andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: previews

At Long Last: Final Days

One needed the vocals up a bit. One needed an extra scrub of acoustic guitar; another needed more dynamic drums. And one, ‘Rollercoaster,’ needed dropped altogether.

Finally, though, my new album, Final Days, is done. I never knew I could be quite so painstaking. It’s taken over a year and a half, in between other projects, to get it over the line. And the final 9 new songs (I’m so used to playing the bonus track as part of Isaac Brutal, I almost think of it as a cover version) have come from a winnowing down of about double that, probably.

Here’s the last track as a taster: a little bit of uplift to counter the album’s title track. It was the one that needed that extra acoustic guitar: I had no idea, and still have no idea, why it took multiple takes to get down a simple D to A strummed chord change, but it did!

For the story behind the songs, mosey over to the Final Days page using the tab at the top of my site. You can download the tracks for free from Soundcloud, or contact me on venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll send you the CD, post and everything else free. You can even join my inner circle of email followers and get bonus tracks and more free stuff!

All I ask in return is you donate to charity: there’s a couple of suggestions on the permanent page.

I’ve also had a bit of fun with the artwork. There’s always a picture of the bozo making the music somewhere on any album, and I guess my original idea was something like the cover of ‘Street Legal,’ with Dylan at a street corner looking elegantly boho. I couldn’t resist this picture of me in Madrid the Redoubtable Mrs F took, though, somewhere between Calle Atocha and Plaza de Santa Ana. Someone had decided to put a saying of Confucius up there: translated, it reads: ‘I heard, and I forgot; I saw, and I understood; I did, and I learned.’

That pretty much sums up the making of the album!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down here are adverts for random stuff. But if you’ve got the album, why would you need them?

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Going all Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Exterior view of the Hill House from the garden on a sunny day

Here’s the thing. In May, we’re going to Hill House, the Charles and Margaret Rennie Mackintosh designed house in Helensburgh. To stay.

The Hill House Drawing Room

 

 

 

 

 

I know – who knew you could actually stay there? The pictures (courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland) give you an idea of just how stunning a place it is: we’ve visited the bit you visit twice, but never had a scooby that there was an apartment upstairs you could actually have as a holiday let.

Mackintosh’s designs are found throughout the Hill House, including the hallThe NTS website gives you a good idea of what the place is all about, but for those of you who’ve never heard of the Mackintoshes, he was an architect and she was an artist and designer who, as a husband and wife team, created not just the most outstanding pieces of modern architecture in this country – the Glasgow School of Art is the best known example – but also designed the interiors, down to the last door knob. I’m no architecture student, but there are clearly resonances with Gaudi, as well, I suspect, as Lloyd Wright.

So, in May, just before the whole place gets enclosed in plastic to ward off the effects of the weather and preserve it for future generations, we’re staying up a spiral staircase, away from the madding crowds going round the rest of the house, in what was the schoolroom.

Margaret Macdonald’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ design above the Hill House drawing room fireplaceAnd here’s another intriguing thing: the website, for some reason, says ‘Like all rooms once the domain of children, it has the feeling of a place where much spirit and energy have been expended.’ Do they mean it’s haunted?

I shall of course report back. I plan to take a guitar, and some recording equipment, so if the Blackie children join in the song, there’ll be evidence!

P.S. You can read about why they’re ‘boxing’ the Hill House, and how you can contribute to the fund raising appeal, here. There’s even a video featuring beefcake TV history presenter, Neil Oliver, who’s also NTS President.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nothing you’d want, probably.

Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

Image result for meredith belbin

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertising below here is put up by WordPress, not me. Stick it to The Man and ignore it…

 

Musical Advent Calendar Day 2: Filthy Tongues

Image result for filthy tongue band

It’s not all going to be Dylan and Springsteen, this advent calendar! Not even Cave and Cohen, though they’ll no doubt put in an appearance. Today, I thought I might as well mention the band I’m going to see tonight: the Filthy Tongues, playing at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms.

I’m going with my guide and mentor in all things indie music-related, Mr Manic Pop Thrills, and I first saw the FTs and one of Mike’s gigs in Dundee. If you like the music, you can read a lot more about them in his interview with their front man, Martin Metcalfe, who has some interesting things to say about life with his current band compared with his days with Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. Better still, I’ll see you at the gig tonight!

If this leaves you feeling charitable, you might want to think about donating to the Red Cross appeal for the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

Bruce Springsteen and the Isaac Brutal Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murray: Any good song will work in any style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Emma: Jeffest5 again. Photo: Vikki McCraw)

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

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

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

 

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!

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.

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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!

Going Against the Grain: a Preview of Callaghan in Concert

As you’d expect from a guy who’s spent most of his adult life scribbling words down in various formats, my taste in what used to be called Rock and Pop (and still is in some of those rare beasts we used to call record shops) tends towards the lyrical. If I was asked, off the top of my head, to list my favourite artists over the past few decades, it would probably run something like:

BobDylanBruceSpringsteenElvisCostelloNickLoweSuzanneVegaStoneRosesReginaSpektorJasonIsbellCoryBranan… (continue ad nauseam)

In other words, a lot of songwriters noted for their words as much as their music. More, by the way, on the last of those two, in a future post.

However, if you asked me to name my favourite all time song, whilst those guys (and yes, I do note they’re mostly guys) would feature strongly, others might include ‘Go Your Own Way,’ by Fleetwood Mac. Best lyrics ever? Hardly. Despite it being a definite contender for my favourite song ever, I couldn’t sing you it – there’s something about shacking up which apparently continues to annoy Stevie Nicks, (yes, this was Lindsay Buckingham’s break up song about their relationship that she’s since had to do backing vocals to, more or less continuously, ever since) and then the chorus: ‘You can go your own wayyyyy, go your own way…’ etc. And that fretboard-melting guitar solo.

But I’m also a sucker for a piano-led tune with a soulful female voice. Two from ‘Tapestry,’ as written and sung by Carole King, would be ‘Natural Woman,’ and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ – and yes, I mean her versions. The lyrics are deceptively simple, direct, and personal – and, allied to stunning vocal performances and a great understated arrangement, they get me every time. Which brings me to Callaghan.

I can’t remember exactly how I first heard this British-based but frequently US touring singer: it was through one or other form of social media. Inevitably, there was a free EP to be had, and the song I’ve linked in below was on it: ‘Green Eyes.’ The lyrics are simple,and direct, about someone with green eyes. That works for me: both my wife and daughter have green eyes, so depending on my mood and circumstances, the words can mean different things to me. But, as with Carole King, it’s the music that moves me more.

First off, it’s Callaghan, and that gorgeous voice of hers, accompanying herself on the piano. It’s a great melody, and then the music builds: at a crucial point, the Hammond B3 takes it to church with that spiralling, gospelly chorus, and finally the guitarist brings it on home with a solo so good you could swear he’s has been touched by the guitar-playing hand of an angel. The first time I heard it, I thought it must be a studio crafted track, right up until the applause started at the end, the band is so tight.

And the best news? I missed Callaghan last time she came past, but this time, I’m going to see her, at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, on Sunday. I cannot wait: and the good news is, there are tickets left, there and elsewhere on her tour.

I just hope she plays this song.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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