Sunday, January 31, 2010

Daffith - The Idiot's Apprentice

I told you a while back that I’m an idiot. But just in case you’re under the impression I’m the only idiot from my village, here’s a story about my greatest rival for the post of Village Idiot.

I was out with some friends a few weeks back, at a place called Manly, a suburb of Brisbane way out on Moreton Bay – seafood, sand, swaying palms, kids chucking footballs at pelicans – and there’s a marina full of all kinds of boats (that's a picture of it.) Looking across at the masts and gel coat gleaming in the sunshine, I supped a few coldies and thought of a summer sailing trip I took with a couple of mates when I was a younger man back in Scotland. Let’s just call these guys Daffith and Norbert. That’s their names, after all, and us idiots like to keep things simple.

Norbert came up with the idea of ‘the boys’ heading away for a weekend on his yacht, while ‘the ladies’ went off and did whatever it is ladies do. So we packed provisions (beer and a bottle opener) and drove across to the west coast where Norbert had The Wee Beastie moored at Dunstaffnage marina, near Oban. There are lots of uninhabited islands around there, and the marina has a pub called The Wide Mouthed Frog – a great combination of facilities if you like beer and sailing.

We arrived in Dunstaffnage just after seven on Friday night. The plan was we’d spend the evening sailing down the coast to Kerrera, a small island just south of Oban, anchor there for the night, then on Saturday morning sail to Tobermory, the hip-swinging razzmatazz and gambling capital of the island of Mull (population: three sheep and a retired school janitor).

Norbert parked the car and I nipped round to the trunk to pick up our stuff, under the assumption that we were heading down the gangplank to the yacht. Not so. Norbert had amended the plans and led Daffith and me straight into the pub (to collect his winnings on a bet, he said.) We’d have a couple of pints, then lug the gear down to the boat and head off while the light was still good.

Eight ales and six hours later, it’s pitch black and we’re singing at the tops of our voices, staggering down the nine-inch wide gangplank with five fathoms of cold Atlantic ocean a few inches either side of us – three blind idiots with no sense of balance (thanks to that beer), no sense of direction (yup, the beer again), each with a bag over his shoulder and a crate of warm beer in his hands.

Now, I can’t really recall what I’d expected from Norbert’s boat, but it fell a good few feet short of those expectations. I spent the night with Daffith’s stinky foot by my nose, and the strong pong of diesel coming from the engine compartment did nothing to ease my suffering. I craved water, but unable to find a light switch or a torch I resorted to popping a warm beer to quench my thirst. (Because? Yup – I’m a fully qualified idiot.) I was all beered out by the time the sun came up just after 4am (Scottish summers can be so unforgiving to the afflicted), but believe me when I tell you I was positively sprightly compared to Daffith.

Norbert’s insistence that we stuff a hearty breakfast into us before getting under way was probably what caused Daffith to barf. Frankly, I found the gentle swell of the harbour quite therapeutic, especially so since it was mingling with the aroma of bacon and eggs sizzling away on the stove. But Daffith turned his back and chucked an imperial bucketful all over the boat next door – much to the displeasure of the retired couple only a few feet from us who were, at that very moment, washing down their decks.

I don’t know what all the fuss was about – they had their bucket out anyway; and no real harm was done. Maybe they were peeved that we’d woken them at 2am with our inglorious rendition of ‘New York, New York’. In any case, Daffith started to get some colour back on his cheeks after our neighbours’ swearing had blown itself out. Then we were off to Tobermory.

Norbert manoeuvred us out of the harbour about noon and I suppose that’s just about when I realised I had some genuine competition for the title of Village Idiot. Our Captain handed out life jackets (the type that come with a gas canister that inflates the thing when you pull a rip cord – the asthmatic’s delight) and insisted we put them on – the sea was rough. Rough enough to set Daffith off again.

Feel free to picture the scene: Daffith draped over the gunnel, chundering into the grey Atlantic ocean, which is doing its best to slam the boat hard enough to make him fall in. After a while he takes a break and joins us up at the tiller, making light of his condition but studiously avoiding the word ‘beer’. The sails are whipping something fierce, the boat’s bucking like a bronco with fleas and the salt spray has us all soaked. Even Norbert’s turning a bit limey, so I look at Daffith - and that’s when I notice his life vest is on back to front. I’m just about to tell him when a wave knocks us sideways. Daffith falls backwards, almost toppling over the side and into the water, and in his blind panic to grab something to steady himself he pulls his rip cord and inflates his back-to-front life jacket.

I realised three things that windy afternoon on the Atlantic ocean halfway to Tobermory. First, if the wind changes its mind and says you ain’t going to Tobermory, then you ain’t going to Tobermory. Second, Daffith’s eyes bulge like footballs when he’s choking. Third, I have some serious competition for the title of Village Idiot.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Haggii and Their Addresses (by KazzaBP)

When I first met Jack Ramsay, I was a naive girl. I knew little about Scotland... or Australia, for that matter. Befriending a man 'from away' has been a very interesting experience. Educational, to say the least.

Way back then I asked Jack what, exactly, a haggis was. If you've read his blog posting, 'The Idiot', you have an an idea of the tale he told me. And, like the trusting girl I was, I believed him. It wasn't until some time later that I discovered the truth; that haggii are NOT snorkle-nosed pond dredgers with ferocious attitudes, but rather, they are mild-flavored plants that grow on an island off the coast of Scotland. The same island where Scotch tape was invented, in fact! If you're not familiar with the succulent plant, it is similar to a cactus. (Two or more of them are called cactii, of course. Haggis, haggii. Cactus, cactii.) I can't believe it took me so long to figure out he was pulling my leg! Snorkle-nosed pond dredger, indeed! Who, in their right mind, would eat one of those??

Jack thinks he's so smart! But he can't fool me... I always discover the truth!

Below is Burns' famous Address to a Haggis. I love this poem. I've memorized it, even though I know that my pronouciations are off and I don't have a Scots accent. I am The Butcher of Burns, no doubt about it. In celebration of Burns Day, which Jack has told me is January 25th, and to commemorate the publication of Jack's 'The Idiot' in my hometown newspaper, The Irregular, I've written my own poem about haggii. For even though I now know the truth, I will forever think of haggii as fierce little Scottish critters who dredge their pond bottoms with their snorkley noses. Sheesh. I used to be so gullible!

Address To A Haggis
by Robert Burns

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn,
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" 'hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

Address of a Haggis (i.e. The FARM, 252 Spruce Pond Road, Territory 2 Range 1, Bingham-Kennebec Purchase, West of the Kennebec River, Maine, USA)
by Kazza for Jack

A Scotsman told this girl from Maine
That haggii roamed our hills and plains,
Our Highlands split, the clansman claimed
In times long past.
And when they rent t’was left behind
A dredger fast.

This Highlander had honest face.
Alas, in Maine there is no space
For haggii to take o’er the place.
Not at The FARM!
Their snorkel-nose does cause disgrace!
(T’is long’s my arm!)

Now Scotsmen on their wee small isle
Believe the haggii can beguile
Large men who find the kilt in style
(Like Scotsmen do)
And then, a peek makes this girl smile,
(Yup, they’ve got two!)

These clansmen cinch their armor up
To hunt the haggii for their sup
(I think that they should wear a cup
While on the quest.
For haggii, fierce, will always lunge
At groin or chest!)

These hairy Scots are not afraid
They capture dredgers when they raid
The pond; through thigh-high water wade
To snare the beast.
With nets and ropes, they make the grade
And have their feast.

While over ‘cross the Pond, in Maine
This native girl has made it plain
She’d rather all the ponds to drain,
She learned a lesson.
From on the shore she takes her aim…
Fires Smith and Wesson.

Not only does she have her prize,
The bullets, they did tenderize
The haggii, which are bigger size
Than Scotsman’s beast.
(Of course they are! We feed them well
Herein, Down East!)

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
Remember Scots, and how they fare,
Those kilted men still use the snare
But it’s not fun.
Wee sleekit coorin timorous beasties
Die best by gun!

Happy Robbie Burns Day, Jack.
Photo of Loch Katrine in Scotland copyright by Tina and Andrew Thomson. Photo of Flagstaff Lake, Territory 4 Range 4, BKP WKR Maine (USA) by Chuck Bessey

The above photo was taken in Gray (note: spelled with the proper 'a', instead of 'e') Maine. The emblem on the uniform is like an old friend to me: My father wore that same one for the first 19 years of my life. The large-sized gentleman to the right is a bull moose, and as you can see, I could not possibly confuse him with a Scottish haggis. He might be 'sleekit' and a 'beastie', but 'wee coorin tim'rous' he's not!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Idiot (by Jack Ramsay)

I’m Jack Ramsay, and I’m a gullible idiot.

There. I thought I’d best start with honesty. I’m also a husband, a writer of the most frustrated kind, a pen-pal to Maine’s very own magnificent Karen Bessey Pease , and an immigrant to Australia. But, back to the idiot thing, if you’ll indulge me.

An idiot, if dictionaries are to be believed, is a layman; a stupid person. But some definitions go further and describe me – sorry, ‘idiots’ – as having an intelligence quotient of less than twenty-five. Okay, so I might have an IQ slightly higher than that, but having the combined brainpower of six idiots, in my book at least, still makes me a lot of idiots. The word ‘gullible,’ of course, isn’t in any dictionary. Check it out if you don't believe me...

Such claims are all very well, in a ‘Saturday night after a few beers with the boys’ kind of way, but I have irrefutable evidence stretching over many years to corroborate my assertion. The examples are many, and the good Lord knows they’re varied in the extreme, but let me take you back to the day I first realised just what it takes to secure the title ‘idiot of all he surveys.’

I grew up in Scotland, on a farm that nestles in the foothills of the Ochil Mountains near Perth, gateway to the Highlands. Okay, truth time again, they’re Hills. But if you stand at the bottom and look up, knowing you have to get to the top, they’re pretty daunting in a grassy, rounded, picnic-on-a-Sunday kind of way.

After school I’d hang around the smoky little bothy where my dad and a few of the farm men retreated to fix their machinery when it broke, as it often (rather conveniently) did in winter when it’s too cold and rainy and mucky to be outside.

One afternoon at the end of March I was sitting on my favourite five gallon drum, ignoring the wrestling rats in the corner and trying my hardest to emulate my peers – drinking overly sweet tea that had been stewing on the fire since breakfast, laughing at the right times and nodding at the wisdom spouting forth from such admirable fellows – when something Grieg the Grieve said made my ears prick up. The ‘Grieve’ is the foreman, incidentally.

He was planning a haggis hunt. The very next day!

Sure, I’d eaten haggis before, many times – I’m a Scot, and there isn’t a Scot alive who doesn’t incessantly crave the succulently meaty flesh and sweet wood fired flavour of the most cunning prey on the moors – but I’d never been on a hunt. Platefuls of haggis had always magically appeared from my mother’s kitchen, surrounded by the ubiquitous guard of honour of mashed tatties and chappit neeps (also known as ‘mashed turnips’ in the English-speaking world.)

When I questioned the origins of our national dish the shepherds and drovers laughed at me, then I sat listening in awe as they told of the last great Perthshire haggii hunt (‘haggii’ is the plural of haggis, just for reference – say hag-eye) which had claimed the lives of four novice hunters in a netting gone wrong. The more they divulged of that fateful morning some ten years before, the more I found myself compelled to claim my right to hunt the haggii. I saw my chance to prove myself.

I, Jack Ramsay, would become the youngest haggii hunt champion in living memory!

And so, after one or two well-placed hints from me, the anvil played host to a whispering confab, and when the huddle broke up I was invited along to what promised to be something extra-ordinary: we were to stalk the (apparently) infamous snorkel-nosed pond-dredging mountain haggii – a very dangerous species, but the tastiest of them all. Barely able to contain myself, I leaned closer as Grieg the Grieve outlined in hushed tones the equipment we would need, and his plan of attack.

We were to leave for the ponds by sun up. My dad agreed to call the school and inform them of my absence – it wasn’t every day that a boy became a man, so a day out of class was acceptable, even laudable.

Next morning I rose before dawn, taking care to follow Grieg the Grieve’s instructions to the letter. After all, what idiot would squander his chance at infamy by failing to rendezvous at the meeting place or bring the essential tools of the haggii hunt or wear every last item of protective clothing necessary to tackle an amphibious horde of such devious beasts?

Not I! I’m Jack Ramsay!

In the next room I heard my father preparing himself for the hunt, talking in whispers with my mother and enjoying his first joke of the day – he was always such a considerate, jovial man – but my tasks were pressing and I had no time to share in that particular hilarity. I made a few final checks, zipped myself up and struggled the half-mile to the school bus stop, where I was to be collected by Grieg the Grieve in his Land Rover. Then to the hills, where we’d meet my father.

So it was that I found myself waiting impatiently by the side of the road in the farm manager’s holey old wetsuit, his lead weights around my waist and his snorkel by my ear, ready to dredge every pond in Perthshire in search of my quarry. So it was that my knees came to buckle under my burden of fishing nets, wooden stakes, sledgehammers and oxygen tanks, a combination which, even on that cold April morning, brought sweat to my brow and a desert to my throat.

And so it was that, as the school bus rounded the corner and headed towards me, its occupants’ mouths agape, their fingers pointing, I realised without a shadow of a doubt – I’m a gullible idiot.

But, like I said, the word 'gullible' isn't in any dictionary...

NB: No haggii were harmed in the telling of this story.

First published in The Irregular newspaper, Kingfield, Maine, USA – June 2009