AGNI Online
  Subscribe      Donate    Stay Connected    Submit      About Us  

Carnbeg-Japan®

by Ronald Frame


The Tollbooth tower overlooks a cobbled square. This is the heart of Carnbeg, which itself is at the very centre of the Scottish heartland.

At the far end of the square, Briggait begins, while in the other direction lies Mercat Street. Off the square run several lanes, narrow and high-walled and an arcane geography in themselves, connecting with the main streets although most visitors don’t know this. (Quite a few Carnbeg residents are none the wiser either, and stay out of them.)

There are shop fronts on three sides.

A wholemeal baker’s called “The Girnel.” A coffee lounge, on the Seattle principle, trading under the name “Rockafellas” (no apostrophe). An ironmonger’s which seems to be of another age, with wooden floors and brushes and besoms hanging down beneath the signboard, “Meldrew’s.” A milliner’s, “Felaine” in cursive Métro-script, from even longer ago. But between the hat shop and the wet fish shop with marble slabs is a “hi-tec computer center,” offering an array of state-of-the-art electrical wizardry (all Japanese-branded). A pet shop has live puppies and kittens in the window, and is a reliable crowd-pleaser. A wine shop sells whiskies in its window. A bookshop called “Sybil’s Cave” has put on display current publications on Carnbeg and Perthshire (one cover shows this very cobbled square).

In the middle of the large open space there’s a mounting stone with worn steps. The old stone cross beside it used to be considered too papish, and on top of the column—because there was no consensus on whose statue to erect—large brass astrolabe was, mystifyingly, given pride of place: where no one could read it. It is there still, measuring the movement of heavenly bodies above people’s heads, day and night, year in year out, and only the white doves (descendants of escapees from “The Girnel’s” first hippie owners) to double-check the accuracy of those calibrations.

So far, so authentic.

In fact the square should have several files of parked cars—as well as the ones you would normally pass at the kerbside. There should be oil drips on the cobbles, and insidious green weeds, and blobs of dropped chewing gum, and a blown sweetie-wrapper or two. On Wednesdays there ought to be an open-air market, with a few stalls reappearing on a Saturday in a half-hearted reprise. There’s usually noise, and rubbish. But this square is pristine, exemplary: the very paragon and more of a Scottish country-town square.

The handful of cars don’t change, nor (except for “Pets R Us”) do the displays in the shop windows. The flowers in the hanging baskets are real, but too perfectly perfect. No dog cocks a back leg at a lamppost, and the lamp-standards’ orange strip bulbs never even get a chance to go on the blink.

The sightseers are impeccably behaved. They follow the raised umbrella of their tour-leader, and if it’s raining they still follow, donning plastic capes and hoods which are part and parcel of the authentic “Carnbeg Experience.” Rain is much the same anywhere you go, but sticklers for verisimilitude will still recognise this isn’t the real thing. How heathery does it smell? The fumes from the distillery—“peat reek”—very lightly impregnate the bona fide article; and, back in Scotland, coal smoke from house lums will weigh on top of those barley-based toxic undertones. Here, seven thousand miles away, there are discreet limits to exactitude.


~


In 1934 Nobuko Kusuda first set eyes on Perthshire, and for almost everyone in Carnbeg it was a first chance to see an oriental at close quarters.

He stayed for eighteen months, rooming with Mrs. McAllister and her niece on Balmoral Road, while he was inducted into the abstruse mysteries of whisky distilling, courtesy of the Geikie family.

Steeping barley to green malt, kiln drying, smoke composition (peat/coke, anthracite), moisture percentages, combing, mashing, extraction, humidity levels, fermentation, distillation, maturation. Distillers had their own vocabulary: worts, sparge, draff, foreshots, feints, worm.

When Kusuda returned home, he took with him the warm wishes of the many friends he’d made in Carnbeg. As agreed beforehand, he became sole distributor of the Geikies’ blends in his own country, where the views of purple glen and silver rapids illustrated on the labels became familiar to aficionados.

During the War, supplies ceased. Trade was very difficult in the aftermath. The taste for the Carnbeg malts remained, however, and Kusuda set about building a mill and malt house and two copper stills. He then recreated the flavours using the very best resources to hand: from spring water to barley to casks of porous oak. He named the results “Balmoral Road,” and produced a label which showed Mrs. McAllister’s sandstone bungalow and its monkey-puzzle tree garden. (Look again. A young woman is wheeling her bicycle out of the gate, about to set off on a journey and tantalisingly getting no further than one foot up on to the pedal.)

The new blends of Japanese-distilled Scotch whisky did very well in a newly prosperous Japan.

A younger generation joined the family company, two sons, who combined their father’s enthusiasm and vision with their Kamikakimoto mother’s cold exactitude, her ruthlessness even.

In the 1970s, in stagnating Britain, Geikie’s went into the doldrums, and one of the sons was delegated with the task of offering to buy it. But the Geikies’ pride couldn’t countenance a sale to Japan, of all places. Tetsuya Kusuda returned from Carnbeg, telling his brother what a strange and backward town it was, and wondering what on earth their father ever saw in it.

To his father, on the train back to Tokyo one day, he happened to mention a detail: the taxi driver, called Joe MacSomething, who drove him about Carnbeg while he was there. He had Japanese eyes, gentle but definitely slanted, which kept watching him in the windscreen mirror. Kusuda Senior was silent for a long while, watching the scenery streak past.

~

The sons now turned their attention to America instead. There were huge marketing opportunities on the other side of the Pacific. They paid some Hollywood stars to appear in advertisements, which really set the Kusada ball rolling.

In the late 1980s the Kusuda company put in another offer for Geikie’s, at the father’s insistence. But the success of Balmoral Road in North America felt very much like an insult to the board of directors in Carnbeg—something which appeared to come as a shock to Kusuda Senior—and once again they refused.

The Scottish press had some fun at the Kusudas’ expense. FAMILY’S YEN TO OWN DISTILLERY THWARTED. And HOSTILE JAPANESE REPELLED.

In 1992 Nobuko Kusuda was eighty years old. He headed one of the most profitable privately-owned businesses in Japan. Before the bad times hit the economy, and before he was quietly persuaded to step down and hold an executive position only, he created either his great folly or his grand monument.

A facsimile of a small Scottish town, to join the other examples of European towns rebuilt in various theme park locations about Japan. (A business plan for Carnbeg-Japan ® was pursued by the sons, anticipating healthy levels of profitability.)

Only one Tokyo newspaper thought to mention a salient fact, that Nobuko Kususda hadn’t been back to Carnbeg since 1936. “But I have never forgotten. I think about it every day. I think of the people I met there.”

When Kusuda died in 2006, he left instructions that certain items of correspondence - the later ones in envelopes overlaid with a Perthshire postmark and directed RETURN TO SENDER - should be destroyed unread. His sons were, if nothing else, quite unsentimental, and did as their father had bid.

His ashes were placed inside the Tollbooth.

The Tollbooth tower overlooks a cobbled square. This is the heart of Carnbeg, which itself is at the very centre of the Scottish heartland.

At the far end of the square, Briggait begins, while in the other direction lies Mercat Street. Off the square run several lanes. . .

In the shops the assistants stand ready, as if they might be really going to serve customers, as if they are actually flesh-and-blood. But they don’t move, their expressions are unchanging.

Meanwhile the first motor-coach arrives and decants its load of very live, curious, impeccably behaved passengers.

Every day at 9 am (until sunset in the summer, and 6 pm otherwise), half a world away the “Carnbeg Experience” begins afresh.

 

Ronald Frame has a story in New Sudden Fiction (Norton, January '07). Twenty Carnbeg stories have been published in magazines and journals in North America and Australia, and another fifteen broadcast on BBC national radio in Great Britain. (There was a book collection in 2004.) That leaves, he reckons, another 100 in his laptop. He can't stop writing them. A Carnbeg website is in the offing. (11/2006)


End of Article
AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI