andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Alburne Park Revisited

Sunday, 22nd January, 2017

In the morning, a pristine white feather drifted down from an empty sky in the supermarket car park. Later, as my sister and I left the crematorium, a robin hopped onto a branch and watched us intently. Then, as we were pulling out of the car park, a tiny stag of the species of roe deer we have in our mainly suburban corner of the Lowlands crossed the road in broad daylight, pausing only to gaze at us before disappearing in a patch of scrubby woodland between the Crem and the housing estate that seemed to offer no camouflage whatsoever.

On another day, only the third of these might have seemed at all out of the ordinary. But this was the third anniversary of Dad’s passing.

Memories. Two things have been stirring themselves together in my subconscious recently: Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which I’ve just finished; and memories of my own childhood, prompted by my (so far) unsuccessful attempt to have an old cottage across the road from my childhood home saved from demolition.

Now, I can’t attempt to match the Boss’s evocative description of his early days – for me the best part of the book, as his early to mid career description lacks the same emotional punch and descriptive flair, confining itself to less interesting – for me at least – recall of bands, band members, recording sessions and contractual niggles. Besides, I came from a very different place.

For starters, my own childhood was pretty much as idyllic as a Sixties/Seventies upbringing in provincial Scotland could get: I had parents who loved and looked after me; kind and loving older siblings who spoil me with their affection to this day; and a schooling which, whilst not perhaps equipping me for Harvard, was probably above the average Scottish comprehensive product on offer at that time.

Anyway, this piece isn’t all about me: it’s also about the – in retrospect – unique place I grew up in.

When we moved to Alburne Park, Glenrothes was only fourteen years old, a product of the post-war drive to build new towns to alleviate the bomb-damaged urban sprawl: planned communities where places to work, rest, play and, most importantly, live, were designed in a holistic way. Light industry (especially after the Rothes Pit flooded, the way the old miners had said it would) provided the backbone of the jobs. There would be town and neighbourhood shopping centres, parks, landscaped areas, precincts of houses designed around primary schools in such a way that parents could walk kids to school without crossing a major road.

A lot – a whole lot – of imagination, creativity and sheer hard work went into all of that. If the end result that we live in today isn’t Utopia, then where is? The town’s problems are shared with most of the Western developed world: poverty that never gets solved, increasing social and economic inequality, a lack of attention to detail by governments of all stripes; conflicting priorities. And the residents themselves being, well, human and therefore less than perfect.

The land the town was built on existed before it, of course. It was mainly farmland, with the river that runs through it being used for papermaking. A blank canvas, but not entirely. In Alburne Park, there was a small ‘big house’ credited to Thomas Alburne, a plasterer for the local laird, the Earl of Rothes, dating from 1677, called Alburne Knowe. Nearby was a farm, Woolmill, and the previous main road ran crookedly through the middle, down across the bridge over the Leven, and on up towards Balbirnie Estate, where the neighbouring big cheeses had lived. There was an orchard in front of Alburne Knowe; fields for pasture and fields for crops.

By the time my family got there, in late 1962, when I was nine weeks old, the Corporation had built two lines of houses on either side of the road. Next came private house plots in what became Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive, the latter being where my family moved when I was about five.

It was a special place to grow up in as a kid. There were still apple trees in the old orchard, little stunted things long past their useful life; some of them ended up enclosed in our garden as a temptation for local youths to come over the fence and raise my Dad’s blood pressure. Down the brae towards the river, there were rope swings, sticklebacks, and frogspawn to be collected in jars; a field with horses in it. From there westwards, a shelter belt of trees ran along the back of the housing, with a path up the middle. Lots of hiding places, places to ride bikes, and – it was rumoured, though I never found any – scud mags the older boys had discarded amongst the undergrowth.

the wooded strip

Back along the top of the road, fields of cereal crops led to others used for a herd of cows; and, originally, a huge playing field with a massive old tree that caught all manner of kites and formed the venue for Guy Fawkes night bonfires – organised by the neighbourhood’s parents, toppling milk bottles of rockets and all. Leftover fireworks could be later inserted in the neighbouring field’s cowpats for experimental purposes.

That side of our territory also held a useful slope of tussocky grass that, covered in snow, provided mild peril on the old iron-bound sledges that came out of the neighbourhood’s garages as soon as it snowed. As we grew older and less heedful of our parent’s boundaries, a crumbling viaduct led up a railway branch line where a diesel shunter of an obscure class prowled with wagons from the paper mills, all the way up to the nearby village, where, for a brief summer or so, I became interested enough in railways to sneak into the old goods shed and see the A4 class Union of South Africa steam locomotive that, in those years, was housed there.

In short, it was a fantastic place to grow up. We played and played, or that’s how I remember it: football, cricket, tennis when Wimbledon was on – there was even a tennis court left behind by the last owners of the old house – or just explored, talked, wrestled and sat chewing grass stalks in one or other corner of our little empire. There were just enough neighbourhood kids to make up a single gang.

If this all sounds too good to be true, in a sense it was: what was really remarkable about where I grew up was the pace of change all around it. The football field where, according to some, I kicked the future Hollywood film actor Dougray Scott so hard he ran home crying (unlikely, since, apart from not being a violent kid, I’m three years older than him, a vast age difference in childhood games) was presently built over for a new road. Orchard Drive was soon built out, and then the horse’s field disappeared beneath Alburne Court; Alburne Crescent was developed out on both sides, taking down the kite-catching tree and the bonfire site.

Alburne Knowe, flattened to its foundations, was encircled by new housing, including ours: as I began to take an interest in plants, I realised that the rhododendrons clinging to existence in the all-pervading long grass were the last survivors of a garden some unknown owner had once taken pains to cultivate. When my Dad chopped down the apple trees to save his blood pressure, the last of the old orchard was gone.

Year on year, the remaining vestiges of what had been there before Glenrothes disappeared under the new town’s footprint. Not such an unusual story, I suppose: what was different, I think, was the steady, planned march of progress. The Territory, as I called it in a (as yet unpublished) novella years later, shrank and warped under concrete and blockwork. When writing this, it occurred to me just why I’ve been so bent out of shape by the proposal to demolish the old cottage the Art Club occupies, across the road from my childhood home: it’s because what was left behind of the old buildings was meant to be left behind: a reminder of times past. In fact, I remember now that in that novella, I had the central character protecting the wooded strip from development by the local Council – years after I lived there, but years and years ago.

It was, as I’ve said, a special place to grow up. It was then on the edge of town, so as kids we had all the benefits of suburban living coupled with an understanding of the countryside, because the countryside was a step away even childish legs could manage. At night, I used to lie awake on those mythically long summer nights, listening to the pop of  tennis balls in the court nearby; listening, too, for the trains crossing the viaduct on the main line, a couple of miles away: the sleeper to London from Aberdeen, rollicking through, pulled by a Class 55 Deltic, maybe, its distinctive engine note rippling out like a beetle’s droning flight over the fields.

London. As I grew, I knew it only as the place where the films came from; the BBC people with their RP vowels. When I visited it, it seemed like a film set, all the street name plates familiar from a dozen tv dramas. Later, I came to know it was where our laws came from, too. As I drifted off to sleep, a provincial kid identifying himself as Scottish, it seemed a long way away.

The time came soon enough to put away those childish things. I would go to university, not in far-off London, but in the nearest city to my province, Edinburgh. News of the outside world came from the Scotsman (then very much an Edinburgh paper) and the wise and witty ramblings of Clive James in the Observer on a Sunday. My charismatic English teacher had told me I could write: I read books and book reviews, like a trainee chef studying menus.

Now, the territory seemed less like a self-contained world and more like a series of unwanted boundaries. In a household dominated by classical music, I started listening to the grown-up albums of that mid-to-late Seventies golden era of the long player: Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon, and, of course, Born to Run.

At some point when I was 16 or so a school pal gave me my first Dylan album, which he’d been bored by. It was the live album at Budokan, and Dylan had me at the first guitar intro to ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Here was this kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who’d lain awake listening to trains, who’d escaped the suffocating small-town confines of his upbringing, and found his way to fortune, fame and (perhaps most importantly) girls, with little to his name except an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a preposterous talent.

Well, I quickly acquired the first two and learned how to play them, and reasonably quickly accepted I wasn’t going to get the third one any time soon. No matter. I was busting out of this place, and if my mode of transport wasn’t a Harley Davidson with a girl called Wendy strapping her hands across my engines, I got the message that Springsteen was sending me loud and clear. I wasn’t ever coming back.

It was only decades later, at my Mum’s funeral, that I heard how hard it had been for her when I, as the last of her brood, flew the nest. She was from the generation of parents that weren’t expected to emote all over the place, of course, so that just wouldn’t have been discussed. By then, a parent myself, I understood.

All things must change; all things must pass. Back when I was a kid, my Dad told me he’d seen deer once, in the harshest of winters, venturing close to the house on Alburne Park in search of food. I’d never seen one in all my childhood there: and yet, here, now, outside the crematorium in the middle of the day, in the middle of the next door town with scarcely any cover to be had, was this little stag, coolly holding us in his gaze, before trotting across the road and disappearing into thin air.

Not all things change for the better, but all things do change.

Alburne Cresent

The Wrong Box Speaks – Again!

Here’s the second of my audio extracts from my forthcoming novel, The Wrong Box. In the second part, we rejoin Simon English in the wardrobe as Yvonne’s husband resumes his search…

There’s not been a huge take up so far on Part 1. Next up will be an extract featuring Karen Clamp, the other main viewpoint character, who’s the yin to Simon’s yang. I’ll probably just publish it as a written extract.

Anyway, those of you that do listen, enjoy, and thanks!

The Wrong Box – speaks!

Hi y’all,

Just for a bit of fun, I’ve decided to upload an audio extract of my forthcoming novel. Part Deux, where we find out what happens when Gary continues his search, will be ready some time later this week.

In the meantime, just a reminder that you can pre-order the Kindle and paperback versions via Amazon (I even have my own page now, which is quite exciting!)

Through a Lurgi Darkly: Elbow at the Usher Hall, March 13th, 2017

To the Usher Hall, last Monday, for Elbow. They’re not my all time favourite band, but I kind of fell for them when they helped me while away an hour or so of a long flight to Oz, 8 or 9 years ago, by watching a documentary of them. Since then, they played a key part in my nephew Dave and his wife Gill’s wedding ceremony (One Day Like This, along with Cave’s Ship Song, being their ceremonial music of choice – how cool was that?) and their Glasto appearance a couple of years ago had confirmed to me that, without necessarily really knowing any of their songs, or indeed any of their lyrics beyond that great line about kissing him when his lips are thin, they were good enough value for a family outing to see them when their current tour rocked up in Edinburgh.

Part of my motivation was out of appreciation that Elbow really don’t need to be playing venues as small as the Usher Hall. They’re pretty big league now, and could have done the same as most premiership bands do these days, by touching down in Scotland only for the time it took them to play the vast, soul-free void that is Glasgow’s SSE before pissing off south of the Border.

Instead, they had opted for the Edwardian magnificence of the Usher Hall. I’m not sure if Guy Garvey appreciated the irony of his toasting ‘some rich bloke’ who had endowed the hall with his pint of lager: Usher being one of Edinburgh’s great brewing and distilling families. When I was growing up, there would have been no question of such riff raff as a rock band getting on stage at the Usher Hall. However, needs must and, on the night, the grand old dame opened her skirts to, it’s fair to say, a generational mix of Elbow fans, including Daughter and Heiress and a pal down in the standing area, and The Redoubtable Mrs F and I in the upper balcony.

