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Space Weather 30-year Storm: Earth fights back

Frozen in mid surge

I need hardly remind residents of Scotland that we have only just weathered the thirty-year storm. Most households living through four solid weeks of sub-zero temperatures in an Atlantic weather zone (even with the miracle of central heating) will remember this winter (and last month especially) for many years to come.

Fortunately our civilization has advanced enough so that we experienced minimum electrical ‘outages’, despite heavy snow, icicles and ice on power lines. There were, however, multiple power ‘surges’ and computers countrywide were frozen in mid surge. Mac and pc-owners and related computer businesses are still counting the cost. Curry’s have been doing a roaring trade in replacement laptops!

It seems to have hit a lot of young ones harder than they might have thought: not that closing schools and cancelling bus and train services are a hazard; more time to make snowmen, play and enjoy winter sports, you might think. Lack of reliable public transportation, however – counting on any public services, in fact – four weeks without refuse collection borders on neglect, were commuters’ and householders’ concerns. Abandonment, remoteness and surprise at being cut off suddenly are what hit the teens hardest, I think because they are unaccustomed to having their social life curtailed by ‘weather’ and few had experienced conditions such as these in their young lives.

Some of us older oldies remember the winter of 1981/2 with shivering empathy; electrical failure, power cuts, snow drifts higher than houses; evacuating and rescuing neighbours, birds frozen overnight in trees. But that was back in the Thatcherite era, before the internet, when we didn’t EXPECT everything to run on time, snow ploughs to get through, petrol in cars not to freeze.

Human culture has changed in nearly 30 years: Even in the modern backwater of Aberdeenshire, the County of no motorways, the self-styled Oil Capital of Europe.

Tea Clipper Thermopylae was built in Aberdeen by Walter Hood for the White Star Line

For those unfamiliar with our ways, this corner of Scotland – the Northeast triangle between Rivers Don and Dee and the balmy Moray Firth – has always flourished, but more than that, it looks after its own. Rather, I suppose, like Geordies idolizing their working-class heroes that went ‘down the pits’ or Scousers joking ‘don’t bomb Iraq; nuke Manchester’. Parochial in the extreme.

Unlike some other lesser-urban metropolises, however, (Dundee, Perth, Stranraer), Aberdeen has always pulled through its hardest times: Dundee used to be known (an age ago, when the world was young) for its Jute, Jam and Journalism. Now it is home to none of these; but it has Robert Scott’s ‘Discovery‘, the Tay Bridge and it’s on the way to St. Andrews, which every golfer in the world has heard of; i.e. it participates peripherally in tourism, but some of its poorer districts are in appalling shape.

Perth floods every year and millions of national money poured in to rescue low-level housing has been a nightmare. Stranraer we won’t go into. It’s no longer on the way to anywhere.

Then there’s Aberdeen.

Perched on the westernmost limb of the North Sea’s mild Gulf Stream current, its dry climate (usually, rain from the west is captured by the Grampian mountains before it reaches the plain) and its remarkable latitude (57ºN2ºW ), akin to central Alaska, give it a climatic anomaly. Its farming hinterland was rich in Neolithic times and has grown richer.

Tall Ships Race reenacts 19thC sailing contest in the Clipper tea trade


A century and a half ago the city was hub to a thriving fishing industry; its harbours built, housed and skippered trawlers, tall clipper ships, deep sea schooners and whaling vessels. Thermopylae and Elissa were built here. Names like Alexander Hall & Sons, John Lewis and Sons, the Devanha Fishing Company sprang from everyone’s lips. As a merchant marine capital it was second only to Glasgow in Scotland and Liverpool south of the border.

Aberdeen, however, was never one to have only one egg in one basket: it was also the sole exporter of granite to needy growing urban centres: London streets were indeed paved with (Aberdeen granite) gold. Craigenlow quarry at Dunecht supplied the English capital with tons of its ‘cassies’ or granite sets – hand-cut granite blocks the size of a gingerbread loaf – to meet the demands of a city experiencing growing Victorian traffic problems. If they had but known…

At the height of Georgian expansion, Aberdeen city burghers were so wealthy, their coffers overflowing from the ocean tea trade, the Baltic route, their fishing ports supplying Europe’s tables (nowadays it’s the other way around), their granite exported the world over; that they chose to beautify: and the mile-long boulevard known as Union Street was built in 1801-05. This grandiose gesture – a feat of engineering which levelled St. Catherine’s Hill and carried the extra-wide thoroughfare across arches built over the previous lower Denburn and ancient market Green – almost bankcrupted the burghers, but brought the city fame to add to its already growing fortune.

Danzig Willie's Craigievar

As early as the mid-18th century, Aberdeenshire’s famous Baltic merchants continued to bring their fortunes back home; so the county continually thrived, regardless of the ups and downs of a world economy. Robert Gordon (1688-1731), founder of the Robert Gordon Hospital, now RGU, was famous for lending money made in the Danzig trade to Aberdeen businessmen who needed large working capital at even larger rates of interest. ‘Danzig Willie’ Forbes ploughed his fortune from the Baltic trade into the building of exquisite Donside château Craigievar between 1610-1625 on the family estate of Corse, when he was already landowner of Menie estate on the Belhelvie coast north of Aberdeen. John Ramsay, an Aberdeen merchant in 1758 built his palladian mansion at Straloch. Others followed suit. The county is today littered with stately Renaissance piles and Georgian mansions more appropriate to the valley of the Loire, the home counties or the wilds of Gloucestershire.

Within this mix stir a couple of ancient universities – one founded in 1495, the other in 1593, both fostered and supported through the centuries by Aberdonian merchant success.

The world joke about the Aberdonian who watches his pennies is not entirely untrue. And the tradition goes back farther than the fifteenth century.

Aberdeen Harbour shipping with ice floes in the 1920s

Even more relevant to the characterization, perhaps, is the fact that Aberdeen Harbour (presently run by the independent entity Aberdeen Harbour Board) is in fact the oldest running business enterprise in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, having been founded by charter signed by King David I in 1136. The business head of the kingdom resides on the edge of the North Sea.

But the bell tolled. The fishing industry worldwide killed its own small fry: when container ships and tankers beheaded sailing vessels, similarly Icelandic and Norwegian refrigerated freighters signalled the death knell for trawlers and owner-operated fishing boats; and Aberdeen’s shipbuilding days were over.

In the early 1970s, Britain was experiencing the three-day-week, unemployment stats for the country were the highest then known, and even the granite industry declined. Its clients metamorphosed from those who appreciated polished stone to faceless ‘councils’ and ‘road departments’ which required the precious quartz and gneiss resource to be ground into dust-like fragments which could be mixed with tar and spread in increasing quantities on the nation’s arteries.

It looked as if Aberdeen, like every other Scots city, might founder on the rocks of history.

North Sea Oil baled Aberdeen out on the death of shipbuilding and fishing

Then, lo and behold, along came oil. Bubbling up from below the North Sea in 1971, another industry was born. And the ‘silver city with the golden sands’ was perched on the shoreline, ready to receive it.

It is said that because of its very geographic isolation the county learned to take care of itself. And its humour has a lot to do with its character.

Now that there is talk of worldwide recession and dwindling of the oil resource, the current Aberdonian humorous response is ‘oil goes out, Donald Trump comes in’. This refers to the New York entrepreneur’s £1 billion golf course resort where sand dune reinforcing work has just begun on the very landholdings of Menie once owned by Danzig Willie. Aberdeenshire is not averse to turning full circle. It has so far weathered many storms through centuries of change.

So how did we fare in this last Great Storm? How did the planet fare?

Greece had 100ºF temperatures at Christmas and Abu Dhabi and Dubai had HAIL the day before the launch of the 2,717-feet Burj Khalifa tower in the first week of January.

Scotland and Aberdeenshire in particular were at the time experiencing the grip of an Arctic winter, with traffic on all roads down to minimum and gritting and snow-ploughing said by Council spokesmen to be ‘impossible’. While they reported worries that supplies of salt from the Cheshire salt mine might be exhausted, citrus orchards throughout the state of Florida were hit by snow and frost lingered long enough to decimate their total citrus crop for 2010.

At the same time Mount Nyamulagira in a sparsely populated area of the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted, threatening an enclave of rare chimpanzees.

Eureka and Haiti had 6.5 and 7.2 Richter earthquakes respectively, while inland Northern California and Southern Oregon, usually inundated with snow, received not one drop. States of emergency were declared for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties and as the rainstorm headed east, floods swamped the Arizona desert, threatening homes and killing migrant birds. Las Vegas, Nevada had more rain in two days than for the total year of 2009 (1.69 inches). Alligators in the Everglades froze to death.

France’s Mistral blew early this year, wreaking havoc and damage to vines and vineyards in southern départements of Lyon and Provence; the Riviera harbours of St Tropez and Marseille suffered damage to private yachts.

Since the snowmelt arrived in Scotland in mid January, it is superfluous to mention that the resulting floods have routed gutters and drains in cities and country towns and overflowed ditches in outlying country areas. Perth (again) and Inverurie, Huntly and Kintore were unable to cope with the deluge. These levels of precipitation bring Aberdeen’s rainfall statistics for the year 2009 to mid January 2010 to 101.23 inches, for a county normally experiencing 33.6 inches per annum.

The Earth doesn’t like what we’ve been doing to her in the last thirty years. She’s beginning to fight back.

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January 26, 2010 Posted by | crystalline, environment, gardening, history, nature, organic husbandry, seasonal, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

NaNo makes one bold: my WIP

The setting was superb. Nothing would spoil the wedding breakfast.

NaNo: November being writing month, all stops are out, all bets are off. I’m writing again. I can say that with a feeling of relief, a feeling of awe that the Muse is still sitting somewhere in my corner and that some days She is actually enjoying coming and whispering in my ear.

One of the rules of NaNo is that one writes and DOES NOT EDIT until the required minimum wordcount of 50,000 words (or end of novel, if that adds up to more) is reached. But for your sake, dear Reader, I have edited a little. Corrected spelling and typos. Otherwise it is open to revision and redoing in December

This, therefore, for good or for ill, is an excerpt from my work-in-progress: or NaNo WIP.
I hope you enjoy. It’s a miracle to witness the continuing flow, I can tell you.

All had been made ready for the guests. The bride waited at the head of the stairs

‘Be Still in the Candlelight’

Horses and carriages stood at the gates, a long line of opulence and conspicuous wealth, each waiting its turn to process down the shady lime avenue which heralded the last mile of approach to the house.

Not a family in Aberdeenshire had been ignored. Invitations sent in January by messenger, hand delivered to Clubs and castles throughout the shire ensured that the assembled gathering would be the greatest affair in the social calendar for a generation. John Ramsay Irvine was going to make sure his daughter’s marriage was witnessed by them all. Grooms and stablehands were lined up at the curved façade to help ladies down awkward steps as consorts and cousins and brothers assisted with the finery, petticoats and layers of taffeta and veils billowing in the slight breeze.

The day was glorious: mid June brilliance with a scent of abundance in the air.

A phalanx of footmen ushered ladies into the house to powder noses, while gentlemen were escorted to the gigantic marquée set on the lawn, hands charged with a glass of champagne immediately they stepped under the awning. Butlers and footmen manfully shouldered silver trays groaning under the weight of crystal brimming with bubbles. Chatter was loud but festive. The ladies would join them in a moment. For now the tent was dominated by menfolk catching up with colleagues, discussing the week’s affairs, arrangements for the shooting season in late summer, and whose house-party already had its quota of family and summertime guests.

When the first of the ladies emerged from downstairs boudoirs and stepped into the light of the terrace, a hush descended on the crowd. Every one of them, matron, maid, young miss was adorned in finery, as if they individually were to be the bride: tiaras appeared glinting in the sun: getting a summer airing from safes and velvet boxes they’d nestled in since Christmas or for parties at Hogmanay. Pearls and rubies shone and sapphire necklaces extracted from bank vaults for this special occasion reflected blue light from the lake.

Brother Hugh stood alone, apart from the jostling crowd, waiting for a signal from his mother’s window that Catherine would soon be ready to take his arm; for him to proceed with her to the little chapel across the lawn to the glade of trees down by the lake. But carriages were still appearing, stopping at the great entrance to unload more adorned maidens with doting brothers or fiancés, and trundling slowly off to the Home Farm where grooms and drivers would wait to be summoned again after it was all over. A long procession still stretched down the lime avenue as far as Hugh could see. There was no rush yet to summon Catherine and her maids.

In the upstairs chamber with its four-poster usually reserved for her mother, Catherine stood radiant. She was to wear Great-grandfather’s South Seas pearls and the ruby necklace brought with him from Russia when he was a successful merchant plying Baltic waters to Danzig. It was now family tradition that these, the first glittering evidence of John Ramsay’s fortune, should be worn by every bride since 1758, the year that the adventurer purchased the Straloch estate from the famous cartographer, Robert Gordon of Straloch. It had been Ramsay’s fortune which built the grand mansion in its grounds.

Today Catherine felt like a swan gazing in her mother’s long dress-mirror at the sparkling jewels round her white neck. There was something about these new continental gowns, the low ’empire’ line made fashionable by the ladies of Napoleon’s court . The British may have defeated the dictator, but his ladies’ fashion sense lingered on. The high bosom and low neckline made her feel dizzy in the shafts of sunlight glancing through the gauze curtains. It danced and shifted, casting a pool of light at her feet. She allowed herself to peer over her sudden perky breasts at the pompom slippers of maroon silk which peeped out below the vanilla silk hem of her gown. Mother was right. This new line may be a little too daring for such a backwater as Aberdeenshire, but it was just the most beautiful creation she had ever seen and she was standing in it, allowing its long pointed sleeves to hug her delicate wrists, the tight waistband to nip her small frame even more closely than she ever would have dared at a normal party.

‘Everything is allowed for a wedding, my dear. Even daring narrow waists and low necklines.’ If her mother’s voice had a hint of disapproval, it was covered by laughter. Tones tinkled in pride at the sight of her daughter’s surprise.

“We may be of merchant stock, but Grandfather knew a jewel or two. And I must say they do add a je ne sais quoi to your already fabulous beauty.’ Her mother laughed again. ‘I may not be the one to say, but it does run in the family.’

She reached out her own silk-gloved hand to caress the folds at the rear of her daughter’s gown, smoothing an imaginary crease.

Bridesmaids in the ante room behind the pillar giggled and, seeing Catherine’s mother smile and beckon, fell into the room in a huddle of lace and satin and pink pumps.

‘Careful, girls. We don’t want any accidents.’

All four glanced at each other and then at their hostess and giggled again.

‘I wish it were all over. No, of course I don’t but Hugh said he’d start the procession at least by two. It must be close to three.’ Catherine’s small face crinkled in a fleeting frown, scanning her mother’s profile. One of the house maids popped her head round the door.

‘Carriages still coming, m’lady,’ she said, bobbing a hasty curtsey. ‘Master Hugh says another glass of champagne should settle the gentlemen. He wants to know if you would like some up here.’

‘Most certainly not. Thank you, Rose. Tell the Master we shall wait for his signal.’ The maid’s head disappeared again.

‘I can see the end of the carriages.’ A tiny gloved hand holding its regulation posy of roses dropped the long curtain at the window and one of the Burnett girls burst into a fit of giggles. Another grabbed the curtain and then she too dropped it with a guilty look. She turned to the other bridesmaids and whispered
‘It’ll be the bridegroom in the very last carriage.’

‘I heard that.’

Catherine was nervous as a kitten. The last thing she wanted to know was news that that her darling, handsome husband-to-be was the last to arrive. She swept the thought aside. Henry was like her brother Hugh: so strong and brave. Such a pity Father was no longer well enough to sit up, far less be wheeled to the ceremony. But until she became Henry’s, Hugh would be her rock. He would more than make up for her father’s infirmity.

Hugh had turned out like his grandfather: he’d continued the work begun by Great-grandfather in the 244 acre estate after he built the palladian mansion, just as father and grandfather had done. Nowadays there was talk in Society of how rash a move it had been, in the time of King George III, to pull down a 13th century building and put up a Georgian palace. But Great-grandfather was an innovator. He knew all the tricks and turns used by wealthy European royalty in his day and his palace was built to the scale and proportions of the great Italian architect, Palladio, whose style thereafter became the fashion.

Straloch had been revolutionary for its time. Now in the early 19th century, It was considered ‘all the rage.’ For a wedding ceremony and breakfast attended by all the County’s best families, its size and style were totally inkeeping. It had precisely the required number of public rooms, a grand ballroom, drawing room, morning room and a dining salon that none could rival. It had outlived its ‘foreignness’ and become a style which other families copied. Burnetts and Forbeses and Irvines all had since pulled down ancient towers and put up a palladian edifice in its place: at Colpy and Keig and Pittodrie, palaces were erected where cramped medieval towers had been. The Ramsay fashion had become the norm. And in Aberdeenshire, a county renowned for its conservatism, that was saying something.

Hugh was more like father in the way he cared for and tended the trees of the avenue, the stately park specimens getting most of his love and attention. And he had recently started a programme of planting the new fashion in trees: beech.

If you listened to Hugh on the endless variety of beeches one could plant… he could bore anyone to tears. It was enough to make her yawn just to think of it. Some day, of course all this would be Hugh’s. Catherine was just fortunate to be able to have such a beautiful backdrop for her Big Day. And as for father’s being an invalid and not really able to know what was going on, was something one just had to be philosophical about. He seemed more himself when she’d spoken to him this morning, wanting to share with him the excitement to come, the huge numbers who would attend. He looked at her through watery eyes, propped himself up on one elbow from the cushions on his daybed and whispered:

‘Be still in the candlelight, Darling.’

She had not the faintest idea what he meant, but she nodded her head and kissed him on the forehead.

Suddenly Annie Farquharson jumped up and down at the window, her pink slippers doing ballet turns.

‘It’s Hugh. He’s signalling to be ready. He’s pulling out his fob watch and pointing. I think he means it’s time.’

‘All right, all right, girls. No need to lose our heads. Now, we all remember the order. When Hugh comes to the door, you four go first. Ahead of him. Follow Catherine’s cousin Jamie to the head of the stairs and wait. Do you hear me? Wait until I get there.’

There came a chorus of ‘yes’.

‘He’s coming. He’s coming,’ Annie bobbed up and down more frantic than ever.

‘All right, Annie. Now into your special order, please girls. We do this as we practiced it. All right?’

Catherine felt remarkably calm. If Hugh was ready, it meant her dear beautiful wonderful sweet loving kind fiancé Henry was already down in the woodland glade by the lake; at this very moment entering the little chapel and waiting for her. The thought made her faint with pleasure. Annie’s sister June had the presence-of-mind to prop her up. She tut-tutted her support.

There was a knock at the door and Hugh was ushered in by a dressing maid. He whispered something in Mother’s ear and looked over at his sister:

‘Ready my sweet princess? I’ve never seen you more glorious than today. Really. And I’m not being brotherly. I really mean it. You could not look more perfect. I think you are right about these new styles. It’s going to be the wedding of the century.

That’s pretty bold, she thought. This is only 1822. Surely newer fashions will one day make all this seem out of date and from a different world. Again, she brushed the unruly thought aside like a wisp of stray hair in her eye, took a step towards him and grasped his outstretched hand.

‘Thank you my darling Hugh. I would not be able to do this without you.’
He smiled and led her to the door.

Each waited her turn to descend the Great Staircase

As instructed, the bridesmaids already stood in a clump on the landing next to Jamie, flouncing their skirts, waiting for the signal to descend the great staircase. Mother caught up with them, and took her place ahead on the top step.

On cue, the piper at the front door thrummed up his bagpipes and began a low drone. Catherine could see outside sunlit faces turn from the awning towards the front door.

It was beginning.

