IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT

IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT.

I read in some newspaper article that insomnia was not associated with early or premature death. Apparently, often people who can’t sleep lie awake fretting about their sleeplessness and worrying about whether this will result in their death. As a lifelong insomniac (on and off) I am happy to report that this has never been something I’ve worried about. Some ‘experts’ recommend that you get up and do things, but I think this is a very bad idea. It’s OK to get up briefly to go to the loo, or make yourself a hot drink or do anything which makes you more comfortable; but you should in my experience remain in bed, where you are at least resting.

I enjoy the night-time. I remember glorious and memorable sights, glimpsed in the night. An owl that flew past me as I visited the outside toilet in Kingsmuir, coming so close that his feathers disturbed the air on my face and hair and who looked at me with great disapproving eyes. Or the magnificent Milky Way, blazing its trail among the stars. The white heads of barley swaying like ocean waves in the lovely Angus valley and me wishing I could be in one of these fields skimming across the grain. Ducks and geese at the appropriate time used to descend noisily on our fields to feed quickly and then fly on for Iceland. Later I myself visited Iceland a mysterious and beautiful place that appears to hover between this life and the place of the spirits. It was magical. I was never afraid of the darkness (I could see in the dark better than most people).

I like how in the night, there is plenty of time and some left over. It’s good for writing blogs. Writing it in your head it remains flexible and plastic (or so I hope) and can be readily disposed of, or re-written with slight changes made which nuance it. But once you have committed it to paper, it has a life of its own. It’s like the baby. Once born, he’s his own man, no longer part of you. If you lose a piece of writing once you have written it, you will never be able to reproduce it with the wit and style you achieved the first time. You can let your ideas soar and carry you along. You can take a problem to bed with you, and there are enough hours to examine it at your leisure. There’s an intellectual pleasure in stripping a problem down to its component parts, and then laying these out in order of importance. Then you can decide on the best and quickest way of taking action, and if it’s someone else’s problem, how you will advise the person whose problem it is.

It can be tiring and very boring lying awake for long hours. You have to be happy in your own company to survive. But if you just endure it; enjoy the good aspects of it; pray for the people you love (and if you are lion-hearted enough for those you do not love,) then the night will

Eventually the time will come when Sleep slips once again into your chamber, wondering what on earth all the fuss is about where he’s been. But you can’t stay annoyed with him for long and so you can at last switch brain off and drift away into the land of dreams.

Returning to our medical experts. They did not know if there were risks from the state of insomnia. They did not know if it contributed to illnesses which might have a material influence on the subject’s longevity. In fact, when you consider it, all they really discovered was that insomnia can affect people of all ages. How many tens of thousands of pounds of research funding did it take, I wonder, for them to make this ground-breaking discovery?

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DEATH ISLAND

DEATH ISLAND

The island of Arran, which is a magic and beautiful island in the firth of Clyde, is becoming for me an island of death, as we have attended 7 funerals there. The cemetery is on a hillside opposite the lovely Holy Island and the scenario is so striking it resembles a film scene. I was on Arran last week accompanying John to a memorial service for his brother-in-law, Howard Driver.

The first of these 7 funerals I attended was of John’s mother, and as I stood in a wind swept storm, sheltering my two daughters, my stepdaughter and my small son under the outstretched wings of my black coat, watching the coffin being lowered into its last resting place by her second husband, son, son in law, nephew and older grandsons (all of whom were over 6 feet tall and sombre in their formal blacks,) I reflected that the lady has certainly not lacked handsome men to send her off into the afterlife.

This was at that time one of very few funerals I had attended in my life. My maternal grandfather had died when I was about 7 or 8. I had heard the telephone ring one night, and my mother weeping, and I had guessed what had happened. My father came to tell me, but he could not bring himself to utter the dread words, so as he fumbled for an appropriate phrase, beginning, I am sorry to tell you that your grandfather has… has passed away, and I thought, what does that mean, so I asked, is he dead? My father said Yes, and I understood that I would never see him again and knew that we were mortal. I recall that although I was sorry and would miss him, I did not weep. I was the only one of his grandchildren to attend the funeral (the others were in Canada and this was before the age of easy air travel.) As people gathered in my grandmother’s sitting-room, I heard her remark that I was his favourite grandchild and even at that tender age I knew that she ought not to have said this, and more than likely it was untrue: I was probably just the one he saw the most. The only other thing I remember about that occasion was that I was sent to a neighbour whom my grandmother and mother criticised for her meanness while the actual committal took place, and when the icecream-van came and she bought her own daughter an ice-cream cone, but not one for me, I saw what they meant.

Then decades passed and I was fortunate that apart from my grandparents, everyone I loved still walked the earth.

In your youth, you tend to go to funerals either of elderly relatives who seem to you in your ignorant folly so aged that you do not see in their death any pattern that your own life will follow, or of real tragedies, where youths have died of misadventure. As you get older, you begin to attend the funerals of your parents’ generation : but it is still a shocking moment when you stand in the church for a contemporary.

There are various points where your loss is brought home to you. Writing to the principal mourner trying to come to a just and insightful conclusion about the deceased; being truthful so that a credible portrait emerges of the departed but still gives comfort can be a delicate operation and you may come to realise that you did not know the deceased that well; or that you depended on her or him more than you understood. But whatever you feel, one thing you know for certain is that it’s too late now. If you haven’t resolved any disagreements, that opportunity is lost.

I am always distressed when I first glimpse the actual coffin. It is so small. How come the life and vitality of the deceased had been reduced to this insignificant container?

The music is generally unbearably poignant. When we scattered my mother’s ashes on the seashore on Lewis and Rory walked slowly along the waterline playing on his saxophone, When A Man Loves a Woman, by Percy Sledge – the first time Sarah his wife had ever heard him play, – I was moved. When we were in church on Arran at the funeral of John’s stepfather, we were standing among his children as the first hymn was played. They were distressed and unable to participate, so John beside me lifted up his voice and sang on their behalf and I realised for the first time what a good voice he has.

When you come to the final phrases; Our dear brother here departed; dust to dust and ashes to ashes; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life; there is comfort in the age-old words although you wonder how many of the people standing there actually believe this. I myself feel that the mysteries of the afterlife have not been revealed to us, but I have hope and belief that I will see my relatives and friends in the afterlife, even if it is not in the form offered by christianity.

When someone whom I had found exceptionally difficult in life died, I felt a relief (though I was sorry for their sake that their life had been cut short). Someone who had loved the person said it was nice to feel they were now in heaven. I thought to myself, how could it be heaven if they were in it. I am bound to record that my view has changed and I can see that I need to learn to be more tolerant and forgiving, otherwise I myself will not pass through the pearly gates. How could I be fit for any kind of paradise if I were still carrying around my grievances from decades previous?

John’s family had organised Howard’s funeral extremely well. It was an occasion where everyone, whatever their history, was made warmly welcome. My safety and comfort had been carefully considered. I felt cherished and valued by the family, for which kindness I was thankful.

Funerals like these, where the family has put the needs of other mourners before their own, are humbling occasions but you come away feeling uplifted.

Go in peace, Howard.

BUILDING IT YOURSELF

My brother and I sold our parents’ house recently.

This made me remember how my father, in his sixties, bought a plot of land in Huntly, Banffshire, and built a house on it. When I say ‘built a house’ I mean that exactly – he built it with his own hands, with a very little help from his son and his son-in-law. I believe he hired a plumber and an electrician. It was on this labour that the inheritance that we have received was based.

There was an old croft on the site – just a ‘bothy’ really – the kind of building that is made of stone and had originally held people on one side and cattle in another. It had a Victorian fire place but no roof, but my father repaired it and my parents lived in very basic accommodation there for several years. They acquired a caravan and slept in that. At first they had no electricity nor running water.

My father was a man who made life difficult for himself (and other people) but he had some fine qualities; one of which was that he was capable of tremendous endurance and another that he was extremely industrious. He was also surprisingly lucky, for it turned out that that not only did he have water on his land, he had the only water supply in the whole area which never failed, even in the driest summer. He could himself divine for water, though he hired a professional before he sunk the well; and he had a well dug nine rings deep which ‘temple of Neptune’ I used to visit ceremoniously every time I went there in a little procession through the long summer grasses; my father and me, the three children, and two cats.

My father would not have managed this gargantuan task without the support of my mother. She could make even the most unpromising space comfortable and she could cook and bake delicious food on the most primitive of cooking equipment. When her only cooking equipment was an open fire, my father used to drive to my house in the central belt, pick up equipment and supplies, and I would have baked fruit cakes and pies and things which my mother could not have managed and he would take these away with him.

Gradually they introduced services, so that eventually they had a very comfortable house with three bedrooms, bathroom, a farmhouse kitchen; the bothy became a barn and store, and they lived there for twenty ears. My children loved going there every summer; in my father’s fields they enjoyed a freedom and country life that they had little opportunity for else where.

The authorities were extremely helpful to my father. I think the magnitude of the task he was undertaking appealed to their sense of adventure. The buildings inspector called frequently and would advise how to go about things that would be required.

There were of course problems with neighbours. (My father invariably had problems with neighbours, who generally died or went bankrupt or at any event had to leave: I as a child used to feel a little sorry for the neighbours because they never realised until too late that what they were dealing was not what they had supposed.) When my parents applied for electricity, the obvious place was to put a telegraph pole on a corner of the neighbour’s land (well away from his house, where it did not spoil his view or cause any inconvenience.) The neighbour refused permission, and my parents were faced with an alternative which would have cost thousands more. An official came out from the Electricity Board; my father showed him the alternatives and explained how they needed the neighbour’s permission but this was refused. The official looked grim, and called upon the neighbour; my father telling him it was a waste of time. The official came back, and said that permission would be granted, and indeed the electricity was shortly afterwards installed. We later learned that he had threatened that the Board would take up the case; it would fight it right up to the Secretary of State for Scotland; that it would undoubtedly win, and it would pursue its costs vigorously and he could expect a bill of tens of thousands of pounds.

It was a lovely place, and my brother and I still benefit from my parents hard work and creative efforts.

FARO

 

We have recently returned from a short holiday with Elisabeth and Robert near Faro in S E Portugal.

The flights there (and back) were fine although my incipient claustrophobia, normally held in reasonable mode by the force of my intellect was galloping up and down the aisle making offensive gestures at passengers who were too near, talked too loud, drank too much or breathed too fast!

We were whisked by our escort through the crowds and arrived at the Baggage Carousel. John and our escort deposited me in my wheelchair in the Baggage Hall and went to claim the luggage. I then noticed a well dressed women in her 80s perhaps, who did everything with a dramatic flourish designed I felt to draw everyone’s attention. Then suddenly I recognised her as a former TV broadcaster on domestic and forces radio and tv (though initially I couldn’t remember her name.) She had a golf clubs carrier on her luggage cart which stuck out sideways and she banged this into my wheelchair. She then apologised to an embarrassingly excessive degree and wouldn’t stop. I felt like saying, You didn’t hurt me or cause any damage, you’ve apologised perfectly adequately, now for heaven’s sake, go away! I thought she was slightly drunk; but I realised afterwards that she had sensed that spark of recognition and was waiting for me to say, Weren’t you so and so? I have met quite a few famous people and have never acknowledged their celebrity in the smallest degree. If they want to tell you who they are that’s fine but it has to come from them. It must be awful to be so needful of recognition. (The lady was Judith Chalmers)

Robert was meeting us which was a great help and we made the 20 minute journey through the backhills behind Faro Airport which is so near to the sea that I was convinced we were going to land on the beach. At the last minute you scramble up onto the airport and then the pilot frantically brakes with all his strength and you just manage to slide to a screeching halt at your docking station!

The farmhouse was found at the end of a very steep and very narrow track which later caused John some grief with his hi re car which was brand new but in the end there was no problem.

It was beautifully situated. We could see no habitation from our various terraces; just trees and in the distance, the sea. The house was spacious enough though to be comfortable, though shall we say of very different ‘taste’ to ourselves. Our children had kindly given up their bedroom for us which was on the ground floor and easily accessible by wheelchair. The bathroom next door was a large room with corner bath which the boys would swim in when having their bath.

