A late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house

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Facing The Falling Sky album cover (image: Kathie Touin)

So, here we are, my first blog for nearly six months. Any excuse? Not really.

Not only that but my headline is stolen – it’s all in a good cause, though.

On 1 November Kathie Touin (that is Mrs Brown) released a new album of her wonderful songs, Facing The Falling Sky. And it is a super creative collection.

As the person who looks after Kathie’s publicity I am supposed to come up with snappy phrases to promote her work but I cannot beat this quote…

DJ Steve Conway says: “It’s truly brilliant. It’s like a late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house.” Thank you Steve.

Steve is a great supporter of Kathie’s music. He presents a show on Ireland’s 8Radio.com called the A-Z Of Great Tracks and, to date, six of Kathie’s songs have featured – most recently her single, Waiting For The Silence…

Previously Steve was a DJ on Radio Caroline and was one of the crew rescued by RAF helicopter in November 1991 when the station’s radio ship, Ross Revenge, drifted onto the Goodwin Sands. His book ShipRocked: Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline is highly recommended.

It is great for Kathie to get such positive feedback for the album after all the work she has put into it. She wrote the songs, played most of the instruments, did technical wizardry in her own Starling Recording Studio that goes way above my head, mixed and produced the album – oh, and created the artwork.

We held a launch for the album at Orkney Brewery which is situated, conveniently, just beyond the end of the track to our house. In fact, you can see the brewery from our dining room window.

No jokes please – we did manage to organise a launch in a brewery. We invited friends and Kathie, in her Eeyore mode, thought perhaps 10 people might come. In the event there were nearly 60 folk there and the warmth and support feeding back to Kathie meant so much to her.

I was the MC, introducing some tracks played from the CD and some songs played live by Kathie – as well as quizzing Kathie about the songs and the album. Kathie had a string trio join her for one song, Between Heaven And The Sky – thank you Linda Hamilton, cello, and Elizabeth Sullivan and Lesley Macleod, violins, it was beautiful.

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Publicity shot for Facing The Falling Sky (image: Kathie Touin)

Kathie was interviewed by BBC Radio Orkney for their daily breakfast news programme. You can hear this on Kathie’s SoundCloud feed…

She also featured in our weekly newspaper, The Orcadian, and the online Orkney News reported from the launch.

How would I describe the album? Well, herein lies a problem. These days, of course, music is distributed digitally for download and streaming as well as in physical form (CD in the case of this album). And the digital sites like to have the music put into categories.

Here, I admit, Kathie struggles and her publicity person (me) is not much help either. It is not folk, though I see on Google that is how Kathie is labelled. It is not progressive. It is not electronic. But it does have elements of all three, and more. The closest we have come is folktronic, or folktronica. Answers on a postcard please!

The digital world is a two-edged sword for artists. Potentially it gets the music to anyone, anywhere in the world thanks to Kathie’s website and to digital distribution (Apple Music, Spotify, Google Music, Amazon Music and so on).

But the downside is the income, or should I say lack of it, particularly for streams. A single stream on Spotify, to give two examples from Kathie’s previous albums, could pay you $0.00030394 or perhaps $0.00235781. I don’t know why the figures vary, both were songs written and performed by Kathie. Either way, she is not going to get rich that way.

Recently a track from Kathie’s piano music album Soliloquy Deluxe – Valses Poeticos by Granados – was streamed 133 times on Google Music Store resulting in a total payment of $0.68815381. Hey-ho.

Anyway, back to the new album, Facing The Falling Sky. It has received airplay on BBC Radio Scotland, Radio Caroline, Vectis Radio, Deal Radio, Biggles FM and Glastonbury FM and, who knows, elsewhere in the UK and beyond?

I had hoped for airplay on BBC Radio 6 Music but despite sending eight copies to various people we have not achieved that particular breakthrough. Who knows whether anyone there ever got to listen to the album from the hundreds they must receive each week?

Whatever, I think the album is fantastic and well worthy of UK-wide, indeed, worldwide, airplay. To repeat Steve Conway’s quote once more: “It’s truly brilliant. It’s like a late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house.”

Here is some more feedback Kathie has received…

“I’ve listened to it several times and each time find something else I like… Your vocals are great, a lovely sound, smooth and warm.”

“Really enjoying your CD. How catchy some of the tunes are – Waiting For The Silence is a real ear-worm!”

“Just the answer to the dreich winter weather bringing into your home a warmth and seasonal feel.”

“Such a good album packed full of great tracks.”

So there.

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Poster for Kathie Touin’s new album (image: Kathie Touin)

You can buy the album from Kathie’s website – the CD comes with an attractive lyrics booklet – or from shops in Orkney including The Old Library and The Reel in Kirkwall, the Waterfront Gallery and JB Rosey in Stromness, and Castaway Crafts in Dounby.

If you are into downloads or streaming Facing The Falling Sky is on all the regular outlets including Apple Music, Google Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and CD Baby (Kathie’s digital distributor).

Go on, give it a listen. You could even email 6 Music and request a play!

Graham Brown

To find out more

Kathie’s website – http://www.kathietouin.com/

Kathie’s blog – https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/

Steve Conway on Twitter – https://twitter.com/steveconway

8Radio.com – http://8radio.com/

Radio Caroline – http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Orkney Brewery – https://www.orkneybrewery.co.uk/

The first seven weeks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To go back some years…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Misérables logo
Les Misérables logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

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

To find out more

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

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

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

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

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

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…

Hello again

Now, where were we? Oh yes, writing a blog, at least one a month is my self-imposed rule. I see I published a blog each month until, oh, there was no blog in June. But there was one in July and then – err, nothing since. So, it is time to get this blog back on track. Oh to be like our neighbour Sarah Norquoy who writes something like eight blogs a month (well worth reading, by the way).

Since mid-July I have been either working full-time or showing three sets of visitors around Orkney. I took early retirement before moving to Orkney in April 2010 and I found full-time work pretty exhausting. That said, they are a good crowd at the RSPB office in Orkney and I do enjoy spending time with them.

Anyway, here we are again – what do I have to tell you?

Welcoming visitors to Orkney in July and August was a reminder of why my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney. There is so much to see, beautiful islands to visit by ferry, lots of history (including neolithic, Viking, both world wars), wildlife, empty beaches and wonderful people.

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Statues in the grounds of Trumland House, Rousay (image: Graham Brown)

Trips with our friends included two visits to the island of Hoy, which have prompted Kathie and I to book a weekend trip there in November in order to see more. One day we sailed to Rousay and enjoyed a picnic in the grounds of Trumland House in the rain and midges – but we enjoyed it. Incidentally, if you are thinking of visiting Orkney, please do, and be reassured that midges are not usually a big problem.

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Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head (image: Graham Brown)

We visited the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and the small but packed and fascinating Orkney Wireless Museum. We discovered more about neolithic times at the amazing Ness of Brodgar dig where pre-history is being re-written, and we looked at the memorial wall bearing the names of 737 men lost with HMS Hampshire in 1916, unveiled last year next to the Kitchener Memorial.

And we took the family of three who stayed with us to experience West Mainland Show in Dounby, not far from where we live, the second biggest agricultural show in the county. It is a great social occasion.

Having visitors is a good way of making you look up – both literally and figuratively – to appreciate what you have. One day we drove to our house from Stromness, a nine-mile journey I take when I return from the RSPB office. “Graham, this is a wonderful commute,” said my friend as we drove through the countryside and past Stenness Loch. He is right.

Other recent highlights for Kathie and me, though not with our visitors, include the Stromness Lifeboat 150th anniversary event and the HMS Tern open day.

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Stromness Lifeboat, Longhope Lifeboat Museum vessel, Longhope Lifeboat and Thurso Lifeboat in Stromness Harbour (image: Graham Brown)

Living so close to the sea really makes me appreciate the sterling work done by lifeboat crews, and those in their on-shore back-up teams, and all voluntarily. Orkney is big on charity fund-raising and, as you might imagine, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) is one of the top priorities.

Orkney has three lifeboats – Stromness, Kirkwall and Longhope, Hoy. In 2019, no doubt, there will be moving commemorative events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Longhope lifeboat disaster when the TGB capsized and all eight crew were lost.

At the Stromness event four lifeboats were on display – Stromness, Thurso (from across the Pentland Firth in mainland Scotland), Longhope (current) and the vessel from Longhope Lifeboat Museum.

