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

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

After The Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

The Weekend Begins

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything?” came the reply.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hardly, quite the opposite in fact.”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“Yes, well, but… umm… ”

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

A Strange New Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Voyage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back In The 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

It’s 2016: relax and spread love

So here we are in 2016 and with it comes many questions. For example, how far can we go into the year and still say “Happy New Year” to each other? Let’s keep going for a little longer yet, and spread positive feelings.

When I was young 2016 would have seemed part of some impossible far-off future with flying cars and jet back-packs but it has arrived and, though much has changed, much has not. And I’m still waiting for my flying car.

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Our Roscoe enjoys a New Year’s Day dig at Newark Bay, Orkney (images: Graham Brown)

Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown) and I enjoyed a quiet Christmas and New Year seeing friends; eating a traditional Christmas meal of turkey and the trimmings (more than once); we attended a service of carols at St Magnus Kirk, Birsay with readings by school children; and we were at a Hogmanay get-together with fellow villagers in Quoyloo’s Old School – complete with a slightly drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne at midnight.

There are big, and worrying questions in the world at large which I will not go into here. You will all have your own thoughts. But remember when the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989? It seemed like the end of history, and we would all be living in a safe and happy world. Well, it didn’t work out like that.

I read a New Year blog by Mary Strong-Spaid which struck a chord. Mary wrote: “We must not let the ‘mainstream media’ (with all the negative news) give us the impression that there is no good left anywhere. In countries around the world, there are bloggers uniting in impassioned requests for peace…”

Mary is right – and it not just bloggers. Most people in the world want peace, good health and a decent quality of life for their family. Let’s try to spread love and understanding this year.

For myself, I am not making any big New Year resolutions and creating impossible targets and broken promises. Kathie and I have begun 2016 by clearing some of the junk from our home to give ourselves, figuratively and literally, more room to breathe and so focus on what is important.

I hope to be more relaxed, less stressed, less worried about unimportant trivia – and I hope most of the rest will take care of itself.

Of course, my simple ideas will not work if you find yourself spending the New Year in a refugee camp or with a flooded home. Our thoughts are with you.

In my last blog of 2015 I said I would, before the end of the year, write about our trip to Arizona. I failed to do this. But, in my first blog of 2016, here goes.

Arizona 2: The Return of the Visitors

Regular readers of this blog may have read about our 2014 trip to Arizona – Arizona Dreamin’ – and my impressions then still hold good.

For new readers, we visit Northern Arizona because Kathie’s family moved there to get away from the expense and overcrowding of Southern California. Her parents live in Cottonwood, and her sister’s family is about 30 minutes away in Rim Rock. As DJ Steve Conway remarked on Twitter about Rim Rock: “that place name sounds like a very specialist genre of music!” Indeed.

Our journey from Orkney – off the north-east coast of Scotland – involved three flights, Kirkwall to Edinburgh, then on to Heathrow, and then a direct British Airways flight to Phoenix (Sky Harbor International Airport – what a great name).

Arizona still retains some of the rebellious atmosphere of the Wild West and a do-what-you want attitude. For example, you are allowed to carry guns openly and motorcyclists do not have to wear a crash helmet. It is clearly a very religious place, with numerous churches and church schools dotted across Cottonwood.

Anyway, here are a few memories of our 2015 visit in late October and early November.

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Sunset viewed from our room’s balcony at the Ghost City Inn, Jerome (image: Graham Brown)

We spent a night in the Ghost City Inn in Jerome, a settlement publicised as a ghost town. This is because the town fell on hard times, and most people left, after the copper mining finished. From being a ghost town, ie empty, it has somehow changed to being a ghost town with supposedly haunted buildings. Oh well, it helps bring in the tourists.

Jerome is perched on the side of Mingus Mountain, overlooking – among other places – Cottonwood where we were based for most of our trip. In fact it is only a 15-minute drive from Cottonwood but at 5,000 feet it is nearly 2,000 feet higher and we felt like we were away from it all.

From our room’s balcony at the front of the hotel we could see the red rocks of Sedona, miles away in the distance. We watched a glorious reflected sunset on the rocks – the sunset was actually behind the hotel – and in the morning we were up early in our pyjamas to see a beautiful sunrise.

The town reminded us, in some ways, of our Orkney home. The light has a special quality, rather like Orkney on a fine day, and we came across many talented artists creating beautiful work who have made their home there. There are many historic buildings being preserved which, in a busier place, would have been swept away long ago. So, in some ways, just like home.

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Liberty Theatre, Jerome (image: Graham Brown)

I particularly enjoyed the Liberty Theatre – a 1911 cinema, the balcony of which is being restored as a film theatre (downstairs is a clothes and souvenir shop). The old film posters and projection equipment give it a great atmosphere.

Opposite our hotel we found a strange leftover from the past – a Standard car, very like the one my parents owned when I was small in the early Sixties. It is a make of car you do not hear much about these days when the word standard is almost a negative. It was a right-hand drive vehicle which makes me think it may have been brought over from the UK in later life. Sadly, it did not look like a runner but perhaps one day…

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A right-hand drive Standard car waiting for better days (image: Graham Brown)

Just outside Jerome is the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town, a quirky tourist attraction. Based around an old gold mine, the owner has collected old buildings, cars and trucks which are spread across a large site. Some of the vehicles rust gently in the sunshine, others are beautifully restored. You can also see a 1914 sawmill and a 1928 Studebaker Indy race car (with a school bus engine). It is a fascinating place to spend half a day.

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A few of the many vehicles at Gold King Mine Ghost Town, near Jerome (images: Graham Brown)

The weather for our visit was pleasantly warm – at least it seemed so for us, coming from Orkney – so we mostly wore short-sleeves. There were a couple of cooler, rainy days and one spectacular thunderstorm with lightning flashes and a tremendous fall of hail. Kathie has some sound recordings of this for future use in her own music.

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Scenes from our visit to Yavapai Broadcasting Corporation. Bottom right, General Manager David J Kessel (images: Graham Brown)

We had a fascinating visit to the radio station in Cottonwood, arranged via our brother-in-law who seems to know, or speak to, everyone. To give the station its correct name, it is Yavapai Broadcasting Corporation (Yavapai is the county name). The General Manager, David J Kessel, was generous with his time in showing us around the various stations operated out of their facility – including KVRD Country 105.7FM, Q102.9 (hot hits) and 100.One, Arizona’s Adult Alternative. We also saw historic exhibits, such as old microphones and a transmitter, their OB vehicles and their community recording facility. It was a great visit and we were sent on our way with T-shirts and souvenirs – thank you to David and everyone we met, you are a great crowd.

Other highlights of our trip included Larry’s Antiques Centre in Cottonwood, an enormous collection of antiques, collectibles and second-hand material stored both inside and outside. One of the stalls had a sale and I was able to get a pair of nearly new black cowboy boots for $30, or £20. Bargain!

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Young bears sleeping in a tree at Bearizona (image: Graham Brown)

We spent a happy day at Bearizona, a wildlife park where the animals are given plenty of room to roam. Many of them have been rescued. You drive through the land with the bears and other large animals, then walk through an area where you get close to smaller creatures and the younger bears – some of whom were sleeping in the trees while we were there.

Bearizona is further north from where we were staying, between Flagstaff and Williams on the historic Route 66, so we were at an altitude of about 7,000 feet and there was snow on the ground.

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Amazing what you can buy – Star Wars stormtroopers on sale at Walmart, Cottonwood (image: Graham Brown)

The main store in our base of Cottonwood is Walmart and we made several visits there to buy inexpensive (to us from the UK), jeans, shirts, socks and underwear. In the end we had to leave some stuff behind to make the weight limit for our bags on the return flight but for our next visit we have clothes waiting for us in Arizona.

We had a big tail wind for our return flight from Phoenix to Heathrow so that, at one point over the Atlantic, the information on our entertainment screen was showing that our Boeing 747 – or Jumbo, as you may know them – had a ground speed (not air speed) of 730mph.

Incidentally, there are fewer Boeing 747s to be seen these days, I guess it will not be many more new years before they have disappeared from Heathrow.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Mary Strong-Spaid’s New Year blog – http://storieswithnobooks.com/2016/01/01/wordpress-worldwide-family/

My previous Arizona blog – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/arizona/

Wikipedia on Cottonwood – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottonwood,_Arizona

Wikipedia on Flagstaff – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagstaff,_Arizona

Wikipedia on Jerome – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome,_Arizona

Wikipedia on Williams – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams,_Arizona

Bearizona – http://bearizona.com/

Gold King Mine Ghost Town – http://goldkingmineghosttown.com/

A remarkable 24 hours

John Otway at Stromness Town Hall (image: Graham Brown)
John Otway at Stromness Town Hall (image: Graham Brown)

My 24 hours from Thursday lunchtime to Friday lunchtime were memorable for events that were planned and unexpected, joyous and life-affirming, positive, satisfying, wondrous and downright lucky.

It all began on Thursday afternoon when, in my guise as a volunteer for the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project, I had set up interviews with Donald Morrison, a journalist from BBC Alba (the BBC’s Gaelic TV service).

I went to the Kitchener Memorial car park, not far from my home in Orkney, where I met Donald and two of my fellow committee members from our project – chairman Neil Kermode and naval expert Andrew Hollinrake.

The Kitchener Memorial was unveiled in 1926 to mark the death of Earl Kitchener when HMS Hampshire sank just off Orkney. He was a great hero of British Empire and, at the time of his death in June 1916, the British Secretary of State for War and a member of the British Cabinet.

We are restoring the memorial to its original condition and building alongside an HMS Hampshire commemorative wall engraved with the names of all 737 men who died.

Andrew Hollinrake interviewed by Donald Morrison of BBC Alba (image: Graham Brown)
Andrew Hollinrake interviewed by Donald Morrison of BBC Alba (image: Graham Brown)

Donald recorded the TV interviews in the car park with the memorial on the hill in the background. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and the three of us from the committee felt good that the project is making progress.

The resulting report should be on BBC Alba this week – when I get confirmation I will add details in a comment on this blog.

Poster for John Otway's Orkney gigs (image: John Otway/Rebecca Marr)
Poster for John Otway’s Orkney gigs (image: John Otway/Rebecca Marr)

On Thursday evening Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown) and I went to Stromness Town Hall to see John Otway in concert – if you know him, you probably love him. If you have never seen him, well, I hardly know where to begin.

It was a great big fun evening from the man who styles himself Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure, energetic as ever despite his upcoming 63rd birthday.

There are videos of John on the internet but you need to see him live to really enjoy Body Talk, Headbutts, John’s call-and-response version of The House Of The Rising Sun and his unique versions of Crazy Horses and Blockbuster. Almost overlooked in the crazy antics is the beauty and detailed lyrics of some of his more serious songs – often about lost or unobtainable love.

The evening was made even better by the friendly crowd in the hall – I met Twitter friend @ORKitNEY (Pete Kitney) in person for the first time – and because I won a major prize in the raffle, six John Otway CDs.

Back at home on Friday morning I tuned in to Radio Caroline – yes, still broadcasting after all these years…

A quick resume for new readers, Radio Caroline began in 1964 as the first of the British offshore radio, or pirate radio, stations. More than 50 years and various shipwrecks later the station is run by volunteers, broadcasting from a studio in Kent, available on the internet and via apps such as TuneIn and Caroline’s own app.

But Friday was special because, according to internet rumour, broadcasts were being made from Radio Caroline’s last ship, the Ross Revenge, now preserved and moored on the River Blackwater in Essex, England. And, indeed, they were.

Radio Caroline's Ross Revenge on the River Blackwater (image: Radio Caroline)
Radio Caroline’s Ross Revenge on the River Blackwater (image: Radio Caroline)

The station’s website explained afterwards: “Friday’s experimental live broadcast from the Ross Revenge was a great success. We were trialling a high tech means of getting the signal ashore and into our web streams – a 4G Wi-Fi router fitted with a small outdoor omni-directional aerial to ensure a constant mobile data signal as the ship moves through 180 degrees with the tide.”

It was certainly fun to listen to the presenters thoroughly enjoying themselves broadcasting from the ship again. The technology used was impressive and the resulting sound quality on my two internet radios was excellent. Here’s to more broadcasts from the Ross Revenge in the future [more about Radio Caroline in a future blog].

While I was listening to Radio Caroline there was further excitement when Kathie spotted a buzzard eating worms on next-door’s lawn and occasionally sitting on our fence posts. Normally we see starlings and sparrows on the lawn, and sometimes gulls, so to see this large bird of prey was impressive.

Buzzard on our garden fence post (image: Kathie Touin)
Buzzard on our garden fence post (image: Kathie Touin)

We spoke to experts who think this was a youngster, possibly struggling to find food (eg rabbits) in wet weather. The buzzard attracted interest from a hen harrier, which circled low a few times, and from three hooded crows which landed nearby and appeared to be trying to pull its tail feathers. The buzzard came back again over the next day or two – let’s hope it finds something more substantial to eat.

But back to my remarkable 24 hours. Next on Friday morning I went online to apply for a new smartphone for Kathie – our account happens to be in my name – and got an amazing result.

Apparently, though this seems to good to be true, because of a discount on my account (due to a previous error by our provider Virgin), and because the new monthly contract charge is lower, we will pay nothing each month. We also get a free tablet with the smartphone! I hope it isn’t too good to be true – the smartphone and tablet are on their way by courier.

Roscoe digging up beach at Bay of Skaill - watch out, Atlantic approaching! (image: Graham Brown)
Roscoe digging up beach at Bay of Skaill – watch out, Atlantic approaching! (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie and I rounded off our 24-hours by taking our Border collie Roscoe to the beach at Bay of Skaill, a short car ride from our house, where he loves to dig up the sand and take in the fresh air. As usual the beach, facing the Atlantic, was almost deserted. It is one of the outings that remind us what a special place Orkney is to live, and how lucky we are.

It was a remarkable 24-hours. And Saturday wasn’t bad either…

Before breakfast I took Roscoe on a long morning walk past our village shop and into the countryside with views, again, of the Atlantic. On the way back we met a friend exercising her three collies in the garden – chasing tennis balls – so Roscoe was able to join in. By the time we got home he was exhausted.

Then Kathie and I went to Kirkwall to collect Kathie’s £10 rocking chair from Restart Orkney (a shop in Kirkwall selling second-hand furniture and household goods). With a bit of fiddling about we managed to squeeze the chair into the back of Kathie’s Volvo estate. A bargain we can relax in – the chair, I mean, though you could say it of the Volvo.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon our lawn mower – back in use because our regular lawn-cutting man is away – packed up on only its third time of asking since we started using it again. Oh well, can’t win ’em all.

Graham Brown

To find out more

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

Donate to the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project – https://www.justgiving.com/orkneyheritagesociety/

John Otway’s website – http://www.johnotway.com/

Wikipedia on John Otway – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Otway

Radio Caroline – http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

RSPB on buzzards – http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/name/b/buzzard/

Virgin Mobile – http://store.virginmedia.com/virgin-media-mobile.html

Wikipedia on Bay of Skaill – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_of_Skaill

Restart Orkney – http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/EMPLOYABILITY/index.asp?pageid=592047

The rhythms and markers of an Orcadian year

Well, here we are with just a fortnight until December 21st, the shortest day of the year – a strange description really, we mean of course the shortest daylight of the year. All being well, December 21st will be 24-hours in duration like all other days.

Here in Orkney our hours of daylight do get pretty short, especially in gloomy weather such as we have experienced here latterly. I recently read the autobiography of the late Jo Grimond, former Orkney and Shetland MP, and Leader of the then Liberal Party. He accurately described our overcast days being as if the sky is on the roof of the house.

Such days remind me of the title of an atmospheric play I saw many years ago in King’s Lynn – a town I left in 1982. Called Days Here So Dark, the play was about a Scottish island community in the dark days of winter. A quick bit of internet research tells me it was actually set in the Hebrides, and written by Terry Johnson.

Currently in Orkney it is only just getting light enough to take our dog Roscoe for his morning walk after eight o’clock. And his afternoon run in the field needs to be completed by four o’clock.

But come the 21st and we know the Orkney days will start to stretch out again, perhaps slowly at first but soon quickly – because by the summer we will get to a point where it doesn’t get properly dark at night. So our Orkney daylight is like a concertina being smartly squeezed in and out again.

This is one of the rhythms of life which I notice much more living here than I did in London. Yes, of course, I would spot markers such as Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, and, depending on your interest, the beginning of the football season or the start of the BBC Proms.

But there seem to be more rhythms and markers here in Orkney. Perhaps being semi-retired gives me more time to notice, and living in a rural environment also helps.

When we moved to Orkney we arrived, without realising it at the time, on St Magnus Day, April 16th. This is a key point in the local calendar. St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and our cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated to him, as is the much smaller St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, just a short drive from our house. People here still feel an attachment to Magnus, 900 years after he died.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall (image: Graham Brown)

My wife, Kathie Touin, and I are thrilled that we accidentally arrived on St Magnus Day, it feels like a good omen. We like to go to the St Magnus Day service at the kirk, though this year we missed it due to visiting family in Arizona.

Orkney retains strong links with our Scandinavian neighbours. Remember, Orkney was ruled by Norway until the 15th century. Hence, another marker in our local calendar is Norway Constitution Day, celebrated on May 17th with a parade in Kirkwall and a service in the cathedral.

There are many natural rhythms in Orkney. Recently the farmers have been putting the cattle into their winter quarters. Sometimes we can hear them in the nearby barn – our Orcadian neighbour describes it as the kye (cattle) bogling, a wonderful word. Come the spring, the cattle will be outside again – and sometimes staring from the field through our kitchen window. I wonder what they think of us?

Orkney – being a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland, placed between the Atlantic and the North Sea – is also a good place to see migrant birds, particularly in the more northerly of our islands which can be the first landfall they reach.

And it’s not just birds. Recently one lucky person in a boat, off the Orkney island of Papa Westray, saw two humpback whales on migration…

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=763651183671139

But even near our home, in West Mainland, Orkney, we get to see different birds come and go, if not rarities – and certainly not whales.

For example, in the summer we watch great skuas, or bonxies as they are known locally, cruising past, with their white wing-markings looking like insignia on fighter aircraft – very appropriate for such an aggressive bird. Now they are wintering in Africa.

In the spring we see curlew, lapwing and oyster catchers gathering to nest. Down at the nearby coast we can watch Arctic terns, which have the longest migration of all birds – in the winter they can be found in the Antarctic, not the Arctic.

In the autumn many migrant geese come to Orkney and they are joined by groups of men with guns – not my favourite aspect of Orkney, to be honest, nor for Roscoe who dislikes the gun noise. Roscoe also dislikes the fireworks that mark November the 5th – and nowadays the surrounding weekends – here as elsewhere in Britain.

Orkney Nature Festival outing to uninhabited island of Switha (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Nature Festival outing to uninhabited island of Switha (image: Graham Brown)

But I’ve jumped ahead – winding backwards, Orkney is fortunate to have a series of festivals through the summer months to cater for most, if not all, tastes. These include the Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival, the St Magnus International Festival (arts), Orkney International Science Festival and Orkney Blues Festival. All markers through our year.

In July comes Stromness Shopping Week, with games, music and events in Orkney’s second town Stromness – though residents would argue it is the first town, Kirkwall being a city and somehow not so good anyway. The week finishes with the Shopping Week Parade, which sees large floats, sometimes in tandem, towed through the narrow streets of the town by tractors. The float themes are sometimes in questionable taste but always funny. I wrote about the 2011 parade on Kathie’s blog, before I launched my own…

https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/category/stromness-shopping-week/

Every August on a Saturday is one of the biggest events in the calendar – the Orkney County Show. This is a big social occasion, as well as a chance to view the livestock, the newest agricultural equipment, the trade stands and the fantastic local crafts and produce on sale.

In fact, we have several agricultural shows around Orkney leading up to the County. Here in our patch we have the West Mainland Show in Dounby, always held on the Thursday before the County. I think I prefer this – it is our local event (we can see the showground from our house) and this year we had glorious sunny weather.

Orkney Vintage Rally 2014 (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Vintage Rally 2014 (image: Graham Brown)

Then on the day after the County Show it is the Orkney Vintage Club’s Rally, held at the Auction Mart site in Kirkwall. You are guaranteed a wonderful line-up of old cars and vehicles – and if that’s not your sort of thing, there’s always the car boot sale, the refreshments and the friendly folk.

Recently, November 8th in fact, Kathie and I went to the old school here in Quoyloo – a kind of village hall – to join in the annual celebration of Harvest Home. I don’t know how far back these events go but they are a great opportunity to meet neighbours and make new friends over a meal, some drinks and some dancing to live music. Full credit to the voluntary committee members who make it happen. Sadly, many villages no longer have a harvest home event due to lack of support.

The author on RSPB Orkney Local Group stand at the Charities Bazaar (image: Pauline Wilson)
The author on RSPB Orkney Local Group stand at the Charities Bazaar (image: Pauline Wilson)

For the last couple of years our village’s harvest home has fallen on the same day as the Christmas Charities Bazaar, held in Kirkwall Town Hall and organised by Voluntary Action Orkney. This is also becoming a marker in our calendar as both Kathie and I are involved with the RSPB stall through being committee members of the charity’s Orkney Local Group.

Soon Christmas itself will have arrived. But wait, before that we – being a part-American family – have to fit in Thanksgiving. It falls on the fourth Thursday of November. We cook a large turkey and, naturally, eat variations on turkey meals for several days. So does the dog.

After Christmas the year is rounded off, and the new year begun, back at the old school in Quoyloo with a Hogmanay party.

The Northern Lights - from our house! (photo: Kathie Touin)
The Northern Lights – from our house! (image: Kathie Touin)

Finally I should say that it is not always overcast here during the winter. When the skies are clear we get beautiful sunny days and at night spectacular displays of stars, just by stepping out of our front door. We look at the planets, the Milky Way, we’ve seen shooting stars, satellites, the International Space Station – it’s fabulous. Sometimes we can see the Northern Lights.

And it’s odd to think that in the long summer days, when it doesn’t get dark here at night, the celestial rhythms and patterns are still all out there – it’s just that we can’t see them.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Discover Orkney – http://www.discover-orkney.co.uk/

St Magnus Cathedral – http://www.stmagnus.org/

Wikipedia on Orkney – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkney

Wikipedia on St Magnus Cathedral – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Magnus_Cathedral

RSPB bird guide – http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/

RSPB Orkney on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney

Orkney Nature Festival on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/OrkneyNatureFestival

Orkney Nature Festival – http://www.orkneynaturefestival.org/

Orkney Blues Festival – http://www.orkneyblues.co.uk/

Orkney Folk Festival – http://www.orkneyfolkfestival.com/

Orkney International Science Festival – http://oisf.org/

St Magnus International Festival – http://www.stmagnusfestival.com/

Orkney Vintage Club – http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/ORKNEYVINTAGECLUB/

Voluntary Action Orkney – http://www.vaorkney.org.uk/