FT Life and Arts Diary: On Glasgow

https://www.ft.com/content/05154f8c-7772-11e7-a3e8-60495fe6ca71

                                                                                      

I was, unusually, lost for words. Over toast, my Glaswegian hosts and I were discussing Scottish independence. Young, Green, and angry, they were furious with Nicola Sturgeon for delaying plans to hold another referendum. I said that in their place I’d feel the same, “But please don’t leave us,” I added. “We don’t want you to leave.”

“Why not?” they asked.

I looked at my plate, muttering sappily about togetherness. My hosts turned away, unmoved.

It was my first visit to Glasgow. I was there for five intense days of teaching creative writing. As I headed into the city centre, past BBC Scotland’s shiny shoebox and over the Clyde, I fretted. Why did I mind so much about Scotland breaking from the UK? I have no Scottish blood nor particular reason to be sentimental — no residual trauma from a childhood camping in the Glens, no fond memory of acting in a student mime interpretation of The Winter’s Tale at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There is almost certainly no Mendelson clan tartan. So, given my ignorance about oil and nuclear warheads, what was troubling me? Was it merely separation anxiety, neediness, the birthright of the first child? Was I still traumatised by Brexit, or swayed by my devotion to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or Dorothy Sayers’s Galloway novel The Five Red Herrings, a tale of irascible artists and incidents in trout-streams? Why did I care?

My Glasgow crush was waiting to happen — rusting industrial architecture; wit; cheese: this city has it all. But I was working, with too little time for my many nascent Scottish passions: squat lobsters and razor-clams; the private life of the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh; fantasy house-hunting in Glasgow’s Southside, for that New York feel, without border control . . . yet. Damn.

Every time I discovered something else to love, there was a whiff of further loss: the municipal car park planted not with London’s favourite repugnant Portuguese spotted laurel but with banks of raspberries; the violently stimulating Glasgow School of Art, its post-fire restoration some way from completion — even its shop closed five minutes before my arrival.

There was just time to rush down the hill to Sauchiehall Street and the Mackintosh-inspired Willow Tearooms, every detail designed, as my fantasy Southside house would be, for elegant utility. It was closed for renovation.

 

Mine is not a hard-drinking race; only once ever have I drunk Scotch alone, so convinced am I that with one swig of the spirit I’ll be heading for an outreach programme. But, in Glasgow, whisky is a perfectly reasonable choice. On Argyle Street at the Ben Nevis, or in the disconcertingly beautiful Old Toll Bar on Paisley Road West, an orgy of gilt and ebony, whisky suits everyone: the grandfather buying his family 10 doubles with Coke (easy on the Coke); the Iranian biochemical engineering student about to meet her boyfriend’s parents; the red-haired roadie, lightly hungover at 5pm.

 

Words do it for me; they always did. The self-aggrandising guff of wine bores always reminds me of James Thurber’s New Yorker cartoon sending up a wine snob: “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption”. But whisky descriptions are works of genius: “minty dark chocolate”; “seaweed-led, with a hint of vanilla and more than a whiff of the First Aid box”. Their devisers speak of coffee cake, mace, autumn bracken; of mussels, sweet peas and pineapple chunks. Who knows if they’ve even really tried all those single malts, let alone detected notes of pepper? Why did I mind so much about Scotland breaking from the UK? I have no Scottish blood nor particular reason to be sentimental.

That’s far from the point. Just as watching episodes of The Good Wife has given me a law degree, thanks to Mad Men I am also quite the advertising expert and, believe me, those dark masters of description could sell Bunnahabhain 12 to a nun. Peaty, smoky, malty, unpronounceable; I wanted them all. Their origins, tiny distilleries on Mull, Islay, Skye, added to the romance. As I sipped, happily unable to distinguish a single flavour, I found myself humming under my breath: “Carry the lad, that’s born to be king, oooover the sea to Skye.”

Then I realised: there was the clue to my seemingly inexplicable nostalgia. Even in my utterly un-Caledonian Oxford primary school in the 1970s, the folklore of the British Isles mattered. We did, in the broadest possible sense, “country dancing” — Strip the Willow, the Gay Gordons — and sang in terrible high-pitched accents about Taking The High Road. We learnt about canal boats, Greyfriars Bobby the faithful Skye terrier, Mary Queen of Scots in her tower and, naturally, Bonnie Prince Charlie, deprived of his birthright, rowed over the sea by the pretty and impressively muscular Flora MacDonald. Scotland was in my blood, I just hadn’t realised it.

