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Make a little birdhouse in your soul

22 Jun

Although it pales in comparison to all the other horror and tragedy in the world, I had a little loss of my own this week. My budgie Roland died at the not very advanced age of four years. He had been sick for a while with what turned out out to be a liver complaint and died at the weekend, whether from the liver problem or from the stress of being medicated for the liver problem, who can say? (Death from stress is a common problem with birds and small animals in general – apparently the trick is to get them happy taking fluid from a syringe before they ever get ill. Something to remember for next time.) But this is not a sad post – I thought this was a good time to introduce you to the birds who have shared my life. They each had their own unique personality and colouring, kept me company in lonely times and cheered up the house. You can keep your cats and dogs; give me a bird any day.

Reddle

The Goldfinch by Fabritius
Gandalf’s Gallery on Flickr

My ‘gateway’ bird was a goldfinch called Reddle. I don’t have a photo of him, as I didn’t have him for long and this was (gasp) in the days before smartphones, so you’ll have to make do with this oil-on-panel masterpiece instead. I got him when I was living in Albania. I had never thought about owning a bird before I went to Albania, but they often have wee canaries in cages outside shops and houses (the climate being so nice there) and I got to thinking “I want one of those!” A friend who knew I was drawn by the idea of owning a bird then got me a goldfinch that had been caught from the wild. Yes, this is Not a Good Thing – but it’s not illegal in Albania, as far as I know. (It is in the UK.)

Anyway, it was a time when I was a bit lonely and miserable (living in Gjirokaster – I’ve never liked Gjirokaster) and he was a bit miserable and we suited each other. But when I went home for Christmas, the same friend (who was looking after Reddle) took pity on the bird and released him, which was the right thing to do. However, now I had got the bug, and when I moved back to the UK a few years later, I got…

Maxim

A singing potplant

Maxim was a canary, the classic cage bird that I had seen all over Albania. He was reared in captivity and bought from a reputable shop, so that was a step in the right direction.

Canaries are not clever birds, and Maxim was basically a pretty, singing house plant. I had been warned not to let him out of the cage but I thought he might enjoy it. This was a mistake; both times I let him out, he flew into something and hurt himself. Once he tried to attack his reflection in the toaster. Not much upstairs, poor soul, but a great voice, and he used to love to belt out a song whenever he could hear violent computer games.

Maxim lived a good number of years. With old age, he gradually became less vocal and developed neuralgia (if I remember rightly) in his legs so he had to have injections. Can you imagine how tiny that needle was?? Eventually I came into the kitchen one day to find him on the floor of his cage, feet in the air. And so passed Maxim.

Gatsby

A flamboyant name for a flamboyantly coloured bird. Gatsby was my first budgie and his purchase came about because I wanted another canary while my husband wanted a huge great parrot that talks. The budgie was a compromise.

Gatsby never talked, in fact, but he (or possibly she – but it’s hard to be certain) was a sweet and gentle soul, as you can see from the photo of him (her) with my niece, Ciara when she was a toddler. (And don’t you just want to eat those chubby wrists!)

Gatsby did not live very long, sadly. He (she) died of some internal complaint at the age of only about six months. Gatsby’s death upset me more than Roland’s, truth be told, because even though I knew Roland longer, Gatsby died way too young and was just so affectionate. Here is my other niece Isla’s artist’s impression of Gatsby.

Roland

The pet shop where I got Gatsby gave me Roland for free to make up for Gatsby’s premature death. Roland was not affectionate and was definitely a boy. (This is not based on personality stereotypes, by the way – he just had a much clearer blue cere, the bit above the beak.) He was a wee gymnast, always climbing around his cage and hanging upside down. He was a biter, which was a pain (literally and figuratively) but while he saw fingers as snacks, he enjoyed sitting on shoulders, as in the photo above. He was aggressive and territorial, but also funny and entertaining. In the picture below, he is about to pull over a wine glass, just for kicks. (Don’t worry, I caught it.)

My funniest memory of Roland is probably when he decided to land on my brother-in-law (who is not especially fond of birds) when he had his head in the fridge and he had no idea what was coming. A tiny budgie making a big rugby bloke jump is pretty funny to see.

And Roland did talk! I mean, about once per year, but still. He could say “Peppa Pig”, “Isla” and “kiss kiss”, although he didn’t often deign to speak. He was a fantastic whistler, though. He was definitely trouble, but he was my little trouble, and I’ll miss him.

Who next…?

I’m not getting another bird immediately. I need a bit of time to mourn Roland first, and I have various commitments over the summer which will prevent me having the necessary time for training. One of the reasons for Roland’s poor etiquette was that I didn’t devote as much time to hand taming him as Gatsby, a mistake I would prefer not to repeat.

I’ll probably get another budgie – once you’ve experienced their charming personalities, it’s hard to go back to canaries. And what will I call it? Well I have always given my birds names based on characters in books that I was reading about the time I got them, so it really depends. I’m about to read The King’s Fifth, which is the book The Mysterious Cities of Gold was based on, so if I’m still reading that it’s likely to be something Spanishy like Esteban or Mendoza.

But I may be on to a completely different book by then. However, that’s in the future. For now, here’s to Reddle, Maxim, Gatsby and, of course, Roland, my much-loved feathered companions.

Ugly East Kilbride

30 Apr

Before you get too annoyed, please note that this is a twin post. You can find the other one here.

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Beautiful East Kilbride

30 Apr

Before you get too confused, please note that this is a twin post. You can find the other one here.

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My year in review – 2020

31 Dec

It seems redundant to say that this year has not been what I expected. Unless you’ve been living in an isolated Amazon tribe (in which case I’d love to know how you’re reading this) you already know that 2020 was the year that said ‘no’. If you want to read about my experiences of the first lockdown, click the link. This winter lockdown feels much less new and exciting and much more of a dull, dark slog. However, life goes on regardless, so I will give you a quick review of my year as a whole.

Travel

Let’s get the obvious one of out the way: I went nowhere. Well, virtually nowhere. I was meant to go to Leiden in the Netherlands in February, but that was scuppered by Storm Ciara. I could have rescheduled it for April but there was talk of this novel coronavirus thing so I hedged my bets and went to St Andrews for a day trip instead.

However, once things opened up again in the summer, I did get to – Haddington! I have a good friend, Susan, who hails from this East-Coast town and who is almost always overseas, so I risked my life at Hermiston Gait and took the opportunity to visit while she was temporarily stuck in the UK between exotic postings.

Haddington was kind of charming in a small-town way, with a nice river walk and some identical metal bars they laughably call an outside gym. It reminded me of Dunbar, and I said so, and thereby found out that the way to annoy a Haddingtonian is to compare their town to the very similar town half an hour or so down the coast. I think this insight will provide endless fun in my relationship with Susan 🤭

I also managed to get down to Derbyshire for my mother’s birthday, which miraculously fell between periods of restrictions, and as the celebration was held in a hotel, we were even able to get three households together.

The only other travel I have been doing this year is in my mind, planning an epic Interrailling trip for when the world is back to normal.

Learning

This category has been much, much more active than my globe trotting.

Sourdough

At the start of the pandemic, when yeast was scarce, I saw someone on Twitter saying “yeast is never scarce” and so my journey into sourdough making began. Sourdough uses wild yeast, which is found in random places like the air and the bloom on grapes. I raised a sourdough starter from scratch, which my nieces named Olaf. He is a little less pampered now than he was, but he’s still going strong and makes us a dense, crusty loaf about once a week.

I used the same wild yeast to make elderflower ‘champagne’ a little while later. It was – alright. Not much like champagne, but kind of like very sweet, slightly alcoholic elderflower Schloer. I also tried making elderflower cordial, not realising (because my foraging book did not tell me!) that the stalks are poisonous and must be removed before you make the cordial. No harm done, but not a pleasant experience.

Esperanto

My cancelled journey to Leiden gave me the opportunity to go to an Esperanto club in Glasgow, because I had cleared my diary for the trip. I started an Esperanto course on Duolingo (where I had been learning Dutch) because I had fond memories of learning it as a teenager after reading the Stainless Steel Rat books. I thought the club would be a one-off, but 2020 has given me the opportunity to attend pretty much every club meeting, as they are all online, and the woman who runs the anti-trafficking group I’m also a member of kindly changed those meetings so I could attend both. I have just about finished the Duolingo course, have read my first novela in Esperanto (see Books, below) and have even written an article for the magazine Esperanto in Scotland (Esperanto en Skotlando). I’m not fluent (yet) but it’s definitely become my third-most proficient language, after English and Albanian. I didn’t see that coming!

Paleography

I had almost forgotten about this one – I took a wee online course in paleography, in case I ever have cause to read old documents (not that unlikely, in my line of work). It was very interesting and I could definitely read more by the the end of it. It was one of those courses where the lessons are free but you have to pay if you want a certificate, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

First Aid

My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to learn first aid. I thought that would be easy – booked a course with the Red Cross, job done. Unfortunately the original date was cancelled due to lack of participants and the rescheduled date was cancelled due to Covid. Instead, I downloaded the British Red Cross apps, First Aid and Baby & Child First Aid (both free) and worked my way through them. In theory, I now know basic first aid, and if I forget, I still have the apps to refer to.

Calligraphy

Most recently, I have been busy getting half-decent at calligraphy. Again, this is a hobby from my childhood that I’ve picked up again. I’ve been doing mostly brush pen, but some pointed pen (nibs and ink) as well. My ambition when I started to get serious about it was to make gifts for my new friends from my friend Tanya’s Check In and Catch Up group, which she started in order to keep us all sane during the first lockdown. I managed that, and also make quite a few Christmas cards using calligraphy, so I feel the effort has not been wasted.

One amusing side effect of learning calligraphy is that you see it everywhere. My sister must be sick of me picking up a magazine, greetings card or menu and saying, “Oh look, modern calligraphy!”

As these last two categories suggest, I’ve made quite a few new friends and acquaintances this year – more than most years, I think. Zoom/Skype/Teams are annoying in comparison with real meet-ups, but after this year I can’t deny that you can form genuine friendships with people you have only met in the form of electronic pixels on a screen.

I have also learned to darn socks this year – a less social pursuit, but handy, and one that is very much in line with my attempts to be eco-friendly. The fact that I spilled red nail varnish on a perfectly good pair of jeans while writing this post is less eco-friendly of me, but according to the internet, hairspray will sort it out. We’ll see.

Books

I’m letting GoodReads do the heavy lifting for me again, even though I’ve almost certainly missed some out. There were a couple of re-reads this year, including Dracula, which is rather quaintly written from this distance in time, but still interesting. I read it again after coming across the nugget of information that Dracula was an alchemist. As you may know, I’m trying to write a non-fiction book on alchemy, a subject that fascinates me. Unfortunately, like many people, I have found that 2020 gave me plenty of spare time, but not that much mental energy or direction. Maybe next year…

Meanwhile, my novel Daughters of Fire creeps along. It’s the second in a series of three, the first of which is called The Sarcophagus Scroll. I was planning to do a fair bit of travel as research for book two, so that being cancelled hasn’t helped much, and I’m also suffering from the lethargy induced by yet another lockdown. However, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph it is getting there.

I did manage to write a couple of not-bad short stories this year, ‘The Untouchable Collection’ and ‘The Price of Exposure’. I’m fond of short stories, reading them and writing them, so it’s good to dip my toe back in while the novel is slightly in the doldrums. I also wrote a couple of articles for Christianity magazine and there should be another one coming out near the start of next year. And I won a limerick-writing competition about the pandemic, netting a modest cash prize.

Getting back to books I have read, the one that packed the greatest emotional punch, if you can believe it, is Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series (which are all so short, you may as well consider them a single book). I only picked it up from the library for my niece, read the blurb on my way up the library stairs, and was instantly hooked by the humour. It’s a perfect little noir mystery, with dry wit and a wonderful femme fatale “with eyebrows like question marks and a smile that could mean anything.” And it leads unarguably up to an ending of inescapable, exquisite tragedy where there is simply no good option. It was heartbreaking.

I should add, for the sake of balance, that my nine-year-old niece said, “it’s not sad at all”.

The best book I read this year was David Copperfield, but that feels like cheating because it is such a classic. The best new book was probably The Golem and the Jinni, which really surprised me. The worst was The Serpent Grail, which was utter tosh.

Hacks

From David Copperfield I learnt that you can use beeswax on thread to get it to go through a needle, rather than licking it. This is useful to know in times of pandemic, and it is also more effective and longer-lasting.

I also found out while writing this post that hairspray does remove nail varnish from jeans – at least from black jeans. Phew!

Miscellaneous

I was a guest on a podcast about dyslexia; did a reading at an online ‘bar’ and subsequently had a story published in the bar’s best-selling anthology (that was nice, as you can imagine); appeared in a ceilidh video by Jiggered; hosted a YouTube/WhatsApp Eurovision party (which was probably the highlight of my whole year); and made a gingerbread zoo as my Christmas gingerbread project. There’s a wee ‘flyover’ of it embedded here.

Pets

My budgie Roland moved cage this year to bigger digs, and on Christmas morning, two adorable guinea pigs, Squiggles and Socks, arrived to join the family!

Crochet

I made a few wee things this year, including snowflakes, socks with decent ribbing (using knowledge acquired last year), a couple of baby blankets, a random wee shawl, a gingerbread man square for my patchwork blanket and a couple of dinosaurs. (I also made a fair number of face masks for obvious reasons, but not in crochet, for equally obvious reasons.)

And of course…

🥁🥁🥁

…the temperature blanket! Here it is, in all its multi-coloured glory! (Click on the photo for a larger image.)

Naturally, I have another ambitious crochet project planned, but it can wait for next year. Meanwhile, there’s hogmanay to enjoy, with champagne for the bells to bid a firm farewell to 2020. Never have the words of Tennyson’s ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ been more appropriate than this year, so here it is to finish. Have a wonderful 2021, and I hope it brings you everything you are dreaming of.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

A game of patience

5 Dec

The inspiration for this post was my rather splendid new Christmas jumper, which you can see in the photo below. Christmas jumpers have become a bit of a thing in recent years (I know they were around before that, but they were mocked rather than mandatory) and I didn’t have one last year, so I decided to make one for this Christmas.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
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The Gate of Desire Ajar

21 Sep

There’s a poem on the wall next to platform 10 in Glasgow Central station. posted up there to mark the relaunch of the Caledonian Sleeper service (unfortunately with sharply increased prices, meaning that I will be unlikely ever to sample its comforts). It’s by Alfred Cochrane, an English cricketer and I was rather taken by it, so I looked for it on the web, naturally, and couldn’t find it – well, not apart from a couple of references in old issues of the Oban Times.

It is called “Northward Bound”, apparently (or
“Northward Bound Once Again”), and it beautifully sums up the call of the Highlands, which even the least energetic among us (i.e. me) feel the power of. It has a rather poignant, bittersweet beginning, but works its way up to a much more uplifting ending.

I think it deserves to be more widely known, so as it’s not online, I’m going to put it there. (Don’t worry, it’s out of copyright – just.)

And in case you have difficulty reading from the photos, or you’re using text-to-speech, here’s the full text:

Does your heart still beat with the old excitement
As you wait where the Scotch expresses are?
Does it answer still to the old indictment
Of a fond delight in a sleeping car,
As it did when the rush through the autumn night
Meant the gate of desire ajar?

Or has the enchanting task grown tougher?
Has the arrow beyond you flown?
The hill that was once rough enough grown roughter,
The steepest climb you’ve ever known?
For the forest abhors a veteran duffer,
Sorely beaten and blown.

Ah, the years, the years, they are rusty and mothy;
The flesh it is weak, that once was strong.
But the brown burn over the stone falls frothy;
The music it sings is a siren song
And the pony’ll take you as far as the bothy,
And that’ll help you along.

See! From the tops the mist is stealing!
Out with the stalking glass for a spy!
Round Craig an Eran an eagle is wheeling,
Black on the blue September sky.
A fig for the years! Why, youth and healing
At the end of your journey lie.

Alfred Cochrane

An Albanian Summer

23 Jul

I’m on holiday this month, but as a self-employed writer it’s very much a busman’s holiday, of course. I’ve been researching an article on Albanian vineyards, working on part two of The Sarcophagus Scroll (called Daughters of Fire, since you asked), and editing a booklet called How to Get Published, which will be available free to newsletter subscribers in September.

But I have also found time to have fun and enjoy the beauty of Albania (as if touring vineyards wasn’t fun!). So here’s a nice photo post for you.

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Beautiful Bute

7 Feb

I’m just back from what my sister called my “overseas tour” – speaking to a literary society on the Isle of Bute. Continue reading

The Story of Robin Hood in Pictures

21 Nov

When I was preparing my new book, Why Everything You Know about Robin Hood Is Wrong for publication, I initially intended to have an accompanying image in each chapter. I ditched the idea, mostly because it would make the book to expensive (always thinking of you, my dear readers) but I thought you might like to see them anyway.

So in this blog you will see the pictures that would have been in the colour edition of the book, in order, along with their original captions. They may not make total sense out of context. To fill in the blanks, you will have to read my book – which is released tomorrow! (22nd November 2018, that is.)

(By the way, most of the images in this post are licensed for resuse, but not all. Check the caption for the origin if you plan to reuse them.)
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The Beauty of Tunisa

24 Oct

A lovely photo post, and a good reason for posting it: at the start of the month I was visiting a friend in Tunisia – a new country for me, and a whole new continent, as I had never been to Africa.

I can’t say I fell for Tunisia the way I did for Albania and, to a lesser extent, Greece, but it was fun, and had some beautiful sights. And the Roman ruins! Oh my word! I’ve never seen such well-preserved Roman buildings. And there was even pre-Roman stuff! So from that point of view, I was in my element, even if my Arabic is a little less polished than my Latin 😉

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