writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

A Street Called Silence

En la sombra del catedral, la calle Silencio…

One of the many pleasures of going back to the northern Spanish city of Salamanca was rediscovering the ‘secret’ garden at the side of the cathedral. It’s called the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, and it’s only secret in the sense that it’s tucked away where not many tourists would find it. Inevitably, of course, it now has a Google entry, a 4.6 star rating, and 37 reviews, but don’t let that put you off: on a hot day, it provides welcome shade and, despite the busy traffic on the main road circling the old town below, an oasis of peace and quiet. Significantly, most of the Google reviews are in Spanish, suggesting those who know about it are local (or at least Spanish!)

And yes, the street that leads to it is really called Silence:


This sense of the garden being hidden in plain sight, tucked away in the centre of the city like an open secret for those in the know, stayed with me after our previous visit. Salamanca is a well-to-do, beautifully maintained, university town: I always describe it to people as ‘the Spanish Oxford,’ because it has that same sense of long tradition, wearing its academic trappings lightly.

It’s not without its problems, of course, and you can’t sit in the many outdoor cafes without being panhandled by various beggars, some of them clearly victims of the current economic crisis, some addicts of various kinds. However, when I got a Spanish-style guitar figure in my head, months later, it was a different kind of contrast that came to me: the story of a passionate affair, conducted by means of secret liaisons, at first in the garden, and then, perhaps, somewhere more convenient in the long hours of siesta.

The ‘Cavalcade,’ incidentally, isn’t meant to be literal, but rather the paseo of the well-to-do, respectable sorts, taking their early evening stroll through the jaw-droppingly beautiful Plaza Mayor, perhaps stopping at a cafe there for a drink before strolling along the main connecting street, the Rua Mayor, to the cathedral to pay their respects. Meanwhile, in the garden down the side of the cathedral….


















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Wine Tourism at the edge: hunting the Rufete in northern Spain

Describing my day job as Chief Ninja in the Council’s Democratic Services Black Ops Division, as I sometimes do, probably gives it a veneer of glamour that’s slightly misleading, if I were being honest. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, and try to give 100%. But like most people, it’s not, perhaps, the role in life that I lay awake dreaming of, night after night, in those heady teenage years when anything seemed possible and the world, as Hilda Ogden used to say, was my lobster, or at least seemed that way.

So when you meet, in the same day, three people that love their job so much it amounts to a passion, that’s a special day (and, come to think of it, a fourth the next day, but we’ll come to him presently). We all want to live the dream, right?

Let me say straight off the bat we’re not wine experts. Nor are we wine snobs: we know what we like, and we buy it, with a bit of research and intelligent enquiry, from supermarkets and wine merchants alike. And then we drink it. But, in the beautiful northern Spanish city of Salamanca for a few days with family, a day trip to a winery sounded just like the thing, especially as we’d stayed in town before, and done the centre, at least, on foot.

They say that we live in the Age of Peak Stuff: that in fact, from now on, the ease of getting anything delivered to your door (indeed, in the near future, 3D printed on your own machine) means that consumer goods have lost their value, in most senses; besides, much of what we used to need big clunky amounts of space for – films, music, books – have been digitized. What we increasingly crave instead, so they say, is experiences: that perfect holiday; that opening chord in the first gig of the music festival; that moment when you feel your stomach pass your eyeballs in the other direction as the bungee snaps you upwards; and so on, according to taste and vertigo levels.

In that context, what Slow Wines offer is the future. Helena and Pierre are clearly passionate (that word again) about their business, and their wine: the website tells you they can take you on a tour of most of the major wine regions of Spain. How they manage to do that, out of a small office down the side of the cathedral in Salamanca, presumably involves a lot of travelling and wrangling, and/or local contacts. However, when we got in touch, we were looking for something closer to home for them. A couple of days’ short notice, a few emails back and forth, and we had booked ourselves on a day out to Sierra de Salamanca, Spain’s newest Denominacion de Origen.

The experience consisted of three parts: a visit to a winery, a village, and a Dominican sanctuary. When Pierre later asked for our feedback, our only criticism was that the winery came first: but maybe that was just our Scots Presbyterian deferred-gratification wiring at work. An hour’s drive into the mountains took us to Cambrico, which might just possibly be the best winery in the world.


Let me explain. Anyone that’s ever read a wine merchant’s catalogue, or even a supermarket flyer about the latest plonk they’re trying to shift for Christmas, will know the kind of script they push at you. Hand-harvested grapes, tiny parcels of ancient vines, high in the mountains where the wild boar roams and the fennel grows free among the vines. A local varietal, scarcely known till now, producing flavours long thought lost in the mists – or myths – of the valley below.

Well, Cambrico is all of these things, quite literally. The wild boar didn’t pop out of the undergrowth and say hello, but the hunting signs at the side of the road on the way up the mountain made it clear jabali was somewhere about, and presumably feeling pretty feisty, too. As for the tiny parcels/hand-harvested/growing among the wild fennel schtick goes, well, it’s not just a schtick. Here’s a couple of other pictures:

100_2911 100_2912 100_2913 100_2915Seriously. I have broken off the stem of the wild fennel and smelt its tart aniseed juices myself. My leg still bears the scar from a bramble stem that reached out into the path and grabbed me. See those trees? The ones that aren’t wild olives are mostly different species of oak, which the vineyard lets grow, presumably to help fatten and flavour the passing wild boar. Think it looks like a scrubby hillside with a random collection of plant life on it? That’s because it is… well, not quite random. The vines are grown organically, on the unique combination of Cambrian-period slate and granite geology that predominates in this area. Some of the plants – such as a variety of Salvia – are grown to be harvested for natural insecticide; others go into a green manure to nourish the vines that grow amongst them.

As for the little known grape varietal: that’s the Rufete, only found in its red version in these here mountains and in limited areas across the border in Portugal. The white Rufete, we were told, is so rare they’re still trying to analyse its genetic inheritance.

We were inducted into the mysteries of the Rufete by Bosi, our guide for the tour. In an example of the type of symbiotic, co-dependent relationship plants and people have in the area, he works for the owner of Cambrico some of the time, the remainder being expended on his own vines. An engaging, charismatic guy, he was really the star of the show, telling us (with the help of Helena and Pierre’s translations) about the vineyard and its working methods, getting right down among the vines and showing us how, given the fact the varietals are all planted higgledy-piggledy together on the slopes, the pickers are expected to tell the difference between the Tempranillo, Garnacha and Rufete plants (crucial because they’re all harvested at different times) by the leaves, and the grape size and colouration.

It was a million miles away from the slick, video-based presentations of the bigger wineries we’ve been to, where the vineyards themselves, shimmering in the distance, are serried monovarietal ranks of industrial-scale product, to be shifted and sold by the tankerful. Instead, one man in a dusty van had brought us to a hillside which, you felt, was about as close to the natural state you could get in our modern times. The grapes were hand-harvested, by the way, in baskets that held no more than 10kg of grapes at a time: all the better to avoid them being bruised, or crushed too soon.

Back at the winery itself, of course, modern production methods came into play. This is a business, after all, not some sort of heritage project: although even here, the emphasis was on careful treatment almost amounting to veneration of the sacred must that wine, ultimately, comes from. Everything was gravity-fed, to avoid pumps spoiling the holy juice:

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Finally, we got to taste the stuff! With a simple accompaniment of bread and jamon (what else?) we tried, first, a younger wine, and then 575 Uvas, named to reflect the amount of grapes it goes to produce a single bottle of wine (mas o menos, as Bosi said with a smile). Standing in the cool of the winery, looking out onto the sun baking the terrace beyond, it was very easy to believe that this was the best wine we’d ever tasted, from the best winery in the world:

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Cambrico, apparently, exports all over the place, its biggest buyer being Kazakhstan, for some reason. A few precious cases are reportedly being shipped off to England at the moment, but for Scottish readers, there’s only one bottle of 575 Uvas in the country at the moment. And it’s got our name on it.

After a good lunch in a nearby village (in Spain, even undistinguished-looking local caffs can serve up things like carillas de cerdo (pig’s cheeks, cooked in a red wine sauce) that are every bit as good as the fancied-up version you’d get in a top restaurant in Madrid) we set off for our second destination: the village of La Alberca.

Pierre told me he’d been in two minds about taking us here as part of the tour, and I saw why. La Alberca is a stunning village high in the Sierra (half-timbered, Elizabethan stylee houses deep in the Spanish mountains – who knew?) that’s just on the cusp of being spoiled by too much tourism. However, the village was so pretty we felt he’d made the right call:

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After a cold drink, we set off for the last port of call: the Peña de Francia (the French Peak), and its Dominican sanctuary. Apart from the religious buildings (although looking a bit like a set of army barracks, the sanctuary did, somehow, exude a sense of, well, sanctuary) the main attraction of the place was its stunning views over the surrounding mountainous region, and beyond. A viewpoint, with metal pointers like gunsights for the main places of interest, was very photogenic:

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After the intensity of the wine tour, and the bustle of La Alberca, the visit to Peña de Francia was a strangely tranquil end to our day. I would totally recommend any wine tour by Slow Wines: these guys are, as I say, completely immersed in their subject, and their enthusiasm and passion shone through. But above all you must go to Cambrico, and meet Bosi. Even if you’re pretty much condemned by reason of economics and geography to drink supermarket wines mostly, the memory of that hillside will stay with you for a long time.

And the fourth apasionado? We asked Pierre to recommend us a bar in Salamanca that specialised in wine, and he told us three. The best of these was, by some way, Doctrinos (Calle Doctrinos, 3) where the owner took particular care of us, recommending wines from the extensive list, giving us free tasters first, and producing excellent tapas to boot. He seemed far more concerned about us enjoying the wine than anything else: and he even had 575 Uvas on the list. Just a great, traditional style, Castilian taberna that we’ll definitely be paying another visit or two to when we’re back in Salamanca.

Oh, yes. We will be back.


Photos by Alison Ferguson










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Never Forget Who We Are

I first wrote this after watching a news item about a bunch of moronic English football fans using the Brexit vote as an excuse to go on the rampage in France, shouting xenophobic slogans as they went. However, the savage killing yesterday of an elderly priest in a place holy to followers of that religion made me realise the words go beyond the original ‘inspiration.’

Key to getting the sense of the words, though, was to back it with music that conveyed the emotion I felt. I performed it live at Blind Poetics earlier this month with the Mogwai track that had, equally, inspired it: the words, their tempo, and the overall timing, were designed to be fitted to the music. As I said on the night, the words aren’t meant to promote a particular political view: you can interpret the ‘we’ any way you want.

I’m reluctant to record a spoken word version on Soundcloud of this, because it’s using the music without permission. So, instead, here’s a bit of audience participation for you: click on the track, Special N, and read the words aloud, slowly, starting about 18 seconds in when the cello hits the bottom note for the first time. Don’t just read it in your head: we always read quicker internally than we do aloud, so you’ll be finished before the music’s half done.

Probably best to do it when you’re on your own though, rather than on the train. Folk might look at you funny.



Never Forget

When the hatred is high, and injustice is flowing

We must never forget who we are.

When the lies, and the fear, and the prejudice is growing,

We must never forget who we are.


We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.


We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.


For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.


And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.


Where we have reached out, and helped, and stood for

Fairness, equality, freedom and brotherhood

We must never forget who we are.


Where tolerance and understanding have lost their currency,

Where scoundrels wrap themselves in flags, wolves in sheep’s clothing

We must never forget who we are.


We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.


We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.


For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.


And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.


When our values, our beliefs,

when everything we hold dear is under threat,

We must never forget who we are.


Where there are refugees, where there are dispossessed,

Where there is shelter to be given,

Where there are children of every nation crying,

We must never forget who we are.


And where we believe we are in the early years of a better nation,

We must never forget who we are.


For if the eyes of the world are on us,

And we want to look them in the eye,

We must never forget who we are.



As Ithers See Us

I suppose I could do this any time, but it seems a particularly odd angle to be viewing recent UK events sitting in a cafe in Salamanca, in the Castilian heart of Spain’s heartland. Like Burns said, ‘Oh would some power the giftie gie us/tae see oursels as ithers see us.’

I make no comment, of course, on the political viewpoint presented in this article:  but it’s interesting to see British politics refracted through the lens of another country’s media (El Pais is a major, slightly left-leaning, Spanish daily). The article’s author is John Carlin, who Wikipedia tells me is half-Scottish, half-Spanish, and has spent his career on both sides of the Hispano- and Anglo-phone world, having been a contributor to El Pais since 1998.

Translated fast and loose, for style rather than pinpoint accuracy: but happy as always to take corrections where I’ve gone too far off-piste.

18th July, 2016

The New British Dictatorship

Theresa May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….’

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

You’re afraid to find out what’s happening in the world at the moment. Put the radio on, glance at a mobile screen, the paper or the television and we see that the Brexiteers won, there’s been a terrorist attack in Nice and a military coup in Turkey (1); every day the polls bring more and more credence to the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.  Newsflash – here’s the latest: the United Kingdom has turned into a one party state.

Yes: the one time exemplar of parliamentary democracy in Britain is no longer so exemplary. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is the head of a rightist government with no opposition. The monopoly of power it holds is reminiscent of that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or, in the time of Jose Lopez Portillo, of the PRI in Mexico. It’s the opposite of what we see in the young Spanish democracy, a model of multi-party politics (with all the frustrations it creates)(2) in comparison to the most recent version of the ancient Britannic version.

May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases. She has just named the three stooges charged, as ministers, with the most important issue her Government faces: to negotiate the new economic and political terms between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. But the Labour Party, who came second in last year’s elections, hasn’t said a peep. Its members are dedicating all their energy to a fratricidal conflict which threatens to end with the Left out of government for a generation or more.

If the UK is, in general, giving the world an object lesson in how not to govern a country, the labour movement is playing out a farce which should serve as a warning to those in Europe and further afield who think left-wing policies are the solution to growing inequality in a rampant capitalist system, incapable of delivering its eternal promise that prosperity higher up will filter down to those beneath.

The British Left’s problem is not new. In their efforts to be at peace with each other, its supporters forget the practical necessity of delivering a convincing message to the electorate. The particular problem for Labour currently is its messenger, Jeremy Corbyn, party leader since last September. Corbyn is, from all angles, a good man, honest, and irredeemably faithful to his socialist ideals. His weak point is that he opposes, but doesn’t propose: he is against many things, but no one knows what he’s in favour of. For that reason, and because he is also greyer than the London sky, 80% of Labour MPs have said that he is chronically incapable of mounting an effective opposition to the Conservative Government, far less win a General Election.

In 2014, the party changed their leadership election rules, moulding them to the principle of direct democracy which some followers had converted to thanks, in no small part, to the notion promoted with evangelistic zeal on social media that that everyone’s opinions are equally valid, and that the ‘experts,’ as one of the pro-Brexit Conservative leaders said during the campaign, had nothing to teach us. Previously, the votes of the MPs were decisive in the leadership election. Now an MP’s vote counts the same as anyone else’s. The change was to give everyone’s vote an equal weight: to be member you had only to pay £3, currently €3.58.

