From to time fighter planes come roaring over our village on their way to Lossiemouth, or heading off to do whatever they do over the emptiness of the Highlands.
Dunkeld sits in the cleft of the Tay valley, at the very start of the great upthrust of the Grampians. As the planes reach us they dip down to hilltop level, or below, so they can practise precision flying within the tight confines of the A9 corridor, following the main road up to Drumochter, where I guess they peel off into the wide heathery yonder. The sound is almost indescribable, a screaming roar that bounces from hillside to hillside as they pass overhead. On a gloomy November evening a glimpse of flame from their receding tails seems only to make it louder.
I remember picnicking on the shore of Loch Tummel when my daughter Anna was very small. A plane came up on us unheard (something to do with their speed, I imagine) and suddenly crested the shoulder of Schiehallion, just behind us, with a deafening scream. Anna leapt into my lap and sat there shuddering and sobbing for a long time after. I can imagine nothing more terrifying than to be on the receiving end of an attack by one of these monsters.
But it wasn’t fighters that kept me awake last night. It was geese, creaking, honking wave after wave of them, all through the hours of darkness it seemed. I have no idea what they were doing. Wild geese usually find water on which to roost at sundown, safe from predators, and leave again at sunup in search of grass or stubble or other crops on which to feed. This lot seemed to be mimicking the fighters, following the main road, some of them even making the diversion down our village street, low enough and loud enough almost to hear the wind in their pinions.
I wondered whether it was foggy and that they’d got lost and were drawn to our streetlights. That sometimes happens, though it still doesn’t explain their nocturnal peregrinations (or should that be anserations?). I was once told a story by a gamekeeper, which I later used in my novel The Witness, about geese lost in a thick fog, circling and calling for a long time above his cottage. Eventually he got out a powerful lamp and shone it up into the murk. A few moments later a goose appeared, almost knocking him to the ground, then another and another. His theory was that the poor disorientated creatures thought it was the sun and flew down the beam towards it.
I felt a little like the geese at the end of last week with the inner ear problem: dizzy and slightly disorientated. But I’m glad to say it passed quickly enough, encouraged on its way by the many messages of good cheer from you, Dear Readers. Thank you all.
And this week I’ve been struck by the efficacy of another variety of fog-repellent: the morning pages. Ever since first coming across Julia Cameron and her book The Artist’s Way, I’ve advocated her practice of writing down one’s thoughts for 20 minutes or half an hour every morning. This results in a kind of stream of consciousness, with no other audience intended but oneself. But far from being the gibberish one might expect, it can sometimes offer moments of startling lucidity and insight.
I wish I could say that I do it resolutely, 365 mornings a year. I don’t. Usually I manage bouts of a few weeks and then it slips for several months. But I’ve been quite consistent recently and two mornings running this week, having forced myself to pick up my pencil in a general haze of tiredness, I’ve reached unexpected and illuminating conclusions about things that have hitherto seemed unclear and bothersome. It may of course help that I have also been meditating quite regularly for the last few months, usually for 20 minutes or so before I put pencil to paper; but in the final analysis it’s the writing that delivers the goods.
As EM Forster remarked so memorably: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say.’ Perhaps the geese last night were thinking out loud.