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 –

Wikipedia on Les Misérables –

The Orcadian on Orkney production of Les Miserables –

Quoyloo Old School on Facebook –

Kent & East Sussex Railway –

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…

A weekend tonic

The year of 2016 has not been the easiest (in particular, two bereavements) so Kathie and I decided a weekend away with our dog Roscoe would do us the world of good – and so it proved.

Since we left London in 2010 we have tried to visit at least one new Orkney island each year, although we failed in this quest in 2015.

For those not familiar with this part of the world, we live on what is called Mainland Orkney, ie the biggest of the Orkney islands, to be precise in the West Mainland. But Orkney is made up of about 70 islands, of which 16 are inhabited.

The biggest island we had not previously visited was Sanday and so that is where we headed one Friday morning in July. Something about getting on a ferry really gives me that getting-away-from-it-all feeling.

Kathie Touin and Roscoe in the sunshine on Orkney Ferries’ MV Varagen (image: Graham Brown)

The ferry – MV Varagen, belonging to Orkney Ferries – sailed from Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, and on our particular trip called at the island of Eday before arriving at Sanday about one-and-three-quarter hours later. We sat on the deck in the sunshine.

Sanday’s port is at the south-west end of the island and in the only area with any hills – quite a challenge for any day-tripper cyclists heading to or from the ferry. But we were in our elderly but, so far, reliable, Volkswagen Lupo and so we soon arrived on the flat landscape that is typical of the island.

Backaskaill Bay, Sanday – a crowded beach in July (image: Graham Brown)

Sanday, appropriately, has many sandy beaches – in fact, one of the many helpful tourist leaflets available tells me the island was named by the Vikings, in Old Norse “sandr” meaning sand and “ey” meaning island.

But Sanday does not just have Viking heritage. There are Neolithic remains, and both of the 20th century’s World Wars left their mark on the landscape.

The conflicts left their mark in other ways as well. The war memorial, just outside the wonderfully-named Lady Village, contains so many names from such a small island community – particularly from the First World War, 51 men lost.

The remains of German naval ship B-98 can just be seen – you can see much more at low tide (image: Graham Brown)

At low tide you can see what is left of German destroyer B-98. She took part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and later served as a mail and supply ship for the German ships interned in Scapa Flow, Orkney.

In 1920 while being towed to the breakers’ yard at Rosyth she broke loose and drifted towards the Bay of Lopness where her remains still lie.

You can find out much more about B-98 and the island’s history in the smartly-presented and informative Sanday Heritage Centre, again in Lady Village.

There you can also read about U-70, a German submarine which was grounded for seven hours overnight at Tofts Ness, Sanday in April 1918 without being noticed – or, at least, reported.

Next to the heritage centre is a restored croft, complete with pump organ and box beds, and a reconstructed Bronze Age burnt mound.

And we struck lucky – by chance we were in Lady Village at the same time as Sanday’s Reuse Centre, in the rear of the old Temperance Hall, was open. It is in effect a charity shop for the island and we came away with some bargain CDs and books.

Start Point lighthouse, Sanday (image: Graham Brown)

On such a small island away from large areas of population you will not find familiar high street shops and coffee outlets, but why would you want to? However, we found two well-stocked and friendly food shops – Sinclair General Stores, in their new premises, and the Sanday Community Shop.

A happy Roscoe on his morning walk along the shore at Kettletoft, Sanday (image: Graham Brown)

Incidentally, there are some interesting property opportunities in Sanday, one of which is the old Sinclair shop being marketed as a possible conversion into a house or studio for only £70,000 (see Sanday links below).

I do not play golf but I was intrigued to see Sanday’s nine-hole course close to, or perhaps even sharing, the site of a Second World War dummy airfield. There are sheep wandering across the course so the greens are each surrounded by a gated fence.

We met a friend on the ferry to Sanday who was going diving for the weekend, and we met another after we arrived who had taken her bicycle over for the day.

For us gentle walking is more the activity and there are plenty of places to choose from, in particular the beautiful, long white sandy beaches. We mostly had these to ourselves though on occasion there were three or four other people on the beach at the same time – talk about crowded!

Sanday is great for nature, there are lots of wild flowers, seashells, seabirds and waders, and in the spring and autumn look out for migrant birds. The beaches have curious seals just offshore who will swim along as you walk in order to watch what you are doing.

Our VW Lupo outside our weekend home (top) and the view from our lounge window (bottom) (images: Graham Brown)

We stayed at a comfortable self-catering house in Kettletoft, which boasted an idiosyncratic old piano. Kathie described it as so out-of-tune that it was musically interesting. There are two hotels in the village, each serving excellent food.

Postbox in Kettletoft, Sanday (image: Graham Brown)

Across the road from our accommodation was a Royal Mail postbox unlike any you will find in a big city, or even Mainland Orkney. Under Collection Times it says: “Times vary according to flight times.” Fantastic.

The weather was pretty good for our weekend, overcast at times but sunny at others, always mild, and a little rain on the Monday did not spoil the day. We got home refreshed after a splendid weekend. Thank you Sanday.

Graham Brown

P.S. This afternoon’s Open Country programme on BBC Radio 4 was about Orkney wildlife – it included a section on Sanday followed by another on our local West Mainland beach at Bay of Skaill.

Sanday links

Sanday Community Website

Wikipedia: Sanday

Orkney Ferries’s islands brochure (PDF)

Sanday’s Meur Burnt Mound

Facebook: Sinclair General Stores

Facebook: Sanday Community Shop

For sale: Bank House, Kettletoft, Sanday



48 Hours: postscript

Clive Brown Lincolnshire Free Press
My father Clive Brown when he was Editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press (image: Lincolnshire Free Press)

In my previous post, “48 Hours: my father and I”, I wrote about the unexpected death of my father in hospital on Easter Sunday. I had travelled to Lincolnshire to care for him on his expected release from hospital but that was not how it worked out.This post adds some thoughts on what happened in the following days and weeks.

At times it can seem as if this world is full of bad people doing awful things to each other but this period in my life demonstrated again how people can be wonderful. I was helped by friends, family, neighbours and my father’s South Holland Rotary Club chums. And I received many cards, phone calls and messages with words of love and support.

My father, Clive, was aged 82 and retired. His last job was as Editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian newspapers, which are run as a twice-weekly newspaper. The photograph at the top of this blog was taken, I believe, when he converted the Free Press from broadsheet to tabloid format – how delighted he looks with his work.

One of the first calls I received after my father passed away was from the newspaper, apologising for disturbing me but asking for help in producing a tribute article. The journalist, Lynne Harrison, was patient and sympathetic and did a super job despite clearly having many calls on her time. You can read the online version of her article.

In order to help Lynne I visited the office with a selection of photographs of my father for possible inclusion with the article. I met Denise Vickers, the Editor’s Secretary, who had worked with my father, and we chatted about him while she took copies of the pictures.

While I was there a strange thought came into my mind…

“I have told family, friends and neighbours about my father’s passing, and now I am in the newspaper office helping produce an article about him for everyone to read. But all this is based on what I’ve said after that fateful night in the hospital.. What if I imagined it all, got it wrong somehow, and Dad didn’t pass away…”

There were other unreal events. The funeral directors asked if I wanted to view my father, or, perhaps I should say, my father’s body. I said yes because it seemed the right thing to do. And so, one morning, I went to town to see him.

I was ushered into a private room and there he was in the coffin, in the smart suit, tie and shoes Kathie had found for him to be dressed in. To be truthful, the tie had a food stain on it but it was the tie that matched the suit so my wife Kathie Touin and I had decided it would be ok – the stain would be hidden by his jacket, and my father was known for spilling so it seemed appropriate, a little joke between the three of us.

I think he would also have been amused because people’s appearance does change after death and, although this was clearly my father, he reminded me of an old Soviet leader lying in state.

I thanked him for all that he had done for me, and all that we had done together.

The vicar,  Rev David Sweeting, was brilliant. As so often happens these days, my father was no longer a church-goer and David did not know him. But he spent an afternoon at the house asking questions about my father. And, helped by some articles my father wrote, which Kathie had found, David produced a service and a tribute which captured his spirit really well.

Anyone who has been through a bereavement of a second parent will no doubt say, as I discovered, that it is an incredibly busy time. There were constant decisions to be made, letters and emails to write, phone calls to make, about the funeral, the house, the contents, the bank accounts, insurance policies, pensions, power supplies. It was exhausting.

Kathie was worried that folk would think we were sorting the affairs with undue haste. But living as we do more than 600 miles away, and across the water, we were not in a position to constantly pop back to the house. Besides, I think there is something to be said for sorting affairs promptly and allowing yourself to get on with your life.

It is not as if my father and my mother, Mary, who died in 2001, do not feature in my life here in Orkney. Several times a day I think of funny occasions we shared, or places we went together, or my parents’ sayings and habits.

McAdie & Reeve’s removals lorry and trailer outside my father’s house (image: Graham Brown)

And Kathie and I sent back to Orkney a collection of paintings and pictures, photographs, books, papers, ornaments, knick-knacks, a Welsh dresser and two large model railway locomotives. Seeing the removal lorry – and trailer – from Orkney which manoeuvred through a housing estate of narrow and curved roads, and parked cars, to my father’s house was impressive.

Incidentally, a word on our removals company, McAdie & Reeve – they seem to have a removals lorry out and about around the UK every week. The driver makes multiple calls and gradually the lorry and trailer are filled up with a staggering variety of goods. On the run to pick up our goods from Lincolnshire he was also collecting, among many other things, specialist cement, a gate and fine art from London.

As it happened the lorry which called at my father’s has a distinctive registration and we were able to identify it as the same vehicle which moved Kathie and I, well, our possessions, from London to Orkney in 2010.

Oh yes, the house. We chose an estate agent while we were still in Lincolnshire and it was sold to the first people to view. The legal side went through relatively quickly to completion – something of a relief in these uncertain economic times. It is strange to think of other people being in the house, but also good to know that someone is caring for the property and making their plans and futures there.

Once I got back to Orkney I was thrown into a busy period – the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire and 737 men was approaching and I was a volunteer with the project to create a new memorial wall. For more please see our project blog.

Then after a brief break I was booked to work for a month at the RSPB’s office in Stromness, about nine miles from where I live. It is the longest period I have spent in a formal work situation since leaving the BBC in London in early 2010.

The gardening has suffered this year because I have been away from the house so much but we will catch up later in the year – or, more realistically, next year.

Kathie and I – with our dog Roscoe – have just taken a welcome weekend break which will be the subject of my next blog.

But for now I want to say thank you to everyone for helping at my time of loss – for the letters, cards, emails, telephone calls, kind words, meals, visits, invitations to homes and events, practical help, helping honour my father’s memory, the list goes on.

Thank you.

Graham Brown




A rubbish blog

Graham and Roscoe take a break on the Brough of Birsay
Graham and Roscoe take a break on the Brough of Birsay

Yes, this will be a rubbish blog. Or, more precisely, a blog about rubbish. Oh no, you groan, what’s the boring old fart moaning about now?

Well, I think we live in a beautiful world. Yes, many awful things happen but I believe there is great beauty in us and around us and that we should treasure it.

Here in Orkney we are particularly lucky – great scenery and open views, lots of wildlife, some of it endangered, big skies, surrounded by sea. But not everyone seems to appreciate this.

In the past year or so since our dog Roscoe came to live with us I’ve been out walking more, often along repeated routes, and I’ve noticed some strange phenomena.

Last winter I was regularly finding – at least once a week – Lambert & Butler cigarette packets thrown into the verge of the road near us. I should point out other brands are available but frankly you are best to avoid cigarettes altogether.

Clearly someone who smoked this brand was regularly driving through Quoyloo and throwing out their empty packets. Recently I haven’t seen any, this could be for a number of reasons: (1) the person has become tidier; (2) the person has become healthier and given up; (3) the person has become dead because of smoking; (4) the person has moved or changed their regular route; or (5) the packets are hidden in the long summer grass.

But fear not – an even stranger smoker’s habit has emerged recently, involving cigarette stubs. Instead of putting them in a bin, or even on the road where they would disintegrate quite quickly, someone is collecting four or five of their stubs at a time, carefully putting them in a small plastic bag, tying the top, and then throwing that into the verge. I’ve found several of these bags.

Not only is all this rubbish unsightly it is potentially harmful to wildlife and to pets.

Yesterday Roscoe picked up and swallowed – as dogs do, just before I could stop him – something that looked a bit like a toffee with a small stick poking out of either side. Then nearby I found the empty plastic packet – Co-operative mini-chicken satay pieces. Oh great, so Roscoe had eaten a stick.

Fortunately it didn’t do any great harm – like getting stuck in his throat – and he was fine until his afternoon walk when he slowed down, then sat down, and then threw up the stick and the remains of his chicken satay.

All this rubbish also harms the environment by wasting resources. We regularly come home from our walks with plastic bottles or drink cans which, again, have been thrown out of car windows, but which are easily recyclable.

I don’t understand the mentality. Do some people in cars think they are in a world of their own? Do they not care about the lovely land they live in or are visiting?

Go to the beach and sadly you can find a whole load more rubbish, much of it plastic washed up from who knows where. This is extremely harmful to birds and other creatures which can easily ingest the pieces or become ensnared.

There is a super local campaign here in Orkney called Pick Up 3 Pieces which encourages everyone visiting the local beaches to pick up three pieces of someone else’s litter.

And every year Orkney holds a Bag the Bruck weekend when local groups and communities go out in large numbers to clear beaches of rubbish. For those who don’t live in Orkney I should explain that bruck means rubbish.

The weekend is organised by Environmental Concern Orkney with support from Orkney Islands Council. It’s a great initiative and great fun – the community refreshments at the Quoyloo event at the Bay of Skaill are particularly good.

So we see many people do care for the environment – their environment – I just wish a few more would do so.

Please join me in taking your rubbish home with you, recycling what you can, and in picking up the rubbish left by others. Thank you. Grumble over.

To find out more

Pick Up 3 Pieces:

Bag the Bruck:

The Orcadian on Bag the Bruck: