Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Free Fish

It seems odd that I’ve never told you about the great love of my life, the painter Marc Chagall. But like most people I neglect my best love for long periods and don’t even notice I’m living on bread and water. Recently I had a FEAST.

The feast is called ‘A la Russie, aux Ânes et aux Autres’ (To Russia, Asses and Others) and is a dvd about his life.

Here is a picture of the front of the box. I bought it in Nice in the Chagall Museum which is a museum worth going all the way to Nice just to visit. It was my last feast, in January. I’ve been three times and will go again at the earliest opportunity if someone would like to donate my fare.
Here I am in Nice, gorging myself in front of one of his giant canvases. See how happy I am?

Chagall was free. That’s why I like him. And when I first encountered him in a retrospective exhibition of his work in the Royal Academy in London in 1985, I felt his freedom. I was brought up thinking art was a serious business involving lofty ideas and one which a mere girl like me could never fully grasp. (Thanks Dad). Well, thank you Marc Chagall for opening my eyes and making me laugh all the way round that gallery. Who puts goats in the sky, upside down people all over the place and is obsessed with hens? (We have so much in common.) Joy ripples from his canvases. He was full of life, full of love. His work is full of both too.

Isn’t this ridiculous and beautiful?

So from my sick bed of enforced inaction, (back step in the sunshine actually) I’ve been thinking about artistic freedom. I mean the internal stuff, not the social-political stuff which often concerns me.

For an artist, art is freedom: ‘The place where I had freedom most was when I painted. I was completely and utterly myself.’ (Alice Neel)

And therefore: ‘To confine the artist is a crime; it means murdering unborn life.’ (Egon Schiele) (‘There’s been a murrderr.’ - Taggart)

But on the other hand: ‘No human being, however great, or powerful, was ever so free as a fish.’ (John Ruskin)

And yet: ‘Writing just for the hell of it is heaven.’ (Julia Cameron)

I recognise this too: ‘Imagine, if you will, the author standing on a high rooftop hurling books into the void yelling, 'Fly! Be free!'’ (Curtis Craddock)

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Five ambulances, one with wings.

Fortunately it was nothing like this! This is the first ever ambulance.

All hail Rab and Gus, the lovely paramedics in Kintyre who patched me up and carried me downstairs from my hotel room and into their ambulance without the slightest bump and opened the back blinds of the van so that I could at least see the sea which I had come to walk alongside if I couldn’t walk along beside it.

Yes, slight viral attack, invasion of the little men from the other side of the galaxy, and after three hours of intense vomiting I slid gracefully to the floor with the help of my dearest and fortunately nearest and passed out for approximately 60 seconds. I have to take his word for this as I wasn’t strictly present as witness and didn’t notice a clock as I slipped from one realm of consciousness to precisely none.

After two tourniquets and several hours and many litres of four types of drips, I was pronounced uninvestigable in that small but I have to say, extremely loving part of the world, and a plane was ordered for my transportation back to civilisation aka Glasgow (stop laughing) where all possible tests would be put at my or at least the doctor's disposal.

All hail Rab and Gus who returned and were two of a party of many helpers accompanying me back to the ambulance. On we went to Machrihanish and the plane. Gus and Rab have to be named and so does Kate the nurse who attended me in Campbeltown with such quiet kindness and efficiency. These three were superlative. I’m saying superlative because you can insert your own. Nothing I’ve come up with matches these people and their care and gentleness in the delivery of a system of care which in itself is of necessity pretty alarming. Kindness, I have concluded, is the most healing thing of all.

The plane was narrower than a double bed and had a teeny little door. The transfer was done outdoors (thank the heavens for being kind) and via a conveyor belt type of contraption which afterwards refused to shrink and behave and get into the limited space inside. Ho hum and all this time I’m wired up and strapped up, and Rab and Gus and various others are telling jokes outside.

Arriving in the A & E of a large hospital in Glasgow I was suddenly very alone. Everyone was helpful enough, but there were no extra miles. I was however checked out and made well enough to check out of the hospital by the following evening, which was after all the purpose and best outcome. The extra mile I observed was delivered with absolute compassion and understatement by a male nurse called Gerry to Agnes the elderly lady in the bed next to mine who was coaxed through all the indignities of her illness with profound gentleness and was an absolute joy to overhear. All hail Gerry too.

I must add that I’m fine now but tired and have been told to REST and RECUPERATE and given the fine state of the weather who would argue?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Mavis's Videos

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz. In fact as I sit here just after seven in the evening the sirens would perhaps already have gone off and people would be more of less ignoring them because for some reason few people thought Clydebank would be a target. This always strikes me as very odd given the quantity of war industry going on in Clydebank at the time. But I suppose it was a long time coming.

