Wednesday, September 26, 2007

DSC_7551 - The House at Pink CornerAny weekend that requires the polishing of three pairs of shoes clearly has something wrong with it. As does the idea that anyone could live so very far away. Or possibly it was the decision to drive there that had something wrong with it (well, actually it wasn't that bad, although Solihull was poor, the end of the toll road solid, the M6 up to Lancaster dire - with page 57 of the AA road atlas [Warrington to Preston] being thoroughly vile - although I wasn't driving that part, so it doesn't count). Quite liked the turbines slicing the clouds at Shap though. And I've just discovered Google has only bought the England dataset, as the highres imagery runs out at the border.

Anyway, after a great many hours of driving, refusing to believe England could go on for this long, and having the obligatory conversations along the lines of A [reading map in response to the driver's query] "It's past Stratford". B [driving] "Stratford? Which Stratford?". A [checking uncertainly map] "The one north of us". B "You sure you don't mean Stafford?". A [pauses] "Oh look, there's that Jag again".

Anyway, as I messed up the last 'anyway' sentence, after much "what do you mean we're not nearly there yet?", discussions of holidays past (in cheap Lanc Uni accom. Memories: snap, kites and rain, along with pencils, a bloody minded ram, a wooded pebbly shore, strange soft rock, finding Scotland closed, straddling the border between England and Scotland (only to later be told it was Yorkshire and Lancashire) and the car park of Lakeland Plastics [as then was]), wondering what those smelter-looking things are, phone calls from my brother [who got the train] asking "where are we and why aren't we nearly there yet?", and much dimming of the world, we arrived. At half past eight. And promptly discovered we were being fed, had been expected somewhat earlier and the broccoli was going on.

So there came a meal, and a great meeting of the families, and the disappearance of the children to the pub, and the discovery that Scottish pubs go on longer, and that 'gassed' means drunk, and walking back when the pub closed, which was the same time as the local club closed, hence walking through crowded, bickering streets, under strict instructions to speak to no one lest our accents be heard. Speaking of which, it turns out geography teachers do have a use after all, as mine was Glaswegian, hence prepared me for the sound of the Lowlands, so I could understand the insults, provided I wasn't too tired.

The next day brought a half-grilled, half-poached fry-up (which was half-cooked in the case of the sausage), which was eaten rapidly by me, tenderly by my brother, and scarcely by the SIL, who has the curious tendency to pick out only the yolk from a fried egg (guess who'd nursed a single pint the night before, rather than headache the following morning).

And then... came lunch. Yep, really. Trying to get a mix of hungover, disorganised and trying not to offend people to do anything, especially when one doesn't know what there is to do, is quite hard. So when my parents arrived, we trolled off to lunch at the golf club, where we sat, watching people miss the green and mess up putts, while waiting to order, then waiting for our order. I end up being a plate clearing machine simply because people expect me to be, and I was not sure what else to do (I suspect it may be like that Chinese presumption of an empty dish insulting hospitality, rather than signifying well brought up children).

Thence townwards to do our messages (possibly we went up the street to do it; a lot of the local phrases rely on a [rather jokey?] backward image. Which doesn't work that well when we know they've broadband, even if it doesn't actually work very well. "Up/down the street" is used to mean "into town", the point being that there is only ever one street in any Scottish town [please don't point out the bypass or retail estate]) and explore. Warning, do not under any circumstances venture into Llanoch museum [yes, that's a Googleproofed name, but I imagine you can probably work out where I mean. It's near a Carruthers-ish name and has its own branch line]. Not only is it solely dedicated to Llanoch school life, but there's a very excitable man in there who seeks to dispel myths that Scotland was a poor, deprived country by pointing out that the fifteen-year-olds in the 1947 photograph looked like Veronica Lake. Excuses were individually, and hastily, made. So after popping the corner to buy cards from Brown Owl (we'd all bought but not brought, cards for a cousin's birthday), we split up to sleep, read, move or take pictures of odd things.

Llanoch is quite like Tweeton and Notacity (and parts of London, oh and Cygnet) in the number of alleyways and passages breaking between streets. However it's not like any of the above in terms of property prices (an ad in one estate agent's window had the word "Villa" above a price of £79,000. Admittedly it also had "Mid-Terrace" before the "Villa", which sounds like a contradiction in terms, although a very cheap contradiction in terms), which is borne out by the number of boarded-up, bricked-up and just plain abandoned buildings. And they're not jury-rigged sheds, or flimsy 70s stuff, but entire houses of dressed stone. One could make a fortune selling the materials alone at the other end of the country.

Then back to change, wondering what became of the threatened McCay memorial motorcade (I know it looks like I'm going overboard here on the obscuration, but this night concerned a prominent family in a very small town and their non-native guests) and down the hill to the WHS party (no, that's not Smith's; the last one is 'Site' and there's only two in mainland Scotland). Much milling at the mill later and we're all gathered in the same room downstairs/upstairs. The band arrive late and flustered, having met party guests in a garage and sought out directions, after roadworks closed one road and the passing locals amended the diversion signs to point to a place universally pronounced 'hoik' - town whose claim to fame is as the midpoint between Llanoch and Carlisle yet seemingly is about the same distance away from them as they are from each other.

After short, slightly strange speech from the SIL, with my brother trying to discreetly manoeuvre four-foot of flowers, the dancing begins. Letting the lead couples dance the first, I was dragged up for the second by a girl in a bridesmaid's dress; the design was one she chose for own wedding and liked so much her husband bought her one. And so I was led round the dancefloor, learning as I went (she apparently does Irish dancing, hence knew everything), scampering round in her wake, doing, as I later discovered, the Gay Gordons. It's quite easy, apart from still not knowing what to do with my feet (don't point out that's the foundation of dancing). And before, well, not strictly before, but before any of you lot ask, the only hint of anything gay during the whole weekend were the aforementioned Gordons and references to something which starts with Glas. It's quite strange to go through an entire town and not make significant eye contact once.

So after dancing, breaking for food, and dancing yet more, I can conclude this:

- Guests do not expect to dance. The most consistent dancers, aside from the greenkeeper's rather, er, 'gassed' wife, were the hosts, their daughter and boyfriend (who happens to be my brother), her bridesmaided friend and bekilted German husband, my parents, myself and whichever cousin I could persuade/chose to persuade me. If half the people on the dancefloor are English - and it was traditional Scottish dancing at an event with a Celtic name - and there are only four of them in a room of 150, that sort of suggests there's something a bit wrong.

- Scottish Strip the Willow is far more boring than the English version; heck of a lot of doing nothing on the spot. The Gay Gordons is easy. The Dashing Light Sergeant/The Dashing White Sergeant is quite fun, once one gets past the giggled daftness of the Highland whateveritis (the stereotypical one hand near the hip, the other near the forehead. To be honest you could probably Vogue or do that V across the eyes thing and no one would care). Assorted others were doable, although whichever (the caller was Irish, mumbled and needed to back off the mic; I had a hard enough job keeping track of the majority accents) one involves spinning one partner, forming a line, ducking through, meeting the next, then spinning the respective partner proved quite hard, mostly because three of the four I met were varying degree of energetic and stout, whereas one was a timid little girl who didn't want to let me touch her, which makes spinning her, and making sure we're clear of the neighbouring couple, quite hard. I'd be bounding through with everyone else and suddenly have this light, breakable thing that didn't want to move, which was about as fun as running full pelt while dodging dog's muck. It didn't help the dancefloor was quite small, so there were entire dances where the do-si-do had to be done sideways and the spins tightly off-line. In an early dance the violinist was bowing me as I found myself backed between mic stands, and the second Gay Gordons we cheated and polkaed between tables. And, I really should have thought of this earlier, some of the dances are explained here; you may need to move the coffee table.

- One can tell who is putting in the effort by how far out the hair flies.

- I probably should be worried that after hours of traditional Scottish music the tune in my head as I left was from Local Hero (the tune and the album, both obviously for sampling purposes only so remember to spit).

And now because I'm not sure what else to say, I'll indulge in comments scavenged, entirely without context, from emails:

- My comment on unloading the car after arriving late in Llanoch was that it was like moving to November.

- Oh, and Whirled Hermitage Cites aren't all they're cracked up to be - Nieu Llanoch is very samey and not that unusual (said he who grew up playing on what is now the Jurassic Coast - same coast, new importance).

- I'd rarely any idea what my feet should be doing - people with thick accents trying to explain both the pas de bas and pas de Basque don't help. Neither do mothers shouting unintelligible instructions; instinctive panic and nothing else.

- The band even started heckling the audience for being an audience, as those dancing were the same as had danced the last dance and the one before that and...

That reads like a small bout of copying and pasting, doesn't it? Hey ho. Oh, and to he who asked, no, I didn't wear a kilt (ere ye maid? Although I did have problems not picking up the local pronunciation and inflection to the extent of asking "ere wei ere-weir?" meaning "shall we go/are we leaving yet?"). And were I to wear a kilt I'd have to figure out which tartan to wear. Plus it's a Highland, not Lowland, thing (although that didn't stop some people). Bear in mind there were four English people in the room, out of about 150, yet there were probably only a dozen kilts around, so it would have seemed a little odd.

Hmm, I'm not doing well on this seamless blending of new and recycled materials. Must take lessons from loo paper. Sorry, bit tired, not wholly compost mantis, and have a sore throat after eating Fairy Power. A certain someone decided to clean the grid from the grill pan, which they did by laying it on top of a chopping board and spraying cleaner across it. Later your narrator comes in for lunch, sees the now uncovered and dry chopping board covered in breadcrumbs with the bread knife next to it, reaches for the bread, hews slices from it (it was still very soft having been bought warm), adds butter and eats, wondering what that lemony smell is coming from. There's a couple of odd tasting mouthfuls, but the base of Waitrose's bread often tastes of their curiously almond-flavoured oven cleaner. Except the loaf came from Sainsbury's and it's lemon on top of much rawer flavours. It must just be the smell from something I picked or moved, so it's on my hand. It's probably on the tap. I moved the Fairy Liquid to get some water, but it doesn't taste like Fairy; it's coarser than that. And then I start on the crust. It's much stronger, but I assume that's because I switched hands. Switching back I continue, but it's still just as strong. Hmm. A certain someone complains I'm making pointless noises. I explain the bread tastes odd. There then follows a conversation in which I say "It's a chopping board!" about five times, shortly followed by putting the fifth of the crust which remains (I thought I was imagining it, so did quite a lot of checking) in the compost bin, thereby probably ensuring an ensuing apocalypse in the compost heap.

I wouldn't mind so much, despite the sore throat that gargling with milk failed to abate, except a different certain someone did exactly the same thing last week while putting Vanish on shirt cuffs (and it's this certain someone who has currently rendered the actual breadboard inoperable through a combination of the Guardian and a jar of pickled herring). Next week tomato and borax sandwiches.

Anyway, back to equally unpalatable foods. Sunday saw yet another half-grilled fried breakfast (I would have asked for Weetabix but I suspect they don't respond well to hot fat), this time with the ingredients forgotten the day before. I have to admit to completely missing the point of black sausage. Lorne sausage* fine, haggis I like, normal sausages are just that, but black sausage is like eating discarded bandages. Before people claim it's me being squeamish, it's not the thought of the blood, it's the taste of it. And that mealy texture.

* Slight misnomer as it's basically squares of minced beef; wasn't there some American chain whose USP was its square burgers?

Which roughly reminds of the slightly odd experience of being asked in turn if I've had any of the ingredients before. Have I had potato scones before? I suspect the hosts weren't looking for the answer "only when they're reduced in Sainsbury's". Have I had haggis? Yes, it's nice if it's not too peppery. Black sausage? Once, but I think it was badly burnt. Whereupon she gave up and asked if I'd been to Scotland before and what did I think of it? I go into the War of the Roses border tale, dredging my memory for other details. Orangey-pink, soft rock. And that's as in both the landscape and rock were orangey-pink. And rock, as in that made from sugar, which says Brighton through the middle of it, even though it was bought in Weston-super-Mare, should not be soft; it's like eating clunch. Then again their equivalent to fudge snaps, so maybe the recipes suffered in translation. It's quite odd being quizzed on differences and realising that aside from aural comprehension (it turns out that the "cghlinghagh" guy spoke dialect with a very broad accent, was slightly deaf, wore ill-fitting dentures and thus mumbled to stop them falling out. He was asking if I sang, during a bizarre hotel bar singalong were no one knew all the words to any song and few knew each song. When asked for suggestions, having just been subjected to Loch Lomond, the Skye Boat Song, Flower of Scotland and Bloody Dylan, I did consider replying "Jerusalem", but demurred as I wasn't sure how many would know the words) there really isn't very much.

Anyway, what is the polite reply one should give when asked if one has experienced culture shock while visiting Scotland? Because the strangest things I'd found were that:
- Housing is cheap, plentiful, seemingly no better built and uninsulated (you live in Scotland, which gets about ten million more degree-days each year than southern England, and yet you have single glazing).
- Food is fattier, more likely to be fried and largely in chlorophyll and roughage. Only belatedly did I discover the hosts had a fruit bowl, the contents of which seemed to have been chosen for the colour. I've yet to see any evidence that the local Tesco stocks brown bread, let alone stoneground wholemeal.
- They have localised Bank Holidays, and are surprised that London doesn't follow Glasgow's "September Weekend" despite Edinburgh not doing so.
- Myriad details about the mix of social tribes and how they look (which also changed between service stations down the motorway). I'd never realised there was a Northern look (essentially more ostentatiously Gary-ish). It's also odd to be able to stop somewhere in Lancashire and be able to spot those from the Home Counties before one hears them (essentially Southern people seemed to look less preened; they may look good, but they needn't try too hard to be and remain so. It probably translates as either arrogance, confidence or élan). It's bizarre to play German, French or Dutch [you can tell how long ago I last played it] but only with English people.
- It was the only time in the my life during which I heard repeatedly "We get a lot of Dutch; they come for the hills", which presumably accounted for the multilingual signs pointing out which side of the road to drive on just off the motorway.

So basically, Scotland and its inhabitants are all much the same as the rest of country, the people slightly less long-term aware, and for the most part it all looks a bit like Wales.

So, er, what else? We went up to see the waterfalls which weren't turned on, thus making a joke out of the joke about the Japanese tourist who rented one of the houses built over the millstream and asked for the noise of the water to be turned off. There came the single group photograph, which I messed up but couldn't get people back to reshoot. Then back down past the power station, which was turned on. Through the closing WHS, with my brother despatched to recover me from somewhere behind the group, with the instructions not to leave me alone near anything reflective (I had my camera in my hand and the frontrunners were getting impatient). Then back up the hill individually any way, dropping in to change shoes and treat blisters at the cottage my parents had rented, whereupon I discovered they had both brown bread [hurrah!] and ripe bananas [huzzah!], thus would allow me to make infamous banana sandwiches [hip! hip! hooray!], which are infamous for scuppering a friend's attempt the Atkin's diet (along with baked apples and jacket potatoes), and so managed to remain until supper.

Then bed, breakfast, home, borrowing, with misaddressed permission, Brick Lane from the spare bedroom bookcase along the way, even though the business card found in it (my brother's) leads me to suspect that it was the copy his ex-flatmate left in a shared flat, two flats ago (along with his extensive Dan Brown collection).

And that's about it. I did buy a couple of postcards, but didn't get round to writing let alone sending them, so may just take a picture and stick it Flickr).


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