Monthly Archives: August 2013


invictus 002My son was baptised in our living room on 11th February 1990 – the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  At the same time, the Berlin Wall was falling and it felt like a world full of potential for our baby boy.  My then husband did a brilliant speech about hope for the future – joining the millions of speeches around the globe as we settled down to witness the peaceful end of apartheid.

At 7am this morning I heard on the radio that Mandela, now aged 95, had been taken home from his long hospital stay, and I presumed he is now entering his passing time.  Then at 9am I heard that the South Africa government are denying that earlier statement, and that Mandela remains in hospital.  I suppose he’s close to death, and they can’t quite decide how to play it for the press machine.  My prayer is that in his frailty, he is given peace and dignity – he who has shown the world what ‘dignity’ means.

Earlier this year I underwent a serious shock to my wellbeing, and my son quoted a poem in full to me – ‘Invictus’.  I’d never heard it before and he was amazed that he knew a poem I didn’t.  It was used as the title for a film about Mandela’s intervention in the 1995 rugby World Cup – how he used the hated ‘white man’s game’ to further the cause of peace and reconciliation.    The poem beats a gentle rhythm as we see the drama unfold, with Morgan Freeman (who else?) in the starring role, and Matt Damon as the captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar.


INVICTUS – by William Ernest Henley (1849-1902)


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



Left right left right UP and over

I went to the Tattoo last week, for the first time ever.  I had a friend visiting from England and it was her idea, otherwise I suppose I still might not have managed it.  I’m glad I did.

What took me so long?  Well I guess it may have been my innate suspicion of military triumphalism, or my distaste for any view of Scotland which makes us look like we all live on haggis and shortbread.  There was no sign of the former in the Tattoo offering, and not too much of the latter if you don’t count the lone piper on the castle battlements.  That’s more of an iconic statement, I would say.

There were motor-bike-racing six year olds doing a human pyramid; samba dancers from Mexico; and most strikingly, a female marching band from New Zealand.  This is parade drill like you’ve never seen it, with mini-kiCalamari 028lts and high kicks, rows and columns marching through each other, forwards and backwards, and never a step out of line.  Very enjoyable.  A choir from Stewarts Melville School did a choral accompaniment, and when it came to ‘I vow to thee, my country,’ I just cried.  I always do.  Pity they missed the second verse which is even better (‘And there’s another country…’)

One thing we could have done without though – an allegedly Scottish trait though I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it – the tight-fistedness of the Edinburgh authorities when it comes to parking charges.  Three hours in Castle Terrace car park on a weekday evening?  That’ll be TWELVE POUNDS Madam.  Shocking.

Enter the Calamari Queen

(Or ‘Hello Squid Kid’).

Last week I bought a couple of tins of sardines for the cupboard – apparently their nutritional qualities are unaffected by the canning process and of course they’re cheap.  According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall they’re also sustainable if farmed correctly.  However I must admit it was  a bit of a ‘worthy’ purchase rather than a passionate one.  My memories of past tins of sardines are not inspiring.  Still, at 45p a tin in Aldi, I couldn’t pass them by.   Then I spied, sitting right beside them, tinned calamari, and tinned mussels – each at 86p a tin, hey big spender!  So I took a tin of each.

Cooking for one can be a bit of a challenge – I want things to be quick and easy and tasty; healthy; good for the environment; and preferably also, in my current circumstances, cheap.  Well I’m glad to say my Calamari in Tomato Sauce have ticked all my  boxes.   Or at least I think they have; I’m not a sustainability expert but from a quick trawl on the internet I can see that there’s some debate.  Apparently the little squids are scoffed by the bucketload by cruising sperm whales; so by comparison it seems humans might not make a major impact.  And they breed fast, the little blighters, you’d think all those arms and legs would get in the way.

According to the box, my supper contained 7.4g of fat, of which saturates were only

Calamari 0370.8g.  The whole tin contained 150 calories and it wasn’t even high in sugar or salt.  With my baked potato and salad I felt I was being suitably virtuous but also, I have to say, it tasted really good.  So now I’ll approach my tins of sardines with a more optimistic fork.  Especially since Hugh F-W uses the term ‘Bloody Mary’ as a verb in a recipe suggestion…  sardines with vodka, anyone?

Viva Voce!

It’s been a great week for choirs.  First St Mags Choir at Margaret's Licensinglocally, we had St Margaret’s (Rosyth) church choir singing at Margaret’s licensing ceremony in Lochgelly.  So good that even the bishop approved!

Then yesterday we joined lots of other ladies of a certain age in Hill Place for All the King’s Men – a wonderful a capella ten-man line-up that we’ve now seen three years running.  Great moves, sassy sophisticated sound.  Especially the one who did that tssh tssh tssh boo-boom thing.  Who needs a drum kit?  And the tap-dancing was fabulous.

Finally, we had the great joy of the National Youth Choir in St Cuthberts.  Now I have to confess I’d never heard of the NYC, and thought they sounded a bit worthy.  I was crisply corrected by my retired-Head-of-Music friend as we walked up Castle Terrace, and quite right she was too.  They are fabulous and if they do a concert near you, you must go.  They are directed by Ben Parry who has a massive international career but I’ll let you look him up yourself.  One thing I’ll mention – he founded the Dunedin Consort, whom I heard at St Giles at the 2011 Fringe.  They are small and perfectly formed.

The National Youth Choir on the other hand is huge – about eighty singers?  Aged 16-22, they absolutely ooze charisma.  For as long as I live I will never forget their opening number last night.  We were seated about three-quarters of the way back, to the right of the central aisle – wishing we could have got further forward and nearer the action.  The choir started filing in, and moved in two columns down the side aisles.  I assumed they were heading for the stage – but they stopped when  they had circled us.  Ben Parry took to a podium facing backwards, raised his baton – and we were immersed in the crystal tones of Palestrina – then Tallis – then Byrd.  It was like lying on a masseur’s couch on a beach somewhere in the Indian Ocean, being anointed with pure nard.  They then processed onto the stage and delivered a virtuoso performance of Bach, Brahms, Shostakovich (bright and strong and very Russian), and Britten.  It was wonderful.  Their finale was a piece by Ben Parry, a setting of a Buddhist poem which celebrated the candle that lights the world – when a flame is shared it doubles its brilliance.  As the choir started singing they moved out and circled us again.  It was intensely spiritual.  If I never hear another choir I’ll die happy.IMG_1271


Acid Attack

I was shocked by the story of Katie Gee and KiIsrael and Palestine Nov  2012 219rstieTrup,two 18 year old girls who had acid thrown in their faces last week, as they were coming to the end of a month-long stint of voluntary work in Zanzibar.  Shocked but not overly surprised.

The last time I wrote a blog it was from Zanzibar where I spent six months volunteering with VSO.  It was a steep learning curve.   The culture of the island is heavily imbued with its predominantly Muslim faith; with its history as a hub of the Arab slave trade; and with its post-colonial socialist history.  I came to understand that the tourist trade is effectively less than 20 years old – until then there was only one hotel on the entire island, and it was run by the government.  It’s a stunningly beautiful island with enormous tourist potential. However the local people are understandably cautious about some of the implications of tourism.  In 2010, the highest proportion of tourist jobs went to people from Kenya, or mainland Tanzania; yet youth unemployment on the island stood at over 50%.

I was working in a project that aimed to equip local unemployed young people with the starter skills and knowledge they need for working in the tourist industry.  As well as the usual range of subjects (customer service, English language, etc) we also had to address the values issues, such as attitudes to women, gay people, alcohol and states of undress.  At that time, homosexuality was illegal and in the neighbouring country of Uganda it was a capital offence.  Girls in Zanzibar theoretically had the same rights to education as boys; but something like 75% of them had to leave school each year to have their first baby.  You can’t change a culture just by a short training course and the hope of a job; it’s a long game, and meantime the behaviour of some  tourists continues to challenge and antagonise the local people.

I wonder which organisation was behind Gee and Trup’s volunteer placement? Were they given a proper understanding of what to expect, and how they would need to moderate their behaviour to keep themselves safe?  We for instance were advised to keep our shoulders and knees covered in public, at all times.  Don’t hang your underwear out to dry where men can see it.  If you want to go swimming, go to a private beach run by a hotel (which we generally couldn’t afford) because it’s not acceptable for women to use the public beaches, unless fully clothed.

All of this took a bit of getting used to.  Six months wasn’t long enough, and one month certainly wouldn’t be.  I do wonder at the wisdom of organisations that set up such short placements – it leaves volunteers very vulnerable.  Everywhere we went we were hassled by men wanting to speak to us.  In my case I didn’t feel this was a sexual threat, more often it was about money.  But it was unwelcome and unpleasant.

