andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: poetry

Three Weekends in May (2): The Fall of the House of Blackie

A long weekend in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house. It sounds like an improbable tale, unless of course you’re impossibly rich and connected to what, I suspect, would be some highly secretive and aged inner circle of CRM devotees.

However, that is what we did in a gloriously sunny weekend in May, with no more financial outlay than we would have spent on short break in reasonably priced hotel, and with no more hidden knowledge than the National Trust holiday lets brochure.

And it was very possibly our last chance to see.

To explain, to some of you coming at this new: Hill House, the Mackintosh-designed Helensburgh home of the Blackie family, has a flat on an upper floor that you could rent out for vacations; despite having visited it twice over the years, I only found this out around the time that the window to do so was closing fast. CRM’s architectural and interior design masterpiece is suffering, due to the Portland cement cladding on its exterior acting as a sponge which is starting to destroy the inside, the warm damp atmosphere washing up the loch reaching its sticky fingers inside.

Hill House is an incomparable mix of incredible, timeless artistry and a domestic setting which, whilst much grander than your average three-bed semi, is still relatable in a way that the castles and palaces of earlier times just isn’t.

It was such an impressive thing I was moved, after the first visit, to poetry:

 

It’s as if the family’s gone out for the day

and we’re ghosts in a time slip;

the servants off somewhere, toys tidied in the nook

at the top of the stair: a stage set,

a dressing up box, a pirate ship

creaking at noon anchor.

 

No cameras, mobiles, mp3s,

as if they would break the spell

of rising clouds of architecture in the hall,

or Margaret McDonald’s interiors,

the drawing room a solid cube of light

ringing like crystal.

 

Upstairs, purple lozenges in doors

to indicate the master, or the son and heir,

pink for the girls, McDonald’s ghostly ladies

lighting Anna’s way to bed,

the house wrapped round them on

an east-west axis, father’s room

closest to the setting sun.

 

However, this time round was different. First there was the fact that we were, actually, staying there: and whilst the main house was out of bounds to us, the flat we were in was, in reality, just a closed off part of that greater whole, comprising the former school room and the servants’ quarters. As such, it was furnished, simply, but plainly, in the Mackintosh style – I never got around to asking the guides if the stuff in ‘our’ bit was original – but, at night, when the iron gates closed to visitors and the staff left, the gardens and exterior were ours too.

the flat interiors: guitar model’s own. Below, some views from the flat of the main house

 

Second, there was that last chance to see element. The solution to the water ingress the NT have come up with is to build what amounts to a muckle greenhouse over the top of it. This will keep the rain off while they work out how to fix the problem: the displays in the house talked about how there would be a tension between those that wanted to stick to the original vision and not change a thing, and those who favoured a pragmatic solution.

The muckle greenhouse solution. Pic courtesy of National Trust site

Architect’s impression of the Box surrounding the Hill House

Personally I think it’s a no-brainer: unless you want the place to be permanently covered by a space-age conservatory, a pragmatic solution of replacing the failed cement with a similar but weatherproof material sounds like a plan to me. But then that’s maybe just me.

What the displays didn’t talk about, but became apparent from the chats I had with various staff, was just how extensive this ‘temporary’ structure to keep the rain off was going to be. It’s going to have lifts, and walkways, and everything, for goodness’ sake! There was even talk of the House itself being closed to the public for quite some time, with visitors being reduced to peering in the windows from the walkways. On that basis, if you want to see round it, crack on now. It’s later than you think.

I hope the pictures, taken on my mobile, give some impression of the look of the place. In a sense the interiors were less impressive this time round, not so much from familiarity, but because the signs of water damage were becoming ever more apparent: I didn’t remember the walls peeling quite so much last time. In another sense, of course, it was still all deeply fantastic.

Another slightly disappointing, if understandable, development was the dark blinds on the drawing room windows: whilst they probably should have been there long ago, it really spoiled that sense of what the summer function of the room was, which was to stare out over the rest of Helensburgh to the loch beyond. As you can see from the poem, it was one of my abiding images of the house.

But what was it like to stay in this Scottish architectural icon? Well, what struck me most – apart from the sheer pleasure of sitting in the gardens with a glass or two of wine in glorious sunshine like we owned the place – was how the Hill House had become the intertwined life stories of three distinct entities: the Mackintosh/MacDonald partnership, the house itself, and the Blackie family whose home it was for nearly 50 years.

Mackintosh’s life trajectory (and that of his wife, Margaret MacDonald, whose often uncredited artistic genius went into, amongst many other things labelled CRM, the Hill House interiors) is pretty well documented: early appearance as, along with Margaret, one half of a group of bright young things known as ‘The Four’ (or, to their critics, the ‘Spook School,’ for the ethereal style they adopted; the glory years as a Glasgow architect with Honeyman and Keppie – even though at the time his work was not universally liked: the Hill House is only one of a solid hillside of mansions, many of which favoured the Arts and Crafts style of, amongst others, William Leiper; the wilderness years in London and the South of England; and, finally, four all too short years in the South of France, rediscovering his passion for painting, a life cut all too short at sixty by mouth cancer.

One thing I didn’t know was that Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) was born within a year of Frank Lloyd Wright. The difference, of course, was that Wright was still accepting commissions in the 1950s, whereas Mackintosh was long lost to the world of architecture (and forgotten, until relatively recently, in his home town too).

So much for the architect. What of the house? Well, it was sold by the Blackies in 1952, on Walter Blackie’s death. Fortunately, the purchaser was President of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland, so it was treated sympathetically, even though some interiors were lost. It passed to the National Trust in 1982: all the while, from very early in its existence, nursing the water penetration issue like a wound that won’t heal.

In many ways, although disappointed to see how much damage was starting to become apparent inside, I still feel very positive about the House’s continued existence. It is just too well beloved to be allowed to fall. The mega-greenhouse is costing a big bunch of money to put up: with that level of public investment (in every sense of that term) committed, I can’t see the NT being allowed to let the place crumble even if it wanted to.

One thing that had intrigued me before was the part of the Trust’s brochure which talked about the schoolroom having some sort of ‘atmosphere.’ So was there? Not really. On the first night we were there, late on, there might have been a sense of a gathering presence in the main room (or that might have been the extra glass of wine talking to my limbic system). If there was, it didn’t manifest in any other way: maybe the Blackie household was just checking us out and, satisfied of our good faith, then withdrew.

And what of the Blackies? I called this piece ‘the Fall of the House of Blackie,’ and viewed one way, you could certainly see it as such. The publishing firm, after all, was in its imperial phase when Walter Blackie commissioned Mackintosh to design Hill House: and for the many decades of their occupation of it, a stranglehold on the Scottish educational textbook market ensured their continued existence.

There’s almost definitely a book to be written on how the firm, with its distinctive hardback covers (Talwyn Morris, its artistic director, introduced Mackintosh to Blackie, and was sympathetic to the Four’s style) eventually fell, being taken over by HarperCollins in 1972 and disappearing finally in 1991. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

I suspect such a book would have to focus on Walter Senior, who inherited the business – despite first refusing to join it and spending a year as a lumberjack. The knowledgeable guides gave intriguing snippets of the family history: how the children were quite spaced apart in terms of ages and how, in fact, Mrs Blackie moved in with a babe in arms; how Walter Junior, the son and heir, left home from Hill House to be married at the relatively advanced age of forty; how, on her husband’s death in 1952, Mrs Blackie left the house with the one daughter remaining living with her, the rest of the family having long moved out and showing no interest in taking the place over.

Apparently, some of the grandchildren used to visit the house now and again; but one lasting  – and quite touching – memory of the fallen house of Blackie was a plaque near the front door, which related that Nancy Blackie, not a blood relative, but the widow of Walter Junior, served as a volunteer until the last decade with the National Trust at the house.

Just going back to spiritual presences, I was told that, in the main house, you could occasionally be surprised by a passing whiff of Walter Senior’s pipe smoke. I hope that, in the future, he’s remembered for more than than that. Mackintosh may have been the architect, but Blackie was the inspiration, a man of business who might have required the dark Edwardian wood of the reception room for his clients, but still had the vision to understand why Mackintosh and MacDonald might want to surround the master’s bed with ghostly ladies.

Apparently, even late in Mackintosh’s life, Blackie was still in touch with him, buying his South of France paintings. Perhaps CRM’s most loyal client deserves a book of his own, amongst all the 150th anniversary hoopla. It was certainly a pleasure to stay over at his place for a weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Springtime for Red Squirrels: Or, The Art of Poetic Garden Avoidance

To the Scottish Poetry Library on Saturday, for the launch of three new books by Red Squirrel Press: Diana Hendry’s new short story collection ‘My Father as an Ant;’ Stephen Barnaby’s new story pamphlet ‘I never realised it was as bad as that;’ and Kevin Cadwallender’s new poetry collection ‘Polishing Demons.’

