There is a romanticism and a melancholy to the islands.
An echo of times past. A hint of meaning that lies just beyond the wind. Meaning whose origin is adorned by labels: Norse, Pictish, Neolithic. A procession of markers that will outlive us all.
I wonder if living here day after day, year after year, causes you to be blasé about it all? Do the markers become invisible, blending in with the rest of the storm-shaped landscape?
I remember seeing a documentary a few years back about people living in the Scottish Highlands. Among all that natural beauty and dramatic vistas, the young ones were bored to death. They said that visitors would tell them how lucky they were to be living there. They would reply that there was never anything to do. They would amuse themselves by sending travelling tourists in the opposite direction of the landmarks that they would pull over and ask directions for.
On my first trip to Orkney, an enthusiastic Historic Scotland warden told me that they had a saying there: scrape away a bit of soil and the land bleeds archaeology. I think that this is a generally held view.
On my second visit, in the winter months, I intended one morning to walk part of the coast, dressing accordingly. However, en route to the starting point, I recieved news that the mother of one of my best friends had just died. I felt so far away, so remote. I decided to change my plans and head for Kirkwall Cathedral to light a candle for the woman who I had known for twenty five years. On doing so, I got talking to a guy who worked at the visitor center next door, and he offered to put a documentary film on for me in a side room all about St.Magnus and the founding of the Cathedral. Of course I was still dressed for the coastal walk, and had to begin to shed my layers in that small, heated room.
He looked on with amusement as first my waterproof coat came off, followed by a fleece jacket, then a zip-up top. Then a jumper. A t-shirt. And a thermal vest.
“You’re not as big as ya look are ya?” he exclaimed with a twinkle in his eye.
I gestured to my legs:
“Beneath these waterproof trousers, I’ve got on jeans and longjohns. My legs are really like pipe cleaners.”
With a shake of his head he gave me a look that said ‘you southerners’ which being a native of North West England I have never considered myself before. But in relation to these islands, I suppose I am.
After watching the film I told him of the historic sites that I had visited up to then. In a similar line to that taken by the Historic Scotland warden, he said that the whole mainland, and the surrounding islands, were “infested with archaeology.” He told of farmers that he knew of who had accidentally uncovered some kind of stone remains on their land, and then hurriedly covered them back up before anybody else spotted them, not wanting the inconvenience of conservationists and archaeologists (or tourists such as I) interrupting their work and calander year.
Later, on the bus journey back to Stromness, I looked over in the direction of the Maeshowe tomb, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and more. I thought of the secrets being revealed at the current dig at the Ness of Brodgar which is blowing all pre-conceived ideas out of the water. Of my visit the day before to Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement that nobody knew was there until a great storm in 1850 stripped back the layers of sand covering it and exposed it to a sky it had not seen for 4,000 years.
All these tunnels and tombs, standing stones and runes.
How much more is there, hidden out there beneath those flat fields? My eye strayed unbidden to every mound and hint of uneven ground.
A landscape infested. A land that bleeds.
Eventually the earth will give up more of her secrets.
“You yell barracuda, and everyone says “Huh? What?” You yell shark we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July.”
The Fourth of July has always been the ideal day for me to watch my favourite film: Jaws. Although this time around I may have to do a little bit of juggling. It is World Cup quarter-final day after all.
I first saw the film when I was a child-I can’t remember just how young I was. The certificate was only a PG (on original release it was an A), which is surprising what with Quint being munched upon in glorious technicolour and all. Thirty seven years after its originaI release it was upgraded to a 12A. I went to see it at the cinema-or the pictures, as we called it, this being long before the days of the multi-screen complexes. I went with my mum and my brother, he being eighteen months younger than me.
I think that age gap counted.
During the film, whenever he heard the music, you know the dum-dum, dum-dum, he would put his coat over his head. Writing dum-dum just doesn’t do John William’s score justice. Try watching it without the music. It is totally different. Totally tamer.
So, whenever he heard the music, which signified the shark’s approach and thus impending danger, he would hide beneath the safety of his coat. He would put it over his head until the sound of the screaming and threshing subsided, then he would emerge again much to my cruel amusement. This method served him well, until the scene where the head of Ben Gardner emerges from the hull of his battered boat without any dum-dum warning. From that point on he remained separated from the screen for the remainder of the movie. It was almost a comfort blanket.
Half-way through the film, the lady appeared down at the front, framed against the screen, her small bulb above her tray signifying that she was selling drinks and ice-cream. Asked if he wanted an ice cream, his hand came up in a slow re-enactment of the buried Carrie, grasping the money. Next what followed was the comical sight of him walking down to the front of the cinema, head tilted at an angle so that he would not have to look at the screen. Then, clutching his cone, his careful manouvering of the steps in the dark gave way to a frantic run as that music suddenly started up again. Once more he slipped beneath the surface, eating his ice-cream in his shark-resistant parka.
It’s funny how Jaws has remained my favourite film. Perhaps there is something about us being impressionable at a young age. Some of my favourite things have come with me over the decades:
Favourite films: Jaws, Star Wars
Favourite actor: Richard Dreyfuss
Favourite group: The Beatles
Favourite book: To Kill A Mockingbird
No doubt there are others too-I will have to give it some thought. I fear I am starting to get a little self-indulgent again.
When talking of favourite films, I have often had the surprised reaction : “Jaws?!” But its not just the rubber fish eating people-its the study of the relationship between the three men who go out to catch it. The humour and the friction, the drunken scar one-upmanship, and who can forget that chilling USS Indianapolis scene?
I stayed once at a hotel in the Orkney town of Stromness, where I was thrilled to discover that Robert Shaw had once stayed there. Also, George Mackey Brown used to drink in the bar. I could imagine the hard-drinking actor sharing a whisky or three in there with the writer, holed up from the Scottish storms.
Quint and the poet, both shaped by the sea.
So, today is the perfect summer day (in theory, if not weather) to watch Jaws.
To my friends over the pond, I hope you all have a great Fourth of July.