Monday, August 31, 2009

Book festivals, yurts, wine bars, abstinence and bad sandwiches

This picture was sneakily snapped by my pal Stewart Cunningham at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday, during my reading/Q&A with fellow Mainstream author Alan Clements.
The bookfest is massive these days, much grown and gentrified since my last visit there, when I was asked to 'hot bed' (share a bedroom, though at, ahem, different times) with Meg Henderson. Then, there was the Spiegeltent and some, it seemed to me, Scout marquees. Nowadays it's a bit like being in a branch of Borders, only under canvas, and all the auditoria are supremely comfortable.
Authors have a yurt, which means none of the sofas have backs, and you have to sprawl in an ungainly yet somehow artistic fashion. There is free whisky, though. Highland Park 12-year-old.
Finally, after years of down-the-line interviews, got to meet Ian Rankin - who listens to the show - and Kirsty Wark, wife of my fellow troubador Mr Clements. Saw a Gruffalo (tamer than you think), then it was off to to read and natter about guns, Land Rovers, the CIA and various other topics, all handled by our chairman Bob McDevitt. About 100 folk paid good money to come and hear us , and a good dozen or so bought books afterwards, so that was pretty heartening. Nice people. A quick dram with my publisher Bill, and then a descent into Whigham's Wine Cellars with Stewart, Maggie and an old friend and colleague, Ian Bell. Outside and who's this? Shetland writer Robert Alan Jamieson, with an Italian professor of poetry. Edinburgh's such a village.
Today, Monday, I came back through on the train to conduct some interviews for the alcohol programmes I'm currently working on. Moving and sobering they were too, with folk at the Lothian and Edinburgh Abstinence Program. No messing about there with 'moderate drinking'. It's the dry way or the highway. And the evidence is - it's the only thing that works.
Now to The Tun at Holyrood for the afternoon radio show, followed by another alcohol-related interview and various other east-coast shenanigans I won't bore you with. Suffice to say that I'm already missing Lerwick's excellent choice of sandwiches. I've just had a truly awful tuna mayonnaise roll with bad cucumber. I'm pining for Faerdie-Maet!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tom Morton - the Obama administration's man for mass detention!

Says it in the Socialist Worker - so it must be true! Click on this link for the article the excerpt below comes from.

ACCORDING TO Tom Morton, the practice of mass detention must continue, "but it needs to be done thoughtfully and humanely."

If this sounds like a comment about alleged "enemy combatants" held in the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, or even a statement about the millions of men and women filling an overcrowded U.S. prison system, it's not.

Tom Morton heads the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Obama administration, and he's referring to a proposed overhaul of the notoriously chaotic and sprawling system of immigration detention.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Into the wilderness...and out

A trip I've been dreaming of and sort of planning for years: into the most remote and, allegedly, spectacular coastal section of Shetland, camp overnight in the middle of what is a 20 miles walk over very rough and indeed dangerous ground, and nail once and for all the 'best-beach-in-Scotland' controversy.

I'll be writing this up for that excellent publication The Angry Corrie, so no conclusions and very little description. Other than to say that The Lang Ayre, Lang Clodie Wick and the sandbar/tombolo at Uyea Isle are world-class beaches, each one in its own particular way.

TAC doesn't use pictures, so here are a few snaps from the 'phone. The Quechua 2-Second pop-up tent worked remarkably well, the five mile track from Uyea to North Roe is something of a superhighway, but blisters were an issue.

The route starts at the old MOD station on top of Collafirth Hill, then over Ronas Hill, at 1500 feet Shetland's highest point, to the entrance of Ronas Voe and the beginning of the massive granite beach called The Lang Ayre. Then Lang Clodie Wick (astonishing) the Red Ayre, where I camped, and then to Uyea, the lost valley, incredibly fertile, that once supported 92 people but was cleared and now is home only to...well, sheep, geese, bonxies, seals, otters, shags and ravens.

Then there's the seemingly-endless trek out, ending for me, amid atrocious weather, in that perennial standby of drookit hikers, the red phone box. Quick call home (no coins, but the credit card thing worked fine) Collection arranged, and some shortbread in the not-too-smelly interior of what is rapidly becoming a rare sight in rural Scotland.

Did I mention that mobile phones don't work in North Roe?

One thing I will say: I think Shetland's wild places more than equal the much more feted, visited (and accessible) ones on the Scottish mainland. After Ronas Hill, I saw not a soul.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Just cancelled appearance at the excellent Wizard Festival...

...not that anyone was actually going there in order to hear me belt out a few songs about alcohol and cycling. Still, I was annoyed at having to pull out of what is a great wee festival, organised by Roy and Samantha Thain and with lots of help from my old colleague and friend Angela Michael. It takes place at the agricultural showground just outside New Deer in Aberdeenshire.

If you're going, have a great time, and let's hope for some better weather than last year. Charlatans, Buzzcocks, Fortunate Sons and The Levellers are going to be there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Never work with expat Scottish dog experts. Or dogs

Canadian regional TV news seems so much more fun than our own dear Rep Scot...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen...The Harlands

It's funny how things work out. I was in Wick working on a documentary about prohibition (Wick was 'dry' from 1923 to 1947) and coincidentally it was the gala weekend. Playing in the main square was a teenage band called The Harlands. Girl singer, platinum blond, three nerdy guys. They started with cover versions of The Killers' All These Things That I've done and The Undertones' Teenage Kicks. Not perfect, but somehow...sullen and joyful at the same time (it was a drizzly night in Wick, for goodness' sake. The notion that a bunch of teenagers could be playing Teenage Kicks, in 2009, in Wick, was somehow unbearably poignant.

Anyway. The drummer's dad, Douglas, got in touch after I mentioned on the radio having seen them. They'd won through a Battle of the Bands thing to play at Belladrum. So me, Martha and James went along to see them open the Seedlings Stage on Saturday. All original material, this time. They drew a big crowd and took the place apart. This time Catriona, lead singer, was all over the stage like...well, like the rock goddess she clearly believes herself, with some cause, to be. No, I won't say 'The Katy Perry of Caithness' again. She may well be quite insulted by that.

Who knows what'll happen now? But if you want to watch a band struggle with what seems likely to be some sort of encounter with fame, if not fortune, start on their myspace page, which is The first two tracks were produced by Kit Clark, no less, of Danny Wilson. Name changes? personnel changes? A move from Wick? All the hope and heartbreak of rock'n'roll?

This is how it starts. Still. Always. A teenage dream's so hard to beat...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The BBC radio presenter's accommodation is ready now...

This from Jeff Zycinski's blog, AKA JZ's Diary. As some of you will know, Jeff is the boss of BBC Radio Scotland (although I think technically his position is Head of Radio, BBC Scotland). He was senior producer in Inverness when the original Tom Morton Show was being broadcast, 15 years ago. When, for one memorable year, I slept in the BBC car park in a camper van. Things change...last week I managed one night, and I won't be doing it again. All that shouting in Gaelic at 3.00am!

Serpentine review in Highland News

...thanks again to Margaret Chrystal:


THERE’S a real thrill about seeing your own city turned into the setting for a violent life or death struggle.

It’s not an experience Invernessians have enjoyed too much to date.

But as the first of a planned series, Tom Morton’s thriller SERPENTINE (Mainstream, £9.99) sets the heart racing and the pages turning as dark deeds from Ireland’s Troubles resurface and bring secret lives bobbing to the surface on the streets of Inverness.

Mike Murricane – these days a well-paid but bored consultant mercenary in the Gaza Strip – is called in to help ex-lover and former colleague Millie Jones when their past in Northern Ireland brutally catches up with her quiet retirement.

Ruthless violence is on their trail. And somehow it all leads back to the mysterious Serpentine and a black operation from decades ago with the plot neatly twisting Ireland’s past and the present troubles of the Middle East into a hell-for-leather race for survival.

Murricane is a tough guy with a hatred of salmon farmers and a love of life’s finest gadgets, guns and motors, while Millie is a thorn in his side he can’t ignore. But also dragged into the affair is Northern Constabulary’s disgraced sergeant, Zander Flaws. Happily whiling away his time – when not having hot sex with a motorbike-riding pathologist – by quietly running his ‘department of lost causes’, he spends his time looking into the deaths of forgotten corpses. Until, that is, a horrific killing ties him into the race to track down Serpentine.

Impressive on music references – each chapter is named by a song title – and the everyday detail of real lives, the book has the trick of keeping the plot racing while finding enough time to flesh out the people who make the whole device tick. Each page has more than its fair share of black jokes and pithy one-liners, such as Millie getting her own back on an American colleague: "Always the American way, Clara. Neutral until it starts to put the price of petrol up."

And another boon is that there are plenty of useful, well-researched tips for would-be spies and assassins to pick up along the way.

You’ll never look at a razor blade or a cable tie the same again, after

Or Inverness, for that matter.

Serpentine sets it in stone – the Highlands is the new dark heart of Scotland.

Just follow the satnav up the A9 for the Scottish thriller’s hottest new destination – a hotbed of teuchter noir. MC

Monday, August 10, 2009

Belladrum, Belladram, Drumnadrochit, wishing trees and back home

It must have been sweet revenge for Joe Gibbs and Rob Hicks to see Belladrum sell out this year, and, under mostly sunny skies, deliver the best atmosphere of any festival I've been to. Both the Outsider and connect Festivals owed - being charitable - a great deal to the Belladrum inspiration, yet both were essentially commercial operations organised by vastly expdrienced, highly efficient groups. And of course, both had to be cancelled in the face of financial worries.

Bella marches to a different drum. Joe's an old-style bohemian aristocrat, Rob is probably the most dynamic and yet grounded gig promoter I've come across. They are committed to the notion of a community festival that wears its hippy origins on its sleeve, covers all the angles from politics and literature to hard rock and great food, and is a safe, family-friendly environment. It's interesting that the headliners (Ocean Colour Scene, The Editors, Saw Doctors, Seth Lakeman) were in no way first-division festival draws, and yet still the event sold out - for the first time ever. People come for the festival, the bands are, in a sense, secondary. Though huge kudos to The Harlands, from Wick (pictured), who stormed The Seedlings Stage having won their spot via a talent competition. Catriona, their lead singer, is the Katy Perry of Caithness

I was primarily involved with the Co-op Verb Garden tent, where Iain MacWhirter runs a series of debates on everything from ecology to Yoof, and conducted a memorable interview with Lloyd Grossman (the sauce guy), there to play with his punk band. As tends to happen at Bella. I contributed to the debate on digital music, then, with Martha and James, performed for the first time the Drinking for Scotland show, which went really well. Martha and James both played brilliantly. Then, with John and Dick Beach from Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit, I was involved in two whisky tastings under the title Belladram. The cask strength Pulteney was wonderful.

Congratulations to Stephen Wright and all the Fairplay team, who ran the Verb Garden. Also to Chris on PA. A potentially nasty incident was averted after the festival programme closed on Saturday night when a stray 'floating airborne lantern' set fire to the roof of the Verb Garden tent. It was quickly extinguished, there was little damage and no-one was hurt.

The Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit is a lovely pub, a real centre of whisky excellence and has both a greta coffee shop and some very nice rooms, where we stayed. Thanks to everyone there for the hospitality.

The camper van behaved impeccably throughout, and we were in Aberdeen yesterday in plenty of time for the boat. Alas, I'd forgotten to book the van onto the boat, but NorthLink managed to squeeze us on, despite a packed car deck (it was the Orkney Show weekend, and a host of horseboxes was due on in Kirkwall). Now we're home.

A word about the food at Belladrum. It was superb. And having a Co-op outlet meant drinks and sandwiches could be obtained at shop prices. Oh, and finally, the Hielan' Fields, where all the Reiki, meditation and Findhornian folk were in action. I met a guy who had gone up there to see what was happening, and found there a 'Celtic Wishing Tree' where you had to write your healing request on a ribbon and pin it to said object. Out of curiosity, and in a spirit of groovy identification with the mystic vibe, man, he had a look at what was written on a couple of the ribbons. The first read 'I wish I had a bigger dick'; the second said 'I wish that Rangers would get relegated and Aberdeen win the championship.' Not Celtic, then?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Back in Inverness

Inverness sunset

The camper van made it to Inverness from Aberdeen without any untoward excitement, and after raiding Tescos for tea (that Cumberland sausage is always a motorhome winner)teabags, milk and coffee, I discovered there was no gas. Ah well. Not that I had any matches to light the cooker anyway.

I was parked up, for old times' sake, in the BBC car park. This was the site, some 14years ago, of my now-infamous period of living, weeknights and days in said car park, in a dubious Fiat camper soemone had driven from, funnily enough, Italy and abandoned in Cullen. That was an early morning show and sometimes I had to be physically extracted from said van, in no fit state to do anything, let alone present a radio programme.

The view

Now, of course, being older, saner and more abstemious, I sipped a small claret and gazed at the, err...view. Then I took a walk around the Inverness I know better these days as the fictional landscape of my novel Serpentine. Only to find it quite different. Dolphinsludge, Queen of the Highland Fleshpots, is now quite the upmarket boutique city. It was also, as usual at this time of year, utterly rammed with tourists of every nationality. And who can blame them? Inverness remains one of the most spectacularly sited cities in Europe, and the summer sunsets are Landseer Stag-At-Bay specials.

My night in the camper was not without its problems. The bed is extremely narrow. It collapsed during the night (my fault; I hadn't set it up properly. I kept having dreams about waking up to find myself snowed in, or panicking due to being late for a radio programme. Then I realised that those weren't dreams. They were memories...

James and Martha arrived this morning on the train from Aberdeen, after a good trip down on the boat. The show today has live music from Pearl and the Puppets, who are playing at Belladrum, as are Martha, James and myself (Co-op Verb Garden Tent). Weather so far looking good, and the festival, for the first time in its history, is sold out.

As for the camper, it looks like we might NOT have to actually sleep in it...

Sunday, August 02, 2009

John Connolly's excellent new novel... called The Lovers, and is the latest in the series involving private eye protagonist Charlie Parker. Thoroughly recommended, and unusual in its combination of hard-nosed crime, supernatural nastiness and full-on horror. Not to mention a bit of Irish humour, all backed up with a beautifully realised Maine/NYC setting.

Connolly (no, not Michael Connelly) has a website, which you can find at Here's a very funny excerpt from one of his pieces (for Ottakers Magazine) concering what authors may or may not get up to on book tours...

One well-known female American writer requires a small dog to stroke when she makes bookstore appearances, since it is the only way that she can calm her nerves. Any number of writers demand a bottle of wine at their right hand when they sign books, and it's a safe bet that they don't leave very much in the bottle by the end of the night, while one Booker winner asked for a complete chicken dinner before facing an audience. A famous gay American writer visiting Britain insisted on being guided around the clubs used in the TV series "Queer as Folk", despite repeated assurances that the series was filmed in the studio. He greeted each unfamiliar club with a baffled "It sure looked different on TV."

And legendarily, a now-deceased male American writer of "bonkbuster" novels apparently required his publishers to provide a suitably accommodating young lady at the end of every evening on tour. My publishers will stretch to a pint of beer and a packet of crisps, which is not the same thing at all.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Caddie lambs at the Voe show


'Caddie' in this instance, referring to tame or pet lambs/sheep, often hand-reared and familiar presences in the household. Only not ours, where I fear Lulu the St Bernard would look balefully on the notion.

It was cold, grey and damp at the Voe Show, though as always it was good to see the seriously high quality animals, produce, cakes, craft and art work produced by folk. I had to stop Susan renting a cherry picker which resembled a Tiger Tank.

Very annoyed to see that the show had permitted the dangerous dickheads from the supposed 'Shetland Independent Ambulance Service' to mount a display. Make no mistake, these people are a menace and no-one should have any truck with them at all. Sometimes the Shetlandic culture of polite diffidence can be a menace. I had to stop myself doing that Glaswegian thing and starting something of a ruckus. In my opinion, it's an utter disgrace that the show committee allowed them to participate. This is the Shetland Fantasy Ambulance website: but it's worth looking at the requisite ShetLink threads here: