Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

On the Road Again – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post is on Thursday again – yawn – – –

One of the highlights of the tour I organize on odd-numbered years is the visit to Ballyeman Barn in Beautiful Antrim and the home of our old friend Liz Weir. Despite the fact that she’d only just returned from the US the day before we arrived, she was the perfect host as usual.

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Liz always cooks us a superb dinner before opening up the room for an old fashioned ceilidh with stories, songs and music. She always invites some of her local friends to join us and the entertainment and ‘craic’ is mighty (as they say in Ireland).

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What I wasn’t prepared for this time was the arrival of an old colleague from my teaching career in Dunfermline. I vaguely knew that John O’Connor was Irish but I didn’t know that he was from Cushendall and that he’d returned there when he retired. Just down the road from Liz’s place.

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The Tuesday Book Sculptures

Sorry about yesterday, everyone. Traveling in rural areas of Scotland makes for spotty Internet. But all shall be forgiven, because I have now seen, in person, the Edinburgh Book Sculptures!

If anyone doesn’t know, I am a fanatic for these things. The backstory is best told on a different site, so I’ll just give you the basics here. In 2011, a mysterious little paper cut statue of a tree growing out of a book appeared in the Scottish Poetry Library. It was titled “Poetree” and had a tag honoring books, ideas, and words, thanking the library for existing.

Everyone thought that was nice, and then shortly a second statue appeared. And soon they were everywhere: the National Library, the Storytelling Centre, the Writer’s Museum, the Filmhouse, the Central lending library for Edinburgh, and the National Museum. Always celebrating words and ideas and thanking the institution (all of whom had free admission) for being there.

The sculptures gathered enough attention to have a book put out: GIFTED. And the best part is, once the sculptures gained international attention, it didn’t take the media long to figure out who had made the statues. And at her request, they withheld her name. So very British.

The other fun part about the sculptures is the books they are made from: the dinosaur from AC Doyle’s Lost World, the Hyde street scene from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And most of the rest from Ian Rankin novels (a great crime writer based in Edinburgh).

This is a random sampling of some of the statues, which I have now finally seen in person. Some of the venues were rather startled by my ardent worship, but I am a happy person.

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Who knows where the time goes –

Once again Jack misses his deadline and the Wednesday guest post appears on Thursday –

This is the title of a great song by Sandy Denny, who died far too young after falling down stairs once too often.

I find myself humming it over and over, here in Edinburgh once again, at the age of 75, after not falling down stairs very much at all—or at least not hurting myself when I did.

Edinburgh gives me a funny feeling, one I imagine must be felt by anyone of advancing years who experiences a less and less familiar place over a lifetime.

edinburgh

I first came here as a teenager to attend a jazz club on Tuesday nights–a 30-minute train journey on a pal’s “borrowed” student pass. It was glamorous and hippy. Outside of the August arts festival the place was mostly gloomy back in the Fifties, and if you missed the last train back you were stuck. Later I could borrow my dad’s car and the road bridge over the Forth opened – much more convenient and by then the folk scene had started. Gloom moved from buildings to music, one might say.

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The entrance to the jazz club is still the same (later the Howff folk-club)

The weird mix of nostalgia and alienation are exacerbated because Wendy and I are staying with my old singing partner of that folk scene. Barbara Dickson and I are both originally from Dunfermline, on the other side of the river Forth. We traveled that road to the big city morning, noon, and night to do gigs of every description, and every time I cross it, I remember something else from those fun, silly, earnest times.

And yet, as I return each year now leading a Scottish tour, the place seems more and more alien. The traffic is terrible, the good shops have gone, ghost tours and pub crawls advertised everywhere, every tiny corner has been turned into yet another marketing opportunity. Not that I can complain about marketing leading a tour, but a part of me longs to show Americans the way it was when it was a proud city bent on being rather than selling itself.

For all the tartan tat, Edinburgh manages to retain a certain grandeur – I’m really not sure how it does it. The 16th Century John Knox’s house in the old High Street is surrounded by awful opportunistic chain outlets – ‘kilt outfits for 100 pounds’ etc. (I wouldn’t advise buying one, or washing it if you do). That ancient house seems to just draw in its skirts and shrug them off, like many other historic buildings in the area.

Maybe we’re all destined to become curmudgeons as we age, lauding a golden past that never was. Or perhaps we all understand that commerce is driving the world now, not history, culture, tradition. Not that those ever did. If people remembered history we wouldn’t keep circling in the same paths.

So despite my curmudgeonly misgivings, Edinburgh retains a dignity and an allure beneath the shouts of tour leaders and vendors. There is more to Scotland than buying a plush Nessie in the High Street. Always has been, always will be.

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The Monday Book: MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR by Doris Lessing

I like most of Lessing’s work, but she can be a real downer. This book picks up on some scenes that appear in others, and since this was published in 1974, I’m assuming these were the first appearances, and their refinement came in later works.

Somewhere in her life, Lessing saw or felt that girl children were valued less than boys. She’s got this running as a sub-theme through a lot of her novels, and it’s here in a few of the scenes involving Emily, the teenage protagonist of this novel.

The novel has two protagonists, the second one also being the narrator, a woman in late mid-life who watches from her London flat window as society breaks down around her. Think “The Road” because there’s no specification of what’s happened, just reactions to it. The societal disorder is actually pretty ill-defined, because it’s mostly there to explain why there are bands of roaming young people terrorizing the city. Think “Children of Men.” Something’s gone wrong centrally.

The narrator gets Emily in a very strange way; one day a man knocks on her door and tells her this child is her responsibility from here on out. And the narrator says “Fine.” Think Stephen King, eschewing explanation and yet not sounding implausible because it’s all so human-nature driven.

Then Emily gets into all sorts of scrapes and her pet Hugo is getting eyed up by the gangs for dinner, and it’s not going well, and…. well, the ending is a bit of a shocker. It’s actually happy. That’s all I’m gonna say.

This book requires a lot of the reader. Nothing is what it seems, except is is. Everything is falling apart, and yet some things are getting better for no reason. If you like literary fantasy – and I’m not even sure that’s a genre – you’re going to love Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. If you like things explained, best pick up something else.

When she published it in 1974, Lessing called it a dystopian fable. Apparently, it was made into a movie in 1981. I don’t even want to think what violence the subtle writing and edgy themes would have suffered in that process. I’d say this book is like steel lace. The beauty is unusual in where it’s found, yet the writing is so delicate in describing bluntness. Steel lace.

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Hey Y’all, (don’t) Watch This

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Today is my 50th birthday. So far this morning I have celebrated by catching up on things that slid past while my attention was directed elsewhere: getting the final grades in, why the dishwasher was making that funny noise, blue line edits to Fall or Fly, what to do about the nasty stain in the downstairs toilet bowl….Turning 50 is very glamorous.

One of the items I’m catching up on is this weekend’s blog. It is very satisfying to go from 49 to 50. Among other things, this is the age at which society begins to ignore women, which means we can do as we like. At the fundraising galas, while the eyes of the men with bow ties are on the cute little blond across the room, I can drink their champagne. When a kitten tries to cross a busy road, I can leap from my automobile and demand everyone halt because I have grey in my hair, heft to my hips, and the authority of surprise behind me. Yet no one will hold me accountable, because I am a 50-year-old American woman.

If I’m reading the hints right, society thinks women are supposed to feel bad about turning 50, slightly apologetic or guilty that we couldn’t keep ourselves young and thin forever. Ha. I got these wisdom lines from a lot of different places, none of which I am ashamed of being in. And from knowing a lot of different people, most of whom were worth knowing, and the ones that weren’t I don’t know any more. Traveling light is a good thing at any age, so it seems a little counter-intuitive to worry about carrying other people’s baggage now.

Thus I spent my birthday morning stamping gel flowers into all the toilets in the house, because they promised to eliminate odors AND suspicious pink crusting. I found it very satisfying. Who knew they even made such wondrous things? And my husband has promised me one of those little round vacuums to do the floors – you know, the kind cats like to ride in You Tube videos. It’ll be entertainment as well as cleaning. Not that cleaning is my thing: living in a comfortable house while saving time is. I have stuff to write, mischief to make, cats to play with, husbands to tease – ehm, strike that, just one husband – and causes to support. Heh heh heh. Never underestimate the power of a woman whistling on her way.

Hold my stolen champagne glass, kiddo; I’m goin’ in.

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Jesus on the Main Line

Jack’s Wednesday guest post is actually on a Wednesday for a change –

Being an old curmudgeon and resistant to change I’ve always been averse to cell-phones. When I retired from my college job I went work as a ‘consultant’ for the Scottish Qualifications Authority and my boss, Paul, was way ahead of his time with these gadgets. He liked to be able to contact his team any time, day or night. Wendy and I had a pre-paid basic cell-phone each that we only ever used in dire emergencies and we swapped them back and forth. Paul would often phone me and usually got Wendy, who he then berated at length for not being me!

Much later when Wendy started working with the college she was supplied with a sophisticated I-Phone. Over time she has had hers replaced regularly with more and more up-to-date models that do everything except cook for you. On many shared car journeys she has handed it to me and asked me to talk to people or text them or check the route or the weather ahead. I have hated doing that as I have no idea how these things work and my fingers always hit the wrong letters or the wrong icon. She tries to talk me through it, but things like “Look for the little green phone” don’t bode well for a marriage when spoken while careening down the motorway at 70+ miles per hour.

But she now has one that seems much more forgiving – either that or I’m getting better. It’s not unlike guitar chords, really, when one thinks about it… Wendy says her directions have gotten better, but I’m going with my fumble fingers figuring things out.

Which has finally led me to agree to have one of my own again. I’ve been given a present of a redundant I-Phone 6  and all I have to do is choose a carrier and a contract.

Once again I’m clueless. Growing up in Scotland there was just one phone company and you paid whatever everyone else paid. Now I’m trying desperately to understand who gets the best coverage, the best data rates, text versus voice – and on, and on. It’s a minefield!

But I’m determined now and I will get there with the help of ‘Our Good Chef Kelley up the stairs’ (our tech savvy cafe manager), and ‘Mark along the road’ (our computer expert).

If they don’t get me there I could always try the main line, as the old song says—

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Nicely, nicely does it – – –

Jack’s guest post a combination of the Monday Book and his usual Wednesday one –

This isn’t about a particular book, or even a specific range of books – it’s about how I was introduced to books and how they’ve played into my view of the world.

When I was attending high school and college to gain my basic English literature qualification I was following a curriculum that had a clear direction with no place whatsoever for Scottish authors, poets or playwrights. We had to study Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens, although Walter Scott was allowed. I think Scott was OK because he more or less invented the notion of a romantic ‘previous’ Scotland that no longer existed and that was acceptable.

What’s strange about this is that the Scottish education system has always (since 1707 and the union of parliaments) been completely independent from the English system. My guess is that the UK government always made sure that they had folk in positions of authority in place to make sure we toed the line. Not surprisingly I found all this a bit confusing.

But I had a wonderful English teacher at high school called John (Baldy) Forrest who had little interest in set curricula and a great love for the works of Damon Runyon. Baldy would stride around the classroom on a Friday afternoon (the fact that we were the ‘no hopers’ and it was Friday afternoon probably emboldened him) wearing his required academic gown and read sections of Runyon’s short stories aloud in a convincing New York accent – a bizarre sight indeed. He had sewn a block of wood into the side panel of his gown and would whack inattentive pupils on the back of the head which only endeared me to him more! The fact that I can picture him and recall his name is a great testament to his teaching abilities and ongoing legacy. If he’s still alive he must be well into his nineties but I doubt he is – RIP Baldy.

Later I attended evening classes in the local college I ended up working in for over twenty years and once again (no longer a ‘no hoper’) attempted to gain my Higher English qualification. We were a mixture of ages, and beneficiaries of the excellent Scottish system that left doors open for late learners. I am mortified to say that I can’t remember the name of the young teacher but he re-introduced me to Shakespeare and specifically Macbeth. I can still recite lines from ‘the Scottish play’ and it got me interested in Scottish history (something else we weren’t taught in school). But he also introduced us to ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. These are American classics that both link to poems by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns.

Now I can appreciate Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens because I’ve read Burns, Grassic Gibbon, Runyon and Hemingway.

What have I learned from all this? The best teachers don’t slavishly follow laid down curricula and learning doesn’t have to only take place in the classroom or lecture hall.

BTW – Scott wrote bodice rippers and fake ballads!

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