Saturday, October 06, 2007


St Magnus Cathedral in the late afternoon sun

I was preparing myself for a day in bed as I woke to a cold wet morning, but found myself downstairs at breakfast with no staff to be seen. While foraging for food, I ended up in a long conversation with a prospective employee and then trying to help arriving guests.

Curiously, I had been talking to a local second-hand bookdealer a couple of days ago, and in the general to-and-fro of bibliophilia, mentioned the children's book Timpetill, which I had read and re-read when I was in primary school. It deals with a town where the adults get fed up and leave the children to fend for themselves (which is what it felt like at the B&B today). For some reason this book is variously attributed to two different authors: Manfred Michael (whose name I recall from the copy I read), and Henry Winterfield (with the title sometimes as Trouble in Timpetill). I've looked into this before, and only now discover that MM is a pseudonym for HW.

My closest Timpetill period was at the end of my second year at Sydney University, when I lived at Wesley College. I was supplementing my meagre student income with work at the college, and because I was doing so much work (office, kitchen, cleaning rooms, whatever was needed at any hour of the day) sometimes kept a self-contained room at the end of the Purser Wing. Towards Xmas, the college master, Dr Udy retired and moved out of his college residence. Shirley the burser and latterly my great friend, took long service leave, and the rest of the staff trickled out for their own leave. That left me in charge by default, especially when the new master and his family arrived, with absolutely no briefing as to what duties they had over the coming months. Luckily I had been involved with the college admissions process the previous year (Dr Udy liked to have a panel of students meet prospective freshers and give an opinion on their near-peers, as we were usually less deceived by little bastards trying to put one over the "adults") and knew roughly what had to be done. So I found myself at 19, managing the early part of the process, getting letters out and again, doing whatever was needed, either unpaid or (when I was juggling the cleaning and dishpig duties) for minimum wage. I had to clock out whenever I was "doing admin" so my time-card for a day sometimes had enough entries for a fortnight.

When we did eventually stumble out into the nascent sunshine, I intended to visit the northern coastline of West Mainland. Instead I took a turn west of Maeshowe to a 'Loch Viewpoint'. It was rather windy, but Bondi tore off through the grass like a demented jack rabbit, and I followed him around a track to a grassy knoll looking over Loch Harray. An angler was wading nearby, while a ballet of swans sheltered in the lee of a small islet.

The clouds dissipated further and we lay on our not-so-high vantage point for the best part of an hour, watching birds and weather wheel around us.

S'tromnes's Hotel: Ode to s'ignwriters' apos'trophe

I fell to talking with a lady in Stromness about the dull browns and greys of the buildings across Orkney. On a previous day someone had defended it on the basis that "colours only work in Mediterranean light", which I thought was quite wrong: just look at all the colourful buildings around the Norwegian fjords. Apparently the local councils forbid any display of colour, appealing to tradition - although I don't imagine that some of the awful crusty pebble fascias are very traditional. It must make it very difficult to locate buildings during the reduced daylight hours of an Orkney winter.

I'm reminded of a snippet from QI on the subject of rainbows.
Jo Brand
[presses buzzer, which sings soulfully]
Can you tell me at what point in time human beings were actually able to sing a rainbow?

Stephen Fry
Ah. Is there a song about singing a rainbow?

Jo Brand and Alan Davies
[sing together] "I can sing a rainbow! Sing a rainbow!"

Bill Bailey
There's loads of different ones, wasn't there? [sings in a monotone] "Grey and grey and grey and grey, grey and grey and grey: I can sing a woodlouse!" You know, it's like that.

The Orkney colour palette is also like that.

Houton Bay
I got directions to a reclusive silversmith's gallery and drove eastwards, up towards Orphir.

At Orphir, the kirk of St Nicholas is all that remains of the only surviving round church in Scotland. It's about 900 years old, and based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a remembrance of those returning from the Crusades. The foundations of a Bu or drinking hall from the same period may be found just outside the cemetery wall.

St Magnus

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