My brief experience of Zanzibar leaves me feeling it’s a bit of a tinder-keg in terms of potential violence.  In 2010 there were general elections for the whole of Tanzania, and VSO evacuated all their volunteers for a whole month around election time – because three people had been killed at the previous election.  Maybe Ramadan was an especially tense time for volunteers to be present.  I never witnessed any religious extremism while I was there but obviously there are risks.  I hope Gee and Trup are able to come to terms in due course with their trauma; but especially I hope that agencies which send youngsters out to dangerous places look to their policies and procedures and consider ways of keeping people safe.

A Chorus of Disapproval

Pitlochry Festival Theatre nestles on the hillside, overlooking the town and the RiverTummel,  with its dam and salmon ladder.  It’s a wonderful setting, and the theatre building itself, in timber, slate and glass, occupies the space with modest confidence.  One of our party today remembered that long ago, the theatre had its origins in a marquee pitched on the grass; and that must have been a very special dramatic experience indeed.

The company who performed for us this afternoon will be performing a different play tonight, and different plays again throughout the week; ‘Stay six days and see six plays,’ as the slogan goes.  An amazing repertory achievement – I can barely remember my shopping list these days, never mind a whole script – to say nothing of six scripts!  Today’s matinee was ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’ by Alan Ayckbourn.  It’s a farce about an amateur operatic company putting on a show, with the naive new boy getting into all kinds of scrapes with the cynical old hands.  I loved it – I thought the script was clever and witty, the direction seamless, and the acting excellent.  The performance by the long-suffering stage manager character was especially inspired; and there was a wonderful bit of stage-fighting between two young female characters, who rolled and tussled around the floor with great fury and commitment.  There was also a funny but poignant scene in which the stage manager was too busy ordering his wife and the leading man to strike various poses to check the lighting effects, to notice the affair they were having in his very presence.

It would be fair to say that I heard some critical comments in the half-time audience; not everyone loved it but I guess that’s inevitable.

The town of Pitlochry is itself a little Highland beauty, and I leave you with a photo which I hope you Ballachulish 13 171will appreciate.  We had lunch in the rather ancient Moulin Hotel, up the hill on the opposite side of the river, about a mile away – it was substantial and good value, in what appeared to be a converted stable.  There is also the Moulin Brewery which has sadly been closed on both the occasions I have had lunch there.  If you don’t want to go off the beaten track there are many other lunch options including the Theatre’s own restaurant/cafe.  

Scotland Small?

Yesterday, Lieutenant Wunderkind and I hit the August Edinburgh Frenzy, and finding it too noisy, escaped down the Canongate for a bit of contemplation.  En route we visited Scotland’s Map Heritage Centre which was a wonderful discovery, and I made a modest purchase – but more of that anon as it’s a present which hasn’t been given yet!

The Scottish Parliament building is at the foot of the Royal Mile, of course, just opposite Holyrood Palace.  We had thought we might visit the palace, never having called in before.  However, call us true Scots if you like, at £16.50 for entry there was no way!  We’ll just have to hope for a personal invitation some time.  So instead we crossed back over and queued through the security system for a wee stroll around the Parliament building.

There was of course huge controversy about this building a few years back, to do with the length of time it took to complete; the escalating costs; and indeed its design which is far from Scottish Vernacular.  But actually, I love it.  Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘Open the Doors’ says it well:

‘Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A 
growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box? 
Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but

curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and
heavens, syncopations and surprises.

I love the ‘syncopations and surprises’.  If a government can also be open to syncopations and surprises from its people, that’s a good thing.  LW and I had a wee seat in the debating chamber, which was empty at the time, and enjoyed the light spikes and whorls of its architecture.  Yes, on a cynical day we all know that public chambers are full of posturing and grandstanding and enough hot air to fuel the national grid.  But hey!  I’m proud that Scotland has created for herself such an assertively original and modern parliamentary home.

The title of this blog, incidentally, is courtesy of Hugh Macdiarmid and his brilliant poem, ‘Nothing but Heather’:

‘ Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland  small?/  Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliche corner/   To a fool who cries “Nothing but heather!

…How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete!’

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Who loves Cabbage?


I remember brutal exchanges with my mother over the eating of cabbage, when I was maybe nine years old.  It was a power struggle to the death (or bedtime, which always came first).  I thought I would never learn to love cabbage, but I was wrong.

Many years ago in Paris I had an evening meal, alone, at a little restaurant off the main drag, somewhere north of centre.  What always strikes me about restaurants in France is that waiting at tables is seen as a respectable profession, with mature, knowledgeable, and capable people at your service.  On this occasion I was trying to decipher the menu and needed to know the meaning of a certain word.  My waitress was short, dark, aged and wiry, and when I asked her for a translation, she unhesitatingly pulled up her skirt and made a stabbing gesture towards her knee – ‘genou!  Madame, c’est genou!’  So I figured out the dish I was interested in contained pigs’ knees, otherwise known as pork knuckle.  I went on and ordered the choucroute garni and it was a feast in every way – a huge plateful and utterly delicious.  Choucroute is pickled cabbage, probably better known as sauerkraut.  The French serve it with several different kinds of pig meat – the pork knuckle but also some bits of bacon and lean ham and sausage.  The sweetness of the meat offsets the sharpness of the choucroute.  It’s a substantial and economical meal, and like so many dishes born of thrift, a delight.

I have often wondered about making sauerkraut from scratch but it seems to be a bit of a palaver.  The quantities recommended in the recipes I’ve seen are huge, and of course since it’s basically a preserving method, that makes sense.  But nowadays when I’m usually cooking for one, it seems a bit excessive.

However I was given a lovely book for my birthday recently – Elizabeth David on Veg – and she provides a lovely little recipe on a domestic scale for something which to my mind captures the unctuous yet piquant combination of pickled cabbage and ham.  My oldest (as in, longest) friend was visiting me on Saturday and she it was who gifted me the book.  So I cooked up the recipe, which involved Savoy cabbage, butter, cream, a splash of wine vinegar, nutmeg and pepper.  (Yes I know, butter and cream – all I can say is I substituted half-fat creme fraiche, but still…)  I then topped it with sliced ham, warmed through in a tin foil packet in the oven, and it was great.  The vinegar sharpened the whole thing up beautifully.  I’ll definitely make this again.   Possibly even tonight, since Lieutenant Wunderkind is due home…

Dunfermline on the pilgrim route

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I’ve  just entered a competition where the brief was to write 250 words on the theme ‘My Town’.  Believe me, 250 words isn’t enough, even for a quiet wee place like Dunfermline.  I kept it strictly 11th Century in tone and told the story of Malcolm and Margaret – how she wasn’t that keen on this rough, illiterate (albeit royal) boor, but he kept on at her and eventually she gave in; and civilised him.  She also apparently brought European influences to Scottish church life – she’d been instructed by the Benedictines and believed ‘Laborare est Orare’ – work is the best form of prayer.   I fondly remember pushing a pram up Monastery Street – maybe it was post-natal hormones but I could have sworn I heard the monks chanting and smelt their porridge!  Anyway, today being such a lovely day I took a quick run up the town for some photos, and attach one here for you.   I didn’t hear the monks today; my hormones must be all better now.

Somebody told me once about a ‘Society of Margarets’ – every Dunfermline woman called Margaret gets to join, in honour of QM/St M.  But I can’t find anything about it on the Internet.  Does anyone else know anything about this?

Hello Friends… how do I look?

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Yesterday I was talking to myself, today I’m talking to you!

I’ve spent a delightful few hours browsing through the possible ‘themes’ for my blogsite – ie the way it’ll look, the design and colours etc.  It’s like choosing colours from a paint chart, and I’m no good at that either – can’t picture what it might look like in real life.  Also, each theme has a name, and I find myself hugely influenced by the name rather than the look.  So, the one called ‘Adventure Journal’ was very tempting, with its crafty camel and mysterious pyramids.  And ‘Strange Little Town’ was straight from Bewitched, and would be a great foil for ‘Tales of the Auld Grey Toun’.    There was one called ‘Clean Home’ which I liked a lot, but didn’t want to be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act, should I ever be burgled.  I liked ‘Balloons’, which was nice and whimsical.  But in the end I’ve opted for something called, hey, call me a poet?  ‘Twenty Thirteen’.  I like it because it’s bright and clear at the same time, and gives plenty scope for different topics.

Would you mind please letting me know what you think, using the ‘leave a reply’ button on the blog itself?  So that I can see whether it’s all working the way it’s supposed to?  If there’s a general ‘don’t like it’, I’ll browse again and change it before going too public.  So, could you please give it points out of 10 (where 0 is ‘dreadful, don’t go there’ and 10 is ‘wow, love it, can I buy the video?’ for the following questions:

1  is it easy to read or did you need to go for your specs?

2  Do you like the colours?

3  How well do you think it represents me and my writing?

Yes I know it’s all subjective but that’s the way it works.  The photo is a thistle in Logan Botanic Gardens, way down south past Stranraer, in Oct 2011.  Thank you for being a guinea pig!  And do call again soon xx