Friday, October 26, 2012

In which my cousin calls me a nutter & the Bookwitch says I can be an honorary Swede...

I haven't been online very much this week, because sporty outdoor hubs, the resident techie, small son and I had our first family holiday for several years (I am not counting trips to see relatives or trips taken by only some of us). In keeping with the prevailing economic climate, it was what you might call an Austerity Holiday. We camped. In a tent. In Scotland. And it's October. I expect Bear Grylls would think nothing of this ("A tent? Luxury!" etc) but for me this represented the outer limits of intrepidity. I am about 70% of the way through my current work in progress, The Demons of Ghent, and more or less had to be dragged away from my laptop kicking and screaming. The resident techie was probably the least keen of all of us and considered our actual departure as the crowning failure of a month-long campaign to talk us out of going, which included texting despairing messages to her friends and saying "I really, really don't want to go, you know," in a low savage voice at every opportunity. Small son's feelings were more ambivalent since he was weighing up the gorgeous benefit of not having to wash for days at a time against the terrifying disadvantage of NO INTERNET.
Luckily sporty outdoor hubs had more than enough enthusiasm for the rest of us. When he was a small freckled-faced boy, virtually identical in appearance to small son (we suspect some covert cloning when I wasn't looking), he used to holiday at Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland with his parents. Overcome with a fit of nostalgia that outweighed the prospect of freezing to death inside our sleeping bags, he booked us a pitch at the optimistically-named Sunnyside Croft campsite, which overlooks the sea. When he showed me an online photo of the campsite I could quite clearly see the sea in the background. I had alarming visions of us spending every waking moment being scoured by the horizontal salt spray being swept in by the biting Atlantic winds. I told sporty outdoor hubs this. He said, "If it's horrible we can come home early." Whilst he was saying this I was watching his face like a hawk, waiting for the tell-tale shift of the gaze to the side that gives away the lying serial killer in books. He seemed perfectly sincere, but there was still the slightly worrying thought that his definition of "horrible" is not the same as mine. We work to two different scales, like fahrenheit and centigrade, and his doesn't bottom out at the zero point of horridness at the same point as mine. I mean, this is the man who voluntarily camped out somewhere so cold that the water in his Sigg bottle froze solid. This is the man who thinks gathering wet twigs to light the kelly kettle and make tea in a tin mug is a viable alternative to going into a warm tea shop and ordering a pot of English Breakfast and a plate of scones with jam. This is the man....well, you get the picture. Clearly there was no escape for the rest of us. We delivered the cats to the cattery, packed the car and set off.
It was at this point that sporty outdoor hubs got lucky with the weather. He insists that we all got lucky with the weather, but I contend that if it had been abysmal we would probably have survived it - somehow - but he would never have heard the end of it. After a miserable wet summer in which the only sunshine we saw was in Bad M√ľnstereifel, we had five days of clear, dry, windless weather, and the sun actually shone. We spent hours on the beach, collecting shells, climbing about on the rocks and kayaking around the bay.
On the Monday it was so fine - hubs reckoned the air temperature was about 12 degrees - that I actually decided to go for a swim in the sea (in my swimming costume; no wetsuit). I love to swim outdoors and this was a personal record in terms of the date (late October) and the latitude (northern Scotland). It was indeed very cold, but I've swum in colder water, including a glacial stream in the Atlas Mountains, though that was by mistake - I waded in and then fell over! This was pretty icy but it was bearable, and worth it just to say that I had done it, though when I got out of the water my skin was bright red with cold as though I had been slapped! My cousin proclaimed me a "nutter" after hearing about this adventure and the Bookwitch told me I could be a honorary Swede if I like. I wonder if this makes me a "Scandi Crime" writer..?
Later in the week we took a ferry trip from Mallaig to the islands of Eigg and Muck, also in glorious sunshine - although the wind was rather biting up on deck and we eventually retreated to the extremely snug passengers' lounge. There we had a very interesting chat with a retired lady who had grown up on Eigg and had had to go away to boarding school on Skye at the age of 12 - at that time a long trip in several stages taken in an open boat in all weathers and sometimes at night! I looked across the lounge at small son and tried to imagine sending him away like that.
On the way back from Eigg the boat was accompanied by porpoises, who leapt playfully through the foamy wake.
Every evening we watched the sun setting behind the island of Eigg (left) - every evening was different, all were stunningly beautiful.
I still think it was a mad idea going camping in a tent in Scotland in October. There were moments when it was uncomfortable - such as the morning when we all woke up at 5am and were unable to get back to sleep because we had gone to bed at 8pm when it got too dark to do anything. Cooking for four on two Trangia stoves (when you are also sharing the gas cannister from one of them with the camping lantern) loses its appeal after a couple of days. Searching the sleeping compartments for the source of an evil aroma and finding a pair of wet socks lurking under one of the mats is pretty nasty too! Was it worth it, though? Yes, definitely.

NB I debated with myself before posting about any of this, since it does not really have anything to do with books or writing (in fact I hardly did any reading all week and did not write so much as a postcard, since neither of those occupations is comfortable outdoors in October). Sporty outdoor hubs says it is acceptable subject matter since it could all be material for a future book set in Scotland. Personally I am not convinced. I think it is reasonable to expect the heroine of a thriller to put up with vengeful serial killers, appalling relationship issues and horrible, impossible dilemmas. But the aroma of wet dirty socks? No. Some things are simply too horrific.


  1. Read Mary Stewart's Wildfire at Midnight ( and then write your own camping murder story, complete with some sporty outdoorsy type and the swim. Leave the socks out.

  2. Good suggestion! Hubs was probably saved from being murdered this time by the glorious weather! :-D