Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia

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Amelia Earhart: A Biography by Doris L Rich

If you are a regular reader of this blog (thank you) then you might know that I am a huge admirer of Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator – or aviatrix as female pilots were known in her day.

In 1932 Amelia became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This year, on 2 July, it will be 80 years since Amelia, aged 39, and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in their Lockheed Electra aircraft somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

There has been much speculation over the years that they survived somehow, were stranded on a remote island, were taken prisoner by the Japanese, were shot down by the Japanese, were spies, had turned back, or even that Amelia survived and lived under an assumed identity.

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Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved by Elgen M Long and Marie K Long

Having read books about Amelia and her last flight (see illustrations) it seems to me that they ran out of fuel looking for the almost impossibly small Howland Island, their next scheduled stop-off, in the middle of a huge ocean.

I used one of Amelia Earhart’s famous quotes in my previous blog entry, That Was The Year That Was, but this month I have been thinking about another of her phrases: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is mere tenacity.”

This strikes me as very true, and certainly applied to my first big adventure of 2017 – undergoing an operation here in Orkney at Kirkwall’s Balfour Hospital. Do not fear, delicate reader, I will not go into too much detail.

But, briefly, I noticed towards the end of last year that my belly button had changed shape, and not just because of my liking for beer and cakes. Rather than be a stereotypical man, and ignore this development, I decided to act.

A visit to the GP soon followed in early November and I was told I had a hernia. The doctor said it was a common condition in babies and older men (thanks Doc) and only required a small operation. I have been lucky in that I have never had any kind of hospital operation before and so to me it seemed a more daunting prospect than the doctor implied – but I knew I had to see it through.

The service I got from the NHS here in Orkney was excellent. By early December I had seen a specialist who confirmed the prognosis and discussed with me whether to go ahead with the operation. I knew it was for the best. Soon afterwards I got the date for the big day, Wednesday 18 January.

I did not look forward to the operation but was able to put it to the back of my mind and enjoy Christmas and New Year. If I am honest part of my concern – and this will sound melodramatic – was the fact that my father died in hospital last year following an operation. Ridiculous, I know, but there you are.

Anyway, my operation day arrived and I went to the hospital, with my wife Kathie Touin, who has been a wonderful support all the way through this process. Because we were going to be out for a long time our dog, Roscoe, came along as well and spent the day in the car with occasional walks with Kathie to explore the hospital grounds.

I must say the team at the Balfour Hospital were brilliant – helpful, friendly, reassuring, amusing and professional. I was the second person into the operating theatre and was back in the ward in time for a light lunch.

By 4pm Kathie, Roscoe and I were home. I was walking about very carefully, and I am under instructions not to lift heavy objects or to drive for six weeks, but I had successfully undergone my first operation.

To be honest, this procedure did not require much tenacity from me, I just had to keep turning up in all the right places, the credit should go to the NHS in Orkney, along with Kathie. Nevertheless I certainly did not regret my decision to make the first visit to the doctor and follow this through.

While I am recuperating I am spending much time reading and listening to the radio. One of the programmes I’ve heard, courtesy of BBC iPlayer Radio, was a fascinating BBC World Service programme, The Why Factor, about regret…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04nhgw1

A nurse who has spent many hours looking after terminally ill patients told listeners that in her experience nearly all regrets fall into five categories:

  1. Not living a life true to yourself (by far the most common regret, apparently)
  2. Having worked so hard
  3. Wishing had taken courage to express feelings (about others, or oneself)
  4. Wishing had stayed in touch with friends
  5. Wishing had let oneself be happier (ie not wallowing in feelings or giving power to feelings that hold you back).

I have always told myself I do not have regrets, and that what has happened has happened, but if I am honest that is not strictly true. We all have some regrets, it is part of being human.

However I am lucky, I believe, in having chosen to move to Orkney with Kathie nearly seven years ago. It means, essentially, that I am able to lead a life that is true to myself – as was the case in a previous phase of my life with the nearly 24 years I spent working at the BBC (though I probably worked too hard).

Finally in this blog, two contrasting pieces of music I am listening to regularly – one is a relatively straightforward production, both in terms of the music and the video, the other is more complex. By the way, I do not see straightforward and complex as good or bad, just different.

Here is Louise Jordan with her song, In The End, from her album Veritas. Louise writes in the sleeve notes: “I hope it encourages each of us to realise the power we have to make a positive change in our lives.” I thought the lyrics appropriate to this blog entry…

And here is Agnes Obel with Familiar, a song you may be familiar with (sorry about that) but which I only stumbled upon when Bob Harris played it on his BBC Radio 2 programme towards the end of last year (thanks Bob). I like the track’s air of mystery, both musically and lyrically…

Graham Brown

More about Amelia Earhart

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelia_Earhart

That Was The Year That Was

Well, 2016 is nearly at a close and for me it feels like a year of loss, disappointment and sadness, but also much love and laughter experienced through the year – and I must remember there is always hope.

It seems hard to know where to begin with 2016, so much has happened, but for me it has to be with the loss of my father on Easter Sunday. You may have read my two previous blogs about this, how he went into hospital for a major operation but died a few days later.

I am sad to reflect on his passing but none of us lives forever and what happened was perhaps better than, for example, my father facing many years of deteriorating and poor health which was, I think, another possible outcome.

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My father Clive Brown (left) in the cab of the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive at the Nene Valley Railway (image: Spalding Guardian/Lincs Free Press)

My wife, Kathie Touin, and I have happy memories of time spent with my father (though he could be frustrating as well), funny stories to look back on, and some of my parents’ loveliest possessions – ornaments, paintings, two railway locomotives – scattered about the house.

And, yes, hope – among those at my father’s funeral was my cousin with her baby, the newest member of our family and a useful reminder of the circle of life.