We had been to Portugal three times before, once with all our children plus Alexandra, once on our own and once with Anne and Barbara, but this was our first time in East Portugal. We preferred it. It was not so horribly over developed or infested with golf courses; the towns were attractive and shops were for local people. There is a sandbar across the coast at this point, so there are lagoons rich in bird-life behind it. We saw a large black diver of some description which covered huge distances in his dive. We saw a little group of flamingos fly overhead, an elegant pattern with their long legs and necks, about 20 of them, and Elisabeth the previous week had seen them descend like a pink cloud. We had screech owls round the house. We also saw our first swallows at the house, beautiful with pink throats and long forked tails. In March there were no insects bothering us (though they have hideous black flying creatures as large as egg-cups) but the presence of insect screens and mosquito nets everywhere would suggest that they are sometimes present.

Less appealing were the guard dogs at nearby properties, one of which gave Rob an opportunistic bite on his calf, still nasty and vicious looking when we were there a week later. Everyone local including the medics treated this injury with great disdain – it’s just a little nip – and they regard the Brits as being afraid of dogs and paranoid about La Rage, as the French call rabies. Rob seemed to be healthy enough however.

There were only a few trees that I recognised. There were hills covered in olives of course; and oranges with fruit and flowers; a few lemons; cork oaks; yucca and cacti; trees that were black and appeared to consist largely of thorns. The other flora I did not recognise.

We stayed mostly close to home. The children would rest in the afternoon which meant that everybody got a little relaxing time. (There was quite a large pool). There were nearby towns and villages where we would go for groceries or vegetables and have a coffee and a delicious cake. One day we had lunch in a busy establishment which appeared to be the village canteen, where you dine with others at a refectory type table and where you had the dish of the day and the food was very good rather like what you would get in the kitchen of a friend’s mother (who knew how to cook.) At the other end of the spectrum we had lunch at an elegant restaurant literally at the foot of our road, where everything was as it should be and lovely and the food was delicious. Elisabeth and Robert walked out one evening to have dinner there leaving us in charge, and came walking back beneath the stars (taking detours to avoid rabid dogs!) We went to a modern shopping centre in Faro which was what you would expect. We went to a fish market held in a beautiful market hall and with a biggish market around it; to one of the lagoon resorts where William tried out his new bike, and we went to the town of Loule, very pleasant and authentic the way inland towns in coastal places often are.

The Portuguese are easy to get along with and very kind to children. It amazes me that Portugal, a very small country backed on two sides by the muscular Spain, managed to survive as a nation at all. Although it is Roman Catholic, its churches do not occupy dominating positions in townships, and after the service on Palm Sunday when the congregation walked amongst us, I noticed there was no ostentatious display of clothes.

We thought we might, in future years, take our caravan to the South of Portugal in March, thereby extending the caravanning seasons.

We enjoyed the holiday, and the time spent with Elisabeth and Rob and their children. Not forgetting Milo of course.

(The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, show William and Robert cutting William’s birthday cake (2) while Milo waits to ‘help’; one of the local small towns, and William trying out his new balance bike.)

BLUE EYED BOY

BLUE EYED BOY

I have just realised that in our family we have a pitiful shortage of blue eyes.

I read once that blue eyes were considered historically to be the most beautiful, desirable and therefore valuable. As a brown eyed woman, I didn’t care much for this opinion and thought, Snort, what do they know of it?

So, my father had a magnificent head of hair, golden blonde and naturally wavy, and it eventually faded into a silvery blonde which he retained into extreme old age. He was always tanned, and he had eyes of an unusual colour somewhere between grey, green and turquoise which varied according to what he wore. He was an extremely handsome man, but so far as I observed, he was not vain or particularly concerned about his appearance. My mother was brown haired (darker than mine) and brown eyed, as was my brother.

My husband John, the father of my children, said in Iceland when introducing himself to the group we travelled with that he had always regarded himself as a Viking, and the two Icelanders with the group looked at him and nodded their agreement. He is tall, with light brown hair now white, and with grey eyes.

Of my three children, none are brown eyed. Joanna has my father’s colouring and her eyes are an indeterminate colour between grey, green and turquoise. I used to say her eyes were the colour of Achnahard Bay and she told her husband of this family legend but when they visited the bay it was a deep sapphire colour, and she had to say to him, It’s never been that colour before!

Elisabeth’s eyes are grey with hints of green. And Rory’s are the Viking grey of his father.

At school they did an exercise in percentages where they divided the class into groups of eye colour and our children were always left until the end before it could be decided where they would be placed.

Now we can consider the grandchildren. Alexandra’s eyes are a grey-blue; Erin’s are brown, and Dana’s are a golden, greenish brown. Their father has brown eyes,

Rory’s children have grey-blue eyes like their father, Julia’s having more blue in them than Ewan’s. (Their mother has grey eyes.)

Elisabeth and Robert’s eldest son has an abundance of curly blonde hair, of a very pale colour and a pair of melting chocolate brown eyes which are very large. (His father is brown eyed.)

And now we can consider our latest arrival. He has pale skin after the Irish fashion. His hair, eyebrows and eyelashes are a pale gold colour. But it is such a surprise to us when James opens his eyes in his pale face with its golden halo, for they are a clear and definite brilliant blue. They seem to gather the light into them. They shine like beautiful stones in the bottom of a clear stream. And they are wonderfully expressive. He can beseech you so successfully with these blue eyes that one could almost believe he didn’t need to learn to talk. I think he has inherited these from his other grandmother, Robert’s mother, who herself has very beautiful blue eyes.

James will be a blue eyed boy.

ALEXANDRA

SONY DSC

(The photograph, courtesy of John, shows Alexandra in Switzerland at the wedding of Rory and Sarah, 2011.)

My grand-daughter, Alexandra, is 17 years old today. I don’t quite know how she managed to sneak past me to this mature age for it seems just like yesterday that she was born.

I would not really regard myself as a strongly maternal woman, and because grandchildren came to me early in life, I did not have to yearn for them but was thrust unready into the role. I now have seven grandchildren, four girls and three boys; but there is no doubt you have a special relationship with your first grandchild.

Alexandra being the first born occupies the same position in the family hierarchy that I did.

She referred to John and me as ‘the Grandmas’ and to herself and her two younger siblings as ‘me and the sisters’. (Her English is better now of course.)

Alexandra is tall and slim, beautiful after the Irish fashion with dark hair and eyes the colour of the Atlantic. She has a natural edgy stylishness. She has many talents. She can draw very well. She has a good voice and it was a pleasure to listen to Carolyn Hulatt give her an impromptu lesson on singing during the rehearsal for Elisabeth’s wedding. She is musical and plays the French horn for one of the Glasgow orchestras and also the double bass. She is clever.

Alexandra is insightful and shrewd. She has word skill and can be wounding: she generally knows where the weaknesses lie. But she is not wantonly cruel and can be very kind.

She spent a lot of time with us in her childhood. The first time she went abroad she stayed at the Antwerp Hilton and was sensible enough even as a toddler to befriend the doorman and came and went with great self possession. She and Joanna came to Northern France with us and to Portugal. She came away with us in our caravan in the UK on numerous occasions. Once when she was staying with us we had a flood, and we escaped with Anne Hall to the welcoming hospitality of the house of Barbara, Anne’s mother in Somerset. We had a lovely visit, but the pressure of being the only child clearly got to Alexandra for she complained to me, “There’s too many grandmas and not enough children.”

I don’t keep in touch with my grandchildren weekly (though they’re welcome to talk to me whenever they like) but when we are together I look forward to Alexandra coming to see me when we fall easily into conversation as though we had left off the previous day. What she has to say is always thought provoking and interesting. I like talking to her.

Walk in the light, Alexandra, and may your birthdays be joyful and many.

SO?

SO?

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of persons prefacing an answer to a question with the word, ‘So’. It seems to me to be entirely superfluous. I wondered if it is used to give a few more seconds to put together a reply. Yet people were using it who were not under any pressure to make a response.

I find you can frequently use a word quite easily and happily, yet when challenged as to its exact meaning you are stumped. So it is with ‘so’. Applying to the dictionary just confuses matters rather than clarifying them.

So what? So we start many of our sentences with So. Does this change the meaning so much​? Maybe our blogger is just a nit-picky so-and-so. If people feel the need to employ So constantly, so be it.

So I’ll leave you now. So nice, talking with you. So long.