Wednesday, March 26, 2014

East Neuk again

Anstruther harbour entrance and Berwick Law.
The remains of the seawater pool at Cellardyke. 
Cellardyke harbour.
A journey through the past and a morning spent in Anstruther. Here in the East Neuk the bones and ashes of my family lie like a procession of frozen shadows. Every corner turned is a reminder of forgotten childhood episodes, family strife and misunderstandings, odd happy days of discovery and the painted over changes that mask true memory and experience. If this is where I come from why don't I feel at home? Where in the world is my connection to all this? I pass the houses, the homes of long gone relatives, where we all ate and slept, where coal fires burned and large fried breakfasts were consumed, sugary drinks were secretly taken and tumbledown garden ruins were explored. The once welcoming windows are now dark and blank. Strangers, incomers and ordinary people with their own better recorded stories live and breathe there as I wander past, aimless and observant. It's a perfect day. I sit in a cafe, dark smoked glass windows, young mums with noisy, excited children, I order a big breakfast (without beans or tomatoes, I don't want to appear to easily accept the stock menu, I am an individual) with flat coffee. In the window a sign reads “chef wanted”, I laugh to myself but enjoy the well presented food nonetheless. This fashionable cafe was at one time the Co-op and a centre for grocery supplies and commerce. Next door was a ship’s chandlers, now also a cafe. The pub is now a wine bar and “famous” and “prize winning” fish and chip shops are lined up around them, charity shops support some other economy model on the fringe of things. Across by the harbour small white double axle coaches from Edinburgh arrive and drop Asian tourists who stare in at the customers. On the walls are black and white photos in frames; herring drifters and waterfront scenes, a link with a glorious past that ended abruptly when the fish moved on and the war ended. Now everything is centred around ethereal pleasure, natural history, post industrial consumer development and different types of milky coffee. 

Looking out at the random patterns of ship's mast heads bobbing in the water, the sun glinting on metal, this could be France or Portugal, Skye or a quiet port in South America; but it's really some version of somebody's version of a modern and confused Scotland. Occasional hippy types with scarfs and boots pass by, refugees from the Fence Collective, there are rainbows on doors, freak flags and stained glass, stone painted fishes and advertisements for “Blues” evenings. Houses sell coloured eggs and artifacts and a strange Bohemian strain runs through this once tough and working class Fife backwater. Escapees from the city, St Andrews student types, hiking travellers and builders repairing all the tumbledown and  listed buildings. They are all polished up so as to be like another Tobermory or a film set or some coloured in reflection and recreation of the black and white past. That imagined place where no one actually lives but strangers and outsiders routinely  inhabit. 

It's as if the sun is too bright today, beyond what we deserve, we have no right to bathe in it's forbidden glow, we are the children of salt and storms and repression. God gave us all up a long time ago. All the heat and empty atmosphere bearing witness to the redundant town halls and old churches, each built with a frowning doorway and upturned smile to remind their users of the grim and Presbyterian past. The great and serious thinkers remembered with blue plaques seem to have outnumber the poor, the churchmen, sea captains, founders of schools and political nonentities, and so their imprint is the persistent and strong memory that unfairly lives on. 

The smiling waitress clears away my empty dishes, the breakfast was good and was good for me and I enjoyed this free and easy amble through my own slightly time-warped reflections. I like to stare out of windows. I look across at where the old men, the former harbour office, now a public toilet. There the old fishermen once sat and smoked pipes and spat on the ground. They wore flat caps and growled at thin dogs, played pitch and toss and looked out across the harbour wall to the sea and thought of the men that had gone out there and never returned. All for a basket of silver fish. Now a bus full of Eastern European tourists arrive, guttural Polish voices, anoraks and sunglasses. I've no idea what they make of this place but they are determined to have mid morning fish and chips and bask in the near 13 degrees freely supplied by the fickle weather. I get to my feet and square up the bill, the waitress moves on to another customer and I head out for the car and then the cemetery. 

Once up there, inland from the sea in the noise of wind and the council strimmers angrily cutting back the spring growth I walk in ever decreasing circles before encountering the various family gravestones. My name is repeated here and there, weathered and faded as the stone letters collapse and lose meaning and clarity. I take some photographs, it may be years before I return, if ever, this is no annual pilgrimage, more a rechecking and box ticking exercise. When did they all die? How old were they? My dutiful errand of respectful remembering  and sentimental meandering necessary  for the successful navigation of this part of the century. There they all are under the ground, right below my feet. I never can quite get that, standing six feet above the dear remains and forty years away from their breathing. Time to get back to another, more familiar and less distorted but painfully real world.

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