Ambiguous forks and subtle alienation

My trip to the Republic began in the Confederation. Specifically the Confederation of Helvetica or CH for short, otherwise known as Switzerland.

Acceptable names for geographical entities would be one of the first things to learn as I disembarked from my flight at Geneva airport. I was told not to refer to the lake of the same name by that epithet. Rather, it should be addressed as le Lac Léman. This designation stretched back to Roman times when it was part of Cisalpine Gaul – the Gauls on their side of the Alps as opposed to Transalpine Gaul to the west.

Geneva, the city of refuge and shelter for political exiles, only happens to be the largest settlement of many on the shores of this massive body of fresh water. Therefore, especially to a patriotic Française, it has no right to lay claim to the entire aqueous territory, which is equally French and Swiss.

I think that’s Lenin in the sculpted bit. Would make sense as he spent time in Swiss exile from the Tsarist regime.

The departement I was visiting la Haute-Savoie or Upper Savoy – it is one of two Savoys, as one of the postcards I was kindly gifted by my host’s mother informed me. The Savoy has at various points in its history been part of Lotharingia, the Kingdom of Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire prior to its contemporary Frenchness.

I’d been on a class trip to Switzerland in secondary school where we’d visited the UN in Geneva and gone on the cable car up Mont Blanc from Chamonix. This stay, however, would be more shoreline and historical than Alpine and diplomatic.

My base was the quiet village of Anthy-sur-Léman. It was, indeed, very quiet. There was no shop, just a couple of restaurants, only one of which was open, and a place to buy fish open on weekdays 9-12 (also closed).

I was informed that most people living there are what is known as frontaliers. They work in Switzerland where the wages are high and reside in France on the other side of the lake where living costs are comparatively low. My friend aspired to join this class and work for a Swiss law firm in Geneva. It makes economic sense, from an individual perspective.

People don’t just merely exist here though. Apart from hobbyist lake fishing, the area is a spa region. Its biggest town (barring the capital Annecy, further inland – more on that later) is Thonon-les-Bains, in other words “the baths”. In German it would be a prefix – “Baden-something” (even if that’s also Baden, see “Baden-Baden”).

Something I noticed in the semi-rural villages skirting the shore of the Lac Léman is the abundance of fountains. Most came with a warning affixed – “l’eau n’est pas potable”. The water’s not potable. In Germany where public taps appear it says simply, “Kein Trinkwasser”. Is there an ideological difference here? I feel as if the French is more informational – at your own risk, whereas the German, in referring to a verb, is more behaviourally proscriptive. It was from the fountains that I learnt some more French signage lore – SVP – s’il vous plait.

I’m new to this country’s abbreviations and shorthand. The last times I visited I was a complete cultural ignoramus. To be fair, I was a child when I was taken to Paris without a clue about its history. I knew nothing of the revolution! Then there was the aforementioned cable car where I think my knowledge of the French language extended to being very pleased with myself to be able to recognise that the hot chocolate I enjoyed at the summit of Mont Blanc was indeed “chaud”.

I get the impression that Chablais is not a particularly touristy region and I liked that because it made for a more culturally immersive experience. Regular readers will know that I do a fair bit of solo travelling and I enjoy it. When travelling alone, though, one is quite often in survival mode, constantly planning and working out how to acquire essentials in a non-embarrassing and semi-competent way. With a guide and companion, this base-level stress evaporates and you are enabled to experience things otherwise debarred.

Previously I mentioned the capital of la Haute-Savoie – Annecy. I had looked it up beforehand in a bit of pre-trip googling. It looked gorgeous. Beautiful turquoise waters surge in between narrow medieval streets situated in an Alpine amphitheatre. Could we go there? I suggested tentatively on WhatsApp. It’s about an hour’s drive. The reply: a tourist trap, so cliché. Haunt of the Anglos. We’ll not go there. Instead – to Yvoire.

Another example of something I’d never have been or unlikely to have been, brave enough to do on my own was the meal out in a relatively fancy restaurant where the waiting staff only laughed at me at the very end when I came to pay on my way out. It basically comprised a glass cube stretching out over the lake, which was great for the first 40 minutes or so before it got dark.

I was fascinated by the tremendous-smelling baskets filled with unidentified battered objects being delivered to the surrounding tables. Can we have that? I suggested. They weren’t on the starters list; aperitifs – 9 euros. Okay then. We were presented with whitebait coated in the thinnest veneer of batter; the tiny fish’s eyes starting up at us was slightly off-putting. It seemed the smell had a more potent effect than the taste which was pretty much batter with a hint of fishy oil offset by a little ramakin of tartare sauce. Not something one can gorge on. Ironically, it seems what we ended up having was basically a fancy version of fish and chips, albeit freshly caught from le Lac Léman.

The highlight of the trip for me was the first full day. We began by taking in not one but two medieval castles – one each for adjacent summits, known collectively as the Châteaux des Allinges. These belonged to the Count of Savoy, a vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor in days gone by. They are named respectively, Château Vieux and Château Neuf. In the latter, there was a chapel containing a fresco from the 10th century, remarkably well-preserved. Its colour palette reminded me of our single painted stone fragment in Glasgow Cathedral’s lower church. It was special to have these heavily stylised, almost cartoonish depictions of the evangelists to ourselves for a good 10 minutes, even though there was what appeared to be a pilgrim group having lunch in the courtyard outside. The site is associated with St Francois de Sales who was a late 16th/early 17th-century churchman tasked with winning back the inhabitants of Chablais to Catholicism after they had been persuaded by the Calvinist teachings radiating from Geneva.

From this doubly fortified hilltop, we descended down the valley past cowbelled cattle and notices about forest hunting rules. That gave me the feeling of the type of holiday I seem to have developed a liking for of late. The kind where you just walk without knowing precisely what’s in front of you but with a definite ultimate destination. You notice the subtly alien nature in your vicinity – the rustle of the brush denoting neither lurking wrens nor nervous robins but flighty lizards. You seek strategically placed waypoints where an ambiguous fork appears.


This trip did not quite have the purpose of my Aachen visit, but being relieved of purpose, and surrendering to the curated itinerary of another has its appeal too. My typically serious travels will resume in the summer as I visit another kaiserliche Hauptstadt and embark on the English leg of the Camino de Santiago.

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A bestiary of Buendias

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is unlike any other book I’ve read. It took me some time to get into though. I wasn’t hooked by the first page by any means. There was time to tune in, however, as it’s pretty substantial at about 450 pages in length. To be fair, it would be, as it’s meant to cover a century and spans multiple generations. It follows the story of a single family through fortune and misfortune, though mostly misfortune.

A central theme of the novel is the instances where branches of this particular family tree get tangled and intersect. In other words, there is a fair bit of incest in it. This isn’t totally gratuitous and has literary significance, perhaps political too, even if I can’t quite pin it down; my knowledge of 19th-century Latin American history is rather rudimentary. I would suggest that a possible interpretation is that as the family/village/town/country isolates itself and closes itself off to outside influence and new energy, it has to turn in on itself and cannibalise to perpetuate. Obviously, genetically this doesn’t work and politically has disastrous consequences too.

I have read family sagas before – and actual sagas for that matter! The best of the former, in my opinion, are the Edwardian novels of DH Lawrence. This is different, however, as it belongs to a genre I have not had much experience with – magical realism. The way I’d explain magical realism is that for the most part, the action takes place in the ordinary recognisable world of our reality but with fantastical elements sporadically interspersed. These are described in a sober, matter-of-fact sort of way – they don’t disturb the fabric of this reality and are not acknowledged by the characters as supernatural. This seems, in a postmodern way, to hark back to a premodern worldview of the kind shared by the protagonists of The Name of the Rose for whom mystical visions, divine revelation and scholastic study are all perfectly epistemologically valid. It’s a world where unicorns and dragons can exist side by side in bestiaries with beavers, badgers and boars.

Some of the things that happen are weird but not implausible such as a character who eats soil compulsively when she is distressed or several characters who live to a preternatural age. Others are more straightforwardly otherworldly – a character ascends to Heaven and in a late episode it rains for seven years non-stop.

Perhaps Alasdair Gray’s writing shares some of this approach to the paranormal in Lanark and Poor Things. In German, the stories of ETA Hoffmann come to mind.

What I liked about One Hundred Years though, apart from this unique combination of reality and hyperreality, was its sense of the grand sweep of history told through characters who are for the majority of the time explicitly not at the centre of the action. There are two exceptions to this. Firstly Colonel Aureliano Buendia bucks the trend of his decidedly apolitical family and decides to dedicate his life to overturning the conservative establishment, which at this time means the aristocracy and the Church. Again there is an element of the hyperreal here where there is repeated reference to the 32 wars he ends up fighting in the name of the Liberal cause. This is where the novel started to really grab my attention and I was firmly on the hook. No characters are explicitly political up until this point. A week after finishing the book I realised that Colonel Aureliano reminds me of, or is associated in my head with, Ewan Tavendale II from Grey Granite, which is a vivid and angry conclusion to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair trilogy.

Marquez, I get the sense, is less involved in the urgent political issues of 19th-century South America. The indifference of other characters to the regime changes or their petty local concerns are less of a source of anger and treachery as they are when they are related by Gibbon in relation to 1930s Britain.

The second forthright and overtly political character of the novel, although more a militant trade unionist than a liberal militarist, is Jose Acardio Segundo. The betrayal he experiences – the banana company, virtually the sole employer of the town, uses an army of police to violently crush the strike he organises – is tragic but has both a weird inevitability and ambiguity about it. He, like his grandfather, Colonel Auerliano, is fixated on a number – 4000 dead (fired on by police at the mass demonstration). JAC is haunted by a memory/vision of bodies crammed into train carriages (which he somehow ends up on, having been wounded but not fatally) and being transported away from the scene of the massacre. I’ve called this a memory/vision because it’s unclear whether it truly happened in the way he describes and only one other character who lives his early years in a strange Stockholm-syndrome-sustained house arrest believes his account.

The novel’s ending is very satisfying, tying together several threads beautifully. We see the flowering of seeds planted on the first few pages, and spacetime is compressed so elegantly that we can pierce our way through 400 of them with striking clarity. At the same time, it’s not as if everything is explained. It’s not a whodunnit – rather, the themes that enter and retreat throughout the book coalesce beautifully. I am still unsure what it all means but I very much enjoyed the immersive journey it took me on.

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Grey Granite: Grassic Gibbon revisited

I wrote this piece in early 2020 pre-lockdown and never published it at the time. Please enjoy this B-side from the Flett-cetera discography.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon was the short-lived novelist most famous for his Scots Quair trilogy. Sunset Song, the first in the series is the most well-known and catalogues the decline of Scottish rural life, torn apart by the First World War through the eyes of its female protagonist Chris Guthrie. It is in Grey Granite, however, the final book, that the author makes his firm stand against the political cowardice he saw all about him during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

There is a tension at the heart of the novel between a romantic longing for a non-existent Golden Age, the desire to get on in life, to prosper in the moment and the iron will that sees beyond itself, to which the individual is naught but the agent of history. Britain is in crisis. Italy and Germany in the grip of fascism. Europe rearming for the next Great War. Duncairn is the setting for Gibbon’s final work – an imagined industrial city; not Aberdeen, not Dundee, not Edinburgh, not Glasgow but all and none at once. This synthetic city, like Hugh MacDiarmid’s Synthetic Scots, impresses on his characters new forms of consciousness, unimaginable in the croft or toun Manse. Removed from the land, Chris and her young son Ewan Tavendale must confront the wealth, and poverty, of nations as it is forged before their eyes.

Industry is touched upon in Cloud Howe, the trilogy’s middle book, in the form of the spinners of Segget, who work in the mill owned by the local laird and participate in the failed General Strike of 1926. Only in Grey Granite, however, do we encounter the proletariat or “keelies” up close, and it turns out that they are far from hospitable – coarse, prejudiced and unwelcoming of the “toff” Tavendale. He is more interested in the abstract questions of archaeology and ancient society than football and “queans”. After being badly assaulted up by his fellow apprentices, Ewan makes common cause with the unemployed underclass and the “Reds” marching on the City Hall. Frustrated with the leaders’ insistence on holding back as not to aggravate the police, their reasoning quickly becomes apparent to Ewan when they are forcibly beaten back; the bumbling provincial officer, “Feet” cracks his truncheon over those scrambling to get away.

This moment is the first of several political awakenings for Ewan in which he witnesses class struggle in its crudest form; he instinctively takes a side by drawing the protestors attention to the open doors of a deliver van full of glass bottles in order to even the odds. The reactions to the incident are nuanced but universally negative. From the Labour man’s condemnation of “senseless marching” to the press’s analysis of “paid agitators trained in Moscow”. Alongside the brutal upheaval of industrialisation in the Soviet Union and Britain’s interwar decline was the image of America projected on screens during cinema’s Golden Age. Chris goes to see one of these “talkies” with her landlady and employer, Ma. Where the latter is titillated by the glamour and sexual licence on display, Chris is bored and glad to leave.

Ewan’s experience at the protest shapes his political consciousness and he begins to bond with his fellow workers, attempting to understand their interests instead of remaining aloof. His efforts culminate in the formation of “The League” – a progressive youth movement with the goal of acting as an intermediary between the cowardice of Labour and the “lies” of the Communists. The group reaches its peak at a New Year dance Ewan organises with fellow English lodger and schoolteacher, Ellen. It is a beautiful moment, full of optimism about a native democratic tradition intermingled with courtship and communal feeling. For Ellen, and Ewan in this moment, socialism means the freedom to dance and be merry; it means warm beds, good drink and eating well.

Just as the League is getting established, Ewan faces a test of faith – the boom and bust economy of capitalism. The yard has new orders and work is returning to Duncairn, only the contract is for gas cylinders, ostensibly for military use. This time Ewan attempts to reach across parties and helps organise a strike.

The relentless reality of Grey Granite is the inability to convince all the workers to do what is in their best interest – to transfer that unbending resolve into a collective consciousness. With the picket destroyed and the strikers throwing the breakers in the dock, Ewan is arrested and badly beaten in a police cell. Here he has the most important revelation in what is the book’s turning point – that unless the working class can meet like with like regarding state violence, they cannot win power. This is the novel’s hard truth. It is by no means easily swallowed. Ewan’s conclusion, then, is revolutionary vanguardism:

I am all the broken bodies […] The van of the hordes of the Last of the Classes, the Ancient Lowly trampling the ways behind it unstayable […] No retreat; no safety, no escape for them, no reward […] first glory, first death, first life as it never yet had been lived.

