Dunkirk

It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes things ‘connect’?

Although I wasn’t born until long after The Evacuation of Dunkirk, it’s always hung there, over me, throughout my life. My dad was one of the 350,000 men rescued from its beaches in May 1940 by one of the ‘Little Boats’, and I have come to believe it was, perhaps, the defining moment in his life.

My dad was a good, honest, hardworking, honourable man, and I sometimes think any illusions he had about mankind were, literally, shot to hell on the beaches of Dunkirk.  He didn’t speak about Dunkirk very often, but when he did, one of his memories was of watching  Nazi pilots bomb a hospital ship clearly marked with the Red Cross.

So when I saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan‘s movie Dunkirk this week, and saw a clip of a Red Cross ship being bombed… well it brought all those memories back.

The second ‘connection’… ?  A friend and I were talking about our favourite Christmas movies.  Mine is The Bishop’s Wife, made in 1947, starring Loretta Young (who looked like my Mum) and Cary Grant.  What has that to do with Dunkirk?  Well it turns out, the original book of The Bishop’s Wife was written by American writer Robert Nathan who also wrote a poem about Dunkirk.

There weren’t just men on the beach at Dunkirk.  British army nurses were rescued from those beaches too. And I love the idea – as in this poem – that at least one of those Little Boats had a girl on board too.

Dunkirk

Robert Nathan

Will came back from school that day,
And he had little to say.
But he stood a long time looking down
To where the gray-green Channel water
Slapped at the foot of the little town,
And to where his boat, the Sarah P,
Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,
With her one old sail, patched at the leech,
Furled like a slattern down at heel.

He stood for a while above the beach,
He saw how the wind and current caught her;
He looked a long time out to sea.
There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke.

Will went back to the house to dress.
He was half way through, when his sister Bess
Who was near fourteen, and younger than he
By just two years, came home from play.
She asked him, “Where are you going, Will?”
He said, “For a good long sail.”
“Can I come along?”
“No, Bess,” he spoke.
“I may be gone for a night and a day.”
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.

She looked at him, and he looked at her.
They were English children, born and bred.
He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.
She shook her proud young head.
“You’ll need a crew,” she said.

They raised the sail on the Sarah p,
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,
And headed the Sarah out to sea,
To bring their soldiers home from France.

There was no command, there was no set plan,
But six hundred boats went out with them
On the gray-green waters, sailing fast,
River excursion and fisherman,
Tug and schooner and racing M,
And the little boats came following last.
From every harbor and town they went
Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,
From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,
From the village street, from the country lane.

There are twenty miles of rolling sea
From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.

They raised Dunkirk with its harbor torn
By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;
They had reached for fun on an English tide,
They were English children bred and born,
And whether they lived, or whether they died,
They raced for England now.

Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,
She set her teeth and smiled at Will.
He held his course for the smoky veil
Where the harbor narrowed thin and long.
The British ships were firing strong.

He took the Sarah into his hands,
He drove her in through fire and death
To the wet men waiting on the sands.
He got his load and he got his breath,
And she came about, and the wind fought her.

He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England were she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear, and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.

He closed his eyes and prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.

For Nelson was there in the Victory,
With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,
And guns were out on The Golden Hind,
Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.
He could hear them cheer as he came about.

By burning wharves, by battered slips,
Galleon, frigate, and brigantine,
The old dead Captains fought their ships,
And the great dead Admirals led the line.
it was England’s night, it was England’s sea.

The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays, and conned him out.

And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true, and steered him home.  

If you’re interested in learning more about Dunkirk, there are some great movies that tell the story.  Mrs Miniver. Dunkirk. Atonement. 

And, at the risk of promoting myself, I have also written a short memoir of retracing my father’s experiences at Dunkirk in, In My Father’s Footsteps.

 

SCOTTISH WISDOM

castle-campbellAlthough I was born and brought up in Scotland, I’ve lived overseas for so long now, that sometimes I forget just how rich and humorous and wise some Scottish sayings are.

Here’s just a sampling.

WE’RE A’ JOCK TAMSON’S BAIRNS. (We’re all Jock Tamson’s children.) We’re all the same under the skin/ We’re all God’s children. (Here’s an interesting link as to who Jock Tamson might have been.)

ANE AT A TIME IS GUID FISHIN’. (One at a time is good fishing.) Be content with your life. Don’t look for everything at once.

MONY A MICKLE MAKS A MUCKLE. (Many small things make a lot.) Lots of little things add up into big things.

AULD CLAES AN’ CAULD PORRITCH. (Old clothes and cold porridge.) After a period of expense, it’s back to basics. Or… after a holiday, it’s back to real life.

WEANS WI’ BIG LUGS TAK IT A’ IN. (Children with big ears take it all in.) Watch what you say in front of the children.

YER JAICKETS’ ON A SHOOGLY PEG. (Your jacket is on a wobbly hook.) You’re close to being fired from work.  (Maybe not a wise saying, but I love the imagery!)

In The Park

I attended a workshop given by Donald Maass some time back, where he talked about the different sensory factors you need in a scene to give it depth and ensure it comes to life. For example, don’t just describe the light coming into a room, he said. Describe the quality of the light.

A few weeks ago I was walking along the river-path with my grandson.  He’d fallen asleep in his stroller, so I sat down on a bench, pulled out my notebook and decided to apply Donald Maass’ advice to the scene around me.  If I was describing this in a book, what particular elements could I find to make my scene unique.

park

Here’s a selection

A businessman, dressed in smart suit, and man-bun, chatting on his phone.
A very pregnant woman jogging – very slowly.
The soft slap of running shoes of the serious joggers on the river-path versus the staccato clack of ‘smart’ shoes belonging to business men and women out for a noon stroll.
The gentle ‘ping’ of a bike’s bell as it overtook walkers.
Hearing snatches of music from people’s ipods as they jogged by.
A man in an adapted wheelchair zipping along the path.
The warm colours of the autumnal day.
Snatches of conversations: A girl breaking up with her boyfriend.  “Move your shit out my place before I get back.”  A young man meeting a friend. “These are the last two days here.  I’m done with this city!”  An older man saying to his friend, “Problem is, you get to my age and I think I can still play.”
A man on the phone, trying to solve a problem for his father.
A young girl munching on a burger as she walked and chatted on her phone.
The heavy breathing of runners as they talked to each other in half-sentences.
Three retired couples walking together, the women in front talking about families, the men talking about baseball.
Serious cyclists, head down, weaving their way through the walkers.
Fun cyclists, in ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bikes, meandering along the path.
A guy pressing down one nostril and snorting into the grass.  Yuck!
An elderly couple strolling along hand in hand.
A plane soaring into the air in the distance.
Kids from a daycare, walking along in crocodile fashion, singing, ‘If you’re happy and you know it…”
Dogs prancing along, tails wagging.
Young women jogging, their ponytails swinging from side to side.
A cacophony of different languages.
The siren from a firetruck in the distance, honking as it went through an intersection.
A running group… they’d been walking for a bit, resting hands on waists.  “Okay guys, lets try this again and pick up the pace.”
Leaves falling onto the pathway.
A squirrel with a black body and red tail darting between the trees.
A crow cawing, high in a branch.
The breeze rustling the leaves in the trees.

The above took me about ten minutes.  Try this in a cafe, in a bookstore, in the bank, at the movies, in church, on the bus, on a plane… anywhere.  Really notice what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling.  Take notes, and when you want to add a unique detail to a scene set in one of those places, you’ll have it at your fingertips.

Visiting Glasgow – Byres Road

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All cities have their iconic streets. One of my favourites is Byres Road in Glasgow’s West End. It stretches from the working class district of Partick at one end, to the beautiful Botanic Gardens and mansions of Great Western Road at the other. With both the University of Glasgow and, until their recent move to Pacific Quay, the BBC Scotland studios close by, it has a vibrant, diverse feel to it.

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Visiting Byres Road on my trips back to Scotland, it remains familiar, and yet new enough, to still excite me. I love how Byres Road honours its past by not knocking down ‘old’ buildings, but by repurposing them, turning an old church into a theatre,  and an art deco cinema into a restaurant.  The city – and street – is alive!

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My grandparents used to live about halfway up Byres Road, and I spent a lot of time there when I was a wee girl. Much has changed since then. The pork butcher shop, which I remember having tiled walls, carcasses hanging from hooks which dripped blood onto the sawdust covered floor, is now an Oxfam shop, while Colquhouns, where we used to go for lunch on a Saturday, now houses a Pizza Express.

Across the road from their flat was Ashton Lane, now a trendy mews, with the famous Ubiquitous Chip restaurant and entrance to the Grosvenor Cinema.

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Byres Road has many of the stores you expect to see on any High Street – Boots, Marks and Spencer Food etc – but there are some great independent shops too where you can buy  unique gifts.

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And if you fancy getting a cup of coffee from ‘The Tardis’ you’ll find that there too!

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The butcher shop I remember has long gone, but down near the Partick end there’s another butcher with a good sense of humour.  I used to hate potted meat!  Yes, I guess that means I was a ‘toff’.

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And if you fancy stepping back into history, pop into Curlers Rest (formerly Curlers) for a drink. Established in the 17th century, it used to stand beside a pond where – you guessed it – they curled in the winter.

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Shakespeare By The Bow

HAMLET 1

It’s Shakespeare by the Bow time again here in Calgary, and this year the chosen play is Hamlet. Produced by Theatre Calgary, it’s an opportunity for talented newly graduated drama students to gain professional experience, performing in a glorious setting.

According to Shakespeare Online, Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words that we commonly use today, including: addiction, amazement, bandit, blanket, cater, elbow, gossip, label, luggage, moonbeam, pedant, secure, swagger, zany.  (Zany?!?  Who knew?  I always assumed that was a 1960s word!!)

It’s a long time since I’ve seen Hamlet, so I was surprised by the number of phrases I recognised that we use in our everyday language. The following is just a tiny sample:

In my mind’s eye.
I shall not look upon his like again.
All is not well.
The air bites.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The time is out of joint.
This is the very ecstasy of love.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
The play’s the thing.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Get thee to a nunnery.
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.
The lady doth protest too much.
I must be cruel, only to be kind.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
The rest is silence.
Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angles sing thee to they rest.

When it’s well done, Shakespeare remains alive, vital and very – very – relevant. And it can be fun too.  Check out the various interpretations of one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines – To be, or not to be, that is the question… – performed by the RSC during celebrations for Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

 

The Peace of Wild Things

It’s been a hellish few months for the world.  It feels like every day there’s an even worse story on the news. At times it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by feelings of grief and despair over current world events.

Growing up in Glasgow, I can remember my mother’s concerns when the world experienced its frequent periods of madness  – especially when they occurred during the summer months – as they reminded her of that summer of 1939 when things spiralled out of control.

I have to admit that over the past few weeks I’ve started to fear that we’re barrelling towards something we can’t stop. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed with bad news, I read this poem – The Peace of Wild Things – by American poet and novelist Wendell Berry.

It helps me.  I hope it helps you too.

The Peace of Wild Things – Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives
with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

lighthouse

 

Meditation on Writing

Every morning, after I’ve been for my walk, I sit with a cup of tea and read my meditation for that day from a book I bought over 20 years ago – 365 Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao .  The one I read today seems very apt for those of us who love the process of writing, so I’d like to share it with you.

WRITER

She withdrew into herself,
First writing just for one,
Then touching thousands.
She incarnated ghosts, hurt and joy
Into paper-and-ink stories of wonder.

One author said, “I can get rid of anything by writing about it,” meaning that the process of exernalizaton could liberate the pain in his soul. That realization produced a delicious dichotomy: to free himself, or to hold on to both joys and tortures by remaining silent about them.

Writers write because they must: They need to express something from deep within themselves. They hear voices that others do not. They listen urgently, and they must communicate what they hear.