Burns Night: A Scottish Celebration – Worldwide

Wee, modest crimson-tipped flow'r

Wee, modest crimson-tipped flow’r

Every year, without fail, my family celebrate Burns night. We’re not Scottish, we just like food and company and this seems as good an excuse as any. It’s no grand affair; we gather all our Scottish friends for authenticity’s sake and then we eat a lot of haggis, tatties and neeps, and have a wee dram while reading a bit of poetry.

I know many of Burns’ poems well enough by now to be able to enjoy the images and feelings they create but I have to admit the dialect can be pretty indecipherable. For example, the first time you see the start of Address to a Haggis it can be a bit perturbing:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

And, as we approached the great day, I started thinking about the first time I celebrated Burns night in general and the alienation I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the whole evening but, like Burns’ poetry, celebrating another culture can be a bit daunting and even feel a bit, well…rude.

Now, for the love of food, I got over my issues fairly quickly and my family embraced the new tradition with meal-drowsy oomph, but, for those of you out there who still feel a bit awkward about wedging yourself into a Scottish celebration, I have some words of comfort. There is a way everyone, Scottish or not, can relate to and justify celebrating Rabbie Burns’ poems, and that is simply his expression of love for his land.

The fact that Scottish culture and tradition is firmly entwined with his verses makes this fairly obvious but that’s not what I’m referring to. What I mean is the actual land around him: the landscape, the plants and the animals, the weather and the seasons. He not only loved these things but he placed himself among them in his poems as their kin. In Winter: A Dirge the speaker in the poem runs parallel to the seasons and his emotions reflect the weather as the weather reflects his emotions:

The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!

And, in poems like To a Mouse, To a Mountain Daisy and The Wounded Hare he expresses a deep sympathy for nature and paints a perfect picture of mankind’s counterproductive struggle with our environment. Burns’ poetry illustrates just how desperately the human race depends on nature’s fearsome and inspiring beauty while, at the same time, is always set in a bitter fight against it.

These poems explore deeply how the landscape we grow up in influences us and our view of the world. Everyone has somewhere they love – where even the sight of a particular tree, building or even graffiti will bring a rush of fond nostalgia back – and this love is what Rabbie Burns captured.

That is why, this Burns Night, I will be celebrating in all the traditional Scottish ways as a proud English woman (theatrical gasp!) and I think you should too.

Not only because it means you get to enjoy others’ company, not only because it means good food and better whiskey, and not only because Burns wrote timeless poetry, but because of a deeply ingrained, and indisputably worldwide, love of this earth we all live on and the plants and creatures we share it with.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

(To a Mouse)

On Being Haunted by Victor Hugo

VictorHugoThis story begins over 10 years ago when I was still at school. We had a series of big exams coming up that would decide the level of the classes we would be in for the next three years (Higher, Intermediate or Lower). Naturally, everyone was in a panic. There’s that concern that if you’re put in the top class it’ll be to hard and you’ll look stupid and if you’re in the bottom class…well…you’ll look stupid.

One of my friends however had a lot more riding on her results than the reputation of her intelligence: she had a deal with her Mum. If she got triple 7s in Maths, Science and English (the best mark) then her Mum would buy her a puppy.

Now, I’ve had pet rabbits since I was three years old and I love them dearly, but I have always wanted a dog. So, on hearing of my friend’s deal with her Mum, I rushed home to my Dad with big plans. Obviously, he said no straight away. For a start, my parents always said no when I asked if I could have a dog but also, my parents are completely opposed (and probably rightly so) to the whole rewarding-you-for-getting-good-exam-results thing.

Not one to give up that easily, I begged and pleaded and persuaded and cajoled until, finally, my Dad agreed to make me a deal of his own. Forget exams, they were just school stuff, my Dad was more concerned with forming me as a person rather than a grade average. All I had to do was read one book. One book and he would buy me a dog. Easy! Right?

He went to our bookshelf and thumbed along the spines. There, that immense, creased, faded tombstone. That’s the one. Les Miserables.

So: daunting old French book (in translation of course) the size of our garden shed for a dog. I can do that! So I opened it that night in bed and began to read. And I read, and read, and read. Days passed, weeks, months. Still I was reading. I’d read about 250 pages, that’s loads! But barely one fifth of the total. I gave up.

Even just writing those words feels like a guilty confession. They squirm in my stomach. Basically, I look stupid.

I’m sorry potential dog! I’m sorry Dad! I’m sorry crazy old Monsieur Hugo! I will no longer count myself among the avid readers…I will pass my life in penance and never raise my head in the presence of a real reader again.

The trouble is, anyone who knows me knows I have, er…issues, with closure. I must have it! (Seen that Big Bang Theory episode? Yep, that’s me!) Sometimes my boyfriend switches a film off just before the last word to annoy me and I pretend like I’m not bothered, I’ve seen it before anyway, but if he leaves the room I’ll be putting that film back on and fast-forwarding right to that point to hear those final syllables. Silly, I know.

But, on that fateful day when I was 13, I made that choice. I let those last 1000 pages go and I walked away.

So more than 10 years have spread themselves between then and now and still those last pages go unread. And that’s when it hit me. I will always have this sense of guilt and failure over this one issue while I leave that book on the shelf. I got a degree (but never finished that book) and I’ve got a great job (but I still don’t know what happens at the end). My best friend is my beautiful boyfriend and it’s great (but there are a thousand pages out there that have defeated me) and you know what? I now have an amazing and crazy little dog (but I gave up on that bloody book)!

So that’s it. This is me saying “Monsiuer Hugo, enough is enough” (I was always better at German than French!) “I am no longer going to allow you to have this power over me. I am going to read your words until you have been exorcised from my mind and I am going to finish that blimmin’ book!”

(I’ll let you know how it goes)

An Unexpected Slice of America

My boyfriend and I have just spent a (surprisingly idyllic) week camping in the English countryside. Naturally, it being our first holiday together, we learnt a lot about each other – mostly that I can’t handle earwigs (eugh!) and he cannot read a map to save his life – but we also learnt that this little island has a lot more to offer than you’d expect.

There we were, driving back to the tent after a busy day out, when we began to notice a few strange features  of the roads we were driving down. See?

StreetwithHydrantOK, so maybe that one isn’t too obvious. What about this one?

20130718_191524See it now?

Ok, so the eagle-eyed Brits among you may have worked it out, but for the rest of you I’ll help you out. Theses are not your average English streets for two reasons:

  1. See that stop sign in the first picture? Yep. Occasionally you’ll see those in the UK but, for a normal residential area we would have triangular ‘Give Way’ signs instead. Could be ignored, but not when combined with:
  2. That fire hydrant. Now, don’t ask me why, but we don’t have those in the UK. I suppose we have some kind of different drain lids or something instead but anyway; this is an American street. In Oxfordshire.

So. This is the thing. We investigated (ie. parked and started walking around) and it turns out that we’d stumbled into an abandoned American airbase. How cool is that!?

I believe it was operational between 1970 and 1994 (thinking Cold War era?) but anyway, I’ll stop talking now and just show you some of the pictures we took in what ended up being three hours of wandering around this empty town.

Baseball Bowling DayCare DollarPetrolPump Doorway Enclosure Flats FurnitureStore Hangers Hydrant MainHouse MilitarySpace PetrolStation SecretsActSign Sheds Stands StopSign Store StreetwithTower

Crime and Punishment Review

2.5 Explosions

Initial Thoughts:

For a start, this is so easy to read, not at all what you’d expect in that regard. I also found the main character Raskolnikov easy to root for at first… (later not so much!)

Best Bits:

Dostoyevsky is the master of tension building. He really makes you feel all the fear and panic of his characters to the point that I had to put the book down for a day or two a couple of times to deal with it.

This writer has been compared to Dickens but, unlike the English writer’s almost caricature-like characters, Dostoyevky’s characters express complex and realistic human reactions and emotions.

It sounds really impressive when you casually inform people you’re reading this book. Really impressive.

Worst Bits:

The end. The best way to describe the end of this book is ‘serious anti-climax’. The tension built up and up and then…well I won’t say what happened but it was just like the story ran out…

Hind Sight:

I’d still say it was well worth reading purely because of its iconic status (and that of its writer) but I just felt so disappointed by the end. Maybe I’d built it up too much but I just thought the character arc was so disappointing.

Where all the ladders start

The LadderThe pea soup I was served in my local pub was beautiful. Vivid green, creamy and fresh. Exactly what I wanted that summer afternoon. My enjoyment was complete, but did not stop me becoming distracted by a small wooden sign on the wall.

“This pub was the scene of an inquest into a murder in 1852”

Now that’s a sentence to grip me. Why was an inquest held here? Who was murdered? Why were they murdered and by whom? Questions are always the best way to set a story going, so when I got home I made a basic search on Google.

As if it had been waiting for me, one of the first results on the list was a transcript of the inquest and, following that, of the murder trial itself.

Stories of extreme acts are gripping enough as it is but this one was based down the road from my house, the murderer had walked through the same woods, the victim’s track to work was where I had played as a child and the view over the Downs would have been as familiar to them as it is to me now. I pressed print and spent the evening pouring close over the manuscript, absorbing every inky piece of old soul the words conjured in my mind.

But even the most dramatic of stories can become overwhelmed by life.

Soon the imagined lives of the people down my road so long ago were swallowed up in exam results and my preparations for University.

The presence of that murder in my mind fluttered down to rest among the other scraps in the dark.

Wander With Me…

This post may seem small to you. Observer of blog. You are here to decide – is this worth reading or shall I just go back to Pinterest?

But for me it is the plunge. And look, I’ve taken it!

My first blog post.

I don’t know why it was so hard to do but, at last, it’s here.

Welcome! I hope you enjoy my first blog wander. These pictures, in case you were wondering, represent a ginormous influence on me and my writing – my home – Sussex, England.

The Sussex wilderness is a huge ancient creature made of scars and dark and softness. A growly storm can loom on your right while the innocent gold of autumn dances on your left.

(thank you for getting this far by the way)

My puppy, the Dog Daisy

A hidden doorway in the trees


A storm is coming

Sun before the storm