 

One last morning in Glasgow, my hosts were again despondent. They had been adorable to me: a small bottle of Irn-Bru and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer on my pillow every night. To cheer them up, or out of English politeness, I said: “I know. You need a trip. Come to London!”

“Why?” they replied.

 

 

Onward and Upward in the Garden: from the New Yorker

The Lost Art of Stealing Fruit

My Hungarian-Czech grandmother, an otherwise goodhearted and generous woman, had a notoriously lax attitude toward property rules: bank pens, ashtrays, and hospital slippers all were fair for the taking. One minute, she’d be giving a bus driver brooches “for his vife”; the next, she’d be stomping down a stranger’s front path to help herself to an enormous bough of blossom while my sister and I, technically her accomplices, hid behind parked cars, pretending not to know her.

I’ve tried to lead an honest life, in accordance with the 1968 Theft Act; also, I’m a conscientious elder child and easily embarrassed. But one’s fate is difficult to dodge; ask Oedipus. My own weakness, unlike Grandma’s, is limited to fruit. In the school fiction of yesteryear, “scrumping” was what schoolboys, primarily, did in orchards. Nowadays, with fried-chicken shops on every corner, the art of fruitnapping is lost. Not, however, by me.

There’s no English word for the frenzied state into which I’m thrown when I see a tree thick with crab apples, or greengages, or pears. Are you seriously expecting me, a greedy person, to ignore the deliciously bitter Morello cherries near the station, or the neglected grape vine by that garage, or the vast banks of blackberries that litter Britain’s parks and heaths, largely overlooked except by the occasional elderly Pole or Czech, similarly purple-stained, with whom I exchange a brief, competitive glance?

Although I enjoy the camaraderie, beware any fellow-foragers who happen to stray near me on one particular, sacred day. This is my annual secret visit to a forgotten damson tree, bearing concealed Tupperware, dark clothes, and an expression of barely suppressed excitement.

“I’ll just be half an hour,” I say to my picnicking family. Poor fools, they still believe me. They don’t realize that absolutely nothing compares to the thrill of fruit-hunting: the covert slipping through the foliage; the scanning for a telltale glisten of color; the way that—deep in the hedgerow, scratched and juice-streaked, breath held as one searches for another dusty bitter plum, then another—time stops.

When it comes to semi-legal harvesting, I am daring, virtually buccaneering: qualities we novelists usually lack. Whether snatching fat Spanish sweet chestnuts, glossy as horses’ flanks, from beneath the feet of walkers on Hampstead Heath, or wild strawberries from the urns outside the British Library, I stop at nothing and know no shame. Because, as they say in the London Metropolitan Police, I have previous.

My first victim was an ancient black-mulberry tree in the grounds of St. John’s College, Oxford. My father taught there, despite the fact that he was not a floppy-haired blond aristocrat but instead a poor widow’s only son, who had heaved himself from her dark London basement into a life of Latin prayers and the boundary disputes of minor nation states. Usually, despite the beard, he blended in with the port-drinkers and philosophers, but, once a year, he persuaded the college porter to allow his children, badly dressed even by Oxford standards, through the hallowed gates.

Mulberries don’t travel. They are too juicily fragile-skinned for shops to stock; to try them, one must pick one’s own. Their rich taste is unforgettable: like the best blackberry crossed with the sweetest raspberry—the platonic ideal of fruit. But picking them requires courage, and compliant children dressed in their most terrible clothes.

The berries grew high on gnarled branches, which our father forced us to climb and shake onto sheets spread below. Within five minutes, my sister and I would be splotched with pink; after ten we’d have frightened Lady Macbeth.

“Can we go home now?”

“No.”

“Now?”

“No.”

He was a man possessed, and this is the reason: mulberry gin. All you do is stuff the fruits into a gin bottle with sugar, and wait: ambrosia will follow. But at what cost? The cycle ride home, our tiny sweatshirts crimson-splashed, dripping juice from wobbling plastic bags, scarred us. My father got his gin; we kids got nothing but scratches and twiggy hair.

Which is perhaps why, the moment I heard that my daughter’s school contained a small mulberry tree, I did unto her precisely what was done unto me.