andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

The Wrong Box is Coming!

No, not the story of a logistics breakdown by Yodel, but news (for those of you who I haven’t reached yet by other social media) that my novel, The Wrong Box, is to be finally published on 20th April. Here’s a pic of me with a proof  copy:

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You can pre-order it on Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon. There’ll be a couple of events in April/May: best way of following progress would be to join up to the Facebook Group, or follow me on Twitter (@andrewcferguso4).

Incidentally, if you know of any book groups that are looking for this kind of thing, and would like the author to turn up and talk about it (either virtually or literally, depending on distance); or any other book festivals or the like I could promote this at, please let me know!

Here’s the blurb:

All I know is, I’m in exile in Scotland, and there’s a dead Scouser businessman in my bath. With his toe up the tap.

Meet Simon English, commercial property lawyer, heavy drinker and Scotophobe, banished from London after being caught misbehaving with one of the young associates on the corporate desk. As if that wasn’t bad enough, English finds himself acting for a spiralling money laundering racket that could put not just his career, but his life, on the line.

Enter Karen Clamp, an 18 stone, well-read wannabe couturier from the Auchendrossan sink estate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Council misdeeds and 19th century Scottish fiction. With no one to trust but each other, this mismatched pair must work together to investigate a series of apparently unrelated frauds and discover how everything connects to the mysterious Wrong Box.

Manically funny, The Wrong Box is a chaotic story of lust, money, power and greed, and the importance of being able to sew a really good hem.

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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A Tale of Two Cariñenas

I should really start this wine recommendation, as indeed I should preface all my wine recommendations, with ‘I know what I like.’ In other words, I have no formal qualifications whatsoever as a wine expert. All I can claim is a limited and partial knowledge and interest in the topic, gleaned from years of highly motivated research.

Despite this, friends and colleagues, when we’re out somewhere serving the stuff, will almost invariably pass the wine list to me, saying, ‘Andrew, you know about wines, what do you think?’ What they really mean is, ‘Andrew, you seem to drink a lot of wine, so you should have it worked out by now, surely, ya lush?’

They may have a point on the quantity, although, dear reader, I’m not generally to be found on the floor of the bar at the end of the night grabbing at legs. Not these days anyway. I almost always drink responsibly (the Sambuca Shot Incident at Christmas being the exception that proves the rule) and so should you. Thing is, lightweight that I am, when I do drink anything at all I’ve found that wine, and red wine in particular, is the thing my system seems to tolerate best, particularly along with food.

Anyway, enough about me and on with the wine, I hear you say. Fair enough, dear reader, fair enough. Today’s lesson concerns a little-known wine region of Spain called Cariñena, which is geographically located a few miles south of the city of Zaragoza, and roughly half way on a line between Madrid and Barcelona. Baking hot in summer, freezing cold and harrowed by a wind called el cierzo in winter, the region is not without its challenges for its wine growers, even if it’s been cultivated here since Roman times.

However, despite its never having reached the upper echelons of La Liga in terms of Spanish wine regions, it’s one which I’ve always found, when it comes to supermarket reds, is a sure bet for a decent bargain. It’s a bit like a South African region called Robertson: although I know virtually nothing about South African wine regions, I know to grab a bottle from Robertson any time it appears because it’s always been a cracker.

So far as Cariñena is concerned, on the other hand, I know a wee bit more from my travels in Spain: that corner is between the big producing regions of Rioja and Catalunya, and like its neighbours, Campo de Borja and Calatayud, is a bit undervalued as a result. It’s not sexy like other northern areas like (especially) Ribera del Duero, and it’s not even got the industrial scale that other lesser regions like Castilla-La Mancha have.

So, when I saw a couple of bottles in Asda from the Cariñena region the other week, I reckoned they were both worth a go. They were Casa Luis Reserva, 2012 (currently reduced from £5.50 to a fiver) and Extra Special Old Vine Garnacha, 2015, reduced from a fiver to a mere £4.25. Here’s what they look like:

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Now, my finely honed drinking instincts told me the Casa Luis would be the better drop of the two. The gold string’s by no means a guarantee of quality, but the fact it was a reserva (the categories of ageing and length of relationship with the oak barrel in Spanish wine being tinto, crianza, reserva, gran reserva) suggested someone, somewhere in the winery had reckoned this one was worth the investment of time that the status requires.

However, on opening the bottle initial signs were not so encouraging: the cork crumbled half way up and I needed to execute a delicate piece of surgery with the old sacacorchos to retrieve the bottom half. On inspection, the business end of the cork didn’t appear discoloured and didn’t give off any indications of the wine being corked (I’ve read that the red end of the cork should either smell of cork, or of wine, and if it smells of anything else, it’s corked). However, I still wonder if that was the problem with this particular bottle, because very disappointingly, it was undrinkable and had to be used up in my Southern French Chicken recipe.

The only problem with the Garnacha was rather more self inflicted as, somehow, the first bottle of it managed to knock itself off its coaster and only an act of couch-borne athleticism unparalleled in Olympic history on my part managed to save some of the contents from emptying themselves onto the living room floor. As it was, there was only a limited sample left for research without getting down on my knees and sucking it out of the carpet fibres, and even I have my standards.

Fortunately, other bottles were also available from the same retailer and I can confirm that it is, in fact, a belter. The label chunters on about 45-year old Garnacha vines: for those of you interested, I do have it on good authority from Bosi, my charming guide round the fantastic Cambrico winery I posted about last year, that old vines of that kind of age produce less grapes, but much more concentrated flavours: the balance for the winemaker, of course, is between volume and quality.

For those of you less bothered with specifics, fill your boots! This is a big, bouncy, fruity red that’s good with pasta dishes, spanish tortilla, and, I’d imagine, the usual red wine staples of red meat and strong cheeses. It’s a ridiculous price for wine of this quality.

Not so good as a carpet cleaner, but, well, that’s not what it’s for, is it?

Brutal News

I’m delighted to announce that the first Isaac Brutal album to feature yours truly, Trailer Trash Apocalypse, is now available on Bandcamp. That noodling on the keyboard going on in the background? The occasional random stabs of piano, and that harmonica? Yep. For reasons that will become clearer in my next post, I’m particularly chuffed to be cast as a keyboard player of some sort. Fortunately, those ‘skills’ of mine aren’t likely to be tested in the battle conditions of a gig any time soon, as I get to retreat behind a guitar (with occasional harmonica) in the current live set.

My personal favourite of TTA, btw, is 4th of July.

Speaking of gigs, there’s a support slot for the Véloniños coming up on 4th March – FB event is here. Really looking forward to this, not just because the set features two of my songs, but mainly because things are sounding absolutely excellent in rehearsal. I’ve never played a gig at the Leith Depot before, but it looks good. Pictures, at least, will follow…

Meantime, work continues on the next Brutal album, which I dare to say is going to be awesome!

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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The Cottar House, Alburne Park- should it be demolished?

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This isn’t the usual type of post I put up on this blog. However, as this is a local Glenrothes issue which virtually no one seems to know about, I’ve decided to publicise it.

Glenrothes Art Club moved into its existing building, known as The Cottar House, some time in the late 1950s. The Art Club’s website tells us that this property was part of a set of farm buildings known as Woolmill Farm, which were scheduled for demolition. With the help of the two local authorities at the time, Glenrothes Development Corporation and Glenrothes District Council, the Cottar House, and an attached outbuilding known as the Coach House, were saved from demolition along with the rest of the farm, and the Art Club’s been in occupation ever since.

The Club took full ownership of the property from the Corporation when the latter was wound up in 1995/6 (incidentally, my memory of how that came about is slightly different from the Club’s version, which implies that it was all the Club’s doing, rather than part of an overall plan on the part of the Corporation to pass its community assets where possible into community hands, subject to appropriate claw back provisions, of which more later).

In any event, the Club now propose to sell the site and have lodged an application for planning permission for ‘up to three’ dwellinghouses on the current site of the Cottar House and its grounds, with the report to Fife Council’s Central Planning Committee making it clear that the intention is to demolish the existing building. In this blog piece, I want to set out the pros and cons of the proposals as fairly as possible, and then let others decide if they want to take things further.

I do, however, intend to write to Historic Environment Scotland to ask if they want to inspect the building with a view to it being listed under the relevant legislation.

The Art Club and the need for funds

Again from its website, the Art Club make it clear that maintaining the building over the years has been a struggle – and that much of their own funds and efforts have gone towards that. At one point, around 1998, they say they did apply for Lottery funding to upgrade the building but were unsuccessful.

It’s clear that the application to have the site cleared and redeveloped with three modern dwellings is designed to maximise a capital receipt for the Club. This is, I understand, to allow them to move to more suitable premises elsewhere in the town.

All of that sounds absolutely fair enough. And yet, and yet…

I should make clear my interest here. I grew up in Orchard Drive, just across the road from the Art Club. My late father, Keith Ferguson, was worked for the Corporation at the time, and could probably lay claim to being the town’s historian, having written three books about the place (other books on Glenrothes by other writers are also available). The whole Alburne Park area was a great little community, with a lot of Corporation officials living there – including Mr Coghill, one of the Art Club’s founder members, whose family we knew well.

The Art Club itself I remember as a thriving place – I have vague memories of us neighbourhood kids putting on some sort of play in it at one point. Alburne Park still has a special character: a lot of the officials bought plots of land off the Corporation – my Dad included – and built their own houses on them. They’d probably never be allowed to do that these days, of course, but the whole point was that the senior officials were obliged as part of their employment to actually live in the town, and get involved in forming clubs and societies such as the Art Club, building that sense of community. And yes, they did pay the market rate for the land.

The legacy of all of that is, if you want to see some good examples of Sixties architecture, drive round Alburne Park, Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive. There’s even a house on stilts!

More than that, though, the Corporation was keen to preserve some of the character of the area from previous times. The road that runs through it was, historically, the main road to Cupar; although Thomas Alburne’s house, the 17th century Alburne Knowe, was demolished, the Corporation preserved some cottages thought to date from the same period and converted them into ‘Beechgrove,’ a very attractive property on the left hand side of the road going down. Across the road from it, and just down from the Art Club building, is the former Paper Mill manager’s house, ‘Levenbank,’ which is a B Listed building.

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‘Levenbank,’ and, in the second picture, ‘Beechgrove.’ Particularly unsympathetic signage for the gym.

In other words, that whole corner of the road is a collection of some of the few pre-1948 buildings left in Glenrothes. The Cottar House, like ‘Beechgrove,’ was deliberately retained when the rest of the area was cleared for redevelopment (there are also some older buildings housing Balbirnie gym etc. down the Woolmill Brae, but I wouldn’t pretend they’re of much architectural merit). I totally understand if the Art Club feels the premises are no longer fit for purpose and want to move elsewhere. But I can’t help a feeling that something’s not right about the proposed demolition of the Cottar House.

Apart from anything else, the building has benefited from public money over the years to keep it maintained. I’ve no doubt the Club have done their best to keep it going, and it may be it’s beyond repair. But has that really been fully explored? And if it’s a building worth keeping, are there not other ways of its useful life being extended?

I mentioned above that the current proposal to demolish, clear the site and build three modern houses will maximise the capital receipt for the Club. However, that’s not the only option. There is room at the back for a modern house to be built, in a sympathetic design, without demolishing the Cottar House. It’s quite common in other areas for money from modern housing to be ploughed back into bringing older buildings back into habitable states: it’s called an ‘enabling development.’ That could, conceivably, allow conversion of the building back to a dwellinghouse. The whole package would be less lucrative than the wholesale demolition and new build option, of course.

However, the whole idea of the Art Club getting the property at a nominal sum back in 1996 (and renting it for next to nothing before then) was that it would be used for a community purpose. There’s a claw back option in the title deeds which, I think, provides that, in the event of the Art Club no longer using it, it’s to be offered back to the Corporation’s successors (now Fife Council). If the titles don’t say that, they will at least provide for the Council to share in the proceeds of sale.

In either event, is it fair that the building, which has been kept afloat for sixty years with public money, can now simply be used as a bargaining chip for a private club? That’s one way of looking at it, I think.

The Planning Application

Turning to the planning application itself, this can be viewed along with the objections and other correspondence on Fife’s excellent planning portal here. The report by Fife’s planning department (which can be viewed here) is due for consideration by Fife Council’s Central Area Planning Committee on Wednesday, 11th January in Fife House at 2.00 p.m. It’s a public meeting, although members of the public aren’t allowed to speak at it.

In line with the legal requirements, the immediate neighbours – including the clubs down the Woolmill Brae – have been notified, a total of 10 notifications. 7 out of 10 have objected, which is why what’s called a ‘local development’ such as this has to be taken to committee, rather than being decided by planning officers.

Again, I have to declare an interest here – my day job involves managing the Council’s committees. As soon as I realised what was proposed here, and that I had conflicted – to say the least – feelings about it, I decided to arrange cover for my part of the committee clerking role so that there could be no suggestion that I had used my position to influence any decision on the application. However, should others wish to do so, the members of the Committee are set out here, and can be contacted via that link.

My planning colleague’s professional recommendation is for approval. I am not a planner, and I respect that a recommendation has to be made one way or another. However, any planning report will summarise the issues, and some of these issues are often a judgement call – in other words, others may properly take a different view from the professional recommendation. Points of interest may include:

Policies E2 and E4 of the Adopted Local Plan (para 2.4 of the report)

These policies state, amongst other things, that proposals should be ‘compatible with their surrounds in terms of land-use and relationships to existing dwellings.’ The professional recommendation is that the proposals would be compatible.

It’s notable that the photos that form part of the applicant’s agent’s supporting statement show either the Cottar House itself, or the 50s/60s housing on Alburne Crescent. There’s no photo that shows how the Cottar House forms part of a group of older buildings at the head of the Brae. Indeed, the supporting statement only goes as far as saying (at 4.9) that the development can go ahead ‘without compromising the amenity enjoyed by existing houses in Alburne Crescent.’ Maybe that’s true. But what about Beechgrove, and Levenbank?

Policy T1 – Road Safety (para 2.6 of the report)

There is evidence that the development will increase peak time traffic trips – the Club at the moment mainly uses the property during off peak times. This has led the Council’s Transportation Development Management Team to express concerns. Mitigation measures proposed consist of clearing away shrubs that are on Fife Council land. The planner’s report says at 2.6.4 that the Council’s Estates team have confirmed they’re willing to discuss the sale of the land. Does this not mean, however, that as things stand, the applicant doesn’t have sufficient control of the land needed to implement the development?

Policy B2 – Protecting Existing Employment/Tourism/Local Community Facilities (para 2.2.5 of the report)

This policy (and its replacement policy 3 under FifePlan, awaiting final confirmation) presume against the loss of facilities that serve a valuable employment, tourism, and/or local community purpose. Evidence has to be shown that

a) the existing business is not viable;

b) the existing building cannot be reused for its existing purpose or redeveloped for a similar community or tourism purpose; and

c) that equivalent alternative facilities exist for this site elsewhere in the local community.

Policy 3, the replacement policy, also requires evidence of marketing for at least 18 months.

The supporting statement, submitted by the applicant’s agent, is, I feel, somewhat light on the details as regards that evidence. Specifically, I don’t see any evidence that the Club couldn’t raise funds to repair the building, although it’s admittedly clear from their last accounts that they don’t have a huge war chest of their own money to carry out renovations. Part of the reason for that is that, quite admirably, they’ve kept their subs low historically so that people on a lower income can join.

However, they do have (or did in February last year) some £11,500 in their balances. Could some at least of that not be used to match fund repairs and renovations?

Similarly, there’s no detail on what repairs are needed. A new roof? More than that?

There’s nothing to indicate if evidence of any marketing, or of any attempt to establish if another community body would want to take the property over, has been produced.

Conclusions

I write all of this with genuine conflict in my heart about whether to get involved here. I’ve tried to set out, as honestly as possible, my motivations. Just for the sake of full disclosure, my parents in law still live at the far end of Alburne Crescent, but I don’t think for an instant a new development like the one proposed would have an effect on property values in the area.

I fully understand the Art Club’s desire to move on and get better premises. I just don’t think, in all the circumstances, they should be allowed to oversee the demolition of one of the few remaining buildings of any type of historic character in Glenrothes. I sincerely hope that a solution can be reached which allows the Art Club – in itself one of the oldest, if not the oldest, community clubs in the town – to realise its ambitions; and for the Cottar House to continue on, either as a community facility or as a private dwellinghouse.

Please feel free to comment on this, and/or share with others who have an interest in Glenrothes.

 

Falling Backwards for Christmas: a Kaleidoscopic Crescendo of Kula Shakerism

It wasn’t so much that your man couldn’t stay upright: it was more that he’d acquired a backward slant. So, no matter how hard he tried to jump up and down in the same spot with his larrikin mates, he always ended up falling backwards towards those in the audience stood behind him. Which, for a substantial part of the first half of the gig, meant me.

I mean, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to cover this eventuality. Having taken up position before the support act front and centre, but a sensible modicum of distance back from the stage, I had covertly scanned those around me and satisfied myself that my immediate neighbours, like the vast majority of those there for Kula Shaker’s twentieth anniversary celebration of their debut album, K, had grown up with the band and were therefore now at a stage in life where staying reasonably sober and just nodding along to the music seemed like a decent plan on a school night.

However, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s actually me: because in the same way that those most anxious to find a surrogate mental health professional/drug counsellor amongst their fellow passengers on the bus seem to make a beeline in my direction, here were these guys, suddenly, right in front of us in the crowd and, in the case of your man, in my face in a very real sense.

To be  fair, 2016 has been such a shite year all round I couldn’t really blame him for wanting to escape the strict confines of reality for a bit. Continuing state and terrorist sponsored bloodbaths around the world, especially Syria; the refugee crisis; Trump, the impact of Brexit, however you voted (I’m obliged for legal reasons to say); the loss of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen to name but three; on a personal basis, a lot of close family illness, some ongoing job discombobulation, and the technical problems around the Venus Carmichael album launch have all, in their varying degrees of significance, have made this year one of the easiest to leave behind ever.

In fact, one of the few bright spots had been conversion to the cult of Shakerism when the Kulas played Glasgow’s O2 ABC, back in February, at the start of their tour. So the prospect of ending it in the company of Mr Mills and his bandmates on the tour’s last night at the same venue was too good a prospect for us to miss.

And indeed, the signs and portents were encouraging: a damned fine blues-rocky support band called Rudy Warman and the Heavy Weather, then, amidst the interminable setting up process for the main act, the strategic placement of joss sticks at the front of the stage. Mind you, that was maybe just to distract any law enforcement present from the thick fug of exhaled cannabinoids coming from the crowd, and I’m not even just talking about the guy in front of us. All the while, a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of images featuring Ghandi, JFK and, bizarrely, Kevin Spacey, played on the backdrop.

If there was a criticism of what followed, it was mainly an inevitable consequence of the gig’s dedication to that twenty year anniversary of K: whilst a fine, fine, album, the band’s debut does have its weaker tracks. I mean, even Tapestry’s got ‘Smackwater Jack,’ right? Comparisons with February’s gig, which was essentially a greatest hits package comprising about 40% each of K and Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts, with the remaining 20% the best from the rest of their output, were somewhat invidious.

But I cavil, merely. Once both sides of K were – all but – done, the boys obliged with some choice material, of which more later. And again, if the gig seemed to dip in the middle, that may only be my perception because, despite having moved some thirty feet back and left in the now thickly-packed crowd, I was gobsmacked to see my friend with the backward slant headed in my direction, like some bizarre drunk heat-seeking missile. Honestly! Oblivious to the tuttings and head-shakings all around him, and the rather more forceful prods of the thickset guy in the puffa jacket and baseball cap in front of me, somehow, somehow, your man was back, falling backwards for Christmas into my unwelcoming arms.

‘You need to try leaning forward more, you see, that’s your mistake,’ I offered in his ear.

‘Shnngggurglnn,’ he replied, nodding and smiling in a sleepy-eyed fashion. He had obviously ventured far beyond language.

And then – a Christmas miracle! – back up on stage, Crispian Mills hit a power chord, your man and his mates leapt for joy, beer went everywhere, and in a thunderclap of a song’s ending, they disappeared! I shit you not! One minute they were there, scattering eau de Tennents’ everywhere (but thankfully mostly forwards) and the next they were gone, leaving a three-man-drunk hole in front of us. If I had doubted the Power of Shakerism before, truly I came to believe at that moment.

More, they had ascended into the Rapture (or, just possibly, gone to the bar) at a perfect time, because Kula Shaker had finished with K and its associated B sides and were closing their set with the obligatory storming cover of Joe South’s ‘Hush.’ Cue massed singing of na-nana-na etc, handwaving, foot stamping, and general commotion amongst even the most douce sections of the crowd. Then a tumultuous encore: ’33 Crows’ and ‘Infinite Sun’ from K2.0, followed by my all time favourite, ‘Great Hosannah,’ with a tremendous, roaring segue into ‘Govinda,’ the track they’d held back from the original album. The second encore, listed on Setlist FM as ‘I’d Like to teach the World to Sing/Shakermaker medley,’ sent us home smiling.

It would have taken a man less emotional than me to feel unmoved, in the face of aforesaid shite year, by the lyrics of ‘Great Hosannah:’

If we stand here together
And we see the world as one
We may think there’s no future
But it’s the same for everyone
It’s like the world has lost its head
And it’s like all the prophets said
But will we arise to a new world…

But my transcendental experiences were not quite at an end for the night. As we faithful all shuffled to the exit, another drunk guy drew near (it’s not quite the animal magnetism I’d dreamed of as a teenager, I may say).

‘Flug log illegal,’ he said to me, nodding conspiratorially. I must have looked confused, so he tried again.

Flaak laak ineagle,’ he said. ‘FLAG LARK IN BEAGLE.’

‘Ah,’ I said, because suddenly, a blinding flash of illumination had hit me (it may have been the last of the stage lights popping). He was, of course, quoting from the Second Epistle of St Crispian to the Glaswegians (K2.0, track 1, verse 1). And in that moment of enlightenment, a strange transfiguration came upon me. For were we not all pilgrims travelling on the same route? And who was I to judge my fellow converts? Indeed, but two nights ago, with the administration of some office-lunch peer-group pressure-inspired sambuca shots, had I not been pretty much in the same state, if not of grace, of talking in tongues?

Yea, brother, I had been. Big style. Drunk as a monkey. So now I laid a hand on my fellow pilgrim’s shoulder, and together we intoned the Holy Word of Crispian:

‘We are one with the Infinite Sun,

Fly like an eagle…’

At least, that’s what I was singing. He was still chuntering on about logging being illegal. But the Spirit of Shakerism was moving within him, I could tell.

Footnote: If you’ve read this far down, well done, and thanks for reading – and listening – to my various creative outpourings over the year. If you have. Have a great festive period, whatever your belief or none, and a safe and prosperous 2017. It can only improve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there are ads below here, they’re not mine!

Andy’s Seasonal Solstice Sluggers!

The weather’s turning colder and darker here: so, despite the nominal tipping point of the shortest day having been reached, it’s not likely to turn into white wine weather any time soon…

So red it is! Here, drawn from Jane MacQuitty’s 50 top reds in the Times at the end of November, or, in the case of the winners, from other recommendations of hers, are the ones we’ve tracked down so far, and what we think of them:

2012 Cepa Lebrel Rioja Reserva, Spain, Lidl £5.49:

7/10. Damn fine Rioja. If you like it oaky, this one’s ok (see what I did there?)

2016 Taste the Difference Fairtrade Shiraz, South Africa, Sainsbury’s £6 till January 1:

5/10. Couldn’t taste the difference.

2016 Finca Las Moras Art Series Malbec, Argentina Sainsbury’s  £7:

6/10. Not that artful.

2015 Extra Special Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia, Asda, £6.98:

6/10. Not that extra special.

2015 Estevez Pinot Noir Reserva, Chile Aldi £4.79

No score yet ‘cos we’ve not tried it yet. We’ve a lot to get through! But MacQuitty’s star wine of the cheapos, so well worth a try.

Vignobles Roussellet Pinot Noir, Aldi, £4.49

9/10. I’ve recommended this before (as has MacQuitty) and I’m going to recommend it again. I’d pay twice the price for it. Honestly. but coming up on the rails:

Wine Atlas Corbieres 2014, Asda, £5.98

8/10. Terrible label for the traditionalists, great glug. Actually not that far away from the Aldi Pinot Noir geographically, as it’s also a Vin de Pays d’Oc, where the good news for non-traditionalists is that the French have relaxed their fussy wine regulations to allow winemakers to stick oak chips in their stainless steel vats. That goes against the romantic ideal of the wine laying down in hand-crafted, artisanal barrels of the stuff, but for a cheap glugger it does the same sort of job. Fill your boots with this easy-drinking, moreish, hefty yet sensitive red. It’s kind of the red wine equivalent of Bruce Springsteen.

Wine Atlas Corbieres

Enjoy! More solstician blogging in a couple of days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below here is advertising by WordPress. Just keep drinking.

Everybody must get Stones: Keith Richards and me

One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Yeahanotherblogger, recently posted about his experiences as a youngster with the Rolling Stones. In Stoned Again and Again, Neil (shock news: yeahanotherblogger’s a nom de plume) gives an amusing account of his lifelong ‘obsession’ (he seems far too well-balanced to be really obsessive) with Mick, Keef and those other cats. Whilst not uncritical of their present lack of output, he clearly retains an affection for them – and the depth of knowledge to link to a couple of lesser known tracks from the Stones’ first imperial period, in the mid-to-late Sixties, the latter of which, Dandelion, I’d never heard..

And it all got me thinking. As the music press goes radge bongo for their first album in years and years (of which more later) what do I think of them myself? Do they still hold any relevance today? Should I be steering Daughter and Heiress towards them (as if she’ll listen, and/or as if she’ll not have made her mind up via Youtube already) as an ineluctable part of her rock n’ roll heritage?

Some context here. I was 5 in 1967, so Pinky and Perky were more my musical bag, man. Later on, I did become aware of the Stones at a relatively young age via the magic of my older brother and sister’s record collection. I still remember being especially impressed at the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) with its picture of a pair of well-filled jeans, and an actual zip! Come to think of it, I think Toe Blister’s still got that album – might even be worth something now.

By the time I had got through my Pinky and Perky phase, the Stones were mainly absent from such crucial sources of music we had in the UK like ‘Top of the Pops.’ Actually, in the mid to late Seventies, ToTP was pretty much the only source of new music on the TV in the UK: but by then, the Stones were rich and famous enough to be tax exiles, and didn’t deign to appear on the show. Come to think of it, given the number of TOTP presenters who’ve since had their collars felt by the constabulary for alleged – and in some cases – proven misdemeanours of the morally turpitudinous type, that was a pretty smart move.

So the Stones were gone from the current music scene, and viewed by some as part of the old guard that had to be swept away by the cleansing wave of snot that was Punk, circa 76/77. Not that it was obvious from your average disco DJ’s set of the time: as a bit of relief from Rose Royce, Gloria Gaynor, and the like, a few ‘classic’ Stones numbers were generally thrown into the set: but then, Paint It Black, Ruby Tuesday, Brown Sugar are the like are pretty damn danceable, after all. I was always intrigued by the opening bars of ‘Black,’ especially: that sitar!

So the Stones were great to party on to. But in terms of still being relevant? I remember hearing ‘Start Me Up,’ the single off ‘Tattoo You’ in 1981, by which time I was a 19-year-old serious-minded student of Rock (that wasn’t my actual degree, but it might as well have been – see earlier post on my ill-judged attempts to become the next Bruce Dylansteen). I was pretty underwhelmed. Still am, in fact – I always felt that was the beginning of the end for the fabled Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership.

Then, a long period passed – in fact, most of the Eighties and Nineties – when, for me at least, the Stones were more about the myth than the music. Specifically, the Glimmer Twins legend. It was almost as if the two of them had realised the game was up with a clever tune and a lyric and decided to construct a whole new mythology instead. Mick became cast as the stereotypical Lead Singer: vain, self-obsessed, good with the media; Keith, on the other hand, was the cool one, the moody Guitarist with the tortured-artist addictions and the piratical dress sense.

Other parts of the Stones’ actual history were grist to the mill of the myth: tragic, mysterious early death of founder member; bad acid and stabbing at Altamont as the band played on with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ drugs busts, Redlands, Marianne Faithfull and that Mars Bar. The Establishment was trying to take them down, man. Even exile in France wasn’t so much as prudent tax avoidance as sticking it to the Man.

Along the way, certain inconvenient truths were buried, particularly around Brian Jones’s part in the early years. It was interesting to read, last year, Keef’s autobiography, Life, and more or less straight afterwards  Paul Trynka’s biography of Jones. The latter gives a possibly slightly overstated version of Jones’s significance, but it does show how it was his band originally, how Mick and Keef marginalised him, and eventually left him with no place at all. Jones was far from blameless in all of this – he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, and he clearly ‘had issues’ – but it’s the way he’s been written out of the band’s history that’s striking.

Back to the Sage of Dartford though. Don’t get me wrong: respect is due from any guitar player for how, following Jones’s departure, Keef was largely responsible for refining the Stones’ sound around a riffing, country-blues vibe that played to the band’s strengths, along the way collaborating with Mick Taylor and then Ronnie Wood in a way that stepped away from the lead/rhythm guitarist paradigm and, instead, paved the way for a more egalitarian twin-guitar approach. And don’t be put off by my comments about his autobiography: it is highly entertaining, especially about the drugs busts, and well written. There’s even a section on tunings which will help you to work out how to play his stuff more accurately.

Look, I see myself as a guitarist rather than a lead singer, so like why wouldn’t I want to be a bit more Keith Richards? Indeed, I often feel the answer to many of my life’s dilemmas might well be, ‘what would Keith Richards do?’ And ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which very definitely has Keef’s fingerprints all over it, is my favourite Stones song ever.

It’s just, well, I dunno. He kind of takes the credit away from everyone else, somehow?

So, in his bio, he claims the only reason they recruited Bill Wyman was he had a big old bass amp. That famous meeting of Jagger and him on the railway platform at Dartford? He only got talking to the cat because of his record collection. In a recent interview with Uncut to push the new album, ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ he uses the same reason for hooking up with Brian Jones: ‘Brian was the first person I knew that had a Robert Johnson record … Very rare. That’s when I captured him. “I’ll take you, and the record!”‘

See what I mean? Even Mick Jagger’s apparent upturn in harmonica playing on the new album, according to the same interview, is down to him, via Ronnie Wood: as the interview puts it, ‘the two men worked discreetly, good-naturedly stoking Jagger’s enthusiasm for the harmonica.’ You can’t – or at least I can’t – help feeling a tad sorry for Brenda, as Keef calls him: forever guilty of acts of lead singerism, dependent on his guitarists to jolt him into harp-playing reanimation, the eternally uncool straight man.

Will I be buying ‘Blue and Lonesome?’ Nah. Partly because that pure, unadulterated blues isn’t really my thing, but also because, well, if I want to listen to the blues, there’s an excellent local band called Lights Out By Nine I could go and see in a small venue. I’d rather give them the money, same way I’d rather go see my good friend Norman Lamont recently (and contribute to Edinburgh Foodbanks in the process) perform his ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ live than go and see the non-Nobel Prize Ceremony attending old curmudgeon himself when he reaches Glasgow on 7th May (plus I’m working that night, come to think of it).

Still, Keith. We’ll always have Gimme Shelter…and to be fair, even the story of its recording is the stuff of legend.

Image result for keith richards