The first seven weeks…

Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)
Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

So, how is 2018 for you so far? Some small triumphs? Some big positives? And, for some, of course, there will have been loss and sadness. Sorry.

The world rolls round, our nervousness about the Korean peninsular slightly eased by the Winter Olympics; Brexit continuing to breed uncertainty and division, in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere; we’ve had more dangerous nonsense from the United States President; more cases of the abuse of children and women coming to light; disturbing news about Oxfam; and another horrific mass shooting in the States.

For Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I the year had a very quiet start. We had stayed at home over the Christmas period while our Border collie Roscoe recovered from an operation (he is doing very well, thank you for asking). Our first notable outing was our village Hogmanay event in Quoyloo Old School which must be, I think where it happened…

On 3 January Kathie and I both crashed with the flu. And I mean crashed. Within a few hours of feeling unwell we were both in bed, hardly able to move, not wanting to eat. I have had “flu-like colds” before but not the flu – this was wicked.

For several days we alternated between bed and short, exhausting periods in front of the TV. We had to ask a friend in our village to go shopping for essential supplies for us, making sure she left them in the porch and did not come into the plague house.

In the past I have thought an illness would be a great opportunity to catch-up with my reading but, when it came to it, I did not have the energy. Thankfully the programmes I had saved on the BBC iPlayer Radio app provided some entertainment and brain stimulation.

We got to day ten of the illness before I felt well enough to take Roscoe for a walk.

After nearly a fortnight I felt well enough to go into the RSPB Scotland office in Stromness, where I had been asked to provide cover for a colleague.

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)
Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

Since the end of December we have experienced an unusual amount of snow in Orkney – never enough to cause drifting but enough to make some of my journeys to work a little tricky. And, this is the exciting part, enough for Roscoe to roll around in.

We had really heavy snow the first winter we lived in Orkney (December 2010) but that was before Roscoe came to live with us. Then it became so bad that only very large tractors were able to drive down the track past our house and they left a channel so deep that when I walked in it the surrounding snow came up to my waist.

Older Orcadians tell us that in their youth it was much more common to get snow here and archive black-and-white photographs of Orkney seem to bear this out.

Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)
Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)

My latest stint working at the RSPB was, essentially, the second half of January. One aspect I enjoy about going to work is the chance to listen to CDs in the car (not that I don’t enjoy Kathie’s conversation when she is in the car). The Audi A1 which I inherited from my father has a very good sound system.

So it was that I found myself, for the first time in some years, listening to my double Les Misérables CD (Original London cast) all the way through.

To go back some years…

I was not particularly interested in musicals though both of my parents enjoyed them. I remember as a child my father would burst into extracts from Oklahoma as he walked around the house – “There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow…”

Then in the 1980s I have a memory of my mother talking enthusiastically about a moving song (which turned out to be Send Him Home) from a new musical (which turned out to be Les Mis) which she had heard on the radio.

In 1986 I moved to London and so began a series of visits from my parents. Inevitably, they wanted to go to the West End theatres and, in particular, musicals. The first one they chose was Les Misérables . It was not the first musical I ever saw but the first that really hooked me – since then I have seen the show about half-a-dozen times. It ranks as my favourite musical, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I challenge you to sit through a decent stage production of either without regular need of a hankie to wipe your eyes.

One of the Les Misérables productions I have seen was by Orkney’s Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society (KAOS) in 2015 – the first time an amateur group in the UK had performed the show. I admit I was slightly dubious about going to see this production but the local cast did it proud. Well done all.

Listening to my CD while driving between our home in Quoyloo and the office in Stromness (it took a few trips before I finished, it’s only a nine-mile journey) I was reminded again what a stupendous work Les Misérables is – a tale of love, loss and redemption, with some great soaring tunes, and a timely reminder of what it is to be at the bottom of the heap in society.

Theatrical history tells that Les Mis got very poor reviews when it began and it is remarkable how, in an age before social media, the audience’s love for the show and word-of-mouth overcame this early setback.

The original French version, based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (most lyrics). The majority of the English words were written by Herbert Kretzmer, a South African who had a long career in Britain as a journalist and a lyricist. When I first worked at the BBC he was one of the national newspaper TV reviewers who regularly called into the press office.

Les Misérables logo
Les Misérables logo

If you get a chance to see Les Mis on stage, or listen to the CD, please do. But remember your hankie. Incidentally, I have yet to watch the film (movie) version as I am nervous as to what they have done with it.

This first six weeks of 2018 have seen completion of two projects at our house: the guest room en suite, delayed for months by a mystery leak which turned out to be water seeping through the actual porcelain of the toilet, and a new stone wall at the front of the house, designed to cover the drab concrete blocks and to prevent anyone falling off our frontage.

This past weekend Kathie and I did some tidying outside, filling the new “lower flower border” – oh yes, we have an upper border as well – with compost, much of it from our own bin. And Kathie constructed a stone bench from pieces of stone we have about the place – the sun even shone allowing us to try it out.

Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)

Back in early February Quoyloo Old School – of which Kathie and I are “Managers”, ie committee members – was hosting a dangerous goods course for lorry drivers or, if you are American, truck drivers. Thankfully this did not involve dangerous goods in the school, but it did involve the Managers providing the lunchtime catering.

Two of the Managers, John and I, donned aprons in order to serve the soup. Our Chair, Edith, thought this rather funny and she asked if, in a previous life, we had ever thought we would find ourselves in a remote old school, dressed in pinnies, serving soup to lorry drivers. Answer, no.

Anyway, it was a manly apron from the Kent & East Sussex Railway, not a pinny.

Graham Brown

P.S. Kathie and I went to see The Darkest Hour last night. A great performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. And, I must admit, hearing again some of Churchill’s speeches has made me feel my English language skills are a little inadequate.

To find out more

BBC Radio – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio

Wikipedia on Les Misérables – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables_(musical)

The Orcadian on Orkney production of Les Miserables – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/first-for-orkney-production-of-les-miserables/

Quoyloo Old School on Facebook – https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/

Kent & East Sussex Railway – https://www.kesr.org.uk/

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…

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