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/

Smelling the roses of Lancashire and Yorkshire

Who Knows Where The Time Goes? A song by Sandy Denny. And in these parts time has been evaporating at an alarming rate. I’m about to depart on another trip and I still haven’t blogged the previous one. So here goes…

Here are some impressions of a recent trip to the north of England to visit friends in Bolton and to meet my father in York. Don’t worry, I will not give you a blow-by-blow account of what we did every day. That would be like the old days when neighbours made you sit through slide shows of their holidays – though I do have some photographs to share!

In the centre of Manchester we visited both the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery (formerly the City Art Gallery). The highlight of the first, for me, was a special exhibition of The M+ Sigg Collection of Chinese art from the 1970s onwards.

M+ Sigg Collection at Whitworth Art Gallery (image: Graham Brown)
M+ Sigg Collection at Whitworth Art Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

I had not thought about modern Chinese art before and, if I had, I might have imagined there was not much because of state control. But this collection had some really striking artwork – a giant sculpture made up of Stone Age axe heads, photographs of a man gradually being covered in calligraphy, some self-portraits of heads that almost literally leapt off the wall, photographs of naked human bodies made to look like geographical features and much more. I loved it – and I don’t normally like modern art.

Hence, at Manchester Art Gallery, I knew I would enjoy their display of Victorian paintings, one of my favourite eras. It is many years since my last visit and I had forgotten that Auguste Charles Mengin’s 1877 painting of Sappho – of which we have a framed poster at home – is in the collection. Edwin Landseer’s 1849 painting The Desert, of a lion, is another favourite, and reputedly formed the basis of the illustration on Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup which has remained unchanged since my childhood.

The following day was less artistic but equally life-affirming. Blackpool! For those of you outside the UK, this is perhaps England’s most famous seaside holiday resort.

We began with a trip to the top of Blackpool Tower, opened in 1894 and more than 500 feet high. The views across Blackpool, the coast and beyond are truly spectacular.

Back down on the ground we explored the Comedy Carpet, a fabulous collection of jokes, catchphrases, comedy scripts and humorous song lyrics, all laid out in granite letters set in concrete on the pavement (sidewalk, Americans) between the tower and the sea.

Blackpool's Comedy Carpet (image: Graham Brown)
Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet (image: Graham Brown)

My favourites included the Dad’s Army script leading up to the famous “Don’t tell him, Pike!” – it shows how well crafted the whole sequence was – the lyrics to Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), a wonderful Ronnie Barker monologue and some of the shorter entries: “If you don’t laugh at the jokes, I’ll follow you home and shout through the letter box” (Ken Dodd) or “Eeeh… In’t it grand when yer daft?” Not sure who spoke that last phrase – well, that is part of the fascination of the comedy carpet, you are left to work out some of the answers for yourself.

There was another I thought particularly suitable for Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown, a dual US/UK citizen): “I’m half British, half American. My passport has an eagle with a tea bag in its beak.” Turns out that was Bob Hope.

And perhaps my favourite… Stan: “You know, Ollie, I was just thinking.” Ollie: “What about?” Stan: “Nothing. I was just thinking.”

Our day in Blackpool also included a ride on a tram to Fleetwood, past the Fishermen’s Friend factory, a ferry ride from Fleetwood across the River Wyre, the illuminations and, of course, we had fish & chips and bought some seaside rock.

We spent a quieter day in Port Sunlight, on the Wirral peninsula near Liverpool, a model (in the sense of good, not small) village created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by William Hesketh Lever, the soap manufacturer, for his workers. It sounds very paternalistic, patronising even, in this day and age, but some architecturally beautiful homes were built in a lovely setting of gardens, trees and flowers. On a sunny day, like the one we enjoyed, it is lovely to walk around.

Part of the Port Sunlight War Memorial (image: Graham Brown)
Part of the Port Sunlight War Memorial (image: Graham Brown)

Port Sunlight also boasts the Lady Lever Art Gallery – more Victorian paintings of the kind I love – and in the centre of the village a spectacular and moving war memorial, showing tableau of various groups of servicemen, designed by Sir William Goscombe John and unveiled in 1921.

Unexpectedly we also stumbled across some music history. The Port Sunlight Museum contains a display of photographs of pop stars who played at venues around the village, including, amazingly, The Beatles. A taped interview, recorded for hospital radio, made just after Ringo joined the band and just before they became huge, is available to hear – how young they all sound. Ringo’s first public show with the band was at Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight on 18 August 1962 – Kathie Touin proudly stood next to the plaque marking this auspicious occasion.

Kathie Touin with the plaque marking Ringo Starr's first appearance with The Beatles (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin with the plaque marking Ringo Starr’s first appearance with The Beatles (image: Graham Brown)

Over in York the first four days centred largely around historic transport: Yorkshire Air Museum, the National Railway Museum, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (a heritage or preserved railway) and the Scarborough Fair Collection.

