The dazzling and bold Rush of Lava Flowers by Lydia Popowich can be bought here:-
My third and final guest poet is Mandy Beattie. Here is her mysterious poem inspired by a local Scottish landmark of standing stones.
A pantry of organic nettle tea
and skeins of wild raspberries
tumble through the turnstile
of concrete & standing-stanes
where sky sits
a duck-egg blue ceiling
on the Hill O’ Many Stanes
The Land O’ The Cat
where Hairy-Brottachs hatch
into Louded Yellow and
Green-Veined White butterflies
and dandelion clocks puff
among mosaics of standing-stanes
Kneeling at a silver stane-pew
palming ley-lines with my life-lines
I am litmus among lichen
waking-dreaming of way-back-when
the Wee Folk jigged
in amethyst heather and fairy rings
in The Land O’ the Cat
where the veil’s still thin between worlds.
Poem Copyright of Mandy Beattie
Note:- The Hill o’ Many Stanes consists of about 200 small stones arranged in rows running down a low hill in East Caithness, Northern Scotland. They were erected about 4,000 years ago, possibly for gatherings and religious ceremonies. Caithness was once known as the Land of the Cat People, a reference to an ancient legendary tribe of Picts who inhabited the area.
Mandy Beattie, is a feminist from Caithness, with an MA in Social Work Practice & Research. Her poetry is a tapestry of stories and imagery, rooted in people, place & the natural environment, set at home and abroad.
Everything is more beautiful in retrospect.
Sometime between the sepia past,
the grey today and the flash of tomorrow
truth slips away unseen, a tangle of electric
eels squirming in an underground stream.
We look back and see only clear skies
and carefree picnics but never the cold.
We look back and feel only tender kisses
and the soft caress but never the blows.
We look back and remember nothing.
Last night I climbed into bed relaxed and comfortable with my cat Nadia beside me. I switched off the lamp and moments later I heard the sounds of a cat moving around the house. It’s very quiet where I live, bordered by fields so every sound is amplified. I heard a cat jump down from a height and then the gentle clicking of claws on the wooden floor. I was confused as I could feel Nadia snuggled up against my legs. Convinced a stray cat must have sneaked into the house I quickly switched the light back on. There was no-one there. I switched the light off again and the noises continued. It was pretty spooky.
This was not the first time I’d heard unexplained cat sounds since my loyal ginger cat, Sputnik, died four years ago. I’ve sometimes heard a cat wailing. At first I put it down to missing him but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps he’s still around me. It would be nice to think so.
One of my friends had an uncanny experience after her beloved dog died. A few days after his death she was visiting a relative in hospital. As she walked the length of the ward she was stopped by an old lady, one of the patients. “What a lovely spaniel you’ve got there, dear,” she said to my friend. “Fancy the nurses letting you bring a dog to visit!” My friend’s deceased dog had, in fact, been a spaniel. The old lady could describe the brown and white dog following along behind. It’s hard to find a rational explanation for this. The lady had never spoken to my friend or her sick relative before. How could she know about her dog?
Acccording to a recent poll about fifty percent of people in the U.K. believe in ghosts. In an age where secularism and science are the undisputed new religion it’s surprising that so many believe in the supernatural. Cynics would say, it’s all in the mind, a trick of the light, a hallucination or there must be a rational explanation. But surely everything is in the mind. Our experience of what we name ‘reality’ is entirely subjective. The world is perceived and interpreted by our mind, there is no other way. So if we think it’s ‘real’ then it is ‘real’.
The word “ghost” in English tends to refer to the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear to the living. In A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke discusses nine varieties of ghosts identified by Peter Underwood, who has studied ghost stories for decades. Underwood’s classification of ghosts includes elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects.
In Asia the belief in ghosts is more widespread than in Europe. Ghosts are seen as benevolent, healing spirits, ancestors watching over us. In the U.K. while some people are frightened of ghosts, many participate in ghost hunting holidays staying in supposedly haunted hotels. The tourist industry cashes in on these spooky thrill seekers. The medieval city of York is famous for hauntings and organised ‘ghost walks’. When I was six years old, too young to know anything of history or the supernatural I must have seen a ghost in Clifford’s Tower.
Clifford’s Tower is a striking landmark in York built on top of a steep mound. It is the largest remaining part of York Castle, once the centre of government for the north of England. The 11th-century timber tower on top of the earth mound was burned down in 1190, after York’s Jewish community, some 150 strong, was besieged and massacred by an anti-Semitic mob. The tower was rebuilt and the present 13th-century stone building was used as a treasury and later as a prison.
I visited the tower with my father and grandfather, climbing the fifty five steps to the entrance and then up a twisting stone staircase to the roof. We were on the decked walkway at the very top of the tower admiring the panoramic views of York. I wandered off on my own, as children do, and descended a narrow spiral staircase, not the one we’d ascended. Halfway down I discovered a furnished room bathed in a rose light with the door ajar. A man wearing a crimson, velvet cloak trimmed with white fur was seated at a desk, his back turned to the door. He was writing with a quill pen. I was astonished. With great excitement I ran back up to the roof to find my grandfather, dragging him down the stairs to see the strange man with the fancy clothes. But everything had changed. The door was now bolted and disused. There was no-one there. My grandfather dismissed my claims as childish fantasy but it was completely real to me. It was only years later, as an adult that I recalled this incident and realised the mysterious figure must have been an apparition.
I would love to know who or what I saw that day. Was it just a memory imprint in the fabric of time, like a psychic photograph?
When Winston Churchill visited the White House soon after World War 2, he reported a ghostly experience. Naked after a long soak in a hot bath with a cigar and a glass of Scotch, he was walking into the bedroom – only to encounter the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Churchill kept his cool and announced: “Good evening, Mr President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” The spirit smiled and vanished.
The writer Arthur Conan Doyle spoke to ghosts through mediums and Alan Turing who invented the first computer believed in telepathy. These three men were all famous for their intelligence and yet they believed in the supernatural.
So perhaps I’m in prestigious company! It’s good to think that there might be more to life than our humdrum material world, that there’s still a mystery to ponder.
I would love to hear your personal ghost stories. Please leave a comment if you have any. And sleep tight! It’s the living and not the dead we need to worry about!
These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay. She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands. Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle. At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts. No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters. They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh. I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.
I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.
Lots of love and kisses,
I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you? Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.
Lots of love and kisses,
PS A Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING
Everywhere you look in the Highlands there are wild seas, sparkling waterfalls, crystal rivers and lochs. Rain falls almost every day. Northern Scotland is a realm of water. Perhaps that is why so many people choose to make it their home. Human beings, like other animals, have an instinct to gather near water. Water is a source of sustenance, essential to survival.
Many of the novels of acclaimed Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (born 1891 – died 1973) focus on a watery theme:- Morning Tide, The Silver Darlings, The Grey Coast, The Drinking Well and Highland River which won the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath, a tiny coastal village which is a half hour drive from my home. His father was the captain of a herring boat and Gunn’s writing explores the harsh lives, isolation and landscapes of Caithness fishing communities. Gunn was a socialist and a political activist committed to Scottish Nationalism and independence. His writing has a Zen-like intensity with an underlying mysticism, detailed descriptions of landscape and the slow unfurling of events.
Visitors to Dunbeath harbour today will see a striking bronze statue of a boy wrestling with a huge salmon. The statue illustrates a dramatic scene from Highland River when nine year old Kenn captures a salmon with his bare hands. The novel contrasts this childhood struggle for survival and dominance with the brutality of World War 1 when an adult Kenn joins the British army.
Within the first two pages Gunn introduces the novel’s main protagonist, establishes the remote community setting and the landscape whilst building dramatic mood and tension. It is an example of Neil Gunn’s great skill as a writer. Here is a short excerpt describing when Kenn on a cold morning, reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea just before he sees the salmon:-
“Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.”
Fish and chips is a traditional English dish that has been popular with the working class since the mid nineteenth century. The idea of hot, fried fish sold from street stalls may have been introduced by French, Spanish or Jewish immigrants. During World War 2 it was one of the few foods not to be rationed and many believe the availability of such a comforting meal helped sustain working class morale through the intense bombing raids in the cities.
For those of you who have never been lucky enough to try this tasty dish, it consists of white fish (usually cod or haddock) deep fried with a golden crispy batter together with fried chipped potatoes. It can be served in a variety of ways; with salt and vinegar or tomato sauce, mushy peas, pickled onions or bread and butter. Originally the fish was cooked in beef dripping but most outlets now use vegetable oil. Despite concerns about the health risks of fried food and the sustainability of fish stocks, fish and chips remains one of the most popular take-outs, particularly in the north. Until the 1980s the food was traditionally wrapped in old newspaper so you could catch up on current affairs while you ate your supper! A childhood day out at the seaside was never complete without getting fish and chips on the way home.
Hope you enjoy my photographs that show the changes in Petrol pump design from the sixties to the noughties. Note the switch from gallons to litres and the introduction of unleaded. I took the pictures at disused filling stations in Northern Scotland. Can you spot the bird’s nest? Would a bird be faster than an Esso ‘tiger in your tank’? Someone should do research!
In the final shot I liked the spectral polythene sheeting shredded and flapping in the wind which often reaches 70 mph in the Flow Country.
In the first shot I was drawn to the signs of corrosion and nature taking over. Turquoise and orange were fashionable colours in the sixties. The fourth picture shows purple pumps, a colour that is still popular today…the trains and bus shelters are all purple (or the colour of Scottish Heather perhaps!)
Examples of strangely cryptic, weathered signs found at old petrol stations in Northern Scotland:-
Cars have always played a positive role in my life so the inevitable news that petrol and diesel cars are to be banned in the UK from 2040 fills me with nostalgia. Of course it’s an essential step towards decreasing air pollution and global warming but the internal combustion engine will be missed by many of us. Technology keeps moving on with the advent of electric and self-drive vehicles (the latter being a terrifying prospect when I think how often my laptop crashes). The traditional petrol car has been a cool cultural icon for nearly a century, a symbol of personal freedom, style and aspiration. It has featured in many wonderful movies:- Rebel Without A Cause, The French Connection, The Italian Job, The Driver, Thelma and Louise, the list is endless. Can you really imagine an exciting car chase in an automated electric car? Would Thelma and Louise make their heroic stance against conformity and authority while sitting passively in a car with no steering wheel? Is this new technology a sinister portent of a future where citizens lose control over their lives?
I grew up in the sixties when petrol was cheap and motoring was a carefree, guilt-free experience. Cars were affordable even to many working class families and it allowed them to escape industrial towns to explore the countryside and the coast. Our first family car was a second-hand black Ford Consul. I remember the smooth, comforting contours. It felt safe and reassuring long before the compulsory seat belts, inflatable air bags and zero tolerance of drinking and driving that we take for granted today. We lived with a certain amount of risk and people didn’t stress about all the horrible possibilities of what might happen. That said, there were far fewer cars on the road and people were more respectful of each other. No-one had ever heard of road-rage.
Nearly every summer weekend we would pack up provisions and our little orange tent and head for the seaside together with numerous friends. In the cooler months we would go for long drives around the countryside and have picnics in the back seat or bravely shivering in a lay-by. We couldn’t afford garage repairs so my father maintained the car himself and took great pride in his immaculate standards. It was typical for many working class men to repair their own cars. Before the digital era and the concept of built-in obsolescence it was relatively easy to replace parts. Our Ford Consul lived to a great age and was eventually sold on. We replaced it with a two tone, blue and cream Humber Sceptre with curvaceous chrome trims and sculpted wings. My father was devastated when the bodywork was damaged in a minor scrape with a dry-stone wall. He took to his bed for a week and didn’t speak or eat. The car had to be scrapped because he couldn’t find a replacement panel.
Now I live in a remote rural area where once upon a time there was a petrol station in every village. Like the village shops, the petrol station was a focal point for the community, enabling human contact and the exchange of information. Buying petrol used to be fun. There were free gifts such as drinking glasses, (I still have one chunky tumbler at the back of my cupboard!), coasters, sunglasses, sweets, posters. As a little girl I remember being thrilled with a free kite. In the UK there were Green Shield stamps, paper tokens you were given with petrol purchases that you collected and glued into a book. The books were exchanged for gifts at a Green Shield Centre. Petroleum companies had jolly slogans such as ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’ by Esso. All that has gone. In the eleven years since I moved to this area the few surviving petrol stations have closed. The only remaining one is part of a large supermarket chain. We now have to drive over fifty miles to obtain fuel and you need to plan ahead. Life is becoming more difficult and more isolated. There are no local jobs selling petrol, work that suited many women and students as it was part-time.
It’s sad to see the derelict petrol stations at the side of the road. In recent years I’ve photographed the decaying buildings, old signs and rusting pumps. Grass and weeds are reclaiming the former concrete forecourts. I find them bleakly beautiful. Many of the old designs had an Art Deco influence. Will the new electric charging points of the future have the same sense of design? I fear not. The future is less concerned with aesthetics and humanity. There will be no-one to chat to about the weather when you plug your car in to an impersonal machine.
So I hope you enjoy my photographs of the bye-gone petroleum era entitled Ignition Switch. There are more to come.
And if you are a bit of a petrol-head or have any memories to share of motoring experiences in the past I would love to hear them. Please leave a comment. Times must change but sometimes you can’t help wishing they would stay the same!