My lovely friend Nan has sent me a bright card that came whizzing through the dull skies the other day.   It is called The Orange Blind by Francis C B Cadell.   (Google will display it for you if you wish).    I realise I have seen the painting before.    It is owned by the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow.

This is where I had my first experience of ‘Culture’ with my mother.    The museum is a fine old Victorian building – which is still fine and still standing – and houses an interesting collection of objects.     There I first set eyes on Roman vases, with that beautiful mother of pearl patina that they apparently didn’t have when in use.   Then there were marvellous Egyptian artefacts that I longed to see in the desert.   My mother and I shared an interest in ceramics.    I remember the wonderful teas – which, surprisingly, are just as good today – and I recall that occasionally a great organ was being played which filled the huge space with its thunder.

The painting is very Glaswegian somehow.   A lady sits on a green sofa in rather an elegant salon, waiting.   The room is of tall proportion and is lit by the slightly unhealthy glow from the dominant orange blind.     The chamber is handsomely but sparsely furnished.    There is a chandelier of opulent magnificence, an impressive Oriental screen, and a grand piano at which a man sits playing.   Before the lady a table with a white cloth is set with a silver tea service, and four white and gold cups and saucers.   There is no cake.

The scene is not easy to interpret.   It is wealthy.   But although the piano would suggest it is a tea room, there is only one table and otherwise empty space.   It does not have the relaxed and intimate feel of a sitting room.    You do not feel there is any connection between the lady and the pianist.

The lady looks as expensive as her surroundings.  She is wearing a black dress with a rose like decoration, a black hat, stylish it its simplicity, and dangling pearl earrings.   Draped around her shoulders is a fur coat, so reminiscent of elderly ladies at Scottish weddings, where the heads of the unfortunate animals whose fur made the coat are displayed like trophies on the garment.   (As a girl, I glowered disapprovingly at any lady wearing such a jacket.)

And yet .. it is not a happy scene.   Lit by the livid light the lady sits with tension, her hands laid out flat on the seat beside her as if she was readying herself for a speedy get away.     She awaits with anxiety, not anticipating pleasure.   Four cups are set out so this is not a meeting to do with any romance.   With this type of pictorial art, I cannot seem to help myself from constructing a story around what I see.

So…   The lady has become engaged to the owner of this establishment.   She is not in his mother’s opinion a suitable person to dislodge Herself, His Mother, from the position of mistress of this house.    The fiancé however, persists in his headlong rush into what his mother believes will be unhappy matrimony, and has introduced his fiancée to his mother and insisted that she must be invited to tea.  The mother has complied with the letter of her son’s command, but with a grudging spirit.    The pianist has been instructed to play dirges, laments and music from operas about love affairs that do not have happy endings.    The maid has shown the visitor into this salon, and instructed her to wait.    After as long an interval as she dares leave it, the dowager lady will enter the room –  followed meekly by her two docile daughters, all of them dressed in unrelieved black.

Our lady of the foxes, who is sitting calmly and patiently, though exhibiting some signs of stress, will rise gracefully to her feet on the entry of her hostess and will treat this begrudging woman with all the courtesy that she herself has not been given.    At this moment, the  transfer of the ownership as mistress of this salon from the sour-faced woman who has been in possession of it for several decades to the gracious fiancée becomes inevitable.     In due course, the new lady of the house will order the removal of the lurid orange blind.   And when she receives visitors, she will always offer cake.

However, I am not entirely happy with this  scenario.  Actually the more I examine the painting the more I feel that the artist’s principal interest was in the contrasts of light and shade and the effects of the dying, dazzling light and on the colours and that any ‘story’ to be constructed was of no concern to him.   Some of the subject’s emotional turmoil can be expressed by the painter if he is watchful and skilful, (think John Singer Sargent) but it is all  a question of interpretation.

Although I have enjoyed looking at and thinking about this painting, personally I prefer a more abstract subject – one that does not demand that a story be told around it.   As I wait, I fiddle around with possible plots but I can never reconcile the tension of the woman;  the tea, set for four; and the wretched pianist.

This exercise rather reminds me of those homeworks at school where you had to write a story including 8 given words, seven of which were perfectly mutually appropriate, but the eighth of which was something like extra terrestrial, cholera, logjam, federation,  or – why not – inappropriate!




It was decided in one of our groups that we meet on Friday 13, and we agreed to discuss ‘superstitions’.

