Tuesday, 10 June 2014

An observation from the edge

                Life on the dole is not quite the experience that I expected.

                I did not once in my whole career moan about folk on benefits. Fraudsters are a different matter, but people who are entitled to it, I have always advocated, should jolly well get it. My recent encounter with Jobcentre+ has done nothing to change my view. If anything, I am now as angry with DWP almost as much as those incompetent numpties at HMRC. I’m proud that I at least had the good fortune to work for an agency with credibility. Just as I’m sure that that’ll be the case until they sell it off.

                I haven’t signed on for the purpose of getting any money. As a man of leisure of three years standing, I haven’t, obviously, been credited with any National Insurance contributions in that time. On reflection, I perhaps should have signed on straight away but the thought of doing so when we had money coming out of the wazoo seemed to me unconscionable. Now the gelt is all but gone. I have a part-time job and a bit of money from my other gig as a private residential landlord. It’s just that with the taxman after me for big numbers and arrogant politicians claiming that the good times are back, I thought the time right to set the record straight.

                After signing on online, I got an appointment to attend the Jobcentre in Kirkwall. ‘Bert’ is an OK guy, helped me through the application and handed me the forms I’d need to complete to show that I was actively looking for employment. It’s a fair enough request. I don’t have a plan to return to servitude, but if the ideal position comes to up, I could do that for a few years. Basically though, who needs that shit?

                So for no benefit from the benefit system that I happily contributed to for thirty years, I’m at a loss how to proceed. If I continued to ‘claim’ to be out of full time employment, which I have to concede is the truth of the matter, I have to regularly post (at a minimum of fifty three pence a hit for the stamp) a declaration to DWP. Not only that, but every time I change my work days or anything else happens that changes my weekly earnings (which generally fluctuate with arrhythmiatic certitude) I am obliged to phone them on a premium rate number to keep them in the loop. 

                What sort of scam are DWP running here?

                It’s a shame that the truth is such an expensive commodity. Don’t believe jobless figures. Trust that there are a number of people who CAN’T AFFORD to be registered unemployed. Don’t believe that those on benefits don’t deserve it. In the last two weeks, I can’t remember ever having to work so hard. 

                And for what?

                From my experience, I haven’t a blinkin’ clue!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Heading into Spring, 2014.

March is here already. I can’t say that I am too dismayed that the days are whizzing past. The sooner the season changes the better. The longer days can’t possible do any harm either. I picked up my first payslip in just under three years. There was a concern that they may have deducted tax and NI contributions even though I’m nowhere near earning the threshold. It has not stopped HMRC asking for three and a half grand though. Some interesting correspondence between us lies ahead. Looks as if I could become the poorest guy paying fifty percent tax in history!
Smokey picks her way between the puddles.

The volunteer lifeguards at the pool have to attend a training session every month to keep their skills honed. In February, a session was also arranged also for the key-holders, who’s responsibility it is to look after everything other than the pool itself,
to practice their role in an emergency situation. The lifeguards were simulating different aquatic mishaps in front of them and everybody was working together through each scenario in accordance with the Emergency Action Plan. Thankfully there were no casualties. Mind you, it wouldn’t have been the first time that I’ve become a genuine casualty in the course of training. I hadn’t even passed my RLSS exam when I had a nosebleed in the pool and then damaged a toe during a mock rescue. These mishaps are not helping to build confidence that I can be part of the solution instead of the problem.

The deep, blue B9069!
That very same day, the sea defences at Bay of Lopness were breached and flooded the road. A mountainous sea on top of an unusually high spring tide brought waves not so much over the top of the dunes, but through some of the access points to the beach, which are slightly lower. These are gaps that tractors have used/caused to get down onto the beach, probably to carry away driftwood and tangles. There is just such a narrow space opposite our neighbour’s driveway, where they keep their little dingy and, sure enough, debris was strewn across the road. The other side of us, toward Newark, there was about a foot of standing water for nearly a hundred yards. Again, the path of the water from the top of the dunes was evidenced by rubbish and pebbles leading down the landward side of it, just like glacial moraine. The Skoda made it through the deluge at a crawl to avoid a bow-wave. The fun and games started a couple of days later when the salt-water exposure seized the brakes. I’m used to the odd wheel slipping over the grass, but when you’re dragging tyres on dry tarmac then you know that you’re in trouble. I had to take a wheel off and apply liberal persuasion with a hammer to loosen things up. I’m sure that’s all that professional mechanics do.

Andy shows that he's a keen follower of fashion.
 There was profit and loss to be experienced only weeks later. I had ordered a nice, new high visibility shell jacket all the way back before Christmas, but being unable to get back to Mainland to collect it, it sat gathering dust in Kirkwall. Eventually, the good lady wife of our island councillor volunteered to bring it back to Sanday for me.  That joy was tempered however by the loss of my ‘pride and joy’ Columbia mountain boots. The stitching holding the uppers to the rubber sole and carcass had been eaten away. They were now useless, fit only for the bin. I did cry a little bit. Now all I’ve got left in the way of practical footwear are a tired pair of Merrells and my wellies.

Who let the sun-dogs out?
I very much enjoyed the Winter Olympics and it provided a great motivation to get up in the morning. The way that Elise Christie annihilated the completion in her first qualifying race promised much. It certainly did not prepare any of us for the evil, petty, vindictive persecution of her that was to follow. I would have loved to see her on the long track. I’m sure that she would have broken up the tedious orange domination of the event. Gail and I needed to tear ourselves away to do some shopping and also pop into the visiting mobile library. A spectacle awaited us on our return. When looking out of the window, there was a second bright spot in the sky. The big orange blob was to be expected, even this far to the North, but there was also a huge glare to the right of it. I had no idea what it was, but when a posted a picture online I was informed that I was watching a ‘sundog’. I looked it up on the internet. A parhelion is an atmospheric phenomenon that creates ‘false suns’. There are some excellent images available. Certainly knocks mine into a cocked hat and shows that I should have taken the time to look around for other bright spots.

Most oft deserted road to Loth peir at Spurness. 
The Sanday ranger had reported some damage to the access to the Doun Helzie arch which I went to check out for myself. The half mile of track leading to the top of the Stove links had also been through the wars. I had to stop the car a number of times to remove large stones out of the way and speculatively plan a route between the ruts and peaks. I don’t think I lost any bits from underneath, but it was quite scary. At the top of the hill, I left the car and walked toward the beach. Part of the route includes a dip beneath a strand or two of barbed wire. It’s not really what you could call visitor friendly. From the fence, where last year there was a gentle, sandy descent of about twenty feet, the whole slope had eroded away, leaving a precipitous vertical drop instead. It would have been possible to scramble down, but the ascent was likely to have been a little more arduous. I decided not to risk it. The nearest property is at least half a mile away so it is unlikely that a living soul would have been able to hear my piteous cries for help. A rope ladder is required for the future.

Within weeks we were treated to another amazing ‘light show’. In the two years we’ve been here, we’d witnessed a couple of half decent aurora. What the end February had for us was a whole new palette altogether. Looking back, we’d had a foretaste of it a week earlier, another green glow in the Northern sky. But this was a big one. It was right overhead, if anything slightly to the South of us. It arced all the way across the sky. You could even tell, quite clearly, where it was curving to the North toward both horizons as it encircled the pole. The cascades of green were punctuated by deep reds and the movement was like billowing curtains of light. The thing went on for ages. We stood out in the garden with all the house lights turned off for as long as we could, but we were turning blue with cold and had to go back indoors. Every now and again, I’d go to the door and look out at the continuing drama of the skies.  It was the most amazing sight and no words, certainly not mine, can do sufficient justice to them. Alas! You really do need to see it for yourself.

Half of the Orkney Ferries North Isles fleet.
From the Earl Sigurd, Earl Thorfinn right and Shapinsay left.
Then you have the kind of drama that you don’t need. Two weeks later, Gail had a scheduled hospital appointment in Kirkwall but had had a premonition that her attendance would be unlikely. I agreed with her that I was most likely to be responsible for the failure, especially as the car was running on fumes at the time. However, it was to be Orkney Ferries that would throw the spanner in the works. They phoned on the morning of departure to say that they were cancelling the morning boat. They lay on an additional sailing at midday, but Gail would miss her appointment and we would have only an hour on mainland before the afternoon return sailing. We were saved when the hospital re-arranged their timetable for us, we caught the lunchtime boat after all but decided to stay in Kirkwall overnight and come home the following afternoon. This is what qualifies as a holiday for us these days. After the hospital, we booked into the Peedie Hostel before going out to Lucano’s Italian restaurant for a ‘slap-up’ nosh. After a good night’s sleep, we went for an early morning dip at the Pickaquoy pool, had breakfast at CafĂ© Lolz before hitting the shops. I wonder how many other people end up spending nearly three hundred quid just on a visit to the doctor?  The treatment might be free, but the fiasco associated with it is something completely different. At least we didn’t have to pay for parking. Thank goodness for small mercies.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Playing catch-up

                I’ve just had my knuckles rapped for reneging upon my responsibilities. My sisters can be right bullies at times.

                October was pretty bonnie by the look of it. I took the opportunity to ride my mountain bike all the way down to the pier and back. Not on the same day, of course. I’m not a sadist. I left it at Loth
Ferry heads off to Kirkwall. I regret that I hadn't joined them
overnight. I didn’t need to lock it. It is part of the reason I’m here. I took the bus home for the night and then caught it back again in the morning. While all my fellow passengers boarded the ferry to Kirkwall, I climbed onto the saddle. The twelve mile ride commences with a long climb to the summit of Spurness. After that, other than Branch, it’s pretty much downhill all the way. It took a long time, but that’s the way it goes when you are silly enough to pack a camera. Also, eighteen months of salt air plays havoc with exposed metalwork, so it was hardly a surprise to me when the gear cable snapped. That was an extra ‘uphill’ however that I could have done without.

                To celebrate twenty three years of …… wearing a silly gold ring with a nose on it, Gail and I spent the night in Kirkwall. Actually, all we wanted to do was eat Italian, but when the restaurant is in Kirkwall and the last boat back to Sanday leaves in the afternoon, we are obliged to spend the night there as well. It adds an extra days pay onto an already expensive evening, so don’t be too hard on me when I tell you the room had bunk-beds. Lucano’s is a real treat though, so it’s just well it’s only once a year. The wine, a Prosecco from the Veneto region, was supplemented by a complimentary Limoncello, which only succeeded in making me even more lightheaded. My weakness to alcohol makes me so the black sheep of the family. The food was gorgeous and the service excellent. I couldn’t afford a tip, but they didn’t give me an excuse not to. I hate that.
Ain't nothing coming out of there that doesn't have gills.
It rained so much at the beginning of November that things got decidedly squelchy underfoot. It also submerged many of the vegetable beds, including the large foundation plot with all the spuds and onions in. I had to dig out all the potatoes that I could find and there weren’t many of those. Those that came up were still quite peedie (small). We would have had more to eat if we’d just eaten the seed potatoes themselves and not bothered with all the ‘sticking them in the ground’ nonsense at all. At various times I went in there with a bucket to bail it out but the water table soon brings more to the surface. I thought that I was finally making progress, with many plants at last able to come up for air, but the skies opened the next night and drowned them all again. I’m past caring now. It is an attitude that seems to work for carrots. The late ones that I haven’t finished picking are going great guns. Some proper monsters have been coming out just lately and I can confirm that the season of carrot cake plenty is very much on!

                I have been lifeguarding for a few sessions at the pool. I have a regular fortnightly gig on a Friday lunchtime and when a class of schoolchildren from Eday visit Sanday on Tuesday for swimming lessons, I
Toying with my waterproof camera. 
volunteered for that, too. My uniform arrived, a spangly new yellow t-shirt with red RLSS writing all over it and wristband with my own whistle. If I want the red shorts, which as a HSV fan I ought to already own but don’t, and red/yellow beanie to complete the ensemble then I will have to buy them for myself. The titfer I can do without and my Canadian maple-leaf shorts will suffice for the time being. My duty has certainly made me understand how working with kids can make even sensible people go all broody. If parenthood was just a ninety minute obligation before you can shove them off to somebody else for a week then I could see how it might catch on. Anyone who commits to such an imposition for 24/7 is still, in my humble opinion, a complete idiot. Present company excepted, naturally.

                Gail’s Open University languages course continues apace. It often necessitates a visit to Heilsa Fjold to avail ourselves of their non-pedestrian broadband to download material, but as they tend to put on a good spread at lunchtime it can hardly be termed an inconvenience. At home, Gail insists that she can concentrate better if there is something on the television, so at her request I am obliged to spend a number of hours playing Skyrim on the X-Box. It’s a horrible job but someone’s got to do it. Most of the heat in the house comes from the screen so it has other perks as well.   
It was an early start whichever bus was in action.
  The Sanday bus is showing signs of fatigue. ‘Rodger’s’, which is Kelly’s name for him, is eight years old and has many, many miles under his belt. His tribulations, which I’m sure I may have covered in earlier posts, include alternator failure, breathing difficulties and being driven into the scenery by this inexperienced pilot. Lately, he has stubbornly refused to start in the morning. Our island mechanic has stripped down the fuel line and diagnosed serious health issues. As his workload has already been compromised by his efforts enough already, Rodger’s took the ferry to Kirkwall today for a thorough shakedown. There are doubts that we will see him return before next week. Fortunately, there is another minibus on the island to take up the slack. It is the same age but has done significantly fewer miles as a consequence of only being used once a week as the ‘Afternoon Club’ bus. I’ll probably be driving it tomorrow. I’ll try to keep it on the black stuff for them. It shouldn’t be too difficult. It weighs tons, more because of the chairlift in the back, so is a ponderous mass to get off the line and up hills. Consequently, I’ve had to factor an additional ten minutes to haul it down to the pier. Come back Rodger’s. I didn’t mean all those things I said about you.

At the dunes summit. Level with the top of our windows!
                The first snows arrived in the second half of November. We had a couple of flurries over a few days, most of it whizzing past the windows horizontally. Since then it has been really mild. The consequence of that though has been the conveyor belt of Atlantic storms that have been battering the whole country. The wild weather, spring tide and a tidal surge brought the North Sea to the very top of the dunes. I shudder when it occurs to me that the house is lower than that. When the tide went out again, it had left a mountain of ‘bruck’ (rubbish) up there. Over the Summer, I became quite proprietorial about the beautiful beach, so it is killing me that it hasn’t been calm enough to take a bin-bag up there to collect some of it. Hopefully I’ll get the chance before the tourists arrive. The neighbours and I will need plenty of time ‘cos there’s at least a skip load up there and the rest of the island is in a similar position.

                The poor weather has also not helped in our search for the elusive Aurorae. Even when Dr Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain all but promised us a dazzling display in early January, even though we did have a few, rare clear spells, there was not a sausage to be seen. All in all, other than the pleasure of watching them in Stargazing live, the only two positives arising from the programmes were the inspiration to finally assemble my 120mm refractor telescope and my first ever observation of a ‘moon-bow’. I didn’t need any fancy, expensive equipment for that either. I just looked out of the front door before going to bed and there it was. Then there’s a decision to be made: whether or not to wake up the good lady wife. Would she be angry more for being woken up or for not sharing what you’d seen with her. To date, my judgement has been good. Thank my lucky stars.

At the beginning of the New Year, I started the Blipfoto 365 challenge. It’s a kind of blog that encourages users to take and post a photograph every day.  As I’ve linked it to Facebook, I’ve been using that instead of updating this blog. Well, up until today I was. Oh well, at least it should be easier for me to draft these from now on.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Hi! Remember the time I used to keep a blog. No? Me neither.

                A month and a half, that’s abandonment that is. Anyway, how have you been? I certainly hope that this epistle finds you well.

Age begins to tell as author suffers first erectile dysfunction.
                Gail arrived home safely from her hospital visit last month. This was despite a very low cloud that nearly forced the pilot to turn around and go back to Kirkwall. He managed to get it down safely before he then had to head on the North Ronaldsay. They don’t pay those guys enough, I can tell you.

                Orkney has enjoyed a quiet summer. It’s the sort of thing to make you forget all about how long winter lasted.  The days got very long indeed. Anyone who has seen Al Pacino in ‘Insomnia’ will know exactly what went on in our heads. There are no black-out curtains thick enough to cut out such a plethora of sunlight and when you can’t sleep you also can’t help feeling guilty that you’re not doing something useful outside. It’s no use screaming that it’s only three o’clock in the morning when you can smell the grass growing, hear the birds singing and see the bunnies, equally as confused, hopping around looking for an early breakfast. The only reassuring thing is the knowledge that there isn’t a mad, bad Robin Williams around.

How did I manage a trip to 1960's Garsdale, Cumbria?
  I received an unexpected envelope from the Jury Summoning office, inviting me to attend court. If anything, I have been anticipating an appearance on the other side of the dock. It was not for the courts in Scotland, however, but for the Portsmouth circuit. I had to apologize for having the audacity to move away and request that I be excused, indefinitely. I don’t intend to be heading Sooth for a long while.

They say that cats have an extraordinary sense of hearing, but surely that cannot have been the explanation for why, within twenty four hours of me mentioning to Gail that a certain Siamese gentleman hadn’t paid us a visit for a while, a certain Siamese gentleman turned up on our doorstep. Then again, perhaps it is. He has demonstrated that he clearly possesses an acute ear, a profound understanding of the English language and an uncanny familiarity with my daily routine in order to ensure that our paths would cross at that precise moment. Either that or I somehow willed it and performed telekinesis but, if that was the case, I suspect that he would have been mightily aggrieved, which he did not seem to be judging by the way he polished off a small plate of tuna. He followed me about the garden for a while, critiquing my horticultural prowess, before sloping off when he realized that there were no more goodies in the offing. He may be an opportunist, freeloading bastard, but he’s our guest opportunist, freeloading bastard and we love him.

This is exactly what happens when you cast nasturtiums!
Talking of my horticultural prowess, I’ve actually had some success. Not all of it, obviously. The only beans that made an appearance were the ones that I kept indoors. The carrots, leeks, onions and potatoes have been going great guns outdoors though. The parsnips and spinach have been less keen, but I still have hope for them. I’ve even experimented a bit by planting a couple of beds of flax. They seem to be doing alright, so if I can turn a large plot over during the winter, I might try a field of it next year. I also have a little pet squash plant that is busy wending its way around the vegetable garden, flowering and fruiting at intervals along its path. I’ve been here before so I’m not going to get too excited. The fruits never developed into anything previously and when I did manage to get some courgettes going last year, the bunnies and the starlings munched their way through them. I have managed to ponce some tomato plants as well. Currently producing nothing more than little green bullets, they are a work in progress. Gail has managed to not murder her rosemary and basil plants. Just recently, my Woodland Trust order turned up. I’m not sure that they enjoyed spending a week in a box in the post and when they find out where they’ve been sent to it may turn out to be the final straw. I certainly don’t have the heart to stick them outside yet. I’ve set the plugs into pots to encourage the root systems and I’ll introduce them to the great outdoors in Spring. I hope they forgive me or else there’ll be a tiny gang of Dryads ganging up to kick lumps out of me.

If Andy's seeing mermaids, it must be the 'shrooms!
There have been a couple of really calm days. As if the fact that we would have had to pay to use electricity off the grid if we stayed indoors wasn’t enough of an incentive, one look over the dunes to the mirror smooth water in the bay is nothing short of an invitation. Dragging the kayaks down the garden and across the sand, we’d paddle around on the crystal clear, minty green sea. I’ve been out a couple of times on my own since, heading around the corner at Newark toward Elsness or over toward Whale Head. I remember paddling in Portsmouth and not being able to see squat beneath the boat. Here the water is a distraction. At times the sand below appears to be within touching distance, but it’s out of the reach with a six foot long paddle. Other times, I glide over kelp beds and the water goes really dark and I might as well be trying to paddle through treacle. Then, all of a sudden, a head appears and when the seal sees me, it plunges below with a mighty splash. It’s so quiet out there that you can hear them breathing when they think they’re being smart and swimming right behind you. In the evening, you can hear them singing from their roosts, or whatever the place that they hang out is called. Having just the selkies and the seabirds for company is just awesome.

My pool lifeguard training started recently. You may think that looking after a handful of folk in a postage stamp size pool would be a walk in the park, but the RLSS is a national standard. The difficulty I’m having is not the physical aspects of the gig, although the first aid will be difficult as I’ve never done any of that before, but simply trying to visualize doing this stuff anywhere bigger than a postage stamp pool. The handbook covers flumes, wave machines, movable floors, diving boards and a dizzying myriad hazards and complications that are so hard to imagine when you are standing in a hall with a foot spa in the middle of it. I exaggerate of course, but it is as far away from being a lido as the bandstand on Southsea Common is from the Royal Albert Hall.

Is there anything else? Oh yeah, there is. The kittens have moved out of the stables, moved back in and moved out again. Their mum has started to take them out hunting with her, but when the weather turns nasty she brings them back to shelter. Then she goes out on her own. It is honestly like a rabbit morgue out there. I feel sick just describing the heads with spines coming out of them with two furry back feet at the other end and absolutely nothing else in between. Loads of carcasses just like that spread all over the place.
Different degrees of success in concealment.

Sometimes the gulls and the crows pick the rest of the meat off the bones, other times it looks like it too horrible even for them. I’ve taken some of Smokey’s tuna over there, some small Pollock or a tin of cat food that Smokey would turn her nose up to and it all gets eaten, but mum keeps on bringing in more rabbits. Today we had a phone call from a neighbour who works with the Cats Protection League in Scotland. The kittens were seen in the road the other day and so would we help catch them so that they could be neutered and homed. We had to explain that they are much older than they look and are now as feral as it is possible to be. Neutering is a sensible and responsible thing to do though, so we promised to let her know when they were back. It’ll be nice to see them up close. Nice for us that is. I think they’ll probably hate us and chew our faces off given half a chance. Cats are so cute!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Alone again, or

Here goes. I find myself having to draft this entry on a notepad, using a pen and everything, because there’s been a power cut. The mains cable from mainland had been severed, allegedly, by a cruise ship during the wee small hours. Gail is away down in Aberdeen hospital for a minor op. That leaves stupid having to fend for himself. I’m also on bus duty for the next fortnight.
A bit of Gail's Loganair plane. (The back bit, I think.)

Yesterday I drove Gail to the airport and saw her off. In stark contrast to the weather we’d had earlier in the week, it was a wonderful, bright, clear morning. Indeed there didn’t seem to be anything the least bit portentous about it. That evening, I picked up the Sanday bus, came home and settled down for an early night, as soon as the girlie football had finally finished.

Gail was kind enough to have set the alarm clock for me before she left. However, when I awoke I found that the display was blank. I got up straight away and wandered around the hoose in my pants, sorry for the disturbing mental picture, to look for a watch. It transpired that it was only five o’clock so I put some food down for Smokey before clambering back under the duvet with the condition that I wasn’t to take the watch off. I was fast asleep when the phone started ringing from about half past nine with folk looking to book seats on the bus. My passenger numbers doubled for the morning inbound journey and I was already (more than) fully booked for the way back. I’d managed my timing a bit fine so I started to panic when I went outside and saw that the weather had completely closed in. Gail and I have a system for assessing the thickness of fog based upon how many ‘telegraph’ poles we can see at the bottom of the garden. This morning it was more a case of “What flippin’ telegraph poles?!” Added to all the extra diversions that I hadn’t planned on having to make, things promised to be somewhat edgy.

I managed to arrive early at my first address. Those additional five minutes, collectively, is what Kelly refers to as “Burness Time”. Fortunately it turned out to be one of those rare mornings when everybody was waiting for me by the roadside. It’s not unheard of to have to go legging it up someone’s driveway to get them to get a hustle on. Sometimes they are still in their jammies. Today I arrived at Loth pretty much on time and I was further abetted by the boat being late.
The new 'tenants' in the stables. Cute and great rabbit killers.

My twelve lunchtime arrivals turned out to be fourteen, so laps needed to be sat upon. Not mine I hasten to add, but not that I’d have objected too vehemently. I dropped a large party off at a big house that overlooks Otterswick Bay, which is very pretty, but they had to take my word for it because we could barely make out the hoose itself and it sits right on the side of the road! They left with all their luggage and I sat on the driveway working out the cost of all the tickets I’d just run off. The numbers seemed to add up so I headed home. I had a few hours to burn before the next outing so I spent my time lavishing as much attention on Smokey as I could, checked up on the kittens in the stable, did a bit of house-keeping, etc, etc. Gail phoned to let me know that she was fine. It was a lovely sunny day in Aberdeen and she was drinking coffee and eating a tuna salad. All I can say is that it must have been baking hot in the ‘granite city’ for Gail to be eating a salad. It did remind me, however, that I hadn’t drunk or eaten anything all day and it was time I was off out again. I stopped on the way at the recycling bins to drop off some bottle and tins. A man’s work is never done. When I arrived at the pier, I was approached by a scout leader who I had met on Wednesday. He, another three leaders and eighteen cubs and scouts had arrived that day and needed transport as their own vehicle had not made the trip over with them. I had to make two trips, which is apparently against the rules, in order to get them to their camp which, as it transpired, was not in the same place that they had originally intended to set up camp. (Their host had been completely unaware of their impending arrival until two crates of bottled water were delivered to his establishment.) What with all the messing about, extra mileage and the uncertainty of whether they’d need single or return fares if they didn’t resolve their own transport issues, I explained that I needed some time to work out the fares so they could pay me the next time I saw them. Today was that day. While I was reeling off reams of tickets and relieving him of the necessary cash, he had time to give me the hard sell on becoming a scout leader. I tried to explain to him that kids aren’t exactly my kinda thing, having spent my entire adult life successfully avoiding becoming a parent, but to his credit he was persistent. He explained that neither colour, creed nor sexual orientation were any longer barriers to joining the scout movement. Apparently however, atheism is still a taboo too far. We discussed ways to avoid the subject on application but they all relied on me denying my faith. My faith being that faith is a crock of poo. I assumed that we were at an impasse, but only time will tell if I have managed to avoid the thing altogether. In timely fashion, the ferry arrived and he had to rush off to meet a man about a minibus. Vast numbers of foot passengers emerged from the ship and I found myself with another full compliment. No laps this time, though, but it was nearly an hour before I had set them all down and managed to get myself home, by which time it was gone seven o’clock.

The power was still out at the North end. One of my neighbours phoned to let me know that her gas stove was available if I needed to use it. I thanked her but explained that I had got it into my head that I was going to set up the camping stove and do a big fry-up. If she was to hear an explosion though, I asked that she bring over a bucket of water over to put the fire out. First though, I was positively dying for a cup of tea, so the first thing on the burner was the kettle. Half an hour later, it still wasn’t boiling. Dinner was getting later and later. Good things come to those that wait and soon the pan was on and I left it to get started on the veggie sausages and tatties while I enjoyed my first ‘Tetley’ moment of the day. Bliss. The eggs went in about eight, I did mention it was somewhat pedestrian, and I was soon serving the ensemble on a couple of mouldy crusts of bread with the green bits picked out while sitting in front of the TV, a big TV with a big blank screen, to the accompanying sound of absolutely nothing at all. All alone and in the dark. 

After such a glorious repast, I thought about going to bed, but concluded that it was probably not a good idea on a full stomach. Instead I went out for a stroll along the beach. The sea was very noisy in the stillness and so I had assumed by the cacophony that the tide was in. When I reached the top of the dunes though, I couldn’t see the sea at all through the fog. I headed straight out across the sand until I reached the water’s edge. I turned around and the dunes had disappeared. This really was thick stuff so I felt that I was in good company. I headed Westward toward Newark, a narrow vista emerging before me, the one behind me being consumed. I have no idea what cataracts are like (yet), but I imagined that the effect might be somewhat akin. I walked until I found an expanse of ‘tangles’ blocking further progress so I turned around and headed back. I had to follow my own footsteps back but somehow still managed to miss my exit. Consequently, I went on until I could make my way up through the gap opposite the old Sellibister school house, some quarter of a mile further, to reach the relative security of the road. I needed a torch now to find my way in the gloom. It was eerily still. Occasionally I would shine the torch across the fields and find eyes, illuminated, staring back at me, though it was impossible to make out the creature to whom they belonged.  

At the shed, I needed to light some candles as there was still no power. I clicked my heels together and said “There’s no place like home” three times but apparently this was as good as it gets for me.

Friday, 5 July 2013

What happens 'off Sanday', stays 'off Sanday'

I woke up in the house that I was born in. However much time I spend away from it, or how much money I lay out setting roots somewhere else, it’ll never be a home like this one. I forget sometimes that it’s just a place. It’s the people in it that make it. Secure, I slept like a log. The screaming headache that accrued during the journey was gone. What would Gail say when I tell her that I cannot face the trip back North? That would be a job for a man far braver than I.

The departure day had come. I was heading back into town anyway, so why not make a day of it. Thirty five years ago, my friend and I would go to Las Vegas, that’s the one on Wardour Street and not that trashy place stateside, to play arcade games like No Man’s Land, Galaxian, Joust and Defender. He’d driven up from Fareham especially to relive those halcyon days. Reunited, we rode the Metropolitan Line to Baker Street and hopped on a connection to Monument on the Circle. Pour quoi? I hear you ask. Well one can hardly defeat evil invaders on an empty stomach, can one? We wandered over London Bridge and made our way to Borough Market. It was an assault upon the senses. A world of cuisine lay at our feet and though it may disappoint you, I had already promised myself a Thuringer Bratwurst with Sauerkraut, ketchup and German mustard from the German Deli. The Lemon and almond polenta cake from the Comptoir Gourmond stall was also truly dee-lish! It was just as well, because it compensated for the horror of finding that, back in the West End, Las Vegas had become a refuge for gamblers. The only concession to gamers was a single rank of four driving simulators. Aggrieved, we sought solace on Oxford Street. Dave was also in town for a bit of retail therapy. At fifteen we didn’t have any money for shopping. I still hadn't any. At least it is free to look in the ‘Ferrari’ store on Regent Street, ‘Yellow Korner’ on S. Molton St., ‘The Vintage Magazine Shop’ on Brewer St. and ‘Play Lounge’ on Beak St. I did buy a 'Road Kill' toy in the last in an attempt to get used to the sight of squished bunnies. I might even try to get it on expenses as a training aid!

As my carriage didn’t leave Victoria until midnight, I rode the tube back out to Uxbridge with Dave and picked up my luggage that we’d left in the boot of his car. He told me that he envied my forthcoming adventure. I told him to get his head checked as he’d clearly bumped it on something. Back in Victoria, the departure gate for the Megabus was absolutely heaving and I spent the following twelve hours crammed on a bus. I watched the sun come up which was a meagre consolation. It was lunchtime when we arrived in Aberdeen and I had a table booked at Pizza Express. With a full and happy tummy, I then cruised Union Street and bought a few things in Lush for Gail before making my way to the harbour. Another calm crossing dumped me outside Kirkwall at eleven at night. It was just beginning to get a little ‘dusky’. I made my way to ’The Peedie Hostel’ and made myself at home. I was back in Orkney. I WAS home.

Back at the shed, it was time to address the soak-away issue. The sink and washing machine hadn’t been draining properly for weeks, so I dug it up. I must admit that I had expected to find a tank of some sort, not just a dozen broken rocks, completely fouled with sand and mud. Now I admit that I am a complete cock when it comes to all things DIY, but I would never have condoned that patently insufficient waste solution. The system that I’ve cobbled together isn’t going to win any ‘Good Household Award’ either, but a ‘Driller-Killer’ed bucket in a bed of gravel should at least last us for a time. While hardly the sort of genius that brought Apollo thirteen home safely, I must confess to a certain amount of pride at my inventiveness and industry. Just enough self-satisfaction with a job well done to mean that it was alright for me to put my feet up and bask in it for about a week.

Summer was coming and it was time once more to play tourist and visit another of the islands attractions. On the road to Stove, a track leads off up the side of a hill to a field at the summit. There are no signs, but a trodden path leads to a gap in a fence and a scree slope leads down to another beautiful sandy beach at Doun Helzie. The Southern end of the beach is bounded by rugged cliffs with caves and even an arch. The passage under the arch is even long enough to have a window in it. The only problem is that it suffers with the common problem of marine detritus. There is an annual ‘Bag the Bruck’ event where teams of volunteers fill sacks full of beach-combed trash. It reinforces the notion of leaving places in a tidier state than you found them. As well as picking up a couple of plastic bottles and a crisp packet, I came away with a large, orange bouy and a basket that both still had plenty of life left in them. A successful scavenge topped off a great time at the seaside.

It's safe to come out now. That one's full.
Later the same day, we had another unidentified visitor to the estate. At first glance it was some sort of brown, vicious-looking gull on the far side of the 'garden' ripping up the corpse of one of those troublesome bunnies. Turned out to be a Great Skua, what the locals call a “Bonxie”. Another species ticked on the list.

Another work day: What could possibly be wrong with the bus this week? It was the turn of the alternator to pack up this time. I was advised by Kelly to avoid using the electrics if at all possible. I do enjoy a challenge. After pointing out that she had the heater turned on for no other reason that it made all the switches point the same way, I took it upon myself to attempt the fifteen miles from Loth to Sellibister without indicators or brakes. If it wasn’t for meeting a tractor and needing to dive into a ‘passing point’ I’d have made it, too. (I succeeded in the afternoon run and hasten to point out that both journeys were empty runs). It did go in for repair that evening. It's not like we’re sadists.

It was inevitable that it would happen to us one day. We were in Kirkwall for a shopping trip and it turned out to be quite an expensive one. Having inadvertently spent too long at Tesco, caused by a necessity to return for a couple of ‘Grow Bags’ urgently required for half a dozen tomato plants that have been busy outgrowing their pots, we were unable to make it back to the pier before our boat sailed off without us. Having enjoyed a night at Peedie Hostel just recently, I left Gail with all the shopping bags and went to see if they had a room to spare for us. They did, as luck would have it. We crammed all the food in their fridge and shoved the rest of the shopping under the bunk-beds. Then we had to go back to Tesco to buy a change of clothes, emergency toothbrushes and paste.  Part of me suspected that Gail had planned this all along as she was quick to point out that Iron Man 3 was showing at the Pickaquoy. Even though it was a 3D showing, we decided to give it a go and a very decent film was not ruined by having to wear stupid glasses just to achieve a clear 2D perspective with my one good eye. Despite the worry that Smokey might be a bit lonely, the hostel is wholly conducive to a good sleep. We made sure that we gave ourselves much more than sufficient time to make it to the pier to catch to boat to Loth, where Hippocrates had had to spend a lonely night. Bless ‘im. It turns out that we’d left our ‘meal-deal’ in the fridge at the hostel. I emailed them and from their account, the medley of vegetables, spinach and ricotta parcels and the strawberry cheesecake went down an absolute treat. Well, they had saved us from a night in a box in the doorway of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill!

....and he was never seen again!
On a particularly still day, it finally occurred to me to haul at least one of the kayaks out of the shed, where our resident house-martins had been dumping on them for the last year and a half. Wet-suit donned, I towed my Dagger Charleston 15 down the garden, over the road and the dunes and down onto the beach. Having washed the guano off of it, it was into the water for a nice paddle. With Gail’s stern warning not to go too far ringing in my ears, I paddled out to the edge of bay of Lopness and traversed from Newark to the South and Lopness to the North. It is a wide bay of about two miles so it was a good place to start. Slightly more adventurous trips will follow. Should the necessary permissions from ‘she who must be obeyed’ be forthcoming, of course! 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Home and away

Who would have thought that turning fifty years of age could have such a profound and instantaneous effect? My IQ dropped overnight, I’m sure of it. I had a nightmare driving the bus. It all went swimmingly in the morning. Even when one of my passengers had to cancel when I was less than half a mile from her door, it wasn’t a problem. I dealt with my change of plan with youthful spontaneity, calculated the effect of it on my proposed scheduling and skipped straight to my next pick up. It all went a bit pants in the afternoon.

Mr Gumby. (Be thankful that it's not my Mr April!!!)
With fuel supply being a major problem on the island, the route that you intend to take should always be planned accordingly. Unless, that is, you find yourself in the position that your passengers are directors of the company. When it is they who decide who gets dropped off first, I become a passenger in my own adventure. One of them lives in Burness, at the top end of the island, near where Kelly lives and where, common sense suggests, it would be sensible to end the route in order to let the good lady have her bus back at the end of the day. Instead, contrary to my intention, we headed immediately to ‘the sunshine state’, where I dropped him off, helping him to unload his shopping and then departed to my next destination. I was a few miles down the road before it occurred to me that, in my fluster, I’d forgotten to scan his concession card. Another director lives at Lettan, at the North end of the island, up in my neck of the hypothetical woods. I remembered to scan her card properly, even if the lady hadn’t already witnessed my earlier faux pas and taken a lead in the process. So then I had to drive all the way back to Burness, waving forlornly at my own property on the way past, to the first director’s house to ask if I could swipe his card, before dropping the bus off. That was when I realised that I had forgotten to bring my car keys with me. Kelly had to drive me back home to the North end and take me back a third time to Burness to get ‘Hippocrates’, my poor, little, blue Skoda. Kelly’s husband, Mike, dropped his broad Orcadian accent to give me a very convincing Cockney “You muppet!” Kelly, meanwhile, welcomed me to ‘C.R.A.F.T.’: Can’t Remember A Flippin’ Thing. That is my life from now on.

My enthusiasm for expanding my knowledge of a war that is nearly a hundred years old, but one
"He's just some guy, y'know."
which continues to steer my politics and ideology, shows no sign of abating. The latest step in the adventure has led me to Ernst Toller, courtesy of Richard Dove’s book entitled “He was a German”. It has made me more determined than ever not to allow my personal beliefs to be affected by politics. Here, however, was a man of such charisma that others looked to him to lead them in a Socialist revolution in the face of a rising tide of Fascism. This forced him to compromise his pacifist beliefs in order to protect those with whom he sympathized. I have no truck with the concept of ‘democratic pacifism’ as, to me, the two are mutually exclusive. Pacifism is an individual value, whereas my faith in collective humanity is somewhat tenuous. I can understand that many people need to feel included, whether it is by a bond of colour, creed or the misguided belief that they share the same specific ideology. However, no two people are exactly alike and their aspirational goalposts are continually going to change. Therefore, it is anathema to me that any social group can succeed in the long term. Indeed there are all too many examples in democracy where the careful manipulation of a common anxiety can allow some pretty unsavoury characters to gain short-term popular support and go on to pervert history. This is why I maintain that I am an anarchist, although it is a term with negative connotations. But I am convinced that, deep down, most people are, as they cherry-pick the individual values of each manifesto which appeals to them, ignoring or protesting against those that do not.

Have I already stated my case for a new camera?
My trip down Sooth for mum’s birthday was an adventure. Not one that I’m planning to suffer again in the near future but an education none the less for that. It started as a passenger on the Sanday Bus. With both Kelly and me being otherwise engaged, a director of the Community Interest Company had to cover for us. There’s nothing quite like being driven around by the boss. The employee discount is a hoot, too. The journey began at about 5:45pm on Friday evening, and by ten past six, my first boat left Loth pier for Kirkwall. By 7:30 I was strolling down Kirkwall pier, wondering what to do with myself for the next four hours before my second crossing of the waves departed from a couple of miles down the road at Hatston. Being miserly, or ‘poor’ as I prefer to call it, and socially awkward, or ‘freak’ as I prefer to call it, frequenting one of the pubs or eateries in the neighbourhood as any normal person would is out of the question. Instead, a meander through the aisles of Tesco beckoned, followed by a picnic of roasted pepper humus on hand-ripped baguette washed down with cloudy lemonade on a park bench overlooking the Peedie Sea as the sun set over the cathedral. Peaceful and beautiful though it was, the temperature had begun to plummet. By now the Northlink ferry terminal building was open so I set off on foot for the great indoors.

An Aberdeen skyline taken from Union Terrace.
The Hjaltland arrived from Lerwick shortly after eleven and after a bit of faffing around, vehicles and passengers for Aberdeen were allowed to board. Having arranged neither a cabin nor a reclining chair for myself, like many others headed to the bar to find a space to doss around in for the next seven hours it took to cross the Pentland Firth. There are lots of couches but as they are divided with hard and uncomfortable arm-rests every three feet or so, you couldn’t lie on them. Maybe Warwick Davies could, but he wasn’t, to my knowledge, joining us this evening. A young woman spent about twenty minutes pumping up a double inflatable mattress with a foot-pump, much to the entertainment of fellow travellers, only to then be told by a steward, as she settled down on it for the night, that it was blocking an emergency assembly area and she had to let it down again. A monotonous night passed, the calm waters being the only blessing. At around seven in the morning, we finally docked in the ‘granite city’. I won’t try to describe Aberdeen as my visit was so brief that I don’t think that it would be fair. First impressions were positive though. I strolled out of the dock and made my way to the bus depot. I immediately spotted a National Express coach pull out with only one passenger on it. That would be cool, I thought. I had quite a bit of time before the Megabus to ‘the Sooth’ (or “Englandshire” as Kelly calls it) was due to leave, so I wandered the indoor shopping mall and adjoining train station for a while. Meanwhile, a crowd gathered at the departure gate. No prizes for guessing which one. A huge, blue, double-decker leviathan turned up and we all squeezed into it. The next twelve and a half hours were unpleasant, so if you’re thinking of it, go away and think some more until you see sense.

Seventy minutes to midnight, the remaining passengers were disgorged at Victoria. I went down to the tube and bought a ticket to Uxbridge. I found myself standing, not because I had to, just as it was a relief not to be sitting. I’d had more than enough of that, thank you. Past Ealing and Alperton and then it was on to the old Metropolitan line stations I remembered from my dim and distant youth. However much my hometown had had a facelift, the reassuring landmarks were still there: the colonnaded market, the ‘Three Tuns’ and Randall’s. I walked past my alma mater too, but there was not much joy at seeing that particular edifice. It was after midnight by the time I knocked on mum’s front door and set Hannah barking. It was Sunday now, her birthday. A hug, a kiss and a hope that she liked the picture I’d carried seven hundred miles for her.

I am so needy.