each December day
the sun describes a low arc
over Capelaw Hill
Well, at least it did at the beginning of the month. For much of December 2012 lack of light made living in Edinburgh seem like living in an episode of The Killing. This is my third winter on this edge of town. For the previous nine years I lived in a fourth-floor flat with a view to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. There were many times when it was tempting just to sit and gaze out of the window, and some times of year when it became a ritual simply to do so: on midsummer evenings when light lingered long; and especially in December, when the sun would rise between Arthur’s Seat and the Crags, over whose flank it would describe a low arc before setting behind one of the spires of the South Side – where I stayed for the six years before that.
I was born in midwinter, on St Lucy‘s Day, the shortest day in Scandinavian tradition and some calculations of the Julian calendar, when, according to John Donne, ‘the world’s whole sap is sunk’. A more optimistic take is offered by George Mackay Brown’s poem ‘Seven Stars for Lucy’, in Voyages (1983). Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Lullabye for Lucy’, a setting of another text by Mackay Brown, celebrates the birth of the first child in thirty-two years in the depopulating valley of Rackwick on Hoy, Orkney, where Max had made his home. With its reference to plants, lambs and ‘the brimming / Dance of the valley’, the imagery of the poem is more vernal than hibernal, but it’s a grand song to set you up for going out to mark the passing of another year.
According to family lore, snowflakes fell on my face when I was first brought home from hospital early in the new year. I have a vague memory of the existence of a photograph posed just before I was swaddled into the back of my dad’s car, but maybe that’s just a picture I invented to accompany the story. I was a winter child, and adolescent, and young adult; I adored the pale clarity of the northern winter light, and I never felt the cold. When I studied in Newcastle in the eighties, I did wear a coat for an evening out, counter to local tradition, and occasionally felt a bit chilly in the flat when we couldn’t afford to turn the heating on, but I rarely complained. On the other hand, I had very poor tolerance of heat. In summer I lurked in the shade, a Niles Crane of a thing in high-factor sunblock and UV-protective clothing. Until I had a course of acupuncture and went into reverse. I discovered sunbathing, and just how bloody cold the east coast of Scotland can be in the winter. In the last decade, I seem to have achieved more of an equilibrium. All seasons, and the changes between them, are now sweet to me. It’s now January 2013, and, temporarily and thermally at least, what TS Eliot called ‘midwinter spring’. In my wee garden on the fringe of the city with a view to the Pentland Hills, I’m well placed to partake of seasonal shifts and observe and write about their reversals and vagaries. I grew up in a location that could similarly be described as both suburban and semi-rural; it suited me, and I’ve come full circle again.