The Sandal in the Door


At the long table next to ours sat a group of a dozen or so  insurance salesmen, sober-suited youngsters who looked a little like these mild-mannered Mormons you see going around  in pairs, and a senior salesman, American-looking, going grey, lean, doing all the talking.
You know whyou’ve been so successful? ” he asked and without waiting for an answer “I’ll tell you why, ” he told them ( I gathered later they were the regional winners in  some national salesperson competition). “Because you’re like me. Yes, because you’re so like me. When I started in this business he leant back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head),  yes, way back when I started as a poor door-to-door salesman, a bit like Willy Loman,  what I earned was linked to what I sold yet when I walked into a house and saw a couple barely coping, with a couple of hungry kids, apologising for the mess the place was in, offering me a cup of tea, the last thing on my mind was my commission.”  He unclasped his hands and leant forward. ” You know what was on my mind? ” He waited until he had everyone’s attention before he told them what had been on his mind. “I’ll tell you what was on my mind. There’s a car crash, the husband is killed, it turns out he has no insurance and the next thing I see is that poor woman and her poor kids without a home, out on the streets, without help, without a future.”  He tapped his chest.  ” That’s what I felt. In my heart that’s what I felt. The need to save these people. It was a moral thing, not a money thing at all, purely a spiritual thing. How could I best help these people whom I hardly knew but somehow felt responsible for? ” He swirled the ice in his glass and gave it his serious consideration before looking up. ” I’ll tell you how. By making them take out insurance, that’s how. Yes, it was a spiritual thing. In fact ( he put his glass down on the table) in fact…. in fact if Jesus was to come back today, you know what he’d come back as?” He looked from one face to the other, waiting. ” I’ll tell you what he’d come back as.”  Once again he leant back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head before he told them. “An insurance salesman,” he told them. ” An insurance salesman.”

The University of St. Andrews



We used to walk along the pier then go back along the pier

wall on Sundays in our red gowns after church, usually in

twos, talking and non-talking, a pleasant monk-like ritual.

Out of term time, tourists do the same trek but without the

prequel chapel experience and lacking the mediaeval charm

of the red gown



This was a serious cloistered place where we came to see our

examination results pinned to the  notice boards  for all the

world to see.  Here is all the world studying our results.



Outside the chapel on the cobble stones are printed and

interlinked the letters P H to mark the killing of Patrick

Hamilton. I think he was burned as a heretic. Ah religion,

what cruelties are (still) committed in thy name!




Half-way up the wall is the window out of which the hanged

body of Cardinal Beaton was displayed. He was a Catholic

plenipotentiary who eventually paid the full price of his

unpopularity. Ah, religion etc.




The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton attracted

fame and focus to the University where the couple met and

fell in love and spent important young years of their lives as

students. Gather ye rosebuds, carpe diem, you’re a long time

dead.  Gaudeamus igitur iuvenes dum sumus….. Still a

powerful message.

Exotic Love

Gthes 6

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,” WHY are 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. The same notes/words over and over – Ka – Ri – Na – Ka – Ri – Na – Ka – Ri – Na – Ka – Ri – Na – Ka Ri – Na – Ka – Ri …..  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 happens 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 of what had been happening. I have a feeling they could hardly wait till they got back to the station to share the joke with the lads.

Miracle on Sauchiehall Street

100_3017 abcdLast 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.

gw 1nnOnly  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.

Independence Day

 embra witches 2

Down from the castle
down past St Giles
towering over the masses
ever mindful of their mission
led by their strutting Italian drummer
tatatarat tatatarat tatatarat  tatat
the 3 wild witches
rattling their rattles
Make way! Make way!
stride over the cobbles
down the Royal Mile
glide down to  the Palace
bringing  the great news
first to  brave  Edwin
the proud nation’s defender
then to his mother
then to all the good people
of Edwin’s fair city.

manatwindow q

Understanding Stones

This is the Craw Stane standing on its own above Rhynie in Aberdeenshire. The carving below the salmon  is called the Pictish Beastie. What it means nobody knows. The stone is either a boundary  marker or a memorial plinth.

These are what’s left of a stone circle near Kirriemuir in Angus. It marks a burial site

These are gneiss stones  which  form an avenue leading to some central significant location.


These are the Callanish Stones in Lewis which form a circle round a central pillar and are part of a lunar clock.
Local tradition says that giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a punishment. Another local belief says that at sunrise on midsummer morning, the “shining one” walked along the stone avenue, “his arrival heralded by the cuckoo‘s call.” This legend could be a folk memory recalling the astronomical significance of the stones.

And full circle – back to Rhynie’s Craw Stane…..The cows in the field  find the Craw Stane an ideal rubbing post and it is in grave danger from theme

Good Buddhies

The Buddha in the garden was here when we moved in.


We bought the house from a dentist and his partner who was somebody well known in jurisprudence (I’m not even sure I know what that means). Anyhow neither seemed the sort of guy who would go in for yoga or meditation or any of these Eastern practices which we in the West treat with such reverence as being superior ways to understand the world and the part we play in it. Sitting cross-legged for hours at a time and mumbling OMMMMMMM deep down every couple of seconds or so never seemed to me the most practical way of dealing with life’s pesky problems.

The question was should we get rid of it, move it, keep it where it was. I thought of it as not ours, not us, but a foreign deity imposed by a departed dentist and his jurisprudent partner; Moira (who had recently started Thursday Yoga classes at the University) thought of it as quite nice really and reminded me that the shortest distance between two points was not necessarily a straight line and that since she did most of the garden work anyway the Buddha should stay where it was. If that was all right with me.

And that is how the dentist’s Buddha became Moira’s Buddha and came between us. If I moved it a foot or two to prune a rose bush or whatever, the next time I went into the garden, the Buddha had moved back to its original position. If I turned it  to face nor-nor west, next day it would have swivelled its gaze back to the mystic East.
I started to talk to Moira about it but she  frowned,  lifted an admonishing finger and shook her head. “Let’s not talk about it, ” she said. ” I know you don’t like it but let’s not quarrel about it. If you don’t mind.The shortest distance between – ”
” Okay, O wise one, ” I interrupted. ” Okay, Grasshopper. Okay.”

I became quite grumpy. I know I did. Moira, bless her, didn’t complain about my moodiness but that somehow made me grumpier than ever.

Then I had a brainwave. I bought another Buddha, not quite so serene as the dentist’s  but looking as if he knew a thing or two about giving your common or garden djinn a pretty hard time of it. I didn’t know quite what my game plan was – I think I thought I was starting a Buddha war and that my Buddha would turn up trumps.
Moira just shook her pretty head as she usually does when I embark on a new idea and let me get on with it as, god bless her, she usually does..
I put the Buddhas side by side on a bare patch of earth. They stayed put.

Time passed.
We changed.
The earth changed.
The garden and our two resident Buddhas changed.
In a funny sort of way they cancelled each other out. The garden became for us a haven of peace, a place for coming closer together yet remaining infinitely apart, independent yet together; no man (or woman) is an island sort of stuff. If we found ourselves quarreling we would simply step out into the garden, stand in front of BUDDHA ONE and BUDDHA ALSO ONE, bow, press palms together, make the  deep down sound and wait for the bad waves between us to subside.
Which they invariably did.


New Age gods can sometimes be the answer to age-old problems.


My great-grandfather, a good old-fashioned Presbyterian elder, believed that all who weren’t of his religious persuasion would end up on Judgment Day tumbling head over heels into the darkest and deepest depths of the fiery abyss, shouting out as they fell headlong and helpless Lord-Lord-we-didnae-ken-we didnae-ken!  and in reply they would hear the good Lord’s cheery voice  booming down from on high – “WEEL, YE KEN NOO!

For him Judgment day held no fears. Quite the opposite. As one of The Elect he would be able to watch his enemies receive their just and merited punishments for  his God was indeed a vindictive god, made in his own image.

My grandfather on the other hand reacted against this Calvinistic vision.  When he was 16, he left home, school, church, country for Canada – Dawson City – and returned after 20  silent years, not in a big, flashy car,  not splashing money about,  not loud-mouthed and full of tales of bravado but what you see in a vulgarised form nowadays on television – a secret millionaire. He posted money to people who for whatever reason seemed in dire need of it and to those who could benefit others by being better off – all this coming to light only after his death. God, for him, was other people; like in the John Lennon song – Imagine – no hell, no heaven

And then we come to my father. He went to St. Andrews University, took a degree in geology then seemingly in his father’s footsteps went abroad – Australia – mining – the bowels of the earth – the other side of the world, far and deep enough away to be thought of as a fairly permanent move. But something happened. At some stage in any family history, something ( kept vague, mysterious, side-of-the-nose-touching stuff) h-a-p-p-e-n-s and life can never be the same again. Something happened and he came ‘home’ again. His favourite saying was the title of a book by Thomas Wolfe – ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’. I think he felt he’d taken the correct first step – going to Australia – then chickened out, run home to Mummy, back to his comfort zone, and been ashamed of his lack of  determination and purpose ever since. God, for my father, was that inner sense of purpose and direction with which he had unfortunately lost contact.

And me? I went to Africa. Kenya. Kiambu. A coffee Farm. Loved it all. Three marriages. I wasn’t good at marriage. Two children. I wasn’t the best father in the world. No religion. Never felt the need for it.


When  shall we three meet again?

In thunder, lightning or in rain…. 

Strange place, Dunning. Near the battlefield of Sheriffmuir. On the outskirts  I came across  this 20 ft. high monument to Maggie Wall –  burnt to death on this spot in 1657 for witchcraft, ” the last witch in Scotland to suffer this fate. ” ( Not true – the last witch burnt to death  in Scotland was Janet Horne, in Dornoch, 1772)
Anyhow the next time I passed Maggie’s monument  (this time without a camera), someone had placed a bunch of flowers on the stones at the pedestal base. I asked in the village about the flowers and who renewed the white painted epitaph but no-one seemed to know. One old woman said that there was always a card with the wreath saying, “In memory of Maggie Wall burnt to death by the Church in the name of Christianity.”

A photograph taken perhaps 100 years ago shows the lettering exactly as it is now. Who is entrusted with the task of keeping the memory of poor Maggie Wall alive by the annual wreath and the renewing of the lettering since nothing – apart from this memorial – is recorded or known about her. (And why is Maggie Wall commemorated in particular when there were altogether 6,000 ‘witches’ executed in Scotland?)

Strange place, Dunning. Very quiet. Worth a visit but I wouldn’t advise you to stay there overnight.