It was a beautiful sunny day for the air museum visit as we strolled between buildings and displays. There are many historic aircraft to see, of course, both indoors and in hangars. There are also exhibitions that bring home the danger and fear of serving in a World War Two bomber – such aircraft were once based at the museum’s home of Elvington. And the museum has historic buildings, such as the control tower, and a splendid canteen with large model aircraft suspended from the ceiling.

The railway museum in York – free entry – will easily take a whole day of your time. There are fine restored steam locomotives including world-speed record holder Mallard, Winston Churchill (which hauled the statesman’s funeral train), an enormous Chinese steam locomotive (built in Britain), the beautiful maroon streamlined Duchess of Hamilton; carriages used by the Royal Family; and a hall full of railway memorabilia stacked high to the ceiling.

There was a bonus for me as well – I briefly went outside onto the museum’s viewing platform overlooking the main railway line just outside York railway station, seconds before the steam locomotive Tornado went past in the rain.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway: LMS Black 5 Eric Treacy and LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley (image: Graham Brown)
North Yorkshire Moors Railway: LMS Black 5 Eric Treacy and LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley (image: Graham Brown)

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is another grand day out – we drove to the railway’s terminus at Pickering and then took their steam trains along the line to its end at Grosmont, then on, still behind a steam locomotive, over regular Network Rail tracks to the historic seaside town of Whitby.

It was a wet day but somehow it doesn’t matter if it rains when you are travelling on a relaxed, journey, lazy even, between atmospheric brick-and-wood stations, watching the scenery, listening to the rhythms of the steam locomotive and of the carriage wheels.

Almost opposite Whitby railway station is a fabulous fish and chip restaurant called Trenchers. Many folk from the train headed straight there and so there was a queue but it was well worth the wait – the food was fabulous, the decor pleasant and the staff engaging.

A quick explore of Whitby found the town making much of its Dracula connections (Whitby features in the Bram Stoker novel). You can even buy Dracula seaside rock. It’s black, of course.

We spent another nostalgic day at the Scarborough Fair Collection. This is well worth finding, tucked away near Scarborough on the site of a holiday camp.

Inside are Wurlitzer organs – two of them being played live for a tea dance while we there – self-playing dance organs, vintage fairground rides (which you can ride on), old cars and motorcycles, traction and showmen’s engines and, once again, enthusiastic and helpful staff.

I was interested to discover a showman’s engine called The Iron Maiden, nothing to do with the heavy metal group, it acquired its name when it featured in a cinema film of the same name in 1962. Before that it had been known as Kitchener. As it was built in 1920, originally as a road haulage engine, I can only assume it was named after Earl Kitchener, a hero of British Empire and Britain’s Secretary of State for War, who drowned near Orkney in 1916 when HMS Hampshire sank (I am on the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project committee).

On a day in York itself we took in York Minster – what a beautiful building – and three of the finest coffee shops I have ever visited: Bennett’s (next to the Minster), Cafe Concerto (just around the corner) and Harlequin (in the Shambles, where we had a lunch of super home-made food).

Finally we visited the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall for a relaxing day out. The weather was good so we were able to sit in the gardens and admire all the plants and vegetables we are not able to grow in Orkney.

In the house I was struck by the Royal Family portraits on display, loaned from the National Portrait Gallery – an informal painting of Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh, The Queen Mother, Prince Charles, William and Harry was particularly striking.

We returned from York for a relaxing weekend with our friends back in Bolton before flying back to Orkney.

But there was time for two more notable transport sightings. At York railway station, while we waited for our train to Manchester Piccadilly, we saw a Class 91 locomotive named Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight with an imaginative paint scheme.

Boarding FlyBe's The George Best at Manchester Airport (image: Graham Brown)
Boarding FlyBe’s The George Best at Manchester Airport (image: Graham Brown)

And two days’ later our flight from Manchester to Edinburgh was on a FlyBe Dash 8 named The George Best. For young or non-UK readers, he was one of Britain’s most famous footballers, best known as a player with Manchester United and Northern Ireland.

Next stop for us in Arizona to see Kathie’s folks so guess what my next blog is likely to be about? Over and out.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Bolton

Whitworth Art Gallery

Whitworth Art Gallery: M+ Sigg Collection

Manchester Art Gallery

Blackpool Tower

Wikipedia: Blackpool Tower

Comedy Carpet

BBC News: Comedy Carpet

Port Sunlight Village

Wikipedia: Port Sunlight

Yorkshire Air Museum

National Railway Museum

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Scarborough Fair Collection

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project: blog

A remarkable 24 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

To find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threads from the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

To find out more

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015

Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)
Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)

And so that was Christmas, to mis-quote John Lennon – “And what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun” as he actually sang on Happy Christmas (War Is Over).

Well, we know one thing for sure, war and violence is not over. If anything, terrorism seems more unpredictable and brutal than before.

And, like any year, the world of 2014 was full of misery, poverty, illness and accidents – this year’s litany including, but by no means restricted to, Ebola, the Ukraine, lost airliners, the suicide of Robin Williams, desperate refugees in overcrowded boats, Syria, Palestine, more cases of historical abuse of the young in the UK coming to light, the list goes on.

Closer to home, and equally painful for those involved, many folk had personal tragedies. I know two women who unexpectedly lost their husbands this year at desperately young ages.

Sometimes I muse on the world, and human beings – is it essentially evil and hopeless, or essentially loving and positive? Your own answer might depend on your perspective, your beliefs, or on what happened to you in 2014.

I tend to think we are overwhelmingly loving and positive – perhaps I am kidding myself, perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist – but most people get through most days without inflicting violence on others, perhaps do a few good deeds, and at the same time appreciate the beauty of the natural world around them. At least I hope so.

Leaving aside the tragedies of 2014, it has been an interesting year politically – and if, like me, you live in Scotland it was fascinating and exciting. The referendum on Scottish independence ignited the political debate like nothing else has done for years.

What of next year? Well, only fools make firm predictions but it seems unlikely any one party will get an overall majority at the UK General Election on May 7. It also seems likely that the SNP – despite failing to gain Scottish independence – will make considerable gains at the expense of Labour. Meanwhile the Green Party and UKIP will probably get large numbers of votes but may struggle to translate them into seats at Westminster.

Will we have another coalition government? Perhaps, though the various parties concerned might not be so willing this time around. A minority government? Maybe more likely. Minority governments are, of course, more unstable so that could lead to another election in quick succession.

So having moved the Scottish Parliamentary elections back a year, to 2016, to avoid the General Election, we could still end up with both elections in the same year. We shall see.

One outcome of the Referendum was the resignation of Alex Salmond as Scotland’s First Minister, to be replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman to hold the post. And, like her predecessor, she is far more capable than most if not all Westminster politicians – someone you would want on your side, whatever your political beliefs.

Here in Orkney the reassuring rhythms of the year continue (see my blog: The Rhythms And Markers Of An Orcadian Year) but even in our sometimes apparently cosy world there have been losses, of individuals, of people’s jobs, of dreams and schemes.

During the year Orkney’s commercial so-called community radio station closed. Sadly, the Super Station Orkney was a missed opportunity, not really a community station, more a jukebox with adverts, something I wrote about in a 2011 blog (Where Is The Super Station In Orkney?). Not only that, the station’s management handed the licence back to Ofcom without giving local folk the chance to take it over and create a genuine community station.

Fortunately here in Orkney we have The Orcadian, a proper and detailed local newspaper, and excellent programmes from BBC Radio Orkney, an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland which fulfils many of the functions of a community radio station.

Orkney in 2014 has also seen some exceptional weather. Despite what a few folk in the south of England believe, we are not in “the frozen north”. Yes, it is frequently wet and windy, and sometimes stormy, but rarely frozen. We have milder temperatures than the Highlands of Scotland, for example, because we are surrounded by water and because we benefit from the Gulf Stream.

However, towards the end of this year we had a large number of thunder storms, and numerous lightning strikes. Some people lost chimneys, and many folk lost telephone lines and their internet. In fact, on New Year’s Eve BBC Radio Orkney reported this: “BT say that more than 300 lightning-related faults remain outstanding in Orkney and it will be well into the New Year before the backlog is cleared. Additional engineers from Inverness, Glasgow and the English Midlands are being drafted in from next week.”

We had some lightning strikes in Orkney last year as well – and one family lost their home in a fire as a result – so we all hope this will not become an annual event.

What has happened on a personal level this year? My wife, Kathie Touin, has had some excellent musicians and artists pass through her Starling Recording Studio. And as the year ends she is working on her own recordings – listen out in 2015.

During 2014 Kathie acquired her first grand piano, so realising a lifetime ambition – see Kathie’s blog for more on that (My Life In Pianos).

We enjoyed trips to northern Arizona, where Kathie’s family now lives, and closer to home – but still two flights away – to the Isle of Wight and London. More about these trips in previous blogs as well (Arizona Dreamin’; London Calling, And The Isle Of Wight Too).

Our rescue Border Collie, Roscoe, continues to amuse and entertain us, and more than repay our time and vet’s bills.

We both continue to volunteer with the RSPB and I now find myself on another committee – this time working to restore Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial in a way that better remembers the more than 700 men who died when HMS Hampshire sank, a couple of miles from Orkney, in a terrible summer storm.

The centenary of this event is 5 June 2016, less than 18 months away. It will be a timely reminder of how fragile and precious life is.

I will close with the words I posted on my Twitter account in the early hours of 2015: Happy New Year, one and all. Keep relaxed, cherish your loved ones, be kind to those you know, smile at strangers.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia on The Gulf Stream: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_Stream

Kathie Touin

Starling Recording Studio

The Orcadian

BBC Radio Orkney on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Twitter