The fiercest joy


I wrote this about fishing on TV for the excellent Caught by the River site.

The best book I’ve ever read about fishing is Luke Jennings’s wonderful Blood Knots. Its description of the importance of the angler’s rites and rituals could also be applied to many other areas of our lives:

‘The rules we impose on ourselves are everything – especially in the face of nature which, for all its outward poetry, is a slaughterhouse. It’s not a question of wilfully making things harder, but of a purity of approach without which success has no meaning … the fiercest joy is to be a spectator of your own conduct and find no cause for complaint.’

The Ruins of the House of Boisterous Angus


In The Crofter and the Laird (1970), his account of returning to Colonsay, the tiny Hebridean island of his ancestors, John McPhee writes that on this island ‘almost every rise of ground, every beach, field, cliff, gully, cave, and skerry has a name. There are a hundred and thirty-eight people on Colonsay, and nearly sixteen hundred place names … The names commemorate events, revive special interests and proprietary claims of lives long gone, and sketch the land in language.’

McPhee goes on to provide some examples:

Gleann Raon a’ Bhuilg (The Glen of the Baglike Plain)

Sguid nam Ban Truagh (The Shelter of the Miserable Women)

Carraig Chaluim Bhain (Fair Malcolm’s Fishing Rock)

Carraig Nighean Mhaol Choinnich (Bald Kenneth’s Daughter’s Fishing Rock)

Pairc Aonghais Ruaidh (Red Angus’s Field)

Poll Eadar da Pholl (The Pool Between Two Pools)

Laosnaig Tonbhan (The White-Rumped Extremity)

Tobhtachan Aonghais an Dobhaidh (The Ruins of the House of Boisterous Angus)

The man who vacuumed his lawn

The Canadian poet-essayist Brian Doyle has written some powerful pieces inspired by 9/11. In his lyric essay ‘Kaddish,’ he captures the attacks on the World Trade Center by simply listing 217 one-line descriptions pulled from obituaries of the victims: ‘The man who occasionally vacuumed his lawn … The man who was identified by his Grateful Dead tattoo … The man who meticulously rotated the socks in his drawer for even use … The woman who loved pedicures on Sunday mornings … The woman who sketched commuters on the train every morning.’

In ‘Leap’, he considers the people who leapt from the towers from the perspective of onlookers: ‘They struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air … Stuart De Hann saw one woman’s dress billowing as she fell, and he saw a shirtless man falling end over end, and he too saw the couple leaping hand in hand … I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.’

From Brian Doyle, Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Loyola University Press, 2003))

Just another sense memory


I wrote this piece for last week’s Guardian about how the Amstrad PCW converted writers to the computer.

I suppose in the future mine will be remembered as the last generation for whom writing was an indubitably analogue act. We even had handwriting lessons in my primary school; at my secondary school they still had the old sit-up-and-beg desks that you opened up to put your books and papers inside, with a hole in the left-hand top corner for the ink well. I have no particular nostalgia for obsolescent writing tools like fountain pens or typewriters – unlike Will Self, who disdainfully calls the word processor the ‘plastic piano’ – although I do think the Olivetti Lettera (pictured above) was a thing of beauty.

But it is true that the act of writing is becoming invisible, the tools of the trade ethereal and fluid. Handwriting is now an endangered activity; after taking three-hour exams, my students’ arms ache, atrophied by technology. We are forgetting writing’s associations with the impression of ink on page. How much longer will computers even have keyboards? You never hear the labour of writing any more – except in our university library, where the quiet patter of a hundred keyboards sounds like gentle rain hitting rooftops. Perhaps writing in the future will simply be a matter of touchscreens and voice recognition. ‘Typing may someday survive only as another sense memory,’ wrote Marshall Jon Fisher in his 2003 essay ‘Memoria Ex Machina’. ‘A writer, while composing with his voice, will still tap his fingers on the desk like an amputee scratching a wooden leg.’