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/

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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/