12 days in northern Italy

I aim to write a monthly blog. What with one thing and another, notably lots of disruption at home with workmen, and being at work, my planned June blog is appearing now at the end of July. Here goes…

On 7 June Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I embarked on our first overseas trip – excluding visits to see family in (kind of) English-speaking California and Arizona – for more than 10 years.

In preparation for our expedition Kathie was busy learning some Italian on a smartphone app. Kathie also worked hard to find our accommodation and read lots of guide books. My contribution was to throw in a few ideas now and then.

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View from our window in Bologna’s Hotel Paradise (image: Graham Brown)

We stayed in Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, in the wonderfully-named Hotel Paradise. Very good it was too, helpful staff and in a good location for walking to the many ancient churches, historic attractions and shops – even the railway station was only about 20 minutes’ walk through attractive architecture.

I will not take you on a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account of the trip, and everything we saw, – phew! – but here are some themes that struck me.

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The 12th century Two Towers of Bologna – due torri (image: Graham Brown)

Elegant, cool and medieval – with graffiti

Bologna is a large city but the central historic and shopping areas are reasonably compact. Though temperatures reached as high as 35 C while we there – 95 F to Americans – we stayed reasonably cool thanks to the architecture. The city is blessed with miles, or, should I say, kilometres, of porticoes – arched colonnades covering the pavements (American: sidewalks) – which allow one to walk around in the shade.

The city has some fantastic medieval, Renaissance and baroque architecture – numerous churches, civic buildings and the two towers (due torri) reputedly dating from the 12th century.

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Some of Bologna’s graffiti makes a serious point, in this case about Syria (image: Graham Brown)

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And some of the graffiti is humorous – this reminded us of Roscoe back home (image: Graham Brown)

We noticed that graffiti seems to be tolerated. And by graffiti I do not mean the usual crude scribblings of names and swear words, but some fantastic pieces of art, some comic, some supporting political causes.

The city had, to me, a relaxed atmosphere with outside eating areas for most cafes and restaurants (like so much of continental Europe), and elegant-looking residents, even while riding their numerous bicycles, mopeds and scooters.

Monuments

Bologna, like all European cities, has its fair share of monuments and statues. Among the more unusual ones, to my eyes, was a large monument to partisans who fought the Nazi and Fascist occupiers towards the end of the Second World War – it was made up of numerous small photographs of the individuals involved.

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On the left, the many photographs of Italian partisans who fought the Nazis – it seems appropriate that young people are relaxing in the sunshine (image: Graham Brown)

A war memorial for Italians lost in both world wars, inside the Santo Stefano complex of churches, struck me as interesting as it listed those lost on both sides of the conflict.

But I think I was most touched – perhaps with recent events in London and Manchester in my mind – by monuments to the 85 who died in the Fascist bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980.

There is a glass panel in the Piazza del Nettuno listing all the names of those who died in the attack (and in two other outrages). There are further memorials at the station itself including the clock stopped at 10.25, the time of the attack.

We also visited a photographic exhibition, housed in a wonderful underground exhibition space, containing 500 photographs of Bologna’s history as well as film – including the chilling visit of Italian dictator Mussolini to the city.

One room of the exhibition was entirely devoted to the station bombing. A constantly evolving montage of photographs was projected onto the walls of the circular room, along with the sound of emergency services radio conversations. It was very moving – literally and emotionally.

Musica

Music, or musica as the Italians say, featured in our trip.

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Kathie Touin in Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica (image: Graham Brown)

We went to two fascinating museums – one of historic keyboard instruments, the other was Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – it features Bologna’s collection of musical manuscripts, books, sculptures, paintings and instruments. The origins of the collection are an 18th century Franciscan friar, Father Giovanni Battista Martini, who numbered Mozart among his students.

We also enjoyed live music. We attended two brilliant piano recitals held in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, appropriately the patron saint of music. Stand up, and take another standing ovation, Enrico Elisi and Benedetta Conte, fabulous performers both.

And we went to Teatro Duse for a production of Gershwin’s Crazy For You musical. The songs were sung in English, the conversations were in Italian but we had read the plot outline beforehand so we could follow the story.

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The poster for Crazy For You – a fabulous show starring Manuel Frattini

The show featured Manuel Frattini who, judging by the audience reaction, is something of a star. And rightly so. He is an old-fashioned song-and-dance man who can sing, dance and be physically funny – Kathie said he reminded her of Gene Kelly.

It was an uplifting evening – enough to make you forget how hot the theatre was – with wonderful staging, dancing, singing and comedy.

Trains and Ferraris – vroom…

We spent 13 nights in Bologna so we had 12 days to be out and about. There was so much to see in Bologna that we never got round it all, bearing in mind we had to stop for coffees, ice creams and meals.

But we took three day trips out of the city by train, to visit Modena, Venice and Florence.

You will have read and watched much about Venice and Florence so I will not go into detail on those – just to mention that in Venice, on an overcast day, we were caught in an Orkney-style storm of heavy rain and strong winds. We sheltered in a passageway and the storm soon passed, our clothes were just about dry by the time we left this strange city.

The main purpose of our visit to Modena was to see the Enzo Ferrari House Museum, one of two Ferrari museums in the region (the other is at their Modena factory). There were some beautiful and ruinously expensive cars on display, both racing and road examples.

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Kathie Touin choosing a Ferrari to take home (image: Graham Brown)

I have to say I find modern so-called “super cars” not to my taste but the classic Ferraris on display were a joy to behold. By the way, if anyone is short of ideas for next Christmas, Kathie would like a Ferrari Dino.

Our train journeys were smooth, comfortable and on time, apart from a delay departing Venice because the above-mentioned storm had caused flooding on the line. The regional train services are not expensive either – our journey to Modena, and back, for both of us, admittedly only about 30 minutes each way, cost less than £15, and we did not have to pay in advance or trawl websites for a cheap deal.

Our trip to Venice – about two hours each way – cost about £50 for both of us. We travelled upstairs in a double-decker coach.

However, our trip to Florence was more expensive. We did not get to Bologna railway station until mid-morning, only to discover all the second-class seats were taken. So we had to travel first class – this, and the fact that the service was operated by a high-speed train, made it much more expensive, more than £70 for both of us one way.

Never mind, we enjoyed travelling in first class (though the second-class return was perfectly fine) and being on a high-speed train, even though most of the route was in tunnels.

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Slightly fuzzy night-time photo at Bologna railway station but on this train we travelled at 186mph – Kathie shows off her Florence shopping in an Orkney Maeshowe bag (image: Graham Brown)

On the return from Florence to Bologna we noticed that the passenger information displays were, at times, showing the train’s speed. We reached 299kph, which I calculate to be 186mph. I think this is a land speed record for both Kathie and me. The 67-mile journey took 31 minutes from the wheels starting to roll at Florence to standstill in Bologna. Wow. Incidentally, the ride was smooth with little impression of such speed.

What else?

General Election

The first day we spent in Bologna was also the day of the General Election back home in the UK. I do not think I have ever been abroad for a General Election before so we made sure we voted by post before leaving Orkney.

On the Thursday night I watched BBC World for several hours to follow the election results coming in. It was a strange election in many ways, made stranger for me because I was watching from afar.

Swifts

One of the notable sights – and sounds – of Bologna at the time of our visit was the hundreds of screeching swifts flying high above the city. It was wonderful to see these acrobatic birds, which even sleep on the wing, and to think of them heading back to Africa after their breeding season.

For us, we returned to the cooler weather of Orkney – but since being home we have been delighted to see the swallows nesting in our garage fledge four young.

Graham Brown

To find out – and see – more

More of my photographs on Instagram (no log-in required) – https://www.instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

Guide to Bologna – http://www.bolognawelcome.com/en/

Wikipedia on Bologna – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna

The 1980 bombing of Bologna railway station – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna_massacre

Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna – http://www.museibologna.it/musica

Wikipedia on Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museo_internazionale_e_biblioteca_della_musica

Website of pianist Enrico Elisi – www.enricoelisi.com/

An earlier performance by Benedetta Conte –

RSPB website on swifts – http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/s/swift/index.aspx

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Writing about writing

Orkney Nature Festival banner

Orkney Nature Festival banner (image: RSPB Scotland/Orkney Nature Festival)

Orkney is big on festivals. You name it, and we seem to have a festival for it. Some are big, well-established events in the diary – notably Orkney Folk Festival, which starts tomorrow (25 May), and the St Magnus International Festival, an arts event in June. Both of these bring many visitors to the county each year.

But we also have festivals for wine, jazz, blues, rock, storytelling, drama and science – and I am sure I will have missed at least one out – plus numerous events which, while not called festivals, might loosely come under that category.

Then there is the Orkney Nature Festival, established in 2013, co-ordinated by RSPB Scotland in conjunction with a number of local groups, partners and volunteers.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I attend some of the nature festival events each year and so last week I found myself helping to write a collaborative poem. This confirmed me in an early career choice. Let me explain.

The event was billed as “Poetry and pilgrimage: exploring the St Magnus Way with the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and Orkney Pilgrimage”.

Writing this blog reminds me of the number of aspects of Orkney life we can take for granted and that might need explaining to a wider audience. So, St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and this year the 900th anniversary of his death is being commemorated by, among other events, the creation of a pilgrimage route, the St Magnus Way. George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, is one of Orkney’s best known and favourite writers. Wikipedia says: “He is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.”

Leading the poetry and pilgrimage event were writer Yvonne Gray, of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship, and Rev David McNeish, Chair of Orkney Pilgrimage, and our local minister.

Now, I cannot give you a detailed explanation without getting it wrong but we were there to write a renga, a Japanese form of collaborative poem. The event was fun and fascinating – and, I felt, good for my brain cells to be stretched in a different way.

Yvonne wrote the first verse and then we all came up with suggestions for the following lines and development. We started with spring and then worked through the seasons until our five-verse poem concluded back in spring.

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Brough of Birsay seen from Birsay Bay (image: Graham Brown)

We worked over the course of a day spent in Birsay, starting with a walk from the village past St Magnus Kirk to the coastline at the bottom of the graveyard, where David talked about Magnus’ life and example. Then we walked round Birsay Bay towards the Brough of Birsay, completed the first section sitting outside, before retiring out of the wind back in the kirk to complete our work.

When we had finished I noticed that very few of my suggestions had been incorporated, even though we were a small group of eight. This is not a complaint or a criticism – I thought Yvonne was thoughtful, inclusive and inspiring – but an observation. I think I am literal rather than artistic.

It reminded me of another event I attended in Orkney a few years ago, where each of us in the group went to the coast, found a place to sit down with our sketch pad, and were asked to “draw what we hear”. So, I heard a gull, for example, and drew a simple gull. I heard a tractor, and drew an outline of that.

Afterwards I discovered others in the group had interpreted this task in an artistic, not a literal, way, and come up with rather interesting abstract paintings.

So my decision back in 1977, after an abortive flirtation with town planning, to become a journalist was the correct one. Getting some words down in roughly the right order, reflecting accurately what people have to say, and often working against the clock, this was what I did – but artistic flair was not required, thank you.

My first job as a reporter was with the Lynn News and Advertiser, a twice-weekly newspaper based in King’s Lynn and covering West Norfolk. It was an ideal start to my career – friendly, helpful and knowledgeable colleagues and, because it was not a weekly, a greater sense of urgency with more deadlines to meet.

I recall that on more than one occasion I was at an important court case which was in progress, or had concluded, as the newspaper was approaching its final deadlines. So I had to go to a phone box – remember those? – and, with only my shorthand notes in front of me, dictate the story down the line to a colleague sat at a typewriter – remember those?

Of course, the sub-editors in the office could tidy up my hastily assembled words but I had to get the salient facts in place first time. It certainly concentrated the mind.

All that said, I think a few of the lines I came up with at the nature festival event are worth repeating, though they may not make much sense out of context. Remember, we were writing about the seasons in Orkney…

“Sand martins dart along the coast
Building home and new lives”

“Visitors – flying, swimming, walking –
Feathered, blubbered, backpacked,
Congregate at the home shore we love”

“The birds depart
The visitors dwindle
The days shorten”

“Books with many-coloured jackets
Sit on shelves, ready to tell tales of Orkney
Inspiring schoolchildren, visitors – and me”

Graham Brown

To find out more

http://www.orkneynaturefestival.org/

https://magnus900.co.uk/

https://www.stmagnusway.com/

http://gmbfellowship.org.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mackay_Brown

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renga

http://www.orkney.com/about/culture/other-festivals

http://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/orkney-blog/festivals-in-orkney/

http://www.orkneyfolkfestival.com/

http://www.stmagnusfestival.com/

I’m only dreaming

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Heading into dreamland (image: http://www.freeimages.co.uk)

Dreaming. What do we mean by this? Planning an ideal future? Day dreaming on a sunny afternoon about happy memories? A longing to be somewhere else? That strange activity we undertake at night-time? Something else altogether?

There are many songs about dreams. Most, if not all, of the ones I know are about night-time dreaming – but not the kind I experience. My dreams, at least those I remember, are a confused jumble of experiences which make little sense at all. More of that later.

Whereas songs about dreaming are typically about a dream woman (or sometimes man). Typically the singer (or songwriter) will have met and won somebody fantastic, or hopes to meet such a person, or did meet but was ignored by such a person, or lost – or fears losing – such a person through break-up or death.

The many examples include: All I Have To Do Is Dream performed by The Everly Brothers; Dreaming by Buddy Holly (written by Buddy for, but not recorded by, The Everly Brothers); Dreams by Fleetwood Mac; These Dreams by Heart; Daydream Believer by The Monkees; Sweet Dreams Baby by Roy Orbison; Talking In Your Sleep by Crystal Gayle; and Dream Lover by Bobby Darin and Mr Sandman by The Chordettes.

Other songs about dreaming, but on a different topic, include Dreamweaver by Gary Wright which is, I think, more about the activity of dreaming, California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas, about missing the warmth of California, and Number 9 Dream by John Lennon, which was apparently written in a dream.

But perhaps my favourite dream song is Joe Brown’s rendition of I’ll See You In My Dreams, a 1924 song written by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, and performed by many artists over the last 90 years. I have seen Joe Brown perform the song in concert on a number of occasions. Incidentally, if you ever spot that Joe is due to appear at a venue near you, do go along, he is a fantastic guitarist, singer and entertainer – country, rock, blues, folk, gospel, you will get it all, and some bad jokes…

Joe Brown also performed I’ll See You In My Dreams, accompanying himself on ukulele, as the finale of Concert For George, a George Harrison tribute event in 2002 (Joe and George were friends and neighbours). Which shows that you can use one of these boy-meets/loses-girl songs for a completely different purpose.

But, as I indicated, my actual dreams – and I suspect most people’s dreams – are nothing like that at all, although loved ones do appear in them from time to time. Nor do I do anything useful such as write songs in my dreams as, apparently, John Lennon did when he wrote Number 9 Dream or Paul McCartney when he woke with the tune for Yesterday in his head.

Some folk believe dreams to have meanings and invest great energy into reading or analysing them. Personally I think dreams might indicate something very general, such as anxiety, but otherwise they seem to me to be your brain shuffling through recent and more distant experiences – perhaps a little like someone shuffling several decks of cards at once, with each deck having different illustrations on the reverse, so the packs become confused.

I have noticed three recurring themes in my dreams: frequent journeys through a townscape, in a car or a bus; appearances by my father (not surprising as he died just over a year ago); and becoming a journalist again (something I did for real from the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties) – although in recent weeks some dreams have taken me back, in a very confused way, to the BBC, where I worked from 1986 to 2010.

Anyway, here are some of my recent dreams. My recollections of them are pretty vague but this is the best I can do despite making an effort to remember them. If you think these extracts show me to be mad, sad or bad I would be grateful if you could keep this to yourself and not say so in the comments section of this blog!

1. The musician Joe Brown (as above) and our neighbour trying to raise something from sea. I believe I am trying to help.

2. I am in a modern department store. While I am there it turns into a store from the Second World War era. I am there as a reporter, I meet a man, apparently the owner, with a double or even a triple-barelled name, who speaks about changing the store into an old-fashioned look because of Brexit. My father turns up at the end of the dream.

3. In the back seat of car travelling at night, urging my father – the driver – to turn because he has failed to see the entrance to our house and an oncoming cyclist. The incident seems to be in slow motion and fades away without resolution. Then I am driving my Volkswagen Lupo along country roads trying to put a giant black key into the ignition. A little later, I am with my mother and someone else (not my father, I think) in a house waiting for one of my aunts and other people to arrive for dinner.

4. I am out with my wife, Kathie Touin, we decide to go for an ice cream dessert before a theatre trip but I have with me a sauce made from salad cream which will not go with ice cream. Then Kathie wants a restaurant meal with garlic so – instead of looking for, perhaps, an Italian restaurant – we search for a shop selling garlic. Out on a country road, we see two friends with their children in a car watching or listening to the singer Marti Webb – one of our friends in the car describes Marti Webb as the woman who played The Queen in the film (in reality, Helen Mirren).

5. I am due to be presenting a live programme for BBC Radio 2, helped by a former BBC colleague (I should say that when I was at the BBC I was not involved in production or presentation, though many years ago I was a hospital radio presenter in Peterborough, Radio 5, and King’s Lynn, Radio Lynn). My colleague plays CDs on-air while I trawl through the CDs in my collection but never find what I am looking for. Eventually my colleague leaves and I sit at the presentation desk only to discover I cannot make it work.

Make of that what you will.

By the way, I have noticed another phenomenon sometimes which is a state somewhere between sleep and waking. It might be just after waking up or, perhaps more often, as I go back to sleep after waking briefly in the night. I am still awake, and conscious of my surroundings, but into my mind comes an apparently random stream of surreal and disconnected images. Is it just me?

Well, there we are, confessions of a dreamer. I wonder what tonight will bring?

Graham Brown

To find out more

Joe Brown’s website

Thank you freeimages.co.uk for the photograph at the top of this blog entry.

One year later: more thoughts about my father

One year ago today, which happened to be Easter Day, my father Clive Brown died aged 82 in the early hours of the morning. I have written about this in three previous blogs – “48 Hours: my father and I“, “48 Hours: postscript” and “That Was The Year That Was“. But, if you will indulge me, I have a few more thoughts to offer on this poignant anniversary.

It is a truism to say that time passes more quickly as one gets older but the past year seems to have raced along. Perhaps it is to do with being “over the hill”, a phrase meaning past one’s best which is not heard so much these days (maybe because I am older people whisper the words out of my earshot). Anyway, if I am “over the hill” and careering out of control down the other side that might explain time rushing by.

In a previous blog – “It wouldn’t be a show without Punch” – I recorded some of my late mother’s expressions but I would also like to recall a few of my father’s favourite sayings.

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One of my favourite photographs of my parents, Mary & Clive Brown

Two of his regulars were “muck or nettles” and “all hair and teeth”. The first means “all or nothing”, though I have no idea why, and the second indicates a particularly lively situation, for example, a frantic and barely-under-control football match.

He also liked to refer to a situation being “a right schmozzle”, meaning chaotic. I understand schmozzle is of Hebrew or Yiddish origin and I once surprised an Israeli work colleague when, without thinking, I used the word. I don’t know where my father got it from, perhaps it was common parlance when he was young or perhaps he picked it up during his National Service in the Army.

When I was a small child my father sang in a male voice choir and he continued to enjoy choral music throughout his life. But his favourite genre was West End, Broadway and film musicals. He loved going to see musicals and I chose the Prologue, or Carousel Waltz, from Carousel, performed by the John Wilson Orchestra, as the music at the end of his funeral service. He also loved watching this orchestra when they appeared on TV from the BBC Proms.

I used to reflect how a few years’ difference in date of birth could have made a big difference to my slightly old-fashioned, though fairly enlightened, father. He was born in August 1933. Less than 18 months later, in January 1935, along came Elvis Presley and just five years or so after that John Lennon was born. They helped pioneer a form of music which largely passed my father by.

But, of course, it is not just when we are born which governs what we like or dislike. The society and family around us, our own peculiar tastes, are probably more important. Being born a few years later would not have made my father a rocker.

He was a big consumer of TV programmes, particularly live football (especially Arsenal) and political programmes.

In terms of reading, it was mostly biographies and autobiographies (of historical, political, newspaper and sporting characters) and railway books – but definitely not fiction. Fiction was something of a blindspot for my father, he could not see the point of reading made-up stories when there were so many real stories to read.

I would like to close with some passages from one of the letters I received after my father died last year. You may know that his last job before retirement was Editor of the Spalding Guardian and of the Lincolnshire Free Press, two local newspapers in Spalding, South Holland (south Lincolnshire) which were effectively operated as a twice-weekly.

The letter I have in mind came from someone who was a journalist in the same company, but not at the same newspaper. She made some fascinating observations in her thoughtful and heartfelt letter.

Not everything she wrote struck me as true but we all have different experiences of people – for example, she felt he was reluctant to allow others “access to his treasure of experience and talent.” I would have thought differently, but I did not work for or with him.

But among her observations which ring true about his approach to journalism and work…

“Clive’s often inscrutable responses were a breath of fresh air when set against sometimes fawning contributions from individuals desperate to succeed in the cut-throat world of print publishing.”

“He did not suffer fools and hilariously described one [company] director, for whom he had no time whatsoever, as ‘Being at the back of the queue when couth was handed out’.”

“He consummately detested all things ‘corporate’…”

“He largely loathed”… “experimental promotional ideas”.

“His talent as a shrewd and eloquent newsman always shone brightly.”

“Unquestionably his own man, he commanded the Spalding Guardian by the shrewd application of qualities that made newspapers successful at the time: honesty, integrity and accuracy delivered with a genuine attempt at social responsibility and true reader value.”

Graham Brown

The land of the windmills (a fairy story by Graham Brown)

Alternative wind energy

A windmill – or wind turbine (image: http://www.freeimages.co.uk)

Once upon a time there was – but, wait, why do fairy stories start like this? Upon a time, what does that mean? A time? What time? Which time?

Anyway, many years ago there was a land far away in the north called Yenkro. Well, I say, many years ago, but that depends when you are reading this story. It might be many years ago to you or it could be in the future, or about now.

And this land far away in the north – that wasn’t how the people who lived there saw it. Oh no. They thought, quite rightly, that they lived at the centre of the universe and other places, such as London, or Moscow, or Los Angeles, or Hobart were far away, remote even. Well, Hobart is remote, but you get the idea.

This land had much going for it – friendly people, lovely scenery, wildlife, a history to be proud of, some lovely food and drink, even sunshine on special days. In fact, it was so good that many visitors travelled long distances to see it.

One of the Yenkro folk was a farmer called Derek. This is not his real name, but that is true for everyone who appears in this story – no-one is using their real name. This made it very confusing for everyone involved, trying to remember all these not-real names.

Yenkro had something else going for it which not everyone saw as a benefit – lots of wind. It was sufficient wind, and often enough, to make some folk move away to calmer shores. Some visitors felt the cold of the wind chill and decided this was not somewhere they wanted to live.

But the wind could be harnessed to make giant windmills go round and, with some technical jiggery-pokery, which Derek’s friend Alan knew all about, the windmills could in turn produce electricity. And, best of all, although no-one had ever seen any of this electricity, there was money to be made from it.

It was all to do with some government policies agreed by the Bigwigs. There were Bigwigs in the Big Smoke, which was hundreds of miles from Yenkro in the south-east of Big South  Island, and there were other Bigwigs in Auld Reekie, which was a little closer but still on Big South Island and not somewhere you could pop over to easily.

These Bigwigs argued over many things, for example, who had the biggest wigs, who had the rights to wear them, where the wigs had come from, who should pay for them, who could decide what to do about the wigs in the future, or even whether wigs from both places would be needed in the future.

But out of all this confusion it had been agreed that folk with big windmills which produced surplus electricity could be given some money. And, naturally, this interested Derek.

Of course, Derek was not alone and soon his neighbours Irene, Brian and Mac – indeed many people right across Yenkro – had built these windmills and, on a windy day, they made a fine sight as the blades powered around. Sometimes it was so windy they had to be locked to stop the blades turning too quickly.

But the day came when it was suddenly, unexpectedly, very windy. No-one who had windmills had time to stop the blades – in fact, so great was the wind, that to stand up outside you had to grip the side of a building. Even then it was impossible to walk into the wind.

Fortunately, Derek was by the back door at the time. His two children, Christine and John, both young teenagers, were in the garden and were blown over. By crawling across the lawn, they were able to reach Derek at the back door. They went in and forced the door shut against the oncoming strength of the wind.

Derek thought he should ring his wife, Elaine, at her office but his mobile had no signal and the landline was dead.

And, then, it happened. It was almost imperceptible at first. But to those who noticed, while the wind kept up as fast as ever, they felt a drop in air pressure. And, then, a slight feeling of lifting. Pretty soon everyone noticed.

The immense wind speed across the blades had caused the windmills to lift along with their substantial foundations – gradually Yenkro rose into the sky. Those in boats, who had been desperately trying to get into port out of the storm, found their vessels swept forward towards where the land had been as the sea poured in to take its place.

Folk on Yenkro were terrified but, perhaps fortunately, it was hard to tell what was happening. The wind was blowing, the clouds swept by, soon obscuring the view. All electricity supplies were cut. Derek was not wearing his watch and it was hard to keep track of time, he felt as if he had slipped into another dimension. He crouched on the floor, under the dining table, terrified, with his children.

But, gradually, the wind seemed to lessen, and – for those brave enough to watch out of their windows – the cloud thinned, and the sky turned blue. And, surely not at this time of year but, yes, it was getting warmer.

Then, in the distance for those inland, quite plainly for those near the coast, a loud splash was heard. Everywhere started to roll gently, back to front, and side to side, as if on a boat, but gradually all became calm.

Derek, Christine and John peered out from under the dining table, then went outside. Their garden had a view of the coast but – it seemed as if Yenkro was no longer where it used to be. The sky was really blue, the strong sun burned into their faces, and the islands towards the horizon were not the usual ones.

Meanwhile, in Spain’s Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, people were aghast, amazed, terrified and a little excited to see a huge object drift down from the sky and land on their horizon – it looked like a new island.

The Bigwigs already had plenty of problems on their plates – incidentally, who got the best plates and the posh cutlery, and who shared it out with their people in the best way, was another argument. But life was about to get a whole lot more difficult now that part of their lands had blown three thousand miles south.

And the people of Yenkro faced the question, how could they get home? More to the point, how could they get their home back home? And, whisper it, did they want to go home?

To be continued (if the author finds a way out of this ridiculous spot).

Graham Brown

Thanks to…

www.freeimages.co.uk

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/