The other week we learned that the Highland Council had approved outline planning permission for our house. A couple of days later, the builders broke ground on our plot to test the underlying soil. This also revealed no nasty lurking surprises, such as a stream of impenetrable rock, news which was met by us with a giddy sort of relief. All things being equal, the start of the build itself is now just a few more weeks over the horizon. So close, in fact, that I have begun to write up a blizzard of 'to do' lists, manic like one of those toy bears that crash cymbals together and the content of which my wife Denise absorbs with saintly tolerance. And perhaps 'source and erect American-style postbox' is not the most pressing of our needs.
Yet this is the looming beginning of something we have pondered dreamily, discussed avidly and in total been planning and considering for more than two years now. And as well, its close proximity has left me vulnerable to outbreaks of Wistful Reflectionitus. This is a state of mine that all of my family have come to flinch from since it causes my eyes to mist and me to gibber on with tales they have heard countless times before. Why, I fell into it just last Friday and as I drove to collect young Charlie from school. As the sea loch that will be ours to look out over, Loch Harport, came into view at the crest of the hill road to Carbost, huge and deep purple on this crisp midwinter's afternoon, I thought back to perhaps the very moment I decided that I had to get the hell out of Dodge. Never mind that I am not, nor ever have been and would in every aspect entirely useless as a cowboy.
Anyway... This was in the late spring of 2010 and I was at that time alone in a motel room in Bend, Oregon. I had just spent three days interviewing and in the company of the grizzled American singer-songwriter John Mellencamp. Then 59-years-old and with the hooded eyes of a hawk, Mellencamp is a William Faulkner kind of character; hard-bitten, ornery and mean but also heroic in the sense of his being among the last of his dying breed. Johnny Cash, a man who knew about such things, once hailed him as one of the ten greatest ever American song-writers and I for one am not about to go against the Man in Black.
Mellencamp's story is also right out of the pages of fiction. He was born one of five children in the blue-collar town of Seymour, Indiana in 1951 and grew up to be a high school track and football star. By 19 he was married and the father to a daughter, but ran off to New York to get himself a record deal. A couple more wives, two sons and a heart attack later, he had sold many million albums, initially under the stage name of Johnny Cougar, but was so consumed with rage at the world in general that he took to calling himself Little Bastard. Eventually, and after punching out a record company president and writing and recording a hit album in a week just to win a bet that he could, Mellencamp gave up being a rock star and transformed himself instead into a dyed-in-the-wool folk singer. At this, he has also excelled. By the by, he is too an accomplished and acclaimed painter and has had his work exhibited in galleries and museums all over the US.
I had gone to meet him at the space-age chrome-and-glass barn that acts as is his art studio and is located deep in dense woodland right off the highway near Lake Monroe, Indiana. He stalked into the airy room like a bull: squat and musclebound and albeit with his hair made up into a towering quiff. He peered at me through a fog of smoke from a cigarette clamped between his teeth and was dressed in black and carrying a wooden cane of Victorian vintage. He looked spectacular. Unscrewing the top of the cane, he produced from it, like a rabbit from a hat, a three-foot-long blade which he proceeded to brandish within inches of my nose. And then he barked at me: "You've got 30 minutes, motherfucker."
In fact, once he ascertained that I wouldn't recoil from him, Mellencamp warmed up. We sat across from each other at a long, dark-wood table and he chain-smoked and chatted away for more than two hours. He spoke in a slow, measured drawl and in a way that was utterly transfixing as he reflected on the storied passage of his life. I could very happily have heard him out for many hours more, but I got together with him again the next morning and to fly up to Bend in his private plane for an outdoor show that he was doing with Bob Dylan. On the flight and apropos of nothing, he began to list for me his various ailments and which included diabetes and a high-pitched and incurable ringing sound in his ears. "But I'm ready ready to roll with time," he concluded. "Because Johnny Cougar was not going to amount to a hill of beans, but son of a bitch, he's still hanging around 43 fucking years later."
In total, this encounter had a profound effect on me. It was that night that I sat perched on the end of a motel bed and thought about how short all of our time is here on Earth. Right there and then, I resolved that I must spend what was left of mine doing what I truly wanted to do, which was not to go into an office every day and be a manager of people and budgets, and to live where I pleased, which was on a relatively remote Scottish isle. It took me a good while after that for me to free myself on one hand and on the other for Denise to be convinced to join me on the island, but inadvertently we have John Mellencamp to thank for whatever's left of our lives and how many others can say that?
At the weekend we all four of us took a trip back into our recent past. The small West Coast township of Applecross is one of our very favourite places. On a clear day, it is visible to us on Skye from the higher points of the Staffin Road and out across the sea; a ribbon of tiny-seeming white buildings tucked under the vast Torridon range of peaks and set at the lip of a gaping natural bay. We first went there on holiday six years ago and on Sunday visited again. Despite its geographic proximity to Skye, getting to Applecross from here necessitates a two-hour drive made in an almost perfect arc. This is mitigated by the fact that the journey off the island and around the mainland coast is one taken through a landscape of hulking mountains, pine forest and rust-coloured moorland and with the sea a near-constant passenger's side companion.
Furthermore, the most direct route is via Bealach na Ba, the Pass of the Cattle, the highest mountain road in Britain. An 11-mile stretch of hairpin bends and stomach-churning sheer drops, this single-track pass is cut between two jagged peaks and rises steeply to a height of 2,054 feet before plunging down again into Applecross. Often as not, inclement weather causes it to be closed in winter but we were fortunate to have picked a clear day on which to navigate it. Nonetheless, the higher up we went into the cloud line the darker, more brooding the sky became. Snow covered the ground on these upper extremities and flecks blew at us from out of the grey-black gloom. And then in an instant the sun broke through and off in the distance we could see back to Skye, rugged and imposing out of a blue, blue sea.
Back at sea level, we drove at first west out of Applecross and for the four or five miles extra miles it takes to reach Golden Sand beach [that's it pictured at the top of the page]. This idyllic inlet is backed by a sheer wall of sand around 70-feet high and which the fit and intrepid among us [ie; the boys] habitually run up and roll down again. We had discovered this place on that first family holiday up here and it has retained from then its sense of utter serenity, since there does not appear to be more than three or four other people and a dog on it at any given time. After an hour of death-defying, head-long slaloms down the epic dune [them] and gentle strolling along the shoreline [us], we drove back the way we had come and made for the Applecross Inn.
Let me say without reservation that this is the best pub in all of Scotland and perhaps in the whole of Britain. Certainly, it has won numerous awards testifying to the former and with good reason. There it stands at the sea's edge, off-white and welcoming, beckoning the visitor to come inside and sit beside a roaring log fire. They also serve the most divine fish and chips at the Inn, which we all feasted upon and then sat nursing our full stomachs as we gazed happily out at the bay where battalions of Oystercatchers and waders picked over the rocks and squadrons of gulls swooped above the water.
Of course, this vista was more than enough to set me off again remembering and I went back to the summer's morning of 23 July 2011. Here we all were then in Applecross, the boys paddling in the shallows and when my phone beeped with the news that Amy Winehouse had died. I'd had the pleasure of meeting her just once and on that occasion she had tried to throttle me. It was at the Q Awards and in between the times of her first album, Frank and the planet-gobbling Back to Black.
Amy had bowled up to me across a crowded hotel ballroom, beehive set like rock and announced herself like this: "'Ere, you should give me a fekkin' job." Mildly shocked, I replied that since she couldn't get it together to make a record every couple of years, she hardly seemed cut out for a magazine's monthly deadlines. At which point she grasped my throat in her hands, squeezed briefly but hard and then flounced off once more, cackling like a banshee. That was the extent of our exchange, but stood there years later and amidst the beauty of Wester Ross, her death at 27 seemed to me all the more tragic, senseless and wasteful.
"Did I ever tell you about the time Amy Winehouse strangled me?" I asked the boys on Sunday. "God Dad, about a million times," announced Tom, sighing deeply. And then he led his brother off to do something more interesting such as count pebbles.
Back in Portree, I have also started to wonder how long it will be before we move into our new home and then again can start to feel as if we are locals. Ever unable to keep a thought to myself, I mentioned the latter to a colleague at the radio station. "Och, I've been here 43 years and the lady who lives next door still calls me an incomer," he told me, laughing. "So the answer to your question is never." Presently, though, I am looking forward to nothing so much as putting that to the test.
[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday and repeated on Mondays from 3pm-4pm at: www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].
This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:
Radiohead - Identikit.
Thom Yorke and his merry men: the perfect soundtrack to a drive up and over a mountain. Who knew?