Walking: Falkirk to Linlithgow

With the world on climate strike, one academic year barely over and the next about to begin, I decided to enjoy the rare Scottish sunshine and walk the next section of my good days journey to Edinburgh along the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals. Ben, my faithful doggy companion, had already proved his worth in the 2.5 hours it had taken us to get to Falkirk High, by train, bus and walking (which should have been a half-hour train ride) as he’d simply flirted with everyone in sight and taken their minds off broken-down trains. We really didn’t mind and Falkirk Arts Festival was looking bonny in the sun.

Falkirk Arts Festival bigger

We’d done a side walk from Falkirk High to the Kelpies in February and back but the last section, from Auchinstarry in October last year, had also ended at this canalside train station so that’s where we started – at the famously long and eerie tunnel with its fairy lights and red-green traffic lights at either end.

The tunnel wasn’t just eerie it was also wet! I put Ben on the lead and walked warily over the cobblestones further into a fairyland under the hill. Not a place for the claustrophobic – although you can always see the light at both ends – and we had to flatten ourselves against the wall to let a couple of cyclists past. But, if you manage to miss the narrow streams of falling water, when your eyes adjust, it’s rather lovely.

Outside again and the warmth of the air and blue skies were a pleasant surprise. After all, this was Scotland, in September! (If there’s an R in the month, it tends to rain almost constantly; if there isn’t, it just rains a lot.) The Union canal, narrower than the Forth and Clyde, was popular with cheery narrowboaters, who (from their accents and amiable incomprehension of mine) hailed from Across the Pond and Down Under.

It is also full of beautiful old bridges (the newer ones are more functional than aesthetic) whose builders weren’t always happy with their financial lot, as a sign explained.

The milestones intrigued me and it was only further on that I worked out what the numbers referred to: we were 2 miles to the west of the beginning of the Union canal at the Falkirk Wheel; 29.5 miles from its Edinburgh end. There was also a sensible notice for cyclists (though the rude ones would be going too fast to read it):

Old stone is quite a feature of these canals and the next example was a weir with an overflow burn below, keeping the level of each reach (canal section from lock to lock) – and providing Ben with his favourite tipple: rainwater.

Further along, I spotted white deadnettle among the ferns, which look a little like snapdragons but the leaves sting! At the next bridge was a spray of rosehips.

And then, unexpectedly, a field of pinto ponies! And was that smoke from Grangemouth? Yes, then that must be the Forth, flowing majestically down from Stirling, under the Kincardine bridge towards Queensferry and the North Sea. And the lovely Kingdom of Fife, the setting for my latest Bruno Benedetti Mystery – which I must get finished! And another lovely bridge.

Some Ben action shots now: (if you flick through them quick you can see him jumping around happily):

Purple clover hiding in the grass, a stark star of cow parsley and the delicate violet-coloured flowers and large , typical geranium leaves of wood crane’s-bill.

On to Polmont where there was a nice long quay with mooring rings and a shut-up narrowboat snugly tied up, with another one chugging along.

The town is famous for its prison for young offenders but, before that, the ambiguous legacy of Alfred Nobel. Not exactly peaceful!

In prison or out, life goes on, and so did the path. With Ben irrigating the vegetation and another narrowboat approaching. I spied a great big clump of yellow vetch and took a close-up.

A welcome rest! I sat on the milestone while Ben had his lunch then, in solidarity with our Greta, went on strike. Right in the middle of the path. I persuaded him to sprawl on the grass just before a cyclist happened by.

I had been dawdling. I knew it. I’d stopped so often to get my phone out of my backpack to take photos that I finally gave up the pretence of being technology-free. And I’d just ambled along chatting to everyone, who chatted back. It was that kind of day. But, when I saw this sign, I realised that I really should get a move on. Later on I worked out that, at this point, it had taken us 2.5 hours to walk a total of 2 miles! It really didn’t help that Ben occasionally walked back the way we’d come.

But there were quiet meadows to contemplate, lovely old stone bridges and sheep lying down in shady pasture.

I didn’t notice this sinister thing lurking in the murky waters when I took what I thought was a poetic shot of riverbed reeds. Bicycle inner tube? Freshwater eel? A very lanky pike? Then I spotted this keystane and thought of Burns’ immortal line about midnight’s black arch.

On the other bank, a herd of bulls and one on his own. I turned veggie at the age of eight and vegan a few years ago. Since seeing sheep carcases hanging on the walls of a slaughterhouse, I’ve avoided farmed animals. I watched The Animals’ Film with my brother decades ago (it turned him veggie, again) but I don’t watch all the shocking footage that’s so widespread these days. I know what goes on. When I lived on a small Hebridean isle, the only beings I didn’t connect with were the cattle and sheep. I knew their fate. I didn’t want to get to know them.

bullsBut recently I’ve been following some animal sanctuaries on Instagram. The pigs that have names and get butternut squash and bellyrubs are the same of sentient  species, more intelligent than dogs, who are imprisoned in cages as piglet-making machines, who scream in terror before being clubbed or shot or knifed or skewered or gassed to death. Male chicks, considered as non-profitable processes in the egg industry, are suffocated or mechanically shredded – human hands pick them out on purpose and set them on that conveyor belt. Cows cry at what awaits them, as the deception of the kindly farmer finally hits home.

bull

So I was glad that these ones were out in the field in the sun. And I was sad that human greed, for milk and meat (ignoring the effect of both on the body and the planet) meant their early and terrifying death.

But then there was the sun reflected on the water. Which must have meant something. And the path went on – and here’s a bicycle! Okay it’s got no brakes and the back tire needs pumped up, at least, but it’s free and yours for the taking!

The picnic place beside the canal basin looked nice and, before another lovely bridge, a sign that we were nearing…ah but you’ll have to wait and see!

