Friday, November 22, 2013

Bighugedogs: Bulletin #1 - prospect of cat

Twenty-two stones of St Bernard, in two moulting packages, currently adorn the red couch in the kitchen.

They are snoring. Well, five-year-old rescue mutt Rug is snoring, rhythmically. Lulu, who is 11 years old - ancient for a dog as enormous as she is - is dreaming, so she yelps, grunts and groans, twitching occasionally, all her past adventures with sheep, postmen, Historic Scotland building inspectors, seals and the Great Dane who lives next door (Baskerville by name) presumably bouncing around her enormous head and minuscule brain.

As she twists and turns in her sleep, the room shakes. As she breathes, the room wobbles, the air vibrates. Rug, poor soul, mistreated throughout her previous life, kept in a cage, battered and berated, makes less immediate impact, but is friskier when awake. And that can see tables upended, crockery smashed, and small children sent flying by an innocently wagging tail.

So this is what passes for quiet, with both dogs asleep. And they sleep a lot. I've known them collapse after their evening walk and not haul themselves from their various sofas (they favour four, the most comfortable in the house) until two the next afternoon. They are, thankfully, both continent. Only once, after Lulu managed to get at a bucket of used chip oil, drinking about four litres, did disaster strike, and a seriously soiled sofa had to be disposed of. She had the grace to be very upset. But not as upset as I was. Or the binmen.

In the morning calm, I regard the two dogs, and think about cats. I'm pondering a local advert: 'Wanted, feline mousekiller, housetrained, neutered, not viciously vengeful when aggrieved, non-allergenic, must like dogs. Very big dogs. Or at least put up with them. Also, must be robust.' We have killed, in this old house, 90 mice since the end of September. It is now mid-November. There are mousetraps in every corner, poison all over the place. The metallic aroma of rotting rodent is omnipresent.

Alas, the last kitty was killed by Lulu. Not in a frenzy of saliva-flecked violence, but because Lulu  fell asleep on top of the poor creature. He wasn't flattened, just somewhat squashed. And suffocated. Arnold - that was his name - had gone to sleep, ill-advisedly on a St Bernard couch. Perhaps the soft, warm underbelly of a dog was initially not too uncomfortable. Twelve hours later, though, the pressure and lack of oxygen had done for Arnie.

I'd approach the Cats Protection League for one of their surplus-to-requirements kittens, but is it fair to bring one into this dog-heavy (and heavy dog) environment? And how would the St Bernards feel?  Once you've seen two 11 stone dogs trying to chase a cat up a set of curtains, you don't easily forget.

Maybe I'll have another think about it. And let sleeping dogs lie.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two gigs on the mainland this week: new whiskies, new songs, new guitars...

The Malt and Barley Revue hits the road again this week with gigs in Bo'Ness and Birnam, three brand new whiskies to taste, one or two new songs and a couple of guitars that fit my over-large hands rather better than the wee travel instrument I was using. Good as it was!

I'm looking forward to the show at the Bo'Ness Barony Theatre on Thursday 14 November - tickets still available. As In Birnam, (the Arts and Conference Centre) on Saturday 16 November, I'll be accompanied by Angus MacRaild from Whisky Online. Angus is a specialist in valuing old and rare whiskies, so if you have anything lying about in cupboard, cellar or loft, bring it along and he'll tell you how much it's worth!

He'll be guiding you through the delights of the three superb drams we have for your consumption. As usual, there will be songs, stories and a daft poems as well as the whisky. Oh, and signed copies of my new book A Whisky In Monsterville will be on sale - a rare chance to get hold of the print-and-paper version. Also the last few copies of Spirit of Adventure at a bargain price.

Tickets cost less than the price of three drams in a bar! Bargain!

Hope to see you there.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Remembrance: The tragedy of HMS Bullen and the bodies the sea returned

My editorial from this month's Shetland Life Magazine:

“To the world, he was just one. To me, he was all the world.”

November is the month of remembrance. Remembering the dead of not just two world wars, but the wars that have taken place since. The ones still going on. Those who left to serve and fight, but never returned, and those who came here to die. There were 78 recorded air crashes on or around Shetland in World War Two, many involving multiple fatalities.
And there were those given up by the sea. It’s something rarely mentioned or discussed, and awful to contemplate - the many, many bodies washed ashore here in the course of world War One and World War Two. But a cursory look at the stones in our cemeteries reveal the appalling numbers. The recent notices that have appeared on graveyard gates pointing out that Commonwealth War Graves lie within will perhaps have drawn folks’ attention to this for the first time. The ones in Eshaness and Hillswick drew mine.
There are other signs of death and destruction still visible. The remains of some of those air crashes, are, as this magazine has often pointed out, still lying on Shetland hills. You can see the solidified remnants of heavy bunker oil from long-lost convoys ingrained in outcrops of rock, and until quite recently a bale of raw latex, cargo from a sunken cargo ship, was used to hold down hauled-up boats at Heylor.
But the gravestones all tell stories. Notably the one on the front cover of this magazine, which you will find in the old Hillswick graveyard at the West Ayre - site of an ancient kirk, with nearby monastic settlements and a broch also indicated. A place which has always been special, probably always holy, for as long as humans have been here.
The story of Petty Officer NE Lown  centres on HMS Bullen, a Captain class Frigate built in the USA as part of the lend-lease scheme which saw a great deal of military materiel being provided for the use of British Forces in the Second World War. She was system built as a submarine hunter, welded together like the notorious Liberty Ships, and her crew, probably including PO Lown, travelled to New York aboard the Queen Mary to bring her back across the Atlantic. They had some adventures in the USA, some of which you can hear about in the voice of one of the crew members, Rating John Albert Hodge interviewed here for the Imperial War Museum’s archives.
HMS Bullen - named for one Nelson’s commanders at the Battle of Trafalgar - joined the 19th Escort Group based at Belfast, and on 6 December 1944 she was off Cape Wrath, protecting a convoy which came under U-Boat attack. A torpedo from  U-775, commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Taschenmacher, hit her amidships, an explosion occured on the starboard side, just behind the funnel. The aft engine room and boiler room probably flooded immediately. The ship quickly broke in two, the forepart turning on its beam ends and the aft-section floating vertically Within an hour and six minutes, both parts of the ship had sunk completely. Ninety-seven men were rescued, many in a poor state from cold, injury or from inhaling oil. Seventy-two died. U-775 sank only the Bullen and one merchant ship. She was only at sea for a total of 86 days.
Erich Taschenmacher survived the war, surrendering U-775, which was sunk by the Royal Navy along with dozens of other empty U-boats. U-775 was used for target practice.
Petty Officer Norman Lown, aged 27 and leaving a widow at his home in Dover, Lilian Rose, was carried hundreds of miles to Shetland, along with three other HMS Bullen crew: Able Seaman Arthur Wealthall was buried at Eshaness, Leading Stores Assistant Francis Farrell and Leading Stoker Felix John Read  in Lerwick. PO Lown lies within the calling of the sea at the West Ayre, and the Eshaness light flares in the distance every night.

Lilian Rose's heartbreaking inscription, easily missed at the bottom of the stone, perhaps expresses the real cost of war, the true and eternal story of loss. And sums up why it is important that we remember, not just on 11 November, but always, the price that was paid by so many.

“To the world, he was just one. To me he was all the world. Always loved,deeply missed.”