andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: January 2017

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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The Cottar House, Alburne Park- should it be demolished?

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This isn’t the usual type of post I put up on this blog. However, as this is a local Glenrothes issue which virtually no one seems to know about, I’ve decided to publicise it.

Glenrothes Art Club moved into its existing building, known as The Cottar House, some time in the late 1950s. The Art Club’s website tells us that this property was part of a set of farm buildings known as Woolmill Farm, which were scheduled for demolition. With the help of the two local authorities at the time, Glenrothes Development Corporation and Glenrothes District Council, the Cottar House, and an attached outbuilding known as the Coach House, were saved from demolition along with the rest of the farm, and the Art Club’s been in occupation ever since.

The Club took full ownership of the property from the Corporation when the latter was wound up in 1995/6 (incidentally, my memory of how that came about is slightly different from the Club’s version, which implies that it was all the Club’s doing, rather than part of an overall plan on the part of the Corporation to pass its community assets where possible into community hands, subject to appropriate claw back provisions, of which more later).

In any event, the Club now propose to sell the site and have lodged an application for planning permission for ‘up to three’ dwellinghouses on the current site of the Cottar House and its grounds, with the report to Fife Council’s Central Planning Committee making it clear that the intention is to demolish the existing building. In this blog piece, I want to set out the pros and cons of the proposals as fairly as possible, and then let others decide if they want to take things further.

I do, however, intend to write to Historic Environment Scotland to ask if they want to inspect the building with a view to it being listed under the relevant legislation.

The Art Club and the need for funds

Again from its website, the Art Club make it clear that maintaining the building over the years has been a struggle – and that much of their own funds and efforts have gone towards that. At one point, around 1998, they say they did apply for Lottery funding to upgrade the building but were unsuccessful.

It’s clear that the application to have the site cleared and redeveloped with three modern dwellings is designed to maximise a capital receipt for the Club. This is, I understand, to allow them to move to more suitable premises elsewhere in the town.

All of that sounds absolutely fair enough. And yet, and yet…

I should make clear my interest here. I grew up in Orchard Drive, just across the road from the Art Club. My late father, Keith Ferguson, was worked for the Corporation at the time, and could probably lay claim to being the town’s historian, having written three books about the place (other books on Glenrothes by other writers are also available). The whole Alburne Park area was a great little community, with a lot of Corporation officials living there – including Mr Coghill, one of the Art Club’s founder members, whose family we knew well.

The Art Club itself I remember as a thriving place – I have vague memories of us neighbourhood kids putting on some sort of play in it at one point. Alburne Park still has a special character: a lot of the officials bought plots of land off the Corporation – my Dad included – and built their own houses on them. They’d probably never be allowed to do that these days, of course, but the whole point was that the senior officials were obliged as part of their employment to actually live in the town, and get involved in forming clubs and societies such as the Art Club, building that sense of community. And yes, they did pay the market rate for the land.

The legacy of all of that is, if you want to see some good examples of Sixties architecture, drive round Alburne Park, Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive. There’s even a house on stilts!

More than that, though, the Corporation was keen to preserve some of the character of the area from previous times. The road that runs through it was, historically, the main road to Cupar; although Thomas Alburne’s house, the 17th century Alburne Knowe, was demolished, the Corporation preserved some cottages thought to date from the same period and converted them into ‘Beechgrove,’ a very attractive property on the left hand side of the road going down. Across the road from it, and just down from the Art Club building, is the former Paper Mill manager’s house, ‘Levenbank,’ which is a B Listed building.

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‘Levenbank,’ and, in the second picture, ‘Beechgrove.’ Particularly unsympathetic signage for the gym.

In other words, that whole corner of the road is a collection of some of the few pre-1948 buildings left in Glenrothes. The Cottar House, like ‘Beechgrove,’ was deliberately retained when the rest of the area was cleared for redevelopment (there are also some older buildings housing Balbirnie gym etc. down the Woolmill Brae, but I wouldn’t pretend they’re of much architectural merit). I totally understand if the Art Club feels the premises are no longer fit for purpose and want to move elsewhere. But I can’t help a feeling that something’s not right about the proposed demolition of the Cottar House.

Apart from anything else, the building has benefited from public money over the years to keep it maintained. I’ve no doubt the Club have done their best to keep it going, and it may be it’s beyond repair. But has that really been fully explored? And if it’s a building worth keeping, are there not other ways of its useful life being extended?

I mentioned above that the current proposal to demolish, clear the site and build three modern houses will maximise the capital receipt for the Club. However, that’s not the only option. There is room at the back for a modern house to be built, in a sympathetic design, without demolishing the Cottar House. It’s quite common in other areas for money from modern housing to be ploughed back into bringing older buildings back into habitable states: it’s called an ‘enabling development.’ That could, conceivably, allow conversion of the building back to a dwellinghouse. The whole package would be less lucrative than the wholesale demolition and new build option, of course.

However, the whole idea of the Art Club getting the property at a nominal sum back in 1996 (and renting it for next to nothing before then) was that it would be used for a community purpose. There’s a claw back option in the title deeds which, I think, provides that, in the event of the Art Club no longer using it, it’s to be offered back to the Corporation’s successors (now Fife Council). If the titles don’t say that, they will at least provide for the Council to share in the proceeds of sale.

In either event, is it fair that the building, which has been kept afloat for sixty years with public money, can now simply be used as a bargaining chip for a private club? That’s one way of looking at it, I think.

The Planning Application

Turning to the planning application itself, this can be viewed along with the objections and other correspondence on Fife’s excellent planning portal here. The report by Fife’s planning department (which can be viewed here) is due for consideration by Fife Council’s Central Area Planning Committee on Wednesday, 11th January in Fife House at 2.00 p.m. It’s a public meeting, although members of the public aren’t allowed to speak at it.

In line with the legal requirements, the immediate neighbours – including the clubs down the Woolmill Brae – have been notified, a total of 10 notifications. 7 out of 10 have objected, which is why what’s called a ‘local development’ such as this has to be taken to committee, rather than being decided by planning officers.

Again, I have to declare an interest here – my day job involves managing the Council’s committees. As soon as I realised what was proposed here, and that I had conflicted – to say the least – feelings about it, I decided to arrange cover for my part of the committee clerking role so that there could be no suggestion that I had used my position to influence any decision on the application. However, should others wish to do so, the members of the Committee are set out here, and can be contacted via that link.

My planning colleague’s professional recommendation is for approval. I am not a planner, and I respect that a recommendation has to be made one way or another. However, any planning report will summarise the issues, and some of these issues are often a judgement call – in other words, others may properly take a different view from the professional recommendation. Points of interest may include:

Policies E2 and E4 of the Adopted Local Plan (para 2.4 of the report)

These policies state, amongst other things, that proposals should be ‘compatible with their surrounds in terms of land-use and relationships to existing dwellings.’ The professional recommendation is that the proposals would be compatible.

It’s notable that the photos that form part of the applicant’s agent’s supporting statement show either the Cottar House itself, or the 50s/60s housing on Alburne Crescent. There’s no photo that shows how the Cottar House forms part of a group of older buildings at the head of the Brae. Indeed, the supporting statement only goes as far as saying (at 4.9) that the development can go ahead ‘without compromising the amenity enjoyed by existing houses in Alburne Crescent.’ Maybe that’s true. But what about Beechgrove, and Levenbank?

Policy T1 – Road Safety (para 2.6 of the report)

There is evidence that the development will increase peak time traffic trips – the Club at the moment mainly uses the property during off peak times. This has led the Council’s Transportation Development Management Team to express concerns. Mitigation measures proposed consist of clearing away shrubs that are on Fife Council land. The planner’s report says at 2.6.4 that the Council’s Estates team have confirmed they’re willing to discuss the sale of the land. Does this not mean, however, that as things stand, the applicant doesn’t have sufficient control of the land needed to implement the development?

Policy B2 – Protecting Existing Employment/Tourism/Local Community Facilities (para 2.2.5 of the report)

This policy (and its replacement policy 3 under FifePlan, awaiting final confirmation) presume against the loss of facilities that serve a valuable employment, tourism, and/or local community purpose. Evidence has to be shown that

a) the existing business is not viable;

b) the existing building cannot be reused for its existing purpose or redeveloped for a similar community or tourism purpose; and

c) that equivalent alternative facilities exist for this site elsewhere in the local community.

Policy 3, the replacement policy, also requires evidence of marketing for at least 18 months.

The supporting statement, submitted by the applicant’s agent, is, I feel, somewhat light on the details as regards that evidence. Specifically, I don’t see any evidence that the Club couldn’t raise funds to repair the building, although it’s admittedly clear from their last accounts that they don’t have a huge war chest of their own money to carry out renovations. Part of the reason for that is that, quite admirably, they’ve kept their subs low historically so that people on a lower income can join.

However, they do have (or did in February last year) some £11,500 in their balances. Could some at least of that not be used to match fund repairs and renovations?

Similarly, there’s no detail on what repairs are needed. A new roof? More than that?

There’s nothing to indicate if evidence of any marketing, or of any attempt to establish if another community body would want to take the property over, has been produced.

Conclusions

I write all of this with genuine conflict in my heart about whether to get involved here. I’ve tried to set out, as honestly as possible, my motivations. Just for the sake of full disclosure, my parents in law still live at the far end of Alburne Crescent, but I don’t think for an instant a new development like the one proposed would have an effect on property values in the area.

I fully understand the Art Club’s desire to move on and get better premises. I just don’t think, in all the circumstances, they should be allowed to oversee the demolition of one of the few remaining buildings of any type of historic character in Glenrothes. I sincerely hope that a solution can be reached which allows the Art Club – in itself one of the oldest, if not the oldest, community clubs in the town – to realise its ambitions; and for the Cottar House to continue on, either as a community facility or as a private dwellinghouse.

Please feel free to comment on this, and/or share with others who have an interest in Glenrothes.