Without a job, without the hope of personal fulfilment, comfort, stability, marriage with Ellen whom he cruelly rejects, even of revolution itself within his own lifetime, with “History our master not the servant we supposed”, with only “the glint of grey granite” in his eye, Ewan trudges on. “Yeasty sentiment and blah about Justice” is banished; the conflict, generations ongoing, distilled to that between Freedom and God – the former furthered through any and all means.

Grassic Gibbon ultimately paints a disturbing picture of a young imagination crushed under the boot of capitalism. We sympathise with Tavendale’s conclusions but do not share them. Somewhere between Chris’s apolitical sense of justice and mercy, Ellen’s pragmatic utopianism and Ewan’s disinterested Marxism we find the truth of A Scots Quair.

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Friends and Adversaries

Formal university education is finished for the foreseeable. Three years of study have culminated in two mediation Saturdays, a debate on interim interdict, an employment tribunal cross-examination, sorting out a casino licence, a personal injury claim negotiation and a mock trial in the Sheriff Court. It only remains for me to redeliver the jury speech I gave for formal assessment and I’ll be officially done with my diploma in professional legal practice.

The diploma has not been without challenges. It was something of an adjustment to go from luxurious theorising and expansive essays on legal minutiae to the unrelenting churn of practical deadlines, form-filling, tax calculation and quantification that apparently make up the day-to-day business of law. In the early days, I struggled with the relative intellectual deprivation of the course compared with the LLB, but I came to reconcile myself to the necessity of it and persevered bolstered by the commonality of hardship suffered by my peers.

Something I have valued highly is the continuity of studying at Strathclyde from the graduate entrant CLLB to the diploma. It meant that I already had a lot of friends and contacts from the accelerated undergrad. I was also able to continue with my Law Clinic work, so my encounters weren’t strictly limited to the perhaps otherwise cliquey diploma cohort.

Carrying over from my LLB experience is my continuing command of the Initial Advice Clinics. This is due to come to an end soon, however, as I will no longer be a student when the diploma is over. It will be weird not to be bound to every second Wednesday any longer. I might be able to go to some midweek gigs now I’d hitherto missed out on due to a sense of obligation. The duty has been gladly fulfilled, however, and it has brought me immense satisfaction to bring back the human connections of face-to-face meetings alongside Zoom calls in a hybrid format driven by client preference. I can also say I’ve increased the number of regular volunteer solicitors through my article in the Scottish Legal News and nurtured new student advisors such that I feel confident I’ll be able to leave it in capable hands.

Being so busy with the diploma recently, my opportunity for diversion has been relatively limited. In terms of gigs I’ve only been to the one this year so far – Dry Cleaning at Barrowlands – which was good, but I was quite tired after an hour and a half set that possibly could have been 50 minutes, considering they only have one album and a couple of EPs.

The Doublet and the Arlington have been the pubs I’ve ping-ponged between over the past few months. Those and the Press Bar after criminal advocacy on a Thursday. All three are what I’d describe as typically Scottish pubs. Not about food particularly; music is there but not front and centre. What’s key are chat and drink. In England, pubs are inns primarily and equal emphasis is given to ale and victuals. Press Bar is where I’ve got to know grad entrants from Glasgow uni. It was nice to have this post-class ritual end-of-week thing. Never overlong but usually longer than intended and inevitably curtailed by the hunger pangs inherent in a 6pm finish.

I’ve spent a long time in higher education. Seven years in all. I don’t think I’ll ever fully let go of the university spirit. Scholarliness. Pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

Alongside law, I’ve persisted in my nonfiction absorption by taking in ancient and modern history volumes. I’ve tried with middling success to give myself a grounding in French to supplement my German proficiency. Recently I’ve attempted to reignite my literary leanings by joining a classic book group which meets in the Mitchell Library on the first Monday of every month. We’re discussing one of my all-time favourites in April – Frankenstein.

Now we diplomats will be scattered to the wind. It won’t be quite the divergence of the MA, as Scotland limits our range by jurisdiction for most. Despite the scrappiness of the closely competitive scramble for traineeships at the diploma’s close, the fact remains that the profession here is relatively small. We will see each other again, whether as friends or adversaries or, as is the case in Scottish courtspeak, both.

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(Re)tracing my steps

2022 has been an improvement on the success/happiness/fulfilment scale. In comparison with the slow awakening of 2021, this has been a year of activity and spontaneity. The fear of looming lockdown has dissipated and we are left with the legacy of ubiquitous hand sanitiser in all public places and restaurants with easy-to-navigate booking systems, which I think we can agree is both tolerable and, indeed, convenient. A positive legacy of Covid – there you go.

Midway through the year, I took over from Cara Hope as the Initial Advice Clinic coordinator for the Strathclyde Law Clinic, which I’m still involved with in my diploma year. Being in the Law Clinic is great and I’ve spent a lot more time in the actual building this year between classes as a place where like-minded people are likely to be at any given moment. Like the Ethics & Justice seminars of last year, it’s a chance to meet people at different stages in academic life, which can bring a fresh perspective on things. It also means that going into the diploma, there was a core of people I knew very well at the same time as encountering folk from different universities.

One thing I have felt has been slightly lacking this year was my creative output. A lot of my energy has gone into practical things, like the Law Clinic. I’ve written much less and didn’t really have a big project I was working on. Part way through the year I did have an idea to set up a kind of literary salon thing, inspired by the 18th-century coffee house culture, but that didn’t come to anything. For the most part, it’s been creative input rather than output. I’ve read quite a few good books and watched some (not in that way) inspiring TV in the form of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul plus, in my view, the excellent 2000s Battlestar Galactica series. Next year I hope to find some consistent creative outlet that is more than just the occasional tweet or blog post.

In terms of my career, that was remarkably resolved right at the beginning of 2022 when I received an offer of a traineeship with Digby Brown in their Glasgow office. I am really enjoying the litigation subjects on the diploma, so look forward to starting with them in September.

Thus I have made two journeys this year. The first was the St Cuthbert’s Way, which I wrote about at length in another blog post. The second was my return to Europe after a four-year absence.

My journey was motivated negatively by my desire to get out of the UK and positively by a desire to use my German again in an immersive context and to live out my cultural identification with Europeanness by existing in as many parts of it as possible. The places I chose to visit were constrained by two factors. Firstly, my limited student budget and secondly, my need for some thematic cohesion. In terms of theme, the budgetary constraints guided me down the path of basing the trip mostly around the idea of Lotharingia – a book I’d read three years ago about the lesser-known third kingdom between West and East Francia that one of Charlamagne’s three grandsons was apportioned on his death. It was a polity containing much of modern-day the Netherlands, Belgium and Western Germany. Basically, cheap flights to Amsterdam followed by where you can get by train from there.

The thing I was most excited about in the trip I’d planned was my visit to Aachen, the seat of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. The cathedral at Aachen dates back to the Carolingian age (9th century) and its strange octagonal design has been the setting of imperial coronations from then until the 16th century. Parts of the Rathaus in the historic town centre also date back this far, and it was during my visit to this that I stumbled upon what I took to be the imperial crown itself.[1]

I wouldn’t have recognised it two years ago, but this was before I started playing Crusader Kings III. It is some utterly iconic headgear and I felt strangely emotional upon seeing it, especially since I didn’t expect it to be there. My thought was, this is unsere Welterbe, our collective inheritance as earth citizens. Die Welterbe – if nothing else, we succeed to this.

Polish tourists see my fascination as I spin around the 3D model next to its glass cabinet housing. They ask me if I want to buy it. I hesitate and say – I want to wear it.

Aachen to me represents the idea of a Kaiser as originally conceived and that object represents Civilisation; an aspiration to something higher than the time from which it came. A new Caesar out of the ruins of Rome. A republic-breaker forcing the wheel of history to turn against its nature. A new pole in a hitherto unipolar world.

And yet, it’s almost gaudy to look at. Over-elaborate, self-justifying. A crude kind of glory. A peasant’s idea of majesty.

A massive portrait of another Master of Europe hangs in the Rathaus – Napoleon in his imperial get-up. I remember when his countryman Macron was awarded the Charlemagne prize here a few years ago. Previous winners have included Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. Illustrious company.

Great photography, I know

My other experiences included trying out my Duolingo French in Brussels and being mistaken for an Italian by the hostel receptionist in my attempts. The highlight of this particular European capital was the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition on the fin de siècle. The 1890s are my jam. There was a lot of freaky stuff in there, especially towards the end. The last room held: a massive transfixing triptych featuring a waterfall of cherubs rendered hyper-realistically, a portrait of a glamourous woman standing among a heard of swine and a huge focaccia slab of fiery women melting into each other meant to represent the temptations of Hell.

My takeaway from the holiday, however, was that I don’t want to do that type of holiday again. I spent an awfully long time just wandering about rather aimlessly, aside from these snapshotted highlights. I felt I had to cram a lot in. Always be moving, to make the most of my time, while simultaneously being quite purposeless. Although it was good to take in a couple of capitals, I think I prefer more regional, specific experiences and to have a definite goal, even if somewhat arbitrarily set, and make progress towards this. I suppose what I want is more of a quest than a holiday!

What I also found was that I was doing a lot of Exploring. I have enjoyed this in the past. Criss-crossing from point to point with no regard to the incidental retracing of steps. Somehow it was less enjoyable this time. I don’t want to be retracing, I want to be tracing. I suppose this is the difference between linear composition and free jazz. At this point in time, I favour the former. Room for the unexpected and the occasional remembrance of the main theme, but essentially forward-facing and generative, always building from what has gone before.

[1] Later turned out to be a replica of the crown jewels from 1915. You’d think that the Kaiser would have more pressing matters to attend to at that particular date. Apparently, the real thing is in the Wiener Schatzkammer, which maybe makes a bit more sense as their resting place following the HRE’s dissolution in 1806.

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The materiality of faith

Working in a Cathedral, I think, does push one to examine Christianity and its various forms more often than the average person. Probably I am the sort of person who thinks about Christianity on a level above average for the general population, especially for a non-religious person.

For context, I grew up in Orkney where the majority religion is Church of Scotland, although I didn’t really think of it as anything other than “going to the kirk” at the time. As a young child, you don’t have much of a sense that there are other forms of religion, apart from perhaps there was that church in Dounby we didn’t go to (United Free Church).  In mid-late primary school, I was invited to Christian Endeavour camps run by the church my neighbours went to. Apart from the activities and much more lively music, this seemed to be a much more activist, sincere sort of religion, which appealed to me more at the time versus the general morality of Sunday school. The leaders were willing to answer any questions, no matter how daft, and they usually had a coherent answer. This kind of Christianity seemed more real, not some elaborate metaphor or ur-parable. The problem was, I realised I didn’t like what it was saying about the majority of people being damned by default and that there was one quick fix to be un-damned, and then everything was fine. At that point, I just gave up on the whole thing because I don’t want to live in a world where that’s the case.

In retaliation, mostly against myself for being drawn in by it all, I got into the New Atheists in my early teenage years. From a young age, I could sense that most of the Old Testament stuff was untrue, but there was something about pitting the fundamentalists at their most fundamental against the rationalists at their most rational that was both exhilarating and affirmative.

Only in my mid-late teens did I start to think about Calvinism as a distinct flavour of Christianity. Before it had been the default setting. Barely detectable in a contemporary church service. My first encounter with it was in the world of literary criticism. Scottish literature was about Calvinism. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Calvinism.

This meant nothing to me. I didn’t know what Calvinism was and the essays didn’t seem to explain it satisfactorily either. It seemed like an inside joke. How could this be the key to understanding these bizarre stories? To me, it failed to make them any clearer.

One aspect did seem to transfer from what I’d previously learnt about Christianity – the division of people into the saved and the damned. Here, however, the saved were not called that – they were the Elect or as Muriel Spark has it, the crème de la crème. The novel element was that the Elect were chosen – they did not choose; and no one could remove them from that office, no matter how they behaved. Not nearly as hopeful, but at least intellectually consistent.

When I went to uni, I parked thinking about Calvinism philosophically for the most part and thought about it more politically and geo-politically in terms of the wars of religion in Europe and later the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Britain. I was studying history and literature, not theology, and I’d decided I was an atheist anyway.

New forms of religion started entering my life in any case. My former first-year flatmate and friend, Charles, had gone from an abandonment of his childhood faith of an evangelical persuasion to an embrace of Anglican forms of worship. He was also inspired by Orthodox ideas about Christianity through his Russian studies. Charles talked about the materiality of faith in a way I had not considered before.

To me, the material spoke against faith. Hard facts against belief. Geology against creation. No definitive, real evidence of the truth of the scriptures. He had a different view. Communion as a physical manifestation of faith, the idea of doing Christianity as in some ways more important than belief, and the power of art and architecture not as folly and vanity compared with God, but living expressions of the faith of generations, embodying the argumentative power of thousands of souls.

These are medieval ideas, but they appear to have survived the Reformation. I started getting seriously into the medieval era after doing a semester of history, learning how to read Middle High German poetry in Leipzig and from there dipping my toe into Old Norse on my return to Edinburgh. After graduation, I seriously considered doing a masters in Viking and Medieval Studies at the University of Aberdeen. My feelings then were that the Reformers had essentially been right but that pre-Reformation Europe, or “Christendom” as it was, possessed a cohesion of Weltanschauung that will never be replicated, such that travel within its bounds was psychologically unproblematic.

Travel as an act of faith was something that was thrown out by the Reformation. The temporal and spiritual journeys were separated. Intellectual distances were the only ones to be travelled.

I don’t reject this logic and I would say that on balance it is far preferable to travel intellectual distance than betaking yourself endlessly without developing the mind. To militate against the temporal-spiritual journey, however, is a mistake. There is no guarantee that making one’s way from one place to another will result in psycho-intellectual progress, but the least we can say is that it works for some people and to attack the idea that it lends itself to being given meaning is counterproductive.

And so, this, I suppose is the “catholic” side of my spiritual nature. My belief in attempting to connect with the material pathways Christians have trod throughout the centuries. Not necessarily to share their worldview but to breathe the same air and see the same sights as they did in the places and (perhaps more importantly) in-betweens that were most significant to them.

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2022: My year in music

2022 has been much more of a positive year for me. The clouds finally lifted for good on Covid. It took me a full two years to get that dreaded double line on the lateral flow. When it hit it was unpleasant, but the isolation was probably more annoying, and thankfully I had been vaccinated by this point so didn’t get the tastebud rewiring to which the pioneers were susceptible.

In terms of gigs this year, I saw TOPS, LoneLady, BODEGA, Indoor Foxes, Alex Cameron, Soccer Mommy, Kit Sebastian and L’éclair. These were at Stereo, Audio, Mono, Hug & Pint, St Luke’s, QMU and Broadcast respectively. Of these, I think I enjoyed Alex Cameron and Kit Sebastian the most. AC’s latest album didn’t do much for me to be honest, but the strength of his previous two was more than enough to carry the night in a unique venue. Kit Sebastian is centred around a French-Turkish duo and their music is evocative of a sort of lost 60s film soundtrack – maximum vibes.

2022 has been mostly a year of stalwarts and continued listening to old favourites, but a casualty of my Covid-imposed incarceration was missing a gig by Nilüfer Yanya whose new album and particularly the song “the dealer” was one of my most compelling discoveries.

I was lucky enough to see my top artist from last year live at SWG3 last month: Stereolab. Perhaps less jubilant or irreverent than Alex Cameron but as good, if not better, in other ways. It was funny to see the fanbase who were a lot more introverted than other artists I’ve seen. While the band was really making a lot of noise there was a minimal outward show of appreciation in contented head bobbing. There was no place for moshing in this mass. I felt that the performance started off quite frostily but gradually things warmed up and I began to see the dynamic between what seems like an unusual pairing of serious French absurdism and reserved English handiness, all over a relentless base of infinitely reproducing Krautrock solidity.

Old favourites resurfaced in my Spotify Wrapped, with Toro y Moi taking the top spot, followed by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Kurt Vile whose 2018 album Bottle It In I got into for some reason, the aforementioned Nilüfer Yanya and Charli XCX.

An honourable mention in my music round-up of 2022 is my Arabic Funk phase. This year I got into this YouTube channel called My Analogue Journal. It does mixes of particular genres from specific regions in the world in certain decades. For some reason, the Arabic 70s stuff seemed to resonate with me. I suppose it is a natural progression from my Turkish penchant the previous annum?

I can only honestly recommend three new albums that have come out this year that I have listened to the whole way through multiple times and liked. Without further do, here is my list of projects that I think are worthy of checking out:

3. Mahal by Toro y Moi

On Mahal, Toro y Moi revisits some of their chillwave roots but leans more into a vintage vibe that is sometimes reminiscent of Steely Dan. I think that while the record perhaps doesn’t have the standout singles of Outer Peace it is more cohesive and listenable. There is no ‘Laws of the Universe’ or ‘Freelance’ but there aren’t any real lulls in the tracklist. As opposed to Outer Peace there are recurring motifs and a few weird sketches that help to stitch the album together, even if one wishes that some of them were stretched out into fuller songs. It has a couple of funny earworms in ‘Postman’ and ‘The Loop’, but these are not indicative of the album’s general expansive tone.

I really enjoy the psychedelic laziness of ‘Mississippi’, which showcases the dynamic production style of the album.

2. CRASH by Charli XCX

One has to allow for some pop in one’s life, and surely it doesn’t get much better than Charli XCX in 2022. Again, I’ll be honest and say that I did prefer her pandemic record How I’m Feeling Now for capturing the Zeitgeist, but that was a high bar to surpass. In any event, this album is tonally quite different from the previous outing and there are far fewer A.G. Cook-isms in terms of production. HIFN was much more introspective whereas this is bombastic and outward-looking. The double-run of ‘Baby’ and ‘Lightning’ is the peak of the album for me – both undeniable bangers.

The energy rarely drops off on this one, which makes it an ideal gym playlist staple. There is no mid-album lull and it has a very strong start and finish – bookended with the title track, ‘Crash’ and the club-inspired ‘Used to Know Me’.

  1. Blue Rev by Alvvays

I adored the last album from Canadian band Alvvays, Antisocialites, which saw me through a challenging time trying to teach teenagers English in Hamburg. Five years on, their sound has not lost any of its potency and the songwriting is as on-point as ever. I love how the band don’t rush the development of a musical idea, but neither do they linger on a hook too long – giving you just enough and no more. The album has a very shoe-gazy start, which is a theme throughout but is front and centre on the arena-filling ‘Pharmacist’ and ‘Easy on Your Own’. The next section is more jangle-focussed with beautifully melodic guitar work reminiscent by turns of Johnny Marr and Robert Smith – ‘After the Earthquake’ and ‘Pressed’ are highlights here. We then go to the quirkier side of the band with ‘Very Online Guy’, which I suppose would be the lead single if Alvvays were a single-type artist and what is probably my favourite track, at least at the moment, ‘Velveteen’.

If I have one criticism of the album, it would be the jarring intromission of ‘Pomeranian Spinster’ which doesn’t really seem to fit the tone of the rest of the project. The band quickly wins me back with ‘Belinda Says’, which is also a major highlight. It’s a massive track with huge descending pitch-bent guitars set against the sweet celestial vocals of Molly Rankin and features a bold key change just a minute in. Oh, and it mentions Inverness! If you listen to one album from 2022, let it be this.

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From Woodside to Woodlands

I recently moved flats from the Maryhill/Woodside border zone to a place off Woodlands Road right beside Kelvingrove Park. After two years together, the Grovepark gang disbanded. I moved my stuff piecemeal in the final week of the lease, but the majority was in two carloads of my friend’s convertible Saab. Within an hour we had tried the falafel shack that had been recommended by my cathedral colleagues and decamped to the Arlington – one of two notable “teuchter” pubs in the vicinity.

The move has not been without problems. The toilet seat was a flimsy plastic shell-shaped thing that slid about all the time; the sofas are basically metal frames with a sheet of fabric stretched across and my New Stateman subscription (a graduation gift) doesn’t seem to have survived the change of address. By the use of the past tense for the first item on the list you will be able to see that these are gradually getting resolved, no thanks to a decidedly non-interventionist letting agent. Anyhow, to focus on the positives, I have upgraded in terms of space and location (in terms of trendiness, but not in proximity to Lidl).

August will be my last full month full-time at the cathedral this year. In September I’ll start the diploma in professional practice at Strathclyde, which requires me to attend three days during the week, meaning I’ll only be under Gothic arcades for 11 days out of the 30 that it hath.

I feel I’ve had a happier summer than last year. 2021 was still quite far from normal. Social occasions were still fraught with cost-benefit analyses. It was only until mid-August that I had my first gig back – not that I’ve seen too many bands in the summer of 22. I was going to go and see Rage Against the Machine in Edinburgh but was put off by the £90 ticket price. That’s been cancelled now, so I guess I needn’t have worried. I was due to see Parquet Courts in June but had just been appointed coordinator of the Initial Advice Clinics so felt I couldn’t abandon my event, falling as it did on a Wednesday evening. My next scheduled one was Francis Lung at the Hug & Pint on a Friday. The Friday I had finished feeding a newfound feline friend – king of the gods, the apex of the pantheon – Zeus! (The cat, I was cat-sitting and house-sitting, to be clear).

