andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: March 2017

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

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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:

Image may contain: 1 person, glasses

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.