That Was The Year That Was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

To find out more…

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

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

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

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

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

8radio – http://8radio.com/

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

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

Threads from the past

My old cactus plant with its beautiful flowers (image: Graham Brown)
My old cactus plant with its beautiful flowers (image: Graham Brown)

Many years ago – perhaps 20 or 30 years – my mother gave me a small cactus plant. It never grew very much, if at all, but always looked fine. It has moved from home to home with me, through laughter and tears, good times and bad times, the ups and downs of life.

My mother died in 2001. My wife Kathie Touin and I met in 2002, married in 2003 and moved from London to Orkney in 2010. The cactus, still with me, or us as we had become, was put on a window shelf in the lounge in our Orkney home. By luck we had chosen a good spot because it started to grow steadily.

Last year, for the first time, it flowered, but so briefly that by the time we realised what was happening the flower was virtually gone.

This week, though, the cactus produced two beautiful yellow flowers. My mother, Mary, would be so thrilled to know this. The flowers help keep a thread through the years, to someone much loved and fondly, regularly, remembered.

Coincidentally when Kathie and I were married the celebrant placed a yellow flower on the altar to represent my late mother. So yellow flowers are starting to symbolise my mother.

These threads from the past fascinate me. I have an aunt who has researched the history of my father’s side of the family. She has told me a little about it but I really must make time when I next see my aunt to sit down and understand it properly. One of the disadvantages of being in Orkney – though it is a great place to live – is distance from family.

We have different attitudes to our ancestors – my father, though admiring of my aunt’s work, told me “I don’t worry about all that.” But family history fascinates me. One of the projects I had in mind when I took semi-retirement in Orkney was to research the history on my mother’s side – a project I have yet to start properly, along with learning the ukulele.

But one story my aunt uncovered sticks in my mind because she emailed me about it in 2012. She wrote: “Did [your father] tell you of our ‘foreign’ 3 x Great Grandfather (4 x in your case)? He must have come from Prussia as I think he was in their army fighting Napoleon’s lot – until they were routed in 1803. In 1804 that part of their army was disbanded, by which time many had come/escaped to England where they joined the King’s German Legion. Later they fought under Wellington at Waterloo in 1815.”

I thought about my great great great great grandfather when the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo was commemorated last month. I tried to picture him as I watched a TV documentary about the battle. How frightening it must have seemed. Some years ago I visited the battleground, while on holiday in Belgium, with no idea that an ancestor of mine had fought there.

My aunt’s research paid off. Not only did she find a fascinating family story, she attended the service of commemoration for the Battle of Waterloo at St Paul’s Cathedral as a descendent of a soldier who fought there. Others attending included Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. My aunt reported back to me: “It was exceedingly well done and the present Duke of Wellington has a superb voice!”

I wonder what my 4 x great grandfather was like? This is ridiculous, what is his name? I must ask. Does this thread across the decades and across Europe explain why I feel drawn to Germany and its people, or would that be too fanciful?

An incident from my own recent past came to mind later in June with the passing of the actor Patrick Macnee, aged 93, best known for The Avengers TV series. My memorable encounter with this true gentleman, at Peterborough’s Nene Valley Railway, was recounted in an earlier blog in February, The Day I Met An Avenger.

Fionn McArthur of BBC Radio Orkney interviews the author at the Kitchener Memorial (image: helpful passer-by)
Fionn McArthur of BBC Radio Orkney interviews the author at the Kitchener Memorial (image: helpful passer-by)

Meanwhile, here in Orkney we are having a pretty poor summer weather-wise, following an unusually wet winter and spring. It’s not all gloom, we get some lovely sunny days as well – but not enough of them this year. BBC Radio Orkney reported at the beginning of June that in the first five months of 2015 we were already well on the way to having three-quarters of our normal annual rainfall.

Some events in Orkney’s August show season have been cancelled, the latest being the annual Vintage Rally because of the state of the ground at its venue. It’s a friendly event I enjoy – there is always a beautiful selection of restored vehicles on display – and this year I was due to be volunteering on one of the stands as a committee member of the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project.

Speaking of which, I’ve just made my first appearance on BBC Radio Orkney, interviewed by Fionn McArthur, about this project to restore the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, and build alongside a commemorative wall to all 737 men lost with HMS Hampshire in June 1916.

We are making good progress though we are about £15,000 short of the money we need so there is still work to do. But we are encouraged by supportive comments from Orcadians, and from the descendants of those lost, who also feel the tug of the threads from the past.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Prince of Wales attends Waterloo service of commemoration at St Paul’s – https://www.stpauls.co.uk/news-press/latest-news/-prince-of-wales-to-attend-waterloo-service-of-commemoration-at-st-pauls

The Day I Met An Avenger – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/patrick-macnee/

John Vetterlein interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about our rainfall (11 minutes in) –
https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/around-orkney-tuesday-2nd-june-2015

The author interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (after the news) –
https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/around-orkney-friday-10th-july-2015

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