Lucy and Todd

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In Recent Articles on January 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Last Christmas, all Man and Woman did, it seemed, was fetch, carry and cook. Auntie S. got blootered and monopolized the DVD player watching Dr. No three times, and the Adult Children stayed and stayed, necessitating the preparation of yet another meal. Christmas no longer belonged to Man and Woman. They wanted it back! So this year they devised a


We, Man and Woman, of sound mind sort of, do hereby decree that the celebration of Christmas from this day forward in our household shall consist of the following and only the following in perpetuity:


Tree: from the corner shop. Fed on lemonade & water, decorated with red lights. Stockings presented and enjoyed on arrival of guests. To be the only gifts exchanged. Kilted sausages. Prosecco. Malt.

Supper: Oysters. Spaghetti Bolognese, according to the receipt of Anna del Conte, minus the milk and with extra Barbera and stock added because of lactose intolerance. Nutmeg dreams guaranteed. It is a celebration of the Bolognese, not Christmas. Salad. Christmas crackers, half price, bought the preceding January.

Wines to cost no more per bottle than the current minimum wage. Pudding: anything from the corner patisserie. All parties to disperse by midnight.


No appointments to be made. No communication by telephone. Only activities allowed: short walk. Making love. Massive DVD consumption. Only comestibles allowed: French toast, Chinese dumplings, steak pie, left-over Bolognese. Maybe popcorn.


The cats to be honoured. Auntie S. to be given her gin and ox tongue. All supplies to be acquired on the Twenty-Fourth of December. Newspaper quizzes to be attempted only if answers are supplied. No presents to or from faraway relatives; charitable contributions instead. No one may come to the house who bickers; Adult Children must bring a new partner every year. Christmas itself may not be mentioned. Basta to be the watchword of Christmas.


On Christmas Eve, Man and Woman clambered genially through the festive open pits of the tramworks to reach the German Market. Many sharp rusty dangerous things tore at their clothes. Everywhere were happy children, frozen peas, gaping holes in the streets and drivers in carefree murderous mood.

Gusts of stöllen, deep fat and fruity alcohols engulfed Man and Woman as they took their customary glass of kirschwein before shopping. This year, in the vivid sun, Man and Woman felt the hot mugs of thick liqueur didn’t go down so well, the people on the Big Wheel screaming and whirling above them. The tram guys had thoughtfully dug a pit directly under the wheel, to receive the overly gluhweined bodies flung off it. But you do need a straightener before jamming yourself into Jenners. Man and Woman entered arm in arm and immediately became separated, but they were prepared for this possibility. The plan was to carry on regardless.

Man squared his shoulders and turned to the Gentlemen’s Ties, which were the object of much cooing, pulling and fondling. In fact, Man realized, there was a kind of battle going on, between Ladies Who Wanted Ties and staff. Man bought himself one tie a year, on Christmas Eve. This year he fancied a red polka dot tie. It would look so distinguished as he ate his Bolognese. The sales clerk wrested it from his hand. It’s for the sale Boxing Day, she said. What? said Man, it’s only three thirty! Nevertheless, she said, whipping tie after tie off the rack. The Ladies Who Wanted jumped back in alarm.

Woman headed for the lift. She was after felt and sequins, having recently identified this combo (always sewn, never glued) as essential to the Christmas mood. The felt must be green or red, the sequins multi-coloured. Out of these she would construct holly and berries, Christmas trees and catnip toys while the Bolognese reduced, and she’d give double-dip recession felt reindeer, instead of store-bought presents, to the Adult Children, as she and Man now described their offspring.

Maybe it was the kirschwein, but Woman was unusually bewildered by the lay-out of Jenners.  It not only sold Escher jigsaw puzzles, it was one, with tiny lifts going up and down here and there, and staircases to nowhere. She searched the place high and low for the haberdashery department but it had recently become too tiny to find.

Nothing said Christmas to Man so much as Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. He had almost managed to convince Woman that White Christmas held in store everything vital about the Yule—not just songs and holiday romance, but secret things that make you happy: the brick red and ivy green of the décor, Bing’s jacket and pipe, the General’s retirement cardigans, Rosemary’s green velvet party dress. Vermont logs burning briskly. Also, the Irving Berlin song Snow was very important to Man: but last year he failed to put White Christmas properly back into its box, and one of the cats scratched it, so that Snow was now a ‘damaged area’. He had also promised Auntie S. a different James Bond video. (He’d already tramped across the Meadows in a downpour of frozen peas that morning to the literary wine merchant’s, where he’d purchased for Auntie S. an incredibly dear bottle of gin made in Shetland, of all places, and then got involved in an extended wrangle over Malcolm Lowry.)

Full of anticipation, Man entered Fopp. He carefully avoided the open tramworks in the middle of the shop, into which many customers had fallen. Man was delighted to see that Fopp was really in the Christmas spirit: TODAY ALL VIDEOS £2! He made his way to the Ws, where White Christmas was priced at £37.50. I thought everything was two pounds, Man said to a clerk. We’d never discount White Christmas, Sir, said the fellow, that’s a classic.

The normally muscular, bulging James Bond section was bare but for one title: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby. Why did it have to be Lazenby.

Outside Jenners, Woman heard the merry drilling hammering and blasting going on in St Andrew Square and headed diagonally across the park, once home to many fine flowering trees, now to yet another espresso outlet and a pond in the form of a puddle. She plodded gingerly along the briny, shiny path, deafened by heavy machinery laying tram tracks up one side of the Scott Monument and down the other, accompanied by a 190-decibel version of Silent Night. The municipal Christmas tree began to shake ominously. Then the entire earth seemed to move: it swelled up, sank, considered its options, then rose again. Lord Melville wiggled on top of his column, then was suddenly propelled like an artillery shell towards Jenners, as if he too had some last items to buy. Diving for cover, Woman found herself in the puddle. A caffeine worker dragged Woman out and got a ristretto down her.

No felt? No sequins? Okay! But she could not return home without bivalves. On their honeymoon in Lyon, Man and Woman feasted on a mound of oysters Charentais at a market on the banks of the Saone, with Tabasco, shallot sauce, and lemon, between gulps of Picpoul de Pinet. There had been an honorary oyster present named Tonton Guy, about a foot wide, who presided smilingly over the festivities in a forgiving sort of way, before being taken back to the beds from which he came.

The fishmonger at the top of Broughton Street sold Woman his last two dozen oysters, no problem – but he’d run out of carrier bags. She had to shove the oysters into every pocket of her coat, three here, four there, until she was encased in oysters and clacked as she walked. In some trepidation, she approached the tricky junction of Broughton and Albany streets which, as the result of the tramworks, had turned into an autobahn. The hill leading down to it was rather slippery, and Woman helplessly picked up speed. In her efforts to halt at the corner, so as to allow 5,000 cars to swish past, she skidded right into an open manhole and disappeared. Knocked briefly unconscious, she was revived by frozen peas running down the back of her neck and another sensation, which felt very much like someone pinching her bum! She jumped to her feet in the dark, ready to take a swing at whoever it was, but the pinching went on, and it dawned on her that she was being goosed by oysters. They were really fresh.

Where was Woman? Man hoped she was all right. Valvona’s had cleverly built a bridge of sturdy dry lasagne over the enormous yawning tram pit directly in front of their shop. Mr Valvona was there in person to make sure only one customer crossed the bridge at a time: These lasagne are robust, ladies and gentlemen, but they are still only lasagne. When he had the chance, he would drop sfogliatelle on the heads of the tram workers far below. Buon Natale, bastardi.

Inside, the shop was a blur of twinkling lights, panettone wrapped in red and gold foil, and alarming turquoise blue pappardelle, which always gave Man a turn. He pushed shoved hacked and excuseme’d his way through hundreds of dangling Parma hams to the wine department and asked for his yearly bottle of Barbera, the note of genius in his Bolognese. Attempting bonhomie, Man trained a smile on the clerk. Hope you’ll have a good Christmas, said Man, as the guy smartly wrapped the Barbera in tissue paper. Not likely. I’ll be visiting my family in Palermo. But oh, said Man, at least you’ll have the sun. The clerk looked at Man in surprise. Come on, think of the food, the wine, the shellfish! It’s nothing special, said the clerk evenly. I don’t understand, said Man, everyone raves about the cooking in Sicily. Sicily? said the guy. I said BALERNO.

The Council had decided this very afternoon to turn Gayfield Square into a Noel Pit over fifty feet deep. People were edging their way around it as best they could. There were frozen peas underfoot and a number of policemen had slipped on them and fallen in.

On Broughton Street there were many dead, covered in drifts of peas. A steady stream of cars was bulldozing citizens into newly opened Father Christmas Chasms.

Christmas isn’t only about broken electronic gifts, lurching relatives, naff cards, pine needles underfoot, nauseating cranberry scented candles or myrrh. It’s about something much more important: meat. Ham soaked in treacle and maple syrup and adorned with apricots; geese stuffed with chickens, chickens stuffed with geese; turkeys that roam ancient cherry orchards, ducks that float on moats; happy sirloins (now aged for twenty-eight days), Beef Wellingtons, T-bones, Chateaubriands, and, of course, the ox tongue for Auntie S.

There is something heroic always, something noble and just, in providing one’s family with Christmas excess. Making a rudimentary ladder out of rusty tram tracks, Woman hauled herself out of her hole and trotted toward Crombies. But, just as she approached, Crombies crumbled away in a cloud of smoke and squeals! Shoppers peered down into the mirk. The jolly tramworks had opened a primordial void, and the shop had collapsed under the weight of Christmas fayre. But the butchers were indomitable in their defiance of both calamity and gravity, and gravy, and as fast as the frozen peas rained down on them from the skies they began to throw turkeys and ham houghs up to their eager customers. When it was Woman’s turn, she yelled down into the hole, Some kilted sausages please, a steak pie, a kilo of best mince— Did you pre-order? called Simon the butcher from below. Uh…no! I can do you a pound of mince, he said and threw a bag of meat her way. She was never a good catcher.

Shops were beginning to close now. Man felt panicky. He hoped Woman had been able to get the best mince and the erotic commemorative oysters. The last Triumphal Purchase was of course to be the Tree, which he would buy from Ishtiaq. None of this putting on the flannels and corduroys of the bourgeoisie, piling into estate cars and zooming around Perthshire – we buy our tree at the corner shop.

Ishtiaq had no trees left. I thought you were not coming. But of course I was coming, said Man. Here I am, I’ve come. I am very sorry, said Ishtiaq. In despair, Man looked around for something, anything approximating the dimensions of a Christmas tree. I have some nice lettuces, said Ishtiaq. Big ones.

Woman stumbled into the chemists. But it was now five o’clock and their Christmas offerings were depleted. She came out with bath salts, disposable underpants and Pepto-Bismol: what these stocking fillers lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume. Round the corner of London Street, still full of unfounded hope, Woman wound her way past a parade of people coming out of the patisserie clutching beautiful pastry boxes tied with ribbon. Here she would get bread for the French toast on Christmas morning, and a Christmas log. The day before, there had been a forest of them in there. But the jolly tram workers, in their love of fine things, had swiped the lot and used them all for sleepers!

At Christmas, Man always regretted buying a flat that was four flights up. Despite the Credo, here he was again, struggling up the stair laden with heavy objects, panting, his left knee joint threatening to implode. He felt the Adult Children impending. He had no idea what he was going to say to them. How does one converse with Adult Children for six to eight hours? How does anybody do it? He staggered toward the door of the flat and gave the Barbera a nasty crack on the iron banister. But it didn’t break.

Woman had decorated the kitchen beautifully – Man loved that. The Advent calendar, favourite ornaments, little figures in a snow scene. Bravely, he set up the Christmas tree stand, and wrapped the string of red lights around a tall pale blue bag of Ayrshire potatoes. And plugged it in.

