writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: January 2018

Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

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Meredith Belbin. Bit of a rocker, apparently.

Anyone who, like me, has a day job featuring the pleasures of middle management, or even just belongs to an organisation that had cash to splash on an away day in the last thirty years, will have probably heard of the Belbin Team Roles. Invented by the eponymous management theorist, the general sketch is that we all fit into one (or more usually) of nine moulds in terms of our role within a teamwork environment.

This isn’t the same as a set of personality types: instead, it focuses on what our approach to team work is. Grossly oversimplifying, the best type of team contains a spread of people with different attributes: having a whole bunch of, for example, Monitor Evaluators and nothing else in your team, would generally be a Bad Thing.

The nine roles are set out here, if you’re interested. However, the only reason I’ve brought it up is that the Redoubtable Mrs F was asked to complete a Belbin questionnaire recently; it made me look up the old stuff out of curiosity again; and it reminded me that, to my great disappointment, when I did the test about ten years ago, I wasn’t a Plant.

To be honest, I can’t remember what I was; a mixture of things, I think, with a vague tint of vegetation; but what self-styled writer and musician doesn’t want to fit into the definition of a Plant? ‘Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.’ Nope. Not me. Not in a work context, anyways, it seems.

Well, when working on the latest of the tracks – or reworking it, I should say – for my next solo effort, I’d like to think I was a bit bit more of a Plant than, say, a Co-ordinator (‘Needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.’)

In fact, a bit more of a Robert Plant.

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Robert Plant. Not big on management theory, apparently.

Now, this is in no way to compare my vocal talents to the Golden-Maned One, currently drawing plaudits for his new album, Carry Fire. I’m no more him than I’m Jimmy Page on guitar. However, having completed the stripped down version of the track in question back in the autumn, as previously blogged about, I had put it aside to see how it developed. And then, quite recently, as I woke up one weekend morning, a melody came to me that fitted not just over the verse, but the chorus as well.

I tried really hard not to make it a flute part. Honestly. It just seemed too … well, too Led Zeppelin-era, really, what with all the lyrics about the Ninth Legion, an acoustic guitar in double-drop D, all that reverb on the singy bits… but try as I might with other synth voicings, I couldn’t make it work any other way.

So I decided to embrace my inner Plant, and hope you can too.  Imagine you can time travel, and transport yourself back to, oh, let’s say, 1973. In Glenrothes, Fife, the 11 year old me is reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. In Fife, it’s probably raining. Meanwhile, in a sunny late summer field in Sussex, a hirsute young rock god is tuning down both E strings, while a willowy girl in a paisley pattern dress is mucking about on a wind instrument. The bearded one finishes his tuning, cocks an ear, and starts to improvise. Overhead, thunder begins to build a static charge around them, like a psychic crucible.

(The other track I’ve put up with it isn’t quite so epic in scale, but I’m reasonably pleased with it. It just happened to reach the same stage of completion around the same time. Usual rules apply – free to download if you like it, but think of giving something to a refugee charity if you do).























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Mother-in-law jokes and other bus-based beach-bound banter in Valencia


Your man on the bus seemed unpromising at first. In his seventies, and swaddled in one of those indeterminately brown coats favoured by pensioners the world over, he was complaining about the heat to start with. He stood up to open a window, and that got us talking.

I’d said I wouldn’t complain about it being 20 degrees at the end of December, like, ever. He asked me, in Spanish, ‘Are you French?’

To be fair, I often seem to be mistaken for a Frenchman in Spain. Given that they’re no more known than the Spanish for producing over six foot specimens with pale skin, blue eyes and a ginger beard, I can only assume it’s my accent: I explained that, no, I’d learned it at school, but as soon as I learned Spanish, all the French had gone. Desaparecido. Disparu, for that matter.

He confided in me that he spoke five languages: ‘Español, Valenciano, Frances, Claro, y Directo.’ Then, as the bus rattled on, he was full of banter: recommendations for the restaurant to go to when we got to the beach; notes and queries on the English sense of humour; and a story about his Edinburgh-based nephew’s medical career in Edinburgh when I assured him I was no more English than I was French.

He really was the best kind of random bus companion you could encounter: interested, interesting, an inquiring mind full of wisdom and humour. Although I didn’t try out my French on him – as I may have said already, it takes a left turn south of the Pyrenees these days before the end of the first sentence – he was obviously serious about his study of that tongue. And Clear and Direct, for that matter.

In language, he opined, there are often layers of meaning that are hard to appreciate as a non-native speaker. For example, he said, he had asked his French teacher what the difference was in that idiom between horrible and terrible. The Frenchman thought for a moment, and then gave the example of taking your mother in law to the beach with your family.

If your mother-in-law went swimming and was swept out to sea, he said, that would be horrible. On the other hand, if the tide brought her back in again, that would be terrible.

He got off well before the beach, having given me directions to the restaurant, and a recommendation that I try a dish of baby eels there as an aperitivo. He was going to eat, he said, at his wife’s house. Which was also his house. He was gone before he could explain that one more fully.

So, every guide book will tell you one of the places to visit when you’re in Valencia is the beach. And they’re right: I can imagine on a summer’s day the place is rammed with locals, tourists and beach bums alike, each of these tribes vying for supremacy, or at least first dibs on looking cool with a glass of something in hand.

