writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Songwriting – is it (That) Complicated?

First off, to those of you coming to this blog cold, this is not going to be a thing saying, like, here’s how you write a song and I know because I’m really successful and blah blah blah and by the way, give me your email address so I can bombard you with more advice you have to pay for!! Hey! HEY! ARE YOU LISTENING? Because you better, buddy, if you want to make it in the business…

I’m not in that business, or indeed any business, except for tax reasons.

What? I hear those of you who’ve been at this blog before. I thought you were one of these poet dreamer types who don’t care a jot about money and it’s all about the art, man. Are you saying this whole schemozzle is a money-laundering operation for some wretched offshore pyramid scheme? Don’t make me come down there…

Well, no. You were right the first time – about me being the poet dreamer type who doesn’t care about the dosh, I mean. But it is true that, on my tax return every year, I describe my ‘business’ as ‘writer and musician,’ and, every year, it shows a healthy loss – ever since I had some local publicity about my first loss-making product, 2003’s co-written Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, drew the attention of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and they invited me to fill in a tax return.

Anyways. That’s not really what I set out to write out about. I blame Neko Case, purely because I’m listening to her on KEXP while writing this. She is quite the songwriter while I, well, I’m still working out how it really works, and why sometimes it seems to work without really trying, and other times not so much.

This song (Not That) Complicated is a case in point. I’ve blogged before about the inspirational songwriting weekend I went to in the Highlands back in May this year, and about how one of the exercises, when one of the group improvised singing lines from a book to another person’s guitar, produced a song, ‘Clara Said Yesterday,’ that a few people have been kind enough to say is one of my better ones. But that wasn’t the song I set out into the stunning scenery to craft.

Me in the Highlands, about to come up with a song. Probably. Pic: James Whyte

About four months later, strumming along with a new chord I’d learnt via Youtube, I came up with a chord progression I liked, and something a bit closer to the original idea I’d had back in May – two people trading smart one-liners, in a way that I imagine goes on in New York loft apartments all the time (I watched a lot of Woody Allen films as a young adult, and they may have had the effect of distorting my view of what really passes for dialogue in New York loft apartments).

So far as the craft of songwriting’s concerned, I still maintain I know virtually nothing about how it’s done. Neither of these songs follow my usual pattern, which is to come up with a melody first, or at least a bit of one, before I lay hands on a guitar. In terms of the words, in the case of the first of these two I wrote the last verse right after the first, then wrote the bit in between on the paper that was left.

With ‘Complicated,’ on the other hand, I had no idea when I started off the lyrics how they might end up, and the pay off actually came as a surprise to me. Which, I guess, means, I really, really, know nothing about songwriting.

But then, as the late, great, William Goldman said about a similar creative endeavour (how to make a successful movie) no one knows anything. Not sure if you can call the current Brexit crisis a creative endeavour, but … you know the rest.

What I do know is that you can now hear Not That Complicated as sung by the divine Kelly Brooks rather than my trademark groan, and even contribute to a good cause by purchasing it on Bandcamp. Or you can hear it on Soundcloud:






















Anything below this is adverts. They’re probably not that complicated.



Free (Blind) Willie (McTell) ! Or, an introduction to Dylanology

So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and  you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?

Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.

Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’

I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.

Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.

But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…

Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’

1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.

At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.

This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”

So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery  of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.

A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’

Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.

By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.

On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…


















Adverts down here. Nowt to do with me matey

A Day of Remembering

Time’s a slippery thing. In many ways, it seems incredible to me that World War One ended as much as 100 years ago; perhaps that’s because, as a child, I knew a grandfather who had fought through it.

Charles Leslie Anderson’s story was well told by my father, his son in law, in A Huntly Loon Goes to War (Loon meaning lad in Aberdeenshire dialect, in case you wondered). I have a dozen copies of the booklet left, and I’ll gladly sell it at a post free price to anyone with whom this story strikes a chord.

Charles’s tale is possibly typical of some, at least, of his generation: born out of wedlock in rural poverty, outside the small Aberdeenshire town of Huntly, using education to make something of himself as a young man (he was a 25-year old butcher when war broke out) and then the four years in the trenches, seeing all the horrors that are being remembered today, and surviving wounds that – but for the grace of a young doctor and his wife’s instincts – could have left him a double amputee.

His post-war journey to being a hard-working man of property, running two shops at once in the town at one point, and even becoming a bailie (councillor) again is reflective of a collective will after the so-called ‘Great War’ to give the surviving soldiers a chance to rebuild their lives.

One of my favourite stories in the book is that, impressed with Charles’s character, his superiors wanted to give him an officer’s commission (at one point he was acting as a sergeant). This was quite something, given his humble origins, and the class-ridden nature of the Army then. Charles turned the commission down. His reasons were entirely practical: the lieutenants were the ones given a handgun and a whistle and expected to go over the top first. There’s heroism, and then there’s just plain daft!

Charles suffered horribly during the war, including from the effects of chlorine gas. This wasn’t anything I understood as a child, when the only eccentricity of this mild-mannered man was a complete inability to put up an old-fashioned deckchair, the inevitable result of which was for him to throw the thing down in disgust, much to the rest of the family’s amusement. What I heard later was that his wartime experiences gave him nightmares for decades afterwards, and his other eccentricity – going out to bang nails into the wall of the shed when some domestic matter raised his temper – would probably nowadays be classed as a symptom of PTSD.

A piece in the Times this week brought back another family memory: writing about another, even more remote part of Aberdeenshire called the Cabrach. It told how the area became a virtual wasteland after WW1 as most of its menfolk were lost in the conflict, and the remaining women and children were forced to seek work of some sort in the Scottish towns and cities. (According to my sister, my Dad’s research indicated this drift away started in the previous century).

Interestingly, the article related how many of the men from country regions like the Cabrach died, not in action, but from diseases which they hadn’t encountered but which their town and city counterparts had some immunity to.

The other point of interest for me in the article was the mention of one William Taylor, because my Dad’s researches had also uncovered family links to the Taylors of the Cabrach, who had gone off to fight in many 19th century wars for King and Country long before 1914.

Maybe it’s just that Scotland’s an old, old, country, and a small one, that I feel such a connection with the previous generations. Much of it, I suppose, is down to that childhood connection with my grandpa, who took a keen interest in teaching his younger grandson about such things as cricket and gardening (particularly the pernicious nature of weeds).

Whatever our connection with that generation, and however distant it might now seem, we do well to remember them today, and the senselessness of the suffering they went through on all sides.

Charles Leslie Anderson in full battledress. Above: in the dress uniform of the 6th Gordon Highlanders.


Back On Song(writing)

Ferguson Common Good LawA strange weight lifted off me the other day. I finished writing the second edition of my law book, and felt this overwhelming sense of release when I pressed ‘send’ to my publisher with the manuscript.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel deeply, deeply grateful that I’ve been given an opportunity to write not one, but two editions of Common Good Law. I have supportive colleagues in Scottish local authorities up and down the land encouraging me; a wonderful editor/publisher, Margaret, at Avizandum; and generous organisations who have agreed to give the necessary financial backing to such a niche venture.

More, I still feel slightly stunned that the first edition sold so well – 300 copies for such a, well, really niche area of the law is pretty good going, and, given the topic is mainly of interest to councils and there are only 32 of them, about 268 more than I expected.

Back in 2006, when the first edition came out, I was as pleased as punch; and next February/March, which is the scheduled publication date for what I’m trying to persuade Margaret she should call Common Good II: Revenge of the Sith, I’ll warrant I’ll be pretty much as the dog with two tails, too.

But things have changed since 2006.

First and most obviously to me, I’m 12 years older. Going over the original manuscript, I was struck at how… jocular the tone was, in as much as a legal textbook can be. In the original preface, I talk about title deeds having an aura of ‘mystery and romance;’ I even speculate whether I was asleep in the lecture that the subject of the book came up in at University, since I’d never heard of it before I joined a local authority.

These don’t constitute a bundle of bellylaughs, I appreciate, but even they struck me as a bit on the … well, racy side for a law book. Some of the other bits of jollity I found myself editing out this time round: maybe the intervening years have made me more of an Eeyore than a Tigger. Although I kept the line in about the Luftwaffe carrying out environmental improvements to Scotland’s urban landscape.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe Western culture, with its 24/7 Twitter spats, increasingly polarised positions and a whole new level of political correctness, is just a little bit grimmer than it was in 2006. I can now imagine someone taking offence at the Luftwaffe gag.

Anyhoo. The whole thing for me was, much as there was some level of intellectual stimulation in rewriting the original book to take account of 12 years’ worth of cases and legislation, I resented the couple of months’ spare time it took, because it meant my music had to take a back seat.

And, leaving aside the big life events in those intervening years (like losing both parents), that’s one change I didn’t anticipate.

Back in 2006, years spent in the Boondocks of Fife had meant I’d focused on writing, at first on my own, and then increasingly in collaboration with others. I’d already had a co-written history book published, not to mention the dozens of short stories and poems that had flowered, briefly, in various magazines and anthologies. Since the early 2000s, I’d taken to performance spoken word with my buddies in Writers’ Bloc. But still…

Despite all those years of it being firmly kicked to the back of the dream cupboard, my dream of being a singer-songwriter in the Bruce Dylansteen mould kept finding its way to the front. 2008, my first Free Fringe shows, saw the emergence of that mysterious alter ego, Venus Carmichael. Various combinations of music and words followed – I remember an Unbound night at the Book Festival in particular as a key moment of realisation that, actually, the standing on stage with a guitar and other musicians bit was far more fun than the spoken word bit – and then, a couple of years further on, I got my chance to join that merry band of country punkers Isaac Brutal, and the music bug bit hard.

But those of you who know me, or have read blogs of mine in a similar vein, will know this already. What’s news to me is that there’s no way back now. The dream of being a writer has reached a plateau I’m happy to be on (ironically enough, after Revenge of the Sith there might be another, history-based, book in the offing, as a publisher has shown an interest) and the only way forward for me is combining words with music.

So, for the next couple of weeks before I’m due to turn in the history-based thing (fortunately something else I prepared earlier, years ago) the only writing you’ll be seeing from me will be right here. Otherwise, I intend to spend as much of my free time as I can performing, practising, collaborating on, and most of all making, music. The computer keyboard I’m typing on right now will once more assume its rightful place – perched atop a proper Korg keyboard, so that I can, at all times, fire up some synth sounds and dive right in, headphones on, clumsily splaying untutored hands across the black and whites.

