andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

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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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Karen Clamp Speaks: a second extract from the Wrong Box

Extract from Chapter 2: My Name Is Karen Clamp

Second extract from my forthcoming novel, The Wrong Box, available in Kindle and paperback editions from Amazon or, if you prefer a ‘proper’ bookshop, Waterstone’s. In this extract from Chapter 2, Karen Clamp introduces herself, and hears something interesting not entirely by accident.

I must finish up and get the bairn in from the green. I have to
get some of this down though. There’s somethin really, really
no right about those lassies down the stairs from me.

My name, for the record, is Karen Clamp. Age: 40. Dress size:
20. Means of support: zero. I live in a third floor maisonette in
Ivanhoe Court, on the Auchendrossan Estate. No exactly your
Edinburgh tourist destination, by the way. Unless you’re a fan
of Trainspottin.

Oh aye. I read that filth. Makes us all out to be druggies and
scumbags. Full of swear words. I heard that that Irvine Welsh
used to work down the housin department in Leith, and blagged
all their best stories. Don’t see him down there much now though.
Well that’s no me. Don’t drink, don’t take drugs, don’t swear.
You can ask anyone that kens me about that, even the people in
the Cooncil. ‘In many ways, Ms Clamp, you’re the perfect
example of community empowerment,’ one of them says to me
recently. In many ways. Sarky cow.

Anyway, that’s another story. Those two lassies down the stairs
from me are involved in somethin and they’re in it up to their
filthy wee necks. I heard them talkin this mornin on the baby
monitor.

Aye, that’s right. The baby monitor. I ken how that sounds,
but hear me out. I have my reasons, believe you me.

The folk the Cooncil have had in that flat below me over the
last few years would make Trainspottin look like A Room With A
View
. Convicted paedophile, at one point, before the locals
nearly lynched the guy. Then a couple of chancers who ran it as
a party flat. Raves every other night. Then, of course, a cannabis
farm. That was actually ok, because they were keepin a low
profile until they’d got the crop fully grown. The worst thing
about it was the police raid, burstin our door down by mistake.

When the Cooncil gutted the flat downstairs, after they finally
threw out the last set of druggies, I took the chance to nip down
when the Cooncil workies were away havin their two hour lunch
break, and install some handy wee devices. Never too early to
ken what the neighbours are up to. Never too early to ken what
the Cooncil are up to either, for that matter. I may be the size of
a number eight to Muirhouse, but I’m no stupid.

See, I kent the lassies had been out on the randan on Friday
night and came in late. Woke me up as usual with all the doors
bangin and that. Luckily, the bairn would sleep through a
thermonuclear strike on her toy cupboard.

Then, this mornin, just when I’m on my second coffee of the
day, I hear them through the baby monitor talkin to each other,
almost whisperin like, except the East European lassie can’t keep
her voice down ever and that other one, wee Debi Murray, it’s
never long before she starts pumpin up the volume too.

‘So, what happen to him?’ The East European one, Elena I
think her name is, says.

‘Never you mind, hen,’ says Debi. ‘The less we ken about what
went on after we left that flat, the better.’

By now, I’m mildly interested, although I’m still thinkin it’s
some kind of low level drug deal. I’ve got bigger fish to fry than
that, especially all that corruption that’s goin on in the Cooncil
that I’m just one step away from blowin the lid on. Then the
other one says somethin that makes me sit up and pay attention.
‘But it’s on the radio, Debi,’ she says. ‘Top businessman found
dead in Stockbridge lawyer’s flat.’

That nearly sends me scamperin for the laptop, to check the
news websites, but I’m no wantin to miss any of this. I’m wishin
now I’d put in recordin devices that are compatible with
Windows. That way I could be recordin all this. Course they
didn’t have them when I needed them. They’re releasin bits of
technology one bit at a time, just to make us buy more. Plain as
anythin.

‘It isn’t our problem, Elena,’ says Debi. ‘We did what we were
told to do. We weren’t to ken he would react that way.’
Just then, the ice-cream van starts up below the deck access
again. If I could get down the stairs fast enough, and if it weren’t
for my confidence issues, I’d stick that guy’s head down his
freezer with the Vanilla Flake. Either he’s got one of these ham
radios, or it’s signals given off by his chimes, but whatever it is,
it throws the baby monitor out of whack every time he comes
round here with them on. Ice-cream van, eh? What a joke. Fags’ll
be the least of what he’s sellin to the kids.

I take the chance to check on Candice again. She’s eight, now,
so you can’t keep them wrapped up in cotton wool forever. She’s
a good wee lassie though, always plays down on the common
bit drying green where I can see her. She gives me a wee wave
and I wave back. It’s the McLatchie lassie with her, from the
looks of it. Low risk.

