That Was The Year That Was

Well, 2016 is nearly at a close and for me it feels like a year of loss, disappointment and sadness, but also much love and laughter experienced through the year – and I must remember there is always hope.

It seems hard to know where to begin with 2016, so much has happened, but for me it has to be with the loss of my father on Easter Sunday. You may have read my two previous blogs about this, how he went into hospital for a major operation but died a few days later.

I am sad to reflect on his passing but none of us lives forever and what happened was perhaps better than, for example, my father facing many years of deteriorating and poor health which was, I think, another possible outcome.

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My father Clive Brown (left) in the cab of the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive at the Nene Valley Railway (image: Spalding Guardian/Lincs Free Press)

My wife, Kathie Touin, and I have happy memories of time spent with my father (though he could be frustrating as well), funny stories to look back on, and some of my parents’ loveliest possessions – ornaments, paintings, two railway locomotives – scattered about the house.

And, yes, hope – among those at my father’s funeral was my cousin with her baby, the newest member of our family and a useful reminder of the circle of life.

Shortly before my father died my wife Kathie lost one of her friends, Keith Emerson, who was also a huge inspiration for her music. He committed suicide which made it seem worse. She wrote a moving blog about her friend.

Others who have left us this year include Austin Hunter, a Northern Ireland journalist and communications professional, who I had the honour to know at the BBC. He was intelligent, funny, engaging and generous with his time. The day he took me and some colleagues around the sights of Belfast and explained Northern Ireland will live on in my memory.

Some of my friends have also lost parents this year, and some of you reading this will have lost loved ones.

And, of course, 2016 was the year in which so many famous people died. Not just that, it was the year in which so many talented and well-respected famous people died, some before their time, others who seem to have been ever present in our lives.

We all have our favourites whose passing we mourn. For me, this year, they include – from the world of music – Sir George Martin, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Scotty Moore, George Michael, Prince, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Merle Haggard, Greg Lake, Glenn Frey, Rick Parfitt and the above-mentioned Keith Emerson. Other notable losses include Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Jimmy Perry (how many hours of laughter has his creation Dad’s Army sparked?), Caroline Aherne, Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (pioneering test pilot), Alan Rickman, Paul Daniels, Jo Cox MP, Robert Vaughn, Bert Kwouk, Cliff Michelmore, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Graham Lay (Antiques Roadshow) and a selection of radio presenters I grew up with: Terry Wogan, Ed Stewart, Dave Cash and Jimmy Young.

This year’s Christmas Day morning was not quite the same without Ed Stewart on Junior Choice on BBC Radio 2 playing childhood favourites such as Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West),  Captain Beaky And His Band, Right Said Fred and My Brother.

There were anniversaries, as well, this year. I was particularly moved by the events, and TV and radio programmes, marking 50 years since the disaster at Aberfan, when a village school in Wales was engulfed by a colliery spoil tip resulting in the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. I remember as a child, with my mother’s help, sending books and toys to an appeal for the surviving children.

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The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers was a moving BBC Wales TV drama (image: BBC)

I was especially struck by a BBC Wales TV dramatisation, The Green Hollow, by Owen Sheers, which depicted parents waving their children off to school shortly before the disaster: “And that’s how they went. Out a hundred doors for their last days. And that’s how we said our last goodbyes. With all the luxury of easy time.”

The luxury of easy time, what an apt phrase, and it is a luxury we do not appreciate until it has gone.

But, wait, there are some positives aspects to all this. I gain strength from the simple dignity and bravery of ordinary people faced with unspeakable life-and-death situations, such as the Aberfan families and rescue workers. I think of the chance to celebrate the lives of respected musicians, and enjoy their music.

Sometimes, admittedly, it would be good to celebrate good folk while they are still alive and, on that note, I am gratified that the recent release of Kate Bush’s live album has led to a renewal of interest in her music which I seem to be hearing more often on the radio.

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The cactus given to me many years ago by my late mother now produces yellow flowers (image: Graham Brown)

And on the subject of celebrating people, a few words about my dear mother who died in August 2001. I have a small cactus plant which she gave to me, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, I cannot remember. In the last two years, sat in the lounge of our Orkney home, it has started flowering – this year it had five yellow flowers at once. The cactus is a super way to remember my mother.

Curiously, when Kathie and I got married in 2003 the celebrant placed a yellow rose on the altar to represent my late mother. And now I have the yellow-flowering cactus.

This was also the year when democracy, to many of us, seemed to go wrong. We had terrorist attacks, inaction over Syria, Brexit – ie the UK voting to leaving the European Union – and the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA.

I did not vote for Brexit which has ushered in a period of great uncertainty, particularly financially. However, if we keep calm and apply ourselves as a nation I think it can be made to work.

Will Trump be a successful President of the USA? I doubt that, and to find someone who ridicules the disabled, abuses women and stereotypes minorities in such a powerful elected position is deeply depressing. He feels like a dangerous choice for the world. We shall see.

Gretchen Peters, a brilliant songwriter who I much admire, and who is dismayed by what is happening to her country, the USA, has I understand been singing Paul Simon’s American Tune in concert since the election. She is absolutely right to do so, the words could have been written last week. I have not heard Gretchen’s version, but the weathered voice and guitar of Willie Nelson suit the song well:

But on a personal level for me in 2016, there were small triumphs, good days and fun times.

Some examples: a week spent in January with my father, seeing friends and relatives; Rich Hall’s gig in Orkney (very funny); a fun weekend in Edinburgh when Kathie and I saw  Gretchen Peters in concert (see my previous blogs); a relaxing weekend with Kathie and Roscoe, our Border collie, on the Orkney island of Sanday (see my previous blogs); favourite annual events in Orkney such as the West Mainland Show in nearby Dounby and the Vintage Rally; seeing (on BBC Television) Andy Murray win Wimbledon and Heather Watson win the Mixed Doubles; a fortnight Kathie and I spent in Shropshire and North Wales (see my previous blogs), which included our friends’ wonderfully funny and touching wedding; and many outings with Roscoe to our local beaches.

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Roscoe digging the beach at Bay of Skaill, after the Christmas 2016 storms, with the Atlantic waves rolling in (image: Graham Brown)

More good news – Kathie’s music featured for the third time on Steve Conway’s A-Z Of Great Tracks on 8Radio.com. This time he played her song Home from the Dark Moons & Nightingales album; previously he featured Kathie’s songs Clarity and Does It Really Matter. He told 8Radio.com listeners: “The music is just so simple, it speaks to you directly.” Here is Home:

Kathie and I continue to volunteer for the RSPB and, in my case, work part-time in the office. This year I had to cover a five-week period at one go, the longest stretch I have spent in an office since leaving the BBC at the beginning of 2010. It was hard work!

We were both asked early in 2016 to join another voluntary group and become managers (committee members) of Quoyloo Old School, our village community centre. It was an honour to be asked and the events we help run are great fun.

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HMS Hampshire memorial wall, Marwick Head, Orkney (image: Graham Brown)

But my biggest honour this year was being on the Orkney Heritage Society committee which arranged the restoration of Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head and the creation of a new commemorative wall alongside for all the 737 men who died when HMS Hampshire sank on 5 June 1916.

The work culminated on the day of the centenary when events took place in Birsay Community Hall and I was one of the volunteers presented to HRH The Princess Royal (my late mother would have been so proud). In the evening there was an outdoor service of remembrance at the memorials, looking out to sea on a glorious sunny evening, coinciding with the time of the sinking.

You can read much more about this commemorative work on the project blog and on the HMS Hampshire website. Please see the links at the bottom of this blog entry.

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That’s me (far side of cherry picker platform) going to the top of the Kitchener Memorial (image: Kathie Touin)

Incidentally, the day after the centenary some of us involved in the project had our photographs taken on the top of the 48-feet high Kitchener Memorial. There is no internal staircase so we were whisked to the top on a builder’s cherry picker. As someone who is afraid of heights I was not sure I could do it, but I made myself.

This year’s weather in Orkney? Contrary to what some folk believe, we do not get much in the way of snow, ice and below-zero temperatures. It was a pretty good summer and an exceptionally mild autumn. But we do get strong winds, such as the storms at Christmas – fortunately our power stayed on and we were able to enjoy our Christmas dinner and celebrations. Tomorrow night Kathie and I will see in the New Year at the Quoyloo Old School (which reminds me, I need to make sandwiches).

So that’s been 2016, and now I look forward to 2017. With hope. And remembering that sometimes we find we can do things that we do not think we are capable of.

