We’ve ended up having a rather virtuous day. A fortnight ago, the Two Nice Girls, our market gardeners, included a vegetable marrow in our box for the week, since when, being rather busy, we pretty much looked the other way and pretended they hadn’t. This week we had a pumpkin. There were also quantities of tasteless tomatoes: clearly the TNG’s polytunnels had allowed the wretched things to ripen, but in the total absence of a summer, not to any good effect. And meanwhile in the greenhouse, our Black Hamburg grapevine had (also due to total lack of sun) produced lots and lots of sour grapes. Being slightly less on the run this week, all these were dealt with. The vegetable marrow became soup: the sort of vegetable soup you liquidise, so the complete tastelessness of the marrow was neither here nor there; it disappeared and provided bulk to a soup that tasted of onions, celery, leeks, curry laksa, turmeric, ginger and coconut. We made a primitive version of the pumpkin tortelloni you get in Ferrara, by enveloping the filling in sheets of lasagne. Olga the Latvian cleaning lady says you can make nice pancakes with pumpkin, so some more of the pompion will go on experiments, but we’re definitely getting through it. There was bread dough on the go so I made a very simple pizza for lunch with all the tasteless tomatoes cut in quarters and some feta, but the triumph really was the grapes: they really were very small, sour and horrid this year, so I experimented with making grape jelly out of them. It’s come out a very splendid royal purple, and since the grapes were sour to start with, the result isn’t unduly bland and sweet.
We had a nice message yesterday morning from friends even norther than we are (i.e. Tromso): along with sharing some seasonal thoughts, there was a warning message. According to the Norwegian weather man, the unseasonably early wintry conditions then afflicting Tromso were on their way south, and it was very likely that they would reach us. We still had no heating, so this did not come as any species of good news. I got in from work after seven (the Prof was still in Aberdeen, giving an evening lecture), to find the house echoing with the dismal throbbing of the unhappy pump which had caused us to turn the heating system off. Things then got a bit surreal. Check. The central heating and hot water are switched off (yes). Check. Go out to the boiler, see if it has an off switch (yes). Switch it off. Return to base camp. Why is this bloody pump still pumping? And what is it pumping? Thereupon, I rang the plumber. Having taken the phone down to the cellar so as to share with him the mechanical equivalent of Cheyne-Stokes breathing which this infernal device was emitting. The cellar is quite an echoey little space, and this, as I had hoped, somewhat dented his confidence that we were something he could put off till next week. With his telephonic assistance, I was able to identify an electrical switch which turned the thing off, so at least that was something. We awoke this morning to November’s most unwelcome sight, a sky filled with flurries of snow. I went off to work, leaving the Prof in charge, to spend a perfectly surreal day - I had four teaching hours on the trot and, galloping from one to another across campus, alternately emerged into a perfectly beautiful bright sun, dead calm, and blue sky, or a sky of yellowish grey and a blizzard. I returned to find, thankfully, that we have heating. One of the Plumbing Patriarch’s rather unsettling identical twin sons had been round in the course of the afternoon, done something to the dread pump, and bled the system. He’ll come back on Monday (he sa) and replace the pump, which he concedes is no’ very weel: his version of how it had come to turn itself on and leave me wondering if I’d have to beat it to death with a sledgehammer was frankly implausible, but what the heck. We seem to be back in business.
We have something of a problem with the heating system, which has caused us to turn it off for the last three days. Fortunately, it’s not yet particularly cold, though creeping damp is a problem. We each have a fan heater in our study, kitchens are warmed by cooking operations, and there’s a free standing radiator in our bedroom we use as a towel-dryer when the heating is not otherwise on, so this doesn’t constitute an emergency (yet). What has struck me about this is the curiously interstitial nature of a central heating problem: you have at one end of it, those who installed the boiler, at the other, those who installed, or maintain, the pipework. The boiler people were pretty clear that it was a pipes problem. The pipes person, when contacted, immediately blamed the boiler. Unfortunately, the obvious person to unfankle the whole issue, viz., Barry the Great, is having a wholesome family holiday in Aviemore, and good luck to him. The person who has not yet been evoked is the presiding genius of all such local difficulties in the academic world, whom I once identified as the Tooth Fairy (anent a particularly disastrous appointment, years ago and in another institution, after which every single member of the committee said, ‘I didn’t vote for him’, prompting the question, which I was caddish enough to utter at the time, ‘well, who did, then? The Tooth Fairy…?’). It’s clear that the Tooth Fairy continues to exert her erratic influence over academic affairs: perhaps, as a profession, we keep her sufficiently busy that she has had no time to develop a sideline in central heating expertise. I do hope so.
We’re suddenly over the point when you can say that slanting golden light constitutes lingering summer: the year is taking long strides down to its close. Last night when I took Miss Cat out, the grass was glittering with a pale fur of frost. The dahlias are blackened skeletons, blast them, since we’ve had hardly a month’s worth of blossom. Heaps of dangerously pink clouds are assembling in the west around half past six … soon the clocks will go back, and we’ll fall head first into the dark of the year. Meanwhile, though there’s a lot going on, not all of it’s bad. Ed has resurfaced in my life, with people wanting opinions on paintings coming up for sale and expertise on an exhibition next summer, which is always nice: though in much of my purely academic work, I’ve ended up sometimes utterly exasperated by people wanting me to say again something I said my say on five years ago, I never mind spending a bit more time with the old coot.
An annual battle is in process. It is bright, but cold. Every time I shut my study door an animal eventuates and insists on going through it. Basically, that it should stand half open all the time is an unnegotiable demand as far as the floor level community is concerned. Moreover, Barry the Great is working away outside repairing some render; Miss Dog is convinced either that owlish scrutiny will somehow help this process, or that if she stares at him long and hard enough, he’ll stop doing what he’s doing and take her for a walk. But there is an additional twist to this familiar state of affairs. I keep shutting the door, and several times since I settled down to work, I have either found Miss Dog staring at the door and whining, or Miss Cat staring at the door and wailing. Then, when I have got up, reluctantly, to open it, I have found the other one of the two is outside and wants to come back in. In short, they are ganging up on me.
The rhythms of the term are beginning to establish. Miss Kit is beginning to remember that if she is taken out to relieve herself first thing and I have a bus to catch, she is expected to get on with it. Miss Dog, fortunately, is very equable about being left for long periods, though we have formed a relationship with a dog-walker who comes by in the early afternoon if we’re going to be very late. It’s all very blue and gold outside - not warm, but sunny. One oddity of this very odd year is that the leaves haven’t turned yet. For at least a fortnight, they have had a dull, matte look, suggesting that photosynthesis has ceased and they are in fact dead, but they are dead and green, and the autumn tints of brown, red and gold have yet to manifest. One splash of colour is provided by autumn crocus and cyclamen: I like the white autumn crocus, which look very pure and somewhat unexpected, but there’s something fun about the glowing pinkish-magenta of the common ones. My cyclamen are under the big beech tree, and the colonies are getting to a good size now, so there are quite solid patches of their graceful, ears-back pink flowers.
The routine of term is beginning to take hold. There was some amazing weather after the Royal Visit — we were perfectly all right up here, but there were fallen trees in Aberdeen and Fittie was up to its knees in sea-foam. I’ve known that happen up the coast, even unto a whole beach looking as if there’d been a custard pie fight, but not in such quantities. I celebrated the end of the first week by catching a cold: I suppose my immune system has had relatively little to do for months, and the free and frank interchange of germs on campus came as a bit of a shock to it. But it’s not a bad one. A couple of nice things happened: our friends in Tromso unexpectedly sent us a beautiful bathmat, and my aconites have come out — terribly late, but they have grown gigantic and impressive and so have their flowers, like purple butterflies. So it’s not all gloom by any means.
The other news of the week is that Miss Kit has been back to the vet. She seems to have a slight problem with one of her back legs — she’s been increasingly incompetent about jumping onto the counter, or up onto my table, and sometimes gets odd twitches in it. Her vet’s not quite sure what to make of it but thinks she may be a bit arthritic. So she’s now getting a mild painkiller — but we also found that due to the other stuff she had to deal with the skin irritation which was making her pull her fur out, sort of HTR for cats, which made her ravenous, her weight had gone up from two and a half to three and a half kilos — which might in itself account for some of her newfound difficulty with high jumps. Anyway she now seems perfectly cheerful, and I find I can sneak the Metacam up on her in her dinner.
Yesterday’s Royal Visit passed without disaster. The arrangement basically was that a sizeable mob of invitees were waiting in the library to greet the sovereign, while anyone who felt like rolling up could come and wave a flag along the route to the library, which is spacious. Sadly, as a very respectable turnout of students waited to cheer, the weather suddenly made its mind up to be disobliging and the heavens opened. By the time Her Majesty appeared, the storm had rolled over, but meanwhile, everyone was drenched. Our students are a hardy breed, and stuck it out gallantly, but one group which looked particularly pathetic were the tinies and their carers from the University nursery, who’d been given a space at the front. They touched the heart of the Royal Household chaps, who promptly decided among themselves to ask them all in, so dignitaries dressed to the nines were suddenly augmented by a sort of bouquet of toddlers in brightly coloured raingear. It’s nice to know the Men in Suits have a human side, as has Her Majesty, who went straight over the moment she got in the door: a colleague’s little boy, never backward about coming forward, got to say ‘Hello, Queen’ which will doubtless be a topic of household conversation for some days. The Maestro and the Professor’s music was splendid, like a fanfare. The best thing about the day really was that a variety of old friends and colleagues now living and working elsewhere (Hong Kong, in one instance) had turned up for the occasion. Now we’re back to business as usual, and a good thing too.
I like teaching, on the whole. I like my students. But the few days before the beginning of the autumn term are awful. Like bouncing gently on a high-diving board looking down at the water. Once term starts, you take it a week at a time and once immersed it is fine, but this is the bit where you suffer Nameless Dread — and some Dreads which can be Named, such as, have I forgotten to factor in some crucial thing which will cause my apparently sensible timetable to become untenable? What has the somewhat erratic university computer services done to our share-it-with-the-students intranet? Can I update things or has someone neglected to give me editing power over my own course material? Added to which, tomorrow we have the formal opening of the new library. This will acquire an official name when a small and gracious white gloved hand pulls a tassled cord or something. The weather forecast could hardly be worse, and the combination of bemused, bumbling freshpersons, the fact that lectures actually START tomorrow and a quarter of the student body won’t be sure where they’re supposed to be going, and whatever security precautions the Special Branch considers apposite in the circumstances, is not one which appeals.
No doubt about it. The year has turned. The leaves are still green, but the swallows have gone, and the wind has a cold edge. At least we have (touch wood) got this far without our annual water crisis, though the top field has been reaped. That’s something, anyway. The weather’s very changeable, the sort of brilliant sun which doesn’t seem to actually warm you, alternated with sudden downpours. Meanwhile, university colleagues keep thinking of things for us to do. We had an interesting time yesterday, entertaining the two keen and enthusiastic young buildings inspectors who are doing the last ‘Buildings of Scotland’ (aka ‘Pevsners’, though if Baldy has anything to do with it it is only as an astral presence). Their experience of knocking on doors across the north-east has evidently been quite interesting. One fact which emerged is that Aberdeenshire is very much friendlier than Moray. Despite the fact that the young man in question is a perfectly charming young American of the most respectable appearance, Moravians had a strong tendency to call the police, whereas his colleague in Aberdeenshire tended to be met with ‘come away in. What was it you wanted?’ Also, ‘I’m from the University’ opened many doors, which suggests that we must’ve been doing something right over the last fifty years.
I write with a frantically purring Miss Kit on my knee. She has not enjoyed her cat hotel, clearly, though she looks in the best of health, & apparently behaved quite well. The rest of us have had a lovely time. Further adventures in breadmaking were very successful. We went up to Sutherland yesterday to Dunrobin Castle, which is somewhat worth having seen, bonkers Victorian pile that it is. The weirdest thing about it is the museum, a very small structure which turns out to be entirely full of heads of stuffed this and thats — every variety of deer known to mankind — staring with melancholy glass eyes at a really good collection of Pictish symbol stones. Most odd. In the neighbouring town, we found a fishmonger (there are fewer such than one might have hoped for) who sold us quantities of raw Scottish scampi, sans breadcrumbs. Dornoch turned out out to be a charming little place, and, for variety, we decided to go back via the Nigg Ferry. For some unknown reason, the Cromarty Queen, which is supposed to putt over half-hourly, remained obstinately moored at Cromarty, but the enforced hiatus of pottering on the beach at Nigg allowed us to witness a thrilling rescue, as a yellow helicopter came in alarmingly close to the cliff face down at the point in far from ideal weather conditions for such an exercise, let a chap down, and quite some time later, winched what were presumably two chaps up again. It flapped over towards the hospital at Inverness, and we wished it well, then got in the car and went round the long way. We really had a splendid week. The weather, though not always lovely, was no worse than okay, the scampi were delicious, and due to the fluctuating weather conditions, we have never seen so many rainbows.
We already knew that Cromarty is lovely, but we have had all kinds of new adventures. Our mobile phones have no signal, O the bliss. Short of a messenger with a forked stick, if anyone wants us ‘urgently’ (red exclamation mark) they are going to have to come and get us, which might help to redefine what the administration means by ‘urgent’. Domestically: our holiday roost includes a wood fired bread oven and we fired it up, for what turns out to have been the first time. It draws like the demon in Fantasia, there is a bountiful supply of wood, and, out of bog standard flour from the Fortrose Co-Op, I made the most beautiful bread, a little fire-licked on the top. I now have a better sense of the oven’s tricks and manners. The next batch will I hope be better, especially if we can find better flour. Outward bound: we took the ferry across to Nigg and went exploring Pictish sites. Here, right here: a giant, eight deck cruise ship came in to spend a day on the Cromarty Firth yesterday morning, and moved majestically out in the evening. To our great delight, the local dolphins came cavorting and playing about it – they do like big boats, because, I think, they can use the way generated by the boat itself. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen dolphins dolphining, i.e. leaping in the waves the way they do in pictures. We found a solidly oldfashioned tweed shop. The professor was short of a cap, which he lost on a train, and has intermittently mourned a big scarf left in a restaurant in Manchester … this emporium produced both the one and the other, and while it was about it, a pair of the most caddish socks currently available (grey and primrose birdseye), which will go with the ratcatcher jacket and a recently donated cad’s yellow bow tie for the moments when he is channelling his inner Wicked Uncle. Which, given the number of innocent tinies currently in our frame of reference, are not infrequent.
We are tootling off to Cromarty tomorrow with the Formerly Tropical Godparents. We are puzzling ourselves about packing the quite small car with four adults, a dog, luggage, and vegetables, but I’m sure it will all work out somehow. Miss Dog will go in the boot, on the smallest of her dog beds; those of us who are in the back will I think have to be packed in and around with stuff by those who will sit in the front. We had actually had the brainy plan of hiring a larger car from the garage, but alas, the Laguna which is to be had is out and not coming back till Sunday night. We are not defeatist. Once in my young youth I went from Cambridge to Cornwall sharing the back seat of a smallish car with, amongst other items, a gate-legged table and a cello. It’s amazing what you can do. We had one of the Huntly Two over this evening with his mama (the other Huntly Two had other engagements), so I made the Jesuit Pudding. Very nice it was too, and quite nostalgic, since as I said in an earlier blog, my mother used to make it in the Seventies. I had to boil the marsala first, given that the Professor is allergic to alcohol and Godmama is a Muslim, but it still came out pretty elegant.
There is tense agricultural drama in progress. The barley has already stood too long, and the crows are feasting. Over the weekend, the huge combine was roaring all day and all night as Barnyards tried to get his crop in. Yesterday evening there was an unscheduled and intense downpour so the grain has got wet all over again. He must have been fit to be tied. It rained a bit today too, though on the whole it was overcast with sunny spells, and once more, I can hear the distant growl of the combine. We are waiting with some apprehension for the moment when he tackles the hill slope behind the house: almost every year, he has temporarily done in our water supply due to the colossal weight of state of the art farm machinery, which has attained proportions which remind one of Howl’s Moving Castle. According to the chirpy chappie who turns up from time to time to clean the windows, we were supposed to have gale force winds this afternoon, which we didn’t, so I’m thankful for that, at least. The harvest is always a sad moment, the turning of the year, a reminder that soon it will be another term, and that, despite many laborious hours, one has not done half the things one meant to do.
We have had our Walking Festival, which was more interesting than it perhaps sounds - it featured a variety of characters who find they think better afoot, a view which, after all, has seemed quite reasonable since the days of Aristotle and the Peripatetics, and they all had interesting things to say about it. There are so many reasons people have for walking, after all, beyond getting from a to b, from poetry to politics, and a lot of things came out which were worth thinking about. Walking is a considerable part of my own life: city walks, getting to know a place, country walks, in which the small dramas of the hedgerows are observable by a quiet pedestrian, or walks to think something out. One thing struck me, as the event unfurled, which is that I started to enjoy walking in my mid-teens; I’d spend a Saturday walking to South Ealing, or West Ealing, even Kew: these days, letting a youngster engage on long, solitary city walks seems to be thought of practically child cruelty and also unacceptably dangerous. But there’s nothing quite like long hours on your own to help you know your own mind. I value those memories.
I can now reveal that the Professor’s beautiful song was a Loyal Effusion and was duly performed at Balmoral last week. It was all quite an experience. By the way, the professor of early modern history, having listened to the Professor and the Maestro’s trio of Jacobite songs, which premiered at the Scottish parliament last year or so, bet him a case of claret he couldn’t write something loyal. He was wrong, of course, and perhaps we should remind him about the bet. I then turned round the next day and went to London for a bit of British Library time before the shades of the prison house close once more, and I’m still suffering the after-effects of reading as fast as I can for three consecutive days, a sort of intellectual bulimia. Back at the old homestead, we are gearing up for the next thing on the list, a little literary festival which has been absorbing a good deal of the Professor’s time and energy. We are, as Saki once said, living in a series of rushes like the infant Moses.
We woke up to a lovely sunny day — unlike yesterday when it poured — so took a quick trip out to Portsoy which was putting on a very good act of turquoise sea and blue sky. The general curiosities shop down at the harbour has very good value, French, oldfashioned liquid soap made with olive oil and lavender, which we like to use, and we have a friend hovering on the brink of moving house who might be in the market for chandeliers, and there is a shop on the other side of the High Street which makes nice plain Italian milk ice cream. Three reasons to visit Portsoy, when the sun is shining. We ate our ice cream sitting on one of the harbour walls looking at the water, and enjoyed both. We might get a nice day tomorrow as well, but really, this particular summer, you are grateful for small mercies.
We have undertaken a renovation of our squalid sheds. Barry the Great looked at them (Barry ‘there’s only one way to do things, and that’s properly’, that is to say) and he said, basically, knock ‘em down and start again. However we also have Tony in in our repertory, and Tony, unlike Barry, is a bodger, who can bear to do a half-cock job on a structure not really worth preserving. Thus with his assistance, the fairly awful sheds might stand for another year, at which point we might conceivably be able to afford Barry the Great’s notion of doing it properly. Meanwhile, in the interests of respectability, we have been applying a lick of paint. The near shed is our cheerful outside fresh-green-pea soup green, with white trim, the further is blue-grey and white. The blue-grey is a very nice colour in itself which we were going to put on the windows till we realised it looked like death with the Turriff redstone. Meanwhile, we’d bought some, so it has been sitting about annoyingly, expensive and useless. If we hadn’t had it in the paint cache it is not perhaps what I’d have chosen. The effect of the light green and light blue-grey together has a slightly Portmerionesque feel, though certainly, for the full Williams-Ellis effect, the light green shed should have had a door of sugar-mouse pink, and the blue-grey one a door of ochre, or vice versa. As things are, it’s within bounds.
One minor complication of life is that the new Rough Cat, Colman III, is crossed in love. She keeps coming into heat and calling, but there’s no tom within earshot, which is obviously preying on her mind. One Rough Cat isn’t sufficient as an external rodent operative force. My thinking is, that if she can find a boyfriend, letting her have one litter of kittens would actually be quite a good thing, because if she managed to rear them then we’d have a little tribe again. We would then trap the whole lot of them and get them to the vet to be spayed and once more there would be a stable colony. The Colmans and Fillans lived very long lives for feral cats, and were really no trouble, but if you don’t have your own Rough Cats, you are vulnerable to passing trade. And the other week, I saw a rabbit in my garden. That would never have happened in the days of the Colmans and Fillans.
Today has been almost entirely taken up by that solemn ritual of academic life, a PhD viva. As the supervisor, I spent an hour and a half on positive thinking, delivered the candidate to the appropriate office and spent the following couple of hours feeling a bit like an expectant father — that there was a major process going on but I’d contributed all that I could. This particular student has been with us even unto the university’s statute of limitations on a fulltime project, so this all feels as if it has been going on for ever such a long time. All has ended reasonably well, so there’s one job away and done.
We have been out to ‘Sunday Drinks’, in a delightful house which counts as neighbours though it’s a twenty minute drive. There were quite a lot of people there, and the governing determinant was quite patently that they were ‘the quality’. Not all rich, and certainly, not all clever, but there was an almost Jane Austen-like sense of a self defined country gentry; people who do not, except on definable forays to a metropolis, look outside Aberdeenshire. They resist innovation: I can’t remember who coined ’stones in the rain’ for people of this type but it may have been Nancy Mitford. Aberdeenshire conservatism continues unbudgeable. We got lost both going to, and returning from, this party. O, up country Aberdeenshire. Someone, sooner or later, will go sea fishing and pull out a coelacanth, at which point some local wiseacre in a jersey will helpfully offer the Doric name for the damn thing. I’ve spent the last two days looking at a poetry manuscript (highland Perthshire) and cultural conservatism is, to say the least, a feature. Most of what’s in it (written in the 1630s) is chart hits from the Elizabethan era, but there’s one item which actually looks fifteenth century.