Anyway, by the time heid-the-baw in the van has gone off
again, the lassies have been out to him for fags and come back
to a different part of the flat where I can’t pick up what they’re
sayin. It’s only in the livin room, you see, that the listenin device
still works. One out of three isn’t a very good success rate but,
given I ordered it off the internet and it’s installed semi-legally
in the flat downstairs, I don’t suppose I can do much about the
guarantee. Probably the batteries come to think of it.

So I go onto the internet and, sure enough, down a wee bit
from the top stories, a wee piece sayin:

BUSINESSMAN FOUND DEAD
IN CITY SOLICITOR’S FLAT.
A prominent Liverpool businessman has
been found dead in a flat in the city in
unusual circumstances. The flat’s tenant, a
solicitor with prominent city firm Benzini,
Lambe and Lockhart, is said to be helping
police with their enquiries. No charges
have been brought and police investigations continue.

It is understood, however,
that the body was found naked in the bath.

They couldn’t resist that last bit, could they, eh? All sex, sex,
sex. It gets my mind racin though, for a different reason. How
do those lassies ken about it? Solicitors and businessmen –
sounds like it might be the Freemasonic thing again, although it
could be somethin to do with the Cooncil and their Black Ops
Division. I just can’t tell at this stage. No enough to go on…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Simon English speaks – an extract from The Wrong Box

First extract from my forthcoming novel, The Wrong Box, available in Kindle and paperback format on Amazon, or from Waterstone’s. Warning: this extract contains swearing and sexual references – over 18s only.

Extract from Chapter 1: Jimmy Takes a Bath

Simon English, posted north after an unfortunate misunderstanding involving the trainee and the London office’s boardroom table, finds himself waking up after a night looking after his client, Jimmy Ahmed, to find him naked, dead and with his toe stuck up the tap in the bathroom of English’s flat swap. Simon summons the authorities.

There are two of them, of course. They always hunt in pairs:
they’ve seen it on the telly. There’s an older one, with cropped
hair, a whisky-sour complexion, and bags under his eyes he
could take his Farmfoods shopping home in. The younger one
is dark-haired, whippet-thin, and in a suit so nasty you could
probably get a cream for it.

‘Mr English? DS Martin, and this is DS Futret. You have a
body,’ the first plod says, looking tired out already. I’m
rehearsing a line about saying fuck all till my brief arrives, when
the buzzer goes again. As I go to answer it, the two cops barge
in, and head for the bathroom without so much as a by-your-leave.
‘I’m from Gordon Drummond & Co.,’ a metallic female voice
says. I press the buzzer, and hear the door clunk open in the
stairwell.

The two cops are standing in the bathroom doorway,
muttering to each other, and I’m trying to act casual whilst
standing close enough to overhear them, when the flat door
opens and a whiff of Chanel announces my lawyer’s arrival.

The voice had warned me not to expect the old soak
Drummond himself. I’ve seen him preening himself in front of
a set of Session Cases on the news often enough to know he
wouldn’t pull himself out of bed on a Saturday morning, not
even for a thousand of Tony Hand’s favours.

I’m still not prepared for the sight that I turn to see. She’s in
her late twenties, I reckon, although she looks younger. Pert,
upturned nose, brown eyes, masses of chestnut curls.

‘I’m Sylvia McMonagle,’ she says, putting out a china-white
hand. I blurt out something while I take in the rest of her. The
neat dark suit isn’t this year’s, but it’s crisp enough. She’s
obviously dressed in a hurry, because she’s left the top two
buttons of her white (my favourite) blouse undone, as well as
(first real bit of luck this morning) the bottom one.

Thereby showing a little fold of tummy above the skirt line
that, with appropriate guidance, could develop nicely into a
Buddha belly. I take to her right away.

As soon as she’s shaken my hand, though, she goes straight
past me to DS Martin, standing in the bathroom doorway.
‘This him, then?’ she says to him. Martin smiles in recognition.
‘Well, Sylvia, it’s the only one we’ve found so far.’ He leans
towards her casually, his grin getting ever more ugly. The
younger one has disappeared into the bathroom, presumably
getting a closer look at Jimmy. I’ve opened the window since my
last contribution to the world of fishes: don’t want them to think
I’ve gassed the poor bastard to death.

‘We’ll have to treat it as a suspicious death, Sylvia,’ Martin says.
She hasn’t moved away since he came in close, despite the fact
the man stinks of fags. ‘It’s no normal for a man to die in a dry
bath with his toe stuck up the tap. We’ll get SOCOs in.’

I clear my throat. ‘Ehhmm. I was wondering when I’d be able
to use the bathroom again?’ It’s a stupid thing to say, I know,
but I kind of feel left out of things here. Bit of a spare prick at
the party. Martin deigns to look in my direction.

‘Can’t say sir. That’ll be SOCO’s call.’

I should just stay schtum, of course. My mouth won’t flap shut
now, though. ‘Oh I see, yeah, Scene Of Crime. Of course. Only,
would I be able to use the toilet before they…’

Martin’s looking at me like I’ve suggested doing a dump on
the deceased himself. He shakes his head. ‘No.’

Now Sylvia, my lawyer who stands too close to cops, is
looking at me. ‘I suppose you’ll want to interview my client, Jim?
Can we arrange a time now that suits everyone?’

Martin blinks his baggy eyes slowly and glances over at his
colleague, who has poked his rat-like head out of the bathroom
doorway at that moment.

‘How about now? Down at the station, since we’re all up and
aboot on a Saturday? I was hopin to get to Tynecastle later, as it
happens.’

Sylvia smiles, and flutters her eyelashes at him. ‘Yes, okay.’
Shouldn’t she ask me? ‘Can you give me ten minutes with him,
first?’

‘Sure.’ Him now, is it? Mister Fucking Third Person Suspect?
The two cops tramp out, Martin giving me a look like he wishes
he could just lock me up now and save the paperwork, the cunt.

As the door bangs shut behind them, I go into the kitchen to
rescue the coffee, which is getting petulant.

‘Want a cup?’ I say over my shoulder to Sylvia.

‘No thanks.’ The way she says it makes it sound like even
thinking about coffee at a time like this is another character
defect. My head’s pounding like a fucking construction site and
anyway it’s my flat, sort of, so I pour myself one and take it
through to the living room where Sylvia has planted herself, legs
crossed, and notepad at the ready.

After some preliminaries like name, age and so on, she asks
me to describe the previous night. ‘I’d had a bit to drink,’ I say,
doing my guilty schoolboy look. She peers at me intensely. ‘Any
charlie?’

‘Since you ask, once we’re clear of the cops I’d be glad to – ’
her look makes clear she’s not amused. ‘Ehm, yeah, we did a line
in Jimmy’s hotel room before we got going. That was all for the
night, though. Just good old fashioned booze from there on in.’

She says nothing to that, scribbling in her notepad, so I
blunder on with the story of the evening, the Oyster Bar, the
Thai restaurant, Indigo’s even though it was rammed,
then…then a club, that was it, Rum-Ti-Tum-Tums in the
Cowgate. And then…

‘…and then it all gets a bit blurred, I’m afraid.’ I give her my
best smile. ‘But I’m fairly sure I left Jimmy at his hotel.’ I was
fairly sure, wasn’t I? But weren’t there women…?

I looked at Sylvia, who looks as if she’d been given a lemon to
suck. ‘I’m going to ask Jim Martin to give you a blood test, see
what’s still in your system,’ she says, tapping her pen on her
notepad.

‘What? Why?’ I’m starting to get really pissed off with her now,
the way she’s looking at me like I’m some kind of a criminal. I
mean, I’m a fellow lawyer, after all.

‘Just a sort of intuition,’ she says, shifting in her seat, and
re-crossing her legs. She puts her head to one side. ‘Tell me.
When you first woke up, did you feel anything out of the
ordinary? Disoriented, maybe?’

I think back to the moments before I stumbled into the
bathroom. ‘Sort of, yeah. Yeah, when I first got my eyes open I
didn’t really know for a minute where I was. But then, I’ve only
just been transferred from the London office, so I’ve just been
in this flat for a few days. Why?’

Sylvia’s smiling slightly now, in a way I find incredibly
annoying. ‘Just wondered. Call it woman’s intuition.’

I open my mouth to question her again. I’m not at all keen to
open up my bloodstream to the inquisitive snout of the Lothian
and Borders Crime Lab.

Then I notice that, in shifting position, Sylvia’s blouse has
ridden up a bit to reveal her belly button. I look up, to see
Sylvia’s smile has gone, to be replaced by her what-the-fuck-is-this-I’ve stepped-in look.

‘Why are you looking at my stomach all the time?’ she said. ‘Is
there something wrong?’

‘No, not at all,’ I murmur. ‘Rare eye condition. Look, if you
recommend I take a blood test, I’ll take a blood test. You’re the
expert in this field.’

Little does she know it’s the jewel in her navel that’s convinced
me. Terrible curse, male hormones. Especially the hangover
horn. That’s the worst of all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gie it a bit more Aldi? A wine (p)review

There are some things in which the Redoubtable Mrs F and I are right up to the minute (no,really!); in others, I’m afraid, we remain defiantly old school. In the latter basket is our continuing refusal to embrace the digital age as regards our daily newspaper, which we still have delivered in pulped-wood format by a half-asleep teenager at some indeterminate time in the morning. (One motivation – or excuse – now is our own half-asleep teenager, Daughter and Heiress, studying journalism).

But which newspaper, I’m sure you’re agog to know? Well, during the week, we subscribe to that bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism, the Guardian. However, on a Saturday, we take a lurch to the right in newspaper-buying terms and take the Times. What? Donate our hard-earned shekels to that hard-to-like family, the Murdochs? I like to tell colleagues that it’s because, after a week at the day job, I’ve lurched so far to the right I’m just about ready to invade Poland: but actually, it’s all about the columnists – Caitlin Moran, Giles Coren, and Jane MacQuitty, more specifically.

The last of these is probably of most use to us in a practical sense: even the legendary Coren family wit is unlikely to persuade us to travel 500 miles to eat in a London restaurant, whilst MacQuitty’s wine recommendations have often stood us in good stead. However, last weekend, she let me down, she let the Redoubtable Mrs F down but, of course, most of all, she let herself down.

It all started so promisingly: an article about wines our heroine had been tasting from the two German discounter supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi. I’ve previously waxed lyrical about some of Aldi’s bottles, in particular, so was looking forward to what Jane had to say.

Unfortunately, she focused on the very wines we’d be least likely to buy: whites, mainly, as well as a couple of clarets. Now, I know Bordeaux’s meant to be the best wine region in the world for red wine, but I suppose I’ve never shelled for an expensive enough bottle to really get a taste for it. So, unfortunately, it was a case of reading between the lines in MacQuitty’s article: she liked the Lidl Spanish and Italian ranges as well as the Bordeaux, she said, but didn’t specify which ones. Similarly, whilst mentioning fizzys and clarets aplenty, she only hinted at what else was good: Aldi’s Exquisite Collection ‘continues to please,’ she opined, as well as ‘its finest, beefed-up limited edition Lot series,’ before citing a Chardonnay as an example.

We decided to try Aldi first, given that we had a bit more to go on. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of the Lot series to be seen. In fact, not a jot. Fortunately, there was some of the Exquisite Collection, namely: the Aussie Shiraz (£5.79); Argentinian Malbec (£5.99); and a New Zealand Pinot Noir (£6.99).

First up was the Shiraz: Exquisite Australian Shirazinitially tasted last night with one of my chicken curries – no chilli heat, but lots of spice to cope with, in a creamy, yoghurty sauce. We generally find an Aussie Shiraz pretty good to go with this dish, and the Aldi version was up against a strong rival, in that there was a glassful left of Yellow Tail, a Ferguson house favourite in the same vein.

It stood up well – plenty of flavour, hefty amount of alcohol but carrying it fairly easily, good, long finish and as good a match to Chicken Panch Phuran as you could ask for, really. Great value, too.

 

 

 

Exquisite Argentinian Malbec

 

Next came the Malbec. Unfortunately, not up to the same standard as its Aussie stablemate: nothing wrong with it, really, but just a bit dry, a bit flavourless, a bit meh.

 

Exquisite New Zealand Pinot Noir

The New Zealand Pinot Noir was a bit more like it. We tasted it with my roasted salmon, lemon tomato and garlic dish (recipe: slice lemons and put at the bottom of a flattish casserole dish; ditto tomatoes and garlic; put salmon fillets on top; lob on salt, olive oil and a bit of paella spice, and stick in the oven till the salmon’s done) and it wnet well with that. A lighter red than we usually drink, but good for fish dishes.

So there you are – the Shiraz is the star!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alburne Park Revisited

Sunday, 22nd January, 2017

In the morning, a pristine white feather drifted down from an empty sky in the supermarket car park. Later, as my sister and I left the crematorium, a robin hopped onto a branch and watched us intently. Then, as we were pulling out of the car park, a tiny stag of the species of roe deer we have in our mainly suburban corner of the Lowlands crossed the road in broad daylight, pausing only to gaze at us before disappearing in a patch of scrubby woodland between the Crem and the housing estate that seemed to offer no camouflage whatsoever.

On another day, only the third of these might have seemed at all out of the ordinary. But this was the third anniversary of Dad’s passing.

Memories. Two things have been stirring themselves together in my subconscious recently: Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which I’ve just finished; and memories of my own childhood, prompted by my (so far) unsuccessful attempt to have an old cottage across the road from my childhood home saved from demolition.

Now, I can’t attempt to match the Boss’s evocative description of his early days – for me the best part of the book, as his early to mid career description lacks the same emotional punch and descriptive flair, confining itself to less interesting – for me at least – recall of bands, band members, recording sessions and contractual niggles. Besides, I came from a very different place.

For starters, my own childhood was pretty much as idyllic as a Sixties/Seventies upbringing in provincial Scotland could get: I had parents who loved and looked after me; kind and loving older siblings who spoil me with their affection to this day; and a schooling which, whilst not perhaps equipping me for Harvard, was probably above the average Scottish comprehensive product on offer at that time.

Anyway, this piece isn’t all about me: it’s also about the – in retrospect – unique place I grew up in.

When we moved to Alburne Park, Glenrothes was only fourteen years old, a product of the post-war drive to build new towns to alleviate the bomb-damaged urban sprawl: planned communities where places to work, rest, play and, most importantly, live, were designed in a holistic way. Light industry (especially after the Rothes Pit flooded, the way the old miners had said it would) provided the backbone of the jobs. There would be town and neighbourhood shopping centres, parks, landscaped areas, precincts of houses designed around primary schools in such a way that parents could walk kids to school without crossing a major road.

A lot – a whole lot – of imagination, creativity and sheer hard work went into all of that. If the end result that we live in today isn’t Utopia, then where is? The town’s problems are shared with most of the Western developed world: poverty that never gets solved, increasing social and economic inequality, a lack of attention to detail by governments of all stripes; conflicting priorities. And the residents themselves being, well, human and therefore less than perfect.

The land the town was built on existed before it, of course. It was mainly farmland, with the river that runs through it being used for papermaking. A blank canvas, but not entirely. In Alburne Park, there was a small ‘big house’ credited to Thomas Alburne, a plasterer for the local laird, the Earl of Rothes, dating from 1677, called Alburne Knowe. Nearby was a farm, Woolmill, and the previous main road ran crookedly through the middle, down across the bridge over the Leven, and on up towards Balbirnie Estate, where the neighbouring big cheeses had lived. There was an orchard in front of Alburne Knowe; fields for pasture and fields for crops.

By the time my family got there, in late 1962, when I was nine weeks old, the Corporation had built two lines of houses on either side of the road. Next came private house plots in what became Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive, the latter being where my family moved when I was about five.

It was a special place to grow up in as a kid. There were still apple trees in the old orchard, little stunted things long past their useful life; some of them ended up enclosed in our garden as a temptation for local youths to come over the fence and raise my Dad’s blood pressure. Down the brae towards the river, there were rope swings, sticklebacks, and frogspawn to be collected in jars; a field with horses in it. From there westwards, a shelter belt of trees ran along the back of the housing, with a path up the middle. Lots of hiding places, places to ride bikes, and – it was rumoured, though I never found any – scud mags the older boys had discarded amongst the undergrowth.

the wooded strip

Back along the top of the road, fields of cereal crops led to others used for a herd of cows; and, originally, a huge playing field with a massive old tree that caught all manner of kites and formed the venue for Guy Fawkes night bonfires – organised by the neighbourhood’s parents, toppling milk bottles of rockets and all. Leftover fireworks could be later inserted in the neighbouring field’s cowpats for experimental purposes.

That side of our territory also held a useful slope of tussocky grass that, covered in snow, provided mild peril on the old iron-bound sledges that came out of the neighbourhood’s garages as soon as it snowed. As we grew older and less heedful of our parent’s boundaries, a crumbling viaduct led up a railway branch line where a diesel shunter of an obscure class prowled with wagons from the paper mills, all the way up to the nearby village, where, for a brief summer or so, I became interested enough in railways to sneak into the old goods shed and see the A4 class Union of South Africa steam locomotive that, in those years, was housed there.

In short, it was a fantastic place to grow up. We played and played, or that’s how I remember it: football, cricket, tennis when Wimbledon was on – there was even a tennis court left behind by the last owners of the old house – or just explored, talked, wrestled and sat chewing grass stalks in one or other corner of our little empire. There were just enough neighbourhood kids to make up a single gang.

If this all sounds too good to be true, in a sense it was: what was really remarkable about where I grew up was the pace of change all around it. The football field where, according to some, I kicked the future Hollywood film actor Dougray Scott so hard he ran home crying (unlikely, since, apart from not being a violent kid, I’m three years older than him, a vast age difference in childhood games) was presently built over for a new road. Orchard Drive was soon built out, and then the horse’s field disappeared beneath Alburne Court; Alburne Crescent was developed out on both sides, taking down the kite-catching tree and the bonfire site.

Alburne Knowe, flattened to its foundations, was encircled by new housing, including ours: as I began to take an interest in plants, I realised that the rhododendrons clinging to existence in the all-pervading long grass were the last survivors of a garden some unknown owner had once taken pains to cultivate. When my Dad chopped down the apple trees to save his blood pressure, the last of the old orchard was gone.

Year on year, the remaining vestiges of what had been there before Glenrothes disappeared under the new town’s footprint. Not such an unusual story, I suppose: what was different, I think, was the steady, planned march of progress. The Territory, as I called it in a (as yet unpublished) novella years later, shrank and warped under concrete and blockwork. When writing this, it occurred to me just why I’ve been so bent out of shape by the proposal to demolish the old cottage the Art Club occupies, across the road from my childhood home: it’s because what was left behind of the old buildings was meant to be left behind: a reminder of times past. In fact, I remember now that in that novella, I had the central character protecting the wooded strip from development by the local Council – years after I lived there, but years and years ago.

It was, as I’ve said, a special place to grow up. It was then on the edge of town, so as kids we had all the benefits of suburban living coupled with an understanding of the countryside, because the countryside was a step away even childish legs could manage. At night, I used to lie awake on those mythically long summer nights, listening to the pop of  tennis balls in the court nearby; listening, too, for the trains crossing the viaduct on the main line, a couple of miles away: the sleeper to London from Aberdeen, rollicking through, pulled by a Class 55 Deltic, maybe, its distinctive engine note rippling out like a beetle’s droning flight over the fields.

London. As I grew, I knew it only as the place where the films came from; the BBC people with their RP vowels. When I visited it, it seemed like a film set, all the street name plates familiar from a dozen tv dramas. Later, I came to know it was where our laws came from, too. As I drifted off to sleep, a provincial kid identifying himself as Scottish, it seemed a long way away.

The time came soon enough to put away those childish things. I would go to university, not in far-off London, but in the nearest city to my province, Edinburgh. News of the outside world came from the Scotsman (then very much an Edinburgh paper) and the wise and witty ramblings of Clive James in the Observer on a Sunday. My charismatic English teacher had told me I could write: I read books and book reviews, like a trainee chef studying menus.

Now, the territory seemed less like a self-contained world and more like a series of unwanted boundaries. In a household dominated by classical music, I started listening to the grown-up albums of that mid-to-late Seventies golden era of the long player: Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon, and, of course, Born to Run.

At some point when I was 16 or so a school pal gave me my first Dylan album, which he’d been bored by. It was the live album at Budokan, and Dylan had me at the first guitar intro to ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Here was this kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who’d lain awake listening to trains, who’d escaped the suffocating small-town confines of his upbringing, and found his way to fortune, fame and (perhaps most importantly) girls, with little to his name except an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a preposterous talent.

Well, I quickly acquired the first two and learned how to play them, and reasonably quickly accepted I wasn’t going to get the third one any time soon. No matter. I was busting out of this place, and if my mode of transport wasn’t a Harley Davidson with a girl called Wendy strapping her hands across my engines, I got the message that Springsteen was sending me loud and clear. I wasn’t ever coming back.

It was only decades later, at my Mum’s funeral, that I heard how hard it had been for her when I, as the last of her brood, flew the nest. She was from the generation of parents that weren’t expected to emote all over the place, of course, so that just wouldn’t have been discussed. By then, a parent myself, I understood.

All things must change; all things must pass. Back when I was a kid, my Dad told me he’d seen deer once, in the harshest of winters, venturing close to the house on Alburne Park in search of food. I’d never seen one in all my childhood there: and yet, here, now, outside the crematorium in the middle of the day, in the middle of the next door town with scarcely any cover to be had, was this little stag, coolly holding us in his gaze, before trotting across the road and disappearing into thin air.

Not all things change for the better, but all things do change.

Alburne Cresent

The Wrong Box – speaks!

Hi y’all,

Just for a bit of fun, I’ve decided to upload an audio extract of my forthcoming novel. Part Deux, where we find out what happens when Gary continues his search, will be ready some time later this week.

In the meantime, just a reminder that you can pre-order the Kindle and paperback versions via Amazon (I even have my own page now, which is quite exciting!)

Through a Lurgi Darkly: Elbow at the Usher Hall, March 13th, 2017

To the Usher Hall, last Monday, for Elbow. They’re not my all time favourite band, but I kind of fell for them when they helped me while away an hour or so of a long flight to Oz, 8 or 9 years ago, by watching a documentary of them. Since then, they played a key part in my nephew Dave and his wife Gill’s wedding ceremony (One Day Like This, along with Cave’s Ship Song, being their ceremonial music of choice – how cool was that?) and their Glasto appearance a couple of years ago had confirmed to me that, without necessarily really knowing any of their songs, or indeed any of their lyrics beyond that great line about kissing him when his lips are thin, they were good enough value for a family outing to see them when their current tour rocked up in Edinburgh.

Part of my motivation was out of appreciation that Elbow really don’t need to be playing venues as small as the Usher Hall. They’re pretty big league now, and could have done the same as most premiership bands do these days, by touching down in Scotland only for the time it took them to play the vast, soul-free void that is Glasgow’s SSE before pissing off south of the Border.

Instead, they had opted for the Edwardian magnificence of the Usher Hall. I’m not sure if Guy Garvey appreciated the irony of his toasting ‘some rich bloke’ who had endowed the hall with his pint of lager: Usher being one of Edinburgh’s great brewing and distilling families. When I was growing up, there would have been no question of such riff raff as a rock band getting on stage at the Usher Hall. However, needs must and, on the night, the grand old dame opened her skirts to, it’s fair to say, a generational mix of Elbow fans, including Daughter and Heiress and a pal down in the standing area, and The Redoubtable Mrs F and I in the upper balcony.

Our seat was great, I have to say, particularly as the lurgi which I’m only now recovering from had firmly taken a grip of me. We were at the centre of things, behind a stairwell with a good solid oak rail to rest one’s arms on; and the sound, for the most part, was great. However, this is where you should take this review’s lack of enthusiasm with a pinch of salt, because I’m concerned that my meh-ness about support band C Duncan‘s indie-poppy, guitar n’ synth flavoured set comes from hearing it through a fug of aforementioned lurgi (incidentally, if you’re looking up lurgi in Wikipedia because it’s an unfamiliar term to you, I mean the word for a flu-like virus first coined by the Goons, not that I was afflicted by a German chemical and construction company). Certainly, The RMF found their sound very pleasant.

Elbow came on with a strong set, and if I wasn’t exactly dancing in my seat at the start of the it, their meandering melodies and Guy Garvey’s great warm baritone was like the aural equivalent of a warm bath I could slip into and forget the viral firestorm going on in my bloodstream. There was a glitch mid way, though, with the sound, which appeared to reduce the band to playing on only onstage-monitors and amps half way through a song. This seemed to throw them slightly, and Garvey extemporised while, presumably, things were frantically plugged in and plugged out again to resolve the problem; but it broke the spell that had been building slightly, at least for me.

However, they got their mojo back as the set wore on. Again, in my over the counter medication addled state, it was the third last song of the main set, The Birds, that really took off (apologies for the pun – I hate when real journos do that!) so I’ve put a Youtube of a similar version they did at the Eden Project in 2014 at the bottom of this. It did what all the best Elbow songs do: building slowly, from deceptively simple chord progressions and some whimsical lyrics, to a rousing, anthemic chorus. It really, really cheered me up and made me forget myself.

The closer was, of course, One Day Like This, and Guy Garvey had us singing along – talk about a crowd pleaser. He even got us to sing the line about kissing him when his lips are thin all by ourselves.

After that, a brief encore and off into the night with all our viruses. At 45 of your English pounds, not a cheap gig, but I’m still glad I went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t do advertising of other people’s stuff. So if you see one below here, WordPress put it there. It’s a free world, within limits.

Return to Leros

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My friend, Chris Mitchell, pictured above, is going back to help refugees in the Greek islands. A big, friendly bear of a man, Chris worked with me in the Council for many years, retired, and decided to do something practical about the refugee crisis on Europe’s borders rather than sitting around bemoaning it, as most of us liberal-hearted types do. I’m going to get him to describe what he’s looking to do in his own words; and then, with his permission, I’ve cut and pasted some Facebook posts and photos from his time on Leros last year to give you a flavour of what he found back then.

If you want to contribute to Chris’s campaign, you can do that here. He’s already raised his initial target, but let’s see if we can double it, eh?

Chris’s appeal

Hi folks,

I’m off again next week to Leros in the Aegean to work with a local refugee group for three weeks. Last year it was people climbing out of rubber dinghies, getting some respite, food and clothing whilst papers were sorted, then back on a ferry to Athens and onwards. That ground to a halt whilst I was there. Europe closed its borders and hearts to people fleeing horrors, and dumped the whole crisis on a Greek nation who they had only just plunged into the worst of austerity. Now thousands of refugees are just stuck in camps or worse, in limbo, going nowhere, with nothing to do; school, college, earnings, lives, relationships on hold. Leros Solidarity, who I am re-joining, are trying to make those lives a little less sterile with education, language classes, activities and maybe even a little bit of fun in a bleak situation.

Like last time I’m running an appeal, targeted at feeding minds and souls, now that mouths are generally being fed on Leros. Find it here.

The appeal is hosted on Just Giving through a charity, Aegean Solidarity Network Team UK. One resource is the 15 ukuleles and a teaching pack I’m taking with me (yes!? There are thousands of school kids and adults in Fife and beyond who will understand why instantly). This needs £280 of funding and I’m hoping to raise at least £1,000 in total so ASN can use the rest for other refugee relief projects I may be involved with.

