Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Seahouse (extended 12-inch version)

This is a (much) longer version of the story kindly published by the excellent Caught by the River website.

Sand bags are not bags of sand, not in this neck of the bog. They are bags of grit, bags of gravel, sacks of small stones. Sand, sharp sand, builder's sand? That would wash away, like the beaches sometimes do, sucked in and spat out by the biggest tides, wiped out by the wind.

The council has supplied us with gritbags, stonebags, gravelbags, and they are piled around the front door like the clusters of dead sheep you sometimes see, huddled against snowdrifted walls, revealed by the thaw. We wait.

We wait for the top of the tide. We wait for the flood.

We've done our best with this 300-year-old former Church of Scotland manse. The massive rock armouring along the shoreline was diggered in after the last major flood, in the late 1970s, when seawater was lapping a foot from the Rayburn's top, according to Lornie, who was there, bailing, perched atop the stove with a bucket. The big stone house crouches on a beach, a shingle peninsula, just six metres or so from high water mark. And these days, the highest of high tides, the springs, are level with our doorstep on a calm day. So we have built extra walls, channels, drains and runnels to deal with the malevolent storm surges that come with a couple of days of big Atlantic swells, building far out in the ocean and a wind of a particular, vicious bent. A westerly's the one to watch for, when it starts backing, and great slurping, sloshing surges begin walloping around the bay. That's when you're looking at trouble. Or at night, listening for it, waiting.

The cast-iron Rayburn stove is a religion, surrounded by ritual, fear, hope, faith, deliverance, eternal hellfire. We burn peat, cut from our own banks. Sustainable? Probably not, not over 100,000 of your earth years, but more so than the Government-subsidised wood that is now fashionable and cheap on this treeless archipelago. Peat is local, hand-harvested over a backbreaking spring and summer. Peat is history. I'm thinking of Gunnister man, the 18th-century traveller found in mummified near perfection by cutters just a mile or two away. I'm thinking of ‘blue’ peat, the coal-like treasure that burns quickly and very hot, and the wet slabs of turf used to damp a fire that threatens to run out of control. Peat tar coats chimneys and if the lum catches, usually on a windy night, it's like some kind of nuclear inferno that can, and does, melt stone.

This third-hand Rayburn, a Series 1 Landrover to a suburban Aga's Range Rover Vogue, can be fine-tuned to handle the worst storm in the world. We’ve learned how to deal with it, finally, after hard, costly lessons involving the fire brigade, disastrous and dangerous sweeping attempts and leaking water jackets. Now, it's hurricane proof. All flaps are closed. It's our servant, not our flue-destroying master. Chim Chim Cheree! Water is croaking and bubbling in the backboilers, up the copper pipes to the radiators we bought from the old Peterhead Prison.

Tonight, it feels like the worst storm in the world is with us. But then, it often feels that way. In the downstairs toilet, the WC is waterless, the wind creating low pressure that sucks it dry. I pour a bucket down, for emergencies. It disappears in seconds.

It's been dark since 2.35pm. There will be a brief flicker of low, oppressive daylight around 9.30am. Or maybe tomorrow will never lighten beyond a kind of permanent dusk. Whatever, we're in proper, northern winter darkness, the TV up high so it's audible above the storm. Blink. Blackness. Bleeping from the uninterruptible power supplies I use to keep the broadcasting and computer gear going if I'm on air, giving me time to get the generator, going, out in the washhouse. It's a Honda. I've never bought anything but Honda outboards and generators since a terrifying chase after a boat that had snapped its mooring, and was being sent lurching furiously towards Iceland by a nasty wee squall. I jumped from the pursuing salmon farm tender into my beloved Shetland Model, and said a prayer to Soichiro-San that his, and my three-year old outboard motor would start. It did.

I'm not on the radio tonight. And besides this is now a west-south-westerly force 11, gusting higher. Towards 100 mph or so, too high and from the west, so getting to the washhouse through the porch’s sliding door is dangerous, maybe impossible. Time to check the candles, torches, make a last cup of tea from Rayburn-boiled water. All switches off, the stove tamped right down. Check the phone - still working. Susan, a GP, is on-call for emergencies, 24-hours availability. NHS Direct? Be serious. A final prayer for no call-outs, and so to bed amid the groaning, muttering, howling and rattling of this old, old house. The windows are solid, double glazed, built by a local firm from (sustainable) hardwood. When they were fitted, when the old ones were removed, the original frames were revealed as recycled ship's spars, complete with adze-marks and cleats. The beams under the kitchen slabs are pitch pine, 300 years old or more, and when they were cut for central heating pipes the smell of sap was as fresh as Domestos.

The phone doesn't ring. We sleep sound and unmoving. Gunnister Man and Woman. It's the silence that wakes us.

Late, veering towards nine, the first dark blue signifier of morning, the wind, the sky, the world has dropped. As the atmospheric pressure has lifted, the sense of oppression, of greater gravity has increased. The air is jellied, thick, all movement is slow and sluggish. And the world has changed. Things have shifted, been rearranged, like God playing stroppily with someone else's  Lego. Everything has been slowed and stunned by the violence of the storm

By 10.30, you can see, dimly, through windows frosted with salt. The grass is covered with shingle and stones. Susan's car has a smashed quarterlight - the Landcruiser’s interior is all glass and shingle. The peat stack has been levelled, scattered, and there is wave-borne bruk right up to the front door. Tangle and kelp everywhere. It's like the ocean has been on some almighty bender, has vomited its guts out. Now it needs to sleep. Until the next time. There’s a menacing stillness to the waveless water of St Magnus’ Bay.

There is seaweed all round the washhouse door. But the Sea House is still standing, just as it always has, as it probably always will. I pull on the Honda’s starting cord, and the building bursts into life.

(Bruk: Shetland dialect, rubbish or detritus; lum - chimney; Shetland Model - an open, double-ended boat.)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Working Strain

Sheepdog, free to good home, 
Working strain…

No need to explain
He’s useless, isn’t he, for herding the woolly gods?
Disobedient, easily distracted, bored and prone to nipping
Those are the facts
And now, training with cattle prod or walkie-talkied collar
Is too much bother
For you. No dividend in sight.
Your whistle sends
The mutt, slithering like a snake
Flashing round the flock and up the hill
Until that too-keen eye 
Glimpses something - or he hears a skylark’s cry
And no whistle or shout from you
Will do anything to bring him back
To the job in hand
For that dog doesn’t dream 
Of  wandering mutton
He sees a bird in flight and something stirs
Within, the whirr of
Bicycles, the hum of cars - 
He knows that far, far away
There’s something more than this
This coarse and brutal life, this pain

The working strain

Caged with 10 others
Never praised or patted
He’s never sat
And felt a child’s caress
That love so sweet
He’s just a tool, a piece of meat
Out in all weathers, snow, hail and rain

The working strain

Genetics rule
Only a fool, you say, would take a dog for company
And pleasure, would measure
Him by simple faithfulness and loyalty

But, you know, that’s good enough for me
Must I explain?
I’m not from a working strain.
I never was. I understand
The sheepless sheepdog.

I’ll take him off your hands.

Copyright Tom Morton 2015. All rights reserved

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Ballad of Daytime TV

Former polis, all sweaty 
In Vauxhalls and Fords
Fourth cousins twice removed
Answering doors
Warned by researchers
To look sorry and shocked
For dead folk unheard of
Until the hearse-chaser’s knock
An inheritance? How much? Where do I sign?

And I watch. And I wish that the money was mine.

So I could roam car boot sales
Sifting through trash
Searching for treasures
To flog at auction for cash
I know my Royal Doulton, 
My Wemyss Ware and Delft
My Fabergé and Wedgewood
But there’s so little left
In charity shops 
In skips or in attics
Everybody’s an expert 
Everybody’s an addict
Of Bargain Hunt, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

And then there’s the question of investing in houses.

Who are these people
With so much money to spend?
Millions, hundred of thousands
Do banks really lend
To tattooed guys in pull-ups 
With half-shaven heads
Who buy sad repossessions 
Or the homes of the dead?
Tart them up, sell them on
Or just rent them out
It’s all about profit
Not a scintilla of doubt
Ever appears 
On a presenter’s face
As they Escape To The Country
To avoid the disgrace
Of ever being reduced 
To Price Drop TV
The Jewellery Channel
Or - worse - QVC
Botoxed and hair-woven, held in telly detention

Then released to host raffles at double glazing conventions

Copyright Tom Morton 2015. All rights reserved

Buy the collection: Walking the Doggerel by Tom Morton, £5.67 plus postage here

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Rottie's Visit (from The Ballads of Rug and Dexter)

Rottie’s visit

A Rottweiler came to call today
He seemed considerably dismayed
To find Dexter and indeed, myself
In almost the very best of health
Were it not for that cod’s roe we ate
That left us in an awful state
Of real digestive disrepair
And a pungency that filled the air.

Still, he came, with his owner, Jeff
Delivered a package, then they left
And Rottweilers, by reputation
Can cause considerable vexation
So myself and Dexter, quite perturbed
Both made ourselves quite loudly heard
And pressed our noses to the glass
Determined not to let him pass

His name was Rottie, by the way
And I heard Jeff say he liked to play
That he was really friendly, cheerful
And gentle, prone to getting tearful
If confronted by a cat
Though frankly, I don’t believe that
Still, he seemed to be quite calm
Despite Dexter’s and my, alarm

And now he’s gone. Back to his home
Lying there, he’s all alone
I wonder if he feels rejected
Munching a Kong Ball, quite dejected
Longing, perhaps for company
A friendly romp with Dex and me
Or maybe his thoughts are dark and baleful
With Rottweilers, you can’t be too careful

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Chips, snow and a Shetland ghost story...

Johnnie Mann's Loch
I used to stop for a wee nap sometimes, when I was driving back from Lerwick to Hillswick after work. It's 40 miles or so, and sometimes, when my eyelids began to droop, I would pull into a lay-by and have a dreamless sleep, waking...not refreshed, but, with a window wide, just about able to make it home. Sober, too. I tire easily.

I once stopped, with an early twilight falling, next to the lovely little trout repository called Johnnie Mann's loch, which is in one of the pictures taken here. As usual, I woke up after about 15 minutes, darkness having fallen, and drove home, groggily.
Towards America

A few days later, I heard the story of Johnnie Mann, who had tried to cross the ice on the little loch which now bears his name. The ice gave way. He was never seen again. What was seen there, by someone in the 19th Century who stopped by the loch for, ahem, a nap, was a friendly horseman who, when he took of his hat, was revealed as having no...head.

I have never stopped for a snooze there since.
Sullom Voe Oil Terminal

There are more strange stories associated with the immediate vicinity (Nibon, just over the hill, a very beautiful spot) which you will find hinted at by resident poet Jim Mainland here: http://www.northmavine.com/node/915 . 'Gunnister man' - the mummified body unearthed from a nearby peat bank - shows what happens when you stop for a snooze...and never wake up.

Anyway, these are pictures taken today during my jaunt through the snow for chips at multi- award-winning takeaway Frankies. And very nice they were too. No napping was involved.
Towards the Ness of Hillswick