My first reaction was, I haven’t got  any.    I don’t have restrictive rituals that I must perform to avoid ill-luck, nor do I have ‘lucky’ objects.

Yet I do look at events around me and regard them as omens, though not conventionally, ie that black cats are unlucky or lucky.

But I would regard the events on days of special significance, such as weddings or funerals, as being heavy with meaning.     If a wedding day started with an evil event; if the couple were especially selfish in their actions, or used the day to settle old scores, I would regard this as an unfavourable omen.    Similarly, how one conducts oneself at a funeral, is I think of critical importance.   If you were less than generous; if you were unkind or unwelcoming to any mourner, however awkward, I would think judgement of the Fates against you would be swift and severe.    Every person who comes to a funeral should be treated with all courtesy and as an honoured guest.  The chief mourner is acting on behalf of the deceased, and his own personal relationship with any mourner is of no relevance on this day.    On these kind of occasions, I would do the very best I could, as if one’s whole life depended on it.

I would find it very difficult to refuse to give something that someone had asked of me, who clearly had need, lest my own needs be similarly denied one day.

In celtic tradition, the hero sometimes came with special prohibitions, so that for example, the Fates may have bargained with him that he would be king, so long as he harmed no flying creature of the air.    Although other people could do so with impunity, for him it would be death to do so.   Also in that tradition, the rules of hospitality are stringent.    Although from quite another culture, Mahatma Ghandi answered well when the King asked him aggressively why India was (by the King’s lights) behaving so badly, and Ghandi replied, I cannot answer your Majesty’s question while partaking of your Majesty’s hospitality.     At a special occasion, a place was set for the unexpected guest, (I can recall my grandmother actually laying out the place).   So when guests not due until the following day at the celebrations for Rory’s wedding arrived quite by chance, we regarded it as a stroke of great good fortune and swept them up into our party in spite of all their protestations.      Similarly friends arrived unexpectedly, not knowing of our event, at Elisabeth’s engagement party, and at the christening of Joanna.     We gathered them all in and would brook no refusal.

I think about my dreams.    Clearly some of them are just because over-tired or unwell, or a jumble of the day’s events, but if I dreamt anything of significance about a real person, I would pay close attention.     Obviously what you learned could not be treated as a fact, but your subconscious has noticed something that you haven’t and is sending you a message.     If in a dream there was some warning about someone, I would regard them with suspicion for ever more.

I take comfort from the natural world.   If I am out walking and suddenly am confronted by an unexpected sighting of an animal – say if a fox materialises from behind a tree, and looks me in the eye before he turns and goes about his business, then that is a magic moment.   A sentient creature of another order has stood before me in all his fiery beauty and has acknowledged me.   I have seen him think, a woman; not danger; not food.    I go on my way full of joy and wonder, feeling that I have received a precious gift.   Lucky.   (Photograph of fox in Southern England, courtesy of Robert Sullivan.)

I once sat on a balcony looking out across the lovely Knysna Lagoon (South Africa).   Only hours before some expert had told us that whales never entered the lagoon which had a very narrow exit to the sea.   I heard the characteristic hiss of the whale’s spray and looking up saw the telltale fountain of its breath.    There was a whale in Knysna Lagoon, and what is more, the tide was going out and it was in deep distress.   John went immediately to ask the lady of the house where we were staying  to telephone the coastguard.    When she did so, the officer said to her, ‘Are you quite sure?   Whales never come into Knysna Lagoon.’   ‘I’m looking at it,’ she replied.   When John came back to me, I said to him, ‘We cannot stay here.   If a whale comes in from the ocean to a lagoon where whales never come, and at the foot of our balcony it breathes its last, this is such a terrible omen that we must leave the entire country and never come back.’      John said, ‘Wait until morning.’     All night long the whale’s song of lamentation echoed round the bay.   We did not sleep, but kept vigil with her all night.    But the men of Knysna, former whale hunters, had been summoned, and they answered the call.   Within half an hour the coastguard had flown in an expert.   Men walked out to where she  was stuck and poured water over her.   It was difficult to see in the darkness, but they appeared to dig a channel around or under her, and when dawn came and the tide turned, they managed to heave her into deeper water, and then with two small boats they escorted her back to the lagoon’s entrance.    One last valedictory blow, and she vanished into the deep.   I thought, the men of Knysna rendered aid.   The doom has been averted.   I can stay here.

Superstitious?    Moi?     No;  rather I think of myself as a reader of runes, and an interpreter of omens.     Not quite, however, as the prophetess of the Sphinx:  she was crazy.   Nor as Cassandra, who was not believed and so Troy fell…


Last September we undertook a tour of Scottish islands.

John has relatives who live on Arran, so over the years, we have visited it many times.   Arran is a very lovely  island, and just as with a beautiful woman it is difficult to define exactly what makes one woman beautiful and another merely attractive, so I have never been able to identify just what about Arran makes it so beautiful.   Perhaps it is that it has a great variety of scenery, and is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’.    It has some standing stones at its centre, and is of a reasonable size.      Driving right round it would take about 3 hours.   It has 6 or 7 golf courses, several small towns, some nice places to eat, a distillery…   all you need on a Scottish island really.   Sitting in the Clyde estuary it is accessible.    It is warmed by the Gulf Stream and palms can grow on it.   Allegedly it is where Robert the Bruce met the spider.   There do not appear to be any remaining  indiginous people.   I have never met anyone with more than three generations associated with it, and so far as I know it has no accent peculiar to itself.

North was the song of our journey, for after Arran we made our way, for the third time, to Orkney.   This is a group of many islands, hunkered down in the fearsome Pentland Firth against the perpetual Atlantic gales.   It does not feel in the least like a Hebridean island, and belongs to the Scandinavian/Viking tradition.   It is beautiful in a bleak and stark way, with few hills (apart from on Hoy) and hardly any trees.   It has one of the loveliest and largest stone circles of the British Isles, (photograph courtesy of John) consisting  of very tall stones, which stand in a landscape virtually unaltered since  they were heaved into their places.   It has brochs, chambered tombs, stone age villages, a recent amazing archeological find of what they think is a large ‘temple complex’ which turns the presumed history of Neolithic peoples in Britain on its head, wonderful beaches, great bird life, renaissance ruins, and a tremendous second world war history.   It has a harsh and guttural accent and fine people, who have never been especially interested in tourism.

To me, the size of islands is very important.   My maternal family came from the island of Lewis, but island life has NEVER appealed to me.   In illustration of my phobia – we visited Gigha, a very small island.    We had a meal in the evening in one of its only two restaurants, called I think The Shack, or the Boat Shed and right beside the pier.    (Very nice too, good wine list and excellent waiter who combined all the many skills of that difficult job and pitched his role between formality and friendliness absolutely spot on).   However, next day, three different people, none of whom so far as we could recall had been in the restaurant with us, enquired if we had enjoyed our meal.  We fled the island in horror.

I recall that our tour guide in Iceland – a unique and lovely island – described his native land as ‘the second largest island in Europe.’    ‘Who are the largest?’, I enquired in all innocence.    “Why you are, of course,” he replied in surprise.  ‘Great Britain is the largest island in Europe.’

Ah, I thought.    He is surprised I don’t know that.   What he doesn’t realise is that although we know we are islanders, and are proud of our maritime skills, we don’t actually think of ourselves as ‘an island in Europe.’    We think we are the centre of the universe, glorious Albion, the isles of the blessed, this sceptred isle, God’s own chosen darlings, whae’s like us?    Largest island in Europe doesn’t even begin to describe how we see ourselves.



A dear and valued friend of mine sends me one of those email chain letters.   There’s nothing malicious or fraudulent about it.   It doesn’t threaten or ask for money.   It asks you to read a paragraph of prose – clichés to be sure but moderately uplifting and nothing to take offence over – and then send it off to a dozen women of significance in your life, including the sender, and wait to see what happens on the 4th day.

I sigh.   I am very fond of my friend, a woman of taste and judgement, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.   So I enumerate the dozen most significant women in my life.   They’re far flung – Tokyo, Toronto, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford and here in the South.

And then I’m overtaken by a burst of irritation.    I don’t want this.   I don’t need to read a paragraph of psycho-babble.   I don’t want anything to happen on the 4th day (not that anything will.)   I don’t want new recipes, money, prayers, friends.   None of those.   Nothing.   And what’s more, neither do my dozen friends.

I wonder briefly about the motivation of the people who initiate these emails.   So far as I can figure, there is no profit motive in sending things like this email chain out into the atmosphere.   (Unless the object is to get more traffic on the site.)  Can it really just be people who haven’t enough to do in their lives, filing up the unforgiving minute with risky ventures ‘to see what happens’.    (I used to do things to see what happened, but not any more.    Generally I found in these situations, far more happened than you bargained for.   Plenty of things happen that you can’t prevent and have to deal with, without you starting up a few more.)

And then I turn my thoughts back to my valued friend.    She’s a sensible woman, not given to superstitions or other time-wasting nonsense.   I think, why is she doing this?   Then I wonder, why I would do it?   Because I don’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings.    And why is she doing it?   For exactly the same reason.   So we’re all doing things that we don’t want to do in order not to offend the feelings of the person who sent it to us, and no doubt she likewise, stretching back into infinity.   So I dump the draft email.

Ladies, let’s not do it.    You can send me anything you want me to see – just for me to read;  for my information;  to make me laugh;  to give me an option;  for my opinion.    I’ll be glad to receive these.     If it’s not confidential and I think others might find it amusing, I’ll post it on.    But don’t send me any chain emails.   I won’t be doing them.   I know you don’t really want to either.

Let’s cast off these chains.



I have no sisters, and frankly I’ve never felt it a loss.   As an infant I had every advantage: eldest grandchild, Daddy’s darling, and no female rivals in my own family.    I set out in life fully confident that I was Best Beloved, and I’ve walked that golden and undeserved path the whole of my life.

When I was five years old, my brother was born.   Five years is an age gap such that you are almost never in quite the same stage of life.   He didn’t impinge much on my kingdom – and besides, he had a kingdom of his own, for he was The Boy.    I don’t recall having any negative feelings on his arrival.   I was surprised at the fuss that was made of him – he wasn’t very interesting and didn’t say anything, and they had ME after all – but I put it down to novelty value and thought no more about it.

Eugene and I got along just fine.   He was a good-natured, amiable chap, easy-going, fun, open to adventure;  I never had any complaints about him as a brother.   I wonder if the brother/sister relationship depends in large measure on whether you are older or younger than the sibling?   I was Big Sister:  I had protective, almost maternal instincts over him.    You don’t generally think much about your relationship with your brother – he’s just pretty much always been around somewhere, so you don’t recognise how powerful your feelings are;  how jealous you are over him;  how vengeful you will be should anyone hurt or disappoint him.    When you do stumble across these reactions in yourself, they take you by surprise.

In retrospect I don’t think he actually needed my protection that much.   I was once summoned from my class at the end of the day by an excited rabble babbling that my brother was ‘getting  hammered’ by the school bully.    I rushed to the scene.   The boy in question was a huge fellow, who dwarfed all his companions and more or less did whatever he liked.        When I reached the playground, I was alarmed to be met by silence – I had expected the jeers and catcalls of the acolytes.     The crowd made way for me, and I was greeted by the sight of the bully, laid out flat on his back like a felled tree, with Eugene – much smaller and younger, astride him like a diminutive jockey riding a large and stupid horse.     My brother had hold of his unfortunate opponent by the lapels and was bouncing his head rhythmically on the tarmac.    “Stop.”   I yelled.   “You’ll kill him!”    “I – thwack – don’t – thwack – care – thwack,” said my normally amiable and peace loving brother through gritted teeth.     We had to haul him off.      I don’t recall hearing another squeak out of the vanquished bully all the rest of the time either of us was associated with that school.

I wasn’t always good to him.    I decided it would be fun to ‘surf’ down the uncarpeted stairs in a baby’s bath but I was a bit doubtful if this was safe, so I despatched him first.    He managed the first ride with aplomb and skill – he certainly didn’t lack courage – but I thought, maybe that is a fluke; so he went a second time.   It was a fluke.  The bath overturned, and he was hurt (not seriously.)    So, Eugene has successfully ridden the stairs in a baby’s bath, and I haven’t.

In addition to having a more trusting disposition than I ever had, Eugene had a more open personality, and was a dreadful liability when it came to any deceit.     He had a deplorable tendency to blurt things out that would get us into difficulties, whereas had he held his tongue, the incident would never have come to light.   For example, because there was no bicycle for me, and because the police would stop my father and complain if he cycled with Eugene on the pillion seat and me on the cross bar (we went many miles and never fell off), they used to send me on ahead on the bus, and then I had a long solitary wait until they arrived.    Quite often some kind fellow passenger, seeing me travelling alone, would pay the fare ‘for the bairn’ as well, and this left me enough money to buy a bar of  chocolate coated Highland toffee.    Even although I had truly done nothing to seek the gift, my father objected strongly to anyone giving us anything, and if he found out would drone on endlessly and put the money to charity.     I regarded this as completely unfair and unreasonable, so I was quite comfortable with this deception.    Also I was quite unwilling – treats like this were very rare – to eat the toffee in solitary greed as I waited for them to arrive.   I couldn’t have enjoyed it knowing  that Eugene wasn’t getting this  pleasure too.   Reasoned argument – it was none of my father’s business; there was no harm in the occasional toffee;  I hadn’t asked for a gift – cut no ice, so I had to resort to threatening that my displeasure would be even worse than my father’s, and making sure I could wipe his face of telltale chocolate marks afterwards.   (No doubt this tendency to over-disclosure in his childhood has long since been eradicated!)

As he became older, he developed his own interests.   For a time, he gardened.   He became a good cook.   We have both retained a love of steam trains.   Also during the time we were together he began his lifelong interest in photography, of which art he is now no mean exponent.    I was his first model, and there are pictures of me with a ‘For Pete’s sake, hurry up’ expression because it would have taken him half an hour (in those predigital days) to measure from the end of my nose to the lens for a portrait.    But on the other hand, the photographs of me in the glory of my extreme youth are all taken by Eugene.

I had the nearest I have ever come to thinking I was going to die when out with him on a cycle run.    Just a little run around the block, he said, and we ended up doing 22 miles.      Somewhere out in the wilds, coming round a sharp bend on a country road, flying down hill at great speed, we ran slap into a herd of cows.    I thought, if I come off my bike here, I’m dead – it was a large herd – but by some miracle – I probably had my eyes shut and was screaming – cows leapt out of our path and we charged on, leaving behind the noise of the disturbed herd, the excited barks of the dogs, and the angry voice of the farmer.   (I’m prepared to bet Eugene has no recollection of this.)

As for his love of music, this is a field in which I have never been able to join him.   (Though I did once accompany him to a gig by the Bay City Rollers in, I think, Dunfermline – an event which Eugene flatly denies ever took place.     Who else would I have gone with, after all?)   But sometimes our tastes coincide.    I have always liked the emotive song, Where Do You Go To, My Lovely, and it was interesting that he also found the song evocative.

Eugene was a good-looking boy (and is a handsome man) and always very popular with the ladies with very little effort on his part.       Now that he is a mature married man with a family of his own, he would no doubt modestly deny this, but going out with him one used to get irritated by the frisson of reaction from other women.

Your view of your sibling(s) is an elemental, basic one based on who they were when they started out.    They may change, of course – acquire an education, polish, sophistication, guile, tolerance, kindness – many things they didn’t perhaps display in your childhood, but in essence the core is always the same.    No-one can be more irritating and insufferable than a sibling – they know how to wind you up – and we squabbled like children do of course.    But on the whole, sharing my childhood with him was a great pleasure.    I used to tell him stories, in which thinly disguised him and me, under another name, engaged in adventures.    You can imagine my horror when I discovered that he had written – and READ OUT in class an essay entitled, My Best Friend.     Eugene had said, My best friend is my sister.    She would like to be called Julianna de Bassonpierre.    But even as I berated him, and pointed out all the teasing that I would now get – and did, I recall – I knew it was a great compliment for a boy to cite his sister as his best friend, and it remains one of the best compliments I was ever paid.

I think I was lucky to have such a brother.    You take their presence – practical, factual, masculine – for granted and it’s only much later you realise that you love them without any romantic complication.     You come to see throughout your life that men who attract your attention or sympathy, often present themselves to you in a shadowy image of your closest male relatives, including brothers.    Whatever your relationship, I do not think you could ever be truly indifferent to a brother.    He is flesh of your flesh.   The blood that flows in his veins is also the blood of your ancestors.   His history, his antecedents, the legends of his life are your legends.    You may take different paths, but he will always be one of a mere handful of men who really matter in your life.

My childhood would have been a solitary desert without his loving, tender company.   Now in our maturity, it is often he who is the comforter, gathering me in when I arrive, frazzled and exhausted at his house, to be restored by the warmth, kindness and hospitality of himself and Susan.

We who have brothers are fortunate.   Eugene is a man and a brother.

(Photographs courtesy of Eugene.)