Friday, 28 October 2011

Her head was missing!

I’m sitting comfortably in my cousin Basia’s living room, and looking at the picture of Jan, her father – my favorite uncle. A poet and story-teller, he was always funny and warm-hearted. Also my worst critic when it came to my early writing attempts.

“Why are you writing this rubbish?” he’d say after reading my manuscript. “Write your own material – not this stuff borrowed from those books that you’ve been reading.”

Among his most memorable stories were his harrowing experiences with ghosts during the summer of 1941 in Pitmilly house – a sprawling manor outside St.Andrews. The estate, formerly belonging to the Moneypenny family was commandeered for military purposes. His army unit, the Polish First Rifle Brigade, assigned the task of patrolling the coast, was stationed nearby. A Scottish Major, with his wife, and his daughter Mary lived in the house. A Polish officer, Jan had a room in the house. Also, he was interested in Mary, and following a short courtship they were engaged.

Staying overnight in the manor house wasn’t a lot of fun. It had already a reputation for hauntings. According to legend a spirit once lived in an ancient yew tree on the grounds of the house. Somewhat ill advisedly a gardener chopped it down with the result that the ghost had to find a new home --- the main house.

One night Jan was sitting up in bed, reading, when he happened to look up, across the room. A large oaken wardrobe standing again the far wall stirred into life, glided across the floor to halt by his bed, where it proceeded to rock to and fro threateningly. Of course he jumped out of his bed and high tailed it out of the room, and out of the house. The next day the Major complained that the wardrobe was not in its place. It took four soldiers to lift the wardrobe and shove it back against the wall where it belonged.

Engagement to Mary took its toll on him. One day upon returning to his room he found all the furniture scattered around the room. Books all over the place. Another time while watching Mary’s mother walking across a carpet, he saw the carpet catch fire where she set her feet down. Jan and a servant grabbed blankets and doused the flames before they caused major damage.

He actually encountered the ghost one moonlit night. He was on patrol in the grounds, when he saw a figure approaching him. As was customary, Jan called out, "Halt." After receiving no response or password he cried out, "Halt or I shoot." The unknown person continued to walk among the trees. Presumably a woman,because of her dress but curiously short. Only after she disappeared from view did he realize the reason for her short stature.

Her head was missing.

“How did you feel?” I asked my uncle.

“A cold dread down my spine,” he said.

Evidently the spirit inhabitants had a reputation, as was evidenced by a letter that Jan happened to see lying on the Major’s desk. From an insurance company. The insurance agent, in the most apologetic tones, said that the company was declining fire coverage on the house, on the grounds that “apparently the house was haunted.”

Granted that Jan, a poet, was also known for his sense of the dramatic,and for his tendency to exaggerate. Listening to those chilling stories on a winter night we wondered how much to believe. Fast forward to 1968 when I enrolled at St. Andrews University. I was determined to find out the truth behind the goings on at Pitmilly. At the cathedral grounds I found an old man who worked as a tourist guide. He must have been there for twenty years as I remember him from my youth as the bloke who always led us up the never ending stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower.

“Pitmilly?” he asked. “Why are ye asking about Pitmilly? There are chairs jumping up and down there.”

“Pitmilly is no more,” chimed in a second guard.

They gave me directions, and so I biked over to the spot. I found what had once been the manor, now a burned out shell. It had recently burned down. No one knew why. For some time no one had been living there.

Around the end of the war, Mary broke off her engagement to Jan. Reportedly in response to family pressures. My father theorized all along that the Major had mediumistic abilities, and the house’s apparent hostility to Jan was an expression of the Major's dislike of the prospective son-in-law. But evidently that wasn’t the entire story. The house was sold, the buyers tried to make it into a hotel, but with little success. The spirits had a nasty habit of moving furniture around in front of the guests, opening toilet stalls while they were inside. Then came the fire.

Today the house has been rebuilt and is functioning again. Anyone know what happened to the ghosts?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Celebrate Life

By Amber Poole

What I like most about getting older is giving myself permission to be messy again. Not in the sense of physical disorganization as I must admit I do like tidy, but in the appreciation of drawing outside the lines. With each passing day, I am more and more bemused by my younger self so desirous of acceptance and recognition; the yesterday me surrendering to a social order composed of individuals who themselves are in a similar predicament of framing their lives to fit the equation of “doing the right thing” or “the smart thing” in hopes this will bring about some kind of personal satisfaction. I suppose if society were a static creature, one might be able to reap a reward, a nod of approval from time to time, a cushy place that says “you’re part of the tribe” but the problem with this exchange rate is society is anything but static: it’s a moving target subject to caprice, unpredictability and cruelty.

I’ve spent too much of my life living this way; adapting it to suit some one else’s idea of the way things work and I don’t want it anymore.

I like it that not all my arguments are rational. I like that I look like a jumble sale when I’m walking down the street. I like Flemish paintings. I like still life and split pomegranates oozing their juices and dead pheasants lying on a pine table with robust men and women leaning into each other, tilting their steins heavenward. I like a woman peeling turnips with a faraway look in her eye. I like domestic life caught here in the in between: in between one motion and the next. For that moment, the artist has frozen the full swing of life for us to view in great detail and in deep meditation.

Paul and I have been staying in Dorset these past days, talking long hikes, eating sumptuous meals, sleeping long hours, underground with our dreams and all that is in the mystery. We read to each other.

My life is a blessing, that in my age and wisdom I am learning to celebrate just as it is. I don’t need to be understood or lavished with attention anymore. But I do need to flood my soul with those things for which it hungers; for those things it implores from me.

It says: Draw outside the lines, make your own still life, walk slowly, thoughtfully, write your life into a poem that one ponders and reads again and again. Laugh with yourself like a best friend. Love your imperfections. Hold gratitude up as the most sacred understanding of this chaos and mystery we call life.

These are the thoughts that I’ve been having at Champs Land in Dorset.

My life is like a still life set to motion.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

On Jurassic Coast

Our home --- for now

Our annual attempt to cheat Scottish weather --- grab some extra summer days that, under the rules of the game, we're not entitled to, sent us to the Jurassic Coast, Southern England. Standing below the red cliffs (Triassic --- having formed over 200 million years ago) you sense their immense age.

My geologist's eye immediately focused on the rocks' internal structure: ripples and waves left in the sand. Vast rivers used to flow there, greater than any river system that survives these days. Over millions of years they deposited the sand, moved it about. The climate was arid, about 5 degrees hotter than today. Imagine the Arabian desert criss-crossed with rivers that flooded, receded, dried out for some years, then flooded again. That was the land.

Note that the shallower layers cut down into older ones
the way a fast flowing river cuts into its banks

Back to today's beach, I'm among a sea of rounded pebbles, the water transparent green, as the Adriatic. And a much cooler climate. It's a clean beach without any shells. Some washed up kelp is the only living matter.

Farther East we walked on a cobble beach under the Jurassic black shale, once a shallow sea teeming with swimming dinosaurs. We could tell that it is prime fossil territory because people everywhere were digging at the cliff with small hammers.

An old woman, easily in her seventies, carrying a bag leaned on her stick. With one end she poked at the rocks. She told us where to look for fossils --- under a light marker called the "ice age marker". That's where she uncovered vertebrae bones of a Pleisaurus. She almost had all the pieces. I happened upon a vertebra fragment, now filled in with silica. Holding something so ancient sent the mind reeling back in time, in a real sense that no Spielberg movie, or geologic textbook could accomplish.

I was back in an alien landscape, in days when we not only did not exist, but nature hadn't conceived that we might one day be born. That we would one day dominate the Earth.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Why men don't listen and no-one reads maps

A map of England!!

A typical guy, I don't boast about my listening skills. But I do read and understand maps. Unfortunately my forte is rapidly going the way of the manual typewriter and the dinosaur.

I learned this to my chagrin when Amber and I piled our stuff into the car and pointed its nose South --- destination Dorset. But we had no map of England! All the Scottish petrol stations, service areas and supermarkets, somewhat chauvenist, only have Scottish maps. Or glossy, expensive atlases of the entire UK. No problem. I'll pick one up after we cross the English border.


England has other map issues. There are none. We checked several petrol stations, supermarkets, WH Smith etc and found maps of Carlisle, the Lake District --- Ordinance Survey Maps, maps of postage stamps, but no map of England. My initial disbelief finally gave way to a glimmer of understanding. Of course, these days everyone has Satnav / GPS in their cars--- except for luddites like me who insist on using maps. If you must have one, you print it off Google-map, then crumple it up on arrival. There's not much demand for a published map of England. Perhaps the Scots still hang onto maps because they're a bit behind the times.

I suspect I'll get some sarcastic comments, referring to me as a curmudgeon who resits the inexorable march of modern technology. Yet I feel that something is lost in losing the map and relying on technology to get you from A to B. A bird's eye view of the country, the way that an Eagle sees it, or a satellite. The broad perspective. Call it also the grand picture where we and our problems are small, less significant than specks, rather than the perspective of a mouse that sees everything close up. Impossibly large but limited in scope.

A map can take us in imagination to farther off places, away from the small vehicle where we happen to find ourselves, creeping along some manufactired highway. They're magical. You can use them to locate buried treasure, dowse for water, prospect for oil or minerals. Psychics even use them to find lost objects.

If your only purpose of travel is to get from A to B, then Satnav is all you need. But your journey will likely be one-dimensional, with only fences, houses, hedges and other angry motorists whizzing by. You'll have no idea of where you actually are, because you won't know where you are in relation to. Neither will you know what is out of sight, just over the hill. For that greater perspective you'll still need a map.