writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: August 2013

Markheim’s Last Words

Time, as Robert Louis Stevenson says in Markheim, has become instant and momentous, and I’ve run out of it to put the final cut of my audio version up today. RLS is up there somewhere laughing at me, fag in hand: to do the story justice, sound-effect wise, is a massive job, given the amount of aural cues he scattered through the text. I’ve made a start, having downloaded twenty or so sounds so far, and recorded a few of my own, but it’ll take a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I had hoped to at least put up the unfurnished version. Unfortunately, that was so massive it was going to take about forever to upload, so it’ll go up another day.

However, I have managed to upload the final version of Hyde’s Last Words, my own take on what Dr Jekyll’s dark side might have to say for himself. Utterson, Lanyon, and Jekyll himself get to add their voices to Stevenson’s multi-layered narrative: why not Eddy?


No self-imposed pressure then!

Just two days left for me to finalise both Markheim and Hyde’s Last Words, two audio files that I promised to let loose on the unsuspecting world on August 28th (for no better reason than it’s divisible by 14). The latter, being my own work, is just about there – I faffed about yesterday adding a bit of guitar to the end of it, inevitably getting a (very short) lead part down first take, and then agonising over the simplest rhythm part you will ever have heard. Subject to that being fixed out, it’s done.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Markheim is a bit trickier. Firstly, it’s quite long. Secondly, it’s set in London, so I have the choice of either going for the accent, or, er, not. Mind you, I did hear once that the morningside accent we hear nowadays is the product of nineteenth century Scots trying to ape their posh London counterparts, so maybe it should all be a bit Miss Jean Brodie.

Thirdly, though, there are the sound effects. Boy, are there sound effects you could put in Markheim: RLS uses the background noises in the shop after the murder extensively, and just how much I follow that will be partly down to how much time I have. I might even just put up a beta version on Wednesday, but I’d rather it was the final one.

Either way, it’ll be mid evening at the earliest I suspect. In the meantime, the links above will take you to the trailer versions.

Book Festival Review: Oliver James: Is the Office a Malicious Place? Jesse Norman: Edmund Burke: A Hero of our Time? Sunday, 11th August

I met Nick Barley, the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on Wednesday when he came to the Unbound event, sat down at our table, and helped himself to our free wine (okay, I’ll be honest: no, I didn’t know who he was, but he seemed a cool enough kind of dude, so I didn’t wrestle the bottle out of his hands).

Anyway, I was kind of in the zone for performing that night, and when I encountered him briefly in the Authors’ Toilet on Friday (mind out of the gutter there at the back, boy!) he was in the zone for something he was going to go off to do, so our exchanges were pretty brief and inconsequential. I guess as Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival he has a lot of these, in between the long and consequential ones.

Had he had limitless time and inclination to listen to my views, as a punter, of the whole great four week frolic that he puts on every year with some help and no little aplomb, I would have probably said something like: well done buddy; keep going; and don’t forget that sometimes people go to events as an excuse to have lunch.

For so it is with this reviewer and his father-in-law, the latter an eminent man in the medical field, who formerly edited the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. In the intersecting part of the Venn Diagram of our interests, there are a number of intellectual, linguistic, and other topics, but appreciating good food and wine is slap bang in the middle.

So, each year, subject to website crashes and immediate selling out of tickets, we trawl the EIBF website for a couple of weekend events, if possible, either side of a leisurely lunch hour or two. This year we’d managed to get tickets for Oliver James (my choice, although not first choice) and Jesse Norman (his). With the first starting at 10.30 and the second at half past four, there was time for an extended exploration of the tapas menu as well as the carta de vinos at Cafe Andaluz.

First, though, there was Oliver James, a writer in the popular psychology field, pushing a book about office politics. James is clearly used to public speaking, and made a fair go of filling 45 minutes or so with his slightly rambling, and quite amusing, reflections on the whole issue. He was probably at his best when describing the ‘triad’ of personality traits of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism, which, basically, if you encounter all in the one colleague, is a signal to put as much organisational space between you and him/her as you possibly can. Especially if they’re your boss.

The statistic that people on the psychopathic scale make up 1% of the population at large, but 4% of chief executives, attracted the kind of laughter of recognition you might expect: as my father-in-law commented, the audience was considerably younger than some EIBF events, and those of working age predominated.

However, as we headed to lunch we both agreed a few more pieces of hard data like that might have helped James sell the book at bit more to us. At times his talk seemed to be a portmanteau of his opinions, and whilst it’s harder to back stuff up in a softer science like psychology, his assertion that someone in the Secret Service had told him Tony Blair knew there were no weapons of mass destruction when he made his famous speech, sounded a bit like the kind of thing you pick up from the bloke in the pub who’s been something at that Victoria Quay.

Jesse Norman might have faced an uphill struggle in the afternoon. Not so much the fact that here was an English Conservative MP up to lecture Scots on an Enlightenment figure who has traditionally been seen as a Liberal, as the fact that your reviewer had by then sampled some excellent crianza-level Rioja along with the usual excellent standard fare at Cafe Andaluz. Concentration levels, never at their highest in late afternoon, were not exactly going to be buoyant.

However, Norman was absolutely excellent. His depiction of Burke as a far-sighted statesman in a time of political ferment, sparring with Fox, Pitt the Elder and, ultimately, George III himself, was entertaining and well thought through. Your reviewer went from a position of virtually no knowledge at all of Burke to at least having an inkling of his role in the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the London literary scene of the late eighteenth century.

Perhaps the most interesting of Burke’s many political battles was his impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor of the East India Company. The Company was essentially all-powerful in India, and Burke’s objective was to curtail that power and stop the abuses and injustices against the Indian people; the impeachment charge failed, but it was a powerful indictment in the public arena of the misuse of corporate power: something that clearly resonates in a few areas today.

Norman was clearly a master of his subject, and good at answering what were actually quite detailed and intelligent questions from the audience at the end. He possibly over egged it a bit when praising the Scottish education system compared with that in England, but, hey, he was doing his best to charm us.



Tubular Bells ‘For Two’: A Review

A recent BBC programme on the era of the album (that brief period between the end of the Sixties, and the rise of the CD in the early Eighties, when a big round chunk of vinyl that played at thirty-three and a third rpm was where it was at, man) inspired me to buy three albums from that era (on CD, ironically – don’t have a turntable any more).

The three albums were Dark Side of the Moon, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Tubular Bells. I had owned scratchy cassette copies (remember that Home Taping is Killing Music campaign?) of the first two; I don’t think I’d had a copy of Tubular Bells. I remembered – or thought I remembered – it, though that may have been as much from repeated viewings of the Exorcist, which used the opening theme in its soundtrack, as hearing the album itself.

By the time I was a student, in the first half of the Eighties, Mike Oldfield’s masterwork was kind of out of fashion; unless you wanted to be labelled a hippy, you renounced the concept album and all its ministers as the old religion, which punk had swept away with a presbyterian vigour, and no little thrashing of guitars.

Still, and all, the BBC programme retold the story of Oldfield, the tortured genius who carried around a world-changing album in his head while struggling to make any impression on a single record company before chancing upon Richard Branson and recording the whole thing himself at Manor Recording Studios. Like, the whole thing. Himself. Or pretty much all of it.

To any musician, this is a deeply romantic tale. Firstly, just having the talent to play all the instruments yourself – legend has it that Oldfield learnt bass guitar on the way to (successfully) audition for Kevin Ayres and the Whole World as, er, a bass guitar player. Secondly, frankly (and here I honourably exclude my current musical collaborators Kelly Brooks, Mark Allan and Kenny Mackay) the idea of getting to do exactly whatever the hell you want without having to negotiate with the lead guitarist/bass player/keyboardist/drummer/tubular bellist on what bit they get to play.

Here, though, was part of the problem. I was carried away by the romance of the album’s story. When I listened to it again, there were bits that, to be honest, I wasn’t so keen on. There was the posh bloke introducing the instruments, in a way that sounded a bit Pythonesque, and dated, to me now. Then there was the proto-death-metal Piltdown Man sequence, with Oldfield growling randomly (apparently done to annoy Richard Branson, so not all bad).

However, I was intrigued by the concept of two guys on guitars trying to recreate the entire album live. Would it work? Would the majesty of the original music hit home to me? Alternatively, would it be a comedy show?

Ten minutes in and the signs weren’t promising. I wasn’t being transported. You may know the feeling: the guy in the seat behind you is breathing too hard, the guy in the seat in front has a head big enough to create its own system of orbital moons, you haven’t sorted out tomorrow’s shopping list, you’re anxious your 14-year old daughter is bored by all this old stuff. You may even have, as I do, an inner muso.

The two musicians – Aidan Roberts and Daniel Holdsworth – could certainly play. A music-shopful of guitars, keyboards, looper and effects pedals, and, of course, the bells, created a jungle of instruments they swung around on expertly, recreating the original sound of the album. But. The inner muso in me had surfaced, and was conducting an inner running commentary (Ooh look, it’s a Gibson J-200! Did he just play that keyboard bit, or is that still looping? How much is the sound guy doing for them?).

Then, gradually, that changed, and I stopped bothering about the how, and started feeling the wow. I think it changed for good towards the end of the first half, when Roberts put on the Vivian Stanshall voice from the record to introduce each instrument as either he or Holdsworth picked it up to play the ongoing theme. As they’d said in the programme, they deliberately avoided any comic mugging, but their sheer virtuosity with piano, keyboard, acoustic and electric guitars, glockenspiel, mandolin, and, of course, those damn bells, coupled with the physical theatre of them switching between them all in time to hit the musical cues, made a smile spread across the entire audience.

What was evident as the second half progressed, was how much these guys really loved the music. And in their hands, the music, which can perhaps sound a little sterile on a CD, (maybe because it’s a CD) came alive, breathed, took wings, and showed its true colours. Inevitably there were one or two – not bum, but less than perfectly struck – notes, but that just added to the feeling that here was Tubular Bells red in tooth and claw, a great organic beast of a piece of music, and sounding possibly as close as it could to how it sounded inside Mike Oldfield’s head the very first time. Even the growly bit was great.

Go to see this show. Even if you’re not fussed for Tubular Bells, or have never heard it. In fact, especially if you’ve never heard it. My 14-year-old loved it.

Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells ‘For Two,’ 8 – 26 August, Cowbarn, Udderbelly, 17.45