On the other hand, we went on 30th of December, but even then it was pretty busy. So, to add in the boring travel book bit, the bus you get is a 32, and the area you’re heading for is variously called las Arenas, Playa Malvarrosa, or after the fishing village a bit inland, El Cabañal. We followed our new friend’s advice and got off at the first stop as the bus swings left along the sea front. From there, you head onto the front and turn right for a boardwalk cluttered with shops and restaurants, with a massive flagpole along at the far end.

To be honest, we didn’t follow your man’s recommendation of La Pepica – which I’d already read in a guide book was the one to go for. It had obviously benefitted from quite a few recommendations along the way; it was the swankiest of several restaurants who were aspiring to be swanky, and the prices were of commensurate swankiness. This isn’t like the beach front places I mentioned in Malaga: it’s been discovered long ago, so there are menus in English and meeters and greeters trying to grab you in – something that always makes me want to walk on.

That said, the inevitable paella we had in the place we went to was first class – we shared a vegetable one and an arroz a banda, similar to paella with shrimp and squid, preceded by a first course of calamares and salad. Not cheap. However, they have a bit of a captive audience: I set off in the direction of El Cabañal to see if there was something more authentic and inexpensive, but there seemed to just be block after block of flats before you got to anything approaching a village centre. Maybe worth a further explore if you’re feeling adventurous and you’re up for a decent walk.

Despite that, the beach is well worth a visit when you’re in Valencia. The locals still go there too, and it fairly buzzes with life. Even if you don’t get the best mother in law jokes on the way there.

Musical Milestones and the Theory of Everything

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4th September, 1962 was a busy day for Western pop culture. As day broke and my mother recovered from giving birth to her third child, the Beatles were preparing to fly down from Liverpool to record ‘Love Me Do,’ at Abbey Road studios, that afternoon. It was to be their first single release.

In the interests of precision, this wasn’t the first time they’d recorded this song at Abbey Road, and it wasn’t to be the last: they’d had a go at it in June of that year, with Pete Best on drums. By September, Best was gone and Ringo Starr was in:  but George Martin was dissatisfied with Ringo’s efforts and, a week later, the band reconvened to have another shot with session drummer, Andy White, with Ringo relegated to tambourine. However, the version recorded on my birthday was the one that became the single – at least for the first pressings of it: the story gets complicated after that.

Anyhoo, the point being, things have come a long way for all of us in the last 55+ years. For me, personally, obviously. For the music business and recording methods, almost as much. The Beatles’ first album (which, for completists, featured the Andy White version of ‘Love Me Do’) was recorded, aside from the first two singles and their B sides, in a single day – 11th February 1963.

Capitalising on the success of ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me,’ their second single, the Fab Four went into Abbey Road at 10.00 a.m. and came out at 10.45 p.m., having essentially recorded their live Cavern Club set in the intervening dozen or so hours. As anyone’s who’s tried to record anything in a studio knows, ten tracks in a day is pretty special: as Beatles writer Mark Lewisohn later wrote: “There can scarcely have been 585 more productive minutes in the history of recorded music.”

The point being, with digital editing software now available, any idiot can record music, and any idiot can can take their time. Indeed, you don’t even have to play a single note yourself to do it any more, with the advent of MIDI. I know one very talented musician who does just that.

I don’t use MIDI, and I do try to record all the instruments onto a track in a single take, even if it’s the third or fourth: I kind of feel it keeps me honest. The drums, of course, are digital. And I have to admit the kantele (pictured) on this is stitched together from a couple of goes. (You can read the story of how I built this Finnish folk instrument here).

But, overall, this has taken months and months to record. I’ve put it to one side, come back to it, decided on another instrument, tweaked it, added something else, then decided what to take away – the crucial bit. I hope you like the result.

The lyrics? I guess they’re about the knowledge and wisdom I’m supposed to have acquired since September 1962, and the difference between the two. Or something like that. I don’t know. I just write the stuff.


























Advertising has also come a long way since the days of the real Mad Men in the 1960s. There may be examples below here.

Valencia – Hogmanay Part 2

I’ve quite a bit more to say about Valencia in due course, especially if I’m going to follow through on my threat of writing a travel book about Spain. In the meantime, though, I just wanted to share some thoughts about the fantastic accommodation we had there, as we huddle round the combined effects of the central heating and the oven, slow cooking a beef stew back home.

There are no doubt any number of good places to stay in the city, but there few, I’d wager, can offer as unrivalled a view of the City Square fireworks at New Year or, indeed, those for Las Fallas in March, as Ana’s fifth floor flat in Calle Periodista Azzuti, available through Airbnb. The flat itself is funkily furnished, and offers a good double bedroom and two singles (one slight note of caution: the single beds aren’t huge) with all the usual facilities, including two toilets, one of which also holds a shower. We didn’t use the cooking facilities much – why would you when you can eat out as well as you can in Valencia, frankly – but it’s all there.

Here’s some of the aforesaid funky furnishings:


But the real beauty of the flat is its location: 5 to ten minutes’ walk from the city centre attractions including the Cathedral (they have the Holy Grail, you know? Oh yes, it’s very nice… (c. Monty Python)) and the magnificent Central Market (also pictured). It has a spectacular view across the City Hall over the rooftops by day:

Add the night, however, and even before the fireworks start it’s pretty special:

…and then add fireworks. One word of warning, however: make sure you’re back in the flat well before the festivities start, and the street’s closed off. It took one or other of my language skills or my rough Fife charm to convince the nice policeman that yes, we were staying there and yes, we promised to go straight in and stay there for the duration!





































Adverts below here there be. Said Yoda.