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

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/

The Day I Met An Avenger – or – Happy Birthday Patrick Macnee

Parental advisory: contains strong language (but not until near the end).

In a few weeks’ time it will be five years since my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney – it hardly seems possible, the time has flown by.

Some of you will know that before Orkney I worked at the BBC – in fact, I spent nearly 24 years working in the BBC Press Office.

Frequently people who I met outside work – hairdressers, for example – would say, “Oh, you must meet lots of famous people.” They were always a bit disappointed in my answer that no, not really, I work in the corporate Press Office so we deal with press questions about BBC policy. At evenings and weekends as the duty press office we field press enquiries about everything from EastEnders to Radio 1 but that does not involve meeting the stars.

By this time the hairdresser would be losing interest. Saying that I saw famous people about the place was not quite what they wanted to hear. Frankly, it might have been easier to say yes, I meet lots of famous people but I can’t talk about it.

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (image: BFI)
Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (image: BFI)

Recently I have been watching old black-and-white episodes of the TV fantasy crime adventure series The Avengers, on the True Entertainment channel, and this got me thinking about famous people I have met. More of that later but – spoiler alert – I can tell you it was sadly not Diana Rigg.

Most of the famous people I met I interviewed when I was working in English local newspapers in West Norfolk (Lynn News & Advertiser) and Peterborough (Evening Telegraph). My time in Rugby and Corby did not throw up much excitement.

My interviews included a clutch of DJs: Ed Stewart (post-Junior Choice, “there is life after the BBC,” he told me – and I discovered he was right), Mark Wesley (anyone remember Radio Luxembourg?), Mike Read and Anne Nightingale. Somewhere I have a photograph of Annie and me, I must find that to show you.

I also spoke to stunt motorcyclist Eddie Kidd – I remember seeing how frightened his partner looked just before his display – and Richard Noble who, at the time, held the land-speed record of 633.468 mph.

Once I interviewed the then BBC Director-General, Alasdair Milne, on a train as part of the launch of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

I also spoke to a few music stars, including the soul band Odyssey (my main memory is that they were really pleasant people) and the band Rich Kids which included Midge Ure and, recently ex-Sex Pistols, Glen Matlock. Looking back, Midge Ure was the particularly helpful one with the PR focus – in the same way that Paul McCartney was in The Beatles (sorry, I didn’t meet any of the Fab Four).

And I interviewed a famous Sixties soul singer who was a favourite of my News Editor (boss) at King’s Lynn – the singer’s name is lurking in the back of my mind and I’ll probably remember it after I have posted this blog.

But I do recall that at the North Norfolk Roman Catholic shrine of Walsingham I shook hands with the then Archbishop of Westminster, the highly respected Basil Hume.

And, chillingly in retrospect, I spoke on the phone to Jimmy Savile. I was visiting Stoke Mandeville Hospital to report on the progress of a local man who was a patient and, while I was in the hospital office, he happened to ring up. I was put on the phone to him and, knowing I was from the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, his opening gambit was “How is the Peterborough Effect?”, an advertising slogan of the time.

Once on a film set in West Norfolk I interviewed a most gracious older actress. This is awful – I am not sure of her name either. Not sure? Let’s be honest, I have forgotten. But I can picture her still, walking elegantly through the French doors of a country house during filming on a summer’s day.

But let’s move quickly on to a memorable day when I was sent to the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. It is a steam heritage railway which was, and probably still is, used frequently by film crews because of its relative proximity to London. Remember the James Bond film Octopussy, when he drives along railway tracks? That sequence was filmed at the Nene Valley Railway.

Anyway, on the day of my visit, sometime around 1985, a pilot episode was being filmed for an American TV series called Lime Street, about two insurance investigators played by Robert Wagner and John Standing.

And, yes, I got to meet both of these gentlemen though, of course, the photographer and I had to wait some time before we were admitted to Mr Wagner’s caravan.

But what made the day really special for me was the guest star in this episode – Patrick Macnee, who I loved as John Steed in The Avengers when I was a child.

I still enjoy his performances today and I’m heartened to read on Wikipedia that today, 6 February, as I write, Patrick is celebrating his 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday, Sir.

I also liked his character John Steed’s Bentley car, of late Twenties vintage I would say – ancient now but only about 35 years old when the programmes were being made.

This car was similar to the Bentleys which won the Le Mans 24-hour race five times from 1924 to 1930. I was fascinated by them – I’m not sure if I had my interest in the cars as a result of The Avengers, or whether it was because of a book I read as a child about someone entering a vintage Bentley in the Le Mans 24-hour race years after their heyday.

Inevitably the day’s filming at the Nene Valley Railway was slow and interrupted and, after I had formally interviewed Patrick Macnee, I found myself standing on a platform chatting to him while he waited for the rain to stop so he could continue work.

His persona was polite and helpful, and not a million miles from his on-screen role in The Avengers. I should emphasise that I do not mean he could not act – I saw him in The Avengers recently playing a double with a very different personality. He was, I think, simply a polite and gracious man.

Two stories stick in my mind. He spoke about a recent media report about his friend Angela Lansbury in which they had disclosed her age. He was outraged they could do such a thing to “a lady”.

And – this is where we get to the bad language – the subject of This Is Your Life came up. I should explain, for younger readers, this was a TV show in which the presenter, carrying a large red book, would surprise a famous person and whisk them off to a studio to relive their life, complete with guests and reunions.

I established Patrick Macnee had been the subject of This Is Your Life and said something like: “That must really throw you, when they jump out with the big red book.” 

I will never forget his reply.

“Dear boy, fucked up my whole day, I was just going for lunch at the time.”

Postscript

Re-discovered! Bruce Carter's book Speed Six!
Re-discovered! Bruce Carter’s book Speed Six!

Since writing this blog I have finally re-discovered my childhood book about the Bentley going to Le Mans. It is Speed Six by Bruce Carter, and seems to have been published in 1953 which would make the storyline a little more credible, if still fanciful. I must have read a 1960s paperback edition. But – here is the exciting news – I’ve found a 1970s edition on eBay which should be on its way to me in Orkney.

To find out more

True Entertainment channel is available in the UK on Freeview channel 61 (except Wales), Freesat channel 142, Sky channel 184 (+1 on channel 261) and Virgin Media (channel 189). The Avengers is being shown at 11.00am and 8.00pm on weekdays. 

Patrick Macnee website: http://www.patrickmacnee.com/

Wikipedia on Patrick Macnee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Macnee

Wikipedia on The Avengers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Avengers_(TV_series)

Wikipedia on Lime Street: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lime_Street_(TV_series)

Nene Valley Railway website: http://www.nvr.org.uk/