Our seat was great, I have to say, particularly as the lurgi which I’m only now recovering from had firmly taken a grip of me. We were at the centre of things, behind a stairwell with a good solid oak rail to rest one’s arms on; and the sound, for the most part, was great. However, this is where you should take this review’s lack of enthusiasm with a pinch of salt, because I’m concerned that my meh-ness about support band C Duncan‘s indie-poppy, guitar n’ synth flavoured set comes from hearing it through a fug of aforementioned lurgi (incidentally, if you’re looking up lurgi in Wikipedia because it’s an unfamiliar term to you, I mean the word for a flu-like virus first coined by the Goons, not that I was afflicted by a German chemical and construction company). Certainly, The RMF found their sound very pleasant.

Elbow came on with a strong set, and if I wasn’t exactly dancing in my seat at the start of the it, their meandering melodies and Guy Garvey’s great warm baritone was like the aural equivalent of a warm bath I could slip into and forget the viral firestorm going on in my bloodstream. There was a glitch mid way, though, with the sound, which appeared to reduce the band to playing on only onstage-monitors and amps half way through a song. This seemed to throw them slightly, and Garvey extemporised while, presumably, things were frantically plugged in and plugged out again to resolve the problem; but it broke the spell that had been building slightly, at least for me.

However, they got their mojo back as the set wore on. Again, in my over the counter medication addled state, it was the third last song of the main set, The Birds, that really took off (apologies for the pun – I hate when real journos do that!) so I’ve put a Youtube of a similar version they did at the Eden Project in 2014 at the bottom of this. It did what all the best Elbow songs do: building slowly, from deceptively simple chord progressions and some whimsical lyrics, to a rousing, anthemic chorus. It really, really cheered me up and made me forget myself.

The closer was, of course, One Day Like This, and Guy Garvey had us singing along – talk about a crowd pleaser. He even got us to sing the line about kissing him when his lips are thin all by ourselves.

After that, a brief encore and off into the night with all our viruses. At 45 of your English pounds, not a cheap gig, but I’m still glad I went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t do advertising of other people’s stuff. So if you see one below here, WordPress put it there. It’s a free world, within limits.

The Wrong Box is Coming!

No, not the story of a logistics breakdown by Yodel, but news (for those of you who I haven’t reached yet by other social media) that my novel, The Wrong Box, is to be finally published on 20th April. Here’s a pic of me with a proof  copy:

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You can pre-order it on Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon. There’ll be a couple of events in April/May: best way of following progress would be to join up to the Facebook Group, or follow me on Twitter (@andrewcferguso4).

Incidentally, if you know of any book groups that are looking for this kind of thing, and would like the author to turn up and talk about it (either virtually or literally, depending on distance); or any other book festivals or the like I could promote this at, please let me know!

Here’s the blurb:

All I know is, I’m in exile in Scotland, and there’s a dead Scouser businessman in my bath. With his toe up the tap.

Meet Simon English, commercial property lawyer, heavy drinker and Scotophobe, banished from London after being caught misbehaving with one of the young associates on the corporate desk. As if that wasn’t bad enough, English finds himself acting for a spiralling money laundering racket that could put not just his career, but his life, on the line.

Enter Karen Clamp, an 18 stone, well-read wannabe couturier from the Auchendrossan sink estate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Council misdeeds and 19th century Scottish fiction. With no one to trust but each other, this mismatched pair must work together to investigate a series of apparently unrelated frauds and discover how everything connects to the mysterious Wrong Box.

Manically funny, The Wrong Box is a chaotic story of lust, money, power and greed, and the importance of being able to sew a really good hem.

Return to Leros

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My friend, Chris Mitchell, pictured above, is going back to help refugees in the Greek islands. A big, friendly bear of a man, Chris worked with me in the Council for many years, retired, and decided to do something practical about the refugee crisis on Europe’s borders rather than sitting around bemoaning it, as most of us liberal-hearted types do. I’m going to get him to describe what he’s looking to do in his own words; and then, with his permission, I’ve cut and pasted some Facebook posts and photos from his time on Leros last year to give you a flavour of what he found back then.

If you want to contribute to Chris’s campaign, you can do that here. He’s already raised his initial target, but let’s see if we can double it, eh?

Chris’s appeal

Hi folks,

I’m off again next week to Leros in the Aegean to work with a local refugee group for three weeks. Last year it was people climbing out of rubber dinghies, getting some respite, food and clothing whilst papers were sorted, then back on a ferry to Athens and onwards. That ground to a halt whilst I was there. Europe closed its borders and hearts to people fleeing horrors, and dumped the whole crisis on a Greek nation who they had only just plunged into the worst of austerity. Now thousands of refugees are just stuck in camps or worse, in limbo, going nowhere, with nothing to do; school, college, earnings, lives, relationships on hold. Leros Solidarity, who I am re-joining, are trying to make those lives a little less sterile with education, language classes, activities and maybe even a little bit of fun in a bleak situation.

Like last time I’m running an appeal, targeted at feeding minds and souls, now that mouths are generally being fed on Leros. Find it here.

The appeal is hosted on Just Giving through a charity, Aegean Solidarity Network Team UK. One resource is the 15 ukuleles and a teaching pack I’m taking with me (yes!? There are thousands of school kids and adults in Fife and beyond who will understand why instantly). This needs £280 of funding and I’m hoping to raise at least £1,000 in total so ASN can use the rest for other refugee relief projects I may be involved with.

If you gave to my appeal last year, thank you. If you would like to give again, thanks again. I’m self funding so donations go to helping refugees not me.

Chris’s story from last year

21st February:

Arrived in Kos 21st. £200 gone straight into buying food for 140 refugees who arrived in the two nights it was “safe” to cross to Kos. Weather bad. Since appeal began 3 weeks ago, refugees to Greece have doubled, fatalities up by 96 a third. Need immense. Donations will help.

26th February:

Handed over an AED defibrillator and batteries to Kos Solidarity. These inspiring and dedicated local people on Kos find refugees landing on their beaches. Some including kids, are very poorly. They provide dry clothes, support and no doubt some reassurance and hope that there is some humanity to be found. Thanks to aedlocator.org and you all who made this donation possible with your crowdfunding help. Still time to donate.

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29th February

The favoured mode of transport offered to refugees fleeing to Europe

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25 refugees had just landed on Kos after a long, cold night at sea. They were the last, of over 200 who had arrived in that 24 hrs. At 8am the morning before, I called my hotel to check out and go to nearby Leros. There I was told volunteers were much needed, refugee landings were in daily hundreds.
At 8.15 our first call to the port where 10 boys and men had been brought ashore by the Italian Coastguard boat. Off with dry clothes, shoes, food and water to distribute at the camp. A ferry to Leros would wait.


In the next 24 hours, 3 more boats and some 200 refugees would arrive: mothers with babies, young children, pregnant women, people on crutches and wheel chairs, old men from the east.


From the last grey beached whale of a boat at dawn, one father carried ashore a child in a blanket. Eyes closed. Cold clawed hands. No pulse to be found. No response. Then a rasping breath to my ear. Dad pointed to his own head. The boy, who he could have held in his arms since Syria or beyond, was, he reassured me, profoundly disabled. I hoped so. A call to MSF for a doctor to check at the UNHCR hotel. Another economic migrant?

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One day to go in our appeal. When we launched it 3 weeks ago, 54,00 refugees had made it across from Turkey to Greece by sea, 309 died on the way. UNHCR count 121,00 now and 410 fatalities. European governments have now abandoned Greece to contain and encamp people fleeing chaos and horrors. Local island communities and their Solidarity groups like on Kos and Leros where I am now, are showing super humanity. But like Pipka, the children and families camp I volunteer in now, they do so on a shoestring. Any donations made to this and subsequent appeals will provide lifesaving and care for the refugees and the groups who also care. Please help if you have not already given. You can also help if you have the time to volunteer, and by taking your holiday this year in the Greek Islands. The people need your support and have holiday business to keep going.

