It all began late last year when another poet told me about the Fellowship. I`d spent the previous year on an extremely voluntary sabbatical, which involved moving back to Galloway after 14 years working in Manchester, 13 of them in children/families outreach and residential care. But it wasn`t all Grimsville. I met the love of my life and got to see City win the league. I then spent 10 months roaming the hideously beautiful hinterlands of Scotland, arm-wrestling woodsmen in remote island bothies, traditionally harvesting the gaga with the stolid men of Next, learning to knit in Gaelic, that sort of thing. And I still never got to St. Kilda. What is it with that place? No wonder nobody lives there.
The money stopped and so did all of that. I eventually procured seasonal employment, in early 2014, working for the council as a public facilities maintenance official responsible for the upkeep of said facilities just down the road at the beach car park. I`d submitted a large portfolio of poetry written, mainly, in the previous year to the Scottish Book Trust, to be considered for a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, in December 2012. As luck would have it, on the same day I learned I was to be the local bog cleaner for the season, I received a phone call from a Mrs. Q**** D`******, RLS Fellowship heid bummer and all-round nice person to boot. I was informed, to my good, great astonishment, that I was one of four writers to be awarded a month-long stay in a picturesque French village, Grez-sur-Loing, Hotel Chevillon, Chocolat with knobs on. Frederich Delius, August Strindberg and Carl Larsson bided here. The Glasgow Boys caroused and painted here.. You could've knocked me down with une plume, I were that chuffed. And I really, really was.
I worked the season mucking out les latrines at Sandyhills, couple of hours each day, twice that in high season. It was a good day when I didn't find budgie smugglers stuffed behind a toilet pipe or dead crabs in a sink, and you`d never think there was actually that much sand on the planet. And the spiders….... But it was a job, it was five minutes walk away, it paid the bills, almost and, c`mon, it`s Sandyhills by the Costa del Solway. And I had November to look forward to, in France, at that place much visited by Robert Louis Stevenson – Louis to his pals, RLS from here on in – and where he first met his future wife and lifelong partner, the American Fanny Osborne. Things could`ve been a lot worse, although I heard the bar takings in Oban and Mallaig were disappointingly low that summer.
And now, here I am. And I`ve met and made pals with RLS himself. He`s great and has given me Normandy Calvados and buys me beers which he doesn`t pay for. He also told me he`d have voted Aye in the Referendum. Unfortunately he speaks no English, works in the woods and is called Gilles. But it`s definitely RLS. The hooded eyelids, the sad tache, the chic goatee, the consumptive cough, it`s him alright, I`m not fooled. He is, for all intents and purposes, delighted to be my personal RLS for the duration of my stay.
I`ve found some unexpectedly good friendships. I have already told the local (disaffected) youth to keep the noise down, effectively, and without confrontation. And I have made my first ever, EVER omelette. And what about the poems? They are all around me like tiny spores, just waiting to burst and spread their spore-adic poemy goodness like confetti at a wedding. And it`s that kind of place, and it`s that kind of vibe – the present day but in black and white, history with progress, the past like so much ivy clinging fiercely to a cliff face.
More on all this next time. For today, 164 years ago, in Edinburgh, RLS entered the world and we were all the better for it in the long run. Tonight, I`m taking RLS for a pint in the wee bar across the road. The framed photo of him which I brought with me, late 1870s, taken near here, gets to meet its reincarnation, in the pub, and most if not all of the Hotel Chevillon residents will join me in raising a glass to our best and most trusted traveller himself. And I bet Gilles will get a sneaking urge to buy a donkey……..