough snow to give good running for the sledges. Nearing the end of the winter, as we were, there hadn’t been fresh snow for a while and what there was had been well compacted by alternate thawing and freezing. It was still tough going though. Trouble was, snowshoes are best on soft snow and sledges are best on hard ice. What’s good for one is not so good for the other. We’re not really travelling folk, you see; we set up home and stay there for generations. Mind you, we see plenty of travellers coming through – we trade with them; that’s how I got my sealskin boots, in exchange for an iron hunting knife – but we generally only go for short hunting trips, little more than a day’s journey away. The real travellers would probably have laughed at us, struggling along with our odd assortment of gear.

Anyhow, struggle though it was, eventually we reached the place where the two rivers meet. There’s a crossing place there, and we needed to get onto the far bank. Our old crannog had been on the North side of the loch, so that we got the benefit of as much sunshine as possible, and Pa wanted to build our new one with that same advantage –and somehow, I think he thought it would feel more like home that way, seeing the sun rise and set over the loch in the same way as it always used to. But that meant getting us and our possessions across the water.

There was a small settlement here – just three huts, and a coral for the animals. The huts were like our crannogs, but built on the land. After our experiences with the wolves, I didn’t fancy that idea. Crannogs built out over the water feel a lot safer. Not once has a wolf ever tried crossing our causeway. Pa says he’s heard tell of bears that’ve tried it – they don’t seem to mind the idea of water so much, nor of being off the ground. But there’s not many bears round these parts – here it’s mostly open moorland and they prefer the forests further east

And I don’t know what those land dwellers do in the summer when the midges arrive – they must get eaten alive. At least with a crannog you’ve got somewhere to go away from the midges – they don’t go further than a short way out over the loch, so we build the crannogs further out, where they don’t come. The only way those land-dweller can keep the midges at bay must be to fill their huts with smoke.

The river crossing is just a place where the river runs wide and shallow – over the years, the folk that live there have dropped stones into the deepest parts so that the water barely comes past your knees. Our sledges were a problem though – the water may be shallow but it’s fast; the sledges would half float and we couldn’t risk everything we owned getting washed away downstream. Thankfully the thaw hadn’t really set in yet – that was another reason for setting out when we did. For the few weeks of the thaw, the river would be impassable. In the end, to get across, we took all the baggage off the sledges and Pa and my brother carried it over on their backs, taking several trips back and forth to get it all across. The sledges on their own were light enough that we could still hold them on ropes in the current – just. We live around water all the time so I’m not scared of it, but the water in our loch doesn’t try and drag you away like this did. Pa wouldn’t let me help carry anything, and although I might have sulked a bit I didn’t mind really. My feet and legs turned blue just from one crossing. Pa was so cold he just sat and shivered; it was Ma who got the tent organised, got the fire going and almost had to drag him and my brother inside to dry out and get some feeling back in their frozen limbs.

Even though the rest of our journey was uphill, it seemed easier; or if not easier, than at least more rewarding. The land was more open, and we knew we were only a few days from our destination. We were only just in time – the thaw was beginning, and the snow soft and thin in places where the strengthening sun could begin its work of the season. There were places where it took two or three of us to drag the sledges one at a time over bare shingle at the river’s edge.

Then late one afternoon, after a hard struggle up a steeper section of the river valley, we realised the hills ahead were drawing apart; steep slopes, their lower flanks covered in pine trees, rose to left and right, but between them the horizon, now only a short distance ahead, broadened out. We reached the top just as the sun was sinking; the view that met us was breathtaking. The river wound away from us, still upstream, but over a broad plain - and there, only a short walk away, was the end of the loch, stretching ahead of us as far as we could see, with a blood-red sun just touching the horizon, turning the surface of the water shimmering gold. Silhouetted over on the right, northern shore we could see one crannog near to this end of the loch, and away in the distance the tiny dot of another far away. And somewhere between those two we’d build our new home.


The show opens tonight...

Sunday, October 21, 2007


“Do you go to Sligachan?”

The early morning coach is filled mostly with shoppers making the three hour pilgrimage to the nearest metropolis – Inverness. Living in such a wild and beautiful place as the Island of Skye has its downside; all the essentials for life on the island may be close at hand, but should you feel the need for anything more exotic, the shopping trip will take a full day.