Three quarters of paid up members are middle class: more than a half have a university degree. They do not offer a true image of the class which Labour, founded in the union movement, is supposed to represent. They are more likely to be Guardian readers, more prosperous than average, highly educated, and full of desire to atone for their guilt at their good fortune. Those were the people who, by a huge margin, chose Corbyn last September, the Labour leadership candidate who represented to the Left the most pure and without sin.

Corbyn, who detests the electoral pragmatism of Tony Blair more than the Tories themselves, is all heart. No one celebrated Corbyn’s victory more than a Guardian journalist who has, now, changed his mind: Seumas Milne continues to write for the newspaper, but is now the Labour Party’s Director of Strategy and Communication. A version in caricature of the typical Guardian reader, Milne comes from a rich family, went to one of the most exclusive private schools in England, studied at Oxford, and currently lives in a house worth €2.5m on the edge of London.

A Guardian columnist published a portrait of Milne this weekend. He recalled that Milne has always been a fervent anti-imperialist, but only as regards US imperialism. Russian Soviet imperialism was another matter. ‘He says he’s a socialist, but he kneels down and doffs his cap to the capitalist kleptocracy of the Putin regime, the columnist wrote. ‘He defended the Communist one party state of Stalin, but now he’s converting Britain into a Tory one party state.’

Of course, Milne, like Corbyn, is an admirer of Chavez’s Venezuela, the disasters of which he hasn’t seen any need to distance himself from. Nor have the majority of party members seen any need to distance themselves from Corbyn, even though he has shown no capacity to inspire the same idolatry amongst the working classes he says he represents. The proof was that the most militant of them voted for Brexit in the referendum with Nigel Farage, leader until recently of the far right party UKIP, than with Corbyn, who favoured remaining in the EU.

Today, the majority of Labour MPs are terrified that they will lose their seats in the next election. For that reason, but also to avoid the only opposition to the Tories being UKIP, they have called for Corbyn to stand down. Corbyn, described by his rivals as a leader of protest, not of government, has refused to do so.

There will soon be further internal Labour Party elections. Thanks to the ideological fortitude of its members, there is every indication that Corbyn will win. No one will celebrate more than Theresa May and the other caudillos of the new Conservative Dictatorship.


(1) written before the coup failed. At least at the time of this translation. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

(2) For a long time a two-party system between the PP (centre right) and PSOE (centre left), Spanish politics seems to have entered a fractured phase with the 2015 election creating no overall majority, and the June 2016 elections still leaving no party with an overall majority between the PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos (centre-left) and Podemos (left-wing, anti-austerity) being the main players, with further regional parties having a small number of seats. The PP’s Mariano Rajoy remains Prime Minister.









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The £150 laptop 2: software vs wetware

The story so far: in a change from my usual practice of buying something mid range, I’ve gone for the cheapest laptop in the shop. Will it stand up to my gentle ministrations? Is the guarantee (which, together with the price of Microsoft Office, costs more than the laptop itself) worth the money?

Time was when you bought a computer, it was more or less plug and play. It was a brief and, in retrospect, heady period between you having to basically being your own computer programmer with an intimate knowledge of MS-DOS and today’s ‘everything stripped out so you get the hardware dirt cheap’ epoch, when you went into the shop and bought the whole thing preloaded with the software you actually needed to make it go. Then the Lizard People who rule us all realised this wasn’t optimising their way of keeping the masses down. It coincided, possibly not coincidentally, with that brief, equally heady time when people could publish stuff on the Web their on own and it wasn’t all monetised to death.

Whatever. We are where we are, which in the case of folks of average IT literacy like me is a tense stand off between the software you now have to download to make it go, and you, the wetware. I kind of imagine this as a conversation, like this:

Laptop: Hey, welcome! This is Windows 10, the software you tried on your desktop PC when we tempted you with a free download and it mucked the existing software up so much you had to spend half an hour uninstalling it and fixing lots of problems you hadn’t had before. But this is different. It’s got all sorts of stuff on it, like Trip Advisor – see the wee button there? Amazon, Dropbox…

Me: I’ve already got access to these things. I want to install Firefox, because my brother told me about it about ten years ago as being safer than Internet Explorer, and I’ve stuck doggedly with it ever since.

Laptop: Really? I’ve got OneDrive, which can even make you a cup of tea while you’re browsing all these commercial sites and spending lots of money by ordering stuff online you didn’t even know you needed.

Me: Really. Firefox, please.

Laptop: (shrugging) Ok. There you go. That was easy, wasn’t it? Anything else, you daringly hipster indie type?

Me: No need for sarcasm. AVG free edition, please. It’s kept me virus free for years.

AVG: So, you want the full commercial version?

Me: No, the free version.

AVG: So, you want the full commerical version?

Me (somewhat tersely) No, just the free edition, thank you.

Laptop: There it is downloaded. You want me to install it?

Me: No, I just want it sitting there in Firefox’s downloads folder, a glittering software jewel hanging there unused and untouched like the Koh-I-Noor of anti-virus software.

Laptop: Now who’s being sarky? There you go. Oops, no, it wouldn’t install itself.

Me: What? Why?

Laptop: Dunno. Just didn’t fancy it. You could go to the AVG website and spend a fruitless hour trying to work out why…

Me: No, just leave it. Ok, now –

Laptop: Hey, you know what you need?

Me: What?

Laptop: Adobe Flash Player. You know, that’s that thing that makes websites run and such, and if you don’t have it, the site takes the huff and won’t work properly?

Me: Oh, yeah. I suppose so.

Laptop: Great. Oh, and while I’m at it I’ve installed McAfee anti-virus free trial. And something else you’ll fleetingly see installing itself and never see again. Knew you’d want that, yeah?

Me: NOOOOO!!! I told you, I don’t want McAfee. You put a link to it on the desktop already and I’ve been studiously ignoring it ever since. Couldn’t you take a hint?

Laptop (with a hint of hurt pride): I was only trying to help.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

Me: Go away, McAfee.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

Me: $£%$%£&^%$!

Laptop: There’s no need to swear.

I haven’t even installed the Microsoft Office I bought yet. I haven’t the mental strength.

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - Blue








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Songs in a Scottish Accent 2: the thing with demo versions

Here’s the thing with demo versions: you sometimes batter one out, first take of everything, because you’re so taken with the song that you want to share it with someone. When you share it with another musician, you usually preface it with remarks like, ‘it’s a bit rough, but…’ which is code for ‘I know this is less than perfect, so don’t be telling me I come in late on the second verse, or the guitar could be lower in the mix, because you know I know that already, right?’

This demo’s a case in point. I woke up one morning with the (very simple) melody going through my head. At the breakfast table, I started writing some lyrics; and unlike some of my songs, they came out in a single string. I mean, I couldn’t get them down fast enough. I don’t think I’ve changed more than one or two words since that first draft. They’re not the most literary lyrics I’ll ever do, and they’re not even autobiographical, apart from the last verse, but they get the job done. They’re heartfelt, and while they could be about some place on the Rust Belt Springsteen drove through once, but actually, they’re about my native land of south Fife, in the Scottish Lowlands.

The demo itself is probably my favourite of all time so far, since an earlier version of it’s what got me into the Isaac Brutal band, and I’ve performed the song live with them a couple of times now. It was still one that I filed mentally under ‘needs a bit of work before it’s really useable,’ for some time. I had problems in particular with the drums – Mixcraft’s library is set up primarily for techno and hip hop type stuff, and the gated Eighties style track I’d put on here just to have something to play along to wasn’t to my usual taste. Although probably appropriate for such a Springsteen-influenced number.

However, I went back to it the other day, and decided it had a bit of raw intensity. I particularly liked the organ solo I’d improvised: not quite Al Kooper lucking out on Like a Rolling Stone, but not far away from as good as I can do.

So here it is, pending a final version for the album. It’s a bit rough, mind!








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Glenrothes: the case for the defence

A few months ago my sister sent me an article about Glenrothes that had annoyed her, so it could annoy me, too. Written by a Marianne Taylor, its central theme – that the Thatcherite policy of Right to Buy for council houses had had unintended consequences, and mainly bad ones – was actually not anything I could disagree with. Without being too political, Right to Buy released a huge amount of capital out of the public sector into private hands – many of those hands being ordinary, working class people – leaving councils unable (and, frankly, unwilling) to build more houses, and creating the social sector housing shortage we have today.

The annoying bit was the reference (twice) to ‘brutalist’ architecture, and the photos that accompanied the article. The article writer grew up in Macedonia, the precinct that was built in the mid-Sixties, which therefore suffered from that heady time’s architectural mad period when houses were built with flat roofs, as if the average Scottish winter – rain, snow, hail, moderate storm force winds, and then maybe a bit more rain – could cope with flat roofs. The photos consisted of one of Marianne outside her former family home today, a childhood photo of her in the garden, and the main feature photo – a postcard of Glenrothes from 1967, taken from the edge of the Auchmuty area, and showing the town centre in all its boxy glory, with the central image of two massive skyscrapers.

To be fair, I suspect this image wasn’t Marianne’s idea, but rather something the Herald people dug out of the archives because they couldn’t be bothered sending a photographer the forty miles to take a picture of the town as it is today: although if they had taken it of the town centre today, again to be fair, it wouldn’t be any bonnier. The two ‘skyscrapers,’ incidentally, are office blocks, one of which is now demolished. Glenrothes only ever had one multi-storey block of flats, Raeburn Heights. You’ll see it in a minute.

Now, my family have a lot of history with this place, and I could go on about that. I could equally go on at length about the history of the new town itself, the various missed steps and bits of political interference that have crippled the original vision for the place; not to mention the slings and arrows of outrageous economics that it, like the rest of Scotland, has suffered over the years.

Instead, I’ll just tell you one story my Dad (who worked at the Development Corporation, and published three books about the town) told me, and then let you judge for yourself. Like many places in Scotland, Glenrothes had a number of deck-access maisonette flats built – this time in the next precinct up from Macedonia, Tanshall. The reason they were built, my Dad said, was that the Scottish Office at the time was keen to attract a factory that made concrete panels for them to Scotland. So every new town corporation, and every town council, that wanted to borrow money that year to build housing, was told: fine, but you’ll build these maisonettes out of these concrete panels. They were a massive mistake, but again, there was a reason behind them: jobs, although in this case not even in the town itself.

I’ve already gone on longer that I mean to. It’s just that, although I have a complicated relationship with the town I grew up in, I am passionate about it and its future. So, to counteract the misleading impression the photos may have given of Glenrothes, here are some the Redoubtable Mrs F took for me last month. Note the cheeky seagull photobomb in one of the pics of Raeburn Heights!





Pitteuchar precinct

Pitteuchar: view up the main road

retirement housing in Pitteuchar

Looking towards Auchmuty

Closer view of the roundabout near Raeburn Heights

Raeburn Heights. Note the cheeky seagull photo bomb

Raeburn Heights

Other side of Glenrothes town centre. Fife House in the distance: across the roundabout, St Columba's church

Looking up into Rimbleton precinct


South Parks















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Harum Scarum Court Cases: A Whiter Shade of Baroness Hale

I made what many people would think was a strange purchase in a charity shop in Aberdeen at the weekend: the sheet music for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ the Procol Harum classic. Here it is, suitably styled for photo by the redoubtable Mrs F:


First reason I bought it was it caught my eye. Nowadays, if you want to work out the chords for a song, you either do it by ear or go online, where there are any number of slightly dodgy sites that will give you the lyrics and chords to songs, and a couple of viruses to boot if you’re not careful. This, on the other hand, is quite pretty to look at: the girl with the hair on the cover, and the music inside, all on a parchment-like piece of paper which, far from being whiter than white is, well, a paler shade of beige!

The second reason was the story behind this particular copy. The copyright attribution suggests it dates from 1974, a whole seven years after the song first appeared as a smash hit that the Beatles and the Stones sat up and listened to in their Rolls Royces. On the front cover, hidden by daisies here for data protection purposes, is a name and address: Ken Sturgeon, of Esslemont Avenue (presumably the Aberdonian street of that name).


More intriguingly, on the inside in the same distinctive hand, the name of two hymns: ‘King of love my shepherd is,’ and ‘Now thank we all our god’ (Ken’s capitalisations). ‘Whiter Shade…’ was a popular piece of wedding music; the Redoubtable Mrs F had to remind me that the first of the hymns featured at our own nuptials. Was this, then, the wedding music for Ken and the soon to be Mrs Sturgeon? Or was he a church organist, familiar with the hymns but needing the sheet music for this weird hippy thing the happy couple had asked for? Any number of stories could start here. Why did Ken, after all these years, give it away? A man goes into a charity shop, buys a piece of music, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its original owner…

The third thing that tickled me about buying it was that, in doing so, I was buying a bit of contraband. The 1974 attribution is ‘Words and Music by KEITH REID & GARY BROOKER.’ That, of course, is not now legally correct, because in 2009, the House of Lords ruled that Matthew Fisher, the organ player who came up with the distinctive part, should be given a co-writing credit – and a share of the royalties from then on.

It’s nice to think that, given the passage of time, the judges weren’t the stereotypical old farts who had no idea who this popular beat combo were. In fact, Baroness Hale of Richmond was keen to subvert the stereotype, saying in her judgement: ‘As one of those people who do remember the sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves.’ Of course, if she does remember the sixties, she wasn’t really there, man.

Actually, Her Ladyship might have been a square in the Sixties, going to Richmond Ladies’ College, then Cambridge, and being called to the Bar (as we lawyers call it, for some unexplained reason) in 1969. All the same, as one of the Flower Power generation, she’s not done badly in terms of that old glass ceiling, being Britain’s most senior female judge. She’s spoken out frequently on the lack of gender balance in the upper echelons of the legal profession, earning the nickname ‘Ms Diversity,’ from her (probably male) detractors. She also seems to be charmingly self-deprecating about her fear of ‘being found out,’ as an article in the Torygraph outlines.

So respect is due to this square cat, dig?

I’m less sure how I feel about the final judgements in the case (Brooker et al won the earlier round: the House of Lords was then the final court of appeal). Baroness Hale was the only one of the Law Lords to point out that Matthew Fisher was only 20 years old when, in April 1967, he walked into Olympic Studios in London, sat at the Hammond M-102, and came up with the organ part that defines the song (Brenda Hale would, herself, have been 22 then). Previous to that Gary Brooker had composed the basic melody on piano to lyrics that the band’s manager/songwriter, Keith Reid, had come up with after hearing the title phrase at a party.

Fisher was newly in the band. The song, with its descending bassline, had the basis of the melody already. The lyrics – and I’m not even going to go there in terms of what they might mean, but you can if you want: the possibilities appear to involve sex and death – had been written. You could totally do the song without the organ.

But could you? Here’s one of my favourite versions of the song. It’s from 2006, when the lawsuit was already under way. At a music festival in Denmark, Brooker throws everything but the kitchen sink at the song, starting with the Danish National Concert Orchestra doing minor-key variations on the organ part. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘sound familiar? A bit like Bach, maybe?’ (Fisher’s contribution, it’s fair to say, sounds quite a bit like Air on a G String).

Then Brooker comes in on piano with the first verse. The orchestra swells behind him. Still no Hammond organ. First chorus. Still no organ. And then, finally …

I was four and a half when the song first came out, and very probably more interested in Captain Scarlett than any old music. The sheet music did trigger other memories though: my sister had the British single – pretty sure the B side was ‘A Salty Dog,’ and the sleeve was in similar shades of beige and cream as the sheet music. It was one of the first ‘pop’ songs I did come to like. And it was the organ part that really made it for me, starting a life long love of Hammond organ sounds.

Who cares who gets the songwriting credits, really? What matters is that, in April, 1967, some musicians got in a room and magic happened. And you can still hear that magic, captured in a bottle that day. Even in the House of Lords.











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In Translation: Kula Shaker’s K 2.0 reviewed

This post accomplishes two things: bringing Lucio’s  review of the Kula Shaker album to the anglophone world, and forcing me to do some alternative Spanish homework. Lucio’s views are his own: I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but they’re interesting. As usual with my translations, it’s pretty fast and loose to try and catch the sense of the thing, rather than be exact.

The return of the band that was never here

Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede (BOPS) were, and always will be, the standard bearers of Britpop, artistically and commercially speaking. During the latter two thirds of the Nineties, they showered us with musical jewels that retain their place in the collective memory, and popular culture. Radiohead has always moved in alternate dimensions. Beneath all these, a long list of bands that, for one reason or another, never achieved the popularity or success of BOPS. Supergrass and Kula Shaker shine out on this list.

Mixing traditional Indian music with the voice and guitar of Crispian Mills, Alonza Bevan’s bass, Paul Winterhart’s drums, and Jay Darlington’s psychedelic keyboards, gave Kula Shaker a unique sound: mysticism and hook-laden melodies endowing a specific charm to the formula George Harrison created, 30 years previously, but with a fresh spirit.

K, (1996) their spectacular, dud-free debut, was followed by Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts in 1999, produced by Bob Ezrin. The second album found a band at the peak of their creative powers. Under the protective cloak of Columbia Records, the album was filled with complex orchestrations and backing musicians: it was their most successful album, although it lacked the spontaneity of the first. Then, without anyone expecting it, disenchanted by low sales, the band announced their break up the same year.

In 2004, Mills and Bevan agreed to reform the group, although with Harry Broadbent instead of Darlington at the keyboards. Almost three years passed before the release of Strangefolk (2007), launched with great determination under their own label: the band leaned on this towards more subtle, darker tones; Pilgrims Progress (2010) was more folk-based. Then, sporadic performances with little support, until they announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012.  Thereafter, silence, until:

Recorded in Belgium and produced by Mills and Bevan last autumn, the group revealed more and more about the new album, little by little. Titled K 2.0, its opening track and first single, Infinite Sun, certainly left a good taste in the mouth. On Christmas morning we were told 12th February would be the launch date; they also announced a series of UK tour dates and, in line with the usual rules of publicity, released the video of the single.

It only remained for us to wait and cross our fingers: so, how is this brilliant K 2.0?

We already knew the opening track, with its appealing changes of rhythm: a very Kula Shaker theme. Holy Flame follows. It might sound plain on first hearing: but believe me, it’s one of the highlights of the album. Death of Democracy has this false riff that, it goes without saying, leads to Crispian Mills trying to be Ray Davies: that doesn’t turn out well. The wave of mysticism goes far better than the satirical/social themes. Then a strange thing happens: the song seems to extend for several minutes more: but, surprise! It’s the next track, with an almost identical rhythm.

33 Crows is a pretty, quasi-country melody, countryish, we would say, although little in common with the denizens of London. Oh Mary is typical Kula Shaker from recent years, slowish, with a change of beat half way through which then reverts to the original, but unfortunately with no hooks. High Noon sounds a lot like Strangefolk. The spaghetti-western style guitars don’t help.

Get Right Get Ready is funky and psychedelic, with a Deep Purplish intro, and – what the hell? At this stage you need to be thankful for being out of your comfort zone. There must be some reason that little of this K 2.0 on its first showing sounds like its launch. The album closes with Mountain Lifter, an intricate song with epic ambitions, including a mantra and everything: you know, the trademark brand!

To sum up, a good album that won’t gain extra fans (you’ve only to look at the number of Twitter followers), K2.0 is a sort of sonic compendium of their last two albums, before which there was this experienced band that, from the force of its riffs and energy amazed us with its debut, and left me open-mouthed by its successor.  Sadly, the band has carried on for ten years with this ‘legends’ routine, staying active or reuniting to bring out an album which gives them the excuse to tour, interpreting these classic songs which still give them relevance and prestige. However, in the case of this album, it’s at a much more modest level.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s praiseworthy: it’s well worth you giving this album some minutes of your time. It’s rare to find an album that covers its major themes at the start and finish. The problem is the middle does nothing outstanding to tie it all together.

