andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Leith Depot – Object Now to its Demolition!

As some of you will know, there’s currently a planning application to develop a part of Leith Walk, viz:

18/04332/FUL | Demolition of existing buildings and erection of a mixed use development including 53 affordable housing flats, student accommodation (523 bedrooms), hotel with 56 rooms (Class 7), restaurant(s) (Class 3) and space for potential community and live music venue (Class 10 & 11), retail (Class 1), public house (sui generis) or commercial uses (Class 2 & 4). Includes associated infrastructure, landscaping and car parking. | 106 – 162 Leith Walk Edinburgh EH6 5DX

What all that means is that a really good bit of Leith Walk will disappear under some bland, commercial buildings with, no doubt, little in the way of any sort of tie in with the rest of the area. One thing which will disappear is the Leith Depot, a brilliant pub and music venue which should be protected, and probably would be in other cities like, oh, I don’t know, Glasgow?

Unfortunately I’ve left it too late to spend time going over the planning policies and using my knowledge of the planning system to produce some killer policy-based arguments against the proposal. So I’ve gone for the gut feeling instead. By all means use it – or some of it – for your own submission, but the closing date is tomorrow, 28th September.

You can object here.

My objection:

I urge members of the planning committee to reject this proposal, which will rip out an integral part of what made Leith voted recently one of the funkiest areas in the UK.

My primary connection with this area is as a musician who has played twice at the Leith Depot. Closure of this is another nail in the coffin of the Edinburgh live music scene, and we might as well keep the current exhibition of Scottish Pop and Rock at the Museum of Scotland, ‘Rip It Up,’ as just that – a museum exhibit, because the places for young bands to learn their trade live are fast disappearing.

The suggestion in the application of ‘space for community and live music venue’ should fool nobody – that just won’t happen, because of the basic economics of such a thing being a newbuild.

Planning committee members, please do what you were voted in for and save a bit of this city’s cultural heritage.

Isaac Brutal at the Leith Depot. Pic: Karl Lewis

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Falling Between 4 Stools: Auntie NHS and her Ultra-Super New Poo Test

Swedish Glace Dairy Free Heavenly Chocolate

If you don’t appreciate your humour on the scatological side, this isn’t the post for you. If you’ve never been sure what ‘scatological’ means, safer to look it up first…

As some of you will know, I turned 56 recently. I know! Well, I’ve had an easy life, that’s the secret of those boyish good looks. The National Health Service, incidentally, turned 70 this year, which means it’s 14 years older than me, and, of course, that I’ve lived with its benefits all of my life.

14 years. That makes the NHS like a  youngish auntie to me  (I don’t know why I’ve assigned her a female gender, really, apart from the obvious one of all that caring and nurturing being, well, something more commonly associated with the distaff side).

Fortunately, even though I’ve rarely paid my auntie much attention, having visited her as little as possible over the years, she still remembers me, and is there for me when I need her. More, since I turned 50, she’s been sending me some quirky but useful presents on my birthday. Only once every two years, mind, but nevertheless, thoughtful of her. Well, she’s getting on a bit.

Anyone in the Scotland of a certain age will know what I’m talking about: the bowel cancer screening kit you get sent on your 50th birthday, and then every two years until you’re 74 (after that, you need to have enough mental furniture to contact them and ask for another one).

And here’s the good news: auntie’s biennial present just got a whole lot less difficult to use.

The kit used to be a more elaborate affair: you had to collect samples on four different visits  to the loo for a Number 2, apply them, by means of little cardboard sticks, to little windows in the kit (itself a piece of cardboard, a bit like a cut-down advent calendar). In other words, it was kind of like paint by numbers. Except you only had one kind of paint, and it was pretty lumpy.

Let’s be honest here. Doing this test pretty much breaks some of the most fundamental social conditioning we’ve all got, at least in the so-called developed world. From the earliest session of potty training, we’ve all been taught that what comes out of our back botty is the dirtiest thing in the world, which we should never ever touch, except via the medium of toilet paper, and which should be flushed down the china receptacle in our bathrooms (the toilet, obviously, not the other china receptacles) as quickly as possible.

With this test, though, you not only didn’t flush it straight away: you retained it long enough for you to get up close and personal enough to create a little advent calendar out of your poo. On four separate visits to the china shrine. You could, in theory, line the toilet bowl with paper to catch the, er, raw material for this, but frankly I never trusted the paper to keep it clear of the water, which, the leaflet advised, would contaminate the sample. So my method was – and remains – catching it in an ice cream box. A used one, obviously, which I’d eaten the ice cream out of first. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever done. Pooing in a box, I mean. The ice cream eating’s pretty much hard wired in.

One reason the test was previously difficult was that thing of the four samples. That meant you had to keep the kit for at least a few days; I kept the advent calendar out in the garage while it was a work in progress. I certainly wasn’t going to re-use the ice cream box, so you needed a supply of them, bagging up each one and disposing of them every time.

However. This year’s present from Auntie was much less of an ordeal. A gizmo shaped like a USB stick opens up to reveal a little plastic dipstick, which, well, you’ve guessed it, you use to dip. Then it’s a simple task to replace it in the rest of the USB stick, screw it up again, and shove it in the reassuringly easy-seal envelope provided. Crucially, you have only to do this once.

Why am I writing a blog about poo? Because, dear reader, there’s a very serious intent to Auntie’s little pressie. The leaflet this year tells you that, if caught and treated in time, bowel cancer has a 90% survival rate. The leaflet doesn’t hit you with the sucker punch that I also read recently: that if it’s not caught in time, that rate drops to 5%.

No brainer, huh? Well, you’d think. But at least one colleague of mine has said she doesn’t take the test because it’s just ‘too disgusting to do.’ So, if you’re over 50 in the UK and feel the same way, here’s a wake up call. Your poo is your friend. The test can detect, in time for treatment, if you have the beginnings of bowel cancer. And it just got a whole lot easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, there may be some adverts. Almost definitely not related to the post.