The driver nods. “Aye; single?”

Maybe he thinks I’m going to do the full Cuillin ridge traverse. Not this time; not alone and in completely unfamiliar terrain. The full traverse involves climbing, abseiling and, unless you’re very quick, a night bivvying out at 3,000 feet. We arranged our tour of Scotland to give two nights on Skye, which means I have just one full day earmarked for the hills. The west coast of Scotland isn’t exactly renowned for its dry sunny days; we must have had our full quota for this week for although we’ve had three days of glorious warm sunny weather with barely a cloud in the sky, giving prospects of fabulous views from the ridge,

today has dawned grey and misty – far more typical, and perhaps more in keeping with my intended excursion.

I board the coach, pay the driver the return fare, and find a spare seat. Is it me who seems out of place here, or is it the other occupants? I’m on the very doorstep of what are universally acclaimed as the best mountains in the UK, dressed in full-on hiking gear, yet I’m surrounded by urban fashion. Perhaps they fit better in the cosy climate within this coach, but just the other side of the coach windows I know is a place where I’ll feel utterly at home; in some ways perhaps more so than some of those who live here. The expectation warms my soul in a way nothing else can.

Given that Sligachan is one of the main points of access to the Cuillin Ridge I thought there might be more people getting off the coach here, but I’m the only one; maybe others are waiting for fairer weather.

Orientation with no peaks in sight can be puzzling. The first couple of miles are over gently rising moorland, with just the hint of steeper slopes at the boundaries of vision. Somewhere over there – or is it over there? – are the summits, but who knows exactly where? Even the compass is not to be trusted as the rocks here are magnetic. To begin with, the path is easy – not least because there is a clear track on the ground, a footpath across the centre of the island linking north-east to south-west coast. But before long the path rises into the mist; I take a last look back before the mist engulfs me, condensing in heavy droplets on my glasses, reducing visibility still further.

The path is obvious enough, but at some point I have to leave it and branch off left. I’ve been going for over an hour and I’m still on the moorland approach. The mist is thicker and surrounds me completely now; no peaks in sight or even any hint of them. I’m in a damp isolated bubble; colours exist only close at hand, washing out into greyness as the world vanishes; I am disconnected from everything, from the symbols of civilisation I've left behind – the coach, the road, the lonely hotel at Sligachan – and even from the peaks themselves . I wonder if I’ve been foolhardy, or selfish, striking out here into the middle of nowhere; perhaps I should have spent a comfortable day in Portree with my wife?

But I’ve studied the map carefully so I have a good idea of the overall pattern of ridges and corries that give or deny access to the peaks, and before long I reach the feature that marks the point where I must turn for the climb. The path has been following a stream; many tributaries join from the left, but only one of any significance joins from the right and it is at a point a hundred yard beyond this where I set off left on a new course. Knowing that I’m where I should be, when I should be, renews my confidence and I stride out with fresh purpose.

The ground continues to rise and I rise with it, time passing as indeterminately as my surroundings; there is little to look at except the rocks under my feet, but these demand my attention as the way is no longer smooth but lies over grass and boulders.

A twisted ankle in these conditions could be serious. For a few moments the air clears slightly; it seems the cloud is in two layers; one which hugs the lower slopes and one which hangs over the peaks. Here between them is a world hanging in nothingness; I look over a sea of mist below or up into a veil of clouds above. I have a choice here; across to the right, the dark silhouette of the mountain’s north west ridge rises high above the corrie floor. On a clear, dry day I’d have no doubt – that would be the route of choice. But today I err on the side of caution; that way has some steep exposed scrambling. Not the place for a solo climber in unfamiliar territory. And it’ll be slower.

So I take the direct route, up to the bealach

by the Basteir Tooth.

From here it’s an easy traverse

onto the summit ridge.

I plan to stop for lunch at the summit

but discover a flaw in that plan – the fearsome Scottish midges plan to lunch on me! The moment I stop and put down my rucksack I feel scores of them around my face. I pause only to slap on copious amounts of mosquito repellent, grab a muesli bar and eat on the hoof, inasmuch as scrambling over the wet rocks of the ridge allows. Thank goodness for hydration packs – at least I can drink plenty without stopping and being midged to death.

Since leaving the road, I’ve not seen another human being. Here on the ridge though is the first evidence of its popularity; out of the mist come muffled voices. I look up, but see no-one. Just like the voices, the sun, trying to break through, is muffled too.

At least without a lunch stop I now have time on my side. Where I might have spent an hour admiring the view, I can afford time for an alternative – and more adventurous – descent. Navigation here is trickier. I’m wary of the compass (although hindsight will show it to have been largely unaffected here; the strongly magnetic zones are elsewhere on the ridge, it seems) and have to go entirely on reading the terrain, matching the features to the map; those features visible up to a hundred yards away, that is!

I wondered earlier if wearing my heavy stiff-soled mountain boots was overkill, but I’m glad of them now – I have a long steep scree slope to descend. Big, bold steps, half walking, half skating down a loose surface which threatens to break free and race me down the mountainside. With the landscape below still hidden in the mist, the descent seems to go on for ever, but eventually – and to much satisfaction - I arrive exactly on target at the first major landmark of this route:

From here on down, the way ought to be easy – just follow the stream out of the lochan, all the way back to the road. Just one snag; the stream soon drops into a sheer-sided gorge, impassable by direct passage and best given a wide berth since the smooth rocks above follow a convex curve whose slope rapidly transitions from gentle, through steep to precipitous.

It seems to matter little that the long distance views have remained hidden today; the views of the mountain up close have been just as worthwhile:

The way above the gorge lies over smooth, bare, trackless rock; I ought to contour across the slope, but it's too easy to loose height; feet automatically choose a descending route. I descend too far, too close to the edge of the gorge, and have to strike back up the slope for a while. Past the hazard as I make my way down to rejoin the stream, I find my feet once more on a more-or-less clearly defined path, and then, almost without realising it, distant visibility is restored – to a degree - as I descend out of the cloud.

Once again, the journey becomes simple a matter of following the path others have trod,

back down to the road, a coach back to Portree and a resumption of the life of my coach companions.

And of course, the following day dawns bright and clear:

But am I disappointed to have missed the blue skies and distant views? Not a bit. Well, perhaps just the tiniest bit, but I got what I came for, and one day I’ll be back to do the full ridge; it’s good to know I’ll feel at home there, whatever the conditions.

I forgot to say; the peak I was climbing was Bruach na Frithe, at the north end of the ridge and probably the easiest and most accessible of the Cuillin range.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

One for Harry Potter fans... 

Glenfinnan viaduct, and The Jacobite with a full head of steam.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Myth of Efficiency Savings 

So; we – the BBC – have got to save money. Big wadges of money; £2bn all told. Nobody’s debating that – it’s hard fact given the BBC’s fixed income from the license fee. If your budget is constrained you have no choice but to live within your means.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of going about it – stop doing some activities, those where the cost doesn’t justify the benefit, and be more efficient about the ones that you carry on doing.

Stop doing activities; that’s perhaps one where justifiably only a top-down view from the exec table can make the call.

Be more efficient. Ah, now that’s trickier.

Take a look at that ‘efficiency’ word. The other side of the efficiency coin is waste. Being more efficient means working in less wasteful ways, and that already hints at why managers and staff alike can be a bit squeamish here – who wants to own up to working in wasteful ways?

There’s no black art to waste-hunting, no deep insight accessible only to the highest calibre MBAs. People simply go looking in the wrong place. They look, perhaps not surprisingly, at the financial reports. And there they find costs – salaries, assets, fees – which they go about cutting. Sack the staff, sell off the assets, stop – for the time being – paying such huge fees to consultants and contractors. Easy, huh? There are the costs, in black and white – and red – and we cut ‘em. Job done.

Whoah, baby. Those are the visible costs. Didn’t you know there are invisible costs too? What do all those people to whom you pay those salaries actually do all day?

Answer, they work within processes. And I bet not one of those processes is accurately written down or even properly understood anywhere; not in a way which truly reflects what really goes on. So how do you know whether cutting those visible chunks of cost is the only means to achieve the end? What about those mysterious, unwritten, uncharted processes?

Like I said, it’s not rocket science. There are three very simple ways in which money is wasted within processes. Duplication, rework and dead-end activities. I’m ignoring good old-fashioned laziness of course.

Duplication is about the only one ever spotted by taking a top-down view. At least the board managed to spot this one – the creation of a multimedia newsroom, with journalists working across TV, radio and online – is generally agreed to make a lot of sense and in concept genuinely addresses one clear and significant area of duplication. The same thing goes on at lower levels too though – for example, multiple reporting processes, all reporting –usually manually - on the same data in slightly different ways for different people.

Rework usually arises where processes cross organisational boundaries. The work is checked where it comes in, and if it doesn’t come up to scratch is rejected and has to be looked at again. It may not be as formal as an old fashioned QA process, thjs isn’t just about seeing whether the diameter of the flange on the widget is within production tolerances – anything which involves backing up a step through missing, inadequate or erroneous information or product means going back round a loop and so is a form of rework.

An example of Dead Ends might be reports that go no further than the filing cabinet. Bad enough when they’re prepared with in-house effort, far worse when they’re the results on months of consultants’ effort at megabucks a day. Those ends are obviously dead, but some are more subtle than that. What about those monthly reports? Does anyone actually take any action as a result of them, or are they just there to provide a comfort factor. How about that meeting? Did it change the course of anything – or are these things there just to give the illusion that we know what we’re doing and are in control? Some of this is real basic old school management stuff that’s been taught for years, yet we still get it wrong – and what’s worse, we know it yet do nothing about it.

Even so, it sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? So why aren’t we doing it?

Look again at those three sources of waste – duplication, rework and dead ends. Duplication is about the only one of these which can be spotted by the top-down view from the lofty mountaintops inhabited by t he corporate execs. The other two require an intimate knowledge of what really goes on, couple with a deep understanding of systems thinking.

From the elevated view of corporate executives, they’re convinced efficiency savings must be possible - and they’re right – but they’re way too far above the clouds to see the detail of what really goes on, day to day. So they target their senior managers – make X% efficiency savings; you’ll find a way.

Trouble is the senior managers also like to occupy the rarefied air of the upper slopes of the corporate mountain; they don’t know the detail of what really goes on down there below the cloud-base on the ground either. So the ‘efficiency drive’ half of the equation turns again into a mix of those two high-level options – stop activities wholesale, or drive the requirement to make efficiency savings to the next level down.

And so it goes on, down through the layers of the organisation. No-one really knows exactly how to go about making real efficiency savings. So what started as a reasonably balanced strategy – cut out those activities which deliver least value, and do the rest more efficiently – becomes more and more imbalanced; real efficiency is forgotten and only the cuts remain. The quest for efficiency has turned into a quest for sacrificial lambs.

It some companies it might be fear that means it’s in non-one’s real interest to turn over the stones of inefficiency and expose what’s underneath. I mean; of course we run a tight ship here. You think I’m gonna admit to having scope for savings and not made them? Admit to having an inefficient department? You think I’m nuts or summat? And anyway, don’t we pay our managers to know how their depts are run? It would an admission of failure to hold up our hands and say well, actually, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask the staff.

Around here though, I think the reason is much simpler. We know so little about efficiency that we don’t know how to go about looking for it and improving it. Simple as that. No-one really knows…

And to anyone who argues with that, I ask this: if you think you know about efficiency, how do you know you know?

Finding out takes a lot of work, a lot of investment in time and training. There are ways; they use the real knowledge of the staff who work these processes every day, who have seen the absurdity so many times they’re almost blinded to it. Almost blinded, but not quite. Given the right framework, that knowledge, that understanding born of first-hand experience can be tapped.

But even though the long term benefits are huge, it’s risky and it takes real skill. Much easier, much more demonstrative of knowing-what-to-do, just to take an org chart and a red pen.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


I wouldn’t have known it was there. Such a quiet, secluded spot, tucked away at the side of the valley, passed by a road little more than a track. The main road runs along the north side of Loch Tay; this road along the south side serves only the few farms and hamlets along the shore. How refreshing it was – not to have the beauty of such a spot strangled by all the associations of those words ‘beauty spot’! No visitors’car park, no visitor centre, no ribbon of tarmac and concrete, no milling hordes; just a weathered wooden sign pointing up a gravel track, and a little space at the foot of the track where it widened to join the road where a handful of cars could be left.

It was the guy who showed us round the Crannog Centre who told us about it. We were chatting, and he asked where we were going next. We’d nothing really planned, and he spoke with such enthusiasm and obvious love of his surroundings we were easily convinced.

Falls of Acharn, Perthshire, Scotland

Thursday, October 11, 2007

We WILL rock you... 

Should you
(a) happen to be in the vicinity
(b) have a taste for the music of Queen
you'd be very welcome here:

or here:

Yours truly will be playing bass guitar.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Paralysis and flow 

Interesting. For weeks, months maybe, I’ve been stuck with nothing to say – not only unable to write, but unable to think also. To be honest, I’ve actually been getting a little worried by it; no original thought, either at home or at work, no ability to do anything other than provide a basic response to external stimuli; an incoherence that makes me cringe every time I open my mouth in the simplest of conversations.

I sat down the other day to write something completely different. Forget the introspection, forget any commentary on the world at large; try instead the world of imagination (fuelled, perhaps, by recently having serially read the entire Harry Potter saga).

On our holiday in Scotland, we visited a reconstruction of a crannog – an iron-age dwelling built on timber piles off the shore of a loch, housing an extended family of up to 30 people (pics here for the time being, until I’m not tucked behind a firewall that doesn’t allow FTP). I was quite taken with the whole thing – the simplicity of the life there, yet coupled with a surprising degree of civilisation and cooperative activity required to build such a structure . I got to thinking about what daily life must have been like there two and a half thousand years ago, and came up with the idea of trying to describe it through the eyes of a teenage boy involved in building a new crannog, perhaps because a family group grew too big and needed to split in two.

Ten handwritten pages later, I looked in amazement at what I’d got. An entire narrative had unfolded from nowhere, and I'd only begun to set the scene; I nearly posted it there and then.

I’m glad I didn’t. The euphoria didn’t last; the following day I realised the quality of the story might have got me a pass at GCSE English Language, but I wasn’t going to be the next J K Rowling.

All the same, there’s no denying that creative juices were flowing; crystal clear images had formed in my mind, of which I’d only sketchily transferred the outline to paper. That was one of the snags though – the images were clear, which led to straightforward descriptive writing, but the plot, such as it was, was decidedly linear, with no deviations from an entirely predictable path - you could summarise it in a single sentence. Okay perhaps as means of illustrating Perthshire life 500 years BC, but hardly enthralling reading.

Plus I’d made some erroneous simplifying assumptions which would need to be corrected, making the plot much more complex (requiring a group of fifteen people rather then five). In the light of the previously mentioned defect though, that’s probably not a bad thing- but it would mean doing a lot more work before having a viable basis for a story.

I know, I know, I’m being hyper-critical. I still maintain that the criticisms are valid; nevertheless, I take heart at the ease with which the first draft fell out.

Was that a Freudian slip? Did I say first draft? Will there be a second?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ash Wednesday 

I thought I must be stupid - or at least ill-educated in matters literary - not knowing the allusions which others, better versed in such things, would undoubtedly have recognised immediately; a language of code-words, sharing meanings between the cognoscenti which remain, by design, hidden from us mere proles.

Nevertheless, obscure as some of the imagery may be in the later sections of the poem – and some of it is very specific, as though an equally specific meaning was intended - there is much in these words, or in those which retain some accessibility, which strikes a chord in me, especially at this time.

I no longer strive to strive towards such things

I thought I owed it to myself at least to try and identify what meanings others have found. It turns out, on Googling, that although there may be agreement on the general theme (the poet’s conversion to Anglican Christianity) the specific meanings are less clear.

I suppose that’s a relief; doubtless, much is missing from my education, but it seems those missing pieces do not, by and large, serve to fill these particular gaps.
Perhaps that’s as well; it leaves the poet’s words free to create their own unique meaning, just for me, and only within me:

And what is actual is actual only for one time, And only for one place

I suppose in that I feel almost privileged; a better outcome, at any rate, than feeling stupid.

Ash Wednesday


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

(This is the first section; Eliot's complete poem is here).