andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: music and writing

Autobiographer? Moi?

I’ve got in a little bit of trouble with my female relations, friends and colleagues since the publication of my novel, The Wrong Box. Their principal problem, I think, is with one of the two main characters, Simon English, and to hear his interior monologue in my voice – when they thought I was such a nice lad!

Well, I still am a feminist, respectful to women (I hope) and absolutely unlikely to go off and get into the sexual scrapes that Simon does. It really isn’t wish fulfilment, and that incident with the Lochgelly tawse in the open plan is neither fantasy nor autobiography, believe me!

If you think I doth protest too much, consider the attitudes and inner thoughts of the other main character, Karen Clamp. No one seems to think I’m channelling myself in describing a conspiracy theorist with a jaundiced view of men and an advanced case of body dysmorphia – and yet, I would argue, there are just as many things I share in common with Karen as I do with Simon. It’s fiction, darling, don’t you see?

I fear the latest track I’m thinking of putting on my next album may cause similar problems. There’s a long tradition of songwriting which is non-autobiographical: Randy Newman is probably my favourite exponent. However, these days you’re meant to pour your heart out in a deeply personal, yet curiously still universal manner so that listeners, who have either gone through the same stuff or, better still for sales figures, are going through it right now, can know that you, too, have felt all these things and made a whole album out of it.

Well, I sometimes do that, although being a Scottish male, talking about emotions isn’t exactly in the standard wiring diagram. Probably for that reason the autobiography is generally filtered through oblique lyrics that only someone who knows me well would get, or in the case of the Venus Carmichael project, through the life story of a semi-successful singer-songwriter from the Seventies who’s a different gender than me and twelve years older to boot. Cunning, huh?

On the other hand, sometimes it’s good to cut loose of your own emotional landscape and just let fly with a different character. Which leads me to You’ll Be Hearing From Me: wherein the central character is brash, opinionated, and all too ready to share his opinions with you. Not me then!

I will admit to preferring wine to whisky(1), but for the rest of it, I’m taking the Fifth…

 

 

(1) Interestingly, the distortion effect I applied to the last bit of blues box guitar is called ‘snortin’ whiskey,’ which is kind of appropriate. All praise to my compatriots’ ingenuity in convincing the rest of the world that the crazy highland fighting water’s worth drinking!

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Not All About The Bass

As I’ve gone through my musical journey of the last, oh, nine or so years, rediscovering my love of writing and playing it, a few things have surprised me, not least how different people hear music in different ways. Kenny Mackay, for example, claims never to listen to the lyrics – bad news for a lyricist such as me, of course, but understandable with the most quintessentially lead guitarist-like of my friends and musical associates.

One of the things I’ve noticed most is how I hear things differently to others: and specifically, how my hearing of music is biased towards the treble end. When I record my own music, I very rarely put any bass guitar on it. If I put anything on in the lower range at all, it’s strings.

Now, you bass guitar players out there may find this shocking – and don’t get me wrong, I recognise that, especially playing live, the bass is an essential element in making the floor shake. However, despite knowing two fine exponents of the four (usually) string’s art in Murray Ramone and Mark Allan, I’ve just never attempted it.

So, as an experiment, I’ve put what the synth calls ’90’s bass’ on my newest track. Is ’90’s bass’ a thing? All I know is it’s the closest I’ll get to the sound of a bass guitar on the Korg, which is a quicker option than getting Mark or Murray through to record the real thing. Maybe for the final version.

…and having made it so that you’ll now focus when listening to the track to the bass part, what makes the song for me is the interplay between the ‘real’ guitars, namely my brand new baby, the Epiphone EJ200, and the jangle of the Danelectro 12 string I have on semi-permanent loan from Mark so that his missus won’t know the true number of guitars he actually owns. (Shh! Don’t tell Susan!)

Oh, and the words, I suppose. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I didn’t put in some words. Although Kenny probably won’t hear them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

everything below this is advertising wibble from wordpress. with no added bass.

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.

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

Journeys Deep in the Land of Bruce: a review of Cory Branan’s Adios

I’ve not listened to nearly enough music in my near 55 years on Earth. I mean, even my CD collection – which seemed at one point big enough to cause stress on the house foundations, or at least make an indelible dent in the carpet – is a tiny, tiny, fraction of the rock, country, soul, blues and what d’you may call it committed to tape since I was old enough to know there was something rum about Gary Glitter.

And in case I didn’t realise how ignorant I was, there are magazines like Mojo and Uncut to rub my nose in my own vacuity. Here’s a typical example of the type of review I read as I attempt to navigate my way through the roiling rapids of new music, and pick out something I might drop a few quid on and actually listen to:

‘David Barbe is best known as a producer for the Drive-By Truckers, Deerhunter and other local and national acts… “Why You Gotta Make It So Hard?” recalls the weirdo pop of the Elephant 6 Collective…’

Ok. I know Drive-By Truckers: that’s who Jason Isbell used to be with, and I’ve even heard a couple of their tracks. Deerhunter? I feel I should have heard of them. I’m sure I’ve read about them, in Mojo and Uncut. Elephant 6 Collective? Nope. No clue.

I know. I should be ashamed of myself. To be fair, most of the time, I will have heard of the bands these reviews reference. It’s just that, were I put in front of a firing squad of musos and told to whistle one of their greatest hits, I might be hard pushed to even make a start before the vinyl collectors pulled the trigger.

So this review is proceeding from a state of ignorant, if not bliss, acceptance that I will never, ever, be able to reference someone obscure. Full many a flower may, indeed, be born to blush unseen, musically speaking, and, as a matter of empirical fact, waste its sweetness on the desert air. I’m afraid my time to surf Youtube for all these mute inglorious Miltons is, well, pretty limited by other stuff.

So I’ll come right out and say it. Jason Isbell and Cory Branan sound a lot to me like Bruce Springsteen.

To be fair, I’m not the only one to make the connection. Isbell was described as ‘Springsteen-endorsed,’ in his recent interview with Acoustic Guitar; Uncut’s review of Branan’s new album, Adios, explicitly references the Boss.

Let’s start with Branan. I first heard a song of his a couple of years ago, as the standout track on one of the taster CDs of new music you get with these music zines. It was called ‘Survivor Blues’ and there was one line in particular, ‘leaned, and lit a cigarette,’ that I especially liked for its economy. I then promptly failed to put in the hard yards online to hear more of his stuff.

It was only recently, when I saw the review of Adios, that I got my act together and ordered up a copy online.

For me, it’s a truly great album in the fine traditions of the best work of Bruce Springsteen. Some things are obvious musical Springsteen references: the honking sax on ‘Imogene,’ for example; the pounded piano at the start of ‘Blacksburg,’ or the Roy Bittan-like keyboard sounds on ‘You Got Through.’

The Uncut review specifically compares Branan’s style to Springsteen’s 1980 classic ‘The River,’ and the musical similarities are there for all to see. The meld of soul, folk and early rock n’ roll (‘Only I Know,’ for example, with its Buddy Holly-style chord progressions) has the same roots as the Sage of New Jersey.

There’s another link, which only became obvious when the recent reissue of ‘The River’ sent Brucie on the interview trail: country. Springsteen described listening to the likes of Hank Williams to get that sense of ‘three chords and the truth’ into his songwriting.

Now, I’ve described before how I came to country late. When I was a teenager, that whole glitzy, teeth n’ sequins commercialism seemed alien to me, a kid from a place where (arguably too much the other way) the emphasis was on telling things as they really were, no matter how grittily depressing that might be.

(I’ve never thought of the connection up to now, but you could say that as much about the traditional Scottish folk songs as you could about punk. The guitars are different, obviously.)

It was only as I grew older that I realised that country was exactly about telling things as they were, and the plastic smiles and rhinestones of the big country stars that reached our TV were a long way from Nashville’s darker heart, and the likes of Willie Nelson. I still can’t stand that production line alternating bass figure you get on a lot of Johnny Cash songs, and too much plaintive pedal steel turns me off, but I get it, I really do.

Apart from the ones previously mentioned, there are three particular favourites for me. ‘Don’t Go,’ a story of a life long love ending up with the wife’s death, walks the fine line between mawkishness and tugging at the heart strings and, for me at least, makes it to the other side of that canyon unscathed. ‘My Father was an Accordion Player,’ is another (it would seem) personal family tale of a father-son relationship which is bittersweet but funny. My favourite of all of them, though, is ‘The Vow,’ a tribute to Branan’s late father that combines affection with realism in a truly touching way.

Branan is his own man so far as lyrics go, and all the better for it. Take these lines from ‘the Vow,’ as an example:

‘I said, well I just thought, and he cut me off, and said that’s what you get for thinking,

I remember thinking, that’s probably not the best lesson for a kid,

And although that was just something he said,

And when I see where I get with my thinking,

I get to thinking that there may have been some kind of genius in the effortless way

He just did…’

I’ve not even mentioned some of the other superb songs on this album: the bluesy ‘Cold Blue Moonlight;’ the protest song against the shooting of black civilians by police, ‘Another Nightmare in America,’ the rambunctious ‘Visiting Hours.’ I have listened to this album again and again, and got new pleasures from it each time.

As for Isbell, well, I’ll keep it short, as I’ve already headed north of a thousand words and tried your patience. In addition, I’m hoping for a guest review of his latest offering ‘the Nashville Sound,’ shortly, so we’ll see then whether his run of solo work starting with ‘South Eastern,’ and moving through ‘Something More Than Free,’ continues at the same level or not.

So for the sake of brevity I’ll offer as evidence of Springsteen influence just one track from the latter album, and that’s ‘Speed Trap Town.’ Protagonist with a conflicted relationship with his father? Check. Reference to State Trooper? Check. Storyline involving busting out of small town, and driving till the sun comes up? You bet. Moral complexity? Spades of it.

I appreciate this type of music won’t be for everyone: any synths in evidence are strictly in service of the guitars, and there is no word, anywhere, of whether or not it’s a rainy day in Manchester. The guitars are crisp, and generally, undistorted. Many of the songs extend past the three minute mark. Despite all that, it behoves you to listen.

Unless you’re way too busy with the Mute Inglorious Miltons’ back catalogue, of course. In which case, crack on, and do come back to me with the highlights.

Leonard, the Donald, and that difficult second album

A lot happened in early November 2016. The main headline news, of course, was that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, against all predictions, polls, the Washington establishment’s expectations and, frankly, the hopes and dreams of most of the rest of the world. Including, frankly, me. I don’t suppose that comes as a massive surprise to anyone that even half knows me.

Another significant event for me in that period, though, was the death of Leonard Cohen. Somewhat oddly, his passing was announced on November 10th, a day after it became clear that Trump had won the election, so that, briefly, I entertained the idea that Leonard, hearing the news of who had won the Presidency, had simply turned his head to the wall and left us. The truth was more prosaic: he’d died in his sleep, following a fall, three days before.

I’ve posted before about Leonard Cohen, about why I came to him late, and took great pleasure in hearing his late flowering period albums Old Ideas, Popular Problems, and You Want It Darker. The last of these, released three weeks before his death, is truly dark. Listening to it in full for the first time, driving into Edinburgh one night in March, I own that there were tears in my eyes as I heard the final track, ‘String Reprise/Treaty,’ which took the theme from an earlier track about the singer wishing he could conclude a treaty ‘between your love and mine,’ and embellished it with the saddest strings ever. It’s an album that isn’t easy listening, but more than worthy of your attention nevertheless.

It was like Leonard’s last words to us. In the weeks and months that followed, however, the little orange notebook I keep for lyrical and other ideas began to fill with lines that were, in spirit if not in quality, decidedly Cohenesque. Some of these were translated into ‘Song for Leonard,’ which might yet gain traction as a Venus Carmichael song. However, the lines kept coming.

Which is by way of explaining ‘Final Days,’ which might well be the first completed track of my as-yet-untitled second solo album, to follow Songs in a Scottish Accent. I finished the first draft of it in February or March this year, but certain other commitments, not least the day job, meant it took until this month to record it.

Releasing it now, I’m a bit conflicted, because I’m concerned people might feel it’s some sort of facile reflection on the most recent awful events to hit us here in the UK. Politics aside, we’ve had terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London (twice) as well as the awful sight of a tower block full of (mainly immigrant) families go up in a ball of flame, all in a matter of weeks.

All of the above, especially the last of them, might make you feel that this song is meant to be contemporary. It is, in the sense that Trump’s election might well mean that we’re now living in the final days. On the other hand, there will always be wars and rumours of wars, and the song’s black humour consciously references the type of songs that Leonard Cohen was writing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In other words, it’s written with current events in mind, but not exclusively so. Nor is it meant to be some sort of pastiche: it’s Cohenesque, I can’t hide that, but the words and sentiments are my own as much as my accent. Consider it an affectionate tribute.

Like Songs in a Scottish Accent, I’ve made the track free to download. However, if you do, please consider giving a donation to some sort of refugee charity, or one of the ones that’s been set up to look after the survivors of the Glenfell flats fire.

Update: the track’s now been updated with some subtle, doom-laden electric guitar from the most excellent Norman Lamont. Peace, blessings and universal critical acclaim be upon him!

You Should Totally … a (p)review of various things

Drink South African

South African red wine’s a bit of an enigma for me. Every so often I come across one that’s a cracker: and then I can never find it again. The Holy Grail for me is the wine region of Robertson, which I’ve never had a bad bottle from.

However, most South African supermarket reds in this country seem a bit, well, so-so. Not bad, but not outstanding. Unfortunately, the recent triallists aren’t breaking that trend for me, but they’re worth a try – and not just because the Proteas are over here to give the Poms a damn good thrashing in the Tests. Although that’s as good an excuse as any.

Both wines are from Morrison’s: first up, Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve, reduced to £6.50 from £9. A hefty beast, this, that went particularly well with curry. I wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Maybe a bit more accessible is Leopard’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, currently £5 down from £6.50. This is a long term favourite, and well worth snapping up for its damsony, blackberryish fruit (woah, just went a bit Jancis Robinson on you there!)

Image result for beyerskloof pinotageImage result for leopard's leap cabernet sauvignon 2015

Read Mac Logan and Kevin Scott

I’ve just read the first of Mac Logan’s Angel’s Share thrillers, Angels’ Cut. It’s a tense, pacy thriller with a sympathetic hero. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Angels' Cut (The Angels' Share series Book 1) by [Logan, Mac]

Also well worth a read: my Thunderpoint stablemate Kevin Scott’s first novel, Dead Cat Bounce. Two brothers with very different life trajectories, one a charming loser, the other a seemingly successful London futures trader, have to combine to find a missing coffin, the one with their late stepbrother in it. This being Glasgow, there’s gangsters and black humour involved, but Scott cleverly subverts the more obvious tropes and comes up with a surprising conclusion.

Dead Cat Bounce by [Scott, Kevin]

Listen to Cory Branan

A more extensive review coming, but Branan’s latest, Adios, is just great. Here’s a taster, one of my favourites from the album, Imogene.

 

Have been at the Voodoo Rooms to see Callaghan/Jesse Terry

Where were you all a couple of weekends back? Edinburgh’s inaptly named Voodoo Rooms (they’re about as voodoo as a palatial, slightly glacial, Victorian drinking salon can get, I guess, unless they mean the dark magic used to spirit your money away with frankly supernatural bar prices) was half empty to hear these guys. Jesse Terry is a fine, mainly acoustic-guitar-based singer-songwriter: his cover version was Don McLean’s ‘Vincent,’ which fitted well with his own material. He is also, as I discovered when I went back to chat to him after his set, a really nice bloke worthy of your attention.

As for Callaghan, I’ve blogged about her and her ability with a good tune and a great voice before. Her covers on the night were The Drifters standard,  ‘Stand By Me,’ John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song,’ and, as an encore, ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I know, right? Not exactly my natural musical habitat, either, and my heart sank when she announced the last one as her encore. And then she sang it.

Oh. My. Actual. [insert appropriate deity]. What a set of pipes that woman has. I mean, I knew her voice was special, even when put through the digital music equivalent of a meatgrinder that goes to produce the universal burger we call an mp3. But live? Just stunning. Stunning. She could sing ‘Baa baa black sheep’ and I’d still turn out to see her. If the angels in heaven sing half as well, it might be worth me thinking about giving up all this sinning stuff after all.

Image result for callaghan singer

Go see Martin McGroarty

My friend, colleague and fellow musical traveller Martin McGroarty is pretty much gaining the reputation round here of hardest working man in show business. We saw him at the Ship Tavern in Anstruther at the end of May, and the only thing wrong with the gig was we’d committed the schoolboy error of being the closest to sober in the whole place.

But boy, did he get the joint a’jumpin’ – and he now has such a following, any pub booking him can be guaranteed people travelling from as far away as, say, Dundee to see him! I see that he’s due to play there again on Saturday, June 24th, and I know it’s one of his favourite venues.

For a list of his gigs after that, go to his site.

That’s all for now, folks – more detailed musical recommendations coming soon!

Wrong Box: Events News

Now my novel, The Wrong Box, is (virtually at least) a reality, I’ve organised a couple of launch events. There are some others in the pipeline, but in the meantime (the link takes you to the Facebook event, if you’re that way inclined):

Fife Launch: Wednesday, 10th May, 17.30 – 18.45 – a just after work session at the Rothes Halls Library, Glenrothes, with Yvonne Melville of OnFife interviewing me. It’s free, and there’s free wine!

Edinburgh Launch: Thursday, 18th May, 19.45 – 23.00 (ish) Henry’s Cellar Bar, Morrison Street, Edinburgh – in the rather more rock n’ roll surroundings of Henry’s, what I’m calling ‘More Than A Book Launch, since it involves not just me talking to Writers’ Bloc stablemate and long-term WB supporter Gavin Inglis about the book, but spoken word readings from Gavin, Andrew Wilson, and Stuart Wallace, as well as music from both the bands I’m in, namely the troubador americana of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and the country punk of Isaac Brutal (mein Herr Bandleader pictured below, in mean and moody mode).

Please note: at both events there’ll be only a limited number of books for sale, so order in advance to avoid disappointment! You can get the Kindle edition on Amazon, or the paperback edition from them or, if you prefer, from Waterstone’s.

Image may contain: 1 person, on stage and playing a musical instrument

The merits of a leaky ceiling: how the Wrong Box came to be

Madrid and a cold beer, starting point for most of our Spanish travels

I went to see Jackie recently. It’s good movie, although there’s something a bit odd about it: the Guardian review probably sums it up for me. There’s a dream-like quality to it that got me thinking, because the way that the various forms of the sleeping state influence creative work interests me a lot.

I’m scarcely an original in using dreams to help the creative process: writers and musicians from Robert Louis Stevenson to Prince have talked about how they’ve plundered the stuff clambering out of their night-time subconscious. Stevenson’s classic horror, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, came to him in a dream, although the cocaine he’d been prescribed by a doctor for his ongoing health problems might have had an influence too. According to that particular creation myth, he got as far as the first transformation scene before his wife woke him up. Wives, eh!

Which leads me to the inspiration for my published-at-long-last novel, The Wrong Box.

Most of my creative endeavours, whether musical or writing wise, tend to have shadowy beginnings – a half-heard piece of conversation; an encounter on the express bus to Edinburgh; an earworm of a tune that won’t go away despite it appearing during work time. In the case of novel’s story, however, I can more or less trace the date of its inception to a week in April, 2008, and the Hostal San Bartolome, Almagro.

Anyone that knows me half at all will know that I’m a lover of Spain and all things Spanish, and not even just the wine neither. Every year for the last fifteen or so, we’ve been spending time travelling through that great country, all the time seeking out different regions, different places to visit that are off the tourist trail. Because we rely on train and bus to get about (just never fancied driving a car in Spain, funnily enough) that usually involves reasonably decent-sized towns. However, in 2008 we decided to push the envelope a bit, and explore somewhere that even the more generous Spanish classification of ciudad wouldn’t cover.

First stop, though, after touching down in Madrid and spending a night in the unremarkable but reliable Hotel Mora, was one of the great Spanish northern cities, Valladolid. It was a pleasant three nights there, from what I can remember: the things that stood out were the storks nesting on the roofs of the churches, and the quirky proprietor of the Hostal Los Arces showing the 9-year-old Daughter and Heiress the model house he was building out of sweets (although that now sounds so unlikely, I’m wondering if I dreamed that bit!)

From there, we had to head back south, through Madrid, and change trains at Ciudad Real to get to our second stop, the La Mancha town of Almagro. It was, in retrospect, quite a small place to spend almost a week, (from 5th to 11th April according to the itinerary I’ve unearthed) and I remember wondering, as the tren de media distancia crossed what I was to describe, in a subsequent poem, as a ‘tiny wrinkle on Spain’s great red face,’ whether I’d overcooked the length of our stay there, and undercooked Valladolid.

I had. It rained. It wasn’t a warm rain. Although what I described in the same poem as the ‘green and white layer cake’ of buildings forming three sides of the central square had its charms, in the rain those charms were a bit, well, on the soggy side (I’m giving you the absolute best bits of that poem, by the way – you can see why it never made publication). As we huddled in the bars and cafes of the plaza mayor with the locals and very few other tourists, we also came to realise that, given the somewhat niche appeal of the place, we had probably arrived a week or so early, tourist season wise. Not all the cafes and bars were open all the time.

We gravitated initially towards one place in the square which seemed popular with the locals: the food was decent, if a little red-meat heavy, and they had, like most bars in Spain do, a decent Rioja as the house red. We ignored the bullfighting on the telly at first as one of those cultural things that come with the package; but by the time of the second visit, the relentless procession of Hemingwayesque scenes from the plaza de toros started to grate a bit. Then we learned that the son of the establishment was a bullfighter, and took the hint that they probably wouldn’t be changing over to the football any time soon.

The main alternative seemed to be the bar/restaurant on the side road that led to our hostal. It was often virtually empty, and the waiter a youngish bloke who didn’t seem that sure about anything we asked him. The food was ok, though, and the inevitable telly was tuned to a channel that featured lots of what we took at first to be nature programmes. On closer inspection, these turned out to be actually about one of La Mancha’s other obsessions, la caza: the types seen striding about various grassy wetlands weren’t there so much to appreciate the bird life as blast the hell out of it with guns as soon as look at it. Oh well: asi es, as the Spanish say. By way of compensation, the uncertain young waiter decided we merited an end-of-meal taste of the local liqueur: three glasses of the stuff (including one for said 9-year-old D & H) appeared unbidden at our table.

Needless to say even we Scots leave it a couple of years before starting our kids on spirits. The Redoubtable Mrs F, meanwhile, had taken one sip of the yellow liquid and decided it was something I had to deal with, either by drinking or pouring into a handy plant pot. The plants were plastic, so down my neck all three went. I still have no idea what it was, beyond perhaps being the subject of a bet back in the kitchen to see if the crazy extranjeros would drink it. I’ve a vague recollection we even got charged for it.

All of this was nearly offset by the charm of our accommodation, the Hostal San Bartolome, and the young woman who ran it. Built around a central patio, the place was brightly painted, had real plant life in it, and was comfortable, accommodation wise. On the debit side, it was a bit – well, crumbly. I owe the place a debt for forcing me to find the Spanish phrase ‘el techo de nuestra habitacion esta goteando,’ (our room’s ceiling is leaking) as well as one for the handle falling off the door of the room I can’t place exactly now. All good practice, but not particularly great in terms of rest and relaxation (I’m sure they’ve fixed it all up now, of course).

Anyway. There we were, and there was the rain, and after dinner there wasn’t a lot to do except retreat to our room and hope the door handle didn’t fall off the outside while we were inside.

And whether it was because of the weather, the leaky ceiling, the third shot of mysterious yellow liqueur, or the bed which, in common with most Spanish hostal beds, wasn’t designed for those of us north of 6 feet tall, sleep didn’t come easily: which is how I came up to dream part, at least, of the story which was to become the Wrong Box.

I can’t remember specific details now, of course: but the essentials, I think, were there, of an obnoxious commercial property lawyer who wakes up with the hangover shark biting his head and the dead body of a client, naked, dead and with his toe stuck up the tap, staring up at him from the bath. There was always the idea of women having been there but then having disappeared; of there being some wider conspiracy at work that he didn’t appreciate; and of dark forces at his workplace.

Every so often throughout the night I’d wake up, hearing nothing but the sound of the others’ breathing and the downpour outside; then drift back off again, back into this dream that spun on with its story. There was another character, one from one of the housing estates that encrust the far outer ring of Edinburgh’s historic core: a conspiracy theorist who, alone, could help the lawyer find out the truth.

Towards morning, the periods of wakefulness became longer, as a watery light started to bleed through the curtains of the room. Inevitably, the left brain – the half that likes to impose order and structure on ideas – took over: the lawyer’s name would be Simon English, and his Englishness was a factor in the whole story, making him the stranger in a strange land. I don’t know at what point I came up with the name Karen Clamp for the conspiracy theorist, although I suspect it was then, still half-dozing, when the trapdoor between the two brain halves was still half-open.

As soon as it was light enough to see, I crept to where I kept the notebook I always carry with me on holidays and scribbled some essentials down. There were still long, arduous hours of plotting to come before I could start on the story properly, because I was determined that, if I was going to commit all the spare time it would take to write another novel (the previous two remain, tucked up in a digital drawer on the hard drive, unpublished and unpublishable) I was going to have a story that actually ticked all the story-formation boxes. My fantastic Finnish friend, Hannu Rajaniemi, was to help with all of that. But for now, fresh from the alchemical moment of creation, I knew I had something.

In the movie version of this moment, the rain would have stopped, and my family and I would have walked to our breakfast café through tendrils of steam drawn from the pavement by the rapidly climbing morning sun.

In reality, it just kept on pissing down, of course.

 

The Wrong Box is now available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and, in Scotland, Waterstone’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below here, WordPress put it there.

 

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.