I also intend to spend more time with my guitars the same way politicians plan to spend more time with their families: cradling them, lavishing attention on them, tugging at their heart strings (that analogy could have gone so wrong there…). My most recently adopted baby, the Telecaster copy, has been sulking in the corner of the dining room mostly since I acquired her, but I know that even my limited abilities can coax great sounds from her.

Where will it take me? I’ve no idea. I’m no longer the 19-year-old kid in his first band at University, dreaming of super-sized stadia and all the attendant perks of a rock n’ roll lifestyle. I’m realistic. I may play no more glamorous venues than Henry’s, the Edinburgh dive bar where the excellent sound people are slightly offset by the furniture that is well, frankly, sticky. And don’t even mention the toilets they share with the Chinese restaurant upstairs…

However it turns out, you can count on me blathering on about it here. It may be the only type of writing I do beyond songwriting from here on in. Stay tuned!

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Tribute to Venus Carmichael in full flow, Wednesday, 7th November (pic: manicpopthrills)































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Caceres – Final Thoughts

It’s a funny old place Caceres. I’m really quite bewitched by it, even as the rains that form the damp tail of Storm Leslie finally reach us here.

The Plaza Mayor. Fiesta de la Hispanidad in full swing. No sign of any bars and restaurants closing. No sign of any locals turning away a drink.

The holiday apartment, in Plaza Santiago, is worth every point of its 9.1 on In fact, I’d pretty much give it the full 10: it’s got original period features yet all mod cons, fantastic location at the edge of the Old Town, and it’s supported by a good local team on the ground.



That Old Town. What a wow factor it has! I’m still not sure I’ve done it justice with the photos from my phone, but even with Mrs F’s ‘proper’ camera it would probably be a fruitless, and wet, expedition today to get better ones.

Suffice to say that, in all our explorations of many, many, Old Towns in Spanish cities – including the most famous ones like Cuenca, Toledo, and now Segovia – I’ve never come across a place quite like it. There’s something about the narrow streets, the dizzying changes of level up and down quite a tight, concial rocky peak, that make it unique.

One of the ancient gates out of the citadel, originally known as the Water Gate.

A couple of the locals. No, it’s nothing to do with KKK – the religious orders wear the hoodies for processions, especially during Easter, or Semana Santa.







The cuisine. After that initial brush with exotic flavours, the food has been good, but … you gotta like pig. Really. It’s not just the multiple different cuts of jamon; it’s the seven different ways they serve pork. Which is fine for us, but if you’re a vegetarian, you might struggle.

But if you do like pork, you’re in for a treat. Last night we shared Moragas de cerdo (literally, ‘bundles of pork,’ but in reality cubes of the stuff marinated and grilled (probably) with mushrooms, as well as chuletas de cordero, or lamb chops, just to go against trend. Both delicious. Like so much of Spanish cookery, nothing fancy, just good ingredients, cooked well.

The local wine. Still needing more research, but the best of it up there with Ribera del Duero or Rioja, and the rest, well, we haven’t poured any of it away.

I bought a local regional paper today, which confirmed that Caceres, and the region of Extramadura generally, has all the usual problems of a mainly rural economy these days – a struggle to keep people working on the land; reducing budgets for, amongst other things, local services like firefighters; rising property prices making things difficult for the locals. Sound familiar?

Be that as it may, it’s definitely on my list of places I would visit again in Spain.

You just gotta like pig.































Nothing to see but adverts down here. Not even a piggie.


The Slow Train to Caceres and the Festival of Spanishness (Thai flavourings optional)

‘Caceres?’ said the taxi driver taking us to the station at Segovia. ‘Why are you going to Caceres?’

I explained patiently that we enjoyed seeing different parts of Spain each time we came.

‘Well, there is so much to see,’ he agreed, as we careened through the narrow side streets, his castellano only slightly less rapid than his driving. ‘There’s Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘But we’ve already been to Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’ I could have added many more, but it was clear your man – who could have been on a retainer from the Segovian tourist association, even though he’d originally come from the Basque country, apparently – clearly thought Caceres was an odd choice. Which, compared to Segovia, it maybe was.

That said, although we’d enjoyed our four nights in the Castilian city of water-carrying infrastructure, we were ready to move on. It was a good choice, and deserves to be seen, don’t get me wrong. But…

Last views of Segovia’s Plaza Mayor, and that acqueduct the Romans did for them

I think, to be honest, it’s both a winner and loser from its closeness to Madrid. It’s a great place for the Madrileños to have a day trip; it serves as a commuter suburb for the bigger city, but equally you could go out there from the Spanish capital at the weekend, maybe even stay the night, and be back for work on Monday.

It’s also (a bit the same way as St Andrews, say, as regards Edinburgh) close enough for the tour buses to include it on their regular itineraries. So the coaches can arrive from Madrid comfortably in time for coffee, the tourists can be funnelled up the spine of rock that connects the acqueduct, the Plaza Mayor and the Alcazar, and be parted from their money for lunch and souvenirs with ruthless efficiency, with time still left in the day to for the tour company to either return them to Madrid or move on somewhere else, like Salamanca, for an overnighter.

Toledo is the other place that springs to mind when thinking about Segovia: the proximity to Madrid, and its airport, means, with the high-speed train connection especially, they don’t have to try too hard to do quite nicely for themselves out of internal and external tourism, thanks very much.

