Riding of the Marches

riding of marches photo

A thousand years from today when horses are rare and exotic as Bengal tigers Kirkcudbright’s reenactment of the Riding of the Marches ceremony will be  beamed into homes as  a holographic  image.  Our descendants will enjoy realistic computer generated images of horses and riders.

For now we get the real thing.  Every year, real riders on real horses, ride round the boundaries of the  Burgh of Kirkcudbright, in  reenactment of the originating 15th century event.

In 1455 King James II of Scotland decreed Kirkcudbright a Royal Burgh.  A messenger from the king, the pursuivant, was despatched to Kirkcudbright carrying the necessary legal instruments, that is,  the  Charter and Seal.  From Kirkcudbright,  the Cornet, a cavalry officer of the day, was sent to meet the pursuivant.  These two rode together round the boundaries then continued into the town centre where they  had a  drink or  two and joined the  historic  celebration —  a banquet, a night of song and story telling, dancing, love making and quarreling

Last night 150 horses and riders took part in the event.  The cornet and his lass, and the pursuivant,  all clad in formal riding habit and silk sashes,  led the way.  They were followed by previous holders of these offices and by anyone else with a horse who wished to take part in the  ceremonial ride.  

If you are imagining a solemn event, stop.  The horses cantered, the riders whooped and hollered, the crowds cheered,  and at the refreshment stops along the way, that is, the pubs,  whatever it was the servers brought,  the riders chugged down.  I think this may be called the stirrup cup — where the riders imbibe  without dismounting.

The boundaries scrutinized, nothing untoward  noted, no invasions, no evidence of witchcraft, no broken dykes,  the riders were received into the town proper  by local dignitaries  all bedecked in the fine clothing and regalia of the Scottish courts and guilds.   Historic documents went from hand to hand, oaths were sworn, standards raised  and with three cheers the ceremonies were done.

 Riders, horses, onlookers, visitors, town folk dignitaries, dogs, children,   mingled amiably in the large square and surrounding parks.  In the interests of conviviality  public drinking is encouraged in Kirkcudbright.   No one was kicked by a horse.  The horses proved they were not holographic images by leaving piles of aromatic steaming dung and by spouting cataracts of  golden piss than ran and trickled,  criss-crossing the square.  Drinking, story-telling, singing and all the other stuff that makes for a memorable celebration continued late into the warm summer night.

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The Undefended Hour


I asked Kim Ayres to take my April, 2013 poems and the black and white photographs that inspired them, and make a book.

If you  look at a situation out of a known context you will invent a context. We make sense of the world all the time in this manner. The process is called imagination, or projective identification, or  prejudice.

The photographs were weird, hilarious, unsettling. Kim suggested that the back cover of the book might also go beyond the usual, beyond the camera-ready smile. He suggested we set up a scenario and invite viewers of the finished work to enter into a relationship with it, to create a narrative of their own.

My poetry collection, The Undefended Hour, is in progress. If nothing else I have a back cover.

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Breaking News! Pope Francis I comes out

Surprise, surprise!  The new Pope doesn’t support gay marriage!

This is news?

He is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church!  What do people expect?

Personally I’m glad we no longer burn people at the stake for having a different opinion from the majority. I’d like to foster more of a live and let live attitude in my own heart and mind, and I’d like to see that attitude in the people around me, in my friends and family, in society in general.

I’m glad I live in a country where theists and atheists alike are free to express their viewpoints.   Aside from talk that incites hatred and persecution,  I’m grateful for freedom of thought and freedom of speech.   If we love ourselves and others, if we  recognize that each of us is flawed  (Pope Francis included), that no one person or organization has the corner on truth, that rule of law aside,  we have no right to impose our views on others,  that’s got to be enough.

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From a Goat’s Anus to my Lips



Goats in Argas Tree

Feeling a little grubby?  You’d be surprised at how much dirt can lodge itself on the human body, especially if you are traipsing about Marrakesh, up and down the dusty blind alleys, the bazaars in the medina, alongside the  fruit and vegetable stands,  past the perfume and spice vendors, through the noisy crush of textile, carpet, pottery and  metalware souks, into the dark charnel areas where the vendors of offal trade in innards and entrails, through the tannery area where animal hides are treated with pigeon shit.  The odour is atrocious at the tannery. I am ashamed to say I retched; then I discovered that my traditional headscarf could be used to enclose the mouth and nose, rather like a surgical mask such as morticians or pathologists might wear when dealing with mortified flesh.  A kind gentleman noticed my distress and handed me a sprig of fresh mint to crush and hold to my nose.

Wishing to experience the authentic Marrakesh, Liz and I decided on a traditional hamam rather than the more pricy touristy version.  A hamam is, in essence, a Turkish bath. The establishment we chose was decorated as I had always imagined a harem would be decorated: elaborately carved friezes and screens, mosaic tiles, Moorish arches, red and gold fabrics, Berber carpets and subtle oil lamp illumination.  Arabic music tinkled in the background.  We reclined on divans, sipped mint tea and deliberated over le liste de prix pour les services. The 270 Dirham (about £20)  package included the disposable thong, the plastic flip flops, terry towels and robes and a locally-sourced completely natural pharmacopeia of soft black soap, frothy almond soap, and argan oil.

A special note about argan oil.  This oil is obtained from the argan nut.  The tree that bears it, Argania Spinosa,  has vicious thorns that pose a hazard to human harvesters.  Therefore the villagers cleverly get their nut-loving goats to climb the trees (honest I am not making this up).  The goats eat the fruit.  At the propitious time, that is, after the goats have emptied their bowels, the women (yes the women) extract the indigestible nuts from the goat shit, cleanse the nuts, crack them open to separate the kernel from its covering, and grind the kernals to extract the precious argan oil.

The masseuse dips her hands in greenish-black soft soap for the first gentle wash. She follows this by rinsing me clean with buckets of very warm water;  next — 30 minutes in the  marble and mosaic  hot  room; then she leads me to a marble table — has me lie face up and then face down; every inch of flesh is exfoliated, or should I say dermabraded — the masseuse’s glove felt like sandpaper.  Ca va?  asked my masseuse.  Oui. Ca va. I replied enthusiastically. Getting really clean is pleasurable.   She got me up and off the table and  had me perch on a marble plinth so she could again douse me with  buckets of warm water, sluicing off the layers of dead skin which had collected on my body like fragments of chamois leather.  Back on the table for a 30 minute head to toe massage with argan oil, and, to finish —  a delicious body and head shampoo with fragrant, frothy white, almond soap-suds.

I was complimented on my glowing skin by a hotel guest who saw me post-hamam.  Naturally I purchased a 150 ml bottle of cosmetic grade argan oil to bring home.  I don’t care that it came through a goat’s alimentary canal and asshole. We suffer to be beautiful.   I happily smear it on my face paying special attention to the upper lip where my age seems to show more than anywhere else.  Yes.  It gets inside my mouth but since argan oil is also used for cooking I imagine it can do me nothing but good.

Anne in Marrakesh

Anne in a Marrakesh Palace/ Photo: Liz Coppock

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Do you know if you smoke marijuana you may piss your pants?

