Disconnected thoughts

For the first time in more than three months I am writing a blog entry. I have not written before now for a few reasons: not knowing what to say at this time of pandemic; expecting anything I do say to be overtaken by events almost at once; and, to be honest, not really feeling like writing.

Kathie (Touin, Mrs Brown) and I have not exactly been shielding during the lockdown but we have certainly kept ourselves to ourselves in the main, avoiding in particular big and busy supermarkets. In fact, Kathie avoided shops altogether until venturing into some smaller premises recently.

So while Scotland is easing restrictions more slowly than England, Kathie and I are deliberately taking it more slowly still.

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Roscoe our Border Collie on the Brough of Birsay (image: Graham Brown)

We have met one or two friends outside in the last few weeks; visited Happy Valley (a tree plantation), the Brough of Birsay (a tidal island) and the nearby coastline; and this week the piano tuner came to the house – our first outside worker.

We realise we are lucky to live in a rural part of Orkney, where we can get out and about to exercise with our dog without getting into crowds, where we have a little of our own land around us to enjoy sitting, weeding, mowing or just hanging out the washing.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are a few disconnected thoughts about the situation now.

Does petrol go off?

I’m joking, though I guess there might be a limit to how long it lasts before changing composition or losing efficacy? Efficacy, now there’s one of the words that has joined our regular vocabulary in this pandemic year. The reason I mention this is that my car, a red Audi, was reasonably full of fuel when the lockdown happened in March. And, as I write at the end of July, I am still using that same tank of fuel.

Remember money?

On Roscoe’s walk the other day I found a coin on the roadside. I puzzled for a few seconds as to what it was, then realised it was a 5p. I did not recognise it at first because I have handled so little money in the last four months or so.

When visiting big cities in the last year or two I was struck by how most people use contactless cards and credit cards to pay for everything. Now, with people reluctant to handle cash, the same applies to Orkney.

Since March I have spent virtually no actual cash and I have not been to a cashpoint machine. I still have £20 that was in my wallet four months ago.

But here is a potential, if minor, problem… Without spending notes in the shops and getting change how am I going to get the correct money for car parks now that the local council is charging for them again?

More seriously, as with all technology, there will be people left behind who for reasons such as age or poverty do not have access to bank accounts, credit cards and contactless cards.

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Kathie and friend walking in Orkney’s Happy Valley (image: Graham Brown)

Is the lockdown saving the environment?

The decrease in traffic and travel has helped our environment but I am not as optimistic about this as I was earlier in the year. I fear our governments will rush back to the old ways to try to get economies moving quickly.

And what about plastic waste? When hair salons re-opened a local hairdresser was interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney. She estimated she would be using more than 700 pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) a week. I do not blame her, she has a business to run, but creating all this is not great for the environment.

And, as always, a few people are careless so there are already reports of discarded PPE washing up on beaches. BBC News reported that a peregrine falcon had been photographed with its talons caught in a facemask – a possible death sentence for the bird (see below).

Kathie and I, like everyone, have been wearing facemasks for our occasional shop visits. We have been able to buy washable ones and mine has dinosaurs on it (inside every grown man is a ten-year-old child trying to get out).

Like many people I find the mask a bit awkward with my specs but I have noticed something strange which seems to have crept up on me during lockdown. I wear my glasses for long-distance but now I find I can see nearly as well without them as with them – so, I wear my glasses to drive to the shop, then swap them for my facemask after I have parked the car.

When the local optician is open again for non-emergency appointments I will have to see them to find out what is going on. Barnard Castle is a bit far from here for an afternoon drive.

What about Orkney’s economy?

A large part of Orkney’s income, and many of its businesses and jobs, rely on tourism. One survey (see below) predicted that at worst there could be 3,000 jobs lost in Orkney (population approx 22,000) and the amount of money flowing through the economy halved.

Now that lockdown is easing we are seeing more visitors about the place which is great for struggling businesses but does make many of us feel a bit nervous of another outbreak.

A number of people here in Orkney favour the Isle of Man’s approach of closing the border (see two stories below) and thus allowing residents more open use of shops, cafes, restaurants and facilities – though I guess this would not help holiday accommodation providers.

But, even if this was agreed locally to be the right move to make, Orkney Islands Council does not have the same powers as the Manx Government.

I think for most people an even bigger worry is cruise ships. Orkney is a popular destination – more than 150 cruise ship visits in 2019 – but this year apart from one or two in early March we have not seen any. It seems unlikely there will be any calling for the rest of this year though if plans are announced for any visits I suspect there will be an uproar locally.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

As this year goes on more and more dates pass in my diary for events that would have been. The first week of August would have been agricultural show week in Orkney with our local event, the West Mainland or Dounby Show on Thursday 6th – it’s a great social occasion and we will miss it.

But without these events – and TV sporting tournaments such as Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Euro 2020 football – we have been able to spend more time outside in the garden.

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California poppies enjoying the Orkney sunshine outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

There is still much to do but we have made more progress this year than in the past.

And there has been more space to appreciate the smaller things, like the caterpillars, and the butterflies, as well as the birds. Incidentally, the swallows have fledged three or four young from their nest in our garage and now have a second brood in another garage nest on the way.

We have been helped in our outside work by generally favourable, even, whisper it, warm, weather. That is, until this week when one day in particular had heavy rain, dark skies and strong winds as if it was November.

Every time we step outside the front door we are greeted by a flock of birds who know we are an easy touch for food. Earlier in the lockdown it was starlings and sparrows, now the starlings are mostly gathering elsewhere and it is nearly all sparrows – plus the occasional lesser black-backed gull.

This and that

  • Kathie and I decided that we should start to catch up with our many DVDs so, once a week, we have a DVD evening. We started with an 11-part 1984 German TV drama called Heimat, written and directed by Edgar Reitz in an intriguing mixture of colour and black-and-white, and originally shown in the UK on BBC Two. It tells the story of a village from 1919 to 1982 and remains one of my favourite TV dramas of all time. If you get a chance please watch it. (NB: there is also a sequel and a prequel which I have yet to see).
  • We spent time clearing out the house. To be honest, there is still much to do. But we have got piles of stuff for the charity shops and, when I get motivated, for eBay. The charity shops are starting to come back to life here in Orkney and we have donated one bag of clothes. Meanwhile, it’s as well we can’t have visitors as the guest room is a bit crowded with more stuff on its way out.
  • If you live outside Orkney you might not have spotted that we had a flying visit from the Prime Minister on 23 July. His visit to Scotland was, partly, in reaction to an increase in support for Scottish independence. Despite his itinerary, and even the fact of his visit, being kept under wraps “for security reasons” there were some protesters who had discovered his plans through social media.
  • Two concerts Kathie and I were due to attend in May – Gretchen Peters in Glasgow, Rumer in Edinburgh – have been postponed to February and March respectively. Right now I am not sure whether they will go ahead even then and, if they do, whether Kathie and I will feel confident about going. I hope we can. But I expect the artists, not to mention their support staff and the theatres concerned, are also worried.

Meanwhile, Kathie and I are not planning to go anywhere outside Orkney anytime soon. I hope that, wherever you are, you are staying safe and healthy.

Graham Brown

To find out more

BBC News: Peregrine falcon talons tangled in discarded face mask…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-53530961

The Orcadian: Orkney businesses fear ‘massive crash’ in local economy…
https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkney-businesses-fear-massive-crash-in-local-economy/

BBC News: Coronavirus: Isle of Man border reopens to residents…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-53450577

BBC News: Passengers ‘excited’ to travel on Isle of Man-Guernsey air bridge route…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-53501183

And to find out more about Orkney…
https://www.orkney.com/

2020 vision

So, here we are in 2020. What will this new decade bring? Will it be the Roaring Twenties, as it was 100 years ago? Or another Jazz Age? That would be nice.

More seriously, though it can be foolish to make predictions, I imagine much of the decade will be – or should be – dominated by the climate emergency and mankind’s faltering attempts to tackle it. We are not helped in this by the current fashion for populist political leaders who play fast-and-loose with the truth to suit themselves and their selfish interests.

An aside here for pedants, like myself: I know the First Century began with year one and so the first decade was to year 10, the second decade from 11 to 20, and so on, meaning the new decade does not really start until 2021. But after two thousand years, conventions grow and change – sometimes, not always, it is best to go with the flow (yes, Mr Byrne, that’s you).

To be honest, it was only in the last week or two of 2019 that I realised we were about to enter a new decade. I think this is because decades have not been such a big deal since the turn of the 21st century.

In my lifetime we have had the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties and then, err… Did someone say the Noughties? Does anyone really like or use that name? And, as for the 2010-19 decade, I don’t recall ever seeing a name attached to it.

The 20th century was the same: the first decade was known, at least in Britain, as the Edwardian era, and the second decade was so dominated by the Great War that no name seems to have been attached to it.

Besides, the labels for decades are arbitrary and only capture a small part of the time period. For more on this read my blog about the Sixties which, I believe, for most people was nothing like the cliches portrayed in TV documentaries.

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The last sunset of the old decade seen from our house (image: Graham Brown)

Anyway, for Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown) and I the decade just ended was hugely significant because it was when we moved to Orkney, nearly 10 years ago in April 2010 (more about that later this year). Suffice to say we made the right decision and are very happy here – with our Border Collie, Roscoe, who turned 11 in 2019.

And the year just ended? The highlight of 2019 has to be the release of Kathie’s new album of music, Facing The Falling Sky (see my previous blog). Let me say again, it is a super collection of songs produced in a novel way.

Since my last blog it has been included by DJ Steve Conway in his 8Radio show Conway’s Christmas Gifts – 17 albums he loves and would gift to a friend. He selected, among others, Kate Bush, Paul Weller, PJ Harvey – and Kathie!

Travel in 2019 took Kathie and I to Arizona in February to see the in-laws and I made two trips to Edinburgh, one in May on my own to see Gretchen Peters in concert then again in November with Kathie.

I failed to write a blog about the second Edinburgh visit so here’s a summary. The trip was originally planned because Kathie wanted to see guitarist Steve Hackett in concert. After booking tickets we spotted that, two nights later, Mark Lewisohn (an expert on The Beatles) was presenting a show to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the Abbey Road album. So we booked that as well.

Both shows were great, we even got into the Steve Hackett meet-and-great before the concert.

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Kathie & I meeting Steve Hackett, a gentleman (image: Graham Brown’s smartphone)

Mark Lewisohn spoke (with musical and archive clips) for nearly three hours about Abbey Road. You might think this sounds overlong but if, like Kathie and me, you are a fan of The Beatles it was fascinating at every turn.

We kept up The Beatles theme by taking a day trip by train from Edinburgh Haymarket station (opposite our hotel) to Glasgow Queen Street. Then a short bus ride to the wonderful Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum to see an exhibition of Linda McCartney photographs.

Linda McCartney was a fantastic photographer with an eye for detail and an unusual angle or take on a subject. Her subject matter ranged from international superstars to intimate family portraits. The exhibition, Linda McCartney Retrospective, finishes at the Kelvingrove on 14 January but transfers to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where it is on display from 25 April to 31 August.

I would highly recommend a visit and allow plenty of time, there are lots of photographs to admire and you will not want to rush past them.

Our big holiday this year was an 11-night stay in Austria, split between Vienna and Salzburg. I should have written a separate blog entry about this but on return from the holiday we went straight into a hectic period preparing for Kathie’s album launch and the blog was never written.

We had a wonderful time – the people were friendly and helpful, the food was excellent, the cities seemed cleaner than those back in the UK and there was evidence of Mozart everywhere (he was born in Salzburg and lived in Vienna).

Highlights of our trip included the wonderful paintings in Vienna’s Albertina and Kunst Historisches Museums; seeing the River Danube and the fairground wheel from the Third Man film; a brief visit (for me) to Austrian broadcaster ORF; the Spanish Riding School (I went once, Kathie went twice); seeing Mozart’s Requiem performed in the beautiful Karlskirche, Vienna; cathedrals in both Vienna and Salzburg; looking down on Salzburg from the castle, Hohensalzburg Fortress; our Salzburg river trip; and our Sound Of Music coach trip. (NB: lots of pictures coming soon – promise – on my Instagram feed).

Ah, yes, the Sound Of Music coach trip. I was not a big fan of the film but before leaving home a friend said we should do this – I think up until then I was not aware of the film having been shot around Salzburg. When we arrived in the city I thought, why not? And we booked the trip.

It was four hours or so of great fun, travelling in and around Salzburg and then out to the beautiful lakes in the mountains which we would not otherwise have seen. Our tour guide was friendly and enthusiastic, without being pushy, and as the coach travelled between stops we all sang along with the soundtrack of the film.

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Julie and me – a stop on the Sound Of Music coach tour (image: Graham Brown)

I found myself curiously moved by the music. I have been a fan of musicals since living in London – when my parents came to visit they would inevitably want to go to the West End to see a musical and I also came to love them.

But somehow the Sound Of Music was associated in my mind with seeing the film as a youngster when it seemed very unfashionable compared to the pop music of the day that I was listening to. All that changed on our coach trip, perhaps I was emotional thinking of my late parents on that day, but for whatever reason I was hooked.

Incidentally, on that afternoon out we also spotted a Bristol Lodekka. Most of you will have no idea what that is, I imagine. It is a double-decker bus, of a type that regularly came past our house when I was a child on Eastern Counties’ Peterborough to Cambridge service. Sometimes in the summer holidays Mum and I would take the bus to Cambridge for a day out. The one in Salzburg was being used to transport tourists.

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A Bristol Lodekka – in Salzburg (image: Graham Brown)

They were called Lodekkas, I understand, because the lower deck was step free once you were on board. The person to ask all about this would have been my Uncle David, an expert on buses who has had books of his historic bus photographs published.

Sadly, David (Burnicle) was one of the folk we lost in 2019. He was always engaging company and lived an inventive, loving and productive life – though, of course, that does not make his passing easy for his family. Here he is as a young man, a photograph taken in the year I was born…

http://www.hhtandn.org/relatedimages/1537/hartlepool-lads

Many, probably most, of us will have suffered loss of some sort in the past year – just in the last days of the year came the unexpected death of Neil Innes, one of Britain’s most talented, funny and modest songwriters. To his family the loss will be greatest. Thankfully, his wonderful music will live on.

Who knows what will happen this year and who will still be standing at the year’s end when the Earth’s cycle has taken us around the Sun one more time?

So in 2020 let us enjoy life whenever we can; celebrate each other’s creativity and foibles; spread love to family, friends and to those we don’t know, in our own country and abroad, of our beliefs and of others; and let us work for a better world.

Graham Brown

P.S. Here’s Kathie’s New Year blog…

https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/farewell-and-thank-you-to-2019/

To find out more

My (so-called) Instagram account – https://www.instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

My blog: The Sixties – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/swinging-sixties/

My blog: Kathie’s new album – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2019/12/17/facing-the-falling-sky/

My blog: Arizona February 2019 – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/arizona-take-three/

My blog: Edinburgh Spring 2019 – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2019/06/24/spring-into-summer-via-edinburgh/

Steve Hackett website – http://www.hackettsongs.com/

Mark Lewisohn website – https://www.marklewisohn.net/

Linda McCartney website – https://www.lindamccartney.com/

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelvingrove_Art_Gallery_and_Museum

Walker Art Gallery – https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/

Vienna – https://www.austria.info/uk/where-to-go/cities/vienna

Salzburg – https://www.austria.info/uk/where-to-go/cities/salzburg

Wikipedia: Bristol Lodekka – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Lodekka

Neil Innes website – https://neilinnes.media/

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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/

Carry On in the Central Belt

“Listen, listen. Ooh – aah – titter ye not. Ooh no missus… Settle down now, settle down,” as Frankie Howerd might have said.

First of all, my apologies, for the cheeky title to this blog – well, we all need to promote ourselves a little.

Second, some explanations, for those not born in the UK and for younger readers. Frankie Howerd was a very funny comedian who appeared in some of the many Carry On films produced from the late 1950s through to the late 1970s. Carry On films were known for their cheeky and vulgar humour – a bit like the heading on this blog.

That said, I am not a big fan of Carry On films but find Frankie Howerd very funny. I particularly enjoyed the BBC television series Up Pompeii!, first broadcast in 1970, in which Howerd played the lead character, a Roman slave. Various aspects of the programme would not pass the political correctness test now, but Howerd’s performances, and the way he talked to the audience in the studio and at home, are a masterclass.

There are many examples of the programme online, probably from someone’s home video recordings, this is Nymphia featuring another Carry On regular, Barbara Windsor (no relation to Her Majesty The Queen)…

Anyway, rather like Frankie Howerd, I digress. I am, in fact, writing about the Central Belt of Scotland, the country’s area of greatest population which includes its two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

If you picture a map of Scotland, and think of it as a body, the central belt would be where the waist is, albeit that the body has short legs. Err, like me.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I visited Edinburgh in both 2015 and 2016 (my blogs “Reflections on Edinburgh…” and “Auld Reekie”) and Glasgow in April this year (my blog “Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow”).

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View of Edinburgh from the roof of the Camera Obscura building (image: Graham Brown)

In May it was the turn of Edinburgh, again. We stayed in the same conveniently-placed hotel, next to the transport interchange between trams, buses and trains at Haymarket, albeit now changed from a Tune Hotel (in which you paid for all extras) to the Haymarket Hub Hotel (in which everything is included). Visiting Edinburgh two months later in the year than our 2016 visit it was noticeable how busy the city was with tourists – and how expensive our hotel was as a result.

I feel going back to a city for a second visit relaxes the mind – there is not the urgency to get around all the essentials, rather Kathie and I could concentrate on whatever took our fancy.

So it was that on our first full day we made a late start, after a late evening/early morning at a friend’s house, and wandered from the hotel along the nearby Dalry Road to visit the series of charity shops on either side. Prices, not surprisingly, were higher than in Orkney’s charity shops but we found a few bargains including a CD of Hanna-Barbera cartoon music – ever since we got home I have been annoying Kathie, and our dog Roscoe, with the theme tune to Top Cat, less than a minute long, brilliant, concise writing, snappily arranged and played…

On another day we took time for a relaxed stroll in the sunshine through Princes Street Gardens, running alongside but below Edinburgh’s principal shopping street and with great views of Edinburgh Castle.

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Scottish American Memorial in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoyed the sculptures on display, and were particularly impressed with the Scottish American Memorial, given by Scottish-Americans – I know there are many of you out there – to honour Scots who served in the Great War, or First World War as we now know it. We thought Roscoe would have appreciated the shepherd on the frieze with his Border collie. The memorial was designed by R. Tait McKenzie and erected in 1927.

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Kathie Touin poses with Wojtek and his polished nose (image: Graham Brown)

But I think everyone’s favourite sculpture is Wojtek the bear, by Alan Heriot (2015). Wojtek was adopted by Polish troops in the Second World War, served alongside them, and enjoyed beer and cigarettes. After the war he was retired to Edinburgh Zoo. Like many tourists, we posed with Wojtek and noticed they had rubbed his nose to a bright shine.

The Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens was cordoned off for restoration but, my goodness, we could tell by peeking through the hoardings that it will be spectacular and colourful when it is unveiled. Produced in France, it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London, bought by gunmaker Daniel Ross for £2,000, transported in 122 pieces and placed in the gardens in 1872.

Just along Princes Street from the gardens is Edinburgh Waverley station. We walked through there one evening and caught a glimpse of something very special. So, after some online checking about the next appearance, we returned at nine the next morning – an early start for us on holiday.

The excitement for us, and others, mounted as we stood on the platform, there was even a policeman on duty to ensure good order, and then, yes, here she comes…

The steam locomotive Flying Scotsman, one of the most famous in the world, arrived, looking resplendent. She was in Edinburgh to haul a series of excursions across the Forth Rail Bridge.

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Flying Scotsman in Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

 

Kathie and I were thrilled – yes, we both were. Kathie had not seen the Flying Scotsman in steam before, if at all, and I had to cast my mind back to remember when I had last seen this venerable locomotive, built in 1923, running.

I think it was about 1968 when I went with my father to watch the locomotive run along the main railway line south of Peterborough. It occurred to me that the Flying Scotsman was about 45 years old then, but now has more than doubled in aged to 95 – a sign of my age!

My late father, Clive Brown, always took a great interest in railways. His father, my grandfather, worked for LNER, the company which operated the Flying Scotsman before the railways were nationalised in 1948.

I remember also that my father rode on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman and wrote an article about his experience when the locomotive was visiting the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. There is a framed photo of my father and the driver standing in front of the loco here in my office.

Other outings during our Edinburgh trip included…

the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden – we only got part way round, so will need to return on another visit, but we did walk through all of the glasshouses;

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John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (image: National Galleries Scotland)

the Scottish National Gallery, a return visit, where my favourite paintings were John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, Thomas Warrender’s Still-Life (a curious mix of ancient objects in an apparently modern setting) and, new to public display, Valentin Serov’s Alexandrvitch, Tsar of All the Russias;

the Mexican food store Lupe Pintos, in Leven Street, a must for Kathie to get her Mexican cooking supplies (they also have a shop in Great Western Road, Glasgow);

and Camera Obscura, a fun half-day for children of all ages. It is in a narrow building with steep stairs over several levels so it is not for all. But there are super views of the city from the roof terrace, the wonders of the Camera Obscura itself, and then a series of fun, interactive (two words that would normally put me off) illusions as you walk back down through the various floors.

Naturally we ate out at several restaurants, I would say my favourite for food, atmosphere and decor was Viva Mexico in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we have eaten before. It might look busy from the outside but there is a cosy basement so do check if there is a table. If you have only ever visited Mexican chain restaurants in the UK (they were once fashionable in London) you should try an authentic experience.

However, the original reason we were in Edinburgh at this particular time was for music. We booked the trip in order to see the wonderful Gretchen Peters again, then discovered that during the same short visit we could also see the musical Wicked and the phenomenal guitarist Nils Lofgren.

Nils was brilliant, performing a show at the Queen’s Hall as part of a tour to mark his 50 years on the road. What a great guitarist he is and, though this can be overlooked, an expressive singer and handy songwriter. For those who do not know Nils’ work, he has spent many years playing in bands for the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. He appeared with multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta, who was fabulous.

We saw Wicked many years ago when we lived in London though for some reason – my tired and stressed life in London, perhaps? – I did not have a great recall of the show. But I know Kathie, like her Mom, is a big fan of The Wizard Of Oz, so when I discovered the back-story Wicked would be playing in Edinburgh at the Playhouse Theatre I jumped at the chance to book tickets.

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Leaving Edinburgh Playhouse after Wicked (image: Graham Brown)

It was an impressive production, great movement and costumes (we were only sat a few rows from the front), and the two women taking the lead roles – Amy Ross and Helen Woolf – were fabulous singers with great presence. As Kathie said, they had some really big numbers to nail, and they did. It was super as well to hear a live band coming from the orchestra pit. And the Playhouse is a superbly ornate theatre, originally a cinema modelled on the Roxy Cinema in New York.

And our final Edinburgh show was due to be Gretchen Peters, touring the UK with her keyboard player (and husband and all-round good egg) Barry Walsh to mark the release of her new album. She brought a band with her, and support artist and accompanying singer Kim Richey.

Unfortunately I saw none of this – on the night of the concert at the Queen’s Hall I was sick in my hotel room, and very fed up. If I’m honest, I am still not over this disappointment but I try to remember what my mother (and probably yours) would say on occasions like this….

“Worse things happen at sea…”

“There are many people in the world worse off than you…”

And so on. And she would be right. So I must get over it.

Having met Gretchen and Barry on previous tours I did drop them a line on social media to say I could not attend and it was very sweet of both of them, and Kim, to send me get well messages at what would be a busy time for them. Thank you all.

Gretchen’s new album, Dancing With The Beast, produced by Doug Lancio, Gretchen and Barry, is the follow-up to the 2015 Blackbirds. Gretchen’s songs tackle some difficult themes such as the state of the so-called United States, abuse, the ageing process and loss – “50 minutes of exquisite-sounding emotional devastation, depression, murder and heartbreak” according to The Tennessean – but there is compassion and hope in there too.

The song Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea will become a firm fan favourite, like Five Minutes on her Hello Cruel World album. In fact, here is Gretchen singing the song at the end of the Queen’s Hall concert (dammit)…

I’m no critic and I’m not good at describing the music I like in words. Really, you need to buy Dancing With The Beast, and Blackbirds, and, while you are about it, the previous album Hello Cruel World. There is also an excellent double album, The Essential Gretchen Peters. I could go on…

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Frankie Howerd – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Howerd

Wikipedia: Up Pompeii! – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Pompeii!

My blog: Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

My blog: Auld Reekie – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/auld-reekie/

My blog: Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/brief-impressions-of-a-trip-to-glasgow/

Wikipedia: Hanna-Barbera – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanna-Barbera

Wikipedia: Scottish American Memorial – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_American_Memorial

Wikipedia: Flying Scotsman – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Class_A3_4472_Flying_Scotsman

Royal Botanic Garden – http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/home

National Galleries Scotland – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Lupe Pintos – http://www.lupepintos.com/

Camera Obscura – https://www.camera-obscura.co.uk/

Viva Mexico – http://www.viva-mexico.co.uk/

Nils Lofgren – http://www.nilslofgren.com/

Wicked – http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/

Edinburgh Playhouse – https://www.playhousetheatre.com/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen’s videos – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/videos

Now We Are Six(ty)

Well, clearly there has been some error of calculation. But, it is said, I turned 60 in the month of December. Reaching the ages of 30, 40 and even 50 did not concern me much. But 60 does seem more challenging, that bit closer to the, well, the end, I suppose.

Still, Winston Churchill – admittedly in different circumstances, in which he was looking forward to the end (of the Second World War) – said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

I think I will settle for that.

And remember Churchill was already 65 years of age when he became Britain’s Prime Minister as the country faced perhaps its darkest hour. So maybe I have more I can achieve yet.

My birthday was marked on the Friday night by a dedication on BBC Radio Orkney’s request show thanks to Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin). She asked for Nils Lofgren’s 60 Is The New 18 (from an excellent album called Old School) without realising some of the lyrics are a little colourful…

However, Radio Orkney has played worse – some of the chart sounds requested for small children are clearly inappropriate (klaxon, klaxon, old fogey alert).

A party was arranged for the Saturday night at Quoyloo Old School which, for those who do not know it, is our village community centre. Unfortunately it coincided with some wintry weather and icy, slippery roads.

Kathie and I started to think there might just be a few folk there who had managed to walk but, in the end, about 30 people braved the conditions to make a memorable evening. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take any photographs. Sorry to those who asked to see them.

Not everyone was able to be there, of course – it would be too much to expect family and friends from the south of England to venture all this way in December for a party and, within Orkney, conditions were varied. Two of our friends set off by car, only to nearly slide off the track from their house, so wisely thought better of it.

Kathie booked a cake for the party but we never got it because the cake-maker was taken ill with a suspected kidney stone (I hope you are better now).

However, I must thank Kathie for all the hard work she put into the party – my only regret is that she did not stop dashing about all night. I love you.

Since turning 60 I have done a few daft things which, normally, would pass almost without comment but, after such a big milestone, it encourages thoughts of there being something potentially wrong.

For example, I was waiting to greet Kathie outside the house with our dog when I managed to loose my footing and fall over, though, if I may say so, I did it quite elegantly and without injury. And only the other day my T-shirt felt a bit uncomfortable – later I discovered I had put it on back-to-front. This is nonsense which I shall ignore.

Sixty is also the age when some of the body’s aches and pains start to be felt. A few months ago I noticed my right-hand small finger is slightly bent and a little painful. I visited the GP only to be told something like, “Oh, it’s age, there is nothing you can do.”

I understand from others that this reaction is a familiar refrain from doctors these days. Given how people are living longer they might need a re-think.

Reflecting on my crooked finger which, with the blessing of a long life, I might have to put up with for 30 years, I think I am going to seek some alternative treatment. I have already noticed that exercising and manipulating the digit makes it feel better – so there is something to be done.

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Roscoe, in his blue post-op coat, shreds Christmas wrapping (image: Graham Brown)

Speaking of medical matters our dog, Roscoe, a Border collie, underwent an operation a week or so after my party to remove a non-malignant but fast-growing fatty lump from his side. Hence we have spent a quiet Christmas period at home while he recovers – which he is doing, and thank you to everyone who asked after him.

In our little family in the past it has been Kathie who has faced numerous operations – if you ask her she can give you a list – but, curiously, this year was bookended by Roscoe’s op in December and mine back in January (see below for my blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia”).

Now I have turned 60 I feel I should have some profound thoughts to share. That is one reason why this blog entry has been a little delayed – I’ve been struggling to come up with anything very enlightening.

I was struck by some words posted on Facebook by the wonderful songwriter Gretchen Peters, who turned 60 in November. She wrote about her fifties being a “remarkable decade” and it made me think about how my life has changed in the past 10 years.

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Blurred Roscoe playing in the snow – without his post-op coat and well on the way to recovery (image: Graham Brown)

The biggest change was Kathie and I moving to Orkney, in 2010. It was an inspired move for us, we love it here (see numerous previous blog entries). We have also had Roscoe come to live with us. I have unexpectedly become a (part-time) employee of the RSPB, and I have re-discovered the joys of volunteering – also for the RSPB, and for Quoyloo Old School and for the project which marked the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire.

Anyway, Gretchen Peters is touring the UK again in 2018. If you get a chance to see her, and her talented husband Barry Walsh, do take it. Kathie and I will be at the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall concert.

Gretchen concluded her thoughts on turning 60 by writing about her work and her new album, due out in 2018: “It’s what I do, and what I can do in this most uncertain hour, as Paul Simon put it.” She is referring to the politics of her US homeland, and to Paul Simon’s song American Tune (see below for lyrics and for my blog entry of a year ago, “That Was The Year That Was”).

I am not musically creative – in our family that is left to Kathie, who is also working on her new self-composed album. Some of the early demo tracks sound great.

So, for me, as Churchill said, “We must just KBO.”

May I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, healthy and fulfilled 2018.

Graham Brown

Find out more

Wikipedia on Winston Churchill – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill

My blog “That Was The Year That Was” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/that-was-the-year-that-was/

My blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/nhs-orkney-mrs-brown-amelia/

Gretchen Peters’ website – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Lyrics to Paul Simon’s American Tune – http://www.paulsimon.com/track/american-tune-6/

My 60th birthday request on BBC Radio Orkney – https://www.mixcloud.com/radioorkney/friday-requests-with-dawn-copland-8th-dec-2017/

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/

Back to vinyl? You’ll have to speak up, I got beans in my ears…

If you are a music listener you have probably noticed the “back to vinyl” trend of recent years. Fans of vinyl, or records as we once called them, say the sound quality is better than on a CD and the artwork is better realised on a larger platform.

However, despite having a large and still growing music collection, I think I will pass. Yes, I agree if an album has impressive artwork it does look better in the larger format.

But my experience is coloured by having to listen to too many scratched records in the past, and having to return to the shop faulty LPs which stick or jump. I am not about to return down that road. I was a late adopter for CDs but having made the change some years ago I am sticking with it (you can tell I am too old for the download generation).

Actually, I am not convinced by the argument that vinyl sounds better than CD – even assuming you have a scratch-free record. Yes, early CDs were thin sounding. This was not helped by the Eighties fashion for early digital recording and thin-sounding synthesisers.

But try listening to the re-mastered albums by The Beatles, released in 2009. The detail and depth is fantastic.

Or try any decently-recorded modern CD. Among my favourites are Gretchen Peters’ albums Hello Cruel World and Blackbirds – superb songs, beautifully played and sung, but recorded with care. I have said it before and I will say it again, if you do not know Gretchen’s music do yourself and favour and find some.

But back to vinyl. I am not going back in the physical sense, but I am open to a saunter down memory lane to the first records I purchased.

I believe my first single was She Loves You by The Beatles. I can vaguely recall that I had been given a record token, it would probably have been for my sixth birthday, and I went to the record shop with my mother and asked for The Beatles record. I was asked if I wanted their new one or their previous one and I plumped for She Loves You.

Looking at the chronology for The Beatles singles the new one which I rejected was I Want To Hold Your Hand, which had been released at the end of November 1963.

There were other records in the house when I was a child, some of which must have been bought for me by my parents or relatives. I seem to recall we had a single of The Thunderbirds TV series theme tune which, had I still got it, would probably have a reasonable financial value.

And among my parents’ records was an EP… ah, do I need to explain what an EP is to those who barely remember vinyl records? EP was an abbreviation for Extended Play. They were the same size as singles (seven inches) and also played at 45 rpm but, typically, they had two tracks on each side (achieved with finer grooves in the manufacture). LPs. you might remember, played at 33 rpm, and your record player allowed you to adjust to the required speed manually.

Anyway, my parents had an EP which I think had cover versions of current hit songs. One of these which sticks in my mind, or should I say ears, was called Beans In My Ears. No, honestly, it was. Various folk seem to have recorded the song, including Lonnie Donegan.

“You’ll have to speak up I got beans in my ears
Beans in my ears, beans in my ears
You’ll have to speak up I got beans in my ears…”

But, strangely, I did not seem to buy or request any more of my own “pop” singles until 1967 when I bought or was given Daydream Believer by The Monkees and then 1968 when I got The Monkees’ next single Valleri and Lazy Sunday by The Small Faces. I cannot recall why there was a gap in my single-buying, nor what prompted me to start again.

I must say though I had good taste. Lazy Sunday is a wonderful single, a clever song, well produced, which does not sound old even in 2016. And The Monkees music has stood the test of time far better than might have been imagined at the time when they were struggling to break away from being a pretend band in a silly (albeit great fun) TV series.

There were other singles bought at a later date – Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, for example. My copy had Maggie May as the B-side, the original A-side being Reason To Believe before DJs flipped it over. What do record companies know?

I also remember buying Wizzard singles – the band’s singer and composer Roy Wood is a much under-rated figure in British music – and David Bowie singles.

Gradually albums, or LPs, became the focus of my record buying. The first serious as opposed to novelty album I bought was A Nod’s As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse by The Faces (released November 1971), and the second was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by David Bowie (released June 1972). Curiously, both these albums bear long titles that are usually shortened in everyday use.

Blowing my own trumpet, again – though it is not an instrument I ever played – I think both of these albums have stood the test of time well, Ziggy in particular as we all know. But A Nod’s As Good As A Wink features an energetic band, Rod at his best before he went all mid-Atlantic, and three of the album’s nine songs, among my favourites, sung by the much-missed Ronnie Lane.

When I married Kathie Touin and she moved from the United States to our small flat in West London I had to make some space for her possessions. As it was, she had to leave many of them in the USA. So it was that most of my LPs went to the Oxfam charity music shop at Ealing Broadway. A friend pointed out that some had a financial value but I did not have the time or inclination to sell them myself and I knew that the Oxfam shop – because it specialised in music – would get a decent price for items of value.

I did keep some records. I think I have those early singles by The Small Faces and The Monkees though I cannot see them right now. They could be buried in the back of my office cupboard (make a note, Darling: future project – sort out office cupboard). But I definitely kept about 40 records that currently reside upstairs in Kathie’s studio control room, mostly, I think, records I did not have on CD, or that I knew I would not easily replace, or that had exceptional artwork.

They include The Faces’ Ooh La La, which had a front cover picture of a man in a top hat which you could animate by hand, the Captain Beaky album (now virtually unobtainable) and a 12-inch single I Spy For The DTI, recorded to promote the offshore radio station Laser 558. I no longer play them but I do look through them now and again.

Earlier this year after my father died I had to clear my parents’ house and decide what to do with their music collection. I kept a number of CDs but, realising that it is impossible to keep everything, donated the other CDs along with the records to local charity shops.

However, for sentimental reasons I did keep one record, an EP as it happens, called Christmas At Home With Nina And Frederik. The tracks include Little Donkey, a sweet Christmas song which I remember fondly from childhood, and Mary’s Boy Child. The latter was a hit song when my mother Mary was expecting me in 1957 and led an aunt to correctly predict I would be a boy.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Gretchen Peters website http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Wikipedia: The Beatles discography https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beatles_discography

Wikipedia: Beans In My Ears https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beans_in_My_Ears

Wikipedia: Lazy Sunday by The Small Faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazy_Sunday_(Small_Faces_song)

Wikipedia: The Monkees discography https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monkees_discography

Wikipedia: Maggie May https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggie_May

Guardian article celebrating Roy Wood https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2016/nov/08/roy-wood-wizzard-the-move-glam-rock-pop-genius

Wikipedia: Ziggy Stardust… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Ziggy_Stardust_and_the_Spiders_from_Mars

Wikipedia: A Nod’s As Good As A Wink… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Nod_Is_As_Good_As_a_Wink…_to_a_Blind_Horse

Wikipedia: Ooh La La by The Faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ooh_La_La_(Faces_album)

Offshore Echos on Laser 558 http://www.offshoreechos.com/Laser/Laser%20story%20menu.htm

Wikipedia: Nina & Frederik https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_%26_Frederik

Auld Reekie

Mrs Brown, that is Kathie Touin, and I spent a weekend in Edinburgh – the excitement of the big city, in contrast to our quieter, slower life in Orkney.

The noise – of traffic and people – is one of the most noticeable differences from our home life. But the journey from Edinburgh Airport to our hotel was on the relatively new tram which is pleasantly smooth and quiet. In fact, the most noise came from a hen party which had been on our flight from Orkney and was then on our tram.

We stayed, as we did for our visit last year, at the Tune Hotel opposite Haymarket station. The hotel is run on the principle of a budget airline, so you get a room and then pay extra if you want towels, TV, wi-fi, and so on. Rather than splash our cash, we just paid for one towel and soap package. But when we arrived we discovered we had two sets of towels and soap, and a working TV – perhaps we had someone else’s room.

Our many years spent living in London give us an advantage in a big city – we are quite happy to get an all-day tram and bus ticket and set off to unfamiliar places. What can go wrong? Got to the wrong place? Just get another bus somewhere else.

I’ve entitled this blog Auld Reekie, the former nickname for Edinburgh, meaning old smoky. Of course, it isn’t smoky these days – though it presumably has unseen diesel pollution – but I think Auld Reekie is a great name that rolls around the tongue.

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Auld Reekie with The Heart of Midlothian train leaving Edinburgh, Waverley, for London, Kings Cross (image: British Railways postcard – thanks to David Ward’s Flickr feed)

Railway experts like my father will know that Auld Reekie was also a steam locomotive, an A1 class, one of many steam engines built after the Second World War but soon disposed of by British Railways – according to Wikipedia, built in December 1949 in Doncaster but withdrawn just 14 years later in December 1963.

You might know a more recent steam locomotive, Tornado, built by enthusiasts in 2008 and regularly seen up-and-down the UK – well, that is also an A1.

Anyway, back to our weekend in Edinburgh…

On arrival on Friday afternoon we went by bus to Grassmarket and Red Dog Music where Kathie looked at keyboards. We returned the following morning for another look and to purchase a keyboard (delivered to Orkney by courier today, as I write).

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The author with a Stewart Formula 1 car at the National Museum of Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Our Saturday continued – via a quick stop at the Scooby Doo cafe – at the National Museum of Scotland (free entry). It is an eclectic collection of exhibits, and is undergoing a revamp prior to new galleries opening this summer. But it was fascinating – among the treasures we saw were a Stewart Formula 1 racing car, a huge dinosaur, intricate face masks, musical instruments and many ancient artefacts excavated in Orkney.

There was far more than we could get round in one day, so we will be back. And it was refreshing, if a little noisy, to see how many parents were visiting a museum with small children.

On Sunday we took a tram to a shopping centre to look for a new dog-walking coat for me at TK Maxx. We failed to find one but came away with a lion, that is, a toy for our Border collie Roscoe.

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The Great Hall at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

Then it was on to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (free entry again), a fascinating collection of paintings and a chance to brush up on our Jacobite history. There were two pleasant surprises in store for us as well.

First, in the centre of the gallery, the beautiful Great Hall – arches, balconies, hanging lamps and murals depicting Scottish history.

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One of the excellent BP Portrait Award paintings: Ordeal by Murat Tezcan Demirbas

 

The second surprise was one of the temporary exhibitions – the BP Portrait Award 2015. I am not, I admit, much for modern art – you like a pile of bricks, or rubbish? Well, come and look in our garage or round the side of our house. But here we found a beautiful, striking, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, sometimes uplifing, selection of paintings of real people that did not look like the work of a small child.

On the Sunday evening we went to the Queen’s Hall to see Gretchen Peters in concert, the event around which we arranged our weekend away. This was the last night of Gretchen’s 20th anniversary tour (20 years since her first album and UK tour) but you would not have known it was the final gig – her voice was strong, clear and full of emotion. Of course, it helps that she has a fantastic selection of songs to perform – all, with one exception, written by herself.

Gretchen also has a great band – her long-time musical partner, and now husband, Barry Walsh plays piano and accordion. He is such a tasteful musician, sometimes choosing to play nothing at all rather than constantly trying to “add” to a song.

The band was completed for this tour by two musicians from Northern Ireland, Conor McCreanor on bass and Colm McClean on guitar and pedal steel.

If you do not know Gretchen’s music then please try her newly-released double CD, The Essential Gretchen Peters – I promise you will love it.

I should also say that despite this being the last date of the tour – and with long flights to the USA the following morning – Gretchen and Barry were very gracious with their time with fans in the foyer afterwards, great musicians but also thoroughly decent people.

Incidentally, proving the saying that wherever you go in the world you meet people from Orkney, we met two friends from Orkney in the audience.

On Monday we walked from our hotel to some local charity shops where we bought more books. This is not something we really need but who can resist two books of Paddington stories? Well, not me.

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Sun bear at Edinburgh Zoo (image: Graham Brown)

Then we were off to Edinburgh Zoo, just a short bus ride from our hotel. We had a great day, and got some good exercise as the zoo is built on a hillside. The animals seems to have generous enclosures and places where they can get away from public gaze. This meant that we did not see all of the animals, but that’s ok.

Our favourites included the chimpanzees, one of whom had discovered he could make a really loud noise by jumping up and down on an overhead metal walkway, the curious sun bear who seemed to be looking for his dinner, the elegant and beautifully-coloured African painted dogs, koalas, and the comical penguins.

During the weekend we went to some excellent restaurants which we hope to visit again and would certainly recommend: Khukuri (Nepalese), Frontier (American) and Cafe Jules (French). And not forgetting a fantastic Mediterranean breakfast at the Troy Cafe.

Edinburgh is certainly a great spot for a long weekend – or longer – and the visit charged our batteries for some challenges ahead this year.

Graham Brown

Postscript

Following my failure to buy a dog-walking coat at TK Maxx, I went to some of Orkney’s charity shops and in Kirkwall’s Blue Door (which helps a different cause each week) I found just what I was looking for – and it cost me £3. The discreet logo says “Stratstone Harrogate” which turns out to be a BMW dealer. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

Finally, as I complete this blog I learn that my month-long trip to England, for family reasons, has been postponed by three weeks until 25 March.

To find out more

A previous blog about our 2015 trip to Edinburgh: Reflections on Edinburgh… and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

A previous blog about Gretchen Peters: Sorry I can’t be in London, or Belfast… but I can be in Edinburgh – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/sorry-i-cant-be-in-london-or-belfast-but-i-can-be-in-edinburgh/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

A1 steam locomotives – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Peppercorn_Class_A1

David Ward’s railway photographs on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/70607220@N04/

National Museum of Scotland – http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/

Scottish National Portrait Gallery – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/portraitgallery

Edinburgh Zoo – http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/

Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know I am a big admirer of Gretchen Peters’ music. So much so, that my wife Kathie Touin and I travelled 200 miles to Edinburgh to see her in concert at Easter.

Well, it was everything I hoped it would be, and much more. Gretchen’s songs, we already knew, are beautiful, inspirational and challenging. We found the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh to be a lovely venue – it was built in 1823 as Hope Park Chapel – and congratulations go to the sound guys for a superb job. Gretchen’s voice live was perhaps even better than on her recordings.

She had a small but superb band – husband Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, bass player Conor McCreanor and Christine Bougie, playing the unusual combination of lead guitar, lap steel and drums.

The concert was moving and thought-provoking and, yes, I cried a little.

An added bonus was meeting Gretchen and Barry in the foyer at their post-concert signing session. Touring must be a tiring business but they were open and gracious – and I was thrilled when I told Gretchen we had travelled from Orkney and she replied: “Are you my Twitter friend?”

I’ve said this before and I will probably say it again – if you do not know Gretchen Peters’ music, do seek some out – for example, her most recent albums Blackbirds and Hello Cruel World.

Here is the title track of Blackbirds, and an acoustic version of Five Minutes from Hello Cruel World…

Kathie and I throughly enjoyed our four-and-a-half days in Edinburgh. Previously I had only visited briefly as a young teenager and Kathie not at all – though we have driven many times around the Edinburgh ring road, across the Forth Road Bridge and once to Leith to see the Royal Yacht Britannia.

View from Edinburgh Castle (image: Graham Brown)
View from Edinburgh Castle (image: Graham Brown)

We explored the shops on Princes Street and the old buildings along the Royal Mile. We spent half-a-day admiring the paintings in the National Gallery of Scotland, appreciated the beauty of St Giles Cathedral, and spent a day at Edinburgh Castle – a beautiful sunny day, and the views of the city from the castle were stunning.

Kathie Touin says hello to Greyfriars Bobby (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin says hello to Greyfriars Bobby (image: Graham Brown)

On the last day we went to the Scottish Parliament and, just across the road, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. And, of course, we could not leave without saying hello to Greyfriars Bobby and leaving a stick from Roscoe on Bobby’s graveyard memorial stone.

We found Edinburgh’s buses and the new trams gave us prompt and easy transport options around the city.

Viva Mexico restaurant, Edinburgh (image: Graham Brown)
Viva Mexico restaurant, Edinburgh (image: Graham Brown)

All of the restaurants we visited were good, but I would particularly recommend Viva Mexico (Kathie, being from California with its strong Mexican influence, is particular about her Mexican food and loved this place) and a Nepalese establishment called Khukuri.

We stayed at the Tune Hotel, conveniently situated opposite a tram and bus interchange, and Haymarket railway station. It is run on the principle of a budget airline, you pay for a room and then pay extra for what you need, eg TV and towels. The staff were friendly and, instead of coffee and tea in the room, which never tastes great, we were able to buy decent hot drinks from reception whenever we wanted.

Since returning from Edinburgh I have been busy as you can tell – I really should have written this blog sooner – working at the RSPB office, volunteering for the RSPB, volunteering with the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project, starting this year’s gardening, and going places.

Scanning my diary, I see that, among other events, I have twice been to Bag The Bruck (annual sessions to collect bruck, ie rubbish, from beaches), I went to the recording of BBC Radio Orkney’s General Election hustings programme (fascinating and lively), and Kathie and I went to St Magnus Kirk, Birsay for the annual St Magnus Day service. This is significant for us because St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and, by complete accident, we moved here on St Magnus Day in 2010.

RSPB events since Easter have included a fascinating talk about RSPB Forsinard Flows – just across the Pentland Firth from Orkney – a screening of some superb films of Orkney wildlife, shot by Raymond Besant, a cold but worthwhile morning viewing hen harriers and other raptors, and a sunny day on Hoy when Kathie and I went to watch the white-tailed eagles’ nest and talk to visitors.

These magnificent birds, also known as sea eagles, have an eight-foot wingspan and it is the first time they have attempted to breed in Orkney since 1873. Watching one of the pair lazily drift down to the nest with prey – possibly a hare – was a privilege.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Some of my photographs of Edinburgh, and Orkney, on my Instagram: https://instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

Gretchen Peters: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Hall,_Edinburgh

National Galleries Scotland: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

St Giles Cathedral: http://www.stgilescathedral.org.uk/

Scottish Parliament: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/

Palace of Holyroodhouse: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse

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

My favourite painting in the National Gallery of Scotland: Travelling Musicians (image: Graham Brown)
My favourite painting in the National Gallery of Scotland: Travelling Musicians (image: Graham Brown)

Sorry I can’t be in London, or Belfast… but I can be in Edinburgh

Kimmie Rhodes (photo by Christopher Durst)
Kimmie Rhodes (photo by Christopher Durst)

Two of my favourite singer-songwriters are touring the UK now. The good news is that I can get to see one but, sadly, not the other.

I have mentioned in many blogs and countless Tweets how much I love living in Orkney, a part of the world frequently described as being “remote”.

But for those of us who live here it is the rest of the world that is remote, not ourselves. Remember, for the Vikings the Orkney Islands were at a crossroads between Scandinavia, Shetland, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

But one disadvantage of being here is not being able to get easily to see favourite bands and singers on concert tours. To be honest, since we came here there have not been too many times when I felt the urge to head south – with the grand exception of the trip my wife Kathie Touin and I made to London to see Kate Bush last year. What a fantastic concert that was.

But shortly we are off again, this time to see Gretchen Peters at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. I don’t want to be rude to you, or to Gretchen, but I imagine many of you have never heard of her. Let me tell you, if you don’t already know, she is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the early 21st century. So there.

Blackbirds, latest album by Gretchen Peters (photo by Gina Binkley)
Blackbirds, latest album by Gretchen Peters (photo by Gina Binkley)

Gretchen, an American, wrote a number of big country hits in the past, such as Independence Day (recorded by Martina McBride) and On A Bus To St Cloud (Trisha Yearwood). But don’t let the c-word, country, put you off – as I know it will for some.

She is now perhaps better categorised as an Americana artist, or better still, not categorised at all. And Gretchen is writing songs, and releasing albums, of amazing depth.

The sharp-eyed of you will notice that I have written about Gretchen’s music before but I am not making any excuses for that.

I would strongly recommend any of her output, but in particular her latest album Blackbirds – lots on the theme of death and old age to be found within – and her previous release, Hello Cruel World.

I could pick many examples but how about this lyric from The Cure For The Pain, from Blackbirds? This is not exactly mainstream Nashville:

“It’s not like you think it’s gonna be
Not like the movies that you see
Ain’t no soaring violins
Just machines and medicines”

But her songs are not just bleak, they are honest and life-affirming as well.

Here are two of Gretchen Peters’ songs. First, from Hello Cruel World, is Idlewild (the former name for JFK Airport). This reminds me of travelling in the back of the car as a child. But it says so much more, about families, about the USA…

And, from Blackbirds, this is Pretty Things, unusually for Gretchen she co-wrote this, with Ben Glover…

Here is the EPK, that’s electronic press kit for older readers, for the album Blackbirds in which Gretchen explains more…

I’m certainly looking forward to the concert in Edinburgh (and a chance for Kathie and I to explore the city).

Also touring in the UK is Kimmie Rhodes, also American, she is part of the thriving music scene in Austin, Texas – somewhere I would love to visit one day. She even made an album with Willie Nelson. Need I say more.

Her current tour takes in dates in England and Ireland, but not Scotland, or Wales for that matter. I wrote on Twitter that I have fond memories of Kimmie’s regular visits to the Weaver’s in London in the Nineties. It was a great music venue. She kindly wrote back to say she will be in London at the Old Queens Head on April 1. I had to explain I am not in London anymore.

Time and money prevents me from catching Kimmie this time but I hope to see her again on a future tour. Perhaps we can persuade her to come to Orkney?

Meanwhile there are many albums available, including the Covers album (some unusual songs covered here) and Kimmie’s latest, Cowgirl Boudoir, released a few days ago and hopefully landing on my doormat any day now.

For now here is Kimmie Rhodes at the recent C2C Festival in London, a beautiful performance of Love And Happiness, from her album Love Me Like A Song, a song she wrote with – and originally recorded with – Emmylou Harris…

Here is what Emmylou says about Kimmie: “Kimmie has the voice of a beautiful child coming from an old soul. She touches us where the better angels of our nature dwell, and I believe we need that now more than ever. If you haven’t before, do yourself a favour and bring her into your listening life.”

Thank you Gretchen and Kimmie for the great music. If you get a chance to see them live, buy a CD, get a download, please do so.

Graham Brown

To find out more

http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

http://kimmierhodes.com/

My previous blog on Gretchen Peters –https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/gretchen-peters/

And Gretchen is in this one about Rosanne Cash –https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/rosannecash/