Weekend watching last Saturday was Nomadland, a film based on the non-fiction book of the same name. This film follows Fern, played by Francis McDormand who takes to living in a van after her hometown is emptied out when the only employer shuts down. Although the central characters are played by actors, many of the other people appearing in the film are real life nomads from the non-fiction book playing slightly fictionalised versions of themselves.
The film depicts Fern’s first full year on the road, starting as a seasonal temp at Amazon for the Christmas rush. She then goes to the annual rendezvous of the nomads in the desert. Here she, and through her we, learn more about the way of life. She works then as a camp host, in a fast-food restaurant and at a seasonal harvest of sugar beets. The film goes full circle and ends with her back at Amazon.
The film doesn’t shy away from showing the hardships of life on the road and as a first timer, we see her make some potentially fatal mistakes such as a flat tyre in the middle of the desert with no spare. But the film also goes into the freedom of life on the road with Fern visiting many beautiful locations. There are friends made and lost and we see a camaraderie amongst the nomads. The visual sense of the movie is breathtaking with the director of photography doing a stunning job capturing the beauty and desolation of the landscapes in equal measure.
Fern herself seems to be a very insular person. She stays behind at several locations after the main group has left and while there is a romantic subplot, it is very much two older people dancing around each other. She seems to have taken to the nomadic lifestyle and when offered a permanent home, refuses twice, and moves back into her van.
The film is a profoundly moving one. It is an exploration of a lifestyle very different to the one that most people live, and it shows these people as the inheritors of the pioneers that made the USA. It also provides gentle but damming commentary on the modern capitalist era that folk in the twilight of their lives are forced onto the road and have to do backbreaking work. Many enjoy it but quite a few were forced into it with no other choice.
The most profound moment is at the end, it is in the trailer so no spoilers here, where Bob, leader of the nomad rendezvous says, “There is never a final goodbye, always that I’ll see you down the road”.
It was time for a summer holiday and so it was off to one of my favourite places in Scoltand, Blair Atholl. The Blair Castle Caravan Park to be precise. To be honest I wasn’t looking forward that much to this trip as the Met Office were not promising good weather but nevertheless it was good to get away.
After the usual pit stop for food, the road was a straight one up the M90 and onto the A9. There were some road works just past Perth where they are dualling the A9 and that was a 40mph crawl in heavy traffic but at least at that point, the sun was out, and I had some good tunes blasting on the radio.
The trip up had a bit of a detour in it as I was wanting to visit the House of Bruar. I’ve heard about the place many times, including a hilarious monologue from Susan Calman, so this was an opportune moment to visit. Problem was that this being a sunny Sunday, most of central Scotland had also taken the opportunity to visit. The place was rammed, and I had to wait for some time for a parking space. This wasn’t helped by someone deciding to take a large twin axle caravan into the place and then nearly jack-knifing it trying to get it out. I got parked but didn’t tarry long there as with Covid still doing the rounds, it wasn’t good to be in such a crowded place. I did pick up some down slippers though which will be nice when the weather turns even more inclement.
It was a short trip from there to the campsite and they were doing contactless check-in with my details waiting for me outside reception. Got to my pitch and in about 30mins was set up, awning included. The sun was still really shining at this point, and I had to sit in the shade of the awning to avoid burning. But with the weather so good dinner was some steak grilled on my gas grill which was very nice. I managed to cook it without cremating it.
Monday dawned dull and overcast. I just made it to the showers and back before the rain came on. And started coming down in buckets. It basically did not stop for the whole of Monday and at times was torrential. There was a steady stream ( no pun intended ) of people arriving on Monday including a fair few tent campers who must have been soaked trying to get pitched. There was nothing to do but read for most of the day and play asteroids on a Nintendo. I’d brought three books with me. The first is “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt. I’d been reading this for a while and it is a fascinating, if somewhat terrifying, book. But a bit of a slog. Next up was “The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City” by Matthew Beaumont. This is a fascinating book where he’s looking at the depictions of walkers and their city haunts in literature. Last was “The Cut” by Christopher Brookmyre. I love his books, have since the very first and this one, while a slow start, had become a page turner and I finished it while on holiday. I was not disappointed by the twist at the end, kept me guessing the whole way through.
With Monday given over to reading, Tuesday was promising to be a better day and the forecast was right with the morning dawning overcast but dry. I pulled on the hiking boots and hit the Glen Banvie trail from the campsite. This was a 9-mile circuit, but I was planning a detour to see the Falls of Bruar.
From Old Bridge of Tilt, the trail climbs up by a gorge through some woods to a folly known as The Whim. This is a strange set of arches that overlook the castle. Plenty of time was taken to get some photos from the spot.
From The Whim, the trail climbs up on to some moorland and here, while a little muddy, the going was good, and I was striding out along the track watching as the weather continued to improve.
From the moor, it was down through some forest and onto the detour to see the falls. There wasn’t much to see from the viewpoint itself, it being quite densely wooded but a little further along, there was the most fabulous bridge over the falls themselves and I was able to spend an enjoyable few moments looking down the falls.
From the falls, it was back onto the path and by now the sun was well out and it was t-shirt weather. Up till now I had had the place to myself but as I got closer to the campsite, there were more people out and enjoying the sun.
The Met Office had not promised that the good weather would last and right on cue about 2pm the rain started, not as bad as yesterday but it rained till early evening. I was expecting it and had my feet up in the van and was getting stuck in again to the books.
Wednesday started dry but as packing up began, it was obvious that the awning was soaking wet, and the roof canvas had some water beads on it. Still packing up was achieved in only slightly more time that pitching up and at 8am, it was time to start up, turn left out the site and hit the A9 for the road south and back home.
As mentioned at the top, for some reason, probably the weather, I wasn’t looking forward to this. However, I went, and it was a decent time away. Got some walking done and a few really good photos. Here’s looking forward to the next trip.
For the first time since lockdown began, it was time to head out in the van. As is my usual practise, I picked a site relatively close to home for the first trip and so it was on a reasonably sunny Friday morning, I set out to go down the A68 to Jedburgh.
First port of call was Sainsburys for some food and since this was the first trip in a long time, other supplies for the van. The supermarket was very busy for a Friday morning, I thought they might be giving the stuff away.
Stocked up, it was time to head off and straight into a traffic jam at Sherriffhall roundabout. Clearing the traffic, I was onto the A68 and the straight road to Jedburgh. First thing I did notice is that several of the towns passed through along the way are now 20mph zones, so part of the journey was a crawl. And there was the inevitable farm traffic to get round. This wasn’t much of a hinderance, and I was soon crossing the bridge into the site.
Check in was different from usual in that I stayed in the van and was directed to my pitch, via the motorhome service point. Parked up it was time to pitch up and this involves putting up the awning. There is something about putting up an awning that I really don’t like. Every time I do it, I swear I am going to replace the thing with a toilet tent as that is all I really need. An awning is far too large for my needs. But then again it can be handy, especially in wet weather as a place to dry wet clothes. However, the rain brings its own problems.
Pitching up took about 45mins and then it was time to wander into town and pick up a few supplies that I missed before. Jedburgh is quite small, and the centre of town is about a 20min walk from the site along a lovely waterside walk.
I had planned to get some serious reading done on this trip so once back from town, it was time to settle down with a good book. I’m currently reading my way somewhat slowly through “The Origins Of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt. Away from computers and TVs, the van is an ideal time to get reading done.
Teatime rolled around and it was time to try out the grill I had bought last year. A lovely steak was grilled, though somewhat charred and the dishes were done by boiling a kettle and washing in the van. This is less than ideal due to the space, but it can be done.
Since the weather was not too bad, I settled down that night to sleep in the upper bunk. This involves a bit of a climb but is more comfortable than the main bed downstairs.
Saturday dawned early. A group of crows is known as a murder of crows and murder was going to be done if they didn’t stop cawing at 4am. Still after a bit of a snooze it was time to get up and head into town for the main point of the visit, to see Jedburgh Abbey. I was there for it opening to discover that most of the site was shut. There is a danger of falling masonry in the abbey itself so only the grounds are accessible. A bit of photographing later it was time for another wander round the town.
The other big attraction in Jedburgh is Mary Queen of Scots House. This was shut completely due to Covid but there were some nice flowers in the gardens that were open.
Back to the van it was time for more reading and a bit of a nap. The rain had been on and off all day and unfortunately for the couple opposite me, it came on again at teatime just as they were trying to barbeque some sausages. There was then the classic British site of someone hunched over a BBQ with an umbrella trying to keep the food dry.
Sunday was another early one due to the crows and as it was time to head home, packing up was achieved in about 45mins though the awning was soaking wet. Home up the A68 avoiding the lunatics deciding the speed limit was not for them and then the inevitable trying to dry the awning and the mountain of washing.
Not a bad trip, pity the abbey was mostly shut but bodes well for getting out and about again.
It is reaching the end of a very strange year and with the weather currently not delightful there is time for one last coffee while I look back over the last 12 months. On the 1st of January, I do not think anyone could have predicted the course of 2020. There were rumblings of a new virus in Asia but like everyone, I was blindsided and as such, I have not posted much this year as there has been little travel and a lot of stress.
The year did begin well with a visit to the NOW exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art. This was a fantastic presentation on the theme of time. The highlight was a mirror ball on which photos of solar eclipses had been printed. This was hung low in a room with a light shining on it. I was not the only person to spend some time just sitting in the moving lights.
As Easter approached, it was time for a trip across the country to see the National Trust of Scotland property The Hill House. This is a Rennie Mackintosh designed house just outside Helensburgh. Built in the early part of the 20th Century, the property was made of materials that were not entirely suited to the Scottish climate and as of a few years ago, the place was literally dissolving in the rain. Wanting to preserve such a unique property, the owners got permission to build a box round the house to let it dry out. This has the advantage of allowing visitors to walk round the upper stories and over the roof to see details up close that would normally be seen from the ground.
And then, with lots of trips planned and a summer holiday booked, it happened. The COVID-19 lockdown hit. For eight weeks, I was never more than 2 miles from the house, nor did I drive the van in that time. MOT was postponed and though I had got the habitation check done, there was a little work to be done on the gas system that did not happen. Work became virtual, visits to the gym and nights out stopped dead. I watched and waited as the numbers infected increased along, sadly, with the numbers losing their lives to the pandemic.
As I wrote in March, there is always an expectation that we can do something that we have done in the past another time at some point in the future. Well, the pandemic put an end to that, albeit hopefully temporarily. I made the decision to stop touring for this year as, being in a campervan, I am more dependent on-site facilities than a caravan or bigger motorhome would be and even with all the cleaning that was being done, I was sceptical.
With all this going on, I made plans. I was going to write more, make more music, study more, read more. I was going to put the lockdown to good use.
I did none of that. I read a bit more but found it difficult to concentrate. Same for the studying. I played my EWI a bit and made one attempt at writing a tune. And as you can see from this blog, I wrote only a few articles.
As Mark Manson put it in his article, the pandemic brought out the true nature of people, it was like they had been given a factory reset. And even though the year seemed to go quickly in the end with months racing by but the actual hours dragging, we were all forced to face our true natures. And mine is that of a procrastinator.
I suppose that we were all waiting for life to go back to normal. However, as Ryan Holiday puts it in an article on The Forge, what is the normal to go back to? The pandemic has changed the world and along with other shocks throughout the past few years, there is no going back to the way it was before. But then the world has changed many times in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
So instead of looking back in anger ( as the song goes ), I want to look back and see what the lockdown and pandemic has taught me.
First thing is that I gained an appreciation for being out and about walking through the city. And I found my garden to be a place to escape to, not a burden that has to be kept up. As I walked, I took to photographing flowers which pandemic or no, put on a show like they do every year. Nature was calming to the stressed soul.
Working from home for 9 months came relatively easily, most of my team is distributed anyway so it made no difference where I was. But it taught me the vital importance of having a distinct break between “work” and “home”. It is way too easy for things to meld together. I also learned that during the pandemic, I began to rely more and more on technology for entertainment. I gained a bad YouTube habit that I want to break as it has begun trying to radicalize me. But the choice of entertainment was bewildering. Too often I found myself just watching the 30s previews on Netflix rather than sitting down and watching the program/series/film.
I found myself losing contact with some friends but from this I learned the distinction between true friends and people I know from a certain context. Take the context away and the friendship is so much more difficult to maintain. But I also took the opportunity to reconnect with people I had drifted away from.
So, for me, 2021 will be a time of accepting both the “new normal” and the fact that this “new normal” will not last and will be replaced as what was before was replaced by what we have now. Change is the only constant as they say so probably time to get used to it.
Out walking the other day I came across a fantastic T2 bay window camper. A quick peek in the window showed it to be probably an original conversion rather than something restored and converted later.
I regularly see such vehicles round the city and each time I see one, it gladdens the heart.
But it got me thinking. Imagine if such campers could talk. What tales could it tell? Trips near and far. Families carried on holidays. Perhaps a wedding or two. A lifetime of individual moments going to make up the history of the van, all a story to tell.
Every scratch and dent would serve to record those moments. Each one a point in time and an event to be remembered. A dent in a bumper from when a tree was backed into on a campsite. A set of mismatched hubcaps from when one was lost on a trip. Or like my own camper and the scratch on the drivers door from when I tried to put up my current awning for the first time.
I’ve not customized my van much but such things can be the imprint of an owner on a van with layer upon layer of changes adding a richness to the story, each one a pointer to a memory. I have a sticker on the back that says “My other car is a ..” and a picture of a Tiger tank, a solid reminder of a fantastic trip in 2019.
Like the camper, we are the sum of our memories. They define us and provide the context in which we act. The good and bad go to make up our life. Every dent and scratch, physical or mental, tells our tale.
And each of those events serves not only as a memory but as a reminder in how to act in future. The camper would point to a scratch in a cupboard as a reminder of the time that too much was taken on a trip and that perhaps we need to travel a little lighter.
During lock-down, we’ve been creating the sort of memories that we’d never thought that we’d want but in time these too will serve as a reminder. That we cannot take our current status for granted and assume that it will continue into the future indefinitely.
These new memories will serve as a call to action when the coast is clear to go and create some new tales. Ones that we’ll tell for years to come and that we’ll look back on at the end of our lives as evidence of a truly rich life.
So be like that camper. While you’ve still got four wheels and a working engine, make a few memories. They’ll sustain you through a life that will have its ups and downs.
So far 2020 has not been that kind. The Coronavirus has caused more than 100 days of lockdown in various forms and even though we are starting to come out the other side, much time has been lost that could have been spent travelling or walking.
However, in some ways having to adapt to the new situation has opened up new possibilities. And having to stay closer to home means a search for beauty, that would ordinarily come from Scotland’s wild landscapes, in other places.
And right under my nose, there it was. In the gardens, woods and parks near my house. Along roads that I have commuted along often but not really seen. Nature in all its glory putting on a show for everyone to enjoy.
Often these are curated gardens with a human purpose to the planting but also there are parks and even just the verges by the side of the roads.
This has taught me two things. First that I should always carry a camera ( in this case it is either and iPhone 11pro or an a6000 with a 35mm lens ) and secondly that we should take time to truly see what is around us.
So next time you are out, admire the show in front gardens and forests and take some time to smell the flowers.
When I moved into my current house, it came with a small garden. The previous occupant had done a fair bit of work to it but had let it go in the time leading up to the sale and it was a bit wild when I inherited it.
I’m not much of a gardener and really don’t have green fingers. And to be honest I was not looking forward to having to care for the garden. Plans were made to turn it into a Zen garden or even just put paving slabs down.
But the lockdown that we’re all on has made me appreciate the garden greatly. It is my own little slice of nature next to the house. The garden is a suntrap between the equinoxes (and even outside of these) and all day long, when the weather is good, the sun shines in the garden making it a lovely place to sit and read. And perhaps even work, I’ve discovered the Wifi stretches out to the garden bench.
I’ve come to the realization over recent time that I am fairly much an outdoors person. Being cooped up in an office all day makes me long for hills and trees and places where nature reigns. The hills and the bigger parks are largely off limits at the moment, but a few steps outside my door is an oasis in the city.
Being in amongst the greenery (my garden is very green, the flowers don’t seem to take), reminds us of how unhurried nature is. Everything happens at its proper time and in the proper order without it being forced. It tells us to slow down and live to the age old rhythms of the planet.
And of course, all my neighbors have gardens too and the decent weather is bringing them out as well. Chats over the fence to see how each other is doing combats the isolation that can overtake us in the current situation.
So the garden is a blessing and when we’re done with the Coronavirus and the diy stores are open again, I’m going to put a bit of effort in here to make it an even nicer place to be.
Early in the year it was time to do something cultural and so it was off to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art to see the latest in the series of exhibitions entitled “NOW”. These are an exploration of the subject of time and its relationship to the humankind.
The exhibition started with selection of photographs by Darren Almond. These were very long exposure shots that tried to capture the sense of movement and change in the world. Looking at them gives a sense of time compressed into a static shot. The photos are taken by moonlight and this, with the long exposure, gives them something of a faintly unreal quality, like a dream captured.
Next up was some artifacts associated with a piece of performance art by Shona Macnaughton performed when she was 9months pregnant. This explores the changing nature of the body when pregnant and places this within a changing landscape as the area of Glasgow that she is from is regenerated.
The main part of the exhibition was work by Katie Paterson. It started with a work called “Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008)”. As its name suggests, this is a room with a low hanging lightbulb that has been specially designed to simulate the wavelengths of light that are reflected by the Moon. The room was empty bar the light and it was calming to rest and contemplate while bathed in the light of the (simulated) Moon.
The next room contained her work “Totality (2016)”. This was a large mirror ball onto which all known images of solar eclipses are projected. The room is filled with points of light made by images of a point in time where the sunlight is blocked out. A number of visitors including myself sat here for a while to watch the spinning images.
The last section of Paterson’s exhibition was “Earth – Moon – Earth (2007)”. This was a midi piano playing the Moonlight Sonata. However, the file containing the music had been transmitted at the moon and the reflection recorded. This means there were errors and gaps in the performance.
I was glad that I got to see this before the lockdown. The exhibition was an affecting one and provoked a contemplation of time and my relationship to it.
It’s only a few weeks till Easter and usually at this point I’d be cleaning the van and all the camping equipment, getting the servicing done and generally preparing for the camping season ahead. However this year all that has been put on hold due to the Coronavirus. Instead, I’m indoors most of the time, working from home and missing the things that I would normally do like walking, going dancing, visiting museums/galleries, traveling and generally being out and about.
However, here’s the thing. In a normal year, I don’t do any of those things as much as I like to imagine that I would. Especially over the past year or so, I’ve done less walking, much less dancing and traveling in the van seems to be more of a burden. There has been a considerable amount of putting off till tomorrow what could have been done today. The “I’ll do it when I have the time/inclination/energy” mindset, in the belief that there will be plenty of tomorrows to come to do all the things that I don’t want to do today.
The lockdown has put an end to the tomorrows for the time being at least. We’re in an extreme situation and it isn’t clear to me how the world will look at the end of it. There could be some positives like more working from home giving more time to do other things and cutting pollution into the bargain. On the other hand many small businesses, including campsites, could go under and there could be much less choice in future. One thing is certain, this is going to be a drastic upheaval to the world.
However, this is not to lament the current situation but to look at the past from the perspective of now. And from my current vantage point, I can see that I have wasted large amounts of time just sitting around thinking that I’ll get to it tomorrow. I would guess that many people are in the same situation right now.
Memento Mori is a powerful concept from philosophy. It tells us to remember that we are mortal and that any day we could leave this life. But we can extend idea further. It can remind us that there are always unexpected changes round the corner. The lockdown has been a massive and largely unheralded upheaval in everyone’s life. All those tomorrows have been put on hold, possibly never to come to pass.
In his essay ‘The Stoic Formula for a Happy, Meaningful Life’, William Irvine discusses the concept that when we have done something n times, we always expect that we can do it n+ 1 times. There is never the expectation that this could be the last time and therefore we are maybe not as engaged in the activity as we could have been. Instead we should consider, but now dwell on, the fact that there could be no more n, we should engage fully with the activity.
We live in a busy world, indeed being busy and rushed off your feet is considered a badge of honor. I often feel I don’t have the time to do the things I want to. The question is then, where all the time is going? The answer seems to be into the black hole that is the Internet and into perceived obligations. With movement curtailed and it possible to get sick of even the endless distraction of the Internet, now is a time to take stock of life and ask of each call on our time, “Is this really necessary?”
“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” – Alexander Graham Bell.
The lockdown is an opportunity. There are many things that I cannot do that I wish to but there are also many things that I can do that I now have time for. This means practicing radical acceptance. This is the situation I’m in. Instead of moaning and complaining and struggling against it, look around, accept the situation and then pick up something else. I’ve long desired to write more and to write music and now I have the opportunity. Time to walk through the open door.
So my closing thought is simple. Don’t put off to tomorrow what is important to you since you never know what tomorrow brings. And remember to wash your hands properly and often.
Taken a bit of time to get going this year but it was off for the first day trip to Helensburgh and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House. Built 1902-1904 for the Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie, this is a fine example of Mackintosh’s work. But not without its problems.
It was a somewhat driech day setting off for the 90 minute drive to the house. Luckily it was a somewhat straight journey, along the M8 then across the Erskine Bridge and finally onto the house. Good time was made and there were no arguments with the satnav, unlike Google Maps earlier which had suggested coming off the motorway in the city center of Glasgow then taking the Great Western Rd.
On parking up and approaching the house, the first thing you see is not the house itself but the shield that has been built around it. Mackintosh’s choice of building materials was innovative at the start of the 20th century but really weren’t up to the Scottish climate. Water has been getting into the fabric of the building and the house it literally dissolving away from within. So the National Trust for Scotland have built a “box” round the house which shields it from most of the bad weather and allows the building to dry out. This has the negative point that you can’t see the building situated in the landscape but does have the positive point that there are walkways round the box and you can see the house from angles you wouldn’t otherwise see. For example.
Entering and climbing up onto the walkways it was fascinating to see the house from above and to see some of the upper story details up close. The box is open to the wind and it was a little chilly so I didn’t tarry long but headed in through the side door.
The entrance hall was fantastic. Pure Rennie Mackintosh. Wood paneling, a wonderful clock at the end and some rather good light fittings. To the right was the library. Something I’ve always desired in a house :-).
The scullery was open but set out for an event and the Mackintosh shop closed so it was on to the upper story and into the main bedroom. This was a tasteful and lovingly designed space and it always strikes me that the furniture maintains a contemporary look, to the point that you could imagine it being sold today.
With the building slowly drying out, many of the rooms on the first floor were not furnished but they did maintain some period features such as fireplaces and windows that would have been designed by Mackintosh.
After visiting the house itself, there wasn’t a chance for a turn round the gardens and the weather was closing in and the rain that had been threatening hit and was torrential. So it was back to the van and onward home. A lovely visit and well worth a trip of you’re in the area.