To Nashville, September 13th 2014
We lift out through thin fog and reach over Islay’s inner seas, the island glistening in the September sun, its bays and beaches deserted and beautiful below us. We leave Scotland in the light, a land hovering between shadow and something else, staring into its Celtic soul and asking: to be or not to be?
I’m headed west to America with my trusted lieutenant, Mr. Niz at my side, so I am “we” and we are “me” and we are all together.
Over the Atlantic we cruise in our tin-can tube of Boeing, the ocean rippling out beyond, somewhere lapping at the coast of a Carolina or two. Within a few hours I’m gazing down on endless schools of icebergs carving their way south. We are, as Joni Mitchell sang, at icy altitudes. With the trolleys stowed and the crew at rest after service the only movement is the finicky flashing of an American sit-com on the colonnade of screens hanging in the roof of the aisle. Everyone is hushed by the relentless exhalation of the engines, the odd cough and child’s cry cutting through the dry air. I can feel the furnace of the turbine quaking in my elbow at the window and almost touch the great tea-cup out on the wing, swallowing frozen air like a whale. Hard angles of bright light carve into my plastic table making modernist designs. We turn a little and hit a few lumps of kicking air then slumber on into the flames of future hell.
The plane slides on to the coast of Newfoundland, still in its summer coat of greens and browns and in time we are sailing over the enormous mouth of the Saint Lawrence. The north western edge of Scotland was once attached to these rocky lumps pitted with puddled lakes, as part of the ancient continent Laurentia. Every time I cross the boundary of the Great Glen I think of this and look for signs of an alien geology. I imagine the north western highlands breaking free and swimming out to sea to crash into the rest of Britain like a reverse secession, a joining. But it wasn’t like that. The planet churns.
The wilderness below slowly changes. A few yellow roads appear slinking about the landscape. Humans. Before long the map will teem with the marks of habitation and give way to the grids and cities of the States. Flying is like dreaming. Things change imperceptibly, and then seem to drift into suddenness. Emerald fields appear and their geometry seems an imposition.
We stopover at Philadelphia on the way to Nashville, roaming the concourses for sustenance and alcohol. The day is grey as stone on the other side of the terminal glass. Mr. Niz parks at a bar and orders a nine dollar beer as I trawl for something edible. I join him after a fruitless expedition and order a fizzy water which comes in what appears to be a big perfume bottle. It’s Norwegian “artesian” water and costs a bomb. I begin to growl in that stingy Scottish way, feeling ripped off. The water undoubtedly comes out of a tap round the back before being run through a soda syphon. My money is also being syphoned. We’re captive and are being capitalist cunted. Everything around me starts to irritate, grate, antagonise. Ah, jet lag. My system starts to vibrate like something inside my abdomen is on the cusp of hysteria. We vacate the bar and find a more base establishment and pig out on fries and sandwiches. My sense of time is slipping in the gloom of a filthy afternoon. I try to squint out at the planes and convince myself it’s mid-afternoon. My brain remains unconvinced.
After a quick hop to Nashville we drag our accoutrements to our shiny mini-van. Everything fits and we are full of cheer. It’s Saturday night in the Pink Slip Lounge at the hotel and a cabaret couple are tossing out covers in a desultory fashion on a bleak little stage. Mr. Niz and our esteemed English tour manager, Mr. Fudge are gorging on chicken wings and beer. I am sorely envious but that uptight professional twerp in me won’t let me touch beer. Well, not for a couple of weeks. American beer is so weak that you can drink it almost occupationally. As young men we were forced into taking radical measures to get drunk on the stuff. When you’ve come from a culture that thinks nothing of ten hours on Furstenburg, Schlitz just don’t have that kick. So we’d have to shotgun cans of Blue Ribbon to feel any effect. When that wasn’t possible (eg: in a public place) we’d hit the shots. Shots, people – just say no. I remember being in a diner in the middle of nowhere in Arizona at four in the morning arguing with the waitress that the Jägermeister in my paper cup was coffee. I think she bought it or at least chose not to pursue it. There was so much madness on those tour buses but it was so innocent. We were all so excited to be there, tooling around an insane continent for three months at a stretch in a sort of garish gentlemen’s club on wheels.
In the morning I take breakfast on the ground floor, served by a woman who has seen as many miles as me. She has southern charm and operates with a slick fluidity. Outside the sun is already high and crickets chirp. I take a brief wander and squint at the freeway from a patch of rough ground. There is a great vapour-trail X in the sky over the city. I made my mark before I left, put that saltire in its box on the ballot paper. I walk back to my room with my fingers crossed.