Harris and Lewis, including on Sunday

Just back from a two-day break at the weekend in Harris and Lewis – first time for me for the latter; second time for the former (we toured around south Harris, from Leverburgh to Leverburgh via Rodel, Tarbet and the west side, on Easter Saturday). The weather was just gorgeous (sunny and with the beginnings of a real warmth to the sun), which helped, as did some excellent overnight accommodation on the west side of Lewis, at Barvas, just at the end of the road across the moors from Stornoway (and a place with as high a concentration of Gàidhlig speakers as South Uist).

Arriving off the ferry on Saturday late morning, and with a short delay caused by a non-working charger for the electric car in Lochmaddy (we needed to use the slow charger in Leverburgh to give us enough juice to get to Tarbert, where the rapid charger was thankfully working), there wasn’t time for a lot else on Saturday other than a visit to the excellently preserved and maintained blackhouses at Gearrannan.

It was also a good time to experience the ‘quiet Sunday’ still enjoyed by our northern cousins (and which I also recall of my own, very distant, hometown of my youth in the south of England).

Coming back south on the Sunday, we did a full run of the rest of the west-side tourist attractions – the Arnol Blackhouse, the spectacularly-sited broch at Dun Carloway and Callanish (I, II and III though there are several more). Being Sunday, nothing was actually open: the sites themselves are open access but Arnol was closed, as were the visitor centres at Callanish and at Dun Carloway. This was not unexpected – we knew beforehand that nothing was likely to be open – but I felt the loss of information that was the result more keenly since trips to Lewis are not that common. We don’t have many blackhouses (or whitehouses) left on Uist (an interesting thing by itself since, at least in this corner of Lewis, there are ruins (as well as restorations) a-plenty, and it would have been good to have explored that with knowledgeable staff); I know a little more about brochs having visited the sites at Mousa, on Shetland, and at Glenelg; but it would have been good to have found out a bit more about why Callanish III is billed as ‘one of the most interesting stone circles at Callanish’.

In the 20 minutes we were at Arnol, at least four other cars showed up: at £5/head that’s a sizable loss of revenue. I know it’s not about the money and you’ll find no argument from me about protecting workers’ rights or about the need for families to enjoy time together. It’s not uncommon in Europe for museums to be be closed one day a week – though Monday is often that day. And that is, obviously, a very different day to Sunday. But families are interested in trips out, too – and a custom which draws on the power of the church and which acts to inhibit people from finding out more about the way people lived their lives in the past because of the way (some) people choose to live their lives now never made much sense to me. That custom will change in time (indeed, it already is, bit by bit) and that has to be a good thing, although I can see increased traffic on a Sunday being a bit of an issue – many of these attractions are essentially at the linear end of someone’s street, or in the middle of their village. There’s always the internet, I guess – though finding out information on-screen, later, as opposed to asking an on-site expert is never a good substitute (and, nine times out of ten, will never actually be done).

Fortunately, on a Sunday there are natural wonders also to be enjoyed (although often these are also to be found only by travelling past the houses of people enjoying a ‘quiet Sunday’, as the picture below also relates): the legendary beaches on the west side of Harris never fail to disappoint on days like these. Here’s a view across turquoise waters to the smooth white sands, backed by marram grass dunes, of world-famous Luskentyre:

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This is not quite the ‘money shot’ of Luskentyre – this one’s taken from the main road above Seilebost and on the way to Horgabost – although you can easily see where the money shot is: to the right of the little estuary adjacent to the main beach and thereafter down along the dunes, with the smooth curves of the estuary itself as a prominent foreground feature. (And, just in case, there are of course no filters being used here.)

And, this last Sunday, you (probably) wouldn’t even have needed your coat.

Book Review: Smile

My copy of Smile, Roddy Doyle’s eleventh novel (for adults), came signed by the author and dated by him the day before publication date last September, and with a personal dedication, too: a marvellously thoughtful birthday gift from my sister.

Doyle remains one of my favourite authors; I have read all his novels and A Star Called Henry continues, nearly twenty years on, not only to be a masterpiece but one of my desert island book choices. In recent years, however, his work has focused less on the novel and more on short form writing. The Guts (2013) saw a revival of the Rabbitte family, while 2006 saw a revival of Paula Spencer; 2010 saw the disappointingly rather overblown conclusion to his  Last Roundup trilogy of Irish history in the 20th century given such a memorable start in A Star Called Henry. Other than these, we’ve had two collections of short stories (in 2007 and 2011) and two collections of banter-based dialogue (2012 and 2014) – light snacks and frothy coffees and witty and enjoyable enough for all that but, otherwise, there’s not been a lot new to get our teeth into in the last decade up until Smile. Indeed, somewhat half-way through this book, the (mistaken) impression I had was that Smile was, again, really two short stories struggling to get out.

Doyle himself has acknowledged that Smile is a very different book in structure and in tone than has been explored in his previous work. Of course, there are continuing threads: the boozer-inspired banter among Dublin’s working class men of a certain age; the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger, and the associated social upheaval which Ireland has experienced since the 1980s – itself a character in many of Doyle’s stories; the casual, frequently savage violence meted out to and among young boys; and the reliability of the witness provided by the narrator. The habitual stylistic quirks in Doyle’s writing are there, too, underpinning the question marks over the reliability of the narrator. Here, however, what is different to Doyle’s previous work is that the narrator himself – Victor Forde – doesn’t himself accept that his narration of his own story is not necessarily reliable but is forced to do so by the end of the novel.

Given Doyle’s assertion that what you see is, indeed, not necessarily what you might get, any synopsis of Smile has uncertain foundations. What we do know is that Forde, a lonely chap in his mid-50s and a former journalist, is seeking to re-build his life by falling in with a new group of acquaintances in the pub. In doing so, he chances upon a mysterious character called Fitzgerald, an apparent outsider who appears to know Forde very well and who, by the end of the novel, compels him to review key events in his life at a deeper level than he had hitherto been able to do.

One of those key events – Forde being bullied at his Christian Brothers School as the result of a remark by one of the teachers – is drawn from Doyle’s own personal history (see previous link to publisher’s interview with Doyle; and also here). Apart from that single detail, the book is not in any sense autobiographical and the treatment that Forde subsequently receives did not happen to Doyle: we don’t have here, therefore, a situation similar to that affecting Alice Sebold, for example, who was unable to get out the novel she wanted to write until she had worked through certain events in her personal life.

The shocking twist on which the novel spins, which brings the two stories together and which changes the tone of the novel completely, is breathtakingly audacious and unlike anything Doyle has attempted in his work before. Not all readers will enjoy having their feet swept from under them by a novelist playing with their perceptions; and some might comment that question marks remain over the execution which mean that the plot twist doesn’t quite come off for Doyle. Even so, the confidence of the attempt has to be admired. There is much else to admire in the novel, too, in terms of the telling, precise accuracy of the observations which fly unerringly home within a shattering finale which wrings the emotions of the reader and which must count among the bravest 3,000 words of any novel anywhere. Three days later, I’m still coming to terms with it.

Ultimately, this is a novel about memory and the long-term damage which schooling can do in which, perhaps, Philip Larkin missed a nuance: it’s not your parents you have to worry about so much as your schooldays. Smile is not only Doyle’s best work in years; but, given the tautness of the tale and the compelling prose, it might indeed be his best yet.

Where have all the eider gone?

Gone to eiderdowns, every one (it seems). (Apart from this one mature chap, obviously.)

IMG_0195aYet, despite looking so glitteringly handsome as he floated amidst the seaweed in the afternoon sun of Easter week (only the blush pink chest is not quite so evident in my picture here), he has no mate (or, at least, it’s not apparent that he does). And, actually, he’s the first eider I’ve seen in the bay all winter.

Last year’s breeding season wasn’t a great success: we had (at least) four pairs but only three chicks ever made it into the eider creche and at least one, and maybe more, of those didn’t survive: the rest of the eider, the males having already departed, were all gone early and none has returned all winter. In contrast, I can recall a couple of pairs lingering here for the whole of the previous winter before being joined by a couple of other couples. Although perhaps that, rather than this, was the exception.

Competition for scarce food sources is, as always, the most likely explanation for wildlife moving on in this way: this winter, the high tide, especially when driven in by a north wind, has brought a feeding frenzy of herring, common and black-headed gulls stabbing at the morsels drifting in on the tide and it’s likely that they’re snaffling much of what the sea has to offer. Here’s a small section of the water in the bay at high tide, taken on Friday evening last week, to show what I mean:

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Spot also the pair of oystercatchers watching on from the shore with a look of stoical bemusement. They tend to feed on buried shellfish patiently winkled out from the sand once the tide has started to retreat or on the early incoming tide, although oystercatchers usually feed a little lower than the high tide line and they can dig for worms on the machair – something denied to the eider whose diet is entirely sea-based. Similarly, eider – sea-going ducks – tend to dive for their food, which gulls tend not to do. Left entirely to its own devices, nature tends to look after itself, as we know from sparrowhawks and songbirds; and, more recently, from the tentative relationship between pine martens and red and grey squirrels.

So, it may not be just the scarcity of food which is keeping the eider away, although it may surely be one factor. And, after this all-too-brief show, this one eider’s away too. Perhaps they’re just hiding somewhere around the bay.

Apart from the colours of the male (and the variety: last year’s numbers included an eclipse version), eider make the most fantastic calls calling to mind a deeper, perhaps tenor, version of Kenneth Williams in full surprised mode. Colour and good humour all wrapped up in one package means that the prospect of not having them around the bay this spring, and replaced in the latter case by the manic, panicked screaming and mocking of gulls, would definitely be a loss.

UPDATE 15/4/18: Up a little earlier than usual this Sunday morning and my reward was the arrival, with no little ceremony, of a small armada of eider flying in close formation as they do, bulk notwithstanding, and landing in the bay. Closer inspection revealed five males and five females, with at least two pairs seeming to take a close interest in settling round-here-abouts.

UPDATE 19/4/18: A group of 7 males and six females cruised in on this morning’s receding tide to preen and sunbathe following the very rough southerly winds we’ve had these past few days, plus I spotted another pair drifting a little further away. So – record numbers. After all. 🙂

Here’s a group of 6 plus 6 😉 with the seventh somewhat stand-offish male omitted to focus a little better on the main group:

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Stick a brew on, Calvin (3)

It’s bottling day.

This was due originally to take place early last week but, with a small, unscheduled time lag arising from a delayed start to fermentation (note to self: do not shock the yeast when pitching; aerate the wort well; and the advised ‘cool, dark’ temperatures of 15-22 Celsius, well, it really needs to be a bit warmer than that in the cool of a Hebrides house to encourage the yeast to come out to play), and with fermentation likely to have finished a couple of days ago (at least as far as the visible evidence is concerned), I left my brew for a few more days happily lying on.

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The observant will note that, with 4ltrs of beer in the demijohn, these five bottles must be a somewhat odd size; or otherwise that something else may have happened. They are indeed 660ml bottles (ex-Innis and Gunn Original, actually) but that ought to have made six bottles, not five… Disaster struck as a result of an over-enthusiastic application of the bottle capper, post filling, which left the neck of the fifth bottle in shards across the kitchen table and a good chance of a few more in the bottle itself. As well as a rather tense capping of the sixth bottle. It’s really not worth the risk of drinking the contents, strongly tempted though I am, so I’m just back from pouring 1/6 of my hard work straight down the sink. Grrr.

I did get an early taste of the beer when bottling – flat, at this stage (carbonation happens as a result of secondary fermentation in the bottles) and certainly cloudy (it’s the colour and consistency of hefeweizen, quite naturally since I’m not using a secondary fermentor or finings), but certainly tasting of beer, being both dry, hoppy, bitter and citrusy (as expected). And alcoholic, too; although I’m not going to be measuring its actual gravity (my kit suggests it ought to turn out, eventually, around 6.3%). And how did I come to know this at this early stage? Well, after going to the trouble of sterilising the bottles, the caps, the siphon and the racking cane, the siphon has to be started somehow… which seems to defeat the object of sterilisation somewhat. Still.

All being well, the (rest of the) beer should be ready in 2-3 weeks; pending which all remaining five bottles are back in the same place in the kitchen where the demijohn stood, and underneath a towel (which has the dual purpose of keeping light out and adding some form of protection against an over-active conditioning process).

As for me, I’ll get on with the cleaning up before getting on with brewing the next batch

An Easter Bunny says hello…

… snapped through our lounge window, sunning him/herself in this morning’s sunshine while contentedly chewing on yesterday’s tender morsels.

IMG_0212a (Custom)It’s the third time I’ve seen him/her this week too, but the first time I’ve done so with a camera close at hand: the first time hopping around underneath the nest box/bird table made with love, and with pride, down at Restore, on which I think s/he was feasting on some spilled berry suet otherwise ignored by our thriving (and clearly well-fed) gang of starlings; the second time when s/he scuttled off to a hidey-hole after seeing me head for the shed for more briquettes for the fire, probably to a ‘burrow’ made by me among the somewhat haphazardly ‘stacked’ and now a little overgrown concrete blocks in the background of the photo, discarded in the renovations of our home nearly two years ago. (And which also forms cover and potential nest sites for other birds, including wrens, by the way – reason enough not to tidy it up!)

All this and plenty of grass: it seems that Bunny is living the life of Riley – at least until that white-tailed eagle comes a-calling again…

In the meantime, a Happy Easter to one and all!