 

Speed Trap Town, Songs and other Flash Fiction

What a great first line: ‘She said, it’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart.’ It could be the first line of a Raymond Carver short story, or an Ian McEwan novel. It’s only when you hear that the second line is ‘dropped a  dozen cheap roses in a shopping cart,’ that the rhyme gives it away as a poem, or a song.

Since splitting away from Drive By Truckers to plough his own furrow as a singer-songwriter, many of Jason Isbell’s best-known songs have a definite autobiographical air: ’24 Frames,’ or ‘Cover Me Up,’ where the line about swearing off that stuff always attracts a cheer from the gig crowd, which is ironic, really, since most of us haven’t actually sworn off that stuff. But he has, and we’re glad it’s working for him.

On the other hand, some of Isbell’s finest work is a narrative about someone else. ‘Hudson Commodore,’ for example, has a female protagonist, the story of how she’s making her own way amongst men who want to own her told in the third person. In ‘Speed Trap Town,’ however, he uses the first person to tell the tale.

The first verse is actually a superb example of what Robert McKee, probably the best known modern exponent of storycraft, calls ‘the inciting incident‘: the woman at the supermarket, with her kindly meant gesture, throws the narrator’s life out of balance in the sense that, up till then, he’s been going along, surviving, drinking a bit too much, visiting his Dad in the ICU; but that bunch of flowers tips him into making a decision.

The whole song is, at 271 words, an almost perfect example of what would without the rhyming scheme be called flash fiction. The narrator goes from the supermarket to a High School football game, a bottle of booze under his coat: but that only serves to remind him of how far, and how little, he’s come, since he left school himself. As the protagonist in this story, he has to protag. But the real story, as the twist reveals, is about how Daddy got in the ICU in the first place.

Anyhoo, I could witter on more about storycraft in songwriting, but since the real purpose of this is to get you to listen to my cover of the song, I’ll stop there and tell you instead a bit about it instead. I don’t generally do cover versions these days: too busy trying to bottle what’s coming out of my own head musically in the limited time available. However, Isaac Brutal is working on what promises to be a very interesting covers project, and was kind enough to ask me to supply some guitar for a couple of tracks. We kicked around two possible Isbell songs for him, I recorded the backing for both, and got to keep ‘Speed Trap Town’ for myself. I’ll let Mr Brutal reveal his own choice in good time.

The Isbell original is beautifully spare, with just him and his Martin acoustic, some fine electric slide guitar, and a bit of piano. The best covers for me do something different from the original: but I felt throwing more instrumentation at it would just distract from that brilliant bit of storytelling. So, instead, apart from my Lag and a bit of acoustic slide on my Freshman 12 string, I opted for sound effects. It was easy enough to find a hospital machine bleep on Freesound: but where I really got lucky was the police radio clip.

Some may feel I’ve over-egged that by keeping it going, albeit at a reduced level, under the vocals. However, it just fit the narrative so well: the way the female dispatcher and the cop interact. They’re not flirting, exactly, but there’s a relationship there, I think, as the terse information is relayed back and forth with a smile in the voice.

Incidentally, if you like the track enough to want to download it, sling me an email address at venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll sign you up for the Inner Circle of my mailing list. This is not an onerous thing: you’ll get an email from me once a month or less about my various creative activities, and much less frequently, something like this with a download code.

But hurry – you’ve got until the end of September to download this particular dragonfly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, only adverts – and Jason Isbell’s brilliant original…

 

 

 

Never Forget – Someone Up There Likes You

I haven’t an idea how to promote myself via social media. No clue. When something I do works, I can’t work out why: when it doesn’t, the same.

I could, of course, turn to a thousand digital marketing consultants for a fee, but I tend to think that, as William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade, no one knows anything. He was talking about what it takes to make a hit movie, but, frankly, when it comes to making yourself a shining beacon in the dense jungle of the interweb, I reckon same rules apply.

However, at least now I know someone up there likes me.

Now, when I say ‘up there,’ I should explain I’m not talking about Him, or more likely Her, Up There. I’m talking about Mountain View, California, which Soundcloud tells me was the home town of someone who downloaded one of the tracks from my first album, ‘Never Forget,’ recently.

Mountain View, Wikipedia tells me, is a town of around 81,000 souls, with many Silicon Valley employers, including Mozilla, maker of my favourite browser, Firefox. However, it’s probably best known for being the HQ of Google.

Comparisons between God and Google are invidious, of course. They do start their names with the same first two letters (coincidence? You decide) and both have a motto ‘don’t be evil’ (to paraphrase). However, only one of them can lay claim to being all-seeing and all-knowing. So far.

Anyhoo, man (or woman) from Mountain View, whether or not you work for Google, Mozilla, or the local coffee shop, thanks for listening, and especially, in this age when everyone streams everything, downloading. You have exquisite taste, and keep tuning in, because I have a bunch of new stuff coming up in the next few months that I think will knock your socks off.

 

Never Forget

When the hatred is high, and injustice is flowing

We must never forget who we are.

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

We must never forget who we are.

 

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

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

 

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

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.

 

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

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.

 

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

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.

 

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

Fairness, equality, freedom and brotherhood

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where tolerance and understanding have lost their currency,

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

We must never forget who we are.

 

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

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

 

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

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.

 

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

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.

 

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

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.

 

When our values, our beliefs,

when everything we hold dear is under threat,

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where there are refugees, where there are dispossessed,

Where there is shelter to be given,

Where there are children of every nation crying,

We must never forget who we are.

 

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

We must never forget who we are.

 

For if the eyes of the world are on us,

And we want to look them in the eye,

We must never forget who we are.

 

PS – Although the track uses my own music now, I originally wrote it to go with this Mogwai track, Special N, so feel free to read it with that playing if you prefer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for ads about Mogwai? They’re probably not below here. More likely car insurance or some such.

 

 

 

Stamping out the Clutter

As part of my Loft – and Life – Decluttering Campaign I sold my stamp collection for minus five pounds the other week – and I was happy with the deal!

I’d made an appointment to see the eponymous Mr Murray of Robert Murray Stamp Shop, in Inverleith, Edinburgh. He turned out to be a charming gent who I trusted on instinct when he told me my rag-tag collection of stamps from the late 60s/early 70s wouldn’t fetch enough to cover his auction fee.

I had done almost no internet research: in fact, the only sketchy look I’d had the night before had been in relation to the Forth Road Bridge first day covers. I had three of them, but it appeared from that brief internet trawl that they were of virtually no value, despite now being over 50 years old. Sure enough, the only thing Mr Murray showed a flicker of interest in was the invite to the Bridge’s opening that was in one of the envelopes.

However, this was one of the few things I wanted to keep. It had been my Mum and Dad’s invite, through my Dad’s job and, as I may have mentioned before, I have a connection with the old Road Bridge as it was opened on my second birthday in 1964.

So I kept that, handed over most of the rest to be sold off for charity at the next auction, and ended up spending a fiver on the presentation pack Mr Murray had put together in 2014, on the Bridge’s 50th (and my 52nd, obvs, although it isn’t all about me) birthday. It’s a nice little thing to have (pics below) and I thought it book-ended my involvement with the Bridge nicely (I was also briefly involved with it through work, and went up it a couple of years ago as a result).

The more interesting bit is the story Mr Murray told me about the original first day covers – and one reason why they’re not worth anything now. Back then there was a guy ran a stamp shop as a hobby in a small West Lothian town near Edinburgh: with some interest growing in the opening of the new Bridge, and knowing the Post Office were bringing out a first day cover, he put a tiny, two-line advert in the Daily Express (back then still a widely read newspaper of some repute).

His offer was to buy the first day cover and the stamp, address it to the relevant customer, and send it on to them on opening day, 4th September – because everyone knew that, to have any value, first day covers had to have a postmark. All you needed to do was to send him your address and a postal order for an amount which gave him a small profit on the transaction.

A couple of days later the postie arrived at your man’s main business, a carpet shop, with a sackful of postal orders: in the end, he had to close it and focus on the first day cover venture, enlisting his family to do the licking, sticking and addressing by hand: 12,000 requests in all. It didn’t make him rich, but I bet it gave him a very sore tongue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t an advert for anything. Except, I suppose, Robert Murray Stamp Shop – and I’ve not been paid for that; more adverts I haven’t been paid for below…

The Microphone that turned into a Guitar: or, ten years a slave to acoustic

I had a microphone that turned into a guitar the other day. No, it’s true I tell you! Selling a surplus to requirements Røde M2, the only offer I got was from my old mucker Jeff Sniper, the epnonymous organiser of Jeffest: he had a Telecaster, and did I fancy a swap?

Did I not just! The last electric guitar I’d owned was ten years back, and it was a CMI (anyone heard of them?) Stratocaster  copy that I disposed of shortly after Tribute to Venus Carmichael got going. There were three key reasons why I’d got rid:

1. It wasn’t very good. The whammy bar was long gone. Some of the pickup positions didn’t work at all: I’d bought it off a guy in Dundee in the 80s for £40, and occasional attempts to get its electrics repaired had foundered;

2. Most obviously, the whole Venus Carmichael schtick was going to be built around plangent acoustic sounds, not soaring Hendrix style fuzz-soaked soloing (even if I’d been good enough to do that);

3. Tony Blair.

This last one perhaps needs more explanation: around that time, Blair had made it known by the usual media that he’d bought himself a red Strat. Now, in the interests of political balance, I should stress it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Blair, Alex Salmond, Paddy Ashdown or Iain Duncan Smith who’d made that announcement: it would still have pushed the poor old Strat out of any realms of cool it had once inhabited into the distinctly tepid. And yes, I know Blair had actually played in a band at Oxford, another fact he was somewhat desperately keen to play up. It was called Ugly Rumours, apparently. Yeah, I know.

To be fair, it wasn’t all about Blair. Although the Sainted Jimi had played one, other former guitar heroes who did had kind of gone down in my estimation in recent years: step forward Eric Clapton, who may have the status of deity to some, but whom I’d seen during his heroin years at Edinburgh’s Playhouse, and was sorely disappointed. Step forward, also, one Mark Knopfler, although I keep saying his reputation’s due a reappraisal. Then I listen to one of his solo albums.

(I should stress that some very fine guitar work has been, and continues to be, done, on Strats, including by Isaac Brutal’s lead guitarist, Graham Crawford. If you want a proper considered comparison between these two legends of Fender you could do worse than this one.)

The Telecaster, on the other hand, is espoused by Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. And, on my trip to Nashville in 2011, if I was in any doubt about its prominence in country music, the massive Tele in front of the Grand Ole Opry’s radio HQ was a bit of a clue.

And then, of course, there’s Dylan. I knew he’d favoured Telecasters on that fateful 1966 tour when he went electric: I’d even been moved to poetry about it:

 

 

 

Pictures with Meaning: Bob Dylan with Liverpool kids, 14 May 1966

Tiny rock jockey

coming up on the rails

the zeitgeist

riding his coattails

cup final afternoon in Liverpool

parents watching

Everton come back in black and white

the kids drawn

to the big car

the man

in a floppy hat

Feinstein fusses: at last they settle

suddenly still

jammed in a doorway

 

Pic: Barry Feinstein

Dylan stares

dead centre

of this grubby maelstrom

the kids

one hiding his laugh

one serious, buttoned up

one snot-sweet girl, mostly smile

 

two streets along,

a brick falls

worked loose on a bombsite

 

in three days

Dylan will die

when the folkies crucify him

then rise again

new electric god

playing it fucking loud

while the kids, oblivious

use jumpers for goalposts.

 

What I didn’t know until recently was that the one the Bobster used was, instead of the classic cream, black with a white pickguard, at Robbie Robertson’s request. The same guitar was up for auction this year, apparently. Robertson ended up owning it and playing it till the paint fell off and he had it sanded down to the wood: it sold at the auction for $490,000. Probably Tony Bloody Blair bought it, come to think of it.

Anyway, my guitar isn’t a Fender, and it ain’t going up for auction any time soon. Here she is: isn’t she a beaut? She’s a Harley Benton copy, and she’s even got the previous owner’s iconic Sniper logo on it. I’m not taking that off: I really like that she’s already had a history with another player, and I’m not wanting to wipe that history out.

 

Pic: Jeff Sniper

And yep, purely by chance it’s black with a white pickguard.

Anyhoo. How much will I play her? Not as much as the acoustics, unless Mr Brutal decides the third guitarist in the band needs to go electric any time soon. Venus Carmichael will still be founded on plangent acoustic backing, so you can hold back those shouts of ‘Judas!’ But…

When Jeff handed her over, he mentioned that she was a good guitar to write songs on, and one advantage of owning her for me is kind of the opposite of what you’d expect. Because already, I’ve had reason to crawl out of bed before the rest of the household with a song idea (most of these critters come to me first thing in the morning, and if I don’t tie them down in some way they just keep on going) and play the chords through unamplified, on the Tele. Much quieter than the acoustic if you don’t plug her in!

2008, which is kind of the year that this whole journey of changing from a fiction and poetry writer to a songwriter began, seems a long time ago in many ways. I do believe that people – and guitars – come into your life sometimes for good reason. I’m never going to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Robbie Robertson for that matter. But I’m still going strongly in that musical direction I set off on in 2008 (or, to be more accurate, a journey I restarted then) and I reckon being tooled up with a Tele isn’t going to do any harm.

So thank you, Jeff, and may the Røde be with you, and serve you well. We’re both travelling the same road (see what I did there) so, for us and other dreamers who find stuff gets in the way of that dream, here’s an inspirational story from Mr Robertson about that 1966 tour, when a black and white Telecaster guitar was all that stood between them and the uncomprehending world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here, but don’t let them detain you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bohemian Quarter’s Blood Harmonies

Translation of an article that appeared in El País on 14th July last year, when we were in Madrid: I’ve not quite spent the whole year translating it, but just about! Starting with the title, any Spanish speakers will recognise I’ve opted for style over literality in the translation. You can read the original here.

Photos courtesy of my friend and colleague Manicpopthrills, who’s just back from Canada.

Thanks as always to my utterly wonderful Spanish teacher, Ana Maria Duffy, for her help with the translation. The infelicities are all mine.

 

It’s difficult to imagine that anything, beyond the ding of the paper boy’s bell, changes the Pax Americana that reigns in the gentle slopes of Westmount. Leonard Cohen, who died a year past November, was born here in 1934 amongst anglified houses and perfect flowerbeds; in a city set apart, in a minority set apart. Westmount is a Jewish quarter in Catholic Montreal, an Anglophone enclave in a city where above all else French is spoken; a wealthy pool surrounded by difficulties of financial and other sorts.

By the side of the St Lawrence

When Leonard was 8 years old, the most vibrant avenue in the city, St-Laurent, caught alight with an anti-Jewish gathering. In full cry, the far right had chosen the street that separates the French-speaking quarters from the English, to accuse the Jewish shopkeepers of selling ‘indecent’ clothing to girls, as if, instead of the beatific Montreal, they were in sacrilegious New York.

The demonstration ended with smashing of shop windows. Meanwhile, in his privileged redoubt, Leonard, a clothes shop owner’s son, was reading his Spiderman comics peacefully. In Westmount, the sole contact with the Catholic, French, population which flows like lava round it on all sides, were the Quebecois women who arrived, daily, to work as domestics.

But this security didn’t last long. At 9 years old, he lost his father. And it’s possible that, in the garden of his then house at 599 Belmont Avenue, one of his ties still lies buried. When he heard of the death, Leonard took a tie from the wardrobe, opened it, and put a piece of paper inside it he had written on. Then he buried it beneath the snow.

This ritual, in changing form, would repeat itself in the future with one constant: writing as liberation from sadness. And Westmount would always be the place where a tie was buried beneath the snow.

The rest of the world awaited, and close to home gave him his first opportunities. As an adolescent he reached out into his city as far as St-Catherine (the street map of Montreal is very saintly), the seat of night life, jazz, cafés with marble topped tables, the underworld, and men who wear raincoats even in summer. The far-right fanatics were right only in one thing: the city, much to their chagrin, is the Canadian New York, the difference being that the Montrealese give three kisses when greeting each other.

Montreal by night

 

Today, St Catherine Street has completely lost the clandestine air it had in Cohen’s youth, and stirs with the spirit of businesses, and the multiple points of entry to the Subterranean City: kilometres of shops beneath the surface, taking refuge from the 30 below zero temperatures which can hit in winter.

In an old bookshop, you can find a translation of the Gacela del Mercado Matutino by Garcia Lorca, and coming across a reference to Arco de Elvira de Granada, you find yourself for the first time in Andalucía.

After a while, you buy yourself a second hand guitar. At the back of your house, on a tennis court on Murray Hill Park, you get to know a Spanish lad surrounded by girls – the mechanism of seduction, the seduction itself, always urged upon Cohen – the strumming of a guitar.

In broken French, Leonard asked him for lessons. The Spanish boy only turned up three times to Cohen’s home, but it was enough to teach him 6 flamenco melodies. On the fourth the teacher failed to show, and when Leonard called at his pensión to find out what happened to him, the landlord told him he had committed suicide.

‘Those six tunes … have been the basis of all my songs and all my music,’ he confessed, moved, on collecting a prize in Asturias in 2011.

His world grew bigger when he entered McGill University, the main academic destination for English speakers. It coincided with the climax of the conflict between the two communities. Cohen began to be known as a poet, but expressed himself in a language that, for the majority of his countrymen, is foreign. Refusing to speak French, in that period one could hear in the shops ‘speak white!’ (also expressed as ‘speak Christian!’) Today, in the businesses that locate on the ancient frontiers between languages, you can hear a crossbred ‘Bonjour hi!’ greeting customers without distinction.

The politics of language underlies the smallest public message in Montreal life. French is the only official language of Quebec since 1977, but Montreal, the most populous city in the region, is a bilingual universe, with two universities and various hospitals English-speaking. Even so, on notices, English will appear in second place and in appreciably smaller lettering.

Although some of his lyrics, his own or adopted, exude political flavours (The Partisan, Democracy, First We Take Manhattan) Cohen always skirted around the political conflict between communities that has shaken Quebecois life during the last few decades, including the toughest years, of attacks by the Quebec Liberation Front. When, at the end of the Seventies, a Francophone journalist pressed him to pronounce on why he hadn’t supported the region’s struggle for independence, he replied with some sharpness: ‘I’m for the Free State of Montreal. I don’t live in a country, I live in a neighbourhood, in a universe completely set apart from the others. I’m neither Canadian nor Quebecois. I am, and always will be, from Montreal.’

His political positions were always, like his dress sense, elegant. He crossed all fashions on tip toe because he always knew that although they had their moment in the sun, at some point they would reach the shade.

His music doesn’t lay claim to the city, except in the sense of the shadow it casts in the resonances of litanies and choirs of his synagogue. He loved Montreal, and yet also hated it, and, in either case, as he confessed in his early twenties, he had to return to it now and again to, as he put it, renew his neurotic allegiances.

Even so, one of his most famous songs deals with a subtle journey; and it is Suzanne (Suzanne Verdal, a platonic relationship) who leads him by the hand to her ‘place by the river.’ She goes dressed in the ‘rags and feathers,’ of the Salvation Army store in Notre-Dame, near the Cathedral. It’s Suzanne who offers him tea and oranges that come, all the way from China, to the port, long ago one of the most important entry points for trade and immigrants in North America.

The song mentions ‘our lady of the harbour,’ which in truth is Our Lady of Good Help, a 17th century church, built and rebuilt several times since, which served as a safe place of pilgrimage for Catholics alarmed by Iroquois aggression, and which also acted as a meeting place for the small community of anglophone Catholics. A sculpture of Christ, crowned, tops the church (on a solitary wooden tower, the song asserts) and turns its back on the faithful entering by the front door; he is turned instead towards the river, with arms spread, blessing the departing sailors.

The beatific Montreal

A walk around the area of Vieux-Port, the old port, offers the possibility of attending a Cirque du Soleil spectacle, in their permanent site in Quebec, or simply to enjoy the views, at the bottom of Jacques-Cartier, a majestic bridge, currently illuminated for Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017.

The whole of Montreal is a gift of the St Lawrence River, which splits Canada’s geography in a gigantic breach. The majority of Quebec’s inhabitants arrived across it, like the Cohens, fleeing the Russian pogroms. From the rest of the world, people got off the boats and travelled along the street above to found, at some point, their little Italy, their tiny slice of Greece, their piece of Portugal. In the Seventies, precisely in the ancient Jewish quarter reconquered by the Portuguese, Cohen staked his claim on a Montreal refuge from the harvest of his successes in the rest of the world. In front of the three storey house he built, the Portuguese park opens out, small and timid. A plaque and some tiles record the origins of its inhabitants. In the middle, a roofless kiosk serves as a refuge for musicians.

Following in Cohen’s footsteps in this Montreal that he never stopped leaving, but, with age, each time more sporadically, is as easy as imitating those of any other neighbourhood. You can buy bagels that, unlike those of New York, are smaller, malted, with honey and egg, and are therefore sweeter and more substantial. Leonard’s choice was the café-restaurant Bagel Etc. (St Laurent, 4320). For takeaway, it’s possible to get bagels direct in Fairmount Bagel (Fairmount Avenue, 74) not far away, and in St-Viateur Bagel (St Viateur 263).

For something to eat, treat yourself with a sandwich of delicious meat, smoked for days, which melts in the mouth when you sink your teeth in. There are many places to try a taste, but Cohen used to prefer Main Deli Steakhouse (St Laurent, 3864). A good alternative is Schwartz’s (St Laurent, 3895) where they keep, without any concession to interior design, the same atmosphere of years ago: bright frozen refreshments from previous decades; formica counters; veteran waiters threading conversations one with the other. For dinner, the musician would be seen at Moishe’s Steakhouse, an elegant, copper-toned, restaurant. Following the singer’s death, the back of the restaurant carries an enormous mural of his face and hat.

Spice Shops

The area of Plateau de Montreal, joins alongside Vieux-Montreal, that flanks the river, the oldest story in his city, told in this enormous extension of reticular streets.

A few years ago the cost of living in these ancient immigrant quarters went up massively, and, in part, it’s the fault of the last wave of ‘foreigners:’ that of well-off French who are transforming it into the perfect destination for the bohemian bourgeois (the naïve bourgeois boheme).

Already, they have domesticated St Denis Street with their craft ice-cream parlours and clothes shops, decorated with perfectly interchangeable ‘vintage’ items. In parallel, the main street, St-Laurent, keeps running wild, the true main artery of this Montreal, shabbier but more surprising with its Hungarian, Jewish, and Spanish spice shops (La Librairie Espagnole, on St Laurent, 3811, that in spite of its name is a grocery) its coffee shops and old bookstores like Westcott Books (St Laurent, 4065) where the books are so numerous and disorganised that it’s impossible to discover, after spending a short time there, where the bookseller is.

In a city overflowing with music, there is no lack of clubs, like the Pink Room, that occupies the upper floor of the Centro Social Español de Montreal (St Laurent, 4848), a meeting point for the tiny expatriate Spanish community.

It’s agreeable to get away from the brouhaha of the main streets, and to go into the outskirts and discover old synagogues, coquettish brick and wood houses, and a sight as Montrealese as the boats crossing the Saint Lawrence: the orange traffic cones of public works. These are, for the summer streets, like Christmas decorations: they arrive with the heat, because in the winter cold the asphalt dissolves like sugar, and therefore the good weather is the chance to repair it quickly.

Wandering through the streets, the visitor will discover the epicentre of Montreal’s poetry in the tranquil St-Louis, which for years hosted one of the most active creative movements in the city. The writers’ gatherings seethed beneath ceilings of buildings so Victorian and gloomy that they would have delighted Tim Burton.

In his own way, Leonard Cohen had taken Manhattan, and then Berlin, but for all his dwellings round the world, at the end he only owned his main residence in Los Angeles, where he died, and the house on the Plateau. Always, a Westmount neighbour of his testified, he maintained his connections with his community of origin. Knowing perhaps that his end was approaching, he entrusted his synagogue’s choir, Shaar Hashomayin, to record with him the songs on his last album, You Want It Darker.

The cemetery on the outskirts is an appendix to Mont-Royal, a mountain of the dead invaded by lawn and headstones, with a roll-call of alphabets and surnames that forever displays the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Lost between solid blocks of marble with the family names recorded on them, the difficulty of finding Leonard’s tomb tells you that the Cohen name is everywhere. To the eternal fan’s good fortune, there is a trail to identify the clothes shop owner’s son.

Placed in the earth, in the trail there is a small painting of a hand’s breadth with a black bird sitting still on a cable, like that of his song Bird on a Wire.

A Cohen tribute, this time in Toronto.

All pics copyright Mike Melville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hungary, Austria, and the Joy of Gilbert’s Polaroids

They were passing the Palinka round on the bus before 11 in the morning. That was even before we got near any wine!

It’s hard to believe that the wine tasting trip I spent in the company of the Redoubtable Mrs F, Sister C, the Magnificent László, and assorted  devotees of Hungarian wine, was last September. In some ways, it seems much shorter a time than that ago. In others, it seems much longer ago, and I blame that squarely on the Palinka.

Palinka, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is the local Hungarian equivalent of what, world wide, humans have been brewing up since the dawn of time when the means to make beer or wine are temporarily unavailable: other varieties include whisky, vodka and raki. In other words, the local spirit, which is almost always best treated with caution (or, in the case of whisky, exported to a gullible rest of the world as some sort of premium product).

Palinka’s immediate effect is a moderate to strong burning sensation. Then, without apparently taking the trouble to go as far as the stomach, the alcohol enters your bloodstream at throat level, producing an entirely pleasant warming feeling through the chest which, if you were up against it on the Eastern Front in the depths of winter, might well be a life-saver.

But enough of Palinka, because the main drink of choice on this tour of north-western Hungary was wine; and especially, red wine. Unfortunately the Hungarians don’t export much; because it’s fantastic stuff, especially when served, as it was on our second night of the tour, in the cellar of a truly magical restaurant with an introduction to each wine by the completely charming winemaker.

Actually, our favourite wine on the night was one which had made it over from Austria: Zweigelt. Of course, the two countries were originally all part of one empire, before all that fuss about Archduke Ferdinand if you remember, and on our first excursion across the border, it became obvious that, economically and culturally, there are still strong links. One fascinating (and non-wine-related) pair of excursions was to two palaces, one on each side of the border, that had been built by the Esterházy family.

Too soon, our time on the Hungarian side of the border was over: it’s a really beautiful part of the world, particularly when the autumn sun is shining. There’s no doubt that László’s presence, and that of his parents, who helped to organise the trips, wine tastings, and other events were crucial in making the whole thing so special.

 

 

However, we’d squeezed in an extra couple of nights to take in Vienna – or at least a taste of that ancient, complex city for future reference. Indeed, it was coming across, in the back pocket of a pair of jeans, the ticket to the Leopold Museum that reminded me I’d never finished writing up the trip: the ticket, left, showed the less famous of the Museum’s artists, Egon Schiele. In fact, the Schiele works were almost more interesting than those of Gustav Klimt, the main attraction, although, as so often, we didn’t really leave enough time to take in everything properly.

The other museum visit we squeezed in was to the Freud Museum. A strangely muted affair, set in the flat Freud occupied for most of his Vienna life, it consisted of quite a lot of very static displays which you kind of felt hadn’t changed much for years. However, the place was due a major renovation this year.

The most poignant aspect of the latter visit was, on leaving, learning that, within a month of Freud’s escape from Vienna – first to Paris, then London, the apartment block was used for ‘processing’ those Jewish residents who hadn’t had the resources or connections to get away. It was more than a little chilling.

However, our last day was spent doing something much more funky: a tour of Vienna with a Polaroid camera! How you reacted to this whole thing would depend on your age group: for a baby boomer, using these ancient, cranky machines that produced ‘instant’ photos might well be nostalgic; for millenials, perhaps more like a time travel trip into the digital dark ages.

Our guide, Gilbert, was a somewhat intense young fellow who took great interest – possibly too much for some – in the company history of Polaroid and its intellectual property assets. However, I did find it interesting, especially the Scottish connection (there was a Scottish factory); and once we were off, the main challenge was to use your precious shots – you only had 8 of them – to get the best image you possibly could. I’d love to say the pic of the tram was mine, but actually, as I dithered, Gilbert grabbed the camera and took the shot.

I would definitely, definitely, like to spend more time in Vienna, and definitely will go back to Hungary some day. The language in the latter country would have been a real problem in the upland areas without native speakers to help, whereas in Vienna, of course, perfect English was spoken when my stupidly overconfident forays into German got me into a linguistic dead end. In both places, the locals are friendly, and the Zweigelt is recommended!

Pics: Alison Ferguson

 

Three Weekends in May (3): Bridge of Orchy

Executive Summary: I had a great time at a songwriting weekend in the Highlands, and you should totally buy this album as all proceeds go to Cancer Relief UK

What a summer so far! June might have been a bit mixed, but it’s heading into July on a high: and the heatwave before that, in May, was pretty special too. Which brings me to the last of my three remarkable weekends that month, when, between the 25th and the 28th, I joined a songwriting get-together in a ski lodge near Bridge of Orchy.

 

Hat to keep off the sun, surprisingly (pic: James Whyte)

A ski lodge? In May? Actually, in many ways, the venture was very like the story of the building of the lodge itself, which, apparently, had been a case of a bunch of people from Edinburgh who knew each other, and liked skiing in this bit of the Highlands, getting together and building the place by themselves. A massive, rambling place which featured basic-but-clean accommodation in wooden clad rooms, its main attractions for a bunch of like-minded songwriters getting together and building a songwriting weekend together were:

a) it was cheap;

b) it was cut off from most modern amenities like internet contact (although the poor mobile signal was a bit of a chore for a couple of our number who were expectant grandparents); and

c) it was set amidst stunning scenery, which, unusually for the Highlands, was clearly visible in blazing sunshine that weekend and not covered in a combination of rain, mist and clouds of midges.

I was really boosted to be asked to come along. The whole weekend had happened already last year, so I felt a little like the new kid on the block: the rest of the group consisted of some people I knew, and most who I didn’t, or had only glimpsed across a crowded gig venue. However, it quickly became apparent that I was amongst genial, like-minded company. Although the place would have been a perfect setting for a murder mystery where songwriters disappeared, dispatched in a series of increasingly ingenious, music-related methods, no-one seemed homicidal. At least openly. I made my call home on the Friday night and relaxed, already feeling the benefit of not being able to check social media.

The secondary purpose of the weekend was to record some live work, with Gerry Callaghan, one of the organisers, at the digital desk. Gerry, an accomplished singer-songwriter himself, is also a very talented engineer and producer, as I knew already from his work on Norman Lamont’s new album. The set up was in the big room where we ate, sat and did most of our workshop activities, of which more in a minute. On the Friday night, it was Norman Lamont and Tricia Thom’s turn: as you can hear here (the link takes you to the album of the weekend, of which, again, more later). Tricia has a fantastic voice, and her delivery of ‘Crying in the Street’ is simply stunning.

On the Saturday morning, Norman started us off with a mindfulness session: if any of you are groaning internally, this was definitely at the unfussy, non-pretentious end of that sort of thing. Sitting in the sun in the Highland landscape, eyes closed, listening to the sound of the water in the burn and Norman’s dulcet tones is, like many other things that weekend, an experience I wished I could put in a bottle.

Songwriters disporting themselves in a Highland landscape. Pic: Ali Graham Barclay

 

Next up, the first workshop. Norman had us pairing up and walking round the ruined house a hundred yards or so up the track from the lodge. This was a strange blot on the landscape: a relatively modern place that had been smashed up, it appeared deliberately. According to Callum Carlyle, further up into the woods there was a clearing surrounded by the remnants of police incident tape, so maybe the place was the perfect setting for a slice of Highland noir after all…

Back at the lodge, Norman had us reflecting on what we’d discussed between us at the ruined house, and writing haikus individually. I must admit there was a part of me that groaned internally – I thought I’d finished with writing poetry – but I knew Norman’s intention: there are few greater examples of compression acting as a spur to creativity than the strict rules around the haiku form. We duly produced a number of poems and then, suitably inspired, paired up again and set about writing songs, Norman giving us a simple chord progression to set us off.

One of my efforts at haiku, with the ruined house that inspired it

 

 

 

 

My songwriting partner, James Whyte, was one of the group who fell into the ‘seen across a crowded gig venue’ category in acquaintance terms: bass player in Norman’s band, he’s also a talented singer-songwriter who really should release more of his own material. However, his EP, Ship, is out there on Bandcamp.

Co-writing a song with someone you’d kind of just met properly was interesting, to say the least! However, it was a fascinating insight into another person’s creative process. In the Highland sunshine, with the sound of the burn babbling beneath our feet, it wasn’t such a bad way to spend an hour!

James in reflective mood at the burn. Pic: Gerry Callaghan

That night, after dinner, we abandoned our own songs for the evening and just jammed: all the singer-songwriter favourites you might expect came out (I remember Neil Young getting a good airing) and some you wouldn’t. It was a great way to kick back.

The songwriting workshop the next day took things to a new level. Norman had asked us all to bring along a couple of books, and we put these in the middle. Then, pairing up again, one of us came up with a chord progression while another sang from one of the books. Yes, that’s right: sang, from one of the books! You’d be surprised how good that sounded: it was a bit like improv, and some of the results were, actually, quite inspiring.

The book-singing session. Fiona Thom in full flow. Pic: James Whyte

Next up, we were to come up with ten song titles for songs we hadn’t written yet. I struggled a bit with this – the title of anything I do is generally the last thing I come up with – but there was a buzz round the table as we discussed each other’s lists, and expressed views on which ones we wanted to write/have written.

I’ve said to a couple of people since that, as everyone dispersed from the main room to write the song title they’d chosen, it would have been fascinating to have had an MRI scanner to hand to see what bits of our brains were lighting up, because it would have given boffins a fair view of what inspiration looks like. Of course, it might have spoiled the moment slightly for us all to have had to get loaded into an MRI…

As I walked out of the lodge to my favourite songwriting spot next to the burn, my brain was buzzing particularly with two thoughts: the chord progression Gerry had chosen, E through F#m and G#m to A, was one I’d previously thought of as a good start to a song; and the way Callum had put a conversational part of a novel to it had worked particularly well.

Originally, my idea was for a song in the Paul Simon/Suzanne Vega type of mould, with a couple of street-smart New York types trading bitchy comments with each other. My song title was ‘Clara Said, Yesterday,’ so Clara, clearly, had to get things started. She told the narrator she’d made the coffee far too strong; but then, before my narrator had a chance to come back with some whip-smart reply, Clara was chuntering on again, something about a recipe. At that point, the narrative started to change: this wasn’t a meeting of equals in some trendy loft apartment after all. I think I wrote the third verse, with its emotional punch, next: once I had that in place, the rest followed.

We got 45 minutes to write something. In the end, I had something, and it was a complete song I’d had no idea I was going to write before the book-singing session. When we returned to the lodge, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who’d been inspired: not all of the great songs written in that brief period have made it out there yet (Ed Ritchie’s ‘Bookends,’ for example) but there are a couple of them on the album: Calum’s ‘Uphill’; and Norman’s stunning ‘10 Objects’.

Did I say album? Yes, dear reader, because, even if you weren’t with us on the weekend, some of the magic was bottled, with the best of sessions from the aforesaid Norman and Tricia, Calum, Impossible Songs (the husband and wife team of John and Ali Graham Barclay), Ed and myself all being engineered, produced, mixed and mastered by the irrepressible Mr Callaghan into a digital album that you can download on Bandcamp right now. What’s more, the proceeds will go to Cancer Relief UK, so please give it a listen and download what you enjoy: there’s some great stuff on there.

Ed Ritchie, aka Dog On A Swing, being mixed and mastered by Gerry Callaghan (pic: James Whyte)

As you’ll have gathered by now, I had a blast, and hope to go next year. Final thanks are due to Fiona Thom (aka Ms Fi of Ms Fi and the Lost Headband) who, having recorded a session last year, sat out the recording this time, and contributed a very useful workshop on performance; and Sarah, Gerry’s wife, who masterminded a meal plan for us that maximised good food whilst minimising cost and the need for fussy cooking.

 

The songwriters’ dance. So relieved the cleaning up of the lodge at the end is done (pic: James Whyte)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tank in the Attic: letting go of a literary career (and the stamps from Zanzibar)

It being a warmish, but not outstandingly sunny, day off yesterday, I decided to do a bit more de-cluttering of our loft. Main target was this Scorpion Tank, although collateral damage included several cardboard boxes I’d thrown up there ‘just in case,’ and my childhood stamp collection.

Before I get onto the tank and its occupants, a word on the stamp collection, which I plan to take to a shop in Edinburgh and, in all likelihood, sell for sweeties. I don’t ever recall being that interested in philately – it was just a thing you did as a kid back then, in those distant late Sixties/early Seventies days, and parents, their friends, and older siblings, all sent or gave you stamps because it was a thing you gave a kid back then. For example, I have a total of three first day covers of the Forth Road Bridge opening in 1964 (I was precisely two years old at the time).

Of course, it’s not the tattered and inexpertly steamed-off stamps themselves which are of interest. One of the FRB envelopes contains the invite to my Mum and Dad to attend the opening ceremony: it even has a plan of which stand they were to sit in to view (no doubt with appropriate decorum) Her Maj driving over the newly-opened Bridge. A couple of years ago, I was at the closing dinner of the Bridge Board, which was the first time I realised that Mum and Dad had been at the opening ceremony, fifty years before.

It was my sister who told me that, and she also features amongst the givers of stamps, with a postcard from Salzburg dated 1972, when I would’ve been 9 and she 17. Neither of these are going to any stamp shop!

Anyway, that tank. Why the hell had I kept it, and its two occupants? I originally had four Action Men, but the other two seem to have disappeared. Maybe they hooked up with a couple of Barbie Dolls and headed down the highway: or maybe they’ll crawl out from behind some other stuff up there when I’m trying to clear it properly in preparation for moving house.

Well, I’m not completely infantile – the rest of my childhood toys disappeared long ago: but the tank, and at least one of the surviving Action Men, held special significance for me. It was my first, and, possibly, greatest value literary prize.

Around the same time I got that postcard from my sister on her trip to Salzburg, there was a competition run by Smiths crisps for a story about Action Men. I wrote something (long lost) which, to my surprise, won first prize: the tank, two Action Men, a bunch of clothes and weapons: you can imagine the effect on an impressionable kid! I always cite a trip to a writing course at Hebden Bridge when I was 16 as the start of my desire to write: but actually, winning that damn tank was probably the moment when I realised that putting words in the right order could bring you stuff you wanted.

Well, many years later, towards the close of a (reasonably) lucrative career putting lawyerly words in the right order, and a much less lucrative one as fiction, non-fiction, poetry and now song writer, it was time to let go. The tank, the ice boots, sten guns, grenades, dynamite, and other accessories of war that came with it, are in the plastic and metal recycling bin, awaiting melting down. It would be nice to think they’ll get made into a plastic and metal ploughshare, but that’s probably not going to happen.

And the Action Men? Okay, okay, I didn’t have the heart to stick them, butt naked and alone, into the green bin. I mean, these soldiers have been through a lot for me back in the day, as the paraplegic nature of the bearded one testifies.

Those damn parachutes never did open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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