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A wee diary at the time of the virus. Ian Stephen


The lyrics haven’t been rushing into the mind here at Vatisker. A mail from my good friend the Tasmanian poet, Pete Hay, suggest his muse was suggesting only a ‘muddy song’. Maybe that’s the song for this time.

But with a factory of prose going on, I’m fortunate in that I can make good use of time to do that one more edit - a risk as well as a potential gain - but I think it’s been of benefit. All books in limbo for now - booksellers and indy publishers doing their sums for survival. My second novel and second work of nonfiction have uncertain fates - but books always do. They may be published, even to acclaim, and die young. I’ve taken the time to send digital forms of new books to readers who will say what they think. We might look back and be glad of the time for that additional scrutiny.

As the main character of my new novel is female I was very keen to get reactions, from women, to her voice and her actions. As a memoire of crossing the North Sea discusses the Piper Alpha tragedy, prompted by sailing over her wreck, I wanted to ask family of those affected if the facts were correct and the tone was appropriate.

And yet, out of the blue, I opened an e mail from Maine - the publisher of a periodical called Cafe Voices had re-read my first book Malin Hebrides Minches (198y flicking 3) and wondered if I’d send some poems. I returned to the few jottings I wasn’t sure were worth dabbling with. The game goes on. I’ve been following new poems shared on Facebook by a long standing friend, the Shetlander Robert Alan Jamieson. I think his muse, these days, is related to anxiety and how could that not be so? I’ve just completed a review of several recent poetry titles for Northwords Now (still publishing in the on-line version). The commitment and energy of publishers as well as writers is inspiring.

This household, – Christine Morrison, her mum Dora and me – is privileged to live with wide windows across the North Minch, looking to the double headed mountain, Suilven, a recurring reference in the poetry of Norman MacCaig. Despite the view, it was looking a wee bit bleak with the joiner coming to fix our building problems cancelled and all my paid work, festivals and workshops all suddenly off the screen….

Then a message here and a message there from bodies I’ve worked with over the years like Ullapool Book Festival and the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. Small pockets of funding, with few strings attached. No worries, they say, we’ll have the event some time. For now, just make the work.

So I’ve begun an exchange with the musician Mike Vass. A chain of stories which are also a main strand of the new novel, will be shaped as improvised oral tales. There must be sufficient space for Mike to work his own magic. We’ll share some elements as it progresses and just trust there will be festivals again, where audience and arts meet directly.

I’ve also enjoyed the an Lanntair blog. A fair bit of dry wit about. I suspect folk are taking gin at sundown or maybe before, as the year turns. Sandra has asked me about mentoring. The last time I took part in this, with close reading of developing short-stories, most of the work was done on line. Seems to me an e mail exchange is as good a method as any and there’s always Whatasapp if an immediate reaction needs to be seen.

With risk and danger all about there are more important issues than boats. But I worry about them too, as it’s not possible to progress the maintenance that keeps old boats alive. I chose the wrong bloody year to get El Vigo lifted out and dismantle her rudder and steering-gear ….. The dry east wind has blown for weeks now and it’s not kind to wood that wants to be wet. But I’ve been able to do the essentials of protecting the most vulnerable parts with epoxy or improvised tarps - she’s going to be OK. And when you take in the numbers of people across all borders and boundaries who haven’t come through and think of those who will still succumb – well hell then it really is only a boat and our house will get fixed sometime.

In one way the vessel is essential to completing the voyages which are the basis of books. In another way I’m coming to think that it’s all about changes anyway. Since I can’t put a protective coat of paint on a hull on the harbourside I’ve had to look at what’s there. Since my photo and digital editing stuff is pretty much out of date I’m restricted to snapping with a phone. But that’s made me think that it’s the looking and the thinking that matters. My mind goes back now to Taransay and I find lines written when the old sloop El Vigo brought me there:


On Taransay:

The rustic red shade of bitumastic paint from the Lewis Crofters’ store was almost all gone from the door. Just a few torn edges and ingrained traces in the tongues and grooves of pine. Our protective coatings are soon abraded by weather if not maintained. The deterioration is seldom uniform. Like corrosion, it will bite deeper into some areas, to leave contours. The weather maps itself by its own long-term effects.

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