Monday, 30 August 2010

St Kilda: Life on the edge

Through a smirr of icy rain, there could be no sight more poignant than this abandoned village. A bumpy track rises parallel to the shore, and on one side, a row of cottages looks out to sea. A handful have been restored, but most have been left to the elements, and have been torn apart by the almost ceaseless gales. Humanity though is still defiant and inside each ruin, a stone slate, positioned in the fireplace, tells its story.

At No 8, the stone reads: “1930 Empty. Formerly Callum MacDonald ‘Old Blind Callum’.” A little beyond, inside the ruins of No 15, is the home once shared by John Gillies Jr and Annie Gillies, known, apparently, as the “Queen of St Kilda”. A third house has a simple round pebble inscribed: “Flora Gillies”.

This is Main Street, St Kilda, 80 years to the day that the island’s resident population was evacuated on HMS Harebell, and removed from its punishing life on the most exposed outcrop of the British Isles. For at least 4,000 years, people had eked out their lives here, dining on the oats they grew, and the seabirds they plucked from the cliffs, until their unique brand of “sustainable” living finally became unsustainable and they were forced to quit.

Then, as now, that event inspired a media circus. In 1930, the under secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston, was moved to issue an instruction preventing press from remaining on the island on the day of the exodus, “to avoid the miseries of the poor people being turned into a show”.

Three generations later, the island’s owners the National Trust for Scotland, strike rather a different pose. St Kilda is one of around 20 places on Earth to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site both for cultural and for natural reasons. Its importance can hardly be understated, says Dick Balharry, the naturalist who chairs the Trust, but the cost of maintaining the site is high, and every last ounce of publicity helps.

To that end, a German TV crew has this morning anchored its yacht in Village Bay, joining the BBC team that arrived last night. The islanders latest residents, contractors who man St Kilda’s weapons testing station, and keep its 1950s army barracks running, look on at the launching of a replica of the island’s mail boat, pleased to share the island’s story with their visitors.

In truth, St Kilda’s history speaks for itself if you make the steep ascent to the Gap, the little dip on the ridge between Oiseval and Conachair, at 430m St Kilda’s highest point. The village – whose population never passed 180 - is wrapped beneath this vast amphitheatre, and its is easy to pick out the semi circle of verdant green where the community grew barley, oats and potatoes, and husbanded their cattle. The descendents of the islanders’ sheep are scattered out over mountainside, running wild.

Above the Gap, is Conachair itself. At the summit, the fiercest winds reach 170 knots – or 200mph. Beneath, sheer rock tumbles into the sea, the highest cliffs in Britain. It is scarcely credible, but here, every summer, St Kildan men, roped together, and carrying long sticks with nooses attached, defied death (though not always) to snare thousands of fulmars; or took their boats over the treacherous sea to Boreray island and trapped gugas – young gannets – for the pot.

The carcasses of these birds were stripped of their feathers, the birds split down their backs, and the meat either eaten straight away, or, in most cases, salted and stored away in the hundreds of stone cleiten – sheds of stone and turf, that are still scattered all over the island, even on steepest hillsides.

In the end, modernity crushed the St Kildans. When the first tourist steamer arrived in 1838, the islanders, alarmed by the smoke rising from the funnel, went running to the manse to tell the church minister that a ship was on fire.

They soon grew accustomed to the summer trade. Tourism brought money, and an acquaintance with non-perishable foods, medicines and fuel, consumable that became almost essential, as grinding poverty slowly cleared the island of its youngest and fittest inhabitants. The Royal Navy set up a post during the First World War, and the clearance accelerated; when the forces left after the war, a quarter of the remaining St Kildan population followed them off the island.

By 1928, only 37 survived, too few able-bodied enough to farm the land, and pluck sufficient seabirds from the cliffs. The death of Mary Gillies, pregnant but unable to reach a mainland hospital when appendicitis set in, was the last straw. In May the evacuation was ordered; by the evening of 30 August, all that remained of the St Kildans was their houses, and smoke of their last fires rising from the chimneys.

Unlike the former inhabitants, today’s residents have mastered the art of modern living. In 1957, when the trust bought the island, it allowed the Ministry of Defence to take up residency. Though the army and navy quit in 1998, their ugly barracks block is occupied by the26 contractors who man the weapons station, and keep the electricity working.

Now, their lives too may change. Their biggest customer is the British government. The Strategic Defence Review will inevitably cut forces spending, and could quite conceivably put paid to this latest community. What then for St Kilda? Would the barracks block be ripped up, and St Kilda returned to nature?

Not necessarily, says Mr Balharry. St Kilda is a world resource. The mysteries of its Neolithic and Viking past remain uncovered; so does its marine environment and its the dynamics of its unique bird life. Even its sheep are the subject of detailed scientific study. In Mr Balharry’s mind’s eye he sees an international research station here, funded by agencies from all around the world.

But as he descends from the Gap, that notion remains a distant dream. Beneath the vastness of the mountain, he demands: “How have you enjoyed your first morning on St Kilda? Once seen never forgotten. It is magnificent, isn’t it?” And it is.

Photographs by James Glossop.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Caught in the crossfire

In 1972, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, just four months after Bloody Sunday, a ten-year-old boy on his way home from school,was shot and blinded by a rubber bullet, fired by a captain in the British army.

This week – with violence casting a long shadow in North Ireland – the two men will take to a stage in Britain for the first time, in an extraordinary act of public reconciliation, to discuss the devastating moment that has shaped their lives and to promote their message of peace.

Both men - Richard Moore, 49, the victim, and Charles Inness, 68, the solider who fired the gun – have spoken to The Times about their memories of this most traumatic of incidents, and how it changed their lives. Their vivid, affecting, but very different accounts are printed here.

For Mr Moore, his sudden blindness was a catastrophe, but from an early age his astonishing lack of bitterness and self pity, and his determination to lead a full life were obvious. He completed school and went on graduate from the University of Ulster.

With £68,000 in compensation he established himself as a successful businessman, then, in 1996, founded Children in Crossfire, a charity dedicated to helping children caught up in poverty and the threat of war.

Mr Inness remained in the army, and returned to North Ireland to work closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He left the forces in 1993, and eventually retied to the Scottish Borders, with his wife Louise.

But despite his years of service a single day in 1972 continued cast a long shadow: “Occasionally one remembered Northern Ireland and thought: ‘O my God, had I have the gift of foresight, I would not have done what I did and fired a rubber bullet,” he said.

As the tenth anniversary of Children in Crossfire loomed, events conspired to bring Mr Moore and Mr Inness together. A documentary maker put them in touch, and they met for the first time, in Edinburgh in 2006.

They have remained firm friends, regularly staying in with each other’s homes, and with one another’s families. On Friday, they will appear at Edinburgh’s Festival of Spirituality and Peace.

Victor Spence, the festival director said the men’s story was almost overwhelming in its intensity. “These two men provide outstanding examples of the power of forgiveness,” said Mr Spence. “Years ago, I heard Richard speak about his own experiences and was brought to tears. To see both men together at our festival will be a moving and memorable experience.”

Richard Moore's testimony

It was 4 May 1972, four months after Bloody Sunday. It was in Derry, and I lived on the Creggan Estate. Nowadays we tend to forget the environment that existed then.

This was a no-go area. - the British Army and the police were not allowed in. The place was barricaded off. There were riots, shootings, bombings on a daily basis. I remember watching cars in flames and CS gas shooting across the sky. Our house, was a 30-second walk from the houses of four of the people killed on Bloody Sunday. One was my uncle Gerard, my mammy’s brother. That is the context.

I went to Rosemount Primary School. It was on the edge of the Creggan. Both the primary and secondary schools were next to each other and beside them was an RUC police barracks, heavily protected by the British army.

The barracks had sangars – look-out posts – and one of these things was built between a row of houses, facing out onto the football of St Joseph's secondary school. On that day, I got out of school as normal at 3:20 and ran up by the football pitch. I had to pass that sangar as I had on many occasions.

On this particular day, I ran past and a British soldier fired a rubber bullet. I don’t remember hearing a bang. The next thing I knew was waking up in the school canteen. My music teacher, Mr Doherty, had found me lying on the ground. He carried me into the canteen and laid me out on the table. I remember him asking my name. I told him: 'Richard Moore'. He got a shock, because he was my teacher, and he wasn’t able to recognise me. My nose was completely flattened, my eyeballs were down on my cheekbones and my face was just a bloody mess.

The next time I awoke, I was in an ambulance. My daddy and my sister were beside me. My daddy was holding my hand. I remember him saying: 'You'll be OK, Richard.’ One of the ambulance people said, 'There's a woman outside, she's very upset - will we let her in?' He said: 'Don’t let her in, it's his mother.' He didn't want her seeing me in the state I was in.

When I eventually came to, all my conversations were about getting the bandages off my eyes. I loved playing football - there was a boy in the bed opposite and I remember joking with him: 'I can't wait to get these bandages off - I'll teach you how to play football.' That must have been very difficult for my parents and my brothers and sisters.

A month after I was shot, my brother Noel took for a walk up and down the back garden. That wasn’t unusual, because every day he would take me out to help build up my strength. But on this particular day he said: 'Do you know what's happened to you?' I said, 'Yes, I know I was shot.' He said: ' Do you know what damage was done?' I said, 'No.' He said: 'You've lost your right eye and you'll never see again with your left eye.'

There were no dramatics that day. The only time I remember crying was that night when I went to bed. I was a ten year old boy. I wasn't thinking about getting a job, or about getting an education. All I felt was this enormous sense of loss that I would never see my parents again. I was on my own and I cried myself to sleep.

The next day, I woke up and it was the first day of the rest of my life as a blind person. I wanted to be independent, I didn't want people to feel sorry for me. I didn't want to go to a school for blind children. I went back into primary school on to St Joseph's Secondary. Then I went to university and graduated in 1983. I learnt the guitar and played in a semi-professional band and travelled all over Ireland.

I didn't have a moment's anger or bitterness for what happened to me and I always wanted to meet the soldier who shot me. The reason for my attitude was my parents. Despite their best efforts to avoid the Troubles, the Troubles found us and they had to deal with the magnitude of it. They were just poor people dealing with the most difficult situation: watching their son who one day had been out kicking a football and racing and running and climbing over hedges – then, weeks later, walking into half open doors and groping his way round the walls. In the middle of that the only thing I can remember is their hurt. There was never anger. When I talk about forgiveness, it came from them in a very implicit way.

Thirty thee years later, someone asked to make a documentary and I found out the name of the soldier. I flew to Edinburgh and we met in a hotel foyer on 14 January 2006.

The build up was very emotional for me, and I never thought it would be like that. I remember the day before I met Charles, I went to my daddy’s grave and said to him, ‘Look – I hope you are happy with what I’m doing.’ Then I went to see my mother. I said: ‘I am going to meet the soldier tomorrow – what do you think?’ She said: ‘Are you alright about it?’ I said I was. She said, ‘Well Richard if you’re happy, I am happy.’

Finally, to sit there in the hotel, opposite the guy who blinded you and caused so much hurt to your family and to like him, was an incredible experience.

I won’t justify violence, I’m not justifying violence. But sometimes in a violent situation things happen that shouldn’t happen. For me – I can't speak for any other victim – that is the way I have let it go. Whether I hate or love, I won’t get my sight back. Charles is not a bad person. I believe he is someone in a situation where he acted incorrectly and unjustifiably and I bear the consequences. I have to allow him the space to say what he has to say, as long as he allows me the space to speak too. We may not agree – but we can agree to move forward. I forgive Charles.

Charles Inness's testimony

My regiment, 5 Regiment, Royal Artillery was over in Ireland in 1972, from February until June. It was a time of extreme violence, the worst time in the whole of the Troubles. There was a recent statement about Afghanistan: it noted that the situation now, desperate as it is, is still not a bad in terms of numbers of casualties over six months that we had at that time. This was virtually a war zone.

We were sent to Londonderry. I was a captain, given the dubious task of running Rosemount RUC Station. It was a red-rag-to-a-bull situation. We were in a hard line Catholic area, and positioning a police post there attracted every bit of violence that could possibly be thrown at it. The norm was anything from bombing, nail-bombing and shooting, to much lower level violence, rioting, stone throwing , petrol bombing. Almost on a nightly basis we were shot at. Not long before the incident with Richard, two soldiers from my own battery were killed, blown to pieces by a remotely-detonated bomb.

Rosemount police post had a number sangars –manned, sandbagged structures, from which personnel could observe outwards and sideways, and maintain the integrity of the base. It was essential that the sangars were manned, the people were alert, and they were fully aware of what the procedures were, in the event of them seeing something abnormal or being shot at.

On that day, I was called to the sangar and it was pointed out to me by the poor lad inside it, the sort of aggro that had been going on hours – not continual but the coming and going of youths, chucking stones. At one stage they had got hold of a scaffolding pole and they were trying to skewer the guy inside with it.

The choices you had were pretty simple. You had a fire arm and a thing called a rubber bullet gun. A rubber-bullet gun was relatively short-barrelled bit of kit – about 20in long and an inch and a half wide. It was smooth bore, a low charge propelling, literally, a rubber bullet. It is a black piece of rubber about six inches long, conical at the sharp end, blunt at the back. In the time I was there – a six-month period – we used these as a means of trying to disperse low-level violence and fired hundreds with very few effects.

In those days, the procedure was that you most certainly would not go out of the defended area. Because the game was very simple. The youths would throw stones, and cause aggro, a soldier would expose himself by remonstrating with them. Then a chap with a telescopic rifle who would promptly shoot dead the solider. Under no circumstances would I let anyone go out; one merely shouted through an observation slot to get people to disperse. That usually resulted in more shouting and more stones thrown.

On this occasion, I took the appropriate action at that time – which was to fire a rubber bullet, with a view to getting a group to disperse. One of them went down and the rest did disperse. Very shortly afterwards, people came and took the individual away, who had been lying on the ground. Soon we heard some shooting and that incident passed. I didn’t give it much thought.

The next thing, the following morning, I was rung up by my CO, who said the individual who had been hit by the rubber bullet had damn near been killed. He would be very lucky to survive. My immediate feeling was one of absolute and total shock. I thought: ‘How the hell did that happen?’ Obviously, I was devastated.

There was an RUC police inquiry into the incident and a military police inquiry. The upshot was the action I had taken was justifiable and absolutely in line with the procedures at the time, though the outcome was simply horrific. That was a point I totally agreed with.

Over a period of time, the shock of it went, because I am pretty robust and there were many other grisly things going on. It was an unpleasant incident to try to put behind me, and obviously, the sadness and regret stayed with me. Occasionally one remembered Northern Ireland and thought: ‘O my God, had I have the gift of foresight, I would not have done what I did and fired a rubber bullet.’

Many years later, five years ago, I was rung at home by a chap who was ex-RUC. He said: ‘If I said the name Richard Moore to you, would it ring a bell?’ I said: ‘It most certainly would’. He then said, ‘Can I come and talk to you?’

So this guy appeared and gave me a bit of background: that despite his appalling injuries, his total blindness, Richard had managed to get himself back to school, had gone to a good university, had become pretty successful. He had established this wonderful organisation, Children in Crossfire. The guy then said, ‘Richard has got a letter for you – would you like to take it?’ I said, ‘Yes, give me the letter.’ It was absolutely brilliant: there was no acrimony in it, no feeling of hatred. It was astonishingly positive. I took a bit of time to couch a reply – I didn’t think me reply was as good as his letter – but the upshot was that we agreed to meet in an hotel in Edinburgh.

What a day. I walked in and he was sitting in a chair. I walked up and tapped him on the shoulder, and said: ‘Hi Richard, it’s Charles.’ He got up and shook my hand. The next four hours went by like they were a matter of a few minutes. We talked, we chatted, we laughed, we told jokes, we talked about our families. We talked about everything under the sun. We had a damn good lunch, and a bottle of wine. It was the beginning of a great friendship.

I took Richard back to the airport and passed him over to the escort who was going to take him down to the plane. Richard later said to his escort: ‘That man you saw me laughing with – that was the man who blinded me.’ The guy thought he was completely barking mad.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Govan's salute to Clyde-built Reid

Some came by subway - old men in donkey jackets and brogues, ladies decked in black pearls. Others arrived by plane, taxi and by ministerial limousine, Alex Ferguson and Billy Connolly, Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown, the celebrities taking their places among the 800 everyday Glaswegians who had come to mark the passing of Jimmy Reid, their "Clyde-built" trade union hero. 

Govan Old Parish Church is no shrinking violet of a structure, a massive Victorian edifice, with a handsome gallery and a wood panelled roof. It speaks of a Glasgow of a different age, when prosperity sailed in up the River Clyde, and the shipyards lined the water, providing jobs for thousands of men. 

Reid's celebration here signified the passing of that era. As Ferguson said, in 1945, there were 35 yards but now there are only three. Where once there were 145,000 people in this parish, today there are just 30,000. 

Even Reid himself had retired to the Isle of Bute and the day started near his home, with an early morning service in Rothesay. Then the coffin was ferried across to the mainland, for the slow 30-mile drive along the too-peaceful waters of the Clyde, to Govan where Reid was born, raised and enjoyed his 15 minutes - and more - of fame.

Those moments came during and after the sit-in at Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971. Faced by a Conservative plan, devised by Nicolas Ridley, to "butcher" the yard, rather than publlicly fund its efforts to maintain an order book, Reid and Jimmy Airlie, his fellow shop steward,  led a sit-in, which effectively wrested control of the yard. 

It was the model of trade union action, said Jimmy Cloughley, who worked at the shipyard. Reid's inspired speech at the start of the campaign - "there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying, because the world is watching us "- won him global fame. Seven months later, the union's victory saved 6,000 jobs. 

Reid's contribution earned him the rectorship of Glasgow University - voted in by a huge majority of students. The  acceptance speech that followed was so brilliant it was reprinted in full by the New York Times, recalled Ferguson. Some of its most famous lines adorned the order of service: "A rat race is for rats. We're not rats, we're human beings." 

Mr Salmond, making the final speech in Reid's honour announced that the rectorial address would be added on the modern studies curriculum in Scotland's secondary schools, a gesture which brought warm applause from the congregation. 

If the early 1970s  marked  Reid's finest hour, what followed often seemed less inspiring. He enjoyed being in the public eye, and made a career as a journalist, raconteur and after-dinner speaker. He was columnist and a radio presenter; a guest on chat-shows. 

Celebrity anecdotes from his celebrity friends only emphasised the change in his world. Fergusson recounted the tale of Kenneth Williams and Reid waiting in the green room at the Parkinson show. The painfully snobbish Williams recited a poem and turned confrontationally to Reid, who said: "Was that Yeats?" Williams conceded it was, before Reid recited a few lines for himself and asked: 'Who wrote that?" When Williams failed to find the answer, Reid told him: "Me." 

Connolly - who laughed uproariously at his own reminiscences - quoted John Sessions reaction to Reid's death, proving that shipyard worker's persona had penetrated deep into the world of the performing arts. 

"Jimmy had a lovely way of dealing with idiots ," said Connolly. Presumably, the great man would have offered him an indulgent smile. 

But in nearly two hours of celebration, a rounded picture of Reid came through. Here was a boy who left school at 14, but made himself at home in Govan library, teaching himself history and philosophy while Ferguson and his friends played football. 

The congregation discovered Reid the jazz lover, who inveigled Connolly into an Ella Fitzgerald convert, and Reid the Communist-turned- Nationalist who quoted Shelley and Tennyson and liked nothing better 
on a Saturday afternoon than watching a game of cricket. 

The union leader's wife, Joan and their three daughters wiped their eyes. His friend David Scott, invited all and sundry to the Hagg's Castle Golf Club for the funeral tea - a large gesture, for a larger than life man. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Long day's journey into light

In the summer of  1994, Candia McWilliam took a phone call from Stanley Kubrick, the Hollywood  director, who asked her to collaborate on the screenplay of his latest movie.  “And do you know the  title?” she asks with a lop-sided grin. “Eyes Wide Shut.  Prophetic is it not?”

McWilliam’s face tells its own story. It is long and broad and  has marks and folds around the eyes.   There is a  puffiness,  caused by anti-depressants, and she appears to have no eyelids. Every now and then, an involuntary twitch passes across her cheeks.   “I am what you can look like if you are lucky enough to have had an operation to overcome a particular kind of blindness,”  she says blandly over the coffee cups of a west London cafe.  

The author feels it almost  superfluous to add that this “no simple tale of triumph over a tragedy”, but it is true only up to a point.  McWilliam – who wants “to transmit how thrilling it has been to be alive” - can concede that  her return to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this month, with a 500-page autogbiography, signifies something special about the human spirit. 

From the spring of 2006, she lived a virtual recluse, “a parrot in a cage with the hood over it”, because she had no wish to burden her friends and family with her blepharospasm, a rare brain condition  which causes the eyelids to close over otherwise healthy eyes.   She was condemned to stumble around her own home, until, inevitably, she broke her leg in a fall.  Later, when blood poisoning set in, she found herself in what she calls the “dying ward” of a hospital.

Two years after diagnosis, she wrote an article about her blindness, published in The Times. Marion Bailey, a blepharospasm sufferer, read it and wrote  recommending a Nottingham surgeon, Alexander Foss, who had developed a treatment.  Within weeks, McWilliam was under the knife.  Tendons from her knees were transplanted into the brow of her head and used to pin open her eyes.  To  general amazement, she emerged, unblinking, into the light.

That story of recovery is remarkable enough, but What to Look for in Winter,  is shot through with many tales of hope and despair: her mother’s suicide, two “defenestrated” marriages, her alcoholism, separation from her children.  The subtitle, A Memoir in Blindness, is recognition of her inability to see her way, even when she was sighted. 

 McWilliam was born and raised in Edinburgh, where her father, Colin, was an architectural historian.  Margaret, his wife,  stayed at  home, cleaned the house and mangled the clothes.

“She was 6ft 2in of towering glamour,” she says.  “She was full of talent, stuck on Warriston Crescent, pushing a pram. What could she do?”

McWilliam was just 7 or 8  when she awoke to find her mother lying beside her, and a bottle of pills on the bed.  “I think she had on not a nightgown but a green wool dress,” she writes. “She had sewn me a pink pillow with grey kittens and pussy willow branches on it to help combat my nightmares.”

Whether she  is “non-existent or in heaven” McWilliam’s sees “mummy” in her own children, Olly, Clem and Minoo.   “ I remember little of her, but I  think, ‘That is how she used her hands.’ When my older son smiles, his eyes go sideways - that is what she did. She is infinitely happier in her incarnation in my children, than she was as a person, locked into Edinburgh.”

Beyond the obvious trauma, Margaret McWilliam’s death had other far reaching consequence for her daughter.  Candia’s father re-married; she was sent away to school, where she made a new friends, and found a surrogate family who lived on the island of Colonsay.  Her  kin network, family,  step families, adopted families, not to mention her first husband  (Quentin, Earl of Portsmouth), second husband (Fram Dinshaw, an Indian born, Oxford academic)  mothers-in-law and children, form a mesh of humanity that has often saved McWilliam from herself.

At school, she was teased that she had swallowed a dictionary.  After university, her literary talents came though when she won a Vogue short story competition and  her 1989 debut novel, A Case of Knives, won huge reviews.  Articulate  and stunningly beautiful, she was seized upon by the Sunday supplements, – but she never appears to have accepted that the woman posing for photos was actually her: “I looked a bit thick,” she writes, “where thick overlaps with apparently sexy. A bad mixture for a sardonic introvert.”

She had been drinking all her adult life.  At first it heightened perception, and made her clever. Soon she was just sodden.   “I lost my face when I drank,” she says. “ All I could see was my green eyes  peeping through this awful bruised, sheening, bulging,  sweating, flaky thing.  I lost my bones, I lost my elegance, I lost my hands. I lost all of it. And I lost the capacity to be clean.  I hid in black, dirty, grey clothes. Once you are sodden, you drink to oblivion and wake up in shame.  You live in the dark, and hide from the light.”

Even in the pit of her illness, she  continued to write reviews and short stories, but quit writing novels because she dreaded publicity. “I simply could not face it, and the more shameful I felt myself to be, the more I drank,” she says. “I might have had ‘human block’, or ‘existential block’, but never writer’s block.”

She gave up drink in 2001, and three years later – at Edinburgh’s book festival – outed herself as an alcoholic. In 2006, not long after she had been invited to join the judging panel for Booker Prize, the blepharospasm descended.  Twenty years ago the same condition was held to be a mental illness and McWilliam would have been sectioned  - “that’s true, and do you know, I would have accepted that” she says.  Does she think she brought it on herself? 

“I alternate.  Sometimes I think it was a tailor-made punishment, that I summoned it to alleviate those I love of any putative pain.  Then I think maybe it is a consequence of my habits of my mind, which are so self defeating. Maybe I pulled this snood of blackness over my head. Maybe, because I am so self-sabotaging, every time something looks like it is going right, I ensure that it doesn’t. 

 “Some doctors say it is a consequence of certain habits of mind, or a consequence of a protracted  period of unspeakable stress, or of alcoholism.  I just don’t know. “

In the depths of drunkenness, she had considered suicide;  physical blindness conjured up the same despair.
“I tried to summon death in my blindness because I thought it would get everyone off the hook of having to pretend they could bear me,” she says. “That was not a loving way to think.  Then I went through periods of thinking,   ‘Is there a way of dying and it appearing an accident.’

“There isn’t.  I cannot leave my children in the sort of doubt I have had. I love them too much.  I want to know not just what their children will be like, but what kind of shirt they are wearing, what made them laugh today, what they had for breakfast.

“I am infinitely curious. I never ever lost that response to life.  Even when I was at the back of the cave and under the mud, the crackle of thought – like that painting on the Sistine chapel – lay in there somewhere. The battle to get back to it did seem long and weighty.  I  couldn’t depend on the usual things that people depend on – private intimacy, a partner.  I have to depend on work, the beauty of the world, chance.  Here is a talent I may have, I really don’t want not to have used it when I conk. But in the end we are all alone.”

A few weeks ago, McWilliam, 55, left London, to live in Edinburgh, a six-month trial to see if she was ready to return for good to the city.  Instinctively she feels her home town   is ready to receive this woman  “in the autumn of her life”,  with her foldaway white stick  and her stock of anti-depressants.  But though she wants to keep writing and talking, she says her identity  is shot to pieces.

“I  can’t rely on something that I didn’t know I was relying on, but was,” she says. “I wanted  strangers to like the look of me. Particularly children. But children don’t like the look of me now.  When I smile at babies I have to be really careful they don’t burst into tears.”

It seems a desperately bleak appraisal.  Perhaps self-assessment has never been her strong suit.  Would she accept that she remains blind to her real identity?   That her friends, family and readers, want more than just her beautiful words on the page; would she agree that they might love her appearance too?

“You are a complete darling.  Maybe the penny is about to drop.” 

  • Portrait by Colin MacPherson
  • This article - one of my better ones, I thought - appeared in The Times Edinburgh International Book Festival supplement. The review below appeared in The Times Weekend Review section, the previous Saturday.

What to look for in winter

In the opening pages of What to Look for in Winter, Candia McWilliam summarises her state of being as she embarks on  the memoir that marks her  first substantial work for 16 years.  She is,  writes McWilliam, six foot tall and afraid of short people.  She is a Scot and an alcoholic.  There is nothing wrong with her eyes, but she is blind. She cannot lose her temper, though circumstances are contriving to make her mad. She exudes marriedness, but she is alone.

So  begins  one of the most extraordinary literary autobiographies of this or any other year.  It opens  amid the author’s sudden and inexplicable blindness, but stretches back into a meditation on her life, a trawl through sadness  via her mother’s suicide, into the alcoholism and  chaos that McWilliam  herself brought  down on two failed marriages.

After periods of despair and near-madness it ends, against all odds,  in a kind of triumph.  Vision has returned – she is no longer dictating to her secretary but writing again for herself, eyes wide open.  McWilliam, still racked by doubt and scarcely-concealed self-loathing,  thankfully remains a large presence among us.

The  story of her recent past is distressing.  In 2006, soon after she was selected as one of the judges of the Booker prize, the author was struck down by blepharospasm, a rare condition brought on by a fault in the brain, that causes the eyelids to close over otherwise healthy eyes.  It was, she thought, untreatable; indeed 20 years ago, sufferers, usually women, were often sectioned under the mental health act and confined for the remainder of their days.

Appalled by  the affect of her illness. McWilliam became “a fat ghost”, an inconvenience,  she thought,  to her family and hid  herself away.  “I look odd and slow and vulnerable,” she writes. “I creep along and hold my eyes up in their itching sockets as people hold spilling glasses of drink above a throng, as though the drinks with their precious realised meniscuses are threatened...  [I]  make involuntary noises and pre-emptive twitches  and sallies with my head, which aches even by the end of a morning as if weighed with lead beans at the back.”

It is her disability, the thing that might have ended her career as a novelist, that paradoxically becomes transforming.  In blindness, McWiliam begins writing again, turning her mind’s eye on to the past, determined to see the truth of her life.  

The revelations are almost unbearably painful and from the beginning we see how her parents failing marriage teed up her own despair.   In a very prim Edinburgh, her father was an inspector of historic buildings, a distant figure, while her mother,  a housewife,  was glamorous,  intelligent, frustrated, lonely and, in the end, just too sad.   

One morning when she was about eight years old, McWilliam awoke to find “mummy”  lying dead beside her in bed: “She had sewn me a pink pillow with grey kittens and pussy willow branches on it to help combat my nightmares ... I do not recall whether her head rested on this pillow at the end.”
Beyond the burden of guilt laid down on the young child, Margaret McWilliam’s death inevitably reordered her daughter’s life.  Her husband re-married; Candia was sent away to a school , and slowly began to assemble the cat’s cradle of  friends, family and step family, that would  provide a safety net when life later threatened to overwhelm her.

Her vulnerability will surprise readers who remember  the impact of her 1989 debut novel, A Case of Knives. McWilliam arrived on the scene young, beautiful and articulate, but even while she was being photographed for the gossip  columns, she  was already plumbing despair.

Her craving for alcohol hardly ceased, from the first taste of advocaat, drunk after a church service.   By the time she had sunk two marriage, and removed herself from her three children, she would down anything, “household cleaners, disinfectant, a substance called Easy-Iron that lends smoothness to laundry, but it is not a smooth drink.”

The book is not  irredeemably black, far from it.   McWilliam is   “a sardonic introvert”, she loves laughter and tumbles out vivid detail in her reminiscences.  Terence Mitchison – a relation of Naomi Mitchison, the author – was McWilliam’s first proper boyfriend. Terence “breathed jokes” and sent them to her colour-coded, brown for medieval jokes, green for rural jokes, pink for jokes to do with empire – “and so on”, through  the colours of the rainbow.   After the relationship cooled, the pair were friends enough to share a barge on the Brecon Beacons canal, where Terence “embroidered his admiral’s cap with the barge’s name, Samuel Whiskers.”

It was through Mitchison she met  Anthony Appiah, the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, and nephew of the Queen of Ashanti.  She found herself “building sandcastles with the right-wing philosopher John Casey”  and was “introduced to green Chartreuse by the composer Robin Holloway”. She  played piano duets with Roger Scruton.  For good measure, David Watkin, the architectural historian, taught her to dance the galope.

As she assembled tales like these, McWilliam found the humour, the shafts of light, that must have lightened her darkest moods. Then, after an article about her physical blindness was published in The Times in 2008, she was recommended to a surgeon who had developed a treatment for blepharospasm. Within a matter of weeks, she began the painful, invasive surgery which literally pulled her eyes open for ever more. At the end of What to Look for In Winter the light is pouring in.

McWilliam, still just 55, has led a life of extraordinary richness, that for all her self-destructiveness, remains full of love. The final page of the book movingly acknowledges those people who have been closest and cared for her most. It concludes with a line from Milton, blind and mourning his dead wife: “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.” For a sardonic introvert, this counts as a happy ending.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Dreamers hit the Edinburgh trail

A small, dark-haired woman is staggering across departures at New York’s JFK airport, weighed down by a couple of suitcases and a backpack. She has travelled 2,500 miles, but has an ocean to cross before she can even begin to contemplate her new life of stardom. To help her on her way, she has stowed 1,000 needles among her luggage.

Meet Olivia Rhee, the still not-very-famous “singing acupuncturist” en route to the Edinburgh fringe. Brimful of hope, this morning  when she sets foot on British soil for the first time, Rhee will join thousands of others whose greatest desire is to find stardom over the weeks ahead.

It is easy to be cynical about the Fringe, all those slick comedy promoters and TV executives who fill up the city; the student luvvies so roaringly drunk for the first time in the their lives. But among the 21,000 performers who arrive, there are hundreds of dreamers who woke up one morning, and took the miraculous decision to abandon their job, or sell their house, or leave their partner – or any combination of the above – to prepare for their shot at fame in Edinburgh.

Rhee, 42, is one of that fearless breed. “I am so much closer to my dream now I am a performer,” she says cheerily, ahead of her second long-haul flight. “Every step further along makes me a little bit happier. Just having the opportunity makes me smile. I am on my way.”

In any other August, she would be working acupuncture clinic, founded in 1975 by Hak, her father, when he moved his family from Seoul, South Korea to Las Vegas. But while Rhee studied hard to become a qualified doctor of oriental medicine, her career has never quite been enough to douse that needling desire to enjoy the limelight.

Her Edinburgh debut is a mixture of stories and poetry, song and dance, but for all that, Adventures of a Singing Acupuncturist, ironically enough, might see a little pointless. Nothing of the sort, retorts Rhee, who has been rehearsing in New York for a week.

“I know four guitar chords, I can play the congas,” she says. “And I do have feet. I can’t really call myself a dancer, but I do a kind of freestyle. People look at me and point. There is a unique quality to it.”

If Rhee has all the optimism of the Fringe virgin, Lynn Ruth Miller, 78, is a grizzled veteran by comparison.

Professor Miller - in an earlier life she held the chair of humanities at the University of Toledo – had never performed on stage until her Edinburgh debut five years ago. This year, she flies in from San Francisco with a portfolio of shows and turns, including her unique rendition of that Sex Pistols classic, Anarchy in the UK, which ends with her throwing brassieres into the audience. Sid Vicious would have approved.

But the performance to capture Edinburgh’s heart is Ageing is Amazing, her one-woman burlesque that celebrates the sagging glories of senior citizenship. Conforming in almost every degree to Sam Goldwyn’s dictum: “Start with an earthquake, and build up to a climax”: it opens to the tune of the Strip Polka as Miller slowly undresses.

“If my mother knew I would be stepping out with tassels on my nipples, she would be spinning in her grave,” chuckles Miller, who has worked her way through two husbands (“both my own”). What on earth makes her stand up in a room full of strangers and disrobe? She has no hesitation. This is all about love.

“I go to Edinburgh, I make people laugh, and they stand and cheer,” says Miller. “
It is as good as any orgasm. This is approval and love beyond anything I have ever had. In San Francisco I am an old lady; in Edinburgh I am something.” 

Peter Buckley Hill promotes the Free Fringe - a roster of over 300 shows with no admission charges – and sees more hopeful and hopeless acts than most. Very few of the dreamers will fulfil their expectations, he warns.

“The fringe is entirely fuelled, and financed, by performers backing their dreams – the wastage rate is high. People do succeed, but only by working hard at what they do all the year round. It takes a lot of effort to make your performance sound effortless.

“The overwhelming majority go away disappointed. Either they don't know how small the fringe audiences are, or they believe against all logic that the world will beat a path to their door. If you're a leaf, even quite a good leaf, you go to the forest if you want to hide, not if you want to stand out.”

After years of effort, some, a tiny handful, come into this year’s festival with a sliver of a chance, that finally the breakthrough will come, the reward for so impetuously leaving a former life behind.

Kate Smurthwaite, 34, was head of strategy for a hedge fund, who gave up finance six years ago to become a full-time stand up. Jools Constant, watched his marriage collapse and threw away a successful building business, employing 12 people, as he set about turning himself into comedy performer and writer.

“It has given me a new life. For the first time I feel ‘this is where I should be,” says Constant, 42, who lives in a single room, somewhere in central London. “I made a clear-headed decision to lead a life where I expressed myself, and which was rewarding. I found it among people that I like and respect.”

Smurthwaite, like Constant, she has acquired a healthy audience on the London stand-up scene. She has no regrets about swapping the dreary world of finance for the adrenaline rush of performance.

“I went back to my old job for a while – just three months,” she recalls. “After a couple of day, I was thinking, ‘This is just so not me’. I’d found stand-up, and was so thrilled and happy to be doing it. It’s strange to look back and think, ‘Why did I put up with a job I hated so much for so long?’ You’re young I suppose, and you have to be earning money. Instead of doing something that actually inspires you.”

Others are less sanguine. Like Rhee, Danny Hurst, from London, has turned his own life into art, and brings a comedy drama, I Was a Teenage Rentboy to the Fringe. It really is based on his own life story, the grubby assignations and the street-walking that funded him through college.

“It’s more cheerful than an average episode of EastEnders,” he says diffidently. “I’m not looking for stardom – all I want to do is make a living as a performer.”

And that is true of all these magical self-made artists. Each one craves wider recognition of the strange new talent they’ve discovered in themselves. Miller has set her sights on appearing on a big comedy club bill. Smurthwaite and Constant would love television to come calling.

And Rhee? In her mind’s eye, she is already hosting a TV chat show, the kind of thing that gets syndicated around the world. Like Ellen Degeneres?

“Yeah, I’d see it as a bit like Ellen. With good guests to talk to and some nice songs.” And acupuncture? “O yeah. And acupuncture.” It’s the stuff of dreams.

Comrades, this is from beyond the pay wall. It ran in the national edition of The Times, last Friday. Lynn Ruth, if you're reading this - that's about half a million readers.