Thursday, 26 April 2012

cc -3090: Mango

Preparations for Clyde to Caledonia have stepped up to an overwhelming pace... and there are stories but most so tedious that recounting seems to be anaesthetizing my listeners. I think I'll give you another chapter instead...

... and a random photograph of the Tall Ship refelected in the new Riverside Transport Museum.


There I was, I.T. training away and rather enjoying all the tea breaks after the break-neck pace of media. I had reached a truce with the uniform, just trousers by now since the bum snatching skirt had been accidentally dispatched to Oxfam (oh dear). This donation was a humanitarian act on many levels, least of all the final recipient. I would surface, occasionally, from the torture of confinement to notice the discomfort of trainees and colleagues trying to maintain a level of courtesy when presented with my butch swagger in a pencil skirt and court shoes. Not only that, but the discomfort definitely contributed to my homicidal mad cow tendencies and one afternoon I threatened a mild group of librarians with nipple clamps if they didn’t get their portfolios finished…

Sadly dismissal of said skirt did not wholly alleviate the crabbiness. Tea breaks are all very well for a while but I started to get restless. I thoroughly enjoyed the training, despite the odd blunder, like a swear word or the time I was warning six rapt librarians of the vagaries of domain registration, citing, as usual, my Scottish Executive example.

“ is the extension to use” I said “and not the .com which belongs to an American escort agency”. With a flourish I tapped in the URL, little knowing that Scot Exec had recently relinquished it in favour of the more appropriate The American escort agency had happily snapped up the domain and there appeared, on an unsuspecting screen in Aberdeen College, in front of this group of mild mannered librarians, a four-foot high display of resplendent fannies. With a wholly appropriate expletive I leapt in front of the screen, a futile gesture that left many fannies in full view and the rest projected onto me… a most accurate depiction of how I was feeling just then.

But it was back at the office that things were really going awry; I am a homicidal mad cow you know. The crisp-chomping, radio-playing, game-clattering receptionist with RSI finally started wearing her hearing aid, but rather than turning the radio down this gave her the remarkable ability to sing or (heaven forbid) whistle at the same time, often a completely different tune which was delightful. Alas this still didn’t drown out the screeching cooler or crisp chomping. We were moving into winter; the heating went up and so did my temper.

I affected a two-week escape to Zimbabwe in November where, apparently, I took a great big invisible pill because no one wanted to hear my stories when I came back. Now I do go on a bit sweeties, but I did not give up my fabulously glitzy job as a TV buyer to sit and listen to interminable discussion of Survivor. I just don’t do soaps, and when, as a supposed budding media buyer in the fast world of witty and cruel negotiations, I unwittingly gave away a centre break in the Emmerdale bus crash many years ago I knew my days as a TV buyer were numbered. So if I couldn’t get into soaps for a fabulous salary and fast life, I was hardly about to effect genuine interest in second hand opinions of the tea room. Miserable me.

Where does the mango come in then? Well round about this time I was getting rather large. With no airtime at teatime I’d just chomp biscuits and crisps, then go home and reward my crabby self with acres of wicked food. I realised my gluttony had reached an all time high when I was eating a mango in the bath (the only place for it). A morsel of mango fell off the knife onto my stomach. The mango, finding itself on the precipitous slopes of the belly, began a speedy descent towards the water. Far be it from greedy me to lose out on a bit of food, quick as a flash I raised the knife, intent on retrieving the speeding mango, realising in just the nick of time that I was about to stab myself through the heart in the process. Horrors.

That was it. Enough gluttony and girnin’ I decided, I’m removing myself to an occupation that keeps me active, happy, too busy to eat and where I don’t have to wear a suit! I’ll squeeze into one every now and then for a bit of training; you see, between expletives, I’m rather good at it. Yes possums, when you get as old and ugly as me there’s no room for modesty. Just get out there and do what you’re good at, and that’s what I’m going to do, trips on my boat. Peccadillo. Going to make stories rather than sitting waiting to tell them.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

cc -2917: Chapter ? ~ Stockline Plastics

Google Earth Peccadillo at Applecross Street...
I am EXHAUST-ed with repairs and preparations... exhausts on cars and boat giving most trouble of late so my blogging is backing up. Here in the meantime is another chapter... oh, and Peccadillo on Google Earth... she can be found both at Applecross Street (G4 9SP) and on the Falkirk Wheel. I love that. Incidentally, Peccadillo will do  her 100th wheel trip in May as part of Clyde to Caledonia.

... and on the Falkirk Wheel

Stockline Plastics

11th May 2004

It is one of those gentle sunny days that were made for painting boats. And we are. Jim’s tackling the Nolly Barge’s black and I’m sanding down the varnish on Peccadillo’s front door, the deep brown wood coming up a treat. George is pottering backwards and forwards to his car with landscaping tools, and even Seamus surfaces, setting off for town. “Top o’ the morning to you” he waves, the lilting Irish accent making me smile as always. The British Waterways boys hail us heartily as they march back and forth to the workshops, and this is our Applecross Basin neighbourhood. Delicious.

“How was the family reunion in Ireland?” I call after Seamus, striding purposely off in his perennial shorts and sandals. It takes a grim winter to drive him into trousers.

“Ohhhh,” he smiles, “The crack was mighty!”

Gentle Seamus. He is our resident artist. He doesn’t paint or draw, he simply lives his life like a piece of art. His tiny boat is almost completely obscured by a veritable forest of wild plants and strangely sculpted rescue furniture. A bar stool from Lidl, a bird table attached to the top of a length of pine trunk from which stumps protrude like amputated arms, an assortment of lanterns and, if you part the fronds to look at the boat, an enormous stained glass rendition of some catholic scene. The applauding plants are planted in a mad assortment of wooden crates, props that were left behind by the Young Adam film crew, and a couple of metal bins and large watering cans that George probably brought. Seamus has gradually filled them with soil, bulbs and even a small tree rescued lovingly from a garden clearance.

Never a harsh word will I hear from his lips or indeed much that’s excitable. In a few years he will return from a life-changing crusade to Guinea to see the boy he has been sponsoring. With sparkling eyes and lurching heart he will talk of the wonder and the tragedy of that country, and show me the impossibly huge vegetable that was presented to him by the village. A man that travels with nothing but a minimalist rucksack walks into the UK with a fresh Yam the size of a breadbin and no one notices? It is incontrovertible evidence to me that the man blurs between the lines of our reality and some other ether.

He has recently stripped the interior of his boat and refurbished it with raw wood planks, not sanded at all. We all watched with bated breath as he assaulted the inside of his hull with an angle grinder while still afloat at his mooring, but Dar il Helena still floats. The refurbishment threw off his ballast and she was listing dramatically till he strategically placed an old tin bath of rocks on the roof. Smooth round rocks like loaves of bread that George has brought from some landscaping job he was doing. George is always bringing us stuff he’s rescued from clearing out sessions where he’s doing gardens. A stool, a plant, an old bottle, a vase, a rucksack, a lantern. How absurd is it that we liveaboards in our tiny homes feel obliged to rescue so much junk.

Seamus invited me in to see the wood finish in the boat and I was flabbergasted to see that the entire length of one side of his boat, probably a quarter of his compact living space was taken up by thirty or forty lever arch files. It is difficult to describe the sense of suffocation by “stuff” that one develops after living in a confined space for some time. I have file upon file of old phone bills, letters and rubbish, I have them, but in a boat you just have to keep on top of that stuff or you simply drown in it. Such wanton allocation of precious living space is enough to take ones breath clean away. “Seamus! What on earth are these?”

“Newspaper clippings.” he said. “I see these wonderful stories and photographs in newspapers and I can’t bring myself to throw them away.”

I gasped from under that familiar crush of my own hoarded junk, that shifting three-dimensional puzzle that is my living space. “Would you like to see one?” He selected a file at random and handed it to me. Two hours later I surfaced with a sigh. Carefully pasted and sleeved, dated and placed, with a sense of order and completion that you and I could only dream of, was article upon article of sadness and beauty, magic and madness. I was transported. And ever after, when people shook their heads at the “mess” around Seamus’ boat or the bizarre shed-like structure he would build astern in years to come, I would shake my head right back and say “If only there were more like him in this world to put the magic back in.”

It’s hotting up towards noon and I hail Jim. He puts us to shame with his energy, this ex policeman skipper of the Nolly. Always busy when the boat is not out on a trip; painting, washing, fixing. He has the blackened roller on the end of a pole and it’s a perfect day for blacking with no wind and the water, still as glass. If the boat’s not moving and there are no little waves you can get that roller right down to the waterline, save yourself a few months before having to get her out to paint the hull. I can even steal another inch on the waterline by emptying the water out of the holding tank in the bows. Peccadillo lifts her prow ever so slightly till the boat hook is clear. The waterline is the lifespan of the boat. This meeting of water and air is where the worst corrosion happens.

Happily my hull is now squeaky clean and black, having just been out of the water and completely gone over with a miraculous undercoat from Aberdeen. It’s the stuff they use on the rigs and will still show hard as steel in years to come. But there’s a disconcerting side effect to having a smooth flat bottom to your boat.

As I step inside I hear the loud rumble of air escaping from under the boat, a sort of marine flatulence that triggers panic for just the briefest moment, even though I know now what it is. Just after she was back in the water, the first time I heard it, at two in the morning, I went hurtling to check the bilges and the front floor hatch thinking the movement I could hear was actually water IN the boat. I’ve noticed the excessive bubbles of air rising from the canal bottom recently, realising that this is what is gathering under the hull. Naturally bubbles are rising all the time. Many canal routes are built on what were marshy areas many hundreds of years ago and Possil is no exception. So you’d expect gasses to rise up through the canal, but these bubbles are the size of buckets, rupturing the surface so loudly that if you hadn’t seen the silver ball rising you would think it a huge pike. I wonder whether this has anything to do with the heavy storms we’ve had recently, or the excessive sunshine today, or whether they’ve just always been there and I never noticed because they weren’t getting trapped under my hull when the surface of it was all uneven with algae.

Seamus’ savage garden on the quayside sighs in the silent heat. The daffodils are just giving way to a riot of blooms, weeds as lovingly tended as the rest.

I step out into the sunshine with a cloth to dust down the sanded doors and am met with the full force of a violent explosion less than half a mile away. Everything shakes with the double blast; Seamus’ flowers, the surface of the canal, the eyes in my head, and my lungs feel as if someone has punched me in the back. Then silence. Jim and I look across the roof of Peccadillo at each other and look back to where the noise came from. The silence feels like a dislocation in time and I am hurled back to the war years in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia then, when explosions like this were woven into your daily expectation. But there is no smoke, no flame, no rumble and no shouting. Nothing. Till suddenly a surreal pink cloud of brick dust rises into the air. Slowly, deliberately, it starts as a domed, fleshy mushroom, just in front of us where we know the shops are, the Lidl where Seamus buys his mad lanterns.

It continues to rise till it fills the sky and obscures the three blocks of high-rise flats in front of us, continues to rise till the sky seems to darken, and now it is that I panic, imagining that I am living my darkest nightmare of nuclear explosion. No smoke. Just pink dust. I look desperately over to policeman Jim and he says “Ohhh I know what that is, it’s a controlled explosion. They must have brought down a building, I’ve seen that dust before.”

It is a building come down, right enough. What we cannot know is that it was a working factory full of people, not controlled at all. Stockline Plastics has a full staff of sixty, twelve of whom are now trapped under the rubble of the building that collapsed so fast it didn’t even rumble. The noise lasted less than two seconds. Seven people have died already, two more will die in hospital and the rescue operation will last for three days. It seems to be an age after the blast before we hear the sirens...  the whole world standing still in stunned silence.

There will be many theories about what actually happened at Stockline Plastics today. Most centre on the two boilers in the basement, saying that one exploded and blew up the other. One will suggest that the weight of heavy machinery and pallets on the upper floors simply caused the floor to collapse, bringing the rest of the building down with it. The final inquest of the Health and Safety Excutive will decide that the explosion was caused by “ignition of gas released by a leak in a pressurised petroleum gas pipe” and levy a fine of £200,000 on two companies responsible for the plastic manufacture on the premises. As it happens, neither are Stockline although this is how the disaster will always be remembered.

But there is one theory about a “dust explosion”, related to a build-up of methane beneath the building. The article talks of how the recent heavy rains have raised the water table so suddenly as to push methane gases into the basement. Gas in a basement. Just as terrifying as gas in the bilges. If you have a gas leak on the boat you need to bale it out with a bucket, the gas being heavier than air is so perfectly contained in the lower reaches of the sealed hull that it simply becomes more and more concentrated as it forces the lighter air up and out. Such a perfect explosive device, is a boat.

Gas in a basement must be the same. But this report appears briefly in the papers and then disappears; it will be another three years before the final verdict. And when it comes out I sit on the bows on a sunny day, and shake my head. I will think back to this pink dusted May morning, and realise that I have never again seen those great balls of gas rising up out of the canal.

Never as big.


Many thanks to Sue McNally for her patience and editing help on this one.
There are too many links to online articles to paste here; if you would like to find out more simply google Stockline Plastics. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ray gone a year…

It is one year since my brother Ray took his final voyage. I visited him in Port Douglas, Australia, while he was working with chemo, and have him and Donna to thank for steering me away from the cancer identity that had begun to take over my mind.

Ray was always some magical creature to us... always away doing something incredible:  a captain in the army whose valour became almost mythical, grappling with the Zambezi, teaching skiing in France, raising a wonderful daughter Claudia,
starting a Seafood Shop in Australia.

To this day I will cross paths with those boys of my generation who will say ah yes, Ray Stocker… these boys who were sent to the bush to risk their young, young lives to questionable end. So many never returned, and still more were forever undone by the insanity of it.  Some, like Ray, crawled between the madness of the Buffalo Bean or Mamba and the transcendental beauty of the majestic Zambezi valley to unpick the sense of this world, weave a new one of their own. Boys, mere boys… and we girls looked on in horror... stayed home to the crackle of the agric alert and the rush of speeding convoys, cheering them on in the green and brown and clinging more and more desperately to the misguided patriotism that was fed us .... Rhodesia is Super .... while stupid stupid stupid politicians strutted their shit and nonsense… rolled dice with our lives.

And then it was over. 1980, Ray in the photo with Prince Charles, ceremonial handing over of colours and flags… and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

And Ray returned to the bush. He and a handful of others pioneered the Zambezi canoe safaris and then white water rafting at Victoria Falls, choosing the communion of this mighty African river to the nonsense of the world. And so it was for all Ray’s life.... going ahead, making it safe, showing people the way... and so he did with his dying. Even as he was diagnosed he met his soul mate, Donna, and the two of them took a journey of such delight and doing to the end, one that took them to China and back.... seizing life and the delights of just being, even as they parried with the onslaught of the cancer that determined he had work to do elsewhere.

They took me snorkelling on the barrier reef... but as we sank into the blue and breathtaking infinity of coral & fish, I looked out into that darkness that is beyond our vision and from out which one imagines terrible sharks will come... but Ray took my hand and all was well. In the evenings over a whisky or wine we talked and talked. Ray taught me backgammon.... and I wove together the pieces of a poem that had been with me since those terrifying days in the dark on the farm in Karoi ....
Wonderful! they said, and now said Ray you could write a verse about him returning to his true love… but I fear words failed me.... nothing could match the love story that was unfolding in front of me, of the bravery of the woman who took such tight hold of him even as he was disappearing.

I have to do something, I said to Ray... I have to sail my boat up the coast, take her to sea, and his eyes lit up with that old Stocker mischief. What advice can you give me I asked?

Just this, said Ray: Can you imagine how hard this will be? Well, when you actually get there it will be harder than that. Do it. And his eyes twinkled and we laughed loud and hard and raised a glass to all the young young men in the photo he couldn't find.

I’d like to dedicate this poem to Donna…

with love

Ray, Donna & Skwork

Hail the Heroine

Hail the heroine
Stands at the kitchen sink
In the blink of an eye
Are her men folk gone
To the joke and the stamp and the strut
Of the nonsense men call war.
Not for her is the feisty rush of pride,
She must bide her time till her boys return,
Churn with terror and death,
Each prayer a breath, each breath a prayer,
Till the air is ill with the wait and the want
Of sense and stilling sanity.

Hark the soldier
Suddenly wakes on the battle ground.
Hunting down was a rush
In the sweat-love company of several men,
Boys defined by their wit and strut
Suddenly dead when they’re hit by spluttering steel.
Distant muttering rifle fire hits home its spitting death,
Mindless strafe splits the head of the hero and the hem of the cook,
Seems not to look for worth or girth or circumstance.
And the men and the boys, forever changed by the noise
Know death of the enemy and death of the friends
Is as one. Nothing ends, nothing cures.
All that endures is the love of the men,
Their smoke filled lungs and the earth on their tongues
As they lie low.


At last I've got youtube... here's a video of
Ray with Skwork