Friday 7 September 2018

How to Disappear Completely

Midsummer began with one of those perplexing little domino effects that are habitually sent careering off through the British media, unchecked by trivialities such as common sense or the facts. One after another, the travel sections of various newspapers, magazines and online portals put it out there that Skye is all but overrun with rampaging tourist hoards. That tracts of landscape are near-spoiled and despairing locals on the point of barricading off the road bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Lochalsh. Or at least something nearly so hysterical.

No doubt that up here complexities, controversies and different extremes of opinion have been brought about by the island becoming the second most-visited spot in Scotland after the capital, Edinburgh, and since this seasonal influx shows no sign of abating any time soon. Why, though, wouldn't lots of people want to come here? Skye is very beautiful, after all.

Generally, so much for the better I would say were anyone to ask me, which they haven't. There are the obvious economic benefits (and pontificating here as an in-no-way-Fawlty-esque B&B proprietor, two thumbs up for that). Being so enthusiastically visited also equals to me a commensurate sense of living somewhere that is alive and vibrant and in the moment, and as such is a precious commodity not to be discouraged. Hence the photograph at the top of the page, taken to support a local initiative aimed at correcting any lingering impression Skye has battened down the hatches (see here for more: - and which features cherubic young Charlie as an infinitely more welcoming alternative to old potato-headed me.

In just the last three or four weeks, we have welcomed to The Passing Place guests from Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Denmark and Germany. Listening to all of their combined rhapsodies to our island home has been nothing but joyful and life-enhancing. And I am by nature a sour-faced grump who would hitherto rather have eaten his own feet than make small talk.

Besides all of which... The idea perpetrated that Skye is now irreparably teeming and chaotic is by and large utter nonsense. Certainly, there can be unsightly congestion at some of the more gushingly guide book-listed spots such as the Old Man of Storr, the Fairy Pools or Neist Point, but we are able to revel in these during the 'other' six months of the year. Then again, at six hundred and thirty-nine square miles, there is still a lot more of the island to go round.

Two examples to illustrate this last point. Couple of weeks ago, we joined a group of friends for a seaside hike on the north-eastern fringe of Skye. We began by squelching across a peat bog; bundled down a knotted length of rope left hanging by a good-neighbourly climber and to help with traversing a short, sharp slab of glassy-surfaced, gnarly-tree-peppered rock; and popped out on an expanse of stone-pebbled beach. The beach is half-encircled by hulking black-grey cliffs, looks out to the ocean and further to the Mordor-esque Torridon range on the even more northern extremities of the mainland. As well there were a vaulting sea cave, a rushing waterfall, and clearly visible underfoot, scores of fossils vividly preserved in the shoreline rocks.

Quite a spot, and the more so for it being an overcast, milk-sun day that altogether gave the sea the look of gently bubbling liquid silver. We spent a good three hours there and encountered a grand total of two other people in all that time, both of them locals.

Then the other Saturday night, I determined to walk the five-plus, mostly uphill miles home from our nearest pub, the splendid Old Inn in Carbost. By 'I determined', what I actually mean to say is that the local taxi service wasn't running (the sole designated driver was also enjoying himself in the Inn instead). A half-moon was up in the sky, but all along the route it was otherwise a pitch, inky-black. It is a winding, climbing single-track road, the shadows of craggy hilltops off to one side, the spectral glimmer of Loch Harport a couple of hundred feet and more below.

Once I had overcome the potentially bowel-vacating fear that a great, snorting Highland Bull might lurk around the next all-but invisible corner, I began to stop at regular intervals, the better to take in the silence and the stillness, each like a physical manifestation. At the crest of the hill that heads out from our next-door township of Fernilea, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Up above, the aurora was in glorious effect in the sky, its green, luminescent shimmer dancing between billowing clouds the colour of soot.

Now of course, nobody, but nobody else was stupid enough to be lurching home along this same path at two in the morning. But then, at any given time of day, I would have encountered almost no-one but for the scattering of islanders living along the way. We have it to ourselves and for that we are blessed. As I may have attempted to wax lyrical to Denise and the boys when I finally surfaced the next midday, believing it would add a frisson of questing romance to my nocturnal wanderings and spare me pitying looks. In this, as in so many other regards, I was wholly wrong.

This week, I have also been cast back to my previous life and as a result of a newspaper commission to review Gary Barlow's forthcoming memoir. Eight years ago almost to the day, I conducted the first press interview given by the reunited-with-Robbie-Williams Take That. We met, the five of them, a fleet of stylists and hairdressers, a couple of managers, several burly bodyguards and me at Bryan Adams's photo studio in Chelsea. Yes, that Bryan Adams. Singer, Canadian, bloke who will be eternally culpable for the wretched 'Robin Hood song'. Bry, as he didn't seem to mind being called, had established a side-line for himself as a rather capable portrait photographer and the idea of pairing him with the once-again all-conquering behemoths of Brit-pop seemed to me all to good to pass up.

Anyway, Bry was very nice and so too were Take That - straightforward, businesslike Gary; Artful Dodger-ish Mark; softly-spoken Howard; wry, knowing Jason; and dear bonkers Robbie. Aside from the fact they had about them a flapping, fussing entourage, four-fifths of the group seemed to me wholly down to earth and well-adjusted, and one appeared anything of the sort, though all but impossible to dislike. At one point, Barlow announced in his best professional Northerner voice: "Ey up, it's chocolate o'clock!" - occasioning an assistant to spirit into the room a tray laden with mugs of steaming builder's teas and many, different-flavoured bars of Green & Blacks.

The big question was why the Other Four had so readily welcomed back their erstwhile clown prince. By then, their Take That reunion had yielded two monster hit albums and the most profitable UK tour ever, while his once-stellar solo career had somewhat hit the skids following a couple of half-baked albums and a raft of very public 'personal issues'. The answer revealed itself just as soon as He arrived, a few steps behind the others. Precisely as I wrote it at the time, whatever strange combination of chemicals it is that allows certain famous people to change the temperature of a room whenever they enter it, Williams had it - and doubtless still has it - in spades. The others knew it too. Unbidden, when Bry asked them to line up for his first photo, Barlow and Owen, Orange and Donald split on two sides, so as to allow Williams to stand in the middle of them.

Later, Bry coaxed them outdoors to look over the vintage moped he kept in his yard. Williams it was who bestrode it. Upon sighting the rush-hour traffic crawling along the main road a stone's throw from the premises, he next set off towards it at a march, the others trailing in his wake. Crossing the road between a red, double-decker London bus and a black cab, he proceeded to hop up onto the wall that ran along the other side, the Thames now as his backdrop and where he was soon joined by his beaming band-mates. The five of them caused quite a stir: horns honked, people pointed and shouted from the top deck of the bus, the cab mounted the opposite kerb, its solitary woman passenger hanging out the rear window, the better to take pictures with her iPhone. Never for a beat was Williams not on display, the cockiest of peacocks.

Back inside Bry's, I got to view him at close quarters in the room set aside for our one-on-one interview. Strangely, it was furnished with nothing but for a pair of stools of Nordic design and a king-size bed draped in crisp white linen. "Ooh," he gasped devilishly as he entered, "this is a setting I'm used to!" We sat together for an hour, though he was never still; alternately leaning back with both hands clasped behind his head, or else crouching forward like a boxer at the bell, one or other leg furiously bobbing away. 

He didn't do eye contact very much, knew his lower league football, the plight of his hometown club Port Vale in particular, and fair oozed charisma. All at once, he came off like the hyperactive lad from down the street and an alien being from Planet Pop. At one point, I asked him the main difference between Barlow and himself. "He's a well-rounded grown-up," he shot straight back. "Meat and two veg. Me? I'm meat and two veg, a Mars bar and maybe a cake, all on the same plate."

Ah, but that was then and this is now... As I write, it's mid-afternoon. The sky is one half pale blue with a smattering of lamb-fluffy white clouds, the other a uniform shade of days-old cigarette ash. The air is fresh from a recent downpour and so hushed that, stepping out onto our decking, I can hear the lapping of the sea from a mile downhill. The exact scene, and at the precise moment as in the picture posted right below. And why ever would you not want to share it?

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

John Mellencamp - Longest Days

That long, deep breath at the start and end of the day put to music...

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