So today I have been thinking again about what people went through and about the people I have met and spoken to for my research and so on and how they may be feeling today. I am particularly sad because of Syria because what is going on out there is something very similar.

However, this evening I also stumbled upon a video of an interview I did for the Scottish Book Trust last year and another of me reading an extract from Mavis's Shoe. You can find them both at this link.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Proximity of the Past

Andrew Greig once spoke on the radio about a sense of there being no time or space when he found himself in certain wild and isolated places. I recognised this instantly and was so excited to hear such things spoken of on the radio that I bought one of his books on the strength of it. Yesterday I had the opposite experience, of being overwhelmingly aware of time and of events in the past feeling very close indeed.

Being in Kintyre at the weekend on other business (pleasure, to be exact) I made the trip to the Mull. After a gate there is several miles of road, very winding and also very windy (as in windswept and blowing-a-gale) which lead you to the top of the hill above the lighthouse. It was a multi-season day involving brilliant sunshine, hailstones and snow in quick succession many times over, all carried towards us on a bitterly cold wind. We parked the car and made our way down the steeply snaking road and departed from the way onto a hummock. There we stopped and watched the squalls race across the twelve miles between Scotland and Ireland and the curtains of hail showers as they floated eerily in our direction for as long as we could bear the chill.

This was where ships passed in great numbers during WW2 making their way in convoys from Liverpool via the Isle of Mann and then out across the Atlantic for vital supplies, dodging German U-boats and air attacks as they went. Having been unaware of this the last time I visited a few years ago I was suddenly struck by the vision of this place as a naval highway at that time, choc-a-bloc with activity. The Scottish coast there is inhospitable in the extreme and many ships have foundered thereupon, hence the lighthouse built in 1788 by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the great and wonderful author Robert Louis Stevenson.

But on the 2nd of July 1940 in the early hours of the day, the Arandora Star passed through that channel with a cargo of mostly innocent Italian internees and German refugees from Nazi Germany. I stood on the hillside and imagined their ship sneaking past a moonlit coast and passing on into the dark unknown on their unprotected passage to Canada and forced exile. In the British panic in the face of Mussolini’s partnership with Hitler on the 10th of June of that year, no convoy was afforded them and shortly after Malin Head they were spotted by Günther Prien, the commander of the same U-boat which sunk the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow near the outbreak of the war with the loss of 833 lives, mostly ‘boy sailors’. In the hurry to be rid of these Italian internees, who were erroneously perceived as a massive threat, the Arandora Star was not marked with a red cross and was therefore considered fair game and torpedoed. More than 800 people died that night though the exact number is not known, such had been the rush to board them. Several Scottish islands have graves marked ‘Unknown Italian’. Those that survived this ordeal and were picked up by rescue boats were taken to Greenock, transported back to Liverpool and put on another ship bound for Australia.

How strange to stand on that spot and see in my mind’s eye this huge ship passing into its darkest night.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Hen Hell

I have to tell you this first.

I was washing my hands. The extractor fan was buzzing over my head when it stopped for a second, the light too, then came back on. I went to the front door to check the electrics and saw dark shadows crouched on the other side of the frosted glass. I opened the door and a figure scarpered onto the path to join two others. They had my saw and an old pole of mine, about 10 foot long, that used to be at one end of a line of flags made by local kids that stretched across the old back court.
They dropped them and ran but turned and stopped in the middle of the road.
Three of them, about fifteen, I suppose, just kids, two lads and a girl. All in black trackies, one with two yellow stripes down his arms. We stared at each other while I fumbled for what to say.

‘What did you do to my electricity?!’ I yelled.

‘He did it and he’s sorry,’ said one, thumbing his pal.

I went back inside and then five minutes later the guy over the road came over and a woman from up the street. Never seen her before. They said they’d called the police and was I ok? Well, I was shaken. Got a fright. Anyway they’d seen these kids peering in my front window, which is weird because the curtains were shut so there was nothing to see. I suppose they were trying to work out if there was anyone in. They’d been checking out my little 24 year old campervan too and arguing over doing something to that, probably smashing the window. There’s nothing to steal inside. You can see that through the uncurtained windows.

Anyway turns out the woman from up our street lives next door to a big empty building which used to be a hotel until about twenty years ago and has been shut ever since. There’s always stuff happening to it. This crowd of guys has been going in regularly and stripping it of everything they can move, anything that’ll sell and she and her husband always yell out that they’re calling the police and then when the police arrive they’re gone and never get caught. Same lot every time. Then one day she was out and they came again and when her husband yelled out they took a crowbar to his head and battered shit out of him. She said he died three times and was brought back three times. I don’t know how they know these things. But apparently they do. She thought he died for a couple of minutes but the ambulance people told her it was more like 7-10 so the brain damage is very severe.

‘Did they get the guys?’

‘No, they didn’t.’

There’s a gang of twelve of them. The police know this and they know who six of them are but they’re after the ring leader and haven’t arrested anyone.

‘Probably the same crowd that killed the other guy two weeks ago about a mile away right outside his own front door in full view of his partner.’

‘The very same.’

‘How many people have to die before they arrest someone?’

There was a body found down our back lane a couple of weeks ago too. I saw the police tape. I saw a police woman in a car guarding the area afterwards, probably looking for body parts, same as after Moira Jones in Queens Park. The policewoman was crocheting. I got my binoculars out to see because I thought she was knitting, certainly not paying attention, another boring job. Apparently there’s been lots of rapes and other attacks in the area recently, but this street is the worst.

Fucking scary. I thought it was all ok now that the Parkview is shut, an old hotel that was a dumping ground for anyone any local authority didn’t want. I’ve not been scared for two years now. No more ferrying people to the station, only five minutes’ walk away. Plenty of walking out in broad daylight and dark night the same. Fucking scary.

Eighty-four year old woman attacked at 9am.


While we were chatting, me and the woman from up the street, the three in black trackies split up, one heading back down. The other a guy and girl disappeared into one of the gardens of the big houses up the road. We were still waiting for the police, and as we stood there chatting making friends I saw this big fine fat fox trotting out from behind my little twenty-four year old campervan and heading towards the lane beside the house, brave as you like, pausing only minutely and surprised to see us there on the pavement where clearly only foxes should be. He disappeared beyond the hedge and I, already aghast by strange events, noticed and thought no more of it.

Twenty minutes passed and me and my newly found neighbour are still waiting for the police and she’s gasping for a fag. My phone goes and she heads to the shops.

Phone call over I’m back at the desk trying to work. I hear the two hens in our backcourt making a racket and look out and here’s Mister Fox chasing one of them round and round and pinning it down to the ground by the neck. And I’m shouting and rapping at the window so hard I’ll put my fist through it if I’m not careful and I open the window and shove my head out and shout but it’s too late. So I go next door to the other ground floor flat to the owners of these damned hens and bang on their door so hard my knuckles feel like they’ll burst. Nothing. Silence. Bastards aren’t even in. Left their hens out and not even in. I rush back to the window and see the fox disappear behind the steps, hen heavy in its mouth. In for the kill. I’m shaking. I don’t know what to do. Are foxes dangerous to humans? The other hen is lingering by the hutch. Should I go out? What would it do if I did? How would I catch the damn hen and where would I put it? In our kitchen? What about my cats? And then what would I do? So I don’t go out and rescue this hen but instead pace the hall wondering. But then I hear it screaming and run back to the window and see the fox giving chase and the hen finding its wings and swooping over the fairly useless barrier they’ve put up between the two ends of the garden. I’m cheering inside for half a second as this bird flies possibly for the first time in its little life. I’m so amazed I don’t see how the fox follows but it does and they race towards our end and down towards our back door. I bang and bang on the window then run downstairs and bang on the window there, but the fox is dragging her back up our little steps just opposite the door. He’s dragging her by the neck. I bang super hard on the pane of the back door. He stops and lifts his head, and hers too, and looks at me with his little orange eyes. Stares. Checks me out. Am I dangerous? No. Do I understand, with my soft human ways, the truth of life and death? No. Carries on.

I’m thinking this hen’s dead. Has to be. But it’s not. He’s got it in the middle of the grass and he’s pulling at the feathers. I’m wondering whether to open the door but, again, don’t and go back upstairs. It’s got to be dead now.

I’m helpless so I get out my phone and start videoing. Then a flock of magpies and crows appear and are cackling out their warning and the fox is worried so he leaves the hen and climbs the wall and scans the environs to make sure he’s safe, then he comes back down to the hen and he bites her bum and she isn’t dead! She isn’t dead at all and races over to our door again but he follows her and drags her back by the wing and plops her back where he had her. The magpies are bothering him so he goes up on the wall again, to the highest point and sits, calm with his beautiful tail curled round him the the magpies in the tree above his head. The hen raises her head. Why is she still alive?

The first hen is belly-up at the other end by the steps.