There was no possibility of making a Bolognese that day. But they had the bottle of Barbera, and a bit of bacon, and Man found a mushroom growing on the window sill, so they had Oeufs Meurette. The Adult Children cleared out pretty quick, but the cats seemed pleased and grateful for their catnip, though it was from last year. Auntie S. phoned to ask which Bond film Man had obtained. Lazenby, he mumbled. She hurriedly said she’d broken her specs and couldn’t make it.

And the trams, even the trams, couldn’t stop Man and Woman making love.


This Christmas story, commissioned by the Herald, came out on Dec. 22, 2012.

In an Orkney Bookshop

In Recent Articles on March 30, 2012 at 8:32 am

by Todd McEwen

Stromness, last winter—although Orkney was having its heaviest weather in fifty years, we weren’t suffering anything like the central belt was. We did our shopping with a plastic sledge we bought at the newsagent’s. Stromness is on the water, and darkness comes early; nevertheless it is a town of warmth and generosity. It’s unusual to walk through the high street in the early dark and not meet someone you know, and one of the pools of light into which people sidestep the traffic in order to converse is that emitted by a book shop, fabled to many, run by Tam MacPhail. Many of us refer to it as ‘the book shop at the end of the world’, although we have heard that there is a book shop in Lerwick – and if there is a Tesco above the Arctic circle no doubt they are discounting Jodi Picoult at that blasted latitude. But Stromness Books and Prints, which measures barely 20 feet across, seems sometimes not so much a bookshop as the embodiment of a mind, rather like the planet in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris which, when orbited by astronauts, starts doing their thinking for them.
It’s the representation of many years of bookselling – Tam remembering what people like and what other people like about what those people like. He peruses the Bookseller and the TLS, but also stocks books which are just interesting, whether or not he knows of an immediate buyer. Some he orders simply because they sound irritating as hell. And when all these titles are assembled in the little shop, they contribute to an experience something like browsing the stacks of a much larger library. You come away with a book you have heard about for years, or one you have never heard of, or one which was the favourite book of an author you admire. The shop (and the people in it) tell you these things. The internet has come to the northern isles, but there are a number of human things some still do there the old fashioned way. Selling books is one of them. And there is a general murmur that goes up and down the street when the lemons arrive once a week at the butcher’s. Looking for books on the web is nothing like this. One runs up against a massive amount of inhuman calculation. This, at least, is one way in which books and our experience of them will never be digitized: the randomness and the visual quirks of browsing have yet really to be duplicated in any way. Because you can’t digitize, or imitate, the love of something.
Tam will sell you Jodi Picoult if you insist. He will sell you any book from any publisher that he can get hold of. And you will pay a fair price for it, so that the author and the publisher can make some money. (One can make mistakes in thinking about Stromness Books and Prints – I suggested to Tam last year that he institute a loyalty card scheme, and I thought he was going to be sick on my shoes.) But given the ‘climate’ of the publishing industry, is it surprising that the shop has begun a barely perceptible leaning toward smaller presses? This after all is where most poetry exists, and where many of the better writers, in Scotland particularly, have now to exhibit themselves: outside the lists of the few remaining large publishers with money.
This may seem depressing, but it shouldn’t – the publishing of books will have to revert to a reasonably sized industry featuring reasonable prices and reasonable expectations of return; it’s been a dismal failure in the hands of those who make movies or own newspapers or sell golf clubs. Alfred Knopf said this many times: you cannot make more than three or four percent profit on publishing books. And he did not die a poor man – he was a prescient and canny publisher who put much of the money he made into the titles in his list; simply put, he was a humanitarian. Now the business side of his company is being run by people without culture, and in terms of the history of publishing that is a very great difference. But revert to the old model the book industry will, when the philistines in the marketing departments tire of not making enough money. When one thinks about this cultural quagmire on a winter night in Stromness, the light from the book shop seems not a waning lamp of outmoded individuality, but a steady beacon from the future.