Since the band announced this new reunion, I was excited by the prospect that, at long last, I might see them live, at least as part of some festival in the autumn. I must remain patient: the time runs quickly from now until September, and fingers crossed that they visit Mexico for the first time.

Finally, I’ve pleasure in saying there’s no need to explain why they called it K 2.0!

If you’re a Kula Shaker fan visiting the site for the first time, welcome! You might like my review of the boys’ brilliant gig in Glasgow a couple of months back. You might also like this tune – probably the closest I’ve got to KS territory…









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Living behind the curve: can a 150 quid laptop be any good?

I’ve been neglecting the blog for a bit. There’s a couple of reasons for that, but I do have some more hefty posts coming up soon. In the meantime, I thought I would start what might be a continuing series on my recent acquisition of a cheap laptop, and whether it can be made to work despite my worst misgivings!

I suppose I should start with where I’m coming from as a consumer. Like many people my age (53 at the date of this post) I’m not a natural with the ever-evolving world of technology, but nor am I a complete technophobe. I’m basically interested in what tech can do for me (non-complex word-processing, music recording and editing, and communicating with the great wide world through t’internet, mainly) rather than in the tech itself. I have an ageing desktop at home which acts as my recording studio and principal home work station; I have a mobile phone which, theoretically, could be semi-smart, but I use solely for phoning, texting, and listening to music on.

In between those things, I’ve been looking for a device that’s (reasonably) portable, gives access to the internet, and is simple to use. It will fulfil two main functions: allowing me to spend less time in the upstairs study/recording studio and more with the rest of the family downstairs (while they stare at a tv screen, I can stare at a different screen and be some sort of presence in their lives, I reason) and for holiday use, to load photos on/connect to dubious hotel wi-fi and check on Facebook/Twitter/all that sort of stuff.

I appreciate this may sound like the Dark Ages to some of you. The truth is though, I rarely find the need to check my social media status on the move; it can wait till I get to my next cup of coffee, at least. And yes, I have heard of tablets, thanks – I tried one of those, an Asus, and it fell over within a year.

All of which is by way of explaining why my purchasing decisions generally show me resolutely behind the curve, tech-wise. I tend to think that they should have just about mastered laptops by now: I’m perfectly happy with a proper keyboard firmly attached to the screen. Also, having dabbled with Android, and free-to-download word-processing ware before, I’m not that fussed. I’d rather stick to the tried and tested Microsoft stuff, however expensive and less than perfect it might be.

So, having alienated all the techies in my readership already, what was I looking for, and where? Well, the where round these parts is easy: there are only two shops in twenty miles of my home that actually sell computers now, and they’re both in the same retail park: Currys, and PC World. Even more conveniently, they’re owned by the same people, but in one of those entertaining glitches in the all-encompassing world of global capitalism, they sell a slightly different set of laptops. So it’s worth trekking the few yards between the two, past Toys R Us, Next, and all the other exciting-yet-depressingly-ubiquitous brand names you get in every single retail park in the UK, just to see if the other one’s got something different. I’m sure that’s been carefully thought through by their owners.

And I was glad that I did, because if I hadn’t I might not have seen this little beauty:

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - Blue

Isn’t she lovely? OK, so she’s just an HP laptop (technically an HP 11-R050SA), but once I saw her, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It wasn’t just that she was petite (11.6″) and cheap (£149.99), the way I like my laptops: she was – hot damn it, she was pretty in that colour! The sales assistant warned me she was slow. That was okay: I wasn’t going to do anything beyond basic wordprocessing, maybe the occasional powerpoint for work, and browsing the Web, on her. That seemed to be the main difference between her and the other, much more expensive types, sitting sulkily in rows around her.

Then began the Battle of the Add-Ons. Now, this is normally where I revert to national stereotype, and become incredibly mean about everything; whether it’s being Scottish, or just a bleeding heart liberal’s in-built mistrust of big business, I generally take the narrow-eyed stance that everything they try to sell you after the thing you came in for is to be treated with extreme suspicion. So I usually pass on the extended warranty, the anti-virus software (I’ve pretty much survived on the free version of AVG for years, without any major incident) and, occasionally, even the Microsoft Office (didn’t that used to come as standard? Oh, yes, sir, but now we like to give you the choice).

However, recognising I was pretty much buying the cheapest small laptop in the shop, I decided to change my strategy, although I still held out against the anti-virals, after a nasty experience with McAfee about three devices ago. So here’s how the purchase eventually rang up:

Pretty little laptop:                                                                                                                                   £149.99

Three years’ customer support agreement (paid up front – the other methods too confusing)     £69.00

Microsoft Office Home & Student (the ‘permanent’ one: why would you buy the yearly one?)     £99.99

TOTAL                                                                                                                                                        £319.98

So, just to sum up there, the laptop cost 20 quid less than the sum of the protection money to insure it doesn’t fall over in the first three years, and non-techy software to run on it for basic office functions.

Steal of the century or pig in a poke? Stand by for updates.











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