Mysterious books

I love books. I buy many, perhaps too many. And I don’t read enough. A few pages at bedtime and in no time I am nodding off. I need to find a better time of day to spend reading.

Most of the books I buy come from charity shops and second-hand sales, and the fun is not just in the printed words. Each individual book comes with a history of its own, mostly unknowable, but, occasionally, some of its past shines through to the present day.

I can give you two splendid examples from recent purchases.

First, a book I bought at a book sale held in Quoyloo Old School, where Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I are two of the Managers, ie committee members.

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My copy of Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot (image: Graham Brown)

It was a 1968 Faber paperback edition of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, not in particularly good condition, some stains here and there, possibly coffee spills in places.

The book was clearly given as a gift because inside, handwritten in pen, are the words:

To Adrian, with love
and thanks for
Colonsay, February-March 1972

Veronica

Underneath someone, presumably Veronica, has placed a circular sticker of a white dove carrying an olive branch flying across a rainbow. I assume this is a Christian symbol, and that Colonsay refers to the island of that name in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

When I found the book and the inscription at the Old School sale I showed it to a colleague – our esteemed village quizmaster John – who remarked: “We’ll always have Colonsay!”

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The mysterious inscription inside Four Quartets (image: Graham Brown)

So, what did happen in Colonsay in February and March 1972, who are Veronica and Adrian, are they still alive, still together, regretting they ever parted? Perhaps it was not a relationship in that sense. Perhaps the Four Quartets – a meditation on time – provide a clue. Who knows? Well, Adrian and Veronica do, or did.

The other book I want to tell you about was bought from the charity Cats Protection. They have a shop in Stromness – the Red Cross also have a charity shop in the town, and I am frequently found inside one or the other.

Each year Cats Protection’s volunteers take a stand at the annual West Mainland Show here in Orkney. They bring along a large amount of books which, I assume, come from storage in a bid to move them on to new owners, make space – and raise funds of course.

Experience shows it is a good stand to visit on the way back to the car because you can find yourself with a heavy load to carry. One year Kathie bought a complete five-volume set of Grove’s  Dictionary Of Music And Musicians in splendid condition.

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My copy of All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith (image: Graham Brown)

This year I bought just one book, a fascinating volume called All Trivia, by Logan Pearsall Smith, published by Constable. It is a 1942 edition of the book which brought together four of the author’s previous publications, originally issued between 1918 and 1933.

My interest was sparked when I read this piece entitled The Author at the beginning of the book: “These pieces of moral prose have been written, dear Reader, by a large Carnivorous Mammal, belonging to that sub-order of the Animal Kingdom which includes also the Orang-outang, the tusked Gorilla, the Baboon with his bright blue and scarlet bottom, and the gentle Chimpanzee.”

And to give you a flavour of the quirky, thought-provoking contents, here are two examples…

EDIFICATION

‘I must really improve my mind,’ I tell myself, and once more begin to patch and repair that crazy structure. So I toil and toil on at the vain task of edification, though the wind tears off the tiles, the floors give way, the ceilings fall, strange birds build untidy nests in the rafters, and owls hoot and laugh in the tumbling chimneys.

AT THE BANK

Entering the bank in a composed manner, I drew a cheque and handed it to the cashier through the grating. Then I eyed him narrowly. Would not that astute official see that I was posing as a Real Person? No; he calmly opened a little drawer, took out some real sovereigns, counted them carefully, and handed them to me in a brass shovel. I went away feeling I had perpetrated a delightful fraud. I had got some of the gold of the actual world!

Yet now and then, at the sight of my name on a visiting card, or of my face photographed in a group among other faces, or when I see a letter addressed in my hand, or catch the sound of my own voice, I grow shy in the presence of a mysterious Person who is myself, is known by my name, and who apparently does exist. Can it be possible that I am as real as any one, and that all of us – the cashier and banker at the Bank, the King on his throne – all feel ourselves ghosts and goblins in this authentic world?

==========

I have been enjoying the book for a couple of weeks, picking it up now and again, and then I made an unexpected discovery. A piece of folded paper between pages 84 and 85 fell out.

