Spring into summer via Edinburgh

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.

“In memory of our precious babies, gone but never forgotten.” Sculpture by Andy Scott in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

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.

Plaque to commemorate Sir Nigel Gresley at Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

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.

Members of the current RNLI Longhope lifeboat crew prepare to lay wreaths to the men lost with the TGB in 1969 (image: Graham Brown)

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.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Scottish National Gallery website – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-gallery

Wikipedia: Sir Nigel Gresley – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Gresley

St Giles’ Cathedral website – https://stgilescathedral.org.uk/

Gretchen Peters website – https://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen Peters’ videos on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/

Fara website – http://faramusic.co.uk/

Longhope Lifeboat on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/LonghopeLifeboat/

St Magnus Kirk webpage – http://www.birsay.org.uk/heritage.htm#stmagnus

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

Northlink Ferries – https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Wikipedia: Risso’s dolphin – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risso%27s_dolphin

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

Tania Opland & Mike Freeman – http://www.opland-freeman.com/

London Calling, and the Isle of Wight too…


Red Funnel ferry between Southampton and the Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)
Red Funnel ferry between Southampton and the Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)

Do you remember The Clash song London Calling? To be fair my headline is not quite how it was. “London calling to the faraway towns” is what they sang. But we all have to start somewhere, to mis-quote Spike Milligan, and that is how I am starting this blog.

Regular readers will know that my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney from London. Time races on and we’ve been in the north for nearly four-and-a-half wonderful years. Our only return visits to London have been travelling through Heathrow Airport, and one brief overnight stop en route.

But we have just returned from our first proper visit to London since decamping to Orkney. We also spent a week on the Isle of Wight with my father. These are some of my impressions…

For those not familiar with the British Isles, the Isle of Wight is England’s largest island and is situated just off the south coast of England. A few folk thought it funny that we travelled from one of Britain’s most northerly islands to one at the bottom of the map.

The Isle of Wight is a big holiday destination and there is a choice of six ferry services from mainland England. We took the Red Funnel ferry from Southampton to East Cowes. There is plenty of shipping to watch on the way, and indeed from the island when you arrive – everything from gigantic container ships to tiny sailing boats.

The island is busy but in early September not unpleasantly so. Car journeys take time but the traffic moves along steadily. Quieter country roads are narrow and twisty so there’s no opportunity to race along there either.

A refreshing glass of Fuggle Dee-Dum beer from Goddard's Brewery (image: Graham Brown)
A refreshing glass of Fuggle Dee-Dum beer from Goddard’s Brewery (image: Graham Brown)

Our first impression coming from the fresh and breezy atmosphere of Orkney was that the Isle of Wight was too hot and humid, at least for us.

Second impression: in some ways the Isle of Wight feels a little like England in the past – no motorways, small towns, quaint villages, friendly people.

In keeping with this we noticed that old-style Mini cars are still popular on the island – I suppose it makes an ideal runabout but they are becoming pretty rare elsewhere in my experience.

It also seemed to me that there were more people smoking than I remember at home. This may be a false impression created because it was pleasant weather for smokers to stand outside, and they were not huddled out of sight in a windswept corner like they might be in Orkney. But some of the restaurants had outside smoking areas, which surprised me.

The railways on the island are also a throwback. There is the Island Line, part of the National Rail network, operating between Ryde and Shanklin – less than nine miles – and using 1930s London Underground stock. Fantastic.

Ajax locomotive on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (image: Graham Brown)
Ajax locomotive on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (image: Graham Brown)

Meeting the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction is the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, a largely volunteer-run heritage line which goes five-and-a-half miles to Wootton. We had a great day on the steam railway, watching the trains, looking at the restoration projects, travelling up and down the line.

The locomotive in steam was Ajax, built in 1918, requisitioned by the Ministry of Munitions and sent to Persia (modern Iran). She worked there for many years, latterly with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, before returning to England and working at various industrial locations until 1968.

Jimi Hendrix statue outside Dimbola Lodge, Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)
Jimi Hendrix statue outside Dimbola Lodge, Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)

Among the other island attractions we visited were: the Isle of Wight Bus Museum, where you get to sit on the old buses, not just admire them; Dimbola Lodge, home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, which was hosting an exhibition of Chris Packham’s photographs, and which – as a hotel – hosted Jimi Hendrix when he played the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, hence his statue in the garden; Waltzing Waters, which has to be seen to be believed, a choreographed water fountains theatre show set to lights and music; and we took a cruise to Portsmouth harbour on a glorious sunny day, watching the scenery and the boats, including Royal Navy ships.

Kathie Touin returning to East Cowes after boat trip (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin returning to East Cowes after boat trip (image: Graham Brown)

We could have done much more but we were too busy doing nothing much other than watching the sea and the ships, and enjoying some of the island’s lovely food. Crab salad, anyone?

Our week was soon over and we were off to London from Southampton by train, via an overnight stop seeing friends in Horsham, West Sussex. We arrived in London at Victoria station and the immediate impression walking onto the concourse was noise. Really loud noise. Our time in Orkney has acquainted us with a quieter life and we were not prepared for this.

Because there was no Northern Line (weekend engineering work) we took a number 82 bus from outside the station, almost to our friends’ front door in North Finchley. This was a happy accident as travelling by bus allows you to see the world. Kathie told me off for constantly pointing at the sights. “People will think you’re a tourist,” she said. Truth is, I am now, London is no longer home.

We spotted some fantastic sculptures that were new to us: a huge horse’s head at Marble Arch; a life-size bear, recently installed just off Oxford Street, see video (not mine) above; and the beautifully poignant Animals In War Memorial, unveiled in 2004 but which somehow passed me by when I lived in London. Later that day my friend told me she cries every time she sees this.

The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 - 2014
The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 – 2014
The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 - 2014
The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 – 2014

The following day we travelled from North London on the Piccadilly Line – our first Tube journey in a long time – to our home for the next three nights, Ealing. In fact, we stayed not far from our old flat and on the first evening went back to our favourite local restaurant, Monty’s on Northfield Avenue.

Looking out the next morning into the garden of our friend’s house there was wildlife which we do not see at home in Orkney: a magpie, playing with stones; a grey squirrel, running along the fence; and, in a tree just beyond the fence, a ring-necked parakeet, now a familiar sight and sound in Ealing – they are extremely noisy, but great to see.

I was also struck walking around the Northfields area of Ealing to see appeal notices and countless yellow ribbons tied to lamp-posts for missing teenager Alice Gross. She was last seen not far away near the Grand Union Canal on 28 August. Sadly, as I write, there is still no news.

Later in the trip we visited the main shopping area at Ealing Broadway, still recognisable after more than four years away though there is lots of development taking place. Sadly, this does not seem to include the old cinema which remains as it was when we left – a front wall, held up by a huge iron structure, but everything behind flattened. I hope one day the front of this classic cinema will be revealed again in all its glory.

What else did we do in London?

We visited an old BBC haunt of mine, Albertine’s wine bar in Shepherds Bush, near Television Centre, for a get-together with former work colleagues. It was great to meet folk and swap stories, jokes and memories. And, as someone said, the wine bar is “refreshingly unchanged” – it is friendly and homely, a quiet oasis in a busy city.

The author outside BBC Broadcasting House, London (image: Kathie Touin)
The author outside BBC Broadcasting House, London (image: Kathie Touin)

We visited Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, where our friend (a member of staff) was able to show us around the new part of the building, familiar to TV viewers from the comedy W1A and the BBC News. We saw inside the BBC newsroom and were lucky to stand – very still and quietly – in the news gallery, watching the news being broadcast live by a remarkably calm team.

We took a tube to King’s Cross/St Pancras and witnessed the remarkable transformation taking place in the area. When I was first in London in the mid-Eighties I would drive through here with the car doors locked and, if on foot, I certainly would not hang about outside the stations. It was a run-down area known for drug-dealing and prostitution.

King's Cross Station (image: Graham Brown)
King’s Cross Station (image: Graham Brown)

Now it is almost continental, both King’s Cross and St Pancras stations are tastefully modernised, the fabulous St Pancras Hotel is restored and open, as is the Great Northern Hotel, and there are people meeting, talking, laughing, getting lunch from the cafes.

And behind the stations is an enormous redevelopment site of which I suspect we saw only a small part. For example, the University of the Arts London is housed in a former granary building – which once held Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers – now restored with fountains in the front. Nearby we crossed a bridge over the Regent’s Canal.

University of the Arts London, King's Cross (image: Graham Brown)
University of the Arts London, King’s Cross (image: Graham Brown)

A couple of general observations: I had forgotten how grubby you can feel in London, how you want to wash your hands – at least I do – after each tube journey. But, speaking of tube journeys, they are becoming more comfortable. On the Hammersmith & City line we travelled on pleasant new air-conditioned trains which are also walk-through from end to end. They are gradually being introduced throughout the network. And the buses in London are modern and comfortable: while at King’s Cross we took a ride on one of the New Routemaster buses, also known as Borisbuses and – here’s a throwback – they have conductors.

A New Routemaster bus near King's Cross, London (image: Graham Brown)
A New Routemaster bus near King’s Cross, London (image: Graham Brown)

Finally, I must mention our brushes with fame in London…

While at King’s Cross we visited Kathie’s friend Adam Helal at his recording studio in Tileyard, then took lunch with him at the Vinyl Cafe next door, along with the charming Andrew Wincott who was recording an audio book with Adam. Andrew is perhaps best known as Adam (another one) in The Archers.

Waiting for Kate Bush to appear at the Hammersmith Apollo (image: Graham Brown)
Waiting for Kate Bush to appear at the Hammersmith Apollo (image: Graham Brown)

And on the last night of our trip to England we went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the masterful Kate Bush in concert – I suspect you will read more about this on Kathie’s blog at a future date. My modest capacity with words does not stretch to arts criticism, and I don’t want to spoil the event for those still to go. Suffice to say it was a wonderful evening, Kate was in great voice, the audience loved her, the show was imaginative, theatrical, and the band was great. On a few occasions I even found tears welling up – an emotional final evening to round off our visit to England.

Graham Brown

PS There are more photographs from the trip on my Instagram account: http://instagram.com/grahambrownorkney

To find out more

Wikipedia on the Isle of Wight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isle_of_Wight

Isle of Wight Steam Railway: http://www.iwsteamrailway.co.uk/

Isle of Wight Bus Museum: http://www.iwbusmuseum.org.uk/

Dimbola Museum & Galleries: http://www.dimbola.co.uk/

Waltzing Waters: http://www.waltzingwaters.co.uk/

Animals In War memorial: http://www.animalsinwar.org.uk/

Albertine wine bar on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlbertineWine

Broadcasting House: http://www.bbc.co.uk/broadcastinghouse/

New-look King’s Cross: http://www.kingscross.co.uk/

Kate Bush: https://www.katebush.com/

How did we get here? Via Paris, actually…

Kathie and Graham in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris
Kathie and Graham in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris – on the way to Orkney

So here we are, in Orkney. Time speeds by and, amazingly, come April it will be four years since our move here from London. A Californian woman and an Englishman. How did we get here? And, as we are often asked, how did we meet in the first place?

I will explain. And along the way I will explain how we had two weddings. But I will not attempt to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, though I’m sure it has a part to play.

Emails and Nanci Griffith are to blame. And piano lessons. And fate. Or accident. And the Barbican. And other people’s life choices. And a moment’s snap decision.

Well, back in the 1990s, possibly the late 1980s, email started to come into my life. At first it was a closed system within the BBC and I couldn’t see the point of it. In time we were able to email the outside world and – although it was intended as a work tool – inevitably I also used the email for personal reasons.

I was a big admirer of the singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith and I discovered that her fans had an email discussion group called the NanciNet. You may realise that this was started in the USA as in the UK the group’s name had other possible connotations. I signed up.

Then, to coincide with one of Nanci’s regular UK tours, someone suggested a get-together of NanciNet members at the London Barbican. It was agreed we would meet for a meal before the concert, in a Barbican restaurant. This was in 1998.

I went to the concert with my then girlfriend and my parents, who were visiting me in London. Being a group of four meant that when we tried to find a table at the get-together we had limited choices – and so fate, or accident, meant we chose a table where just a man and a woman were seated.

These turned out to be a Belgian guy, Frank, and his friend, Patti, from the United States. Numbers and emails were swapped, we kept in touch and we became friends.

I visited my new friends in Belgium and in the United States a number of times, there was even one trip where Frank and I visited Patti’s San Diego home together, a holiday which also took in Boston and New York.

Then my American friend and her family moved from San Diego to Washington. For UK readers, that’s not Washington DC but Washington state, in the north-west of the USA – the last stop going north up the west coast before Canada. Their move turned out to be crucial.

In October 2002 I visited them in Washington and Patti introduced me to her daughter’s piano teacher – who turned out to be Kathie, my wife-to-be.

We went on two dates, then when I was back home in the UK we emailed and talked on the phone everyday, then at Christmas Kathie came over to stay with me and in the New Year – in the freezing cold – we went to Paris together. Yes, I guess you could say it was a whirlwind. We were just made for each other.

In 2003 we had two marriage ceremonies. We had decided to live in the UK and we thought we might get permission for Kathie’s residency more easily if we were already married. So in March 2003, when I was on holiday in Washington, we went to see the judge, just us, plus Kathie’s parents as witnesses. He made what we thought would be an impersonal ceremony into a very cosy one. Afterwards Kathie, her parents and I went out for a meal.

Getting permission for Kathie to come to the UK proved to be fairly straightforward and so in June 2003 we had a second wedding ceremony, again in Washington. This time Kathie’s friends and wider family attended, and my father made the journey from England.

Though it had no legal standing, as we were already married, it was a lovely event. We had a pagan ceremony, a hand-fasting, in which we jumped the broomstick and had our hands tied together. Kathie’s friends William Pint and Felicia Dale sang. My new father-in-law forgot to bring the video camera which was just as well as I cried when I made my vows. And our celebrant Amy put a yellow rose on the ceremonial table to represent my late mother.

We made our home in my flat, our flat, in Ealing, West London. It soon became very crowded, particularly when Kathie set up a small recording studio in the spare room, but we enjoyed our lives in the big city.

London is great – exciting, vibrant, lots to do and see, the centre of so many important events, the home of great friends and work colleagues – but, in time, we felt we wanted a different type of life, led at a different pace. And, in truth, Kathie was never a big city girl at heart.

Our yearnings found an outlet when, almost by accident, we visited Orkney. We were on a two-week tour of Scotland with my father. He had suggested various places we might visit and Kathie made a selection from his list. Orkney ended up on the list.

And so we visited Orkney, for the first time, in summer 2008. We were only here for three nights, two days, but the islands got under our skin.

It would take another blog to tell you everything we liked, and like, about Orkney. This is a subject I will return to in future blogs. But the positives include a slower pace of life, low crime rate, fresh air, knowing your neighbours, wide open spaces to walk in, wildlife, history, the people, a sense of community, being able to park your car outside your front door…

Kathie captured this more lyrically in the song she wrote after this trip, “Orcadia (Wind, Sea and Sky)” which is on her album Dark Moons & Nightingales.

We came back to Orkney in February 2009, for two weeks, to see if we still liked it here during the winter. And we did. We even enjoyed the stormy night when the wind whistled around our self-catering cottage.

And so we decided I would take early retirement and we would move here. I handed my three-month notice in at work just before Christmas 2009. I told my colleagues at the Christmas office meal.

In January 2010 I took a week’s leave and we visited Orkney to go house-hunting – and found our new home.

I officially finished work at the end of March and in April 2010 we moved here. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper might say.

So, in summary, that is how we got here. What would have happened if I had sat at a different table at the Nanci Griffith concert get-together? If the event had never been arranged? If I hadn’t joined the NanciNet? Or if my friend had not moved to Washington? If her daughter had not wanted piano lessons? And so on.

Who knows? But it inclines me to believe in fate, or some guiding spirit in life. And I am very grateful, lucky, blessed, to be here in Orkney with Kathie.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia on Orkney –

Discover Orkney –

Kathie Touin CD Dark Moons & Nightingales –

William Pint & Felicia Dale –

Nanci Griffith –

Some of my earlier blogs with Orkney content

Who Am I?

Brakes off, we’re speeding into 2013 and there’s no stopping…

Looking from a different perspective https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/perspective/

What, no badgers?https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/orkney_wildlife/

What, no badgers?

Hooded crow chicks in Rousay, Orkney
Hooded crow chicks in Rousay, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)

One of the big UK environmental controversies of 2013 was the badger cull in parts of England. But there was no fuss here in Orkney – we do not have badgers.

Orcadian wildlife is very different to what we experienced when we lived in England and many of our visitors, while delighted with what they see, are surprised to discover what is not here.

For new readers to this blog, Orkney is made up of about 70 islands situated off the north coast of Scotland – beyond Land’s End but before you get to the UK’s last outpost, Shetland. We are not in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland as some imagine.

I should also say that I am passionate about the natural world, and I work for the RSPB as a volunteer and occasional part-timer, but I am not an expert. So if you are an expert you might want to read a different blog to this one. And, for clarity, I do not write on behalf of the RSPB.

Orkney is rightly celebrated for its wildlife and visitors come here to see, amongst others, grey seals, harbour (or common) seals, puffins, great skuas, hen harriers and wide open scenery with no trees.

But what do we not have? As I said, no badgers. And no deer, or foxes. We don’t even have squirrels, grey or red.

Our biggest wild mammals on land are hedgehogs (a fairly recent introduction), rats (sorry), and various mice and voles. We also have some stoats, a very recent introduction, and because of the danger to Orkney’s ground-nesting birds they are trapped where possible.

Of these land mammals the most celebrated is the Orkney vole which, we are now told, originated in Belgium – though long before the land there was known as Belgium. These lovely little critters, found nowhere else in the UK, probably arrived with early farmers or traders more than 5,000 years ago.

If you move into the seas around Orkney there are some bigger, in fact, much bigger, mammals. As well as seals you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, porpoises, or, for the really lucky, whales – of which perhaps the most regularly seen are orcas, or killer whales.

When we lived in London we, of course, did not see whales. They were not common in Ealing.

But we regularly saw foxes, sometimes quite close by in the street as we staggered back from an evening in the pub and the Indian restaurant. Once I was woken in the early hours by a commotion outside – it was a group of fox cubs chasing a large empty plastic bottle down the street and under the parked cars.

One of the most familiar birds in England is the magpie. Despite the 21st century gloss that we wear, many people are still very superstitious of these birds. Folk also wrongly blame them for a decline in song birds. I always thought magpies stunning in appearance and very clever. I love them. But magpies are so rare in Orkney that if one is seen it is worthy of note. Now when we visit England it is exciting to see these sharp-suited black-and-white characters.

Another regular bird in Ealing, and gradually spreading out from south-east England, is the ring-necked parakeet. These Indian migrants have colonised large areas of London. My wife Kathie Touin and I loved to see them. In fact, when we were watching the Antiques Roadshow from Richmond Park on TV recently, Kathie realised the noises in the background were ring-necked parakeets.

Instead here in Orkney we regularly see, depending on the time of year, great skuas, hen harriers, lapwings, short-eared owls, hooded crows, curlew, eider ducks and fulmars, to name just a few. And there are many other beautiful, exciting species to be found if you have a little time and patience.

We have large numbers of greylag geese – in fact, Orkney now has so large a resident population of these birds that in the past two summers there has been a cull to reduce numbers because of the damage they can cause.

Our visitors are also surprised to discover there are trees in Orkney. We do not have large numbers of trees, certainly no forests, but there are some significant if small woods. I understand Orkney was once covered in trees but, once man had largely removed them, it was not easy for them to grow back.

In the small field we own next to our house we have a number of trees planted by the previous owners to which we have added more. Many are very small, the wind stops them growing quickly, and some varieties do better than others, but I guess we have perhaps 40 or 50 trees. I must count them.

Given good health I hope to see these trees grow to a reasonable size in my life-time but planting trees is very much a commitment to other people’s futures. I wonder if we can phrase our will in a way that will stop the field becoming a housing site, placed as it is between our house and a new one being built on the other side?

To find out more

RSPB Orkney Facebook –

RSPB Orkney blog –

RSPB: Birds by name –

BBC Radio 4 Tweet Of The Day: podcasts –

BBC Radio 4 Tweet Of The Day: Ring-necked parakeet –

Orkney vole ‘came from Belgium with farmers 5,000 years ago’ –

Kathie Touin blog on seal spotting –

Gloucestershire badger cull pilot fails to hit 70% target –



The Snow Goose
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

Our house, like most I imagine, has themes that run through the events taking place there.

One of my wife’s themes is lost, or missing, expressed in phrases commonly heard here such as “I’m sure I had a copy of that book…” or “I can’t believe I would have got rid of that book..”

It’s not always a book, occasionally it’s something else, perhaps a CD or LP, or an ornament. But it is usually a book.

The reason for this theme is our history. My wife, Kathie Touin, is a Californian who was living in Washington state in north-west USA when we met. I am English and, at the time, was living in London.

We married after what I suppose you would call a whirlwind romance. Incidentally, is this the only possible positive use of the word whirlwind, other than when Dorothy’s house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East?

Anyway, when we married 10 years ago – I mean Kathie and me, not the Wicked Witch of the East, I never married her – we set up home in my then flat in Ealing, London.

In the weeks leading up to the big move Kathie spent most of her time sorting out her possessions, giving much away to friends and charity, before packing what was left in boxes which were freighted from Washington to Ealing.

Incidentally, it would have been fun to travel with the boxes – we assume they went down the US west coast, through the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic, before finally arriving in Essex for the less interesting part of their journey.

When Kathie’s possessions eventually got to our flat some were unpacked and many went into our storage unit. Some boxes were never unpacked or sorted until we moved to Orkney three years ago.

And so, with the long passage of time between packing and unpacking, Kathie still puzzles over books she thinks she once had or can’t believe she gave away.

It is one of the amusing themes of our home-life – but now it has happened to me.

My late mother had a lovely copy of the book, not much more than a short story really, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. I think it is properly described as a novella. I’m pretty sure my mother’s copy was an illustrated edition and, some years before she died, she gave the book to me.

Since moving to Orkney and semi-retirement I’ve determined to catch-up on my reading and also with the many CDs I have bought over the years but never played.

As I mentioned on Twitter, I opened my Patsy Cline four-CD box-set to listen to for the first time the other day, only to discover a receipt which says I bought it 20 years ago this month. As my Twitter friend @myraponeill pointed out, quoting Patsy: “Crazy…”

Anyway I decided it was well past time to read The Snow Goose. I’ve never seen the film – starring Richard Harris and Jenny Agutter – but not so long ago there was a BBC Radio 4 adaptation which reduced me to tears. I have a cassette tape of it – err, somewhere.

The Snow Goose is the story of a lone artist, a young girl and an injured snow goose; a story of war; a story of love, loss and friendship; and a story of the power of nature.

However, I have failed to find the book. This despite the fact that we recently bought extra bookcases and all our books are finally, we think, out on display.

I was rather upset that I could lose a book which my mother had given me and which, I know, was special to her. Because it is a tale of love and loss, and my mother is no longer alive, its loss seemed all the more poignant.

Please don’t think I am careless. I have other books and possessions which my mother gave me. One of the most precious is her 1948 copy of the Oxford Book Of English Verse, which she has signed “Mary E Smith”.

And so I have bought another copy of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, over the internet, it was not illustrated, and not expensive, and I am about to read it for the first time.

I am hoping that buying a second copy will make my mother’s copy somehow turn up, in a box, tucked into another book, somewhere… But that is perhaps hoping for too much.

Graham Brown

Suddenly, Tammy! Happy accidents and serendipity in music

We Get There When We Do by Suddenly, Tammy!

I love music. I have too many CDs. I listen to music on the radio. I have too many radios. I would get some help for my addictions but I enjoy them too much.

One of my uncles once asked me how many CDs I owned. He then multiplied the answer by ten to estimate, in pounds sterling, how much I had spent on CDs. Of course, since then I have bought many more CDs.

But his estimate was wrong anyway. An expert CD buyer knows there are bargains to be had out there. Some of my favourite CDs only cost me one dollar.

That said, I don’t believe in copying CDs and I am quite happy to pay full-price for new music, particularly for up-and-coming or less well known musicians. After all my wife is a musician and she gets angry, rightly, that people somehow think creating music is a free gift to the world.

You don’t expect to have your food provided for free do you? The plumber who fixed your toilet or the builder who mended your roof do not provide a voluntary social service – why should musicians? Piracy might be romantic if you’re tackling the King of Spain’s galleons but most musicians are not that rich.

Anyway, you’re getting me started on one of my hobby-horses. And I actually intend to write about making unexpected discoveries in music.

Sometimes in life – and in the record shop, real or virtual – it’s good to take a diversion, the alternative meandering route. Try buying some music on a whim, just because you like the cover of the CD or because the band has a striking name.

A good example of this serendipity is the 1995 album We Get There When We Do by Suddenly, Tammy! The exclamation mark is part of the band name – or was, the band no longer exists.

I bought this CD when I was shopping with my Belgian friend Frank so I think – though I can’t remember for sure – that the CD was bought in Belgium, or possibly on one of our trips to the United States. It may have been second-hand.

Why did I buy the CD? Well, I thought the band’s name was funny, off-beat, a bit camp. I liked the sentiment expressed in the album’s title. The photo on the front cover was of an American school bus, but distorted and reflected in a mirror. It caught my eye.

It was well worth the small fee. The music is engaging, catchy and unusual – the band consisted of a female singer-pianist, and a bass player and a drummer (both male). No guitars! The album is one of my favourites.

Another of my purchases came to me when I visited Amoeba Records, a huge record store in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that had been created from a disused bowling alley.

Among the one-dollar bargains was You Don’t Know Me by Denice Franke. This is a good example of not taking the insulting price tag at face value. Yes, there is a lot of cheap rubbish out there. But this CD has intimate personal songs, beautifully performed and produced.

Before I picked it up I had never heard of Denice Franke, a Texan singer-songwriter, now the CD is another one of my favourites. Here’s a sample lyric (though it’s better to hear it with the music as well), the opening of the song Rainy Night Detroit:

“It’s a cold night in Detroit
I’m burnin’ the midnight lamp
with someone I can’t take care of
I’ve been talkin’ to myself out loud
and wonderin’… who’s that face on the wall?”

Accidental random serendipity CDs

I have also unexpectedly bought CDs that weren’t found in the bargain bins. When I lived in London and was single I would sometimes, after a night out with work colleagues, wander into the large Tower Records store at Piccadilly Circus before taking the Piccadilly Line home to Ealing.

Tower Records, like many record stores, no longer exists in the UK. It’s pretty well left to HMV to fight the good fight, along with a few brave independents like Grooves here in Orkney.

Anyway, on one occasion I wandered into Tower Records and I was looking for a particular CD. I don’t remember the artist or title now. As it turns out, I didn’t remember it then either.

The problem was, I had been drinking. I wasn’t rolling drunk but my judgement was a bit blurred, hazy. I saw the CD I thought I wanted, picked it up along with several others, and stood in the queue to pay. At this point I started to have doubts. Was this really the right artist? I decided to buy the CD anyway.

It was the wrong artist. What I had actually bought was an album called Dance of Fire by Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, a pianist from Azerbaijan. And what a happy accident this turned out to be.

Dance of Fire is an album of exquisite jazz piano and singing, also featuring top jazz names such as Bill Evans (sax) and Stanley Clarke (bass). The compositions, soaring and mysterious, are by the artist.

Since then I have bought three more CDs by Aziza Mustafa Zadeh including Jazziza, her unique take on standards, featuring Toots Thielemans. My Funny Valentine is stretched out into a cool jazz epic.

My accidental and random – “totally random, dude” as young people might say – ways of buying CDs continue. Only the other day I picked up the self-titled CD Auf der Maur in a sale. I’ve no idea what the music is like yet though a quick online search suggests she is pretty well known, if not to me. I’ll let you know.

Finally here’s another wild card. My wife Kathie just bought me my first MP3 player for my birthday. I was never at the front of the curve for new technology, it took me years to buy my first CD player – which is a bit ironic considering how many CDs I have now.

So far the MP3 contains a selection of my favourite albums and songs. But you know what is coming next, what if I get into downloads, serendipity style? Where might that take me? Who will be the next Suddenly, Tammy!? The musical adventure continues.

To find out more

The Wikipedia page for Suddenly, Tammy! and the official websites for Denice Franke and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh:




My good friend David Leck has interesting ideas on the future on HMV in his blog:


And the latest blog from the wonderful singer-songwriter Matraca Berg – which starts with tornadoes – ends up discussing the piracy of music: