early days

The Sound of Islay

The Sound of Islay

Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.

Financial Times | 11 November 2016.


Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.

When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

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A certain kind of South Africa evaporated...

                    ...for me when I finally got my driver’s licence, fifth time lucky near a cold northern ring road. No more solidarity with the verge walkers and all those who talk about, worry about, conceive of a whole domain of life as “transport.” There were illegal stints behind the wheel in the past: schoolboy backroads in the foothills of the Berg, the long night of landing lanes when DB fed me slimming tablets and I guided the Renault Scenic from the Karoo to the Midlands. But now the novelty is wearing off as I steer my father’s white van up and down the coastal highways that I cursed for so long, and me wanting to record something of it before all the strangeness of tar-hurtling, death-by-inch arthritic pedal-fiddling and glance-snatching at the sliding world of that earlier, odder place has disappeared forever. Leaving the city, flicking across lanes from Waterfront to hospital, slungshot out of the mountain suburbs but immediately running into a real clutch cruncher of a traffic jam along side the twin cooling towers…locals u-turning, cutting in, hard shouldering it to take alternate routes, but me locked there under the winter sun, men looking back at me from an open-backed truck: the quintessential South African dialogue. Dad talks, talks, talks madly, the coffee still fizzling in his veins. About the book fair, the local radio station, the problem of listless retirees, the road to Cape Agulhas, the lack of adequate marketing as a winter holiday destination. I murmur assent, yes yes, eyes casting around the early N2 scenery, trying to work out what has changed since I was last here.

We passed the obstruction (men digging a hole in broad daylight) and were just gathering momentum towards the mountains when Dad received a call from a pretty woman watercolourist and shameful self-publicist who wanted us to collect prints in Stellenbosch and generally admire her. So we peeled off, got lost amid the peri-urban wine farmery and discount wholesalers. Left after more coffee, missed the highway a few times and then ground through intersections parallel to the Indian seaboard, a place of car forecourts and things – dunes, stalls roadsigns – barely held down against the wind. Up across the long diagonal pass, the Cape had all but disappeared in glare.

Then began the waiting behind trucks, the spotting for farm stalls, the tracing of the Langeberg, the swooping down on bridges, the shrugging off of hitch-hikers, the rattling of a white chassis along Africa’s ancient seabeds. No music this time, just the hot noise of tyre on tarmac. Petrol cities flared when it got dark…mist earned me an admonishment for speeding…cameras clicked me in one of the gorges and the coast swung out and open in the night, unseen.

A Touch of Madness - A Walk to Valkenberg and Oude Molen (March 2004)

I set out on the morning after a night of heavy rain, election posters limp, with colours fading now, after the event. The ANC gained almost 70 % of the national vote, making big advances in the Western Cape. Marthinus looking more than usually hapless.

The pavements have been washed clean of dogshit, but the rain has done no good to the slightly rusted cars parked on the pavements. My housemate’s red Passat only just spluttered into existence this morning. I notice many have decals on the windows or logos painted on the side doors advertising the small businesses of their owners: INNER CITY PAINTBALL, AERIAL PHOTO’S or in some cases just HIRE THIS TRAILER TODAY.

Down the Observatory Road; people doing Tai Chi on the sodden cricket field. People washing cars, fixing them, or at least that’s what I hope the man fiddling with wires under the steering wheel is doing. Devil’s Peak becomes more imposing as you cross the railway line, given sufficient distance and an unobstructed skyline.

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Main Road logbooks - St Peter's Square (March 2004)

The St Peter’s Square shopping mall is one of the very worst, sited in the middle of an old Muslim cemetery. Below the SPUR’s neon signage is a memorial garden for all the graves exhumed for the building of this centre (and its generous carpark). In the middle is a black cube five [?] metres across inscribed with the names of those individuals moved from their final resting place; thousand of names, like a war memorial, economical in terms of space, the rock polished and glinting in the sun.

“I often do geopathic clearings on shopping centres, business parks, big developments like that,” my housemate the psychic healer told me, “And you can often sense when you walk into a big mall that something bad happened there. People’s graves were dug up, their land taken away, something like that.”

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