The late Mr Jobs spent more time in the barber shop than in the book shop, that’s pretty clear. And he colluded with the adversary to offer us a morally mixed-up, capitalistically driven ‘culture’ that has no reason to be. It is so much less real than the world of literature, art and music, as they actually exist, outside the web, it’s breathtaking. The many, many, many people you can hear at every book festival and on every internet street-corner decrying books, actually slandering and libelling them, saying there will never be a use for them again, that print is dead—did they ever have a use for books at all? Are we really supposed to believe that in a totally electronic culture, tricky work will not be suppressed, switched off as quickly as a mobile network in a peace march?
*  *  *
Chicago, this past summer, was about as hot as Stromness had been cold. We were staying in a flat in what is known as ‘Printer’s Row’, a section of Dearborn Street in the South Loop which used to be beetling with lithographers, printers and binders, some of the most famous names in America: Donnelly, Mergenthaler, Franklin… These businesses outgrew their nineteenth century premises and left for the suburbs year ago. But Printer’s Row maintains an active interest in its own history, and it is here that once a year a large and lively book fair takes place. It’s not a “literary” festival per se, but there are readings, along the street and at the astonishingly good Chicago Public Library nearby. There are people who’ve published one passionate little communist book; there are would-be celebrity chefs demonstrating their spaghetti vonghole to the footsore. There are those from the growing army of shadows of the “self-published”, whatever that means, and somebody had better figure it out, and soon. But the main business of the fair is books, wonderful, interesting books from a variety of dealers from around the United States. The prices are remarkably low. Yes, there are cat books, and gardening books, and the used postcard dealers, but at least half of this fair is literature, belles lettres, art and graphic art. It’s a little bit amazing to see so many people, thousands of them, flooding the street for two days and enthusiastically, ravenously even, buying books and obviously happy, very happy to be doing so. One doesn’t experience that kind of elation in the cybernetic corridors of Amazon, or in the sales tent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which seems like a temporary morgue.
The New York Times reported this summer signs of recovery in the publishing sector in America. Would it be churlish to think that the bankruptcy of Borders Books was an important part of this upturn? We attended one of the final days of their liquidation sale, in a giant two-storey shop in downtown Chicago. The place was jammed to the skies with Jodi Picoult, a lot of cat books and videos, and thousands of people who had decided that now was the moment, by damn, to get that picture book about the Beatles. The prices were remarkably high. A street and a half away, a big branch of Barnes and Noble basked in the sun. It was still open, but there was nothing much inside it, either.
Two book shops live in Printer’s Row all the year. One is a general book shop, with a leaning toward children’s books (there are many young families in the neighbourhood), art books and books on architecture. I’m warning you, if you should go to Chicago, be prepared to talk about architecture. I mean prepare yourself. Part of the pleasure and perhaps even the duty in owning an independent book shop used to be to suggest what is good: this is good and that’s why somebody printed it and why it’s on the shelf. (Marketers can’t achieve this as they have to do everything backwards—the focus group as god.) The shop has been there for thirty years or more, but one gets the feeling that the living is meagre and the will to gently lead in this way lacking. Many local sellers of new books are terrified of a public that insists on the familiar, and guyed by a publishing industry that still will take no risks as long as the business schools churn out marketers. Stromness Books and Prints it isn’t.
Across the street is an antiquarian book shop that opened a few years ago. It has a beautifully crafted and decorated interior and, curiously enough, specializes almost exclusively in American first editions of the twentieth century, books produced in that very neighbourhood. The moment I entered the place I swooned with recognition, for this is the kind of book I mostly own—good books by good writers that were sold for a few dollars and made and printed with care. It was like walking around in my own head, or maybe in Alfred Knopf’s head. The covers and bindings were all familiar, and loved, territory. The man who runs this shop is happy and friendly. Of course he doesn’t have to cope with publishers who have surrendered their brains, suicidal authors, and a deluded public. He deals only with people who love books.

Scottish Review of Books  Vol. 7 Issue 4 Autumn 2011