Perhaps it is appropriate to end with quotes from two US citizens of the past I admire…

Amelia Earhart: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Graham Brown

To find out more…

That Was The Week That Was, a BBC TV programme which inspired the title of this blog – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That_Was_the_Week_That_Was

Kathie Touin blog – https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/

Junior Choice favourites – http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/playlists/zzzzwx

The Aberfan disaster – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberfan_disaster

Aberfan: The Green Hollow – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07zk9fl

8radio – http://8radio.com/

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

HMS Hampshire history website – http://hmshampshire.org/

Sorry I can’t be in London, or Belfast… but I can be in Edinburgh

Kimmie Rhodes (photo by Christopher Durst)
Kimmie Rhodes (photo by Christopher Durst)

Two of my favourite singer-songwriters are touring the UK now. The good news is that I can get to see one but, sadly, not the other.

I have mentioned in many blogs and countless Tweets how much I love living in Orkney, a part of the world frequently described as being “remote”.

But for those of us who live here it is the rest of the world that is remote, not ourselves. Remember, for the Vikings the Orkney Islands were at a crossroads between Scandinavia, Shetland, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

But one disadvantage of being here is not being able to get easily to see favourite bands and singers on concert tours. To be honest, since we came here there have not been too many times when I felt the urge to head south – with the grand exception of the trip my wife Kathie Touin and I made to London to see Kate Bush last year. What a fantastic concert that was.

But shortly we are off again, this time to see Gretchen Peters at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. I don’t want to be rude to you, or to Gretchen, but I imagine many of you have never heard of her. Let me tell you, if you don’t already know, she is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the early 21st century. So there.

Blackbirds, latest album by Gretchen Peters (photo by Gina Binkley)
Blackbirds, latest album by Gretchen Peters (photo by Gina Binkley)

Gretchen, an American, wrote a number of big country hits in the past, such as Independence Day (recorded by Martina McBride) and On A Bus To St Cloud (Trisha Yearwood). But don’t let the c-word, country, put you off – as I know it will for some.

She is now perhaps better categorised as an Americana artist, or better still, not categorised at all. And Gretchen is writing songs, and releasing albums, of amazing depth.

The sharp-eyed of you will notice that I have written about Gretchen’s music before but I am not making any excuses for that.

I would strongly recommend any of her output, but in particular her latest album Blackbirds – lots on the theme of death and old age to be found within – and her previous release, Hello Cruel World.

I could pick many examples but how about this lyric from The Cure For The Pain, from Blackbirds? This is not exactly mainstream Nashville:

“It’s not like you think it’s gonna be
Not like the movies that you see
Ain’t no soaring violins
Just machines and medicines”

But her songs are not just bleak, they are honest and life-affirming as well.

Here are two of Gretchen Peters’ songs. First, from Hello Cruel World, is Idlewild (the former name for JFK Airport). This reminds me of travelling in the back of the car as a child. But it says so much more, about families, about the USA…

And, from Blackbirds, this is Pretty Things, unusually for Gretchen she co-wrote this, with Ben Glover…

Here is the EPK, that’s electronic press kit for older readers, for the album Blackbirds in which Gretchen explains more…

I’m certainly looking forward to the concert in Edinburgh (and a chance for Kathie and I to explore the city).

Also touring in the UK is Kimmie Rhodes, also American, she is part of the thriving music scene in Austin, Texas – somewhere I would love to visit one day. She even made an album with Willie Nelson. Need I say more.

Her current tour takes in dates in England and Ireland, but not Scotland, or Wales for that matter. I wrote on Twitter that I have fond memories of Kimmie’s regular visits to the Weaver’s in London in the Nineties. It was a great music venue. She kindly wrote back to say she will be in London at the Old Queens Head on April 1. I had to explain I am not in London anymore.

Time and money prevents me from catching Kimmie this time but I hope to see her again on a future tour. Perhaps we can persuade her to come to Orkney?

Meanwhile there are many albums available, including the Covers album (some unusual songs covered here) and Kimmie’s latest, Cowgirl Boudoir, released a few days ago and hopefully landing on my doormat any day now.

For now here is Kimmie Rhodes at the recent C2C Festival in London, a beautiful performance of Love And Happiness, from her album Love Me Like A Song, a song she wrote with – and originally recorded with – Emmylou Harris…

Here is what Emmylou says about Kimmie: “Kimmie has the voice of a beautiful child coming from an old soul. She touches us where the better angels of our nature dwell, and I believe we need that now more than ever. If you haven’t before, do yourself a favour and bring her into your listening life.”

Thank you Gretchen and Kimmie for the great music. If you get a chance to see them live, buy a CD, get a download, please do so.

Graham Brown

To find out more

http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

http://kimmierhodes.com/

My previous blog on Gretchen Peters –https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/gretchen-peters/

And Gretchen is in this one about Rosanne Cash –https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/rosannecash/