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Books

Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

Stargazing

Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper

by Peter Hill

“It’s 1973, Watergate and Vietnam, the Grateful Dead. What are you going to be when you grow up? asks a friend. A lighthouse keeper, says our 20-year old. . . . Hill, now 51, went on to become a painter and art critic, but one gets the sense, which infuses the book with a rare sweetness, that this was the best year in his life.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date June 20, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5651-0
  • Dimensions 5.25" x 8.44"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

In this sublime reminiscence of the pleasures of solitude, the wonders of the sea, and the odd courses life takes, Peter Hill writes “in 1973 I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three islands off the west coast of Scotland. Before taking the job I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolour. The light itself didn’t seem important: it might have been some weird coastal decoration, like candles on a Christmas tree, intended to bring cheer to those living in the more remote parts of the country.”

Hill learned quickly, though, of the centuries-old mechanics of the lighthouse, of the life-and-death necessity of its luminescence to the seafarers, and of the great and unlikely friendships formed out of routine. With his head filled with Hendrix, Kerouac, and the war in Vietnam, Hill shared cups of tea and close quarters with salty lighthouse keepers of an entirely different generation. The stories they shared and idiosyncrasies they exhibited came to define a summer the Hill has memorialized with great wit and a disarmingly affectionate style.

Tags Literary

Praise

“It’s 1973, Watergate and Vietnam, the Grateful Dead. What are you going to be when you grow up? asks a friend. A lighthouse keeper, says our 20-year old. . . . Hill, now 51, went on to become a painter and art critic, but one gets the sense, which infuses the book with a rare sweetness, that this was the best year in his life.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“An elegy to an extinct way of life and a tribute to the spirit and expertise of the men who embodied this romance of sea and sky.” –Observer (London)

‘stargazing is a generous book–as honest and heartwarming as the cheddar-topped digestives served at the 2 a.m. shift change. And as full of lost dreams as a starry sky on a foggy night.” –Daily Telegraph (London)

“[A] spry, fittingly outlandish account of his six months as a lighthouse keeper . . . written with an incandescence that would make a beacon proud

.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A passionate account and a fine commemoration of the first profession ever to be made totally redundant.” –Bella Bathurst, author of The Lighthouse Stevensons

“A delightful memoir . . . Stargazing is packed with [extraordinary] tales, from the downright funny to the surreal or moving.” –Sunday Times (London)

“A gentle comedy of manners, which pitches the green-around-the-gills Hill–an adolescent idealist–into the intrinsically no-nonsense, manly world of the lighthouse.” –Independent (London)

“What makes Stargazing such a beautiful book is that it is more than an elegy to a vanished profession. It is an elegy to youth and to the constellation of dreams, ambitions and anxieties that is more intense at nineteen than it can ever be again.” –Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

Excerpt

Introduction

Ahoy!

In 1973 I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three islands off the west coast of Scotland. Before taking the job I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolour. The light itself didn’t seem important: it might have been some weird coastal decoration, like candles on a Christmas tree, intended to bring cheer to those living in the more remote parts of the country.

I was nineteen when I was interviewed for the job of relief keeper by the commissioners of the Northern Lights in the New Town of Edinburgh. My hair hung well below my shoulders. I had a great set of Captain Beefheart records and I walked about with a permanent grin on my face as I had recently, finally, lost my virginity. I rolled my own cigarettes, was a member of Amnesty International and had just read Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. In short, I was eminently suitable for the job.


Part One

how i landed the job

Chapter One

The Tavern Bar

“How on earth did you get a job as a lighthouse keeper?” In the thirty-odd years since landing the job that’s been the most frequently asked question in the different parts of the world that I’ve lived and travelled. I’ve been asked by taxi drivers in Hong Kong, Tasmania, and Chicago, and at dinner parties in Paris and Sydney. “And what exactly do you do in a lighthouse?” is, nine times out of ten, the follow-up question.

To answer the first question I take my interrogators back to the Tavern Bar in Dundee, a bar so wonderful that in my thoughts it is up there with the Admiral Benbow in Stevenson’s Treasure Island. In the early Seventies it was frequented by as motley a bunch of patrons as you could hope to find. Think of the inter-galactic bar in Star Wars, then add a bit of Marx Brothers slapstick, and if you know Chick Murray the genius many consider Scotland’s greatest comedian, then there’s more than a bit of him in there too. Bars are wonderful places for adventures to begin . . .

The back room of the Tavern Bar in Dundee was where we used to play darts as young art students. The Tav was an art school institution and, like Scotland herself, has a long history. The nineteenth-century poet William McGonagall used to frequent it and read his magnificently dreadful poems for a few pennies in the very back room where we honed our darts-playing skills in games with bizarre names such as 301, Mickey Mouse and Round-the-Clock. Bert, the landlord, was an avuncular host who kept good order in the house and administered a series of bans on those who overstepped the mark. Some might be banned for a month (the date of re-entry circled on the calendar in his pocket diary), some for only a few nights, and occasionally Bert, with all the compassion of a hanging judge, would bar someone for life.

My time in Dundee during the early Seventies was that rare part of the twentieth century when there was no unemployment. As art students, with a sartorial elegance that predated but rivalled the Muppets, we quaffed ale next to builders, bakers, prostitutes, merchant seamen, inspectors of meat pies, oil rig workers, microwave oven salesmen, white-skinned ex cons re-navigating their lives, and a gang of soft-drug dealers wearing bandannas who looked like they had recently been employed as extras in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They were in fact town planning students to a man and barely old enough to vote. The legacy of their stoned student days is now cast in concrete in spiralling ring roads that meander around our cities, from Birmingham to Inverness, often leading absolutely nowhere but obviously enjoying travelling hopefully.

The music in our teenage heads was implanted by Radio One, or more exotically Radio Luxembourg, the best-known of the pirate radio stations. I never could find it on the dial and settled for John Peel instead. But his offerings were too gloriously esoteric to define the age – Ivor Cutler, The Third Ear Band, Leonard Cohen (am I the only one who used to think he had a great voice and his songs were actually quite cheerful?), Dave Van Ronk, Edger Broughton, and The Thirteenth-Floor Elevators. No, the music of the streets was pure Radio One via Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis, and Simon Dee – The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, The Monkees and Sonny and Cher. They guided us through the late sixties and through puberty with the pastoral care of a dentist in a sweet shop – not offering us too much of anything that might start any serious rot. The Beatles were always fine, The Stones a bit dangerous, The Doors . . . well, you had to wait until nightfall, and I think only late on a Wednesday night, for John Peel to appear and The Doors to open. They in turn gave on to a landscape peopled by Grace Slick, The Incredible String Band and The Grateful Dead. Safe and secure in my middle class suburb of Glasgow I would lie beneath the sheets, my homework completed, and listen to Country Joe MacDonald rage against the war in Vietnam, “Give me an Eff!” he would cry, “Give me a U! Give me a C! . . . Give me a K! . . . What’s that spell?! . . . What’s that spell?!” And then he would push out his song, like an angry boat, into the world:

“Come on all you big strong men,

Uncle Sam needs your help again.

He’s got himself in a terrible jam,

Way down yonder in Vietnam . . .”

And so I would drop off to sleep in a purple haze of adolescent plans for the future. THE FUTURE, a mythical and by definition futuristic place which all my life has been just out there, occasionally signposted, but like algebra or German grammar, never quite graspable. Like that destination board on Ken Kesey’s bus that read FUURTHER, never quite within reach . . .

* * *

Everyone had plans in those days and the Tav was where they were most often discussed. They were of course based on a full-employment economy. Don’t try this at home if you were born any time after 1970. Recently qualified teachers could quit their jobs and hitch to India assured that they would pick up another teaching job, possibly with a promotion, as soon as they returned. A sculptor subsidising their art by working in the parks department could, on a whim, leave for Shetland and find work gutting fish or working for the post office. Others played in rock bands or were fiddle-scraping folk musicians in Aran jumpers and flared jeans. Society was deliciously flexible in those days and all things seemed possible. Carefree pretty much sums it up. Stress had not yet been invented and wouldn’t catch on in Scotland until well into the Eighties. But back in the late Sixties and early Seventies you wouldn’t see someone for a few months and then suddenly a postcard from a mate would arrive addressed c/o Bert, The Tavern Bar, Dundee, from Venice Beach in California or the Melkweg Club in Amsterdam. In those days the post office took a rather perverse pride in delivering every single piece of mail no matter how scantily it was addressed. Sometimes simply “Bert, the Tav”, would find its destination – very like Banjo Paterson’s famous Australian ballad which features a letter addressed to “Clancy of The Overflow”.

A few friends left for London, like Clancy leaving for the Australian tropics. It was the tail end of the Swinging Sixties, a decade which I like to think started with the Beatles first number-one hit Love Me Do in 1962, and ended with the oil crisis in 1974.

Friday night was the big night at the Tav and you had to get there early or else you had to queue, especially if there was to be a band playing in the art school later in the evening. And we got some great bands. Pink Floyd played the art school, as did the legendary Viv Stanshall and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. The annual Dundee art school Christmas ‘revels’ were so wild that one passing group called Pete Brown and Piblokta even named their next album in honour of playing there. It was called “Things May Come and Things May Go But the Art School Dance Goes on Forever,” and the following term we all rushed out to spend our grant cheques on it.

I remember one ‘revels’ that had a Wild West theme and a whole cowboy village was built in the art school hall. I went as a Mexican which befitted my waist length hair and short stature, and I attained a certain verisimilitude by dyeing my skin yellow with textile dye smuggled out of Willie Watt’s textile class that afternoon. It was a strange Christmas the following week in Glasgow, as I remember it, surrounded by close family and maiden aunts, me glowing like a beacon at a zebra crossing and feigning jaundice.

Outside the Tav on a Friday it wasn’t unusual to see upwards of thirty people queuing in the dark rain by eight in the evening. Once inside, mushroom damp, there was a sunburst of light and a symphony of artistic banter as one ran the gauntlet of three hundred elbows towards the bar for two pints of heavy (one to gulp down quickly, the other to enjoy at one’s leisure) and then into the deeply nicotine-stained back room where if you were lucky you could squeeze on to the end of one of the many old school desks with folding chairs that was the sole furniture lining the walls. This was also the nesting place of the serious domino players (or “bones’ players as they were known), and it wasn’t unheard of for someone to make as much as ten pounds from a good night in the back room. As often as not, on a Friday, the art school band Mort Wriggle and the Panthers would be playing at the far end of the room, Jonathan “Jogg” Ogilvie thrashing away on drums. Years later I discovered Jogg was working in a museum in Arbroath while his friend Phil, who dropped out of art school after second year, made it big in London as a rock musician in a band called Camel. After that he re-surfaced in the Eighties as Jessie Rae, king of tartan video rock dressed in a kilt and brandishing a two-handed sword.

In the Tav a pound note would buy eight pints of beer at the newly decimalised price of twelve pence a pint, and there would still be enough change for a packet of Rizla cigarette papers and a box of matches. Whole streets close to the Tav were colonised by art students, but none more so than Kincardine Street. During the week many would return there after ten o’clock closing time to begin “all-nighters’, working till dawn to get assignments finished (good training for an aspiring lighthouse keeper) with perhaps a break at three in the morning to buy a meat pie or a honey dumpling amongst the taxi drivers and ladies of the night at Cuthbert’s, the all-night bakers. I never met Mr Cuthbert but can vouch that he did make exceedingly good dumplings.

Recharged, we would talk passionately above the sounds of Frank Zappa, Procol Harum and Jefferson Airplane, of Braque and Picasso and the alpine feats of Analytical Cubism as if Montmartre, rather than Arbroath, was just up the road. The more informed art students would talk of David Hockney and Andy Warhol and how they were giving the lie to the old myth that “no one will ever take you seriously in the art world until you are over forty”. It was this myth more than anything that allowed art students to take a very long view of life and plan several interesting and varied careers before they finally ‘made it” sometime in their early fifties.

The Tav was a different place of a weekday lunchtime. Mostly art students, their lecturers, a few travelling salesmen and the usual gaggle of half-stoned town-planning students building futuristic ring roads with damp beer mats and Swan Vesta matchboxes. The bar always seemed to be filled with light around midday. Going through the western style swing doors was like suddenly entering a cathedral in mid summer. White light, white heat and the gossamer-thin cigarette smoke slowly spiralling upwards. Don Mclean had a song out about that time with a chorus of “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” which we altered slightly to ‘my, My Miss Dundonian Peh”, and that long eh – rhyming with Yeah! as in the Beatles ‘she Loves You, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! – Peh! Peh! Peh!” was the hallmark of the Dundee accent then as it is now, “A peh an” a pint” being as near to heaven as lunch gets by the side of the Silvery Tay, or anywhere else for that matter.

When I was eventually asked to leave the art school I think it was the Tav, and its camaraderie, that I missed most of all. Certainly more so than the brutalist architecture of the art school. This is how my demise happened, and to describe it I have to describe my early beginnings.

I grew up in Glasgow in the early Fifties, born on the fifth of June 1953 – a slow news day shortly after the Queen’s Coronation and the conquest of Everest. Throughout childhood everything seemed either black or grey until winter came and things briefly turned white – an exaggeration, of course, but for much of the year colour didn’t seem to exist at all. Glasgow’s buildings were black with soot from the industrial revolution, so uniformly black that most of my childhood I unquestioningly accepted that this was the natural colour of stone. Some tenements stood like jagged black teeth courtesy of the German war-time bombing of the Clyde, and one of my earliest visual thrills was viewing the patchwork of wallpaper and mantelpieces exposed to the elements down whole sides of opened tenement walls. It looked as good as any installation art I have ever seen, and perhaps it was no coincidence that Joseph Beuys was in the luftwaffe at the time.

Television was black and white, text in books was black on white, crossword puzzles, dominoes, Buster Keaton movies, and all the images from the past, from history, came down to me in grainy death camp black and white or nineteenth-century etchings illustrating Dickens, The Hound of the Baskervilles, or scenes from the Crimean War. I wanted colour. I absolutely longed for colour. And in my naivety I think deep inside me I just accepted that colour had only come in to the world with the invention of colour photography. So I actively searched for colour. I found it in tubes of paint. Liquid colour, screw off the cap and there it was. I found it in tropical fish shops only a ride away on Glasgow’s underground across the Clyde to Cessnock – neon tetras, Siamese fighting fish, red-tailed black sharks, fan-tailed guppies, and the subtle oyster-greys of the kissing gouramis. I found it at the Odeon Cinema at Anniesland in Mr Magoo and Roadrunner cartoons. And I found it at the University baths, I found it especially and gloriously at the university baths, the blue expanse of the swimming pool against the clean, cream tiles – broader than any colour field painting, a bigger splash than Hockney would ever paint. At art school I revelled in colour but hated the drawing classes. Later I would come to love drawing for its rigour, structure and sheer difficulty. But as a teenager with a mind full of social issues – Vietnam, Biafra, Vietnam, apartheid, ecology, Vietnam – drawing, for a while, was the domain of the enemy: tonal values, sticks of charcoal and conte; cross hatching with HB pencils; aerial passages; the bone beneath the skin. No colour allowed. My attendance at drawing class, I honestly regret to say, was so bad as to be almost invisible. I would stay in my bed-sit and paint. Come the end of the year I passed sculpture, and textiles, and painting, and graphics, and photography, and three- dimensional design, and about six other subjects. But I failed my drawing – not surprisingly – and had to repeat the whole year. My attendance got worse, as did the wars in Vietnam and Biafra, which probably occupied more of my waking thoughts than did copying fake Renaissance statues.

Towards the end of my second year, as spring turned to summer, my life took a significant change in direction. And it happened through a chance meeting at the Tavern Bar.

It was that time of a Friday night when the merriment was really just beginning and the hour hand of the clock was approaching ten, which meant closing time and last orders. Everyone was trying to buy carry-outs to take on to parties, dances, or just back to bed-sits in small groups. “Eight cans of McEwans Export,” I shouted for the umpteenth time at a passing barman, but it was lost amidst the din. “Eight cans of . . .” I tried again, standing on tip-toe to bring me up to shoulder height with the competition, but it was like being in a crush at a football match and trying to get the time off the referee. It was hopeless, and I could see my friends Lincoln, Albi, and Jogg weren’t having any more success than me. I decided to duck up the street to Frew’s Bar on the corner, gloriously free of art students, and buy my provisions there.

Once purchased, I couldn’t get back into the Tav and waited around amongst clusters of others for my pals to emerge. With my armful of cans I joined May, Chris and Kath, three of the most alluring pre-Raphaelite beauties, who watched over my antics like concerned big sisters – usually rightly concerned. They were chatting with a few others on the subject of “the ideal job”.

“What would you most like to do Peter?” May asked me.

“What d”you mean?”

“If you could choose any job at all, anything in the whole wide world.”

“I’d be a lighthouse keeper,” I replied, quick as a flash. “I’ve always wanted to be a lighthouse keeper.” It was true, next best thing to being a spaceman, probably better.

And all of this might have been just another conversation borne on the wind and scattered in the darkness of the Hawkhill Road, if it had not been for May coming into the life-drawing class the following Monday (and me even more surprisingly being there) with an advertisement from Saturday’s Scotsman newspaper seeking full-time lighthouse keepers.

“Why don’t you write to them,” she encouraged, “and see if they take students on for the summer?”

And so I did.

Copyright ” 2004 by Peter Hill. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.