Friday, February 29, 2008

Ghost world

View from the window of the Crowne Plaza St Paul Riverfront, St Paul, Minnesota, after an ice storm, February 28, 2008.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The isle is full of noises

Iona is an island on the west coast of Scotland, just off the Island of Mull. The island is three and a half miles long and one mile wide, and is a very special place for reasons which are almost undefinable. Over the centuries it has attracted pilgrims of one kind or another, starting with St Columba, who traveled there in a coracle in 563 and founded a religious community based around the monastery he found, which became Iona Abbey.

My family started going to Iona once a year in the late 1960s after my dad (Chris) accepted a commission from the Iona Community to carve flora and fauna of the island on the cloisters in the abbey. We went there for three weeks every summer; each week Chris would carve one capital. We were taken out of school to go, to some disapproval by our teachers; this may have been one reason for my parents’ disenchantment with the state school system which eventually led them to remove us from the local primary school to be educated at home.
We were given homework to do and I clearly remember filling pages with scratchy drawings of island flowers and birds; I also remember running through the bog, with moss squelching underfoot, and listening to my mum play the piano as sweet chords echoed around the abbey; jumping over sand dunes at the west end towards beautiful white beaches or buying McGowan’s Highland Toffee at the local sweet shop; hitting a fish on the head to kill it, and then being unable to eat it; reading one Agatha Christie book after another – for some reason the houses we stayed in always had loads of old copies and my tally was over 40 by the time I tired of reading them – and sitting alone in my favourite place, a small hollow in the rocks just over the brow of a hill called Dùn Ì, overlooking the sea and the islands far beyond, and thinking about what was at the other side of the water – America? We had riotous water fights, incurred the displeasure of the farmers by chasing through their fields, sang songs at the weekly ceilidhs in the abbey, paddled in the sea, and walked along dusty roads to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. When we were old enough we went to the local disco in the village hall and danced rock’n’roll with the German students who sometimes came with us (I was always in love with one or other of them).

An American journalist who met my sister and I one summer near the jetty took a picture of us, sitting on the sand with the jetty wall behind us. I’m 12 or 13, wearing cowboy boots and a long skirt, and my hair is short and tousled. We thought we were pretty cool, so I was very embarrassed by the caption in the book she later published, which suggested that we “had an innocence about us that American teenagers of that age have often lost”.

All of those reasons and many more are why Iona is such a special place to me. I feel as though I grew up there, and Iona grew up with me: every year we’d arrive and excitedly observe the changes over the last year: the new shops, the new people, the new buildings. Someone I loved at school sent letters to me one summer while he was away in Germany and I took them up in to the hills to read. The outside world was crowding in and the future was coming at us, fast.

Iona is still there, of course, and probably remarkably unchanged even now, because the weight of the hills and the stone and the white sands and the abbey are the things that make it special, not what grows then withers and dies in time-lapse. Iona is a talisman in my mind for all that is wonderful about Scotland and it’s still, to me, the most beautiful place in the world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ghost lanterns

Chinese New Year lanterns at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, Causeway Bay, February 11, 2008. The colours are really rich red and bright neon, but my camera phone bleaches everything. Detached from reality it may be, but there's something mysterious about this picture that I quite like.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Wrote for luck

A Marc Jacobs dress from Net-a-Porter in celebration of Chinese New Year: red for luck. Kung hei fat choy!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I'm a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth

But I'm no gaun oot to play ony mair...

O ye cannae fling pieces oot a twenty-storey flat,

Seven hundred hungry weans will testify to that,

If it's butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,

The odds against it reaching earth are ninety-nine to wan.

The Jeely Piece
(Adam MacNaughton)

Me and my sister used to sing this song at ceilidhs in Iona, an island on the west coast of Scotland where we went on holiday for three weeks every year because our dad had a commission to carve birds and animals of the island on the cloisters in the old abbey. We lived in a cottage, so the song never really meant anything to me.

At the end of the month, after five years of living in high-rise buildings, I'm not going to be a skyscraper wean any more: we're moving to Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong island, to a ground floor flat with a patio garden. I've grown so used to living at such great heights that it's going to be a strange transition. I'll miss the amazing view (see above), and the sheer, epic laziness of having access to a supermarket directly underneath my block, even if it is only Wellcome; I'll miss being able to get the bus at quarter to 9 and still be early for work, or better still, walking down the escalator and arriving at the office in 20 minutes (or longer, depending on how high my heels are that day). But the place we are going to is a peaceful, calm refuge, and that can't be said of our current flat, where noise is all around and you can hear brakes squealing and car horns and the people upstairs running the bath, or arguing and slamming doors at all hours.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Not landing

As my flight from Singapore to Hong Kong came in towards the runway last night as I was looking out of the window, wondering how cold it was. The approach is over the sea, and when the clouds are low the plane emerges late in the descent, so sometimes you look down wondering when the runway lights are going to appear, we seem so low over the water. But the runway lights flashed and we were descending, a little fast. Midway through the descent, at the point when I was bracing for landing, the engines suddenly surged and we abruptly changed direction and started ascending again.

Clearly the pilot had aborted the landing, but no one said anything for a few minutes - playing it cool - until I turned to the guy next to me and we appraised each other nervously to see how scared we should be. After about 10 minutes the pilot laconically announced that we had been unable to land on that runway and were going around again to try another one. That was all.

I had been thinking earlier in the flight about how you should really tell everyone you love that you love them at the earliest opportunity, in case anything ever happens: I'm not really a nervous flier anymore, I have done it too often, but for some reason it crossed my mind while I was gazing idly at the tiny screen in front of me (watching, as it happens, an amazing performance by Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises).