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.

flying scotsman
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.

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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.

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 –

Kathie Touin blog –

Junior Choice favourites –

The Aberfan disaster –

Aberfan: The Green Hollow –

8radio –

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project blog –

HMS Hampshire history website –

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




This past week two gatherings and a brief visit from a neighbour – small on a world scale but each very special to Mrs Brown and me – underlined the importance of belonging.

On Friday lunchtime it was the funeral of noted composer, and former Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He had made his home in Orkney for many years, first on the island of Hoy and then the island of Sanday.

His funeral was in Sanday. It is reported that the coffin was taken from his home behind a tractor and that the ceremony involved champagne and Shakespeare. Wonderful.

Commemorating Max at St Magnus Cathedral (image: Graham Brown)

At the same time in Kirkwall, part of Orkney Mainland where Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I live, a simple ceremony was held in St Magnus Cathedral.

A framed photograph of Max, as he was known, was on a small table just inside the cathedral along with some of his music and a vase of flowers.

The ceremony itself had no words. Cathedral organist Heather Rendall sat at the piano and played Max’s Farewell To Stromness and Lullaby For Lucy.

The music was recorded by BBC Radio Orkney…

Afterwards everyone sat and reflected for a few minutes, then slowly we drifted back to our own lives. It was beautiful.

Spring Equinox ceremony at the Ring of Brodgar (image: Graham Brown)

On Sunday it was the Spring Equinox and we marked the occasion by joining Helen Woodsford-Dean’s ceremony next to the 5,000-year-old standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar.

While Kathie participated fully I stood at a distance so our dog, Roscoe, did not disrupt the ceremony in his enthusiasm to greet everyone. But what a view, and what a chance to clear the mind, think and reflect.

Standing stone at the Ring of Brodgar (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie and I also received a visit this week from Edith who lives in Quoyloo, like us. She is a tireless organiser of village events, many of them held at the Old School which acts as a community centre.

The Old School, Quoyloo (image: Graham Brown)

Edith asked us to join the Old School committee. We’re touched to have been asked and said yes. Nearly six years after moving to Orkney we truly feel we belong.

Graham Brown