Skiing and Communism

And just like that, it was February. 

Which means one thing, dear Reader, which is that we both survived January. Again. Punched it on the nose and landed it, looking slightly surprised, on its slightly frozen derrière. Much like a snowboarder, apart from the ‘looking surprised’ bit, as they seem to want to sit down on their frozen behind at every available opportunity.

And for myself, I survived January without my usual January Coping Mechanism which is to escape to the Alps for a week’s skiing. In fact, at the time of writing, I should be supping a hot chocolate in a mountain restaurant, preparing for the very final run of the week down to the village, or chalet, or bus stop. Or something.

But I’m not, I’m here on my sofa, looking out at leaden skies through bare windswept branches. However the skies are a brighter shade of lead than they would have been at this time on a January day. So let’s raise a glass to that.

Speaking of which, on Hogmanay morning, I got up early for a smart meter installation. It was snowing. I wandered along the promenade. There were people in the sea, swimming, and four guys were getting one of the beach volleyball courts ready, raking the frozen sand.

I picked up a newspaper, solely for the crossword, and headed back via Twelve Triangles, my local bakery and purveyor of not-underpriced sourdough loaves and excellent croissants. I’m glad they seem to be considered an essential shop.

I queued outside for about ten minutes. 

“Hi! How are you today?” asked the cheery girl when I finally arrived at the counter.

“I’m great!” I replied, “although queuing for bread, in the snow, makes me feel like I’m in Communist Russia.”

She said nothing to that. I fancy she may have been something of a Communist herself.

Am reading quite a lot of books these days that were set in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Germany, ie before the Nazis came to power. That, and a recent watching of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, have served to remind me that the Communist Party were a force in Western Europe, and even in Britain, not so very long ago.

It’s intriguing to me to think that it had such a toe-hold in the west in (relatively) recent times. Growing up, as I did, in the 80s and 90s, Communism was always a Russian/Eastern Bloc/Chinese thing. 

And has remained so, except when I confess to my sister that the newspaper I buy for crossword purposes is the Daily Telegraph, which sparks such a vigorous reaction that I wonder if Communism hasn’t in fact gained a toe-hold in my own family.

A few days ago, right at the beginning of my week of non-skiing, I made an emergency run to Sainsbury’s, on account of developing a sudden but quite definite hankering for a Croque Madame and an equally sudden realisation that I had no eggs with which to make this happen.

On recalling that I had picked up a croissant earlier from the aforementioned Essential Bakery, I did wonder if my subconscious might have been trying to make it up to me that I wasn’t actually in France.

Today I made my fourth lunch-time Croque Madame in five days. I think the subconscious has taken charge of things.

Here’s to being able to go skiing again. And to brighter days. Roll on Spring.

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

A couple of days before Christmas, I met my friend Nipun for brunch at Dishoom. He had booked in advance, as one must do in these times.

A member of staff met us outside and briefed us on the Covid regulations. As we left her and made for the door, I overheard her speaking into her radio.

“Nipun is coming inside.”

After the obligatory hand-sanitising inside the door another acolyte explained that we would be dining downstairs today and presented us with our individual pre-sanitised menus.

We moved on.

“Nipun is on his way downstairs” I heard from behind me.

I felt like I was brunching with POTUS. An entirely appropriate level of deference to be shown to a former skipper of the Holy Cross Second Eleven, I’d say.

Christmas Day I spent with my mum, making occasional Zoom contact with London. It was a quieter Christmas than usual. Mum and I watched the original 1969 version of The Italian Job in the afternoon.

We then watched a “making of” documentary on YouTube. Among the many interesting things I learned was that BMC (manufacturers of the Mini at the time) were less than helpful to the filmmakers, despite the picture turning out to be a feature-length advert for their car, whereas Fiat in Turin bent over backwards to assist them. 

Perhaps the most startling discovery was to do with a scene set in a prison towards the end. As news of the success of the job filters back to the Guv’nor, the inmates started repeatedly chanting “England!” as he regally descended a stairway. The documentary revealed that the prison used was Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, which was used as a place of incarceration (and execution) for Irish Revolutionaries, by order of the UK Government. And all these ‘inmates’ in the film were Irish extras, and here they were chanting “England!” in a place where the Irish were historically oppressed by the English.

Quite remarkable.

I stayed over at mum’s Christmas Night, in order to make best use of the Bailey’s which I’d brought with me specially.

Woke up Boxing Day to the realisation that – despite remembering to pack many of the essentials, namely Bailey’s and marmalade (I was unsure of the Marmalade Situation in mum’s house) – I had forgotten clean pants.

By cutting down on the laundry in this way I like to think I was doing my bit for the environment, although perhaps not my immediate environment.

When I got home I watched the 2003 version of The Italian Job. I cannot honestly remember if I changed my pants first or not. I do remember noticing that the beautiful Passo Fedaia was featured in the film, which is a spot in the Dolomites that we skied earlier this year. Seems like a long time ago now.

So, what are you doing New Year’s Eve? 

Literally every year, I hear people declaring that the outgoing year has been the worst ever, and they’ll be glad to see the back of it. It always mystifies me, as if the calendar year has somehow been responsible for their difficulties – that their problems started on 1 January that year, and will assuredly end on 31 December.

Without even getting to Hogmanay itself, I have already read a version of this multiple times in the media, which is no surprise in this strange year, but it might be worth remembering, before we curse 2020 and write it off as a “terrible year”, that 2020 – in and of itself – didn’t produce Covid-19. The virus is not tied to a specific timeframe, and will, I imagine, continue to cause problems for us well into 2021.

Also, January and February 2020 were good to us. I skied the Passo Fedaia (quite badly, if I recall correctly) in January. I saw some great films – JoJo Rabbit, 1917, Parasite, and Bad Boys For Life. Well, that last one is possibly not in the “all-time great” category. I got to celebrate a friend turning 50. 

And then, as March wore on and the sense of something serious happening ramped up, my jury service was gloriously cancelled.

2020 was a year when my daily routine and job were redefined. It’s been a year of deepened friendships, long walks, a rediscovery of the beauty of my adopted hometown, a chance to slow down a little, and breathe more. For others it has been much, much more traumatic than this. 

But even so, it strikes me as a strange thing in which to put your faith for change – the turning over of the calendar year.

I like the way that a new year starting presents us with what feels like a fresh start, a chance to begin again. But really, nothing actually changes on New Year’s Day. Which might be at least part of the reason that so many feel so depressed in January – as the New Year celebrations fade and Hogmanay’s balloon is punctured by the sinking realisation that all the previous year’s troubles haven’t disappeared with the turning of a page. And January, in Scotland anyway, has more than its fair share of dark and dreary days.

This is one of the reasons that I love going skiing towards the end of January – something fun to look forward to during those days. Skiing is cancelled this year, of course. As are dinners out with friends, the way I traditionally like to bring in the New Year.

So what are you doing New Year’s Eve? Whatever you’re doing, let’s not blame all our woes on 2020. It had some good times too. Here’s to more of those in TwentyTwentyFun! (© Party Jen)

The Shortest Day

Today is the shortest day for the UK. And the whole northern hemisphere, I daresay. For confirmation I looked up the sunrise times for Edinburgh on timeanddate.com, and was quite startled to discover that tomorrow the sunrise will be a minute later than today. And then another minute later on 27th, before finally beginning to recede on 30th December. The good news is that the sunset also started getting fractionally later four days ago, and so today really is the shortest day.

Incidentally, while entering my location into the website, I also discovered that there’s a place called “Edinburgh of the Seven Seas” in St Helena – nestled sort of slap bang in the middle of the South Atlantic between southern Africa and South America. They have a fair bit more sunlight than us at this time of year. I made a mental note to visit Edinburgh of the Seven Seas one day. Ideally in January. 

On a windy day, back in October, I ran a 5k along the Promenade at Portobello. Actually it was closer to 6k, but I don’t like to brag. The sky was bluish-grey, indeed almost everything looked bluish-grey. It was blowing a hoolie, and the breakers were in good voice. 

To the east there was a golden stripe along the coast, as the stretch from Musselburgh round to Longniddry still caught the early evening sunshine.

I think it was that day I decided to move to Portobello.

The sound of waves on the beach, most recently experienced on my much-documented stay in Aberdeen and the North East, have seduced me.

So I moved, and here I am. I found a great little flat – just back from the Promenade. If you crane your neck at a certain angle through one of the windows you can claim a sea view, but – more importantly – I hear the waves every night.

I have successfully quashed, without a great deal of difficulty, the wild spirit within me that has wanted to join the open-water swimmers, who take to the sea on a daily basis; sometimes wet-suited, sometimes in a two-piece (they’re nearly all women), and all looking either a little mad, or bad-ass, or frequently both.

I saw one today on my beach walk back from the Post Office, in a swimsuit, with woolly hat and proper wetsuit-type gloves. Still trying to make sense of that particular combo.

The flat I’m in is one of a block of six, in a little development of several blocks. The neighbours are friendly. I recently encountered Irene, who has been here since the development was built in 1986. I like to think of her as the Scheme Tsar. Then I met an old dear – Joy – while we were out emptying our bins.

“Are you the new man?” she asked.

I replied that – yes – I think I was. 

“I’m Andrew!” I said, with that knowing look which says I would shake your hand right now under normal circumstances, but I can’t, so I’ll nod my head slightly, which will have to do.

“Oh I know who you are,” she responded. “Irene wrote about you in The Newsletter.”

I have a fairly strict and entirely self-inflicted “no-emoji” rule when writing in this blog, having occasional and loosely-held pretensions to being “a writer”.

However it would be now that I would insert a face-with-wide-open-eyes emoji to adequately reflect my response to this bombshell. Possibly the face-screaming-in-fear as well.

We have a “Newsletter”? And I was featured in it?

I have still not seen any sign of this publication, but I promise to report back when I do.

In other news, my move to Portobello has precipitated a grave and serious change in my circumstances, in that I have now moved outside my GP Practice’s Boundaries of Care. And so, being a Good Citizen and thus unwilling to continue to claim medical care from a distant practice, and also conscious that GPs can be inordinately prickly about such matters, I have re-registered with my local practice in Porty.

At least, I think I have. I posted my lengthy application into the box that I was instructed to. I only lied (accidentally) about one thing, in the box where I was to note my weekly alcohol unit intake, in which I unthinkingly put a number which would have definitely been true pre-Covid, but has now been somewhat, um… superseded.

Thereafter I was expecting to receive, if not a glossy Welcome Pack, at least a brief email acknowledging my existence and that I had kept my handwriting inside the correct boxes. None has been forthcoming. I realise that a GP practice is not exactly a country club, but surely this is not too much to expect?

This morning, while the sun is shining and I (craning my neck at the appropriate angle) can catch a glimpse of sunlight glinting on the sea, I find myself inside, glued to the HMRC website, where I am trying to gain access to a webchat with an advisor.

It’s proving to be an experience similar to the Pool of Siloam. Every time the “speak to an advisor” link appears, I click on it, at which point a pop-up box asks for my name and question. Which I provide, as quickly as possible. The question has been reduced to “hi” in the interests of speedily initiating a chat. However, regardless of how how little I type and how fast I type it, I am invariably met with the response “All our advisors are busy at the moment, try again.”

The reason I am here is because I have been trying to help my mother with her self-assessment tax return. The HMRC system, in its infinite wisdom, has decided it cannot verify her identity. It requires two pieces of identification from her to do this, one of which is a passport, which she no longer has.

They have an alternative way to prove you are who you say you are, which involves registering with a Trusted Company (I chose the Post Office), who proceed to ask you for details about yourself, stopping just short of asking you how many freckles you have on your left forearm.

Even with this inquisition completed, the System was unable to verify my mother’s identity. And thus it has deemed her unable to submit an online tax return.

We can still submit the paper version, of course. Deadline for that was 31 October. But doing this, and paying the resulting fine, seems the only way forward. I find it somewhat unacceptable that my mother has to pay a fine as a result of HM Government being unable to verify her identity, even though her identity hasn’t changed even slightly since this time last year, when we successfully completed an online tax return. And the year before that…

Here in Scotland we go into Tier 4 (ie the maximum) from Boxing Day. Tougher on everyone, but still not as bad as March. London is properly locked down already.

And I note from a brief visit to the Post Office today, that all services to Europe have been suspended. Brexit AND Lockdown. It’s quite the dysfunctional cocktail.

But today is the shortest day. Tomorrow, we begin the long slow climb into brighter days. Days when the light burns a little longer, and a little warmer. And though the climb is long and slow, and it’s hard to note any difference for a while, it’s happening nonetheless. 

Slow and steady, but from tomorrow, we’re climbing again.

Stay safe, and happy Christmas to all my long-suffering readers. ❤️

(It’s only a fairly strict no-emoji policy).

When this whole thing is over

It’s October. Summer in Scotland has waned, the light has gradually faded, and with it, gradually, many of our social freedoms. In the process, ‘normality’ is being gradually redefined.

At the onset of the COVID-inspired restrictions in March, it was broadly understood that there was a need to keep one’s head under the duvet for a few weeks, after which we would re-emerge like hibernating hedgehogs, get ourselves a proper haircut, and then gleefully put into place all the sous-duvet plans we had hatched on Zoom and WhatsApp, for “when this whole thing is over.”

