04 January, 2009


Well, a happy arbitrary point dividing two periods approximately corresponding to orbits of the Earth about the sun to all my readers, and I trust you all enjoyed yourselves in the appropriate, or at least appropriately inappropriate, manner. I returned from Skye on the second, to my treasured city; wife's loving arms; restless and neglected cat; white shirt turned lavender by careless lavendry, that is, ruined in the wash; two chapters of a book still to edit; and a postcard S. kindly sent me from Varanasi, bearing on it a rather painterly photograph of two riverside crematoria. On the drive home—eleven hours in the back seat of a car, followed by three and a half on a bus—I struggled to read Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London, a book aiming for Oulipian wit and playfulness, and perhaps for a fragmentary approach to encyclopaedism, à la Perec, but in fact monumentally boring, mired in the enumeration of banal detail, à la Robbe-Grillet. My last creative act at the cottage in Skye was a stoking of the hearth fire, a process of fadging, progging, scraping, jiggling, variably-sized lumps of coal, sticks of wood, and firelighters, without burning my hands, though leaving my fingers black enough to require two bouts with the sink and soap. On December 31, as our cellphones beeped midnight, in the black wastes of the countryside, under constellations bright and enormous, a celestial scurf—not unknown to the Londoner, but at least utterly unfamiliar—we experimented with fireworks. What with the pyres, the Roubaud, the hearth, the rockets, one might think the dominant motif of the holiday was fire. But it was not.

It was the ice. O, the most marvelous ice you did see, friends. White and dark, in frost and hoar, on rocks and grasses, in tendrils and stars, razor-straight and sinuous, anfractuous, fragile tendons and crude unbreakable masses, whole and fragmentary: the ice of royal treasuries.

On the third day, after following the tourists up to the ruined Duntulm Castle on the northwest coast of Trotternish, and before joining the tourists again at the Kilt Rock waterfall, we drumbled upon a little lake secluded by low mountains and frozen over: it was not enough to walk on, and the sheets of ice were broken up at the shore (above), and littered with discarded wheels and engine parts, moulded and solidified into the surface. We cast rocks against and along the ice, and made the most remarkable sounds thereby, like pinball, or space invaders:

Early on in the trip we discovered the icicles hanging under a ridge by the road, hundreds of them, and, like FfRS, began to experiment with force and resistance, carving ice with rock, calving ice with ice. Eventually two of our number broke off specimens large enough to fence with. Gloves doffed, I took pictures as long as I could manage before my hands went numb and started to burn. It was so cold you could have pissed snow. At the end of our session the ridge resembled Shane MacGowan's mouth, and we sped off, the violence of youth expended harmlessly on Nature's most transient objects.

On the journey home we paused in the car on the mountains just above the clouds of mist obscuring a loch beneath, a floor of vapours burning spectrally in the naked sun. Then we drove down into the haze, through the forest at Achadhluachraich, all grey five metres from your face, and clambered down the slope on foot, to the lake, a ringed and perfect carpet of ice in three shades. (Fifth picture, above.) Alas, the surface was still too frail to walk upon, but we skimmed stones again, and watched them vanish, imperceptibly, from one grey into another, the ice into the water, or simply into the mist. Further still, out of the basin, in the highlands near Fort William, we found another frozen loch, and this one—finally—was deep and thick enough, several inches, at least at the lines of fracture between plates, to tread safely. On this we walked and slid out to the islands, and played with shadows in the clearer ice, and the sky was empty, a cold blue, and the car seemed a hundred miles away, and the dreadful voyage impending, forgotten; it was our last call of freedom, as our collective friendship, fissuring underneath, had begun to show its lines of stress at the surface, little kingdoms delineated translucently: unaided by sun or stamping feet above, we moved apart of our own accord.

And onward, into year four of the Varieties.


John Cowan said...

Finely done, Conrad.

But no mention of the leap second???

Conrad H. Roth said...

I must have blinked and missed it, literally.

Andrew W. said...

How is it that I live in a country defined by the ice and I have to come to your blog to remember that I really should be looking at the damn stuff as well, instead of just wondering how not to slip on it while walking my dog...

Happy Anniversary, Conrad.

Dude said...

Nice. No such beauties where I live.

John Cowan said...

Andrew W.: For the same reason that the Koran (apocryphally) does not mention camels.