[ 7 Sep 03] It's quiet. Jane is away; she's gone back to Australia to visit a good friend who's not so well. So for the past few days I've been knocking around the flat on my own. Waking up this morning I could hear... nothing. No breathing beside me, no noise from the street. It was a good sixty seconds before the silence was broken by the soft whoosh of a car; then more of them, inhaling and exhaling like waves in an irregular sea. I floated in that waking space, waiting for the next one.

I'm going out to Australia too next weekend. We're meeting up in Melbourne and then flying down to Tasmania for a couple of weeks, to help Mum and Dad move out of the house they've lived in for thirty years. The house I grew up in.

I've been wondering how to write about it since I heard the news in July, and have ended up writing about everything else instead. It's hard to get the tone right in my head. I don't want to sound maudlin, because I don't feel it; it'll be a relief for them not to have to look after the old place, and their new one looks just right. They've been contemplating this move since I was still living there well over a decade ago, so I've been ready for it most of my adult life.

Yet I don't want to treat it as if it's nothing, because it's far from that. I'm travelling halfway around the world, six months before we'd planned, to say goodbye to this place; to see its rooms empty, and close its many doors.

I lived in that house from Gough Whitlam's election until the end of the first Gulf War; we moved there a month before I turned five, and I left a month after turning 23. Every room and space of it has a story; every tree and lawn of it. Rooms and lawns and trees and streets that are so imprinted on me they feel like an extension of me; I can walk around every one in my mind.

I remember playing in the front porch with my brother, running Matchbox cars along the red tiles outside my bedroom door, as the distant drone of the bench-saw drifted over us from the workshop. Suddenly, Dad was jogging up to us; then standing over us, holding a handkerchief over his hand, saying, "One of you go and get Mum."

I remember sitting in the dining room, the sun filtering between the curtains, bloated blowflies bumping along the window-sill. Mona sat upright in the chair next to me, her eyes shut, as I stroked the back of my finger down the furry white arc of her neck. Again; and again. For half an hour. She may have drooled.

I remember climbing onto the roof of the chook-shed to reach the branches of the peach tree, heavy with fruit during its last bumper crop; and sitting there, peeling off their soft red skins and biting into their warm white flesh, one after another, until my hands were dripping with juice.

I remember a summer evening when the grass in the front paddock was as high as my head. Running along the edge of it, on the lawn by the walnut tree, with my brother and cousins; then plunging in, a shrieking band of jungle adventurers. The daring, the daring, to go where Joe Blake was hiding; if he bit you, you could die. But the only bite was the fat green blades slicing into our arms, and we knew we never would.


Of Mutton and Men

[ 9 Apr 03] We were down in Dumfriesshire on Friday and Saturday, for the wedding of one of my oldest friends. He and his girlfriend were eloping to Gretna Green, the British equivalent of Las Vegas, and as the only friends living nearby (and a long way from everyone they didn't want to find out beforehand), we were their lucky guests.

Gretna Green is the Bognor Regis of all things marital, so there was just a hint of cheesiness to the ceremony. This wasn't helped by the fact that traditionally it was the local blacksmith who wedded the 16-year-olds who crossed the border to take advantage of relaxed Scottish laws—a tradition that persists in the 'striking of the anvil' to declare the happy couple man and wife. All that was missing was one of those fairground poles with the ringer to show how many years the marriage will last.

But the emotion of the moment made the surroundings irrelevant, as it always does. It was one of those times when all of your happiness for your friends, and your happiness that they are your friends, gets concentrated in time and space into the now and here that you're standing in.

We spent the rest of the day and night in Comlongon, a 14th-century castle turned fancy hotel near the Solway Firth (only a few miles from another castle we visited a year ago), eating fine food and drinking champagne. The next morning, livers still reeling from the chemical attack, Jane and I drove west along the coast from Dumfries to Kirkcudbright, taking in ruined castles and abbeys, villages and gardens. Those are the things we photographed, at least, but what I suspect I'll remember most are the lambs.

Lambs near Kirkcudbright

Lambs everywhere: some of them the brand new white of A4 bond; others the sooty black of puffs of toner; others white and black in spots like so many photocopied bleats. Bouncing and basking and suckling and running in the sun.

Somehow wherever I go I end up surrounded by sheep. Growing up in the Tasmanian countryside makes it inevitable that you become well-acquainted with the sophisticated humour deriving from an ovine environment. The joke I particularly remember from my days at university, home to many a budding Wilde sharpening his wit, was:

Huonville: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who could forget that? Or the hilarious variant I encountered on moving from Tasmania to Canberra:

Tasmania: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Oh ho ho! But it got better. In the early '90s I spent a year in England, and heard:

Australia: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

And then there's the one from when I was about to leave Australia and go and work among the Kiwis for a while:

New Zealand: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Be still, my bleating heart!

Imagine my joy, then, on hearing this old favourite after moving back to the UK, from none other than our good neighbours down south:

Scotland: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who would ever have thought that such comic subtlety was so universal in its appeal.

Admittedly, I'm a touch defensive on the whole subject of lanoline lust, because I actually did grow up with sheep in the back paddock: three or four at any one time. They were pets, basically, giant woolly lawn-mowers, and like any pets had names: Torny, Wrinkles, Lambert, Handlebars. They would graze contentedly all year, growing wider and woollier until shearing time in summer. Then we would herd them into the chook shed, where one of the local shearers would peel off their fleeces with a trimmer disturbingly similar to the one Dad used on us boys. A few sacks of wool later, the naked ewes and wethers would stumble out into the sunshine and go back to extracting Essence of Sheep from the tender green shoots hidden in the dry grass.

Usually the sheep put up minimal resistance to being herded to the hairdressers, but in the late '80s we had one that always did: a young wether called Rabuka, after the Fijian coup leader (the letter b is pronounced 'mb' in Fijian, which gives you the pun; he was 'Rambo' for short). We suspected that the wethering operation had somehow gone wrong, because there was way too much testosterone in this one. He was a pain in the arse, never going where you wanted him, breaking through fences, and generally causing trouble; and eventually, Mum and Dad decided he had to go—to that great paddock in the sky, via Cordwell's the butchers.

But Rambo was fiercely independent to the end, and refused to be herded into the back of the Rangey. Four of us weren't enough to cover every possible escape route as we closed in around him, and he would break through and bolt for the far corner of the paddock as his brothers Wether and Ornot looked on.

Beneath the seat of every old four-wheel-drive, however, lies rope.

Dad fashioned a lasso out of the hairy red rope we used to tie down the trailer, and the next time Rambo went galloping past dropped it neatly over his charging head. Rambo jerked the noose tight, bucking and pulling against it until his cheeks turned scarlet, giving the four of us time to hoick him upside down into the back and close the hatch. Dad loosened the rope before the poor critter throttled himself, so that his last minutes on earth wouldn't be too miserable, and down to the butcher they went.

But Rambo had his revenge, in death if not in life. Normally any sheep we butchered ended up as stewing and roasting cuts, since they were usually too old and muttony to be edible as anything except curry. Rambo was only a couple of years old, though, so as an experiment my parents got half of him turned into sausages.

We tried him a few nights later, with peas and boiled spuds. Only then did we discover the truth about mutton sausage: it's horrible. Soft, grey and pasty, with that intense sheepy aroma known only to country-dwellers, because sheep older than a few months never end up on supermarket shelves.

We gave it to the cat. The cat wouldn't eat it.

Fast forward to Scotland, where men are men and sheep are turned into the national dish. You know the score: sheep's stomach (traditionally, or nowadays an artificial sausage skin) stuffed with mutton offal, oatmeal and spices. I first tried haggis a month or so after arriving here, in what was probably the wrong way: as a pizza topping, in a Stirling takeaway. (Jane dared me, of course.) It was ghastly: soft, grey, pasty, and very, very familiar. Like that of William Wallace, Rabuka's spirit lived on in the auld toun of Stirling.

I never ate haggis again—until last Saturday. If the banquet the previous evening was any guide, Comlongon's Full Scottish Breakfast probably tasted as good as it looked on the menu. The only drawback was the haggis substituting for black pudding (which despite its congealed-blood origins I actually like, in small doses; white pudding even more). But what the hell, I thought, I can always leave that aside; so I ordered it.

It was, without doubt, one of the finest hotel breakfasts I've eaten in the UK, matched only by the perfect porridge served at a small B&B in Kilmartin. Even the haggis was good—firm and granular in texture, tasty on the tongue—and there wasn't a hint of throttled testosterone about it.

It was so fine that I recorded it for posterity. (Elements of the dish conveniently marked for non-Britons; the tomato was grilled, and the potato scone is a flat bread, this one fried in bacon fat. Be still, my bleating arteries.)

Later that day, I stared at all the sheep as we drove through Galloway, shouting out 'lambs!' whenever a new flock came into view. Brilliant white symbols of spring; of the renewal of life; of care-free gambolling under the sun.

Every one an incipient haggis.


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