But autumn has brought our burgeoning freedom to a shuddering and slightly traumatic halt. Proper lockdown is back on the agenda, and there are reports of alcohol panic-buying in the New Town.

I ordered one of those armband-phone-holders the other day, like those real runners wear.

I should have ordered one months ago, but have finished every run breathlessly reluctant to countenance the notion that I might ever go for a run again. Thus I was reticent to spend money on something that was about to become an ex-hobby.

When this whole thing is over, I will never go for a run again.

Today there was a noticeable chill in the air. I put on a thermal base layer and it felt good. I embarked on a sortie into town on the bus, to get a proper haircut, and fired up some Christmas carols in my ears. They sounded great.

This marks a turning point. Last week I tried listening to Christmas music while in the queue at the Post Office. It just wasn’t working. The air was too warm, the light wasn’t quite right.

Today the sun is lower.

I make it to Bruntsfield and get my haircut. I’m Kenny’s last appointment of the day. It’s 10.30am on a Saturday. This should not be. I knew something wasn’t right when I called on Thursday for a Saturday appointment and was given a choice of times.

“How’s business the rest of the week?” I ask.

“Up and down,” he says, grimacing. “Hard to predict.”

On my return journey, I jump off the bus on Princes St, and get a lemon-and-sugar crêpe from a van at the bottom of the Mound. Then I sit in the sunshine in Princes St Gardens, and eat it while listening to In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s just like being at the Christmas Market. 

Except that they would be playing Santa Baby at high volume, and the crêpe would have cost £3 more.

Speaking of which, it was a little rubbery, perhaps because it quickly became saturated with lemon juice, and by the time I was done my hands were a sticky mess. In days gone by, this would have been a great annoyance. But now I have a handy mini bottle of hand sanitizer, oh yes, and the stickiness is quickly vanquished.

When this whole thing is over I will never be without hand sanitizer. For crêpe-related emergencies.

What will normality look like, when this whole thing is over?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Solo travelling, loneliness, and singleness.

Sunday 6 Sep

Time to head for home.

I make a mid-morning stop in Stonehaven. Sit on a sunny café balcony overlooking the harbour, with a substandard coffee and an A+ traybake, and read about lighthouses.

Read about the prolific Stevenson family – how four generations of them built most of the lighthouses in and around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

About how one of these Stevensons – Thomas – was greatly disappointed when his son Robert Louis announced that he would be pursuing a career in writing instead of lighthouse engineering. Perhaps he forgave him after he wrote this:

“There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.

The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather; the Skerryvhor for my uncle Alan;

and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

And, y’know, when he forged something of a successful career in writing.

This has been a great trip. I have not, generally, enjoyed solo holidays. When attempted in the past I have found myself longing to share the experiences with someone. But this time I was surprised by how rarely feelings of loneliness overtook me.

And in this I need to acknowledge the positive effect of social media. It helps with this. It really does. Sharing photos of places visited and sights seen via Instagram, and Facebook, and written experiences via this blog, and seeing people respond, help provide that sense of connection that otherwise is missing.

Strikes me now, fourteen years on, that this was probably the main driver for me starting this blog in the first place – keeping a record of my trip to Australia in 2006-7, a diary of my travels for posterity – of course – but also a means of staying connected with friends and, in a relatively non-immediate way, sharing those experiences with them.

Big shout out to Nicola and Disco, my virtual travelling companions on this trip. 

But on the occasions when feelings of loneliness did catch up with me, I found the best way was to embrace them. Briefly. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of loneliness at times. No sense in pretending they’re not there. So I embraced them, and even dwelt in them, for as long as I needed to. 

And no longer than I needed to. Any longer, and I get lost in a miasma of self-pity and spiralling thoughts that take me nowhere good.

I sometimes view families in a curiously detached way. It doesn’t escape my attention that the parents are my age or younger. I sometimes idly wonder what it’s like. I know, cognitively, what it’s like. I have enough friends who have told me. Told me of the sleepless nights. The constant demands for your attention. The tears and the tantrums. Balanced with the joy and the pride. 

And I have experienced these things in a detached way, as an uncle and a friend of the parents. But I don’t really know.

Nor do I want to. Not at all. And yet there’s a fascination, which is similar to the detached fascination I experience when I see couples on the bus. Or in the street.

I wonder what it’s like. I know what it’s like. But I also don’t.

And so I walk the road less travelled. Viewing couples and families with detachment. Wondering how one decision can make life, ten years down the road, say, so different. So very different. 

Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan. Like I’ve never grown up. Proper grown ups enter into committed, lifelong relationships. Get married. Have children. I haven’t. I go to the cinema a lot. Sometimes at antisocial hours on a school night. Frequently on my own. It’s ok, going on your own. It’s actually pretty good.

I invited my friend (married, with young children) to the cinema the other day (pre-COVID). He didn’t come. “Our lives are very different,” he said. It was a 9:30pm showing on a Sunday night.

The first times I ate out in restaurants alone, I was on training courses with work, far from home. It felt weird. I was in a strange town, far from everyone I knew, and it was just weird. Now, eating out alone is as normal as breathing. 

I have great friends. I love hanging out with them, going to films, eating pizza, ice cream, meeting over coffee. I love these encounters. But at the end of the evening, we wave goodbye, and go our separate ways. 

Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have someone who would still be there tomorrow.

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Sunrises and Smugglers.

Saturday 5 Sep

After yesterday’s full and busy itinerary, with its 6:17am start, I resolved to take things a little easier today. I gave myself an additional two full minutes in bed and got up for the sunrise at 6:19.

I can’t quite remember the last time (before yesterday) I witnessed a sunrise. And the thought of having seen two on consecutive mornings is frankly mind-boggling.

Singing along to Justin Townes Earle in the car later

Ain’t seen a sunrise
Since I don’t know when

I (with, I admit, a dash of smugness) change the words to

…since THIS MORNING!

Which doesn’t, I confess, fit the song rhythmically or thematically, but I’m on holiday.

Faced with a plethora of beach choices, I settle on Balmedie Beach, on the basis that it’s the closest, and thus will maximise the good weather beach time, given that the forecast is for it to cloud over by the afternoon.

Walking from the car park, I crest the final sand dune to discover a massive sandy beach stretching away to the north and south, but my heart sinks just a little at the eleven wind turbines rising up out of the sea just offshore.

I am not entirely proud of this reaction, since I know that wind-generated energy is clean and green, and therefore A Good Thing, and also subsequently discover to my dismay that my views are momentarily aligned with Donald Trump on something, finding out that he complained to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that the turbines would spoil the view from his golf resort.

And, what’s more, just yesterday I was eulogising over the beauty of a lighthouse in the middle of the sea.

I kick off my flip-flops and carry them, walking northwards through the fringes of the surf, away from the turbines. It’s breezy, and clouds frequently obscure the sun, but it doesn’t rain.

I come across a bunch of sandpipers scuttling backwards and forwards with the incoming tide – it looks like they’re playing chicken with the water.

After a few miles, with the beach still stretching endlessly off into the distance, I park myself on a sand dune once again, make coffee, and eat my lunch, pondering the difference between wind turbines and lighthouses.

It’s a curious one. Both the lighthouse and the wind turbine are entirely man-made. Both are there for laudable reasons. Both are brilliantly conceived and (especially when built in the middle of the sea) genuine feats of engineering.

But the lighthouse is somehow more beautiful to me. The achievement of the lighthouse engineers is also considerably more impressive when one considers that they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, without the assistance of modern shipping and helicopters. But, purely from an aesthetic perspective, the turbine is too sharp, too angular, has too many edges for me. But like them or not, I guess they’re here to stay.

I walk back the way I came, with the wind getting up and the tide coming in. The beach is deserted. I take the opportunity to run, and fling my arms wide, and sing at the top of my voice. And maybe even skip and dance a little. Then I notice there are two people sat back on the dunes, watching the antics of a crazy person, no doubt preparing to call the police if I turned in their direction. Ah well, I’m on holiday.

I drive a little further north, to Collieston, purely on the basis that it has an ice cream shop called Smugglers Cone, and in doing so stumble across perhaps the most glorious find of the trip – another gorgeous little seaside fishing village, built in a natural cove, flanked by cliffs on one side and dunes on the other, with a great little harbour and a rich gin-smuggling heritage.

In the late 1700s an estimated eight thousand gallons of foreign spirits were being landed here, and the surrounding area, in a given month.

I eat ice-cream and read a book, sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour, where wet-suitted youngsters are jumping off the harbour wall, and a young family paddle-board their way around the cove.

In the evening I attempt to eat local (at Brewdog!) but they’re fully booked, and so I walk along Union Street to the familiar surrounds of Pizza Express, a chain in some trouble even pre-COVID.