And then a ford and, past a wee narrowboat shimmering in the sun, and an ivy-covered tree in a lovely wood, there was…

Well you’ll have to wait because, at this point, Ben bolted ahead – straight for what appeared to be a very small sausage dog on a lead which was promptly hoisted to shoulder height by his owner (clearly used to this) and turned out to be a ferret! I apologised and the unsuccessful (and unrepentant) murderer went back on his lead.

The Avon Aqueduct! (And we’ve come a whole 3 miles since that last sign – which is 5.5 altogether. In three hours. Oh well.)

It was beautiful. I’m sure Hugh Baird was proud of his creation. I really got the sense of crossing over towards the east coast. The canal continued and Ben seemed happy to, and there were lots of pretty flowers along the way.

This may be water mint and that’s bullrush – but the tower is definitely not the Wallace Monument. I think the sun was getting to me when I came to that conclusion and forgot my Central Scottish geography.

A wee burn below the canal, a milestone to show how brave we were (seven miles – fancy!) and some splendid huts that may or may not have been for boaters.

I fell in love with Linlithgow. What’s over that bridge? Look at those cute canalside cottages! What a lovely spire! What is it? (St Michael’s Church, with the Palace behind it – or St Michael’s Kirk, wi thi Palace ahint it, in the vernacular.)

Journey’s end was the sight of these lovely old canalboats, including a workboat tipped a bit astern as the ballast would be heavier forrard, and a teashop.

Well I know what’s my first stop for the next stage: Linlithgow to Ratho. But that, as they say, is another story. My last photo: a lovely veranda and Linlithgow Loch behind.

lovely veranda

[All photos (descriptions more accurate than titles) are copyright the author and may be used with a link to this post.]

 

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ID, Memory and Me

It was a painful time and a shameful time, and many who lived through it would rather just forget. If you are younger than 30, or even 40, you may never have heard of it. Many will speak about it only in general terms, talking about friends, or family, never themselves. The wounds of that time still smart. Some families, some marriages, some friendships, never recovered. People killed themselves in shame, spiralled into addiction, moved away and broke all ties, or just shut down emotionally and traded life for existence.

That’s not what was supposed to happen. The therapists, and all those who wrote books and recorded cassette tapes (remember them?) and spoke at conferences, they all found fortune and a few found fame. They promised a panacea, an all-healing explanation for everything in your life that you didn’t like. Or that you did like.

The Recovered Memory Movement, as it came to be known, implied, forcefully, that:

  • If you were fat
  • If you were thin
  • If you were promiscuous
  • If you were frigid
  • If you drank
  • If you did drugs
  • If you abstained
  • If you had nightmares
  • If you had daydreams
  • If you were musical
  • If you were artistic
  • If you were organised
  • If you were chaotic
  • If you were human
  • If you were inhuman

You had, most likely, been sexually or emotionally abused as a child. Probably both.

The RMM depended on a specific, post-structural reading of the work of Sigmund Freud. Which – given that his work is the basis for post-structuralism (reading against the grain, turning things on their head) – is quite specific. And psychologically unfounded. Therapists, belatedly – after about a decade of accepting fees to encourage mostly young people, mostly female, to rehash memories they’d read in books and heard on tapes, mostly – admitted that they were now more ‘cautious’ or even ‘wary’ of diagnosing someone as an Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual or Emotional Abuse; but they didn’t follow up that admission with an offer to repay any fees. People were generally too ashamed, or broken, to sue them.

Need I say that some children are indeed abused and there is no doubt of the trauma that causes? I hope not. Would that it were not so, but it is. That is not my topic here.

Rather, I want to highlight the effect on the collective psyche, the, mostly, White, western, middle-class, post-industrial, liberal psyche of widespread shame, rage and moral panic from the late 80’s to the late 90’s.

This was the time when disillusion with monetarism, and even with capitalism, was general on the Left. Reagan and Thatcher had fallen, Bill Clinton followed George Bush the elder and John Major was hardly charismatic. Ecology and demilitarisation (especially after the first Gulf War protests) could have had a chance. We could have taken action then to avoid the ecological crisis we’re in now.

But, apart from demonstrations, the 90’s was the beginning of political apathy for young people especially. The numbers of non-voters rose massively: researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, looking at voter data from 31 European countries from 1918-2016, “found that from around 1990, non-voters made up the single biggest block”. Other reports confirm this as a global phenomenon among (comparatively) well-off Millennials.

The RMM spread a gospel of interiority and selfishness. Being a ‘caretaker’ (caring about someone else) was one of the worst things you could do. A better use of energy was to devote it all to ‘me time’. This was also the period of the rise of co-dependency, an addictive add-on with a definition that became so vague it eventually just meant ‘wrong’. Anyone who was anyone who was politically (which meant personally) sensitive during that time was either realising that they been abused or was supporting a survivor. Usually both. Which was caring and caretaking and co-dependent and therefore wrong.

The holy book was The Courage to Heal and the sacred mantra was: “I’m not crazy and I’m not making this up!”

Many of us who were in our twenties in the 90’s are now in our 50’s, many of us have raised children, especially girls, to believe in ‘me time’ and not listening to friends or family who don’t believe in ‘my truth’ and that ‘what I feel is my truth’.

Does this sound familiar? Did you think the trans phenomenon came out of nowhere? Now, of course, kids don’t depend on books (what are they?) or cassette tapes (museum much?) for social contagion. They don’t depend on their parents or elders for support and advice either. One generation has taught the following to be wary of older people, especially men, but also of women who are complicit in their machinations – enablers.

So we have an entire generation across the comparatively rich world of independent, vulnerable, inexperienced young people, mostly girls, brought up to focus on themselves, to see themselves as victims, to embrace an ideology that explains why they feel socially awkward or depressed or angry or embarrassed about their bodies.

It’s a club. Non-members are not invited. Girls are going to take over the world. Even if they have to stop being girls to do it. And boys are slipping into the gaps they leave behind. Anyone who doubts must be barred or cast out. They’re not crazy and they’re not making it up. That’s their truth.

That’s their pain. That’s what they’ll have to live with, and regret, for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, our planet home is dying. Because our selfishness and self-obsession is killing it. Think of all the people who could make a difference – if we could just stop tearing each other apart over identity politics.

The personal may be political but, right now, the politics that counts is planetary. It’s time to forget me time and devote ourselves to Earth time. While we still can.

I’m not crazy and I’m not making this up.

unicorn-beach-swimming-ring

Thanks to Video Girl for releasing ‘Unicorn Beach Swimming Ring’ into the Public Domain.

The Silence of the Men

My most popular tweets usually get a handful of likes or retweets; the one I posted on the evening of Friday 13th this month got almost a thousand and my followers are nearing that figure (from 770). Women from New Zealand/ Aotearoa to New York expressed their appreciation. So why was what I said spread so far and wide?

“If anyone at any university in Glasgow is being bullied – for refusing to push reactionary gender stereotypes, refusing to silence women’s concerns over physical safety, or simply for insisting that Equality Impact Assessment is carried out *as provided for* in law – contact me.”

A few years ago, okay maybe about ten, the reaction from women might have been along the lines of “cheers mate but why would women need male support to combat gender stereotypes or ensure safety or enforce the law on a university campus in Scotland?” Some might, quite rightly, have been a bit more vocal about male presumption, implied aspersion of female agency or ignorance of robust anti-bullying regulations at UK institutions of higher education.

Not one woman said anything of the kind. I rather wish they had. Because that would mean that the reported imposition of gender ideology, the intimidation of academic women, the mobbing of any woman who even intimates that there may be a debate about gender self-identity and its implications for female safety, isn’t actually happening.

But it is. Massively. On campus.

As for me, the only not-entirely positive reaction I’ve had this weekend is a couple of supportive but confused guys (who apologised) and a couple of good caveats from women. One guy said that 99% of men were supportive of what I said.

So my question is: where are all these men?

I think men aren’t speaking up on this issue for a variety of reasons:

  • They’re confused by the language of the debate
  • They think it’s a ‘gay [LGBT+] thing’
  • They think it’s a women’s issue
  • They’re rightwing
  • They’re leftwing
  • They’re apolitical
  • They don’t see what the problem is
  • It’s not on their radar
  • They don’t want to look ignorant
  • They don’t want to look closed-minded

Of course, these 10 reasons may not be the biggies. Maybe men just can’t be bothered to speak up. Or are afraid. But let’s address them anyway:

  • ‘Transgender’ = ‘transsexual’ and/ or ‘transvestite’, basically; ‘transactivist’ means someone pushing for gender self-ID (that means unquestioned male access to female safe space – such as women’s shelters, showers, bedrooms, prison cells); ‘gender-critical’/ ‘gender abolitionist’ means refusing to accept a return to 1950’s White Western stereotypes of male and female – because the whole concept of social ‘gender’, as distinct to biological ‘sex’, is built on them which is why wee boys who wear pink and wee girls who play football are being manipulated into believing that they really are the opposite gender.
  • It was. Now it’s at a Primary school near you and your son or daughter could be next from mutilating surgery that will leave them sterile and scarred for life – along with perhaps an addiction to plastic surgery and a whole range of other medical disorders. And, no, it won’t make them any less depressed or suicidal.
  • See above.
  • Some people who resist transgenderism also resist sex-selective abortion and/or ableist abortion (and some any abortion not life-saving for the mother); some resist the sexualisation of children; some any definition of children’s sexuality; some also support religious freedom – none of this means they can’t support women’s safe space.
  • Conversely, some who are gender-critical are actively pro-choice and espouse a variety of opinions regarding sex-work, fetish freedom and the evils of religious ideology – none of this means they can’t support women’s safe space.
  • The personal is the political.
  • See 2)
  • It should be!
  • Understandable, but, as it does concern them, they should at least learn the basics.
  • Again, understandable. Men supporting female safe space can be condemned as rightwing bigots or leftwing traitors.

In summary: women need our help, guys. They shouldn’t, but they do. They are being physically threatened, trolled online, stalked along streets, intimidated at their places of work – all for trying to protect the most vulnerable women as well as impressionable children. No-one is ‘anti-trans’. If adult men or women want to cross-dress or undergo surgery to alter their primary or secondary sexual characteristics, as long as that’s not the only option for them (as it is in repressive regimes for lesbians and gay men) then fine. Whether that should be on the NHS is another question.

What shouldn’t be a question is the safety and support of all vulnerable people. How we do that, fairly and safely, is very much up for debate. Men, please speak up for women whose voices are being silenced.

     cover-image

Image: front cover of Kindle version of I Like Being ME!

 

 

 

Below the waterline

Having replaced the broken forward transom (bow) of my Mirror dinghy, I now had to deal with the peeling paint, rotten wood and delaminated plywood below the Plimsoll line. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Inching the boat off the trailer was fun – involving two large trailer straps with hooks and ratchets, an empty oil barrel and a conveniently-placed ring on the side of a concrete shed. I could have asked for help but I’m a bit impatient. (Which is what led to all the damage to the bow and the hull in the first place!)

Boat on a barrel
Boat on a barrel with lifting straps

Boat lowered onto the grass and turned over onto planks, I could survey the hull. The sensible long-term solution was to replace the damaged plywood but (as it isn’t part of the hull per se but rather supports running parallel to the keel which seemed principally to bear the load of resting on the trailer, and as I really wanted to get the boat out while there was still some good weather) I decided to remove what I had to and epoxy the rest.

And so it began. Removing the peeling paint was easy enough. It just peeled off. Unfortunately the same was true for much of the first two layers of plywood. Faced with not enough support if I kept removing layers, I decided to only take off what was rotten and stick the rest down. That, at least, was the plan.

Paying attention to what lay beneath the paintwork, I discovered some other areas of the hull (along the keel and mostly on either side of the centreboard slot) that needed attention.

Rotten wood had to be scraped out with a wire brush, and flaking paint and epoxy removed between the keel and its metal strip protector.

Fortunately this repair coincided with a fortnight of fabulous weather, so I could be confident that the exposed wood really dried out. That, however, was the limit of my confidence. If I did all this and the boat didn’t float, Plan B was to sell it, with full disclosure. To cheer myself up, after replacing the bow, I’d decided to put a fresh coat of Bondi Blue topcoat on the topsides and finally affix the name of the boat: Harmony. Henceforth ‘it’ would be known as ‘she’.

Below the waterline, the forward hull wood and paintwork was undamaged but looked more cheerful with another coat and gave me something to do while other places were drying out.

That done and dried, I started sanding the mid and aft hull, especially where the wood was newly exposed.

Finally satisfied that the surfaces were ready, I prepared to apply the marine epoxy and glasscloth as I’d done for the forward transom and gunwales.

This stuff I’d bought from Trident UK and (unlike the Galeforce 1:1 ratio) it needed 1:5 hardener to epoxy so this time I did use the calibrated syringes. I also donned my protective goggles and pulled my neck warmer up over my nose.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the various applications of fibreglass cloth and epoxy but I soon realised that I’d need to get more if I wanted the plywood surface more even.

A mate sold me some polyester resin (with hardener) to save me the trip to the chandler’s – and I soon discovered that everything they say about the fumes from this stuff being noxious is true! And much more than epoxy. Even outside, with a breeze blowing and looking like a Martian, it was making my head spin. So the advice to use a particle mask or respirator – even when just sanding the stuff down – is sound.

As before, the sticky strands of glasscloth drove me crazy when I was trying to get the cloth to stay in place.

Polyester 3
Strands of glasscloth fraying on plywood

You really need to pay attention to the amount of hardener (1-2% only!) and mix mix mix before you apply it – otherwise, as I found out, the 20-30 minute application window shrinks to 5-10! So it was all very tedious but eventually the hull stopped looking like the surface of the moon as layer after layer of cloth and resin approximated the levels of the surface of the hull planks and protective plywood.

It didn’t help that one fine day I was sanding down the surfaces (which I did between each application) and managed to get some hardened resin dust in my eye. That served me right for thinking I could get away with not wearing goggles and put me out of the game for a few days with a painful swollen eye – which I had to bathe every few hours.

Robert M. Pirsig, the “engineer’s philosopher” who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, warns against trying to fix a machine when you’re in a bad mood (cos all you’ll do is damage). A wooden boat, nowadays, maybe doesn’t strike most people as mechanical but it floats because of the physics of opposing forces and I think that’s sound advice. So, even though the sun shone, I resisted the urge to just get it done and instead did some jobs around the house I’d been putting off.

Recovered and refreshed, I did one last lot of sanding down the globs of resin that spattered the hull – despite my best efforts – then wiped down the whole upturned boat with a wet cloth, then a dry one, then wiped the resin with white spirit (to ‘take the bloom off’) dried that and started to paint.

The undercoat covered a multitude of sins, I knew, and I really should have applied another coat, and maybe primer (though I wasn’t sure of the order) but there was either a previous layer of paint or of resin underneath and with midsummer approaching I really wanted this boat on the water. So the Rustic Red went on (and ran over the Bondi Blue in places and had to be sanded off).

Not the prettiest paintjob but Harmony, after weeks out of the water, was finally ready for the big moment: would she float?

And, with the help of a good strong mate, I soon found out. YES!

 

 

Trans of the City

Of course I cried at the end of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a limited series just released on Netflix based on those books of that author. The showrunner Lauren Morelli “cultivated an all-queer writers room”, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And it shows. Out of the eight main characters, three are trans – or are portrayed as such. (But no plot spoilers!)

I’d reread the books, again, after a year spent around San Francisco and Sinaloa (across the water from Baja California). I was living in community in an area of multiple deprivation in Edinburgh, working in a nursing home. I found the former more challenging than the latter and the series was a form of solace. I’d read them in the bath, by candlelight, with incense and essential oils, switching off from my unhygienic passive-aggressive alcoholic flatmate, my actively-aggressive neighbours, and whatever craziness was happening on the racist and drug-ridden housing estate.

Some years later I felt I understood the main character more when I dated a guy who introduced himself as “a female-to-male transsexual”. (Even though Anna’s transition was the reverse.) No-one prompted me with pronouns, in those days, but my guy was ‘he’ to me and that was fine. I’m a bisexual man; nothing about him threatened or repulsed me. We were great in bed; it was just all the other times when his insecurity, selfishness and obsessive personality were so trying.

But, like the Netflix series, we’re all limited – and I’m certainly no saint. The limitations of the series are obvious when you expand the view to the minor characters (especially including the 1960’s vignette). Most of them are under the trans umbrella. Let’s remember that the books were written by a gay man – so he, like me, is not.

It’s no news that trans is the new gay. And, to give the all-queer writers their due, there is some portrayal of the tensions between young intersectional queers and the older White queens; and between individuals who transition and their partners who have a new identity thrust upon them – one that includes them. I wonder how much input Armistead, who “also spent time with the writers”, had.

Director Alan Poul says:

“There were lots of different voices with a lot of different opinions so it was a very vigorous room but[,] at the same time, nobody had to explain queer 101 to other people in the room.”

I welcome this series, despite its limitations. The character of Anna Madrigal (wonderfully portrayed both by Olympia Dukakis and Jen Richards, in her earlier incarnation) may believe in magic and utter the occasional spiritual insight but her appeal is always in her compassionate humanity.

So it’s a pity that, in this very politically correct series, the issues of coercion and ideological purity aren’t addressed. “I know I’m not supposed to feel this but…” says Margo, the partner of Jake, who transitioned and who censors her speech when she says, “I miss when we were lesbians”. And the only mention of the issue of safe female space, based on sex not gender, is a clear invitation to laugh at the dumpy older lady being sarcastic about having to share an open plan unisex bathroom with 15 other people in the intentional living community that Michael is (not) considering joining.

There’s a lack of honesty here. Something that this all-queer writers room didn’t address. And that’s a shame because so many of us, in what could be termed the queer community, have been moved to tears by these books – and also moved to contemplation of ourselves, our lives and our civil situation – and so moved to action.

These are my fears for the future:

  • That we continue to divide into intolerant camps policed by an unordained and unelected priesthood of ideological purists
  • That we refuse to consider each ethical issue separately and continue to lump them all together in an all-or-nothing party politics of right or left
  • That we are so unrestrained in our virulence towards each other that we ignore the backlash that our enmity must certainly cause, as every action provokes a reaction

Here are my hopes:

  • That we each take responsibility for our words and actions, and their lack, and the effect they have on others
  • That we learn to value the truth that someone else expresses, even if it conflicts with our own
  • That we hold each other in a gaze of compassion

Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Olivia de Havilland, in the memorable TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, said these words:

“Feuds are not about hate, it’s never about hate; feuds are about pain.”

I find I’m a better human when I allow myself to feel my pain, when I’m conscious that I’m not the only one in pain, that it’s an inevitable part of the human condition. Every single character, in all incarnations of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, is in pain. The best ones, in their best moments, temper that pain and even heal some of it when they remember that and reach out in recognition – rather than in rage. Or simply respect that someone else’s pain may be, despite our best intentions, unfathomable.

Armistead and Christopher at the wedding

Photo of Armistead and partner Christopher in cameo shot from Gay Times

When the bow broke

It was all going swimmingly. I’d shipped the oars and the Ship’s Dog and I were floating along the Forth and Clyde canal, watching the reflections ripple across the old stone bank and listening to the birdsong.

Bow and canal
Bow and canal

(Actually the Ship’s Dog was too busy lazing in the stern of my Mirror dinghy to bother about the banks or the birds.)

Ben astern
Ben astern

And then, disaster struck!

Bow broken
Bow broken

I did know that the forward transom (as the rounded triangle at the end of the bow is called) had a line of fracture running along parallel to the deck and up to the top rail. When I’d bought the boat, I’d seen it had been repaired at some point and a mate had just filled in the cracks with some epoxy (very strong glue) and we’d hoped for the best. I remember him saying something about having either some resin or some hardener left over, and me being surprised – as it said to mix them equally on the tin.

Now, the original fracture, resulting rotten wood, the weakness of the epoxy mix (maybe on both occasions) and my impatient hauling on the bow rope to drag the boat onto the trailer (which doubles as a launching trolley) instead of positioning it correctly in the water so it would just float on – all combined disastrously and the bow broke.

I was not happy. Would I have to sell my beloved wee boat, Harmony, after only a few months of ownership – and most of them over the winter? I couldn’t afford a professional, so I emailed a Glasgow charity that specialises in boatbuilding but they failed to reply. I could have phoned them but, at that point, I was getting over the initial shock and decided to take up the challenge myself.

Onto the Trident UK website, where I purchased a forward transom kit.

New forward transom & bow heart
New forward transom and bow heart

Before doing anything, I had to remove the old forward transom. I’d toyed with the idea of leaving the sound bottom part in, but I knew the join had to be sturdy so that the top part didn’t rip off again. Especially, with the mast and sails up, in a strong wind in the middle of Loch Lomond! So, out with the old and in with the new. (I didn’t like the look of the hull, once the old fibreglass sealing tape had come off the inside.)

I’d only be using glass tape from the outside – as I wouldn’t have access inside without removing the deck and I didn’t want to go that far. I hoped the new seal would be watertight! First I had to fit the new bow heart (the darker, thicker small spearhead of wood) to the new forward transom (‘the transom’ usually means the more rectangular one at the stern, not this roughly triangular one at the bow). Then, see how the new forward transom would fit. (The photos are out of proportion but they show the same pieces of wood.)

Now to refit the ring fasteners for the bow rope and the forestay (the front cable that holds up the mast).

Outside of new transom with fittings
Outside of new transom with fittings

Next I had to fit the new top rail. That involved removing all the old copper ‘stitches’ so the new wood could fit. And also removing the rotten wood at both bow ends of the gunwales (the long, narrow, curved pieces of wood running around the top edge of the hull.

Removing the old fibreglass tape uncovered the irregularities of the join. Here’s the starboard side of the hull, with the new forward transom nailed onto the wood running under the deck (perhaps not advisable, as it introduces a breach and the nail can rust, but I’d no other option).

Close up of space between transom and starboard hull
Close up of space between transom and starboard hull

Then the sanding began! Port and starboard sides of the hull, and the bottom. Not forgetting the inside, on and above the deck. This took forever. And the metal tip at the hull bottom broke off.

The insides, above the deck, needed sanded too. Forever, and a day.

Sanded deck
Sanded deck

The rot in both gunwales, hidden under the old epoxy and paint, was more extensive than I’d thought.

Extensive rot on starboard gunwale
Extensive rot on starboard gunwale

I was tempted to ignore it but it would cost more effort eventually and I didn’t want to end up having to replace the gunwales entirely. So out it all had to come – including the nails that had gone through the damaged upper edges of the hull (that metal clip was useless). And all that needed sanding too.

So now it was time for the epoxy. I used the West System.

West system
West system of marine epoxy, brushes, syringes and glasstape on deck

I didn’t use the syringes with these 1:1 tubs of resin and hardener from Gaelforce, or the brushes, because the mix was as thick as peanut butter. I also didn’t need the clamps to keep the inner and outer gunwales together, as replacing the only screw almost at the end, with a slightly longer one, did the trick. I filled the gap with epoxy and strips of glasscloth then more epoxy. Then I had to face doing the same thing, but now further down. Where it would have to cover up a multitude of sins – and, below the waterline, make the difference between being watertight and springing a leak!

The glasscloth was sticky (I troweled the epoxy onto the wood first) and the single strands of the weave got everywhere. Finally, the first process was complete but would need another application to fill in the gaps.

So then came the next coats, using a 1:5 mix (which the syringes came in handy for) from Trident of 105 (resin) and 205 (hardener) epoxy – with some 403 microfibre white filler powder to add to the mix to get it to a thicker consistency. I also filled in the gap between the bow heart and top rail, and coated the nails.

Port and starboard sides, after a lot of sanding, were now looking much better.

Time for the undercoat, with white Pre-Kote International.

At this point, I was beginning to feel hopeful again. It looked good. Would it be watertight? I painted on, with blue Toplac International.

Finally, with all the topsides done, my (fairly bad) paint job was complete!

Would she float? Before I find that out, I need to sort out the warped planking and flaked-off paint underneath the hull. Till next time!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Having played one of two or three men dressed in rags chained to the floor for two hours, I know what it’s like to have a lot of lines and few props. Lewis Baird and Abbie McIntosh, bringing life to the lead characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, have a lot of lines with not a lot of sense (in the absurdist tragicomedy at the Turret Theatre this week) so their challenge is even greater. Fortunately they not only have a great memory for them but also the charming youthful bewilderment that aids their delivery in this terribly bewildering play.

My theatre companions loved it but I personally don’t like absurdist drama. I like a play with meaning and I resist the kind of meaningless repetition in Tom Stoppard’s script because I find it excruciating. It makes me feel like all the times I’ve waited for annoying boyfriends to change their annoying behaviour (spoiler alert: they never do) or all the times I’ve cared for people with dementia and had the same conversation over and over again. I just can’t stand it.

And neither can Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (interchangeable in this play). And maybe that’s the point. So I knew what I was letting myself in for; and while I can’t say that I was really into it, I also can’t say that I didn’t get something out of it. But what that is, is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that The Player, Hilary Lynas, as always, shone. And her poor Players, Adam Cooper, Chris Dunn and Patricia Leeson, adapted themselves (indeed contorted themselves) into their sundry situations hilariously.

Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius (Robert Benison, Elaine Martin and Jillian Vincent, respectively) have a difficult role in that their characters lack the comic appeal of the above-mentioned actors and yet must not eclipse the aloof gravity of Hamlet (played magnificently by Andrew Henderson). Theirs is the dialogue that should make most sense but, presented piecemeal, sounds most ridiculous. They all walked this theatrical tightrope very well.

A good stage manager’s work is not only never done but also invisible and such was the case with Gillian Monroe’s, ably co-ordinated with her sound and lighting colleagues, Robbie Soutar (kudos for the unexpected selection) Michael Hand and Ian Atherton. The set, basically a black diorama curtain, was suitably minimal but I did like the chessboard floortiling – foregrounding that it’s all a game (with apparently no rules) as Sheila Todd’s semi-adjustable costuming showed that, dressed in rags or riches, the play’s the thing.

Even if it really doesn’t make any sense.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the Turret Theatre, Kirkintilloch, runs till Saturday 4th May 2019. Tickets: http://www.kirkintillochplayers.co.uk/tickets/

Writing the Uncanny

I saw a ghost, once. A friend in Edinburgh wants me to tell him all about it, but I’m not sure I can. The last time I tried that, talking to other friends in an arty professional flat in Stockbridge, and forgetting to psychologise the psychic, a big black cat jumped through the window and scared the living daylights out of them. I’d presumed the cat was theirs – and I’d forgotten that White British rationalist urbanites don’t believe in ghosts. At least not officially.

I’m White too and, though I prefer more rural locations, I’ve also lived in cities. But I’m allowed to believe in the spectral side of life for two reasons: I’m religious and I’m a writer. The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries make some mention of both monotheist and polytheist faiths and of Buddhism – which, arguably, is neither. But, as well as the relationships and adventures of a group of friends, they mostly dwell on the uncanny.

It’s a difficult subject to write about without being constrained by genre expectations: if you write about vaguely angelic inspiration, it’s Inspirational; if the focus is on getting what you deserve from The Universe, it’s New Age; if evil spirits are involved it’s either Evangelical Christian or Occult (some would say they’re the same thing); if it’s girlpower with candles and pentacles, it’s Wicca; fairies, it’s Folklore; dragons is Fantasy; and teen wizardry is (now) a knock-off of a certain very successful series of books and films.

Andre Norton, usually classified as a Science Fiction & Fantasy writer, has a character with the gift of Unasked Sight. My grandmother’s first language was Scottish Gaelic and I grew up familiar with this kind of (Second) Sight that is a well-known and rarely-mentioned phenomenon in the Gàidhealtach, even in its lowland diaspora. The immediacy, urgency and evidential impossibility of this gift make it a good topic for a storyteller and it continually disrupts the otherwise ordered existence of my protagonist.

But I didn’t want to transport Bruno to another realm. I wasn’t interested in my characters going through some portal (a wardrobe or a wall in a train station) from a presumed central location of unproblematic normality (such as the English shires surrounding London, or the city itself) or inhabiting a place in a parallel universe (such as another Oxford or alternative Southern California) where vampires and werewolves and witches exist among us – unseen by those without the power or the courage to discern their existence.

I’m interested in the uncanny as experienced, today, in Scotland. Rarely-mentioned and well-known. With this, reserved, attitude, the Scottish culture of the uncanny occupies a middle place between the cool Anglo-Saxon scepticism of the English (so, no, I don’t include the Cornish, the Cumbrian or the Manx) and the entertaining self-conscious blarney of the Irish.

Narration in the first person is the literary equivalent of the hand-held camera. There are no panoramic establishing shots, instant cuts to another simultaneous location or smooth travelling transitions but, as well as the already-limited point-of-view of the protagonist, writing (almost exclusively) this way enables me to use the altered perspectives of anxiety, dream, drugs, drunkenness, euphoria, hypnosis, memory, sadness, tiredness, trance and vision. So there are already many explanations of the phenomena experienced by the characters. I feel it’s important not to force the reader into accepting a particular one.

This last point, I will admit, I got from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Always give them the ‘gas leak’ explanation. Otherwise they may either feel manipulated – or simply assume that, whatever world you’re writing about, it isn’t this one. So, when I write about the vibes or astrology or tarot, this form of non-local perception or mnemonic sequencing can be interpreted as coincidence, or an individual’s free-floating anxiety; telekinesis or spectral/ elemental phenomena witnessed by more than one person can similarly be dismissed as mass hysteria – if enough pressure is on the group at that time.

Even if such explanations are too far-fetched, the indulgent rationalist, if suitably entertained rather than preached at, will read the uncanny as magical realism – transported from its presumed home in steamy Latin America (even though the maestra of this genre, Isabel Allende, has written many of her novels while living in the USA) to rainy Scotland. Reading the adventures of Bruno and his friends might not result in seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden (especially if it’s raining) but it might make the reader wonder whether there are more things in heaven and earth than have ever entered into their rationalist religion or philosophy.

Tricks of the Mind, by Alan Ahrens-McManus, is free on Smashwords (where the whole series is available in various eBook formats) and – like The Lovers, Shades of the Sun, Qismet, Tìr nam Bàn and Transits of Terror – is also in print and Kindle on Amazon and other online retailers.  The Marrying Maiden, seventh in the series, should be out in September.

Pixie hat

Photo, Pixie hat in garden, ©Alan McManus, 2019. Use permitted with link to this post.  

 

‘Sister Act’ at Cumbernauld Theatre

Catherine MacKenzie gave us a wonderfully brassy brunette Deloris Van Cartier in Cumbernauld Musical Theatre’s production of Sister Act this week; she sashayed about the stage and belted out those numbers like a pro. So Julie Cassells had a challenge in playing Mother Superior: too strict and she’d lose the sympathy of the audience; too laid-back and she’d lose her authority over the nuns. It was a challenge she rose to admirably and her compassion, her fear and her vulnerability came through especially as she sung her moving confession: I Haven’t got a Prayer.

‘But to sing is to pray twice’, as St Augustine of Hippo reminds us, and from the moment Iain Fraser the Front of House Manager (presumably) asked us to turn off our mobile phones and added “can I have an AMEN?” we were all down with Jesus – and up on our feet to give a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

Indeed the singing was wonderful (slightly muffled sometimes by the volume of the music in the first half, it’s true) with the very well-cast holy trio of Srs M. Robert, Patrick & Lazarus (Christine Duncan, Amanda Letarte & Marie Jo McCrossan) in hilarious character counterpoint.

The unholy trio of crooks, Joey, TJ & Pablo (Alan Brown, Christopher Costello & Gerard Kane) had us in stitches with their ‘what women want’ scene as they each in turn tried out the effect of their varied manly attractions on the audience in the fond hope of seducing the Sisters.

Special commendation to Gerard Kane for his word-perfect Spanish which he confessed afterwards he didn’t speak before rehearsals and basically just took at run at it. Similarly to the Sisters for their chanted and sung Latin. My Mum can remember the Latin Mass and we didn’t hear a wrong word.

Yes, on the Catholic side, there were the usual tiny costume errors. Only dedicated followers of Madonna hang rosaries round their necks rather than from their belts (and not from the end of the cord, which should have three knots in it, either) and the priest’s garment over his soutane was more Southern Baptist choir than RC cotta or chasuble. However Jan Letarte’s concept of the colourful cascading scapula for the Sisters was inspired and I liked the kitten heels too – apparently plain black shoes but with that little bit of sass for dancing in.

David Campbell’s Curtis Jackson (erstwhile beau of Dolores) was nicely nasty (and has a great voice) and Andrew Davidson’s Monsignor O’Hara played up the pragmatic priest even more than in the movie – which in these days of failing parishes is very topical – and added more complications to the peace of the convent than those brought by Dolores at the insistence of Lt. Eddie Souther. Keiran Butler brought his handsome burly charm to this part, which was expected from the movie, what took me by surprise was the poignant scene of hopeless homeless people shuffle-dancing around him as he was painfully aware of his inadequacy to help them all.

But help there was aplenty in this production and all the supporting parts did their bit very well indeed – and evidently enjoyed it!

Full marks to Producer Fraser Morrison, Musical Director Ian Monteith-Mathie and Choreographer Amanda Letarte (also onstage) also to the orchestra, and Stage Crew under Frank Kerr. I especially noted the elegance of the Sisters simply processing on and off with benches, and the communal table being left to our imagination. Other points I admired were Kieran Fitzpatrick’s timing of the radio (on and off several times) to the split-second, and Chris Combe’s evocative use of lighting when Dolores is pulled between the siren voices of the goodtime girls and the nun’s chorus. At one point her face turns green (okay I did think of Wicked momentarily) but it made me wonder about envy and the pursuit of happiness.

Last but not least, Front of House staff! My mother is ages with the Queen and I was touched by the kind consideration of the ushers, and being able to pre-order interval drinks was really helpful too. Thank-you Cumbernauld Musical Theatre and thank-you Cumbernauld Theatre for a really enjoyable evening out!

Sister-Act-Brochure-Web-500-x-500

(Image from Cumbernauld Theatre website)

 

Parents, Protest and the Press

Those naughty Muslims have been at it again – not being nice – not like us Brits! Was basically the message (some of it subliminal) in the online and broadsheet reports about parents in Birmingham protesting outside a school where 98% of the pupils are Muslim and the assistant headmaster has implemented a controversial LGBT education programme. I chose the word ‘education’ because that’s what schools are supposed to be for. Some have called it an ‘inclusion programme’.

As usual with eye-catching headlines, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Firstly, the assistant headmaster. Billed as ‘a gay man’ (as if sexuality has anything to do with being a good teacher or manager) and therefore, in England, in 2019, supposedly deserving for that reason of our sympathy. Unlike the parents. They’re not gay, they’re just Muslim. You don’t get as many points for that in LGBT stories (unless you’re being supportive of inclusion programmes, in which case you get double). In this story, they don’t get any points at all. Not even for being parents. Especially not for being parents. Parents (that don’t support the programme) in this story, like Muslims, are bad. They get slammed by OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] says The Birmingham Post. Null points. Not nice! Just not British! (Actually almost everyone gets ‘slammed by OFSTED’ at some point, it seems, as I found when I looked up the story. I really don’t know what else they find time to do!)

Anyway, the assistant headmaster. Who had to leave his last school. Cos of the naughty Muslims. Christians. Parents. Whatever. Not with the programme. Bad people. Cos he was gay. Well, not cos he was gay. Cos he said he was gay. Openly. As opposed to closedly. Well, cos he said it was okay to be gay. Well, cos he pushed the programme. Or another programme. Similar. Along with some of his books. And others. Reports are confused.

Let’s look at some of those books, shall we? The ones in the programme. Lovely, aren’t they? Choice, rainbows, find who you really are, be who you want, yes you can! Dogs can do ballet too! Boys can be princesses. And you can start as young as you like! Nothing wrong with all that, is there?

Of course not. So what are the parents protesting about then? Let’s find out, from the two mothers of schoolkids who are interviewed. In an edited video Fatima Shah explains the protest and (from the same source) here’s Mariam Ahmed:

“Protester Mariam Ahmed, whose four-year-old daughter attends the school, has organised a petition against the No Outsiders project.

She said yesterday: ‘What they are teaching is not right, they are too young. There are nine parts of the Act and they only seem to be focusing on one, homosexuality, and that is wrong. They need to have an ethos which reflects the area.

‘It’s not just because we are Muslims, there are Christians here too. We don’t have a vendetta against homosexuals and we respect the Act. We respect that Mr Moffat is gay and we are happy for him to teach.’

She said she would consider taking her daughter out of school full-time if the lessons continued, claiming children were being affected ’emotionally and psychologically’.”

This report is from The Daily Mail. Not known for its support of Muslims! And if words were edited on the video, clearly to make the interviewee seem less sympathetic, they could also be in print. They may have referred to the signs parents are holding in the photos in the same report: “SAY NO TO SEXUALISING OUR CHILDREN”; “SAY NO TO DISCRIMINATING AGAINST OUR CHILDREN”; “SAY NO TO UNDERMINING PARENTAL RIGHTS & AUTHORITY”; “EDUCATION NOT INDOCTRINATION”; “LET KIDS BE KIDS”; “STOP EXPLOITING CHILDREN’S INNOCENCE”.

Let’s note that this mother correctly pointed out that the Equality Act 2010 covers 9 characteristics – whereas Alston Primary, also in Bimingham, using the No Outsiders programme (explicitly stating that Upper Key Stage 2 (9-11 year-olds) are given books on sexual and gender orientation) gets them wrong: the protected characteristic ‘sex’ is incorrectly listed as ‘gender’ and ‘race’ is listed without ‘colour, ethnicity or nationality’, ‘pregnancy and maternity’ isn’t mentioned and neither is ‘marriage or civil partnership’. So these Muslim mothers have a point.

Let’s just note that Andrew Moffat MBE is doing a Ph.D. ‘on the role of schools in countering terrorism’ and that the headteacher of this school has already reported 3 children to the police under the controversial Government Prevent Agenda that some feel is doing more to alienate British Muslims than prevent their radicalisation. In that vein, The Independent gets in a wee dig with a conspiracy theory about Muslim ‘practices’ (homosexuals used to have ‘practices’ too but this was upgraded to a ‘lifestyle’) maybe taking over schools in the area – but (sadly) Andrew Moffat MBE’s old school isn’t one of them and, presumably, neither is his new one. Oh well. Also, this whole thing is part of a DfE [Department for Education] scheme called ‘Promoting fundamental British values through SMSC [Spiritual, Moral, Social & Cultural development’. So, it’s not just about naughty religious people and a nice gay man, is it? There’s ideological conflict going on and No Outsiders is a powerful weapon: Government-backed propaganda.

To sum up: in the wake of a Government consultation in England and Wales on transgender self-ID that was better advertised than the really sneaky one that happened in Scotland (to which 51% of respondents weren’t from Scotland, some were from Switzerland and there were even some from Brazil – oh fortunate people!) the assistant head of a school in Birmingham overwhelmingly attended by children from one particular faith community failed entirely to consult with the parents or to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on the other seven protected characteristics apart from the two that he was really interested in. When parents complained about this, his response (with Government backing) was to spin his failure to protect (and be seen to protect) these other characteristics as upholding ‘Fundamental British values’. Meanwhile the press happily linked parents insisting on their kids being taught science, maths and English, to Islamic terrorism.

Here’s my thoughts:

There are already anti-bullying strategies in schools. Perhaps some need to be more specific.

It is not the place of the Government to teach ‘spiritual values’. Britain is fundamentally racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, unsupportive of women who wish to give birth, unsupportive of stable domestic partnerships, (neo)colonialist, unhealthy, pessimistic, cold-hearted, passive-aggressive, lazy, disorganised, unwashed, hypocritical and inhospitable. If you don’t know these things about Britain, travel. Or just speak to people from somewhere else. There are many things I love about the lands and the people currently designated as ‘Britain’ but I wouldn’t wish our ‘fundamental values’ on anyone.

Ironically, the cultural values of internationalism, religious tolerance, veneration of the old and protection of the young, especial provision for the orphan, the widow and the stranger, health and hygiene, open-hearted friendship and warm hospitality, diplomacy, hard work, order, reverence for scholars and teachers – as well as leading the world in legal recognition of post-operative gender reassignment and (historically) unofficial tolerance of discrete same-sex love – famously belong to countries and communities that are Muslim.

islamic-prayer-silhouette-female Thanks to Mohammed Mahmoud Hassan for releasing his image ‘Islamic, Prayer, Silhouette, Female’ into the public domain.