andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: August 2017

Beginnings: the bus to Burgos and other false starts

It was the dilemma every parent of a young child comes to face, sooner or later: whether or not to drug the little blighter into a stupor, just to get some peace and quiet for a while.

Now, before you reach for the nearest mobile device to contact the authorities, context is everything. Malaga airport was closing in on thirty degrees; we were waiting to board a four-hour flight with the then 18 month old Daughter and Heiress; and the drug of choice was the children’s medicine, Calpol ©.

Every parent who’s been on a plane with an eighteen-month old, or just been a fellow passenger, knows the score. Even the sweetest natured of them (children, I mean, not the fellow passengers, who even if fellow parents, are not generally inclined to empathy) struggle with the hostile environment of an Easyjet flight sat on their mother’s knee for what is then a significant proportion of their lifetime, with the scant distraction of a colouring book and Henderson, the weirdly-coloured bear-type creature they were handed 18 months ago.

Even the most sweet-natured of them (and Daughter and Heiress was, even allowing for parental bias, up there with the best) can get more than a little restive. And whilst a 6 month old infant may have limited options beyond a bit of wailing, at 18 months, kicking, biting and flailing wildly, whilst not strictly in the Queensberry rules, tend to come into play.

So yes, we did. We decided Diddums was developing an ickle sniffle, and we dosed her up good with Calpol ©. Whereupon she slept the sleep of the just for the entire flight and we – not to mention the surrounding passengers within wild flailing distance – breathed a sigh of relief. Good shit, Calpol ©. Although I understand they’ve watered the sleep-inducing elements of it down now, presumably in response to one too many war stories like this from the parental front line.

To be fair, it was the only time we ever did that, and it hadn’t been a great holiday. We had taken a package deal to Nerja, on the Costa del Sol, and the Redoubtable Mrs F had been unwell for most of it, so a decent amount of the week had been spent staring at the unremarkable walls of our holiday apartment.

Any time we had outside had confirmed what we’d expected of Nerja: it was perfectly set up for tourists, especially British and German ones. And for that reason, wasn’t our cup of Sangría at all.

Now then. Let’s clear this up right at the get go. If you go to the Costas every year, stay in the same hotel, like to spend half your time on the beach or the pool, and the other half deciding between the place with its menu in photographs or the Irish bar run by that lovely couple from Essex, good luck to you.

Seriously. Please, please don’t think that, because our family have moved away now from such a holiday, that I’m looking down on it, or pretending that we’re in some way more … authentic or something for going the other way.

I mean, I have at times on our travels wished for the simplicity of a holiday like that. First of all, it’s a package, right? So you know pretty much what it’s going to cost you, and even if you do it yourself over the internet these days, you’re basically a few clicks away from having your holiday organised. A bus collects you at the airport, whisks you off to your resort, and you’re sorted for the next seven or fourteen days. If you have any problems, there’s usually an English-speaking rep there to sort things for you.

And don’t get me wrong. We’ve been holidays like that before, to Crete, Cyprus, Corsica, even Tenerife. A lot to be said for them. A lot. Not for you the long march from a railway station on the edge of an unfamiliar town at stupid o’clock in the rain, with a rucksack the size of a light goods vehicle on your back, playing chicken on the pedestrian crossings, where the motorists treat the green man as for guidance only; not for you the back street hostal in what turns out to be the red light district, where the only additional facilities consist of a pubic hair in the bath and a partition wall so thin it vibrates with the guy next door’s snoring.

Not for us, either, that last bit, if we can help it (and as we’ll see, the Spanish insistence on cleanliness amounts to near-obsessive levels of bleach usage, so the pubic hair bit is unlikely). But often, there’s only a hazy internet image and your gut instinct between you and a, shall we say, less than perfect accommodation experience. We’ll deal with the French teenagers later. Severely.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, in Malaga airport, drugging a small child. To be honest, though, our desire to see the best of Spain reached back further, before Daughter and Heiress came along, at the bottom of a bottle of cheap Asda wine.

Or, even before that, with a trip round south-western France.

* * * *

‘We should go there,’ I announced, with possibly more emphasis than was needed, examining the label. ‘If it produces wine as good as this, it must be worth a visit.’

The wine in question was called Léon, and retailed at the time at around £3.99. It was one of the first cheap Spanish wines we’d tried, and it knocked, to our taste, French wines twice the price into a cocked hat. Léon, the label taught me, was in northern Spain, not far from Rioja, where the pricey Spanish stuff came from.

Believe me, we’d given the French equivalent a proper go by then. Brought up in Franco-phone and -phile households, we’d been to France several times, most recently when, in a break from the package holiday, we’d gone to south-western France, to places like Carcasonne, and Rocamadour, living on our wits, our (then reasonably up to date) French, and the Logis guide to get between places and find a bed for the night. It had been fun, but the food and wine, for all the French made such a big thing of it, was a bit, well, ordinaire, to our way of thinking.

And now here was this bottle of cheap Spanish plonk, calling to us.

Fortunately, I had a plan. The Fife town of Dunfermline, where I worked at the time, had a town twinning arrangement with Logroño, the capital of Rioja. Using my contacts, and the services of the ultra-resourceful Brenda, of the now long-gone travel agents AT Mays, we arranged a trip there.

This was before the days of the internet, mind, so we had to rely on Brenda’s skill with that weird proto-internet system that travel agents used in those times (and possibly even still use); it seemed, back then, as if travel agents, for all their polyester uniforms and plastic badges, had access to their own form of witchcraft, scrying for flight reservations and hotel availability through a screen you never got to see but which, it appeared, they could commune with, and by muttering some occult words of the Old Tongue, book stuff through.

At that stage my Spanish was pretty much non-existent. However, my contacts in the town twinning association assured me that everyone under thirty in Spain spoke English, and everyone over thirty had been taught French at school. Suitably emboldened, we set off for Bilbao.

That first trip to Spain away from the tourist areas taught us many things, which are probably worth listing:

  1. Outwith the tourist areas, very little English is spoken.

 

  1. No one, over or under thirty, speaks French. At all. Ever. Why would they?

 

  1. There is no direct bus link from Logroño to Léon. Or there wasn’t then. Or if there was, it was beyond us to find it.

 

  1. Spanish food and wine, even more so in its country of origin, is the stuff for us.

 

  1. In Rioja, they’re very proud of their asparagus.

 

  1. In Spain, you can eat your dinner as early as 9 at night, if you don’t mind an empty restaurant, with only a curious waiter for company, staring at you from the kitchen doorway as he draws on his fag (things have changed now, of course).

 

  1. The Spanish are, almost without exception, kind and solicitous for daft foreigners’ welfare, and will cross the street to help you if you stand and look glaikit for long enough. They also give you major brownie points for any attempt to speak their language.

 

  1. Just don’t get into a chilli eating and whisky drinking contest with them. It’ll end messily.

 

We learned this last vital piece of information courtesy of a friend of Rufino and Asun. We’d been put in touch with them through the town twinning association, and they were our patient, English-speaking guides for that first initiation into Spanish gastronomy. We came to learn that when they said they’d meet us at twelve, they meant twelve midnight, which was when an evening of tapeando might begin, at least for young, childless couples. Over the course of a few days, we realised that, although Spain is only an hour ahead of Scotland, the bodyclock needs to shift through any number of gears to keep pace with the Spanish lifestyle. (See separate blog on a brief history of Spanish time).

Away from Rufino and Asun’s assistance, however, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land. The food, though fantastic, was served via incomprehensible menus, with phrasebook lists unable to keep pace with the chefs’ creativity. The driving seemed maniacal, so there was no question of hiring a car – a decision we’ve stuck to ever since.

There was, at the time, no central bus station in Logroño, so when we decided to take a bus to Burgos (since there appeared not to be one to Léon, where the Asda wine came from) we had to queue in a side street at the bus garage, shaking our head at the neighbourhood beggar. Here was another culture shock – most of the queue actually gave the beggar money!

The bus to Burgos was a tense affair, mainly because the driver had thoughtlessly failed to learn any of the stock answers in the phrase book. Once there, we wandered half-heartedly round the cathedral, wondering where our next square meal was coming from, and when we’d have to start queuing for the bus back.

Nevertheless, that first trip to Logroño lit a fire under us even more than Asda’s wine department had. With the help of our Spanish friends, we’d been introduced to a whole different lifestyle, culture, and gastronomy. Tapas is common currency now in the UK – you can even see Indian, or Italian, restaurants, using that word now – but back twenty or so years ago, it wasn’t. Spain was emerging from the bleakness of the Franco era with a new self-confidence about its culture, but we Brits had been fed (literally) French and Italian propaganda for so long about their culture being the bee’s knees, we were slow to catch onto the Iberian equivalent.

That subsequent trip to Nerja underlined that there were two Spains: the egg-and-chips, high-rise, donkey-and-sombrero Costas, and the other Spain, the ‘real’ one, that you needed a bit of Spanish to unlock for yourself.

After twenty years of travelling in Spain, we still hadn’t been to Léon to track that mythical bottle of Asda wine down. However, in the meantime, we had been to, in no particular order: Logroño, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Zamora, Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Burgos (on the bus), Cuenca, Valencia, Alicante, Cordoba, Toledo, Merida, Seville, Granada, Manzanares, Almagro, Valladolid, Malaga and Úbeda.

We’ve got about by plane, train, bus and taxi (of the licensed and unlicensed variety). We have, if you haven’t guessed already, totally fallen for this bewitching country. If I can, with a little help from my fellow travellers, impart just a bit of the fun we’ve had along the way, then job done.

But let’s start with that lingo of theirs…

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Don’t be a mug – get a mug!

I’ll do anything to get you to buy my crime caper novel, The Wrong Box. Book groups, weddings, bar mitzvahs – just let me know and I’ll come and do a reading.

In the meantime, I’m appearing at the Byres Road Book Festival, Glasgow on 21st September with my Thunderpoint stablemates Margot McCuaig and Kevin Scott. To celebrate, I’m offering a never to be repeated offer (well, not for a bit, anyway): review the novel on your blog, on Amazon, or via social media, by 22nd September, and I’ll put you in a draw to win an exclusive mug with the iconic cover image on it  – which will look quite a lot like the picture below.

If you’ve already done a review and I know about it, I’ll put you in the draw automatically. I’ll post the winner the mug as soon as possible after the draw, wherever you are!

Incidentally, if you want the kettle too, you can have it. It’s sprung a leak…

New Collaborations

I written before about creative collaborations, and how, basically, I’m a bit of a slut when it comes to them. I’ve never really seen writing or making music as a solo activity – especially the latter; and some of the things I’m proudest of in my output have happened that way: for example, the poetry pamphlet I did with Jane McKie, Head to Head, back in 2008.

Now I’m pretty much set on a musical journey (apart, perhaps, from more novels and a travel book) collaboration comes more naturally. Playing in bands kind of means you have to work as part of a team, and I never weary of hearing any song – but especially one of my own – tried out for the first time, and, sometimes on the first, the second, or maybe the third run through, something clicks, you reach the end, and you look at each other with that look that says, we had something there!

Recording is a different process from rehearsing or playing live, of course. I’m really looking forward to finalising the tracks I’ve been working on with Mark for the Isaac Brutal acoustic EP, of which more soon. But when it comes to solo work, up to now the collaborations have been few and far between.

And then two come along at once. I’m very chuffed indeed to have been asked to play guitar on a track by a new friend, Audrey Russell – let’s hope my playing is up to it! No such anxieties, however, with Norman Lamont‘s abilities. He came over recently, brought his electric guitar and effects pedals, and within the space of a brief evening, had laid down a beautiful, haunting contribution to a track I’ve had on the blocks for quite some time.

Here’s the result. It’s definitely going into my next solo album, although by the time I get that finished I may have tweaked it. If I do, it certainly won’t be to take out Norman’s contribution!

In the meantime, as with all my solo work, it’s free to download, but if you do, please think about donating to a refugee charity.

[technical glitch – I’m waiting to upload an updated version of this. If you can’t wait, go to my Soundcloud site]

(Incidentally, if you haven’t heard Norman’s music before, you’re in for a treat – and he offers free stuff on his site)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below this is wordpress advertising. And almost definitely won’t feature Norman’s guitar playing.

Preface: the best barbecue outside of Malaga

…and after the epilogue of this travel book on Spain I might be writing, here’s the prologue…

Here’s something to do if you’re in Malaga on a sunny day: do as the locals do and get the hell out of Malaga.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to see and do in that fine city, and we’ll come to some of that presently. But for now, get yourself down to the great broad boulevard that runs along its shoreline, and is called variously Alameda Principal and Paseo del Parque, and take a number 3, 11 or a 34 to Pedregalejo.

Any of these is an ordinary service bus, and don’t bother with all that ida y vuelta stuff from the phrasebook: it’s single only, and costs 3 euros at the last count.

Stay on it as it rattles past the nearest beaches, takes a left inland, then right again. Don’t panic, just look out for Calle Vicente Espinel or Calle Pina Dominguez, and ping the bell to get off as nonchalantly as you can manage it.

You emerge to what looks like a fairly well-to-do suburb, with high walls guarding the occupants’ castles from the likes of you. Ignore them and head towards the sea, through well-kept streets and lanes until, just as you reach the last street of any note, you see ahead of you a line of blocky, low houses, with narrow defiles between them.

Through them, and you’ll find yourself on a boardwalk, stretching round the crescent of the bay, with the best fish restaurants you’ll possibly ever find. Prepare yourself, then, to be initiated into the mysteries of espeto.

Actually, it’s not much of a mystery. Sit yourself down at one of the white tablecloth restaurants on the landward side, and a waiter will bustle up, checking you’ve got the right amount of sun, dishing out menus and a carta de vinos, and before you know it a plate of olives will appear, inevitably. Ask him ‘Que hay al espeto?’ and he’ll answer, almost certainly, ‘sardinhas,’ and my personal favourite, dorada, or sea bream.

Order one of these, plus a beer, a vino rosado maybe, or, if you insist, a mineral water or a Fanta, and prepare for a decent wait.

Your man will shortly reappear with the (uncooked) fish of your choice, and head out of the restaurant, across the boardwalk, and onto the beach. The more observant of you will have noticed, directly across from the restaurant, a much less fancy barbecue-cum-shack affair on the sand, with a grizzled old punter giving the flames an occasional poke.

This Hemingwayesque figure is your Master of the Espeto. As I’ve said, there’s no great mystery to the cooking process: the Master takes the fish from the white-jacketed waiter, sticks it on a skewer, and shoves it on the barbie. They’ll have given you some bread to stock up on while the fish cooks, and it’ll feel like forever, as the smell of the barbecuing fish wafts across the sand at you.

Eventually, the old guy grunts or inclines his head, and the waiter brings the cooked fish back past your nostrils, expertly breaking any despairing hunger-induced rugby tackles you make on him, before reappearing finally with the fish dressed with something as simple as salt, some potatoes, and a bit of salad. That’s all it’ll need, believe me, because that poor sucker was swimming about just the thing a few hours before without a care in the world beyond what was on offer for its lunch a link or so down the food chain.

Seriously. If you go to Malaga, you should do this, before it gets all touristy and they start sending the coach tours along there. It may already be too late, but in 2014, at least, you could sit there and enjoy dorada al espeto surrounded by Malagueños doing the exact same thing.

If you’ve clicked on this blog in the hope of insider info like this, then the good news is there’s more of it to come: tips on roads slightly less travelled, how to travel them, and what to do when you get there.

The bad news is, these bits are interspersed with lots of other stuff: soliloquies on Spanish wine, stories of near-hostage taking, snippets of poetry, shovelfuls of information ‘borrowed’ from fellow travellers, and shedloads of asides about the food, the wine (again),  and most of all eating and drinking habits, cultural predilections and linguistic niceties of that alluring, irresistibly charming, and only ever occasionally baffling race, the Spanish.

So if all you’re after is a step by step guide on how to get to Zaragoza and where to eat and stay when you get there, this may not do it for you. Lonely Planet or Fodor’s will give you practical advice, and of course there’s always the sheer weight of numbers and opinions that TripAdvisor can command. I do mention Zaragoza, having been there twice, but more in the context of the near hostage situation I mentioned earlier: I’ll lob in some recommendations, but I’ll have had to update them and cross check with other sources, so that not may be as fresh a set of suggestions as, say, Madrid, where we’ve been more recently.

You should probably see this more as a series of dinner party stories, bolted together with some (reasonably) well checked hard fact. The advantages over real dinner party anecdotes being that you can dip in and out of them at your leisure, without having to put your interested face on; and if you get bored, you can always update Facebook or whatever on your phone instead without breaking whatever shreds of dinner party etiquette remain these days. If indeed, dinner parties remain these days. Frankly I’m hazy on that one.

However, if you’re up for it, let’s get started, and see where we get to, eh?

Brasas para preparar sardinas al peto en Pedregalejo en Málaga

Marlene Dietrich, me and Camille: a review

The Famous Spiegeltent is a portable device, a bit like the Tardis, that appears magically to host performances of all kinds in all sorts of places. Built in 1920, it apparently, in the 1930s, hosted Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Falling in Love Again.’ A few years ago, when I was still doing a mix of spoken word and music, I was lucky enough to perform in it in three separate years as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s evening series, Unbound. Then it disappeared.

Well, not really. It was still somewhere in this space-time continuum, hosting great performances. However, it wasn’t in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, because the owners of the gardens which the Book Festival took over every August (no doubt for a fee) had decided having all these common people tramping over their grass and enjoying themselves was de trop and banned the Spiegeltent.

Yeah, I know. I’ve still to go to the Book Festival (that’s next weekend) and see what, if anything, has been allowed in Charlotte Square or if it’s restored to its rest-of-the year humdrum nature in full – there’s talk of most, if not all of the EIBF events being staged along nearby George Street.

Image result for charlotte square edinburghCharlotte Square, sans book festival

However, in the meantime, good news! The Spiegeltent has beamed down to the Meadows, that fine piece of common ground on the south side of Edinburgh’s city centre. And, in keeping with its tradition of hosting brilliant chanteuses (I’m definitely thinking Dietrich here, not yours truly) it’s the venue for Camille O’Sullivan‘s latest show, Where Are We Now?

SpiegeltentThe Spiegeltent empty

Saturday night was Camille’s second performance of a run that goes on until 24th August, and, in recognition of this, it and the night before were cheaper. However, any glitches in the performance were due, not to Camille or her excellent three-piece band of guitar, keyboards/piano and drums, but to the nature of the venue and its surrounds.

The Spiegeltent is a fantastic space to perform, or watch a performance, in. I must admit I’m glad now I didn’t know quite how historic it was when I did my shows in it, or I’d have dropped my guitar at the prospect. However, it does have one drawback – despite all the wood, mirrors and brocade, it is, when all’s said and done, a tent. And that means sound bleed.

When it was located in Charlotte Square, that wasn’t such a problem – any book festival events still ongoing are some distance away and tend to be just authors droning on about their stuff. The only thing we had to try to do was time the half way break to cope with the fireworks at the Castle which signalled the end of the Military Tattoo (of which more later). In comparison, in the Meadows, the Spiegeltent has a bustling inter-venue bar outside, and a big blue circus tent type affair with other music shows ongoing about fifty metres away.

That might not be a problem for some shows. However, Camille’s performances range from full-on rockers to, to take an example from this set, an a capella version of a Jacques Brel song. She is a dramatic, dynamic, performer, who takes you on a musical odyssey through the full gamut of emotions with carefully-chosen dark materials from some of the great songwriters of the last 70 years or so. In other words, the perfect performer in many ways for the Spiegeltent – if it wasn’t for the sound bleed.

As it was, O’Sullivan spent much of the early part of the show making a single-finger gesture at the back of the audience – a plea for the sound guy to turn her monitor, the guitar, the keyboard, everything, up. It was a pity, because the performance was otherwise up to her usual brilliant standard (this was the third time I’d seen her). However, the best  songs were, inevitably, the louder ones. Bowie dominated the early part of the set, and there was a great version of ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide; Nick Cave’s ‘Mercy Seat’ got a barn – or tent – storming interpretation too.

Good as those were, my personal favourites were The Leonard Cohen covers she did towards the end: opening with a snatch of ‘You Want It Darker,’ from the master’s eponymous final album, she segued into ‘The Future,’ an older song apposite for our troubled times. My absolute favourite, though, was Cohen’s ‘Anthem,’ a fitting, uplifting, closer to a musical commentary on where we are now: ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in…’

Not even the post-Tattoo fireworks (which seemed to have more than one go) could interrupt. A two-song encore, including old favourite, Nick Cave’s ‘Ship Song,’ and she was gone into the night. Camille will have less distracted performances than this: but the material is strong, and her performances of it as incendiary as ever.

Next time, just cancel the fireworks and beam the Spiegeltent to our back garden, eh? The neighbours are really quiet.

Image result for camille o'sullivan