Silver and gold

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Gdansk, looking up from the Zielona Brama (the Green Gate) through Dluga Square to the old City Hall; mid-evening on New Year’s Day, 2018.

(And posted just about in time before Twelfth Night…)


A little mood indigo at the Solstice

Winter Solstice indigo

And the close of daylight on the shortest day; the sun having set behind the main roof of the house on the right and calmly reflecting gentle pink skies a little further south; and a first quarter moon rising bright in the clear sky.

We’ve not had a lot of days like this these last few months, and sunrise this morning saw a familiar pattern: grey skies and little warmth in the sky – albeit with no wind and, therefore, no cold. But the weather slowly improved as the day passed and the clouds lifted, before clearing to the south and west, giving a fireglow sunset of colour and gentle drama.

This is my view from the office – here, south and west with the sun on this day setting several points to the south of west. And, recently, it’s a view that I have been taking in a lot – though I’m not absolutely complaining 🙂 – except with a little less to detain my interest than here, on the day with the longest night.

PS 22 December: As if to emphasise the message that this is the turning of the seasons, I heard a songbird this morning, just after sunrise. Not one of our usual gang of starlings chattering away as they do at sunrise and sunset, but a single bird calling, a little like the song of a blackbird, although that would be unlikely since we don’t see too many of them; or perhaps a redwing – we have plenty of them although its song is rare, so that’s unlikely too. But, whatever it was, its song was pretty, and very welcome at this darkest time of the year. Not quite Hardy’s Darkling Thrush but somewhat in the same vein, at least.

By the way, on blackbirds, see here for evidence that blackbirds, in contrast to the prevailing view that they’re happy to be more or less home birds, do indeed get about enough to need a CalMac island-hopping ticket (without tender, of course).

Things I’ll miss about Perth…

The sun having not quite yet set sees me still in Perth, continuing to pack boxes with useful stuff and filling PKC’s recycling dumpsters with my rather less useful stuff. Following my previous post about missing bits of Perth, here’s a slightly indulgent post listing a small selection of things in this same direction (and avoiding the rather more obvious touristy stuff you can get up to in Perth’s fair city):

1. The Kirkside. Perth’s not blessed with really great pubs but this is a gem. Now with beers from Perth’s Inveralmond Brewery, including occasionally Thrappledouser, which featured in a BBC quiz on ‘delicious but faintly ridiculous beer names‘, there’s good beer and good company – and Tina and the current owners, and Geoff and Michael before them, alongside the staff and the regulars, have always offered friendship as well as being really good neighbours.

2. Marek and Magda and staff at Cafe Tabou for top quality food and drink and customer service, and for delightful anticipation every time I step in. And for Innis and Gunn on draught.

3. Terrific curries – especially the Murgh Handi – and top traditional service (including lemon towels – much appreciated!) from Ifty and Imran, the extremely friendly front of house people, of Nawaab (a fine family restaurant located in a beautiful building, too). Food served with a flourish and a sense of occasion. Good luck, guys.

4. Pizzas from Duo‘s wood-fired oven (and Old Engine Oil, too, with an ITK recommendation from The Bluffer’s Guide to Beer).

(Perth, being a member of the Cittaslow / slow food movement, does have really good restaurants!)

5. Perth’s wonderful floral displays, especially at the top of the wonderfully-named Needless Road just outside the city, and all around the city centre. Even in late summer, the old, and loved, City Hall is still beautifully adorned:

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6. The view as the evening sun shines on the red sandstone of the building which now houses Katy’s Company bridal shop (and formerly Kippen Campbell, solicitors) and which is properly known as the Kirk Session House of St. Johns, built in 1910 (the Session House would be the place where the church elders gathered to govern the affairs of the Church and, perhaps, to collect funds for the poor. The reference in this link to the Session House being used to keep a watch over the graveyard is also interesting although, in Perth’s history, the graveyard had long gone by 1910. It may of course have been part of the function of any previous Session House located on the same spot, or otherwise nearby.)

7. The rather lovely tune that the Carillon at the historic St. John’s Kirk plays every day at 3pm (I’ll be missing the 8am alarm call followed by a bottom-heavy and somewhat ponderous Greensleeves rather less, though).

Speaking of which, here are just a couple of other things I’ll not miss:

1. Trudging across town, overloaded plastic carrier bags in hands struggling to contain various items of glass, plastic and paper, past some no doubt bemused shoppers and tourists, to do my recycling. It’s not a long walk – probably about half a mile distance from my flat – but PKC really do need to get recycling initiatives properly sorted out for us town centre residents, in the absence of which it’s certainly not easy being green.

2. The sights and sounds of plastic rubbish bags, guts spilling out after well-targeted attacks by assorted gulls and crows, when walking through the city streets early on residual rubbish collection days (Tuesdays and Fridays). PKC absolutely need to get that sorted, too.

Perth’s been good to me. I’ll be back – not least for one more trip in the middle of next month – but, after that, more likely only as a visitor rather than a resident. Exit (pursued by a double-headed eagle).

Sunset on Perth

IMG_20170818_204322Sunset on Friday night, taken with my low-pixel smartphone (hence the grainy, somewhat impressionistic approach) just before quarter to nine, looking west along South Street, Perth (South Street runs east-west; neither is it the most southerly road in Perth’s grid system; and it leads to the middle of Perth’s three bridges over the Tay. There must be a reason for this name, although I’ve never yet been able to establish it…).

I am currently in Perth and will be here for the immediate future as I have just managed to sell my flat, courtesy of the hard-working folks at Next Home, and there’s a lot of stuff (an awful lot, given that administration of my paperwork has never been my strong point) to pack up and shift out (I’m expecting record tonnes of paper recycling being achieved by Perth in this quarter!). On top of quite a bit of incoming editing workload, in addition to two major ongoing projects, I’m going to have my work cut out over the next couple of weeks. I bought the flat at the tail end of 2008 and, in terms of central Perth prices for flats, as well as in terms of economics, it’s been pretty much a lost decade (even if not one of lost equity) – although my story might well have been a little different had PKC got on with redeveloping City Hall (which my flat overlooks, and which was key to the original decision to purchase it) rather than wasting much of the intervening period fighting Historic Scotland over its demolition. Now those plans are – at long last – starting to crystallise, with the decision as to which architect to go with being announced last Wednesday, I wish the new owners better luck with their investment!

Since the sale, I’ve had many people question whether I’ll miss the place – and I will, I guess, although I’m not sure it’s possible to miss a building, only the people and memories that have populated it and given it life. By my reckoning, my flat in Perth is the tenth place I’ve lived in and built memories in during my life (of 53 years, and counting) and, being well underway with the eleventh, I do wonder how many more there’ll be. Certainly I’ll be missing Perth (and city centre living), and Southern Fried, but I’ve been living away from here now for a year, and people change, and move on; and it’s the right time to finish off this particular chapter and continue actively writing the new one – in which direction, of course, the sale proceeds will (hopefully quite soon) come in very handy.

In the meantime, if anyone does have a use for Red Dwarf VHS tapes, do give me a shout…

Stick a brew on, Calvin

Aha – the postie just brought some great news: Bottoms Up IPA, along with a side order of Dilly Dally English Pale Ale, courtesy of the good folks from Kirkcaldy at Brew Craft Beer and a product of a Twitter advertising campaign from the company which cropped up on my feed earlier this year (these things do work: and it’s a bit scary that it does!).

IMG_6442 (Custom)It’s a kit, of course, and a real one involving proper malt, yeat and hops – no chemical flavourings – as well as a need to understand the intricacies of the wash, sparge and boil stages of making good beer. Bottoms Up IPA promises me ‘floral and tropical aromas … bursts of fruity, citrus hoppiness with grapefruit and orange bitterness … and a sweet biscuity maltiness’ while Dilly-Dally is a ‘bright, coppery English Pale Ale, [with] a maltier base [than its American cousin], with a touch of caramel, as well as a gentle woody, floral aroma.

The kits don’t come cheap – at £12 for enough ingredients to make 4 litres of beer, that works out at about £1.70/pint. Plus delivery plus equipment plus time (and plenty of the latter, by the looks of it). Nevertheless, any attempt to become my generation’s Logan Plant has to start somewhere.

I will be blogging some more about this once I get up and running with it. Or, if it doesn’t quite work out, look out for a few tweets instead.

Just need the time to get the kettle on, now. In the meantime, I have instructions to study… and, I suspect, to learn by heart if I’m not to be juggling saucepans, thermometers, very hot water and pieces of paper with writing on it.

NNW twilight

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The sky to the north, last night, just after 23:20 (so just beyond the golden hour, the sun having set at 20:16 and almost exactly at the formal ‘end of twilight‘ on our part of South Uist last night).

I tweeted recently a picture of the sun sinking into the sea as it set, as viewed for the first time this summer from our lounge window – and, of course, this picture is taken from the same place (though it’s a composite) and parts of it are also aimed a little further north, the slightly blurry rock in the centre foreground being located pretty much NNW from where I took the picture. Indeed, we can now track the earth as it spins around the sun, and as the continuing levels of light in the sky shift gradually from twilight in the (north-)western sky to pre-dawn in the (north-)east. As I went to bed at 1am, the sun still not due to rise formally for another couple of hours, similar smudged greys and midnight blues and soft apricots, as well as bold, striking cloud formations, had shifted into the north-east sky.

It does get dark here; even at the peak of midsummer there is about 3:40 of ‘night time’ in the hours between twilight formally ending and beginning again – but, for this month or so, you can still see some light in some part of the sky right throughout the night hours.

As a celebration of one year of living in our new place – we moved in, into a few rooms while the remainder of the renovations were still being finalised, precisely a year ago last Friday – the reminder of things coming full circle, with a new journey now getting underway, seems very well-timed.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

A proper May Day Bank Holiday but, with no demos or rallies to join here on the islands – remember folks: the struggles of the labour movement brought you bank holidays and weekends, and we’d like to give you more, too – choice of BH activity was a little closer to home.

After the hiatus of a few days away in Brussels, the first part of 2017’s biannual battle against the invasion of the dandelions needed to be re-engaged with some alacrity, while plants bought fairly recently in Perth were starting to show some signs of needing planting out. I managed to get underway with our plans for our east-facing garden in Uist – essentially re-instating a rockery garden forming a middle way between a grassy strip at the top and a ‘wild’ area at the bottom – a couple of weeks back by stripping out moss and grass overgrowing the rockery’s retaining stone wall. This bank holiday’s project has been to start digging out the grass (and dandelions) from the old rockery, lifting and relocating daffodils as required, and planting out some new spring (and autumn) colour via heathers, sedums and other ground cover plants such as spreading conifers and junipers. Here we are with some progress:

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Retaining wall with overgrowing greenery removed. The rockery will be the sloping section upwards as far as the flatter grassy area at the top – a quite substantial area given that it extends more than the full length of the house, other than a small apron connecting strip off pic to the left, and is about 8′ in width.

IMG_5387 (Custom)Some grass dug out, and a few plants put in. More will be added.

The garden fence (which admittedly does need a lick of paint) is looking otherwise resplendent in the late afternoon sunshine – and it was indeed a gorgeous day today here on Uist: a high of 18.1C at 5pm puts it quite comfortably the hottest day of the year so far and, with little or no breeze in the late afternoon, it was also just a touch too early in the year for the midges to be thinking of doing any damage. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ goes the phrase – to which, we might add, especially when it shines on a bank holiday; so, I did, accompanied by bubbling lapwings sky-diving, the call of larks ascending and the gentle braying of eiders in the bay (think of a slightly excited Frankie Howerd), as well as bees intoxicated to have found some new heather to buzz through. (By the way, here is the unparalleled Met Office forecast for the Range for the week ahead, featuring a sunshine graphic all the way. I have literally never seen that before.) And accompanied also by the stillest, most perfectly milky blue sea, seen at low tide’s distance. We are keenly awaiting the arrival of our corn crakes when, to some degree alas, idyllic peace will be once again deferred (the male’s ‘crek crek‘ call – akin to the teeth of a plastic comb being scraped across the edge of a matchbox – can feature up to 20,000 times a night, over some six hours. And especially between midnight and 3am). Reports are here of corncrakes already in Askernish, to the south of us; and we had two, sometimes three, around the house, including one spotted running (actually, to be fair, probably more high stepping) through our ‘wild’ grass, last summer.

Furthermore, there was 15 1/2 hours of daylight today and sunset – at 9.14pm tonight – will, in about ten days or so, be visible from our lounge window looking north as it sinks into the sea.

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Ardivachar beach, picture taken 21:07.

After a damp and cloudy spring, and some cold northerly winds last week which sent the wind chill factor to below freezing, it seems like summer may have arrived.

Amazing what can crop up in your photos…

Thursday last week was a beautiful day on the islands: calm, with winds dropping to the single digits mph from the 40/50+ they’d been for much of the previous seven days and with cloudless, spring-like blue skies.

In short, a good day for travelling – and good timing, too; as we’d long planned a trip off-island via the Lochmaddy-Uig ferry.

Seeing the colour of the skies – and the Cuillin ridge on Sky, visible from our house for the first time in weeks of mist and low cloud cover – I made sure my camera (a simple Canon compact) was with me in the front of the car and, coming off the ferry (a first time for me on the MV Hebridean Isles, I started snapping away through the windscreen as we came down through Skye and especially as the Cuillin Ridge came into view. On my second effort, I was aware of two lapwings that rose from the left, startled, across the road and my field of view just as I pressed the shutter release (I know: they probably don’t still call them that). I thought little of it – lapwings are easily disturbed – and, on checking that my view of the total width of the Black Cuillins had indeed been photobombed by a lapwing, nearly deleted it immediately. It’s not, in any case, a great photo (enhancing (as I have done below) via software easily available over the internet improves somewhat the original over-exposure of the ridge and restores a little of the blue sky, although I’ve lost quite a bit in straightening the horizon line). Further down the road, once I’d got my focusing sorted out, I have much better snaps – although that is all they are, given the circumstances – albeit of the Red Cuillins, not the Black ones.

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And yet, and yet. Look a bit closer. What’s the bird in the middle of the photo? One of the disturbed lapwings is clear enough, in the foreground, but that bird top centre, a little further distant. Is that ‘fingers’ visible on the end of its brown, and very broad, right wing, or a simple blur of movement as the bird changes direction? Is that an interesting-looking tail arrangement, or a mistake in the colours given the limits of the photograph being taken? Something in any way potentially predatory, looking to cut off the lapwing’s exit right? Zooming close in on the bird in question, gives me this, inevitably poor quality, blurred shot:

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Clearly it is a raptor which has raised the lapwings – and a major one, judging by what seems to be a fearsome hooter. Look at the power in those shoulders. My first thought was a white-tailed eagle (which I have seen, memorably, on Skye before, in a boat trip out of Portree harbour a little way south into the Sound of Raasay). The wings are not big or broad enough for a white-tailed, however – but it is most certainly a golden eagle: most specifically, a juvenile one: the white tail tipped with black feathers gives it away. My first, confirmed, sighting of a goldie, too: and in what dramatic circumstances – the bird seems to be clearly arching in towards the second, slower of the two lapwing(s) although whether they or something else is the target of the hunt is uncertain. I (and the passengers in the other drivers in the convoy of cars coming down Skye from Uig) seem to have been an unwitting, uninvited witness to a strike by one of the UK nature’s finest, and perhaps most feared, killing machines.

Or is it my sighting? Yes, it is absolutely a golden eagle (unless anyone with better knowledge can correct me!). But does a picture of one – a moment in and out of time – really count as a sighting? Especially one in which the bird in question features as a mistake, and from the safe, sealed environment of the inside of a car? What makes my picture of the young goldie any different from one I’ve seen in a book or on the RSPB website? Yes, I took the picture – but I didn’t mean actually to take a picture of a golden eagle. And – to confess the key point in my philosophical ramble – I can’t recall whether I actually saw it live: I’ve only seen it on my photo. Yes, dear reader, I took a picture of a golden eagle without actually seeing one. What happened after its swoop – the key part in its hunger chase – I didn’t catch: my attention was all on the lapwing(s) with the cheek to photobomb my shot of the Cuillin Ridge, which quickly went out of sight on the moorland to the right and behind as the car continued to roll forwards. Does an image of a bird, unseen in the original, really count as a sighting in these circumstances? The lapwing is a striking and exotic enough bird but not only is it a bit commonplace (red listed it may be but, in the Hebrides, they’re really two-a-penny), in these particular circumstances, sighting a lapwing is the very definition of anti-climax.

I think my quest for a confirmed golden eagle sighting might well have to continue – even if I could scarcely have got closer this time. But it does demonstrate the importance of paying attention; seeing the full picture and not losing focus in the frustrations of a moment apparently lost but which, when afforded the opportunity of such hindsight, had the makings of something much, much better.

Some reflections on Barbara

Storm Barbara (and then, in turn, Storm Conor) brought some strong winds over Christmas and, aside of a few days – particularly the last three – strong winds have continued ever since. But, in these few days of calm, normal life seems to have reverted itself (the bins have now gone back to their usual position by the front gate, for example; and a mist has enveloped the bay for much of the last three days, currently providing a salty wash to our windows), and we have probably reached the point where we can think that they are indeed in the past and provide a few post-event thoughts on what the storms brought. Calm weather is playing havoc with our stove (but that’s a different story!). (9pm edit: and has indeed already ended, with winds twice the speed they were earlier this afternoon, with a forecast of virtually three times tomorrow. But at least the stove is responding a little more enthusiastically!)

Firstly, everything about the structure of the house is intact – in particular: the roof tiles are all still in place; the patch on the chimney breast where we have a small leak seems to be holding, and the roof insulation is nicely drying out; and the wooden garden shed is still there, on the same site, with no leaks or holes, and with a felt roof whose nails have securely held the laps. And the satellite dish (which has to be located on the most exposed, south-facing wall) is still up and operating. That’s all a bit of a relief, but it’s also a tribute to the work and the abilities of the people who remodelled our house, and built and sited the shed (on a concrete base, dug into the ground a little, and with concreted-in fence posts). Furthermore, our power lines held up, as did our communications systems although the mobile phone mast did seem to be knocked out for a while. That’s a tribute to the resilience of the infrastructure and to the skilled work of those responsible for predicting the weather and for planning emergency responses and to those workers located on the ground where they can respond, if required, to emergency situations.

Secondly, the people who originally built our house did so not only with style but with real sensitivity to the conditions and the approach of the local weather. We are some 12-15′ or so up from the shore to the east, so we don’t need to worry so much about getting flooded out; but in a little dip as the land curves down to the sea. The result is that prevailing (south-)westerly winds are forced up by the land off the sea to the west (our house is sited on a headland), and are then up at roof level when they hit us. Consequently, the main structure and foundations of the house don’t get the shaking that they otherwise might on slightly higher ground.

Thirdly, Storm Conor brought winds gusting up to 83 mph early on Boxing Day morning (around 6-7 am). This was the worst on South Uist (although Scalpay, off Harris, had stronger winds). This is not the worst storm we could experience – but Storm Angus, in the third week of November (and the first of the named storms this winter), brought comparable strength winds to the south coast of England. This is a useful reminder that bad weather can occur anywhere and including in well-populated areas on the mainland (not just the mountain tops).

I can well understand the marketing-based attractions of depicting life in the Outer Hebrides as in some way ‘on the edge‘ – there’s a romanticism in that, as well as the appeal of the opportunity to experience weather apparently more remote from the ordinary lives of UK urbanites. The weather here can be tough – the winds that go unreported on the TV news can make even a January walk along the shore something of a physical challenge – but there are dangers in attributing such characteristics to these islands. They can make them appear more remote, or cut-off, from the weather that all of us can experience, from time to time. Worse, however, is that they risk marginalising (and somewhat patronising) the people who live here (and here I don’t mean me, a junior of just six months standing, but my friends and neighbours who were born here and who have chosen to live their whole lives here), highlighting that they are, perhaps, in some way clinging on to life, forever threatened by the elements and whose lives are thereby dominated by them. To the people who live here, the Uists and Benbecula, and the rest of the Hebrides, are not in any way ‘on the edge’ but central: a fact of their life and to which they are as well-adjusted as the circumstances surrounding those of us who live in other places elsewhere. To a fisher, or a farmer or a crofter, the weather is what it is and that’s as true for a Devon farmer threatened by floods as it is for a Uist one. In portraying the Hebrides as ‘on the edge’ we undermine that everyone on all these islands, right across the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland, are one people, different in chacteristics but united in hopes and dreams, and in our abilities to be resilient and to rise to the challenges which life presents us.

A happy, and safe, 2017 to all readers.

Anticipating Barbara

The second storm of winter 2016/17 to be serious enough to be named by our excellent Met Office – Barbara – is firmly on her way. Indeed, her horsemen are already here, with winds over the last 24 hours gusting up to the mid-50s, in mph, according to the precise forecast for our very local area. But they are very much the warm-up act: Barbara herself, when she arrives into town sometime around high noon tomorrow, will bring us winds gusting into the low 70s and an average of an apparently meaningless 1 mph below 50. And then she stays around [Edit: apparently she then changes her name to Conor], with threateningly high winds extending, after a small respite in the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve, most of the way through until Boxing Day. Thanks, and Happy Christmas.

This is the first real storm I’ve been through since moving here and I’ve been anticipating its arrival for some time, through the weeks and the months of calm weather we’ve had up to now. You haven’t lived in the Hebrides until you’ve been through a proper storm, and I’ve been awaiting it with all the pre-flight nerves of an anxious teenager anticipating a first sexual encounter. Barbara, we were made for each other, you and I. Let’s get it on.

Meanwhile, Calmac ferries are hugely disrupted: 26 of, er, 26 routes are currently already either cancelled, disrupted or have ‘be aware’ tags on them; and Flybe/Loganair flights, while normal today, have significant changes to them tomorrow as the brief weather windows are sought out which can be exploited so that people at least have a chance of getting to their Christmas destinations. The Western Isles Council (the Comhairle) has also put out its advice. Here, I’ve spent a few minutes outside this morning shifting our recycling bins into the byre where they will be a little more sheltered, so that they don’t cowp over and spill their contents all down the road and into the sea; moving picnic and garden benches to the eastern-facing side of the house (Barbara approaches from the south and then, kindly, shifts her angle of attack to the west) – after all, we don’t want a repeat of September’s gales (below), or worse; and shifting miscellaneous loose left-over bits of timber, plant pots and other garden detritus into the shed.


As I write from our west-facing office, I watch, alarmed, as the glass in the double-glazing bulges inwards as an intense gust of wind pokes a testing, probing finger into it, before re-shaping itself back to normal, unbreached, as the finger retreats, flexing itself for another assault. Sitting quietly, I feel the structure of our house tense as it solidly resists, standing firm against the desire of the wind to shift it out of its path. Intermittent, but furious, showers of small hailstones beat short-term, but insistent, rounds of applause against the window panes. Outside: a loose strip of something-or-other underneath the eaves oscillates violently in the wind, making a buzzing sound like a low-pitched kazoo as the wind is forced to turn, against its will, by the house’s refusal to budge. The sky and the land are dark and the headlights of approaching cars coming down our road shine brightly in the gloom from a couple of miles away.

The gulls are quietened and the waders have, mostly, departed for wherever it is that waders go at these sorts of times, although a couple do emerge whenever the wind drops a little to allow them enough respite to seek out a sustaining snack or two from the incoming tide, nearly now at its height; very few of our gang of starlings remain scratchily at work in the field and on the shore; but the lapwings, however, continue to fly around, anxiously, piteously, calling out as they twist in the wind, testing and, so far, managing its strength. They know what’s coming. Likewise, the sheep in the field adjacent to our front door are hunkered down against the (wire) fence, back ends to the wind and, it seems, shaped for resistance to nature; at the other end, little appears to interfere with their stoical chewing. They, at least, are experienced at and with this; nay, they are used to it.

As for a soundtrack to the storm, opening my iTunes pre-sorted by album brings me, at the top of the pile, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from 2004’s Abbatoir Blues. Not so much linguistically but certainly sonically, the sound and the fury of Cave’s delivery, and the intensity of the Bad Seeds’s playing and singing, call to mind the fear of what’s to come and the changes that Barbara’s arrival may bring.

I’m trying not to think too much about Cave’s title, though.