andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

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Still Behind That Curve: The £150 Laptop

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - BlueHP Laptop: CRUCIAL UPDATES MISSING

Me: I’m busy with this cat meme on Twitter at the moment, okay?

HP Laptop: No, I’m not letting you do anything else until you click on this message about CRUCIAL UPDATES

Me (sighing): Yeah, ’cause it’s not like you’ve not told me I can’t get these updates, like, 5 million times?

HP Laptop: Maybe the updates would include software to deal with sarcasm and exaggeration?

Me (clicking on the thing): You seem to be dealing with these okay at the moment.

HP Laptop: YOU CAN’T GET THESE UPDATES! IT’S AN EMERGENCY! THIS WHOLE THING COULD LITERALLY BLOW AT ANY MINUTE!!!

Me (closing dialogue box): Now who’s exaggerating? Now f***k off.

Laptop (in a hurt tone): Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

My occasional series about the cheapest laptop in the shop. Not an advert for HP as such, but an advert for sometimes, just sometimes, how buying the cheapest thing isn’t a false economy. Until it breaks and it is, of course.

It looks like it’s nearly three years since I posted about the acquisition of this little beauty: isn’t she lovely? And, guess what, she’s still trucking! I suppose it shouldn’t be amazing that a piece of technology should still be working after two years and nine months, but it feels that way…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This blog is not sponsored by HP. Or anyone else, for that matter. But everyone has their price … in my case, guitars

 

 

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Albums of 1979: January

1979 Ford LTD Sedan related infomation,specifications ...Why 1979? Because it was forty years ago. And because, scarily, that was the year I became 17, and therefore marks the time when music really took on a whole new significance for me.

1979. Back when cars were proper cars and, er, women were gratuitously used as bonnet ornaments. Great hair though.

That perfect storm of toxic hormonal poisoning (or being a teenager, as it’s generally known) the onset of life-changing exams, and reaching an age when it was legal to do various things (or, in the case of alcohol, close enough for jazz, in Scotland at least) meant that music took on DEEP SIGNIFICANCE for me and my mates.

Of course, I could have chosen 1976, with punk’s first wave; or 1977, when some truly great albums came out, or indeed 1978, when I became 16. However, I’ve only just caught up with the concept, which I’ve frankly stolen from fellow blogger Vinyl Connection, who did something similar for 1968 last year.

Plus if I’d done it earlier I might have had to ‘fess up to something truly musically awful being the music I fell in love to (or, in the grown up world, had a serious infatuation, or bad case of the hots, to). I’ll spare the unwitting (and, in some cases, unknowing) recipients of said feelings the embarassment of naming them: they did nothing wrong, after all. Even the ones that crushed me by wanting to just be friends…

https://d3c1jucybpy4ua.cloudfront.net/data/6346/feature/home_taping_is_killing_music_and_its_illegal.jpg?1335807675

A word on the 1979 teenage, Scottish schoolkid musical landscape: music came out of radios via either the generalist Radio 1 (if you were pretending to be cool, the John Peel show was sacred territory) or by means of television shows, principally the generalist Top of the Pops. Albums – or LPs – were generally bought on vinyl, but often lent to mates to allow reproduction on long-dead tech called ‘C90 cassettes.’ Remember HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC – AND IT’S ILLEGAL? That was a successful campaign, right enough. They should try it with free downloads and streaming.

I don’t remember people making up mixtapes back then: the idea was you taped the whole album (or LP: the names were mainly interchangeable at that point) in its original sequence. So you could listen to it, in its original sequence. Because that was how the musical gods who had made it intended. Which could be a bit of a bugger for any albums over 45 minutes long, because you couldn’t squeeze all the tracks onto one side.

Technology problems aside, 1979’s teenage musical landscape was a multi-layered, nuanced affair – at least if you were still at school or university. It was tribal beyond belief: were you a punk, a metal head, a folkie (not many of those in late 70s Glenrothes, let me tell you!) or, perhaps, just a Serious Rock muso? My friends and I probably pretended to the latter, although none of us had any problem in adopting the new wave acts that had grown out of punk – step forward The Clash, Costello, Blondie, Boomtown Rats, and so on.

ABBA - WikipediaNo one was allowed to like Abba. At least officially. So I bought all their albums unofficially and hid them when my cooler friends came round.

Abba looking windswept and interesting somewhere in 1979. From Bjorn’s (or is it Benny’s: I could never tell them apart even when only one of them had a beard) fetching jumper, probably Canada.

For me, it was always Anna-Frid. Since you ask.

So. Enough context already. It was also, I think, the year I first picked up a guitar in any sort of earnest, inspired by Dylan. However, although a much-derided live album of his will crop up in April, I don’t intend to bore on about him all year, don’t worry. Instead, let’s have a look at some other people’s albums in January, and then next month, February, and so on (at least, that’s the plan: I haven’t even researched this enough to be sure there were albums of merit in every month of that year, but given the year it was, I’m pretty confident it is, and if not, hell, I’ll make some shit up).

So, without further ado, ladies n’ gennlemen:

Elvis costello armed forces 1.jpgELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS – ARMED FORCES

…and we’re off to a rippingly good start. Declan McManus’s third album, the second with the Attractions, and stuffed full of those early-period Costello lyrics: ‘Accidents Will Happen,’ and ‘Oliver’s Army,’ were the singles, although I always had a soft spot for ‘Green Shirt,’ which seemed to have just a bit more emotion in it. Plus that great line about fingerprints on his imagination.

Nick Lowe produced, and Costello’s version of his ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding’ (later to be murdered by Curtis Stigers) featured on the US import. Initial pressings included a live single, featuring three of his best: ‘Accidents Will Happen,’ ‘Alison,’ and ‘Watching the Detectives.’

Meanwhile, in another planet altogether, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had written and produced

SIster Sledge We Are Family 1979.jpgWE ARE FAMILY, by Sister Sledge. Not content with the success of Chic, the boys served up some dance floor fillers for the sisters: the title track, obviously, plus three other hits: ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer,’ ‘Thinking of You,’ and the one you’ll probably remember, ‘Lost in Music.’

Nile Rodgers was quoted later as saying that, of the various he and the rest of the Chic Organisation produced for themselves and others, “pound for pound, I think We Are Family is our best album hands down.”

Yes indeedy people, disco was still alive and well in 1979. In fact, on 6th January, American Bandstand featured the first known performance of the Village People’s ‘YMCA dance.’

Chertakemehome.jpgThose are probably the two most long-lasting albums of January. However, you also had TAKE ME HOME, Cher’s attempt at the disco genre (okay, I mentioned it mainly for the bonkers cover, but laugh all you like, it went gold in the States);

Joe Jackson released LOOK SHARP, Joejacksonlooksharp.jpgwith his classic ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him,’ as well as a rather more understated album cover: taken by Brian Griffin in five minutes on London’s South Bank, when he spotted a shaft of light and asked Jackson to stand in it. Despite being rated by Rolling Stone at number 22 of 100 great album covers of all time. Good to see, by the way, that Jackson’s got a new album coming out, 40 years on.

Defleppardep.pngWhat else? Def Leppard issued their debut EP, confusingly titled THE DEF LEPPARD EP. In line with the punk DIY ethos if not the music, the first 100 copies featured lyric sheets that singer Joe Elliot had phtocopied at work during his lunch break: he and his Mum did the gluing of the 1,000 sleeves.

Those first 1,000 copies, by the way, have a red label and were issued by the band’s own wonderfully named company, Bludgeon-Riffola.

 

Zappa sleep dirt.jpg

Others included Herbie Hancock’s FEETS, DON’T FAIL ME NOW; The Scorpions’ LOVEDRIVE; and John Denver’s self-titled album.

Oh, and Frank Zappa issued SLEEP DIRT, and then everyone in his world sued eveyone else. The excellently named Chad Wackerman did drum overdubs on the CD reissue: an example of nominative determinism if ever there was one.

I’d love to tell you I bought all of these albums at the time, just to show what a musical polymath I am. I think I had an illegal cassette of Armed Forces. What can I say? I was busy studying for my Highers, not to mention coping with those hormones.

Next month, February. See the pattern there?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts there be down here. Things have moved on a bit from 1979.

 

DIE HARD BY GEORGE

Context: this is a story I wrote some time ago, for live performance. It’s the closest I’ve ever got to a Christmas story. For those who live furth of the jurisdiction, Asda (owned by Walmart) and Morrison’s are two of the UK’s ‘Big Four’ supermarkets.

In the unlikely event you don’t know, the original Die Hard starred Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman and wasn’t set in Asda, or indeed any supermarket.

And yes, furth is an actual word. The English tend not to use it.

Jock McLean, Security Team Manager at Morrison’s, didn’t normally set foot in Asda.  But then, his ex-wife, Dolores didn’t usually invite him to their staff Christmas party.  She had promised him deep fried vol-au-vents, but he was hoping for more.

The store was a mess.  A bag of sugar spilled its guts in Aisle Seventeen.  Aisle Nineteen, Biscuits, Crisps, Snacks and Nuts, had Tunnock’s Tea Cakes trampled into the tiled surface.  Worst of all, a whole pile of Asda’s Own Meat Feast Pizzas had fallen out of the chiller cabinet at the back and lay face down on the floor.

“Dolores would never allow this,” McLean muttered to himself.  His wife’s obsessive desire to tidy up had been one of the things that had driven them apart.  That, and the drinking.  Both their drinking.

Something felt wrong.  McLean found himself approaching the back shop area on the balls of his feet.  It was quiet, far too quiet for a supermarket Christmas party.  Instead of the clinking of glasses and laughter there was just one voice, speaking slowly and clearly.

“Ladies und Gentlemen,” the voice said.  “My name is Hans Gruber.  You are under the control of the End Globalisation Now Brigade, East of Scotland Cell.

“We will shortly be issuing the authorities with a list of demands.  Shut down all supermarkets in the area and re-open the smaller shops selling organic produce at affordable prices.  All banks to give their customers the equivalent of their Chief Executive’s annual bonus in a one-off payment.  If they comply, you will not be harmed.  If not ……….”.

The sound of the machine gun was deafening at close quarters.  That decided McLean.  There was little he could do against these nutters if they were armed.  He turned to go, his trainers squeaking on the immaculately polished surface.

“What was that?” he heard Gruber say.  “You two, go and investigate.  If we haf company, neutralise it.”

McLean needed no further warning.  He ran for the side door, his trainers squeaking every step of the way.  Damn Dolores and her floor polisher.

****

Dolores was comforting Kayleigh in the back shop.  The air was thick with the smell of cordite and melting milk chocolate.

“There was no need to shoot up the lassie’s box of Celebrations,” she said, glaring at the man calling himself Gruber.  “They’re her favourites.”

Gruber sniffed, putting the safety back on his AK47.  “They are Nestlé, whose third world ethical record is dubious to say the least.”

The sound of gunfire in the shop made the hostages jump.  There were about twenty of them, all in their best party clothes.  Gruber addressed them.  “Who is in charge here?”

A balding man of about fifty was shoved to the front.  There were sweat patches under the arms of his Hawaiian shirt.

“I’m ……..  I’m the manager, likes,” he said.

“Good.”  Gruber said.  “Go with Theo here –“ he pointed to another of the terrorists – “Und show him the storage area downstairs.  It is a standard Asda storage area but with one difference, yes?”

“What’s the difference?” Dolores said.

“There is a special consignment under a combination lock,” Gruber explained, stroking his moustache.  “Am I right, Herr Manager?”  The balding man nodded.

“Tell Theo the combinations on the lock,” Gruber said.  He turned back to Dolores.  “Or I start shooting your co-workers.  Starting with this woman.  She is beginning to annoy me.”

Dolores started to reply, but she was interrupted by the sound of more machine gunfire, and the breaking of glass.

****

McLean was fit. He had to be, to chase teenagers on the vodka run from the spirits aisle.  All the same, he had no time to reach the side door before the voice rang out behind him.

“Halt!”

He ducked into Aisle Eighteen, Cereals, just as the man behind him started shooting.  Bullets whined past, catching a packet of bran flakes at the end of the shelf and sending it spinning.

“Seal off that side door, Dieter,” he heard a voice shout.  “That must be how he got in.”

The sound of running feet.  McLean set off, only for his shoes to squeak again.  He took them off.  Then he legged it down the aisle in his stocking soles, sliding slightly as he turned the corner and stood at the end of the shelving.

Footsteps approaching, slowly, squeaking on Dolores’ polished floor.  They were coming up the aisle towards him: but which aisle?  He reached up for something – anything – he could use as a weapon.

Footsteps getting closer.  McLean gambled and turned right, away from Cereals and towards Biscuits, Crisps, Snacks and Nuts –

And found himself face to face with one of the terrorists.  Before the man could react, McLean jabbed the corner of the Weetabix box, as hard as he could, square into the man’s face.

Scheisse!”  The man went down, clutching his eye, and McLean was off and running away from him, across the central aisle and then down another.

Which way now?  McLean guessed they would think he would go further away from the side door so he doubled back, lobbing a tin of Whiskas in the opposite direction to throw them off the scent.

They were waiting for him in the last aisle before the end wall, Beer and Cider.  He ducked back round the end of the shelving just in time, but the bullets exploded the shelf of White Lightning he had been in front of a microsecond before, showering him in broken glass and full strength cider.  He shouted in pain and went down, feeling his leg give way below him.

There was nothing he could do to get away.  He heard them run down the aisle towards him, ready to finish him –

Someone was shouting.

“What are you clowns doing?”  It was Gruber’s voice, coming closer.  McLean opened his eyes.  He couldn’t see them from where he was, lying between the two aisles, but they would probably be able to see his left foot sticking out from where they were in Beer and Cider.  An instinct told him to keep that foot still, even though every nerve fibre in his body was screaming for him to unstick himself from the broken glass beneath him.

“I think I got him,” Dieter was saying.  “He stabbed me with a Weetabix box.”

“Then he is unarmed, and presents no threat to anyone but an idiot,” Gruber said.  “I haf more important things for you to do than fight duels with popular cereal brands.  The police haf arrived, und I want you to keep them talking.”

****

Sergeant Powell was looking for a quiet Christmas Eve shift.  As he pulled into the car park, he was relieved to see a man in an Asda uniform standing in front of the building having a smoke.

Powell pulled up next to him and wound down the window.  “I’ve had some garbled report about protesters or something?”

The man laughed.  “No, nothing like that.  Unless it’s Derek’s belly protesting at all the Doritos he’s had.  He’s our manager, yes?”

Powell laughed.  He knew Derek Bogie.  “That sounds about right.  Christmas party is it?”

“Ja, that’s right.”  The man finished his tab and ground it into the tarmac.  Then he said, “Well, I must be a move making or they’ll have finished all the free wine.”

“All right then.”  There was an accent which Powell couldn’t trace.  Probably one of the Polish workers, he thought.  He certainly didn’t recognise him.  Oh well. He stuck the Astra into first gear and was getting ready to go, when the radio crackled.

“This is Jock McLean, Security Team Manager at Morrison’s on the secure supermarket line.  To the policeman in the car, outside Asda’s.  You’re in grave danger.  The man you’re talking to is one of a group of terrorists who are holding hostages.  They are armed and dangerous.  Repeat: armed and dangerous.”

Powell recognised the voice.  The supermarkets’ secure line was part of a new Community Contact Initiative, and had been a great success.

“Jock?  Is that you?  How can you see I’m outside Asda from Morrison’s?”

“Because I’m in Asda, ya tube.”

Powell was still digesting this when the man in the Asda uniform was joined by other men with guns, and all hell broke loose.

****

McLean tasted blood from his head wound.  Sharp glass bit into muscle
every time he moved his leg.  Approaching headlights dazzled him.  A
police car. He took off his shirt, tore it into strips and bandaged his wounds.

The worst bit was his feet.  He picked glass out as best he could and bound them up.

Then he could only watch through the window as Gruber and the others opened fire on the retreating police car.  To his amazement, the Astra reached the exit ramp and kept going, tyres squealing.

The terrorists were coming back in the side door.  McLean, acting on instinct now, dropped a twelve pack of Belgian lagers into a nearby trolley and headed for George, the clothing section at the opposite end of the store.

He heard the side door close.  Then the store was quiet, except for the sound of two hands clapping.

“Well done, Herr McLean,” Gruber said.  “But what you haf done is really immaterial.  Wherever you are in the store, stay where you are and don’t interfere, and we won’t have to shoot you.”

McLean was in the underwear section of George, his mind racing.  He clambered up the shelf of DVDs at the border of the clothing section.  He saw Gruber and two of his men walking down the end aisle, and ducked down again.  Belgian lager was no match for an AK47 at close quarters.

“Make sure the detonators are evenly spaced through the store,” he heard Gruber say.

McLean slid off the shelves and went back into Menswear.  With his shirt used up for bandages, he needed something else.  A pack of three vests was the nearest to hand, so he slipped one on.  He needed something on his bandaged feet, so he stuck on a pair of George slippers.

“Let’s hope they don’t squeak,” he muttered.

****

Gruber reappeared in the back shop at the same time as the manager and Theo. “The consignment is there? Good.  Go and start loading them into the vehicle.”

“What consignment?” said Dolores.

Gruber smiled. “You haf heard of Writers’ Bloc? They were planning a new line of badges, to be sold through Asda. It was meant to be top secret, but a dissident member told us.”

“You’ve held us all hostage for the sake of some badges?”

Gruber’s smile disappeared. “These are not just any badges. The ultimate counter-culture spoken word group selling out to a division of Walmart? Not on my watch, I am thinking.”

Just then, more shots rang out in the store.

****

The terrorist called Dieter obviously hadn’t forgotten the Weetabix incident. McLean saw him coming, but the first shot still winged him as he dived into a sale rail of suits by George.

“This time, I am you finishing off,” the terrorist snarled, looming above McLean as he sprawled in a sea of grey. The muzzle of the AK47 came level with McLean’s eyes, there was a click –

and nothing happened.

McLean had a split second. Years of wrestling Fat Malky, Morrison’s most persistent shoplifter, had honed his close combat skills. He rose up and grabbed the gun’s muzzle, ramming it into the other man’s stomach. Using the momentum to pin him against a display of non-iron shirts, he wrestled the gun free and used all his remaining strength to swing it at the terrorist’s head. The gun butt connected with a thunk, and the man dropped to the floor.

“Yippee yiy yay ya bas,” said McLean, softly. He felt his arm where the first shot had grazed him: it was warm and sticky. He ripped open one of the packets of shirts and used the material to bind up the fresh wound, grimacing as the bandage pulled tight against his bicep. Then he threw the useless gun away, and started towards the main part of the store.

In the slippers, McLean had one advantage: silent running. That, and the fact that the men planting the detonators had to lay their guns down.

A Kate and William Celebration casserole dish broke over the head of the man in Aisle One. McLean decided against taking the gun. No time to take prisoners. Instead, he tooled up with a Vileda self-wringing mop handle. Two more men fell to his surprise attacks, before the supermarket was plunged into darkness, and Gruber’s voice rang out.

“Where are you all? It is time to go to the roof for the final phase.”

There was silence, apart from the sound of one of McLean’s victims groaning.

“They’ve got headaches of their own, Gruber,” McLean shouted. “Let the hostages go, and give yourself up. The police will be here by now.” He could hear the sounds of helicopters overhead. Dark shapes were moving outside the superstore’s main window. McLean stole as noiselessly as he could into Fresh Produce, where he could see the door to the back shop.

“McLean? It seems I haf underestimated you. But you should be careful what you wish for. I asked myself why Jock McLean, Security Team Manager at Morrison’s, should be coming to the Asda Christmas party. Then I asked Derek.”

Dimly, McLean could see his enemy open the door to the back shop.  “Theo, bring the hostages out one by one.”  McLean watched as the hostages filed out towards the side door he had come in.  Theo waved a torch back and forth, briefly lighting up scared expressions and party clothes.  Then he shone the torch on the last hostage.

“Not so fast, Dolores,” Gruber said.  “You’re coming with me to the roof.  McLean, stay where you are, or I shoot your ex-wife.”

McLean had been edging out, getting ready to follow them, when Theo suddenly shone the torch in his direction and opened fire. Bullets ripped into McLean’s right hand, sending the mop handle spinning far behind him. He went down and rolled behind a display of King Edwards.

He lay still, listening to the door to the back shop close as Gruber and Theo manhandled Dolores towards the stairs. He tried to stand, but sank down again, as a spike of pain exploded in his right hand. He explored the damage in the darkness. All his fingers were still there, but the bullets had smashed through tendons and bone, rendering it useless for now.

Only a matter of time before the other terrorists recovered enough to track him down. He bound his hand up as best he could with the bags used for loose potatoes. Then, with a supreme effort, he hauled himself up with his remaining good hand.

A fresh burst of gun fire sent him scuttling for cover again. No time to fetch the mop handle: the best weapon he could lay his hands on was a potato from the King Edwards display.  He crept along the chiller cabinets at the back wall, and slipped in the door to the back shop.

Gruber’s voice led him towards the stairs.  Out through the doors of the roof, the air was thundering with helicopters.

“Give it up, Gruber,” McLean shouted above the noise.  “The cops will shoot you unless you let her go. These badges can’t be worth that.”

“Stay back, McLean.”  Gruber held up a small black remote. “This is connected to the detonators. Make one move, and the whole supermarket goes up, taking the police with it.”

McLean hesitated. Gruber seemed to be waiting for something.  Where had Theo gone?  McLean stood still as the terrorist leader backed himself and Dolores nearer to the edge of the roof.  Then Gruber glanced down, and McLean took his one shot, bringing the King Edward from behind his back and throwing it with all his strength, left-handed.

It hit Dolores square between the eyes and she dropped like a stone.  Gruber looked confused for a split second and, with a roar of frustration, McLean charged him, catching him off guard and sending them both off the roof –

And crashing straight through the roof of the refrigerated Asda lorry Theo had made ready as the getaway vehicle.  Gruber landed underneath McLean in a tangle of limbs and Asda’s Finest Stovies, but McLean head-butted him into submission anyway.  Just at that moment, the lorry lurched as something rammed into it: the bullet ridden police Astra driven by officer Powell, making sure Theo couldn’t escape.

The police SWAT team reunited McLean with Dolores out in the car park as Gruber and the others were led away in handcuffs.  She began wiping uncooked ready meal away from his forehead but he caught her wrist gently.

“Leave it the now, Dolores,” he told her.

“They use mince instead of corned beef,” she whispered to him.  “That’s the secret.”  As they kissed, a detonator exploded inside the store, sending a shower of easy cook brown rice high into the air, like confetti at a vegan wedding. One by one the others followed, until the entire store began to crumble as they watched.

“By the way,” said Dolores, looking down, “these baffies really suit you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing down here. Not even inadvertent advertising for Asda

 

 

Random Review Roulette 2018: Stuff I’ve Read, Seen Or Heard This Year

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting, drink, table, plant, flower, tree, outdoor and indoorThe other day Daughter and Heiress – blessings be upon her, may her journalistic skills ever increase by hundredfolds, and keep me in my retirement in the style to which I hope to remain accustomed – showed me just how behind the curve this blog was. Home for some of the holidays, she had performed some form of spell from the technology grimoire on the television set and got Youtube on it (only kidding, even I know how to do that).

Daughter and Heiress, in Leon

What she was watching was something called a vlog, or video blog, specifically one called the Michalaks. In it, an annoyingly perky couple and their annoyingly endearing kid(s) (I’m hazy about how many: it might have just been one that moved around a lot) strolled about Dubai, staying in an agreeable hotel, and generally being, well, annoyingly perky. It was like watching somebody’s holiday video, except, here’s the thing: a holiday video by someone who decided to take a top-level Hollywood director and film crew with them. I mean, the production values are just amazing!

Well, you won’t be seeing anything as fancy-dan from this soldier any time soon. Maybe when I retire (a phrase I find myself saying increasingly these days) I’ll give it a go, and you can watch me  vlogging away to my heart’s content in various Spanish-speaking locations. Wine will be involved.

Not fucking Dubai, though – aforesaid Michalak family drifted about without a hair out of place, whereas my memories of our two-night sojourn there was sweating like a hog in 40 degree, 90% humidity, whilst stressing about the then much younger D & H’s chances of succumbing to heatstroke in the few remaining tourist areas the locals hadn’t air-conditioned to the max. It was like stepping between an oven and a fridge several times a day, all the time observing the yawning gulf in living/working conditions between us tourists, the rich residents, and the mainly immigrant workers, whose day essentially consisted of all oven and no fridge.

Anyhoo, I hear you say, enough chuntering on about vlogging and all that other stuff you don’t do: you said something in the title about reviews?

Quite right, sir or madam, as the case may be. So, this is basically your year’s worth of reviews, since I’ve not really done that much of that so far this year. Let’s start with films, since I think we’ve only seen two of them in a cinema this year. The first of these was Hereditary, which I’ve already reviewed, and liked, with reservations about the eventual boogeyman. The other one we saw, back last month, Widowswas Widows, which is still around in multiplexes in our neck of the woods. I should say right off the bat that the majority of critics – and audiences – loved it. However, much as it was good to see a heist thriller with four strong female leads, for me it was trying to be several things at once: the heist thriller thing, a feminist fable (fair enough) but also some sort of deep-lying commentary about the links between organised crime, political corruption, and, er, er, all that sort of stuff.

That can be the only reason for a subplot involving a Kennedy-style political dynasty, with a criminally (pun intended) underused Robert Duvall as the paterfamilias, and a confused-looking Colin Farrell as a politican called Jack (just in case you didn’t get the Kennedy reference). He wasn’t the only one confused: I couldn’t work out whether Jack did want the gig, or just wanted to get away from it all with his gangster buddies. But that was nothing compared to the confusion I felt about the ending, which felt rushed, and, somehow, cobbled together. Which of the four aforesaid female leads got their share of the money? Answers on an email please!

Dark Art (The Angels' Share series Book 2)In terms of books, I’ve read two follow up novels by two authors I know personally: Mac Logan and Altany Craik. Mac’s was Dark Art (I think now also called Dice), which picks up on the adventures of Sam Duncan, his sister Eilidh and an elite band of ex-special forces types as they battle the titular dark arts of a high-level Government cabal of corrupt politicains, businessmen, and other reprehensible fellows. A ripping good read, excellent for an escape into an intense world of Mac’s devising (or is it based on truth? He told me he’d tell me but he’d have to kill me.)

 

 

The Eye of the Crow: A Father Steel Novel (Father Andrew Steel)Altany’s hero, Father Steel, is much less square of jawline: a Catholic priest with a roving remit from the Archbishop to battle the dark forces, not of Government, but the Ancient Enemy himself. Grumpy, rather over fond of the episcopal claret, and not immune to the other temptations of the flesh, Steel is an amusing narrator as he faces down Beelzebub and his chums with not much more than a fine line in sarcasm. The first of the series featured a devil-worshipping sex cult in my home town of Glenrothes, and whilst this one, inevitably, doesn’t quite reach the same heights of identification, it’s another ripping good read.

 

 

https://i2.wp.com/assets.signature-reads.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/jo-nesbo-thirst.jpgI’d been saving up Jo Nesbo’s The Thirst for some months because, as a big fan of your man’s work, I wanted to give it my full attention. However, I have to say I was somewhat disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong: all the ingredients are there: a serial killer is on the loose in Oslo, and crack detective Harry Hole is pulled out of semi-retirement as a police college lecturer, dragging all his baggage behind him. Will he get to the killer before the next kill? Is it personal? You bet your ass it is. Is his family in danger? Of course. Are there knowing musical references to Uncut and new(ish) bands like Cage the Elephant? Check.

And… therein lies the problem, really. This is the 11th novel in the series, and things are starting to creak at the edges. Harry’s in his late fifties, now, but despite a history of alcoholism and a dicky knee he still seems to be up for a bit of rough and tumble. Women – all women – seem to find him irresistible. The bad guys – by which I mean the regulars like Police Chief Bellman – are still present and incorrect, give or take an eye or two. And – spoiler alert – whilst this serial killer with a grudge is eventually brought down due to Harry’s brilliant detecting, another one is lined up towards the end of the book, production-line style, for the next novel. Hell of a place, Oslo.

Speaking of music, and Uncut, I’ve been trying to extend my musical knowledge this year via reading reviews in said magazine, and then checking them out on Youtube. This method has served me quite well, although I’ve found sometimes it’s better to take the time to listen to all the tracks, rather than just the ones the reviewer’s picked out, as they’re not always truly representative.

H.C. McEntire - LIONHEARTIn this way I ‘discovered’ H. C. McEntire, whose album, Lionheart, is a fine bit of alt.country. I would probably have listened to it more if I had had it on CD and been driving about a lot, as that tends to be how I hear my music these days. Unfortunately for my music listening, but fortunately for the environment, these opportunities are limited. However, as it’s on my (semi-smart) phone, I tend to listen to it whilst cooking, and my recipes aren’t so complex as to need an album’s worth of prep.

But based on limited ‘spins,’ this is a fine, sardonic piece of singer-songwriting.

 

Margo Price’s All-American Made suffers a bit from the same technological/time-poor for listening problem. The other thing against it for getting a listen in the car, even if I had the CD, is it’s a bit too trad country sounding for Mrs F’s taste, although the lyrics of such tracks as ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ are anything but.

Again, I mean to show this album a bit more love – and listening time – in the coming months. But definitely worth a listen if you like your music country and your lyrics literate.

 

John Prine - The Tree of Forgiveness (CD) - OH BOY RECORDSWhich leads us to the boys. I finally dropped the necessary spondulicks to buy Jason Isbell’s last studio album, The Nashville Sound, recently. Whilst I agree with my band leader, Mr Brutal’s, assessment that it’s not Isbell’s best, I still found some fine moments on it, including ‘Cumberland Gap.’ But my pick of all these here south of the Mason-Dixon line characters is John Prine, whose latest album, Tree of Forgiveness, has been pushing itself to the top of the cooking and washing up listening queue for some months now. Great, insightful songwriting, delivered with a load of life experience and dark humour. Love it, and hope to see him on tour next year.

 

Well, that’s all for now, y’all. Tune in early next week for a Christmas story!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see down here but adverts. You keep on movin’ now, you hear?

 

Songwriting – is it (That) Complicated?

First off, to those of you coming to this blog cold, this is not going to be a thing saying, like, here’s how you write a song and I know because I’m really successful and blah blah blah and by the way, give me your email address so I can bombard you with more advice you have to pay for!! Hey! HEY! ARE YOU LISTENING? Because you better, buddy, if you want to make it in the business…

I’m not in that business, or indeed any business, except for tax reasons.

What? I hear those of you who’ve been at this blog before. I thought you were one of these poet dreamer types who don’t care a jot about money and it’s all about the art, man. Are you saying this whole schemozzle is a money-laundering operation for some wretched offshore pyramid scheme? Don’t make me come down there…

Well, no. You were right the first time – about me being the poet dreamer type who doesn’t care about the dosh, I mean. But it is true that, on my tax return every year, I describe my ‘business’ as ‘writer and musician,’ and, every year, it shows a healthy loss – ever since I had some local publicity about my first loss-making product, 2003’s co-written Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, drew the attention of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and they invited me to fill in a tax return.

Anyways. That’s not really what I set out to write out about. I blame Neko Case, purely because I’m listening to her on KEXP while writing this. She is quite the songwriter while I, well, I’m still working out how it really works, and why sometimes it seems to work without really trying, and other times not so much.

This song (Not That) Complicated is a case in point. I’ve blogged before about the inspirational songwriting weekend I went to in the Highlands back in May this year, and about how one of the exercises, when one of the group improvised singing lines from a book to another person’s guitar, produced a song, ‘Clara Said Yesterday,’ that a few people have been kind enough to say is one of my better ones. But that wasn’t the song I set out into the stunning scenery to craft.

Me in the Highlands, about to come up with a song. Probably. Pic: James Whyte

About four months later, strumming along with a new chord I’d learnt via Youtube, I came up with a chord progression I liked, and something a bit closer to the original idea I’d had back in May – two people trading smart one-liners, in a way that I imagine goes on in New York loft apartments all the time (I watched a lot of Woody Allen films as a young adult, and they may have had the effect of distorting my view of what really passes for dialogue in New York loft apartments).

So far as the craft of songwriting’s concerned, I still maintain I know virtually nothing about how it’s done. Neither of these songs follow my usual pattern, which is to come up with a melody first, or at least a bit of one, before I lay hands on a guitar. In terms of the words, in the case of the first of these two I wrote the last verse right after the first, then wrote the bit in between on the paper that was left.

With ‘Complicated,’ on the other hand, I had no idea when I started off the lyrics how they might end up, and the pay off actually came as a surprise to me. Which, I guess, means, I really, really, know nothing about songwriting.

But then, as the late, great, William Goldman said about a similar creative endeavour (how to make a successful movie) no one knows anything. Not sure if you can call the current Brexit crisis a creative endeavour, but … you know the rest.

What I do know is that you can now hear Not That Complicated as sung by the divine Kelly Brooks rather than my trademark groan, and even contribute to a good cause by purchasing it on Bandcamp. Or you can hear it on Soundcloud:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below this is adverts. They’re probably not that complicated.

 

Free (Blind) Willie (McTell) ! Or, an introduction to Dylanology

So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and  you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?

Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.

Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’

I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.

Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.

But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…

Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’

1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.

At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.

This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”

So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery  of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.

A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’

Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.

By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.

On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nowt to do with me matey

A Day of Remembering

Time’s a slippery thing. In many ways, it seems incredible to me that World War One ended as much as 100 years ago; perhaps that’s because, as a child, I knew a grandfather who had fought through it.

Charles Leslie Anderson’s story was well told by my father, his son in law, in A Huntly Loon Goes to War (Loon meaning lad in Aberdeenshire dialect, in case you wondered). I have a dozen copies of the booklet left, and I’ll gladly sell it at a post free price to anyone with whom this story strikes a chord.

Charles’s tale is possibly typical of some, at least, of his generation: born out of wedlock in rural poverty, outside the small Aberdeenshire town of Huntly, using education to make something of himself as a young man (he was a 25-year old butcher when war broke out) and then the four years in the trenches, seeing all the horrors that are being remembered today, and surviving wounds that – but for the grace of a young doctor and his wife’s instincts – could have left him a double amputee.

His post-war journey to being a hard-working man of property, running two shops at once in the town at one point, and even becoming a bailie (councillor) again is reflective of a collective will after the so-called ‘Great War’ to give the surviving soldiers a chance to rebuild their lives.

One of my favourite stories in the book is that, impressed with Charles’s character, his superiors wanted to give him an officer’s commission (at one point he was acting as a sergeant). This was quite something, given his humble origins, and the class-ridden nature of the Army then. Charles turned the commission down. His reasons were entirely practical: the lieutenants were the ones given a handgun and a whistle and expected to go over the top first. There’s heroism, and then there’s just plain daft!

Charles suffered horribly during the war, including from the effects of chlorine gas. This wasn’t anything I understood as a child, when the only eccentricity of this mild-mannered man was a complete inability to put up an old-fashioned deckchair, the inevitable result of which was for him to throw the thing down in disgust, much to the rest of the family’s amusement. What I heard later was that his wartime experiences gave him nightmares for decades afterwards, and his other eccentricity – going out to bang nails into the wall of the shed when some domestic matter raised his temper – would probably nowadays be classed as a symptom of PTSD.

A piece in the Times this week brought back another family memory: writing about another, even more remote part of Aberdeenshire called the Cabrach. It told how the area became a virtual wasteland after WW1 as most of its menfolk were lost in the conflict, and the remaining women and children were forced to seek work of some sort in the Scottish towns and cities. (According to my sister, my Dad’s research indicated this drift away started in the previous century).

Interestingly, the article related how many of the men from country regions like the Cabrach died, not in action, but from diseases which they hadn’t encountered but which their town and city counterparts had some immunity to.

The other point of interest for me in the article was the mention of one William Taylor, because my Dad’s researches had also uncovered family links to the Taylors of the Cabrach, who had gone off to fight in many 19th century wars for King and Country long before 1914.

Maybe it’s just that Scotland’s an old, old, country, and a small one, that I feel such a connection with the previous generations. Much of it, I suppose, is down to that childhood connection with my grandpa, who took a keen interest in teaching his younger grandson about such things as cricket and gardening (particularly the pernicious nature of weeds).

Whatever our connection with that generation, and however distant it might now seem, we do well to remember them today, and the senselessness of the suffering they went through on all sides.

Charles Leslie Anderson in full battledress. Above: in the dress uniform of the 6th Gordon Highlanders.

 

Back On Song(writing)

Ferguson Common Good LawA strange weight lifted off me the other day. I finished writing the second edition of my law book, and felt this overwhelming sense of release when I pressed ‘send’ to my publisher with the manuscript.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel deeply, deeply grateful that I’ve been given an opportunity to write not one, but two editions of Common Good Law. I have supportive colleagues in Scottish local authorities up and down the land encouraging me; a wonderful editor/publisher, Margaret, at Avizandum; and generous organisations who have agreed to give the necessary financial backing to such a niche venture.

More, I still feel slightly stunned that the first edition sold so well – 300 copies for such a, well, really niche area of the law is pretty good going, and, given the topic is mainly of interest to councils and there are only 32 of them, about 268 more than I expected.

Back in 2006, when the first edition came out, I was as pleased as punch; and next February/March, which is the scheduled publication date for what I’m trying to persuade Margaret she should call Common Good II: Revenge of the Sith, I’ll warrant I’ll be pretty much as the dog with two tails, too.

But things have changed since 2006.

First and most obviously to me, I’m 12 years older. Going over the original manuscript, I was struck at how… jocular the tone was, in as much as a legal textbook can be. In the original preface, I talk about title deeds having an aura of ‘mystery and romance;’ I even speculate whether I was asleep in the lecture that the subject of the book came up in at University, since I’d never heard of it before I joined a local authority.

These don’t constitute a bundle of bellylaughs, I appreciate, but even they struck me as a bit on the … well, racy side for a law book. Some of the other bits of jollity I found myself editing out this time round: maybe the intervening years have made me more of an Eeyore than a Tigger. Although I kept the line in about the Luftwaffe carrying out environmental improvements to Scotland’s urban landscape.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe Western culture, with its 24/7 Twitter spats, increasingly polarised positions and a whole new level of political correctness, is just a little bit grimmer than it was in 2006. I can now imagine someone taking offence at the Luftwaffe gag.

Anyhoo. The whole thing for me was, much as there was some level of intellectual stimulation in rewriting the original book to take account of 12 years’ worth of cases and legislation, I resented the couple of months’ spare time it took, because it meant my music had to take a back seat.

And, leaving aside the big life events in those intervening years (like losing both parents), that’s one change I didn’t anticipate.

Back in 2006, years spent in the Boondocks of Fife had meant I’d focused on writing, at first on my own, and then increasingly in collaboration with others. I’d already had a co-written history book published, not to mention the dozens of short stories and poems that had flowered, briefly, in various magazines and anthologies. Since the early 2000s, I’d taken to performance spoken word with my buddies in Writers’ Bloc. But still…

Despite all those years of it being firmly kicked to the back of the dream cupboard, my dream of being a singer-songwriter in the Bruce Dylansteen mould kept finding its way to the front. 2008, my first Free Fringe shows, saw the emergence of that mysterious alter ego, Venus Carmichael. Various combinations of music and words followed – I remember an Unbound night at the Book Festival in particular as a key moment of realisation that, actually, the standing on stage with a guitar and other musicians bit was far more fun than the spoken word bit – and then, a couple of years further on, I got my chance to join that merry band of country punkers Isaac Brutal, and the music bug bit hard.

But those of you who know me, or have read blogs of mine in a similar vein, will know this already. What’s news to me is that there’s no way back now. The dream of being a writer has reached a plateau I’m happy to be on (ironically enough, after Revenge of the Sith there might be another, history-based, book in the offing, as a publisher has shown an interest) and the only way forward for me is combining words with music.

So, for the next couple of weeks before I’m due to turn in the history-based thing (fortunately something else I prepared earlier, years ago) the only writing you’ll be seeing from me will be right here. Otherwise, I intend to spend as much of my free time as I can performing, practising, collaborating on, and most of all making, music. The computer keyboard I’m typing on right now will once more assume its rightful place – perched atop a proper Korg keyboard, so that I can, at all times, fire up some synth sounds and dive right in, headphones on, clumsily splaying untutored hands across the black and whites.

I also intend to spend more time with my guitars the same way politicians plan to spend more time with their families: cradling them, lavishing attention on them, tugging at their heart strings (that analogy could have gone so wrong there…). My most recently adopted baby, the Telecaster copy, has been sulking in the corner of the dining room mostly since I acquired her, but I know that even my limited abilities can coax great sounds from her.

Where will it take me? I’ve no idea. I’m no longer the 19-year-old kid in his first band at University, dreaming of super-sized stadia and all the attendant perks of a rock n’ roll lifestyle. I’m realistic. I may play no more glamorous venues than Henry’s, the Edinburgh dive bar where the excellent sound people are slightly offset by the furniture that is well, frankly, sticky. And don’t even mention the toilets they share with the Chinese restaurant upstairs…

However it turns out, you can count on me blathering on about it here. It may be the only type of writing I do beyond songwriting from here on in. Stay tuned!

Image may contain: 2 people, people on stage, people standing and indoor

Tribute to Venus Carmichael in full flow, Wednesday, 7th November (pic: manicpopthrills)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing but boring advertising stuff down below here

 

Caceres – Final Thoughts

It’s a funny old place Caceres. I’m really quite bewitched by it, even as the rains that form the damp tail of Storm Leslie finally reach us here.

The Plaza Mayor. Fiesta de la Hispanidad in full swing. No sign of any bars and restaurants closing. No sign of any locals turning away a drink.

The holiday apartment, in Plaza Santiago, is worth every point of its 9.1 on Booking.com. In fact, I’d pretty much give it the full 10: it’s got original period features yet all mod cons, fantastic location at the edge of the Old Town, and it’s supported by a good local team on the ground.

 

 

That Old Town. What a wow factor it has! I’m still not sure I’ve done it justice with the photos from my phone, but even with Mrs F’s ‘proper’ camera it would probably be a fruitless, and wet, expedition today to get better ones.

Suffice to say that, in all our explorations of many, many, Old Towns in Spanish cities – including the most famous ones like Cuenca, Toledo, and now Segovia – I’ve never come across a place quite like it. There’s something about the narrow streets, the dizzying changes of level up and down quite a tight, concial rocky peak, that make it unique.

One of the ancient gates out of the citadel, originally known as the Water Gate.

A couple of the locals. No, it’s nothing to do with KKK – the religious orders wear the hoodies for processions, especially during Easter, or Semana Santa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cuisine. After that initial brush with exotic flavours, the food has been good, but … you gotta like pig. Really. It’s not just the multiple different cuts of jamon; it’s the seven different ways they serve pork. Which is fine for us, but if you’re a vegetarian, you might struggle.

But if you do like pork, you’re in for a treat. Last night we shared Moragas de cerdo (literally, ‘bundles of pork,’ but in reality cubes of the stuff marinated and grilled (probably) with mushrooms, as well as chuletas de cordero, or lamb chops, just to go against trend. Both delicious. Like so much of Spanish cookery, nothing fancy, just good ingredients, cooked well.

The local wine. Still needing more research, but the best of it up there with Ribera del Duero or Rioja, and the rest, well, we haven’t poured any of it away.

I bought a local regional paper today, which confirmed that Caceres, and the region of Extramadura generally, has all the usual problems of a mainly rural economy these days – a struggle to keep people working on the land; reducing budgets for, amongst other things, local services like firefighters; rising property prices making things difficult for the locals. Sound familiar?

Be that as it may, it’s definitely on my list of places I would visit again in Spain.

You just gotta like pig.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see but adverts down here. Not even a piggie.

 

The Slow Train to Caceres and the Festival of Spanishness (Thai flavourings optional)

‘Caceres?’ said the taxi driver taking us to the station at Segovia. ‘Why are you going to Caceres?’

I explained patiently that we enjoyed seeing different parts of Spain each time we came.

‘Well, there is so much to see,’ he agreed, as we careened through the narrow side streets, his castellano only slightly less rapid than his driving. ‘There’s Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘But we’ve already been to Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’ I could have added many more, but it was clear your man – who could have been on a retainer from the Segovian tourist association, even though he’d originally come from the Basque country, apparently – clearly thought Caceres was an odd choice. Which, compared to Segovia, it maybe was.

That said, although we’d enjoyed our four nights in the Castilian city of water-carrying infrastructure, we were ready to move on. It was a good choice, and deserves to be seen, don’t get me wrong. But…

Last views of Segovia’s Plaza Mayor, and that acqueduct the Romans did for them

I think, to be honest, it’s both a winner and loser from its closeness to Madrid. It’s a great place for the Madrileños to have a day trip; it serves as a commuter suburb for the bigger city, but equally you could go out there from the Spanish capital at the weekend, maybe even stay the night, and be back for work on Monday.

It’s also (a bit the same way as St Andrews, say, as regards Edinburgh) close enough for the tour buses to include it on their regular itineraries. So the coaches can arrive from Madrid comfortably in time for coffee, the tourists can be funnelled up the spine of rock that connects the acqueduct, the Plaza Mayor and the Alcazar, and be parted from their money for lunch and souvenirs with ruthless efficiency, with time still left in the day to for the tour company to either return them to Madrid or move on somewhere else, like Salamanca, for an overnighter.

Toledo is the other place that springs to mind when thinking about Segovia: the proximity to Madrid, and its airport, means, with the high-speed train connection especially, they don’t have to try too hard to do quite nicely for themselves out of internal and external tourism, thanks very much.

Storm clouds gather over Segovia Guiomar

Anyhoo. As I say, I’m glad we visited, but it was a good day to travel, with the train station at Segovia looking pretty much as dreich as Edinburgh airport had, if offering more in the way of background scenery. The rains had descended on Spain that day, and not solely on the plains, although as we crossed Madrid and took the slow train to Caceres, a landscape emerged that had clearly been praying for rain for some time.

There are basically three paces of Spanish train journey: fast, bloody fast, and quite a lot slower than either. Most of the main lines have now been made high speed, which gives you the option of the AVE (bloody fast) but also other trains like Avant or Alvia which, to be honest, don’t exactly hang around: at one point on the way down our Avant claimed to be topping 200 km/h.

The train to Caceres, on the other hand, was more like your average rail journey in the UK: loping along, stopping everywhere, and not in any hurry at any point. To give an idea of journey time, the train we got left Madrid at 10.25, was scheduled to get into Caceres at 14:19, and eventually rolled in about twenty minutes after that.

That said, even this more basic train – leaving from the commuter part of Atocha, which mainly hosts the Cercania network of commuter trains, but also those described as being of media/larga distancia, was comfortable, with a sight more legroom for the vertically enabled than most of the boneshaker rolling stock you get in Scotland. Which, given the relative amount of Viking genes in both countries, doesn’t really add up.

The taxi driver in Caceres (hot tip: they tend not to hang around in numbers at the railway station, so you may have to call them from the numbers on the sign if it’s a busy train) seemed a lot more laid back than his Segovian counterpart. Avoiding the standard conversational gambits for taxi drivers (thank you, Peter Kay) of ‘You been busy?’ and ‘What time do you finish?’ I went for the only slightly less predictable British gambit of the weather.

However, your man wasn’t concerned by the black clouds carpeting the country. ‘Ach, there’ll be a bit of rain, and then the sun’ll come back,’ he said confidently, and so it turned out to be. In the meantime, we were met at our apartment by the charming lady from BeHoliday, and initial impressions were (and remain) that we’d made a good choice: very comfortable and well located, the place had been a renovation of an 18th/19th century town house, retaining some original features but with all mod cons.

The apartment

Caceres may not be Segovia, but I’m not sure it’s any the worse for it. That distance from Madrid maybe means it has to try a bit harder: although, to be frank with you, on the basis of a couple of very brief walks around town so far, its Old Town beats that of the more famous city into a cocked hat. Comparisons are invidious, of course, but the casco antiguo is really quite a fantastic, steepling thing, of churches, towers, and tiny side streets and alleys. Like Segovia, it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Some views. Better photos once Mrs F gets going with her camera

Calle del Mono, or Monkey Street. I’m sure there’s an explanation

The tourist office was a bit weird, mind. We arrived the day before October 12, which is the Fiesta de la Hispanidad throughout Spain. Crudely translated, that means ‘Festival of Spanishness,’ or maybe ‘Festival of the State of Mind of Being Spanish.’ The Segovian taxi driver had warned us that everything would be very busy: his Caceres counterpart had, typically, been more relaxed about it: the lady in the tourist office, on the other hand, was certain that everything in Caceres – shops, restaurants, everything – would be closed.

This certainty might have been related to her keenness that we take a free bus to the Feria Europea del Queso or European Cheese Fair, which was to take place in Casar de Caceres on the 12, 13th and 14th. Casar de Caceres iis a village some distance from the town of Caceres. This, apparently, was the place to be on the morrow if you were a cheese fan.

As the day of the Festival of Spanishness dawned, however, or more accurately when we emerged from the apartment as the morning reached its late middle age, it became clear that rumours of the town of Caceres closing up for the day had been, er, wildly exaggerated. Indeed, the locals appeared to be quite determined to settle in for a day of celebrating their Spanishness, loudly, right here in the Plaza Mayor, and with some relish: we were just starting breakfast when a sizeable amount of the locals were getting stuck into their first beer of the day.

Caceres, at least on the evidence so far, seems a jolly sort of place. There have been a few miscommunications – it’s fair to say the accent is stronger here than in the Castilian heartland of Segovia – but they do appear to be trying to market themselves as something worth a visit. Apart from the stunning Old Town architecture, they’re also pushing gastronomy, and given that the region of Extremadura is famed for the jamón that comes from the pata negra, or black pig, as well as Pimentón de la Vera, the smoked paprika that informs so much of Spanish cooking, they have the raw ingredients to do that.

Their wines, too, on the limited research I’ve been able to manage so far, are rich, full, and satisfyingly different from either Ribera del Duero or Rioja, the staples of most bars in most parts of Spain. More research will be undertaken.

One thing we hadn’t expected was the willingness on the part of local chefs to try something beyond the usual Spanish flavours. A leaflet we picked up at the tourist office from the Cheese Fair-promoting lady had claimed this, but I was dubious until, returning from our midday walk, we were to find a whole new café that hadn’t been there yesterday had sprung up, on the day everything was meant to be closed.

Spanish chicken kebabs with satay sauce. With patatas bravas: a killer combination

I lay before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A: brochetas de pollo con salsa thai de satay. Chicken kebabs, or brochetas, are a staple of Spanish cookery, especially in the South, where the Moorish influence encourages use of Middle Eastern spices like cumin. But Thai flavours and a satay sauce? On the day of celebrating the state of mind of being Spanish, this was a whole new twist!

More from the culinary – and oenological – front line soon…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just adverts there be down here