Storm clouds gather over Segovia Guiomar

Anyhoo. As I say, I’m glad we visited, but it was a good day to travel, with the train station at Segovia looking pretty much as dreich as Edinburgh airport had, if offering more in the way of background scenery. The rains had descended on Spain that day, and not solely on the plains, although as we crossed Madrid and took the slow train to Caceres, a landscape emerged that had clearly been praying for rain for some time.

There are basically three paces of Spanish train journey: fast, bloody fast, and quite a lot slower than either. Most of the main lines have now been made high speed, which gives you the option of the AVE (bloody fast) but also other trains like Avant or Alvia which, to be honest, don’t exactly hang around: at one point on the way down our Avant claimed to be topping 200 km/h.

The train to Caceres, on the other hand, was more like your average rail journey in the UK: loping along, stopping everywhere, and not in any hurry at any point. To give an idea of journey time, the train we got left Madrid at 10.25, was scheduled to get into Caceres at 14:19, and eventually rolled in about twenty minutes after that.

That said, even this more basic train – leaving from the commuter part of Atocha, which mainly hosts the Cercania network of commuter trains, but also those described as being of media/larga distancia, was comfortable, with a sight more legroom for the vertically enabled than most of the boneshaker rolling stock you get in Scotland. Which, given the relative amount of Viking genes in both countries, doesn’t really add up.

The taxi driver in Caceres (hot tip: they tend not to hang around in numbers at the railway station, so you may have to call them from the numbers on the sign if it’s a busy train) seemed a lot more laid back than his Segovian counterpart. Avoiding the standard conversational gambits for taxi drivers (thank you, Peter Kay) of ‘You been busy?’ and ‘What time do you finish?’ I went for the only slightly less predictable British gambit of the weather.

However, your man wasn’t concerned by the black clouds carpeting the country. ‘Ach, there’ll be a bit of rain, and then the sun’ll come back,’ he said confidently, and so it turned out to be. In the meantime, we were met at our apartment by the charming lady from BeHoliday, and initial impressions were (and remain) that we’d made a good choice: very comfortable and well located, the place had been a renovation of an 18th/19th century town house, retaining some original features but with all mod cons.

The apartment

Caceres may not be Segovia, but I’m not sure it’s any the worse for it. That distance from Madrid maybe means it has to try a bit harder: although, to be frank with you, on the basis of a couple of very brief walks around town so far, its Old Town beats that of the more famous city into a cocked hat. Comparisons are invidious, of course, but the casco antiguo is really quite a fantastic, steepling thing, of churches, towers, and tiny side streets and alleys. Like Segovia, it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Some views. Better photos once Mrs F gets going with her camera

Calle del Mono, or Monkey Street. I’m sure there’s an explanation

The tourist office was a bit weird, mind. We arrived the day before October 12, which is the Fiesta de la Hispanidad throughout Spain. Crudely translated, that means ‘Festival of Spanishness,’ or maybe ‘Festival of the State of Mind of Being Spanish.’ The Segovian taxi driver had warned us that everything would be very busy: his Caceres counterpart had, typically, been more relaxed about it: the lady in the tourist office, on the other hand, was certain that everything in Caceres – shops, restaurants, everything – would be closed.

This certainty might have been related to her keenness that we take a free bus to the Feria Europea del Queso or European Cheese Fair, which was to take place in Casar de Caceres on the 12, 13th and 14th. Casar de Caceres iis a village some distance from the town of Caceres. This, apparently, was the place to be on the morrow if you were a cheese fan.

As the day of the Festival of Spanishness dawned, however, or more accurately when we emerged from the apartment as the morning reached its late middle age, it became clear that rumours of the town of Caceres closing up for the day had been, er, wildly exaggerated. Indeed, the locals appeared to be quite determined to settle in for a day of celebrating their Spanishness, loudly, right here in the Plaza Mayor, and with some relish: we were just starting breakfast when a sizeable amount of the locals were getting stuck into their first beer of the day.

Caceres, at least on the evidence so far, seems a jolly sort of place. There have been a few miscommunications – it’s fair to say the accent is stronger here than in the Castilian heartland of Segovia – but they do appear to be trying to market themselves as something worth a visit. Apart from the stunning Old Town architecture, they’re also pushing gastronomy, and given that the region of Extremadura is famed for the jamón that comes from the pata negra, or black pig, as well as Pimentón de la Vera, the smoked paprika that informs so much of Spanish cooking, they have the raw ingredients to do that.

Their wines, too, on the limited research I’ve been able to manage so far, are rich, full, and satisfyingly different from either Ribera del Duero or Rioja, the staples of most bars in most parts of Spain. More research will be undertaken.

One thing we hadn’t expected was the willingness on the part of local chefs to try something beyond the usual Spanish flavours. A leaflet we picked up at the tourist office from the Cheese Fair-promoting lady had claimed this, but I was dubious until, returning from our midday walk, we were to find a whole new café that hadn’t been there yesterday had sprung up, on the day everything was meant to be closed.

Spanish chicken kebabs with satay sauce. With patatas bravas: a killer combination

I lay before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A: brochetas de pollo con salsa thai de satay. Chicken kebabs, or brochetas, are a staple of Spanish cookery, especially in the South, where the Moorish influence encourages use of Middle Eastern spices like cumin. But Thai flavours and a satay sauce? On the day of celebrating the state of mind of being Spanish, this was a whole new twist!

More from the culinary – and oenological – front line soon…




























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What the Romans did for Segovia: and how to get the best table in Spain

Ok. For those of you benighted enough not to get the cultural reference, I’m talking Python here, and not the computer language neither. In Life of Brian, the leader of a revolutionary group determined to overthrow the Roman occupation of the Holy Land asks them, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’

There’s an awkward silence, before one of the group offers, ‘the acqueduct?’ There’s then a list from the others of a whole lot of other improvements, such as improved sanitation, roads, lower crime rates…

Well, I don’t know about the other stuff, but the Romans certainly did a good acqueduct for the natives of Segovia. It’s humungous! And, being one of the biggest tourist draws (interesting cultural note: this is the first time I’ve seen signs in Spanish, English and Chinese – sign of the times, or indeed the new world order) it’s encircled by restaurants and cafes.

Which brings me to a bit of advice on Spanish restaurants and bars in general, and how to get the good stuff, eats and drinks wise.

Ok, so basic build philosophy for your average Spanish city – perhaps not so much Madrid and Barcelona, although the overall principles are the same. They were, originally, built in defensive positions, close to a river. They will generally be on a hill (castles built in a valley tended not to last very long, as the invaders were able to stand on the hills and lob stuff in). This initial settlement will be known as the Old Town, or casco viejo.

In most Spanish cities, there will be two or three major buildings or places of interest. Almost always a cathedral, which will be Romanesque, or Gothic, or sometimes a mixture of both, if that’s your bag. Something else, like an acqueduct (Segovia) a mosque (Cordoba) or a castle (various). The central square, or plaza mayor, will be often quite grand (Salamanca). And clustered around, or in, these major draws will be bars, restaurants, and dozens of shops selling the local speciality souvenirs.

Now, these places won’t always be massively overpriced tourist traps which don’t offer good value food and drink, right? Right. You might decide, for example, it’s worth shelling a couple of extra euros for a beer, sitting in the sunshine in the plaza mayor, watching the world go by. But for eats? General rule – the closer to these major draws, and the more multilingual the menus, the less good value you get.

So where to go? Stretching out from these major draws, and often stretching between them, the streets will have been widened. They might even resemble avenues, and here you’ll find the commercial sector of the city – the fancy clothes shops, scary-looking high end chemists, lawyers’ offices, and banks. There may well be restaurants and bakeries, too, along these avenues, which will almost always be pricy, too. So where to go for the good stuff?

In my experience, you’ve generally got two options. Head out of the Old Town, outwith the original city walls, across a bridge, perhaps, to where the locals can actually afford to live – and eat. Or, in the Old Town itself, lose yourself in the back streets.

Segovia’s Old Town

Often the latter option will take you into the Jewish Quarter, where the people of that faith lived centuries ago before the Christians kicked them out as part of one or other ethnic cleansing (don’t worry, this was a long time ago – the Spanish are, in general, pretty tolerant these days, although the current refugee crisis is causing some strain). In these narrow, corkscrewing alleys, there might well be the best restaurant or tapas bar in town – far enough off the beaten track to be able to have lower overheads, but not so far off that the locals don’t know about it.

And it was a combination of those options that led us to Calle Hermanos Barral, and two restaurants well worth recommending. Down the hill from the Acqueduct, not far from the bus station, we reached it via a couple of flights of stone steps and some unpromising side streets that held little in the way of anything. It was in the lee of the city walls, but not so far out of town as to be completely unreachable.

Praying for wine

The first day we went to the restaurant attached to the Hotel Ayala Berganza, and had an excellently priced menu del dia in a patio courtyard that was just about warm enough to sit out in at this time of year. This showed up all the strengths and weaknesses of the menu del dia concept, which most Spanish eateries worth their salt will have: it had local dishes (the Segovians go big on their local white beans, for example) but a limited selection, and the price included a drink which, in the case of my wine, wasn’t the best wine ever, but wasn’t at all bad. The service was great, although the menu was delivered verbally at some pace, so had to be slowed down while I translated.

Really? You’re leaving the entire bottle? You know he’s Scottish, right?

I had a beef stew which, I have to say, was the best beef stew ever, and that includes the ones I’ve slow cooked myself. The meat was tender, the sauce was rich, and it was accompanied by nothing more complicated than little circles of potatoes, deep fried. In terms of value, the meal was at least 50% cheaper than the menus del dia on the main drags in town, only 5 or 10 minutes’ walk away, and I guarantee you as good, if not better, quality.




The next day, after seeing the Alcazar (the castle that apparently inspired Disney’s one) and having a general poke around town, we found nowhere better than the other restaurant in Calle Hermanos Barral, La Codorniz. This time, we took a different tack with the menu options, and choice of drink for that matter. Suitably fortified by a bottle of Estrella Galicia (great beer, unfortunately very rarely on draft) I asked a local whom I’d heard discussing the wines with another table what he’d recommend, and he then took upon himself to order for us. A man of exquisite taste, as it turned out!

For eats, as the restaurant advertised itself as an asador, we tried two of the roasts on offer: the local speciality, cochinillo, or suckling pig, and lamb, another favourite in this area.  So far as the former’s concerned, don’t be put off by the pictures in the restaurants that show an entire baby piggie being served up: for individual portions, at least, you only get a bit of the rib cage, so you don’t have to look the poor beast in the eye when you’re eating it.

For afters, we tried the local delicacy Ponche Segoviano, a sort of orangey, creamy, custardy thing which probably had some booze in it. By then, suitably fortified by the Estrella and your man’s Ribera del Duero recommendation, I’d got into a lengthy conversation with a lovely Argentinian couple at the next table, so I wasn’t paying much attention to it. To be honest, it was hard put to follow the roast meats, both of which were absolutely delicious.

So that’s it, really. Segovia, like most, if not all Spanish cities, is full of hidden gems of restaurants, but often they’re not the first ones you come to. Head for the narrow side streets, or the newer part of town where the non-tourists eat. The menu del dia can be a good option, but not always: and eating off the main menu might be more expensive, but can bring its own rewards.

And if in doubt, have a beer and chat up a local.

P.S. Other places of note in Segovia –

Hotel Spa La Casa Mudejar turned out to be an excellent choice. Located just off the Plaza Mayor, we had asked for a room that looked out to the internal courtyard, and it was extremely quiet, and comfortable. Not the biggest room ever, but nicely done out and clean. Very, very, good value. Don’t know about the spa bit, as we ran out of time to try it – make sure you check its opening times. It’s definitely a spa rather than a swimming pool though.

Cafe Colonial, Plaza del Corpus – just down the street from the hotel – great traditional style cafe for breakfasts and more.

Diablo Cojuelo, Calle Juan Bravo – a bit further down the street that connects the Plaza Mayor with the Acqueduct, this is a deli with tables which has a whole lot going for it: lots of local produce, and not just the big white beans which, frankly, can lead to high winds later on; they produce their own off-denominacion Ribera del Duero, and the Diablo Cojuelo Rojo (there’s a younger black label, which we didn’t try) was the best wine we had in town. And the rest of them weren’t too shoddy.

The only thing that let this place down was the crammed cafe bit and substandard tapas. But still worth a visit for a copa of that wine.


Rip It Up – And Start Again?

Just while I work up the next travel blog, here’s something else I started on earlier…

Rip It Up Poster illuminates the douce museum decor

To the National Museum of Scotland, then, for ‘Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop,’ an exhibition running now until 25th November. Well worth a visit, although bring your piggy bank, because it’s £10/£8 to get in. I suppose it’s been a while since I paid to get into an exhibition, and there’s one hell of a lot of Scottish musical history crammed in, to be sure.

For anyone put off by the ‘Pop’ term, rest assured the displays range from out and out pop stars like Lulu and Bay City Rollers through rock in its various levels of heaviness, to the indie of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie et al and the post rock of Mogwai. There’s even more modern formats such as hip hop represented by Edinburgh’s Young Fathers.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right off. Not everyone that everyone would want represented as key Scottish pop/rock whatever icons is in there. Indeed, my mate Harky, who worked on the exhibition as part of his job at the Museum, told me that significant parts of his time at the ticket desk has been spent explaining to bolshie musos why so and so, or such and such a band, aren’t represented when they were so integral/important/influential etc. Lay off him, musos! There are any number of reasons why folk aren’t in there, including because they asked not to be. So there.

Of those that are, I didn’t really see any major omissions: but then I’m not a muso.  Some people might claim, indeed, that the likes of Rod Stewart (Scottish Dad and well-known predilection to act Scottish) and AC/DC (mostly emigrated to Oz at an early age) aren’t, well, Scottish enough, but, hell,  I’ll take ’em. Many of the others scarpered over the Border as soon as they could and never looked back, although that was very often because it was the only place you could land a decent record deal back in the day.

One band I would love to have seen in there, simply because they produced such great stuff before, it would appear, disappearing almost without trace, was all-girl Glasgow band His Latest Flame, but as I say, I’m not complaining. Here they are in full flow, in case you’ve never heard of them.

To be honest, I’ve always thought that Scotland was distinctly under-represented in the broader rock n’ roll world, and it was actually kind of emotional for me to see just how much great talent there was, and continues to be, from my home patch. Definitely an exhibition worth seeing if you’re in town. Fay Fife’s dress (lead singer/songwriter/theremin player with punk band the Rezillos, and with post punk band the Revillos, she assumed her nom de guerre because she was, er, fae Fife) is worth the admission money alone!

One could go on about the many Scottish musicians that have made their appointment with the Grim Reaper all too early. However, I’m not sure that, statistically, it’s any worse than pop and rock musicians generally. We certainly have some noticeable survivors, including the aforesaid Sir Rodney, and others such as Annie Lennox.

It was strange, emerging from the visual and aural assault of this exhibition, to the calm contemplation and glass-case living death of the regular museum exhibits. I plan to do my level best to ensure that the story of Scottish rock and roll is only just beginning, and it’s not just something for the archaeologists.

So, is there a definitive Scottish sound? It’s more an attitude of mind, for me, one that embraces the miracle of life and love, although at the same time, the melancholy. There’s a darkness which is never far away, even from the poppiest moments. And humour. Although sometimes the humour’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

Daughter and Heiress at the Museum. Not an exhibit yet.

I don’t know there’s a single song that represents all of that. However, since I mentioned this exhibition to a couple of non-Scottish people, the same name came back as the first one they thought of: and although they may not do it for everyone, they were a fine band in their time: the Blue Nile.




















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Segovia – how to get there from Madrid

Edinburgh airport. A picture may say a thousand words, but most of them for this one would be dreich.

The Spanish national railway website,, may be many things. However, model of clarity isn’t the first thing that springs to mind.

Take, for a non-random example, getting a train from Madrid to Segovia. No problem, it says: you can get one straight from Barajas T4, which, to the uninitiated, is Terminal 4 at the airport (known as Barajas, although also, confusingly, as Adolfo Suarez sometimes, after the first post-Franco prime minister).

Which is sort of true. It just doesn’t tell you there are intermediate steps.

So. If you’re coming from the UK on a budget flight, you almost definitely won’t arrive at T4, which is the multi-award winning, Richard Rogers designed modern one. Not for the likes of you, Easyjet punter!

However, you can get there via a free shuttle bus which goes between Terminals 1, 2 and 4 (if you arrive at 3, you’re not completely stuffed – fairly sure you’d just walk to T2). Once at T4,  if you have time, take a moment to savour the architecture and design – it really is impressive – and then get the lift to the basement level, and the Renfe station.

Once there, you’ll find the barcode on your ticket – which, confusingly, says you’re going from Chamartin, one of the main Madrid stations, not T4 – lets you through the electronic barrier. After a couple of goes, probably. Don’t panic!

Pic: RHSP. You can read more about it here. Nuns optional.

You then arrive at a couple of platforms, with trains arriving fairly regularly and then setting off again for places like Recoletos and Principe Pio. You may never have heard of these places, but don’t worry: T4 is the end of the line for a couple of overground/underground train lines – Cercanias – that serve Madrid and its outskirts. Most, or indeed all, of these trains will take you to Chamartin. If in doubt, ask a local.

Once on the train, the ticket lady will check your ticket – again, don’t panic: there is, in tiny writing, the script that says this connection to the main station is included in the price. The journey to Chamartin takes ten minutes or so, with a couple of stops in Madrid’s graffiti-strewn hinterland on the way.

Chamartin doesn’t have the old-world charm of Madrid’s other main station, Atocha, but it’s modern and has plenty of places to refuel. I should have said at the start that you want to get a train to what the Renfe website calls ‘Segovia AV,’ also confusingly known once you’re on the train as ‘Segovia Guiomar.’ This is on the high speed line, which means you get there quickly, but do have a further journey from there into the city.

Madrid to Segovia. Scenery passing at speed.


You can get a number 11 bus from the station and it takes you to the Acqueduct, but frankly, having been on the go from about 9 in the morning and this now being half six at night, we’d had enough planes and trains and took a taxi (about 13 euros).

All very efficient, by the way, and the connections went like a dream. Knowing about the in between bits in advance, we allowed a couple of hours to change terminals and take the cercania into Chamartin, but that left us plenty of time.

Which takes us, literally, to Segovia: on which more later, but the initial signs are good!




































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The Worst Hotel In Madrid (Nearly) (Nearly In It, I Mean)

Atocha Railway Station, Madrid. We’re not going to stay in Madrid this trip – couldn’t find the right hotel in the right place at the right price – but as we head off to Segovia and Caceres instead, I thought I’d start with this piece about our usual port of entry to Spain, and where not to stay.

If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, the path to hell in a hotel is pretty close to it. Maybe like one of those cycleway/pedestrian routes that are becoming quite the thing these days: they run alongside each other for most of the way, then at some key point they diverge for one reason or another, and you end up, not in hell as such, but in a hotel that bears a distinct resemblance to one of the entry-level circles of the Inferno you might have read about if you’re a Dante fan.

What on earth am I talking about? Okay, so here goes. By a couple of years ago, we’d stayed in a lot of hotels, hostals, and apartments in Madrid. We knew the options, but on this particular occasion, we needed a one-night stopover before our flight home. And the train from up north didn’t get in till mid-afternoon.

You know how it is. You work hard all year, so you want to wring the last drop of leisure and pleasure out of your holiday. You’re determined that you’re not going to spend the last 24 hours packing, repacking, sitting waiting for the train/bus/taxi to the airport, then arriving there early, and wandering round the duty free (another infernal circle Dante didn’t get around to) wishing you could speed up the clock and just get on the damn plane and clear customs and the baggage carousel (speaking again of infernal circles) and get home and get a brew on.

I know, right? So, given the very limited time we’d have, we came up with a plan.

‘How about,’ the Redoubtable Mrs F said, ‘an airport hotel with a pool? Then we could just relax and enjoy ourselves, and be right at the hotel in the morning.’

And so it began. It seemed like a straightforward search on hotelsdotwhatever – ‘Madrid/near to airport’ with an added filter for swimming pools. Simples.

However. As you’ve probably found out for yourselves, these sites ain’t as smart as they think they are. In fact, they’re quite a lot dumber than they think they are. It took an hour of searching and swearing to find Tryp Madrid Airport Suites.

It was near to the airport, it said. It had a swimming pool. It was not outrageously expensive. We were to discover that two out of these three statements were, at the least, factually correct. As Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad, but then he was singing it in the pre-internet age, so it just doesn’t count. And he was also singing about love and desire rather than hotel accommodation, if I remember rightly.

Suspicious of the ‘near to the airport,’ assertion, I googled it on the map function. It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere; but then, so too is the airport, and scrolling between the two gave me no concept of distance. I was like an ant, sucked suddenly into the upper atmosphere, peering down at distant anthills and the paths between them. I should probably learn how to use the map function better.

‘It looks like it might be near the airport I said, blind optimism triumphing over inner belief.

As it turned out, it was as far from the airport as it was from Madrid, which in turn was about the same distance away from the airport. In other words, the hotel, the airport and Madrid all formed an isosceles triangle on the huge central plain that, apart from the capital city itself, houses little in the way of human habitation. We were unaware of the full extent of my research failings until, taking a taxi from the station, we found ourselves on a €25 journey – about the same cost as if we’d gone to the airport from a hotel in the centre of the city.

Madrid airport. Part of an infernal triangle

‘Well,’ I said, still seeing the positive side (it had been a great holiday, after all). ‘At least we’re close to the airport now, for the trip in the morning.’

As explained above, we weren’t, but we didn’t know that yet. The hotel, once we had turned off the last featureless motorway intersection, was located in what appeared to be an industrial estate, although the looming shapes of other hotels suggested the main industry was parting tourists from their money.

It’s frankly an understatement to say the exterior looked unpromising: perhaps the architect was going for some ironic post-structuralist Eastern Bloc in-joke, but you probably had to be another architect or a former KGB member to be in on it. Inside, though, things cheered up considerably: there was a lot of modern wood panelling, and groovy lamps, and sculpture type things, littering the reception area. Things got even better when we got to our room, which was actually a suite of rooms, with cool furniture and the same modernistic vibe. Nice.

Daughter and Heiress was hungry. ‘No problem,’ I said confidently. ‘The restaurant opens at four, and it’s already half four.’

The restaurant, it transpired, was reached along the inside wall of the massive internal quadrangle the hotel’s foursquare construction had left. Kind of like a neo-brutalist hommage to the traditional Andalucian internal patio, I mused.

Before we went to eat, we crossed the quadrangle to check out the swimming pool. We would have a snack, we thought, and then get our cossies from the room and go for a swim before dinner.

The pool was located in its own building, which echoed the same Cold War ethic our architect had striven so hard for. It was a full 25 metres of beautiful blue, and the whole place was empty, apart from a very bored-looking lifeguard in tight-fitting shorts.

La piscina esta abierta?‘ [the pool’s open?] I essayed.

‘Yes,’ he said dubiously.

I was on the way out of the country, so I gave up on the Spanish charm offensive. It didn’t feel like it was working anyway. ‘Do we need to bring the towels from the room?’

‘Yes, and you need a bathing cap.’

‘A bathing cap?’

‘Yes. You can buy one from the shop.’

‘Oh,’ I said. I looked around for some sign of a shop.

‘It’s out there on the left,’ he added, not unhelpfully.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And where do you get changed?’

He looked at me as if I wasn’t grasping things quite as firmly as he thought I should. ‘The changing rooms are out there too.’

Having located the spartan, concrete, changing rooms and, in a separate concrete building, the shop, we decided to give the restaurant a go. Which is where things really started to get weird.

By this time, it was about a quarter to five. I rattled the door of the restaurant, but it seemed stuck. After a pause, a pleasant-faced waitress appeared and unlocked the door.

Hola?’ she said, inquiringly.

‘We’d like something to eat,’ I said, trying the Spanish tack again. ‘Is the restaurant open? It says it’s open at four.’

‘Does it?’ This seemed like new information to her. She wandered off, and we wandered in, to find a vast, empty restaurant, about the size of a football pitch. At one end, a cook hovered near an open serving hatch. At the other, a man sat talking animatedly into a mobile phone. The waitress went to him, pointed to us, and he nodded. She drifted back towards us. ‘Where would you like to sit?’ she asked, pleasantly.

We chose a table roughly on the half way line between the underemployed cook and the man barking into his mobile, who seemed to be in some sort of supervisory role.

The waitress, with whom I felt we now had a reasonable rapport, after all we’d been through together, produced menus with pictures on them and text in Spanglish. Daughter and Heiress ordered nachos with chicken and cheese; I ordered something or other.

In due course, D & H’s nachos arrived. I called the waitress back, smiling to indicate I understood this really wasn’t a big deal.

Phrases you won’t find in the phrasebook, lesson 1: ‘Los nachos con pollo y queso? No hay pollo ni queso.‘ ‘The nachos with chicken and cheese? There isn’t any chicken. Or cheese.’

The waitress took the lonesome nachos back to the cook. Minutes passed. There was a debate between the cook and the waitress. I found myself checking the menu, to be sure we hadn’t hallucinated the promise of chicken and cheese. The manager at the far end carried on with his phone conversation.

Eventually, the nachos reappeared, with chicken, but without cheese. Daughter and Heiress, sensing this was as good as it was going to get, ate them, another part of her childhood faith in her father to fix everything eroded. We paid and left, and silence, save for the manager’s barking, descended on the place again, along with a sense of peace restored.

Later, after our swim (some fellow residents, a youngish family, also appeared, and splashed about half-heartedly under the thousand yard stare of the lifeguard) we went for dinner and things, if possible, got even weirder: in a by now half-filled restaurant, you had to queue at the door, decide then and there what you wanted to eat and drink, and then pay for it, before you were shown to your table. It was like an engineer accustomed to developing air conditioning systems had been asked to design the most logistically efficient way of combining customers with their food and drink.

In the morning, we took another €25 taxi ride to the airport, in an emotional state best described as nonplussed. It was the weirdest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and bear in mind this is from someone whose Seventies childhood involved being taken on holiday to Highland hotels and guest houses so bizarre it looked like they were treating Fawlty Towers as a training video.

Fortunately, this is very much the exception in relation to Madrid’s accommodation offer. In future instalments, I’ll tell you where you really want to stay.

























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