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There was a post doing the rounds on Facebook in the last couple of weeks, which required people to compile lists of bands they had seen live. It reminded me that I still had to post Part 2 in the series! Here it is….originally written a few years ago but all just as valid……

Rum
Regular readers of this blog (are there any? Show yourselves!) will know that for various reasons my blog-brain is having trouble shifting itself from the mid 1980s. I am going to ask that you indulge me once again as I have a little nostalgic wallow. I spent a long time, you see, distancing myself from my teenage years; but as an older dragon I am almost enjoying looking back at myself with the benefit of hindsight.

Let me take you to Battersea in south London in the summer of 1985. Picture a group of teens and early-twenty-somethings emerging from a dark blue, windowless Transit, engulfed in fag smoke, and suffering heat exhaustion, having driven down from Essex earlier that morning. One of them is a pale, skinny dark-haired girl in an ankle-length strappy sundress that she bought from Oxfam, her nails bitten and her shoulders rapidly burning in the fierce city sun. Meet me, the Young Dragon, and a bunch of people I barely knew, attending the second GLC Jobs for a Change free concert. Before its abolition in 1986, the Greater London Council, under the leadership of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, was a constant thorn in the side of the Thatcher government; one of its better wheezes was to post the London jobless total daily on the roof of GLC headquarters, where it could be seen directly from the Houses of Parliament across the river. The GLC campaigned for reduced fares on trains and buses, invited Gerry Adams to talks (in the event, he wasn’t allowed into the country), and championed Nelson Mandela when the Iron Lady still thought he was a terrorist. And for two years they also held a free music festival. The first one in 1984 (*checks interwebs*) was held in the Jubilee Gardens, and the acts included Billy Bragg, Hank Wangford (more of whom in Part III) and The Smiths. So popular was it that a second event was held in July of the following year, in the larger environs of Battersea Park, to an audience that has been estimated to number between a quarter and half a million people.

My memories of the day are fuzzy, but happy. Surrounded by Amnesty tables and wholefood stalls, I wandered barefoot in the park, eating lemonade ice lollies and sitting on the parched grass listening to The Pogues, Terry and Gerry, The Men They Couldn’t Hang*, and Mr Red Wedge himself, Billy Bragg. How much of the political message hit home it was hard to say; and I am not about to go all misty-eyed and claim that back then, when the enemy was wearing a skirt and living in No 10, that it was all so much simpler and possibly even more innocent. Often when people claim this, it’s not the simplicity and innocence of the times they miss, it’s their own youth. But having said that, I still blame that woman for a large part of society’s ills, and I am still a member of Amnesty International, having joined at the GLC Jobs for a Change Festival. Thank you, Ken.

Whilst I remember little of what The Pogues played that day, I did use the fact that I had seen them live to impress the lassies in the Summer Isles café in 1987. I worked for a summer in Achiltibuie, on the north-west coast of Scotland, serving lunches, doing dishes and cleaning rooms at the Summer Isles Hotel. One of the girls there, Theresa, was a huge fan of Runrig and Silly Wizard (‘Oh, there’s sober men and plenty, and drunkards barely twenty….’ – the band that started Freeland Barbour and Phil Cunningham), and she also had a cassette of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues. We played that tape to death. We knew every word. We whirled and wailed like banshees to The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn, jigged furiously to Sally MacLennane and belted out I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day whilst roaring drunk on the four mile stagger home from the pub.

During my second year at Uni, The Pogues released If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and they announced a promotional tour, which included a date at the legendary/infamous/notorious Glasgow Barrowlands. I went with Steve, my boyfriend at the time, and the gig was just before Christmas, with the album’s single, Fairytale of New York, nearing the top of the charts. I can’t remember getting there or back, but I think it might have been in a minibus organised by Rocksoc of the students’ union. I do remember walking into the venue and being alarmed (well-brought up girl that I was) by the sticky floor, the crusty patches on the walls, and the general air of shabbiness. Two hours later, I was thoroughly convinced that this was a venue worthy of such an awesome band. Steve and I managed to get right to the front of the crowd, pressed up against the stage where the band played, and boy, did they play! It was utterly exhilarating to watch and listen, and those songs have never sounded better. A quick check on Wiki-p and I can tell you that Shane McGowan, who looked as if he could drop dead at any moment (and still does), wrote almost all those songs; and he performed them as if his life depended on it, whilst snarling with contempt at the world and its feeble efforts to understand his aching, tortured, simple, hungry, riotous, Irish heart. I fell head over heels in love with him. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better……they struck up the intro to Fairytale and Kirsty McCall walked onstage…..it was a blissful night, and I even bought the T-shirt. I still get misty-eyed when I look back to that gig, (especially given Kirsty’s tragically early demise) and were I to stick my neck out I would name it my favourite gig of all time.

