Serendib
An intermittently Liberal anthology compiled by Jonathan Calder


Friday, April 14, 2006  

My great great grandmother's brother
Sandy Campbell sported a magnificent beard. Queen Victoria didn't like it and asked him to remove it. She said she liked all her stalkers and ghillies to be clean-shaven. But Sandy refused to part with his beard, saying he had never shaved all his life and didn't intend to start now. He told the Queen that he would rather go back where he came from. The matter was quietly dropped and Sandy and his beard stayed at Balmoral. ...

Sandy Campbell was a favourite with Queen Victoria. In his years at Loch Muick he met many members of the Royal Family and their VIP guests, but he was probably known as much for his hobbies as he was for his skill as a stalker. He dabbled in taxidermy in an age when "stuffers" were much in demand. The animals and birds he stuffed were put on display, along with other curios, in the Glassallt Shiel's coach-house - "the Loch Muick Museum", Princess Alexandra called it.

Stones found in the hills, cairngorms, quartz, pieces of rock-crystal and rock-salt, deer antlers and the horns of sheep and goats, foxes' masks and brushes - they all found their way into the museum. I never discovered what happened to Sandy's collection in the Loch Muick Museum. If it had survived the years it might have found a place in the visitors' centre at the Spittal.

"He was a bit of an eccentric," said John Robertson. He planted honeysuckle away out towards the Dubh Loch, halfway between in and the Glass-alt, beside a cairn of stones. He also planted holly trees along the lochside. John thought that only two of them had survived. Today, the museum has gone and everything in it, but if things had been different Sandy might have been remembered by one of the cairns he would put up at the drop of a hat. "If he parted company with somebody," said John, with a grin, "he would build a cairn." He erected one at the lochside and called it Campbell's Cairn, but his self-made monument was demolished by an avalanche about 1957.

Robert Smith A Queen's Country (2000)

posted by Jonathan Calder | 12:43 p.m.


Thursday, April 13, 2006  

Living in London
It must be there, somewhere, we all thought: the forgotten island. An oasis in between the impossible places everyone on earth knows from postcards and the inconceivable places no one has ever heard of except the poor sods that live there.

It must be there, still, somewhere: nothing flash, not the kind of place where shops selling chromium taps punctuate boulevards of ridiculously-named cafes: just a neighbourhood where ordinary, hardworking, untrustfunded, child-having, educated-ish, interesting-ish people can afford normal, sociable little houses with modest gardens for the kids.

With the odd pub where you can take said kids and have a quiet pint and maybe the occasional friendly word with other late-thirties blokes who are trying to read large newspapers and enjoy their pints while likewise minding their kids.

With schools where said kids will not be attacked every day because they are not in the Young NF and/or don't know what Gangsta Rappers should wear when they are eight. And neighbours who don't play White Trash Thrash or Devastation Techno and don't kick in your car just for the fuck of it and axe-murder one another on Saturday nights when the gear runs short.

And only half a dozen stops from town.

And you can afford.

The kind of places that used to exist. That surely used to exist?

But since none of us is an oil analyst, corporate lawyer or suchlike, the result, circa the millennium was: Hahahahaha!

James Hawes Dead Long Enough (2000)

posted by Jonathan Calder | 8:36 p.m.


Saturday, April 01, 2006  

The draining of the Oderbruch
Today, we would treasure the lost Oderbruch as one of the marvels of Europe. On its way to the Baltic, the river frayed into countless shallow channels and lagoons, into swamps, shoals and muddy islands. Twice a year, it flooded up to ten or twelve feet deep, nourishing a dense cover of waterlogged bushes. Here lived ‘an almost unimaginable range of insect, fish, bird and animal life’, including wolves and lynxes.

Blackbourn has the sense to rely heavily on the travel writings of Theodor Fontane, the most lovable and observant of German writers, who explored the drained Oderbruch in the 1850s and collected memories of pre-reclamation times. Fontane was told of the enormous shoals of countless species of fish, of pike hordes so dense that they could be scooped up in buckets, of crayfish which escaped the hot summer shallows to swarm in trees from which they could be shaken down like plums. And he wrote also about the old inhabitants. They were not Germans but Wends, Slavs who had survived in the marshes since the Germans colonised the fertile land almost a thousand years before. The Wends lived on mounds hidden in the swamp, their huts encircled by ramparts of cow-dung which kept out the floods and served as pumpkin beds.

Frederick put an end to all that. The marshes were drained, a new straight bed was dug for the Oder, its labyrinth of side-channels was blocked off, and miles of dykes were reared to keep the river in its place and protect the farms now being laid out with geometric precision across the Oderbruch. Thousands of German farmer-colonists were brought in and planted in little red-roofed farmhouses. The shy Wends melted away as the waters dried up. Fontane thought he could recognise Slavic headscarves in a few villages on the fringes of the Bruch. But the old life had gone.

Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books, 6 April 2006

posted by Jonathan Calder | 10:41 a.m.
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