Shortly before my father died my wife Kathie lost one of her friends, Keith Emerson, who was also a huge inspiration for her music. He committed suicide which made it seem worse. She wrote a moving blog about her friend.

Others who have left us this year include Austin Hunter, a Northern Ireland journalist and communications professional, who I had the honour to know at the BBC. He was intelligent, funny, engaging and generous with his time. The day he took me and some colleagues around the sights of Belfast and explained Northern Ireland will live on in my memory.

Some of my friends have also lost parents this year, and some of you reading this will have lost loved ones.

And, of course, 2016 was the year in which so many famous people died. Not just that, it was the year in which so many talented and well-respected famous people died, some before their time, others who seem to have been ever present in our lives.

We all have our favourites whose passing we mourn. For me, this year, they include – from the world of music – Sir George Martin, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Scotty Moore, George Michael, Prince, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Merle Haggard, Greg Lake, Glenn Frey, Rick Parfitt and the above-mentioned Keith Emerson. Other notable losses include Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Jimmy Perry (how many hours of laughter has his creation Dad’s Army sparked?), Caroline Aherne, Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (pioneering test pilot), Alan Rickman, Paul Daniels, Jo Cox MP, Robert Vaughn, Bert Kwouk, Cliff Michelmore, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Graham Lay (Antiques Roadshow) and a selection of radio presenters I grew up with: Terry Wogan, Ed Stewart, Dave Cash and Jimmy Young.

This year’s Christmas Day morning was not quite the same without Ed Stewart on Junior Choice on BBC Radio 2 playing childhood favourites such as Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West),  Captain Beaky And His Band, Right Said Fred and My Brother.

There were anniversaries, as well, this year. I was particularly moved by the events, and TV and radio programmes, marking 50 years since the disaster at Aberfan, when a village school in Wales was engulfed by a colliery spoil tip resulting in the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. I remember as a child, with my mother’s help, sending books and toys to an appeal for the surviving children.

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The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers was a moving BBC Wales TV drama (image: BBC)

I was especially struck by a BBC Wales TV dramatisation, The Green Hollow, by Owen Sheers, which depicted parents waving their children off to school shortly before the disaster: “And that’s how they went. Out a hundred doors for their last days. And that’s how we said our last goodbyes. With all the luxury of easy time.”

The luxury of easy time, what an apt phrase, and it is a luxury we do not appreciate until it has gone.

But, wait, there are some positives aspects to all this. I gain strength from the simple dignity and bravery of ordinary people faced with unspeakable life-and-death situations, such as the Aberfan families and rescue workers. I think of the chance to celebrate the lives of respected musicians, and enjoy their music.

Sometimes, admittedly, it would be good to celebrate good folk while they are still alive and, on that note, I am gratified that the recent release of Kate Bush’s live album has led to a renewal of interest in her music which I seem to be hearing more often on the radio.

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The cactus given to me many years ago by my late mother now produces yellow flowers (image: Graham Brown)

And on the subject of celebrating people, a few words about my dear mother who died in August 2001. I have a small cactus plant which she gave to me, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, I cannot remember. In the last two years, sat in the lounge of our Orkney home, it has started flowering – this year it had five yellow flowers at once. The cactus is a super way to remember my mother.

Curiously, when Kathie and I got married in 2003 the celebrant placed a yellow rose on the altar to represent my late mother. And now I have the yellow-flowering cactus.

This was also the year when democracy, to many of us, seemed to go wrong. We had terrorist attacks, inaction over Syria, Brexit – ie the UK voting to leaving the European Union – and the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA.

I did not vote for Brexit which has ushered in a period of great uncertainty, particularly financially. However, if we keep calm and apply ourselves as a nation I think it can be made to work.

Will Trump be a successful President of the USA? I doubt that, and to find someone who ridicules the disabled, abuses women and stereotypes minorities in such a powerful elected position is deeply depressing. He feels like a dangerous choice for the world. We shall see.

Gretchen Peters, a brilliant songwriter who I much admire, and who is dismayed by what is happening to her country, the USA, has I understand been singing Paul Simon’s American Tune in concert since the election. She is absolutely right to do so, the words could have been written last week. I have not heard Gretchen’s version, but the weathered voice and guitar of Willie Nelson suit the song well:

But on a personal level for me in 2016, there were small triumphs, good days and fun times.

Some examples: a week spent in January with my father, seeing friends and relatives; Rich Hall’s gig in Orkney (very funny); a fun weekend in Edinburgh when Kathie and I saw  Gretchen Peters in concert (see my previous blogs); a relaxing weekend with Kathie and Roscoe, our Border collie, on the Orkney island of Sanday (see my previous blogs); favourite annual events in Orkney such as the West Mainland Show in nearby Dounby and the Vintage Rally; seeing (on BBC Television) Andy Murray win Wimbledon and Heather Watson win the Mixed Doubles; a fortnight Kathie and I spent in Shropshire and North Wales (see my previous blogs), which included our friends’ wonderfully funny and touching wedding; and many outings with Roscoe to our local beaches.

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Roscoe digging the beach at Bay of Skaill, after the Christmas 2016 storms, with the Atlantic waves rolling in (image: Graham Brown)

More good news – Kathie’s music featured for the third time on Steve Conway’s A-Z Of Great Tracks on 8Radio.com. This time he played her song Home from the Dark Moons & Nightingales album; previously he featured Kathie’s songs Clarity and Does It Really Matter. He told 8Radio.com listeners: “The music is just so simple, it speaks to you directly.” Here is Home:

Kathie and I continue to volunteer for the RSPB and, in my case, work part-time in the office. This year I had to cover a five-week period at one go, the longest stretch I have spent in an office since leaving the BBC at the beginning of 2010. It was hard work!

We were both asked early in 2016 to join another voluntary group and become managers (committee members) of Quoyloo Old School, our village community centre. It was an honour to be asked and the events we help run are great fun.

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HMS Hampshire memorial wall, Marwick Head, Orkney (image: Graham Brown)

But my biggest honour this year was being on the Orkney Heritage Society committee which arranged the restoration of Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head and the creation of a new commemorative wall alongside for all the 737 men who died when HMS Hampshire sank on 5 June 1916.

The work culminated on the day of the centenary when events took place in Birsay Community Hall and I was one of the volunteers presented to HRH The Princess Royal (my late mother would have been so proud). In the evening there was an outdoor service of remembrance at the memorials, looking out to sea on a glorious sunny evening, coinciding with the time of the sinking.

You can read much more about this commemorative work on the project blog and on the HMS Hampshire website. Please see the links at the bottom of this blog entry.

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That’s me (far side of cherry picker platform) going to the top of the Kitchener Memorial (image: Kathie Touin)

Incidentally, the day after the centenary some of us involved in the project had our photographs taken on the top of the 48-feet high Kitchener Memorial. There is no internal staircase so we were whisked to the top on a builder’s cherry picker. As someone who is afraid of heights I was not sure I could do it, but I made myself.

This year’s weather in Orkney? Contrary to what some folk believe, we do not get much in the way of snow, ice and below-zero temperatures. It was a pretty good summer and an exceptionally mild autumn. But we do get strong winds, such as the storms at Christmas – fortunately our power stayed on and we were able to enjoy our Christmas dinner and celebrations. Tomorrow night Kathie and I will see in the New Year at the Quoyloo Old School (which reminds me, I need to make sandwiches).

So that’s been 2016, and now I look forward to 2017. With hope. And remembering that sometimes we find we can do things that we do not think we are capable of.

Perhaps it is appropriate to end with quotes from two US citizens of the past I admire…

Amelia Earhart: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Graham Brown

To find out more…

That Was The Week That Was, a BBC TV programme which inspired the title of this blog – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That_Was_the_Week_That_Was

Kathie Touin blog – https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/

Junior Choice favourites – http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/playlists/zzzzwx

The Aberfan disaster – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberfan_disaster

Aberfan: The Green Hollow – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07zk9fl

8radio – http://8radio.com/

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project blog – https://kitchenerhampshire.wordpress.com/

HMS Hampshire history website – http://hmshampshire.org/

Back to vinyl? You’ll have to speak up, I got beans in my ears…

If you are a music listener you have probably noticed the “back to vinyl” trend of recent years. Fans of vinyl, or records as we once called them, say the sound quality is better than on a CD and the artwork is better realised on a larger platform.

However, despite having a large and still growing music collection, I think I will pass. Yes, I agree if an album has impressive artwork it does look better in the larger format.

But my experience is coloured by having to listen to too many scratched records in the past, and having to return to the shop faulty LPs which stick or jump. I am not about to return down that road. I was a late adopter for CDs but having made the change some years ago I am sticking with it (you can tell I am too old for the download generation).

Actually, I am not convinced by the argument that vinyl sounds better than CD – even assuming you have a scratch-free record. Yes, early CDs were thin sounding. This was not helped by the Eighties fashion for early digital recording and thin-sounding synthesisers.

But try listening to the re-mastered albums by The Beatles, released in 2009. The detail and depth is fantastic.

Or try any decently-recorded modern CD. Among my favourites are Gretchen Peters’ albums Hello Cruel World and Blackbirds – superb songs, beautifully played and sung, but recorded with care. I have said it before and I will say it again, if you do not know Gretchen’s music do yourself and favour and find some.

But back to vinyl. I am not going back in the physical sense, but I am open to a saunter down memory lane to the first records I purchased.

I believe my first single was She Loves You by The Beatles. I can vaguely recall that I had been given a record token, it would probably have been for my sixth birthday, and I went to the record shop with my mother and asked for The Beatles record. I was asked if I wanted their new one or their previous one and I plumped for She Loves You.

Looking at the chronology for The Beatles singles the new one which I rejected was I Want To Hold Your Hand, which had been released at the end of November 1963.

There were other records in the house when I was a child, some of which must have been bought for me by my parents or relatives. I seem to recall we had a single of The Thunderbirds TV series theme tune which, had I still got it, would probably have a reasonable financial value.

And among my parents’ records was an EP… ah, do I need to explain what an EP is to those who barely remember vinyl records? EP was an abbreviation for Extended Play. They were the same size as singles (seven inches) and also played at 45 rpm but, typically, they had two tracks on each side (achieved with finer grooves in the manufacture). LPs. you might remember, played at 33 rpm, and your record player allowed you to adjust to the required speed manually.

Anyway, my parents had an EP which I think had cover versions of current hit songs. One of these which sticks in my mind, or should I say ears, was called Beans In My Ears. No, honestly, it was. Various folk seem to have recorded the song, including Lonnie Donegan.

“You’ll have to speak up I got beans in my ears
Beans in my ears, beans in my ears
You’ll have to speak up I got beans in my ears…”

But, strangely, I did not seem to buy or request any more of my own “pop” singles until 1967 when I bought or was given Daydream Believer by The Monkees and then 1968 when I got The Monkees’ next single Valleri and Lazy Sunday by The Small Faces. I cannot recall why there was a gap in my single-buying, nor what prompted me to start again.

I must say though I had good taste. Lazy Sunday is a wonderful single, a clever song, well produced, which does not sound old even in 2016. And The Monkees music has stood the test of time far better than might have been imagined at the time when they were struggling to break away from being a pretend band in a silly (albeit great fun) TV series.

There were other singles bought at a later date – Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, for example. My copy had Maggie May as the B-side, the original A-side being Reason To Believe before DJs flipped it over. What do record companies know?

I also remember buying Wizzard singles – the band’s singer and composer Roy Wood is a much under-rated figure in British music – and David Bowie singles.

Gradually albums, or LPs, became the focus of my record buying. The first serious as opposed to novelty album I bought was A Nod’s As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse by The Faces (released November 1971), and the second was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by David Bowie (released June 1972). Curiously, both these albums bear long titles that are usually shortened in everyday use.

Blowing my own trumpet, again – though it is not an instrument I ever played – I think both of these albums have stood the test of time well, Ziggy in particular as we all know. But A Nod’s As Good As A Wink features an energetic band, Rod at his best before he went all mid-Atlantic, and three of the album’s nine songs, among my favourites, sung by the much-missed Ronnie Lane.

When I married Kathie Touin and she moved from the United States to our small flat in West London I had to make some space for her possessions. As it was, she had to leave many of them in the USA. So it was that most of my LPs went to the Oxfam charity music shop at Ealing Broadway. A friend pointed out that some had a financial value but I did not have the time or inclination to sell them myself and I knew that the Oxfam shop – because it specialised in music – would get a decent price for items of value.

I did keep some records. I think I have those early singles by The Small Faces and The Monkees though I cannot see them right now. They could be buried in the back of my office cupboard (make a note, Darling: future project – sort out office cupboard). But I definitely kept about 40 records that currently reside upstairs in Kathie’s studio control room, mostly, I think, records I did not have on CD, or that I knew I would not easily replace, or that had exceptional artwork.

They include The Faces’ Ooh La La, which had a front cover picture of a man in a top hat which you could animate by hand, the Captain Beaky album (now virtually unobtainable) and a 12-inch single I Spy For The DTI, recorded to promote the offshore radio station Laser 558. I no longer play them but I do look through them now and again.

Earlier this year after my father died I had to clear my parents’ house and decide what to do with their music collection. I kept a number of CDs but, realising that it is impossible to keep everything, donated the other CDs along with the records to local charity shops.

However, for sentimental reasons I did keep one record, an EP as it happens, called Christmas At Home With Nina And Frederik. The tracks include Little Donkey, a sweet Christmas song which I remember fondly from childhood, and Mary’s Boy Child. The latter was a hit song when my mother Mary was expecting me in 1957 and led an aunt to correctly predict I would be a boy.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Gretchen Peters website http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Wikipedia: The Beatles discography https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beatles_discography

Wikipedia: Beans In My Ears https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beans_in_My_Ears

Wikipedia: Lazy Sunday by The Small Faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazy_Sunday_(Small_Faces_song)

Wikipedia: The Monkees discography https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monkees_discography

Wikipedia: Maggie May https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggie_May

Guardian article celebrating Roy Wood https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2016/nov/08/roy-wood-wizzard-the-move-glam-rock-pop-genius

Wikipedia: Ziggy Stardust… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Ziggy_Stardust_and_the_Spiders_from_Mars

Wikipedia: A Nod’s As Good As A Wink… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Nod_Is_As_Good_As_a_Wink…_to_a_Blind_Horse

Wikipedia: Ooh La La by The Faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ooh_La_La_(Faces_album)

Offshore Echos on Laser 558 http://www.offshoreechos.com/Laser/Laser%20story%20menu.htm

Wikipedia: Nina & Frederik https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_%26_Frederik

Better The Devil You Know? – A Titanic Short Story by Graham Brown

After The Weekend

It’s Monday morning, about ten to nine, and the town centre office is coming to life. Deirdre, a woman of indeterminate age, which never seems to alter, is always first to arrive. That way she makes sure no-one steals her coffee mug – and she can see when the others come in. It gives her a sense of superiority and, truth be told, boosts her frail confidence to be one-up on her colleagues. She switches on the ancient flourescent strip lights which, hesitantly, make their harsh presence felt.

Soon others arrive and the office is buzzing with talk of the weekend, new boyfriends and girlfriends, failed dates, X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing. Gradually a quieter hum of conversation and telephone calls takes over as work begins.

For some time no-one seems to notice that Nick has not arrived. He is quiet, and often a little late. But by 9.20 Deirdre, who has noticed, feels she should say something to her manager Elaine, or Miss Bradock as Deirdre prefers to call her. Elaine is the young woman occupying the job Deirdre feels was rightly hers.

Come 10 and there is still no sign. Calls are made to his home telephone and to his mobile, without success. Elaine, making loud sighing noises to express her annoyance, eventually sends Alan to Nick’s house to find out what has happened.

The walk is only about 15 minutes. Alan arrives to find the two-up, two-down house locked, the curtains open, and no sign of Nick. Uncertain about what to do, he waits for a few minutes, then tries the neighbours. The elderly lady two doors along, a dedicated curtain-twitcher, says she thinks she saw him go out on Friday evening carrying a suitcase.

The Weekend Begins

Nick gets home from work to a weekend without much promise. He finished with his girlfriend Alison two months ago, well, actually, she finished with him. Now Alison is engaged to that arrogant rugby-playing Larry in accounts. That was quick.

It is dark as he heads to his favourite local takeaway a little after six. Nick returns with enough Indian food to last a couple of days. He gets some beer from the fridge and sits down to eat, flicks through the TV channels but can’t focus on anything. So, putting his food to one side briefly, he ferrets through his DVD collection. A, B, C, they are all in alphabetical order. Nothing appeals until he gets to T, and Titanic. He will watch that.

Yes, it is a girls’ film but Nick has been fascinated by the Titanic since he was a small child. He thinks the ship’s name, ending in “Nic”, caught his ear when he was very young. Since then he has bought endless books and DVDs. He was surprised how much he enjoyed the 1997 film. No doubt, Kate Winslet helped.

By the time the film finishes it is after 9.30. He had vaguely thought about going out but now he doesn’t feel like doing so. It is going to be another dull weekend and in his depressed state it is hard to do anything about it. He glances over at his CDs. Everything But The Girl caught his eye. “Hmph,” he thinks. “Nothing-much-at-all-and-no-girl either would be more appropriate for me.”

Absent mindedly, he flicks the Titanic DVD back on at the beginning. “I really, really, really wish I could have sailed on the Titanic. It would have been an amazing experience. I would give anything to have sailed,” he says to himself.

“Anything?” came the reply.

“Yes, well, you know, pretty much anything. But it’s not possible.”

“Oh, it could be,” came another reply.

It dawns on Nick that the voice is not in his head, it seems to be coming from a dark corner of the room. Can’t be. But as he stares into the corner a figure takes shape – a small elderly man, with a straggly beard, in a tatty long overcoat.

The man speaks: “I can arrange it for you if you really want it enough.”

Nick would have been scared but the beer has blurred his mind and reactions. “Who are you? Some sort of guardian angel?”

“Hardly, quite the opposite in fact.”

“My God, you’re not the devil.” It struck Nick’s befuddled mind that he could have phrased this question better.

“No, course not, the devil himself wouldn’t bother with the likes of you. I’m just one of his helpers. There are lots of us.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, you want to sail on the Titanic? I can’t sit talking all night, we need to go.”

“Yes, well, but… umm… ”

Nick feels dizzy and nauseous. He knows he shouldn’t have eaten and drunk so much, so quickly. He closes his eyes to stop the room spinning.

A Strange New Place

Then, through his closed eyelids, Nick can see daylight. And the smell of his room, of the Indian food, has gone. He can smell sea air, old wood, and dust in the air. He opens his eyes.

Nick is in some sort of reception area, standing in a queue of people. The building seems to be old and, yes, dusty. The people around him are dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and not particularly smart ones. Victorian? Early 20th century? The old man is stood next to him.

“Next!” a voice shouts. Nick finds himself at a wall with a small opening to make a counter. Behind it sits a middle-aged man in a smart waistcoast and a neatly trimmed beard. “Yes, gentlemen?”

Nick opens his mouth but before he can speak the old man gets in: “We want to sail on the Titanic, please. I have our papers and the money.”

“You are just in time, we’re down to the last few places… This all seems in order… Here, take this and join the queue to go through that door over there. Next!”

A family of six are next at the counter. There is a discussion, raised voices and the family are turned away.

The old man speaks: “They obviously expected to get on. Lucky we were able to jump the queue.”

“But that’s terrible,” protests Nick. “Have they lost their places now?”

“I suppose so, but probably better for them in the long run, don’t you think? Not many people from steerage will survive the sinking.”

The sinking. The words set an alarm off in Nick’s mind, as if he has woken from a dream.

“Umm, yes, the sinking,” said Nick. “I assume I will be in a lifeboat at the end?”

“Oh, you do, do you? I don’t think I can organise that.”

“But, but… perhaps this isn’t such a good idea after all.”

“Look,” says the old man. “Like I say, most people in steerage won’t make it into a lifeboat. There’s a limit to what I can do.”

“Steerage? I thought I would be in a cabin. I mean, perhaps not a grand one, but a cabin.”

“You’re in steerage and that’s it. Don’t worry. Remember your history? The Titanic calls at Cherbourg and Queenstown before heading across the Atlantic. We can get off.”

“That’s a bit disappointing. I thought you could organise everything.”

The old man bristles. “I’m a junior. I’m not the devil. There’s only so much I can do. You wanted to sail on the Titanic, and you will.”

Nick looks away and tries to gather his thoughts. A young couple have joined them in the queue and, behind them, two men with a large trunk.

The old man jerks his head towards the newly-arrived passengers and says to Nick: “These poor bastards must have taken the last places after that big family couldn’t get aboard.”

“Yes, I was wondering about that,” says Nick, trying to remember his Doctor Who plots. “Isn’t there something about not interfering with time and destiny?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” says the old man. “That’s all above my station.”

The Voyage

The Titanic eases away from the docks at Southampton. Nick is so exhilarated that, for a time, he forgets to worry about the sinking he knows to be inevitable. Anyway, he is going to get off in Cherbourg or, perhaps, Queenstown. He does not give much thought to what he will do once in France or Ireland.

He breathes in the air – fresh sea air. He watches the sailing boats and steamers in the Solent. He watches the Isle of Wight go by. But mostly he watches the people – what glorious costumes, even among the poorer passengers. Occasionally, someone looks askance at his clothes – jeans, trainers and T-shirt.

If only Kate Winslet was with him, he thinks. Perhaps he could ask the old man? Where is the old man? Nick realises he has not seen him since the ship sailed. But no matter, his out-of-place clothes and new-found confidence in the wonder of life gave him an air which seem to attract some of the young women, who he notice smiling at him.

Elsewhere on the Titanic not everyone is enjoying the voyage and spreading goodwill to fellow passengers. The two characters with the large trunk – who Nick had, in effect, allowed on board – are anarchists determined to make their mark on history.

As the ship approaches Cherbourg there is an enormous explosion which blows a small hole in the port side. There are a number of casualties, mostly passengers killed by the debris or by drowning after falling over the side of the ship. Nick is among them.

The ship does not sink, after all, isn’t the Titanic unsinkable? But she will have to be patched up, and then sailed back to Britain for repairs. The Titanic’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic will not take place until the summer of 1912.

Back In The 21st Century

Deirdre and Alan, from Nick’s office, decide to go for an after-work drink. It has been a tough time, what with Nick’s disappearance a few days’ earlier and their manager Elaine being particularly difficult.

“Where shall we go?” asks Alan. Deirdre wishes he would make a decision on his own, but he is only being polite. “I know!” she says, “let’s go to the Titanic Bar in Broad Street. That’s always got a good buzz.”

The walk takes about 20 minutes but it is a pleasantly warm evening and they chat about their colleague Nick on the way.

“Do you think there is anywhere we could look for him?” asks Alan. “I can’t understand why the police aren’t interested. Perhaps I should check his flat again?”

“No,” says Deirdre. “You’ve been every morning and evening this week. The police say there is no sign of any break-in or attack. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be found. Lots of people deliberately go missing you know.”

“I can’t understand it,” Alan replies. “It doesn’t make sense. And I get the feeling there is something missing. I mean, I know Nick is missing. But something isn’t right with the world.”

They turn the corner into Broad Street expecting to hear the noise from the Titanic Bar but it is unusually quiet. Then, as they get closer, they are unable to see the bar’s colourful neon lights. For a moment they are disorientated, as if they have turned into the wrong street. But, no, there is the little supermarket, the chemist, the bookies – and where the Titanic Bar should be is an empty building site.

Graham Brown

A blockhead in three countries

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Buddha at night in Portmeirion village (image: Graham Brown)

We’ve been on holiday in three countries – England, Scotland and Wales. You think perhaps that they are one country? I think they are becoming increasingly separate. More of that later, both in this blog and in the news over coming months and years.

My holiday reading was Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, a fascinating insight into Winston Churchill’s work as a writer of historical books, newspaper articles and one not very successful novel. Writing was for the majority of his life his main income, not politics as you might imagine.

I was struck by a quote which underlines how lucrative writing was for him. Though he fashioned many famous phrases, this one was not Churchill’s but Samuel Johnson’s. But Churchill was fond of using it: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

So, here I am, a blockhead writing my holiday reflections for nothing (though I have in the past written for money). Incidentally, may I reassure you, this will not be a blow-by-blow account of the holiday.

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The first iron bridge in the world at Ironbridge, Shropshire (image: Graham Brown)

In brief, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I travelled from our home in Orkney, down through Scotland, with an overnight stop at Cumbernauld near Glasgow, then on to Ironbridge, Shropshire for three nights. We then spent three nights in Ludlow, Shropshire – coinciding with our friends’ wedding weekend – before spending a week in North Wales, one night in Portmeirion village (a special treat) and the rest in the delightful coastal town of Criccieth.

Friends in England may not realise how England and Scotland are drifting apart (see Andrew Marr’s excellent BBC Two documentary Scotland And The Battle For Britain for more about this).

The EU referendum result is an obvious example of this process, Scotland overwhelmingly voting to stay in the EU and England voting to leave (though not London). Party politics is another example. To briefly explain to overseas readers, the right-wing Conservative party is the majority party in the UK parliament at Westminster, taking most English seats in the process, and forms the UK government. Meanwhile, the left-of-centre Scottish National Party took all but three Westminster seats in Scotland and forms the Scottish administration through being the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

But it is not just these crude party political indicators that show Scotland and England drifting apart. England seems to be leaning towards a more American-style society while Scotland looks more to Europe and the EU. The two countries are starting to feel different in a way that goes well beyond tourism cliches of kilts and bagpipes versus village greens and Morris dancing.

And Wales? Truth be told, a week’s stay is not long enough to form opinions on how politics or society work there and, no doubt, it will differ in different parts of Wales.

But I was really struck in North Wales to see the progress of the Welsh language compared to our previous visit some ten years ago. When we were last there we saw bi-lingual road and other signs and we heard people speaking in Welsh.

But in 2016 it seems that Welsh has become the dominant language, the one that people routinely speak to each other in shops and at work. Virtually all signs are bi-lingual and some are only in Welsh. The English speakers seemed to be nearly all English people. Fascinating.

So why did Wales vote to leave the EU? As I said, I am not qualified to comment on Welsh politics and I would be interested to know more about that.

Here’s a quick run-through of some of the days out we enjoyed on our trip…

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Fancy a fireplace like this? One of the beautiful exhibits at the Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge (image: Graham Brown)

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums celebrating the industrial revolution are wonderful and, as there are 10 of them, more than it is possible to see on a brief visit. But we got to Blists Hill Victorian Town, the wonderful Jackfield Tile Museum – I never realised tiles could be so beautiful and fascinating – and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

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Great Western locomotive Erlestoke Manor on the Severn Valley Railway (image: Graham Brown)

Railways were a bit of a theme for our trip, I am sure my late father would have approved. In Shropshire we travelled for a day on the Severn Valley Railway, which has a long, scenic line, two museums, beautiful stations and a large number of working steam locomotives.

Across the border in Wales we spent two days on the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways which now meet at Porthmadog station. Seeing the traffic stopped for steam locomotives crossing the road into the station is quite a sight.

One day we travelled on the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries to ships at Porthmadog. It has been carrying passengers since 1865.

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No.143, built in Manchester in 1958, worked in South Africa, now on the Welsh Highland Railway, here crossing the road into Porthmadog station (image: Graham Brown)

On another day we took the Welsh Highland Railway in the opposite direction from Porthmadog, passing Snowdon (the highest mountain in Wales) and arriving in Caernarfon close to the Castle.

I suspect the highlight of the trip for Kathie was our two visits to Portmeirion village, an architectural wonder created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis on the estuary of the River Dwyryd. You may know it as the setting for the 1960s TV series The Prisoner – “I am not a number!”

We also spent a night in the village, staying in the Bridge House and enjoying afternoon tea, a fabulous dinner and a great breakfast at the Portmeirion Hotel. Kathie especially enjoyed the chance to look around the village when it was closed to the public, even though the staff were clearing up after a particularly muddy Festival No.6 in the grounds which had finished the day before our overnight stay.

For the rest of our North Wales stay we were at a more modest but friendly bed-and-breakfast in Criccieth, a pleasant seaside town which is the gateway to the scenic Llyn peninsula as well as an easy drive to the likes of Snowdon and Caernarfon.

When we were last in the area we were considering it as a possible move from London. In the end we opted for Orkney and we are delighted we did so, we made the right decision. But North Wales would have been a lovely place to live and it was great fun to go back for a holiday.

Graham Brown

A weekend tonic

The year of 2016 has not been the easiest (in particular, two bereavements) so Kathie and I decided a weekend away with our dog Roscoe would do us the world of good – and so it proved.

Since we left London in 2010 we have tried to visit at least one new Orkney island each year, although we failed in this quest in 2015.

For those not familiar with this part of the world, we live on what is called Mainland Orkney, ie the biggest of the Orkney islands, to be precise in the West Mainland. But Orkney is made up of about 70 islands, of which 16 are inhabited.

The biggest island we had not previously visited was Sanday and so that is where we headed one Friday morning in July. Something about getting on a ferry really gives me that getting-away-from-it-all feeling.

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Kathie Touin and Roscoe in the sunshine on Orkney Ferries’ MV Varagen (image: Graham Brown)

The ferry – MV Varagen, belonging to Orkney Ferries – sailed from Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, and on our particular trip called at the island of Eday before arriving at Sanday about one-and-three-quarter hours later. We sat on the deck in the sunshine.

Sanday’s port is at the south-west end of the island and in the only area with any hills – quite a challenge for any day-tripper cyclists heading to or from the ferry. But we were in our elderly but, so far, reliable, Volkswagen Lupo and so we soon arrived on the flat landscape that is typical of the island.

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Backaskaill Bay, Sanday – a crowded beach in July (image: Graham Brown)

Sanday, appropriately, has many sandy beaches – in fact, one of the many helpful tourist leaflets available tells me the island was named by the Vikings, in Old Norse “sandr” meaning sand and “ey” meaning island.

But Sanday does not just have Viking heritage. There are Neolithic remains, and both of the 20th century’s World Wars left their mark on the landscape.

The conflicts left their mark in other ways as well. The war memorial, just outside the wonderfully-named Lady Village, contains so many names from such a small island community – particularly from the First World War, 51 men lost.

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The remains of German naval ship B-98 can just be seen – you can see much more at low tide (image: Graham Brown)

At low tide you can see what is left of German destroyer B-98. She took part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and later served as a mail and supply ship for the German ships interned in Scapa Flow, Orkney.

In 1920 while being towed to the breakers’ yard at Rosyth she broke loose and drifted towards the Bay of Lopness where her remains still lie.

You can find out much more about B-98 and the island’s history in the smartly-presented and informative Sanday Heritage Centre, again in Lady Village.

There you can also read about U-70, a German submarine which was grounded for seven hours overnight at Tofts Ness, Sanday in April 1918 without being noticed – or, at least, reported.

Next to the heritage centre is a restored croft, complete with pump organ and box beds, and a reconstructed Bronze Age burnt mound.

And we struck lucky – by chance we were in Lady Village at the same time as Sanday’s Reuse Centre, in the rear of the old Temperance Hall, was open. It is in effect a charity shop for the island and we came away with some bargain CDs and books.

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Start Point lighthouse, Sanday (image: Graham Brown)

On such a small island away from large areas of population you will not find familiar high street shops and coffee outlets, but why would you want to? However, we found two well-stocked and friendly food shops – Sinclair General Stores, in their new premises, and the Sanday Community Shop.

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A happy Roscoe on his morning walk along the shore at Kettletoft, Sanday (image: Graham Brown)

Incidentally, there are some interesting property opportunities in Sanday, one of which is the old Sinclair shop being marketed as a possible conversion into a house or studio for only £70,000 (see Sanday links below).

I do not play golf but I was intrigued to see Sanday’s nine-hole course close to, or perhaps even sharing, the site of a Second World War dummy airfield. There are sheep wandering across the course so the greens are each surrounded by a gated fence.

We met a friend on the ferry to Sanday who was going diving for the weekend, and we met another after we arrived who had taken her bicycle over for the day.

For us gentle walking is more the activity and there are plenty of places to choose from, in particular the beautiful, long white sandy beaches. We mostly had these to ourselves though on occasion there were three or four other people on the beach at the same time – talk about crowded!

Sanday is great for nature, there are lots of wild flowers, seashells, seabirds and waders, and in the spring and autumn look out for migrant birds. The beaches have curious seals just offshore who will swim along as you walk in order to watch what you are doing.

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Our VW Lupo outside our weekend home (top) and the view from our lounge window (bottom) (images: Graham Brown)

We stayed at a comfortable self-catering house in Kettletoft, which boasted an idiosyncratic old piano. Kathie described it as so out-of-tune that it was musically interesting. There are two hotels in the village, each serving excellent food.

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Postbox in Kettletoft, Sanday (image: Graham Brown)

Across the road from our accommodation was a Royal Mail postbox unlike any you will find in a big city, or even Mainland Orkney. Under Collection Times it says: “Times vary according to flight times.” Fantastic.

The weather was pretty good for our weekend, overcast at times but sunny at others, always mild, and a little rain on the Monday did not spoil the day. We got home refreshed after a splendid weekend. Thank you Sanday.

Graham Brown

P.S. This afternoon’s Open Country programme on BBC Radio 4 was about Orkney wildlife – it included a section on Sanday followed by another on our local West Mainland beach at Bay of Skaill.

Sanday links

Sanday Community Website

Wikipedia: Sanday

Orkney Ferries’s islands brochure (PDF)

Sanday’s Meur Burnt Mound

Facebook: Sinclair General Stores

Facebook: Sanday Community Shop

For sale: Bank House, Kettletoft, Sanday

 

 

48 Hours: postscript

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My father Clive Brown when he was Editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press (image: Lincolnshire Free Press)

In my previous post, “48 Hours: my father and I”, I wrote about the unexpected death of my father in hospital on Easter Sunday. I had travelled to Lincolnshire to care for him on his expected release from hospital but that was not how it worked out.This post adds some thoughts on what happened in the following days and weeks.

At times it can seem as if this world is full of bad people doing awful things to each other but this period in my life demonstrated again how people can be wonderful. I was helped by friends, family, neighbours and my father’s South Holland Rotary Club chums. And I received many cards, phone calls and messages with words of love and support.

My father, Clive, was aged 82 and retired. His last job was as Editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian newspapers, which are run as a twice-weekly newspaper. The photograph at the top of this blog was taken, I believe, when he converted the Free Press from broadsheet to tabloid format – how delighted he looks with his work.

One of the first calls I received after my father passed away was from the newspaper, apologising for disturbing me but asking for help in producing a tribute article. The journalist, Lynne Harrison, was patient and sympathetic and did a super job despite clearly having many calls on her time. You can read the online version of her article.

In order to help Lynne I visited the office with a selection of photographs of my father for possible inclusion with the article. I met Denise Vickers, the Editor’s Secretary, who had worked with my father, and we chatted about him while she took copies of the pictures.

While I was there a strange thought came into my mind…

“I have told family, friends and neighbours about my father’s passing, and now I am in the newspaper office helping produce an article about him for everyone to read. But all this is based on what I’ve said after that fateful night in the hospital.. What if I imagined it all, got it wrong somehow, and Dad didn’t pass away…”

There were other unreal events. The funeral directors asked if I wanted to view my father, or, perhaps I should say, my father’s body. I said yes because it seemed the right thing to do. And so, one morning, I went to town to see him.

I was ushered into a private room and there he was in the coffin, in the smart suit, tie and shoes Kathie had found for him to be dressed in. To be truthful, the tie had a food stain on it but it was the tie that matched the suit so my wife Kathie Touin and I had decided it would be ok – the stain would be hidden by his jacket, and my father was known for spilling so it seemed appropriate, a little joke between the three of us.

I think he would also have been amused because people’s appearance does change after death and, although this was clearly my father, he reminded me of an old Soviet leader lying in state.

I thanked him for all that he had done for me, and all that we had done together.

The vicar,  Rev David Sweeting, was brilliant. As so often happens these days, my father was no longer a church-goer and David did not know him. But he spent an afternoon at the house asking questions about my father. And, helped by some articles my father wrote, which Kathie had found, David produced a service and a tribute which captured his spirit really well.

Anyone who has been through a bereavement of a second parent will no doubt say, as I discovered, that it is an incredibly busy time. There were constant decisions to be made, letters and emails to write, phone calls to make, about the funeral, the house, the contents, the bank accounts, insurance policies, pensions, power supplies. It was exhausting.

Kathie was worried that folk would think we were sorting the affairs with undue haste. But living as we do more than 600 miles away, and across the water, we were not in a position to constantly pop back to the house. Besides, I think there is something to be said for sorting affairs promptly and allowing yourself to get on with your life.

It is not as if my father and my mother, Mary, who died in 2001, do not feature in my life here in Orkney. Several times a day I think of funny occasions we shared, or places we went together, or my parents’ sayings and habits.

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McAdie & Reeve’s removals lorry and trailer outside my father’s house (image: Graham Brown)

And Kathie and I sent back to Orkney a collection of paintings and pictures, photographs, books, papers, ornaments, knick-knacks, a Welsh dresser and two large model railway locomotives. Seeing the removal lorry – and trailer – from Orkney which manoeuvred through a housing estate of narrow and curved roads, and parked cars, to my father’s house was impressive.

Incidentally, a word on our removals company, McAdie & Reeve – they seem to have a removals lorry out and about around the UK every week. The driver makes multiple calls and gradually the lorry and trailer are filled up with a staggering variety of goods. On the run to pick up our goods from Lincolnshire he was also collecting, among many other things, specialist cement, a gate and fine art from London.

As it happened the lorry which called at my father’s has a distinctive registration and we were able to identify it as the same vehicle which moved Kathie and I, well, our possessions, from London to Orkney in 2010.

Oh yes, the house. We chose an estate agent while we were still in Lincolnshire and it was sold to the first people to view. The legal side went through relatively quickly to completion – something of a relief in these uncertain economic times. It is strange to think of other people being in the house, but also good to know that someone is caring for the property and making their plans and futures there.

Once I got back to Orkney I was thrown into a busy period – the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire and 737 men was approaching and I was a volunteer with the project to create a new memorial wall. For more please see our project blog.

Then after a brief break I was booked to work for a month at the RSPB’s office in Stromness, about nine miles from where I live. It is the longest period I have spent in a formal work situation since leaving the BBC in London in early 2010.

The gardening has suffered this year because I have been away from the house so much but we will catch up later in the year – or, more realistically, next year.

Kathie and I – with our dog Roscoe – have just taken a welcome weekend break which will be the subject of my next blog.

But for now I want to say thank you to everyone for helping at my time of loss – for the letters, cards, emails, telephone calls, kind words, meals, visits, invitations to homes and events, practical help, helping honour my father’s memory, the list goes on.

Thank you.

Graham Brown