Edinburgh in the Spring 2009 – the DDRA AGM weekend

This year has seen one of the best Springs we’ve had in Edinburgh for many years – it arrived early, stayed largely clear and bright, and the blossom has stayed on the trees for longer than I can remember for many a long year. So it was that delegates to the DDRA AGM had a warm sunny day to view the castle from the Royal Overseas League through a haze of pink blossom. (They also got a traffic noise free environment since Princes St is completely dug up for tramline laying but it kinda spoilt the view).

Numbers were down this year – partly due to the economic climate no doubt, and probably partly due to the overseas contingent being much reduced in anticipation of next year’s Le Spit gathering in Paris. However we still managed a healthy enough number.

After the AGM itself we had a talk from Prof. David Bradley, entitled “The Open Sea, with some Charts”, on the history of maritime exploration which included ship design, maps, and navigation as well as some of the personalities involved. He took particular care to mention Richard Chancellor. This was clearly a broad subject which could be studied for a lifetime and time was limited, but Prof. Bradley did extremely well to get through an illuminating session conveying a wealth of information.

After a fine lunch we had what for me was the highlight of the day – “Weaponry and Arms of the 16th Century” by Hugh Robertson, a demonstration of 16th century weapons, swordsmanship and fighting techniques. However this was far from a dry demonstration – rather it was a humorous, engaging, and sometimes knockabout session which educated while being immensely enjoyable. Would that we had had a higher ceiling so that Hugh (dressed as a gentleman) and his assistant (dressed as a soldier) had more freedom to swing their weapons without hindrance. With examples of many different swords, pikes, and pieces of armour on show – which we were able to handle while peppering the two men with questions afterwards – it was an ideal way to get a feel for the sort of warfare which our characters would have been engaged in. My thanks to them both and I do hope we’ll be able to invite them back at some stage.

With fewer delegates we were able to use the round tables for the evening dinner rather than the long lines of tables, which made for a more spacious and convivial experience. No formal speeches this time but the evening was again enlivened by Anne Buchanan’s readings of poems by William Topaz McGonagall.

Chairmanship

After considerable thought over many months I had decided to step down from both the chairmanship and the membership administrator role that I’ve held for some years now, and I did so at the AGM. There are various reasons for this but the primary one is sheer lack of time due to increasingly complex personal, family and business developments. In hindsight I should have relinquished the membership role when I took on the chairmanship and I feel that I have not had anything like enough time to devote to steering the association’s development. Since time is likely to be in even shorter supply this year I feel that it is right to hand on to someone else. It was an emotional decision and not one taken lightly, as I never like to leave a job unfinished. However as a notorious perfectionist I also can’t face doing a job less than well.

I have also long wanted to redevelop the Dunnett website which, apart from this blog, has had little attention in the last few years. I need to take a step back from organisation for a while but I hope that after a few months break while I concentrate on business I’ll be able to devote some time to bringing the site, which I’ve always regarded as Dorothy’s as much as mine, back up to an appropriate level.

I had originally planned to step down completely but with two members retiring and only one joining I have been prevailed upon to remain on the committee for another year as a general member without specific remit other than to offer my experience and knowledge where required. Olive Millward will be taking over the membership administration as soon as we can successfully convert the database. At the short committee meeting following the AGM Simon Hedges was elected chairman and I leave matters in his capable hands. I would say that all the roles in the committee take considerable time and expertise that in most organisations would require professional input. That we have had a series of committee members of the last few years who have sacrificed large parts of their personal lives to the cause says a great deal about their integrity and commitment.

“As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down…”

The second in a series looking at favourite Dunnett quotations – this time from Checkmate.

“She thinks, as a maiden lady, I should wear my hair down…”
“As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down…”

“I shall call you mon compere, as the King does the Constable. You haven’t enough artillery, have you?”
“Against you or the Germans?”

These two seemingly casual quotes, dropped in before two of the most dramatic episodes in the series, are amongst my favourites. Both for their examples of Dorothy’s humour and for their subtle and leading insights.

