Since the turn of the year I have generally been wrapped up in the always half-expectant, half-tremulous act of setting out on a new book. Hence the lack of anything new here. The blessed thing is that, however many hours I can vanish away on the computer or poring over reference material, I am also able to make it seem as if time has paused from ticking inexorably on. And simply by opening our back door and walking out into the land about us.
Randomly, these are three relatively recent snapshots of this other side of things...
One clear, crisp Sunday afternoon back in March, Denise, the boys, a couple of their young pals and I trooped to the end of Ardtreck Point, a finger of land jabbing out into Loch Bracadale. In basic terms, the path, such as it is, takes you across a rough, invariably boggy expanse of moorland and up to the punctuation point of the peninsula, a squat, altogether inglorious box-lighthouse. However, the journey is rich with other details and most particularly the panoramic aspects it affords. Back at first to the Black Cuillin, still snow-capped at this time of year, and then over to the course of the Loch as it flows into the North Atlantic. The spectral-seeming peaks of Uist stretch along this horizon. As the accompanying photograph is intended to show, under a blue sky and a serene early-spring sun it is a spot that all at once brings about a kind of sensory overload and also a sense of being utterly at peace.
A few weeks later, we welcomed old friends to the island. Since it was their first visit to Skye, we took advantage of the bout of glorious weather we were having to 'do' one of the big draws - the Old Man of Storr. The path that winds steeply up to this impressive rock pinnacle is trod by thousands of feet each year, to the point of being overcrowded in summer. As a family, we have traipsed it any number of times and so that it is possible to become numbed to the sheer jaw-dropping, ages-old wonder of its vantage. The quickest counter to this is to see it as if through another's eyes.
On this particular day, the sun was again high in a cloudless sky and yet we trekked up into the snowline and where the air was cold and sharp as crushed ice. From the very base of the Old Man, we looked out along the spread of the Trotternish Ridge, its arrow-point rocky outcroppings as ancient as the Earth itself. Ahead, the land rose, fell and soared up again to the peaks of the Red and Black Cuillin some thirty miles distant. Off out to the east and over a deep blue sea which was as still and reflective as a mirror, Skye's smaller sibling isle Raasay, its contours a symphony of greens and greys, and beyond that the foreboding mass of the Torridon Hills on the mainland. Late in the afternoon, we spotted a Golden Eagle high up on the thermals.
Then just last week, I was driving home from my regular Thursday night game of five-a-side football in Portree. The game is a precarious, often as not fruitless exercise in pretending that I am not quite as old as I am, the drive not nearly so chastening. It was some time after 9pm, but not yet dark, the nature of the light bruised and brooding. From the turn off the main road at the Sligachan Hotel, my journey home is made between two flanks of craggy highland and from there alongside and up above the ribbon run of Loch Harport. It's around thirteen miles in total, but altogether magnificent. In the space of ten, fifteen minutes that night I spotted a fox stalking by the roadside, a Red Grouse, a hare, a Roe Deer, many flitting bats and at the crest of our driveway the ghosting shadow of a Tawny Owl.
The older I get, the more I find myself pondering the meaning of, well... life. What it is I am supposed to extract from our universal blink and good-God-it's-gone passage through the whole messy shebang and beyond the fact of my simply being. For all that it's worth and in the absence of any concrete evidence that I'm bound for a heavenly eternity, or otherwise, the conviction I have come to hold onto is that ultimately it all falls to precious, magical moments such as those I have just mentioned. To the states of grace that they engender and with it the vivid sensation of being alive and of being a microcosmic part of something so much greater.
All that being said, let me put down what I've been smoking and hurry off into the creaking segue that it was meant to set up. And which is how even rarer it is to experience a state of grace through one's work and the everyday. In my previous life, I did, quite possibly, feel myself being transported by the way a photograph appeared on the page, or a set of type sat on a cover, or with other similarly aesthetic and entirely fleeting things. Interviewing certain people too, a McCartney, a Springsteen, full-force Adele or mad-as-a-badger Ozzy, there would moments of feeling rapt, suspended and as if in a completely different reality.
Just once that was extended over an entire evening. The occasion was a dank Tuesday night in late-February or early-March of 2009, I forget which, and in the company of a certain Noel Gallagher. It was for the purpose of a cover story for Q, a profile piece. Noel elected to have this conducted over dinner in a favourite restaurant of his in posh Primrose Hill, north London. Noel being Noel, we had an upstairs room cleared for the two of us and an especially attentive waiter. It was then no more than a matter of months before Noel walked out on Oasis and he was in reflective, but expansive mood.
"Do you know anything about wine?" Noel asked gruffly, perusing a wine list as involved and complex-seeming to me as an astrophysics text rendered in Mandarin. I told him as much and he barked back, "Well, it's a good fookin' job I do, isn't it?" Adding with a flourish: "Let's have a nice, full red, shall we?" When our waiter returned within a heartbeat cradling what was very evidently a white wine, Noel's face crumpled up in what was now that familiar way of his, which is to say like a cushion being sat on, and he let out a snickering laugh. At himself. Which rock stars almost never do and is one of the reasons why I liked him so much.
We had met in passing a couple of times before this encounter. Witty as a stand-up comic, street-smart, self-assured, undoubtedly charismatic, but with the suggestion of a soft centre, he had struck me as an impressive figure indeed. That impression was re-enforced over the next several hours we spent together fine-dining, and as Noel picked back over the bare bones of the Oasis story. I don't remember ever laughing so much when interviewing anybody else, or feeling quite so certain that I could ask anything and it would get a full, reasoned answer that was also ever likely to spiral off into an only vaguely connected series of anecdotes.
In short, he was brilliant company. Inevitably, the conversation kept coming back to his younger brother and the pair's notoriously fractious relationship. At one point, he told me about the most recent fight they'd had. The pair of them had gone drinking with mutual friends over Christmas and a debate had sprung up about the best Christmas single. Noel nominated Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody. Volubly, Liam had disagreed and gone instead for Lennon's Happy Xmas (War is Over).
"And from that starting point," Noel embellished, voice rising, "the two of us ended up out in the car-park of the pub, trading punches with each other. I'm in my forties, man. I can't be getting into fist-fights over Christmas songs."
At another juncture and more shockingly, Noel revealed to me that he wouldn't allow Liam in his house and as such that he had not so much as set eyes on his nephew, two-year-old Donovan, Noel's first-born son with partner Sara MacDonald. "I don't know you well enough to tell you why, but I have my reasons," he said, darkly and before lightening again with a crack about Liam's fixation with his own hair or some such.
Finally, he got around to summing Liam up and with a single, off-the-cuff line that has lingered with me longer and more memorably than any other that he uttered that night. "Liam is a really angry person," he began, leaning across the table, face deadpan and as he alighted upon his punchline. "He's like a man with a fork in a world of soup."
This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:
The Little Unsaid - Day is Golden
Excellent new band from Oxford, also make it seem as if the clocks have stopped.