Monday 15 November 2021

1988 Northern England, Glasgow, Isle of Skye


On the road again.  I like – rather masochistically – the whole business of getting up early.  The morning seems fresh, the roads are relatively empty.  I dislike motorways, though.  They are so boring – I literally fall asleep.

I stopped off in Derby.  I came here some 13 years ago.  I recognise nothing.  I recall the Joseph Wrights, which were still there, including the famous "orrery" – what a nice word – but the building is nothing like I remember.  Derby itself is a small, rather boring town, full of 19th-century buildings.  I am amazed to see tiny houses for sale at £10,000.  I am tempted to buy a few.

On the way I passed near Towcester in the hope that I could find Hawksmoor's Easton Neston: no luck.  I am now at Kedleston Hall.  The approach across the bridge presents a classical stately home: central portico'ed house with two adjoining wings, each with attached porticos.  It is amazing Palladio's influence: what are those porticos doing?  Except saying "Look, I'm classical", and therefore imperial and established.

It is a rather cold grey day, the yellowish-brown of the stone seems perfectly in keeping with the landscape: no gleaming Parian marble here.  Perversely, the park opens at 11, the restaurant at 12, and the house only at 1pm.  I am worried by the fact that all the other visitors are 50 or above.  Lunch in what was clearly the servants' hall.  Over the great fireplace, the stern injunction "Waste not. Want not."  The room is very high and airy; the tables are huge ancient (oak?) slabs, scored and pitted through use.  Stone flags on the floor.  The walls are bare; to the south, a balustered gallery.  Above the fireplace, a complicated pulley mechanism for turning spits.

The contrast of Kedleston with Castle Howard is extreme.  The former is about classical restraint; the latter baroque exuberance.  Walking through Castle Howard, I am amazed by all the odd turns and corners and corridors and flights of Piranesi-like steps.  It is architecture of theatre.  The main domed hall is particularly impressive – compare the chill, hard-lined Kedleston Hall.   Castle Howard soars on the wings of unfettered, exulting genius.  Kedleston is careful and middle-class and middle-aged.  It seems entirely appropriate that Kedleston would have sheep where Castle Howard has glorious impossible peacocks.  Their screeches echo eerily across the grounds.

I walked to the Temple of the Four Winds.  On the way, I saw Hawksmoor's Mausoleum – not, alas, accessible.  The Temple is a cross between the Villa Rotonda and a garden shed.  It is not Palladian in spirit, despite its obvious heritage: the porticos look stuck on, and are in any case too small.  Then to the reservoir – which looks both deep and impossible to get out of.  Round to the front of the house.  The facade has so much movement.  It takes a while before you notice that the two wings are quite different.  This is real, intuitive architecture.

Then to Scarborough, staying in the St Nicholas Hotel for an exorbitant £40.  Perhaps I should have stayed in the weird Butlin's Grand Hotel opposite – wonderful Romanesque brickwork à la St Pancras.  Apparently Anne Bronte died in a house on this site, and this was once the grandest hotel in Europe.  O tempora

Why does Scarborough exist?  It has huge, glorious beaches that are irrelevant to the cold and the rain, irrelevant surrounded by the sea-front tat of amusement arcades.  If I see real despair in everyone here, is that my own projection?  What have they come here for?  Is this all they can expect?  God help them – and us.  I like to believe that the presence or contemplation of beauty refines – despite George Steiner's Rilke story.  But there is a corollary, and Scarborough becomes a kind of northern Slough.

I wandered the streets of Scarborough, searching for something, anything.  But there is nothing.  Joke shops selling plastic excrement, the usual chain stores – the only thing the rest of the country gives the north – its franchises.  The same restaurants – which seem to be the liveliest places anyway.  I write this in the Pizza Hut: like so much in our modern age, a temple to the repeatability of experience – which is also what consumerism amounts to, after all. I buy X in the knowledge that I can repeat the X experience.  Which is why the world hungers for novelty – there is no grain left to things.

The business of memory: Proust is almost wrong – voluntary memory does not exist, we can only remember what we remember.  But chance events can trigger.  For example, in Castle Howard, a guide says the owner decided to live there – to the surprise of trustees who had started selling off stuff.  I have this memory of a woman telling me about how the library of somewhere was sold off: I am pretty sure it was the west wing's long gallery – I can see the place, and it is very similar.  Note that photographic memory is the ability to pull out more information than we remember.  My trick of walking back through the memories of a place to find out where it is – a walk through memory.  Photographic memory is more compact in space, mine is in time.


From Scarborough across the moors up to Whitby.  Lovely road across rolling land, cultivated and heather.  RAF radar domes loom ominously.  Driving through Whitby there is a real feel of the town's rhythm, determined by the port.  And port feels alive too, not some tourists' confection.  Reminds me of Dieppe and Le Havre and Douglas.

The Abbey itself can only be reached by car very circuitously.  It commands a tremendous position over the town – must have looked amazing in 1300.  These monks always knew how to choose sites.  We tend to forget though that here would have been very isolated, the Ultimate Thule.

A nightmare drive through Middlesbrough – a maze of roads passing through and going nowhere.  Up the A1 to Durham.  How many years is it since I've been here?  I have no memory of the old town, and only vague ones of the cathedral.  But seeing it in the close, after eating in the almshouse (with a table full of very Sloany young ladies from Durham University), it is so familiar with its strong west towers, beautiful stones and harmonious arches.  Pity about the south end.  But what race the Normans were: the English imperialists of their day, what with Sicily et al.

I now sit inside the nave.  The organ tootles pleasantly in a sub-Herbert Howells style – perfect music for this setting.  The glorious rose window glows dully, the browny, thick-set piers of the arches march down the nave with their curious almost aboriginal markings.  What possessed them to do this?  It is a broken, cloudy sky outside, which gives rise to the wonderful effect of light surging and receding on the northern columns as if in tune with the swelling of the organ.  Magic.  The crossing of the nave and the transept is particularly impressive with the huge soaring tower.  How this must have awed the local yokels who could have seen nothing of the kind before.

At the top of the tower, on a misty afternoon.  Two things strike me.  Looking west across the river, there are a row of 17 houses, all around 1800.  Each is perfect in its own way, yet each is different and harmonious.  To the right, the new shopping centre looks bleak and crass by comparison.  Also, from up here, looking north, the close looks perfect, like a doll's house.  The lawn is immaculate, the flowers by the almshouse tiny dots of colour, like a ribbon.

Through Newcastle which looks like bustly.  Then on to Seaton Delaval.  A crazy place to put this crazy building.  Only open Wednesday and Sunday, alas.  But even the outside is a treat, like nothing else around.  Dour grey stone, ludicrous pediment struck between two square towers.  The two wings very introspective.  Brooding and beautiful.

Bamburgh is not very well sign-posted; in fact, to reach it you take endless winding B roads.  And in truth, there is not much there: a few houses, two hotels – and one of the biggest, grandest castles I have ever seen.  It closed just as I got there, but no matter.  Its mere existence is enough.  It is by the beach, which is also huge, with some of the whitest sand I have found in the UK.  And it goes on for miles.  I can see precisely one other person on it.  What a setting.  But why is this castle here?  Who does it protect from?  A superb, glorious, beautiful historic folly.

After Bamburgh, on to Lindisfarne.  I naively assume that all I could do was drive to the edge of the coast and then stare.  Imagine my amazement when I saw this precarious causeway hovering over the sounds.  In fact, I was amazed little because of an incident.  Past Beal, on the way to the causeway, I passed a hitch-hiker, a young lady.  It was a lonely road, and she was miles from anywhere.  I did not stop; I never give lifts to hitch-hikers.  I drove on, observing the signs about where and what the high tide did.  It was a long way to the village on Lindisfarne; the road was like a road on the moon.  But with each turn of the wheel, I felt more and more guilty because of abandoning that woman.  But my pride would not let me go back.

Fittingly, when I got to the castle, it was closed, but no matter.  I sat in the car, contemplating the harbour and the castle; then I drove back.  The poles in the shallow water reminded me of the stakes marking the waterways in Venice.  I had decided what to do.  As I expected, I met the woman coming in the other direction.  I stopped, and offered to take her into the village.  She accepted without questioning quite why.  As I made small talk, it became clearer why she accepted it all.  She was Canadian, a nurse, just back from a trip up the Nile.  She responded naturally to my questions, but did not ask any in return.  Perhaps she was just wary of this lunatic; frightened of my driving; or just incurious, as so many North Americans are.  I dropped her off, feeling that I had retrieved my honour, in part, at least.  

Then on to Berwick, where I stayed in the King's Arms Hotel – a Dickensian hostel, literally evidently.  Berwick is a civilised, Victorian-looking town.  It reminds me of Keswick in many ways, what with its town hall in the middle of the high street.  It is all very quiet down to the Tweed.  There are various bridges over it, including a fine aqueduct-like railway bridge.  Down below me there is seaweed.  One thing strikes me here as everywhere so far: there seem to be no young people around.  Either they are children, or they are young mothers and fathers.  And the young women are so plain.  All the older men and women look like Italian peasants from the deep south.  The men stand around in cloth caps and frowns.  It is like 50 years ago.

Over the moors to Edinburgh, under it then on to Glasgow.  The country A road was delightful: barely another car in either direction.  Rolling roads, moors and mists – quite thick.  Could be anywhere.  The roads around Edinburgh a pain, the M8 better.  Then I search for a hotel.  I drive through the centre of Glasgow, but don't even see any.  Then out along the A77.  By chance, I found that the [Peter Brook] Mahabharata is being performed down there.  I stop off in Busby and at another hotel: no luck.  Then I came across this Greek-sounding job.  I went in and was unimpressed, but they had another hotel in town.  They rang up, it was free and £40.  I took it.  So back into Glasgie, to Ingram Street.

Then a wander around Glasgow, looking for somewhere to eat.  The place is certainly bustling, but seems to lack cheap, studentish eateries.  It also lacks the overall buzz of Edinburgh during the festival – due to a nugatory Fringe here.  I end up at the Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street. There are several exhibitions here.  And a decent café, where I sit now.  One is Peter Fischli and David Weiss.  Their "So läuft es" = "the way things go", is like nothing I have ever seen.  A long sequence of precariously balanced objects teetering into chaos, in so doing tripping off yet more finely-controlled processes.  Tyres roll, water pours, fireworks shoot.  This is one of its pleasures: we feel in a very visceral way the sense of things about to happen.  We doubt that they will, yet urge them on mutely.  It made me laugh in astonishment.  It was beautiful, almost bathetic – and ridiculous too.  Wonderful.

Also rather wonderful in a totally different way were the newspaper sculptures of children by David Finn, a yank.  These kids, made entirely out of rolled and screwed-up newspapers, are aged about 5.  They are all intent on their games, or just standing.  Their stillness is eerie.  They look like mummies, yet retain their tremendous gentleness and vulnerability.

The rest of the day spent wandering.  One problem with Glasgow is that its streets are too rectilinear: I long for sudden twists and turns.  London is hard to beat for this.

During the evening, after eating again at Third Eye – the only atmospheric place I have come across – I watched TV.  For me, this activity is always associated with hotels, since it is the only time I have a TV.  I remain appalled at how bad and parasitic it all is.  It is, however, undeniably easy to watch.  The yank stuff in particular has all the rhythm worked out to a T.  I should have gone to bed early – the big day tomorrow – but instead woke up late-ish.


Once again, the diary system breaks down.  I cannot keep up with my life.  I have the whole of the Mahabharata to describe, as well as my journey here.  "Here" is Duntulm Castle, at the northern end of Skye.  There is the smell of sheep droppings in the air.  I sit facing west.  Before me, the Hebrides in a magic sfumato.  A few rocks rise up in front like sea monsters.  I feel as if I am at the end of the world.  Across there, the fairy kingdom hovers.

And so back to 13.5.88…

The morning was clear and glorious – suitable for an epic about the dawn of the world.  I arrived at the Old Transport Museum [now the Tramway] early, as ever, though was justified, I felt, by my ignorance of where it was, where to park etc.  It is in Albert Drive, and is a huge old building that looks as if it might have been a railway shed.  We are not allowed in until 12.30 – the performance began at 1 – so I wandered up the road etc.  When I came back, I went in to the huge sheds.  Inside there were hundreds of people milling around, plus a few incongruous Renault trucks from the local sponsors.

It was already warm as we filed into the hall.  From my seat F47, I could see the two brick walls serving as a proscenium, and the old metal pillars.  The wall was rough brick, textured like the Almeida.  The seats quite steeply raked – but only thinly padded.  In all, there were about 680 places.  To the right of the acting area, which looked like tamped earth, was an array of musical instruments.  At the back a red wall with climbing rungs.  In front of it, a stream with a bridge, and right at the front, a small pond.

Things began with the musicians raucously summoning all to hear.  There were crude clarions, tablas, sitars, rebabs, flute and tam-tams.  Throughout the next 10 hours, music played a key part.  It filled in scenic details, characterisation, sub-text and so on.  Without it, the text felt flatter.  And it was very neutral – successfully so.  Another facet struck me: the use of a cosmopolitan cast.  This worked well – and emphasised how Waspish most productions are.

