Monday 18 February 2008

Poem: Liz Lochhead's Lanark

Liz Lochhead likes to write poems about other poets. So I am doing the same to her - although mine are not quite as good!

Liz Lochhead's Lanark is lost.
Lost in the land that is lost
For our legends were lies.

Lost is the miner, the hardman, the tinker
as lost as Kier Hardie and metal refined;
lost the piss-takers, myth-makers, bin-rakers
as lost as the foundries and strength of the pound.
Lost are the carter, the weaver and Owen
Coatbridge is New Embra, lost in Brigadoon;
lost are the marchers, the fifers, the drummers
lost is this ghost band, re-treading old ground.

All gone.

Liz Lochhead's Lanark's not lost
in the generous smile of the aunties
Lanark lives on in Liz Lochhead
new stories carved by old mother Clyde.

Monday 11 February 2008

Dunfermline - the nearly town

The other week we had a day out in Dunfermline. It wasn't the best of weather - cold, windy, raw; a day for staying inside with the heating on and a cup of tea to hand. But there we were, so we looked around.

Dunfermline's centre has a few old, interesting buildings remaining, laid out on a medieaval street plan. The mercat cross; the abbot's house; Pittencrieff house; and of course the modest abbey and its outbuildings, where the body of Robert Bruce is buried. Then there are the Carneigie buildings - the library, the hall, the park, Carneigie's birthplace, and the contemporary town hall. And for me the highlight, as completely unknown - the vestigal remains of the castle, pre-Norman, pre-abbey, above a steep, impregnable bend of the Tower Burn, the dun-ferm-linn - the castle on the crooked waterfall.

Yet something didn't quite gel, perhaps because I could sense the potential. Perhaps the few remaining old buildings miss their contemporaries, burnt in the great fire of 1624; they seemed isolated and disjointed. Perhaps there are a few too many stores you can see on any high street in Britain, a feeling too of a need for a good scrub up. Perhaps it was just the grey weather. But a few more buildings like abbot house, a few less generic stores on High St, a lick of paint: and Dunfermline would be challenging St Andrews or Culross.

It's certainly worth a visit, especially as part of a tour of the local area. But as it is, it is nearly - but not quite - a tourist town to visit in its own right.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Up Helly Aa and the Art of Enjoying Winter

Shetlanders have worked it out. What is there to look forward to in winter after Christmas and Hogmanay? Another two long months of cold and darkness, colder and darker the further north you go. There needs to be something to look forward to at the end of January and through February. The old Norse had their fire festival at the end of Yule and in the 19th century, Shetlanders decided to create a modern version of the old ritual they had lost. They called it Up Helly Aa.

The rest of the country has Burns Night - but Burns Night is no Christmas, no communal event taking great preparation. Up Helly Aa is different. At the beginning of the year a Jarl is elected - perhaps Shetland's greatest honour - and preparations begin. Lerwickers form squads, and spend a lot of time preparing themed costumes for the procession - fancy dress costumes along any theme imaginable except one. Only the Jarl's squad at the head of the procession get to dress as Vikings. A longship is built, a beautiful long boat with a dragon's head prow, built for one purpose only - to be sacrificed to fire. Hostesses prepare their halls for the visits of the squads on the night of the procession. Finally, the great night comes. The wooden longship is moved by land from its quayside location to its final resting place in Gilberston Park. The squads gather, horizontal sleet lashing their bare arms and legs. Locals and visitors line the streets to watch. The sense of anticipation is palpable. And then the torches are lit!

The procession winds its gaudy way through the streets, ending in the park. Once everyone has arrived, they throw their torches into the boat, singing in a huge circle as the boat burns. And then the party begins! Entrance to the various halls is by invite only - no tourist event, Up Helly Aa - and the visitor might see a stray drunk Viking staggering about Commercial Street up to a day and a half later.

Lerwick's Up Helly Aa, the biggest in Shetland, is always held on the last Tuesday of January: but Shetland's other communities hold their own celebrations, all the way up to the start of spring.

Now is that not the way to get through winter?

The Longship Burns: