It’s hard to get a full-length shot of the Sir Walter Scott Memorial, simply because it is so dang BIG. In fact, it’s the largest monument ever built anywhere to a writer, and stands at 61 metres tall (that’s more than 18 storeys!).
I generally think a single great shot speaks louder and more eloquently than multiple shots, but I wasn’t able to produce any one shot I was completely happy with, so I’ve included this next shot as well, as it better shows the heftiness of the monument …
… while this next shot, I’m hoping, conveys how tall it is …
You can climb all the way up to the very top balcony of the monument by way of an extremely – I stress, extremely – tight stone spiral stairwell. It’s not too bad to begin with, and you can reach the first and second landings fairly effortlessly, but the final two stairwells tested me, and I had to remind myself that I do not suffer from vertigo, dizziness or claustrophobia, all three of which suggested themselves to me.
The main problem was that the upper stairwells have no windows, and so you’re acutely aware of the numerous tight revolutions of tunnel both above and below you (while being unsure exactly how far above or below you they extend), so there is no quick escape in either direction. That, at least, was my issue, and I’d entered the memorial with nary a concern in my head.
I’m a little miffed with this picture, which shows the entrance to the one stairwell, as I don’t feel it accurately portrays how narrow the upper stairwells are. The final portion can’t have been any wider than a foot and a half. I seriously think larger folk would come unstuck in that part (unstuck insomuch as they would of course become actually stuck).
The Scott Memorial was built by the Scottish people from a desire to show ensuing generations just how highly the man was esteemed by his own generation. The monument is impressive but also rather ungainly. This is what Dickens, a big fan of Scott, wrote of it:
Ah, Dickens, you always say things so much better than any of the rest of us could ever hope to!
Scott (1771-1832), a poet, novelist and playwright, played an important part in the Scottish Enlightenment, which was a sudden burst of Scottish intellectualism, innovation and creativeness, centred in Edinburgh. Importantly, he invented the historical novel, blending fictional and historical characters based in a time before his own birth. Dickens, Thackeray and others acknowledged him as their predecessor in this.
His importance to the Scots was and is about how he helped to foster a renewed interest and pride in their own, distinctive history, and about how his works brought Scotland greater international recognition and fame.
Last week I visited the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on Lady Stair’s Close. The museum focusses solely on Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. While there I was interested to read the preamble to Stuart Kelly’s book Scott-Land, wherein he ponders over the immense popularity and impact of Scott in his own time and how he helped to shape a nation’s identity, and how he is yet completely overlooked and unread today. To this I have to say: so true. I’ve never read a single one of his works, and I love historical fiction. Rob Roy has sat on my bookshelf for years, but when it comes time to pick up a new novel, I always pass over it for something else. Why is that?
Linked to this, I’ve always had a hard time even remembering him in the distinct way I do other authors. What I mean is, I find that Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson are forever confusingly entwined in my mind, and whenever I think on either of them, I have to pause and ask myself: okay, so which one is it again that wrote Treasure Island?
The same goes for Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas – I know that I know who wrote what, and yet I must always take a silent moment to re-establish it in my mind every time I think on any of their works anew. Am I horribly Anglo-centric? Yet I know other French authors, like Jules Verne most obviously, and I don’t muddle him up with anyone else. It’s really rather perplexing.
However, having stood high up on that top balcony of the Scott Memorial, with my back pressed ever so firmly against the inner wall whilst I looked out (but never down!) over all of Edinburgh, I hope this confused entanglement of Scott and Stevenson will, at long last, be laid aside.
Another history post: Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.
Other posts interested in the classics: Jane Austen and Edinburgh Castle at night, William Makepeace Thackeray and battle lore, and Bookcases, bedtime reading, libraries and story-telling.
There’s so much going on at the Edinburgh Festival, and not only strictly-speaking Festival things, but also other events capitalising on the crowds that the Festival brings. Like the Jane Austen evening we stumbled upon that was being held by Charlotte Chapel, a church that can be found in the pretty pedestrian, bunting-lined Rose Street. Like pilgrims, we journeyed to Rose Street on Friday evening to attend the event, secure in the knowledge that any evening devoted to Austen would be a good one. We arrived, and, intriguingly, were among a crowd of women only.
While queuing to go in we were all given an Austen quiz to fill in, and from thinking I would dominate I was instead chagrined to realise I knew very few of the answers with any certainty. For example:
– Who can say what the title of Pride and Prejudice was originally going to be? Options: “First Impressions”, “Elizabeth and Darcy”, or “Pemberley”.
– Also, which actor prompted a phone call from the Jane Austen Society to the director to complain that he was too handsome to play his assigned role? Options: Greg Wise (Willoughby), Hugh Grant (Ferrars), or Colin Firth (Darcy).
(Answers at the end of the post.)
It was a small, intimate affair – maybe 100 of us, tops? – and I really enjoyed it. One lady played Jane, sitting at the desk in the picture above, and she would read aloud extracts from Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, wherein Jane would introduce her latest book and explain the primary themes she addressed in it. Other women from Charlotte Chapel would then appear, dressed in regency costume, and read relevant extracts from the novels. Sometimes snippets from some of the TV/film adaptations were also shown. My only complaint is that they used the BBC Emma when wanting a scene from that story, and I can’t stand that version; the 1996 McGrath version is superior in every way, from casting to directing to editing to … well, yes, everything. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam forever!
Some of the titbits that most struck me were:
– Jane was very concerned with showing a development in self awareness in her heroines, and often her lead males too, Elizabeth and Darcy being prime examples. Only Fanny Price didn’t really need a journey of self-realisation, but rather it was those around her, like Edmund, that needed to learn a thing or two about themselves.
– Of all her heroines, Jane liked Elizabeth the best. Me, I have more sympathy with Emma and Anne.
– Jane dreamt up the independent and wilful Emma in response to complaints from her readers that her last heroine, Fanny, was too much of a doormat.
At the very end, a 30ish, single lady from the church chatted about how Jane’s preoccupation with marriage was very understandable, given that women of that period could only find any kind of financial or practical security through a husband. She then asked why, as modern women, we are still as preoccupied with romance and marriage, since we no longer need it to be financially secure? She pointed to our desire to have a relationship with someone who will love us and meet all our needs. Jesus, she said, is the only one who can actually be that person for each of us.
Charlotte Chapel seemed a really lovely, motivated church, and I was glad to have visited. I really admire them.
Afterwards, we walked home, a stroll of at least an hour that took us first through Princes Street Gardens, then up and over the Mound, before dropping us down again alongside Bruntsfield Links and our little res. As a South African, I have to give a nod to the awesomeness that is a late evening stroll through the city without a care for safety. So, yes: a big nod to that.
This is the beautiful sight of the castle at dusk, as seen from Princes Street Gardens:
Answers: “First Impressions” and Hugh Grant.
Edinburgh is beautiful. I visited it for just 24 hours a while back, but was sufficiently captivated (not a word I use lightly) that I have always maintained I will return. Now I am here for the Edinburgh Festival – lucky sausage that I am – and I am seeing it at its best; the streets are overflowing with all sorts of interesting people, the sun is shining (not warmly, but at least it is there), and the late evening hours are about pink, streaky clouds and expansive parks filled out with lounging, relaxed people.
This is the view from the university residence where I am staying. The photo was taken at about 9pm. I love the romantic architecture, the warmth of the brick face as lit by the last, low rays of the sun, and the pretty, broad leaves of the trees, which were swaying in a bracing, night-is-coming breeze.
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon is set in the small, ‘nowhere’ town of Sequoyah, Oklahoma. More specifically, it focuses on a roadside diner originally intended to be called The Honk and Holler, but known as the Honk and Holler Opening Soon because the owner made a drunken phone call to the company tasked with making the roadside sign, and so consequently, 14 years later, the diner is still known as The Honk and Holler Opening Soon. An eclectic cast of characters work or dine at the Honk, and it is their interrelated stories that drive the narrative.
In terms of our main characters, there is Caney Paxton, the 40ish paraplegic Vietnam vet who is the owner of the diner and who has never left its walls since he was wheeled in after leaving the hospital.
There is also MollyO, his surrogate mother who waitresses at the Honk and pines after her runaway teenage daughter.
Then there is Vena Takes Horse, a homeless Crow woman who rocks up just before Christmas with a three-legged dog she rescued off the highway. Vena muscles her way into a job by showing her skills as a revenue-garnering carhop.
There is also the sweet-natured Bui Khanh, a Vietnamese refugee looking to find a way to bring his wife to America. Bui, who becomes the Honk’s handyman, is also homeless and he sneaks into a local church at night for shelter.
Finally, there is an assortment of other folks who pepper the story with local colour, problems and humour – many elderly, some rather nosy, a few with disabilities, and at least one downright dangerous. These men and women come to the Honk daily for coffee, meals and gossip, and the narrative thus never lags or lacks for storylines.
Why I like it
Letts’s writing is imaginative and skilful. She knows how to tell a story you will care about, but her writing is far from sentimental and she doesn’t wallow in anything – the pace is steady and you are quickly caught up in a handful of interconnected plots. And it’s certainly refreshing to read a story set in Oklahoma.
Thinking about it, you know what else is refreshing? Reading a story wherein none of the A- or even B-level characters is described as beautiful, stunning, handsome, gorgeous, rugged or even pretty. There is just a host of ordinary-looking people whose appearances affect very little about their lives, yet they still have stories worth telling. I like it.
I think what I perhaps loved most about the novel, aside from its humour, is the way that Letts avoids writing cheese while at the same time refrains from writing soul-destroying flint. She describes the dire – people at the bottom of society, desperate situations, all-too-familiar personal tragedies, and some really cheap, Slumsville settings – while still managing to impart a sense of optimism. She does not shy away from describing cruelty, darkness and hardship, and yet cruelty is always ameliorated by kindness, darkness by light, and hardship by hope. Letts somehow leaves the reader feeling that their eyes have been opened to the world and yet they have also been affirmed in the goodness of humanity and the possibility of redemption. I think that rather masterful.
An extract to help convince you to read it
Here is one of my favourite passages, written just after MollyO’s daughter Brenda once again runs away (having first, of course, stolen cash from her mother), which showcases Letts’s humour as well as her heart:
MollyO came on to work the next morning, weepy and exhausted. She hadn’t slept for twenty-eight hours, but it wasn’t the first time she’d spent a night walking the floor in despair.
When Caney found out what Brenda had done, he was so furious that he raged around the rest of the morning, his anger splattering like bacon in hot grease. He banged around the kitchen, slamming skillets onto burners, hacking the meat cleaver into the cutting board, knocking cans of corn and peas from the pantry shelves and cussing onions and eggs as if he’d found them sneaking around telling lies.
But once, when MollyO came back to the sink to wash her hands, he grabbed her around the waist and buried his head in her chest, held her without a word, then rolled away and smacked five pounds of ground beef, punishment, perhaps, for whatever grief that cow had brought to its mother.
I really loved this book. It has a strong sense of place and is funny, imaginative, tense, and heart-breaking and heart-warming at turns. It has a cast of interesting and truly individualistic personalities that you quickly come to own as your own, and so follow their stories with interest and concern. I read it flat-out it was that fun, engaging and easy to read.
Have any of you read it? What did you think?
Someone said to me the other day that I should try writing book reviews. It’s not something I’ve ever really concerned myself with (not since the days of forced book reviews in high school). But I do find myself wanting to share with others when I’ve read a book I really enjoyed. I’ve never really kept up with the latest books, so any book reviews I do stand little chance of being current. But good books surely stand the test of the time, so I won’t worry myself with that. Hence this review of a book written 15 years ago! If you haven’t read it before, I hope you can lay your hands on a copy and that you too will have some fun hours of reading.
If you enjoyed today’s post, you would probably also be interested in The 25 best novels of all time, A ditty was promised, so a ditty must be written! Also, a love poem, an old railway advert & Gibson Girls and What have I been reading?.
Shelley wasn’t the bravest seabird that had ever lived. Far from it. In fact, she was the only storm petrel she knew who lived on the mainland, preferring the stability of her life in the big horse chestnut in Mrs Kowalski’s sprawling garden – with its view of the ocean and the sturdy fence that kept out mammals – to a life at sea, roaming up and down the Atlantic. She had visited her cousins’ rocky, summertime home just once as a fledgling; she had found it desolate and inhospitable, and, after one particularly fearsome night of hunkering down as the small islet was buffeted by winds strong enough to pluck the feathers off any little petrel girl, had vowed to never return.
It was lonely, to be sure, living the years by herself in that big old chestnut on a quiet stretch of Ireland’s coast, and when the colony was far away she had to do her trawling on her own, but Shelley’s parents had raised her with the injunction to be true to her nature, and she had always determined to do just that, even if her nature made the other storm petrels call her names like “deviant”, “landlubber” and, possibly most hurtful of all, “weirdo”.
Feeling shunned by her own, Shelley made an effort to converse with the other genera in the surrounding trees, as well as with diverse and seasonal passers-by. Some would give her strange looks, but others were friendly and the hen two trees over always made a fuss of her when she visited.
It was this mothering friend, called Helga, that Shelley visited the day of her fifth birthday. Helga knew a thing or two about standing out from the crowd; she had once told Shelley that she believed her family to be the only Fea’s petrels in the land.
Shelley had cleaned herself particularly well in mark of her birthday; the backs of her wings glistened jet black in the weak sun and her square tail fanned out neatly as she made the short trip. A moment later she hopped onto the branch leading directly to Helga’s home. “Happy birthday, Elskan,” Helga said when she spotted Shelley, making use of the Nordic endearment she’d adopted for her young neighbour. She fluttered her wings in Shelley’s direction, inviting her to come further in.
“I’m five today, Helga,” Shelley said without any to-do, shuffling along unsteadily on her thin little legs. An unexpected wobble had entered into her voice when she spoke, and she had to swallow hard to repress it, hurting her throat. “I’m getting old.”
“Not so, Elskan,” Helga insisted. “Still lots of time to find a mate and have a chick.” At this juncture she nudged her own hatchling further back into the nest with her beak.
“You really think so? Even for a ‘weirdo’ storm petrel like myself who doesn’t get out much?”
“Algerlega – absolutely.”
Shelley smiled gratefully at the firmness in Helga’s voice. Knowing her to be a forbearing friend, Shelley added forlornly, “But I never meet any other storm petrels, not now my parents are gone. I eat with them, but none ever talk to me. So how am I supposed to meet a good-looking young petrel who isn’t already partnered, or even just a girlfriend of my own age?” She suspected she already knew what Helga’s answer would be.
“By being brave, Elskan, by being brave.”
Shelley started to tear up. “But I’m not brave. I’m the opposite of brave – I’m, I’m … a chicken.” There was a short pause, then they smiled at one another over the little joke.
“Thankfully you are far too pretty and dainty to be a chicken. Look at you – you’re a sweet little catch. And maybe you haven’t been especially brave up till now – but you will be. You can be.” Helga batted a moment with the naughty hatchling. Then she faced Shelley again and said, “You’ve spoken to so many of the other birds around here – some of them big, rough types. Other storm petrels really shouldn’t be so terrible after all that. I even saw you talking with a big, testy Northern Fulmar last autumn!”
“It’s not the same,” Shelley pouted. “They – you – only expect me to be whatever it is I am – you don’t know what a storm petrel is supposed to be and do. Other storm petrels do, and I don’t fit in.” She sighed. “At least almost none of them remember me now and I can go feeding near them without having to endure the insults and knowing looks.”
“You don’t think I get looks, a Fea’s petrel in Ireland? Lots of birds are a bit different, a bit … unanticipated. Interesting birds, like us,” Helga said with a brisk devil-may-care shake of her head feathers. She then settled back down and gave her young friend a long searching look, before finally saying, “Why not stay on the waters a little longer tonight? Don’t just fly home as soon as you’ve eaten. Stay. Chat. Mingle.” Shelley nodded dolefully in response. “You don’t have to do much more than that. The right storm petrel will see you with time and he’ll take it from there. You must just let yourself be seen. Baby steps, Elskan, baby steps – tonight, just stay on the water for a little bit longer. Agreed?”
Shelley sat still, her face down, thinking, then she looked up and nodded decisively, a tiny spark in her stomach making her realise she could actually do it – if she decided to do it. There was nothing stopping her, she told herself. She was tired of being alone. Yes, she was living on her own terms, in her own way, but it was lonely. She wanted something more.
“Tonight I will be brave, Helga. I will make you proud of me.” She shuffled away, back along the branch. Just before she leapt off, she looked over her shoulder to smile at her friend and say, “Thanks, Helga.”
“Any time, Elskan, any time. You just hang in there. And Helga will be here to cheer you along all the way.”
That evening Shelley flew out to sea with a light in her eyes. The sky was dark with clouds, and a fresh north-westerly breeze carried her easily along her way. A short while later she dropped down onto the surface of the ocean, cold as always but with waves that were relatively gentle. No excuses, she told herself, and proceeded to nibble on the first piece of plankton that floated her way.
When her hunger started to abate, she slowed down her feeding and looked about furtively in between mouthfuls at the group of nearby storm petrels, all chattering with each other as they ate. They made it look so easy, and Shelley felt the recognisable anxiety wrap itself around her like seaweed around one’s feet. She contemplated abandoning her plan and just flying home. Her stomach was full enough. But then she remembered what she had promised Helga about being brave. The flicker of determination in her belly was still there, and she focused on it, urging it to grow bigger and help her.
Expelling saltwater through her nostrils, she lifted herself up and resolutely pattered across the water towards two youngish-looking birds on the fringe of the group. Having reached their spot, she plopped down into the water next to them, clearly taking them by surprise.
“Hi,” she said. “We’ve never met before. I’m Shelley.”
It turned out the two petrels she had chosen were brother and sister – Bonnie and Ioan – and they had just been discussing their next trip to Malta. Shelley asked them about it, and instead of making her feel embarrassed because she hadn’t been herself, they began to tell her about it. Bonnie described the warmth of the waters and the colours of the flowers on the trees, and Ioan told her about the taste of the food there, and the gentleness of the air. They asked her about her life, and then listened interestedly as she told them about her horse chestnut and the garden. Before she knew it, all the other birds had left and it was just the three of them that remained, talking. She had outstayed them all!
As she said goodbye to Bonnie and Ioan, having promised to meet them the next evening, Shelley felt lighter. She didn’t know if she was any closer to finding a partner – Ioan was a little young at just three years old – but she had been brave, and she knew it. Shelley-level brave, at least. And her future started to open up in her mind’s eye at the prospect of the other brave things she might surprise herself by doing.
1. I just speed-read War and Peace. It’s about some Russians. (Woody Allen)
2. Life reeks with possibilities. (Lauren Bacall)
3. Remember, candy is dandy, but fruit makes you poop. (Kim Possible)
4. It might have been […] chance, or its more flamboyant relative, destiny. (Carlos Ruiz Zafón)
5. You have a tremendous grasp of the obvious. (Wipeout)
6. Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. (L. Peter & R. Hull)
7. If you want to forget all your troubles, wear tight shoes. (Anon)
8. Whether they find life there or not, I think Jupiter should be considered an enemy planet. (Jack Handy)
9. There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good. (Edwin Denby)
10. I woke up this morning in the mood to not be awake. (23thorns)
11. I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly. (Peter Cook)
A ditty was promised, so a ditty must be written! Also, a love poem, an old railway advert & Gibson Girls
One of my readers – Sean Smithson – spotted an error in my “About” page; the underlined “as” had been accidentally omitted: “If you read my posts you’ll inadvertently learn probably as much as you would like to know about how this mind of mine works.”
Well spotted, I say! I promised the reader who found a mistake a ditty, and so the below is what I devised.
But first, in case some of you don’t know what a ditty is, it’s simply a short, simple song or poem (from Old French ditie – poem).
A ditty (that embraces the silly)
Oh, run away word,
where have you gone?
Your home is right here,
are you going to be long?
Sean S., the word catcher,
caught the thing in its haste;
that word was sent packing,
and now sits in its right place.
Perhaps after that I should share a ditty or two as penned by the pros, so as to highlight all that they can be!
A Ditty (by Sir Philip Sidney)
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one to the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.
His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.
Now, for an example from the early C20th, the image below is one of a series of advertisements used by the Lackawanna Railroad in the eastern US to capitalise on its use of anthracite, a kind of hard coal that burns cleanly, not creating the soot and cinders that normal coal does.
The advertisers came up with the fictional character of Phoebe Snow, whom they used to promote the line they accordingly dubbed The Road of Anthracite.
The quote below, from Steamtown: Special History Study, explains how the railroad developed this advertising strategy:
Early in 1899, […] Mark Twain, wrote the company after a trip to Elmira that he had worn a white duck suit and it was still white when he reached his destination. [The company] seized upon the idea of taking advantage of the line’s clean-burning coal in advertising for passenger traffic and adopted the slogan for the Lackawanna Road as “The Road of Anthracite.” As a symbol, probably for the first time in 1901, the railroad seized upon the image of a demure “Gibson girl” dressed head to toe in sparkling white, and published a seemingly endless series of jingles or poems.
Three more of the Phoebe ditties go like this:
Here Phoebe may By night or day Enjoy her book Upon the way Electric light Dispels the night Upon the Road Of Anthracite Says Phoebe Snow, About to go Upon a trip To Buffalo: "My gown stays white from morn till night Upon the Road of Anthracite. A coach or sleigh Was once the way Of reaching home On Christmas day Now - Phoebe's right - You'll expedite The trip by Road Of Anthracite To read more, you can click here.
During WWI, anthracite was needed for the war effort, so trains couldn’t use it anymore and Phoebe Snow disappeared.
Phoebe was drawn as a Gibson Girl, and Gibson Girls, I’ve just learned with interest, were designed to be the epitome of supposed feminine beauty at the time: gracious, curvy, fashionable, independent, at ease with themselves, and possessing a fragile outer beauty.
The Gibson Girls creator, Charles Dana Gibson, had this to say about his drawings: “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores […] There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.”
– Quote from Marshall, E. (1910-11-20). “The Gibson Girl Analyzed By Her Originator”. The New York Times.
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