My sojourn in the Southside, where said deity did reside, had come to an end. I’d decided to accept the offer of an Uber home instead of cycling back in torrential rain, and in an all-of-a-sudden fit of exhaustion opted not to go to the gig.

That means my last one was also at the Hug & Pint, at the start of July. Indoor Foxes. I think I’d heard them on Vic Galloway one night driving home from a shift at the Orkney Hotel. Not that the act was particularly important, rather the company. Yes, that was a fateful Saturday. I had flown back from Orkney to Edinburgh – the flight was somewhat cheaper and more convenient than direct to Glasgow – and I thought I’d see a couple of friends from uni round one while I was in town. The Orkney excursion was preceded by a trip to Aberdeen for my sister’s graduation from med school (now working as a junior doctor in the same city after a well-earned break) and occasioned by a citation as a crown witness in a Sheriff Court case (which failed to materialise after a last-minute guilty plea).

A week prior I had graduated for the second time, in law. The weather was poor, and there was a lot of hanging about, but it was a good excuse for my mother to visit and for us to spend some time together – an excuse to see the new Top Gun and A Play, A Pie and A Pint at least, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Anyway, at well past the halfway mark I can count 2022 as one of the more successful years (touch wood). Of course, I’ve got the formal certificate – Clinical LLB, Bachelor of Laws; the accepted traineeship, but what I value more is the nurturing of friendships, painfully missed during those lost 18 months or so of Covid misery. When you are torn away by time and circumstance you are forced to consider what you value in people and the people you value. Why is it so hard to be apart from a certain type of human being? A certain type is hard to find. Rare. Once found you cannot let them fade.

It takes effort to keep the flame of friendship aglow. Maybe you’ll spend hours hacking at a hillside, and when the season is right, store up a barrowload of peats to last the winter. Sometimes it’s as simple as striking a match. But by whichever method, once the blaze gets going again, the light you bask in is the same as it always was.

I started the year with confidence and optimism I hadn’t known since probably July 2019, except this time my goals were far clearer. Within the first half, I’d achieved at least two, with my aim of French proficiency in the works.

The self-confidence I felt probably spilt over into arrogance on occasion. I came close to losing a friend because of hurtful words spoken in jest, which were, in truth, just callous. That was two years to the day I did lose a friend, all too literally – the 7th of April. A date I will never forget. I suppose that was a turning point. I began to recognise my confidence had mutated into a decided lack of humility. That was something I decided to rectify in the remainder of the year.

My pilgrimage I think helped to an extent. It’s difficult to be arrogant when you’ve just walked 25 miles, sodden and stinking, and 15 are on the cards the next day. But I suppose there was an arrogance in embarking on it in the first place. After the sufficiently humbling experience of the first day, however, I was practically weeping with gratitude upon cresting the hill on day three of three and glimpsing the glorious expanse of the North Sea after more than 48 hours inland.

Among people, one is always at pains to distinguish oneself. Set oneself apart. Remain above it all. Aloof. In nature, in torrential rain, uphill for miles on end, it’s just you. No comparator. No companion. There is no mastery here. No conquest, just completion. But this is just something you’ve been through; it’s not an achievement, not an accomplishment. It’s only a goal insofar as it is a point on the map. Once you’ve eaten up the miles, they disappear. They’ve only eaten you.

I think I’ve reached a point where it’s no longer about becoming, on a personal level – becoming is a byproduct – but being. I want to be more and more the agent of my actions. I am not my CV, not my credentials or qualifications or positions held – my biography, but my acts, in the here and now and in the past; the sum-total of the way I’ve treated others and how they’ve perceived me, for ill or for good.

I set out this year to achieve personal satisfaction – fulfilment[1] if you will – a career and status I can be proud of. But I have learnt that there is no true satisfaction in personal satisfaction. There is only mutual satisfaction – call that friendship, companionship, brotherhood, solidarity or love. Collective love, or solidarity, I think, is the political aspect of life. Companionship is the love of strangers brought together by circumstance, but friendship is the most precious of all, and the former is a gateway to the latter.

I am lucky to be able to say that I have discovered two dear friends this year. This is not an achievement or an accomplishment but merely something that has happened to me and for which I am grateful.[2]

[1] In my opinion, pure contentment/fulfilment/happiness is unobtainable. We may only approach it, draw within a few nanometres, and then pull away again. Like the logarithmic graph, we never touch the axis. Greek Orthodoxy has the idea of Theosis; I think happiness works in a similar way. One cannot fully become God, but one can near ever closer to Godliness.

[2] Not to anyone/any entity in particular – I’m an atheist. Let’s just say Providence/the Supreme Being etc. To be clear, I don’t believe that some cosmic Other actively bestowed this on me.

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Presence and precedent

It wasn’t until day two of the pilgrimage that I got a moment to myself to log an entry in my journal.

My first epistle stems from Wooler bus station where a Borders Bus has just pulled out of the terminal. On one such vehicle, my journey began, after two trains from Glasgow to Edinburgh then Edinburgh to Tweedbank, carrying me to Melrose Abbey – the start of the St Cuthbert’s Way.

Day 1 – Melrose to Yetholm

The Abbey is a Historic Environment Scotland monument and it’s always strange to see the green tartan waistcoats in a context you’re not used to. I think to myself, is the HES that they know the same one I do?

The monastery itself was closed to the public as there was high-level maintenance going on. The grounds were open nevertheless and I got a good look at the ruin from the perimeter. Seeing the medieval structure like this in a partly crumbled condition makes me appreciate the completeness of my own workplace, the 13th-century built Glasgow Cathedral.

I had little time to gawk and dawdle, however, as I was scheduled to complete not one but two legs of the Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Kirk Yetholm, right on the West/East Scottish border with England.

Harris-fenced Melrose Abbey

I set off from the Abbey at about 11 am. The first 20 minutes were light showers. Good start, I thought. It seemed I was the sole pilgrim today, although there was a group outside the museum suspiciously kitted out in hiking gear.

Luckily after this light spattering, the rain stayed off for most of the day. In fact, it was perfect walking weather – slightly overcast and a fresh breeze; conditions I can thrive in.

Because I was aiming to complete two legs in one, I took more direct routes at times to get to Yetholm before the hostel check-in time ended. At one stage I took a wrong turn on my alternative route to Harestanes – my halfway point. Having passed a dogwalker on my confident stride along the wrong road, I faced the humiliation of turning back and meeting him again. It turns out I needn’t have worried; he pointed out that just round the corner, in the direction I had been going before my about-turn, was the correct route to Harestanes, cutting through the forest via a gap in the dyke. It was a beautiful woodland path that I might have missed otherwise, totally bereft of human habitation and populated with diverse flora, particularly wild garlic whose smell was unmistakable.

Nature, I am in you.

