andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: November 2017

Off-Grid Adventures in Northumbria: The Best Holiday Cottage Ever?

Me looking glaikit in front of the wood store. I wonder if they use the word glaikit in Northumberland.

When you go away for an October weekend in Scotland or the north of England with another couple, what do you look for? Comfortable accommodation? Decent walks/cycle paths for the more energetic? History on your doorstep? Wood burning fire? Easy access to a pub?

Coldburn Cottage, in College Valley, Kirknewton has all of these, apart perhaps for the last one. The nearest place of any consequence is Wooler, and that’s about ten miles away. However, there’s a great thing now called a supermarket, where you can buy your own food and drink, so if you’re prepared to do that, you’re sorted. They have them everywhere now too, not just Wooler.

The whole area is freighted in history. A couple of miles up the road, there’s the site of Flodden, a catastrophic defeat for the Scots in 1513 that left most of the Scottish nobility, including one of our greatest kings, James IV, dead on the battlefield. Also nearby is Homildon Hill, where in 1402 the Scots were soundly beaten again. If you think you see a pattern emerging, you’d be right: basically the one big battle we won was Bannockburn in 1314, and we’ve been banging on about it ever since.

Bannockburn’s much further north, of course. Here, at the modern Border, are what used to be called The Debatable Lands, where for centuries warring tribes identifying themselves as much by their clan names as much as whether they were Scots or English periodically knocked lumps out of each other.

The history goes much further back. Much of our journey south from Edinburgh was via the A68, which for some at least of its length is the route of the Roman road known as Dere Street, running north from Eboracum (York) deep into the Caledonian forests. The same road became the marching route for mediaeval armies: on the way back up we stopped at an excellent cafe just over the crest of Soutra Hill, where an ongoing  dig is uncovering some dark secrets from the former hospital that the Augustinians ran back then.

The cottage itself looks homely. If you’re looking for the latest crazy boutique/vintage/distressed decor, you won’t find it here – the owners have decorated and furnished it nicely, but conventionally, and none the worse for that. Highlights include the large dining kitchen, where you can cook, chat and drink all together at the same time; and the wood/coal burning fire in the living room. The bedrooms are up a slightly twisty, low-ceilinged stair so possibly not for everyone (and might prove a challenge if you’ve really been tanning the prosecco); there’s a bathroom (shower attachment on an old-fashioned bath; we stuck to baths, which were great) and a separate wee toilet.

The promo video gives you an idea of the place, although for some unconscionable reason it has a horror film soundtrack: for those of you who, like me, don’t entirely discount these things, the place had a really welcoming atmosphere – which is more than I could say for a couple of old cottages I’ve stayed in in my time. Although there is a proper axe in the woodshed should you wish to re-enact scenes from the Shining.

 

It’s the surrounds that really make this place though. I’d like to think that the residents of the area were left relatively untroubled by all the warring factions over the centuries, just because they were so fecking hard to get to: as you approach from the north, you see a giant’s huge, unmade bed of hills, which the main roads all skirt around. This is Northumberland National Park, and there’s a tricky enough drive along single track road for several miles, on past the car park where day visitors have to stop, and further into the valley, to reach the place. It’s just a few miles from the A1, but it could be half a country away. Here are some of the Redoubtable Mrs F’s photos (click on one to see the whole gallery):

What else can I say? Oh, just this. It has no mobile signal – you have to pretty much come right out of the Park and half way to the next town to get one. No wi-fi. No tv aerial or cable. There’s a tiny wee telly box that you could, in theory, watch DVDs on. We didn’t. We talked to each other, ate good food, drank good wine, walked, and talked some more.

I took my guitar and, while the others were still asleep, finished the lyrics to two songs I’d been blocked on for months. Then, unbidden, a really stupid third song in a country style about a guy that’s been trying to find a woman to dance to Dylan songs with him came to me, out of the sky. I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day, but it was fun to have its daft lyrics flowing out of me like a tap had been turned on.

There’s lots of research about the corrosive effects of blue light. I’m no scientist, but all I can say is a break from it was measurably good for my creativity. Actually, the valley has a few of these cottages available for short term lets, as well as a hall for performances, so it would be perfect for a songwriters’ retreat.

So, finally, here’s a stripped down version of one of the songs I finished (not the Dylan-dancing one: that can wait, possibly forever). I’d been experimenting with double-drop D tuning for a while (for non-guitar players, that’s when you tune the top and bottom strings down by a tone to produce a very mellow, low, droning effect) but I was struggling for words. I’d always been fascinated though by the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, the IX Hispana, who were stationed at York, and then disappeared from the records.

The legend – and some research – indicates they marched north to deal with those troublesome Caledonians, and didn’t come back. It may be why the Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall right across the narrowest part between modern-day England and Scotland; again not far from where we were staying. Records don’t show whether he got the Scots to pay for it, but it seems unlikely.

There’s a place in the centre of York where, years ago, people saw ghostly Roman legionaries marching past, but cut off from the knees down, because of the change in ground levels. When we went there once, many years ago, we did the obligatory ghost tour, and, at the place where the legionaries supposedly appeared, I felt this almost overwhelming sense of sadness. Again, it’s up to you if you believe any of this stuff, but that’s supposedly one effect of the presence of spirits, I understand. That’s what the last verse is about.

Incidentally, when I say stripped down, it’s only because I’ve held back so far from going mad with the synths and sound effects. A ‘gone mad with synths and sound effects’ version may follow. I’m slightly worried I may have been channelling the spirit of Led Zeppelin, circa 1973, but then a chord change of D – C – G is hardly ever going to be the most original in the history of rock n’ roll, even in an alternate tuning!

Anyway, Coldburn Cottage, near Wooler – possibly the best holiday cottage ever! Take food, wine, and good company. And a guitar, obviously.

 

 

 

 

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A Sixties Flat in Edinburgh

We bought our Edinburgh flat two years ago. Located in Blackford, on the south side of the city, it’s an ex-Council in a block of 6: not exactly your poshest des. res., compared to the Georgian splendour of the New Town, or even the Victorian and Edwardian villas nearby. However, by buying a fix-up job with an unpromising exterior we were able to use our share of my parents’ estate to get three bedrooms of decent size within a twenty minute walk from the centre.

When I say fix up job, it’s not that the flat was in a poor state of repair. However, the same lady who had moved in with her husband as a tenant when the flat was new, had lived in it right up until she had had to move into an old folks home, shortly before her death at the age of 99.

Accordingly, the decor was somewhat dated; a new kitchen and bathroom were needed; and  the electrics had to be redone. The plan was for Daughter and Heiress to move in at the start of her second year at university: so the fix-up, whilst initially for a tenant, would be for her ultimately. The discovery that we could rent it out unfurnished for the same as furnished was a real bonus, as it meant the furnishing of it could wait till this summer – of which more later.

The flat as was. Note lysergic carpet

First of  all, though, there was getting it to ground zero: as our plumbers, Wisharts, got down to business with the kitchen, central heating and bathroom (top tip: use tradesmen who know, and are used to working with, each other. John from Wisharts, Kevin Cushnie of Cushnie Electricians, and Jim Gibson the joiner (carpenter to you non-Scots) did us proud – all proper Fife tradesmen, of course) we were doing, well, basically everything else.

Maker’s name from the original heating system. Lovely piece of kit: still trying to find a place for it!

‘Everything else’ involved, initially, lots and lots of wallpaper stripping. With the purchase of a steam stripper, it wasn’t exactly rocket science: but with every room in the house wallpapered it was a long, hot, sticky process which seemed to take forever. Occasionally, however, the walls told a story to cheer us on:

 

Wee piece of artwork from a previous decorator, hidden under the wallpaper

Similarly, all the carpets and other floor coverings had to come up. There were many, many dirty and dusty trips to the city cowp (recycling centre if you’re posh), especially as, in a mixture of kind gesture and saving their own ageing backs, the owner’s daughter and son in law had left us quite a bit of furniture. That was quite handy to start with, but as we progressed with the work, we began to appreciate the value of our Honda Civic’s fold down back seats. That car carted a lot of stuff, let me tell you!

In the kitchen, as an original lining for the floor covering, we found newspapers from 1959, which pretty much dated the flat’s construction to that year, or the year after:

 

Advert from the Daily Express, 1959: wonder when that keep fit technique’s due a revival?

Eventually, the flat reached ground zero, and we had an uncomfortable weekend on bare floorboards with no running water (note for South Side fixer-uppers at a similar stage: Waitrose in Morningside doesn’t have toilets, but the library does).

 

Then came the ‘fun’ bit: painting, getting carpets on the floor, and tiling the bathroom and kitchen. This last job involved laying plywood over the floorboards: I remember a particularly perilous walk down from the nearest Jewson’s carrying the bathroom’s ply (for once, the Civic let us down, size wise): the slightest gust of wind and the flexible wood functioned like a sail, and I could picture myself taking flight, to circumnavigate the globe evermore, like a latter-day Flying Dutchman in scruffy jeans and paint-smeared t-shirt…

Anyway, after much weekend work and a few blips, we were done the first phase, and the flat was ready to be let:

As we uncovered the bare bones of the flat, we came to appreciate the flat’s design, and how it represented a turning point in domestic technology. There was, for example, a fireplace, and a chimney, although it looked as if that had been pretty quickly replaced by central heating and an early Sixties gas fire. Similarly, the kitchen held a larder, with a concrete (rather than the traditional stone) shelf for keeping the perishable foods on. I insisted on keeping that, much to John the plumber’s disgust, as he had to drill through it for the new central heating piping! Refrigerators weren’t a common feature in British homes till much later on in the Sixties.

Another kitchen feature we kept was the original pulley above the sink for hanging washing – now in use by Daughter and Heiress. Just going back to the larder for a second, the original kitchen designer we called in wanted to get rid of it, to increase the potential space for the modern units. However, we were determined to keep it, so we ignored him and designed the (B & Q) kitchen ourselves around it.

And so, as the famous Edinburgh Festival happened a mile or so up the road in August 2015, we applied the final touches. It took a couple of months to get it let, but we’re very pleased that it then served as home for a lovely lady and her two daughters – in other words, as the family home it had been designed to be.

If you think that last statement suggests a little defensiveness on my part, you’d be right. Central Edinburgh’s accommodation is under increasing pressure, not just from students at the various universities, but more and more from places being bought up as holiday flats. Our conflicted feelings about buying somewhere designed as social rented accommodation for families was assuaged in part by letting it to a family – and, in the future, it may well be used as that again, for our family, if our plans work out.

In the meantime, though, we took the flat back in June, and proceeded to furnish it for Daughter and Heiress and her friend’s use. This was a hell of a lot more fun than stripping wallpaper! Trying to stay faithful to the Sixties vibe, we went for a minimalist, retro look with a mixture of new, and reconditioned (mainly charity shop), pieces:

…and the great thing is, with a third bedroom, me and Mrs F can still visit and stay over, provided due warning is given to our flatmates!

(Feel free to share, and comment, as you want)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

In the lead up to Bruce Almighty, I hope to interview some of the guys n’ gals bringing you the noise on the night. We start with not one, not two, but three members of the band that backs the man we call The Boss, Isaac Brutal (pictured above): Graham Crawford, the band’s resident lead guitarist, producer and player of any instrument you throw at him; lead singer Emma Emz Gow; and on bass, the legend that is Murray Ramone…

How did you first meet Bruce Springsteen – what song, or album, was your first encounter with him?

Graham: Norman Rodger introduced me to Bruce Springsteen in 1980. He was a big fan and I was a fan of Norman’s band TV21. (Norman will also be performing on the night, with his band The Normans – Ed)

Murray: Born to Run in the 70’s, thanks to an older brother.

Emma: 1993/94, when I first saw the movie Philadelphia, the title track for which was written and performed by Bruce. Great movie, great soundtrack. I was just hitting my teens and finding my own taste in music at that point.

(Mr Ramone in action, at Jeffest5 this summer. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

You’re a band known for its own, unique, original material. What attracted you to doing a Springsteen tribute?

Graham: We will play any gig we are offered. I can’t remember the last time we said no.

Murray: We were asked. Personally I hate doing covers, but as I’m not the main writer in the band it’s always someone else’s song I’m adding bass to. I treat it the same way, think about what I’m going to do, not what the demo or in this case the original does.

Emma: We were invited to do it, but it was also an opportunity I jumped at, a) because the material is so different to what we as a band would normally do, and b) because I love a challenge and the idea of being The Boss for an evening appealed to me.

(The band in full flow at Henry’s Cellar Bar. Photo: Kenny Mackay)

Unfortunately, the E Street Band were unavailable on the 25th. Tell us a little about your band. Do the Springsteen songs fit your sound, or have you changed your usual sound (instrument wise or otherwise) to fit what you imagined for the songs?

Graham: There’s a lot of us in this band and we like to layer up the sound of the band in a similar way to the E Street Band. Playing other bands’ music gives us a chance to explore what we are all doing. When we first start on a project like this it sounds chaotic until we all work out how our own instruments fit in with the overall sound. Working out the details in someone else’s song is fun and keeps us interested. When we go back to our own songs we can add in what we have learned.

Murray: Any good song will work in any style.

Emma: Isaac Brutal are very much a country punk band with a penchant for bile black humour and great story telling. I guess great story telling is something we have in common with the Boss. We didn’t really change anything to fit the style of the songs though. We were lucky to have Kenny involved to help us pick, and play lead guitar for our set as he is a massive fan. But have we changed anything? No, not really. It’s just been an exercise in versatility for us.

(Mr Crawford, also rocking out at JF5. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

Any songs that didn’t make the cut? Any you wish you could do, but feel you can’t?

