It is hard to look at these strange stones and their strange carvings and not wonder who and why and wherefore and when…these cryptic messages from an ancient world of strange happenings and brave deeds…. Sometimes the message is mythic: On a certain day of the year in the Springtime just before dawn if you’re there early enough and awake enough, you will see the second stone from the left – Muckle Tam – suddenly leave his appointed place in the line and transport himself down to the loch and back up again just as the sun elbows itself over the hilltops.
Sometimes the message is historic.” Under these stones lie a swordsman’s bones who died to keep men free AD 83 ”
This stone circle is said to mark the burial place of Calgacus, the Caledonian leader who was killed in AD 83 fighting at the battle of Mons Graupius.
In his pre-battle speech(according to Tacitus), he had reminded his men that they were ‘ the last of the free‘ and that their enemies, the Romans, ‘ had given the name of empire to robbery and plunder; had made a desert and called it peace ‘.
I feel the continental drift of shifting geography: the sun no longer overhead; an unfamiliar sea; a jagged barrier reef surrounds an inaccesible shore and ice – how thick I do not know – where water was before.
Where is that quiet green valley where heron and kingfisher flew? A ridge of stone as bare as bone blocks it from my view.
A flat and recent Sahara covers remembered hills and over the top of my childhood home the lurid lava spills.
Where is my big-windowed, happy house? Where my tall green wood? All I see now is a dark smoking scar where home and forest once stood and a sea of mud the colour of blood was a lake where white lillies grew; volcanic and strange, a mountain range bleeds over fields I once knew
No feral forces fed those fires to sweep my past away; no howling hurricanes spread the flames to make night as bright as day.
No irresistible seismic thrust pushed up that massive range.
Some weakness at the heart of things permitted all this change.
Last Tuesday, with time to kill before going to the GFT to see ‘A Life of Pi ‘ (the 3D version), I was idly watching the world go by through the window of Toshie’s Coffee House (I suppose I may have looked a bit like a Vermeer to the Indian (?) woman who was taking my photograph) when something amazing happened, something that took my breath away….. I saw a miracle, I saw a man in combat gear stop between me and the Indian lady who had just photographed me, saw him stop bang in the middle of the busy street and, without any visible effort, slowly, ever so slowly, rise off the ground, rise several feet off the ground and…. stay there….. hanging there…….. effortlessly suspended in….in space.
Only I seemed to notice him, everybody else hurrying past with more important places to visit, more urgent business to attend to, or perhaps they had seen this miracle before and no longer gave it a second thought. Or perhaps they just didn’t want to witness it.
I paid for my coffee and hurried outside but I was too late, too slow, the man in combat gear, the man who had defied and defeated the frightful forces of gravity, was gone. All through the film (which was excellent, stunningly beautiful at times, always thought-provoking*) my mind kept drifting away to the levitating man. What did it mean? Why had only I seen him? Had I really seen him? Was it, like in the Neil Young song, only a dream? But even dreams have to have some meaning so what did it mean this picture I had in my mind of a man hanging in space and only me noticing? What did it mean?
* I think the film’s conclusion gave you a choice to make between two beliefs: a) the hope-bringing ‘story’ of religion as an explanation of the purpose underlying human existence, as opposed to b) Darwin’s amoral, evolutionary theory that only the fittest survive.
Since my wife’s return from India, my life has been changed utterly. Even our conversations are totally different. When I say ” How are you this morning? ” Lydia laughs and says,” Whyare you this morning?”
Then there is the chanting and dancing bit. She brought a CD back with her and seated in what she tells me is the lotus position she chants along with it. I occasionally chant along with her so that she doesn’t feel I am being a negative presence although, unlike her, I feel pretty self-conscious about it all. What if one of my clients happened to peek in the window?
Then there is her dance routine. She starts by shaking herself all over and snuffling through her nose then her chanting becomes louder, she leaps about from foot to foot then throwing her arms into the air jumps and lands with a jarring thud on her heels. The heels, she tells me, are the font of sexuality. Then she whirls around and screams and shouts. This, she says, releases and drives out all her false selves, her bad spirits.
The one time I tried to join in, two policemen alerted by neighbours came to the door and refused to go till they saw for themselves that she was alive and unharmed and heard her rather too full explanation. I have a feeling they could hardly wait till they got back to the station to share the joke with the lads.
Edinburgh Festival time: a pavement artist recreating Vermeer outside the National Art Gallery in Princes Street, both the milkmaid and the artist fully concentrated on what they were doingwhich led me to have a closer look at Vermeer’s woman pouring milk….there’s such a natural grace and rightness in the way she is pictured- it all seems in the natural order of things
which reminded me of a photo by Bill Brandt of a woman cleaning a doorstep, kneeling, twisting the cloth to squeeze out the dirty water into a basin the way women do – men for some reason would ‘rotate’ the cloth in the opposite direction – body slightly turned away, head tilted but not looking at what her hands are doing…..Probably a political photo attacking the exploitation of workers but also a striking photo in an artistic way……All this I remembered from seeing the b & w photograph years and years ago. I thought there must be other photographers who captured the natural grace of women going about household tasks as opposed to the strength of men at work – miners, farmers, labourers etc.
Found her – thanks to omniscient Google – just as I remembered her. And how similar is her ‘configuration’ to Vermeer’s milkmaid! Except that the milkmaid is watching what she’s doing; the housemaid looks away as if her mind is on other things. And of course leaning forward as opposed to leaning back, kneeling down as opposed to standing up, slim as opposed to solid, warm colours as opposed to cold blacks and greys…..
Then in the sudden stillness, we all stopped whatever we were doing and pointed up at the strange sky then looked at each other with a wild surmise. This green light, what did it mean?
” Run ! ” the Bergomaster shouted. ” Make for the bridge! ” then
then on the fierce wings of a dreadful wind this ball of fire came hurtling towards us. ” The Bridge! ” the Bergomaster cried. “We’ll be safe there!” then realizing we couldn’t hear him, he just pointed. At last we reached the safety of the bridge then
then this wall of water rose from the sea and came charging across the unprepared land then