With sparsely-arranged tables and furniture stacked in the corner, it looks like they’ve just moved in. With so few diners, it was a fairly soulless experience, if I’m honest. Made me wonder: how much of our enjoyment of a meal out is conditional on the atmosphere?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Lighthouses, but still no dolphins.

Friday 4 Sep

I rise early, with the forecast having promised a clear sky in the morning. The Airbnb I’m staying in is about 50m from the beach, and right beside where the River Dee flows into the North Sea. There is a steady stream of ships making their way into port as dawn breaks.

I walk down to the beach to watch the sun come up. There are several mad Aberdonian women swimming. And a guy with a drone. 

The sunrise is beautiful. On returning to the flat for coffee, my Airbnb host asks if I saw the dolphins, which were frolicking off the end of the pier. I didn’t.

I head north to Cruden Bay, and hike along the clifftop to Slains Castle. Before that I stop off in Boddam for a quick photo of the lighthouse.

Lighthouses. They fascinate me. Sometimes short and stumpy, but more often slender and elegant, beautifully engineered, and yet capable of withstanding the worst that the seas and the elements throw at them. For hundreds of years.

I grew up with the light from St John’s Point Lighthouse in Co. Down illuminating my room every night. It’s the nostalgia, no doubt, which has fostered an ongoing fascination with them for me.

The locals here have funny accents. The facemasks aren’t helping. I find myself, in conversation with a local person, hearing a full sentence and fully recognising it as English, and having a vague sense of understanding, and yet they get to the end of the sentence and I haven’t a scooby what they said. I adopt a ‘nod and smile’ approach at these times.

The locals here also have fast cars. I am losing count of the number of high-performance cars that I find agitating on my rear bumper, harrying like a sheepdog at my heels. And I’m not a slow driver.

The next stop on the Harbours, Castles and Lighthouses tour is Rattray Head. This, I reckon, is positioned at the most north-easterly point of Great Britain. There are no signs to tell me that, indeed there are no signs to advertise its presence at all, which is refreshing.

Rattray Head Lighthouse is what I later learn is called a ‘rock tower’ – a lighthouse built on a rock out from the coast, not on land. As such it sits in the sea, and looks all the more dramatic for it, I think.

It takes a bit of getting to, mind. After a long-ish drive down an increasingly ropey lane, I abandon the CR-Z on a grassy verge (avoiding sheughs) and walk the remaining mile or so, past a French campervan (of course) and over the dunes.

When I crest the final sand dune, there it is, rising out of the sea like a lone sentinel. And there’s only one other person to share the beach and the view with. I park myself on a sandy slope, facing the sea and the lighthouse, and make espresso, like the UK’s most northeasterly coffee hipster. There are seals, and crashing waves, and the sun is shining. 

I spend a large part of the afternoon in the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. Thanks to COVID, all tours (which I have booked ahead on this time) are for bubbles only. Ergo I get a personal tour at no extra cost. My very own personal tour guide – Michael – is interesting and engaging. Although clearly a local, as from time to time incomprehensible phrases float past me, like a cloud of random syllables. I can only wave at them as they drift past. And smile and nod, of course.

The lighthouse at Kinnaird Head, where the museum is based, was built in the 18th century, inside a castle. It was the first one owned and run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, which used to be called the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. I think they should have kept their old name.

The original lighthouse at Kinnaird Head has now been replaced by a newer automated one. Which prompted the question – are lighthouses really necessary these days given the effectiveness of modern navigation systems? I was desperately hoping he’d say yes.

‘Yes.’ 

Turns out sailors have more confidence in an actual lighthouse showing them where they really are, than a GPS system telling them where it thinks they are.

I continue west, picking my way along the coast, taking every right turn that looks like it might have something interesting at the end of it. It always does. I visit Pennan, and Crovie – both not so much villages as single rows of houses, squeezed into the space available between the cliffs and the sea. It’s a massively steep gradient to get down to both villages, and back up again. How do the residents get up those hills in the winter? 

Westwards again, accompanied all the while by Natalie Merchant…

Hypnotised 
Mesmerised
By what my eyes have seen

Through MacDuff, and the best fish and chips of my life in Whitehills, near Banff. My faith in the region’s fish suppers is restored. I eat it in the car while watching a farmer gathering up round bales and stacking them in groups. It’s that time of year. Already I have driven past many fields of wheat, or barley, or corn. Or hay. Or something. I am a little fuzzy on the horticultural specifics. It’s golden, at any rate.

