andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

A Bohemian Quarter’s Blood Harmonies

Translation of an article that appeared in El País on 14th July last year, when we were in Madrid: I’ve not quite spent the whole year translating it, but just about! Starting with the title, any Spanish speakers will recognise I’ve opted for style over literality in the translation. You can read the original here.

Photos courtesy of my friend and colleague Manicpopthrills, who’s just back from Canada.

Thanks as always to my utterly wonderful Spanish teacher, Ana Maria Duffy, for her help with the translation. The infelicities are all mine.

 

It’s difficult to imagine that anything, beyond the ding of the paper boy’s bell, changes the Pax Americana that reigns in the gentle slopes of Westmount. Leonard Cohen, who died a year past November, was born here in 1934 amongst anglified houses and perfect flowerbeds; in a city set apart, in a minority set apart. Westmount is a Jewish quarter in Catholic Montreal, an Anglophone enclave in a city where above all else French is spoken; a wealthy pool surrounded by difficulties of financial and other sorts.

By the side of the St Lawrence

When Leonard was 8 years old, the most vibrant avenue in the city, St-Laurent, caught alight with an anti-Jewish gathering. In full cry, the far right had chosen the street that separates the French-speaking quarters from the English, to accuse the Jewish shopkeepers of selling ‘indecent’ clothing to girls, as if, instead of the beatific Montreal, they were in sacrilegious New York.

The demonstration ended with smashing of shop windows. Meanwhile, in his privileged redoubt, Leonard, a clothes shop owner’s son, was reading his Spiderman comics peacefully. In Westmount, the sole contact with the Catholic, French, population which flows like lava round it on all sides, were the Quebecois women who arrived, daily, to work as domestics.

But this security didn’t last long. At 9 years old, he lost his father. And it’s possible that, in the garden of his then house at 599 Belmont Avenue, one of his ties still lies buried. When he heard of the death, Leonard took a tie from the wardrobe, opened it, and put a piece of paper inside it he had written on. Then he buried it beneath the snow.

This ritual, in changing form, would repeat itself in the future with one constant: writing as liberation from sadness. And Westmount would always be the place where a tie was buried beneath the snow.

The rest of the world awaited, and close to home gave him his first opportunities. As an adolescent he reached out into his city as far as St-Catherine (the street map of Montreal is very saintly), the seat of night life, jazz, cafés with marble topped tables, the underworld, and men who wear raincoats even in summer. The far-right fanatics were right only in one thing: the city, much to their chagrin, is the Canadian New York, the difference being that the Montrealese give three kisses when greeting each other.

Montreal by night

 

Today, St Catherine Street has completely lost the clandestine air it had in Cohen’s youth, and stirs with the spirit of businesses, and the multiple points of entry to the Subterranean City: kilometres of shops beneath the surface, taking refuge from the 30 below zero temperatures which can hit in winter.

In an old bookshop, you can find a translation of the Gacela del Mercado Matutino by Garcia Lorca, and coming across a reference to Arco de Elvira de Granada, you find yourself for the first time in Andalucía.

After a while, you buy yourself a second hand guitar. At the back of your house, on a tennis court on Murray Hill Park, you get to know a Spanish lad surrounded by girls – the mechanism of seduction, the seduction itself, always urged upon Cohen – the strumming of a guitar.

In broken French, Leonard asked him for lessons. The Spanish boy only turned up three times to Cohen’s home, but it was enough to teach him 6 flamenco melodies. On the fourth the teacher failed to show, and when Leonard called at his pensión to find out what happened to him, the landlord told him he had committed suicide.

‘Those six tunes … have been the basis of all my songs and all my music,’ he confessed, moved, on collecting a prize in Asturias in 2011.

His world grew bigger when he entered McGill University, the main academic destination for English speakers. It coincided with the climax of the conflict between the two communities. Cohen began to be known as a poet, but expressed himself in a language that, for the majority of his countrymen, is foreign. Refusing to speak French, in that period one could hear in the shops ‘speak white!’ (also expressed as ‘speak Christian!’) Today, in the businesses that locate on the ancient frontiers between languages, you can hear a crossbred ‘Bonjour hi!’ greeting customers without distinction.

The politics of language underlies the smallest public message in Montreal life. French is the only official language of Quebec since 1977, but Montreal, the most populous city in the region, is a bilingual universe, with two universities and various hospitals English-speaking. Even so, on notices, English will appear in second place and in appreciably smaller lettering.

Although some of his lyrics, his own or adopted, exude political flavours (The Partisan, Democracy, First We Take Manhattan) Cohen always skirted around the political conflict between communities that has shaken Quebecois life during the last few decades, including the toughest years, of attacks by the Quebec Liberation Front. When, at the end of the Seventies, a Francophone journalist pressed him to pronounce on why he hadn’t supported the region’s struggle for independence, he replied with some sharpness: ‘I’m for the Free State of Montreal. I don’t live in a country, I live in a neighbourhood, in a universe completely set apart from the others. I’m neither Canadian nor Quebecois. I am, and always will be, from Montreal.’

His political positions were always, like his dress sense, elegant. He crossed all fashions on tip toe because he always knew that although they had their moment in the sun, at some point they would reach the shade.

His music doesn’t lay claim to the city, except in the sense of the shadow it casts in the resonances of litanies and choirs of his synagogue. He loved Montreal, and yet also hated it, and, in either case, as he confessed in his early twenties, he had to return to it now and again to, as he put it, renew his neurotic allegiances.

Even so, one of his most famous songs deals with a subtle journey; and it is Suzanne (Suzanne Verdal, a platonic relationship) who leads him by the hand to her ‘place by the river.’ She goes dressed in the ‘rags and feathers,’ of the Salvation Army store in Notre-Dame, near the Cathedral. It’s Suzanne who offers him tea and oranges that come, all the way from China, to the port, long ago one of the most important entry points for trade and immigrants in North America.

The song mentions ‘our lady of the harbour,’ which in truth is Our Lady of Good Help, a 17th century church, built and rebuilt several times since, which served as a safe place of pilgrimage for Catholics alarmed by Iroquois aggression, and which also acted as a meeting place for the small community of anglophone Catholics. A sculpture of Christ, crowned, tops the church (on a solitary wooden tower, the song asserts) and turns its back on the faithful entering by the front door; he is turned instead towards the river, with arms spread, blessing the departing sailors.

The beatific Montreal

A walk around the area of Vieux-Port, the old port, offers the possibility of attending a Cirque du Soleil spectacle, in their permanent site in Quebec, or simply to enjoy the views, at the bottom of Jacques-Cartier, a majestic bridge, currently illuminated for Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017.

The whole of Montreal is a gift of the St Lawrence River, which splits Canada’s geography in a gigantic breach. The majority of Quebec’s inhabitants arrived across it, like the Cohens, fleeing the Russian pogroms. From the rest of the world, people got off the boats and travelled along the street above to found, at some point, their little Italy, their tiny slice of Greece, their piece of Portugal. In the Seventies, precisely in the ancient Jewish quarter reconquered by the Portuguese, Cohen staked his claim on a Montreal refuge from the harvest of his successes in the rest of the world. In front of the three storey house he built, the Portuguese park opens out, small and timid. A plaque and some tiles record the origins of its inhabitants. In the middle, a roofless kiosk serves as a refuge for musicians.

Following in Cohen’s footsteps in this Montreal that he never stopped leaving, but, with age, each time more sporadically, is as easy as imitating those of any other neighbourhood. You can buy bagels that, unlike those of New York, are smaller, malted, with honey and egg, and are therefore sweeter and more substantial. Leonard’s choice was the café-restaurant Bagel Etc. (St Laurent, 4320). For takeaway, it’s possible to get bagels direct in Fairmount Bagel (Fairmount Avenue, 74) not far away, and in St-Viateur Bagel (St Viateur 263).

For something to eat, treat yourself with a sandwich of delicious meat, smoked for days, which melts in the mouth when you sink your teeth in. There are many places to try a taste, but Cohen used to prefer Main Deli Steakhouse (St Laurent, 3864). A good alternative is Schwartz’s (St Laurent, 3895) where they keep, without any concession to interior design, the same atmosphere of years ago: bright frozen refreshments from previous decades; formica counters; veteran waiters threading conversations one with the other. For dinner, the musician would be seen at Moishe’s Steakhouse, an elegant, copper-toned, restaurant. Following the singer’s death, the back of the restaurant carries an enormous mural of his face and hat.

Spice Shops

The area of Plateau de Montreal, joins alongside Vieux-Montreal, that flanks the river, the oldest story in his city, told in this enormous extension of reticular streets.

A few years ago the cost of living in these ancient immigrant quarters went up massively, and, in part, it’s the fault of the last wave of ‘foreigners:’ that of well-off French who are transforming it into the perfect destination for the bohemian bourgeois (the naïve bourgeois boheme).

Already, they have domesticated St Denis Street with their craft ice-cream parlours and clothes shops, decorated with perfectly interchangeable ‘vintage’ items. In parallel, the main street, St-Laurent, keeps running wild, the true main artery of this Montreal, shabbier but more surprising with its Hungarian, Jewish, and Spanish spice shops (La Librairie Espagnole, on St Laurent, 3811, that in spite of its name is a grocery) its coffee shops and old bookstores like Westcott Books (St Laurent, 4065) where the books are so numerous and disorganised that it’s impossible to discover, after spending a short time there, where the bookseller is.

In a city overflowing with music, there is no lack of clubs, like the Pink Room, that occupies the upper floor of the Centro Social Español de Montreal (St Laurent, 4848), a meeting point for the tiny expatriate Spanish community.

It’s agreeable to get away from the brouhaha of the main streets, and to go into the outskirts and discover old synagogues, coquettish brick and wood houses, and a sight as Montrealese as the boats crossing the Saint Lawrence: the orange traffic cones of public works. These are, for the summer streets, like Christmas decorations: they arrive with the heat, because in the winter cold the asphalt dissolves like sugar, and therefore the good weather is the chance to repair it quickly.

Wandering through the streets, the visitor will discover the epicentre of Montreal’s poetry in the tranquil St-Louis, which for years hosted one of the most active creative movements in the city. The writers’ gatherings seethed beneath ceilings of buildings so Victorian and gloomy that they would have delighted Tim Burton.

In his own way, Leonard Cohen had taken Manhattan, and then Berlin, but for all his dwellings round the world, at the end he only owned his main residence in Los Angeles, where he died, and the house on the Plateau. Always, a Westmount neighbour of his testified, he maintained his connections with his community of origin. Knowing perhaps that his end was approaching, he entrusted his synagogue’s choir, Shaar Hashomayin, to record with him the songs on his last album, You Want It Darker.

The cemetery on the outskirts is an appendix to Mont-Royal, a mountain of the dead invaded by lawn and headstones, with a roll-call of alphabets and surnames that forever displays the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Lost between solid blocks of marble with the family names recorded on them, the difficulty of finding Leonard’s tomb tells you that the Cohen name is everywhere. To the eternal fan’s good fortune, there is a trail to identify the clothes shop owner’s son.

Placed in the earth, in the trail there is a small painting of a hand’s breadth with a black bird sitting still on a cable, like that of his song Bird on a Wire.

A Cohen tribute, this time in Toronto.

All pics copyright Mike Melville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hungary, Austria, and the Joy of Gilbert’s Polaroids

They were passing the Palinka round on the bus before 11 in the morning. That was even before we got near any wine!

It’s hard to believe that the wine tasting trip I spent in the company of the Redoubtable Mrs F, Sister C, the Magnificent László, and assorted  devotees of Hungarian wine, was last September. In some ways, it seems much shorter a time than that ago. In others, it seems much longer ago, and I blame that squarely on the Palinka.

Palinka, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is the local Hungarian equivalent of what, world wide, humans have been brewing up since the dawn of time when the means to make beer or wine are temporarily unavailable: other varieties include whisky, vodka and raki. In other words, the local spirit, which is almost always best treated with caution (or, in the case of whisky, exported to a gullible rest of the world as some sort of premium product).

Palinka’s immediate effect is a moderate to strong burning sensation. Then, without apparently taking the trouble to go as far as the stomach, the alcohol enters your bloodstream at throat level, producing an entirely pleasant warming feeling through the chest which, if you were up against it on the Eastern Front in the depths of winter, might well be a life-saver.

But enough of Palinka, because the main drink of choice on this tour of north-western Hungary was wine; and especially, red wine. Unfortunately the Hungarians don’t export much; because it’s fantastic stuff, especially when served, as it was on our second night of the tour, in the cellar of a truly magical restaurant with an introduction to each wine by the completely charming winemaker.

Actually, our favourite wine on the night was one which had made it over from Austria: Zweigelt. Of course, the two countries were originally all part of one empire, before all that fuss about Archduke Ferdinand if you remember, and on our first excursion across the border, it became obvious that, economically and culturally, there are still strong links. One fascinating (and non-wine-related) pair of excursions was to two palaces, one on each side of the border, that had been built by the Esterházy family.

Too soon, our time on the Hungarian side of the border was over: it’s a really beautiful part of the world, particularly when the autumn sun is shining. There’s no doubt that László’s presence, and that of his parents, who helped to organise the trips, wine tastings, and other events were crucial in making the whole thing so special.

 

 

However, we’d squeezed in an extra couple of nights to take in Vienna – or at least a taste of that ancient, complex city for future reference. Indeed, it was coming across, in the back pocket of a pair of jeans, the ticket to the Leopold Museum that reminded me I’d never finished writing up the trip: the ticket, left, showed the less famous of the Museum’s artists, Egon Schiele. In fact, the Schiele works were almost more interesting than those of Gustav Klimt, the main attraction, although, as so often, we didn’t really leave enough time to take in everything properly.

The other museum visit we squeezed in was to the Freud Museum. A strangely muted affair, set in the flat Freud occupied for most of his Vienna life, it consisted of quite a lot of very static displays which you kind of felt hadn’t changed much for years. However, the place was due a major renovation this year.

The most poignant aspect of the latter visit was, on leaving, learning that, within a month of Freud’s escape from Vienna – first to Paris, then London, the apartment block was used for ‘processing’ those Jewish residents who hadn’t had the resources or connections to get away. It was more than a little chilling.

However, our last day was spent doing something much more funky: a tour of Vienna with a Polaroid camera! How you reacted to this whole thing would depend on your age group: for a baby boomer, using these ancient, cranky machines that produced ‘instant’ photos might well be nostalgic; for millenials, perhaps more like a time travel trip into the digital dark ages.

Our guide, Gilbert, was a somewhat intense young fellow who took great interest – possibly too much for some – in the company history of Polaroid and its intellectual property assets. However, I did find it interesting, especially the Scottish connection (there was a Scottish factory); and once we were off, the main challenge was to use your precious shots – you only had 8 of them – to get the best image you possibly could. I’d love to say the pic of the tram was mine, but actually, as I dithered, Gilbert grabbed the camera and took the shot.

I would definitely, definitely, like to spend more time in Vienna, and definitely will go back to Hungary some day. The language in the latter country would have been a real problem in the upland areas without native speakers to help, whereas in Vienna, of course, perfect English was spoken when my stupidly overconfident forays into German got me into a linguistic dead end. In both places, the locals are friendly, and the Zweigelt is recommended!

Pics: Alison Ferguson

 

Three Weekends in May (3): Bridge of Orchy

Executive Summary: I had a great time at a songwriting weekend in the Highlands, and you should totally buy this album as all proceeds go to Cancer Relief UK

What a summer so far! June might have been a bit mixed, but it’s heading into July on a high: and the heatwave before that, in May, was pretty special too. Which brings me to the last of my three remarkable weekends that month, when, between the 25th and the 28th, I joined a songwriting get-together in a ski lodge near Bridge of Orchy.

 

Hat to keep off the sun, surprisingly (pic: James Whyte)

A ski lodge? In May? Actually, in many ways, the venture was very like the story of the building of the lodge itself, which, apparently, had been a case of a bunch of people from Edinburgh who knew each other, and liked skiing in this bit of the Highlands, getting together and building the place by themselves. A massive, rambling place which featured basic-but-clean accommodation in wooden clad rooms, its main attractions for a bunch of like-minded songwriters getting together and building a songwriting weekend together were:

a) it was cheap;

b) it was cut off from most modern amenities like internet contact (although the poor mobile signal was a bit of a chore for a couple of our number who were expectant grandparents); and

c) it was set amidst stunning scenery, which, unusually for the Highlands, was clearly visible in blazing sunshine that weekend and not covered in a combination of rain, mist and clouds of midges.

I was really boosted to be asked to come along. The whole weekend had happened already last year, so I felt a little like the new kid on the block: the rest of the group consisted of some people I knew, and most who I didn’t, or had only glimpsed across a crowded gig venue. However, it quickly became apparent that I was amongst genial, like-minded company. Although the place would have been a perfect setting for a murder mystery where songwriters disappeared, dispatched in a series of increasingly ingenious, music-related methods, no-one seemed homicidal. At least openly. I made my call home on the Friday night and relaxed, already feeling the benefit of not being able to check social media.

The secondary purpose of the weekend was to record some live work, with Gerry Callaghan, one of the organisers, at the digital desk. Gerry, an accomplished singer-songwriter himself, is also a very talented engineer and producer, as I knew already from his work on Norman Lamont’s new album. The set up was in the big room where we ate, sat and did most of our workshop activities, of which more in a minute. On the Friday night, it was Norman Lamont and Tricia Thom’s turn: as you can hear here (the link takes you to the album of the weekend, of which, again, more later). Tricia has a fantastic voice, and her delivery of ‘Crying in the Street’ is simply stunning.

On the Saturday morning, Norman started us off with a mindfulness session: if any of you are groaning internally, this was definitely at the unfussy, non-pretentious end of that sort of thing. Sitting in the sun in the Highland landscape, eyes closed, listening to the sound of the water in the burn and Norman’s dulcet tones is, like many other things that weekend, an experience I wished I could put in a bottle.

Songwriters disporting themselves in a Highland landscape. Pic: Ali Graham Barclay

 

Next up, the first workshop. Norman had us pairing up and walking round the ruined house a hundred yards or so up the track from the lodge. This was a strange blot on the landscape: a relatively modern place that had been smashed up, it appeared deliberately. According to Callum Carlyle, further up into the woods there was a clearing surrounded by the remnants of police incident tape, so maybe the place was the perfect setting for a slice of Highland noir after all…

Back at the lodge, Norman had us reflecting on what we’d discussed between us at the ruined house, and writing haikus individually. I must admit there was a part of me that groaned internally – I thought I’d finished with writing poetry – but I knew Norman’s intention: there are few greater examples of compression acting as a spur to creativity than the strict rules around the haiku form. We duly produced a number of poems and then, suitably inspired, paired up again and set about writing songs, Norman giving us a simple chord progression to set us off.

One of my efforts at haiku, with the ruined house that inspired it

 

 

 

 

My songwriting partner, James Whyte, was one of the group who fell into the ‘seen across a crowded gig venue’ category in acquaintance terms: bass player in Norman’s band, he’s also a talented singer-songwriter who really should release more of his own material. However, his EP, Ship, is out there on Bandcamp.

Co-writing a song with someone you’d kind of just met properly was interesting, to say the least! However, it was a fascinating insight into another person’s creative process. In the Highland sunshine, with the sound of the burn babbling beneath our feet, it wasn’t such a bad way to spend an hour!

James in reflective mood at the burn. Pic: Gerry Callaghan

That night, after dinner, we abandoned our own songs for the evening and just jammed: all the singer-songwriter favourites you might expect came out (I remember Neil Young getting a good airing) and some you wouldn’t. It was a great way to kick back.

The songwriting workshop the next day took things to a new level. Norman had asked us all to bring along a couple of books, and we put these in the middle. Then, pairing up again, one of us came up with a chord progression while another sang from one of the books. Yes, that’s right: sang, from one of the books! You’d be surprised how good that sounded: it was a bit like improv, and some of the results were, actually, quite inspiring.

The book-singing session. Fiona Thom in full flow. Pic: James Whyte

Next up, we were to come up with ten song titles for songs we hadn’t written yet. I struggled a bit with this – the title of anything I do is generally the last thing I come up with – but there was a buzz round the table as we discussed each other’s lists, and expressed views on which ones we wanted to write/have written.

I’ve said to a couple of people since that, as everyone dispersed from the main room to write the song title they’d chosen, it would have been fascinating to have had an MRI scanner to hand to see what bits of our brains were lighting up, because it would have given boffins a fair view of what inspiration looks like. Of course, it might have spoiled the moment slightly for us all to have had to get loaded into an MRI…

As I walked out of the lodge to my favourite songwriting spot next to the burn, my brain was buzzing particularly with two thoughts: the chord progression Gerry had chosen, E through F#m and G#m to A, was one I’d previously thought of as a good start to a song; and the way Callum had put a conversational part of a novel to it had worked particularly well.

Originally, my idea was for a song in the Paul Simon/Suzanne Vega type of mould, with a couple of street-smart New York types trading bitchy comments with each other. My song title was ‘Clara Said, Yesterday,’ so Clara, clearly, had to get things started. She told the narrator she’d made the coffee far too strong; but then, before my narrator had a chance to come back with some whip-smart reply, Clara was chuntering on again, something about a recipe. At that point, the narrative started to change: this wasn’t a meeting of equals in some trendy loft apartment after all. I think I wrote the third verse, with its emotional punch, next: once I had that in place, the rest followed.

We got 45 minutes to write something. In the end, I had something, and it was a complete song I’d had no idea I was going to write before the book-singing session. When we returned to the lodge, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who’d been inspired: not all of the great songs written in that brief period have made it out there yet (Ed Ritchie’s ‘Bookends,’ for example) but there are a couple of them on the album: Calum’s ‘Uphill’; and Norman’s stunning ‘10 Objects’.

Did I say album? Yes, dear reader, because, even if you weren’t with us on the weekend, some of the magic was bottled, with the best of sessions from the aforesaid Norman and Tricia, Calum, Impossible Songs (the husband and wife team of John and Ali Graham Barclay), Ed and myself all being engineered, produced, mixed and mastered by the irrepressible Mr Callaghan into a digital album that you can download on Bandcamp right now. What’s more, the proceeds will go to Cancer Relief UK, so please give it a listen and download what you enjoy: there’s some great stuff on there.

Ed Ritchie, aka Dog On A Swing, being mixed and mastered by Gerry Callaghan (pic: James Whyte)

As you’ll have gathered by now, I had a blast, and hope to go next year. Final thanks are due to Fiona Thom (aka Ms Fi of Ms Fi and the Lost Headband) who, having recorded a session last year, sat out the recording this time, and contributed a very useful workshop on performance; and Sarah, Gerry’s wife, who masterminded a meal plan for us that maximised good food whilst minimising cost and the need for fussy cooking.

 

The songwriters’ dance. So relieved the cleaning up of the lodge at the end is done (pic: James Whyte)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here for stuff that won’t be half as good as that album!

The Tank in the Attic: letting go of a literary career (and the stamps from Zanzibar)

It being a warmish, but not outstandingly sunny, day off yesterday, I decided to do a bit more de-cluttering of our loft. Main target was this Scorpion Tank, although collateral damage included several cardboard boxes I’d thrown up there ‘just in case,’ and my childhood stamp collection.

Before I get onto the tank and its occupants, a word on the stamp collection, which I plan to take to a shop in Edinburgh and, in all likelihood, sell for sweeties. I don’t ever recall being that interested in philately – it was just a thing you did as a kid back then, in those distant late Sixties/early Seventies days, and parents, their friends, and older siblings, all sent or gave you stamps because it was a thing you gave a kid back then. For example, I have a total of three first day covers of the Forth Road Bridge opening in 1964 (I was precisely two years old at the time).

Of course, it’s not the tattered and inexpertly steamed-off stamps themselves which are of interest. One of the FRB envelopes contains the invite to my Mum and Dad to attend the opening ceremony: it even has a plan of which stand they were to sit in to view (no doubt with appropriate decorum) Her Maj driving over the newly-opened Bridge. A couple of years ago, I was at the closing dinner of the Bridge Board, which was the first time I realised that Mum and Dad had been at the opening ceremony, fifty years before.

It was my sister who told me that, and she also features amongst the givers of stamps, with a postcard from Salzburg dated 1972, when I would’ve been 9 and she 17. Neither of these are going to any stamp shop!

Anyway, that tank. Why the hell had I kept it, and its two occupants? I originally had four Action Men, but the other two seem to have disappeared. Maybe they hooked up with a couple of Barbie Dolls and headed down the highway: or maybe they’ll crawl out from behind some other stuff up there when I’m trying to clear it properly in preparation for moving house.

Well, I’m not completely infantile – the rest of my childhood toys disappeared long ago: but the tank, and at least one of the surviving Action Men, held special significance for me. It was my first, and, possibly, greatest value literary prize.

Around the same time I got that postcard from my sister on her trip to Salzburg, there was a competition run by Smiths crisps for a story about Action Men. I wrote something (long lost) which, to my surprise, won first prize: the tank, two Action Men, a bunch of clothes and weapons: you can imagine the effect on an impressionable kid! I always cite a trip to a writing course at Hebden Bridge when I was 16 as the start of my desire to write: but actually, winning that damn tank was probably the moment when I realised that putting words in the right order could bring you stuff you wanted.

Well, many years later, towards the close of a (reasonably) lucrative career putting lawyerly words in the right order, and a much less lucrative one as fiction, non-fiction, poetry and now song writer, it was time to let go. The tank, the ice boots, sten guns, grenades, dynamite, and other accessories of war that came with it, are in the plastic and metal recycling bin, awaiting melting down. It would be nice to think they’ll get made into a plastic and metal ploughshare, but that’s probably not going to happen.

And the Action Men? Okay, okay, I didn’t have the heart to stick them, butt naked and alone, into the green bin. I mean, these soldiers have been through a lot for me back in the day, as the paraplegic nature of the bearded one testifies.

Those damn parachutes never did open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts right down here please. Or I’ll set my Action Men on you.

Show Us The Boogeyman: A Review of Hereditary

To our local multiplex, then, for Hereditary, a first feature by writer-director Ari Aster which has, to say the least, been attracting polarised views, from ‘scariest thing since the Exorcist’ (various newspapers, in a nutshell) to ‘worst film I have since in a very long time. Not even worth 1 star’ (anonymous Odeon review). Having seen it, although I enjoyed it greatly, I can see both sides now (which is quite appropriate, as the eponymous Joni Mitchell track is the outro music for the movie).

We join the Graham family just as they’re burying Granny, Ellen, a ‘secretive woman with secretive rituals.’ Dad, Steve, is trying to mansplain his way out of the whole thing; meantime late teenage son, Peter, is diverting his grief by way of the occasional bowl of hash in school break times, and trying to get off with the girl in the row in front of him. As you, frankly, would at that age.

It’s the distaff side that’s are more of a cause for concern: there’s clearly something not right about Charlie, the early teens daughter, who, when she’s not drawing disturbing portraits in her notebook or fashioning what appear to be voodoo dolls out of assorted bric-a-brac, is making strange clucking noises.

And then there’s the central viewpoint character, Annie, Ellen’s daughter. Let me say right at the outset that Toni Collette deserves an Oscar for her portrayal: the camera lingers on her, much of the time right up in her face, and it’s a masterclass in conveying, micro-expression by micro-expression, the shifting levels of guilt, anger, despair, and plain bewilderment that the death of a dominating parent has brought.

She won’t get an Oscar, though, because this is a horror movie, and they don’t get Oscars. No award likely either, then, for the set designer who created the rambling wooden house the increasingly-dysfunctional family play out their claustrophobic psychodramatics in; nor, indeed, for the sound guy, whose capturing of every creak and groan the house makes (almost an extra character in itself), not to mention the supernatural effects that insinuate themselves around the auditorium, helps to ramp up the tension by the spadeful. Not to give too much of the plot away at this stage, but when you hear that clucking noise seeming to come from behind your ear, you’d better hope you shaved the hairs on the back of your neck pretty damn close before you joined the popcorn queue.

Really, there is so much that’s good about the movie. You’re absolutely rooting for Annie, even as she snaps at her husband’s well-intentioned interventions, and allows herself to be drawn into some home-made juju that you just know is going to make a bad situation ten times worse. There’s a truly, truly, memorable scene where, by way of the second plot complication, a horrific accident happens, and its aftermath is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and left taut as a bowstring, ready to fire the blazing arrow that skewers the rest of the story’s dark heart.

For a long time, the subtle visual and auditory jolts build the atmosphere towards what promises to be a white-knuckle climax. And then…

Okay, so SPOILER ALERT, don’t read any further if you don’t want to have the plot explained here. As with so many horror, supernatural, or such like movies, eventually the story has to nail its colours to some sort of belief system, and show us the bogeyman behind all this ratcheting tension. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Zombie? Vampire? Ancient undead demon who says Zool when you open the fridge door? William Rees-Mogg?

And that’s the first disappointment. The weird little words like ‘Satany’ scrawled on the wallpaper earlier on were a clue. (As an aside, what’s up with that? Satany? Does Beelzebub get out of bed of a morning and say to Mrs B, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about you, darling, but I feel a bit Satany this morning. Let’s go and char-grill some Jesuits for breakfast’?)

Because yes, it’s your garden-variety secret devil-worshipping cult, prostrating their middle-aged wobbly bits to a tin can idol that looks like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and one of the Flower Pot Men, gone a bit evil. As another aside, always with the naked? I mean, don’t devil-worshipping cults evolve, and like, get to wear some sort of leisurewear at their occult ceremonials? Honestly, it’s not a good look unless you happen to be young and hot. Which, let’s be honest, most of your average devil-worshipping cult members aren’t. Image result for britt ekland wicker man

(Britt Ekland in Wickerman apart, obviously: after that scene where she rubs herself along the wallpaper outside Edward Woodward’s room, I’ll never look at anaglypta the same way.)

 

 

 

Gratuitous opportunity for image of Britt Ekland

The second disappointment is more understandable, and indeed forgiveable. I’m guessing Ari Aster doesn’t quite have the directorial financial pulling power of a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whether or not they still have Harvey Weinstein on speed dial (what, too soon?) so the special scary effects in the denouement are slightly south of impressive.

I mean, when the central character you’re rooting for is hanging from a beam in the attic, trying with some success to take her own head off with a hacksaw, and you’re laughing, something has gone wrong somewhere, either with you or the film. And whilst I might normally think it’s the first of these, I certainly wasn’t the only one in the cinema laughing.

Despite these two criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed Hereditary. The first three quarters gave genuine chills: and if it ended with chuckles, well, that can be good too. Cracking script, great performances, shame about the special effects. Is it ‘pants-wettingly scary,’ as The Verge claimed after its Sundance premiere? For me, only if you have a pre-existing bladder control problem. But then, one man’s Exorcist is another man’s Friday 13th Part II, as I discovered years ago when I went to see both with my best pal Nicky and we each found the opposite one scary.

For me, it was the Exorcist, by the way. Hereditary isn’t that, but in case I’ve misjudged you, pack an extra pair of pants. Or as they say in America, pants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Weekends in May (2): The Fall of the House of Blackie

A long weekend in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house. It sounds like an improbable tale, unless of course you’re impossibly rich and connected to what, I suspect, would be some highly secretive and aged inner circle of CRM devotees.

However, that is what we did in a gloriously sunny weekend in May, with no more financial outlay than we would have spent on short break in reasonably priced hotel, and with no more hidden knowledge than the National Trust holiday lets brochure.

And it was very possibly our last chance to see.

To explain, to some of you coming at this new: Hill House, the Mackintosh-designed Helensburgh home of the Blackie family, has a flat on an upper floor that you could rent out for vacations; despite having visited it twice over the years, I only found this out around the time that the window to do so was closing fast. CRM’s architectural and interior design masterpiece is suffering, due to the Portland cement cladding on its exterior acting as a sponge which is starting to destroy the inside, the warm damp atmosphere washing up the loch reaching its sticky fingers inside.

Hill House is an incomparable mix of incredible, timeless artistry and a domestic setting which, whilst much grander than your average three-bed semi, is still relatable in a way that the castles and palaces of earlier times just isn’t.

It was such an impressive thing I was moved, after the first visit, to poetry:

 

It’s as if the family’s gone out for the day

and we’re ghosts in a time slip;

the servants off somewhere, toys tidied in the nook

at the top of the stair: a stage set,

a dressing up box, a pirate ship

creaking at noon anchor.

 

No cameras, mobiles, mp3s,

as if they would break the spell

of rising clouds of architecture in the hall,

or Margaret McDonald’s interiors,

the drawing room a solid cube of light

ringing like crystal.