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The mysterious note that fell out of my book All Trivia (image: Graham Brown)

On the paper, written with a fountain pen in a rather old-fashioned, elegant style of handwriting you don’t see so much these days, it said:

To Sir Archie & Lady Rowlands from Betty with love & best Christmas wishes, & best thanks for Sir Archie’s action in the matter of Daddy’s fine. 22nd December 1942

Wow, what a story this could be. Who was Betty? Who was Daddy? What did Daddy do to be fined? A crime, a traffic offence, fiddling his ration cards? I am guessing that Sir Archie paid his fine but I could be wrong.

Due to the power of the internet we can find out something about Sir Archie…

According to Wikipedia he was a British civil servant who held high office during the Second World War. At the time he was gifted what is now my book he was Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Air Production. This presumably means he was working closely with, among others, Winston Churchill – at the time he was given the book now sitting on my desk!

The Wikipedia article refers to Sir Archibald, not Archie. Does this imply the writer of our note knew him well, to call him “Sir Archie”? Presumably so if he was involved “in the matter of Daddy’s fine”.

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Inscription in my copy of All Trivia (image: Graham Brown)

Sir Archibald died in 1953. He and Lady Rowlands (Constance May) had no children so there will be no direct descendants. However, further clues may, or may not, be provided by an inscription written in the front of the book, but in different handwriting to the note about Daddy’s fine. Is anyone out there good at deciphering code?

J.L.H..d.d.E.S L-G.
2 : vj : 70

“O Trivia, goddess, leave these low abodes..”

Finally, a question arises about both books – how did they come to be in Orkney, donated to Quoyloo Old School and Cats Protection respectively? Did they come direct from Adrian and Sir Archie? Did they take a circuitous route through a number of owners? Left by holiday makers? Brought to Orkney by new owners?

Who knows? I find it fascinating to speculate. Meanwhile, I must read more of those books I have.

Graham Brown

PS I have just re-read this blog entry prior to posting and I realise that, coincidentally, both of the books I have written about are in four parts, originally published separately. Perhaps four is the magic number?

To find out more

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

Wikipedia: Four Quartets – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Quartets

Colonsay website – http://www.colonsay.org.uk/

Wikipedia: Colonsay – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonsay

Cats Protection, Orkney – https://www.cats.org.uk/orkney

Wikipedia: Logan Pearsall Smith – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logan_Pearsall_Smith

Wikipedia: Archibald Rowlands – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_Rowlands

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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…

Now We Are Six(ty)

Well, clearly there has been some error of calculation. But, it is said, I turned 60 in the month of December. Reaching the ages of 30, 40 and even 50 did not concern me much. But 60 does seem more challenging, that bit closer to the, well, the end, I suppose.

Still, Winston Churchill – admittedly in different circumstances, in which he was looking forward to the end (of the Second World War) – said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

I think I will settle for that.

And remember Churchill was already 65 years of age when he became Britain’s Prime Minister as the country faced perhaps its darkest hour. So maybe I have more I can achieve yet.

My birthday was marked on the Friday night by a dedication on BBC Radio Orkney’s request show thanks to Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin). She asked for Nils Lofgren’s 60 Is The New 18 (from an excellent album called Old School) without realising some of the lyrics are a little colourful…

However, Radio Orkney has played worse – some of the chart sounds requested for small children are clearly inappropriate (klaxon, klaxon, old fogey alert).

A party was arranged for the Saturday night at Quoyloo Old School which, for those who do not know it, is our village community centre. Unfortunately it coincided with some wintry weather and icy, slippery roads.

Kathie and I started to think there might just be a few folk there who had managed to walk but, in the end, about 30 people braved the conditions to make a memorable evening. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take any photographs. Sorry to those who asked to see them.

Not everyone was able to be there, of course – it would be too much to expect family and friends from the south of England to venture all this way in December for a party and, within Orkney, conditions were varied. Two of our friends set off by car, only to nearly slide off the track from their house, so wisely thought better of it.

Kathie booked a cake for the party but we never got it because the cake-maker was taken ill with a suspected kidney stone (I hope you are better now).

However, I must thank Kathie for all the hard work she put into the party – my only regret is that she did not stop dashing about all night. I love you.

Since turning 60 I have done a few daft things which, normally, would pass almost without comment but, after such a big milestone, it encourages thoughts of there being something potentially wrong.

For example, I was waiting to greet Kathie outside the house with our dog when I managed to loose my footing and fall over, though, if I may say so, I did it quite elegantly and without injury. And only the other day my T-shirt felt a bit uncomfortable – later I discovered I had put it on back-to-front. This is nonsense which I shall ignore.

Sixty is also the age when some of the body’s aches and pains start to be felt. A few months ago I noticed my right-hand small finger is slightly bent and a little painful. I visited the GP only to be told something like, “Oh, it’s age, there is nothing you can do.”

I understand from others that this reaction is a familiar refrain from doctors these days. Given how people are living longer they might need a re-think.

Reflecting on my crooked finger which, with the blessing of a long life, I might have to put up with for 30 years, I think I am going to seek some alternative treatment. I have already noticed that exercising and manipulating the digit makes it feel better – so there is something to be done.

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Roscoe, in his blue post-op coat, shreds Christmas wrapping (image: Graham Brown)

Speaking of medical matters our dog, Roscoe, a Border collie, underwent an operation a week or so after my party to remove a non-malignant but fast-growing fatty lump from his side. Hence we have spent a quiet Christmas period at home while he recovers – which he is doing, and thank you to everyone who asked after him.

In our little family in the past it has been Kathie who has faced numerous operations – if you ask her she can give you a list – but, curiously, this year was bookended by Roscoe’s op in December and mine back in January (see below for my blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia”).

Now I have turned 60 I feel I should have some profound thoughts to share. That is one reason why this blog entry has been a little delayed – I’ve been struggling to come up with anything very enlightening.

I was struck by some words posted on Facebook by the wonderful songwriter Gretchen Peters, who turned 60 in November. She wrote about her fifties being a “remarkable decade” and it made me think about how my life has changed in the past 10 years.

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Blurred Roscoe playing in the snow – without his post-op coat and well on the way to recovery (image: Graham Brown)

The biggest change was Kathie and I moving to Orkney, in 2010. It was an inspired move for us, we love it here (see numerous previous blog entries). We have also had Roscoe come to live with us. I have unexpectedly become a (part-time) employee of the RSPB, and I have re-discovered the joys of volunteering – also for the RSPB, and for Quoyloo Old School and for the project which marked the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire.

Anyway, Gretchen Peters is touring the UK again in 2018. If you get a chance to see her, and her talented husband Barry Walsh, do take it. Kathie and I will be at the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall concert.

Gretchen concluded her thoughts on turning 60 by writing about her work and her new album, due out in 2018: “It’s what I do, and what I can do in this most uncertain hour, as Paul Simon put it.” She is referring to the politics of her US homeland, and to Paul Simon’s song American Tune (see below for lyrics and for my blog entry of a year ago, “That Was The Year That Was”).

I am not musically creative – in our family that is left to Kathie, who is also working on her new self-composed album. Some of the early demo tracks sound great.

So, for me, as Churchill said, “We must just KBO.”

May I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, healthy and fulfilled 2018.

Graham Brown

Find out more

Wikipedia on Winston Churchill – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill

My blog “That Was The Year That Was” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/that-was-the-year-that-was/

My blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/nhs-orkney-mrs-brown-amelia/

Gretchen Peters’ website – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Lyrics to Paul Simon’s American Tune – http://www.paulsimon.com/track/american-tune-6/

My 60th birthday request on BBC Radio Orkney – https://www.mixcloud.com/radioorkney/friday-requests-with-dawn-copland-8th-dec-2017/

A blockhead in three countries

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Buddha at night in Portmeirion village (image: Graham Brown)

We’ve been on holiday in three countries – England, Scotland and Wales. You think perhaps that they are one country? I think they are becoming increasingly separate. More of that later, both in this blog and in the news over coming months and years.

My holiday reading was Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, a fascinating insight into Winston Churchill’s work as a writer of historical books, newspaper articles and one not very successful novel. Writing was for the majority of his life his main income, not politics as you might imagine.

I was struck by a quote which underlines how lucrative writing was for him. Though he fashioned many famous phrases, this one was not Churchill’s but Samuel Johnson’s. But Churchill was fond of using it: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

So, here I am, a blockhead writing my holiday reflections for nothing (though I have in the past written for money). Incidentally, may I reassure you, this will not be a blow-by-blow account of the holiday.

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The first iron bridge in the world at Ironbridge, Shropshire (image: Graham Brown)

In brief, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I travelled from our home in Orkney, down through Scotland, with an overnight stop at Cumbernauld near Glasgow, then on to Ironbridge, Shropshire for three nights. We then spent three nights in Ludlow, Shropshire – coinciding with our friends’ wedding weekend – before spending a week in North Wales, one night in Portmeirion village (a special treat) and the rest in the delightful coastal town of Criccieth.

Friends in England may not realise how England and Scotland are drifting apart (see Andrew Marr’s excellent BBC Two documentary Scotland And The Battle For Britain for more about this).

The EU referendum result is an obvious example of this process, Scotland overwhelmingly voting to stay in the EU and England voting to leave (though not London). Party politics is another example. To briefly explain to overseas readers, the right-wing Conservative party is the majority party in the UK parliament at Westminster, taking most English seats in the process, and forms the UK government. Meanwhile, the left-of-centre Scottish National Party took all but three Westminster seats in Scotland and forms the Scottish administration through being the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

But it is not just these crude party political indicators that show Scotland and England drifting apart. England seems to be leaning towards a more American-style society while Scotland looks more to Europe and the EU. The two countries are starting to feel different in a way that goes well beyond tourism cliches of kilts and bagpipes versus village greens and Morris dancing.

And Wales? Truth be told, a week’s stay is not long enough to form opinions on how politics or society work there and, no doubt, it will differ in different parts of Wales.

But I was really struck in North Wales to see the progress of the Welsh language compared to our previous visit some ten years ago. When we were last there we saw bi-lingual road and other signs and we heard people speaking in Welsh.

But in 2016 it seems that Welsh has become the dominant language, the one that people routinely speak to each other in shops and at work. Virtually all signs are bi-lingual and some are only in Welsh. The English speakers seemed to be nearly all English people. Fascinating.

So why did Wales vote to leave the EU? As I said, I am not qualified to comment on Welsh politics and I would be interested to know more about that.

Here’s a quick run-through of some of the days out we enjoyed on our trip…

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Fancy a fireplace like this? One of the beautiful exhibits at the Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge (image: Graham Brown)

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums celebrating the industrial revolution are wonderful and, as there are 10 of them, more than it is possible to see on a brief visit. But we got to Blists Hill Victorian Town, the wonderful Jackfield Tile Museum – I never realised tiles could be so beautiful and fascinating – and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

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Great Western locomotive Erlestoke Manor on the Severn Valley Railway (image: Graham Brown)

Railways were a bit of a theme for our trip, I am sure my late father would have approved. In Shropshire we travelled for a day on the Severn Valley Railway, which has a long, scenic line, two museums, beautiful stations and a large number of working steam locomotives.

Across the border in Wales we spent two days on the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways which now meet at Porthmadog station. Seeing the traffic stopped for steam locomotives crossing the road into the station is quite a sight.

One day we travelled on the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries to ships at Porthmadog. It has been carrying passengers since 1865.

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No.143, built in Manchester in 1958, worked in South Africa, now on the Welsh Highland Railway, here crossing the road into Porthmadog station (image: Graham Brown)

On another day we took the Welsh Highland Railway in the opposite direction from Porthmadog, passing Snowdon (the highest mountain in Wales) and arriving in Caernarfon close to the Castle.

I suspect the highlight of the trip for Kathie was our two visits to Portmeirion village, an architectural wonder created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis on the estuary of the River Dwyryd. You may know it as the setting for the 1960s TV series The Prisoner – “I am not a number!”

We also spent a night in the village, staying in the Bridge House and enjoying afternoon tea, a fabulous dinner and a great breakfast at the Portmeirion Hotel. Kathie especially enjoyed the chance to look around the village when it was closed to the public, even though the staff were clearing up after a particularly muddy Festival No.6 in the grounds which had finished the day before our overnight stay.

For the rest of our North Wales stay we were at a more modest but friendly bed-and-breakfast in Criccieth, a pleasant seaside town which is the gateway to the scenic Llyn peninsula as well as an easy drive to the likes of Snowdon and Caernarfon.

When we were last in the area we were considering it as a possible move from London. In the end we opted for Orkney and we are delighted we did so, we made the right decision. But North Wales would have been a lovely place to live and it was great fun to go back for a holiday.

Graham Brown

Smelling the roses of Lancashire and Yorkshire

Who Knows Where The Time Goes? A song by Sandy Denny. And in these parts time has been evaporating at an alarming rate. I’m about to depart on another trip and I still haven’t blogged the previous one. So here goes…

Here are some impressions of a recent trip to the north of England to visit friends in Bolton and to meet my father in York. Don’t worry, I will not give you a blow-by-blow account of what we did every day. That would be like the old days when neighbours made you sit through slide shows of their holidays – though I do have some photographs to share!

In the centre of Manchester we visited both the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery (formerly the City Art Gallery). The highlight of the first, for me, was a special exhibition of The M+ Sigg Collection of Chinese art from the 1970s onwards.

M+ Sigg Collection at Whitworth Art Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

M+ Sigg Collection at Whitworth Art Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

I had not thought about modern Chinese art before and, if I had, I might have imagined there was not much because of state control. But this collection had some really striking artwork – a giant sculpture made up of Stone Age axe heads, photographs of a man gradually being covered in calligraphy, some self-portraits of heads that almost literally leapt off the wall, photographs of naked human bodies made to look like geographical features and much more. I loved it – and I don’t normally like modern art.

Hence, at Manchester Art Gallery, I knew I would enjoy their display of Victorian paintings, one of my favourite eras. It is many years since my last visit and I had forgotten that Auguste Charles Mengin’s 1877 painting of Sappho – of which we have a framed poster at home – is in the collection. Edwin Landseer’s 1849 painting The Desert, of a lion, is another favourite, and reputedly formed the basis of the illustration on Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup which has remained unchanged since my childhood.

The following day was less artistic but equally life-affirming. Blackpool! For those of you outside the UK, this is perhaps England’s most famous seaside holiday resort.

We began with a trip to the top of Blackpool Tower, opened in 1894 and more than 500 feet high. The views across Blackpool, the coast and beyond are truly spectacular.

Back down on the ground we explored the Comedy Carpet, a fabulous collection of jokes, catchphrases, comedy scripts and humorous song lyrics, all laid out in granite letters set in concrete on the pavement (sidewalk, Americans) between the tower and the sea.

Blackpool's Comedy Carpet (image: Graham Brown)

Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet (image: Graham Brown)

My favourites included the Dad’s Army script leading up to the famous “Don’t tell him, Pike!” – it shows how well crafted the whole sequence was – the lyrics to Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), a wonderful Ronnie Barker monologue and some of the shorter entries: “If you don’t laugh at the jokes, I’ll follow you home and shout through the letter box” (Ken Dodd) or “Eeeh… In’t it grand when yer daft?” Not sure who spoke that last phrase – well, that is part of the fascination of the comedy carpet, you are left to work out some of the answers for yourself.

There was another I thought particularly suitable for Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown, a dual US/UK citizen): “I’m half British, half American. My passport has an eagle with a tea bag in its beak.” Turns out that was Bob Hope.

And perhaps my favourite… Stan: “You know, Ollie, I was just thinking.” Ollie: “What about?” Stan: “Nothing. I was just thinking.”

Our day in Blackpool also included a ride on a tram to Fleetwood, past the Fishermen’s Friend factory, a ferry ride from Fleetwood across the River Wyre, the illuminations and, of course, we had fish & chips and bought some seaside rock.

We spent a quieter day in Port Sunlight, on the Wirral peninsula near Liverpool, a model (in the sense of good, not small) village created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by William Hesketh Lever, the soap manufacturer, for his workers. It sounds very paternalistic, patronising even, in this day and age, but some architecturally beautiful homes were built in a lovely setting of gardens, trees and flowers. On a sunny day, like the one we enjoyed, it is lovely to walk around.

Part of the Port Sunlight War Memorial (image: Graham Brown)

Part of the Port Sunlight War Memorial (image: Graham Brown)

Port Sunlight also boasts the Lady Lever Art Gallery – more Victorian paintings of the kind I love – and in the centre of the village a spectacular and moving war memorial, showing tableau of various groups of servicemen, designed by Sir William Goscombe John and unveiled in 1921.

Unexpectedly we also stumbled across some music history. The Port Sunlight Museum contains a display of photographs of pop stars who played at venues around the village, including, amazingly, The Beatles. A taped interview, recorded for hospital radio, made just after Ringo joined the band and just before they became huge, is available to hear – how young they all sound. Ringo’s first public show with the band was at Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight on 18 August 1962 – Kathie Touin proudly stood next to the plaque marking this auspicious occasion.

Kathie Touin with the plaque marking Ringo Starr's first appearance with The Beatles (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie Touin with the plaque marking Ringo Starr’s first appearance with The Beatles (image: Graham Brown)

Over in York the first four days centred largely around historic transport: Yorkshire Air Museum, the National Railway Museum, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (a heritage or preserved railway) and the Scarborough Fair Collection.

It was a beautiful sunny day for the air museum visit as we strolled between buildings and displays. There are many historic aircraft to see, of course, both indoors and in hangars. There are also exhibitions that bring home the danger and fear of serving in a World War Two bomber – such aircraft were once based at the museum’s home of Elvington. And the museum has historic buildings, such as the control tower, and a splendid canteen with large model aircraft suspended from the ceiling.

The railway museum in York – free entry – will easily take a whole day of your time. There are fine restored steam locomotives including world-speed record holder Mallard, Winston Churchill (which hauled the statesman’s funeral train), an enormous Chinese steam locomotive (built in Britain), the beautiful maroon streamlined Duchess of Hamilton; carriages used by the Royal Family; and a hall full of railway memorabilia stacked high to the ceiling.

There was a bonus for me as well – I briefly went outside onto the museum’s viewing platform overlooking the main railway line just outside York railway station, seconds before the steam locomotive Tornado went past in the rain.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway: LMS Black 5 Eric Treacy and LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley (image: Graham Brown)

North Yorkshire Moors Railway: LMS Black 5 Eric Treacy and LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley (image: Graham Brown)

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is another grand day out – we drove to the railway’s terminus at Pickering and then took their steam trains along the line to its end at Grosmont, then on, still behind a steam locomotive, over regular Network Rail tracks to the historic seaside town of Whitby.

It was a wet day but somehow it doesn’t matter if it rains when you are travelling on a relaxed, journey, lazy even, between atmospheric brick-and-wood stations, watching the scenery, listening to the rhythms of the steam locomotive and of the carriage wheels.

Almost opposite Whitby railway station is a fabulous fish and chip restaurant called Trenchers. Many folk from the train headed straight there and so there was a queue but it was well worth the wait – the food was fabulous, the decor pleasant and the staff engaging.

A quick explore of Whitby found the town making much of its Dracula connections (Whitby features in the Bram Stoker novel). You can even buy Dracula seaside rock. It’s black, of course.

We spent another nostalgic day at the Scarborough Fair Collection. This is well worth finding, tucked away near Scarborough on the site of a holiday camp.

Inside are Wurlitzer organs – two of them being played live for a tea dance while we there – self-playing dance organs, vintage fairground rides (which you can ride on), old cars and motorcycles, traction and showmen’s engines and, once again, enthusiastic and helpful staff.

I was interested to discover a showman’s engine called The Iron Maiden, nothing to do with the heavy metal group, it acquired its name when it featured in a cinema film of the same name in 1962. Before that it had been known as Kitchener. As it was built in 1920, originally as a road haulage engine, I can only assume it was named after Earl Kitchener, a hero of British Empire and Britain’s Secretary of State for War, who drowned near Orkney in 1916 when HMS Hampshire sank (I am on the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project committee).

On a day in York itself we took in York Minster – what a beautiful building – and three of the finest coffee shops I have ever visited: Bennett’s (next to the Minster), Cafe Concerto (just around the corner) and Harlequin (in the Shambles, where we had a lunch of super home-made food).

Finally we visited the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall for a relaxing day out. The weather was good so we were able to sit in the gardens and admire all the plants and vegetables we are not able to grow in Orkney.

In the house I was struck by the Royal Family portraits on display, loaned from the National Portrait Gallery – an informal painting of Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh, The Queen Mother, Prince Charles, William and Harry was particularly striking.

We returned from York for a relaxing weekend with our friends back in Bolton before flying back to Orkney.

But there was time for two more notable transport sightings. At York railway station, while we waited for our train to Manchester Piccadilly, we saw a Class 91 locomotive named Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight with an imaginative paint scheme.

Boarding FlyBe's The George Best at Manchester Airport (image: Graham Brown)

Boarding FlyBe’s The George Best at Manchester Airport (image: Graham Brown)

And two days’ later our flight from Manchester to Edinburgh was on a FlyBe Dash 8 named The George Best. For young or non-UK readers, he was one of Britain’s most famous footballers, best known as a player with Manchester United and Northern Ireland.

Next stop for us in Arizona to see Kathie’s folks so guess what my next blog is likely to be about? Over and out.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Bolton

Whitworth Art Gallery

Whitworth Art Gallery: M+ Sigg Collection

Manchester Art Gallery

Blackpool Tower

Wikipedia: Blackpool Tower

Comedy Carpet

BBC News: Comedy Carpet

Port Sunlight Village

Wikipedia: Port Sunlight

Yorkshire Air Museum

National Railway Museum

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Scarborough Fair Collection

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project: blog

Dump the EU? Be rid of nuclear weapons? Be the next Greece? Developing thoughts on Scottish independence

The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland

The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Here is a quick re-cap for new readers of this blog. I am an Englishman who moved to Orkney, off the north-east coast of mainland Scotland, in April 2010.

At present Scotland has its own parliament with many powers over domestic policy but it is still part of the UK and the Westminster parliament retains control over many matters, notably financial, defence and foreign affairs. The Scottish National Party, or SNP, currently form the Scottish government under First Minister Alex Salmond and they want full independence.

In a previous blog entry in February 2012, “We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?”, I wrote about the forthcoming referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. This is a referendum in which I, as a resident of Scotland, will get a vote.

Since I wrote that blog a deal between the UK and Scottish governments means that the referendum will probably take place in 2014, with anyone resident in Scotland over the age of 16 able to vote, and with a single yes or no question – though exactly how the question will be phrased is not yet decided.

As this debate will continue for two years it will make a US Presidential election seem like a quick business. But already some themes are emerging.

Firstly, nuclear weapons. The SNP have changed their policy ahead of the referendum. Now they want Scotland to remain part of NATO. But they have kept their opposition to nuclear weapons.

This matters because the Faslane Naval base, home to the Royal Navy’s Trident nuclear-armed submarines, is in Scotland. If we vote for an independent Scotland the UK Government will have to find a new home for this most expensive of defence systems – at least that is how the media portray the issue.

But this slightly puzzles me. Let’s for a moment say that the good people of Scotland do vote for independence. What happens next? Surely one of the first events in this newly-independent country will be an election to its newly-independent parliament. And who is to say which party, or parties, will emerge victorious?

The implication of much of the media reporting is that if we vote for independence we sail off into a Saltire sunset with the SNP at the helm. But it might not be like that.

Remember the UK General Election at the end of the Second World War. Did a grateful nation overwhelmingly vote war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill back into power? No, the voters decided the Labour Party was best placed for the peace ahead.

So, while I am not comparing Alex Salmond to Churchill, it is possible Salmond will see his dream of an independent Scotland but find others are elected to run it.

Secondly, the European Union. For some time we, the voters, were under the impression that Alex Salmond and the SNP were in possession of legal advice that an independent Scotland could remain part of the EU. Following a campaign under Freedom of Information legislation to get the government to make this advice public it now transpires this advice did not exist at all and that the SNP is only just seeking legal advice.

So where does this leave us? Might an independent Scotland automatically be part of the EU? Or perhaps not? And if an independent Scotland, as a new country, does not get a nod into the EU where does that leave the rump of the UK? Might that be considered a new country that has to apply all over again?

Those who have complained for years about the EU might get a chance to oppose Scotland, and the UK rump, from applying for membership.

Thirdly, currency. Alex Salmond and the SNP want to retain the pound in an independent Scotland. But where would this leave Scotland? Key decisions about the pound, the economy and interest rates would remain with the UK Government – currently with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, not a popular man in Scotland – and with the Bank of England.

The unhappy experience of Greece suggests that if you do not control all the financial levers yourself, and have your own currency, you are at risk of being told what to do by other governments. That doesn’t feel very independent to me.

In the end, as I said before, I think the referendum vote will run quite close but it will be a decision to remain in the UK. People will probably vote for the option they think is less risky economically, and they may well decide that means being in the UK. But much can happen in two years. Still, we’re all strapped in and enjoying the ride. Put your hands in the air and shout yeah!

To find out more

My previous blog: We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

BBC News: Scotland politics

SNP website