Highland River

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.

 

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Photo by the author

 

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.”

 

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A tangle of creel baskets at Dunbeath harbour where small scale crab and lobster fishing has replaced the thriving herring industry of the early nineteenth century.

On Depression

“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

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Photographic image by the author

Something Fishy

DiCaprio’s Gap Year

He cruises Main Street every Friday come dreich or blue skies, sporting
mirror shades, white overalls and an Afro disguise; quite the showstopper.

His catchy tune tinkles in the wind before he appears round the hairpin
by the Ferry Inn; Thou shall hev a fishy on a little dishy, thou shall hev a fishy when…

Leonardo drives a converted ice cream van with a large plastic haddock
bolted to the roof, its flashing green eyes synchronise with the music.

The village cats wake up. The housewives apply lipstick. He delivers the flesh
of the sea direct from the Shetland trawlers and northern creel-boats.

His customers don’t know he survived Titanic and that since the heart
-wrenching moment he released Kate’s hand in the pool he’s been a wreck

with a strange empathy for inanimate fish.  His therapist blames
all those hours spent in the water trying to look love-sick

for Cameron’s perfect shot. His therapist claims
he has PTSD and toxins from the snow powder seeped into his blood stream.

He could sue but what’s the point?  It was the finality of letting go
that finished him, (though he’d promised he never would), the realization

that he was alone, dumped with no hope of rescue. After all his efforts to save
that spoiled brat, ruining his hair and getting chilblains in the process, she left him.

Just like those poor bastards neatly sliced and iced in his van;
the swordfish, monkfish, wolf-fish, langoustines, salmon, sea bass and lemon sole,

the delicate Orkney crabs, dressed and undressed for special occasions,
the peppered mackerel and smoked cod, the red snapper, prawns like babies’ penises

pickled in jars and lobsters with accusing eyes that make him turn away.
Jesus was a fisherman so every night Leo says a prayer

for the unwanted, those cast back into the harbor
and then he strolls to the end of the pier to practice walking on water.

 

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Artwork by the author

 

 

Song

She who is composition in blue and orange.
She who is ice water tumbling on rocks.
She who is top of the tower.
She who is willow bending in the wind.
She who is Chopin Nocturne 72.
She who is meeting the devil at the crossroads.
She who is strawberry wine with a dash of cyanide.
She who is white wolf hunting by moonlight.
She who is neon or xenon or argon or helium, balloons floating on a summer day.
She who has been crash tested in extreme situations.
She who has no centre of gravity.
She who will leave dirt tracks all over your fat face.
She who has small sharp white teeth.
She who has sensational performance.
She who has eye of the kestrel.
She who is splendid in solitude.
She who is child of Kali.
She who is revolving door.
She who is crack in the plaster.
She who is razor’s edge.
She who is smell of hot tarmac.
She who is cripple bitch.
She who is me.

 

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Photograph by the author

Without Warning

I saw a red balloon
low in the western sky
going down, down, down.
The wind whittled a prayer
and seagulls fell to ground.

Flowers floated slick
by the harbor wall.
Birthdays and funerals
gone, gone, gone Cola cans,
rubber bullets and condoms.

The lawyer twisted words
out the side of his mouth.
The preacher whistled
Three Blind Mice as the poet
flew away in a paper plane.

White feathers gathered
on the darkening lawn
so I turned myself inside.
Mesmerized by static,
I waited for the fall.

 

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Painting titled Atomic Bay by the author. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

Reading Between the Lines

You can’t judge a book by its cover

but can you judge a woman by her books?

 

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Photo by the author

 

Credit to http://www.stevestillstanding.com for inspiring me with his recent black and white photos of bookshelves.  You can see his pictures at

Upstart Photographer#4. Book Shelves.

They made me look at my books afresh.  My shelves are all full so I have mini piles of books around the house.  This was a random selection.

It is What it is (or is it?)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I hate hearing this phrase which seems to be everywhere these days.  It’s like the ultimate cop-out, a slick way to terminate any awkward conversation and is used frequently by politicians, the police, sports people, business entrepreneurs and many pop celebrities.  I’ve heard it in bleak Scandi-noir TV dramas and once or twice even caught myself saying it.  It’s the title of several films, songs and books.  Such a pat phrase that just slips off the tongue and makes you seem cool. But why has it become popular and what does it say about our society?

To me, “it is what it is” reeks of negativity, passivity, resignation and defeat.  It’s saying, ‘this is a bad situation but there’s fuck all I can do about it”.  It’s saying let’s accept reality, let’s just lie down and die.  The phrase suggests that reality is a fixed, immutable state and that we have no control, we are merely passengers on an uncomfortable train to hell.  I don’t know about you, but that is not the way I choose to live my life.  I am not a brainwashed battery hen clucking away in a cage, pretending I am free while I’m really being processed for destruction.

OK, I agree some situations may be out of our control but there’s always something we can do to improve matters.  Just because it is difficult to change something doesn’t mean we should give up.  We should at least try.  It’s like when people shrug and say, ‘oh well there will always be wars, it’s just human nature.’ Was it human nature to profit from slavery, rape women, exterminate disabled people,  participate in blood sports and send children down the mines?  These are all horrors that we no longer tolerate in a civilised society.  They may still happen in secret but are considered crimes.  Society can and does change. People can change.

When people say ‘it is what it is’ they are implying that a situation is fixed and knowable.  This is not true.  Any situation, even something simple like ‘it’s raining today’ is a matter of perception, of experience, of interpretation.  Reality is in a constant state of flux and so are we.  It may be raining in your street but not on the other side of town.  And the rain may  stop at any moment. The sun may shine the next time you look out the window.  We are never 100% aware of all the facts.  We only have a partial view based on limited information.  For example, a loved one may be diagnosed with a terminal illness, but doctors are often wrong, the body can and does mysteriously heal itself. The sick person can adapt and learn to live successfully with illness.  Life is a multiplicity of greys, a misty landscape and not a row of black and white boxes.

Take this photograph as a visual metaphor.  It shows a rather elegant entrance to a building which could be a hotel, a school, a conference centre, a hospital, a law court, a police station…we may speculate on what lies beyond the doors but until we pass through them we do not know.  Every day in your life is like those doors.  Never make assumptions about the future. Never give up on a situation.

 

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Photograph by the author

Next time you are tempted to say ‘it is what it is’, hang fire and try to think out of the box.   Change is always possible and it sometimes happens in small steps.  Humans have evolved and survived as a dominant species because of our ability to adapt.  We can be clever and inventive.  We can be compassionate.  The day we stop doing that and become resigned to an unsatisfactory fate is the day we cease to thrive.