 

Upstairs, purple lozenges in doors

to indicate the master, or the son and heir,

pink for the girls, McDonald’s ghostly ladies

lighting Anna’s way to bed,

the house wrapped round them on

an east-west axis, father’s room

closest to the setting sun.

 

However, this time round was different. First there was the fact that we were, actually, staying there: and whilst the main house was out of bounds to us, the flat we were in was, in reality, just a closed off part of that greater whole, comprising the former school room and the servants’ quarters. As such, it was furnished, simply, but plainly, in the Mackintosh style – I never got around to asking the guides if the stuff in ‘our’ bit was original – but, at night, when the iron gates closed to visitors and the staff left, the gardens and exterior were ours too.

the flat interiors: guitar model’s own. Below, some views from the flat of the main house

 

Second, there was that last chance to see element. The solution to the water ingress the NT have come up with is to build what amounts to a muckle greenhouse over the top of it. This will keep the rain off while they work out how to fix the problem: the displays in the house talked about how there would be a tension between those that wanted to stick to the original vision and not change a thing, and those who favoured a pragmatic solution.

The muckle greenhouse solution. Pic courtesy of National Trust site

Architect’s impression of the Box surrounding the Hill House

Personally I think it’s a no-brainer: unless you want the place to be permanently covered by a space-age conservatory, a pragmatic solution of replacing the failed cement with a similar but weatherproof material sounds like a plan to me. But then that’s maybe just me.

What the displays didn’t talk about, but became apparent from the chats I had with various staff, was just how extensive this ‘temporary’ structure to keep the rain off was going to be. It’s going to have lifts, and walkways, and everything, for goodness’ sake! There was even talk of the House itself being closed to the public for quite some time, with visitors being reduced to peering in the windows from the walkways. On that basis, if you want to see round it, crack on now. It’s later than you think.

I hope the pictures, taken on my mobile, give some impression of the look of the place. In a sense the interiors were less impressive this time round, not so much from familiarity, but because the signs of water damage were becoming ever more apparent: I didn’t remember the walls peeling quite so much last time. In another sense, of course, it was still all deeply fantastic.

Another slightly disappointing, if understandable, development was the dark blinds on the drawing room windows: whilst they probably should have been there long ago, it really spoiled that sense of what the summer function of the room was, which was to stare out over the rest of Helensburgh to the loch beyond. As you can see from the poem, it was one of my abiding images of the house.

But what was it like to stay in this Scottish architectural icon? Well, what struck me most – apart from the sheer pleasure of sitting in the gardens with a glass or two of wine in glorious sunshine like we owned the place – was how the Hill House had become the intertwined life stories of three distinct entities: the Mackintosh/MacDonald partnership, the house itself, and the Blackie family whose home it was for nearly 50 years.

Mackintosh’s life trajectory (and that of his wife, Margaret MacDonald, whose often uncredited artistic genius went into, amongst many other things labelled CRM, the Hill House interiors) is pretty well documented: early appearance as, along with Margaret, one half of a group of bright young things known as ‘The Four’ (or, to their critics, the ‘Spook School,’ for the ethereal style they adopted; the glory years as a Glasgow architect with Honeyman and Keppie – even though at the time his work was not universally liked: the Hill House is only one of a solid hillside of mansions, many of which favoured the Arts and Crafts style of, amongst others, William Leiper; the wilderness years in London and the South of England; and, finally, four all too short years in the South of France, rediscovering his passion for painting, a life cut all too short at sixty by mouth cancer.

One thing I didn’t know was that Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) was born within a year of Frank Lloyd Wright. The difference, of course, was that Wright was still accepting commissions in the 1950s, whereas Mackintosh was long lost to the world of architecture (and forgotten, until relatively recently, in his home town too).

So much for the architect. What of the house? Well, it was sold by the Blackies in 1952, on Walter Blackie’s death. Fortunately, the purchaser was President of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland, so it was treated sympathetically, even though some interiors were lost. It passed to the National Trust in 1982: all the while, from very early in its existence, nursing the water penetration issue like a wound that won’t heal.

In many ways, although disappointed to see how much damage was starting to become apparent inside, I still feel very positive about the House’s continued existence. It is just too well beloved to be allowed to fall. The mega-greenhouse is costing a big bunch of money to put up: with that level of public investment (in every sense of that term) committed, I can’t see the NT being allowed to let the place crumble even if it wanted to.

One thing that had intrigued me before was the part of the Trust’s brochure which talked about the schoolroom having some sort of ‘atmosphere.’ So was there? Not really. On the first night we were there, late on, there might have been a sense of a gathering presence in the main room (or that might have been the extra glass of wine talking to my limbic system). If there was, it didn’t manifest in any other way: maybe the Blackie household was just checking us out and, satisfied of our good faith, then withdrew.

And what of the Blackies? I called this piece ‘the Fall of the House of Blackie,’ and viewed one way, you could certainly see it as such. The publishing firm, after all, was in its imperial phase when Walter Blackie commissioned Mackintosh to design Hill House: and for the many decades of their occupation of it, a stranglehold on the Scottish educational textbook market ensured their continued existence.

There’s almost definitely a book to be written on how the firm, with its distinctive hardback covers (Talwyn Morris, its artistic director, introduced Mackintosh to Blackie, and was sympathetic to the Four’s style) eventually fell, being taken over by HarperCollins in 1972 and disappearing finally in 1991. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

I suspect such a book would have to focus on Walter Senior, who inherited the business – despite first refusing to join it and spending a year as a lumberjack. The knowledgeable guides gave intriguing snippets of the family history: how the children were quite spaced apart in terms of ages and how, in fact, Mrs Blackie moved in with a babe in arms; how Walter Junior, the son and heir, left home from Hill House to be married at the relatively advanced age of forty; how, on her husband’s death in 1952, Mrs Blackie left the house with the one daughter remaining living with her, the rest of the family having long moved out and showing no interest in taking the place over.

Apparently, some of the grandchildren used to visit the house now and again; but one lasting  – and quite touching – memory of the fallen house of Blackie was a plaque near the front door, which related that Nancy Blackie, not a blood relative, but the widow of Walter Junior, served as a volunteer until the last decade with the National Trust at the house.

Just going back to spiritual presences, I was told that, in the main house, you could occasionally be surprised by a passing whiff of Walter Senior’s pipe smoke. I hope that, in the future, he’s remembered for more than than that. Mackintosh may have been the architect, but Blackie was the inspiration, a man of business who might have required the dark Edwardian wood of the reception room for his clients, but still had the vision to understand why Mackintosh and MacDonald might want to surround the master’s bed with ghostly ladies.

Apparently, even late in Mackintosh’s life, Blackie was still in touch with him, buying his South of France paintings. Perhaps CRM’s most loyal client deserves a book of his own, amongst all the 150th anniversary hoopla. It was certainly a pleasure to stay over at his place for a weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Weekends in May (1) – ReimagiNation: Three Days in Glenrothes

As I said in my previous post, May was quite a month of weekends (the working week was pretty average, thanks for asking).

Let’s talk first, non-sequentially, about ReimagiNation, the Edinburgh Book Festival’s residency in our own New Town. It ran from Thursday 17th to Saturday 19th: and the Friday for me consisted of doing a reading from the The Wrong Box in the Rothes Halls at lunch time, and providing the music (with Venus Carmichael) at night for the ‘Whisky, Words and Music’ event.

As well as meeting lots of new people who said very nice things about my work, at the ‘Glenrothes: A New Day?’ event the next day I encountered one of my Mum’s best pals, 90 years old and still sharp as anything!

It’s always great to promote my book and get a gig, of course. However, to do it as part of a festival in the home town I’ve now spent most of my life in, and which has been so important to my family in so many ways, was, well, intense! It was particularly important to me to hear my Dad still being venerated as the town’s historian by so many people. In fact, that was what made it for me. Glenrothes has its critics, and it’s by no means perfect. But to hear so many of its residents talk about its good bits in positive terms – the garden city design, the sense of community, the remarkable collection of town art (currently sporting, somewhat mysteriously, purple ribbons) was really heartening.

I never meant to live here as long as I have, and I still plan to move to Edinburgh some day not too far away. The Festival did make me think though, what would the 17-year old me, the one who longed to bust out of town Springsteen-style, think of what I’d achieved?

Well, he might have been impressed I’d actually got a novel published, and I was playing in not one, but two, gigging bands that play original material. Of course, he was an ambitious little bugger, so he’d have probably been expecting me to be playing the Albert Hall by now… and he would’ve been disgusted that, in amongst all of this, I had to be in the office on Saturday morning, clearing through the emails.

And the fact I was still in Glenrothes, at the tender age of 55? I’ll take the Fifth on that one. Meantime, here’s a piece I did as part of the Glenrothes Digital Storytelling project earlier in the year, a really fantastic thing that was helmed by the endlessly affable and patient Dan Brown (no, not that Dan Brown…)

 

 I’d love to hear back from you if you have your own thoughts about that sort of thing. What would the 17 year old you have thought of where you are now? Could they have even imagined it?

 

Tribute to Venus Carmichael with, right, our spoken word reader for the night, Jayne Russell. Pic courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three weekends in May

This month has been quite a one. The sun has shone consistently, for a start, and is set to continue that way. But also, fitted in between an ever-increasing day-job workload, there have been three weekends of different adventures: last Friday and Saturday’s events at ReimagiNation, the Edinburgh Book Festival’s Glenrothes residency; and this afternoon, I head up to Bridge of Orchy for a weekend of songwriting with a bunch of musicians. No internet, patchy mobile coverage, basic ski-lodge accommodation: can’t wait!!!

I’ll have a tale to tell about this weekend, for sure, as I will about ReimagiNation. Before I go, though, here’s a few photos from the first weekend of the three, at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Helensburgh masterpiece, Hill House. There’s much, much, more to come on that experience….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Venus Resurfaces

Venus resurfaces!

Tribute to Venus Carmichael

…and she’s back! We were getting somewhat concerned about the lack of activity on Venus’s blog. Then, an alleged sighting from Keith Richards, supposedly.

Now… well, read for yourself:

Off the Radar again

I’ve been kind of quiet on this blog for a while. That’s mainly because I’ve been out of internet range for most of last year and this until a couple of weeks ago, in the Chiapas region of Mexico with the Zapatista rebels, staying as their ‘guest.’

I’ll tell you that story another time – still working it through. It did make me think though about another time I disappeared off the radar completely, in the late Eighties. Here’s that tale…

Las Vegas

I’d pretty much given up on my agent when I called in that time. To be fair, I suppose, it’s hard to arrange much for a travelling musician who lives in a Dormobile and…

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Looking for Venus

From our sister site – disturbing news…

Tribute to Venus Carmichael

As we prepare for our gig at Banner’s tomorrow night, there’s something been nagging at us for some time now. Venus Carmichael hasn’t posted on her blog for some time now – December 2016 was the last time. Around the same time, the cassette tapes of her new material stopped arriving at Kelly’s house. Has anyone, in the States maybe, seen or heard tell of her?

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