She held Hugh’s arm in a tight grasp.

‘You’ll be wonderful,’ he whispered.

She smiled up at him, wishing she could say something in return, but her eyes filled with tears and she swallowed instead.

Six pages rushed past carrying golden candelabra from the drawing room to stand in two rows down the great staircase. As one of them came abreast of her and Hugh, he tripped and looked at her wildly as if to apologize for his clumsy nervousness. His companion bent over to help him fix one of the candles which was beginning to work itself loose from its holder, its flame still alight, but shaking. As one page righted himself, the other’s grasp on his own candlestick slipped.

Catherine and Hugh could only stand and watch. In slow motion, the triple glow of golden light wrapped in cherubs and foiled bacchanalian wreaths, began a downward curve towards the staircase. Hugh grabbed his sister tightly, starting to swing her torso out of the way of the falling light. For a moment all Catherine saw was light: a small flame, so tiny it could do no harm, its glow wanting so much to add to the perfection of her day. Its fall was broken by the solid mahogany ball-and-claw knob of the bannister at the head of the stairs. Instead of cascading flame-first down the stairwell into the abyss below stairs, the dislodged candle bounced back and – oh so excruciatingly slowly – turned its menacing beam on Catherine.

Bridesmaids leapt to left and right, each trying to avoid what must happen: the staircase was in disarray. Other candles started to shake and falter.

‘Hold your lights, there’. It was Hugh’s voice, so close to her ear, but it sounded a million miles away.

Her eyes were glued to the falling candle. Why was it taking so long? It should have landed by now. By now she should be able to jump sideways and out of harm’s way. But Hugh’s arm held her tight. She was immobilized. All she could do was watch, frozen in time as the dislodged candle made a soft thump – such a simple sound – and hit the top of the staircase. Candle wax spilled in all directions, some of it sparking with a flame. One tiny spark of wax fell on the hem of her gown and she stared – her eyes wide now, her mouth open in a silent scream of terror – as flames engulfed her vanilla silk underskirts.

One of the butlers held a tray. He stood crouching back by the open door of the room they had left a moment ago. Hugh let go her arm, made a couple of strides across the landing and grabbed two champagne glasses, throwing the contents at her. He missed and the liquid splashed her arm.

‘Bring me a carafe,’ he ordered, his voice sounding more like a general in Napoleon’s army than her own gentle brother.

He grabbed another two glasses and threw. This time they hit their mark, but in the few seconds’ delay, the fire had caught hold. It was burning her silk stockings. She felt heat sear her legs. It seemed to penetrate right through to the bone. Her tears couldn’t help her. Her brother’s champagne rescue was doing a little but not enough. The candle, so small and innocent a flame, was doing its worst.

Fire raged up the front of her skirt, smoke engulfing her face, her neck, the pearl and ruby necklace. A page stumbled towards Hugh carrying a bedroom ewer, its enormous weight of water slowing him down. Hugh grabbed the jug and poured its contents down her uncomplaining front. His left hand held her steady, in case she fell from the sudden mass of water. Nobody spoke. The other pages stood motionless, still in position lining the staircase. Of four bridesmaids, two were crying and two were holding gloved hands in anguish over their open mouths. Mother had stopped rigid in her tracks halfway down the staircase. She and the pages created a flimsy barrier between Catherine and the jostling crowd of onlookers beginning to push into the main entrance hall.

All could see now: she was the centre of attention: this tragic apparition, her faultless coiffure still crowning a face ravaged by tears, sleeves and gloved hands soaking wet but intact.

Rubies glittered as if they knew red was not only a colour but a flame.

And below the waist – nothing – it was all gone. She was naked except for two charred shivering legs, a vestige of maroon slippers looking like something from the Black Death. She collapsed to the floor just as Annie rushed to cover her nakedness with her vanilla stole. The last thing she heard was her mother’s voice:

‘Give her some air. Let her breathe.’

But it was father’s words which she heard in her mind:

‘Be still in the candlelight, Darling. Be still.’

November 19, 2009 Posted by | authors, crystalline, culture, Muse, novel, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments