Thursday, 26 August 2021

Kathleen Jamie - Scotland's new makar

 I've just read that Kathleen Jamie has been named as the new makar (national poet) for Scotland. I met Kathleen a couple of years ago on a course at Ty Newydd, and afterwards I read her book of essays, Sightlines. In honour of her appointment, I'm reposting what I wrote about it afterwards.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:

There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Jill Murphy: 5/7/49 - 18/8/21

You can probably just about see from this picture that this is a well-worn book. You'll see it even better from the picture below: one page has a tear in it and both are creased from frequent handling.

It's well-worn because it is well-loved. It was probably the book we read more than any other when our children were small. Just to see that picture, with the house, and the moon, and the cat, and the car, and the owl swooping across the night sky - and those first words: 'The hour was late." - takes me back to that moment when it's bedtime, and a child is curled up by your side, and together you know that you are about to embark on a magical incantation.

Yet there's no obvious magic in the story. It's a simple tale of Mr Bear, who is finding it very difficult to get to sleep. He tries going into Baby Bear's room, into the living room, into the kitchen, into the garden, into his car; but everywhere he goes, there is some noise that keeps him awake. Finally, he goes back into the house to his own bed, and is just drifting off... when the alarm goes!

But the pictures are perfect - the bears' expressions are brilliant - and the words are beautifully balanced and so good to read aloud. I read this so many times I knew it off by heart: I remember one time when I was shopping, with my first child in a pushchair. He started to get fractious. I recited Peace At Last, and all grew calm.

The book was written and illustrated by Jill Murphy, who also created the Large family (elephants, naturally), but is perhaps most famous for the Worst Witch series, which is about a girl called Mildred Hubble and her trials and tribulations at a boarding school for witches. The books, and the TV series which they gave rise to, where much loved by my daughter (and me too) - but Peace At Last has always retained the crown, and continues to do so with my grandchildren.

And yet I realised when I read the other day that Jill Murphy had died, at the far-too-young age of 72, that in an age when we know so much about so many writers, I knew nothing at all about her. I don't know why this is. From the photographs of her, she looks lovely, with a huge smile and an obvious sense of fun: she seems to radiate happiness. Perhaps she didn't court publicity: perhaps she didn't need to, and could simply allow her books to speak for her.

I'm so sorry she has died so soon. I wish her, as I wish all of us, Peace At Last.