writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Shelf by Shelf: A Bookcase View

We recently laid new carpets and vinyl through most of the ground floor of our house. Not the most exciting opening to a blog entry, I grant you, but work with me on this! One of the great things about the kind of upheaval this entails is the opportunity to de-clutter: and, in the case of my bookcase, to reorganise.

I once knew a woman who had her book collection sorted in what, to me, seemed the most counter-intuitive way: by the colour of the spines. She shared a great big old high-ceilinged flat near London Road with her partner of the time, and there was a huge bookcase along one wall of the living room, with the books as a sort of art exhibit, mutating through blue, red, purple and the rest. Whatever colour the book’s spine was, that was where you’d find it. She was, needless to say, as well as being a very talented writer, also a visual artist.

Well, I’m not that clever, or counter-intuitive. I still think in terms of bookshop classifications, normally, when putting things together (apologies, librarians). However, I also went through some sort of long dark tea time of the soul a few years ago about what a bookcase was for. Is it to show what a clever clogs you are and display all the literary classics you’ve ploughed through, sometimes with gritted teeth? Or is it to hold on to books you’ll never read again because you have a connection to them? I sometimes think that, ideally, it should be a bookcase full of books you’ve not read yet, but I don’t suppose that’s going to happen. And yet…

And yet considerations of space also come into consideration. With a burgeoning guitar habit to support, the living room and diner doesn’t have limitless wall area. So, a few years ago, Thomas Hardy was brutally murdered and his remains disposed of to a charity book shop. Ditto one hell of a lot of poetry anthologies I was never really going to look at again.

This time round, I realised there still were quite a few classics I’d been holding onto in case Daughter and Heiress needed them for some sort of class essay or whatever. Given she’s now beyond the school stage and studying the fact-based world of journalism, that doesn’t still need to happen. Said classics are now in a box next to me here in the study, awaiting transportation to Oxfam in Edinburgh (yes, the drugs n’ hookers revelations haven’t put me off my default charity. And I’m sure none of it went on in their Morningside branch anyway).

So what survived? Well, shelf by shelf:

I guess this is what you might call the ‘place-based’ section: on the left, a group of books about Spain which might yet form the backbone of that travel book I’ve been threatening for a while. On the right, books about Fife, Edinburgh (including Charles Smith’s fantastic book about the south of the city) and some related ‘Scottish interest’ books on things like Burke and Hare, witchcraft, and so on.

That’s the top shelf, apart from the glass head with the corks in it. Oh, and a wee replica of Rodin’s Thinker, just out of shot. Together they must mean something, I suppose.


Second top, my Iain Banks (and Iain M Banks) collection, which I can’t bear to part with, having fleetingly known the great man. Then, in the middle, a very limited collection of classics I can’t – or won’t – give up: Dracula, Frankenstein, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The Shining. Oh, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which isn’t really fiction, or at least so he says.

To the right of that, a group of books by people I’m proud to call my friends – fellow travellers from Writers’ Bloc, and others. Pride of place has to go to the anthology with my mate Gavin Inglis in it, entitled ‘Grunt and Groan: the New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex.’

Next up, the Fergusons. Lots of anthologies of short stories with one of mine in – some of them even paid! – a couple with my brother’s; and my late Dad’s books on Glenrothes, his contribution to the Stair Memorial Encyclopedia of Scots Law, and his book on my grandfather, ‘A Huntly Loon,’ still available from the family for a very reasonable price.

To the right of the elephant book end are books I’ve bought but not read right through yet. My intention is to work on these steadily, and meantime not buy any others, given that the shelf is full: an intention only stymied by the pile of similar size by my bedside I’m working through, too. You may recognise the problem.

The shelf below that is a bit more eclectic. Some random non-fiction stuff, including a book on UK accents, and an excellent wee treasure my Dad’s cousin gave me years ago, ‘How to Lie with Statistics,’ by Darrell Huff.

Poetry, including Dylan’s lyric book (now there’s a debate…) and then, extending to the far end, my ever-increasing stock of Robert Louis Stevenson. I  have at least three different versions of ‘Kidnapped,’ but I can’t bear to get rid of any of them. RLS has, like Iain Banks, been such a powerful influence on my writing, that he’s going to stick around, no matter how Stalinist my subsequent bookshelf cleansings become.


Next to last is the Outsize Shelf – books that are, frankly, too big to go on any of the other ones. Roughly divided into language dictionaries (plus a CD on Finnish I really must get back to Hannu Rajaniemi some time); song lyrics; cookery books that need sorted through to see if we’ll really ever cook with them again (but I bet Delia Smith will survive the next purge) and gardening books.

Below that, apart from a couple of Bibles retained for sentimental family reasons, an empty shelf, which is really too small to fit much into upright.


Does it show me as a well-read, cultured creature? Probably not so much. Has sentiment played as much a part as anything else in what stays? You betcha. These are, in the end, the guys that I want to keep close: because, for me, books have more meaning than all the words in them put together.

Does that even make sense?

















Below here be weasel words that sell you things. Read a book instead. Or, indeed, a bookshelf.



A Tale of Two Amplifiers

Ok, let’s talk amplification, people. I’m talking about the means by which guitars – and in my case, almost exclusively acoustic ones – are made louder than they naturally are.

Three reasons why I decided to do this. First, Vox have just brought out a new range of acoustic amps and, being Scottish, I thought it was a good time for you to look again at the previous lot as they’re likely to be on sale in a guitar shop near you soon. Secondly, since the original post I did about my first acoustic amp, the Vox AGA 30, I have splashed some cash on the Marshall AS50D and I thought, after a good year or so of use, it was time to compare and contrast the two.

The third reason is pretty shameless, really. Week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out, that Vox amp review gets hits. It just keeps on trucking as the most visited post I’ve ever done. Honestly. I might have written the most brilliant literary works of fiction, the most penetrating gig reviews, the most acerbic Dorothy Parkeresque jeu d’esprits, and none of them would have done as well as that amp review, according to the WordPress stats.

Any of you who’ve read the original review of the Vox will know it was pretty positive. So why buy a second amp? To explain, I have to tell you a little about my musical life, so any of you that know this already, you can scan on. I play with two bands: my own acoustic duo, Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and my mate Mark Allan’s country punk outfit, Isaac Brutal. As far as Venus was concerned, my motivation was to make us self-sufficient for small pub back rooms, having the additional option of more inputs should there be a bit of backing vocal needed, or even just another place to jack in another guitar.

And as for Isaac Brutal, well. The current line up consists of  drums, bass, two electric guitars, singer and me. Frankly, the little Vox wasn’t quite up to being heard above the racket. So I had me a little tour of Amazon’s warehouse deals section, and found myself a good bargain of a Marshall AS50D in a very natty racing green.

Image result for Marshall AS50D

And on the first – and arguably least important – point of comparison, looks, the Marshall wins hands down. Just look at it! It’s like a vintage Aston Martin that’s been compressed into a rectangular box. Utterly gorgeous. And, while it shouldn’t matter, when you’re setting up for a gig and people see that legendary Marshall signature across the grill, it does look – well, a bit like you know what you’re doing.







The Vox? They’ve tried their best with a tan leather effect for the box, a vaguely tweedy cover for the speaker, and vintage-stylee ivory-coloured knobs, but it pales in comparison, frankly.

So, half a point maybe for the Marshall. On the other hand, I would give a full point to the Vox for relative weights – it’s light as a feather, whilst the Marshall, er, isn’t. Frankly it’s a big clunky bugger to lug around.

Yes, yes, you say. That’s all very well, but how do they operate in gig conditions, and how do they sound?

The first thing I’m going to say may sound unimportant, but if you frequent the kind of murky venues I do, and/or have less than perfect vision like mine, it’s kind of worth half a point to the Vox. Its knobs are on top, and a bit easier to twiddle as you go along as a consequence. Even if you have the Marshall on a chair, you’re going to have to squat down and peer at the controls in a way that’s frankly not terribly rock and roll.

On the other hand, as I found at an outdoor festival a couple of years ago, the fact the Marshall’s electrical inputs are tucked away under an overhang on the front elevation can be an advantage if it starts to rain. At that time, I only had the Vox, and it was buzzing in a way that didn’t give me a lot of confidence as to my future well being. I mean, literally dying on stage may be rock and roll, but I’m hoping to keep it to the metaphorical kind for a few years yet.

Controls-wise, they’re initially similar: both have two inputs, each with bass and treble controls, anti-feedback, and chorus and reverb options. The Marshall has a separate, more sophisticated two-knob chorus effect, whilst the Vox has a single knob that gives you reverb, chorus, or reverb and chorus. Since it’s mainly reverb I’m looking for, the difference doesn’t put me up or down, really. The Marshall also has greater sophistication regarding loop options and a DI socket, but, again, I’ve not investigated any of these options yet – either I’m using the amp as the sound source, or I’m DI’ing direct into the PA with the sound guy mixing for me. The Vox has a line out facility which was used to great effect at one early gig (see previous review). Both have a footswitch socket – which, interestingly, the new acoustic guitar Vox, the VX50AG, doesn’t seem to have, according to a recent review in Acoustic.

Sound-wise, there are differences. My main acoustic guitars are, firstly, a Lag ACE100 that I’d recently got at the time of the first review. Outstanding sound acoustically: unfortunately, the pickups are a bit rubbish. I need to get one of those LR Baggs ones some time for it! And secondly, my latest baby, which you can see me wielding in the picture above: an Epiphone EJ200CE, an absolute beast of a thing based on the original Gibson Jumbo model. I may do a comparison review between the two guitars at some stage, as they’re similar in price point, but perform a very different purpose for me: the Epiphone is actually quite quiet to play acoustically, but amped up, it sounds plenty sweet – and loud. (If you want a decent review of the latter in the meantime by a gigging musician, check out this one).

Here’s the thing. Up until Wednesday night’s gig, I would’ve said, (and indeed was saying in an earlier draft of this) if  I’m playing a small, intimate gig, as I almost always am (the stadium tour will have to wait another year or two, or maybe another lifetime) the Vox is the thing I want to plug into – especially the input which doubles as a vocal channel. It gives the Lag a lovely, honeyed sound, and the Epiphone, too – although she’s never quite going to match her older sister for tone. If the Lag were a Rioja, she’d be a Gran Reserva for all those gorgeous woody notes.

Image may contain: 3 people, people on stage and people playing musical instrumentsFull throttle Brutality. Pic: Kenny Mackay


On the other hand, I’d said, if I’m gigging with the Brutal boys (and girl) and I need to be heard higher up  in the mix (on those rare occasions where I’m playing the riff, for example) then the Marshall’s the thing I lug into the venue. Much more resistant to feedback, its 50 watts can be used to good effect for the Epiphone or – and here’s why I said almost always acoustic at the top of the review – the Danelectro 12 string that I have on semi-permanent loan from Mr Brutal himself. That Marshall crunch is there when you need it, but equally, its tone for the quieter acoustic stuff is there too.

So what changed the other night? Bear in mind a lot depends on the acoustics of the venue, the mikes you’re using for the vocals, etcetera. But last night, for whatever reason, Kelly’s vocals were sounding a bit muffled on the Vox, so I switched them over to the Marshall. I’ve never heard her sound better. And, while the Vox did its usual good job with the Lag (and my occasional backing vocals) the Epiphone, out of the other Marshall input, was sounding fantastic.

So there you are. It’s horses for courses, frankly. If you’re in a folk-rock band, or indeed country punk, the Marshall is a thoroughly good amp, with a sweet sound and plenty of oomph when you need it. I’m not going to be retiring my little Vox any time soon, neither.

Tomorrow night’s a Brutal gig. The Vox is tucked up at home, safe and sound. The Marshall, though. The Marshall’s ready to get down and dirty in Henry’s Cellar Bar. And I know it’s got my back.
















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Oscar López Rivera


This is the fruit of many hours of homework! It’s a translation of an original Guardian article about the Puerto Rican independence activist/terrorist/freedom fighter (depending on your point of view) Oscar López Rivera. The article was written during the closing days of the Obama administration, as López Rivera waited to see if the outgoing President would grant him a pardon.

You can read how that turned out in the Guardian’s follow up article in January 2017. He remains a controversial figure, as this Newsweek article from June last year demonstrates. An equally controversial referendum in Puerto Rico that month produced a 23% turnout of whom 97% voted, not for independence, but for full statehood within the US.

Many, many thanks to my Spanish teacher, Ana, for all her patience and corrections of my many errors. Any remaining are all my own work, obviously.

A mural dedicated to Oscar López Rivera in Puerto Rico.

Original pic of mural: the Guardian

 ‘No Soy Una Amenaza’

Oscar López Rivera ha servido 35 años en una cárcel estadounidense pero nunca ha sido condenado de un crimen de violencia. Habla con Ed Pilkington sobre sus oportunidades de un perdón presidencial, siendo el Nelson Mandela de Puerto Rico, y su fascinación con la mariposa Monarca.

Monarch butterfly tours Mexico

Original pic:

En cualquier momento, las mariposas monarcas empezaran su migración épica de Canadá hasta Méjico. Es una de las maravillas del mundo: insectos cuyas alas de color naranjas y negras, las cuales apenas se extienden hasta cuatro pulgadas van volando sobre corrientes hasta 3,000 millas en busca de un cálido rincón para pasar el invierno.

El fenómeno le ha encantado a Oscar López Rivera desde los días de su juventud en los campos de Puerto Rico. Si tengo suerte, dice, una de sus grandes ambiciones es rastrear la ruta de los monarcas, por todo el camino desde la frontera de Canadá, tras las grandes llanuras de Estados Unidos hasta el norte de Méjico. ‘Es algo fascinante para mí, las monarcas,’ añade. “El largo de su viaje, y lo que hacen para sobrevivir: ¿cómo puede un insecto tan pequeño ir así de lejos?”

Es una pregunta poderosamente dolorosa cuando consideras quien está haciéndola. Durante los 35 años pasados, López Rivera ha sido incapaz de volar, sus alas han sido cortadas. Ha sido detenido en instituciones federales, por 12 de estos años totalmente solo dentro de un cajón de 6 por 9 pies de concreto donde no podía ver el cielo. La última vez que vio una mariposa viva, sin mencionar una monarca, fue en 1981.

Image result for terre haute prison

Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana. Imagen: Clark Construction

López Rivera ha cumplido uno de los más largo tiempos como preso en el Estados Unidos, así mismo el mundo. Edad de 73, ha pasado más de una mitad de su vida detrás de las rejas. Es condenado de matar a nadie, de hacer daño a nadie. Su crimen fue ‘conspiración sediciosa’- tramando contra el estado estadounidense en el fomento de la independencia puertorriqueña. Todavía cree en lo que llama ‘causa noble:’ soberanía completa para su lugar de nacimiento, el caribe, clasificado como ‘terreno’ de estados unidos.

Pero sus opiniones sobre como alcanzar esta meta han cambiado. Hace dos décadas él, y sus compañeros de lucha para la independencia puertorriqueña renunciaron a la violencia y embrazaron la reforma política pacífica. El último año cuando el grupo militante del que es miembro ha cometido un acto violento fue en 1983. Aún allí está sentado en su cárcel, leyendo y pintando, el ultimo de su género encarcelado, tan venerable que sus presos compañeros lo llaman ‘El Viejo.’

Es como estar encerrado en una capsula de tiempo, atrapado para siempre en los aferrados setentas, un setentero de pelo blanco forzado a vestirse en una camisa floral, pantalones anchos y tacones, bailando a Chic. El mundo, como López Rivera, ha avanzado, pero el gobierno estadounidense lo ve todavía entre el prisma de una edad pasada.

A menos que alguien intervenga para que lo liberen, se quedara en cautiverio hasta el 26 de junio 2023, cinco meses después de cumplir los ochenta. Afortunadamente para López Rivera, hay una persona que tiene el poder de la clemencia: Barack Obama. Como el presidente se prepara para salir de la Casa Blanca, está redactando su lista final de perdón, dando al preso una pequeña esperanza mínima.

Muchos aficionados prominentes están presionando para el perdón. Ellos forman parte de una lista impresionante: El Arzobispo Desmond Tutu; El Gobernador de Puerto Rico García Padilla; el Comité Hispano del Congreso Estadounidense; el pasado presidente Jimmy Carter; Bernie Sanders (el candidato en segundo para la presidencia); y el creador del musical de Broadway galardonado Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, quien se ha enfrentado cara a cara durante una reciente visita a la Casa Blanca con Obama sobre López Rivera.

Protesters call for the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera in October outside of the White House. Imagen: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press 

El Domingo, 9 de octubre, miles de aficionados se reunieron afuera de la Casa Blanca llevando pancartas del preso y pidiendo a Obama para que lo libere, sus voces se proyectaban desde el jardín del Sur de la mansión, esperando que el presidente trabajando en su Despacho Oval pueda oírlos y actuar, por consiguiente.

¿Con amigos como estos, seguro que López Rivera es un favorito para ser liberado? Según el mismo, no, quien se queda filósofo sobre su suerte. ‘Yo no practico ilusiones en vanas,’ lo dice en ingles perfecto, con un fuerte acento puertorriqueño. ‘Es muy difícil para mí leer al Presidente Obama. La manera que ha sido tratado, los obstáculos a que lo se ha enfrentado en la Casa Blanca, lo hace un poco asustadizo sobre decisiones.’

Que comentario cuidadosamente balanceado sobre algo tan profundo como su libertad. En el transcurso de una conversación de dos horas por teléfono (la cárcel federal en Terre Haute, Indiana habiendo negado al Guardian para visitarle en persona) llega a ser claro que este no es un artificio: el tono profesoral es verdadero para este hombre.

López Rivera dice que tiene un poco de esperanza de las expresiones frecuente de admiración que Obama hace por Nelson Mandela. ‘Abrazaba a Mandela como un gran hombre, vio que lo que hizo Mandela fue importante para todo el mundo.’

Provocar una comparación con Mandela puede parecer descabellado para un hombre que no es bien conocido en los estados unidos, pero en su país López Rivera es dado el papel de ‘Mandela de Puerto Rico’ frecuentemente. Mandela ha servido 27 años en cárceles sudafricanas por ser líder de una lucha de liberación contra colonialismo, utilizando la violencia como herramienta política; López Rivera ya ha servido ocho años más, argumentativamente por hacer lo mismo. Mandela negó renunciar a la violencia desde su celda, López Rivera lo ha hecho, hace 20 años.

López Rivera nació en 1943 en San Sebastián, en el noroeste de Puerto Rico. Pasó su juventud viviendo en el limbo de la constitución que ha definido la isla desde 1898, cuando fue cedido hasta los Estados Unidos por España. Ni un estado soberano ni el estado cincuenta primero de la Unión, Puerto Rico está atrapado entre los dos. Su gente son ciudadanos estadounidenses, tienen pasaportes estadounidenses, y pueden servir en el ejercito militar de los Estados Unidos, como López Rivera pronto lo descubriría. Pero cuando se trata de votar para el presidente de los Estados Unidos o un diputado en el Congreso estadounidense, un puertorriqueño es persona non grata. Bastante rico, podía pensar, viendo de una nación como los Estados Unidos, fundado sobre los principios de no impuestos sin representación.

‘Para lo único que valemos es ser carne de cañón,’ añade López Rivera, en una manifestación extraña de desacuerdo.

No que tuviera una idea sobre esto creciendo en San Sebastián y Chicago, donde su familia se ha mudado cuando tenía 14 años. Él era un muchacho para quien los conceptos de autodeterminación, o llevando la yunta de los Yanquis fue como extraño como la física nuclear. ‘Antes que sirviera, era despreocupado puertorriqueño. Disfrutaba la vida. No prestaba atención a nada más que a sí mismo.’

Y entonces, Vietnam. ‘Llegué creyendo que estábamos llevando la libertad a los vietnamitas, pero el momento que pisé el suelo entendí que esto no pasaba. Hicimos operaciones que duraban 30 días, poniendo a los aldeanos fuera de sus hogares, trasladándoles de los arroceros, registrándoles de pies a cabeza.’

Image result for bronze starUna Estrella de Bronce

Cuando volvió a Chicago un año después, llevando una Estrella de Bronce por los méritos obtenidos, dice que ha logrado concluir una transformación. ‘Sentí una obligación de cambiar mi punto de vista hacia la vida. Ahora podía ver lo que hizo el colonialismo a la gente.’

Se puso a trabajar con la comunidad de puertorriqueños de Chicago. Lo cual se puso en contacto con las familias de nacionalistas encarceladas y, sin sospechas que, un día, se uniría con sus filas fue anclado en el movimiento y, al final, se convirtió en un miembro de la clandestina Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional.

Como el nombre lo sugiere, el FALN creía que la fuerza armada sea justificada como un final. Entre su fundación en 1974 y su fallecimiento efectivo en 1983, como resultad de detenciones masivas, se dijo por los perseguidores, el FALN ha hecho más o menos 140 bombarderos sobre bases militares, oficinas del gobierno y edificios financieros a través de los estados unidos, especialmente en Chicago y Nueva York. Los blancos fueron elegidos siendo símbolos del ‘imperialismo yanqui,’ como compañías petroleras con plantas en aguas puertorriqueñas.

López Rivera insiste que el blanco fue siempre las propiedades, no la gente. ‘Para mí, la vida humana es sagrada. Nos llamamos ‘propaganda armada’ usando blancos para llamar atención a nuestra lucha.’

Podía ser la verdad, pero los resultados fueron, diplomáticamente, inconsistentes. En 1975, el grupo reclamó responsabilidad por un bombardero al histórico Fraunces Tavern en Manhattan Bajo, la base central de George Washington durante la revolución americana. El ataque mató cuatro personas e hirió más de 50. Dos años después, un empleo al edificio Móvil en Nueva York fue asesinado por otro artefacto del FALN.

López Rivera ha negado estar involucrado con estos ataques fatales. Pero cuando lo pregunté si alguna vez ha cometido actos de fuerza armada como instalando una bomba, respondió: ‘No puedo comentar sobre esto.’ Interesantemente, todavía reclama la justificación para la violencia bajo la ley internacional, usando el presente: ‘Creo que estábamos observando la ley internacional que dice que el colonialismo es un crimen contra la humanidad y que la gente colonial tiene el derecho de tomar la auto-determinación bajo cualquier medida, incluso la fuerza.’

Pero también es firme que la decisión de renunciar la fuerza fue verdadero y permanente. Hasta 1990, el movimiento estaba cambiando con los tiempos. ‘Nos dimos cuenta de que otras estrategias podía ser más efectivas, trasladando la gente entre campañas pacificadoras. Moralmente, también, venimos a ver que debemos dar ejemplo, que si abogamos para un mundo mejor hay cosas que no puede hacerse. No puede hacer un mundo mejor siendo injusto yo mismo.’

Cuando le pregunte si él podría ser una amenaza al público, si Obama lo liberase, responde; ‘no creo que pueda ser una amenaza. Hemos transcendido la violencia – es importante que la gente entienda, no abogamos nada que puede ser una amenaza a nadie.’

Fue detenido en 1981 en un control rutinario en Chicago y acusado de conspiración sediciosa – un cargo muy raro de conspiración contra los Estados Unidos que fue usado por primera vez después de la guerra civil contra sudistas denegados, y después aplicado a los anarquistas y socialistas antes de ser usado contra los independistas puertorriqueños como a él.

Al juicio, los fiscales no han ofrecido alguna evidencia vinculándolo a cualquier muerto o herido, o así mismos ataques específicos. Por su parte, él y sus compañeros han negado reconocer el proceso judicial, nombrándose un prisionero de guerra, decidiendo no tener defensa ni asistencia al juicio. Todavía describe la conspiración sediciosa como ‘un crimen imposible.’ Me ha dicho: ¿Como puede un puertorriqueño ser sedicioso al estado estadounidense cuando nunca tomamos parte en elegir al gobierno estadounidense?’

Su sentencia fue 55 años. Por el contrario, como su abogado, Jan Susler, ha señalado, la sentencia media para un asesino en 1981 fue 10.3 años. Mas tarde, su sentencia fue extendida a 70 años, cuando, insiste, que fue engañado por agentes, al implicarle en un caso de intento de fuga.

En una persona menos disciplinada, tanto tratamiento duro podría engendrar una amargura desesperanza. Para López Rivera, no. Recuenta su tiempo en la cárcel con brío al borde de entusiasmo. Si, ha enfrentado a ‘tiempos terribles,’ siendo calificado como terrorista por los guardias, llamado un ‘spic’ y peor. Pero siempre ha hecho buen uso su vida de encarcelación, dice.

‘Cuando llegué al principio a la cárcel, me hice una promesa: pueden encarcelarme, pero el tiempo que paso en la cárcel es mi tiempo. Lo uso para mi propia ventaja, mis propias metas. Del momento que despierto hasta el momento que voy a mi cama, mantengo activo.

Significa levantándose a las 4 de la mañana a un régimen de ejercicios de 40 minutos, estiramiento, ejercicios abdominales, rutinas para el cuerpo superior. Lee mucho. De momento, está leyendo ‘Orientalism,’ por Edward Said, y antes de eso devoraba el libro de la escritora de Nueva York Jane Mayer sobre billonarios donadores derechistas, ‘Dark Money.’

Enseña a los otros presos a leer, escribir y hablar español. Le gusta también pintar como una manera de salir de la prisión hasta el mundo de afuera. Usa como su modelo fotos de paisajes o vistas del mar que desgarra de las revistas, compensando su falta de acceso al mundo natural.

Empezó a pintar después de la implicación de intento de fuga, cuando se pasó en el aislamiento en dos de las cárceles más duras ‘supermax’ en los estados unidos: Marion, Illinois y Florence, Colorado. Pasaría todo salvo dos horas cada semana en su celda concreta sin vista del cielo. ‘Poco a poco, todo comienza descolorarse. Sus ojos empiezan a cambiar como ve las cosas. Ve menos de color: todo enturbia hasta el amarillo-gris de las paredes de la celda.

Entonces volvió a pintar para traer los colores a su vida de nuevo. Esto es cuando redescubrió su pasión por la mariposa monarca, reproduciendo dibujos de los insectos como reflexión sobre su migración. Tengo que ser fuerte. Siempre creí que ellos no iban destruirme, que este no va a ocurrir.’

Aunque esta fuera de solitario todavía debe tratar con la deprivación social. A su sima, era uno de dos docenas de independistas en cárceles federales: ahora, es el último. Al paso de los años, ha visto a sus compañeros caminando libres, sus filas agoladas, hasta en 2010 se convirtió en el único. Esta sanguínea sobre esto también. ‘Nunca me he sentido abandonado o solitario. No hay sentimiento en mi corazón.’

Pensar en no tener arrepentimiento sobre su situación es lo más extraordinario que el haber podido ser liberado en 2009. En agosto 1999, Bill Clinton hizo lo que los seguidores de López Rivera están insistiendo a Obama hacer: usó sus últimos días en oficio para dar un indulto presidencial a once miembros independistas puertorriqueños. A López Rivera le ofrecieron un acuerdo menor en el que podría ser liberado después de una década, pero lo rechazó, porque dice que no tenía fe en el gobierno estadounidense manteniendo de lado el trato, y estaba decepcionado que un par de sus compañeros de lucha no tuvieron ninguna oferta de indulto.  ‘Cuando estaba en Vietnam nunca deje a nadie. No es mi estilo. No podía hacerlo,’ dice.

¿Seguramente habría tenido momentos de duda durante los últimos siete años cuando había negado el trato que podría haberlo liberado? ‘Nunca. Creo en principios. Para mí, la decisión fue la que debía haber tomado.’

¿Ahora cuál es la probabilidad que Obama finalmente va a dejar las puertas abiertas de la celda? Una cosa en el cálculo de Obama puede ser que la ronda de indultos de Clinton provoco una bola de fuego de oposición en el Congreso y la prensa. Los Clinton terrorismo perdones’ son todavía una pesadilla hasta hoy, aunque la acusación pasa por alto un hecho irregular sobre las liberaciones: que no hay un solo acto criminal cometido por los militantes FALN durante los 16 años de su liberación.

La reacción a Clinton pudo quizás explicar la aparente equivocación de Obama. Es reportado que ha señalado a Lin Manuel Miranda que la petición de clemencia para López Rivera estaba ‘sobre su escritorio.’ Pero el miembro del Congreso Luis Gutiérrez, que es de descendencia puertorriqueña y ha sido un aficionado principal de un perdón, ha dicho que cuando preguntó a Obama sobre esta cuestión, el presidente lo ha disputado firmemente y ha dado una afirmación anodina que ‘procesos deben ser seguidos.’

Esto parece menos prometedor para el Mandela de Puerto Rico. Pero López Rivera responde a los mensajes mixtos provenientes de la Casa Blanca con una compostura personal. ‘No tengo elección que ser optimista,’ dice, como los guardianes de Terre Haute llaman el punto final sobre nuestro diálogo. La esperanza, es lo único que nunca podemos perder.’

Image result for monarch butterflyOriginal image:

Posdata: Martes el 17 enero 2017 López Rivera recibió el perdón de Obama con 208 otros encarcelados – un número récord.

Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

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Meredith Belbin. Bit of a rocker, apparently.

Anyone who, like me, has a day job featuring the pleasures of middle management, or even just belongs to an organisation that had cash to splash on an away day in the last thirty years, will have probably heard of the Belbin Team Roles. Invented by the eponymous management theorist, the general sketch is that we all fit into one (or more usually) of nine moulds in terms of our role within a teamwork environment.

This isn’t the same as a set of personality types: instead, it focuses on what our approach to team work is. Grossly oversimplifying, the best type of team contains a spread of people with different attributes: having a whole bunch of, for example, Monitor Evaluators and nothing else in your team, would generally be a Bad Thing.

The nine roles are set out here, if you’re interested. However, the only reason I’ve brought it up is that the Redoubtable Mrs F was asked to complete a Belbin questionnaire recently; it made me look up the old stuff out of curiosity again; and it reminded me that, to my great disappointment, when I did the test about ten years ago, I wasn’t a Plant.

To be honest, I can’t remember what I was; a mixture of things, I think, with a vague tint of vegetation; but what self-styled writer and musician doesn’t want to fit into the definition of a Plant? ‘Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.’ Nope. Not me. Not in a work context, anyways, it seems.

Well, when working on the latest of the tracks – or reworking it, I should say – for my next solo effort, I’d like to think I was a bit bit more of a Plant than, say, a Co-ordinator (‘Needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.’)

In fact, a bit more of a Robert Plant.

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Robert Plant. Not big on management theory, apparently.

Now, this is in no way to compare my vocal talents to the Golden-Maned One, currently drawing plaudits for his new album, Carry Fire. I’m no more him than I’m Jimmy Page on guitar. However, having completed the stripped down version of the track in question back in the autumn, as previously blogged about, I had put it aside to see how it developed. And then, quite recently, as I woke up one weekend morning, a melody came to me that fitted not just over the verse, but the chorus as well.

I tried really hard not to make it a flute part. Honestly. It just seemed too … well, too Led Zeppelin-era, really, what with all the lyrics about the Ninth Legion, an acoustic guitar in double-drop D, all that reverb on the singy bits… but try as I might with other synth voicings, I couldn’t make it work any other way.

So I decided to embrace my inner Plant, and hope you can too.  Imagine you can time travel, and transport yourself back to, oh, let’s say, 1973. In Glenrothes, Fife, the 11 year old me is reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. In Fife, it’s probably raining. Meanwhile, in a sunny late summer field in Sussex, a hirsute young rock god is tuning down both E strings, while a willowy girl in a paisley pattern dress is mucking about on a wind instrument. The bearded one finishes his tuning, cocks an ear, and starts to improvise. Overhead, thunder begins to build a static charge around them, like a psychic crucible.

(The other track I’ve put up with it isn’t quite so epic in scale, but I’m reasonably pleased with it. It just happened to reach the same stage of completion around the same time. Usual rules apply – free to download if you like it, but think of giving something to a refugee charity if you do).























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Mother-in-law jokes and other bus-based beach-bound banter in Valencia


Your man on the bus seemed unpromising at first. In his seventies, and swaddled in one of those indeterminately brown coats favoured by pensioners the world over, he was complaining about the heat to start with. He stood up to open a window, and that got us talking.

I’d said I wouldn’t complain about it being 20 degrees at the end of December, like, ever. He asked me, in Spanish, ‘Are you French?’

To be fair, I often seem to be mistaken for a Frenchman in Spain. Given that they’re no more known than the Spanish for producing over six foot specimens with pale skin, blue eyes and a ginger beard, I can only assume it’s my accent: I explained that, no, I’d learned it at school, but as soon as I learned Spanish, all the French had gone. Desaparecido. Disparu, for that matter.

He confided in me that he spoke five languages: ‘Español, Valenciano, Frances, Claro, y Directo.’ Then, as the bus rattled on, he was full of banter: recommendations for the restaurant to go to when we got to the beach; notes and queries on the English sense of humour; and a story about his Edinburgh-based nephew’s medical career in Edinburgh when I assured him I was no more English than I was French.

He really was the best kind of random bus companion you could encounter: interested, interesting, an inquiring mind full of wisdom and humour. Although I didn’t try out my French on him – as I may have said already, it takes a left turn south of the Pyrenees these days before the end of the first sentence – he was obviously serious about his study of that tongue. And Clear and Direct, for that matter.

In language, he opined, there are often layers of meaning that are hard to appreciate as a non-native speaker. For example, he said, he had asked his French teacher what the difference was in that idiom between horrible and terrible. The Frenchman thought for a moment, and then gave the example of taking your mother in law to the beach with your family.

If your mother-in-law went swimming and was swept out to sea, he said, that would be horrible. On the other hand, if the tide brought her back in again, that would be terrible.

He got off well before the beach, having given me directions to the restaurant, and a recommendation that I try a dish of baby eels there as an aperitivo. He was going to eat, he said, at his wife’s house. Which was also his house. He was gone before he could explain that one more fully.

So, every guide book will tell you one of the places to visit when you’re in Valencia is the beach. And they’re right: I can imagine on a summer’s day the place is rammed with locals, tourists and beach bums alike, each of these tribes vying for supremacy, or at least first dibs on looking cool with a glass of something in hand.

On the other hand, we went on 30th of December, but even then it was pretty busy. So, to add in the boring travel book bit, the bus you get is a 32, and the area you’re heading for is variously called las Arenas, Playa Malvarrosa, or after the fishing village a bit inland, El Cabañal. We followed our new friend’s advice and got off at the first stop as the bus swings left along the sea front. From there, you head onto the front and turn right for a boardwalk cluttered with shops and restaurants, with a massive flagpole along at the far end.

To be honest, we didn’t follow your man’s recommendation of La Pepica – which I’d already read in a guide book was the one to go for. It had obviously benefitted from quite a few recommendations along the way; it was the swankiest of several restaurants who were aspiring to be swanky, and the prices were of commensurate swankiness. This isn’t like the beach front places I mentioned in Malaga: it’s been discovered long ago, so there are menus in English and meeters and greeters trying to grab you in – something that always makes me want to walk on.

That said, the inevitable paella we had in the place we went to was first class – we shared a vegetable one and an arroz a banda, similar to paella with shrimp and squid, preceded by a first course of calamares and salad. Not cheap. However, they have a bit of a captive audience: I set off in the direction of El Cabañal to see if there was something more authentic and inexpensive, but there seemed to just be block after block of flats before you got to anything approaching a village centre. Maybe worth a further explore if you’re feeling adventurous and you’re up for a decent walk.

Despite that, the beach is well worth a visit when you’re in Valencia. The locals still go there too, and it fairly buzzes with life. Even if you don’t get the best mother in law jokes on the way there.

Musical Milestones and the Theory of Everything

Love Me Do.jpg

4th September, 1962 was a busy day for Western pop culture. As day broke and my mother recovered from giving birth to her third child, the Beatles were preparing to fly down from Liverpool to record ‘Love Me Do,’ at Abbey Road studios, that afternoon. It was to be their first single release.

In the interests of precision, this wasn’t the first time they’d recorded this song at Abbey Road, and it wasn’t to be the last: they’d had a go at it in June of that year, with Pete Best on drums. By September, Best was gone and Ringo Starr was in:  but George Martin was dissatisfied with Ringo’s efforts and, a week later, the band reconvened to have another shot with session drummer, Andy White, with Ringo relegated to tambourine. However, the version recorded on my birthday was the one that became the single – at least for the first pressings of it: the story gets complicated after that.

Anyhoo, the point being, things have come a long way for all of us in the last 55+ years. For me, personally, obviously. For the music business and recording methods, almost as much. The Beatles’ first album (which, for completists, featured the Andy White version of ‘Love Me Do’) was recorded, aside from the first two singles and their B sides, in a single day – 11th February 1963.

Capitalising on the success of ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me,’ their second single, the Fab Four went into Abbey Road at 10.00 a.m. and came out at 10.45 p.m., having essentially recorded their live Cavern Club set in the intervening dozen or so hours. As anyone’s who’s tried to record anything in a studio knows, ten tracks in a day is pretty special: as Beatles writer Mark Lewisohn later wrote: “There can scarcely have been 585 more productive minutes in the history of recorded music.”

The point being, with digital editing software now available, any idiot can record music, and any idiot can can take their time. Indeed, you don’t even have to play a single note yourself to do it any more, with the advent of MIDI. I know one very talented musician who does just that.

I don’t use MIDI, and I do try to record all the instruments onto a track in a single take, even if it’s the third or fourth: I kind of feel it keeps me honest. The drums, of course, are digital. And I have to admit the kantele (pictured) on this is stitched together from a couple of goes. (You can read the story of how I built this Finnish folk instrument here).

But, overall, this has taken months and months to record. I’ve put it to one side, come back to it, decided on another instrument, tweaked it, added something else, then decided what to take away – the crucial bit. I hope you like the result.

The lyrics? I guess they’re about the knowledge and wisdom I’m supposed to have acquired since September 1962, and the difference between the two. Or something like that. I don’t know. I just write the stuff.


























Advertising has also come a long way since the days of the real Mad Men in the 1960s. There may be examples below here.

Valencia – Hogmanay Part 2

I’ve quite a bit more to say about Valencia in due course, especially if I’m going to follow through on my threat of writing a travel book about Spain. In the meantime, though, I just wanted to share some thoughts about the fantastic accommodation we had there, as we huddle round the combined effects of the central heating and the oven, slow cooking a beef stew back home.

There are no doubt any number of good places to stay in the city, but there few, I’d wager, can offer as unrivalled a view of the City Square fireworks at New Year or, indeed, those for Las Fallas in March, as Ana’s fifth floor flat in Calle Periodista Azzuti, available through Airbnb. The flat itself is funkily furnished, and offers a good double bedroom and two singles (one slight note of caution: the single beds aren’t huge) with all the usual facilities, including two toilets, one of which also holds a shower. We didn’t use the cooking facilities much – why would you when you can eat out as well as you can in Valencia, frankly – but it’s all there.

Here’s some of the aforesaid funky furnishings:


But the real beauty of the flat is its location: 5 to ten minutes’ walk from the city centre attractions including the Cathedral (they have the Holy Grail, you know? Oh yes, it’s very nice… (c. Monty Python)) and the magnificent Central Market (also pictured). It has a spectacular view across the City Hall over the rooftops by day:

Add the night, however, and even before the fireworks start it’s pretty special:

…and then add fireworks. One word of warning, however: make sure you’re back in the flat well before the festivities start, and the street’s closed off. It took one or other of my language skills or my rough Fife charm to convince the nice policeman that yes, we were staying there and yes, we promised to go straight in and stay there for the duration!





































Adverts below here there be. Said Yoda.




Valencia – Hogmanay Part 1

As I write this, the walls of our airbnb apartment are almost literally shaking from the noise outside – and that’s just the soundcheck! It seemed like a good idea at the time to take a place just off the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, where the Valencian New Year celebrations are centred. Later, we’re promised, there will be music, and then we’ll come under heavy bombardment from fireworks. We intend to participate fully. I suspect we won’t have much choice.

In the meantime, and pending some more meaningful reflections on this fantastic city, here are some more photos, taken from yesterday’s trip to the beach, and today’s visits to the Botanic Gardens and the central market.





























Muchos noticias comerciales bajo de aqui. Es la falta de WordPress.






Valencia – first impressions

I’ll blog about this in more detail presently, but in the meantime, here are some bonny pics of the city, the central market, and some top paella made with costillas y setas (pork ribs and mushrooms). Oh, and Hesperides, and, presumably Mrs Hesperides, who have a garden all to themselves…



















Down here be nothing but adverts











Musical Advent Calendar Day 24: Bruce Springsteen – Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town/Mariah Carey – All I want for Christmas

I’m not a great fan of the modern, non-geographical, use – or over-use – of the word ‘journey,’ to describe a period of personal development of some kind. So I’m going to call this month’s musical advent calendar a trip instead.

It’s not been without its dilemmas (and one discovery has been how to spell that word). Each piece of music carries with it some sort of freight: I haven’t consciously tried to be unduly ‘cool’ in my choices, but, for example, there’s not been any Abba, when there clearly could have been.

Beyond that, though, the songs and the act of choosing them have stirred up memories, almost all good, of various things: events and periods in my life I associate them with; gigs I’ve been to; but most of all, the familial and other relationships they evoke.

Frozen Spider’s Web in Fife, earlier this year

I write this morning from our flat in Edinburgh, where we’re spending Christmas with Daughter and Heiress. It’s the first time we’ve done that: and yet, even though we still live full time in Fife, coming here still feels like coming home. Who knows, this could be the start of a new Christmas tradition for us…

…and as daylight slowly breaks over stormy, red-edged skies, I know that the rest of my small but perfectly formed family are gathering together elsewhere. In Canberra, my brother and his wife will be preparing for their two sons coming round, along with my younger nephew’s girlfriend; my sister’s in London with her Son Number 2 and his girlfriend; my older nephew will be with his wife, his own daughter and heiress, and his in-laws near Stirling. And wherever we are, I know two things: we’ll be raising a glass to those missing, and there will be music of some kind going on.

I’ve always considered myself the least musical of my siblings: I mean, they’ve both got Grade 107 or whatever in proper instruments like piano, violin and viola, and sing in choirs. I’ll never be much more than an average guitar player, and my singing’s not really up to much. But music, this month has taught me if I hadn’t known before, is a part of me. It’s been the soundtrack to my happiest moments; it’s kept me going through the most laborious of workaday chores; and in my darkest times, it’s been my salvation.

Grandpa Anderson’s Christmas Rose Pics: Alison Ferguson

So of whatever religion or none, celebrating the winter solstice or the longest summer day south of the Equator, I hope Bruce, Clarence and the rest of the band soundtrack a great day for you all, and thanks for listening!

I could have left it there. But Mariah Carey is a guilty pleasure. Yeah I know it’s cheesy, and she’s a total diva etc etc, but that joy in her voice when she hits the final top note: you can’t tell me that was a chore for her. You can act all cool and say, huffily, ‘well, I was going to give him Springsteen, but Mariah Carey! ‘ sake…’ all you like. I bet you click on the vid when no-one’s watching.

Last chance to donate to the Myanmar Red Cross Appeal




























They’ll be selling you stuff down here. Why not wait and see what’s under the tree for you