Sunday, 20 July 2008

Of Concertinas and Seagulls

I've just about got things sorted since getting back from Iceland although there are still lists of things I've got to get done like getting CRB checked, essential if I want to tell stories to children in libraries even though I will never be alone with them. Apparently I shall also need to get myself public liability insurance and though storytelling must be a low risk occupation premiums are very high and so far I've not found a specialist broker. The hunt continues. However all is not doom and gloom and the age of miracles, trust and generosity is far from over.
Two days ago I emailed a friend saying that as a storyteller I would love to have a small instrument to sing to and, as my ukalele is now only good for a wall decoration since it hit the cabin floor in a force nine gale (and that's another story) perhaps a concertina would be a good idea? Then I added 'am I quite mad?'
Yesterday morning the reply came back, 'No, not mad,' with a contact number. I rang the number and an encouraging voice gave me another number, a young mum called Carole. Half an hour later Carole, who I had never met before, was on my doorstep with a concertina for me to borrow 'for as long as you like!' I phoned a concertina specialist somewhere in the north of England for advice and told him, 'Oh,' he said, ' Concertina people are like that!
After such trust and kindness I've got to settle down and learn how to play it so, having trawled the net I'm printing off a free instruction manual. Fortunately I have a small room at the top of the house where I can practice in private and when I can escape for a few hours I shall be able to take it down to my Writing Hut where only the seagulls will be able to hear.
From the kitchen window I've been watching a pair of gulls raising three youngsters. They are very caring parents and got frantically worried when one chick fell from their nest on a chimney pot and slid down the roof into a gutter . They fed it, cajoled it and finally taught it to fly while still caring for the two remaining in the nest. Now the hen bird is enjoying a well earned rest sitting on the empty nest and gossiping with her friends sitting on the neighbouring chimney pots. Soon she will go too, but she and her life long partner will be back next year.

Friday, 11 July 2008

The land of ice and fire

I have longed to see the home of the Icelandic sagas since I was seven and still have the book that fired my imagination. Faced with fire in the landscape it is easy to understand how, when the first Vikings landed in 950AD they were convinced that the god Thor was in control, bashing out their fate on his anvil close beneath them. Trolls, now petrified in lava weathered by wind and time still inhabit the landscape, their dwellings are there for all to see. For a story teller this was a thrilling adventure.

The Icelandic people care for their fragile environment and waste nothing. Clouds of steam billow gently from cracks in the ground like trails of smoke left by the passing trains of my childhood. Modern technology has enabled them to harness the power underground where water is held at temperatures exceeding 300°C. Standing beside the steam emerging from the power station outside Reykjavik the ground vibrated with the energy of a primeval giant. It seemed as though nothing could prevent this monster from eventually breaking free.

Children don’t begin schooling until they are six and are not hemmed in by warnings of danger, real or imagined. As teenagers they are expected to do paid work for the community during their summer break and can be found cleaning the streets, working in municipal gardens or for older members of the community or, for those suitably gifted, working in museums demonstrating old skills, dancing, reading from the sagas or writing and putting on plays for younger children. I met some students in the museum in Akureyri, their English was excellent and spoke they with pride of their community and culture.

We had an RSPB party on board so bird watching was part of our itinerary. Among the fulmars swirling around our stern I saw a gannet drop out of the sky. Some days we were followed by clouds of artic terns; skuas were among the many birds I had never seen before and when we got to Haemaey puffins crowded the cliffs.

I have to confess that I have always found tour buses rather claustrophobic so I took advantage of an offer of a drive from Reykjavik to Thorsmork in a 4x4. Only seven of us volunteered as the majority didn’t fancy nine hours over rough ground. The truck turned out to be well padded and robustly sprung, very necessary as part of the way was over an ancient glacial moraine with descents into a river where we had to go down stream for fifty yards or so before scrambling up the other bank.

Like all holidays the end came far too quickly. I can’t speak highly enough of the care the crew of Spirit of Adventure took to ensure that every passenger enjoyed the cruise, from the Captain to the youngest steward fresh from the Philippines. Some of my travelling companions were very frail but no one was allowed to feel too old to take part in what ever appealed to them. We set off from Portsmouth into the teeth of storm force winds coming up the channel and met steep Atlantic rollers as we came down the west coast of Ireland. I was able to enjoy the gale, but did find the Atlantic swell a little uncomfortable. However I managed to sit down to every meal and enjoy the wonderful food which tasted even better because I hadn’t had to cook it. The Spirit of Adventure only carries 350 passengers and life on board is far more informal than in her bigger sisters Saga Rose and Saga Ruby. Her small size allows her to call into ports that couldn’t take larger ships, going into Haemaey would have been impossible fohad she been any bigger.

On the way to Iceland we visited Dublin and Tobermory, on the way home we stopped in Cork and Falmouth but to tell you about all of that would make this story far too long.

One thought remains to puzzle me. How did the Vikings manage to carry their sturdy little horses across stormy seas in open boats. Today the breed is still pure, they have never been crossed with any other breed and if one should leave Iceland for competition or sale it is not allowed to return.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

I came home from a holiday all ready and raring to go only to be faced with an overflowing in tray, a thousand emails, a pile of bills and we will draw a veil over the jobs waiting to be done on the domestic front. One thing I have achieved in the past week, I have launched my new web site When I closed Wellbeloved Gallery two years ago I have to confess I was well past the accepted sell by date but was far from ready to retire. The only answer was to create a new career. So far it is proving to be stimulating and fun, I certainly haven't time to be old yet! The only problem in my life at the moment is Muffin, the year old whippet. He seems to have intellectual ambitions. So far, apart from stealing a new pair of varifocal spectacles which will never be the same again, he has tried to turn on the television operatingn the remote control with his teeth (very expensive). He also likes to get to the newspaper first leaving it rather difficult for those who come after to read. Throw into the mix the fact that Sky, the lurcher bitch, has an obsessive interest in pens and biros and you can see that life has its problems.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

I came home from Iceland last week, full of excitement, overflowing with ideas that I wanted to commit to paper before they were lost in the business of daily routine. Then came the news that Bill is dead. We had known each other since childhood, a dear man who with his wife had done so much for so many, giving hospitality and kindliness to all who came within their orbit and suddenly she is a widow. As I sat at my desk feeling the bleakness of her loneliness I picked up the new anthology from Bloodaxe ‘In Person – 30 Poets’ and found myself looking at words by Jackie Kay -

‘And what I didn’t know or couldn’t say then
Was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.’

Everything else must wait for another day.