Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It was 23 years ago...but did I really look like this?

Thanks to my old mate Stewart Cunningham, ace snapper, I now remember that I was once this thin and this pretentious on stage. It was 1987, Shetland, indoors at the Sound Hall and outdoors on the island of Foula.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ben Chonzie/ Ben-y Hone/ Beinn a' Chòinnich,

Near Comrie. Cheers to Dave Hewitt for putting up with my general feartyness and lack of fitness. About 150 feet from the top, having seen both ptarmigan and lots of mountain hare (white in winter!)I had had enough. Warbeck's very nice crampons didn't stay on, and I was running out of energy.

The weather closed in, and the circuitous route down, across very icy snow and sometimes in whiteout conditions, was pretty scary for someone like me, who had never been on the hills in winter. Using an ice axe in earnest was a novel experience. The trudge through deep, porridge-y snow to get back onto the path was hard but, as usual, it felt great to have (mostly) been up a hill. Afterwards. Many thanks to Dave and Tessa for their kindness and hospitality.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I’m in Glasgow G12, the epicentre of Glasgow’s west end, the buckle of the bohemian belt. The relocation of the BBC’s HQ to sunny Govan seems to have made little difference to the general atmosphere. The architects of obscurantist sandwiches still flourish (though vans do make daily trips across the Squinty Bridge to Pacific Quaty, bearing focaccia) and oceans of latte and cappuccino are still consumed. How do the students, still seething up and down Byres Road, afford it?
Down for a week, I’m renting a studio flat rather than crashing in the spare bedroom of my son’s. Students are great, but it’s good to associate with them on your own terms. To have a place to retreat to where World of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed are not omnipresent, and the seats comprise mountains of Domino’s Pizza boxes, with extra cheese. The property crash has opened up a daily and weekly lettings market in the city, and it’s now cheaper than a hotel if you shop around.
I had expected to be staying in one of the developments that have erupted, apparently self-built using the nanotechnology described in William Gibson’s book Idoru, in the city centre and along the Clyde. I am, however, in a space I remember from a past life in the city: a drawing room conversion.
It’s OK. A studio flat with a mezzanine sleeping area, IKEA kitchenette, shower room, central heating, flat screen telly and wifi. All converted from the front reception room of a grand four-story terraced mansion. It’s just that as soon as I arrived, I realised I’d been here before.
I’m not talking about a vague sense of déjà vu. I’ve actually been in this flat, more than a quarter of a century ago. Then, the massive old room had been even more sub-divided, into a cramped couple of bedsits. It was heated by Calor Gas SuperSer heaters, draped in post-punk gloom, running with condensation. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of such places. You woke up with ice on the inside of the cathedral-sized windows.
And just down the road is another address, now a set of heavily mortgaged, luxury apartments, but back in the early 80s a terrible warren of cheap bedsits where the two-bar electric fires barely made an impression on the lung-crushing cold, and the meters swallowed 50ps like Smarties.
These days,in my current abode, the heating’s effective and included, a decent latte is a short stroll away, and I’ll be home in a week anyway. Being in the wild west end is ideal for the people I need to meet, for the food I need to provide student son Magnus with copious quantities of.
But it’s winter and it’s....dark. This part of G12 is gloomy with mouldy, dripping trees and everything seems mildly decayed, sinister at night, Gormenghastian. Maybe I’ve become allergic to trees , but Susan, who stayed in the immediate vicinity for years, says it was always that way. “That part of the west end was always creepy after dark,” she says. And she’s right. Some things don’t change.But nowadays, the fittings come from IKEA.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ultima Thule : Edge of darkness at the edge of the world

Eshaness, Shetland between 3.20pm and 4.20pm. You can see Foula, the westernmost Shetland island, and if you click on the pictures and enlarge them, you should just be able to make out the infamous Ve Skerries lighthouse on the horizon. Everyone who could was out and about this afternoon, soaking in the last bit of light before darkness fell.

Sunday paper stuff, for your delectation, delight and possibly, in some cases, fury

Amid tales that The Sunday Post is soon going to have a pay-to-read online version available, and the current subscription-only access to the Sunday Herald and Herald, I decided to make my contributions to today's papers available here...though of course I'd urge you buy the hard copy editions of both papers if you can! I, however, can't, due to snow, ice and distance to the newsagent.

The first piece is 750 words, but be warned, the wind power thing is over 2000. Enjoy...

Sunday Post, 10th January: Turn That Record Over!

Singles. Albums. I remember them. Fairbairn's electrical shop in West Portland Street, Troon, with its listening booth and peg-board display of record sleeves. Proper covers, 12-inches square, 37 shillings and sixpence handed over in folding money and jingling change before grubby kids like myself were allowed even to touch them.
The late 1960s merged into the 70s, Tyrannosaurus Rex became TRex (oh, the jokes about cooking fat!) and groovy, long-haired patchouli oil-flavoured Speed Records just along the road stole Fairbairn's customers. My record-buying career began in earnest. Gloria's Record Bar in Battlefield, Glasgow, and Another Side of Bob Dylan, 43 shillings and ninepence. A fortune. The Rock Machine Turns you on, a bargain compilation for 15 shillings. Albums, albums, albums. Singles were for kids.
And so, with a blip in the late 70s for punk and new wave, it has remained. Until today, when new figures reveal that album sales are inexorably falling and 'singles' rising. Although that really refers to something different: the rise of the download.
Nowadays, you don't make that saved-pocket money gamble on an album you bought for the band's reputation, a review in Melody Maker or New Musical Express and a fuzzy track played on late night radio. Yes, bands and artists still record and release collections of songs, but online you can skim through the whole lot and simply pay to download the one or two that actually appeal. Not so much singles (which had B-sides, after all) as single tracks. Gone are the days when you bought something like the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street double 12-inch and worked your way through the murky production, enjoying instant rushes like Tumbling Dice and Rip this Joint, but gradually learning to love the sprawling, messy whole, the work of art itself.
The truth is, I used to live my life at 33 and a third rpm. There were the seduction albums - like the double (plenty of time) Spotlight on Al Green, admittedly a compilation but with handy breaks for flipping the records over during which coffee could be made or strong drink supplied. Inspirations like Rory Gallagher's Live in Europe from 1972, bought at Speed Records in Troon and memorised. Every riff, every lyric, every gasped introduction, every breathless aside. So much so that when I finally replaced the album with the 'digitally remastered' CD I was infuriated by the inclusion of two extra tracks. It was like someone had been messing with my memories.
Of course, the ability to download selectively has advantages. You can put together your own choice of an artist's work, devoid of chaff. All killer, no filler. But life isn't like that. Life has duff tracks in it, throwaways, things that appear tedious at first hearing or sight, but grow on you. Sometimes you have to work at things. Sometimes you have to work at records before you realise just how good they are. Dark Side of the Moon is an album, not a few downloads strung together with incidental music. More recently, Elvis Perkins In Dearland is a masterpiece of a constructed work which has to be taken complete. Best of the X factor it isn't.
And there you have a serious contemporary artist, still working to a format which allows space, the development of ideas, a shunning of the instant thrill, the disposable hit. Such people will always exist, and there will always be an audience which expects more than the three-minute trifle. Just as there was always the radiogram or the hi-fi versus the Dansette. Some will always hanker for the concept album, the sprawling quadruple-disc. And why not? Fine if you prefer just to download Pinball Wizard.
Speaking personally, I have recently returned to vinyl, having acquired a Linn Sondek, that Scottish prince among record decks. I have once more been rejoicing in the swish of a disc being removed from its inner sleeve, the clunk of needle against groove, the sitting down, listening, getting up, turning over, the reading of sleeve notes, the gazing at sizeable cover art. But the Linn was a gift from someone who has devoted themselves entirely to music on iPod and computer, track by track. A singles player.
As for me, I'm now looking for a cassette machine, something clockwork that'll play 78s and I've just bought a typewriter. Which means I'll have to send this article in by pigeon post. Here, nice birdie!


At the back of the north wind

By Tom Morton

FAMILIES divided, friends feuding, neighbours at each other’s throats. A shouting match develops on Lerwick'’s Commercial Street between two couples who have been on cordial terms for 30 years. There are accusations of ecofascism and environmental ignorance; of stupidity and greed. Ours is a small community and this is messy, brutal stuff. Odd alliances form between wealthy anarcho-hippie incomers and redneck pseudo-vikings, millionaire businessmen and eco-activists, councillors and counsellors. Colossal quantities of hot air are disseminated which, if harnessed, could doubtless meet Shetland’'s power needs for years to come. Instead, as winter gales rage, the usual power cuts bite and the 52-inch high definition flat screens flicker and fail in crofthouse kitchens, the bubble of controversy swells fit to burst right through the ozone layer.

Windfarm: yes or no?

I see. Would you care to step outside?

In Shetland, you learn to take weather seriously. Particularly the wind, which can come whispering balmily across the treeless landscape, or shrieking in at speeds that can prove fatal. In January 1992, gusts of up to 170mph caused severe damage throughout the isles, destroying a Lerwick caravan site and, on the northernmost island of Unst, killing two tourists when the bird observation hut they were sheltering in was blown over the cliffs at Hermaness.

Wind rarely creates such mayhem in Shetland, where the population is used to its severity and for centuries has been geared up to cope. New timber homes of Scandinavian design, triple-glazed and heavily insulated, offer both strength and warmth. Older croft houses hug the contours of "Da Old Rock", as the islands are affectionately known. They huddle into hillsides, coorie in against the murderous blasts.

But the wind can be a friendly force too. In remote areas, low-output "windylights" have long been used for battery charging and domestic lighting. Since 1982, when Europe’s first commercially-operated windpower scheme was commissioned on Fair Isle, turbines have provided for most of the islanders’ electrical needs – nowadays, 85% in winter and 50% in summer, the rest coming from imported diesel. Wind generators have since popped up throughout the isles. Many have proved hugely successful, notably in heating community halls. Some have been ripped apart by the inexorable power of nature. If you want wind, this is the place to come.

It was inevitable that someone would see bigger possibilities in Shetland’s moving air, and it was a man called Angus Ward who had the technical vision and technical insight to try and harness the islands’ unique weather. An association with the Thomson family, who ran a local construction business, led to the establishment 10 years ago of Shetland Aerogenerators Ltd, and the advent of Mina, Betsy, Brenda, Sally and Karen: the five turbines that comprise the Burradale Wind Farm just north of Lerwick. The world’s most productive windfarm (per unit of installed capacity), it can put out 3.68 megawatts, enough to supply 2000 homes.

The Burradale turbines tower, white and glistening, over the Tingwall Valley and the Dale golf course. There have been sporadic complaints from nearby residents about noise and television interference, but for the most part, Shetland’s first, £3.1 million venture into commercial windpower caused little anguish. Its economic success has been impressive. Years ahead of schedule, investors, including the local council’s development trust, which put £700,000 into the project, were paid off, and the trust’s shareholding was bought out by the company'’s original shareholders, for £1.03 million, giving the community a £330,000 profit. All bank loans were returned too. Selling power into the local grid, given the special tariff for renewables, seemed a sure-fire moneymaker. The scene was set for much bigger things.

Ward and the Thomsons were keen to up the ante and soon, local councillors could smell something in the wind. It smelled like oil, or rather, like oil used to back in the 1970s when the black gold tide running ashore at Sullom Voe promised profit and much more. Thirty years after North Sea oil first arrived in Shetland, it is running out. Da Old Rock, it was felt, needed something else.

Because the archipelago has grown used to living on the fat of other lands. The container-loads of extra virgin olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes, Ian Mellis cheeses, designer duds, Toyota Landcruisers and Nissan Navarra pick-ups keep on coming. That wasn'’t a joke about the flat-screen tellies. Wealth and ease stalk bare moorlands in the shape of colossal Scandinavian kit houses, cruise the smooth and well-maintained roads, glisten in the state-of-the-art schools, lurk in the extraordinary sports facilities, the mini-Guggenheim that is Lerwick'’s stunning museum, and in Mareel: the soon-to-be-built cinema, concert venue and job creation scheme for arts professionals. Oil money has been key to all of this, and to seeding the salmon farms (now mostly bought out by or sold on to foreign interests), the fish processors, the supertrawlers and consequent fishing quotas.

But there'’s lots left. Shetland Islands Council remains rich. Its oil revenues are controlled by the Shetland Charitable Trust, and essentially, what the council wants the trust to do, it will do. The trustees, for the moment, being mostly councillors. From funding Christmas grants for pensioners to betting the farm on ... a farm. A windfarm, to be exact. A great big one. Oh, and the Council is of course, also the planning authority that has to consider the permissions necessary for the project. Nice...

The expansion of the Burradale scheme in 2003 was a sign of more to come. The wider political and economic context was favourable. Renewables are pantingly favoured by every party from Labour to the Laughing Gnome Alliance. Shetland’s potential as a source of wind-generated electrity was being investigated by all kinds of people, and there seemed a risk, as in the early days of oil, that a potentially beneficial community resource could be appropriated solely for profit by private companies. Shetland Aerogenerators talked to various sympathetic councillors. Discussions were held with Scottish and Southern Energy. And the idea of a Shetland community windfarm gradually came together. Viking Energy would be half-owned by SSE, the other 40% by the Shetland Charitable Trust, and 10% by Shetland Aerogenerators. The partnership would build Europe’s biggest, most productive, most stonkingly money-making clutch of windmills. And because it was so potentially lucrative, the biggest barrier to the project’s viability would be breached: an interconnector cable linking Shetland – and Orkney, pushing ahead with tidal energy in a big way – to the power markets on the British mainland. Colossally expensive, and thus only worth doing if a truly colossal windfarm was going to be built in Shetland.

But no-one was really prepared for the reality of what Viking Energy ended up proposing.

It was big. Initial plans in 2006 were for 168 massive turbines, producing 600mw, but public incredulity meant this was reduced to 150, each 145 metres high to its blade-tip. By the time planning permission was formally applied for last May, people might have been expected to get used to the vast size of the project. They hadn’'t. The turbines would be as high as Glasgow’s Red Road Flats, in a landscape almost devoid of trees. Construction cost? £800 million. A generating capacity of 540mw, but with Shetland conditions, potentially twice as productive as other Scottish windfarms. Two terawatt hours of electricity a year, almost a sixth, theoretically, of Scotland’s demand for domestic electricity, if an interconnector was in place to take the electricity south. And the reason the farm had to be so big, Viking Energy argued repeatedly, was because only something that size could justify the mammoth expense of cabling up Shetland and the mainland. Locally, up to £23 million a year in income could be expected. Quite a lot of cash: the same amount lost by the Western Isles council in the BCCI crash, many moons ago. But let’s not talk about that.

From the first, fumbling attempts at public consultation in 2007 there was a sense that Viking Energy’s combination of councillors and entrepreneurs felt the plan would – should – be irresistible to the local population. They knew best. Wind was the new oil. And if the biggest building project the isles had ever seen was a consequence, people would just have to live with it. But unlike Sullom Voe, the largest construction project in Europe during the late 1970s, the windfarm was in central Shetland, very visible and in various people’s backyards, or bogs. Almost immediately, outrage and bitterness broke out, then was organised into an articulate and very aggressive oppositional force.

This was Sustainable Shetland, an organisation whose initials are rarely used as a handy acronym. But, led by Kevin Learmonth and Billy Fox, it proved effective in attacking the project on the grounds of its overwhelming visual impact, environmental effect (notably in disturbing vast quantities of peat, thus, it was claimed, releasing carbon into the atmosphere), alleged potential to kill off rare birds and, finally, wasting the community’s money for returns which were, in SS’s opinion, likely to be far less than anticipated. A petition attracted 2500 signatures opposing the plan (Shetland’s population is around 22,000), the figure modified after irregularities were found in the gathering of names. If SS was embarrassed, it wasn’t for showing it. It began attracting criticism and unease due to its very un-Shetlandic approach to its opponents, whom it sometimes seemed to hold in contempt, and an allegedly cavalier way with statistics, particularly when it came to the digging of peat and the consequent release of nasty carbon. A Viking Energy leaflet was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority and found to be at fault. Arguments raged through the internet, the letters pages of The Shetland Times and The Shetland News, and a sometimes ugly two-hour live debate last year on BBC Radio Shetland.

I chaired that debate, one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my broadcasting life. It was a very fraught business. Viking Energy project officer David Thomson was replaced by councillor Alan Wishart, no stranger to business and political hardball, in an attempt to counter the righteous anger and public suspicion successfully harnessed by SS. This in turn was being fuelled by the continuing PR ineptitude of the Viking Energy alliance. Already, they had tried to counter growing public alarm by employing the multinational PR company Weber Shandwick. This in itself provoked appalled disbelief from both supporters and opponents, but it got worse: Weber Shandwick’s chairman of corporate communications and public affairs Jon McLeod proceeded to set up the National Alliance of Windfarm Action Groups (NAWAG), claiming that for too long the "the greenwash" of the wind industry has gone unchallenged". Sustainable Shetland crowed, gleefully. In July, Weber Shandwick were quietly dropped.

Formal objections to the Viking Energy Plans went to the government’s Energy Consent Unit from some heavy hitters: Shetland Amenity Trust , The John Muir Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB. The peat thing. Rare birds minced, albeit very slowly. It was just. Too. Big.

Since then, despite a series of public meetings dominated by anti-windfarm activists, Weber Shandwick’s replacements, Platform PR, have begun earning their retainer. Viking Energy has become more cuddly. A professional web presence has expanded to take in social media sites, there have been attempts at viral PR, and some quiet nudging resulted in the formation of a "windfarm supporters’ group" involving respected island figures unconnected with politics. Just as well, as by the autumn of last year Shetland politics was in meltdown. It still is. A scandal-rocked Shetland Islands Council seems incapable, either at executive or political level, of getting anything right. Personality clashes, allegations involving sex, drink, financial irregularities and the multi-million-pound disarray of the much vaunted new high school project remain unsettled.

As the new year opens, the smartened-up, newly-emollient Viking Energy is indicating that an addendum to the planning application could see a reduction in the number of turbines, redirected cabling and changes to the layout of new roads and tracks. They argue, convincingly, that peatland surfaces will be restored, that carbon payback is a certainty. That SS is scaremongering. You can sense that they feel the political wind at their backs. Big Government is fed up with the planning system bogging down windpower developments. The turbines need to turn. The Beauly-Denny link, essential to electrically-linking Scotland to Orkney and Shetland, has been pushed through. But the much-vaunted interconnector to the Scottish mainland is raising another issue – transmission charges could be so high that the windfarm struggles to make sufficient cash.

In these dark, gale-lashed January days, things have quietened down a bit. There’'s a sense of powder being kept dry on both sides. But the impetus behind the scheme now seems too powerful to stop. In late December last year, it was announced that the Swedish company Vattenfall is planning a major wave energy development off Shetland – but only if the windfarm, and consequently the interconnector, goes ahead. In the old world of burning carbon, French oil giant Total plans a huge investment in a gas-fired power station at Sullom Voe; perhaps, if there’s an outlet for the juice generated, more than one. There’s a lot of gas still out there.

There are some indications now that the wind may be shifting in favour of the project. The silent majority of Shetlanders, particularly the young, are showing signs of accepting a slightly scaled-down scheme. The lure of the sun-dried tomatoes and flat-screen tellies may prove too strong. One former councillor told me, pithily: "I don’t give a shit about the peat or the birds. I just want to know if it’ll make money." Sustainable Shetland may have over-played their hand. Some "soothmoothers" (incomers) who moved north in search of a green good-life idyll, have threatened to leave the islands if the scheme goes ahead. It’s true that a few friendships may never recover. But Shetland has coped with the impact of two world wars (30,000 troops were stationed on the isles during the Second World War) and the massive changes wrought by oil. Without the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, which excavated millions of tonnes of peat, which nightly flares off enough gas to melt a mini icecap, many members of Sustainable Shetland would not have been able to make a living in the isles. Bottom line: if we want the comfort of the Scandinavian welfare superstate we’ve grown used to, we’re going to have to pay a price. As for me, I like wind turbines. Big ones. But I'’ve always loved Tonka Toys.

Oh, you still want me to step outside, do you? It’s just a bit too dark and cold at the moment. Maybe in the spring. Maybe when the wind drops.


Saturday, January 09, 2010

$254,500, anyone? Better nick than Cormac McCarthy's...

An Olivetti Lettera 32, identical to the one used by Cormac McCarthy to write all his novels...only in almost unused condition. £15 I think I paid for it, off eBay. Made in Glasgow too. It is absolutely beautiful, though not as spectacular as the Olivetti Valentine. Nor as expensive.

McCarthy's (broken!) machine was sold at Christie's for $254,500, authenticated by the author and all proceeds going to charity. He's got a new, identical Lettera, which apparently cost $20...

Anyway, must get on. I have a post-apocalypse novel to write...

Thursday, January 07, 2010

On the buses

Fed up with wrestling The Mighty Isuzu through the White Hell, I decided to get the bus today. Which, despite the conditions, has never stopped running the 35 miles into Lerwick and the 35 miles back. £5.40 return. Ginny, intrepid driver, joined me in praising our gritters and snowploughers (ploughees?) for the fine job they've been doing in Shetland. I know it's not the same in other parts of Scotland. We count our blessings!

That's the shadow of the bus as we whizz past the sundrenched snowfields. But by the time we reached the Ollaberry junction, the windows were too dirty and salty to give anything but a ghostly hint of the strange wicker throne in the bus shelter. It's for an ancient ritual I'm not allowed to talk about.

I fell pleasantly asleep for about half the journey there, and half the trip back as well. Which it's not really advisable to do when driving.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy 2010...ten things that may or may not happen, mostly in Scotland, during the coming year

1- General election has to be postponed after Alistair Darling's eyebrows unexpectedly turn orange and David Cameron is victim of a daring partial head-shaving attack whilst snoozing on a bus.

2- Russell Brand's utter absence of talent is sensationally revealed after Katy Perry releases YouTube video of him learning Michael McIntyre routine phonetically. He offers his body for live televised vivisection, but is turned down flat.

3- Alex Salmond's secret attempt to control eyebrows (what is it with politicans and their eyebrows?) through Botox injection goes disastrously wrong. Treatment in private London clinic leads to collapse in SNP support and offers of a transplant from both Colin Farrell and Noel Gallagher.

4- Norway invades the Shetland Isles , annexes all North Sea and UK Atlantic oil fields, and immediately begins puffin harvest throughout the Greater Zetlandics. Call to arm RSPB wardens receives wide support. Shetlanders vote to become Norwegian subjects on condition all current Shetland Islands councillors and senior executives are imprisoned for life on Spitzbergen.

5- Wearing of kilt declared compulsory for all male and female primary pupils in Scotland, subject to wind conditions. Anemometers fitted in every community over 1000 pupils linked to central computer in Edinburgh. Wind speeds of above 45 knots allow wearing of trousers. At lower wind speeds, a 'trouser certificate' must be provided signed by a doctor and a qualified meteorologist.

6- Michael Russell's blog (rampantnat.blogspot.com) is removed from the web following accusations that he was once mildly rude about Nicola Sturgeon's hair. Which she has taken to wearing in a feathered mullet following her attendance at a Billy Ray Cyrus line-dancing weekend in Dunoon.

7- Coldplay and Radiohead merge. Cannot decide if they should be called Radioplay or Coldhead. Release cover of Milli Vanilli's Blame It On the Rain

8- Live action Hollywood movie of The Broons is announced. Director James Cameron says he's hoping for Kate Winslett to play Maggie, and Brian Cox as Paw. 'I'm trying to convince Helen Mirren to try out as Maw' he says, 'but Tavish Scott has already agreed to a guest appearance as Oor Wullie. Neil Oliver will be Horace.'

9- Judy Murray becomes Scotland football manager after Craig Levein is sacked following a seven-nil home defeat by the Farne Islands

10- Donald Trump given permission and 80 per cent grants to dig 20-foot wide trench around new golf course and hotel development in Aberdeenshire, erect electrified fences around the perimeter and man guard towers with machine guns. 'How else will we be able to keep the guests in?' he asks.