I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the Mahabharata – even sitting still for nigh on nine hours in slightly humid heat.  The story gripped me for the most part.  The acting was good, the staging successful.  But I was rarely moved.  Whether this is a fault on my or the play's part, I cannot say.  But I was one of the few not to join in the standing ovation at the end – which I hate, this event manufacturing.


I am out again.  Back to 14.5.88.  I drove across the Erskine Bridge, then along the A82.  This took me past Dumbarton.  I remember coming here before – mostly because of the Stravinsky; as I recall, it is something of a tip.  As I drove past, it did seem vaguely familiar.  The A82 is a glorious road, as I re-discovered.  It was a brilliant blue sky and the sun shone strongly through the young leaves of the trees and bushes.  The route eventually took me across to Glen Coe.  Last time it was tipping with rain, and I could see little of the valley.  But there was a crazy piper playing away, soaked to the skin.  Very curious.  This time the views were tremendous.  Perhaps even better were the huge moors that led up to Glen Coe, and before them, Loch Lomond.  This was real chocolate stuff, with the sun glistening on this huge stretch of dark water.  And it just went on and on.

Unfortunately, the ferry to the lower part of Skye did not run on Sundays, so I went on to Kyle of Lochalsh for the other, shorter ferry.  It is a long time since I have taken my car on such a small ferry.  It feels very unsafe.

Driving through Skye, a very empty land.  The roads curve past huge mountains, tiny hamlets, lochs, moors.  I drive through Portree, the capital of Skye.  Nothing.  I decide to go on to the eastern part of the island in the north.  I stayed at Uig.  After finding a room at the pleasant family-run hotel there, I drove up to Duntulm Castle – see above.  Then I continued on round.  On the way down I stopped, struck by the stunning view.  Across to the east lay the mainland with its answering hills.  Down to the south the view continued with islands.  In the evening a walk down to the pier.

Today the weather was even better than yesterday – barely a cloud in the sky.  I drove out west, where I was struck by the sheer desolation; this place is so empty.  I stopped at one point where the view was again stunning: headlands out to the east and the whole sea shimmering to the south.  Then down to Sligachan.  I wanted to do some walking. However, I was only too aware that this was really climbing country.  So after a short ascent on the northern faces, I went along Glen Sligachan to see the loch which is bounded by the peaks.  

Before the long march - six miles? - I extended my range of life experiences by bathing in one of those deep pools, which often form in the fast-moving streams.  Cold but invigorating.  Then off for the long tramp.  Thoughts on determinism as I climbed.  Each step seems to be the result of free choice: I could put my foot anywhere.  Except that I can't.  It is mostly determined by where I put my foot before.  Thereafter it is determined by the lie of the land, my perception of how firm/wet/etc the ground is, the extent to which I am distracted, frightened etc.

So it is with life.  Our actions are largely determined by our previous actions; the details of where we put our foot is then a product of smaller-scale determinism – the result of a battle of stimuli and impulses within the brain.  These too were determined by the past, past knowledge, past experience etc.  So what of free will and responsibility?  We might say that since everything is determined we can never be guilty.  But much of what we do is decided and determined by our character - that is, details of the brain structure.  That acts as a kind of colander which strains out the possible choices.  What eventually in detail we choose may indeed be pure choice; but we personally though unconsciously determined the choices; for those we bear the responsibility.  If we kill someone we were put in a position to kill someone, to have that as a choice, partly by our character.  It is for the courts to decide if it was mostly due to "reasonable" outside circumstances.  This may not be true, but it is a plausible reconciliation, and will do for the moment.

The path goes on and one, and the magisterial hills on either side just keep on coming, huge and abrupt.  I can see no way of scaling them.  Past two tarns, I turn up right and rise.  Eventually, I reach the ridge which looks into the next valley – not the main one, but a subsidiary.  It is too late to go down on into the main one with the loch.  Besides, this is almost perfect.  Below me, a small tarn.  Beyond that, the sparkling loch and the sea.  A huge mass of rock separates me from that loch; beyond it the huge jagged teeth of the main U of hills.  They look stupendous in the slight chiaroscuro.  I can see Rhum in the distance.  What a sight as I sit in the glorious sun with sheer blue skies overhead.  

The way back seemed long, long, long.  I was helped by meeting up with a party of foreigners.  They walked very fast, so in trying to overtake and/or keep ahead, I had to hoof it.  Weary when I hit Sligachan Hotel.  The weather starts to close in; now the clouds roll in from the north, shredding themselves against the amazing conical hill nearest us.  Reminds me of Como.  A splendid day.

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