Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Buying copies of Spirit of Adventure

Due to my own stupidity in forgetting to bring any books with me (I ended up having to BUY my own book second hand from Charles Leakey's excellent emporium), folk attending my Inverness Bookfest do last night were unable to buy copies of Spirit of Adventure.


The books can be obtained from Amazon UK

or (signed, with personal dedication if required) direct from my eBay shop, which is:
http://stores.ebay.co.uk/The-Bookcroft. Oh, and there are copies of the Tom Morton 2's rather nifty wee CD too...


Monday, September 29, 2008

Eden Court backstage

Malt and Barley Revue went brilliantly in the fab new Eden Court.

Inverness - lost glories of the Station Hotel

It's now the Royal Highland Hotel, and alas, not what it once was. For years, I would choose to stay the The Station because I loved the fading grandeur of its foyer, which was full of nooks and crannies , ancient paintings, gigantic, untended plants and lumpy sofas. It also provided a truly splendid breakfast, with the best porridge in the country. The eccentric, very aged South African barman, allegedly a former head steward on the Queen Mary, added to the general vibe.

You could get absurdly cheap room rates, too, due to an arcane hangover from its days as a railway hotel: bona fide 'highlands and islands residents' were granted a very cheap tariff, though I always suspected the worst rooms were provided in exchange. Never mind, I liked the ancient aroma of old steam trains too.

Now that absurdly grand foyer has been ruthlessly, tastelessly upgraded, the art has vanished, the shrubbery pruned. The adjoining bar has been converted into something called Ash, and the breakfast is one of the worst I've experienced in any Scottish hotel. Watery porridge, very strange scrambled eggs, greasy bacon. Worn towels, a dodgy shower BUT, it does provide free unlimited wifi.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interviewing musicians on live radio - the horror! The horror!

The live radio interview with a musician is normally, like much else in the media, a conspiracy of implicit, mutually agreed fakery. The musician has a product to promote (CD, DVD, download, gig that has sold fewer than seven tickets) and the interviewer has a show to promote. The presence of the musician serves to add 'furniture' (I prefer the word' decoration') and a tiny bit of glamour, should they be even slightly famous. On the other hand, finding and showcasing new musicians who may later become famous and glamorous is also part of promoting the show's image.
Straightforward? No. The musician will normally have done hundreds, possibly thousands of interviews where the same tedious questions keep getting asked. Even if they are comparitively obscure. Their job, if they are as professional as most US country artists (who respect the promotional process and the fans reached through it to an almost inconceivable degree) is to pretend that it's a pleasurable, fresh, interesting business, being asked (Josh Ritter) about their dad and mum the neurosurgeons or (Elvis Costello) which comes first, the lyrics or the music.
Some do act like pros,, and some behave like assholes. They do that for various reasons: jetlag, loneliness, boredom, cocaine, contempt for ill-researched questions or the bad haircut and beard of the interlocutor. Cocaine. Not enough/too much cocaine. Or sometimes because they can't (or don't want to) speak the language of the interviewer and the audience. Young or inexperienced bands are sometimes nervous, and they can try and disguise that with aggression, surliness or lots of giggling.

This is one reason for splitting a group up, asking beforehand for the two best speakers - or one - and INSISTING only they have a microphone. Shut the smartass drummer (or whoever) up! An interview with four people at the same time NEVER works, and that's one reason the Sigur Ros interview shown here is such a car crash. There's a group dynamic (fuelled by the band's common Icelandic language) and a subtext: there's been a problem beforehand, one member of the group is in a total, simmering fury, and his colleagues know that. Unfortunately, the DJ - well-researched, clearly a fan, knowledgeable and doing his bloody best - is outnumbered and indeed shut out of what any band is - an exclusive gang. And in the case of Sigur Ros, not just people whose first language isn't English, but highly self-conscious 'artists' as well. As soon as someone says 'we just make music; success is immaterial to us' you know they couldn't give shit about communicating with their audience. and always, the DJ IS the audience.
The interviewer, it must be said, is often at fault. Fandom, a desire to be loved or respected by the musician, is often fatal (the radio guru Dan O'Day was the first person I've heard articulate this). It leads to a feeling of intimidation and sometimes wandering, nervous questions. The interviewee ALWAYS picks up on this, either through verbal cues or body language (if the interview, as comparitively few are, is face to face; most are done using remote studios and ISDN connections).

For me, a first encounter with Steve Earle (the epitome of utterly pro country attitude, even though everything he says has already been said in EXACTLY those words) was nerve wracking and at first embarrassing, as I couldn't speak properly; and then there was the legendary Ivor Cutler interview, in which the horrible old bastard determined to sneak in some swear words and did his level best to intimidate the hell out of me. Succeeding, it should be said. Games players. To hell with them.

Musicians never, or hardly ever ask you out to dinner, or really want you backstage for drinks. If they do issue an invitation, you should never go. They are all, without exception, egomaniacs you can never praise enough (they have hundreds of people slavering over them, remember at gigs every night). They hate criticism of even the most constructive kind. They are always right. They are, like footballers, afforded a respect that has nothing to do with their intelligence. They continually pontificate on subjects they know nothing about. They think they can do your job better than you do. And if they are friendly, it's because their PR person suggested it, or because they want something. And it's never your physical charms or witty conversation: It's a session, an album of the week or just whimpering, lifelong devotion they seek and expect.

The thing is, for that period when you're on air, when you're presenting the show, doing the interviews, you're the host in YOUR house, and they're YOUR guests. OK, it's a pleasure, maybe even a privilege to have them there, but they should know the etiquette and behave with respect. They (or their people) should have researched the expectations and context of the show. They should also realise that always, always, ALWAYS, the DJ and the audience has the last word. That when he or she has been shown out, the show goes on and that the audience is for the SHOW, not the guest. The emails will start flying (what a dickhead that guy was) and the presenter may pass some dismissive comment or more likely, cease to play the artist's records as much, as enthusiastically, or at all. That affects sales. And they're selling. That's what they do.

So. Only EVER have people in you're actually keen to talk to. Don't waste your time on famous people you despise. Don't allow yourself or your producers to be sold some loser by a PR person in exchange for a promise of somebody famous and good the following week. Do (or read) the research, get (one or two of them) in, ask the questions, get them to play a couple of songs. Enter into that conspiracy of familiarity and ease with them. That's your job, and theirs. Psychologists call it 'deep acting.' Everyone else calls it pretending.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it will be a magical encounter of true minds. Or seem that way to the listener.

Oh, and never do phone interviews with people on tour buses or in taxis. Particularly not with Rufus Wainwright or Adam Duritz from Counting Crows. It probably helps not to call him Adam Durex. And if you want to interview Sigur Ros, speak Hopelandic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Radio interview hell

Hell's teeth. This interview with Glasgow's own Hardeep Singh Kohli almost gave me a panic attack, such is the horrific, beyond-toe-curling embarrassment in listening to Les Ross of BBC West Midlands (Three Sony Awards, MBE for services to broadcasting, won DJ of the Year in 1965, beating Johnnie Walker) channel Alan Partridge while Hardeep maintains his dignity and eventually walks out.

I mean, I've had some truly dreadful moments myself on radio. There was the time, nervous as a kitten, I informed a survivor of a concentration camp as follows 'your interrogation will begin in a few moments'. Or the famous opera singer I described as 'performing in a pair of encrusted underpants.' Oh, and probably worse.

Thanks to those who passed this link on to me. It's widely available, notably on Media Monkey at the Guardian and on The Word Magazine blog.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Scary lift

The Best Western Palace Hotel next to the River Ness in Inverness is bus tour central, a heaving maelstrom of (mostly elderly) travellers. And me. Actually, it's not a bad hotel, with a new swimming pool and really good service. Great porridge at breakfast time, too. I wasn't paying, but it's not cheap. There were a few businessfolk taking advantage of the (at last, a hotel with intersense!)free wi-fi, but the really striking thing for me about the place was not the (rather lovely) room with giant flat screen telly or the availability of Starbucks coffee, but the extraordinary lift.

The rest of the hotel has been refurbished and modernised, but the lift is like something from a 1940's black and white movie. There's a kind of cage door that you slam shut, then two wooden doors you have to close manually, before pressing a button sends it shooting jerkily upwards or downwards. You watch the wall passing by, keeping your fingers well clear.

Alas, it's noisy, and woke me up at 6.30 this morning. And, no, I wasn't sleeping in it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dolphinsludge, Queen of the Highland Fleshpots!

I'm always amazed at Inverness's continued evolution, not to say gentrification. The former HIDB/HIE offices, once housed in a sixties monstrosity, have been converted into attractive (and posh) flats. Upmarket pubs and restaurants abound (last night I sampled the Corner Grill, in which I had the best chips I have ever experienced in 'Sneck) and there are galleries, attractive bars (to be honest, there were always attractive bars), and good shops. There's a Pizza Express! A Primark!

But it's the River Ness that makes this small city extraordinary. Everything in Inverness leads to the river, and it's a proper, clean, salmon-bearing watercourse that not only runs right through the centre, but comes complete with parks and the amazing Narnia-like Ness Islands.

My hotel has the scariest lift in Mr Otis's history, but the view from my room makes the terrifying ascent worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Marxist/Walt Disney warning against the inevitability of the current financial crisis, and how to maintain your inertia

I had a worrying call this morning, wondering if we should withdraw our meagre savings (well, the kids' meagre savings. I don't have any. Spent all that cash on camper vans) from the disgracefully-named HBOS. I was a Bank of Scotland customer. To hell with Halifax, I say. But I could never be bothered shifting everything over to another bank.

And HBOS is apparently in meltdown, courtesy of hedge-fund speculators and other such bastards. Unless (as the hot gossip is suggesting) Lloyds TSB take it over. Capitalism, doncha love it? However, it appears that the Government will protect savers through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (Acronym warning - FSCS) should any bank go down. Up to £35,000 per person per institution is guaranteed, which is laughably more than we have ever had to worry about.

Anyway, we were all warned. Marx, George Galloway, and Dick Van Dyke. And if you don't believe me, watch this video. I've never felt comfortable in banks, and this is why. My favourite piece of financial advice so far? 'Maintain your inertia.' I'll try...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

BBC car parks I have slept in...

Inverness - for almost an entire winter - and Aberdeen, for one night only. Fourteen years ago, I resided most weeknights in Inverness, in a dreadful Fiat camper. I would sometimes wake up with my cheek frozen to the wall...Aberdeen, just the other week, courtesy of Violetta the VW, in conditions of surprising comfort. No Chris Evans noisily arriving at 6.00am with his 'posse' of thuggishly overgrown adolescents, as happened for a week in Inverness, way back when he was the Chris Moyles of his generation...

Anyway, the Inverness car park in which the old Fiat once emptied its sewage tank (accidentally, and alas not over Mr Evans' feet) has now been turned into a rather lovely courtyard garden, and the BBC in Culduthel Road has been refurbished and extended. Jeff Zycinski, head of BBC Radio Scotland, has a video blog (see below) in which he provides a guided tour. Personally, I would have thought some sort of plaque, indicating exactly where my camper used to sit, and some of the accidents that befel it, might have been a nice idea. But there you go. Maybe that's just me.

I'm off to Inverness (boat tonight, Aberdeen tomorrow, then the horrors of the A96) to do some interviews for a new series on musical families, so at least now I'll know which entrance to use. And that those automatic doors open OUTWARDS, thus putting at risk my much-broken nose. Can't wait for a visit to the legendary Castle Snacker, a cafe once described by one of my producers, Colin Macphail, as 'specialising in brown food.' Fortunately, I like brown food.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Blues falling down like rain in the St Magnus Bay Hotel...

...Jimmy Carlyle, local bluesologist, had advised me to check out Al Hughes, singer with the Fife blues and soul band Lights Out By Nine, as he was playing on Friday night at our local howff, the St Magnus Bay Hotel, now restored to full functioning order in the capable hands of Andrea and Paul.

So off I went with James Patrick, to be joined later by Susan, and, as the bar filled up with a host of local folk, it all turned into one of those hilariously entertaining nights you get, just occasionally, and only ever in Northmavine.

I fear Al - excellent set, always good to hear the Leo Kottke influence, and he has some really fine original songs - may not have been prepared for what happened when he thought he'd finished playing for the night. But he took the hijacking of guitar and moothie in good part and provided some mean Eagles covers. I had to stumble back to the house to fetch a mandolin. Not for me, you understand; there was a proper mandolinist present. As my brain had been swiftly liquified, my own attempts at singing had to be hurriedly abandoned.

Still it was a memorable night. I recommend Al's album, by the way, which is called Heart and Soul.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Try www.tommorton.eu...a work in progress

I'm trying to sort out one central TM site which would bring together all the blogs, Myspace, Radio Scotland, Facebook, music, videos and pictures...I thought Wordpress would do it, but maybe not....anyway, I'm working on one of those build-your-own-website thingies using a provider called Moonfruit, and they've given me my own domain name - www.tommorton.eu. Let me know what you think. It's mostly pictures at the moment but I'm hoping to get songs and text uploaded soon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

BBC fix connection between Lerwick and Mainland and remembering LA

Speaking to an old pal at the BBC yesterday, John Carmichael, who is now something incredibly senior and has sorted out the gremlins that were causing major problems to the show.

As noted below, The Radiocroft's ISDN line has proved too unreliable to risk with a daily two-hour live radio show. However, the long-standing fallback option - using the BBC's Lerwick studio and its fixed 'music quality' lines to Aberdeen - has also been prone to problems.

Turned out to be something related to the sharing of data (and there's TSUNAMIS more data whizzing about the BBC these days) with audio on the same lump of copper wire. This has now been 'partitioned' so sound and pixels don't interfere with one another. Hence the crystalline quality of yesterday's broadcast. Well, no didgeridoo noises anyway.

John and I shared a memorable trip to Los Angeles some, oh, 13 years ago, when the then Inverness-based TM show decamped to California for a week. Who can forget the Gregory Peck and Jay Leno encounters, the revolving rooftop restaurant at the Holiday Inn, Michael York wearing makeup for a radio interview, getting lost in the badlands of Compton at 3.00am, arrests on the Santa Monica boardwalk, an armed gangleader in the studio and much else...

Jings, it was bright in LA. And warm. The big equinoctial gales have started in Shetland, it's freezing and it's dark. Winter, suddenly, is on its way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Neal Stephenson's Anathem launched on the day the world ends, possibly. Thanks a lot, Neal...

See what you think...if this doesn't put you off, nothing will...who else would trail their work with a glossary of alien words...I feel like apologising on his behalf. His publishers must be beside themselves. Very funny, Neal...

Browse Inside this book
Get this for your site

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The ultimate camper van...


Alas, not in production anytime soon, I fear.

Click here.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Every book but one...a lovely little graphic story

It's a short comic tale from the Croatian artist Darko Macan and writer Tihomir Celanovic, translated, helpfully, by a friendly blogger.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Ah never did nuthin'....eat your heart out, Glasvegas!

Future of the Radiocroft in doubt as ISDN becomes increasingly unreliable

I'm five months into my seventh year of presenting the current manifestation of the Tom Morton radio Show, and the majority of my daily broadcasts have come from The Radiocroft, a small cottage in the north mainland of Shetland.

This has been possible due to a technology called ISDN - Integrated Systems Digital Network - which provides a one-to-one connection between the small studio in The Radiocroft and virtually any BBC broadcasting studio. the speed and quality of the connection is ideal for radio broadcasting. Unlike 'modern' ADSL broadband, you do not compete with other internet users, and the speed of data transfer is the same in both directions.

ISDN was the first of the digital telephony systems which, it was promised, would revolutionise remote working. When I was a Scotsman reporter in the late 80s, BT was forever demonstrating its capabilities, with computer programmers in Orkney magically working from their attics for companies in Abu Dhabi. Now, of course, ADSL broadband means we take such things for granted. And BT are keen to jettison ISDN just as soon as they can.

However, live broadcasting over ADSL is not supported by the BBC. There are issues of quality and especially, of delay, because you're competing at the moment with other internet users. In addition, the really serious dealers in data tend to maintain an ISDN line as a failsafe, should broadband go down.

I was using a BT product called BT Business Highway, which was withdrawn two months ago. I had arranged with BT what had been promised would be a 'seamless' transfer to ISDN2E, their professional version. Instead, they pulled the plug on Business Highway an hour befor a programme was due to go on air. No letters, no email, no call. Nothing. In point of fact, Business Highway had crashed more often in the last six months of usage than in the previous five years.

It took ages to discover what had happened (I initially thought the final disconnection was just another fault), but eventually, thanks to the folks at BT Local Business in Aberdeen, BT agreed to instal ISDN2E. That took weeks. Once installed, and that was just a few weeks ago, it has broken down again and again and again.

It crashed on Wednesday after a lightning storm - the Marconi ISDN cards used in the local exchange are ultra-sensitive to this - and then, during yesterday's show, there was a sudden seven-minute crash. All ISDN connections in the area were off ( I tried the three still used for video conferencing in the local health centre). No explanation, though ordinary telephone calls south didn't work either. Which raises another issue.

BT currently connect Shetland to the rest of the Uk using old fashioned line-of-sight radio. It's slow and unreliable. A state of the art fibre optic cable exists - laid by the Faroese Telecom company between Faroe, Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland - but BT have so far refused to buy space on it. This would provide a secure, fast connection and enable a host of advanced services.

But that's not what's bothering me. It's clear that BT management want shot of ISDN. I hear from within the BBC that maintenance of the corporation's ISDN network (there are small BBC ISDN studios in all kinds of unlikely places) is becoming increasingly difficult. The lightning-prone Marconi exchange card was once replaceable by a more robust Motorola version. No longer.

It's pretty boring, technical stuff, but what it comes down to is that neither myself nor my producers can have confidence in the ISDN services provided to the Radiocroft. The Lerwick studios of BBC Radio Shetland have access to (very) old-fashioned leased lines for broadcasting, and these are (a bit) more reliable. So it seems that instead of a carbon-neutral cycle to the Radiocroft, I'm facing a 75-miles round trip commute by car each day.

After all the work done and money spent to make remote broadcasting happen in Northmavine, it's sickening. It's bad publicity for BT, but they really don't seem to care one iota. I have had not one word of concern or apology from BT management. This despite a national network radio programme being put at risk. It's as if they neither understand nor care about the idea of public relations.

All the engineers I've dealt with have been exemplary in their willingness to sort the problems as they occur. But no van is fast enough to save a show that goes off-air half way through.

Remote broadcasting: it appears the dream may be over.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Incoming! Storm about to hit Hillswick

Moments after these pictures were taken, we had thunder, lightning, then power cuts and probably the frying of ISDN lines. I haven't checked yet. Too busy with generators and fetching curries.