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Control tower at HMS Tern airfield (image: Graham Brown)

HMS Tern is a former Second World War airbase, also known as RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) Twatt, which is only a couple of miles from our house. Tours of the site are available and some of the remaining buildings are being restored. This will include, in time, the control tower. The open day was a chance to see progress and, of course, another social occasion to meet friends.

Meanwhile Kathie remains busy with her music: teaching piano, taking guitar lessons, writing, and recording both her own music and guests in her Starling Recording Studio.

Otherwise we try to do our bit, volunteering for the RSPB (as well as my paid part-time office work) and as Managers, or committee members, for our village community centre, Quoyloo Old School.

Events at the Old School include a monthly quiz to which all are welcome. The next ones are 20 October and 24 November. And we have Harvest Home on 11 November.

Coming up, I have a new challenge.

I was persuaded to stand for the Harray and Sandwick Community Council by Edith, a village stalwart who is standing down from the council after 30 years. I was flattered to be asked and, it turns out I have been “elected” – eight people stood for eight places so we all get on. My first meeting is due to be in early November so wish me luck.

Graham Brown

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Rainbow, with faint second rainbow, seen from the track to our house – which is behind you (image: Graham Brown)

To find out more

Sarah Norquoy’s blog – https://norqfromork.com/

HMS Hampshire – http://hmshampshire.org/

Stromness Lifeboat – http://www.stromnesslifeboat.org.uk/station-history.html

Longhope Lifeboat – http://www.longhopelifeboat.org.uk/

HMS Tern – http://hmstern.co.uk/

BBC Radio Orkney In Conversation – Robbie Fraser speaks to Cecilia Pemberton and Walter Crosby about life in the Second World War at HMS Tern –

RSPB Orkney – https://www.facebook.com/rspborkney

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

Kathie Touin – http://www.kathietouin.com/

PS For a blast of nostalgia, and a demonstration of how radio should be done, try this show I have just listened to: Alan Freeman’s last Saturday Rock Show for BBC Radio 1 from 1978…

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.

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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

 

 

 

Life

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A sunny February morning view from our Orkney home (image: Graham Brown)

Life is sad, depressing, hopeless.

Life is happy, joyous, full of hope.

Which of these statements is correct? Or is it something in between?

I think it is all three, depending on life experiences, the day’s events, illness, state of mind, luck, money (sometimes), expectations, and so on.

The first weeks of 2016 for me have felt a bit like a roller coaster at times.

We lost David Bowie from the world stage, surely one of the most talented people thrown up by modern music, and from the British and Irish stage we lost much-loved radio and TV presenter Terry Wogan.

Both were big personalities who seemed as if they had always been with us, and always would be, and their passing leaves a gap.

Another of my personal favourites, though less well known, also died suddenly – the DJ Ed Stewart, whose programmes were such a big part of my life. Next Christmas Day morning will not be the same without his BBC Radio 2 programme.

And, here in Orkney, a flu outbreak over Christmas and New Year took lives, including two folk local to us who will be sadly missed from our village events.

Meanwhile events in Syria, and Iraq, have become so depressing that it seems easier now to watch the TV news at all. What can the people trapped in the fighting imagine for their future?

But living where I do here in Orkney allows me to raise my head, look out the window, or take our Roscoe for a walk, and see a wonderful landscape. The days are noticeably lengthening, the birds are singing again, the oyster catchers and lapwings have reappeared in the surrounding fields. It is inspiring.

I was also inspired by a wonderful, and deserved, event in the life of friend and former RSPB work colleague Amy Liptrot. In January her book, The Outrun, was published to great acclaim and was also serialised as the BBC Radio 4 Book Of The Week.

Amy is attending many launches and readings for her book. I was at the Orkney launch, in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, and was so thrilled for her. She has faced many difficulties in her life, as the book describes, and to feel the warmth and support for Amy in the crowded room was special.

I would recommend The Outrun to anyone. And if you have an interest in addiction, London, Orkney, or life-affirming stories, it is a must-read.

My wife Kathie Touin also had some good news in January – and so, by extension, did I. We have not said or written much about it but Kathie was not well for most of last year, making work and leisure difficult for both of us. One day Kathie will perhaps write about her experiences but suffice to say, for now, we have had a breakthrough and she is getting treatment which is transforming her life, giving her back the energy she craved.

Of course, not all medical and health news is good. A neighbour had a nasty fall in January and has spent a month in hospital already – though she seems to keep cheerful.

And a close relative of mine has had “disappointing” news from the doctors which means I will be away from Orkney from early March for a month acting as a driver, cook and bottle-washer.

While I am away I will physically miss committee meetings for the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (see our blog) and for the RSPB Local Group.

Emotionally, I will miss Kathie, our dog Roscoe and Orkney itself which is a wonderful place to live, on a human scale with human people.

But I’m sure my time away will, in some way, be good for me. I don’t know how much computer access I will have but I will make notes in my journal which, at some point, in some form, will probably appear here.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Orkney.com

Canongate: Amy Liptrot

Misconceptions about Orkney

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)
The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)

Many of our friends had – and probably still have – some strange ideas about what it is like here. Well, why wouldn’t you if you have never visited?

So in this blog I would like to dispel a few of the misconceptions that some folk have about Orkney.

First, Orkney is in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Wrong.

It is said, I think with some truth, that until the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands many people imagined they were somewhere off Scotland. If you are still not clear, they are in the South Atlantic. But this illustrates how our grasp of geography can be hazy. Given a blank map of the world, how many of us could correctly place a large number of countries in the correct place? Or even a few?

A friend who volunteers for the RSPB here in Orkney did meet cruise liner passengers who thought they were in the Hebrides. And I think some of my former London work colleagues thought this was where I was heading.

In fact, Orkney is a group of 70 plus islands, about 10 of them inhabited, which are off the north-east coast of Scotland. To give you an idea, you can come on a passenger ferry day trip from John O’Groats.

And were are not Shetland. That is even further north, the last bit of the UK before the Arctic Circle or, on many maps, in a box.

Second, Orkney is an extremely cold place, with frequent snow. Wrong again.

Orkney is not always cold and it certainly is not a frozen wasteland. In fact, due to the Gulf Stream the winter climate here is relatively mild and warmer than, say, the Highlands of Scotland. Keep an eye on the temperatures on the TV weather forecast – you often find it as warm here as down south in England. And frequently we are warmer than, say, Aberdeen or Inverness.

This winter we have had perhaps one day of snow and a couple of days of light snow – in all cases gone the next day.

However, it is frequently windy in Orkney and sometimes the ferries are delayed or cancelled because of the winds and tides. Luckily, Kathie and I find the wild and woolly weather exciting.

The summer is usually pleasantly warm. But, if you are looking for hot weather, and no storms, Orkney is not for you.

Here I am next to our house in heavy snow in 2010 - but it's unusual (photo: Kathie Touin)
Here I am next to our house in heavy snow in 2010 – but it’s unusual (photo: Kathie Touin)

Third, Orkney is Gaelic speaking. Also wrong.

I had a polite argument on Twitter once with a keen Gaelic speaker who claimed the language was spoken throughout Scotland. Sorry, but it isn’t spoken in Orkney. In nearly four years I have only knowingly met one Gaelic speaker, who came from the Western Isles. The Gaelic Twitterer did not take kindly to my suggestion that schoolchildren in Orkney would do as well to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Bi-lingual Gaelic and English road signs are now common in Scotland and I understand, though I may be wrong on this, that there was a proposal to introduce them to Orkney. Given that Gaelic has never been spoken here this was not a popular suggestion.

Orkney proudly shows signs of its Viking past in its place names and its people. Only last week a study of Norse DNA in men in Britain and Ireland was published. Topping the list for direct descendants of the Vikings was Shetland (29.2 per cent), followed by Orkney (25.2 per cent). Incidentally, this study was part of the launch of series two of US TV show Viking, so keep an eye out for it if you are Stateside.

Remember Orkney was part of Norway, not Scotland, until 1468.

Misconception number four, Orkney is an old-fashioned religious community. Wrong.

You’ll be thinking of the Western Isles there. I am not an expert on the Western Isles so I don’t want to characterise them all in this way but I know some of the communities have many church-goers who do not like to see shops open or work taking place on Sunday.

There are folk in Orkney who go to church but I would say not the majority by any means. And plenty else goes on in Orkney on a Sunday.

So, how about number five, Orkney is all kilts and bagpipes, like the rest of Scotland? Wrong.

But then I don’t think the rest of Scotland is like that either. I can think of one shop in Kirkwall that sells what you might call the kilts-and-bagpipes souvenirs.

There are three pipe bands in Orkney – one in Stromness, one in Kirkwall and one in Rendall – and they always make a stirring sight and sound when I come across them at a local event.

And kilts? It is not unusual for the groom, best man and other men in a wedding party to wear kilts. Otherwise, apart from in the pipe bands, I’ve hardly seen them at all.

Because of Orkney’s Viking past – see misconception three above – we celebrate a mix of Scottish and Scandinavian culture. Burns Night suppers are popular here, a good excuse for a good dinner and some whisky, but we also celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day each year with a parade and service at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

I should also say that the good folk of Norway send a Christmas tree each year which stands outside the cathedral – in the same way that Norway sends a Christmas tree to Trafalgar Square in London. Admittedly, Orkney’s is a little smaller.

A sixth misconception – two in one here. Does Orkney have any shops? Or, at the other end of the scale, one of my friends assumed we have all the big chains here.

The truth on this one is somewhere in the middle. We have a good range of local shops, from our village shop Isbister’s in Quoyloo, where we live, to newsagents, to gift shops, jewellers, to William Shearer (fancy foods, agricultural seeds, firearms, and more). In fact, to write about the full range of local shops, and the sometimes strange combinations of goods for sale, would be a blog in itself.

In terms of chains we have, next to each other on the outskirts of Kirkwall, a large Tesco, a Lidl and a Co-op. The Co-op has three further Orkney stores, in Kirkwall centre, Stromness and Dounby. And other chains are represented in Kirkwall, such as Boots, Dealz, Edinburgh Woollen Mills and M&Co.

There is no Starbucks! Or Costa Coffee! What do we do? Well, we have splendid individual, locally-owned cafes and tea shops.

Me on the beach at Birsay, Orkney. Who needs Starbucks? (photo: Kathie Touin)
Me on the beach at Birsay, Orkney. Who needs Starbucks? (photo: Kathie Touin)

Final misconception – when I told colleagues at work I was moving here one asked me, “Will you have electricity?”

Yes, we do. I wouldn’t say absolutely everyone does, I know of one man who does not have mains electricity at his house. But I would say he is pretty unusual.

Anyway, find out more about Orkney for yourself – please keep reading the blog, explore online, or why not come to visit. I’ll buy you a coffee and a cake in our of our cafes if you do!

To find out more

Wikipedia on Orkney – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkney

Discover Orkney – http://www.discover-orkney.co.uk/

Kathie Touin – http://www.kathietouin.com/

How much are wheelie bins costing the people of Orkney?

oicLate on Sunday 6 January I emailed a letter to our excellent local weekly newspaper, The Orcadian, which I hoped might be published on the Postbag page. Since then four editions of The Orcadian have appeared but my letter has not. So I am publishing the letter here.

I would welcome any response from Orkney Islands Council – or, for that matter, from The Orcadian.

The letter…

“We are told by Orkney Islands Council that the alternate weekly refuse collection is going to save money. In The Orcadian of 3 January, a council officer suggests a figure of £90,000 per year.

“But we are never told how much it cost to set up this scheme. May I propose some figures which the council is welcome to correct in a future Postbag?

“There are about 10,000 households in Orkney and each is, in theory, to get three wheelie bins – so that’s 30,000 bins which the council needs to buy. A scan of the internet suggests these cost more than £60 each. The council presumably buys them in bulk so let’s say they got more than 50% off the price, and the bins cost £30 each.

“That comes to a £900,000 investment in bins alone, before any other costs such as re-training, publicity and administration. In all, it’s probably more than a million pounds.

“Is this really the most cost-effective way to increase recycling?”

orcadian_bannerWhy was this letter not published?

It seems to me there are four possible reasons why my letter did not appear in The Orcadian.

First, it did not arrive or was somehow lost in the system at The Orcadian.

Second, some sort of legal problem that prevented publication. I can’t see one.

Third, The Orcadian decided there had been enough comment and coverage of wheelie bins already and it did not have the space. The newspaper states on its Postbag page: “Due to space constraints, many letters have to be left out. Brief letters of debate, and commentary, will always take precedence.” However, I think my letter is a brief letter of debate, and, commentary, which is not true of many letters that have been published in January.

Fourth, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but perhaps The Orcadian is embarrassed that it has not found out the cost of these bins itself?

For those outside Orkney

The introduction of wheelie bins into Orkney, along with alternate weekly collections – rubbish one week, recycling the next – is the subject of much discussion in Orkney. Orkney Islands Council is making these changes to increase the amount of recycling, which I wholeheartedly support, and, it says, to save money.

It is not just the cost of the bins that is a subject of concern.

Many folk living in the town of Stromness – which has attractive narrow streets, and houses with front doors directly next to the road – are worried about where they will keep their three wheelie bins. If they are left on the street, they will cause an obstruction and look unattractive. And how will those who are less physically able carry full wheelie bins through the house?

People in the country are concerned that the wheelie bins will simply blow away – Orkney is a windy spot – and questions have been asked as to who carries responsibility if one blows onto a road and causes an accident.

To find out more

Orkney Islands Council website: http://www.orkney.gov.uk/

The Orcadian website: http://www.orcadian.co.uk/

Update to blog: 6 February 2013

The headline of this blog was changed on 6 February after I heard, indirectly, from The Orcadian that my letter for publication had not been received. It has been re-sent to the newspaper. The new headline also better reflects the content of the blog as my main point is to ask how much Orkney Islands Council has spent on wheelie bins.

Update to blog: 7 February 2013

My letter, re-sent by email yesterday, 6 February, has now been received by The Orcadian and passed to the editor for consideration.

The Orcadian says this latest email was automatically diverted to their spam folder so perhaps this is what happened to my missing first email sent on 6 January.

Also The Orcadian is, rightly, keen for me to make it clear that I did not phone their office to ask if my first email had arrived before writing my blog. I should have called them. This was a regular practice when I worked at the BBC and it was silly of me not to do so.

So remember everyone: (1) keep an eye on spam mail; (2) follow-up important email communications with a phone call.

Update to blog: 14 February 2013

My letter is published in The Orcadian today. Thank you guys.

The newspaper invited Orkney Islands Council to comment, and the council issued a statement which is published in The Orcadian and reproduced here:

“Orkney Islands Council has agreed to fund the Alternate Weekly Waste Collection (AWC) throughout Orkney as a Spend-to-Save project, at a cost of up to £961,000. The roll out of the AWC is currently under way and at present the council anticipates spending considerably less than this.

“It is estimated that a further 800 tonnes of recyclable material will be gathered annually once the AWC is rolled out across Orkney – cutting around £60,000 from the cost of shipping refuse to Shetland for disposal. It will also generate other substantial savings.

“New Zero Waste Regulations will require all local authorities in Scotland to substantially increase recycling levels from this year onwards. Councils will also be expected to provide separate collections for refuses and recyclable materials.

“Wheelie bins cost between £17 and £21 each depending on size.”

Where is the Super Station in Orkney?

Grandma's old valve radio

Here in Orkney we’re well served by local media considering we only have a population of about 20,000.

We have a fine newspaper, The Orcadian, packed full of local news, information and advertising. There is also an award-winning colour monthly magazine featuring local folk, Living Orkney. And the monthly Orkney Advertiser, a free publication of useful classified advertising.

Add to that a number of smaller publications, newsletters and websites such as All About Orkney.

But in this blog I want to write about our local radio and, in particular, ask some questions about our community radio station the Super Station and how it compares to BBC Radio Orkney.

First I should tell you about Radio Orkney. It operates as an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland – and a damn fine services it provides as well.

Every weekday morning at 7.30am we get Around Orkney, 30-minutes of vital news, weather and information. At 12.54pm there is a six-minute bulletin of local news and weather.

Then every Friday at 6.10pm we have the Radio Orkney request show, a glorious 50 minutes of everything from Daniel O’Donnell to heavy metal, as well as local music. Thanks to my wife Kathie I’ve had my birthday request on here twice – last year it was Esther & Abi Ofarim’s Cinderella Rockefella and on Friday it was Captain Beaky.

In addition, in the winter months, there are programmes from Monday to Thursday at 6.10pm covering folk music, traditional music, local history, the arts, language, farming and more.

In between times Radio Orkney posts lots of information on its Facebook page. So, all round, an excellent service.

As I said, we also have the Super Station which began broadcasting in 2004, and then full-time from 2005.

Originally, anoraks amongst us remember, they used studios on the radio ship MV Communicator, which had previously been the home of the popular Eighties offshore radio station Laser 558.

But the Super Station moved to land-based studios and sadly the MV Communicator was scrapped in St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney.

Remains of the MV Communicator being scrapped in Orkney

But where is the Super Station now? The address on their website is The Old Hospital, East Road, Kirkwall but you would hardly know it from listening to the broadcasts.

I’m sure the presenters work very hard but the station sound is not Orkney – you could be listening to a top 40 radio station anywhere in the UK. A friend of mine described the station as “broadcasting from Essex”. I’m not sure if he really meant that, but it does sometimes sound like that.

The advertisements are mostly for local businesses – and it is good to hear them – but the ads also sound as if they were produced in England somewhere.

Last Friday morning Orkney was facing the aftermath of a big storm – one wind gust was recorded at 138mph the night before, property had been damaged, roads blocked. Blizzards were forecast, there was travel disruption, all the schools were closed and many homes were left without power.

In addition, BBC Radio Orkney was off-air due to a transmitter problem and relaying all its information via Facebook.

So where was the Super Station in all this?

I listened until just after 9.30am and there was some travel news, though it was not comprehensive and seemed incidental to the music. And where is this place Sharpinsay that was referred to? Could that be Shapinsay?

Critically I did not hear one single mention of schools closures or homes without power. Come on – that’s not good enough.

I appreciate Super Station does not have the journalism resources of Radio Orkney but for a community station not to mention that all the schools are closed?

The problem, it seems to me, is in at least three parts.

First, limited resources. The Super Station serves a small population and so will have limited income, particularly in the current financial climate. This might explain why the station now claims to serve Caithness as well as Orkney, further diluting its local focus.

Second, BBC Radio Orkney. The presence of a licence fee-funded news operation in the islands makes it hard-going for any rival station.

Third, where are the roots? I have only lived in Orkney since April 2010 but I’ve never seen a Super Station presence at any event or noticed them in the local press. The presenters’ profiles on the station website make no reference to Orkney, good or bad.

This is a shame because reading back over the station’s licence application to broadcast it promised a breakfast programme with 45% speech, a broad music policy to include local and Celtic music, news programmes at 1pm and 6pm, and regular studio guests.

Now it is pretty well non-stop top 40 music – nothing local, no specialist music – with no news programmes, very little local news and no studio guests. Many of the programmes outside peak times sound voice-tracked, ie the presenters have pre-recorded their links and are not actually in the studio.

Incidentally, the Super Station application to broadcast also suggested a relay transmitter to improve reception in Stromness as well as a wish to have further relays for the northern isles of Orkney.

The solution? Well, I’m not a businessman, nor have I ever run a radio station. But I have followed the radio industry with interest over the years and I am an avid radio listener.

The Super Station needs to find its roots. It needs to concentrate on Orkney.

It needs a studio and office that is a hub for the local community. It needs local folk going on-air to talk about their lives, projects and charity work. It needs local folk presenting at least some of the programmes.

It needs to broadcast from local events. It needs a much bigger spread of music, both to celebrate the fantastic musicians of Orkney but also to cater for a wider range of tastes. It needs live music sessions on its programmes.

And all of this is going to need volunteers. A community radio station in a small community like Orkney cannot be run like a commercial radio station in a big city.

How about it Super Station?

To find out more

To get an idea of how other community stations operate as part of their communities, take a look at the websites for Cuillin FM in Skye or Biggles FM in Bedfordshire, England:

www.cuillinfm.co.uk/

http://www.bigglesfm.com/

Here is the Super Station website, its application to broadcast, and the BBC Radio Orkney Facebook page:

http://www.thesuperstation.co.uk/

http://licensing.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/radio/community/archive/superstation.pdf

http://www.facebook.com/pages/BBC-Radio-Orkney/31395967167