I have been fascinated by the radio since a young age when I started playing around with a small transistor radio, moving on aged 11 (ish) to borrow my parents’ large Grundig radio with its better sound quality. I listened to pop music, naturally, from BBC Radio 1 but also from Radio Luxembourg (English service in the evening) and from the pirate radio stations operating off the Dutch coast.
Then I expanded my listening to include shortwave radio stations from distant lands, as well as news, documentaries, drama and comedy on BBC Radio 4 – and in those days there was comedy on BBC Radio 2 as well (Hello Cheeky anyone?).
My interest has stayed with me for more than 50 years. Today I have a large collection of radios including internet radios, on which I can listen to radio stations from all over the world in good quality sound.
So I was intrigued when I came across a podcast called the British Broadcasting Century, something of a labour of love for its host, interviewer and researcher Paul Kerensa.
The podcast’s website describes it as: “100 Years of the BBC, Radio and Life as We Know It. Be informed, educated and entertained by the amazing true story of radio’s forgotten pioneers.”
It makes for fascinating listening. Thank you Paul.
One edition of the podcast featured a modern recording of an old song about radio listening in the 1920s. It reminded me of something I had seen on social media – the sheet music artwork for a song called There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart.
To cut a long story short, Paul was interested in the song and we agreed that my wife Kathie, a musician, would make a recording for his podcast. Kathie was able to obtain a copy of the actual sheet music and discovered the song dated from 1913.
There’s A Wireless Station Down in My Heart has words by Ed Moran & Joe McCarthy, music by James V Monaco. The song was written when wireless did not mean wi-fi like today and even pre-dates radio broadcasting in the sense that we know it. Instead the song celebrates wireless communication via Morse code, in a rather saucy way.
I had to laugh when I first read the lyrics to There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart. The title is catchy enough but I don’t think you can beat an opening line like: “Oh, there’s something nobody knows/I don’t suppose anyone knows”. It’s surprisingly naughty for such an early song, though people were probably just as naughty then as they are now.
It is another of these recording projects I take on where I think ‘oh, that will be easy and quick’ and four weeks later I’m still messing around with the arrangement. It began with piano for the accompaniment; because of the time period it’s an excellent, ragtime-style piano part and really good fun to play.
When I’d added the vocal I thought it sounded like it needed a bit more. So I added some old fashioned-sounding acoustic drums in the background. (Using software, I hasten to add. I’m a lousy drummer.) It needed a clarinet and a trombone, obviously; sadly I was unable to fake a banjo part which I felt it could have used. Eventually I stopped messing around with it and ended up with the arrangement you can hear now.
One difficulty I had was the form. We were lucky to find the sheet music online but when I looked at it I wasn’t sure what the order of the sections should be. The chorus has a repeat marked at the end so one would assume you play it twice through. But there are two verses. I decided to just go with what seemed the most obvious structure (verse/chorus/chorus/verse/chorus/chorus) but that has meant it’s quite long – it clocks in at over four minutes.
I remember thinking that couldn’t be right because I didn’t think the recording mediums of the time would hold that much music. But doing a quick online search, I see that the predominant recording medium of the 1910s were flat discs, usually made of shellac resin. A 10” 78 rpm disc could only hold three minutes of music – this has survived to this day as the ‘ideal’ length of a pop single – but a 12” could hold up to five minutes. So it’s not inconceivable that the song may have been as long as my version of it when it was released. Assuming it was ever released as a recording.
I had to look up the authors in order to register my arrangement and recording with PRS, the performing rights agency in the UK. I could find nothing on the lyricist Ed Moran, but Joe McCarthy (1865-1943) went on to write You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It) with the composer of ‘Wireless Station’ James V. Monaco (1885-1945). McCarthy has a long list of credits including several Ziegfield Follies from 1919 to 1930 and film credits including Irene and Rio Rita. His most famous song is I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. I do find it amusing it took two men to write the lyrics to ‘Wireless Station’ (“Ev’ry time he sends me a spark/he hits the mark/right in the dark” etc).
Composer James V. Monaco had a stellar career with his songs recorded by Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland among others. His first hit was two years before ‘Wireless Station’ with a song called Oh, You Circus Day from the Broadway review Hanky Panky. Four of his compositions were nominated for Oscars.
It was great fun learning all this while working on the song. And it’s interesting to think about the changes in musical styles as well as the technology for broadcasting and recording these men would have experienced during their lifetimes. They were both born before the advent of wireless radio communication but during their lives it moved from Morse code through the invention of the telephone to proper radio broadcasting as we’d understand it today. Recording technology began as wax cylinders then changed to 78rpm flat discs (which were the forerunners of today’s trendy-again LP records). Both men died just before the advent of LPs and using magnetic tape was just beginning to be seen as a possible successor to wax for capturing music. They would have first experienced recording with the musicians grouped around a large horn to convey the sound to the cutting stylus; a decade or so after ‘Wireless Station’ was written, microphones became more commonplace in recording studios, creating a seismic change in singing styles that led directly to popular music becoming such a dominant force in music.
It’s a lot to pack in to a cute little song about a lonely girl and her anonymous operator sending her sparks in the dark when she’s lonely and blue. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did recording it.
You can listen to Paul Kerensa’s podcast The British Broadcasting Century via this website or via other podcast platforms. Kathie’s version of There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart appears in the podcast which has as its main subject matter “Early Black British Broadcasters” (released on 8 August 2022).
To stream or download Kathie performing There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart – either in stereo or old-time mono – please visit Kathie’s Bandcamp page.
In less than a fortnight in the summer three people whose music was – and is – very important to me passed away.
They were Nanci, Don and Charlie. Their names written together like that suggest a folk trio though I don’t think they ever worked together. But between them they crossed musical boundaries of folk, rock, country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, standards, blues, rockabilly, rhythm & blues and big band.
One of them, a solo artist, wrote some of the most affecting songs I know. Another, part of a duo with his brother, influenced so many of the world’s biggest performers with his singing and harmonies. The third laid down the rhythm for what could be the world’s biggest rock band, while playing jazz in his spare time.
You may have worked out who we are talking about: Nanci Griffith, who died on 13 August aged 68; Don Everly, who died on 21 August aged 84; and Charlie Watts, who died on 24 August aged 80.
They were all artists I was privileged to see in concert – ten, three and one time respectively – all in London except the last time I saw Nanci, when I was briefly introduced to her, in San Diego, California.
The death of well-known individuals brings out a range of reactions in those left behind from indifference to disbelief. Sometimes, when an older entertainer dies, I have to admit that I thought they had died some years before. But not these ones – their loss is keenly felt.
When I lived in London I kept a note in my Filofax – remember those? – of the shows and concerts I attended. This is how I know I saw Nanci ten times and, as it happens, the musical Les Miserables nine times (plus, much later, a tenth time, an excellent amateur production of Les Mis in Orkney). I was obviously a big fan of both.
