Orkney

imageI started a new job last year, quite a step up from my last one, and I’ve finally got my head around it. It takes a while to work out where the pencils live, how the photocopier works, and how to fill in what may be the most complicated time sheet I’ve ever seen.

The job is going to involve quite a bit of travel – in no way is this as exciting as it sounds (think Boots Meal Deal on Scotrail rather than sushi on a BA flight) – although I did find myself on Orkney last week.

I’ve never been to a Scottish island before. Despite being fond of history and scenery they’ve never been on my to-visit list, so I didn’t have any particular assumptions before I went. From the taxi driver who told me his entire life story to the security lady at the tiny airport who joked that my makeup was being “randomly” drugs tested because I was the only woman on my twenty five seater flight, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly and welcoming everyone was (although my colleagues did laugh and wish me luck when I mentioned being vegetarian while asking for dinner suggestions…)

Despite it being decidedly wet and cold and Februaryish, I found an hour to explore Kirkwall in between meetings while the sun shone. I’m so glad I did. It turns out Orkney’s history is pretty unusual and interesting (and completely new to me, as my degree was in modern history), and still present in the culture of the islands and the beautiful Orcadian accent.

Despite the main site being closed for the winter, I took a quick tour of the outside of the Bishop and Earl’s palaces. Built in the 12th century when Kirkwall was the leading settlement of the Norse northern islands, the Bishop’s palace was the home of the founder of the spectacular St Magnus Cathedral over the road. The Earl’s palace, on an adjoining bit of land, was built in the early 17th century after the then Earl of Orkney decided he wanted something fancier. He was apparently a strong contender for the least pleasant nobleman in Scottish history and a fan of slave labour – but he built a rather spectacular house…

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Over the road from the palaces is the spectacular St Magnus Cathedral, which dates back to 12th Century and is the most Northerly cathedral in Britain. I do love a graveyard – I find the tombstone inscriptions fascinating – and St Magnus’ was a testament to the history of the island with stones dedicated to the memory of young sailors alongside those of more affluent men who left the island for Edinburgh.

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imageNow that I’m back home and thawed out, I’m finding myself more interested in finding out about Orkney – and it’s neighbour Shetland. I hear there there’s an excellent series on the BBC at the moment (although I’m not sure it’s a documentary…)

Small Kindnesses

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I arrived at my bus stop on Thursday just after a man had a heart attack. A couple of people were with him – one on the phone to an emergency operator, one putting a jumper under his head. I stayed, holding back a little and not wanting to get in the way, but acutely aware that I have had first aid training and would know what to do if it was needed.

While we waited for the ambulance, so many people stopped to ask if they could help in some way. Some blocked the pavement so that he had privacy from stopping buses and passers by, some offered water or medicines, and a man who identified himself as a doctor stopped his car when he saw the commotion and ran over to us, kneeling down just as the ambulance arrived.

I have thought of the man and the situation a couple of times over the last few days. While it’s a horrible thing to witness, the thing that’s stuck with me was how kind people were. It’s easy to forget, when unpleasantness sells papers, that the little things do make a difference.

It made me think about the other incidents of kindness which made me smile this week.

There was the colleague who left a Tunnocks tea cake on my desk after a difficult meeting… The lady in the gym who gave me a thumbs up after watching me finish a set of deadlifts… The friend who remembered a passing conversation… The chap in the car park who guided me out after a 4×4 blocked my view…

Small things in small circumstances – but they still made my day.

What little things have made your week?

January in books

“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge” – George R R Martin

About 18 months ago I decided to do the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge. I enjoyed it, I managed to finish it, and it was a pretty enjoyable way to push myself into relaxing more. I’ve decided to have a crack at it again – although perhaps not quite so strictly. If I don’t read 52 that’s fine by me because this is a challenge and not a competition. This is a good thing for several reasons, but largely because (despite having spent several days of January on holiday) I haven’t exactly got off to a flying start. This month I have mostly been watching TV. And I’m ok with that.

So, here goes. My January list…

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.51.491880s London. Thaniel Parker, a quiet and lonely young civil servant, finds a watch in his lodgings which seems to save his life when a bomb goes off. But why him? And who made the mysterious watch? In his quest to find out more, Thaniel befriends a lonely Japanese watchmaker, a young female chemist, and a mechanical octopus.

For a debut this is a mighty impressive – the attention to detail, the multi layered plot and the subtle Victorian science fiction elements were seamlessly woven in. I really enjoyed it.

Marian Keyes, The Mystery of Mercy CloseScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.53.01

Helen Walsh, private investigator, finds herself in a dire financial situation and struggling with her personal life.  Her latest case – a famous boyband member who has disappeared just weeks before a comeback tour, finds Helen increasingly under pressure, and she slowly begins to crack…

Keyes is back on fine form here – her earlier novels are undoubtedly her best, but her portrayal of Helen’s fragile state and the thought processes of someone at wits end are spectacular, as well as surprisingly funny in places. I did find it a little long (perhaps because I guessed the “twist” fairly early on), but for an easy read with a deep message, you can always count on Marian Keyes.

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese FalconScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.52.34

When a beautiful young woman visits detective Sam Spade and begs him to find her sister, he is suspicious. Something about her story doesn’t quite add up – and his gut instincts prove right. Instead of a missing woman, Spade finds himself on the case of a missing statue, worth thousands.

I was so looking forward to reading The Maltese Falcon but if I’m honest – I was disappointed by it. I loved the noir feel, but it was incredibly complicated and convoluted (although I listened to it as an audiobook, which maybe didn’t help), and I really struggled to care about what was going on. I suspect this novel is more famous for the works it influenced than for its own merits as it felt very dated, and not in a particularly good way.

Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Pie SocietyScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.53.40

In post-war London, writer Juliet is really struggling to come to terms with the changes to her life when, out of the blue, a letter from a reader in Guernsey contains an unusual request – help finding an out of print book. A correspondence follows, during which Juliet is introduced to the world of Guernsey during the Occupation, and the lives of the islanders who survived.

I have been wanting to read this book for years after hearing an excerpt on Radio 4, so I was very excited when Sally included it in my Christmas gift swap. It somehow manages to be touching, hilarious and horrifying all at the same time, and I found myself in awe of the stories of the islanders which are so often forgotten about. In a way, it’s a shame that the cover and title are somewhat twee, as the stories in some of the letters (fictionalised but phenomenally well researched) will stay with me for years. I’ve never read anything quite like it – I’ll be recommending it to everyone.