Do you know if you smoke marijuana you may piss your pants?
Café, Café, Café, and yes! Yet another Café! The strong skunky smell of marijuana alerts one to the fact that cafés in this area of Amsterdam do indeed sell coffees but the menu of interest is the one that itemizes the various strains of marijuana on offer, their putative effects, and their cost. The more expensive variety: your mind will be blown to the ends of the universe, banana nirvana, bliss. A less costly grade: a relaxed state – imagine a stone thrown in the pond, ripples moving outwards to quiet meditative peace. Another, same cost, different name, and you’ll achieve a medium state of union with all forms of life animal, vegetable or mineral – mineral as in stone, yes stoned.
As Alfred had not smoked dope in his entire life we asked the vender in the café to recommend a grade suitable for beginners. He recommended one that would accomplish relaxation and appreciation of the wonders of life, or another one where we could have the same state of relaxation plus medium ‘stoned’. We chose ‘stoned’. Only 7,50 euro for a joint.
Alfred achieved a medium-high state of paranoia, convinced that people were looking at him, particularly at the crotch area of his jeans as he was 85% sure he had pissed his pants but was afraid to test his hypothesis fearing his hand on his crotch would attract yet more negative attention.
The other customers were not looking at Alfred at all. The young zombie men had smoked the extremely high concentration mind-bending dope which results in blank staring, total unawareness of other forms of life, and comatose postures. The TV screen showed people engaged in some kind of meaningless activity with world news text streaming underneath. The sound track played loud rap music. I hate loud rap music. The effect of my three or four deep tokes was a spontaneous public display of my usual loud, fast talking, although perhaps louder and faster than usual and punctuated with gales of laughter as I appreciated my own peerless wit and the brilliant ideas that flowed out faster than I could understand them. Alfred could not appreciate nor even comprehend  my amazing insights but now and then he gave off thinking about his pissed pants and silently admired  my fluent  babble and unrestrained  mirth, simultaneously thinking I had lost the plot, so also fretting about the problem of how he would get me safely back to the hotel given that, in his view, I had gone  out of my mind, perhaps forever.

Out on the street Alfred’s paranoia intensified when he sighted sidewalks puddled with melted snow, each puddle further evidence of his pissing himself. My drug induced muscle relaxation, loss of coordination and loss of sensory awareness and continuing unabated laughter led to a momentary loss of sphincter control and resulted in me actually pissing in my pants unlike Alfred who later found out his fears had been unfounded and his pants unsullied.
Marijuana continues to be legally bought and sold in Amsterdam at licensed outlets. Does the use of pot lead to the user desiring stronger drugs and ultimately to addiction? All I can tell you is after changing my pants I ate a bag of candies. If sugar is a drug, call me an addict, and put me in rehab.

In Amsterdam

In Amsterdam

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Sex for Sale Amsterdam

amsterdam-2 (2)  Sex for Sale, Amsterdam

Substantial houses, as uncompromising as the Dutch matrons of old oil paintings, watch over the canals.  The curvilinear pediments gracing the roof fronts mimic the starched winged bonnets of Rembrandt’s respectable womenfolk, the fancy window shutters — the showy lace cuffs of their best dresses.

In the sex trade district, at the windows of the lower floors, a red light signals ‘open for business’.  The painted lady cavorts in the frame of the window, her flesh artfully accented by bustier, thong, garter belt and stockings.  She gazes out as though looking into the lens of a camera, poses with a nail buffer or hair comb;  she is an animated  portrait of the same woman you’d once have seen  in sepia-toned Edwardian post cards, quaint, coy, lady-like — pre-Playboy erotica .  A gaudy butterfly trapped in a display case.

The sex industry is regulated in Amsterdam.  Business and premise are licensed.  Both worker and client are protected by health and safety regulations. The rates for service are up-front and surprisingly low.

Not one classic beauty in sight, a few cellulite-free, conventionally pretty younger women, but on the whole a collection of ordinary women —  your sister, your daughter’s friend,  the girl at the supermarket check-out, your mother —  doing a day’s work, primarily evening shift , in five inch heels and false eyelashes.

When the red window curtain is drawn, I presume a fee-for-service act is being performed.  I like to think that somewhere on the window there is a notice that reads:    Back in five minutes. Please wait.  Form an orderly queue.

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In the Midst of Plenty

Homeless_person : Homeless

In the upstairs dormitory around 65 people, mainly men, sleep on camp beds, rough lumber frames over which a rectangle of canvas has been stretched and stapled. Each bed is furnished with a donated blanket and a pillow. The beds are crammed close together — many sought hospitality this Christmas. We set up 60 more beds on the ground floor. My task for the first two hours of my shift is to watch over the sleepers. I smell humanity. Not freshly showered, deodorized, brushed and flossed humanity. The air is heavy, a smell of armpit, groin, feet and hair, old clothes, beer and stale tobacco. The sleepers fill the room with a symphony of snoring, gentle waves of sound, high nasal stores, low grumbling snores, quiet almost imperceptible  mid-range snores. The dim room feels like a stable filled with the warmth of sleeping animals, or a nursery of  children, vulnerable and innocent. For the homeless, for rough sleepers, a quiet, warm, safe place to sleep is a gift.

I receive undeserved accolades for my ‘good deed’. ‘You are so good.’ ‘You are so kind.’ I try to explain that my motives are selfish. This is not a penance for me. I have no interest in three days of non-stop eating, of having to say ‘no more please,’ when a host offers me yet another bite of some expensive delicacy. I eat well every day of the year. I want for nothing. Anticipation of the gift exchange ritual fills me with dread and loathing. I, and everyone in my family and social circle, enjoy a life free of want.  We want for nothing.

Some don’t wake until late in the morning. Some, making up for lost sleep, don’t wake ’til afternoon. They wake hungry. I saw no evidence for the ‘obesity epidemic’ among our guests. They reach under the bed for their shoes, for the plastic shopping bag or rucksack that contains all their possessions. Many tidy their cramped bed space before leaving in search of food. At the first floor canteen, food is available non-stop, all day. The man nearest me, a man in his forties from somewhere in eastern Europe, makes his bed carefully. He drapes the pink pilled blanket symmetrically, each overhang of equal length. Neatly he turns down the upper edge; the pink satin binding has become unstitched in places; he squares and straightens the pillow. He owns nothing other than the much worn clothes and shoes he stands up in, his toiletries and other odds and ends half-fill a plastic bag. He retains his dignity. He bows his head and bids me ‘Good Morning,’ and ‘Happy Christmas,’ he leaves slowly, he can smell breakfast, he anticipates the gnaw of one of his hungers easing.

Homeless_person : Homeless

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Rosslyn: a Poem in Stone

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It was a huge cathedral the St. Clairs intended to build, close by their castle, on Roslin’s lovely glenside. 15th century Rosslyn Chapel is a truncated version of the planned cathedral — really just the part called the ‘choir’. Circumstances … Continue reading

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Remember it well, The Eglinton Hotel

Eglinton Hotel  The Eglinton Hotel, Dalmellington

Dalmellington is a short mile from the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in  Galloway Forest Park. Sadly, we had rain and did not see the starry heavens. The observatory itself and its astronomers are worth the visit.  I will be back.  Will I stay at the Eglinton again? Maybe. £30 is cheap!

November 2012 The Eglinton Hotel hosted  a funeral party. The  business of internment done,  mourners were having a dram.   Crammed into the tiny bar, estimate 53 people,  40 from the funeral party, twelve regulars, and one other stranger-in-town.

Punctuating the shouts, a rhythmic byong, byong,  byongg,  to awaken the dead, sounded like pistol shots. ‘What’s that noise?’ I asked a girl  — here for her granddad’s funeral, ‘It’s the builders,’ she said. I looked into a half finished addition.  Couldn’t see a joiner, but could hear his nail gun,  byong, byong,  byonggg.

The  landlord had seemed unfazed when I remarked it was hard to reach Eglinton by phone. He’d had the place for a year he said but it remained under the phone number of a past owner.  I figured maybe the Eglinton was a boutique hotel, an exclusive club that didn’t need to advertise its guest rooms on the World Wide Web — it had a loyal clientele perhaps who’d recommend it, word of mouth, to international travelers looking for atmospheric accommodation in East Ayrshire. A £60 tariff for B & B, continental breakfast not  standard, but I could have juice, cereal and milk  instead of the Full Scottish. I  booked.

My room was not en suite  In fact the five rooms share two bathrooms, carpeted bathrooms, with falling plaster. Do not mistake me here. I do not mean interior designer falling plaster. I do not mean freshly plastered walls with artful irregularities carved out so the bathroom resembles an elegant room in a fine house of great age, or a fin-de-seicle Viennese apartment, high-ceilinged, romantically going slightly to seed. I mean honest-to-God rotting plaster, under the influence of leaking pipes or holes in the roof tiles, bulging plaster, adorned with rich growths of black mould or, in one particularly egregious case, missing completely behind the toilet tank, where a large rectangle of plaster and tile had been crudely incised and removed with a cold chisel to facilitate the installation of a replacement toilet tank.

Now, in defense of the Eglinton, the rates are low. I discovered that the £60 tariff quoted me was in anticipation of me arriving with a man. The rate is £30 pp or £60 for a couple. £30 is very cheap. In fact, in recent years I’ve not had any accommodation that cheap anywhere in the UK nor for that matter have I ever had accommodation of the quality that the Eglinton offers anywhere in the world! I would have been happy to pay an extra  £10 to have had heat in the bedroom. The rusted radiators in both bedroom and bathroom (described above) worked intermittently. For my extra £10 I would also have expected a bedside lamp to avoid the inconvenience of getting out of bed to extinguish the overhead light and having to stumble back to bed in the dark. A TV and winter weight bedding would have been nice. But now we are talking luxury items. Thankfully I was clad for the Scottish winter and being a seasoned camper used to sleeping fully clothed.

The folk in Dalmellington, a lovely little Ayrshire town , like Scots everywhere (except maybe parts of Edinburgh) are warm, friendly, funny, good-natured, and generous.  They welcome strangers to their midst like long-lost siblings. The kind lady at the Café India take out, delivered a delicious (off the menu, just for me) saag, with added fresh potatoes and onion. I’d explained I didn’t eat a lot of meat.  Café India’s food is ‘Nippy as a woman scorned,’ so said a Scottish poet I met at the bar. Eglinton’s patient and pretty bar tender brought me plate, silverware and napkins.  As the only female in the bar I enjoyed a surfeit of male attention, got hit on by punters from the full age range of legal drinkers and received many offers of ‘free’ bed & breakfast. I hasten to add that I accepted none of them. Why is it that a woman travelling without a man is presumed to need a man?

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On the road between my village and the next

I first visited in 2009 and on impulse bought a house.  Why?  Because it was cheap. Because it seemed like a good  idea at the time. It had a well with good water, an orchard and space for a garden.  The air is clean.  The village is very small and well away from civilization.  My kids call my house ‘mum’s mud hut’.

Anne — holding up fence

I’ve had  work done.  I no longer need to hold the fence up.  One of my friends in Transylvania calls it the posh peasants’ house. I have a fetish for fine silverware and china.  Forced back to the slums you’d find me using fruit spoon,  bone handled knife and silver soup spoon, napkins, a china cup for my tea and, of course  — the  delicate pastry fork.

Recently I wrote about ‘home’ and what the word might mean to someone, who by inclination, is a traveller. I’m not sure if I’ve reached a conclusion.

Here, in Scotland, the word ‘stay’ has a precise meaning.  ‘Where do you stay’, means where are you abiding, where is your home, as opposed to  where is the resort where you’re booked in for a fortnight.  I stay in three places.  I stay in my flat in Scotland, in Ivan’s house in Canada, and in  my house in Transylvania.  What defines these as  places where I stay are the toothbrush, rubber boots and  sundry other wardrobe items, that abide there even when I’m elsewhere.

My village is close to Sighisoara — putative birthplace of Vlad Dracule Vlad the Impaler

Sighisoara medieval quarter

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