The Teahouse of the September Moon

There are far more coffee shops where I live than there were twenty years ago. Many of these are run by chains such as Costa, Starbucks and Caffè Nero. But there are independents too, some of them excellent. In the past, patrons used to gather in coffee shops and discuss burning issues of the day – the use of gas for street lighting, the benefits of laudanum in the creative process. On occasion, they even discussed books. But now, as far as I can tell, the emphasis is on coffee, pastries and other such delectables.

These three Chinese girls are at the counter of my favourite independent, the Kilimajaro in Edinburgh, clearly suffering from the existential agony of choice. So many goodies to choose from, what should we have?

And did I just mention Chinese? In the past three or four years, there has been an noticeable increase in the number of tea shops here. This is very evident in the part of the city I inhabit, the south side. And I am amazed to find the great variety of teas on offer.

The reason for this increase in tea shops seems clear. The south side is home to the University of Edinburgh which, every year, recruits a large number of Chinese students. And where there is a market, someone will try to cater for it.

So the next time you visit us here in Edinburgh, don’t hesitate to pop into one of our new tea shops. You don’t have to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, you can always point to the picture of your brew of choice.

A Crowded Marketplace

At this time of year where I live, you can hardly walk along the street without dodging people with suitcases on wheels, many of them young. Quite a few of these seasonal visitors are hoping to make a name for themselves by showcasing their talent, which often involves trying to be funny. But however good they are, this can only work if people come to see their show. And so we have a serious outbreak of posters.

These railings at St Patrick’s Square bear a heavy load, as do many other places such as Chambers Street and the South Bridge.

Those responsible for marketing and publicity often try to make their charges stand out from the crowd by having them adopt a zany expression and even zanier posture. But sometimes they do come up with an arresting image.

 

So what do we make of this one? It’s a steam iron, no dloubt, but on this occasion Miss Clarke is supplying the steam. Are we hooked? Just in case the image isn’t sufficient, someone called Jordan Gray is quoted as claiming that the Sian Clarke Experience is a “Funny and Terrifying Anus Tightening Mind F*ck.” I don’t know about you, but I can get along just fine without Miss Clarke having this effect on my anus. Ultimately, though,  the only way to know if this advertising is effective is to discover how many people turn up for the show each night.

For those of us who write books and try to sell them the process, though not so obvious, is similar. We don’t compete with each other by displaying large clover blow-ups side by side on railings, but our titles can be found next to each other in bookshops and – more akin to the St Patrick’s Square situation – side by side on web pages.

Decay

In the relatively recent past there was a hotel in our neighbourhood, and an excellent place it was to go for a meal. Then Covid came along, bookings were cancelled and the owners decided to call it a day. No longer young, they could afford to wind the business up, though many others in the hospitality business weren’t so fortunate.

The building still stands but hasn’t been looked after of late; there is no one to deal with the pine cones.


Nature is starting to reclaim the garden and that’s no bad thing. As for the building itself, left to its own devices, it would gradually have fallen into disrepair. But now it seems some have decided to speed the process up by attacking it. Why would they do this, what’s in it for them? I have no idea.

But a sly peek through the front door into the hall reveals that not everything has been removed. How about that?

Decisions, decisions – First or Third

Authors are often advised to plan novels in a sequence, and if they manage that the books are then sub-titled after the main character, often a police officer: Inspector Bates #1, Inspector Bates #2, and so on. And this is good advice if you can take it.

My forthcoming paperback, Interleaved Lives, features Douglas Hunter, once a police officer, now a private detective.  The book is a first-person narrative, Douglas Hunter narrating. But when I began a sequel I found this a problem. If a character is telling the story one question always needs a clear answer – when describing events where he or she was not present, how does the narrator know what happened? The answer does not always need to be spelled out, as long as the author knows what it is and the reader can figure it out if he/she is so inclined.

Finding there were too many occasions when I couldn’t answer this question satisfactorily, I rewrote Interleaved Lives in the third person and began the sequel a second time. But I didn’t care for the result, abandoned the draft and reverted to the first-person version of the original. One reason for this was that I find writing in the first person more relaxing. Speaking rather than writing.

So rewriting the book in the third person was a waste of time and effort, but I consoled myself with the thought that Count Tolstoy began a novel on Peter 1 thirty-three times before giving up on the idea. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this information, gleaned from her excellent blog https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/).

More recently, Patricia Cornwell has written some books in her Kay Scarpetta series in the first person and others in the third. But she is licensed to fly a helicopter and is high profile enough to get away with it. And there is also the case of John Irving who, on the advice of his wife, translated his novel Until I find You, from the first to the third. Given the great length of this book, a mammoth task.

However, as far as continuity goes, I can claim to have a fall-back position. A main character in Interleaved Lives, DS Maureen MacNeil, appears in a previous book, Time to Talk, as does Douglas Hunter, though in a more minor role. So perhaps I can claim that the present title is itself a sequel. Sneaky, right?

Published by Eventispress, this title is now live:

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

The Thursday Murder Club

This is the title of a book by Richard Osman. For those of you who might not know, Osman is a TV Personality, appearing in UK game shows such as Pointless.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book.

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves the Thursday Murder Club.

When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

As the bodies begin to pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late?

This post is a review, but only up to a point since I have another angle here. The book has already sold in large numbers, so my comments will not affect its success in any way. Be that as it may, having read about a third of it I put it aside for several weeks. I found the crime elements over-complicated and uninvolving – I didn’t really care who had murdered whom or whether our four golden oldies would figure it out in the end. But where it scored was in its portrayal of the retired individuals who were trying to make sense of it all. We are given them in the third person, save only for Joyce, a retired nurse who keeps a diary from the pages of which she addresses us directly as if engaging us in conversation. For me, the real centre of interest lies in the characters rather than the plot, which is surely preferably to an ingenious plot carried forward by cardboard characters.

Osman is to be congratulated on noticing, before reaching an age where he can experience it for himself, that older people still have emotions. Some authors have achieved this in the past, Ring Lardner for example. Remember him, I hope so? But Osman does it very well. Another area where he excels is reading the signs of the times. Not all old people could afford to live in Coopers Chase, a retirement complex specifically intended for the relatively well-to-do. But in conveying the details of this complex and its residents, the narrative can become a bit too whimsical for my taste, though an excellent source for social scientists.

The development is situated in the grounds of an old convent, which leads to one of the murders.

The old convent dominates Coopers Chase, with three modern residential developments spiralling out from this central point. For over a hundred years the convent was a hushed building, filled with the dry bustle of habits and the quiet certainty of prayers offered and answered. Tapping along its dark corridors you would have found some women comfortable in their serenity, some women frightened of a speeding world, some women hiding, some women proving a vague, long-forgotten point and some women taking joy in serving a higher purpose.

And because of this, the ground contains a graveyard where departed sisters have been laid to rest.

And then one day you would take the short trip up the hill, through the tunnel of trees, to the Garden of Eternal Rest – the iron gates and low stone walls of the Garden looking over the convent and the endless beauty of the Kentish High Weald beyond, your body in another single bed, under a simple stone, alongside the Sister Margarets and Sister Marys of the generations before you. If you had once had dreams they could now play over the green hills, and if you had secrets then they were kept safe inside.

As might be expected, the developer wants to ‘develop’ the entire site, graveyard included. This raises certain questions, from the simple – do we really want to dig up dead nuns for housing? – to heavy theological questions relating to the resurrection of the flesh which, not wishing to fry what’s left of my brain, I will neatly side-step. But be it noted, the developer who intends this desecration is duly bumped off before he can bring it about.

The reason I find this storyline so interesting is that my wife and I, in real life, live in the grounds of an old convent. The order in question has gone under various related names but I will refer to them as the Poor Clares. I still remember the days when they sold eggs at the convent gate.

Since the sisters who lived here suffered the same fate as those in the book, our site also contains a graveyard.

But as in the book, the developer wanted to build on this ground too, and was supported by the arch-diocese, which proposed to go along with this plan, presumably to further swell their coffers. This caused outrage at the time. Fortunately, the City Council took legal action to protect the departed sisters both from the developer and their dubious co-religionists.

Little note. In reading up about the Poor Clares I constanly found their places of residence referred to as monasteries, which I had thought were inhabited by monks rather than nuns. But since everyone round here has used the word ‘convent’ for decades I am sticking with what I am accustomed to. And, as Mrs Slocombe used to say, I am unanimous in that.

Everyone Loves a Bear

There will be exceptions, no doubt, but ever since Theodore Roosevelt lent his name to the Teddy Bear they have been popular. Disney helped too, many decades ago, with footage of bear cubs falling out of trees for the amusement of the cinema-going public.

The bear below was owned by a notable soldier, Kermit, son of Theodore, and now lives on a restricted diet at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He looks a bit morose to me, as Kermit himself sometimes did. (He committed suicide in Alaska.)

And bears have been popular ever since, most notably with excellent peedie folk like this.

However, the bear I have in mind here, the real subject, was Wojtek, who led a remarkable life. During World War II, he accompanied Polish soldiers to several theatres of war and ferried munitions during the Battle of Monte Casino without, we are told, ever dropping any.

When the Polish soldiers who had adopted him sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign they had to cut through the inevitable red tape to get him aboard a transport ship. To solve this problem he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. He was later promoted to corporal.

When the war ended, Wojtek the bear was stationed with his unit in the village of Hutton, near Duns, As you would expect, he was very popular, and in November 1947 he was entrusted to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his days and was often visited by former Polish soldiers. As a serving soldier he had ‘enjoyed’ the occasional cigarette. But now they had to be thrown to him over the fence. It seems they were still gratefully received, but because there was no one in his enclosure to light them for him he ate them instead. Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22.

On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in Princes Street Gardens. The statue represents Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity.

A four metre long relief represents his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army.

And here he is with one of his army friends.

So thanks to Wojtek the Bear we now have an image of a Polish soldier in the centre of the City of Edinburgh. This is just as well because, sad to say, when a victory parade took place in London after the war Polish forces were shamefully excluded following pressure from these nice people in the Soviet Union.

Remembering the Dead

In one of our local graveyards some of the stones are so old that the original inscriptions can no longer be read, though some dating back to 1760 can still be partially made out.

Unless stonemasons have found a way round this problem, I assume this fate will eventually befall all headstones, however clear they may be when first made.

Modern technology allows photographs of the departed to be included on the stone and I see this occasionally. I find it unsettling, though I have yet to figure out why. But in this case the inscription ‘forever young’ seems very well chosen. The lady died young and will not grow older. Just as important, she will never grow old in the memory of those who knew her. What a loss this must have been.

When it comes to wording, it is less common to read that the departed died, except in times gone by when ‘died’ was commonly used: after all, since we’re in a graveyard this is obviously what has happened. In the past, the death of children was much more common than now and there was no avoiding it, and many who made it into adult life died younger than they would today. ‘Passed away’ is often used in speech these days, but seldom on our local headstones. Lately I have come across several examples of ‘fell asleep’ which, for me, is taking euphemism too far. They did not fall asleep, they died.

I was much struck in Afghanistan to see that though many died young a few hardy specimens made it through to a ripe old age, though I wouldn’t give much for their chances now. I remember one old gentleman with a donkey I passed on a narrow footpath above a ravine. We couldn’t converse, but he produced a bag of dried mulberries from his sleeve and kindly offered me some. When I think of my time there I can’t believe I didn’t take a camera.

I would claim that my interest in these things is not especially morbid: my route home from the baker takes me through a cemetery. On my most recent visit I came across something I have never seen before, so I am not referring to the collection of empty beer cans and bottles I reported in an earlier post.

Family members had left, among other objects, a little Christmas tree by the graveside. They were still including this lady in.

Sometimes lines of verse are included on the stone. Here is one example.

Here in your garden

Free from all pain

We would not wake you

To suffer again

It seems that this lady suffered before she died and these lines offer a degree of solace to those left behind. I think they are excellent.

Another way of remembering the dead, at least in our part of the world, is a bench where the weary traveller can rest his bones. This one is by a bus stop where I catch the bus to Bonnyrigg.

I never knew this lady but find one of her middle names intriguing. Holdforth. I can only suppose that one or more of her forebears was given to holding forth – a lay preacher perhaps, or a politician – and so acquired the name. Except for this bench, I have never come across this surname anywhere else.

Is death an appropriate subject not only for reflection but for humour? I would contend that if humour is appropriate for life – a much more serious business about which we can do something – then it should also be appropriate for death, about which we can do nothing.

It would be possible to offer a funeral verse service through Fiverr or some such, each verse or stanza to be tailored to the relative’s circumstances, much as some offer for birthdays. An opportunity for a deft spot of black humour. There is, of course, the well known joke about the dentist filling his last cavity. Or how about this?

My husband never gave me a dime,

Now he’s gone and not before time!

But even if lines likes these were perfectly attuned to the facts, I have since learned that ‘the authorities’ exercise control over what may be inscribed upon headstones stone by the monumental mason.

Ah well, you can’t win them all. Or, in the case of death, you can’t win any.

Wildflowers

Like many people, I have always loved wildflowers, but they have their enemies. Some years ago, a man with a backpack containing weedkiller killed a beautiful outcrop of Ivy-Leaved Toadflax growing in a street we often visited.

For them there was no escape, but one way wildflowers avoid destruction is by growing close enough to obstacles which get in the way of motor mowers. There are several outcrops of Veronica in our local churchyard which survive by growing close to headstones – though these lovely little flowers should be welcome anywhere.

Until recently, the grounds of our local hospital was improved by the striking wildflower, Orange Hawkweed.

Today, I find them gone, thanks to someone with a motor mower. You can’t win them all but it would be nice to win some. I am reminded of a poem by Robert Frost.

The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Changing Times

In our area, there was a manor house, a manse, a farmhouse and a farm toun, the last being a collection of buildings used in the running of a farm – barns and the like. The picture below shows part of the original farm toun, now demolished, attached to the farm.

085 (R53 fr19) workshops

Until recently, we lived in the farmhouse. The farm toun had already given way to housing, but when we looked out of our kitchen window, that at least was still there, our local hotel which, in days gone by, had been the manse, the home of a minister of the Church of Scotland. And a cold and draughty home it doubtless was.

Northfield 2

We know exactly when the building was completed.

Northfield 3

When we moved to the farmhouse in 1980, any minister who had once occupied the manse was long gone (I will not speculate where), and the building was occupied by an actuary and his family. When they decided to sell, a businessman bought it with the intention of turning it into a hotel. This he did, and a succession of people have run it as a hotel since then.

The prevoius owners added a conservatory, which greatly increased the number of people the kitchen could cater for. They also held quiz nights there which, according to the lady in charge, were ‘famous’.

Northfield 5

The present owners expanded further with an outdoor area, also visible in this picture. It seems there may have been occasional instances of anti-social behaviour, hence this sign, which will disappear with everything else when the hotel is demolished to make way for student accommodation. Because this, we learn to our dismay, is the plan.

Northfield 6

We have had many meals in the hotel over the years, and held the reception there after my mother’s funeral. But even before the virus struck, the restaurant had ceased trading for the general public and catered for hotel guests only.

Sadly, with the coming of the virus, bookings were cancelled even before the lockdown got going so, for the time being, the hotel has not been a viable business. Now the present owners, having gone over the figures, have concluded that this sad state of affairs is likely to continue.

As for demolishing it and replacing it with student accommodation, it is not clear that this will be viable either. In recent years there has been an outbreak of developments for the student market in Edinburgh, many offering a complete range of services including that modern must-have, free Wi-Fi and, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, full body massage with essential oils. Ylang ylang, anyone?

So it seems to me that this market is already saturated, and given the fact that universities will not be returning to ‘normal’ any time soon, there is likely to be an oversupply.

And it gets worse. Students can join online lectures from anywhere, from Wuhan to Albuquerque, without shelling out over £600 per month for the privilege. Since it will cost a fortune to demolish the hotel and construct the proposed student accommodation, I cannot see the delevopers getting a return on their investment. But that is their problem, right?

Times change, not always for the better. We have to put up with it but we don’t have to like it.

Grounds for Concern

We used to live in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. There was considerable hedging and many trees which I used to climb  to prune. Two cats and one pheasant lie buried in the grounds.

When I came home from work of an evening, the bus passed open fields before it reached us. Below is a small part of what used to be one of those fields, now covered in houses with driveways and garages.

The planners insisted that an old footpath by the impressive name of the Via Regis be kept – and it is still there if you know where to look for it. But now there is no field to either side, as once there was. Dog walkers don’t like this so much. Neither do dogs. I was just chewing over this sad state of affairs with Buster the Staffie the other day when he spotted a lamppost and ran off.

If I stayed on the bus past my stop, (as sometimes happened when I dozed off en route), I would see more open ground on the left. Now this is also covered by a large housing estate.

The same has happened with ground to the right, now another large housing estate called The Murrays.

Its route then takes the bus past West Edge Farm on its way to the town of Bonnyrigg. Bonnyrigg used to have a thriving market on a Thursday morning, but apartment blocks are now being built on the the ground. Though in a nod to history  the developer has called this development The Market.

Not so long ago there were fields on both sides of the road, and if the driver of the bus (Number 31, for those who like to know such things) had turned right by mistake at the top of the brae onto the Lang Loan, she would have seen a large expanse of agricultural land to her right. Here is a small part of what is on that land now.

A cottage on the outskirts of one of the fields is now surrounded by construction work and their bus stop has just been taken out of service for eight weeks. There is a helpful sign, though: USE AN ALTERNATIVE. Yes, thanks for that.

Much of the land at the Lang Loan has now been built over and even more is under construction. And the same is true of the land at West Edge Farm.

The collective acreage of all this is considerable, with ground being built on and paved over on a large scale.

At least two questions arise here. Will this land provide a habitat for living things when all this work has been completed? Even if the answer is a limited yes, not so much as before. Hedgehogs used to live here. Now they don’t. It is many years since I’ve seen one and I read that the hedgehog population has suffered a large decline.

The other issue is water. A large acreage of soil which used to absorb rain is now trapped under houses, streets and pavements. Where all the water supposed to go? Floods, anyone?

But people have to live somewhere, right?

Well, yes, they do. Though compared to previous times when tenements were popular, the same number of people are spreading themselves over far more ground than before.

And, to tie in to the theme of The Ears of a Cat, I would contend that there are too many people anyway.

Which makes me part of the problem I am describing.