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Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Chapter three in a seemingly never-ending saga about an idiot in a castle.

15 February 2004

We’ve come to understand something. This is not so much a retreat as it is a psychological experiment. I’m completely serious about this. It’s more to get the experience of being unhooked. And it has kind of unhooked us all. Nigel is getting really rangey. He keeps asking for an axe. He really wants to cut firewood.

The most bizarre time is what I call the Weird Hour, which extends from about halfway through dinner, and about 30 minutes into coffee in the drawing room. After the initial burst of conversation at 6:30, we go in to eat. We talk a little. Then it gets quieter as everyone finishes. Then everyone looks off in a different direction. Rose must sense this, because she always pulls the curtain back and reappears at this point to take our plates away. Then she brings out dessert, which is always some kind of homemade pudding or something incredible, and we have that, and it gets quieter, and we all stare off in different directions again. And then finally someone suggests that we get up. Then we go upstairs for the coffee, which Rose has already set out, and everyone takes what they want, and we all take seats and kind of fall into a “what now?” silence.

Nigel is our Mr. Conversation. He usually starts by leaning down low in his chair, and after about ten minutes of this very clear stare that screams, “What in the hell am I doing here?” usually starts to talk about something. Nigel has seemingly been everywhere. He’s not conceited or annoying about it. He’ll just come out with a “Someone set me on fire in Samoa once, and I remember thinking . . .” something like that. Then the conversation will usually turn to books and British personages that I’ve never heard of, or have only faint knowledge of.

Petunia continues to dress like furniture. Yesterday she was wearing a floor-length caftan made of black velvet with a colorful dotted pattern all over it. She always wears two necklaces, which are these heavy silver chains with big pendants hanging from them. They kind of look like those things priests use at Easter mass in Catholic church to wave the incense around (what I used to call the “incense maracas”), or maybe tea balls. Petunia is married, but she is getting phone calls and flowers from what she calls her “harmless flirtation.”

There is something about Petunia that makes me feel like I have met her 50 times over. I think what it is is that Petunia is kind of an amalgam of several people I met who had a lot they felt they needed to say about how they disliked America, and were absolutely compelled to say it—not to me, just near me. Like they were speaking in code, and I probably wouldn’t get it. They were usually things I agreed with, or agree with—issues I know all about because I live there.

Sometimes, when Petunia looks at me during one of these talks I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t see a person—she sees a McDonald’s franchise. Or Mickey Mouse. Pick your mass marketing symbol.

But what can you do?

Actually, Petunia is very nice. None of this is a big deal. But we’re all just stuck with one another. Everyone is very interested in what the others are doing. When people go into the library, they read the book to see what the others have checked out, and then report on it at dinner. We are all spies.

Except for Ron, who’s pretty low-key. He calls me Marion. I haven’t bothered to correct him. It’s fine with me.

1:41 PM

Two hours and twenty minutes until the tea tray. I’ve stopped eating lunch because it's way too much food, so I tend to get very antsy for that tea tray. I even have a little tea tray song that plays in my head. Trevor played me this song called Gay Bar by the Electric Six before I left. It kind of goes like this:

I want to take you to a gay bar
I want to take you to a gay bar
I want to take you to a gay bar, gay bar, gay bar

And in my mind it goes:

Why don’t you bring up the tea tray?
I’m really hungry for the tea tray
I want the cakes from the tea tray, tea tray, tea tray

Sometimes, the tea tray actually comes up a little early, like at 3:45. When I go out, I’m usually the first person to see how many cakes are on there. These cakes are so good—and if I was a less honest person, I could take as many as I wanted. But I take the allotted amount. I consider this really virtuous, because these are seriously good cakes. Here. I took a little picture of them yesterday, just to make you all burn with jealousy:

6:00 PM, afternoon tea tray report: plain and chocolate covered digestives. That’s A-OK by me. 25 minutes until The Sherry. We’ll probably have a fire in the garden room, because Hubert was going to take Nigel to what sounds like the equivalent of Home Depot to buy the axe he has wanted so badly.

Number of badgers spotted: 0
Number of DVDs watched: 2
Number of days left: 19

18 February 2004

Unbelievably, I haven’t written for two days. So, I’m starting first thing this morning (9:52 AM). Actually, we’ve already had an adventure this morning. We went into the Pictish caves, the ones Queen Victoria called “interesting.” We are now quite a happy little group, and we went together after breakfast. There is frost on the ground this morning, but it is wonderfully sunny.

I’ll start with my birthday, February 16th. I left, as I had promised to do, after breakfast, maybe around 10:30 or so. I walked up the drive, and within five minutes, a bus came by and I flagged it down. Margaret had informed me that I could take the 49, 77, 77x . . . pretty much any bus that came by. It was a grey day, and the ride was about 45 minutes. I saw such fascinating sights as the hospital, the Tesco center, the Safeway, and Dalkeith, before the bus wound around. And then suddenly, we were going up the North Bridge, and I jumped off. It was very misty and grey, like I said, but Edinburgh is beautiful. Aside from a list of things I wanted to buy (simple things—roll of tape, some bath salts or oil, bottle of whiskey for group consumption) and the thought that I wanted to go online, I had no agenda.

I walked around, down Princes Street, up the side streets, making squares until I got my bearings. I ended up on High Street (or High Road—I remember it as ”high”), and then walked around the university area. I ended up going for lunch at a place called The Elephant House, which was very cute and trendy—elephants stenciled everywhere. It turns out that it calls itself “the birthplace of Harry Potter,” because it was the coffee shop that J.K. Rowling worked in. Some coffee shop. I thought it was a grim little place that she worked in—this place is lovely. I sent some e-mails from the Edinburgh Tourist Center, which I’d gone into in an attempt to find out where the closest internet café was. They had a nice, completely free room of computers there, and I was able to get on line next to a woman who was mumbling to herself in Spanish while rocking and laughing. Amazing view out the window. Dim and grey, yes, but Edinburgh is a really majestic place built to suit that kind of weather.

Basically, the rest of the afternoon was spent wandering through the mist, going in and out of shops. An inordinate amount of time was spent in an attempt to try to find a roll of cellotape (oh, think of the hilarity if I had asked for Scotch tape). My black boots, which feel comfortable enough walking around New York suddenly were killing me. So, I really wanted to stop walking, or maybe do something a little more constructive than go in and out of places like Marks and Spencer and the Post Office—which, again, was cleverly hidden inside of a store. What is it with the Scottish hiding these Post Offices?

Finally went down to Princes Street to catch the bus back at 5:30. The wacky misadventure starts here.

I got on the 77x, which I knew for certain went past Hawthornden, though the driver didn’t know where it was. He confirmed Bonnyrigg and Polton, so I gave him the pound and got on. It occurred to me only when I had gotten on to the bus that it was probably going to take a different route, since I’d come in on a 49. But how different could it be, I figured? If I timed the ride and followed the route, I’d be able to get back. Famous last words.

He cut through the Poltonhall Estates, which is a housing development with curvy roads. I knew from one other bus trip that the exit road out of the Poltonhall Estates was very close to the start of the Hawthorden drive. But that time the driver had known where Hawthornden was, it was daylight, and I was able to see where I was and judge from signs and trees where I was supposed to be. No such luck this time. It was completely pitch black—couldn’t see a thing out the window, and if I hit the button to request a stop somewhere along the road and got it wrong . . . then I’d just be stuck on a Scottish road in the dark. And that would be bad. Very bad. So I decided that the best thing was to ride to the next stop. Well, the bus kept going down a road that wasn’t familiar at all, and I jumped off at the next stop, because I didn’t want to go too far. I figured I was still within range of Hawthornden. Where I ended up was a dark street of houses. No shops or phone boxes, not that a phone would have helped me, as I just realized that I’d written the number down on a different sheet of paper. I’d recopied addresses on to a fresh sheet that morning and left it off.

This was a particularly hopeless looking street. It was damp, and water was running down a drain. My logic was that I’d cross the road and wait at the stop on the opposite side. No matter what bus came along, I’d be able to get somewhere. Then I could find a phone, call home, get the number of the payphone from one of you, and call the castle to get directions. Not a bad plan, right? I mean, in absence of an actual good plan, it was a plan, and a plan is better than no plan.

The bus that came along was a 145 or something. Nothing I’d ever heard of. I asked the driver if he knew Hawthorden—of course he didn’t. But he said that he went to Bonnyrigg. Bonnyrigg was fine. I figured I could catch the bus back from there, or even walk. It was a very bad time to walk, but at least I could get back.

As we were driving along, though, about a minute later, I was able to see just enough out the window to catch a glimpse of the castle gate (a miracle, since there are no lights, no sign, nothing at all). Actually, what I think I spotted was the gatekeeper’s house, which just looks like any other house, so how I knew that it was the castle is somewhat of a mystery and a miracle, but I whacked the button and lo and behold, I had made it.

I was so happy.

Then I saw the drive.

Ah, the lovely drive, that winding path through the trees that is totally secluded and has no lights at all and at the time was just a pitch black opening going into nowhere.


The drive was honestly much, much more frightening than the thought of being stuck on the side of the road. The castle is fairly far back, totally out of sight. And if you’d spent almost a week hearing things about all the bloody battles that were fought around (“plenty of places to dump a body around here”), the quiet (definitely one of those places where you could scream and scream and no one would hear you), the wildlife, and the “feral youth from Bonnyrigg,” you’d have thought twice about going down that dark drive as well. I couldn’t even see the path. I could see NOTHING. (Mind you, it was only 6:30.)

Do even need to mention the badgers?

But what was I going to do? Stand there all night?

So I started walking. I made up a little song to scare away any creatures that came along. (The noise, I mean. The song itself was very good. I think it went something like this:

Little creatures
of the forest
please do not bite me
‘cause I am human
and I will stomp you,
so please just scurry
and do not bite me.
I know you’re furry
but I am bigger
and this is scary
so do not bite me.
Little creatures
can you hear me?
This is me singing,
so do not bite me.

It kind of looped on and on, and it even had a little whistling part in it. A pretty relevant song to make up off the top of your head in the dark, I think.)

Of course, I’d also been entertained for days with stories about Ben Jonson coming to visit William Drummond (owner of this castle from 1580 until 1620 or thereabouts, also the poet, generally classified by the assembled as “second rate”). Ben Jonson walked here from London (and he was 300 lbs or something), so I figured that if Ben Jonson could walk from London (without even the benefit of the bus from Bonnyrigg or the Poltonhall estates) than Maureen Johnson could walk down the drive.

And so I did.

I was so happy when I walked back in.

The remnants of the tea tray were still there, and I grabbed a chocolate digestive out of some kind of joy of being alive. Then I pulled out the whiskey and went downstairs.

Nigel has been building fires in the Garden room for the last few days (in the fireplace, not just randomly), so I felt like I was getting the true Scottish experience—come in from the wet, dark, somewhat alarming outdoors, get whiskey, stand by fire. Nigel was showing us a review of his wife’s new book, which included a big picture, and was explaining that he had to take out someone at the [a famous newspaper] or something because he gave a very bad review. And then Petunia came in and gave me a hard-painted card! It’s really beautiful. I am tremendously outclassed here.

Ah. Lunch is here very early. (11:30) Coffee and banana. Nice. But what’s this? NO POST? Come on, people. Granted, I’ve only mailed a few things, but I’m trapped in a castle with limited access to ANYTHING.

WAIT! A noise. I checked again. POST FROM DAPHNE!

Daphne is the winner, having sent 3 letters so far. This is the 4th. This is postmarked Feb. 13th, so I guess we’re looking at about 5 days, generally. I keep the envelopes. That’s how much I like getting mail. Daphne has sent me a sequence of extremely suave guys on vintage 1960s-70s postcards. I got those at dinner on the 16th, so I’ll use that to get the story back on track.

So, Petunia came down and gave me a card, and then I felt bad for everything I’d said about her just the night before. After dinner, Nigel came down with a signed copy of his last book.

Anyway. That was my birthday.

Yesterday was blazingly sunny (as is today). I worked all day in the study, which is a modern room that was extremely well-done, and looks absolutely authentic. It’s authentic right down to the fact that it has absolutely no heat. I actually dragged the big electric fire in from the drawing room—so I was a bit of a . . . what was that burger that had one side hot, one side cold? That was me. My left leg was more or less on fire the entire day, and my right side was slowly going numb. But the view out of the study goes right out over the gorge, with the river right below, and the place is full of sunlight. I was actually blinded from about 3:00-4:00 and had to cover my face to be able to see.

Last night same as other nights. Drawing room. Tea and coffee. Reading. Talking. We were all trying to use the phone, so I wasn’t able to call much.

The regularity of our schedule is somewhat amazing. It never varies. Wake up at the same exact time every day (for me 8:15-8:30). Dress. Go down to have the same breakfast. Chat. Go upstairs at 9:15-9:30 (except this morning we all went and poked around in the caves). Can usually smell lunch or dinner cooking from about 10:30 AM on, which actually puts me off. (Makes the day seem short and weird.) Lunch arrives between 11:30 and noon. Usually decide around 2:00 that I need my daily fresh air and go for a short walk. Tea arrives between 3:30 and 4:00, which is just when the sunlight wears off and things start going purple and pearly grey. Head downstairs at 6:30. Dinner at 7:00. Get up from the table around 7:45. Go to the drawing room and sit around. At 8:45 or so someone always says, “It’s only 8:45. Can you believe it?” Agatha normally goes to bed at 9:00. Nigel, Ron and I are usually the last ones there. I either read, or talk down there. Once I came up early to watch a DVD. I tend to take my bath at 11:30, and then do things until 12:30 or 1:00.