If you gave to my appeal last year, thank you. If you would like to give again, thanks again. I’m self funding so donations go to helping refugees not me.

Chris’s story from last year

21st February:

Arrived in Kos 21st. £200 gone straight into buying food for 140 refugees who arrived in the two nights it was “safe” to cross to Kos. Weather bad. Since appeal began 3 weeks ago, refugees to Greece have doubled, fatalities up by 96 a third. Need immense. Donations will help.

26th February:

Handed over an AED defibrillator and batteries to Kos Solidarity. These inspiring and dedicated local people on Kos find refugees landing on their beaches. Some including kids, are very poorly. They provide dry clothes, support and no doubt some reassurance and hope that there is some humanity to be found. Thanks to aedlocator.org and you all who made this donation possible with your crowdfunding help. Still time to donate.

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29th February

The favoured mode of transport offered to refugees fleeing to Europe

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25 refugees had just landed on Kos after a long, cold night at sea. They were the last, of over 200 who had arrived in that 24 hrs. At 8am the morning before, I called my hotel to check out and go to nearby Leros. There I was told volunteers were much needed, refugee landings were in daily hundreds.
At 8.15 our first call to the port where 10 boys and men had been brought ashore by the Italian Coastguard boat. Off with dry clothes, shoes, food and water to distribute at the camp. A ferry to Leros would wait.


In the next 24 hours, 3 more boats and some 200 refugees would arrive: mothers with babies, young children, pregnant women, people on crutches and wheel chairs, old men from the east.


From the last grey beached whale of a boat at dawn, one father carried ashore a child in a blanket. Eyes closed. Cold clawed hands. No pulse to be found. No response. Then a rasping breath to my ear. Dad pointed to his own head. The boy, who he could have held in his arms since Syria or beyond, was, he reassured me, profoundly disabled. I hoped so. A call to MSF for a doctor to check at the UNHCR hotel. Another economic migrant?

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One day to go in our appeal. When we launched it 3 weeks ago, 54,00 refugees had made it across from Turkey to Greece by sea, 309 died on the way. UNHCR count 121,00 now and 410 fatalities. European governments have now abandoned Greece to contain and encamp people fleeing chaos and horrors. Local island communities and their Solidarity groups like on Kos and Leros where I am now, are showing super humanity. But like Pipka, the children and families camp I volunteer in now, they do so on a shoestring. Any donations made to this and subsequent appeals will provide lifesaving and care for the refugees and the groups who also care. Please help if you have not already given. You can also help if you have the time to volunteer, and by taking your holiday this year in the Greek Islands. The people need your support and have holiday business to keep going.

 

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2nd March
Across the bay from Lakki town, Leros, lies Lepida, a former long term psychiatric hospital of the old school. Now it is a ‘Hot Spot’, one of five the EU directed the Greek government to construct on the Aegean islands, to hold refugees. This was built to EU enforced deadlines and opened under military control last Friday.

Moored alongside sits a warship. Opened means the buildings and high fences are in place to contain 600 but without the necessary infrastructure to meet refugees’ basic needs. It already has some 400 refugees including women children and older people. Ferry tickets onward to Athens are being drastically cut back as Athens is overflowing. This morning I saw refugees in a race along the harbour as word spread the ticket office was open. Soon this camp and Leros will overflow as refugees keep coming.

On Monday evening, NGOs were called to the camp where the army asked them to provide food, rubbish bins and collection and other basic camp infrastructure at least for the next 4 days. The army still cannot provide it yet. Some NGOS such as MSF will not work at the camp under police or military control. Others find themselves under huge moral pressure to feed hungry refugees and supply basic products such as nappies and baby milk. Tonight, I passed through two sets of 15ft high fences equipped for razor wire to deliver and help serve out good food provided by Leros Solidarity, the local community group and two other small NGOs. The gates are locked and guarded by the army so refugees cannot get out to source their own food and medical products, unless their registration papers are through. Those from Pakistan or Africa will only get out to be deported, unless an asylum claim is successful. This is effectively a detention camp where those doing the detaining cannot feed and provide basic care to those they detain.

Earlier last week an experienced aid worker predicted to me the camps would open to meet the political imperatives but the infrastructure to make inmates lives tolerable would be at least two weeks away. He was right.

At the root of this is the EU forcing the Greeks to keep the refugees, to meet impossible deadlines and at the same time closing borders to the rest of Europe.

In the forthcoming referendum, the moral coward David Cameron wants us to endorse his ill gained and mean spirited curbs on refugees’ rights. He could have urged participation in a principled European project of peace and humanity, driving foward the values of solidarity, human rights, dignity and equality enshrined in the EU Constitution. Instead he is complicit in Fortress Europe. Is that the reason to vote yes?

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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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The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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