Graham: Kenny and Mark choose the songs. I am a hired hand just like members of the E Street Band.

Murray: I’d tackle something off Born in the USA. The songs would be much improved without the terrible bombastic production.

Emma: Kenny and Mark picked the set. I genuinely hadn’t heard any of these songs until a few months ago, but I have grown to love them. I wanted to do Thunder Road and was overruled. Probably a good thing in the end as we’ve had to work hard enough on the songs we did wind up going with and they are simpler. (Plus the harmonica solo’s tougher than you’d think – Ed.)

(Emma: Jeffest5 again. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

Finally, any news about your band you’d like to share with us – any albums/tours/interesting merch available on the night?

Graham: Not 1 but 2 albums in the can waiting to be released. Both are sounding very good and it is a fight to see which will be released first.

Emma: Our album The Falcon Has Landed is coming soon, the release of which will undoubtedly coincide with an album launch show early next year at some point (but don’t quote me on that). Also, Prostitutes, Junkies and Bums, an acoustic side project mostly by Mark and Andrew but featuring some work by myself, Graham and Stuart Munro is just about ready to go too. We may or may not have CDs available at the merch table….?

 

Bruce Almighty

Bob Dylan. Nick Cave. Leonard Cohen. What have they all got in common, apart from the obvious? The obvious being, of course, I’ve been involved in organising tribute nights to all of them. And now, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s turn to be inducted into the Fergusonian Hall of Rock and Roll Fame: mark Saturday, 25th November in your diary, because that’s when you can hear four of Edinburgh’s finest bands pay tribute to the Boss.

However, this night’s very far from being about me. For a start, I think it was legendary guitarist Kenny Mackay who first suggested it, and despite being involved in other bands, he’s been drawn back into Isaac Brutal for the night to add his own unique axe-troubling style to our set.

Secondly, though, this wasn’t exactly the hardest sell in the world to other musicians. Leith Depot’s a great wee venue – the Brutals had a great time, and arguably gave one of our best performances there, back in March, when we supported Véloniños along with Elvera and the Arcatis. And Bruce’s songs – well…

I remember, back when I was a student, reading a review of a Nils Lofgren album, that said something like, ‘If you think all Springsteen songs are about, girls, speed and night, listen to Nils Lofgren.’ Back in the early 80s, it was perhaps easy to categorise a lot of Springsteen songs that way, and I grew up listening to those classic early albums Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River.

In many ways he made much more sense as a hero for me than Dylan, whose own first imperial phase coincided with my drooling a lot, throwing food, and generally being a toddler. Born to Run, on the other hand, hit the record shops (as they were known then) in 1975, when I was 13; Darkness on the Edge of Town when I was 16, that year of rebellion and ridiculously hard maths exams. Complicating things at the time were bands like the Stranglers proclaiming that there were no such things as heroes (No More Heroes being released a year later, in 1977). It was interesting to read more recently that Springsteen was acutely aware of punk’s rise, and was painstaking in his song choice for Darkness (still one of my favourite albums) to reflect the rock n’ roll toughness that he tuned into, coming from the likes of the Ramones.

As I think I’ve said before, I’ve never quite forgiven two of my Uni pals for going off and queuing for tickets to see Springsteen at the Playhouse when he toured The River. To be fair, I suppose, mobile phones hadn’t been invented then, so getting me down there too would’ve involved one of them chancing his place in the queue to run to the phone box on Greenside Place, remembering my number out of his own head, phoning the payphone on my floor in student halls, and hoping someone would pick up that wasn’t too drunk or too stoned to pass the message on. Not surprising really, then, that I missed what was to be my last chance to see The Boss outside of a stadium gig.

Those are just my few reflections on his early work. However, you’ll all have memories of the vast Springsteen canon, and how it first touched you: the huge, gated drums and synth intro of Born in the USA, for example, misappropriated by the Reagan campaign, much to Bruce’s Democrat-voting chagrin; the more downbeat, reflective early 90s albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town; or the haunting, Steinbeck-inspired Ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen’s work perhaps doesn’t have the sprawling span of some of the other greats, but it’s certainly harder to categorise than being all girls, speed and night.

And of course he’s still working: his latest album, High Hopes, came out in 2014, and besides a well-received autobiography he’s currently performing an 8-week run of his songs interspersed with the stories behind them on Broadway – coincidentally, ending the day after our tribute night.

In the lead up to Bruce Almighty I hope to bring you some interviews with members of the bands that are providing your night’s entertainment on Saturday 25th. In the meantime, feel free to share your own comments and thoughts on the Boss, his music, and anything else you feel like, really!