Listening to the public reaction on radio programmes reflecting on Nanci’s legacy – in particular the excellent Another Country With Ricky Ross on BBC Radio Scotland – it was notable how personally invested people were in her music and upset to lose her, even though she had not been active musically in recent years due, I think, to ill health.
Many people contacted the presenters with stories of how much one or another of Nanci’s songs meant to them, and lots of the correspondents mentioned the wonderful personal and family stories she would tell in concert as she introduced her songs.
Listening again to her material, for example There’s A Light Beyond These Words (Mary Margaret) or Love At The Five And Dime, I was surprised how emotional I became.
Nanci could also be political, not in-your-face but in a more subtle way. It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go is a thoughtful take on being an American in the late 20th century. While writing this blog I came across a specially-made video for the song which I had never seen before.
At one of the first concerts I attended I was sat close enough to the stage to notice that Nanci was wearing an LBJ badge to remember President Lyndon B Johnson. LBJ and Nanci were both proud Texans but nevertheless the badge surprised me given Johnson’s involvement with Vietnam. But afterwards I did some reading and discovered he pushed through civil rights legislation in the US against great opposition.
The music of Nanci is also the reason I met my wife, Kathie Touin. It’s a long story which I will try to summarise…
Back in the 1990s, before internet access became mainstream, emails made an appearance in my office. I somehow learned of a Nanci Griffith fans email group called the NanciNet and subscribed. And, no, it was not strictly relevant to my work.
When Nanci played at the Barbican in 1998 a get-together was arranged for members of the NanciNet who were attending the concert. We met in one of the restaurants. And that is where fate took a hand. I went with my then girlfriend and my parents, who were visiting me, and as there were four of us we had to join a less crowded table where two folk were sat. These turned out to be a female Nanci fan visiting from the United States and a guy from Belgium.
To cut a long story short, we all became friends, and the Belgian guy and myself visited the American in San Diego – this is where I briefly met Nanci (and Rodney Crowell). Later I made a return visit to the States by which time the American lived near Seattle, Washington and there I met her daughter’s piano teacher – Kathie. A year later we were married.
Nanci’s songs sit somewhere between country, folk and rockabilly, she was hard to define. As well as writing brilliant songs of her own she had a knack of choosing other people’s songs to record and perform which she made her own – From A Distance (written by Julie Gold) would be the best known example, others include Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness (John Prine) and Boots Of Spanish Leather (Bob Dylan).
She also had excellent musicians to play with her touring band. Some, such as the late singer-songwriter Frank Christian, were very talented performers in their own right. And others making guest appearances with her on stage included The Crickets, Odetta and Ralph McTell.
I will enjoy listening back to my many Nanci Griffith albums. We will miss her.
My Filofax records are clearly not infallible because they show two Everly Brothers concerts but I know for sure I saw them twice before I met Kathie. One of the shows had a stand-up comedian as the support act, which struck me as strange. Their band included legendary pedal-steel player Buddy Emmons, the great British guitarist Albert Lee and keyboard player Pete Wingfield.
Do you remember Pete Wingfield’s only hit single? If you do, you are older than you are letting on. It was Eighteen With A Bullet (1975) but, to be fair, he did much else in his career, including writing To Be Or Not To Be with Mel Brooks!
I know I saw the Everly Brothers twice in London because I remember on the other occasion the keyboard player was Ian McLagan, formerly of The Small Faces and The Faces.
Later Kathie and I saw the brothers perform, in Oxford in 2005, possibly the last time they toured in the UK? I remember that Sir Tim Rice was sat a few rows behind us, which gives you an in idea of how well thought of they were. Phil Everly died in 2014.
It should also be noted that though many Everly hits were written by others – notably Felice and Boudleaux Bryant – Don Everly also wrote some wonderful songs, for example the huge hit Cathy’s Clown and the beautifully sad So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad).
And the third member of my trio, Charlie Watts. We all know, or feel we know, The Rolling Stones though Charlie Watts was the most private member of the band. I saw them in concert at the old Wembley Stadium in 1999.
He was a great drummer, not the big flashy drum kit for Charlie, but he was a vital part of the Stones’ sound and I’m not sure how they will manage without him (though early reports are encouraging).
Here’s an expert, drummer Stewart Copeland, explaining Charlie’s technique in an interview for The Guardian: “Technically, what it is, is that he leads with his right foot on the kick drum, which pushes the band forward. Meanwhile his left hand on the snare, the backbeat, is a little relaxed, a little lazy – and that combination of propulsion and relaxation is the technical definition of what he’s doing. But you can try it yourself, all you want, and it ain’t going to sound like Charlie.”
Perhaps that is the way to describe Nanci and Don, as well as Charlie. You can try it yourself, all you want, but they were unique and cannot be copied.
But we can treasure the music they left behind.
To find out more
Stewart Copeland and Max Weinberg on Charlie Watts in The Guardian:
Recently I received an email saying I had been “a bit slack on the blog front recently”. I agree. I only posted four blogs in 2020, the most recent of which was in September, and none so far this year. Until now.
I suppose I can blame the pandemic and the resulting changes in daily life though, in theory, it should allow more time than ever to be creative. But somehow it can also create a sense of drift, a feeling that there is no need to rush or meet a deadline.
Well, spurred on by the email and by an improved sense of well-being thanks to increased daylight and the approach of spring (it is now light here in Orkney before 7am to almost 6pm) – here I am.
This blog is a bit unusual, you might even say it’s a bit of a cheat. I was looking at my Spotify playlist of some of my favourite songs. The list is not comprehensive and it does not lend itself to including longer or linked pieces of music, such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for example. But it gives a flavour of some of the songs, performances and artists I enjoy.
While scrolling through the playlist it occurred to me that I could take a selection of the song titles and shuffle them into something like a free-form poem (apologies to anyone who actually knows anything about poetry). I have kept to the songs I particularly enjoy and not cheated by adding songs to the list just because their titles would be handy to help complete the blog.
Everything from the end of this sentence to my name at the bottom is a title of one of my favourite songs.
A song for you
I came to dance It doesn’t matter anymore It’s so different here I don’t wanna know Just dance
Who knows where the time goes?
C’mon everybody Back to California Kentucky Avenue Hit the road Jack Loud music in cars
Is that all there is?
Jeanie, Jeanie, Jeanie Picking up after you Your cheatin’ heart It never entered my mind Hallelujah I love her so
Who does Lisa like?
Heart like a wheel Any road Cypress trees The dreaming fields Waiting on a friend
What’s he building?
Indoor games near Newbury Doctorin’ the Tardis Moments of pleasure Christmas card from a hooker in Minneapolis She blinded me with science
What’s the use of wond’rin’?
Back in the USSR The day before you came All the way from America Sunday morning to Saturday night I met you on a Sunday
Who are you now?
I dreamed last night Walking down Madison Police car Band on the run Don’t come the cowboy with me, Sonny Jim!
Is there any way out of this dream?
When we was fab One of our submarines Brainwashed Cassandra Queen Bitch
What’s going on?
On days like these Everybody’s famous Power to the people Let there be love Stardust
What can a song do to you?
Hello in there Gimme shelter When I get to heaven I’ll take you there Amelia
What can a song do to you?
Say Grace Grace darling Three bells for Stephen Brothers in arms Bring him home
Waiting for the silence
To find out more
If you would like to check who recorded the songs, and to see what else is on my growing favourites list, please take a look at this Spotify page…
Please bear in mind, as you probably know, that streaming songs on Spotify does not result in much income for the artists concerned. If you love music please consider supporting your favourite musicians and songwriters through the purchase of CDs, LPs, merchandise and concert tickets (online or, hopefully soon, in person).
For the first time in more than three months I am writing a blog entry. I have not written before now for a few reasons: not knowing what to say at this time of pandemic; expecting anything I do say to be overtaken by events almost at once; and, to be honest, not really feeling like writing.
Kathie (Touin, Mrs Brown) and I have not exactly been shielding during the lockdown but we have certainly kept ourselves to ourselves in the main, avoiding in particular big and busy supermarkets. In fact, Kathie avoided shops altogether until venturing into some smaller premises recently.
So while Scotland is easing restrictions more slowly than England, Kathie and I are deliberately taking it more slowly still.
We have met one or two friends outside in the last few weeks; visited Happy Valley (a tree plantation), the Brough of Birsay (a tidal island) and the nearby coastline; and this week the piano tuner came to the house – our first outside worker.
We realise we are lucky to live in a rural part of Orkney, where we can get out and about to exercise with our dog without getting into crowds, where we have a little of our own land around us to enjoy sitting, weeding, mowing or just hanging out the washing.
Anyway, in no particular order, here are a few disconnected thoughts about the situation now.
Does petrol go off?
I’m joking, though I guess there might be a limit to how long it lasts before changing composition or losing efficacy? Efficacy, now there’s one of the words that has joined our regular vocabulary in this pandemic year. The reason I mention this is that my car, a red Audi, was reasonably full of fuel when the lockdown happened in March. And, as I write at the end of July, I am still using that same tank of fuel.
On Roscoe’s walk the other day I found a coin on the roadside. I puzzled for a few seconds as to what it was, then realised it was a 5p. I did not recognise it at first because I have handled so little money in the last four months or so.
When visiting big cities in the last year or two I was struck by how most people use contactless cards and credit cards to pay for everything. Now, with people reluctant to handle cash, the same applies to Orkney.
Since March I have spent virtually no actual cash and I have not been to a cashpoint machine. I still have £20 that was in my wallet four months ago.
But here is a potential, if minor, problem… Without spending notes in the shops and getting change how am I going to get the correct money for car parks now that the local council is charging for them again?
More seriously, as with all technology, there will be people left behind who for reasons such as age or poverty do not have access to bank accounts, credit cards and contactless cards.
Is the lockdown saving the environment?
The decrease in traffic and travel has helped our environment but I am not as optimistic about this as I was earlier in the year. I fear our governments will rush back to the old ways to try to get economies moving quickly.
And what about plastic waste? When hair salons re-opened a local hairdresser was interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney. She estimated she would be using more than 700 pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) a week. I do not blame her, she has a business to run, but creating all this is not great for the environment.
And, as always, a few people are careless so there are already reports of discarded PPE washing up on beaches. BBC News reported that a peregrine falcon had been photographed with its talons caught in a facemask – a possible death sentence for the bird (see below).
Kathie and I, like everyone, have been wearing facemasks for our occasional shop visits. We have been able to buy washable ones and mine has dinosaurs on it (inside every grown man is a ten-year-old child trying to get out).
Like many people I find the mask a bit awkward with my specs but I have noticed something strange which seems to have crept up on me during lockdown. I wear my glasses for long-distance but now I find I can see nearly as well without them as with them – so, I wear my glasses to drive to the shop, then swap them for my facemask after I have parked the car.
When the local optician is open again for non-emergency appointments I will have to see them to find out what is going on. Barnard Castle is a bit far from here for an afternoon drive.
What about Orkney’s economy?
A large part of Orkney’s income, and many of its businesses and jobs, rely on tourism. One survey (see below) predicted that at worst there could be 3,000 jobs lost in Orkney (population approx 22,000) and the amount of money flowing through the economy halved.
Now that lockdown is easing we are seeing more visitors about the place which is great for struggling businesses but does make many of us feel a bit nervous of another outbreak.
A number of people here in Orkney favour the Isle of Man’s approach of closing the border (see two stories below) and thus allowing residents more open use of shops, cafes, restaurants and facilities – though I guess this would not help holiday accommodation providers.
But, even if this was agreed locally to be the right move to make, Orkney Islands Council does not have the same powers as the Manx Government.
I think for most people an even bigger worry is cruise ships. Orkney is a popular destination – more than 150 cruise ship visits in 2019 – but this year apart from one or two in early March we have not seen any. It seems unlikely there will be any calling for the rest of this year though if plans are announced for any visits I suspect there will be an uproar locally.
Isn’t nature wonderful?
As this year goes on more and more dates pass in my diary for events that would have been. The first week of August would have been agricultural show week in Orkney with our local event, the West Mainland or Dounby Show on Thursday 6th – it’s a great social occasion and we will miss it.
But without these events – and TV sporting tournaments such as Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Euro 2020 football – we have been able to spend more time outside in the garden.
There is still much to do but we have made more progress this year than in the past.
And there has been more space to appreciate the smaller things, like the caterpillars, and the butterflies, as well as the birds. Incidentally, the swallows have fledged three or four young from their nest in our garage and now have a second brood in another garage nest on the way.
We have been helped in our outside work by generally favourable, even, whisper it, warm, weather. That is, until this week when one day in particular had heavy rain, dark skies and strong winds as if it was November.
Every time we step outside the front door we are greeted by a flock of birds who know we are an easy touch for food. Earlier in the lockdown it was starlings and sparrows, now the starlings are mostly gathering elsewhere and it is nearly all sparrows – plus the occasional lesser black-backed gull.
This and that
Kathie and I decided that we should start to catch up with our many DVDs so, once a week, we have a DVD evening. We started with an 11-part 1984 German TV drama called Heimat, written and directed by Edgar Reitz in an intriguing mixture of colour and black-and-white, and originally shown in the UK on BBC Two. It tells the story of a village from 1919 to 1982 and remains one of my favourite TV dramas of all time. If you get a chance please watch it. (NB: there is also a sequel and a prequel which I have yet to see).
We spent time clearing out the house. To be honest, there is still much to do. But we have got piles of stuff for the charity shops and, when I get motivated, for eBay. The charity shops are starting to come back to life here in Orkney and we have donated one bag of clothes. Meanwhile, it’s as well we can’t have visitors as the guest room is a bit crowded with more stuff on its way out.
If you live outside Orkney you might not have spotted that we had a flying visit from the Prime Minister on 23 July. His visit to Scotland was, partly, in reaction to an increase in support for Scottish independence. Despite his itinerary, and even the fact of his visit, being kept under wraps “for security reasons” there were some protesters who had discovered his plans through social media.
Two concerts Kathie and I were due to attend in May – Gretchen Peters in Glasgow, Rumer in Edinburgh – have been postponed to February and March respectively. Right now I am not sure whether they will go ahead even then and, if they do, whether Kathie and I will feel confident about going. I hope we can. But I expect the artists, not to mention their support staff and the theatres concerned, are also worried.
Meanwhile, Kathie and I are not planning to go anywhere outside Orkney anytime soon. I hope that, wherever you are, you are staying safe and healthy.
Ten years ago Kathie and I moved to Orkney. By coincidence we arrived on 16 April which is St Magnus Day – he is the patron saint of Orkney.
And so each year we go to St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, not far from where we live, for the annual St Magnus service which also serves for us as a marker in our personal journey. But not this year.
Nothing much changed in our first ten years in Orkney and then, last month – everything changed for everyone in Orkney and beyond. Well, yes and no.
If I spend a little time reflecting I realise we have experienced more change since April 2010 than I imagined at first. Most of the change has been gradual, making it harder to notice, with an occasional sudden, often bad, impact.
We enjoy a wonderful view from the front of our house across the landscape of Orkney’s West Mainland – and now there are a few extra buildings in the view; our “field” (it’s an enclosure, really) next to the house now has a stone wall all the way around it; inside our home we have decorated and improved some rooms; and we have Roscoe, our rescue Border Collie, who joined us in 2012.
Some change has been less welcome – Kathie’s musical inspiration and friend Keith Emerson died suddenly in 2016, and before his funeral was held my father also passed away unexpectedly. Last year we lost my Uncle David and here in Orkney we have mourned people we knew in our community.
On the positive side, Kathie had a major operation in 2018 which massively improved her mobility and fitness, then in late 2019 released her first album of music in ten years, Facing The Falling Sky.
We both became RSPB volunteers soon after moving to Orkney, and I have ended up as a (very) part-time member of staff. I was privileged to help mark the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, which sank in 1916 off Orkney. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council. And Kathie and I are both managers, ie committee members, at Quoyloo Old School which is our village hall.
In between we have enjoyed several visits to Scotland’s Central Belt, getting to know Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as visits to Orkney’s beautiful islands, to the in-laws in California and then, after they moved, to Northern Arizona. And Kathie and I spent marvellous holidays in Italy (Bologna) and Austria (Vienna and Salzburg).
All this now seems like another world, before coronavirus, or BC. Already I find myself at home saying something like “do you remember before coronavirus when …?”
Kathie has underlying health issues which mean we mostly avoid the shops. We are lucky that we can get deliveries from our excellent village shop, Isbister Brothers.
We are fortunate in a wider sense because we have my regular pension income. Kathie has managed to carry on teaching her piano students using Skype.
In some ways, for Kathie and me, and I am not making light of this crisis, life does not seem very different. We typically spend time at the house, Kathie working upstairs in her studio and me in my downstairs office. We live in the countryside so we can take Roscoe for his morning walk without meeting anyone.
But then the awfulness of this pandemic – the deaths, the sick, the brave and tired NHS and frontline workers, the closed businesses – will suddenly dawn on me, or Kathie. The radio, TV and online news, rightly, is full of Covid-19. It is important to be well-informed but we avoid watching the TV news just before bedtime to aid a better night’s sleep.
Her Majesty The Queen made a skilfully worded address to the people of the UK on Sunday 5 April, it was moving and reassuring. Later that evening we heard that the Prime Minister had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, then the next day he was moved to intensive care. It was shocking news whether you voted for him or not.
The virus is in Orkney, of course, and at the time of writing it has led to two deaths. We think of the families and friends who are grieving, and unable to hold the funeral they would wish, whatever the cause of their loved one’s passing.
There is a request show on BBC Radio Orkney each Friday evening, something of a local institution, each week for 50 minutes at 6.10pm. Since the lockdown the programme has expanded to fit in the greater number of requests being submitted, starting at 6.00pm and going on beyond 7.00pm.
And now, sadly, folk have started sending dedications to remember their relatives who have passed away – something I do not remember hearing on the programme before. In the absence of a public funeral it is a way to mark their loved one’s passing.
In comparison to the above it hardly seems to matter but like everyone our travel plans are on hold, particularly disappointing for Kathie who wants to visit her elderly parents.
Big events which many of us were looking forward to watching on TV, such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Olympics and football’s Euro 2020, will not be there.
On a local scale, our monthly village quiz finished early before its summer break. We are not alone, of course, here in Orkney, like the rest of Scotland, the UK and much of the world, everything is off.
In fact, all the markers of a typical Orkney year are gradually being cancelled, such as Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival (along with all RSPB events), the St Magnus International Festival and Stromness Shopping Week. Who knows whether the Orkney County Show and our other agricultural shows, such as the West Mainland Show near us, will go ahead?
When we finally come out of this, whenever that will be, what will be different?
How many Orkney businesses, reliant on tourism, will survive this? There were more than 150 cruise ship visits to Orkney in 2019 – will we ever see so many visiting again? Do we want to?
The environment will have enjoyed some relief from humans, will we build on that to create a greener future? Or will we turbocharge oil, aircraft and cars as we rush to rebuild economies?
What about the NHS? Will it receive greater funding? Or will people – and I’m afraid this is particularly true of some English people – go back to their old ways of wanting great public services along with low taxes. Spoiler alert: you can’t have both.
Will we look again at our UK immigration policies? Seeing the tragic losses of NHS staff it is noticeable how many have backgrounds outside the UK.
Where will Scotland and the UK be politically after this? Will Brexit still seem like a good idea, assuming anyone gets time to organise it? What about Scottish independence? What other unexpected political movements might flow from this?
It is as if the ground is shifting under us, like some giant slow-motion earthquake. The aftershocks will go on for years to come and none of us know what they will throw up and where we will all be at the end of this.
Ten years in Orkney – much has changed. For all of us.
Thank you to everyone working for us at this time, whether in the NHS, the care sector, shops, the postal service, local councils, emergency services, wherever – thank you.
Stay safe if you can.
And let’s keep an eye on the future: let’s see if we can make it better than it might have been.
So, here we are in 2020. What will this new decade bring? Will it be the Roaring Twenties, as it was 100 years ago? Or another Jazz Age? That would be nice.
More seriously, though it can be foolish to make predictions, I imagine much of the decade will be – or should be – dominated by the climate emergency and mankind’s faltering attempts to tackle it. We are not helped in this by the current fashion for populist political leaders who play fast-and-loose with the truth to suit themselves and their selfish interests.
An aside here for pedants, like myself: I know the First Century began with year one and so the first decade was to year 10, the second decade from 11 to 20, and so on, meaning the new decade does not really start until 2021. But after two thousand years, conventions grow and change – sometimes, not always, it is best to go with the flow (yes, Mr Byrne, that’s you).
To be honest, it was only in the last week or two of 2019 that I realised we were about to enter a new decade. I think this is because decades have not been such a big deal since the turn of the 21st century.
In my lifetime we have had the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties and then, err… Did someone say the Noughties? Does anyone really like or use that name? And, as for the 2010-19 decade, I don’t recall ever seeing a name attached to it.
The 20th century was the same: the first decade was known, at least in Britain, as the Edwardian era, and the second decade was so dominated by the Great War that no name seems to have been attached to it.
Besides, the labels for decades are arbitrary and only capture a small part of the time period. For more on this read my blog about the Sixties which, I believe, for most people was nothing like the cliches portrayed in TV documentaries.
Anyway, for Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown) and I the decade just ended was hugely significant because it was when we moved to Orkney, nearly 10 years ago in April 2010 (more about that later this year). Suffice to say we made the right decision and are very happy here – with our Border Collie, Roscoe, who turned 11 in 2019.
And the year just ended? The highlight of 2019 has to be the release of Kathie’s new album of music, Facing The Falling Sky (see my previous blog). Let me say again, it is a super collection of songs produced in a novel way.
Since my last blog it has been included by DJ Steve Conway in his 8Radio show Conway’s Christmas Gifts – 17 albums he loves and would gift to a friend. He selected, among others, Kate Bush, Paul Weller, PJ Harvey – and Kathie!
Travel in 2019 took Kathie and I to Arizona in February to see the in-laws and I made two trips to Edinburgh, one in May on my own to see Gretchen Peters in concert then again in November with Kathie.
I failed to write a blog about the second Edinburgh visit so here’s a summary. The trip was originally planned because Kathie wanted to see guitarist Steve Hackett in concert. After booking tickets we spotted that, two nights later, Mark Lewisohn (an expert on The Beatles) was presenting a show to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the Abbey Road album. So we booked that as well.
Both shows were great, we even got into the Steve Hackett meet-and-great before the concert.
Mark Lewisohn spoke (with musical and archive clips) for nearly three hours about Abbey Road. You might think this sounds overlong but if, like Kathie and me, you are a fan of The Beatles it was fascinating at every turn.
We kept up The Beatles theme by taking a day trip by train from Edinburgh Haymarket station (opposite our hotel) to Glasgow Queen Street. Then a short bus ride to the wonderful Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum to see an exhibition of Linda McCartney photographs.
Linda McCartney was a fantastic photographer with an eye for detail and an unusual angle or take on a subject. Her subject matter ranged from international superstars to intimate family portraits. The exhibition, Linda McCartney Retrospective, finishes at the Kelvingrove on 14 January but transfers to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where it is on display from 25 April to 31 August.
I would highly recommend a visit and allow plenty of time, there are lots of photographs to admire and you will not want to rush past them.
Our big holiday this year was an 11-night stay in Austria, split between Vienna and Salzburg. I should have written a separate blog entry about this but on return from the holiday we went straight into a hectic period preparing for Kathie’s album launch and the blog was never written.
We had a wonderful time – the people were friendly and helpful, the food was excellent, the cities seemed cleaner than those back in the UK and there was evidence of Mozart everywhere (he was born in Salzburg and lived in Vienna).
Highlights of our trip included the wonderful paintings in Vienna’s Albertina and Kunst Historisches Museums; seeing the River Danube and the fairground wheel from the Third Man film; a brief visit (for me) to Austrian broadcaster ORF; the Spanish Riding School (I went once, Kathie went twice); seeing Mozart’s Requiem performed in the beautiful Karlskirche, Vienna; cathedrals in both Vienna and Salzburg; looking down on Salzburg from the castle, Hohensalzburg Fortress; our Salzburg river trip; and our Sound Of Music coach trip. (NB: lots of pictures coming soon – promise – on my Instagram feed).
Ah, yes, the Sound Of Music coach trip. I was not a big fan of the film but before leaving home a friend said we should do this – I think up until then I was not aware of the film having been shot around Salzburg. When we arrived in the city I thought, why not? And we booked the trip.
It was four hours or so of great fun, travelling in and around Salzburg and then out to the beautiful lakes in the mountains which we would not otherwise have seen. Our tour guide was friendly and enthusiastic, without being pushy, and as the coach travelled between stops we all sang along with the soundtrack of the film.
I found myself curiously moved by the music. I have been a fan of musicals since living in London – when my parents came to visit they would inevitably want to go to the West End to see a musical and I also came to love them.
But somehow the Sound Of Music was associated in my mind with seeing the film as a youngster when it seemed very unfashionable compared to the pop music of the day that I was listening to. All that changed on our coach trip, perhaps I was emotional thinking of my late parents on that day, but for whatever reason I was hooked.
Incidentally, on that afternoon out we also spotted a Bristol Lodekka. Most of you will have no idea what that is, I imagine. It is a double-decker bus, of a type that regularly came past our house when I was a child on Eastern Counties’ Peterborough to Cambridge service. Sometimes in the summer holidays Mum and I would take the bus to Cambridge for a day out. The one in Salzburg was being used to transport tourists.
They were called Lodekkas, I understand, because the lower deck was step free once you were on board. The person to ask all about this would have been my Uncle David, an expert on buses who has had books of his historic bus photographs published.
Sadly, David (Burnicle) was one of the folk we lost in 2019. He was always engaging company and lived an inventive, loving and productive life – though, of course, that does not make his passing easy for his family. Here he is as a young man, a photograph taken in the year I was born…
Many, probably most, of us will have suffered loss of some sort in the past year – just in the last days of the year came the unexpected death of Neil Innes, one of Britain’s most talented, funny and modest songwriters. To his family the loss will be greatest. Thankfully, his wonderful music will live on.
Who knows what will happen this year and who will still be standing at the year’s end when the Earth’s cycle has taken us around the Sun one more time?
So in 2020 let us enjoy life whenever we can; celebrate each other’s creativity and foibles; spread love to family, friends and to those we don’t know, in our own country and abroad, of our beliefs and of others; and let us work for a better world.
So, here we are, my first blog for nearly six months. Any excuse? Not really.
Not only that but my headline is stolen – it’s all in a good cause, though.
On 1 November Kathie Touin (that is Mrs Brown) released a new album of her wonderful songs, Facing The Falling Sky. And it is a super creative collection.
As the person who looks after Kathie’s publicity I am supposed to come up with snappy phrases to promote her work but I cannot beat this quote…
DJ Steve Conway says: “It’s truly brilliant. It’s like a late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house.” Thank you Steve.
Steve is a great supporter of Kathie’s music. He presents a show on Ireland’s 8Radio.com called the A-Z Of Great Tracks and, to date, six of Kathie’s songs have featured – most recently her single, Waiting For The Silence…
Previously Steve was a DJ on Radio Caroline and was one of the crew rescued by RAF helicopter in November 1991 when the station’s radio ship, Ross Revenge, drifted onto the Goodwin Sands. His book ShipRocked: Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline is highly recommended.
It is great for Kathie to get such positive feedback for the album after all the work she has put into it. She wrote the songs, played most of the instruments, did technical wizardry in her own Starling Recording Studio that goes way above my head, mixed and produced the album – oh, and created the artwork.
We held a launch for the album at Orkney Brewery which is situated, conveniently, just beyond the end of the track to our house. In fact, you can see the brewery from our dining room window.
No jokes please – we did manage to organise a launch in a brewery. We invited friends and Kathie, in her Eeyore mode, thought perhaps 10 people might come. In the event there were nearly 60 folk there and the warmth and support feeding back to Kathie meant so much to her.
I was the MC, introducing some tracks played from the CD and some songs played live by Kathie – as well as quizzing Kathie about the songs and the album. Kathie had a string trio join her for one song, Between Heaven And The Sky – thank you Linda Hamilton, cello, and Elizabeth Sullivan and Lesley Macleod, violins, it was beautiful.
Kathie was interviewed by BBC Radio Orkney for their daily breakfast news programme. You can hear this on Kathie’s SoundCloud feed…
How would I describe the album? Well, herein lies a problem. These days, of course, music is distributed digitally for download and streaming as well as in physical form (CD in the case of this album). And the digital sites like to have the music put into categories.
Here, I admit, Kathie struggles and her publicity person (me) is not much help either. It is not folk, though I see on Google that is how Kathie is labelled. It is not progressive. It is not electronic. But it does have elements of all three, and more. The closest we have come is folktronic, or folktronica. Answers on a postcard please!
The digital world is a two-edged sword for artists. Potentially it gets the music to anyone, anywhere in the world thanks to Kathie’s website and to digital distribution (Apple Music, Spotify, Google Music, Amazon Music and so on).
But the downside is the income, or should I say lack of it, particularly for streams. A single stream on Spotify, to give two examples from Kathie’s previous albums, could pay you $0.00030394 or perhaps $0.00235781. I don’t know why the figures vary, both were songs written and performed by Kathie. Either way, she is not going to get rich that way.
Recently a track from Kathie’s piano music album Soliloquy Deluxe – Valses Poeticos by Granados – was streamed 133 times on Google Music Store resulting in a total payment of $0.68815381. Hey-ho.
Anyway, back to the new album, Facing The Falling Sky. It has received airplay on BBC Radio Scotland, Radio Caroline, Vectis Radio, Deal Radio, Biggles FM and Glastonbury FM and, who knows, elsewhere in the UK and beyond?
I had hoped for airplay on BBC Radio 6 Music but despite sending eight copies to various people we have not achieved that particular breakthrough. Who knows whether anyone there ever got to listen to the album from the hundreds they must receive each week?
Whatever, I think the album is fantastic and well worthy of UK-wide, indeed, worldwide, airplay. To repeat Steve Conway’s quote once more: “It’s truly brilliant. It’s like a late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house.”
Here is some more feedback Kathie has received…
“I’ve listened to it several times and each time find something else I like… Your vocals are great, a lovely sound, smooth and warm.”
“Really enjoying your CD. How catchy some of the tunes are – Waiting For The Silence is a real ear-worm!”
“Just the answer to the dreich winter weather bringing into your home a warmth and seasonal feel.”
“Such a good album packed full of great tracks.”
You can buy the album from Kathie’s website – the CD comes with an attractive lyrics booklet – or from shops in Orkney including The Old Library and The Reel in Kirkwall, the Waterfront Gallery and JB Rosey in Stromness, and Castaway Crafts in Dounby.
If you are into downloads or streaming Facing The Falling Sky is on all the regular outlets including Apple Music, Google Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and CD Baby (Kathie’s digital distributor).
Go on, give it a listen. You could even email 6 Music and request a play!
Spring into summer? Well, it’s been more of a stumble.
One of the aspects of life which surprises me about Orkney is the amount of nasty viruses going around the place. You might imagine that with all this fresh air we would be immune to them. Perhaps it is because this is a sociable, friendly place that we share germs more easily.
Either way, in the last two months I have had two nasty viruses, both of which laid me low for a week or so. As a London friend said to me, knowing Orkney’s windy reputation, “You would imagine the germs would all blow away.”
Moreover, the weather has not been all one might have hoped for recently – some days in June have felt more like stormy April days and now we are officially “in the summer” it would be nice to have completely dispensed with hats, coats and using electric lights in the evening.
But there is sunshine as well as rain and so everything in our garden is growing fast, including the weeds. Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I need to spend more time gardening but it is encouraging to see the flowers that Kathie planted blooming colourfully and the trees we have planted since arriving in 2010 becoming tall.
At the beginning of May I spent a three-night weekend in Edinburgh. It is strange how, with time, one’s centre of gravity can change. When I lived in London I was only vaguely aware of Edinburgh. Now, through repeated visits from Orkney, parts of Edinburgh seem as familiar as areas of London I used to frequent such as Ealing and Shepherd’s Bush.
On this latest visit to Auld Reekie, solo as Kathie stayed at home working, I visited the Scottish National Gallery, Princes Street Gardens, Waverley railway station, St Giles Cathedral, the Royal Mile, as well as some charity – and other – shops.
The gallery has a superb collection and gave me the chance to see again some of my favourite paintings, such as John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (see previous blog – Carry On In The Central Belt). This time I also bought the fridge magnet!
In Princes Street Gardens, in the hail and sleet, I was taken with a new sculpture of a baby elephant. Next to it a sign says: “In memory of our precious babies, gone but never forgotten.” The sculptor is Andy Scott and it was unveiled in the gardens in February this year.
Still on the theme of remembering, I took a walk through Waverley station to soak up the atmosphere and chanced upon a commemorative plaque to Sir Nigel Gresley, one of my late father’s heroes. I had not realised Sir Nigel was born in Edinburgh. He designed some of Britain’s most-famous steam locomotives, including The Flying Scotsman (which Kathie and I saw at Waverley, also in my Carry On In The Central Belt blog) and Mallard, holder of the world speed record for a steam locomotive at 126mph.
In St Giles’ Cathedral I listened to a wonderful organ recital performed by Michael Harris. The music sounds superb in the cathedral’s acoustic and I particularly liked Boellmann’s Suite Gothique. There are regular concerts and recitals at the cathedral, or High Kirk, so do seek them out if you visit Edinburgh.
And, of course, it seems impossible for me to go anywhere these days without visiting charity shops. I came home with 11 CDs – everything from the latest album by Clean Bandit to the soundtrack from Sound Of Music (for more on my CD habit see my blog The Newest (And Most Addictive) Joy Of Charity Shops).
The main reason for my visit was to see Gretchen Peters in concert, again. I am a great fan of her music and it is always beautifully performed with accompanying musicians including her partner, pianist Barry Walsh. The venue was the intimate Queen’s Hall.
This time the other band members were the excellent guitarist Colm McClean and bass (upright and electric) player Conor McCreanor, both from Northern Ireland.
The second half of the show featured a string quartet which added a superb dimension to already-super songs of Gretchen’s such as The Secret Of Life, Blackbirds, On A Bus To St Cloud and Ghosts.
Two individual members of the quartet also made appearances towards the end of the first half, one of the violinists on the song Matador, and the cellist adding to the two closing songs of the half, Five Minutes and Idlewild, which left me in an emotional heap.
There is a link to all of Gretchen’s videos at the bottom of this blog but, for now, here is Five Minutes (in a live performance by Gretchen and Barry) and Idlewild (as originally recorded)…
I should also add that Gretchen and her partner Barry are friendly and decent people who take time at the end of their concerts to sign and chat. This time the merchandise on offer included something I have never seen at a concert before… tea towels! There is method to this madness, the closing song on the latest album Dancing With The Beast being Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea. Yes, of course, I bought a tea towel (and one for my mother-in-law).
My blogs have, unlike my CD-buying habit, become irregular.
Among the many events between my February Arizona trip (see previous blog, Arizona: Take Three) and my May Edinburgh trip – along with RSPB and Quoyloo Old School volunteering – were attending the unveiling of Orkney’s witchcraft memorial and a wonderful concert by the band Fara in Orkney Theatre. Do go see Fara if they come your way.
I spent a moving day on the island of Hoy on 17 March joining the commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Longhope lifeboat, TGB, with all eight men aboard. The islanders made everyone welcome and the events were a testament to the human spirit and man’s love for his fellow man. When individual wreaths were laid to each of those lost by members of the current crew, some of whom are descendants of the eight, it brought tears to the eyes.
And, on 16 April, Kathie and I marked nine years since our move to Orkney by attending the annual St Magnus Day service in St Magnus Kirk, Birsay, not far from where we live. St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and, by accident, we moved to Orkney on his saint’s day.
Since Edinburgh events have included what I think might be my first tribute band concert – What The Floyd at Orkney Theatre, the annual Orkney Nature Festival nature cruise organised by the RSPB and Northlink Ferries (always great fun and a great social event, this year we were treated to a pod of passing Risso’s dolphins), an informal gathering at Marwick Head to mark the 103rd anniversary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, and a visit by friends Tania Opland & Mike Freeman, who performed a gig of their unique take on acoustic world music at Stromness Town Hall. Unfortunately, my second lurgy coincided with latter part of their visit.
Memo to self: must blog more often – and avoid catching germs.
By The Time I Get to Phoenix (I will be quite tired)
Earlier this year, before the better weather came to the UK, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I jetted across the Atlantic for our third visit to Arizona.
Kathie’s family lives in Northern Arizona so that is where we spent most of our February visit, but we also spent a few days in the warmer south of the state in and around Phoenix and Tucson.
This is not a big complaint, I know we are lucky to travel to such an interesting part of the world, but it is a tiring journey – from getting up at 5am to catch an early flight from Orkney’s Kirkwall Airport to Aberdeen, then travelling on to London Heathrow, followed by a third flight to Phoenix, then getting through customs and immigration, finding the mini-bus to the hotel and eating dinner, well in all that’s 24 hours gone.
Mind you, coming back against the seven-hour time difference was worse, particularly as there were stressful delays transferring from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, and more delays at Heathrow passport control – lucky our Heathrow to Edinburgh flight was delayed, otherwise we might have missed it and our connection to Orkney.
It’s not always hot, you know
Some folk have an image of Arizona as entirely made up of blistering desert. Phoenix can certainly get incredibly hot, there have been occasions when airliners could not take off from the city’s Sky Harbor Airport because the warm air was too thin.
However, when we were in Phoenix and Tucson it was pleasantly warm in the daytime, though cool at night.
At Kathie’s parents’ home, in Cottonwood, Northern Arizona – elevation 3,300 feet – it was not so warm. To be fair, it was cooler than expected for the time of year. We experienced a mixture of sun, rain and light snow.
We came across some tourists who had come dressed in shorts thinking Arizona equals very hot. Well, not always, particularly further north in the state.
On the day we were due to leave Arizona we had an evening flight from Phoenix. We planned to drive down from Cottonwood during the afternoon, it is only about 100 miles but… a big snowstorm was forecast.
So it was decided we would have to leave Cottonwood 24 hours early in our rental car (Nissan Sentra, a saloon, or sedan in US terms) and drive south of the predicted snow line. It was a good move.
There is not much between Cottonwood and Phoenix but we found an old-fashioned-style motel in Black Canyon City – the Mountain Breeze Motel – you know, the kind where you drive your car up to your chalet accommodation.
Black Canyon City is said to have a population of more than 2,500 but it did not feel like that, it seemed to be a series of businesses strung along what would have been the main road at one time before it was by-passed.
But we found a friendly local store, an excellent restaurant and – the following morning – a jewellery and souvenir shop where Mrs Brown spent some time (and money).
The “city” is at 2,000 feet but it was out of the way of the heavy snow which duly fell further north overnight, closing roads we had used the day before.
And even further north in Flagstaff (6,900 feet elevation), where Kathie’s niece lives, there was a huge snowfall which completely covered over her parked car so the roof was just a small bump in a snowdrift.
We watched some of the local TV coverage of the storm – on Arizona’s Family 3TV CBS 5 – and, as you might imagine, they were having a field day* with reporters out and about describing the falling snow in excited terms.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles – and musical instruments
We visited some fantastic museums in Arizona. Well, I thought so, though I guess it depends on your interests.
First, the Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix, a collection of beautifully restored cars, including Ford Mustang, Shelby AC Cobra, Ford Model T, Chevrolet Corvette Stingray – and a Duesenberg Boattail previously owned by gangster Jake the Barber, this car cost $25,000 when new in 1930, about $380,000 in today’s money. It is a fabulous collection – a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some…
I could say the same for the Pima Air & Space Museum near Tucson, which boasts 150 historic planes indoors and many more sat outside. They include a selection of Harrier jump-jets, a TWA Lockheed Constellation, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (complete with a veteran of bombing runs to Berlin telling his stories), a Douglas Liftmaster used by President Kennedy, a Lockheed Electra (similar to that flown by Amelia Earhart when she disappeared with her navigator Fred Noonan). We were under instructions to take lots of photographs for Kathie’s father, an aircraft enthusiast who flew in B-17s when he was serving his country. So we did, here are a couple…
Trains? Well, we did not go to a railway museum as such but the strangely-named Clemenceau Museum in Cottonwood has a fantastic model railway.
The museum is named after France’s First World War Prime Minister because of his friendship with James Douglas who founded the company town of Verde, later re-named Clemenceau to avoid confusion with other towns called Verde, and eventually incorporated into Cottonwood.
The museum, in addition to the marvellous model railway, is full of local history in photographs and artefacts.
Back in Phoenix we explored two other museums, first of all the Musical Instrument Museum. We arrived late one morning expecting to spend a couple of hours before moving on somewhere else. By 5pm we were exhausted and we still had not explored all of this fantastic collection.
It has displays of musical instruments and costumes from every country in the world, pretty much, as well as displays of instruments and clothes belonging to the famous – John Lennon’s piano on which he wrote Imagine, one of Johnny Cash’s black stage suits, one of Hal Blaine’s drum kits, and so on – plus a room in which anyone can try out instruments for themselves. There was also a fascinating temporary exhibition about the history of the electric guitar.
Finally, in Phoenix, we went to the Hall of Flame Fire Museum – yes, a museum of fire-fighting. This might not immediately appeal but it was well worth a visit and there was a fantastic display of restored fire engines. The older examples, some originally horse-drawn, more recent ones motorised, were beautifully painted and lined.
Another nice mess
While we were in Arizona we went with Kathie’s mom to the cinema to see Stan & Ollie. It is a funny, moving and nostalgic tale of friendship.
Just in case you do not know of Stan & Ollie, it is about the comedy film actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and one of Ollie’s catchphrases was: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”
In the film (US: movie) they are played with love and uncanny precision by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. A word also for Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson who played their wives beautifully. Here is the US trailer for the film…
Speaking of a nice mess, we ate some pizzas and got gooey fingers in a most unusual restaurant. It is in Phoenix and is called Organ Stop Pizza. But nice as the food is, that is not the main point of being there…
The venue boasts the largest Wurlitzer organ in the world, originally installed in the Denver Theatre in 1927 and much added to over the years. The organ, and the organist, appear through the floor – just like they did in cinemas years ago – and disappear back again at the end of the set.
If you are not familiar with a Wurlitzer organ, it has pipes, something like a church organ, but the organist is also responsible for playing, through the organ’s numerous keys and controls, a wide array of percussion and other instruments – all are live, not electronic.
It was a feelgood venue, in which the audience – many in family groups of all ages – sit with their food on benches at long tables. Kathie and I got into discussion with the guy sat next to us who was visiting with his wife, daughter and grandson.
Wasting – and admiring – the Earth’s resources
The United States is big – I mean, really big – and it is not all alike. The scenery, the people, the attitudes, the beliefs, vary widely – often, but not always, according to geographical location.
We noticed in Arizona that newer ideas about plastic waste are yet to take hold (though I suspect they have done so in neighbouring California). It was almost impossible to shop at a supermarket without being given numerous plastic bags – because the staff usually pack for the customer using plastic bags from a carousel next to their till.
But worse was our breakfast experience staying at Holiday Inn Express in Oro Valley, near Tucson. It was a pleasant hotel with a self-service breakfast area. But all the breakfast cutlery (US: silverware) was plastic, as were all the plates and bowls. It created large bins full of non-recyclable waste every day. And, as Kathie said: “I feel I am back in kindergarten eating with plastic.”
Of course, fuel (US: gas) for your car is much cheaper in the States. We filled up our hire car and were amazed to discover it cost less than $25, in other words less than £20. At home to fill up our cars, neither of which is large, costs around £50 for mine and £60 for Kathie’s.
But walking is available. A popular spot on the edge of Cottonwood, where Kathie’s father likes to walk, is the wonderfully-named Dead Horse Ranch, a state park with lakes, walking trails and camping.
A number of the Arizona birds we spotted were seen at Dead Horse including red-tailed hawk, ring-necked duck, great blue heron, American coot and pied-billed grebe.
Our bird list for the whole holiday included the spectacular vermilion flycatcher (in a supermarket car park), white-crowned sparrow, various hummingbirds, and vultures, Brewer’s blackbird, ladder-backed woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, cardinal, (US) robin and – perhaps our favourite – the great-tailed grackle which we saw in large numbers in the Cottonwood Walmart car park, squawking, cackling and generally showing off.
Ah yes, Walmart. We made a number of visits to this enormous store which sells pretty much everything. Kathie’s parents know someone who likes daily exercise and, if the weather is not good, walks up and down Walmart instead. My purchases included jeans and an MP3 player. And some pants! (Pants is a family joke).
Kathie is always on the look-out for Native American and Mexican-style crafts and decorations – as well as Mexican foodstuffs – and there was plenty in our suitcases from various shops when we came home to Orkney.
We made our traditional visit to Larry’s Antiques in Cottonwood, which is full of treasures, at reasonable prices in the main. Good to see the skeleton is still there in the rusty car by the entrance.
And we visited some of Cottonwood’s thrift stores (UK: charity shops). I picked up some CDs (inevitably) and a teddy bear who was looking at us out of the window of one shop as we arrived. We have named him Good Will (the shop is the Goodwill store) and back in Orkney he sits on a small wooden stool at the bottom of our stairs.
Not everything is new
It is easy to dismiss the USA as being short on history as the country is less than 250 years old. But there is older history.
With Kathie’s sister and her family we visited two National Monuments – Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano – north-east of Flagstaff.
Sunset Crater erupted some time between 1040 and 1100. Today it is possible to walk in the strange landscape created by the dried lava flow and the trees that have grown in it.
And nearby we visited the remains of two pueblo villages – Wukoki and Wupatki – created in stone and mud in the 12th century, around the same time that St Magnus Cathedral was being built in Kirkwall, Orkney. Wupatki had more than 100 rooms in its day and a large ceremonial ball-court. The people grew corn, beans and squash.
Today the uninhabited pueblos are atmospheric and boast great views of the rugged landscape. But the Hopi tribe believe those who lived and died there remain as spiritual guardians. A nice thought.
When we returned to Orkney after our trip I experienced a strange feeling. Kathie, of course, had to tell her parents back in Arizona that we were home safely. But I realised I did not need to tell anyone. As you may remember, my father died in March 2016 and my mother way back in August 2001.
Since then Kathie and I visited Italy in June 2017 and perhaps I got this feeling at the end of that trip, but I do not remember it.
Do not worry, I am not depressed by this. What happened has happened and I look back on happy memories of my parents. In fact, there was something strangely liberating about this feeling – now I am grown-up (finally) and do not need to tell anyone what I am doing. Except Kathie of course.
“Yes, dear, just coming…”
* Field-day: according to my 1913 edition of “Dictionary of Phrase & Fable”… Day of business. Thus, a clergyman loosely calls a “kept festival” his field-day. A military term, meaning a day when a regiment is taken to the fields for practice.