There are multiple reasons for not making it to a book launch. In Scotland, for 6 months of the year at least, these are often weather-related: snow, hail, that icy rain that gets into the gap between your collar and the back of your neck, high winds closing the Forth Road Bridge, yada yada. On Saturday, as Sheila Wakefield said, the opposite was true: the unseasonably warm spring weather made it hard to leave the back garden, especially when there’s a lot to be done.

Still, there were firm motivations for me to shoehorn myself into the 11.25 X59, packed as it was with fellow Fifers seeking their poetry, one suspected, in Marks and Spencer; to then, using advanced ruck and maul techniques not learned on the playing fields of Eton, blindside the scrummage of early-season tourists heaving towards a pushover try in the tartan shops of the upper Royal Mile; and then, as the crowds thinned out around the abandoned Avengers film set on the lower reaches of the Mile, to find my way at last to the SPL, reflecting as I did so that it and its sister institution across the road, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, could be the last spasm of Scottish cultural architecture for quite some years, whatever political colour’s in charge at the bottom of the hill in Holyrood, that other modern architectural landmark (remember all that fuss about how much it cost? What was that about, then?)

Image result for scottish poetry libraryScottish Poetry LibraryPublic entrance at the Scottish ParliamentThe Parliament

Image result for scottish storytelling centreScottish Storytelling Centre

One such motivation was Stephen Barnaby, whose speciality on the spoken word scene is mini-epics of 50 word fiction (the last paragraph could fit three of those in, just so you know!). I’d shared a stage (or corner of a pub with a mike) with Stephen on a number of occasions, and I’d always enjoyed his work. This time, though, his short story pamphlet had allowed him to stretch out a bit, and to good effect: the story he read, A Country Walk, concerned a visit to a friend in a psychiatric hospital, whose idea of a country walk was along the side of a motorway. Treading the fine line (literally) between humour and some pretty dark material, it was a perfect example of how Barnaby wraps up serious topics in a layer of charm and wit, and then roasts the two so the juices run into each other. Of course, his considerable performance chops don’t hinder.

My second motivation came next. Again, I’ve known Kevin Cadwallender as a fellow member of the Edinburgh spoken word scene for many years now. A much-garlanded performance poet and slam champion, he opened his account by telling us his new collection didn’t have any funny poems in it. He then proceeded to read a succession of funny poems – not laugh out loud, exactly, but full of that wry Geordie humour that we’ve come to expect from him. A poem like A Cynic’s Guide to Proverbs, with lines like ‘The wicked seem to rest quite a lot,’ clearly aren’t meant to be served up po-faced.

His closer, Ishtar on the No. 35 Bus, showed Cadwallender’s depth of vision, however. A much longer poem, it documents life on Easter Road, one of Edinburgh’s more mixed areas (and I say that as a life long fan of its most well-known occupant, Hibernian FC). The lines are grittily realistic, and yet uniquely beautiful: the Road’s ‘elephant hide’ a recurring theme throughout. Again, Cadwallender’s performance skills came into play: in the relatively douce surroundings of the SPL, he didn’t need to ramp it up as he would at a poetry slam, but, instead, peeled away the layers of meaning in this brilliant piece of work subtly and expertly until, at the end, there was that moment, that electricity in the room, you get at the end of any performance, spoken word or musical, when the collective breath is taken away. Then the applause.

I wasn’t so familiar with Diana Hendry’s work. However, she shared with the others that northern English sense of humour that, like those of the Scots, always has a dark edge to it (if we do go for independence, we totally need to move that border down a bit. Just saying). Her story, about a lady of mature years being ‘rescued,’ was more conventional than the others, perhaps, but no less enjoyable for that.

All of that, and then time enough when I got home to get the grass cut anyway.

You can buy all these fine volumes from Red Squirrel Press. And if your appetite’s whetted for literary events, my own novel launches are coming up next month: follow me here, on Twitter (@andrewferguso4) or sign up to the novel’s Facebook page for more details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Death of a Blind Poet

To, somewhat counter-intuitively, the Monkey Barrel in Blair Street for the last ever session of Blind Poetics on Monday, the hallowed Edinburgh pub of the same name having closed for a refurb. Said closure had coincided with Alec Beattie, one of the regular spoken word night’s organisers, moving to darkest Renfrewshire, with his partner in crime, Roddy Shippin, possibly moving to London (but not having told his Mum first, we learned).

It’s a shame to see an institution like Blind Poetics go. The Blind Poet itself will no doubt reopen in due course, scrubbed up or vintagely distressed, as the fashion dictates, with foams of this and emulsions of that served on lumps of slate by bearded hipsters of both sexes, I shouldn’t wonder; but spoken word in all its multifarious forms will no longer be declaimed there.

Coupled with the end of some other regular spoken word nights like Rally and Broad recently, and the relative dormancy of groups like Writers’ Bloc, I did wonder if there was something of a trend emerging here. However, Inky Fingers, a relative newcomer to the Edinburgh scene, is to take up a residency at the Monkey Barrel, so not all is lost.

I do hope that whoever carries the torch onwards keeps the idea of open mic going, and doesn’t just cater to the star performers. Monday night’s offering was the usual eclectic mix of intense, passionate poetry, not a little of raging against the Trump regime, (step forward Janet Crawford) and some stuff that was, well, plain daft. Whilst there was a lot of fine stuff on offer in the first third, one of my favourites was a poem about sweating.

There was also though a fair amount of the intense stuff, generally by people young enough to be my offspring; another first third highlight for me was a poem by a woman who had had the sense to bring along her poetry collection to sell on the night. I couldn’t even tell you now what it was about: but it was good, I remember, and well delivered, which is half the battle.

Which brings me to my own contribution. I was first up after the break in the second third; I had wanted to turn up and do something new, but, significantly, my time had been taken up recording guitars and vocals with the esteemed Isaac Brutal at the weekend, and my idea to update and tartanise Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ as a spoken word rap was still lying, half finished, on the desk by Monday afternoon.

Running out of time, I planned to ransack my folder of tried and tested spoken word pieces and find something to fit the show’s tight three-minute limit. The folder had gone missing in action, a victim of one of my cupboard tidying purges of the past few months. Again, significantly, all I could find were song lyrics in various stages of completion.

Things began to crystallise for me. I decided that the death of Blind Poetics should also be the death of my spoken word career; or at least spoken word without music. I suppose I might make a comeback if the current Writers’ Bloc renaissance continues, and they’re really stuck, but until then, I told the audience, guitar playing was the way forward for me. They feigned polite interest.

What I ended up performing was a much edited down version of a writing project I’d done an itchy seven years before: 50 first lines, which I’d put up and asked people to vote which one they’d like me to write. I don’t know if anyone ever did express an opinion, but in any event, I think I’d attempted about three of them over the next few years. What I’d never done was use them as a performance piece.

It was pretty weak material, so it was all about the spiel; as I stumbled over the first few words of the first first line, Roddy served up a juicy half volley for me about not being able to get the word ‘conservative’ out and I was away. I reminded myself as I went along that this was my default performance style: stumbling, bumbling, self-deprecating, and getting the best laughs from the mistakes and digressions.

Although there were a few more seasoned performers like me in the second third like Rose Fraser Ritchie, I did feel a sense that it was a good time to retire. There were a lot of youngsters out there. I told the audience they were welcome to take any of the first lines they wanted and craft the killer story I never had, but I don’t expect any of them will.

In the end of the day though, if I wanted the young turks, as I called them, to take anything away from my performance, it was that as long as you spout a lot of inconsequential crap with confidence, riding the mistakes and surfing the laughs – intended or unintended – as they roll in from the audience, it’s the performance people will remember, not necessarily the killer lines. Although that would be a bonus.

Thanks to Alec and Roddy for Blind Poetics: I came to it relatively late in the day, but the few I did attend were great nights. You brought a lot of new people on, and also gave a safe space to old salts like me who wanted to try out something new. Good luck with whatever you do, guys.

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Never Forget Who We Are

I first wrote this after watching a news item about a bunch of moronic English football fans using the Brexit vote as an excuse to go on the rampage in France, shouting xenophobic slogans as they went. However, the savage killing yesterday of an elderly priest in a place holy to followers of that religion made me realise the words go beyond the original ‘inspiration.’

Key to getting the sense of the words, though, was to back it with music that conveyed the emotion I felt. I performed it live at Blind Poetics earlier this month with the Mogwai track that had, equally, inspired it: the words, their tempo, and the overall timing, were designed to be fitted to the music. As I said on the night, the words aren’t meant to promote a particular political view: you can interpret the ‘we’ any way you want.

I’m reluctant to record a spoken word version on Soundcloud of this, because it’s using the music without permission. So, instead, here’s a bit of audience participation for you: click on the track, Special N, and read the words aloud, slowly, starting about 18 seconds in when the cello hits the bottom note for the first time. Don’t just read it in your head: we always read quicker internally than we do aloud, so you’ll be finished before the music’s half done.

Probably best to do it when you’re on your own though, rather than on the train. Folk might look at you funny.

 

 

Never Forget

When the hatred is high, and injustice is flowing

We must never forget who we are.

When the lies, and the fear, and the prejudice is growing,

We must never forget who we are.

 

We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.

 

We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.

 

For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.

 

And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where we have reached out, and helped, and stood for

Fairness, equality, freedom and brotherhood

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where tolerance and understanding have lost their currency,

Where scoundrels wrap themselves in flags, wolves in sheep’s clothing

We must never forget who we are.

 

We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.

 

We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.

 

For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.

 

And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.

 

When our values, our beliefs,

when everything we hold dear is under threat,

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where there are refugees, where there are dispossessed,

Where there is shelter to be given,

Where there are children of every nation crying,

We must never forget who we are.

 

And where we believe we are in the early years of a better nation,

We must never forget who we are.

 

For if the eyes of the world are on us,

And we want to look them in the eye,

We must never forget who we are.

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Attack of the Killer Drones

Drones have been getting a bad press recently, and rightly so: but don’t worry, this isn’t about the type of drone it’ll soon be economically realistic to buy to send on CIA-style missions against the neighbour’s cat. No sirree Bob. The drones I’m talking about are of the musical variety.

There’s a strong tradition of droning in Scottish music of course: it’s an essential element of the bagpipes, as anyone who’s ever walked past a busker on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile can testify (incidentally, what was up with that on Saturday just past? There were, like, two of them doing a duet next to David Hume, and although I’m no expert, they were properly good? No Flower of Scotland or anything!)

Anyway, when I was starting to put together material for my forthcoming (at some point) solo album/vanity project, ‘Songs in a Scottish Accent,’ there were a few people at the top of my list of potential collaborators, and one of them was Craig ‘Harky’ Harkness. Apart from being – at various points – my unpaid (other than the occasional pint) sound and recording engineer, producer, mentor and provider of fun musical facts, Harky is a greatly underrated (especially by himself) musician and composer of interesting noises. One which I have still on my phone is literally called ‘Harky’s Drone-ilicious Comp’ (I think someone else named it for him, as he was too modest to call it anything, typically) which has featured in a fire safety film made by Fife students and now to be shown more widely.

When we first started batting ideas back and forward, Harky – perhaps because he knew of my liking for Kula Shaker – sent me this short piece which he’d put together on his phone, using a shruti box app and, I think, another synth app. The droning of the shruti box – an Indian instrument – the high, wailing, synth, and the positively hypnotic, weird beat he’d added to it, was intriguing to me, to say the least. I saw it as a perfect length for a short spoken word piece.

My more conventional musical tropes were then brought to bear on it. Layering on guitars and keyboard was easy enough – for those of you that are interested, I used my own, semi-acoustic De Ville for the distorted solo – amazing how a clean acoustic signal can be thoroughly dirtied up with the right software. I added a burst of bagpipe sample at the start, as a sort of hommage to my homeland drone. I also have some decent tabla samples, so I built them into a basic beat that complemented Harky’s original percussion. Then I was ready to put some words on it.

The first piece I’d had in mind, called coincidentally David Hume’s Blues, proved unsuitable. That was partly because I’d had so much fun with the distorted guitars I’d have had to shout half the story: but mainly because I couldn’t get the words right. The words I used instead had a strange provenance.

In April 2014, we went on one of our Spanish expeditions, taking in Granada, Ubeda, and Malaga. It was a great trip, but the experience was coloured by my state of mind at the time: my Dad had passed away in January of that year. The small notepad I’d forced myself to take with me, to write something – anything – for the first time in three months, felt like a burden rather than a source of pleasure. All the same, some disjointed thoughts, observations, and images, made their way in. I was under no illusion that any of it might be useable.

After the holiday, the notebook – one of these fake vintage ones you get, with a faux animal skin cover, and unbleached pages that are very pretty, but difficult to write on, especially in a moving bus – went into the bookcase, unread for a year. When I did dig it out, some of the words then got sewn together loosely: it took another year before I looked at them again, tightened them up, and began to see the patterns in them: the Moroccan street-hawker dodging the cops on the Street of the Catholic Kings; the Moorish ruler of the Alhambra, grieving for his kingdom; and, of course, my own sense of loss. The final version owes much to Jane McKie, my poetic mentor (like Harky, also unpaid).

So that’s how the words and music of ‘Leaving Granada’ came together. Hope you like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You’ll Be Hearing From Me (quite a bit, actually)

Sunday, 29th November 2015

Regular readers of this blog (if such creatures do exist) will know that it’s a bit, well, irregular. I could just use everyone else’s excuse that I’m incredibly busy, but actually, it’s also that I pretty much decided at the get go that I would only put something up when I felt I had something to say. And, as I gaze out on an increasingly soggy Fife landscape this morning (later: snowy), I reflect that I have quite a bit to say at the moment, actually.

The last five years have been a bit up and down for me on a personal basis: a brief tickle from the Grim Reaper (I had a melanoma successfully removed from my arm in 2011) and losing both my parents, my Mum in 2011 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, and my Dad, much more unexpectedly, in January last year. At the same time, I’ve seen Daughter and Heiress grow up, and I thank my lucky stars I’ve been in a job that entails me being around most of the time to see her do it.

The latest D & H news, in case there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t know, is that she’s had an unconditional acceptance for Napier University to do English – her second choice, but a strong one, I think. She seems to want to do journalism: the little blighter can write, certainly. No idea who she gets that from. Actually, I do – her grandfathers, both of whom have published books. And her uncle, for that matter.

As anyone who’s lost their parents will know, your world changes afterwards: celebrating big moments like Heather’s exam successes and her uni acceptance, as well as the excitement of buying and doing up a run down flat in Edinburgh (of which more in a separate blog) will always have the sepia edge of regret that you can’t share the news with the ones who’ve gone. I miss them more than I can put into words, as I do friends and colleagues like my buddy Stuart Crosbie, taken far too early by that modern epidemic (so it seems) of cancer.

What I hadn’t expected was the effect all of this would have on my creative life. Back in 2010, I would have called myself a writer, first and foremost: around this time that year, I had finished the first draft of my novel, Buddha Belly (which may now be published as The Wrong Box – you’ll be hearing from me on that presently, too) and Writers’ Bloc was still going full steam. If my memory serves me well, our Unbound appearance at the Book Festival that year had been one featuring words and music. Andrew J Wilson’s contribution featured one Kenny Mackay on guitar, and Charlotte Halton on sax, whilst my own had Mark Allan and myself on guitar, Charlotte on sax, and Kelly Brooks singing.

Looking back, that now feels like a turning point. Kelly and I had started working together on the Venus Carmichael material in 2008, but that feeling of being in a bigger band – however briefly for one night only – reminded me even more forcefully what a blast making music with others was.

How things have changed in those five years. As I explained recently, I’m now in two bands – Tribute to Venus Carmichael and Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express; my output this year has consisted exclusively of songwriting: my last gig had me impersonating Leonard Cohen, backed by the Brutal Acoustic Division, and my next one will be another musical one, Tribute to Venus Carmichael sharing a bill with Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent!

It is strange how the loss of my parents seems to have coincided with this. After my Mum went, I stopped writing short stories almost completely, and turned to poetry – for the first time since I was a teenager, more or less. When my Dad died, all desire to write went altogether, for months. My traditional solace of trying to make sense of the world through writing things down just didn’t seem to work any more. What came back, gradually, was music.

I’ve been exceptionally lucky in acquiring, along the way, some really talented people to help and encourage me in a musical direction. Gavin Inglis has always been a close collaborator from the inception of Writers’ Bloc and before: but he was the one that introduced me to the idea that, with a couple of extra bits of kit and some software, you could become your own record producer. His introducing me to Kelly was critical to the existence of Venus Carmichael – a great singer who enunciates every word of my precious lyrics perfectly, she’s also a tough critic of the new material, which ensures you only get to hear the good stuff, once it’s shaped into transmissible form.

Similarly Craig Harkness, known almost universally as Harky, has helped me a huge deal with music production, sound engineering, and just about everything else as I’ve gone on this journey (to use the dreaded phrase). Mark and Kenny are always a pleasure to work with on musical projects involving Brutal and beyond, and now people like Graham Crawford, Norman Lamont, and Martin McGroarty fill out my musical family of fellow travellers, collaborators, and general good chaps with a good ear.

I’ve not given up on writing completely. Writing friends like Gav, Halsted Bernard, Bram Gieben, Jane Mckie, and Kirsti Wishart stay in touch. The aforementioned novel is due out next year. Besides, this blog  doesn’t write itself. Another post coming up arises out of a talk I did recently to some poor souls at Liberton High about songwriting: I did a slide which kind of sums up what I’ve learned about writing generally, and I thought I might work that up.

