What have you heard?

2009: We had by now gained a lot of new friends in Aultbea and surrounds, aided and abetted by my paintings and writings which were attracting a bit of notoriety (I cannot possibly say 'fame') and of course Dee's early employment in the Isle View Care Home alongside many of the local ladies. We could seldom visit shop or post office or take the two hour bus ride into Inverness and back without engaging in chit-chat. Chit-chat - or 'the craic' as most folks know it - is an all-pervasive hobby around here. A classic instance I well bring to mind concerns Delia's special friend, our ex landlady, Kitty. This lady had the reputation, supported by her own declaration at every opportunity, of 'not visiting,' itself pretty rare in an area where doors always seemed open. However Kitty made up for this by spending much of each evening on the telephone to her many lady friends, Dee amongst them. After we relocated the three miles to Kirkhill House, even before that when we lived in Loch Ewe Cottage, fifty metres away from Kitty and Ann, the phone would ring a few minutes after six. Dee would smile at me, mouth Kitty as she picked up then answer with her usual 'Delia speaking'. The caller (Kitty) would not identify herself in the usual way but would open straight up with 'What've you heard?'. Dee herself had a strong aversion to the retelling of scuttlebutt. She often reminded me (warned me) of the dangers of gossip in a small community. Nevertheless, and in spite of answering 'not much' to Kitty's leading question, the two of them would hold extensive conversations.

At the risk of over-eulogising my late wife I have to say two things at this stage. First, I seldom if ever heard her utter a bad word about anyone - or any kind of indiscretion about anyone for that matter. She had the knack of being an involved listener but a non-reciprocatory one! And second, Delia Islip, nee Smalley was the original people magnet. Although she never went out of her way to engage with groups and was, indeed, always happy to be on her own, I think folk sensed that there was no evil in the lady, only genuine interest, and were drawn to her perhaps on that account. It is true that without seeming to make any effort to do so, within a few months she knew 'everybody' in our orbit by face and by name.

I have myself always avoided joining extra mural clubs and associations and have indeed never been one to make many friends outside of my business life. Perhaps as a consequence I have in my life received few gratuitous honours. Therefore when I (and Dee) were invited to join the Wester-Ross Burns Club in, I think, 2007 or 2008, 'honour' was the right word. I suppose it was well known in the area that I had a love for poetry, after all I was making something of a living out of publishing / selling cards and books incorporating my landscape paintingsa and my associated poems. It may also be relevant that, as related in a long previous episode, my 19 years old fiancee and 19 years old self had visited Burns' Cottage in Alloway back in 1954. Nevertheless for an unreformed Englishman and his wife to be invited to worship at the altar of Scotland's world-famous National Bard ... an honour indeed. From the very beginning the Burns Club has been a significant part of our lives - and still is of mine. There are not that many of us 'members', just enough to overfill one or other of our living rooms for our occasional meetings under the learned chairmanship of Ian Macmillan. Our meetings tend to have a pre-announced 'theme'. Could be 'Burns the farmer' or 'Burns's fellow Scottish poets' or something that would at any rate inspire some prior study. I recall the theme back at our first gathering; 'A Burns poem reading', or similar. I forget which one of my many favorites I read out but I do remember being surprised by my wife's choice. I didn't even know the ploughman poet had penned such a one as that he called simply "Delia" but jndeed he had. (It is quite amazing how many of his poems are entitled with a female name. I wonder why?) My Delia had a horror of performing in public so at her request Ian read out her namesake choice, and did so right nobly. Our meetings would proceed with good food, continue with all the drink and descend with much hilarity into Scottish Country Dancing courtesy of that well applauded local expert, the lovely lady Elna. The congregation often continued on with the singing of largely sentimental pub songs, the words of which some of us sometimes remembered some of the times, and some of the tunes ditto.

On one occasion I wrote a little playlet for our Club gathering. In my scenario Burns and Shakespeare were meeting in the afterlife. I selected fellow member Tony Davis as Mr Shakespeare. He read the part extremely well even though his accent was more rural Dorset than Warwickshire (unknown to me at the time he is actually something of an aspiring thespian anyway). I cannot bring to mind who assumed the part of Burns. When I published this as a blog called Two Gentlemen in a Far Away Land  it received well over a thousand 'hits'.

But the highlight of our Burns year is of course the January Burns Supper. It is usually attended by fifty or more. The program is strictly formal and so is the dress code. Proceedings commence with the piping in of the haggis, then follows the President's fiercesome address to that haggis and the supper itself of cock a' leekie soup, 'haggis neaps and tatties' and cranikin (a Scottish sort of trifle) for dessert. Then the all important toasts - an invited male does the toast 'to the lassies', a female responds 'to the laddies' and somebody specially priveleged presents the keynote speech; 'to the Immortal Memory' (of our Bard). Over the years I've toasted the lassies on two occasions and presented the toast to The Immortal Memory on one occasion. I thought long and hard about the wearing of the kilt. Number one should an Englishman do so at all? number two, what, if anything, does one wear beneath one's kilt? number three, how do you manage to be seated whilst safely preserving your modesty? I decided to go for it, so these days I hire a complete Highland regalia from a lovely shop in Inverness (Ben Wyvis tartan). What's underneath? Well, I can only quote the traditional response to that question; That's for me to know and you, lady, to find out!

Have I now forgotten my eleven centuries of family history as a southern Englishman? By no means. We are what we are despite the best efforts of seemingly half the world to be something else. And I don't think it's somehow 'racist' to be proud of who we are or of from where we have come. But of course that does not mean we have to be proud of everything about ourselves - in particular of the weak and unwholesome disaster that has become of our Westminster government.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes nationality is about your soul rather than your birth.

    Sir Laurens van der Post said that he discovered he had several souls - African, Japanese and a few European ones.

    And Scotland is easy to fall in love with, at soul level.

    Love the story about Dee.


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