 

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2nd March
Across the bay from Lakki town, Leros, lies Lepida, a former long term psychiatric hospital of the old school. Now it is a ‘Hot Spot’, one of five the EU directed the Greek government to construct on the Aegean islands, to hold refugees. This was built to EU enforced deadlines and opened under military control last Friday.

Moored alongside sits a warship. Opened means the buildings and high fences are in place to contain 600 but without the necessary infrastructure to meet refugees’ basic needs. It already has some 400 refugees including women children and older people. Ferry tickets onward to Athens are being drastically cut back as Athens is overflowing. This morning I saw refugees in a race along the harbour as word spread the ticket office was open. Soon this camp and Leros will overflow as refugees keep coming.

On Monday evening, NGOs were called to the camp where the army asked them to provide food, rubbish bins and collection and other basic camp infrastructure at least for the next 4 days. The army still cannot provide it yet. Some NGOS such as MSF will not work at the camp under police or military control. Others find themselves under huge moral pressure to feed hungry refugees and supply basic products such as nappies and baby milk. Tonight, I passed through two sets of 15ft high fences equipped for razor wire to deliver and help serve out good food provided by Leros Solidarity, the local community group and two other small NGOs. The gates are locked and guarded by the army so refugees cannot get out to source their own food and medical products, unless their registration papers are through. Those from Pakistan or Africa will only get out to be deported, unless an asylum claim is successful. This is effectively a detention camp where those doing the detaining cannot feed and provide basic care to those they detain.

Earlier last week an experienced aid worker predicted to me the camps would open to meet the political imperatives but the infrastructure to make inmates lives tolerable would be at least two weeks away. He was right.

At the root of this is the EU forcing the Greeks to keep the refugees, to meet impossible deadlines and at the same time closing borders to the rest of Europe.

In the forthcoming referendum, the moral coward David Cameron wants us to endorse his ill gained and mean spirited curbs on refugees’ rights. He could have urged participation in a principled European project of peace and humanity, driving foward the values of solidarity, human rights, dignity and equality enshrined in the EU Constitution. Instead he is complicit in Fortress Europe. Is that the reason to vote yes?

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A Tale of Two Cariñenas

I should really start this wine recommendation, as indeed I should preface all my wine recommendations, with ‘I know what I like.’ In other words, I have no formal qualifications whatsoever as a wine expert. All I can claim is a limited and partial knowledge and interest in the topic, gleaned from years of highly motivated research.

Despite this, friends and colleagues, when we’re out somewhere serving the stuff, will almost invariably pass the wine list to me, saying, ‘Andrew, you know about wines, what do you think?’ What they really mean is, ‘Andrew, you seem to drink a lot of wine, so you should have it worked out by now, surely, ya lush?’

They may have a point on the quantity, although, dear reader, I’m not generally to be found on the floor of the bar at the end of the night grabbing at legs. Not these days anyway. I almost always drink responsibly (the Sambuca Shot Incident at Christmas being the exception that proves the rule) and so should you. Thing is, lightweight that I am, when I do drink anything at all I’ve found that wine, and red wine in particular, is the thing my system seems to tolerate best, particularly along with food.

Anyway, enough about me and on with the wine, I hear you say. Fair enough, dear reader, fair enough. Today’s lesson concerns a little-known wine region of Spain called Cariñena, which is geographically located a few miles south of the city of Zaragoza, and roughly half way on a line between Madrid and Barcelona. Baking hot in summer, freezing cold and harrowed by a wind called el cierzo in winter, the region is not without its challenges for its wine growers, even if it’s been cultivated here since Roman times.

However, despite its never having reached the upper echelons of La Liga in terms of Spanish wine regions, it’s one which I’ve always found, when it comes to supermarket reds, is a sure bet for a decent bargain. It’s a bit like a South African region called Robertson: although I know virtually nothing about South African wine regions, I know to grab a bottle from Robertson any time it appears because it’s always been a cracker.

