andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Off-Grid Adventures in Northumbria: The Best Holiday Cottage Ever?

Me looking glaikit in front of the wood store. I wonder if they use the word glaikit in Northumberland.

When you go away for an October weekend in Scotland or the north of England with another couple, what do you look for? Comfortable accommodation? Decent walks/cycle paths for the more energetic? History on your doorstep? Wood burning fire? Easy access to a pub?

Coldburn Cottage, in College Valley, Kirknewton has all of these, apart perhaps for the last one. The nearest place of any consequence is Wooler, and that’s about ten miles away. However, there’s a great thing now called a supermarket, where you can buy your own food and drink, so if you’re prepared to do that, you’re sorted. They have them everywhere now too, not just Wooler.

The whole area is freighted in history. A couple of miles up the road, there’s the site of Flodden, a catastrophic defeat for the Scots in 1513 that left most of the Scottish nobility, including one of our greatest kings, James IV, dead on the battlefield. Also nearby is Homildon Hill, where in 1402 the Scots were soundly beaten again. If you think you see a pattern emerging, you’d be right: basically the one big battle we won was Bannockburn in 1314, and we’ve been banging on about it ever since.

Bannockburn’s much further north, of course. Here, at the modern Border, are what used to be called The Debatable Lands, where for centuries warring tribes identifying themselves as much by their clan names as much as whether they were Scots or English periodically knocked lumps out of each other.

The history goes much further back. Much of our journey south from Edinburgh was via the A68, which for some at least of its length is the route of the Roman road known as Dere Street, running north from Eboracum (York) deep into the Caledonian forests. The same road became the marching route for mediaeval armies: on the way back up we stopped at an excellent cafe just over the crest of Soutra Hill, where an ongoing  dig is uncovering some dark secrets from the former hospital that the Augustinians ran back then.

The cottage itself looks homely. If you’re looking for the latest crazy boutique/vintage/distressed decor, you won’t find it here – the owners have decorated and furnished it nicely, but conventionally, and none the worse for that. Highlights include the large dining kitchen, where you can cook, chat and drink all together at the same time; and the wood/coal burning fire in the living room. The bedrooms are up a slightly twisty, low-ceilinged stair so possibly not for everyone (and might prove a challenge if you’ve really been tanning the prosecco); there’s a bathroom (shower attachment on an old-fashioned bath; we stuck to baths, which were great) and a separate wee toilet.

The promo video gives you an idea of the place, although for some unconscionable reason it has a horror film soundtrack: for those of you who, like me, don’t entirely discount these things, the place had a really welcoming atmosphere – which is more than I could say for a couple of old cottages I’ve stayed in in my time. Although there is a proper axe in the woodshed should you wish to re-enact scenes from the Shining.

 

It’s the surrounds that really make this place though. I’d like to think that the residents of the area were left relatively untroubled by all the warring factions over the centuries, just because they were so fecking hard to get to: as you approach from the north, you see a giant’s huge, unmade bed of hills, which the main roads all skirt around. This is Northumberland National Park, and there’s a tricky enough drive along single track road for several miles, on past the car park where day visitors have to stop, and further into the valley, to reach the place. It’s just a few miles from the A1, but it could be half a country away. Here are some of the Redoubtable Mrs F’s photos (click on one to see the whole gallery):

What else can I say? Oh, just this. It has no mobile signal – you have to pretty much come right out of the Park and half way to the next town to get one. No wi-fi. No tv aerial or cable. There’s a tiny wee telly box that you could, in theory, watch DVDs on. We didn’t. We talked to each other, ate good food, drank good wine, walked, and talked some more.

I took my guitar and, while the others were still asleep, finished the lyrics to two songs I’d been blocked on for months. Then, unbidden, a really stupid third song in a country style about a guy that’s been trying to find a woman to dance to Dylan songs with him came to me, out of the sky. I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day, but it was fun to have its daft lyrics flowing out of me like a tap had been turned on.

There’s lots of research about the corrosive effects of blue light. I’m no scientist, but all I can say is a break from it was measurably good for my creativity. Actually, the valley has a few of these cottages available for short term lets, as well as a hall for performances, so it would be perfect for a songwriters’ retreat.

So, finally, here’s a stripped down version of one of the songs I finished (not the Dylan-dancing one: that can wait, possibly forever). I’d been experimenting with double-drop D tuning for a while (for non-guitar players, that’s when you tune the top and bottom strings down by a tone to produce a very mellow, low, droning effect) but I was struggling for words. I’d always been fascinated though by the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, the IX Hispana, who were stationed at York, and then disappeared from the records.

The legend – and some research – indicates they marched north to deal with those troublesome Caledonians, and didn’t come back. It may be why the Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall right across the narrowest part between modern-day England and Scotland; again not far from where we were staying. Records don’t show whether he got the Scots to pay for it, but it seems unlikely.

There’s a place in the centre of York where, years ago, people saw ghostly Roman legionaries marching past, but cut off from the knees down, because of the change in ground levels. When we went there once, many years ago, we did the obligatory ghost tour, and, at the place where the legionaries supposedly appeared, I felt this almost overwhelming sense of sadness. Again, it’s up to you if you believe any of this stuff, but that’s supposedly one effect of the presence of spirits, I understand. That’s what the last verse is about.

Incidentally, when I say stripped down, it’s only because I’ve held back so far from going mad with the synths and sound effects. A ‘gone mad with synths and sound effects’ version may follow. I’m slightly worried I may have been channelling the spirit of Led Zeppelin, circa 1973, but then a chord change of D – C – G is hardly ever going to be the most original in the history of rock n’ roll, even in an alternate tuning!

Anyway, Coldburn Cottage, near Wooler – possibly the best holiday cottage ever! Take food, wine, and good company. And a guitar, obviously.

 

 

 

 

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A Sixties Flat in Edinburgh

We bought our Edinburgh flat two years ago. Located in Blackford, on the south side of the city, it’s an ex-Council in a block of 6: not exactly your poshest des. res., compared to the Georgian splendour of the New Town, or even the Victorian and Edwardian villas nearby. However, by buying a fix-up job with an unpromising exterior we were able to use our share of my parents’ estate to get three bedrooms of decent size within a twenty minute walk from the centre.

When I say fix up job, it’s not that the flat was in a poor state of repair. However, the same lady who had moved in with her husband as a tenant when the flat was new, had lived in it right up until she had had to move into an old folks home, shortly before her death at the age of 99.

Accordingly, the decor was somewhat dated; a new kitchen and bathroom were needed; and  the electrics had to be redone. The plan was for Daughter and Heiress to move in at the start of her second year at university: so the fix-up, whilst initially for a tenant, would be for her ultimately. The discovery that we could rent it out unfurnished for the same as furnished was a real bonus, as it meant the furnishing of it could wait till this summer – of which more later.

The flat as was. Note lysergic carpet

First of  all, though, there was getting it to ground zero: as our plumbers, Wisharts, got down to business with the kitchen, central heating and bathroom (top tip: use tradesmen who know, and are used to working with, each other. John from Wisharts, Kevin Cushnie of Cushnie Electricians, and Jim Gibson the joiner (carpenter to you non-Scots) did us proud – all proper Fife tradesmen, of course) we were doing, well, basically everything else.

Maker’s name from the original heating system. Lovely piece of kit: still trying to find a place for it!

‘Everything else’ involved, initially, lots and lots of wallpaper stripping. With the purchase of a steam stripper, it wasn’t exactly rocket science: but with every room in the house wallpapered it was a long, hot, sticky process which seemed to take forever. Occasionally, however, the walls told a story to cheer us on:

 

Wee piece of artwork from a previous decorator, hidden under the wallpaper

Similarly, all the carpets and other floor coverings had to come up. There were many, many dirty and dusty trips to the city cowp (recycling centre if you’re posh), especially as, in a mixture of kind gesture and saving their own ageing backs, the owner’s daughter and son in law had left us quite a bit of furniture. That was quite handy to start with, but as we progressed with the work, we began to appreciate the value of our Honda Civic’s fold down back seats. That car carted a lot of stuff, let me tell you!

In the kitchen, as an original lining for the floor covering, we found newspapers from 1959, which pretty much dated the flat’s construction to that year, or the year after:

 

Advert from the Daily Express, 1959: wonder when that keep fit technique’s due a revival?

Eventually, the flat reached ground zero, and we had an uncomfortable weekend on bare floorboards with no running water (note for South Side fixer-uppers at a similar stage: Waitrose in Morningside doesn’t have toilets, but the library does).

 

Then came the ‘fun’ bit: painting, getting carpets on the floor, and tiling the bathroom and kitchen. This last job involved laying plywood over the floorboards: I remember a particularly perilous walk down from the nearest Jewson’s carrying the bathroom’s ply (for once, the Civic let us down, size wise): the slightest gust of wind and the flexible wood functioned like a sail, and I could picture myself taking flight, to circumnavigate the globe evermore, like a latter-day Flying Dutchman in scruffy jeans and paint-smeared t-shirt…

Anyway, after much weekend work and a few blips, we were done the first phase, and the flat was ready to be let:

As we uncovered the bare bones of the flat, we came to appreciate the flat’s design, and how it represented a turning point in domestic technology. There was, for example, a fireplace, and a chimney, although it looked as if that had been pretty quickly replaced by central heating and an early Sixties gas fire. Similarly, the kitchen held a larder, with a concrete (rather than the traditional stone) shelf for keeping the perishable foods on. I insisted on keeping that, much to John the plumber’s disgust, as he had to drill through it for the new central heating piping! Refrigerators weren’t a common feature in British homes till much later on in the Sixties.

Another kitchen feature we kept was the original pulley above the sink for hanging washing – now in use by Daughter and Heiress. Just going back to the larder for a second, the original kitchen designer we called in wanted to get rid of it, to increase the potential space for the modern units. However, we were determined to keep it, so we ignored him and designed the (B & Q) kitchen ourselves around it.

And so, as the famous Edinburgh Festival happened a mile or so up the road in August 2015, we applied the final touches. It took a couple of months to get it let, but we’re very pleased that it then served as home for a lovely lady and her two daughters – in other words, as the family home it had been designed to be.

If you think that last statement suggests a little defensiveness on my part, you’d be right. Central Edinburgh’s accommodation is under increasing pressure, not just from students at the various universities, but more and more from places being bought up as holiday flats. Our conflicted feelings about buying somewhere designed as social rented accommodation for families was assuaged in part by letting it to a family – and, in the future, it may well be used as that again, for our family, if our plans work out.

In the meantime, though, we took the flat back in June, and proceeded to furnish it for Daughter and Heiress and her friend’s use. This was a hell of a lot more fun than stripping wallpaper! Trying to stay faithful to the Sixties vibe, we went for a minimalist, retro look with a mixture of new, and reconditioned (mainly charity shop), pieces:

…and the great thing is, with a third bedroom, me and Mrs F can still visit and stay over, provided due warning is given to our flatmates!

(Feel free to share, and comment, as you want)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any advertising below here isn’t my advertising. That would be WordPress, scraping a few bucks together.

Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

In the lead up to Bruce Almighty, I hope to interview some of the guys n’ gals bringing you the noise on the night. We start with not one, not two, but three members of the band that backs the man we call The Boss, Isaac Brutal (pictured above): Graham Crawford, the band’s resident lead guitarist, producer and player of any instrument you throw at him; lead singer Emma Emz Gow; and on bass, the legend that is Murray Ramone…

How did you first meet Bruce Springsteen – what song, or album, was your first encounter with him?

Graham: Norman Rodger introduced me to Bruce Springsteen in 1980. He was a big fan and I was a fan of Norman’s band TV21. (Norman will also be performing on the night, with his band The Normans – Ed)

Murray: Born to Run in the 70’s, thanks to an older brother.

Emma: 1993/94, when I first saw the movie Philadelphia, the title track for which was written and performed by Bruce. Great movie, great soundtrack. I was just hitting my teens and finding my own taste in music at that point.

(Mr Ramone in action, at Jeffest5 this summer. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

You’re a band known for its own, unique, original material. What attracted you to doing a Springsteen tribute?

Graham: We will play any gig we are offered. I can’t remember the last time we said no.

Murray: We were asked. Personally I hate doing covers, but as I’m not the main writer in the band it’s always someone else’s song I’m adding bass to. I treat it the same way, think about what I’m going to do, not what the demo or in this case the original does.

Emma: We were invited to do it, but it was also an opportunity I jumped at, a) because the material is so different to what we as a band would normally do, and b) because I love a challenge and the idea of being The Boss for an evening appealed to me.

(The band in full flow at Henry’s Cellar Bar. Photo: Kenny Mackay)

Unfortunately, the E Street Band were unavailable on the 25th. Tell us a little about your band. Do the Springsteen songs fit your sound, or have you changed your usual sound (instrument wise or otherwise) to fit what you imagined for the songs?

Graham: There’s a lot of us in this band and we like to layer up the sound of the band in a similar way to the E Street Band. Playing other bands’ music gives us a chance to explore what we are all doing. When we first start on a project like this it sounds chaotic until we all work out how our own instruments fit in with the overall sound. Working out the details in someone else’s song is fun and keeps us interested. When we go back to our own songs we can add in what we have learned.

Murray: Any good song will work in any style.

Emma: Isaac Brutal are very much a country punk band with a penchant for bile black humour and great story telling. I guess great story telling is something we have in common with the Boss. We didn’t really change anything to fit the style of the songs though. We were lucky to have Kenny involved to help us pick, and play lead guitar for our set as he is a massive fan. But have we changed anything? No, not really. It’s just been an exercise in versatility for us.

(Mr Crawford, also rocking out at JF5. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

Any songs that didn’t make the cut? Any you wish you could do, but feel you can’t?

Graham: Kenny and Mark choose the songs. I am a hired hand just like members of the E Street Band.

Murray: I’d tackle something off Born in the USA. The songs would be much improved without the terrible bombastic production.

Emma: Kenny and Mark picked the set. I genuinely hadn’t heard any of these songs until a few months ago, but I have grown to love them. I wanted to do Thunder Road and was overruled. Probably a good thing in the end as we’ve had to work hard enough on the songs we did wind up going with and they are simpler. (Plus the harmonica solo’s tougher than you’d think – Ed.)

(Emma: Jeffest5 again. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

Finally, any news about your band you’d like to share with us – any albums/tours/interesting merch available on the night?

Graham: Not 1 but 2 albums in the can waiting to be released. Both are sounding very good and it is a fight to see which will be released first.

Emma: Our album The Falcon Has Landed is coming soon, the release of which will undoubtedly coincide with an album launch show early next year at some point (but don’t quote me on that). Also, Prostitutes, Junkies and Bums, an acoustic side project mostly by Mark and Andrew but featuring some work by myself, Graham and Stuart Munro is just about ready to go too. We may or may not have CDs available at the merch table….?

 

Bruce Almighty

Bob Dylan. Nick Cave. Leonard Cohen. What have they all got in common, apart from the obvious? The obvious being, of course, I’ve been involved in organising tribute nights to all of them. And now, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s turn to be inducted into the Fergusonian Hall of Rock and Roll Fame: mark Saturday, 25th November in your diary, because that’s when you can hear four of Edinburgh’s finest bands pay tribute to the Boss.

However, this night’s very far from being about me. For a start, I think it was legendary guitarist Kenny Mackay who first suggested it, and despite being involved in other bands, he’s been drawn back into Isaac Brutal for the night to add his own unique axe-troubling style to our set.

Secondly, though, this wasn’t exactly the hardest sell in the world to other musicians. Leith Depot’s a great wee venue – the Brutals had a great time, and arguably gave one of our best performances there, back in March, when we supported Véloniños along with Elvera and the Arcatis. And Bruce’s songs – well…

I remember, back when I was a student, reading a review of a Nils Lofgren album, that said something like, ‘If you think all Springsteen songs are about, girls, speed and night, listen to Nils Lofgren.’ Back in the early 80s, it was perhaps easy to categorise a lot of Springsteen songs that way, and I grew up listening to those classic early albums Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River.

In many ways he made much more sense as a hero for me than Dylan, whose own first imperial phase coincided with my drooling a lot, throwing food, and generally being a toddler. Born to Run, on the other hand, hit the record shops (as they were known then) in 1975, when I was 13; Darkness on the Edge of Town when I was 16, that year of rebellion and ridiculously hard maths exams. Complicating things at the time were bands like the Stranglers proclaiming that there were no such things as heroes (No More Heroes being released a year later, in 1977). It was interesting to read more recently that Springsteen was acutely aware of punk’s rise, and was painstaking in his song choice for Darkness (still one of my favourite albums) to reflect the rock n’ roll toughness that he tuned into, coming from the likes of the Ramones.

As I think I’ve said before, I’ve never quite forgiven two of my Uni pals for going off and queuing for tickets to see Springsteen at the Playhouse when he toured The River. To be fair, I suppose, mobile phones hadn’t been invented then, so getting me down there too would’ve involved one of them chancing his place in the queue to run to the phone box on Greenside Place, remembering my number out of his own head, phoning the payphone on my floor in student halls, and hoping someone would pick up that wasn’t too drunk or too stoned to pass the message on. Not surprising really, then, that I missed what was to be my last chance to see The Boss outside of a stadium gig.

Those are just my few reflections on his early work. However, you’ll all have memories of the vast Springsteen canon, and how it first touched you: the huge, gated drums and synth intro of Born in the USA, for example, misappropriated by the Reagan campaign, much to Bruce’s Democrat-voting chagrin; the more downbeat, reflective early 90s albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town; or the haunting, Steinbeck-inspired Ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen’s work perhaps doesn’t have the sprawling span of some of the other greats, but it’s certainly harder to categorise than being all girls, speed and night.

And of course he’s still working: his latest album, High Hopes, came out in 2014, and besides a well-received autobiography he’s currently performing an 8-week run of his songs interspersed with the stories behind them on Broadway – coincidentally, ending the day after our tribute night.

In the lead up to Bruce Almighty I hope to bring you some interviews with members of the bands that are providing your night’s entertainment on Saturday 25th. In the meantime, feel free to share your own comments and thoughts on the Boss, his music, and anything else you feel like, really!

 

 

Autobiographer? Moi?

I’ve got in a little bit of trouble with my female relations, friends and colleagues since the publication of my novel, The Wrong Box. Their principal problem, I think, is with one of the two main characters, Simon English, and to hear his interior monologue in my voice – when they thought I was such a nice lad!

Well, I still am a feminist, respectful to women (I hope) and absolutely unlikely to go off and get into the sexual scrapes that Simon does. It really isn’t wish fulfilment, and that incident with the Lochgelly tawse in the open plan is neither fantasy nor autobiography, believe me!

If you think I doth protest too much, consider the attitudes and inner thoughts of the other main character, Karen Clamp. No one seems to think I’m channelling myself in describing a conspiracy theorist with a jaundiced view of men and an advanced case of body dysmorphia – and yet, I would argue, there are just as many things I share in common with Karen as I do with Simon. It’s fiction, darling, don’t you see?

I fear the latest track I’m thinking of putting on my next album may cause similar problems. There’s a long tradition of songwriting which is non-autobiographical: Randy Newman is probably my favourite exponent. However, these days you’re meant to pour your heart out in a deeply personal, yet curiously still universal manner so that listeners, who have either gone through the same stuff or, better still for sales figures, are going through it right now, can know that you, too, have felt all these things and made a whole album out of it.

Well, I sometimes do that, although being a Scottish male, talking about emotions isn’t exactly in the standard wiring diagram. Probably for that reason the autobiography is generally filtered through oblique lyrics that only someone who knows me well would get, or in the case of the Venus Carmichael project, through the life story of a semi-successful singer-songwriter from the Seventies who’s a different gender than me and twelve years older to boot. Cunning, huh?

On the other hand, sometimes it’s good to cut loose of your own emotional landscape and just let fly with a different character. Which leads me to You’ll Be Hearing From Me: wherein the central character is brash, opinionated, and all too ready to share his opinions with you. Not me then!

I will admit to preferring wine to whisky(1), but for the rest of it, I’m taking the Fifth…

 

 

(1) Interestingly, the distortion effect I applied to the last bit of blues box guitar is called ‘snortin’ whiskey,’ which is kind of appropriate. All praise to my compatriots’ ingenuity in convincing the rest of the world that the crazy highland fighting water’s worth drinking!

Not All About The Bass

As I’ve gone through my musical journey of the last, oh, nine or so years, rediscovering my love of writing and playing it, a few things have surprised me, not least how different people hear music in different ways. Kenny Mackay, for example, claims never to listen to the lyrics – bad news for a lyricist such as me, of course, but understandable with the most quintessentially lead guitarist-like of my friends and musical associates.

One of the things I’ve noticed most is how I hear things differently to others: and specifically, how my hearing of music is biased towards the treble end. When I record my own music, I very rarely put any bass guitar on it. If I put anything on in the lower range at all, it’s strings.

Now, you bass guitar players out there may find this shocking – and don’t get me wrong, I recognise that, especially playing live, the bass is an essential element in making the floor shake. However, despite knowing two fine exponents of the four (usually) string’s art in Murray Ramone and Mark Allan, I’ve just never attempted it.

So, as an experiment, I’ve put what the synth calls ’90’s bass’ on my newest track. Is ’90’s bass’ a thing? All I know is it’s the closest I’ll get to the sound of a bass guitar on the Korg, which is a quicker option than getting Mark or Murray through to record the real thing. Maybe for the final version.

…and having made it so that you’ll now focus when listening to the track to the bass part, what makes the song for me is the interplay between the ‘real’ guitars, namely my brand new baby, the Epiphone EJ200, and the jangle of the Danelectro 12 string I have on semi-permanent loan from Mark so that his missus won’t know the true number of guitars he actually owns. (Shh! Don’t tell Susan!)

Oh, and the words, I suppose. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I didn’t put in some words. Although Kenny probably won’t hear them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Glenrothes: be part of her story

I’ve been thinking about my home town quite a bit recently, for various reasons, not least because next year is its 70th anniversary. Which is quite a landmark for what’s still called a ‘New Town.’

I was thinking about it this way the other day: if Glenrothes was a person, let’s just say for the sake of argument a woman, her life story would be something like this: born in 1948, at the start of the baby boom, the product of the same desire to create a brave new world that brought us a National Health Service and a town and country planning system to name only two other bold post-war bits of legislation.

Growing up in the grim 1950s, her heyday was the Sixties and Seventies, when she blossomed, developing fast in every way. She was ambitious; she had plenty of money; all the things that made her beautiful – all that landscaping and green space – were there for all to see.

Even then there were problems – heart problems, you could say: the town centre never really worked properly as a place for people to meet and circulate, at least not at night. There were tougher times ahead in the 1980s, and then in the mid-Nineties the analogy gets even more strained: the winding up of the Development Corporation that had shaped the town up to then was like – what? A divorce? A bereavement? Some sort of mid-life crisis?

The truth is, Glenrothes has never quite been the same since. Fife Council, my employer, may have done its best, but it was never going to be able to give the poor old girl the same care and attention – not to mention money – that her own Corporation had. Besides which, key decisions taken in 1995/6 – the selling off of many of the town’s assets to balance central governmental books, especially – continue to have an effect today.

Glenrothes still retains some of her beauty, even as she approaches 70. Much of the green infrastructure has matured, even if some of the bricks and mortar – not to mention the concrete and tar macadam – needs some work that goes beyond cosmetic surgery.

Anyway, enough of all that – if you’re still reading, it’s probably because you’ve some sort of interest in Glenrothes, and her back story. And here’s the thing: you have an opportunity to tell your own version of that tale. Dan Brown (no, not that one, the other one) is currently running a project whereby you can have your story, recollection, whatever you call it, about the town, recorded professionally and put up online, with video, a slideshow, or whatever you want really. There’s more info about it here.

Thing is, take up has been slow so far, and I think I know why – it’s the ‘storytelling’ bit. It makes it sound like you have to make up some wee story about a West Highland Terrier called Colin who one day buried his bone in the bus station landscaping and then couldn’t find it. It’s not! It’s about true life stories – YOUR true life story. There’s more about the digital storytelling concept here. It’s an American idea.

So please, please get involved! This is a great chance for Glenrothes – by which I mean its people, ordinary folk who’ve lived in the town, to tell its true story, good and bad, warts  and all. But it’ll only work if you get involved.

You can contact Dan at dan.brown@onfife.com. He’s a good guy, who’s been converted to the Glenrothes cause.

Tell him I sent you.

 

Beginnings: the bus to Burgos and other false starts

It was the dilemma every parent of a young child comes to face, sooner or later: whether or not to drug the little blighter into a stupor, just to get some peace and quiet for a while.

Now, before you reach for the nearest mobile device to contact the authorities, context is everything. Malaga airport was closing in on thirty degrees; we were waiting to board a four-hour flight with the then 18 month old Daughter and Heiress; and the drug of choice was the children’s medicine, Calpol ©.

Every parent who’s been on a plane with an eighteen-month old, or just been a fellow passenger, knows the score. Even the sweetest natured of them (children, I mean, not the fellow passengers, who even if fellow parents, are not generally inclined to empathy) struggle with the hostile environment of an Easyjet flight sat on their mother’s knee for what is then a significant proportion of their lifetime, with the scant distraction of a colouring book and Henderson, the weirdly-coloured bear-type creature they were handed 18 months ago.

Even the most sweet-natured of them (and Daughter and Heiress was, even allowing for parental bias, up there with the best) can get more than a little restive. And whilst a 6 month old infant may have limited options beyond a bit of wailing, at 18 months, kicking, biting and flailing wildly, whilst not strictly in the Queensberry rules, tend to come into play.

So yes, we did. We decided Diddums was developing an ickle sniffle, and we dosed her up good with Calpol ©. Whereupon she slept the sleep of the just for the entire flight and we – not to mention the surrounding passengers within wild flailing distance – breathed a sigh of relief. Good shit, Calpol ©. Although I understand they’ve watered the sleep-inducing elements of it down now, presumably in response to one too many war stories like this from the parental front line.

To be fair, it was the only time we ever did that, and it hadn’t been a great holiday. We had taken a package deal to Nerja, on the Costa del Sol, and the Redoubtable Mrs F had been unwell for most of it, so a decent amount of the week had been spent staring at the unremarkable walls of our holiday apartment.

Any time we had outside had confirmed what we’d expected of Nerja: it was perfectly set up for tourists, especially British and German ones. And for that reason, wasn’t our cup of Sangría at all.

Now then. Let’s clear this up right at the get go. If you go to the Costas every year, stay in the same hotel, like to spend half your time on the beach or the pool, and the other half deciding between the place with its menu in photographs or the Irish bar run by that lovely couple from Essex, good luck to you.

Seriously. Please, please don’t think that, because our family have moved away now from such a holiday, that I’m looking down on it, or pretending that we’re in some way more … authentic or something for going the other way.

I mean, I have at times on our travels wished for the simplicity of a holiday like that. First of all, it’s a package, right? So you know pretty much what it’s going to cost you, and even if you do it yourself over the internet these days, you’re basically a few clicks away from having your holiday organised. A bus collects you at the airport, whisks you off to your resort, and you’re sorted for the next seven or fourteen days. If you have any problems, there’s usually an English-speaking rep there to sort things for you.

And don’t get me wrong. We’ve been holidays like that before, to Crete, Cyprus, Corsica, even Tenerife. A lot to be said for them. A lot. Not for you the long march from a railway station on the edge of an unfamiliar town at stupid o’clock in the rain, with a rucksack the size of a light goods vehicle on your back, playing chicken on the pedestrian crossings, where the motorists treat the green man as for guidance only; not for you the back street hostal in what turns out to be the red light district, where the only additional facilities consist of a pubic hair in the bath and a partition wall so thin it vibrates with the guy next door’s snoring.

Not for us, either, that last bit, if we can help it (and as we’ll see, the Spanish insistence on cleanliness amounts to near-obsessive levels of bleach usage, so the pubic hair bit is unlikely). But often, there’s only a hazy internet image and your gut instinct between you and a, shall we say, less than perfect accommodation experience. We’ll deal with the French teenagers later. Severely.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, in Malaga airport, drugging a small child. To be honest, though, our desire to see the best of Spain reached back further, before Daughter and Heiress came along, at the bottom of a bottle of cheap Asda wine.

Or, even before that, with a trip round south-western France.

* * * *

‘We should go there,’ I announced, with possibly more emphasis than was needed, examining the label. ‘If it produces wine as good as this, it must be worth a visit.’

The wine in question was called Léon, and retailed at the time at around £3.99. It was one of the first cheap Spanish wines we’d tried, and it knocked, to our taste, French wines twice the price into a cocked hat. Léon, the label taught me, was in northern Spain, not far from Rioja, where the pricey Spanish stuff came from.

Believe me, we’d given the French equivalent a proper go by then. Brought up in Franco-phone and -phile households, we’d been to France several times, most recently when, in a break from the package holiday, we’d gone to south-western France, to places like Carcasonne, and Rocamadour, living on our wits, our (then reasonably up to date) French, and the Logis guide to get between places and find a bed for the night. It had been fun, but the food and wine, for all the French made such a big thing of it, was a bit, well, ordinaire, to our way of thinking.

And now here was this bottle of cheap Spanish plonk, calling to us.

Fortunately, I had a plan. The Fife town of Dunfermline, where I worked at the time, had a town twinning arrangement with Logroño, the capital of Rioja. Using my contacts, and the services of the ultra-resourceful Brenda, of the now long-gone travel agents AT Mays, we arranged a trip there.

This was before the days of the internet, mind, so we had to rely on Brenda’s skill with that weird proto-internet system that travel agents used in those times (and possibly even still use); it seemed, back then, as if travel agents, for all their polyester uniforms and plastic badges, had access to their own form of witchcraft, scrying for flight reservations and hotel availability through a screen you never got to see but which, it appeared, they could commune with, and by muttering some occult words of the Old Tongue, book stuff through.

At that stage my Spanish was pretty much non-existent. However, my contacts in the town twinning association assured me that everyone under thirty in Spain spoke English, and everyone over thirty had been taught French at school. Suitably emboldened, we set off for Bilbao.

That first trip to Spain away from the tourist areas taught us many things, which are probably worth listing:

  1. Outwith the tourist areas, very little English is spoken.

 

  1. No one, over or under thirty, speaks French. At all. Ever. Why would they?

 

  1. There is no direct bus link from Logroño to Léon. Or there wasn’t then. Or if there was, it was beyond us to find it.

 

  1. Spanish food and wine, even more so in its country of origin, is the stuff for us.

 

  1. In Rioja, they’re very proud of their asparagus.

 

  1. In Spain, you can eat your dinner as early as 9 at night, if you don’t mind an empty restaurant, with only a curious waiter for company, staring at you from the kitchen doorway as he draws on his fag (things have changed now, of course).

 

  1. The Spanish are, almost without exception, kind and solicitous for daft foreigners’ welfare, and will cross the street to help you if you stand and look glaikit for long enough. They also give you major brownie points for any attempt to speak their language.

 

  1. Just don’t get into a chilli eating and whisky drinking contest with them. It’ll end messily.

 

We learned this last vital piece of information courtesy of a friend of Rufino and Asun. We’d been put in touch with them through the town twinning association, and they were our patient, English-speaking guides for that first initiation into Spanish gastronomy. We came to learn that when they said they’d meet us at twelve, they meant twelve midnight, which was when an evening of tapeando might begin, at least for young, childless couples. Over the course of a few days, we realised that, although Spain is only an hour ahead of Scotland, the bodyclock needs to shift through any number of gears to keep pace with the Spanish lifestyle. (See separate blog on a brief history of Spanish time).

Away from Rufino and Asun’s assistance, however, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land. The food, though fantastic, was served via incomprehensible menus, with phrasebook lists unable to keep pace with the chefs’ creativity. The driving seemed maniacal, so there was no question of hiring a car – a decision we’ve stuck to ever since.

There was, at the time, no central bus station in Logroño, so when we decided to take a bus to Burgos (since there appeared not to be one to Léon, where the Asda wine came from) we had to queue in a side street at the bus garage, shaking our head at the neighbourhood beggar. Here was another culture shock – most of the queue actually gave the beggar money!

The bus to Burgos was a tense affair, mainly because the driver had thoughtlessly failed to learn any of the stock answers in the phrase book. Once there, we wandered half-heartedly round the cathedral, wondering where our next square meal was coming from, and when we’d have to start queuing for the bus back.

Nevertheless, that first trip to Logroño lit a fire under us even more than Asda’s wine department had. With the help of our Spanish friends, we’d been introduced to a whole different lifestyle, culture, and gastronomy. Tapas is common currency now in the UK – you can even see Indian, or Italian, restaurants, using that word now – but back twenty or so years ago, it wasn’t. Spain was emerging from the bleakness of the Franco era with a new self-confidence about its culture, but we Brits had been fed (literally) French and Italian propaganda for so long about their culture being the bee’s knees, we were slow to catch onto the Iberian equivalent.

That subsequent trip to Nerja underlined that there were two Spains: the egg-and-chips, high-rise, donkey-and-sombrero Costas, and the other Spain, the ‘real’ one, that you needed a bit of Spanish to unlock for yourself.

After twenty years of travelling in Spain, we still hadn’t been to Léon to track that mythical bottle of Asda wine down. However, in the meantime, we had been to, in no particular order: Logroño, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Zamora, Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Burgos (on the bus), Cuenca, Valencia, Alicante, Cordoba, Toledo, Merida, Seville, Granada, Manzanares, Almagro, Valladolid, Malaga and Úbeda.

We’ve got about by plane, train, bus and taxi (of the licensed and unlicensed variety). We have, if you haven’t guessed already, totally fallen for this bewitching country. If I can, with a little help from my fellow travellers, impart just a bit of the fun we’ve had along the way, then job done.

But let’s start with that lingo of theirs…

Don’t be a mug – get a mug!

I’ll do anything to get you to buy my crime caper novel, The Wrong Box. Book groups, weddings, bar mitzvahs – just let me know and I’ll come and do a reading.

In the meantime, I’m appearing at the Byres Road Book Festival, Glasgow on 21st September with my Thunderpoint stablemates Margot McCuaig and Kevin Scott. To celebrate, I’m offering a never to be repeated offer (well, not for a bit, anyway): review the novel on your blog, on Amazon, or via social media, by 22nd September, and I’ll put you in a draw to win an exclusive mug with the iconic cover image on it  – which will look quite a lot like the picture below.

If you’ve already done a review and I know about it, I’ll put you in the draw automatically. I’ll post the winner the mug as soon as possible after the draw, wherever you are!

Incidentally, if you want the kettle too, you can have it. It’s sprung a leak…

New Collaborations

I written before about creative collaborations, and how, basically, I’m a bit of a slut when it comes to them. I’ve never really seen writing or making music as a solo activity – especially the latter; and some of the things I’m proudest of in my output have happened that way: for example, the poetry pamphlet I did with Jane McKie, Head to Head, back in 2008.

Now I’m pretty much set on a musical journey (apart, perhaps, from more novels and a travel book) collaboration comes more naturally. Playing in bands kind of means you have to work as part of a team, and I never weary of hearing any song – but especially one of my own – tried out for the first time, and, sometimes on the first, the second, or maybe the third run through, something clicks, you reach the end, and you look at each other with that look that says, we had something there!

Recording is a different process from rehearsing or playing live, of course. I’m really looking forward to finalising the tracks I’ve been working on with Mark for the Isaac Brutal acoustic EP, of which more soon. But when it comes to solo work, up to now the collaborations have been few and far between.

And then two come along at once. I’m very chuffed indeed to have been asked to play guitar on a track by a new friend, Audrey Russell – let’s hope my playing is up to it! No such anxieties, however, with Norman Lamont‘s abilities. He came over recently, brought his electric guitar and effects pedals, and within the space of a brief evening, had laid down a beautiful, haunting contribution to a track I’ve had on the blocks for quite some time.

Here’s the result. It’s definitely going into my next solo album, although by the time I get that finished I may have tweaked it. If I do, it certainly won’t be to take out Norman’s contribution!

In the meantime, as with all my solo work, it’s free to download, but if you do, please think about donating to a refugee charity.

[technical glitch – I’m waiting to upload an updated version of this. If you can’t wait, go to my Soundcloud site]

(Incidentally, if you haven’t heard Norman’s music before, you’re in for a treat – and he offers free stuff on his site)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below this is wordpress advertising. And almost definitely won’t feature Norman’s guitar playing.