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Sunday, 7 August 2011

The World That Summer

You get to a certain point in life when you wonder if "those glory days" will ever happen again.
I don't just mean days when everything goes right, or which leave you feeling good; but one of those days you used to experience in your youth where you felt your whole life changed as a result. Last year I got married, Griff and Ray were my Best Men, and it was a truly memorable day, and one I felt, or even knew, could never be repeated. But a fortnight ago we all had another "glory day" completely out of the blue....the day we went to Portencross.
It almost never happened.
I had been asked to work that Saturday, at the last minute, but because I had worked the previous five in a row, I made a strong case for getting the day off. So, Ray and I found ourselves up at Griff's and we were deciding what to do on the Saturday afternoon; go hillwalking, go up the West End of Glasgow, go canoeing. Then we hit upon the idea of going to Portencross.
Now, anybody who has known us since before we started this Blog will know that we started off as an Indie/Folk/Pop band called ~Sighrens~, and one of the best compositions Griff had come up with during that time was a song called 'Portencross'. To Ray and I it had just been another song which attempted to capture the headiness of being young in the Summertime, but to Griff it had been a lot more; a tribute and eulogy to one of his favourite places. He had always meant to take us there one day, if only to show us why the place meant so much to him and why it had inspired one of ~Sighrens~ best songs.

Portencross, roughly, lies between Ardrossan and Largs in the area of West Kilbride and is right on the coast, looking on to the Isle of Arran and the Holy Isle, the Cumbraes and Bute. As we arrived, the sun was already beating down beautifully, and the sea gleamed like an azure mirror. We walked to Portencross Castle, which has just recently been restored (see feature below). Inside the castle the sun beamed through the windows, casting rainbow patterns on the walls and floors. As we wandered the rooms, stairs and roof we could virtually taste the history, and as we looked down upon the harbour we could envisage the sea battles against the Spanish and the Vikings that previous generations had fought.

Walking along the harbourside, where young boys were fishing for mackerel, we admired the cottages that dotted along the sea front. We were especially smitten by one simply called Shore Cottage which had a rough, rustic, utterly bohemian look; and also one built right on the very precipice of the rock. We all spoke of how we would love to stay here, imagining wakening every day to the sounds of the sea and the harbour.
We walked along past the fields of wheat that moved like animated poetry, the heat of the mid-day sun now burning away any notion of this being the wettest, coldest Summer on record. At the far end of the coastline lies the Hunterston Nuclear Power Station; a thing of ugliness and horror in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Where the vents of the power plant emerge in the sea, the water bubbled and glowed like some mad Corryvreckan. Behind the power plant lay the walkway up to the cliffs and, missing our usual Saturday hillwalk, we decided to venture up onto the peaks, allowing ourselves a view of the coast and the sea which even Griff had never seen in all his visits here.
Walking up through the woods to the cliffs was like walking through some medieval fantasia, as the sun fittered through the branches into squirrel bestrewn glades. It was about this time that I remarked that days like this would probably make us live longer.
As we reached the cliffs' highest point we all sat on the edge to admire the show that nature had put on for us. Ray produced a bottle of Isla Negra (the black isle) wine from his rucksack and we poured ourselves three glasses. The sun reflecting on the calm water gave the sea a flinty, steely complexion that looked unlike anything we had ever seen; yachts and fishing boats dotted the surface.The funny thing about not being near the sea, or even seeing the sea all that often, means that when you do sit on the coastline looking over a vast expanse of water, you do get that feeling that you are on the very edge of the world.
And as we sat there, allowing the wine to loosen us up a bit, and as we looked across the calm, sun-streaked water to Arran, we began discussing the movie 'Man Of Aran' (set on the Inishmore Islands of Ireland) which had recently been re-scored by the band British Sea Power, who are big favourites among the ~Streetlamp~ fraternity....
Robert Flaherty's 1934 (pseudo)documentary is a work of art and a compelling study of Man's necessity to survive, not against the very forces of nature, but in tandem with them. The film shows the male islanders struggle in the flimsiest of boats, out on the crushing surf trying to gather both fish and seaweed, which is necessary for the growing of potatoes as there is no soil on the islands. The annual migration of basking sharks brings a one-off yearly opportunity to cultivate both meat, and fish oil which they use to fuel the lamps.

The film's power lies in it's depiction of man against the sea. The shots demonstrating the pure force of the sea are quite extraordinary, and it seems only fitting that a band named British Sea Power should be scoring these scenes. Masters of atmosphere, British Sea Power conjure up whole storms of music; scorching guitar runs match the camera work, slamming atonal keyboard blasts are impeccably timed to the crashing waves, while the drums and cymbals capture nature at it's most ferocious. The band's sense of theatrics combined with complete understanding of the images meld to create that old chestnut; sonic cathedrals of sound.

Music and image in perfect symbiosis. The fabulously named Colman 'Tiger' King out in his boat at the mercy of the crushing waves, whilst Earth Mother Maggie Dirrane watches on in both terror and necessity as her husband risks his life for food and oil. The music knows when to dip and allow moments of solemnity as the boat disappears from the shot, the horizon of the waves growing ever larger, and then suddenly the boat reappears, the men are drenched, Maggie's face showing a temporary relief, the music swells and you realise that not just all human life is here, but ALL life is here! Nature and humanity captured in one beat....

And as we sat discussing 'Man Of Aran' while gazing at our own Isle of Arran, surrounded by the calm, metallic sheen of Portencross's own sun-glazed sea, we all felt.....alive!
As we headed back down the cliff to the main drag, Griff and Ray were jabbering like schoolchildren about how this was their favourite ever ~Streetlamp~ experience. I put on a show of mild stoicism, pretending somehow that I was indifferent to the whole thing, whilst all the time knowing inside that something had changed. As the shadows stretched and the sun cast it's 'golden hour' shine over the castle and the surrounding streets, we could hear a band set up their equipment while the locals began to gather in the centre of the town. There was to be a music festival to raise money for the restoration of the castle. We would have stayed, and indeed probably should have stayed, but we had to head back.
The next day, I texted Griff to tell him that as a result of our visit to Portencross, I now felt somewhat changed, somehow cleansed spiritually (even if I don't really like using that word). He said he agreed and hoped that Ray and I now knew how he felt about Portencross and why he had taken to compose the song of that name. And now, when I feel the strain and the grind-to-five of work getting me down, I can close my eyes and find myself back there again.
But it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.
But we'll always have Portencross!
Here's looking at you kids!


Ray adds:
Portencross is a sort of hidden oasis it seems, most of the people I have spoken to about our 'hillwalk' in this area have never heard of it.
Neither had I, really, until it was brought to my attention when Sighrens wrote the song about it.

What a magical place! A place where everything I enjoy about the outdoors was in full view at a hidden away hinterland; historical castles, faraway islands, deep blue water, and a beautiful viewpoint from a 'nice wee hill'.

Even the scientific chit-chat that we so often fall into is well served here , with the rather 'out of place' Hunterston nuclear power-station to the North East.

Definitely in my all-time top three hillwalks we have done.

You can download the famous instrumental piece 'Flowers Of Portencross' here
of which Griff comments: The song is written about the flower 'geranium sanguineum' which grows by the sea in Portencross. The tune is supposed to mirror the moods of the sea around Portencross castle.

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