Another example from earlier on in my journey of an attempted off-route shortcut was when I tried to avoid walking along the main road by cutting across a field. On the Scotland part of my cross-border route, I wanted to take advantage of my land access rights by virtue of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 Pt 1. This was a foolhardy endeavour because the perimeter was surrounded by an electric fence and the “shortcut” did not expedite my progress in the slightest.

It was only after finding the woodland path immediately preceding Harestanes that I learnt to surrender to the Way-posts and let them guide me. From then on, I largely ditched maps and apps for signage and my newly purchased compass to check the general direction.

After Harestanes was definitely the more arduous leg, not only because of fatigue but also the lack of features to give one a sense of progress. One of the worst stretches was along the seemingly interminable main road to Morebattle. Worse still was that I had expected to find a shop to bolster supplies and get something sugary to drink, which I did not find – the community shop had shut an hour earlier. The only thing open was a pub, which I filled my waterbottle up in. Though I longed to stop here I couldn’t afford to linger if I were to make the cut-off for check-in at the youth hostel.

The shut shop of Morebattle

Shortly after this came the all-time low of the pilgrimage, the battle post-Morebattle. The rain returned, and not the light stuff of the morning but big fat soaking droplets. Half an hour in and I was ready to hitch a lift. I felt no competing urge to complete the walk for its own sake. I was ready to be conveyed directly to my goal.

The problem was that this was when I realised how rural the Borders really is. The roads were desolate. Barely a car drove past and most in the opposite direction. Orkney is far less rural than this. The population must be very sparse. I had seen an advert to set up a community council in Morebattle; attached was a notice stating the plan had collapsed due to a lack of applicants.

I eventually made it to Yetholm. In the village, there are thatched cottages that look very English to me. Do people really live there? I wonder. Their rooves are getting tested tonight. I stop to take some photos and press on to the hostel.

The place is run by a couple, Tony and Helen. They and two fellow pilgrims make me feel very welcome, although I’m not an eloquent interlocutor initially due to utter exhaustion after having logged more than five times my Garmin step goal in one day.

John, in his sixties, is also doing the St Cuthbert’s Way, although he stayed in Jedburgh last night so didn’t have the double leg, I inflicted on myself. Cat, maybe about 30ish, is doing a cycling tour of the Borders/Northumberland area. The former is naturally economical and prefers inexpensive holidays, the basics are all he needs. The latter sometimes volunteers for hostels and is keen to hear news from “the scene” via the couple who spend four months out of 12 away from home in their retirement vocation.

The hostel is part of the European Friends of Nature network. Or should I say, Naturfreunde? because it has German origins. A map from the 80s says something like “Nature knows no boundaries” – it still features West Germany. Perhaps there is at least one conceivable frontier.

In the night, after we’ve retired to bed, two lads from (it sounds like) Glasgow arrive back from the local pub. I’d decided to stay in and shared a basic but much-needed meal of tuna pasta with Cat. The next morning, I would visit the shop to stock up on provisions.

Day 2 – Yetholm to Wooler

At breakfast, John asks me why I’m doing this pilgrimage. I explain that I’m doing it because my friend from university who passed away at the start of the first lockdown walked the Way between exams and graduation, and I wanted to do something in tribute to him. “That’s a real reason,” he says.

The night before Cat had mentioned “Warm Showers” – a European overnight stays for cyclists network. Charles had used this on his epic tour of Europe by bike the summer before I met him.

In the Yetholm shop, they are discussing the distressing events of last night. A walker was seen acting suspiciously around the thatched house opposite. Was he trying to break in? What’s his business disturbing the elderly at that hour (7pm)? Look at the footage. I look at the footage. It’s me on CCTV. It could be me. Well. That resolves that then. I was taking a photo because I thought it looked unusual and out of place. Mistrust of vagrants is alive and well in frontier villages.

An incriminating image

Loaded with provisions I depart for Wooler. This time I should arrive mid-afternoon. Yetholm to Wooler is wild. There is nothing in between.

Trail runners zip past beyond the halfway mark and the accents change over the wall marking the border. So too does the land access law. Instead of the right to roam we have “public bridleways”, “permissive paths” and “access land” which ends abruptly as it begins. Here “trespassers will be prosecuted” and “standard security” is just the name for a CCTV system.

On the border

Wooler is the towniest town I’ve been to so far on my journey. A townhall clock chimes the hour. There are several busy pubs and something resembling a central square. I visit one such establishment for a good feed after I check into the hostel.

Enquiring about what kind of beer the Farne Isle ale is, the barman recommends the bitter then says get a pint of each – get pissed lad, there’s nowt else to do! I’m inclined to disbelieve him. Wooler has the most life of all the settlements on my journey thus far. There’s bingo in the pub, which everyone takes deadly seriously, though they have a good laugh in between rounds.

I get a sense of Verfremdung sitting there at my single table with my gigantic portion of lasagne and chips (steak and ale pie was off), which despite a valiant attempt, I cannot finish. This is the England I have known all my life but at a distance, on-screen and almost unreal. Yet here it is. To participate would be to destroy the scene. It is perfect in its self-contained, self-referential universality. These are a people who do not cringe at their mother tongue whose ancientness is worn proudly on their sleeves. And yet, it is not worn, it’s an unshed-able waterproof skin. Unlike the Scots who will trade a gansey for a jumper when it suits or breeks for trousers when require, the tongue of the Woolerians remains steadfastly Northumbrian. That is, apart from the cockney bingo-caller – an odd intrusion into the Woolerverse, but one, as I alluded to before that seems to confirm the ur-Englishness of the place in a peculiar way.

A quotation I found at the Wooler Youth Hostel. I like a bit of Ivor Cutler on occasion

Day 3 – Wooler to Lindisfarne

My third entry is written on the morning of Day 4, an addendum to the pilgrimage proper. I’ve stayed the night at Berwick-Upon-Tweed, having reached Lindisfarne the previous day.

Almost everyone I’d come across on the pilgrimage whom I’d told of my intentions said to beware the tide at Lindisfarne. Suitably scaremongered, I set off early to avoid any chance of being swept away by the North Sea flooding in.

I managed to keep to the official route right up to about St Cuthbert’s Cave. It was a steep ascent to get up there, but I caught up with a displaced German lady, her two boisterous blond children and their dog who kept me company during the climb. She suggested I take a right and visit the impressive Felsen. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint her and say I was in no mood for detours at present. She warned me of the tides, told me of cars getting “flushed away” and bid me good day.

At the cave, I met the two guys, who I was later to learn came from Paisley, and who were doing the route on the same schedule as me. They were just heading off as I sat down for a bit of a break before my next landmark – the village of Fenwick. Supposedly the Cave is where the relics of Cuthbert were sequestered after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne at the end of the 8th century. Many have carved their names into the rockface here. Quite a few from the 1800s.

The approach to the Cave

My next point of significance was unexpected. Just a few hundred metres further on was a rocky mound with a crude wooden cross made out of tree branches on top. Out of curiosity, I decided to approach the summit. When I made it, I was hit with a wave of emotion I was totally unprepared for. This was my first glimpse of the final destination – after two days inland, the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

From there I veered off slightly because many routes met and diverged from there, but I eventually got back on track and managed to find Fenwick. My penultimate stop before the island was a service station off the A1 where I got a Costa coffee and ate my lunch.

Going through Beal and over a level crossing, I finally arrived at the causeway. For a few hundred metres I did as is supposedly the tradition and took off my boots to walk barefoot on the sand.

It must be said I underestimated how long it would take to make it to the priory from the coast. In my imagination, I had the idea that it might be similar to the Brough of Birsay, but in reality, it was a good hour, if not more, to reach the ruins at the far end of the island. I resolved to hitchhike back – cars cross this causeway and in large numbers.

On my approach, I met the two guys from Paisley sitting outside a café. I went over and they said they’d booked a taxi to Berwick for 5, and I was very glad to tag along. This meant I had about an hour and a half on the island.

The first statue I saw was not of St Cuthbert – the quasi-official end of the pilgrimage – but St Aidan, founder of the abbey. To find Cuthbert I had to enter the ruins properly. The lads had told me they (English Heritage) would let me in for free if I told them I’d just done the Way. That didn’t work; I got a well done but would still have to pay. I had another card up my sleeve, however, my Historic Scotland staff pass, which did allow me gratis entry.

Again, after the initial joy of reaching the end, I felt a sadness for what was missing. I recognised the tufty, sandy mounds on my approach from that first episode of Vikings, which I like for its use of old English for the monks and new English for the raiders, setting up our perspective on the scene. Nothing structurally remains of that raided abbey – it was mostly wood and has rotted away. There are artefacts, most notably the Lindisfarne gospels, but the stone walls and arches are mostly from the 12th century.

I find St Cuthbert’s statue, not before having my picture taken by two ladies in their 60s who have also completed the Way (I offer to take theirs too). It is sort of ghoulish and scary compared with Aidan’s proud, uplifted confidence.

What I don’t find at the end of the pilgrimage is something hard to define. It’s not the neat tying of a bow or the sustained final chord of a symphony’s last movement. I visit the church adjacent and find a building that is an echo of the Surrey kirkyard I came to on 1st November 2020, his birthday. This time there is no pre-recorded sermon but towards the east end, just before the choir, is a foil tray to catch the wax of a dozen or so tealights. I don’t strike a match – that seems too extravagant – but lean the wick of a fresh candle to one already lit and place it there, as I did that day.

By undertaking a pilgrimage, you are participating in a tradition going back more than a millennium. But you’re also committing to the present as well as precedent. You’re signing up for pain, discomfort, bewilderment (in more ways than one) but most importantly – whatever you find along the road. This sense of radical openness to experience was one of the greatest lessons Charles showed me through the example of his adventures. It is this I wish to carry with me through life as part of the legacy of a remarkable human being.

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Memento Mori

This past month my summer and winter existences have overlapped.

April brings custodial duties. I called myself a custodian on the census, although apparently “monument steward” was available. I am a castellan, a Steward of Gondor awaiting the Return of the King. He’s the character who builds his own funeral pyre and lies atop it alive. Quite an image.

Apparently, in crematoria, the bodies sit up straight. Stripped spines curling up with the heat.

In coffins, they used to have a bell to ring for attention if they’d somehow made a mistake.

Embalming is at least chemically un-survivable but supposedly distressing to the touch of relatives.

My potter friend wrote a speculation on the custom of the Neolithic folk at Skara. In it, they mummify their dead but keep them on a shelf to be wheeled out on special occasions. My colleague wants to be mummified or at least kept above ground, in a mausoleum. Like Lenin? I ask. But I know that was against his wishes.

I think I’d want to have a normie burial. The thought of complete annihilation and grinding down bones somehow doesn’t appeal to me. Neither would I be chemically dissolved like Desmond Tutu. I’d probably like to overlook the Harray and Stenness Lochs, the twin humps of the Hoy hills. Ending up there would be nice, wherever I go in the interim.

Recently, I read a memoir where the author sets about carving her own gravestone. At work, I’m surrounded by astonishing feats of masonry, both medieval and modern. Skills passed down through millennia. The potter has his headstone readymade, propped up against a wall in his garden. The inscription reads, “Forgotten but not gone”.

Not that I haven’t thought of more dramatic ends. Maybe I’ll be put in a yole and shot with a flaming arrow. Sink into the sea with a sizzling hiss.

Spaghettification has also crossed my mind, as has being launched into the sun. A gravitational process rather than active disposal. I wouldn’t want to be released into the vacuum. I suppose going out the airlock is the equivalent of burial at sea for starships.

Memento mori are all about me in the Cathedral and I’m asked about them every other day. There are more in St Magnus. Many of them are of 17th-century vintage. Skull and crossbones reminders of death. Hamlet’s Yorick is likely the most famous; the fool he knew from childhood. A fellow of infinite jest. The Dane is aye jumping into graves, making dramatic entrances at funerals.

I went to see The Northman, which is based on the Norse legend on which Hamlet is loosely based. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year, though I very much enjoyed The Batman – my first outing to the pictures since the initial lockdown.

It doesn’t seem possible to design a film more suited to appeal to me. It’s an expertly crafted epic of revenge, myth and magic. Its geographic span stretches from the Kievan Rus to the far west of Iceland. Mentioned in passing, though, is Constantinople, and, of course, the Vikings thought of themselves as occupying one plane of reality, Miðgarð – a particular cross-section of the world tree, Yggdrasil.

These Norsemen, as depicted by Robert Eggers, are historical, in the sense that they are the most authentic they have ever been on screen, but also historicised, in that they have a sense of their origins, if only half-remembered and dreamlike. For one, the proto-Norse burial mounds from which the protagonist must wrest the sword, Draugr – a blade from the murky urgermanischem Zeitalter. Also, the chambered cairn of Hrafnsey from an even remoter past, several peoples ago even then. The stone slab passageways where rituals are replicated in ignorance of their bygone significance – the director was apparently inspired by Maeshowe.

Shakespeare’s parallel text runs through the film. Eggers’s Claudius-figure’s words fly up not to heaven but Asgarð and Oðinn. Amleþ, unlike his Renaissance cousin, has no hesitation at all about dispatching his enemies. Madness is not a put-on antic disposition but a berserker rage or mushroom induced paranoia trip.

There is another reason I enjoyed the film so much, but I think I will let you watch it and find out for yourself!

Anyhow, I have come to the end of my CLLB. Handed in all my assignments and exams. Now I am looking to the summer ahead and for what seems like the first time in a while, planning for the medium-term future.

My plan for the end of this month is to embark on the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne. I will be covering the journey over three days and staying in youth hostels along the route. My idea was to dedicate the pilgrimage to my friend Charles who walked it between finishing exams and graduation in 2019. I later heard he got his results unterwegs and he and John were able to share a euphoric moment with their doubles firsts on the approach to Holy Island. Personally, I’d be happy with a merit pass for this degree no. 2. It’s not impossible I might be I am graded staff in hand though, as he was.

I have a strong desire to visit Europe again, not having left the UK since 2018 and thwarted by you-know-what for the past two years. My particular priority would be to explore southern Germany and maybe Austria. It could be I’ll be able to spend some time with a friend from the French-Swiss border. All this is speculation though, and I’ve got the added stress of finding a flat for the start of the diploma. But overall, things are on the up and I am determined to keep the momentum going into a summer resembling normality, which, of course, I hope to transcend to some degree through these mini-adventures into the unknown.  

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