So far as Cariñena is concerned, on the other hand, I know a wee bit more from my travels in Spain: that corner is between the big producing regions of Rioja and Catalunya, and like its neighbours, Campo de Borja and Calatayud, is a bit undervalued as a result. It’s not sexy like other northern areas like (especially) Ribera del Duero, and it’s not even got the industrial scale that other lesser regions like Castilla-La Mancha have.

So, when I saw a couple of bottles in Asda from the Cariñena region the other week, I reckoned they were both worth a go. They were Casa Luis Reserva, 2012 (currently reduced from £5.50 to a fiver) and Extra Special Old Vine Garnacha, 2015, reduced from a fiver to a mere £4.25. Here’s what they look like:

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Now, my finely honed drinking instincts told me the Casa Luis would be the better drop of the two. The gold string’s by no means a guarantee of quality, but the fact it was a reserva (the categories of ageing and length of relationship with the oak barrel in Spanish wine being tinto, crianza, reserva, gran reserva) suggested someone, somewhere in the winery had reckoned this one was worth the investment of time that the status requires.

However, on opening the bottle initial signs were not so encouraging: the cork crumbled half way up and I needed to execute a delicate piece of surgery with the old sacacorchos to retrieve the bottom half. On inspection, the business end of the cork didn’t appear discoloured and didn’t give off any indications of the wine being corked (I’ve read that the red end of the cork should either smell of cork, or of wine, and if it smells of anything else, it’s corked). However, I still wonder if that was the problem with this particular bottle, because very disappointingly, it was undrinkable and had to be used up in my Southern French Chicken recipe.

The only problem with the Garnacha was rather more self inflicted as, somehow, the first bottle of it managed to knock itself off its coaster and only an act of couch-borne athleticism unparalleled in Olympic history on my part managed to save some of the contents from emptying themselves onto the living room floor. As it was, there was only a limited sample left for research without getting down on my knees and sucking it out of the carpet fibres, and even I have my standards.

Fortunately, other bottles were also available from the same retailer and I can confirm that it is, in fact, a belter. The label chunters on about 45-year old Garnacha vines: for those of you interested, I do have it on good authority from Bosi, my charming guide round the fantastic Cambrico winery I posted about last year, that old vines of that kind of age produce less grapes, but much more concentrated flavours: the balance for the winemaker, of course, is between volume and quality.

For those of you less bothered with specifics, fill your boots! This is a big, bouncy, fruity red that’s good with pasta dishes, spanish tortilla, and, I’d imagine, the usual red wine staples of red meat and strong cheeses. It’s a ridiculous price for wine of this quality.

Not so good as a carpet cleaner, but, well, that’s not what it’s for, is it?

Brutal News

I’m delighted to announce that the first Isaac Brutal album to feature yours truly, Trailer Trash Apocalypse, is now available on Bandcamp. That noodling on the keyboard going on in the background? The occasional random stabs of piano, and that harmonica? Yep. For reasons that will become clearer in my next post, I’m particularly chuffed to be cast as a keyboard player of some sort. Fortunately, those ‘skills’ of mine aren’t likely to be tested in the battle conditions of a gig any time soon, as I get to retreat behind a guitar (with occasional harmonica) in the current live set.

My personal favourite of TTA, btw, is 4th of July.

Speaking of gigs, there’s a support slot for the Véloniños coming up on 4th March – FB event is here. Really looking forward to this, not just because the set features two of my songs, but mainly because things are sounding absolutely excellent in rehearsal. I’ve never played a gig at the Leith Depot before, but it looks good. Pictures, at least, will follow…

Meantime, work continues on the next Brutal album, which I dare to say is going to be awesome!

Death of a Blind Poet

To, somewhat counter-intuitively, the Monkey Barrel in Blair Street for the last ever session of Blind Poetics on Monday, the hallowed Edinburgh pub of the same name having closed for a refurb. Said closure had coincided with Alec Beattie, one of the regular spoken word night’s organisers, moving to darkest Renfrewshire, with his partner in crime, Roddy Shippin, possibly moving to London (but not having told his Mum first, we learned).

It’s a shame to see an institution like Blind Poetics go. The Blind Poet itself will no doubt reopen in due course, scrubbed up or vintagely distressed, as the fashion dictates, with foams of this and emulsions of that served on lumps of slate by bearded hipsters of both sexes, I shouldn’t wonder; but spoken word in all its multifarious forms will no longer be declaimed there.

Coupled with the end of some other regular spoken word nights like Rally and Broad recently, and the relative dormancy of groups like Writers’ Bloc, I did wonder if there was something of a trend emerging here. However, Inky Fingers, a relative newcomer to the Edinburgh scene, is to take up a residency at the Monkey Barrel, so not all is lost.

I do hope that whoever carries the torch onwards keeps the idea of open mic going, and doesn’t just cater to the star performers. Monday night’s offering was the usual eclectic mix of intense, passionate poetry, not a little of raging against the Trump regime, (step forward Janet Crawford) and some stuff that was, well, plain daft. Whilst there was a lot of fine stuff on offer in the first third, one of my favourites was a poem about sweating.

There was also though a fair amount of the intense stuff, generally by people young enough to be my offspring; another first third highlight for me was a poem by a woman who had had the sense to bring along her poetry collection to sell on the night. I couldn’t even tell you now what it was about: but it was good, I remember, and well delivered, which is half the battle.

Which brings me to my own contribution. I was first up after the break in the second third; I had wanted to turn up and do something new, but, significantly, my time had been taken up recording guitars and vocals with the esteemed Isaac Brutal at the weekend, and my idea to update and tartanise Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ as a spoken word rap was still lying, half finished, on the desk by Monday afternoon.

Running out of time, I planned to ransack my folder of tried and tested spoken word pieces and find something to fit the show’s tight three-minute limit. The folder had gone missing in action, a victim of one of my cupboard tidying purges of the past few months. Again, significantly, all I could find were song lyrics in various stages of completion.

Things began to crystallise for me. I decided that the death of Blind Poetics should also be the death of my spoken word career; or at least spoken word without music. I suppose I might make a comeback if the current Writers’ Bloc renaissance continues, and they’re really stuck, but until then, I told the audience, guitar playing was the way forward for me. They feigned polite interest.

What I ended up performing was a much edited down version of a writing project I’d done an itchy seven years before: 50 first lines, which I’d put up and asked people to vote which one they’d like me to write. I don’t know if anyone ever did express an opinion, but in any event, I think I’d attempted about three of them over the next few years. What I’d never done was use them as a performance piece.

It was pretty weak material, so it was all about the spiel; as I stumbled over the first few words of the first first line, Roddy served up a juicy half volley for me about not being able to get the word ‘conservative’ out and I was away. I reminded myself as I went along that this was my default performance style: stumbling, bumbling, self-deprecating, and getting the best laughs from the mistakes and digressions.

Although there were a few more seasoned performers like me in the second third like Rose Fraser Ritchie, I did feel a sense that it was a good time to retire. There were a lot of youngsters out there. I told the audience they were welcome to take any of the first lines they wanted and craft the killer story I never had, but I don’t expect any of them will.

In the end of the day though, if I wanted the young turks, as I called them, to take anything away from my performance, it was that as long as you spout a lot of inconsequential crap with confidence, riding the mistakes and surfing the laughs – intended or unintended – as they roll in from the audience, it’s the performance people will remember, not necessarily the killer lines. Although that would be a bonus.

Thanks to Alec and Roddy for Blind Poetics: I came to it relatively late in the day, but the few I did attend were great nights. You brought a lot of new people on, and also gave a safe space to old salts like me who wanted to try out something new. Good luck with whatever you do, guys.

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The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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