Sunday, 26 August 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Having planned it months in advance, the weather was at last perfect for a trip to the island of Hoy. As a result of the ferry timetables, we had to leave the house before 7.00 am in order to have sufficient time reach Loth pier, dump the car and ride onto the boat. A calm crossing, which boded well, brought us to Kirkwall just before 9.00am. Gail would spend the day in town, hopefully not spending too much, whereas I had about an hour to cycle to Houton about ten miles down the road on the Northern shore of Scapa Flow. When you look at a map, the route looks quite innocuous however I can assure you that there is quite a bit of geography on the way. Knackered, I was grateful to be able to chain the bike to a lamppost and stroll down the jetty onto the waiting boat. In no mood for sightseeing, I opted for a sit down in the lounge beneath the car deck. (There wasn’t a view.) The ferry arrived at about 11.00am, giving me three hours on Hoy before I had to catch the return boat at 2.00pm.
One of the guns of the B98 from Lopness

Lyness pier lies directly in front of the Scapa Flow visitor centre and museum, a small relict of what had been a sprawling Royal Navy base for forty years between 1917 and 1957. Admission is free and the site occupies the old pump-house and some of the larger exhibits are housed in the last remaining of sixteen fuel holding tanks, which felt like I’d entered the torture scene in ‘Brazil’. There is a massive amount of history on display. They were, after all, quite turbulent times.  There was just too much to take in on such a brief visit, mainly because I was keen to attend the naval cemetery up the road. Having been to Normandy recently, and visited the military cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize, I was already aware that they are beautiful and contemplative places, but nothing really prepares you for the emotional tidal-wave that hits you. As a shameless Boche, I was there to pay my respects at the graves of eight of the nine German sailors ‘murdered’ during the grand scuttle at the time of the armistice of June 1917. Tucked away in a corner and with noticeably fewer blooms, I found them. It was still a magnificent place to be. Much of the cemetery is empty. Long may it stay as such. Having made my way on foot back to the museum, I barely had time to nip back in and make a donation before having to run to catch the ferry.

Royal Naval Cemetery, Lyness
 The weather turned ugly on the trip back to Houton from Lyness, via the oil terminal of Flotta. Big clouds rolled in, the temperature plummeted and while I didn’t get wet, Stromness and Northern Hoy definitely very much did. Having seen nothing on the way out, I was determined to stand out on deck while we crossed Scapa on the return. All the other passengers were wrapped against the elements and I must confess to feeling a bit exposed in my tee-shirt. I was relieved when Houton emerged from the mist and I went inside to put another layer on for the return cycle ride back to Kirkwall. The less said about that particular torture the better. An hour later, I arrived at Didldidi expecting to find Gail shopping prior to catching the last ferry of the day to Sanday. The mobile that Gail insisted I carry on my trip tweeted into life as I was busy with the cycle lock. By the time I’d dug it out I’d missed the call. I called Gail back to find that she was already at the harbour. I just had time to rush around the shop for a basket full of naughty treats before meeting up with her again. It was a relief to be out of the saddle. It let the ship’s compliment wheel my bike to stowage and they could have pitched it overboard for all I cared! Almost twelve hours we’d been away for a poxy two hundred minutes on Hoy. I’d certainly look to spending a night away in Kirkwall the next time I plan the trip. Hopefully, I’ll have some company with which to share the experience. For a taster you can visit

The brains of the wind turbine. It's got my name on it!
Needless to say, a good number of days of rest and recuperation were in order. We had to keep an eye open, however, for visitors in connection with the turbine. The concrete had set and workmen came to dig the cable trench to the house. Then an electrician turned up to fit the gubbins in the storeroom. Then he had to come back to install another fuse-box after Scottish Hydro insisted. Then they turned it on and we watched as it generated power. Then they came back to turn it off. It was just as well, too. I had just noticed that our electricity meter was running even when everything was turned off. Apparently, the stupid machine couldn’t tell which way the juice was flowing when the turbine was spinning, just that it was, and decided that it was going to charge us accordingly. Not only were we feeding the grid, we were paying them for the privilege. We have a date from Scottish Hydro for when they intend to plug us back in again. We’ve told them to change the meter while they’re about it otherwise we’ll be broke within weeks.

Four months after sowing a few rows of carrots in a raised bed, back when I wondered if winter was an all year thing, I lifted a few stalks to see how they were coming along. They were a bit on the small side but, as both of us are fans of baby veg, it was time for my first harvest. I did the digging and Gail did the blanching and freezing. Furthermore, the vegetable box that my little sister bought for us, that I planted much later, also produced yummy carrots. Some peas, beans and even a couple of tomato plants emerged as well. The carrots went in the freezer with the rest and I thinned out the other plants. I’ve dug a fresh bed just outside the door for the ailing squash (I didn’t know that the vine needs to touch the ground). That leaves the leeks and courgettes coming along nicely. Indoors, a dizzying variety of peppers are currently flowering. I’m not counting my allegorical chickens, but it may just be that we don’t starve this winter and what's more, we've hopefully learned a few things for next year’s calendar.

The Clogg channel at Tres Ness (before it got 'difficult'.)
We continued our exploration of the island when I managed to persuade Gail to come on a walk with me. Having failed to reach the chambered cairn at the Southern tip of Tres Ness in April, I thought it about time I had another go. Yet again I failed to heed Gail’s warning that things are farther away than they appear. The sign insisted that it was a mere 1.7 miles, but that was complete tosh. The first leg was around Cata Sand to the house, Tresness. The sight of heavy machinery made us pause while I sought permission to pass. The owners were happy to let us through while their reconstruction workers were on a break, but couldn’t be sure that the area wouldn’t be a dangerous place later in the day. I assured them that we intended to make our way back along the beach, bypassing the house altogether. Of all the remote places on the island, this must be the remotest. It is unlikely that anyone else had passed this way all summer. We waded our way through tall wilderness, past a pond and reed-bed where we startled a heron into flight and finally reached the rocky Southern tip of the spur. The cairn was a disappointing mound in the earth and does not appear to have been excavated. A lintel was visible on one side and part of the roof had collapsed to confirm that it was a manmade feature. The return journey was hellish. Faced with towering grassland, we chose to struggle over boulder beaches instead. It was a scramble and was not without sprains, pains, cursing and tears. I managed to find a big stick and a skull, so I was happy, but I was certainly the only one having any fun. There was brief respite when our progress was the subject of close scrutiny by an inquisitive seal, just yards from the shore. This gave Gail the idea that wading through the shallow water had to be smarter than tripping over rocks. She was right as well. It was. Our tired feet welcomed the chill. After that, the remaining mile or so back to the car was in much better humour. I can only hope that my ‘Sunday Best’ Merrells weren’t ruined as a result!

Friday, 24 August 2012

No golds for literature, I'm afraid

The day after our splendid repast at Backaskaill, if you remember, we had an appointment to keep. I duly packed the acoustic bass into the back of the car and drove up the road, (the weather was abysmal), to Heather and Tony’s house, avec cake. We chatted together for quite a while and things were indeed going quite swimmingly until the time came for the gentlemen to retire to the studio (garage). Apart from being very self-conscious in such esteemed company it was an amazing experience to hear my host play the keyboard. For example, he explained that, as a jazz musician, it’s pretty much ‘anything goes’ so long as it gets back on track before the do hits the fan. As well as advocating that “if you don’t make mistakes then you’re clearly not trying hard enough”, he stated a penchant for dropping a few bars of a different song into the proceedings just for the hell of it. Now that’s the sort of confidence in one’s ability that so frustrates those of us that can only dream of emulating it. All that I could reply with was to play him a short riff that somebody with talent had taught me. I clearly have some homework to do. He did take the time to share his passion for the songs and musical stylings of Tom Lehrer. We enjoyed a little sing-a-long to ‘The Masochism Tango’ and ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’. Now I have to go through all his songs on i-tunes to find a favourite. Then it’ll be a case of breaking out my bass chord book and my copy of ‘Bass Guitar for Dummies’, which I fully expect was very much written with me in mind.

Back in the garden, I continue to be an angel of death of horticulture. Our first tomato plant was becoming pot-bound and given that the pot it was in was practically a small skip, it needed to go outside. Now it’s dead. Miraculously, we have peas, not from the tomato plant, obviously, but all the varieties of beans that had flowered so promisingly have since taken a chronic turn for the worse. But the most frustrating of our ‘children’, is the squash plant. There is a creeping vine from which beautiful, yellow rosette flowers blossom at regular intervals. At the base of each bloom, a fruit swells. However, it is a cascade of disappointment. Each young squash seems to prosper until the moment the next flower along opens up. Then it seems that all the plants energy is focused on the new fruit and the old one withers and rots on the stalk. I had trusted Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ who asserted it was all a case of “we sow the seed, nature grows the seed and we eat the seed.” He at no point intimated that nature is a fickle bitch who will tease you with rampant swathes of inedible flora all around but kick you in the ‘happy-sacks’ if you try to grow anything useful. I used to be an advocate of organic food but if it takes shit loads of chemicals to get the selfish bitch to allow us to feed ourselves then she’s the one responsible for massacring my green credentials.

On a lighter note, I scored my first birdy on the Sanday links. But it’s a golf story and you don’t want to hear it. I told Gail and it garnered the same response as Rimmer got from relating his ‘Risk’ story. Fair enough. It’s not as if it had gotten me into Irkutsk.

Bifrost in all its glory. Shame someone's getting wet.
As well as the weekly good walk ruined, I’m still trying to get some proper exercise. I don’t like it when Gail is feeling a bit poorly, but whenever she’s not up to joining me at the pool it does mean that I get the chance to leave the car at home. I’d think about trying out all of the triathlon disciplines but running is for masochists and fortunately I don’t have the knees for it. (Running, not masochism.) Last Friday, I jumped on the bike, rode five miles, swam another mile in the pool and then rode six miles home. I should perhaps stress that the house hadn’t moved further away but that I had just taken a circuitous route home that meant that I could buy some eggs on the way. My weather predicting hasn’t improved. I thought that the rain-bearing clouds on the horizon wouldn’t reach me before I got home. I thought wrong. The only positive to be had from the inconvenience was that two showers in one day meant that I don’t have to have another one now until Hallowe’en.

I have to confess that the Olympic Games had me utterly transfixed for seventeen days. It made me proud to be a human being and I don’t very often feel that about my species. There are times when it all got a little too jingoistic and the mingling with the crowds and sticking microphones in the athlete’s faces I found incredibly annoying, but the endeavour and spectacle was beyond reproach. I feel obliged to compliment the well-recompensed organisers and offer my congratulations to those policing the circus for not murdering anyone as I was pretty certain they would. Bugger me if the nation didn’t do a better than half-arsed job at something for a change. As an idealist I like to think that the whole world was overcome with the Olympic spirit and that, primarily, is why the thing went off without a hitch but part of me can’t help thinking that there are warehouses around the country full to the brim of ne’er-do-wells that G4 have been sitting on for a month. If there are, do you think it possible to persuade them to keep them there for a while longer?

The new Skoda is short on hp but more fun
The first weekend in August was when the Sanday Industrial (sic) and Agricultural Show took place. I suppose farming is an industry so I’ll let them off. There are not very many farms on the island and consequently some of the livestock classes were thinly contested. It needs to be respected that the value of the livestock is largely dependent upon the rosettes awarded so it is hardly just a ‘butterfly’ competition. For added drama, I was stood beside a qualified butcher who was very excited about what cuts he’d like to take from each animal. The lad was positively salivating! Our main interest however was in the horse and pony arena. It certainly got me thinking about the time when I could finally turn my back on the despised internal combustion engine. Most of you know by now that, in my opinion, the word ‘progress’ is just a term  to describe a new way we’ve found to screw the planet up and that I openly confess to being a Luddite of evangelical proportions. After the showground events, it was inside for the arts and crafts exhibits. Fortunately, one does not need to be talented to recognise it in others and conclude that competition promotes quality. The lace work was as exquisite as it was baffling. Not to my personal taste but very beautiful. The art and photographs were good too. A more cynical individual might suspect that the winters are long and boring. Having been forced to dance at the last shindig, needless to say that, this time, we gave the evening knees-up that followed a miss.

The climax of the show was a fishing competition the next day. It’s not much of a spectator event but a large crowd did gather at Kettletoft pier for the weigh-in afterwards. Our friend Andy had gone out on a boat that morning and was rather chuffed with his 68lb of mackerel and coalfish (Pollock). As it was barely a week after his hernia operation, I made sure that I was on hand to carry his catch to his van. He let me help myself to a couple of the smaller fish so that I could test Gail, who had previously assured me that she could gut them. Having donated the remainder, those that he had neither time, freezer space nor inclination to fillet, to the open-air barbecue, he headed off and I took my little beauties home with me. Alas! While Gail was indeed up to gutting and filleting, her dislike of being stared at by her food meant that the removing of the heads was my domain. As we are yet to discover where the chef’s knife was packed, the chore had to be performed with a breadknife, which necessitated a sawing action. It all looked and sounded very gory and I had no idea that the little critters had so much blood in them. We had to wait until the advent of amnesia before we had the courage to cook and eat them. Preparing the chips was far less of a drama.

Monday, 13 August 2012

With apologies for lateness

               Anybody who knows me, even if they don’t know me particularly well, will know that I only have an ‘A’ game. It’s only as good as a great many peoples D, E or F games or worse, but every single thing to which I apply myself is always sure to get my fullest attention and every last mote of my exceedingly modest talents. So when it comes to demolishing the shower cubicle, all sensible suggestions are along the lines of a rather debonair complete gutting and rebuilding from the wreckage. However, that is not in my nature and I can only choose instead to delicately remove the existing structure piecemeal, retaining as much of the material as will continue to serve a function and in as good a state as possible. Only I, I suspect, would willingly trade smacking the whole lot to pieces with a mallet for gouging tiny chunks out at a time with a Stanley knife.  The project continues at a steady if rather pedestrian pace.

                It is not the only item on the agenda. Another job benefitting from the same approach is the wood-staining of the facia boards. Of course I only brought some small brushes up with me, a tiny bit of sandpaper and it doesn't help when the building is getting on for fifteen metres long. I am also extremely cautious on ladders, with the exception of a suicidal urge to step back to admire my handiwork. Reluctant to do much by way of reaching too far across and upsetting my balance, the steps need to be moved along at rather pathetic increments.  Upon reflection, I suppose I could or should have decanted some of the wood-stain into a smaller container that I could hang at the top of the ladder, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. Also, as the wood was so dry, it was positively sucking the fluid off the brush, so that it would only cover a small area at a time. Feeling my aches today I can only conclude that I was up and down that ladder more times than there are grains of sand in the bay. It’s a wonder that I haven’t worn the treads away. At least now there are only three more sides to go! (I’ll remember to take that small pot up the ladder with me next time.)

                They say that, in adversity, you discover things about yourself that you never knew before. It transpires that I am truly fearsome. As I was doing my watering rounds the other day, a rabbit was hiding in a clump of nettles as I walked past it. The next morning, it had changed position a bit but was stone dead. I plucked up the courage to pick up the corpse and leave it in the stable where the feral cats occasionally hang out. Needless to say, it was never seen again. Within days, I startled another bunny as I walked around the house to set the TV aerial up. It froze, trying its best to remain unseen, even though it had practically no cover at all. When I returned to collect the aerial late that night, when the little white dot appeared in the middle of the screen after closedown, Thumper had shifted position but had definitely curled up his toes. I had my hands full already so I left the body where it lay. The next day, something with an appetite for a fresh carcass had kindly carried it a short way off and disembowelled it. Next time I was passing that way, it had completely gone. Just call me ‘Bunny-killer’.

                But it’s not one-way traffic on the wildlife front. One of my golfing partners got crapped on by a zealous parent seagull as we wandered too close to some fluffy brown chicks. However, the most sinister creature is actually one of the smallest. Flies are my primary nemesis. They are everywhere and insidious. I am obliged to have a grudging respect for them however. While it was obvious to them that I wasn’t carrion, they appeared to appreciate that if they could scare me into falling off the ladder, then I easily could be. If anyone has any advice on how to get the upper hand with the blighters, I would be most glad to hear it. I am already looking at fly nets, lavender scents and whatever insectoid napalm our friends at ICI and Bayer can come up with. My respect and compassion for the animal kingdom does not extend to invertebrates.

Only receiving terrestrial broadcasts? Poor you.
                I must confess that setting up the aerial outside every day was getting a bit tiresome. Gail decided that she’d get a replacement that we could mount on the old satellite-dish pole attached to the outside of Goat-room 2. What I didn’t expect her to buy was the massive, high-gain monstrosity that she’d ordered over the internet. There is a scene during the opening credits of ‘The Flintstones’ where they go to a drive-in restaurant and the brontosaurus ribs that they’ve ordered tip their car over. That is the image that goes through my mind every time I see this huge contraption, that wouldn’t look out of place at Jodrell Bank, bolted on to the side of the house. One good gust, we know that there’ll be one along sooner or later, and we’ll be lying on our new windows and examining the grass at very close quarters. It does work though, so all in all it can be seen to have been a wise investment. I need now to grow the stones to drill a hole through the wall to feed the cable in.

                One reason for my hesitation to do so is the experience of erecting the new curtain rail in the living room. Another of Gail’s purchases was a bargain, a brand new 18V Makita drill with every accessory under the sun. Armed with this manly bit of kit, I marked up where holes were required and set to work. Even though I only needed to drill deep enough to fit the raw plugs, the walls mounted a stubborn defence. I can assume that it is to that same stubbornness that we owe our continued occupation in the face of often quite hostile tempests. It does however, make DIY a monumental challenge.

                Ever ones to fail to appreciate the fragility of our finances, we continue to deny our impending destitution by treating ourselves to meals out. Jayne and Geoff at Backaskaill hosted an evening of Chinese cuisine. Over dinner, we enjoyed a lively, informative conversation with our fellow dinners. Bill, for example, is a wonderful artist and a shark fisherman and Tony is an amazing musician and a keen archaeologist. Things turned ugly, however, when Tony mentioned that he’d heard that I play bass guitar. Not satisfied with my own frank assessment of my meagre talents, he invited Gail and me around to his house the following afternoon. The fare, by the way, was bloody excellent, even though I am no fan of Chinese, be it politics, hokey medicine or food. I have it on good authority that they know a fair bit about masonry.