This farmer is whizzing around his field in what looks like an agricultural sand buggy, with a front loader pincer thing which carry the bales. It’s all a bit different from my childhood, when bales were almost always rectangular (round bales were a new-fangled thing) and they were small enough that they could be lifted and stacked by hand.

I drive on to the iconic Bow Fiddle Rock, hoping it would be catching some late evening rays from the setting sun, but the sky is overcast. Still, it’s an awesome rock formation. I’m the only one there.

A long day over, I drive a cross-country route back to Aberdeen. Halfway through the journey I come across what I now believe to be Aberdeenshire’s only slow driver. I am stuck behind them for 10 miles.

[Update: apparently Duncansby Head, near Wick, is the most northeasterly point on the GB mainland. I do apologise.]

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Castles and Hipsters.

Thursday 3 Sep

Heading north, I make my first spontaneous unscheduled “saw the sign and made a snap decision” stop at Glamis Castle. I do love a good castle, and the Shakespearean connections are a bonus.

It’s closed. Covid. I console myself with a completely scheduled stop at another place referenced (I imagine) in classic literature – McDonalds (Forfar).

Arrive at Dunnottar Castle mid-afternoon. It’s only open these days if you book ahead on the website, but (without ever having actually been in) I reckon Dunnottar Castle is best experienced, and certainly photographed, from a little bit away – like Edinburgh Castle. So I take photos from a little bit away. From every conceivable angle, except “from the sea” which would be tricky.

Drive on down into Stonehaven, meeting a combine harvester on the road in, which takes up the ENTIRE road. It’s a nervy moment. I nearly end up in a sheugh, but the combine driver gives me a cheery wave, so I felt better.

I’m aiming for a couple of coffee shops, both of which turn out to be closed (flooding, not Covid). Seems like either Ellen or Francis did for them. I find another one, and take a coffee and a traybake down to the harbour.

Discover the compact little harbour to be unexpectedly picturesque. Translucent blue water, a sandy beach, and – beyond the walls of the harbour itself – grassy cliffs which provide a gently spectacular backdrop. And the sun is shining.

There’s even a hipster, complete with flat cap and man-bag, on the sand.

I bite into a traybake large enough to sink one of the boats on the water, and feel like I’m in the Med. With the exception of the traybake and the hipster.

Later that evening, I phone mum from the car, while parked at Torry Battery, where I’m eating fish and chips and watching the ships leave the harbour. She tries to impress me with her knowledge of Doric. It seems to be confined to “Quines” and”Loons”. I remain unimpressed. Am also unimpressed with the fish and chips, which I imagine would generally be of high quality around here. I must have picked a dodgy place.

Apparently Torry Battery is a great spot to watch dolphins from. I discover this afterwards. I didn’t see any dolphins.

The C-19 Diaries. Facemasks and colouring within the lines.

I confess to being uncertain to whether I should continue with the C-19 Diaries. Here in Edinburgh, we are no longer under lockdown, strictly-speaking. But Glasgow has just been shut down again. And life is still not back to normal. So I will persist.

Some of the more cynical among you might be muttering into your facemasks to the effect that I haven’t continued with the C-19 Diaries a whole lot lately, since June in fact, and you’d of course be right. If it’s any comfort, I feel chastened.

But here we are.

It’s September. Facemasks are everywhere. Everyone looks like either a bank robber or a theatre nurse. When I smile, I try to make a conscious effort to let the smile reach my eyes. And I have learned to recognise the slight crinkling around the eyes as meaning that I’m being smiled at. 

This is important to know. Some days all I need is a smile.

It’s September. The fair weather of spring and early summer has been chased away, tail between its legs, by the bullying storms Ellen and Francis. But I’m not ready to close the door completely on summer just yet. After an evening sortie to North Berwick on one of the nice days, I remarked to a friend that I was determined to squeeze every last drop out of the summer this year. I’m not sure I have managed that. 

Cricket has restarted, in a shortened and slightly neurotically over-sanitised way. Most Saturday nights, post-cricket, I have driven out to Longniddry, and eaten fish and chips in the car with a John Lawton book and a sunset – sometimes spectacular, sometimes not – for company.

Eating a fish supper in one’s car on a Saturday evening means that the in-car fragrance is still there on Sunday, and usually Monday, and occasionally Tuesday too. I console myself at these times that at least I know I haven’t contracted COVID.

Day 127 

I complete another longish Edinburgh walk today. The Royal Mile is getting a little busier. Tourists are a thing again. I pass a Japanese girl getting her photo taken in front of the Fringe office. Felt like she might have been settling for the consolation prize of a photo instead of a bunch of now-cancelled Fringe shows.

Day 141

One of my favourite Lockdown discoveries has been the bay window in my living room. The sun slants in from the east until it’s time for elevenses.

I’ve taken to having breakfast there every morning. Bay windows being as they are, I can see anyone similarly-positioned in the adjacent flats. Our bay window neighbours in an easterly direction have a small dog. On a chance encounter in the street I discovered that she is called Emma. (Her owner pointed this out, Emma herself was unforthcoming on the matter.)

Emma, like me, loves to sit in the bay window and watch the activity on the street. I wave and say hello every morning to her, which she largely ignores. Tonight we had an epic thunderstorm, which Emma and I watched, fascinated, from our respective bay windows.

Day 163

Today I take breakfast, once again, in the bay window. There is no sign of Emma.

The angle of the sun slanting in betrays the season. Summer is on the wane.

In the last few months I have rediscovered Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. Am so envious of their voices. Sarah McLachlan, in a 1998 interview referred to her voice as “always there… it was a constant friend to me… I knew I had control over it.”

Envious of their mastery of the vocal art, of the seemingly effortless way they take a deep breath, open their mouths, and throw a melody line into the air knowing that their voice will land pretty much perfectly on the notes they’re aiming for.

It feels like a kind of elastic control, where the path to the note is organic and analogue, not precise and accurate and anodyne, but pregnant with risk, and yet always – just – under control.

A similar control to those shown by masters of other arts – the driver who throws their car into corners sensing, without perhaps knowing, the limits of its road-holding.

Or the skier carving down a mountain, sometimes on the very edge of control, banking right and left, creating exhilarating sweeping arcs down the slope.

For all – the singer, the driver, the skier – the freedom, and the creation of something beautiful and unique while knowing that pushing the limits just a fraction too far would spoil the beauty. And in some cases be life-threatening. 

The risk. The reward of taking that risk. No reward if the risk isn’t taken. Colouring within – always within – the lines, but too far inside the lines and there’s no appeal. 

Colouring within the lines. Just. 

Tomorrow I am heading north, doing what I’ve long wanted to do – waiting until the last minute, checking the forecast, and heading for where the sun is going to be shining. Going to squeeze out the very last drop of summer.

The C-19 Diaries. Duddingston Revisited.

Day 79

It was a grey, mizzly day today. Having noticed on my previous visit to Duddingston Kirk that, while closed for Sunday Services, they were open on Wednesday mornings between 10 and 10:30am for prayer, I decided to head over there this morning for some peace and solitude.

Duddingston Kirk was built in the early 12th century; accordingly it has witnessed a pandemic or two. In a season where everything seems uncertain, there’s something reassuringly unshakable about a building which has seen off the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and the Asian Flu. 

Given the damp underfoot conditions, and the Skechers on my feet, which provide excellent comfort and grip in dry conditions, but invite rain and any other water in like an old friend, and possess zero grip on wet surfaces, it was probably a curious choice to walk through the park. As I cut left off the road, onto a down-sloping grassy area, I did think the whole expedition might end in spectacular fashion.

But wet grass is surprisingly grippy, I discovered, and I made it all the way to the bottom of the slope without mishap. It was then that I trod on a bare patch of wet earth, and my right foot, and by extension, my whole right leg, disappeared underneath me in a south-easterly direction, at quite an alarming speed.

A hot millisecond after this began to happen, my ‘surefooted-as-a-mountain-goat’ reflexes kicked in, and I did whatever it is one does when one’s leg has disappeared to the SE, which I imagine is something like shifting my centre of gravity with an effortless core-shimmy, righting myself in a jiffy, before moving on, after a deep breath or two to gather my composure.

This, however, didn’t happen. Lockdown hasn’t been all that kind to my core, and whether it didn’t receive the message from the brain in time, or was unable to perform what was asked of it, matters little, as the result was the same, the result being that I continued in a graceful arc, landing quite perfectly on my side. The indignity of if it all was mitigated by the reassuring fact that no-one was around to witness it, and the sheer analogue fluidity of the parabola that I described through the air, which brought me great pleasure.

It also, it’s fair to say, reminded me of skiing holidays.

It’s the little things.

Duddingston Kirk was closed. I should perhaps have expected this, although I might also expected them to keep their information posters up to date. Covid-19 isn’t their first rodeo, after all, you’d think their pandemic communications would be finely-honed.

I walked home in the rain (via another route).