Saturday, 23 October 2010


I apologize for the slight break in attendance here. I was obliged to pay homage to the North East of Scotland tradition of ‘tattie howkin’, otherwise known as a ‘break in the school term intended to provide youthful workers for the seasonal harvesting of potatoes’. Nowadays, however, if I met a school pupil who had ever harvested a potato from the good earth of the North East, I would be hard-pressed to conceal my wonder.

So, we skived off the tatties, and sought sunnier climes by venturing south where we encountered some of the most dramatic weather I have ever witnessed. The sun shone, but the humidity threatened something quite different. At last a storm broke, just as we were returning home from a night of over-eating and general holiday merriment. Our small car converted into a boat as we sailed up a rushing river that had once been a road, and attempted to see through a windscreen that might has well have been in mid-carwash. Children screamed, the driver swore, the weather worsened. Right above our heads, thunder belted and lightening flashed at a rate of one flash every two seconds. It was like strobe-lighting in a 70’s discotheque, with fear-for-one’s-life added to the cocktail of thrills for extra impact. I didn’t like it one bit. I needed something fascinating to take my mind off the whole scenario.

Once ensconced in a sheltered location, I tried to distract my brain from the extraordinary thunderstorm over my head by reading ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’, a recent novel by a peach of a Scots author, William Boyd.

Now HE is a real treat. I have been trying to limit myself to just one of his books a year, but sometimes there is a lapse, and I have to read two. Or even three. He is, I must confess, my favourite Scots author by a disgracefully long way.

A quick glance at his whereabouts and you might wonder why he is considered a ‘Scottish author’ at all. He was born in Accra, Ghana and spent much of his early life there and in Nigeria. He now lives in London and often visits the South of France. But if you ever hear him talk, you’ll hear an unmistakable Scots ‘burr’ which reveals not only that his family were Scots, but that a good deal of his schooldays and adult life were spent north of the border. For several years he worked in Scotland and I suspect must visit the place from time to time too. He sprinkles his books with the occasional Scot in a manner that only a person ‘weel kent’ with this nation could do.

‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ is set in London, a thriller of a chase, a classic page-turner and a gripping distraction from any violent thunderstorms that may be causing terror overhead. It’s also funny, which is the thing about that man William Boyd. You have to plan where and when you read him, because he can make you laugh out loud, a most irksome irritation to any nearby non-Boydites.

I wonder what it is about Scotland that the place should continue to produce astounding writing. Boyd is my Number One but there are so many goodies from which to choose. Despite the wonders of technology, we Scots remain curiously bookish. 18th century Scotland had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, thanks to the Kirk’s insistence that every parish must have a school. Despite these financially rocky times, and despite the increasingly precarious nature of authorship, I am simply surrounded by people who are busily writing and publishing books. Books and reading have been a habit here for a long time. So while I cowered from the raging storm, I couldn’t help speculating as to whether writing, and indeed reading, is weather-related. Scots, like Norwegians, are still terrifically dedicated readers, and many an author, including JL Rowling herself, has found sanctuary, appreciation and inspiration in, and from, this nation. The skilful telling of a darn good tale is still a cherished delight.

But some people have all the luck. Can you believe, several years ago a friend of a friend had William Boyd himself as their babysitter....while a young man based at Glasgow University, Mr Boyd babysat for these fortunate children in the West End of the city. One can only imagine the outstanding quality of the bedtime stories. You’d never get a wink of sleep.


  1. I'm glad you're back and survived the storm. Here in the south central portion of the US we have the occasional tornado to dodge but have become adept at building shelters to hide in! I have the William Boyd book on my list of books to be read. Sounds like I should move it to the top. I've never read any of his work so am really looking forward to trying him out.

  2. Pam...I've never experienced a tornado...sounds mightily scary and impressive, and having seen them on the telly, I'm amazed! I think you're all terribly good at dealing with them.
    Funnily enough, despite the title, this book isn't really about storms, nor is it his masterpiece, but well-worth a read.

  3. Hello there! How wonderful to see that you've started up again on this side of the North Sea. I read through your October posts - all varied and fun. I look forward to future installments. (And how is the child with broken finger? Did I miss a follow-up? Or are you being unspeakably Scottish and not making too much of a fuss about it?)

  4. Christine...thanks so much. Glad you found it again. Loved your one too, which I caught up with earlier on...very neat and tidy, and very creative too, just like you.
    One day we might even meet in the flesh, you never know!

  5. I remember enjoying a good thunderstorm as a child but it's different when one becomes an adult and there are dangerous consequences and expensive roof repairs to worry about.

    Tattie howking? I went once and that was enough. Still remember laughing at the boy whose mummy sent him with a pair of marigolds -though he was the one laughing when lowsing time came. And the grumpy farmer being somewhat exasperated with my skinny, cold, exhausted, ineffective wee self and saying "Use baith bluidy hands quine".

    We're off to sunnier climes in a couple of weeks and you have whetted my appetite for some William Boyd. Should be just the thing to entertain me poolside while Mr T is golfing.

  6. I'm so impressed that you were an actual tattie howker, even if you didn't like it much. I can tell it must have been in the north east by the farmer's use of the word 'quine'....btw, 'kvinne' is Norsk for woman.
    Enjoy the poolside with William.

  7. The similarities between Doric and Norwegian words have long been a source of amusement and joy for me.