Lymond and Philippa are on their way to the House of Doubtance in Lyon. Lymond is now Captain-General in charge of defending the city and is busy dealing with rich merchants who would rather escape or even switch sides, but must take time out to honour the Dame’s will. Marthe has schemingly arranged that Philippa, who arrived at the house of Marechal de St Andre disguised as a boy, should also be there. Philippa is attempting to discover as much as she can about Lymond’s origins in order to heal the rift between him and Sybilla. We know, but Philippa does not, that he has fallen in love with her but has decided that he cannot pursue such a match despite the fact they are, by force of circumstances in Istambul, married. He is thus trying to keep a certain distance between them, and still desires to obtain a divorce and return to Russia where he is second in power only to the Tzar.

From her escapade as ‘Annibal, Lymond is discovering even more about how resourceful and quick-witted she is, and must find their verbal sparring both a delight and a trial. Here she flits between innocent (or is it?) banter and incisive insight into military status and strategy, and Lymond has to parry almost defensively.

These two quotes, following on from the byplay with the fan and Annibal’s resourceful double bluffing as Lymond unmasks her, show us that the two of them are now much more closely matched. Philippa is more than capable of standing up to him and trading quips, and she is also quite comfortable in befriending the Marechale or twisting the Schiatti brothers round her little finger. No longer is Lymond in undoubted control of the relationship as he was in the Mediterranean. His advantages in age and seniority have seemingly evaporated (“Do you consider I’m old enough to stop calling you Mr Crawford?”), and his aura of untouchability and the scathing tongue that scares his men rigid mean very little to her.

Of course we are being manipulated. Dorothy is preparing us for events that will take place later that night when the heady mix of mortal danger and ingenious escape will combine to provide Philippa with her own revelation of love. But she does it with such a light touch that we are hardly aware of it at this stage. A probing remark, a description of an outrageously ostentatious dress, a pun here, an unexpected change of subject there. We are entertained, lightened, admiring this sophisticated and attractive girl (Jerott doesn’t even recognise her at first) who deals so easily with our irascible and tortured hero. So that when the moment comes it is the most natural development in the world. Yet without those two apparently insignificant pieces of conversation – easily missed or forgotten compared to the high drama of the Dame’s voice from the grave and the chase through the traboules – the following chapters would be far less of an inevitable progression, the rhythm of the narrative weakened.

This is the difference between a talented author and a genius.

Come and be licked…

This is the first in a series I’ve been planning to write that looks at some of the favourite Dunnett quotes that I suggested we collect, and analyses them in the context of the passages they appear in. I’m starting with one of the classics. Or maybe two…

“Kate, my dear? Haven’t your raspberries been marvellous this year? Come and be licked; I haven’t dined yet.”

This has to be one of my favourite quotes in all of Dunnettworld, because it isn’t just a delightful visual image – it tells us so much about the characters and their interaction that it’s almost a backstory in itself. This is something that Dorothy is so very good at; sometimes she will take considerable time describing a scene in great detail, layer upon layer, when the pace of the narrative makes it appropriate, but at other times when it might interfere she has this wonderful ability to encapsulate matters into a short passage, a sentence, or sometimes just a couple of words.

Let us set the scene. We are in the middle of major difficulties, Richard has barred Lymond from his door after the episode with Joleta in Dumbarton, Gabriel is trying to take over St Mary’s, and we have recently had the Hot Trodd and the tragedy of Will Scott’s death. In the midst of this Francis Crawford visits Flaw Valleys, where he hasn’t been since having had to knock out Philippa to save her from harm.

Dorothy then described Kate’s feelings as she sees him approach, and then, as she enters the music room, describes how she looks at him, observing his skin colour and fitness. He turns and delivers that wonderful line.

In this case Dorothy is telling us a number of things:

The brilliant strategist and political schemer, the highly strung athlete and swordsman, who seems constantly above mundane matters, actually has a simpler side to him as well. He observes nature and delights in it, he enjoys the flavours and colours of the countryside.

Despite worries and events that would crush a lesser man, and as we will shortly discover despite severe exhaustion, he still has time and wit to greet Kate with humour and consideration.

He and Kate enjoy a close friendship. He has been shown, or maybe just enters without being shown, straight into the innermost rooms of the house and is clearly trusted to be there by the servants. He is able to tease her lightheartedly with no fear that she will be offended. He understands the demands that running an estate make on her and is immediately aware that she will be embarrassed at not being at her best for his surprise visit. That he can deflect her embarrasment and put her at ease shows both his kindness and affection for her and his wider ability to be comfortable in a woman’s company.

What an amazing amount of information is packed into that one quote!

The prior thoughts we see from Kate also tell us a great deal about her. In Game of Kings we saw how she was able to confidently probe and engage Lymond in a way that few others could manage intellectually and fewer still could get away with without attracting his withering scorn. In some part that was assisted by her being thoroughly grounded in a solid marriage. Now of course Gideon is dead. We’d seen glimpses of what a perceptive man and a loving and engaging father and husband he was. Kate will have mourned him deeply and may have been assisted by her new friends in the Crawford family. Clearly she misses him. But now her relationship with Lymond has taken on new qualities. She is still a young woman and must be very conscious of his attractions while not wanting to risk their friendship. So we see the ever-practical, sensible, down-to-earth Kate, concerned about her daughter’s safety, nevertheless worrying that she isn’t looking her best for him. His presence confuses her and causes conflicts in her mind. While remaining a loyal and concerned friend she is showing signs of being ready to fall in love with him if he were to give the slightest encouragement.

All this of course presages a passage during which we see her appreciating his extreme tiredness (and having the temerity that few others would have of advising him to rest because it will affect his judgement and leadership), showing her intelligence in analysing a series of complex facts and drawing conclusions, and despite receiving a shock about how much danger Philippa is in she is able to appreciate that it is Gabriel who is the danger to Lymond’s leadership of St Mary’s (and maybe a few more things besides.) And at the end of this passage, as Lymond succumbs to fatigue and near despair when for a moment he is afraid that she thought he might strike her, there is another wonderful one-liner. Probably a favourite of most readers, this time spoken only in Kate’s mind, and which acts as a perfectly matched bookend to the first.

“My dear, my dear, I would give you my soul in a blackberry pie; and a knife to cut it with.”

Major archaeological discoveries on Orkney

One of the subjects that seems to be close to the hearts of a great many Dunnett readers is archaeology, and when combined with the enchanting location of Thorfinn’s Orkney Isles where Maes Howe and the Ring of Brodgar appeared within the King Hereafter story, this becomes very much on-topic. A few days ago, no longer able to keep my mind on ever-present work tasks, I escaped into my list of favourite sites for a few minutes and visited Sigurd Towrie’s Orkneyjar. It was with some shock that I realised that the digging season was already shutting down and that I hadn’t looked at the latest developments on the big excavation at the Ness of Brodgar this year and hadn’t realised the amount of investigation going on in the Ring itself during this summer.

The developments on both sites have been astonishing, with many structures of major significance discovered and new information about sea levels and the likely differences in topography and landscape in the area which suggest a radical reinterpretation of the way in which the structures of the area may have been used. The excavations in the Ring of Brodgar, principally two large trenches at opposite sides of the ring, have been deeper than ever before and amongst other things should help to establish a much better idea of the real date of the structure and shed new light on the methods of construction.

It would be pointless for me to even attempt any more of a summary here – there is simply far too much and as yet, with the digging only recently coming to an end, much of the discoveries have not yet been analysed or organised into anything resembling conclusions. That work will doubtless be going on over the winter and promises to be intriguing . For now just visit the site and follow the many threads and excavation diary notes. Leave plenty of time – they’ve found an awful lot of buildings, artefacts and information and you may well emerge to find it’s already tomorrow!