Friday, 7 December 2012

Not reading on the boat in Burma


The Nadima Mandala started life as a steam-driven barge on the mighty Irrawaddy River, before her conversion 30 or so years ago into a passenger vessel.  Her low deck lies close to the rushing brown water--she draws very little, a matter of necessity on the Chindwin--a river be-deviled by shallows, sandbanks and, after the rains, treacherous whirlpools that will make a whirligig of the stoutest vessel.  Her two-story  dented breadbox superstructure gives her a top-heavy look--the Dolly Parton of Burmese river barges.  It is clear from the start that Captain Tham Pay knows how to handle his wide-hipped, flat-bottomed ugly duckling.

There are plenty of holiday boats on the Irrawaddy between Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan--more than ever now the sanctions have been lifted and tourists are flooding in.  From toy day cruisers to over-lit, air-conditioned gin palaces, the Irrawaddy is accessible to all, but the Nadima Mandala is taking us up the Chindwin River from Monywa to Mawlaik; a journey where no tourist has gone before...or at least not in recent memory.  

Our comfortable little boat has (aside from seven cabins, galley, wheelhouse, dining room and afterdeck), a pink refrigerator and twelve maroon plush wooden deckchairs of a peculiar design that resembles a cross between a preying mantis and a snapping crocodile (you get in and out at your peril), from which to watch the world pass by.  

Chuntering upstream at the furious rate of 6 knots, we zig and zag like an inebriated dowager duchess, slowing to feel our way across the choppy shallow water with our metaphorical skirts held above our ankles, looking for the deep, safe channels where we can pick up speed again.  

Because there are few roads, most of the traffic moves on the water in long, elegantly curved narrow boats carrying freight, or passengers, or both, with occasional great rafts of teak logs, tied to bamboo platforms and submerged beneath the water, guided downstream by busy, self-important tugs.  On the banks where the forest does not quite meet the water, there are fields of peanuts and millet, corn and rice.  Small villages of teak houses on stilts appear briefly, the steep banks carved by the river, with the knotted exposed roots of the great banyan trees making comfortable seating or an impromptu playground.  Wherever we stop we are welcomed into people’s homes, objects of curiosity in a refreshing reversal of roles (though embarrassingly, we tend to make babies cry and dogs howl).  

As we move further upstream the green, densely forested mountains rise up and draw near; on a bend in the river an ascending line of gleaming pagodas climb a ridge, like the polished white vertebrae of a sleeping dragon.

After three days we reach Mawlaik, a small town as far north as we will go. It is full of relics of its colonial days, with a neat grid of tree-lined dusty streets, a clock-tower, a fire-engine of remarkable antiquity, rows of intricately carved teak houses, a good selection of tea-houses to while away the time, an extensive covered market and on the out-skirts of town,   a golf-course of sorts near the grand, high-ceilinged teak houses of the former Burmah-Bombay Trading Corporation officials.  These sad, haunted houses lie slowly decaying in the damp heat, their incongruous brick chimneys memorials to a now largely irrelevant past.

At every stop we have made we are quickly greeted by officials who, having had no experience of tourists in an area where access has been restricted for many years, have no idea what to make of us, never mind what to do with us.  Our papers with the all-important ‘seal’ of bureaucracy are scrutinised again and again with varying degrees of suspicion and disbelief, though the curiosity always wins through...eventually. 

In this deceptively peaceful, sleepy paradise of gentle warmth and friendliness, of tightly knit, deeply traditional communities celebrating the Buddhist lent in all-important run up to the Festival of the Full Moon, of the bright new hopes of the National League for Democracy workers we meet in Mingkin town, it is easy to overlook the harsh realities of decades of brutal oppression and human rights violations by the generals who took over the country in 1962.  We receive a sharp reminder when returning downstream we stop at the last town before the Chindwin joins the Irrawaddy, re-entering the world of pylons and billboards and cars and a reality that is harsher than we ever suspect.  At the main pagoda in the town the festival is in full swing, with sweating dignitaries in ivory and gold silk lunghis waiting to greet a Government Minister and start the 24 hour competition to weave cloth for the monks’ robes, lines of poor waiting to be fed and hundreds of men, women and children making their offerings and crowding the complex to celebrate the holiday. Just before sunset we leave the town, moving on to moor for the night a few miles away; an enormous full moon rising like a searchlight upriver, as the blood-red sun extinguishes itself downstream.

The next day we learn there was a demonstration in the town shortly after we left, with several protesting monks burnt to death.  There is no mention of this in the newly ‘free’ press, though a couple of days later the government makes an official apology for bringing in troops to handle the peaceful demonstration.  The injuries and deaths go unreported by the Myanmar media.  

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

My kingdom for a butter knife


When was the last time you met someone called Doris?  Or Dorothy, for that matter. Not to mention Ethel, Maude, Betty and all their ilk.  They seem to be facing extinction--the snow leopards of Jenner’s tea room. But they’re not all gone; there was a Doris on the 35 last week.

This Doris was riding the bus with the look on her face of a woman who thinks she might catch an STD from the upholstery--’after all’, you could almost hear her say, ‘you don’t know where the seat’s been’ (except that you do, if you’ve read the bus route).  She had the skirts of her pale lilac (I’m sure she would say mauve) Windsmoor faux snake embossed mac gathered around her legs as if she expected an infestation of hooligan mice and held her handbag with one arm through the handles, clutched to her chest--both shield and weapon of choice. 

She was with a friend who, though apparently cut from similar dry-clean only cloth, rode the bus with the insouciant ease of a regular--I could only imagine she had enticed Doris on to the bus with the promise of the Queen’s Gallery and a scone with Duchy clotted cream and jam in the Palace cafe after.  

They put their stiffly moussed heads together for a good natter, which seemed  to be about a newcomer to their book group.  Not only had the novice hostess chosen an unsuitable book  (Noddy and Big Ears?  Fifty Shades of Grey?  A biography of Neil Kinnock?), when she brought out the tea and drop scones not only were there tea bags rather than loose leaves in the pot, there was no sign of a butter knife.  Nothing more was said for several moments as both women gazed silently out the window, as if trying to take in the enormity, the sheer perfidy of this terrible breach of decorum.

You may think this an extreme reaction and so would I, if I had not had it demonstrated to me that in some quarters, butter knives still count.  When I moved into my first flat in Edinburgh an acquaintance came to see me.  Helping me set the table for lunch (I say ‘set’ the table because a very elegant friend once gently corrected me when I said I was going to lay the table.  ‘No dear, one sets a table’, she said with a twinkle.  ‘One lays a mistress’), she was taken aback to find I had no butter knife.  Obviously dismayed, she took this as a this sign that I had come down in the world (rather than as an indication that Ikea doesn’t include butter knives in their six-piece cutlery sets).  A butter knife appeared in the post a few days later, though I keep losing it down the back of the drawer. I think it goes without saying I never would have cut the butter, the mustard or anything else as a Doris.   

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Elvis Redux (and not a bus in sight)


I happened to walk over the Falshaw Bridge again one dreich evening last week.  The rain had been pounding down for hours and the river was high in the gloom, a boiling pot of ink.  It was dark in the way only a stormy October evening can be.  The only points of light were the smears of foam on the river and Elvis, who was tucked up on a small bit of bank, the evil-looking water roiling past, close to encircling him on his almost island.  He glowed in the gloom--a sodden dingy white, his bright bill tucked into his neck, its tip buried deep in the wet, clinging feathers.  He looked indescribably noble and horribly lonely--a fairytale prince lost under some evil enchantment and I wondered again why he shunned the company of the other swans not far away in Inverleith Park.

A couple of days later I was walking up the road, wondering if Elvis would still be there when I heard someone calling out ahead of me, ‘where are you my lovely boy? Come along now,’ followed by the creak of the gate that leads onto the grass strip by the bridge.  When I was far enough along I could see a man of more than middle years wearing a long grey coat and carrying a large plastic bag.  He was still calling and had one hand held out, as you would to a friendly dog.  To my astonishment I saw Elvis--not walking, but running; bowing his head to be stroked by the man, who carried on chatting as he alternately petted Elvis and reached into his bag for the bread he had brought with him.  

Now, every swan I have ever seen has been aloof, cranky (if not down-right bad-tempered), largely unapproachable and certainly not cuddly.  An irascible temperament seems to go with their regal appearance. Yet here was this enormous, clumsy creature rushing to be caressed, his long neck looping with pleasure.  They moved off together across the grass and toward the river as if they were confiding in one another--the imperious white bird and his friend.  

Yes folks, I think it might be a bromance--the old man and the swan. Or perhaps it is a fairytale--the tale of a wizard and a lost prince.  In any case I hope it is a long story, as in life one thing is certain:  we can never be sure of a happy ending.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

There's a swan down the river swears he's Elvis


If you take the bus down to Stockbridge and find yourself on the Water of Leith, just by the Falshaw Bridge there is a triangle of grass next to the river which has become home to a mute swan.  He is a swan out of a storybook--huge and handsome--a bird to be reckoned with.  He is also something of a celebrity hereabouts, wearing his biography in the band round one of his legs.  He was tagged when he was nothing but an ugly duckling in Falkirk, but he blew off the little town for the big city and has  been seen in all the wet places, from Portobello beach to Duddingston Loch to the pond in Inverleith Park. It seems he never settled anywhere for long...until he came to the peaceful spot next to the Falshaw Bridge, where he set up housekeeping with a duck.  No one knows quite why he spurned the community of Inverleith where there were other swans to socialise with for his quiet corner under the bridge, but there he stayed with his lady duck, having no apparent desire for birds of his feather.  

Tragically, the duck disappeared in the floods earlier this year, but the swan survived and stayed.  Nor does he show any sign of straying.  Swans, of course, are said to mate for life, but people seem surprised to see him apparently in mourning for a mallard.  

This is no surprise to me having had--not swans, but an enormous gander in the Isle of Skye, who was called ‘Jimmy the Tory’.  Jimmy had a wife named Agnes and they were a devoted couple, spending their days menacing the ankles of anyone who came out of the house, lowering their necks and swaying their heads from side to side like cobras wearing a lot of orange lipstick.  One day Agnes died and the gander went into a decline until, in desperation, a tiny khaki campbell duck was borrowed from neighbours to keep him company.  This bit of odd-couple match-making was a success--except that when Jimmy the Tory (who was no spring chicken) died, the little duck began to pine.  At this point the bidie-in duck was sent back to her home pond without so much as a golden egg to her name (she was, after all, a Campbell duck in an island densely populated by Macdonalds).  

Sadly, the Stockbridge One looks set to end his days in lonely devotion to his lost duck, though I cannot say that he is exactly wasting away.  In the same way that neighbours used to bring casseroles to a house where there has been a bereavement, the swan seems to have half the contents of Greggs chucked his way most days, making our swan less of a Prince and more of an Elvis. It is sad to see him spending his lonely days rearranging his breast feathers and no doubt worrying about the size of his beak. So if anyone knows a lady swan who isn't looking for commitment, or even a flighty Canada goose just about to pack her panniers and head south (as it seems clear our swan is a loner with a taste for the exotic so would probably like a goose who talks with a funny accent), do float her down to the Falshaw Bridge where she can cozy up to the bank, wiggle her tail feathers and ask Elvis, ‘hey buddy, are you lonesome tonight?’  

Thursday, 27 September 2012

We're not in Kansas anymore...


It is a curious fact that in Edinburgh, it can take some time to find oneself on speaking terms with other bus users--about 18 months would be a conservative average.  It makes sense when you consider that Edinburgh has long and often been associated with the phrase:  ‘you’ll have had your tea then’.   This is usually taken to reflect the Scots’ reputation for being  careful with their money, which apparently  becomes an art form in Edinburgh (though to be fair, I think it may be more an indication of caution than cupidity). 
A good example of this prudence has been demonstrated by our own Hamish and Dougal (characters from the Radio 4 programme - ‘You’ll Have Had Your Tea’, a spin-off of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’) who I see most mornings on the bus. They are so unfailingly cheerful and entirely lovely I tend to think of them more as Bill and Ben the flowerpot men, but we have only recently reached a nodding acquaintance...and it has taken two years to do it.  I am not certain I want it to advance beyond this as I so enjoy their morning conversations, which are like the Today Programme-- if the Today Programme was broadcast from Brigadoon.  
Do not think that this seemly reticence means the good citizens of my adopted city are unfriendly—far from it.  But there is a certain reserve, which may just be natural courtesy: one would not wish to be too forward and shock the horses.  So we will greet each other most pleasantly at the bus stop for many, many months before conversation is initiated—generally with an observation about the weather.  And of course, one’s familiars on the bus will merely nod, pleasantly, in greeting.   In exceptional circumstances this will expand to encompass a few words on the situation in hand...but the following day it will be nods and wordless smiles again, as everyone overlooks any unseemly attacks of garrulousness. 
One is much more likely to fall into conversation with someone who is not a regular, or is only seen sporadically.  This comes under the ‘ships that pass in the night’ heading.  Conversation is fine, but only if you are not hastily committing to having to do it every day.  If only we applied the same caution when selecting a mate, I hear some of you saying to yourselves... 
There are two exceptions to these rules of silence:  one being if you take your dog on the bus.  I have never seen anything to match the ability of a dog to inspire strangers to fulsome forwardness.  All inhibitions are shed in the face of a friendly dog and much as I love my hound (who makes only occasional visits to the big city, but happily slips into the role of full-on metrosexual whenever he is in town), I find the wildly sentimental attitude of your average Briton to animals disturbing as well as puzzling, from the nation that invented fox-hunting. I feel fairly certain that most of my countrymen, if they were holding a bowlful of water on a hot day and forced to choose, would give it to a thirsty Andrex puppy rather than throw it over a spontaneously combusting OAP. 
The other exception to the no conversation rule is weather related.  All bets are off, all reserve abandoned in the face of extreme meteorological events.  So in this week of wild, autumnal storms (which left me expecting to find flying monkeys in Princes Street Gardens and Munchkins running Starbucks--the streets and pavements of my neighbourhood were so covered in leaves it looked as if a scout troop had been given LSD in their ginger beer and let loose with weed-whackers), when  a charming stranger turned up at the bus stop with his even more charming black labrador, conversation was more or less guaranteed.  It turned out his lovely dog (rather unimaginatively named ‘Isis’, for all you Downton Abbey fans) was a guide dog puppy, who unfortunately failed her exams and was rusticated from guide dog school.  (I managed not to ask if Isis suffered from self-esteem problems or if she had been offered counselling).
As you may imagine, every person who got on the bus had a word to say...to the dog. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

It's all about the image

‘This bus isn’t going for three minutes,’ said the bus driver, pulling the bus to the front of the stop and switching off the engine.  ‘I’m just gonnae get off and have a fag.’ 

This unexpected turn of events clearly confused the swarm of Italian teenagers on the bus who no doubt had just been to the Auntie of all Parliaments and were like bees on sugar having sampled cans of Irn Bru as part of their cultural indoctrination.

The American tourists behind me expressed their outrage-- ‘No wonder this country’s economy is all to pot.  If they get independence they won’t last a minute,’ the husband said.  ‘And the maps are wrong.’ Quite frankly, in their place I would have been somewhat bemused as well. 

The sight of a traditionally built bus driver leaning against his bus, face red and cheeks concave with the effort of achieving a new personal best time for finishing a gasper, might not be the enduring image one would necessarily want visitors to take with them (although it fits in well with the deep-fried Mars Bar and Buckfast zeitgeist), from their visit to Scotland.

 Obviously in Edinburgh there are any number of iconic images that everyone carries around in their heads, whether they’ve been here or not:  the castle and Princes Street Gardens, Arthur’s Seat, the Royal Mile and all.  The Scottish Tourist Board takes full advantage of the language of the shortbread tin, as will our visitors on the bus—on their iphoto pages and facebook, if not in their memories.

 But image is, of course, about more than how things are seen; it is about how we wish to be seen. A sign on a bookshop door between the Grassmarket and Tollcross says:  ‘Please do not piss in the doorway.  It runs under the door and makes the place stink’,  telling me as much about the shop and its owners as it does about the problems of location.  I think it is safe to assume a faint whiff of anarchy comes with every purchase (with or without the smell of piss). 

However, I am not sure the proprietor of the soon to be opened ‘Extravaganza Hairdressing’ in the West End has pitched the image entirely as intended.  Do I really want to get up every morning and deal with an extravaganza on my head?  Surely just the cost of a haircut is extravagance enough in these straightened (sorry, straitened) times? Or are they trying to say, ‘don’t come here if you want a conventional haircut?’

 Similarly I have reservations about the new sandwich shop called ‘Pinnochio’.  Why?  What has this to do with sandwiches?  Is the owner’s first name Gepetto?  Do the sandwiches dream of someday becoming real? Is there a member of staff with a wooden nose with an unfortunate tendency to grow?

A notable failure of image-making is to be found in Charlotte Square where on one building the beautiful, restrained face of Georgian architecture is marred by window-boxes that look as if they more properly belong on Wisteria Lane—the National Trust Georgian House on the other side of the square must be having a fit of the vapours every time its shutters are opened.  I can only assume the investment management firm are trying to look friendly and accessible, but for my money (and they certainly aren’t getting any of it), it indicates a confidence-sapping absence of judgment.  One feels certain the fund managers within still wear red braces, drive Porsche 911s and have Jacuzzis with gold taps in their en-suite bathrooms at home.

There are, of course, happy instances of successful image-making--like the elderly woman I saw from the bus on Hamilton Place.  She had scanty but fabulous bright orange hair, was wearing a turquoise coat and carrying a flowered walking stick.  Everything about the way she looked said something about her--she elevated ‘elderly’ to ‘iconic’. 

Similarly, the tenement on St Mary’s Street with its fanciful turrets and finials and the engraving over the door saying:  ‘This building was erected under the Improvement Act of 1867’ tells us that the good burghers of Victorian Edinburgh believed they could not only recreate the past, they could improve on it.  Like the sign on the bookshop door, the plaque is culture written in shorthand; a statement of intent.

A different, but entirely appealing statement about Edinburgh (or Edinburghers?) was made by the single desert boot I recently spotted, carefully placed next to the similarly booted left foot of James Clerk Maxwell on his statue on George Street.  Did the imaginative opportunist sacrifice a shoe and hop home?  Did he pinch one from one of those stands outside shoe shops that only have a right or a left? Or did he find an abandoned shoe and have a eureka moment?  Whatever the explanation, it certainly brought new meaning to the expression—‘putting the boot in’.    I was disappointed that it was so quickly removed--presumably because city councils have no vocabulary for wit or humour.

But some of the most pleasing images are those that just quietly happen, ephemeral and easily missed.  Double-decker buses on a rainy autumn evening, their brightly lit windows prisms of condensation; the faces behind the glass briefly glimpsed portraits in an exhibition of life in the city.  Or walking home on a chilly September afternoon and seeing two swans flying low against a pearly sky—pictures of ponderous grace.  Nearby a young girl in school uniform is practicing the trumpet, standing next to an open window.   The rough, sweet sounds fly out, as if she is summoning the swans who honk distantly in reply.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Dead funny


Last week I was unable to get to the Gallery of Modern Art (or One and Two, as we must call them now), along the Water of Leith.  There was a notice on the path saying access to the Gallery was blocked by a landslip, which made me think of whole hillsides tumbling onto the Karakoram Highway rather than a slight inconvenience off the Belford Road.  However this turned out (as detours so often do) to be a good thing, as my new route took me past the gates of the Dean Cemetery.  
I like to think most right-minded people like a good cemetery, though we seem to have lost the art of designing really pleasing graveyards.  Perhaps this goes with modern attitudes to death:  in life, it would appear, we are no longer in the midst of death...mostly just up to our necks in denial.
The Victorians, of course, really knew how to ‘do‘ death.  The Dean Cemetery may not have the faintly hysterical sentimentality or gothic excesses of Highgate (this is Edinburgh after all), but it does have its own douce charms.  The grave of George Aikman - Surgeon, sports a statue of a woman leaning her elbow on something that looks like an early George Forman grill.  Her forehead rests on her hand, as if she is either feels a migraine coming on or has burnt the chops waiting for her husband who is late for dinner, yet again.   
An early autumn day, all soft and faintly melancholy, is an ideal time to visit an old cemetery, particularly one as beautiful as this.  There are conveniently located benches on which to sit in the vapourous sun and think about life and death or the price of tomatoes.  Rather than having regimented rows of graves, the Dean Cemetery is a series of grassy peninsulas and islands--an archipelago of graves, all curving lines and graceful trees of appropriately weeping varieties .  The meandering paths are laid with small, quiet gravel--presumably so as not to wake the dead.  
The Dean Cemetery was, apparently, the fashionable place to be buried in Victorian Edinburgh, as well as the most secure--the spectre of Burke and Hare clearly loomed large in the 1840s when it was established.  (The cemetery website describes the famous body-snatchers as ‘resurrectionists’--a splendid generic term for grave robbers who ensured their victims experienced the second coming a little sooner than expected).  
The very tall stone walls surrounding the cemetery support enormous memorials that look like giant headstones.  Clearly in Victorian Edinburgh you could tell a lot about a man by the size of his monument--although James Haliburton, whose headstone informs us was:  ‘A zealous investigator in Egypt of its geology and antiquities’, ironically has one of the smallest obelisks in a cemetery positively littered with the things and I am sure is very annoyed by the polished marble pyramid marking a large family plot not far away.  
The gravestones (the men’s anyway) tend to focus on occupations or achievements.  I sat opposite Christopher Johnstone - General Manager of the Caledonian Railway from 1856 to 1867.  There is no other information about him other than some very small letters at the bottom of the headstone saying he died in 1984 at the age of 67.  
Another favourite of mine is General Sir Archibald Alison, who was a Colonel in the Seaforth Highlanders, Honorary Colonel of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry and whose surprisingly small sarcophagus is crowded with information:  he ‘served in the Crimea 1885' at the 'capture of Kertch and Siege of Sebastopol' and was military secretary to Lord Clyde, Commander in Chief of the relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny--(lost left arm) it says in parenthesis.  There follows a whole list of battle honours from all sorts of exotic places, with a sentence squeezed in right at the bottom saying:  ‘Thanked twice by both Houses of Parliament’.  Well, quite.
Women’s graves tend to give a date of death and say simply 'beloved wife' or 'sister' or 'daughter'; women being given no further distinguishing characteristics (parenthetical or otherwise), unlike in the splendid ‘Merry Cemetery’ in Sapanta in northern Romania. Here the cheerful, colourful graves of men and women alike have splendid naive paintings which tell a story or in some way depict the resident individual’s life--not just what they did, but who they were and what they loved.  They are joyful, celebratory things and often funny, as are some of the epitaphs -
Under this heavy cross
Lays my poor mother in-law
Three more days she would have lived
I would lay, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause' if she comes back home
She'll criticise me more.
But I'll behave so well
That she'll not return from hell.
Stay here, my dead mother-in-law!
It all seems very far from sober Edinburgh where, as the poet Andrew Marvell put it, ‘the grave’s a fine and quiet place, But none I think do there embrace...’  Though I daresay there’s a coy mistress or two to be found, even in the august precincts of the Dean Cemetery.  
I  found a pleasing epitaph on a small memorial set into at the bottom of the wall on the outer side, where the path is almost overgrown and the ground falls steeply away to the river.  Kelly Susan Dikeou's grave gives her dates of birth and death and simply says:  'Born of American parents'.  
I think the same would do nicely for me...unless I decide to use my other favourite:  'I'll be right back'. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A nation of 'fash-ists'


A woman tried to use a lottery ticket to get on the bus yesterday, which you might say re-defines the whole concept of luck.  I thought the bus driver was brave to enter into debate with her (with commendable delicacy) as she looked as if she might be monumental--at the very least-- in her displeasure (and she did have a tattoo on the back of her neck saying:  ‘get tae f..k’).   She was an altogether awe-inspiring figure, moving with space-eroding, ponderous dignity.  An Easter Island statue, she wore a pink scrunchie in her hair, a pair of lilac leggings (which should be used in the future to build all suspension bridges given their apparent ability to take an impossible amount of strain without giving way) and completed her 'Jordan meets Vicki Pollard' look with a white t-shirt in which her bosoms fought like two spaniels in a hammock.  
She was understandably cast down that her lottery ticket would not buy her a place on a Lothian Transport bus.  But she did not rage--only seemed, as they occasionally say in these parts, a little fashed about it.  I could not help but sympathise—if a lottery ticket has not brought you your fortune, the least it can do is get you a seat on a bus.    But she found some change and eventually took her seat, reconciled it would seem, to the situation...or perhaps she was still hoping it would turn out in some way to be a winning ticket.  Her face settled into monolithic repose and she tucked both tickets carefully away in her change purse.
Hope is not a word I necessarily equate with Edinburgh; it sounds too chancy for a city built on reek and reason.   But I would like to believe that the word  fash originated in Edinburgh  (it appears to come from the verb facher -- we Scots do like our French words, putting our gigots of lamb on ashets). In Edinburgh when things go wrong (or gang agley), more often than not we say, dinnae fash yoursel, which means--essentially--‘don’t have a cow’.  
Our lady on the bus might well have reacted rather more strongly to the bad news that her ticket was no good, rather than being merely fashed.  But I think this is part of the fundamental pessimism that is ingrained in the Scottish character (think of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army with his constant refrain - ‘We’re doomed, we’re doomed’).   It might be something to do with the weather, or having a national hero who talked to spiders, or having to raise  an army for a Prince who was named (according to Billy Connelly) after three dogs:  Bonnie, Prince and Charlie.  At any rate, it is all about hedging your bets (which is no doubt why Edinburgh prospered for so long as a financial centre).
Do not misunderstand me--I think pessimism is a good thing.  Recent research shows that pessimists are happier than optimists, which makes perfect sense to me.  If you are always prepared for the worst, anything short of disaster or despair is a bonus.  A pessimist is never disappointed--or at least not for long. Manage your expectations and you will almost always be pleasantly surprised. 
 Your lottery ticket may not win you a fortune, it may not even get you on the bus, but dinnae fash yoursel, at least you didn’t miss the bus.  Things could always be worse--that could be the SNP's campaign slogan; it's what it should say on the Scott monument (with a pink scrunchie on top, of course). 
(with thanks to Stefan and Sheila, who reminded me about the history of 'fash-ism')



Friday, 31 August 2012

How to get the blues without holding your breath


It is not at all unusual to hear the words:  ‘they only come along once in a blue moon’--when you are standing at a bus stop.   Blue moons are not as rare as buses on a rainy day, but then again, they do not happen with monotonous regularity either (15 in the next 20 years?).  But today is one of those days.  If you are standing at a bus stop tonight, the full moon in the sky above you will be a blue moon.

 As a measure of rarity,  ‘a blue moon’ sounds wonderfully exotic.  It is the very stuff of romance: ‘Blue moon/you saw me standing alone/without a dream in my heart/without a love of my own’, as the Rogers and Hart song has it.  For some reason blue moons always make me think more of ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar’ -- either because Kashmir seems so much more intriguing than say, Gorgie, or maybe because I have some subconscious understanding that the light from a blue moon would be enough to make anyone look like a bucket of skimmed milk?

But of course, blue moons aren’t blue at all.  A blue moon is, rather more pedestrianly, when a full moon is seen twice in the same calendar month--not so rare as Halley’s Comet or hen’s teeth, but intermittent enough to lend interest, happening every two to three years.        This definition has evidently only been around since 1946, so is a comparatively modern usage. In the 19th century you said something wasn’t going to happen ‘until a blue moon’ if you meant it was never going to happen.  At some point this usage was overtaken by flying pigs (which, as far as I know, are not related to cows jumping over the moon, although as a child I was reliably informed that the moon was made of green cheese).

 Another, older and rather more confusing definition of a blue moon is the third of four moons in a single season.  I think I get that... but two full moons in a calendar month is the Trivial Pursuit definition of a blue moon, so that must be right? Right? (this from the woman who once answered the Trivial Pursuit question:  Which airplane is launched with a rubber band?  ‘A B52’, I replied brightly.  For those not up on airplanes, this is a very large, lumbering bomber.  I blame my education...).

However, just because blue moons aren’t blue, that doesn’t mean you are never going to see a blue moon.  According to Spaceweather.com, ‘Volcanoes and wildfires fill the air with ash and dust. If the airborne particles are just the right size--about 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) wide--they act like a color-filter, tinging the moon blue. Clouds of water droplets, ice crystals or fine-grained sand can do the same thing.’

Blue or not, sometimes I would rather just do without the science.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Civilisation for beginners

Late August in Edinburgh, when the frenetic madness of the past few weeks is touched by the slightest whiff of melancholy as the nights begin to perceptibly draw in and here and there trees show the first hints of bronze and russet pink.  Rowan berries glow preternaturally red in the soft evening light and there is a sense  of febrile exhaustion—of an entire city feeling tired and emotional, but determined to have a good time until the party is well and truly over.  In this overcharged atmosphere everything seems exaggerated—the crowds, the rain—and responses are often disproportionate.  We are all subject to this end of an epoch mood.
Riding the bus is different in August as well.  The drivers are remarkably even-tempered (to the extent that I wonder if they have been to special classes) with all the befuddled visitors asking questions and not listening to the answers or complaining vigorously about deviations from the routes shown on their maps.  There are people sleeping, fighting, or staring straight ahead in stony silence, pointedly ignoring their partners as punishment for some misdemeanour--a considerable advance on the frequently heard waspish exchanges:  "if you’d not left the tickets at the hotel..."  "Well, it’s your fault for making me go and see the play about a three-headed nun and a zebra...."  A few afternoons ago  a couple at the back of the bus were arguing with such grim concentration that neither of them noticed that their suitcase (one of those shiny, hard ones resembling a small refrigerator with a wheel on each corner—something you would keep nuclear grade weapons materials in) had broken  free and was sailing down the gangway picking up speed.   It took out two loved-up Spanish teenagers waiting to get off (the bus, I mean, though I have no doubt the other was on the cards as well).  
Passengers loll about with their legs or bags or theatrical props in the aisles, refusing to give up the front seats to the elderly and infirm, blocking the gangways, yelling down their phones or at each other.  When sudden heavy showers of rain come umbrellas turn into pikestaffs, tempers fray, traffic irretrievably tangles, buses are late and even the up to now sanguine drivers show the strain—honking, head-shaking, impatiently nudging -- the ‘I’m bigger than you, mate’ bus equivalent of sticking the elbows out in order to force their way through blockages.  The absent-minded pedestrians who have, with impunity, been ignoring traffic lights, wandering into the road unexpectedly and generally exhibiting the same sort of behaviour that did for Lord Cardigan’s cavalry in the charge of the light brigade, have now exhausted the  drivers’ patience--they are scattered like hens in a rainstorm as the buses try desperately to make the lights before they turn, losing more minutes on schedules already hopelessly out of touch with the putative timetable.  Puddles are parted like the Red Sea, though with considerably more splashing, leaving perfectly innocent bystanders looking like extras in ‘Waterworld’ rather than ‘The Ten Commandments’. 
I can’t help but think that it is a situation that calls for George Washington...or rather, the lines young George wrote as a schoolboy when he wasn’t not lying (if you see what I mean) about chopping down cherry trees.  Not unlike Bart Simpson’s efforts (‘I will not buy a presidential pardon’ or, ’poking a dead raccoon is not research’), young George’s homework was to copy out a list of 110 ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation’.  It is said these were compiled by an order of Jesuits for the young gentlemen they taught and were thought to have had a profound influence on the young  George Washington’s character. 
Some of these guidelines for how to behave in public may seem a bit puzzling in a modern context, nevertheless there are some that seem particularly apposite for Edinburgh buses in August.  I can’t help but feel they should be adopted into legislation as soon as possible:
1st. Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
2d. When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body not usually Discovered.
3d. Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.
4th. In the Presence of Others sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum, with your Fingers or Feet.
5th. If you Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud, but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside.
6th. Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you should hold your Peace, walk not when others Stop
7th. Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out of your Chamber half Drest.
8th. At Play and at Fire its Good manners to give Place to the last Commer, and affect not to Speak Louder than ordenary.
10th. When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and Even, without putting one on the other or Crossing them
11th. Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.
12th. Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys, lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by appr[oaching too nea]r [when] you Speak.
If you think about it, the applications are obvious...  There is even a rule for me:
18th. Read  no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company ...
....or even on the bus


 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Having your chips...


This week, I did not read on the A9--largely because I was driving on it.  The A9 is arguably (at least to ex-highlanders like me) the coronary artery of Scotland.  If you were a Mars bar, you would deep fry yourself and clog it; if you were Hannibal, you would march your elephants up it.  It is the grand trunk road (sorry, no pun intended) of Scotland, though  General Wade, who was responsible for building all those military roads and rather attractive forts and bridges to help the English army control the natives after the ’45, would be appalled at the political cheese-paring that resulted in a highway that changes from two-lane to dual carriageway and back again in the on-again, off-again road-building equivalent of the relationship between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.   

Aside from the quiet pleasure of seeing the Cairngorms rise up before you in all their purpled mountain majesty (it is hard to believe Katherine Lee Bates had never seen them when she wrote the lyrics to America the Beautiful.  She also wrote Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, a poem that arguably established Mrs Claus as an early feminist, but I digress... ), there is the satisfaction of knowing that not too far down the road Ballinluig Motor Grill waits.

Although some people might consider ‘Ballinluig’ a place name as unhandy as the strangely concocted names parents seem to be giving their children:  Shateequa and Daisz and Chlamydia; ‘motor grill’ seems refreshingly straightforward--particularly in a country where public libraries have been re-named ‘Idea Stores’.  You know where you are  with a motor grill (unless English is not your first language, in which case you might wonder about the customer base for a business that barbecues engines).

I suspect that the Ballinluig Motor Grill has not materially changed since it opened in 1970, though I noticed on this visit it has a new sign and hanging baskets.  There was no need to panic--everything inside was the same as always, although I have an idea there used to be a display of banknotes of the world on the wall (but I suspect I might be making that up).   There are still swirly-topped tables of grey formica and blue vinyl covered pews that match the blue carpet-tiles on the floor.  The walls are still freshly painted pale blue and it is so clean I would quite happily have my appendix taken out in the ladies' room.  

The servers line up with their backs to the pass, the cook quietly efficient behind them in the kitchen that was open to view long before it became a fashion.  Leaning against the counter where toaster and soup pot, plates, glasses, mugs, coffee maker and milk machine (complete with rubber udders) are all immediately to hand, they cover table and cash till in apparent perpetual motion, though  they also serve, who stand and wait.   This is fast-food triage: customers sorted, fed and expedited out the door in a seamless example of effective service delivery.  You never feel rushed, but you know your order will be taken and a hot mug of tea on the table in front of you in the time it takes to put your car keys away and settle yourself properly. 

To my shame, though there is a menu to explore and homemade soup to try, I have never eaten anything other than egg, bacon and chips at the Motor Grill.  There never seems cause to visit the gastronomic hinterlands when egg, bacon and chips are what I want.  The egg yolk is always just on the right side of runny--shiny and viscous, like new motor oil--oozing rather than liquid.  The bacon tastes like pig--not dry-cured, vanilla-flavoured Islington pig--just reassuringly familiar pig.  The chips are hot and crisp and the individual packets of sauce are both culinary adornment and a handy test of motor skills: if you cannot open the packet, you shouldn’t be driving; pull your rig around the back of the service area and have a kip.

I know sensible, right-thinking people who recoil in horror, when I confess to my affection for the Motor Grill.  Reader, I judge them.  It is a place of unswerving honesty, with no pretensions to anything but serving plain food quickly and well.  Go in at almost any time of day and you are guaranteed to find as good a cross-section of the travelling public as you might find anywhere.  Someone should tell Ipsos-Mori to conduct their polling there, if they want a consistently broad-based demographic.   It is one of the few places I can think of where all men are truly equal.

When you have finished eating, you pay your bill at the till where the tab for your table waits on a numbered cup-hook.  Just in case you need something sweet to see you on your way, you can buy a Tunnock’s teacake or caramel wafer--anything else would be just plain wrong.  Put a generous tip in the cup provided on the counter--equality reigns there as well.  

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Coming over all biblical

When I was a little girl and getting a bit too uppity my mother, like thousands of mothers before her, would ask in an exasperated voice:  ‘Who do you think you are—the Queen of Sheba?’
I was puzzled by this, as I had no real desire to be the Queen of Sheba. I had seen the film ‘Solomon and Sheba’ at a tender age, so understood this to involve being biblical, but with pointy bras, really uncomfortable looking sandals and having to spend time with the Pharaoh from 'The Ten Commandments', who wore dresses, looked even more ridiculous  with hair than he did without (apologies, Yul Brynner) and seemed to be cross all the time.
  It was all very confusing, as none of this ever seemed to quite gel with what I was learning in Sunday School, though I have to admit I spent a great deal of my Sunday School career climbing over the fence to steal strawberries from the garden next door; hiding in the minister’s perfectly enormous waders, which he wore for full body immersion  baptisms (it was a Southern Baptist Church--I had a terrible Proustian shock the first time I encountered a condom,  as the rubbery smell was identical--it's a wonder I don't have issues); and reading Nancy Drew books—of which there was an impressive collection mixed in with all the worthy volumes on missionaries, angelic children and evil communists in  the tiny library in the church hall.  Truly Nancy was my personal saviour and role model:  I longed to grow up to have shiny hair, drive a blue Mustang and cleverly solve mysteries whilst in grave, personal peril.
 I daresay I behaved a like a miniature Queen of Sheba quite a lot of the time—my father and brother still regard me as a spoilt brat.  So you may imagine my surprise when I learned from The Sunday Times that, thanks to DNA research, the direct descendent of the Queen of Sheba has been identified.   She lives in Edinburgh and is a former English language teacher who describes herself as ‘very anti-bling’ (that's the Edinburgh influence), though she admits she is ‘very fond of middle-eastern food' .   
Better still, the putative Queen of Sheba does not have a car; she is a member of the city car club.  Clearly the Queen of Sheba Jr. is a right-thinking person, so any day I might find myself on a bus with her.  Now, I wonder where the King of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar hang out?

Friday, 27 July 2012

Knowing when you're licked

Today, when all the media is focused, laser-like, on the opening of the Olympic Games, I was interested to read about a young man who chewed a bus seat in Devon.  He was caught on CCTV biting a chunk out of the leather seat (clearly not a vegetarian), and washing it down with a bottle of what looks suspiciously like the widely-known, tooth-rotting, Olympic soft drink.  Was he, I could not help but wonder, a visiting American who mistakenly thought the seats were made of beef jerky?
I think my favourite part of the story was the spokeswoman for the bus company who said he had ‘...only eaten a small part of the seat.  It’s not the case that he ate the whole seat’.  That’s a relief; imagine the effect on the digestion of eating an entire bus seat—all that foam...
I have seen quite a lot of things on the bus, but have yet to see anyone even so much as sample a seat.  Perhaps this is because seats on most Lothian Buses are covered in a sort of sinister velour-like fabric—it makes my teeth feel fuzzy just thinking about it.   I can’t help but feel sorry for anyone who is so bored on a journey that they are reduced to eating the soft furnishings.  Did his mother never issue the classic remonstration: ‘don’t eat that, you don’t know where it’s been?’
In other news I learned that, rather than chewing on bus seats, in Afghanistan there is a thriving company uniting the country through the medium of ice cream: from strawberry swirls to orange ice lollies and chocolate-almond covered Nescafe version of a Magnum, the Herat Ice Cream Company delivers where others fear to go.  Apparently even the Taliban go a bundle for a saffron flavoured ice cream sandwich or a vanilla, sour cherry and pistachio ice cream.   We can only hope no one ever tells them about Mr Whippy.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Space and the yoga bunny

The last few weeks the bus has carried passengers with blotting paper faces; each of us in our little, isolated puddles of misery, barely acknowledging the presence of other human beings. Unless, that is, one of them intrudes on our space.  
 There is a woman who occasionally gets on the bus, usually when it is more or less empty.  She  ignores the empty seats and plops down with a great, gusty sigh next to some blameless soul, spreading herself over the seat like Hitler invading Poland.  She did it to me once, when I was the only person on the bus.  I looked around in what I considered a pointed sort of fashion (I have an advanced degree in passive aggression).  She remained as immovably impassive as an Easter Island statue.  I gazed around some more, leaning forward, looking back over my shoulder, taking in the full panorama of empty bus seats before fixing my disapproving gaze on the side of her head once more.  I received a sidelong glance, no more.  Finally, I broke. ‘Ummm, there are plenty of empty seats...why are you sitting in this one....?’
She twisted around as well as she could, dislodging two potatoes, a hairbrush and a Curly Wurly from her gaping handbag and said...’I want to sit here.’
Well, there’s no answer to that, is there?  Or at least, not if you are wedged against the window by someone who looks as if they snack on puppies and kittens, as well as raw potatoes and Curly Wurly's.
Curiously, something similar happened to me at the weekend.   There I sat, in corner of a perfectly empty room, peacefully perusing the Sunday paper when a woman walked across the empty room, past all the other chairs and tables and sofas--to come and sit across from me.  We would have been knee to knee if it weren’t for the fact that she was sitting with her feet in the chair—tailor fashion—like a badly folded piece of origami.  She spent several minutes adjusting her various layers of lycra, squirming like a small child listening to a long sermon and fiddling with her ringleted, red hair.  She looked as if she was working a Madonna/ Little Orphan Annie vibe. 
She rearranged her legs and wiggled some more.  She twisted her clothes.  She wiggled again.  She sighed.  She put her hair up in a stretchy headband.  She took her hair down.  She put her hair up again.
I tried my previously unsuccessful bus tactic (I'm a slow learner) of looking around the room, staring pointedly, looking around again, staring again--but this time with a ruefully arched eyebrow (I am always open to new techniques).
She squirmed some more, then with great ceremony took a book on Bikram yoga out of her patchwork bag and made great work of opening it, holding it in front of her face about four inches from her nose.  The subject matter wasn’t entirely surprising, given the lycra and the ‘let’s sit like a swami’ thing.--her bare arms looked as they had been badly plaited. 
 She read for about thirty seconds.  Then she put the book down and wriggled.  Then she picked the book up and read for about 15 seconds.  Put the book down.  Wiggled.  Picked the book up.  Re-arranged my stuff on the table next to me, pushing my bag onto the floor.  Picked the book up again, Put it down.  Wriggled.  Sighed.  Did the thing with her hair again.
When she pushed my papers off the table and spilled my cup of chai, I suggested she might find it easier if she sat somewhere she had a bit more room.
‘I can’t,’ she replied.  ‘I have to sit near a window.  I need the openness.’
I managed not to point out that the window was currently in a state of closedness or that  there was another one just like it three feet away. 
‘Claustrophobic?’  I asked, sympathetically.
‘No,’ she replied.  ‘It’s just a ‘me’ thing.’
As she worked her way through the entire wriggle, sigh, etc. process again, I decided to go and  started to gather up my things.
‘Would you like my paper?’ I asked (you can’t beat hostility veiled in politeness—it built an empire).
‘God no,’ she exclaimed.  ‘They just glorify greed and evil--all that corporate consumerism—it hurts my soul.’  She picked up her yoga book again, shuddering as if I had tried to contaminate her.   I wouldn’t have minded so much if she hadn’t been drinking a bucket of crappacino at the time.
As I left I noticed she had moved to the opposite side of the room, where someone else was now sitting.  She was playing with her hair and reading a copy of ‘Hello’.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

"All our geese are swans"


A  man came running round the corner on Monday morning, the tails of his  dark coat fanning out on either side of him as he loped away from me.  I heard his feet pounding on the wet pavement long before I saw him. He had straight, severely  trimmed white hair fanned out on his shoulders, his dark brown knitted cap pinched into a peak at the top of his head.
I wondered where he was headed in such a hurry; his long, gangly limbs working like one of those wooden artist’s models: bendable in unlikely ways. He had a sort of macabre grace, fleeing up the street.  
I caught up with him at the bus shelter, where he was peering at the timetable and glancing up the street anxiously, despite the fact the bus was not due for almost ten minutes. His neck was long and thin, like a stem; his features were razor sharp--you could have hung out your washing on his cheekbones.  But his rather distinguished profile was somewhat compromised by dental subsidence.  His deep-set eyes were small and dark and hard--like aniseed balls--and despite his obvious age, the skin on his face was curiously smooth and unlined, the colour of a brown hen’s egg.  He made me think of a character from a Steinbeck novel in his shabby, sober clothes.
He kept looking at his watch, up the street, and back at his watch.  Eventually he stepped out into the road, craning his neck and swaying gently, like a sailor on rolling deck.  I have seen people looking impatient at bus stops, but never anyone so anxious that they stood in the road, willing the bus to come.  
As the rain came down harder, he reluctantly came back into the bus shelter. I took out my ipod and he reached into his small backpack, pulling out a transistor radio and a set of ear plugs--retro chic at its finest.
He got off the bus at the west end, and I watched him rushing up the road, his arms extended slightly behind him, as if propelling him.  I hoped he was in time for whatever it was he was running to.
It bothered me all day.  I felt certain I had not seen him before, but there was something about him that seemed familiar; something that niggled and teased and vexed.   It wasn’t until I crossed the Dean Bridge walking home in the afternoon that I made the connection.
Early on Saturday morning as I was walking along a narrow stretch of the river I heard an extraordinary sound coming up river: whump, whump, whump .  A few seconds later an enormous swan came into view, running upstream on the water, the way they do when they are about to take off...except it didn’t take off.  It went on running, its feet slapping the water, its beating wings making that strange, deep, vibrating noise. I would never have guessed feathers could make such a solid, visceral sound.  
The swan should have looked ridiculous, clumsily trying to lift itself into the air.  Instead it looked powerful, inimical.  Suddenly Yeats‘ description of Zeus transformed in ‘Leda and the Swan’ -- ‘brute blood of the air’-- made perfect sense.
It passed a few feet away from me and still it went on running--effort surely out of all proportion to any result.  In the end it was almost out of sight before it finally broke free, urgently exchanging water for thin, blue air.

*'All our geese are swans' - Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Weed, words and wellingtons

For the past few weeks (months?), Edinburgh—in common with much of the rest of the UK—has felt like an aquatic city.  I expect to see Kevin Costner wandering around Princes Street Gardens in a pair of flippers any time now.  The air feels saturated with moisture, so that when we do have the occasional half-day or so of blessed respite the ground isn’t the only thing steaming as people come blinking into the light of the day, expressions of wonder on their unnaturally pale faces and an impulse to celebrate while the going is good to firm.
 But for the most part,  it is just day after day with selections from the great dictionary of rain:  showers, drizzle, mizzle, sprinkles, deluges, downpours.  Curiously, forecasters make distinctions in regard to downpours, rating them ‘light’, ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’.   Surely a downpour is an absolute, making a light downpour something akin to being a little bit pregnant?   Another rain word, which I heard for the first time on Radio 4 last week, is ‘plothering’.  I am not entirely sure what plothering is:  a combination of plodding and bothering?  It reminds me of when my youngest daughter (who was 4 years old at the time), came in from playing on a rainy day announcing that she was ‘sodding wet’. 
Despite my fears that we will soon all become so water-logged we will look like a nation of prunes, I had the pleasure of walking in the aftermath of a thunderstorm last week.  The lurid light seeping under the bruised plum clouds tinted the world with a greenish-bronze cast while a cool breeze teased its way through the sticky warmth:  now you feel it, now you don’t.   The Water of Leith was high--choppy and brown and flecked with dirty, creamy foam.  A swan stood on improbably green grass next to the river looking deeply affronted, as if it had forgotten that its feet had alternate uses to paddling.  All the dogs in the neighbourhood, out for a quick post-inundation walk, looked about with cautious expressions, as if they knew something we didn’t.  I expect they probably did.
Meanwhile, the local library closed for ‘emergency repairs’.  I can’t help but picture soggy books floating between pillars and librarians wearing snorkels.  But in the great British spirit of being ‘good in a crisis’, the library is bivouacked in temporary accommodation across the street and the mobile library was alongside, open for business on Saturday, all light and warm and welcoming, when I went to return my books. 
I remarked to the driver what a nostalgic pleasure it was, having used the mobile library service in Skye for many years.  He said to me that he too, had used the mobile library service all his life—but in Edinburgh.  ‘You have no idea how many areas in the city didn’t have libraries and relied on the service...they still do.  We go all over the place, get to know people—it’s like a party on here, some days,’ he said looking fondly at the neatly arranged shelves.  ‘It’s the best job I’ve ever had,’ he continued.  ‘The best job in the world.  The wheels on this bus never stop going round.’
 At this point a very skinny man with lanky unwashed hair and a hunted expression climbed on, looked around and asked if there were any books on growing things indoors, ‘under lights, like’. 
The mobile bus driver and I looked at each other and I could see we were thinking the same thing.  Come the deluge, I know which bus we’re going to be on.