*whilst doing ‘research’ for this blog I did an internet search for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and they have their own website! The quality merchandise available includes a rather spiffy cigarette lighter: smoking is now the ultimate act of rebellion, so well done them. I am delighted to report that they are still going strong and have just started a 10-date UK tour, including Southampton, Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’ve got no idea whether they are still any good, but I intend to search YouTube for clues. See research? It’s great.

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Good old Radio 6 Music – they came up trumps the other day with a lovely hour-long programme on the enduring charm of the Glasgow Barrowlands, believed by many to be one of the best venues in Scotland. At the risk of spoiling the surprise – my favourite ever gig was at the Barrowlands, and the nostalgia prompted me to revive and revise my two-part blog on Bands I Have Seen!

There’s nothing quite like live music. The venue might be cramped and hot, the music might be too loud to do anything but communicate by sign language or telepathy, but there is something joyous about the atmosphere and noise and occasion that can thrill your soul if it’s done right.
I was chatting to a pal about bands we’d seen live, and it got me reminiscing. I have never been an ardent gig-goer really: there are people out there who are at live gigs every week, and travel to different parts of the country or indeed world, to see their favourites. Fans of certain bands will stop at nothing to get tickets; camp out on the street, phone hotlines for hours on end…I’m not one of those. If I have been lucky enough to see a good band it was because the moment was appropriate, the tickets were available and crucially, the company was right.

Hawkwind
It is a subject of debate whether the first band I ever saw is something of which I should be proud, or embarrassed. It was Hawkwind. There, I’ve said it. It’s out there. I went with a friend to, if memory serves, the Hammersmith Odeon. Was that a venue? Is it still? This must have been about 1984 or 1985, and I have two strong memories of the occasion: the two litre bottle of cider we smuggled in, and the fact that Michael Moorcock came on and recited epic fantasy poetry. I was chuffed as I was quite into Moorcock at the time, although I have never re-read any of his books, and I hesitate to do so, fearing that The Dancers at the End of Time Trilogy will not stand up to the cold eye of experienced lit.crit. I would be delighted if someone were to assure me otherwise. Would I still love Jherek Carnelian? Of Hawkwind the band, the music, I remember nothing. In later years I was to see one of the we-can’t-call-ourselves-Hawkwind-due-to-ongoing-litigation bands at the Guilford Festival, and it had all the old tricks: a child juggling, a man in a waistcoat and rubber mask grinding a guitar, a large-breasted woman dancing: and it had all the charm of a car crash. But in 1985 as a first gig, Hawkwind had at least a smidgeon of street-cred.
Towards the end of the 1980s there were big music scenes in Britain’s towns – but it could rarely be said that the Fife town of St Andrews was a hotbed of cutting edge performance and happenings. RockSoc did their best, but you can understand the reluctance of some bands to play a university full of posh rugger buggers, fewer than 5,000 students, and no railway station. Despite this, I managed to see the Bay City Rollers (can’t remember which ‘version’, and sadly they only want to play their new album and nary a hint of tartan anywhere), Showaddwaddy (who turned up in shiny suits and crepe soles and sang all the cheesy hits and were fab), and Sam Brown (who was having a very off day, snarled at the audience, and gave a very bad-tempered performance, only redeeming herself by singing Led Zep’s Rock and Roll at the end).
But the finest gig without a doubt that I ever saw at St Andrews Student Union was The Waterboys. The music was great, but the story is better. By some unheard of fluke, the Union had managed to book a band shortly before they hit their peak: in the time between booking the band, and the actual gig, The Waterboys released their Fisherman’s Blues album, and they were riding high. The day the tickets went on sale, I was working in a local café bar (The Victoria Café, fact fans) and had no money anyway, so missed out. I was mildly disappointed but got on with my life. On the day of the gig I was also working, and the bar that day was busy. From 10am onwards, one table in the corner was taken by a group pf Irishmen who were drinking Murphys like it was going out of fashion; they were very funny and sweet and they asked me if I was going to the gig. Not me, I replied, no ticket. Aw well, that’s no problem, they said. We’re the support band – we’ll put you on the guest list. Ooh, the support band, I said, what are you called? The Saw Doctors, they said. Never heard of you, came back my snappy reply. To be fair, the Saw Doctors did not at that time have a record deal, and had been discovered (so legend had it) by Mike Scott playing in a bar in Galway or somesuch, whereupon he invited them to support The Waterboys’ forthcoming tour. I jumped at the chance, and they made me agree to get on stage and dance when they played. Well, the concert was fantastic, and I jigged like a good ‘un and had a brilliant time. Afterwards, my pal Julie and I invited The Saw Doctors back to my flat where a true rock ‘n’ roll evening was had by all, during which I copped off with the bass player. In true gentlemanly fashion they all went back to their scabby Transit and spent the remainder of the night there, turning up in the morning for tea and toast before heading off to Aberdeen for the next gig. Happy days, indeed.
My boyfriend in first year at Uni had an eclectic taste in music : he was a huge Marillion fan and could also be found lurking around the back catalogue of Barclay James Harvest. To his credit though, he introduced me (via the medium of the good old C90 cassette) to John Martyn, and I will always be grateful to him for that. I saw John Martyn three times I think, all of them in Edinburgh, with Mr Dragon. On one occasion it was just John and a guitar and an amp, and it was like being transported to heaven on the wings of slightly grubby but still gilded angels who smoked forty a day. On another occasion he had a full band, and was a little the worse for wear: during a sublime guitar solo he misjudged the crucial angle of guitar-godness, lost his balance and fell over. He lay on his back and continued to play without even skipping a beat. A few roadies managed to heave him back on his feet, and all was well. We miss you, John.

JM
To be continued……

I had lived in Quoyloo for about three weeks before the knock came at the door. As it happened I was out at fiddle practice, so I didn’t speak to the lady herself, but when I got home Mr Dragon told me gleefully that I had had ‘the call’. A representative had dropped by to see if I would be interested in joining the local branch of the SWRI. The Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (known as ‘the Rural’) is the equivalent of the WI in England. For non-British readers, the WI (Women’s Institute) are the ones featured in the film ‘Calendar Girls’, based on a true story, where the ladies posed naked with sunflowers and sticky buns. The Quoyloo branch of the Rural would never stoop to such sensationalist tactics, I can assure you. Why waste a good bun?

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The Rural was formed in 1917, by a remarkable woman called Catherine Blair. She was an ardent supporter of the suffragette movement, and a member of Women’s Social and Political Union. Her husband, a farmer, supported her activities, and aided her in setting up a safe house for suffragettes released under the Cat and Mouse Act (a nasty piece of legislation whereby hunger striking women were released from prison once they were weakened to the point of near-death, then re-imprisoned once they had regained their strength). Blair was a skilled designer and craftswoman (she founded the Mak’Merry pottery) and realised that women throughout Scotland has skills to pass on, but little social opportunity to do so. Inspired by Guilds being formed in Canada, she proposed a similar organisation in Scotland, and the SWRI was born in Longniddry, providing women with a chance to meet, and exchange experiences and knowledge about everything from vegetable growing to political letter writing. The organisation (now the Scottish Women’s Institute, the ‘R’ having been recently dropped), now has over 20,000 members and more than 700 branches.

Most Orkney parishes have a branch of the SWI; Quoyloo is not actually a parish, but has one anyway. The aims are the same today as they ever were; to pass on skills from one generation of women to another, to take part in activities together, and to enjoy the friendship and company of local women.

I applaud them mightily for their talents and philosophy. One is not born knowing how to darn a sock or make lemon curd, and if a young lass from the city had the good fortune to marry an Orkney farmer, well…..she would need to learn these essentials. The Rural meetings are usually held every month, there is sometimes a theme or a motto, and often a visiting speaker, followed by gallons of tea and any number of home-baked goodies. A quick glance at one week’s Orcadian newspaper reveals a run-down of the Rural meetings over the past month:  in Firth, the ladies chose the motto ‘A laugh is worth 100 groans in any market’, and enjoyed a quiz, a drawing game, and a Christmas story. The women of Harray embraced the spirit of ‘It’s always the busiest folk who have time for more’, whilst listening to John Copland from the cattle mart talking about ‘A Day in the Life of an Auctioneer’. Meanwhile, in Costa, the guests Thora and Anne sang and told stories, mindful of the phrase ‘Sweet music lingers in the memory’.

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I have, on occasion, had the pleasure of speaking or playing as a guest at the Rural. The ladies are always a discerning but appreciative audience, and any guest is treated very well indeed, plied as they are with tea, cake, and potentially winning raffle tickets. But then….the crunch. The payoff. The heavy, heavy responsibility. It falls to the visitor or guest speaker, you see, to judge The Competition. The objects in The Competition, brought in by the members, will usually be laid out on a side table for inspection and awarding of points: the grading might be 1st, 2nd and 3rd, or Gold, Silver and Bronze, or some other way of marking the three best items. The judge ponders, picks up, inspects, tastes (if appropriate), holds up to the light. After due deliberation, and without knowing who made or chose the items, the judge then places the awards accordingly. The ladies themselves will then inspect everything, and the chair or secretary will note down the winners and order of merit.
At this point, those who are aware of the workings of the Rural will know what the competitions involve. Those who don’t will be shaking their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about. I can do no better than emulate our local station BBC Radio Orkney who regularly read out the sublime and poetic Rural competitions.
An item knitted from 100g of wool.
A poem about winter and four cheese scones.
An old plate.
A photograph of a flower and a jar of raspberry jam.
An embroidered handkerchief and a glass milk jug.
A matchbox filled with objects beginning with ‘M’.
A Christmas tree decoration (any craft) and home-made Baileys (!)

It is, as I have already said, a heavy responsibility to choose between the items presented, and one that must be treated with all seriousness. The crafts, creative writing, artistic appreciation and cookery skills of the Rural members range from warm-hearted attempts, to full blown genius, and sometimes the judge must exercise high levels of diplomacy – difficult when the items are anonymous.  I do hope that as a result of my judging efforts no-one has ever been cast down too much; after tasting six jars of rhubarb chutney it can be difficult to tell between them. When presented by a range of tartan items, I hope my ambivalent feelings towards dolls were put aside in an attempt to admire the artistry of the kilt stitching. And I beg forgiveness for the rebellious thoughts that have flashed through my brain when confronted by dense cheese scones – to wit: ‘Mine are better than that!’

IMG_5741
And therein lies the reason I ignored the summons. Not that I fear the Rural’s (erroneous) reputation as the bastion of old-fashioned attitudes. Neither am I put off by the (again false) impression that the Rural is full of old ladies (firstly, some of them are younger than I am, and secondly, they are individuals and many of them are brilliant and wise and funny). I could beg to be excused on the grounds that I have many other things to do, but that isn’t really good enough. No, the reason I have not joined the Rural is this. I am far, far too competitive. I would hear the call to produce a tray bake and a knitted tea cosy, and I would not rest until I had made the best tray bakes and tea cosy of which I was capable. The red mist would descend, my competitive streak would kick in, and no prisoners would be taken in my desire to gallop across the finishing line ahead of the pack. The day I stop wanting to win is the day I shall join the Rural. In the meantime, I shall continue to listen with pleasure to Radio Orkney’s broadcast of that week’s competitions.
A drawing of a farm animal.
An item beginning with J and a floory bannock.
Four squares of fudge and a bonny plate.

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In the early 1990s I worked in a bar in the West End of Edinburgh, near to Haymarket station. In those pre-Starbucks days, the large buildings on the corners of the Edwardian terraces were still banks. At the other end of the street could be found the splendidly-named West End Fish and just across the way stood the war memorial erected to the players and supporters of a local football club who had died in the Great War.

Our pub was a mixture of locals’ drinking den (it was a cellar bar) and gastro-pub before they were all the rage. The owners of our place had culinary pretensions, which manifested as Sole Bonne Femme, vegetable crepes and chilli nachos; the one concession to ordinary pub grub was allowed on Sundays, when we did the All Day Breakfasts. You know the thing – sausages, fried egg, bacon, grilled tomato, and occasionally potato waffles – perfect hangover food. They were extremely popular and we did dozens of them.

After 3 years of working in that place I had gone from a fairly chipper and cheeky barmaid to a snarling surly animal, as I slowly realised that whilst bar and waitressing work was great for supplementing the student grant and handy in times of high unemployment, it was not exactly what I had planned as a full-on career. Customers asked for ice at their peril. To prevent me from scaring people too much, I was given kitchen tasks, and proved to be quite apt. I liked working in the warm kitchen, and was fast with the orders, plus I could develop my soup-making skills. Every day, the duty cook had to make a huge pot of soup for the next day, and I got stuck straight in. I befriended the rather shabby greengrocer across the road (the shop was shabby, not the Italian greengrocer or his two handsome sons). They loved me because I bought all the old, wilted, on-the-turn veg; Juliano would save me bunches of sad watercress and asparagus and I would transform them into bowls of (always vegetarian) delight. To this day I maintain that the best soup is made from vegetables that are past their best. As well as these exotics, I experimented with Broccoli and Brie, Stilton and Celery, Cream of Courgette and the good old leek and tattie. I once made a tureen of carrot and orange soup and a regular (nicknamed Chief, because he called everyone…erm…Chief….) proclaimed it to be ‘beezer’ which was a high accolade indeed.

On Sundays the routine was slightly different and I was occasionally on All Day Breakfast duties. I shared this honour turn about with a lad called Gavin, a clever but troubled soul who liked an occasional drink. Gav’s speciality was to take a hot potato waffle, top it with baked beans and grated cheddar, and then stick it under the grill until it bubbled. I was particularly proud of my mushrooms and tomatoes. The months/years wore on. I went part-time just doing lunches, but worked a full day on Sundays. Other employment beckoned and I finally made the decision to leave the bar and stop smelling of deep fat fryers. My last shift was a Sunday and my co-workers Andy, John and Gavin had told me in the previous week that I would have an easy time of it. Gavin would do the breakfasts, the other pair would serve at the bar, and I could lounge about smoking fags and reading the Sunday papers.

For the last time I donned my greying shapeless polo shirt, black leggings and Doc Martens and stomped up the road to work. I had had a few drinks the night before, knowing that the next day would be my last shift, so I was tired and a bit groggy and looking forward to eight hours of tea drinking and toast-eating. I arrived first to find the place empty, so I set about hoovering and putting the chairs down. Andy and John arrived and I announced my intention of getting the kettle on. Ah, they said. There’s been a slight change of plan. Gavin can’t make it. What? Why not? I cried. Well, he was pissed last night and got arrested and spent the night in the police cells. You’ll have to cook the breakfasts.

As fate would have it, it was one of our busiest Sundays for months and I spent hours frying eggs and heating up baked beans, cursing to high heaven and grinding my teeth every time I heard Gavin’s name mentioned. Finally, once all the greasy pans had been cleaned, I poured myself a pint and sat at the bar. I was looking forward to going home, pouring a hot bath, reading a book and having an early night. Andy and John popped up. They waved a card at me and handed over a bunch of tatty Michaelmas daisies. What’s this? My last shift. I was leaving. The end of an era. No word of farewells from the owners (who had not known what to make of the world’s grumpiest barmaid with degrees coming out of her ears), or indeed the rest of the staff. I was quite touched that someone had thought to mark the occasion, and we had a few celebratory pints before I headed home.

My years of barwork did nothing for my lungs or my liver, but they honed my soup-making skills a treat – indeed, where I became a proper Soup Dragon. I met some grand folk whilst pulling pints (including Mr Dragon) and I remember my grubby daisies with fondness. But I still had to cook the breakfasts on my last shift and if I ever see Gavin again I will kill him.

Aster novi-belgii White Ladies

The Dragon’s Jacket

coat

In the town where I grew up there was a flea market. It was held every Saturday in a concrete courtyard behind the High Street shops, and it was where I spent most of my money between the ages of 10 and 18.
I collected things. My collections at one time included stamps, candles, tea tins and polished stones, but the collection I have maintained for most of my life has been that of old bottles and jars. Cod bottles with marbles, ink bottles, brown glazed cream jugs, 2-toned cider flagons and the occasional stone hot water ‘pig’. In my one-hour lunch break from my teenage Saturday job (in an achingly classy furniture and gift shop) I would buy a bag of chips and head for the market, browsing at a leisurely pace, the hot vinegary chips keeping my hands warm. The stallholders all knew me, and the man with the bottle stall would sometimes keep things by for me. I had very little money, so each purchase was made after an age of deliberation: sometimes it took me weeks to decide which lemonade bottle to buy.
There was a stall next to the bottle table which was crammed with vintage collectibles – stuff like old OXO tins, deck chairs and glass beads. I browsed there too, and occasionally bought something cheap like a small box that had once held Parma Violets. One Saturday I followed my usual routine – chip shop, flea market, bottle stall. But my purposeful steps were halted suddenly by the junk stall. There, dangling from a wooden hanger, was the most amazing piece of clothing I had ever seen. It was a boxy jacket made of very dark blue, almost black, thin corded material. At its cuffs and geometric angular collar was a thin rim of dark red ribbon, and round every edge was a rope of gold braid. Down the double-breasted front marched a line of tarnished brass buttons. The lining was black satin and the smell of decades hit my nostrils as I tried it on. It was a perfect fit, albeit a bit long in the arms.
The man on the stall told me that it was the jacket of a cinema commissionaire, the uniformed presence who opened doors, presided over the foyer, helped ladies on with their coats and occasionally introduced the films, no doubt featuring Hollywood legends like Clarke Gable and Hedy Lamarr. The jacket evoked movie glamour; it had a quasi-military air and more than a hint of Sergeant Pepper about it. I wanted it so much my stomach hurt. The stallholder wanted £40.00 for it.
It was a huge amount of money for me at the time. My Saturday job paid £8.00 a week and that had to cover my clothes, my books, my going out, my Saturday chips, everything. The stallholder and I came to a deal. He dropped the price to £38.00 and he allowed me to pay in instalments. It was nearly 5 months before I paid the last of the money and got to slip the musty satin over my shoulders once more. I paraded around the market and let the stallholders see me – they all knew how long I had waited for that moment. They applauded and admired, and I felt like I was on top of the world.
I wore the jacket regularly for years. My favourite outfit at 18 was a pair of tight cream jeans, knee length leather boots, black t-shirt and the commissionaire’s jacket. People knew me by it. Several women and a couple of men tried to buy it from me. When one of my university boyfriends first saw me, I was wearing it: he turned to a mutual friend and said ‘Who the hell is that?’
Years later I made a disastrous attempt to turn over the thick ropes of braid. The gold was tarnished on the outside and shiny underneath and I wanted to reverse it to get the bright gold uppermost. I unpicked the sleeves at the shoulders to reveal wads of woollen padding that looked like furniture stuffing. My braid-reversal did not really work.

Recently, we started the process of clearing out the boxes in our shed…and the jacket has surfaced again! It is still awesome, but looks very battle-weary (as you can probably tell from the photo). I wonder if a good clean and a clever seamstress could revive its former glories? I have tried it on – it still fits, and the strange musty aroma transports me back to those teenage years; the chips, the flea market, and the power of wearing The Jacket.

img_5622Last week there was an item of news that caused chuckles all around – a French fellow in New Zealand had lost his temper after hitching by the road in a small village, and failing to get a lift for four days. You’d think that after a while (30 minutes? Several hours?) he might have figured out that he wasn’t standing in the best spot, and changed location or tactics accordingly. I heard several seasoned hitchhikers on the radio talking about the best techniques, and how successful they had been over the years (and citing New Zealand as one of the best places for it). It got me reminiscing.

I first visited Orkney in the late 1980s, whilst I was at university. I had a new boyfriend (recently rediscovered on FB…. *waves*) who had been before, and I had just started a course in Orkney history. We were typically impoverished students. If my memory serves, we got the train to Inverness, spent the night in Inverness station, then took a bus to Thurso. We walked (laden with rucksacks, sleeping bags, tent, camping stoves) to Scrabster and sailed as foot passengers to Stromness. The bf had brought a map and the knowledge of one-who-had-trod-these-shores-before. I brought enthusiasm and a tin of Golden Virginia. We were sorted.

The pair of us had only a few days to see Orkney, and we were hampered by having no car and very little money. To save precious cash we rough-camped (always with permission), ate Primula cheese at every meal, and hitched from one place to another, meeting some great folk along the road. For various reasons it was a truly memorable trip, but my greatest and fondest memory involves going across the barriers. We had got ourselves to the Italian Chapel (and oh, how I envy those seeing it for the first time!), and were planning on spending the night at the tip of South Ronaldsay, before boarding the John O Groats ferry the next morning. On Lamb Holm we hoisted the backpacks and stuck out the thumbs. Within a few minutes we had our ride – a battered, rusty, yellow Ford Fiesta, windows jammed shut with newspaper, already occupied by three people and a boisterous collie dog. The young lady who was driving somehow managed to cram the two of us and our packs into the already crowded car, and off we went. ‘Where’re ye gaan?’ the lass said. ‘The Tomb of the Eagles’, we replied. And she drove us all the way there. Only as we were approaching Liddle Farm did we discover that the lass actually lived in the ‘Hope, and had gone far out of her way to take us to our destination. ‘Oh,’ we cried, ‘there was no need’. ‘Well, it’s worth seein’ and I wouldna have wanted ye tae miss it’.

Our hitching adventures in Orkney were so successful that I vowed there and then that if I ever got a car, I would pick up hitchers wherever I could, in order to pay back the kindness that I had experienced. In the years that followed I have tried to honour the vow, although the number of people hitching on the road has fallen away to almost nothing.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I left work at 6pm as usual, and drove out of Kirkwall. It was raining hard and I was tired and eager to get home. Just after the Ayre Mills roundabout I passed a trio of hitchers laden with soggy rucksacks. I shrugged and gestured at my tiny car, already packed with bags and boxes and other detritus. ‘No room, sorry,’ my shrug attempted to convey. I drove on. Then my inner voice kicked in……I turned the car at the next opportunity, and went back to get them. Two lads and a lass smiled gratefully as we attempted to squeeze three huge packs and themselves into a Mini One. It was a squash but we got everyone crammed in eventually, and set off. I discovered they were from Spain, and were all studying archaeology, specialising in Egyptology. They were off to see Maeshowe (from the outside), from where they were planning to walk up to the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. It was only a little out of my way, so I took them to Tormiston Mill. As they eased themselves and their luggage out of the car and we waved our goodbyes, the rain eased off a bit.

We all like to think we are good people, yes? I mean, when we are watching a film, or a great TV programme, or reading an amazing book, we are urging on the protagonist to great things, (mostly) safe in the knowledge that they will do the right thing, make the selfless decisions, be the better person. If they fail, we are disappointed. And we are generally confident that if that had been *us* in that position, we would, of course, have taken the right path, been a good, kind person. But it is so much harder in real life! Last week, you might have thought about sending a message to a friend who you knew was having a difficult time…..but the phone rang and the dog needed walking and the thought never became action. You may have passed an acquaintance in the street and not stopped to chat – you were busy, you had a meeting, there would have been some reason why you didn’t. A good reason. It’s not always easy to do the right thing; most of the time we don’t even realise we have missed the chance.

And so, following the car u-turn, I am trying to be a better, kinder person. I am in distress about a lot of what is happening in the world, and I don’t have the strength or energy to deal with it, so I largely avoid it. But after the EU referendum (when I spent a lot of the following day on the verge of tears), a friend said that the way to help the world was through kindness. Her words echo those of Roald Dahl, whose 100th birthday we are celebrating this year; ‘I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else…. Kindness – that simple word. To be kind – it covers everything, to my mind. If you’re kind that’s it’.

I’m a selfish person mostly, and I look in wonder and admiration at my friends who show generosity and grace under pressure. They are an inspiration. I might fail at kindness a lot of the time, but I am trying hard to recognise the opportunities when they arise. It’s got to be worth a shot. So if you seeing me driving by, stick out your thumb – I might pick you up!

Poppies finished

Poppies are on my mind. And with good reason. On Friday 22 April the Weeping Window was officially opened at St Magnus Cathedral – a cascade of ceramic poppies pouring from a high window down onto the steps and the Kirk Green below. As with any piece of good art, it provokes, inspires, and elicits reflection and debate. It is to most people’s eyes a beautiful thing, and it is worth taking a moment to think about why the poppy has taken on so much significance.

Since childhood we in Britain have all been used to wearing a poppy in early November, and it is part of our cultural makeup that the poppy is a symbol of remembrance. The practice began soon after the end of WWI, and became officially adopted by the establishment as a way for the UK to remember its war dead. Several factors led to that decision, but much of the credit must go to a Canadian doctor called John McRae, whose ancestors were from the Isle of Skye, and were renowned as Gaelic poets. McRae was an army doctor serving with the Canadian forces on the Western Front; during one posting he found himself at an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) on the Ypres Salient – a stretch of trenches so bitterly fought over that it became known as the ‘graveyard of the British army’. His hospital was a series of concrete bunkers hunkered beneath the front line – so close, they said, that they could simply roll the bodies down the slope and into the dark, damp shelters. The floors were covered in mesh to stop the doctors slipping on the blood; conditions were basic, and so was the treatment offered. If a casualty could be saved, he would be sent to a bigger hospital behind the lines, and thence either back to his unit, or back to Blighty. The ones who died were buried in the field next to the ADS, and the resulting graveyard became known as Essex Farm Cemetery, after a regiment that had once been stationed nearby.

The story goes that the Canadian forces had caught the full force of a gas attack, and suffered horribly. McRae dealt with the immediate aftermath, working ceaselessly for three days and nights without sleep. Many men died, amongst them McRae’s good friend Alexis Helmer. Finally McRae had time for a short break so he took himself outside for a cigarette and found that a misty dawn was breaking over the Belgian landscape. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, convinced that he must be hallucinating through lack of sleep; the fields all around him were awash with red blood. When his vision cleared he looked again, and discovered that the scarlet he saw came not from blood, but from poppies.

Poppies grow in disturbed ground, and there was certainly plenty of that on the Western Front what with shelling, rain, and hurried burials. The warm morning sunshine at McRae’s hospital had made the poppies bloom. The weary doctor pulled out a stub of pencil, a scrap of paper, and started to write a poem that began with the words ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row….’. McRae sent the poem home to his mother, who in turn sent it to a magazine; it quickly became a favourite with the soldiers themselves.

In our modern times, the second verse of the poem can make difficult reading, speaking as it does with the voices of the dead soldiers. They exhort the reader to carry on the fight, to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’, else their own deaths would be in vain. For those who believe the whole war was a senseless waste of life, this is difficult to hear.

Before my Orkney life I worked for a tour company south who took groups of schoolchildren to the First World War battlefields. For several years I tramped through cemeteries and trenches, visited museums and memorials, followed by 13 and 14-year old pupils – who responded magnificently. Those trips were emotional, heart-breaking, exhausting, and ultimately life-affirming. I would stand on top of a row of fossilised sandbags at Essex Farm and tell the story of McRae and the poppy poem, declaiming the line ‘and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly – scarce heard amid the guns below’; and blow me if there wasn’t always a skylark belting its little heart out high above us, and often clumps of scarlet poppies growing amidst the graves. Small wonder then, that the poppy has a special meaning for me.

And so, to Kirkwall. How did the poppies come to be here? In 2014 the now-famous art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (itself named after a line taken from a poem) appeared at the Tower of London. It comprised 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies, one for every British and colonial soldier who died during the First World War. It was made by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, and designed by Tom Piper. Most of the poppies were then sold to members of the public, and I am lucky enough to own one of them. The two large sculptural elements, Weeping Window and Wave, were kept back – over 10,000 poppies in all. The two large pieces (each containing 4,000-5,000 poppies) were bought by two individuals/organisations, who then donated the artworks to the Imperial War Museum. Weeping Window and Wave are going on a four year tour around the UK. The Orkney Islands Council Arts Officer put in an application for the cathedral to be one of the locations, based on the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, and the UK official Act of Remembrance will take place in the cathedral on 31 May.

Once the bid had succeeded the process began of constructing the installation. Scaffolders, painters, stonemasons, a team from 14-18 NOW, most of the council’s museum staff….over the space of two weeks many people contributed, and the installation slowly came together under the watchful eye of the Kirkwall residents. For the unveiling, the original artist and designer came to Orkney and proclaimed themselves delighted with the overall effect. The red sandstone of the cathedral gives the impression that the poppies are growing out of the walls – a very pleasing effect. Thousands of photos were taken in bright sunshine and then that night, by floodlights with the full moon behind.

The public’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, and there has been a lot of debate about what the installation signifies, and what might be appropriate behaviour surrounding it. Suddenly, there is poppy etiquette to consider. Is it appropriate, say, to take a poppy selfie? What about weddings in the cathedral – would it be fitting for the bride and groom to have a photo taken grinning in front of what is essentially a war memorial?

A friend brought up the subject of blackenings (the pre-wedding ritual that involves drink, treacle, and being cling-filmed to the nearby Mercat Cross). What message would that send out, she worried, about our young people’s attitude towards our war dead? Did it show a lack of respect? My mind went back to the battlefields and the school kids; in their downtime (having had full days of battlefield experiences) they ran, they sang, they burnt off energy and embraced the high spirits of youth – and I loved them for it. They reminded me that the young soldiers would not have wanted to be memorialised in respectful, mournful silence; they wanted to live, get drunk, dance, run, mess about with girls (or boys). To my mind, the young folk tearing about being young and happy is the best tribute possible to the men and women who died in the two world wars.

The wearing of the poppy for Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday has become a matter of hot debate in recent years, and opinions can be strong on both sides; for every person who believes it is an outdated imperialist practice, there is another who is in danger of fetishising the poppy with sentimentality and Facebook posts featuring sunsets and ‘lest we forget’ captions.

All this I see when I see Weeping Window – battlefields, poetry, remembrance, philosophy. I also see children looking curious and artists responding and people talking. But most of all I detect an overwhelming sense of pride that ‘we’ were chosen for this. I think – I hope – that we do it justice.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.