Friday, 25 February 2011

Tall trees

A twenty-minute walk from my house there’s an eighteenth century pinetum, enfolded in a bend of the River Braan. The Hermitage, as it's known, was created for the Dukes of Atholl as an extension of the gardens of their second home, nearby Dunkeld House. Complete with a fake hermit’s cave, a deep gorge, and a folly overlooking a fierce waterfall and salmon-leap, the Hermitage provided a dramatic riverside walk for the Atholl family and their visitors.
  I know all this partly because it’s on my doorstep, partly because some years ago I wrote the guidebook for the Dukes of Atholl's principal seat, Blair Castle, twenty miles up the road at Blair Atholl. Usually I forget things in direct proportion to the speed with which I’ve had to assimilate them; but sometimes I’m sufficiently engaged by the subject for some of it to stick. So on this occasion I also know that the fourth Duke of Atholl was known as ‘the planting duke’, and that he propagated acres of hillside with larch by firing seed out of a cannon. His plan was to help keep the British navy afloat, but alas the first ironclad appeared while his little larches were still saplings. Nevertheless, we’re in his debt for much of the magnificent russet and gold that cloaks the Tay valley each autumn.
  But more impressive than any larch is the stand of Douglas Firs at the Hermitage. These giants rise up on the riverbank, tall and straight and spacious, like the pillars of an enormous cathedral, and you have to crane your neck to see the canopy. These we owe to David Douglas, another local but from the opposite end of the social spectrum. More or less contemporaneous with the fourth duke, Douglas was the son of a gardener at Scone Palace, home of the Earls of Mansfield, just outside Perth (and I know this because I also wrote the guidebook for Scone Palace – during what I should perhaps now refer to as the ‘heritage phase’ of my career).
  One of the earliest and most famous of all plant-hunters, David Douglas was astonishingly tough. He travelled the wilderness of northwest America, frequently alone and on foot, fending off wild animals and hostile natives, climbing unnamed summits and traversing vast tracts of unmapped forest. In one famous incident he calmly records in his journal how he is lying behind a fallen tree, cocked rifle in one hand, knife drawn and resting on the trunk before him, as a war party of Indians advances on him through the trees.
  Douglas was responsible not only for bringing home the Douglas Fir but also for a huge number of other common plants that we now take for granted in our gardens. He came to a sticky end, aged thirty-six, in an animal pit that already contained an angry bison. Whether he fell in or was pushed has never been fully ascertained. But he’s on my mind today because yesterday I ran a workshop for staff of the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the David Douglas room at Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens; and I asked them, in advance, to find out what they could about him. The room is a wonderful first-floor space with handmade furniture in different woods, and three glass walls looking straight out into the trees of the gardens. It seemed appropriate that they should make the link between this botanical hero and the place where we were spending the afternoon.
  But the story doesn’t quite end there. I’m writing this on the train home to Dunkeld from Edinburgh, having stayed overnight for a board meeting. In the seat opposite me is a young man who, it transpires, is on his way home to Blair Atholl for the weekend. Now he works in Edinburgh but until a year ago he was a groundsman – at Blair Castle.
  Sometime one has the sense of being spun on a wheel whose revolutions are quite beyond one's imagining.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Three friends

This week I’ve been in London, putting the finishing touches to the book that John Simmons and I have been writing together. Called Room 121, it’s a conversation that takes the form of alternating blog posts, and it will be published in the summer. Although its theme is the way we use language at work, it’s as much about the way we respectively see the world as it is about the craft of writing.
  We’ve got to know each other well, John and I, over the last half-dozen years. Along with our partner, Stuart Delves, we’ve taught Dark Angels courses together in Scotland, England, Wales, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Poland. We’ve been on a writing retreat in France. Occasionally we’ve even had to share a room. We’re at a stage in our lives where we’re both fairly clear about how we want to focus our energy through the years ahead. Our friendship is rooted in the fact that we not only like each other and enjoy one another’s company, but share an understanding of how the world is shaped by language, and a vision of how that can be used to the good. You could say that we met at an age when our ideals had begun to settle and mature.
  In the bigger scheme of my life, however, John is a new friend. Janie I first knew in my early thirties. Late last year, I was amazed and delighted to hear from her again via Facebook. Back in the early Eighties we were both recently married and living in London with young families. We came to know each other through the world of commercial radio, where she worked as a press officer and which I wrote about as a journalist. On Tuesday we caught up for a drink and, despite an absence of nearly three decades, were able to pick up again almost without missing a beat. Naturally, much has happened in our lives, not least the fact that we both have new partners and, in my case, more children, while Janie has made a tremendous career at the BBC. We spent an hour-and-a-half of glorious story-swapping and I left with the warm glow of a connection rekindled.
  The previous night in London I had stayed with David, whom I’ve known since childhood and would consider my oldest friend, if not chronologically, at least in the firmness of our friendship. Brought up in rural Scotland, we were the only two boarding-school boys within a wide radius (although we weren’t at the same schools), and we hung out together staunchly throughout our teens. Our lives since have gone in very different directions – David is now a statesmanlike figure on the property scene – and there have been long hiatuses, but each time we meet it takes just a few seconds for the years to fall away as the timbre of his voice, a facial expression here, a quirky little physical movement there, reassert themselves, so familiar, so reassuring that we could easily be teenagers together again.
  It’s been a week of friends, three in forty-eight hours (more in fact but I don't have room here to write about them all), each from a different period in my life. And I realise more and more that these friendships, new, renewed or constant, are among the most precious things we possess because they not only bring us affection and pleasure, but connect us with ourselves; they help to complete the continuously unfolding story we tell ourselves, the story of our lives.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Wide knowledge

I’ve been talking to my friend Wenbo Xu again, quizzing him about all things Chinese as I lie face down, bristling with acupuncture needles. I love these conversations. They’ve become a quite unexpected bonus of my regular visits to him. I mumble my questions through the hole in his treatment table and then wait as he frames his reply. English is a difficult language for him. It fills his mouth awkwardly, making him gnaw and chew at it.
  This week, with Amy Chua’s highly divisive book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, making its debut in the UK, we discuss the Chinese approach to parenting and education. The almost fanatical desire for success is a product of the single-child policy, he believes. Six people, two parents and four grandparents, all place their hopes in one child.
  Wenbo’s first son, Datong, was eight when they left China. The pressure on children there, the control, was one of the reasons he left, he says. He didn’t want that for his son. (Regular readers of the blog will know that that is just one symptom of the deeper reason for his departure nine years ago: he wished his family to be free, to live in a democracy. See Chinese medicine)
  ‘And what about when you arrived here?’ He replies that he really noticed the difference, even wondered whether things here had gone too far the other way. ‘So do you think we’re soft in the West?’ ‘Well, the children hardly have any homework!’ He explains that Datong is clever, works hard and gets good reports. He’s top of his class and is going to study medicine, but he probably wouldn’t be at an equivalent level to his cousins in China.
  ‘But I like that children here can be friends with their parents, they can joke with them. My little boy Luke – he’s two – he calls ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and when I don’t answer he calls me by name. We all laugh. In China that would be shocking. Impossible! My father didn’t speak to me as equal till I had graduated from university and had my job as a doctor.’
  Wenbo’s father, I remember from an earlier conversation, had been trained as a teacher and sent off to work in a school in the mountains. He hated it and returned to his village to farm, whereupon he was appointed village teacher. Because of that he was spared re-education under the Cultural Revolution, though not the animosity of some of his neighbours who put up posters denouncing him as an intellectual. Wenbo’s maternal grandfather was not so lucky. He was jailed twice, once in the 1950s, once during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, for having been a member of Chiang Kai-Shek's government. On his second release from jail the villagers denied him entry to his home and sent him to live in a cowshed. Wenbo remembers being present on the day he was given his house back and the villagers returned his furniture.
  I ask him about names. He explains that during the Cultural Revolution many children were given names with the prefix Wu, denoting war. It was a revolution driven by words and slogans and Mao wanted an army of bellicose people mobilised by violent language. But Wenbo’s father valued wisdom over bellicosity and in an act of defiance named his children with the prefix Wen, denoting knowledge. Wenbo means ‘wide knowledge’ he explains, then laughs. ‘That too big name for me!’
  I leave thinking he’s wrong. How many European doctors do I know who have not only qualified in western medicine but also know where to place an acupuncture needle, how to prescribe herbal remedies and give you a neck massage?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The bridge

Two weeks ago I learnt that my former next-door neighbour, Ian, had committed suicide. He was 50 and he had fought alcohol all his adult life. Yesterday I went to his funeral.

During the seven years we shared a garden fence I got to know him and like him very much. He was cheerful and helpful and he valued good neighbourliness. We swapped things, garden tools, a run to the skip, and chatted easily. Although we were never close I felt that over time there grew a certain mutual respect, maybe even affection.

Earlier in his life he had worked on fish farms. Latterly he gardened for the council and dreamt of developing a plot of land he owned, a little further north. But back problems and domestic complications – his wife and children moved out a few years ago – made for an erratic working life. And of course, underlying it all, there was the booze. Every so often I would realise that I hadn’t seen him for a while. Then he would reappear, looking a little rough around the edges, and give me a disarming grin. He never made any secret of his difficulties. In fact his honesty was one of the things I found attractive about him. He was also tall, good looking and intelligent. But for all that there was a vulnerability about him, he felt like an innocent abroad. It was as if there was a part of him – the part that came to have the final word – that didn’t really belong here.

In his last two or three years he started another relationship and his new partner, Di, did everything she possibly could to help him. They sold the house and moved first to Perth, then to Glasgow where she encouraged him to attend an AA meeting every night. There are three hundred AA groups in Glasgow, she told me at the funeral. ‘It’s a great place to keep off the booze.’ She paused. ‘It’s a great place to get on it again, too.’

In a final impulsive act he bought a ruined cottage, sight unseen, off the Internet, on the Isle of Scalpay, Harris. He spent a few weeks there in the late autumn, not drinking, getting to know the locals, and starting work on the renovation. ‘I had never seen him so much at peace,’ Di said. Then came the January darkness.

It was a humanist funeral, and the main part of the service consisted of an address by the celebrant, who had interviewed those close to him, and put their remarks together into a series of stories. Although she had never met him she spoke with warmth and humour, yet without shying away from the realities of his life. This is what we leave behind, I thought, listening to her – stories. Long after the details of a life have faded, we remember the incidents, the small, often inconsequential moments that touched us. Far more than any urn, these stories become the vessels that preserve the essence of the person.

As I left the service I found myself thinking of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, the great American humanist novelist and playwright of the early twentieth century. It’s one of my all-time favourite books, and worth reading for the final paragraph alone:

‘But soon we shall die and all memory … will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’

Judging by the tears at the funeral, Ian was well loved.