I Don't Know Where I’m Going
The film 'I Know Where I'm Going', seafood in Oban, and eating notes from a stop off in Glasgow
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is about the film I Know Where I’m Going, a stop off in Oban on the way to Colonsay, and with eating notes from a stop off in Glasgow.
If you’d like to pre-order my book SMALL FIRES, AN EPIC IN THE KITCHEN (out Aug 25) from an independent bookshop, how about Mount Florida in Glasgow, Pages of Hackney, or the London Review of Books bookshop? Let me know if any other indie shops have pre-orders on their websites and I will share those links too!
I Don't Know Where I’m Going
In Oban, a cancelled ferry: it had to be! No passage to Colonsay today. Not weather, though, but crew illness. In the film I Know Where I’m Going the heroine Joan Webster gets caught up by a storm that means she cannot get the boat to an island in the Hebrides called ‘Kiloran’ – in reality, the name of a town on Colonsay. Joan takes a sleeper train from London, intent on marrying an older industrialist who has rented the island. She shouts out of the window to her middle-class bank manager father as the train departs – ‘And darling, don’t worry about me, I know where I’m going!’ The train speeds up the country, efficient and keeping to a printed itinerary that Joan is handed by an employee of her fiancée. Joan likes the certainty promised by great wealth, which means employees are always everywhere to remember her drinks order (gin and Dubonnet), and carry her luggage, and remind her when to wake up. Her father says, ‘You can’t marry Consolidated Chemical Industries!’, to which she replies, defiant, ‘Can’t I? As the train powers through the landscape, Joan wishes for a smooth passage to her husband-hoard; she has no mother so perhaps she takes after her bank manger father in her choice. However, off the train, Joan is tripped up by the weather and her unplanned fancy for the poorer but ‘true’ laird of Kiloran, played by the singular and alluring Roger Livesey. Attempting to escape her feelings, Joan pleads with the ferryman to take her despite oncoming storms, but he will not. In her desperation she pays a poor younger man to take her, offering enough money that he can afford to marry the ferryman’s daughter. Everyone becomes a potential employee to get Joan what she wants! However, the storm sends the boat into the Corryvreckan – in reality the third largest whirlpool in the world – and they all almost drown, and return to shore.
We strained to see evidence of the Corryvreckan whirlpool on the nautical charts on a phone as we waited in Oban, but it just said ‘dangerous tidal flows’. Water meets water at different heights between two islands that the ferry would pass by when we eventually caught it. How big was the ferry? Could we pass by safely? In the film the whirlpool catches Joan and spins her round to face her desires. Despite the political undertones of Joan’s instinctive preference for the ‘real’ laird as opposed to a ‘fake’ one, the lesson to pay attention to the weather and to love is romantic, if difficult to follow. And no amount of money could have prevented the storm or calmed the Corryvreckan.
Unlike Joan, however, we did not have a beautiful woman called Catriona in a crumbling house with large Irish deerhounds to put us up while we waited overnight for the next ferry and were relieved that CalMac ferries provided money for a hotel and a meal. The Columba Hotel did have the gothic atmosphere of the film though, built in dark granite in the late Victorian period, with a creaking antique lift that shut you in with a cage-like mechanical gate. In place of the ceilidh in the film where local residents dance and sing to celebrate the wedding anniversary of an elderly couple, our hotel room was next to a pub with an amped up band playing pop rock hits into the night. However, we did have a heap of the smallest, freshest mussels cooked with wine and shallots on a gas hob set up on the quay next to the ferry by a flirtatious man in wellies and shorts and leather cowboy hat for £4.50. And langoustines in garlic butter and a very good prawn sandwich made with wholemeal Kingsmill bread and local prawns and a cup of tea. Also, some oysters, though I should have heeded my knowledge that it was spawning season – they were too large and lacked the enlivening freshness of UK oysters between September – April. And Sam did see a golden eagle when we eventually arrived on the island – though unlike the one in the film, it was not trained, or called ‘Torquil’ after the laird Torquil MacNeil, whose equivalent we did not meet or fall in love with.
When we finally took the ferry to Colonsay it was very windy with quite big seas and the vibrations that ran through the vessel set off all the car alarms onboard and they sung in a deranged chorus as if saying ‘danger, the Sirens are on the boat!’ And I felt seasick and ate biscuits and crisps and drank tea to help with it and was reminded of how at sea it is acutely evident how ‘provisioning’ – or having the right type and amount of food – is a matter of safety.
Like Joan Webster, I found that pausing on a journey can introduce unforeseen pleasures. Thanks to generous people on Twitter and local friends I had lots of places to try in Glasgow en route to Oban, and look forward to returning in September when I will do an event for my book at my friend Katia’s shop, Mount Florida Books.
We took a train from Glasgow to visit Sam’s best friend Ben who took us on a walking tour of as many Edinburgh bookshops as we could fit into an afternoon. A few doors down from the beautiful Lighthouse Books was an ice cream and sweetie shop and I bought a ‘Tunnock’s teacake’ milkshake, which was appropriately like a biscuity chocolate milkshake. Among the excellent bookshops we visited were Edinburgh Books, McNaughtan’s (where Ben works and where he showed me some amazing antiquarian cookery books), Typewronger, Argonaut Books, Toppings, and Lighthouse Books.
Apart from the mussels, possibly the best thing I ate on the trip was a samosa salad from Shandar Sweets & Pan House on Albert Drive in Glasgow: a chopped up and heated samosa in a box and garnished with pieces of potato, chickpeas, mild raw onion, and cucumber and then ladlefuls of various dressings – tamarind, chilli, and yogurt. We walked around the block and sat on a park bench in a large square that served the tenement flats that surrounded it and anyone passing by. There was a playground and a grassy area and a basketball court. The samosa salad was an unprecedented encounter with sogginess as a desirable texture. A salad that is both fried and very wet! For me, an unforeseen pleasure. The deep fried pastry and spiced filling gave the dish depth, but it was also comfortingly soft and easy to eat and made exciting on the palate by the combination of sour, hot, cool, dressings.
After a visit to Good Press books in Glasgow, which has the most divine and comprehensive selection of zines, pamphlets, art books, small press, self- and independently- published books ever, we went round the corner to Outlier for lunch. It is a very beautiful space with wooden floors and 19th century structural steel pillars and people rolling out pastries on a big table. There was also a rack of aubergines ready to be fried, one component of the parmigiana sandwich we shared: generous slices of breaded fried aubergine, tomato sauce, basil leaves, mozzarella, ricotta in a soft fresh ciabatta baked in house. Superb! In addition, we shared a chicken parmo sandwich, which while good, was dominated by bacon jam. Also, a house-made apricot and elderflower cooler drink. I was sorry not to have enough appetite left for one of their pastries. I had another version of aubergine parmigiana roll at Pret a Manger near the British Library subsequently, but the aubergine was woefully undercooked.
Really good pizzas and salad and fried peppers with BYOB and heavy metal music at Errol’s Hot Pizza near a friend’s art gallery. I ordered a margarita but we all shared different pizzas but agreed that the margarita was the best.
A smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, a dill and cabbage roll (genius!) and coffee to fuel the drive to Oban, as well as several loaves of bread to take to Colonsay, from Deanston Bakery in Glasgow.
Also: delicious meals made by friends like Matt’s jerk chicken, Phil’s figs, and Rachel’s Persian chicken and rice, Kate’s oat milk latte, beers drunk with Katia in her bookshop, and a Lebanese takeaway.