2020 vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 sunset
The last sunset of the old decade seen from our house (image: Graham Brown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Graham Brown

P.S. Here’s Kathie’s New Year blog…


To find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”).

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.

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.

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.

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;

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.

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) –

The author interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (after the news) –

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

Flashes of memory – and the latest from Orkney

Binscarth Woods, Orkney (image: Graham Brown)
Binscarth Woods, Orkney (image: Graham Brown)

Back in August 2012 I wrote a blog about memories, called “Sorry, I seem to have forgotten”, and I would like to return to the subject with some more recollections.

I wrote about how memories can, sometimes, be just a snippet – it is as if we have a few seconds of film, sometimes grainy, sometimes vivid, with everything before and after missing.

So I remember as a small child going to the Huntingdon Agricultural Show and one of the entertainments in the main ring was Red Indians (as we in England described Native Americans then) riding around on horses. One of them caught me with water from a water pistol. I think the event was quite scary for a small child – I was standing by the ring and men on horses were really big – which is why the flash of that moment has stuck in my mind. Incidentally, today such an event would not be held because the Red Indians must surely have been British folk masquerading – and wearing coloured make-up.

I also remember each summer staying with my grandparents for a holiday and how grandad would go out with a bucket and a spade, after the Co-operative milk float had gone by, to collect the horse droppings for his garden. Yes, I am that old, the Co-op milk float was pulled by a horse in Peterborough in those days.

And when I was a little older, I think, I remember my uncle on one of his visits home from South Africa, arguing with my father in a good-natured way about road directions as we drove through rural England, Northamptonshire or Leicestershire perhaps. It resulted in us going through a village we could have avoided and my father saying to my uncle: “Well, that was a piece of England you would have missed if we hadn’t done that.” The rest of that day is lost to my memory.

Just this morning, No Particular Place To Go by Chuck Berry popped up on Caroline Flashback – an excellent new service from Radio Caroline – and it took me back to the mid-Seventies when I started driving. I remember driving my father’s new Ford Cortina Ghia over what was then the only bridge in Peterborough across the River Nene as that song came on the radio. It’s as clear as yesterday, the song started just as we turned the corner onto the bridge. However, unlike the song, I was driving with my parents and not a glamorous young woman. By the way, a Ford Cortina Ghia was quite the car to own in those days.

But the memory also plays tricks. I am reading a book called Speed Six by Bruce Carter – bought second-hand because I loved it as a youngster. Set in the Fifties, it tells the story of three romantics who take a 25-year-old Bentley back to Le Mans to enter the 24-hour race.

One of the things I remembered about the book was how, at the beginning, a bread delivery van races away from traffic lights and it turns out to be driven by some sort of mechanical genius. Except, when I came to read Speed Six, that section wasn’t there. Further research reveals this passage is in another of Bruce Carter’s books, Four Wheel Drift, which I must also have read as a child. Since then my memory conflated the two books.

Well, what memories have we been making in Orkney in the merry month of May? First, may I say, the weather has been windier, cooler and wetter than it should have been which has slowed down our gardening – and presented real problems for the farmers.

Our new flower order (image: Graham Brown)
Our new flower border (image: Graham Brown)

But we have created a new flower border in front of our house with reclaimed stone. I was even able to follow in my grandad’s footsteps and collect droppings for the border after some horses walked down the track past our house.

We planted ten alder trees between our house and next-door, then had to put tree guards on to keep the rabbits from eating them, then had to add extra stakes in very rocky soil to try to keep the guards upright in the unseasonable winds.

We’ve also had fun with our bird-feeders. We stopped using expensive metal ones because the gulls would steal them. But the plastic ones were chewed through, in a systematic way, as if someone had clipped pieces out with strong scissors. Opinion varies as to whether it was the gulls, or one of our neighbourhood rats, or both. We have, however, seen the rat easily scale the narrow metal pole from which the bird-feeders hang. So now we only put out small amounts of food at a time, and the feeders are firmly tied in place.

We had a lovely early morning walk, six o’clock start – on a beautiful day, for once – in Binscarth Woods as part of Orkney Nature Festival, listening both to birdsong and to the expert explanations of Professor Peter Slater. As it said in the festival programme: “Professor Slater, former Professor of Natural History at St Andrews and current President of the Orkney Field Club, quite literally wrote the book on bird song!”

Orkney Folk Festival, from left: Kathie Touin, Frank Keenan, Hilary Allen, compere David Delday & Steve Miller (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Folk Festival, from left: Kathie Touin, Frank Keenan, Hilary Allen, compere David Delday & Steve Miller (image: Graham Brown)

Orkney is famous for its festivals and so we go from nature to folk – Kathie Touin (my wife, if you are new to my blog) played at Orkney Folk Festival in Frank Keenan’s band at the Deerness, East Mainland, concert. Kathie was playing keyboards and singing harmonies. Frank plays guitar and sings his self-penned songs, also in the band were Hilary Allen on percussion and Steve Miller on clarinet and whistle. It was the first appearance for that particular line-up and they made an excellent showcase for Frank’s thoughtful songs.

Speaking of thoughtful songs, well, perhaps not, Kathie and I watched the Eurovision Song Contest – always an enjoyable, silly and camp evening. I thought the UK entry, by Electro Velvet, deserved to do better, they certainly gave a good performance. We have friends who are promising a Eurovision party next year so I might have to dress up myself.

We used the name Electo Velvet for our team at the Quoyloo village quiz evening in the Old School and were rather more successful – we won. There were six of us and I cannot take much credit though from somewhere at the back of my mind I came up with three important answers: lollipop, Adolf Hitler and attempted assassination of Queen Victoria. I’ll leave you to imagine what the questions might have been.

Of course, the biggest news on our island this month has been our Orkney & Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, former Scottish Secretary in the Coalition Government. He was re-elected as an MP at the General Election on 7 May with a vastly reduced majority, only for his part in leaking a document damaging to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Scottish National Party to be made public, leading to calls for him to stand down or to face a by-election.

It would take another blog to go into the details of this, and the various arguments for and against, and I am not going to do so here. Suffice to say, it has been the topic of much conversation and sometimes heated debate, and will be for some time yet.

Bee-eater in Quoyloo, Orkney (fuzzy image by Graham Brown)
Bee-eater in Quoyloo, Orkney (fuzzy image: Graham Brown)

Finally, just yesterday afternoon, we were driving along the track back to our house when Kathie spotted a bee-eater sitting on the fence. What an amazingly coloured, beautiful bird. They are only very occasionally seen in Orkney when they overshoot on their migration, so we were very lucky. We watched the bee-eater for a few minutes, before it flew off into the distance. And, that, metaphorically, is what I am going to do now.

Graham Brown

To find out more

My previous memories blog – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/sorry-i-seem-to-have-forgotten/

Radio Caroline, recommended listening – http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Orkney Nature Festival – http://orkneynaturefestival.org/

Orkney Folk Festival – http://www.orkneyfolkfestival.com/

Wikipedia on the European bee-eater – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_bee-eater

Looking from a different perspective

A good perspective: view from our house on 5 November 2013
A good perspective: view from our house on 5 November 2013

I grew up in England. It probably doesn’t matter too much exactly where but it was on the borders of East Anglia and the East Midlands, near Peterborough. I grew up English, with an English view of the world.

In 1986 I moved to London and, a few years later, got divorced. These two events definitely widened my world view. My ideas were further challenged when I married Kathie Touin, a United States citizen in 2003.

But in 2010 my whole perspective started to really change when Kathie and I moved to Orkney. For those who do not know, the Orkney islands are a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland.

When I announced to my work colleagues in London that we were moving to Orkney I got some interesting reactions.

Many people were honest enough to ask where Orkney was, often mistakenly believing it to be part of the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It reminded me of the crisis that led to the 1982 Falklands War when many English people discovered the Falklands were not vaguely somewhere in Scotland but, in fact, in the South Atlantic.

Some work chums clearly imagined – wrongly – that Orkney was made up of small crofts, with a population of regular church-goers speaking Gaelic.

My favourite two reactions were, “Will you have electricity?” and “Wow, New Zealand!” To be fair to the person who said the latter, they probably mis-heard “Auckland” for “Orkney”.

Now Kathie and I have been in Orkney for three-and-a-half years I realise that my perspective has changed significantly.

The south, to me, once meant the south of England, an area along the south coast and coming a little way inland. Now the south can be anywhere in the UK, except Shetland. For those not familiar with Shetland, that is the last group of islands heading north before you leave the UK – the ones that often appear in a box on a map, or not at all.

The North-East used to mean Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough (home of Guy Bailey, former US Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Teesside – you can look him up on Twitter). Now when I refer to the North-East I usually mean Aberdeen.

The East Coast was once to me the coastline around East Anglia, or I might have thought of an area further north, perhaps the coast of East Yorkshire. But now if someone says the East Coast I am likely to think of somewhere in Scotland such as St Andrews or Dundee, or possibly just across the border in Berwick.

The words national and nationwide now potentially lead to confusion for me. If I heard either on a radio news bulletin when I was living in England I would think of the UK as a whole. Now I have to stop myself – what station am I listening to? Is it BBC Radio Scotland? In which case national or nationwide will mean Scotland. Is it a UK-wide channel? In which case, we are talking about all of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And there’s another confusing word, though it sounds straightforward enough – mainland. Here in Orkney there are two distinct uses of the word. We might be referring to the mainland of Scotland, ie the part of Scotland that is joined on to England, from where we fly or take the ferry to reach Orkney.

But that is not the word’s most common use here. Mainland is the name of the largest island in Orkney and if someone in Orkney says Mainland that is probably what they are referring to.

Kathie and I live in Mainland Orkney, to be precise in what is known as West Mainland.

There is potential confusion as well between the collective noun for Shetland and Orkney and that for the more northerly of the Orkney islands. But with care this can be avoided.

Shetland and Orkney are the Northern Isles – they will frequently be referred to as such in UK-wide BBC Weather forecasts, and elsewhere.

And North Isles is the correct term for Orkney’s more northerly islands such as North Ronaldsay and Westray.

There’s a Paul McCartney song called Flaming Pie, the title track of an excellent album, which includes the lyric:

I took my brains out and stretched ’em on the rack

“Now I’m not so sure I’m gonna get ’em back.”

It’s a bit like that for me. My brains have been stretched, I have a different perspective on the world and the old perspective won’t be coming back.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Orkney

Visit Orkney

Guy Bailey on Twitter

It wouldn’t be a show without Punch

Mr Punch (image: B/failing_angel on Flickr)
Mr Punch (image: B/failing_angel on Flickr)

This is getting silly. Regular readers of this blog will know that the previous two entries were based on sayings and expressions used regularly by my mother.

And for the third time – but I promise this will be the last time for now – I am going to write about that subject. You see, the problem is, I keep remembering more and more of my late mother’s choice words.

In the previous two blogs I wrote about seven phrases she regularly used:

Hot as hen muck;

Queen Anne’s dead;

Pride rises above pain;

All round Dogsthorpe to get to Peterborough;

You don’t want to start from here at all;

A here-you-are-for-where-you-want-to-be;

It’s as much waste to eat it if you don’t want it as it is to throw it away.

If you want to know more about these choice words, and how to use them, please refer back to my previous two blogs, Your mother should know and More wise words from the family.

But the memories keep coming back. I might be washing-up, or watching TV, just some everyday activity, and another memory surfaces. So here are four more of my mother’s sayings that have sprung to mind.

Do one job and make two more

“Do one job and make two more” was an expression my mother used if, for example, I had been asked to help in the kitchen. In the course of ‘helping’ I might well make a mess and create further work. Given that I started writing one blog on the subject of my mother’s wise words and I have finished by writing three this still seems an apposite phrase to apply to myself.

It wouldn’t be a show without Punch

I was reminded of the expression “It wouldn’t be a show without Punch” the other day when watching a TV documentary about former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I am not sure what my mother’s political views would have been – nor do I want to speculate – but she would use this phrase when someone popped up on TV regularly, whatever the news, whatever the programme. I think I am right in remembering that she used it about Margaret Thatcher though I also remember mother describing the then PM as “Tilly”.

Punch, I imagine, refers to Mr Punch, a character who appears in the traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows, often seen at British seaside resorts.

I am sure you can think of someone who regularly appears on your TV who fits the phrase.

It would do a blind man’s eye good to see it

I suppose “It would do a blind man’s eye good to see it” is not politically correct now. And it was a phrase I never understood. I remember saying to my mother, “But surely it would do a blind man’s eye good to see anything?” I never got a sensible answer.

The phrase is used to describe something so small that it is hardly worth worrying about – a small mark on a bargain item of clothing, for example.

We shall see what we shall see.. and them that lives the longest will see the most

I’ve often heard the first part of this phrase repeated – in fact my wife Kathie Touin used it the other day – but I’ve never heard anyone other than my mother use the second part of “We shall see what we shall see.. and them that lives the longest will see the most” – which says it all really.

Graham Brown

To find out more

More photographs by B (failing_angel) on Flickr.

Wikipedia: Punch and Judy.

And not strictly relevant but I never miss an opportunity to plug my talented wife’s music: Kathie Touin.

Your mother should know

Hipsters of a certain generation will recognise “Your Mother Should Know” as the title of a song by The Beatles which featured in their much-criticised-but-fun-in-a-silly-way film Magical Mystery Tour.

To be truthful this blog has little to do with the song, other than providing a snappy title, but for those who do not know the song – can this be possible? – here it is:

This year marks 12 years since my mother passed away but I still regularly recall, and use, her choice sayings. I thought I would recall a few here for your entertainment. Who knows, you may be able to make use of them?

Hot as hen muck

This is a great Anglo-Saxon sounding, descriptive expression.

In the main, I do not know where my mother got her sayings from but I do remember her once telling me this one came from her mother, or my nanny as I knew her.

You can use this expression if you are describing a hot, stuffy room or building – “it’s hot as hen muck in here”.

Queen Anne’s dead

My mother was a generous, sympathetic person who generally thought well of others. So this saying is slightly out of character, though she would use it in a light-hearted way.

You can use this expression if someone tells you some news that everyone already knows about – “Queen Anne’s dead, you know”.

Pride rises above pain

I suspect that back in the early 20th century this expression was used by many women, and not just my mother. It has that feel about it.

You can use this expression if you see a woman, for example, walking along the street in uncomfortable shoes which she clearly believes makes her look fashionable – “pride rises above pain”. These days you could use the saying about men’s fashions as well. Low-slung jeans anyone?

All round Dogsthorpe to get to Peterborough

Here is an example of my mother not always suffering fools entirely happily. Peterborough is a large English city on the borders of East Anglia and the East Midlands. Dogsthorpe is a suburb of Peterborough which, before the ring-roads were built, you might have driven through on your way to the city – but not all around the side streets.

You can use this expression if a person takes ages to tell an overlong anecdote, with many diversions. Rather like my blogs, you might think – “he’s the sort of person who would go all round Dogsthorpe to get to Peterborough”.

You don’t want to start from here at all

We’re all familiar with conversations about directions. Trying to describe how to find a pub or a restaurant, or a house, to someone on foot, on a bicycle or in a car, can be frustrating. What seems obvious to us can be difficult to get across.

You can use this expression when giving directions and you realise it would be much easier if only you could start from a different location – “of course, you don’t want to start from here at all”.

I hope you have found this selection of sayings amusing and even useful. Please feel welcome to add comments to this blog if you have favourites from your family.

Graham Brown