And so, as I clatter towards Christmas like a carthorse carrying a load of donkey jackets on an untreated surface, I have plans. Before the Venus gig on the 17th, more blog entries, and more solo-project music and spoken word. In the meantime, I suppose all of the above goes some way to explaining why the first of the new Soundcloud tracks below is pretty dark, and the other one a bit slushy and sentimental (well, as sentimental as I get these days). I have something else up my sleeve which might be ready in a week or so if I get the time. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these. As ever, any feedback gratefully received.

Andrew C Ferguson’s Virtual Free Fringe: 10 reasons to see performance poetry instead of stand up

  1. Comedians have taken over Edinburgh’s Fringe. They’ve commandeered all the big venues, and use up all the advertising space with posters of their big old faces, gurning away like the glum game show hosts half of them actually are.
  2. Poets have been trying to plumb the depths of life’s mysteries with words for centuries. Ali Maloney’s Hydronomicon, for example, which I saw on Saturday night, explores flood myths, squid-based horror, and a looming watery world-end in an hour of fathoms-deep word play and performance. It’s also funny in bits, in a dark bouffon-ish way. In contrast, you could walk through most stand ups’ profoundest thoughts without getting your ankles wet.
  3. Stand up comedy shows cost a mint, leaving you less money for a decent rioja afterwards. Ali (and his stablemates in Shift/ A Best of Spoken Word) set you back a mere six quid.
  4. Poets have a greater verbal range. Here’s Ali’s pitch, for example: ‘Lovecraftian death burlesques, apocalypse rap; a bouffon mystery.’ Here’s what will likely be the opening line of most stand ups that have been on the telly: ‘Fucking Edinburgh! It’s fucking great to be here for the fucking Fringe. I fucking love it here. It’s fucking full of fucking Scots fuckers. So what about that fucking referendum then, eh?’
  5. At a stand up comedian’s show, you’ll either be sat beside someone who’s more lagered up than you are, and laughs like a baboon on helium every time the comedian says the word ‘fucking,’ or someone who’s less lagered up than you and is, frankly, a bit disappointed that the comedian, who seemed so funny on that panel show, has to say the word ‘fucking’ twice in every sentence.
  6. In case you’ve developed an allergy to poetry after forced overdosing on Philip Larkin at school, this isn’t like that. It isn’t like William McGonagall either, or that woman down the road who insists on reading a twelve page epic about the death of her golden retriever at every open mic night you’ve ever been at. Ali (and stablemates Bram Gieben, Rachel McCrum and Jenny Lindsay) are the absolute cream of Scotland’s performance poetry scene, combining wordplay and performance in a way that actually can sometimes resemble stand up. Except the words are better put together. And the performance is ten times more dramatic. And they don’t rely on tired old gags about how it’s hard to work an iPhone properly.
  7. They’re local. Even if they weren’t local originally, they are now (well, Bram lives in Glasgow, but he is over here a lot). Most comedians aren’t. Doesn’t make them bad people. Just saying.
  8. You can go for a drink with the performer afterwards (okay, so I know Ali personally, so that helps, but even if you didn’t, he’s such a personable guy you totally could anyway). I was in a bar in the Cowgate once and Paul Merton shouldered me out of the way to get served first at the bar. He’s a big fucker, I’ll give him that.
  9. The  comedians have taken over the biggest, most corporate venues to maximise income: so your night will be spent wedged at the back in a too-small bucket seat between the lagered up baboon on helium, and the unlagered one muttering about the excessive use of that word. On the other hand, Ali and the rest are performing in the atmospheric Cairns Lecture Theatre at Summerhall, which is so intimate you could practically reach out and touch the performer. Or, indeed, the performer could reach out and touch you, as Ali did to several audience members on a rampaging, preacher-stylee segment of his show (but only in a totally appropriate – in the circumstances – laying on of hands kind of way). You wouldn’t get Paul Merton touching you, not unless you were standing between him and his next pint of John Smith’s.
  10. The best of the comedy stuff will be on the telly anyway, so you can watch it from the comfort of your own couch, in easy reach of a reasonably priced rioja.

 

That Post-Referendum Poetry In Full

I had to be very careful about what I said in public during the Scottish Independence Referendum, given my job (which I rather like and would like to keep!) What I said, or rather shouted at the telly, during the final days of the campaign, in the privacy of my own home, is another matter…

Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago, before the 2011 Scottish Parliament election made the Referendum a reality.  It meant certain things to me then; what it means to you now, after the No result, with our First Minister stepping down and the supposed consensus of the Westminster politicians (it is said) immediately breaking down, might be something else. That’s what poems are meant to be like, isn’t it?

Fellow Scots, whether Yes or No, peace and love. What is the next level for us?

If you see an advert below this, I didn’t put it there, WordPress did. They’re entitled to, but since I can’t see it, I’ve no idea if the I like the merchandise or not. Just in case you wondered.

In Translation

More Spanish poetry in translation: the two by Benedetti are pretty light-hearted, especially the second one. In a way that’s slightly more difficult to translate, since it’s less about using the right English word for the multiple – or single – meanings you think the poet’s aiming for, and more about trying to get the sense of humour right. Which is why I put in the limerick-stylee alternative version of Once.

Lorca’s poem is very compressed, but beautiful, I think, in its economy. Pretentious, yo?

You’ll be able to track these permanently on the In Translation page.

Also coming soon, a short story by a guy called Victor Olivares that’s been a mite tricky to get right.

Mario Benedetti

Message in a Bottle (Botella al Mar)

I’m putting these six lines in my bottle,

with the secret design that, one day,

it washes up on a near-empty beach, and a child finds it,

opens it, and instead of lines pulls out

warnings and assistance,

and pebbles and snails.

 

The Eleventh Commandment (Once)

No holy man of the church

has known how to explain

why there is no

eleventh commandment:

that orders women

not to covet their neighbour’s husband.

 

Commandment XI (alternative version)

We feel that the priest

should explain, at the least,

why no eleventh commandment’s been passed.

Women can’t get to heaven,

says commandment eleven,

coveting neighbouring pieces of ass.

 

Federico Garcia Lorca

The Silence

Listen, my son, to the silence.

It’s a silence with undulations:

a silence, where valleys and echoes slide,

a silence that forces you, listening,

to bow your head to the ground.

Why Duality Tango?

I remember once acting for a client who was buying a flat in another part of town without his wife’s knowledge: a bolt hole, he said, for a marriage going wrong. I didn’t stay at the firm long enough to find out whether he quietly sold it a year later, or needed me to act for him in the divorce.

Everyone has dualities, different selves we shuffle for the people we’re with or the place we’re in. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Confessions of a Justified Sinner, are just extreme expressions of the double lives we all sometimes lead. Most of us don’t go that far, but have different faces for our work colleagues, our friends, our nearest and dearest; little singularities, copies of ourselves we have to hand, either in the flesh or online. You don’t have to have a safe house in London’s East End, like Henry Jekyll did,  or even a small town flat to escape your wife, to have a duality,.

And sometimes, one self has to dance with another.

I’m not so different, then. Similarly, the last couple of years I’ve been through, with a health scare, a Big Birthday, and losing nearest and dearest, isn’t such an unusual set of life events. What has surprised me is how it’s affected my creative output.

I was learning and listening to music long before I started trying to sell my writing. 30 years on, I’ve got a box of fiction and poetry magazines in the attic, a few anthologies I’ve featured in on my bookshelves, and three unpublished novels in a digital drawer. I also have three guitars, and a keyboard hooked into a digital audio interface. The latter’s down to Gavin Inglis, who got me into music editing and recording the way I imagine a drug dealer gets one into crack cocaine.

This show is the result of all of that, and meeting other musicians, such as my Tribute to Venus Carmichael collaborator, Kelly Brooks, and guitar players Mark Allan and Kenny Mackay. They say music uses a different part of your cerebral cortex altogether, and over the past two years that part has been lighting up more than it has for years: I wake up with tunes, rather than poems, running through my head these days.

Words alone can be powerful; but for me, the right music behind them turbo-charges the emotional impact. A three-chord progression on a Telecaster tends to reach parts of me most poetry never will. What this show’s about, then, is blending my wordy and (ahem) musical selves. A duality of creativity, if you will.

If that sounds all a bit intense, don’t worry – this ain’t no misery memoir. There will be bits of the show that are meant to be moving. But it’s also meant to be funny. Then the second half Kelly and the boys come on to back me, and we aim to knock you right out of your socks.

If you’re ever heard anything of mine at a show and liked it, please come. If I’ve ever done you anything remotely resembling a favour, consider it called in. You know performers need an audience to feed off, right? Honestly, honestly, I think this is my best work so far.

Bring socks.