Little variations are an extremely big deal. We’ve eaten in the dining room twice. I went to Bonnyrigg once. I switched breakfast cereals yesterday.

Some views around my room this morning:

The desk. This letter is actually up on the screen. Almost eerie, isn’t it?

Petunia’s card, depicting a typical day at Hawthornden. Those brownish things are drying rose pedals.

The Darth Vader Pez [given to me by my friend J. Krimble to keep me company] and Daphne’s men guard the precious cellotape.


Headline from yesterday’s paper. Not technically a badger spotting, is it?

In the next installment: I suffer a personality collapse and break the rules for the first time.

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Blogger Khy said...

I love that I get a new diary entry every day. It makes my day so much better.

4:32 AM  
Blogger B. said...

Question: Are ice cream trucks still circling areas of NY in the middle of February?

4:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Daily MJ blog posts ftw!

But anyways, I am very, very sorry on behalf of all British people that you had to put up with snobby British people looking at you like you were a MacDonalds and making you embarassed to say scotch tape. You'd think people would be smart enough to remember that plenty of Americans are not in fact rude, xenophobic etc etc, but apparently not. So sorry for the national suck levels here.

(I realise I just called this lady snobby and I don't know what happened the rest of the time and maybe she's actually a really nice person so, sorry about that...)

And the yummy yummy cake things look like Mr. Kipling's country slices (they probably are, those things are like crack), if you ever find yourself wanting to buy some :)

- Ali x

4:47 AM  
Blogger Reese said...

Smashing, truly truly smashing.

(It's been oh so long since I've commented. Months. What is wrong with me?)


4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oooh, I suppose you hadn't yet met J.K. Rowling at his point. Which would be why she wasn't popping out at you and eating your cakes. These are wonderful.

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love daily mj blogs. They just make me so happy. I think I'd go a little crazy, too, if I were locked up in a Scottish castle and being stalked by (as-of-yet) unseen badgers. I feel for you, mj!

5:23 AM  
Blogger Nadia Murti said...

I would freak out if I was left outside and kinda' lost...in Scotland...in the cold...with the badgers.

I Love the Badger Diaries. You can tell how much I Love them by the way I capitalize the L in "Love."

Also, Ron seems pretty cool.


6:06 AM  
Blogger Candy said...

I really love these entries! If you decide to publish them all in a real, physical book someday, I will definitely buy it :)

6:09 AM  
Blogger Lois Carlisle said...


can't wait for the next one! :)

6:11 AM  
Blogger Lexi said...

I very much enjoyed your "little creatures" song. When will the badgers make their next appearance?

6:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hahaha. :D I like the song, and that particular section of the entry. It sounds like something I would do (the singing).

6:25 AM  
Blogger Hollishillis said...


7:32 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

You know what's weird? Someone gave me that exact set of postcards for my birthday, which is also Feb. 16, a few years ago, quite possibly 2004.

Also, and I swear that I am not making this up, there is an entry on my Things to Do in This Lifetime for the Enhancement of Its Quality and Enjoyment list that reads, "see a badger in the wild."

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The song made me laugh out loud.

You're kind of crazy. I approve of the craziness. It makes me smile.

7:42 AM  
Blogger AnneB said...

Don't you dare post any earlier in the day or I'll never get anything done! This is the most fun I've had since...since...reading Terry Pratchett! Thanks for brightening a frighteningly cold and cloudy January!

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things:

1) On February 18th, 2004, my youngest brother was born. I'm kind of getting the shivers thinking you could have been writing this at the EXACT MOMENT it was happening. Creepy.

2) Your song was definitely a Pooh Bear song.

7:58 PM  
Blogger hannah said...

this is so wonderful! you should really publish it or something because its really entertaining.

3:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Tesco's!!! Marks and Spencer!!! I visited my friend who was studying abroad in Ireland last year, and those were two of my favorite places. Yum. :D The suspense of whether or not you ever sighted a badger is torture!!! :) I'm totally loving the daily updates.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Colt said...

Those little cakes look like a bog ol' pot of awesome! and walking alone in the darkness of Scotland sounds way scary. I would have started to feel like David Naughton from An American Werewolf in London....creepy!

5:05 AM  

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