Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sneak preview of new Shetland Life - out 6 January

Featuring an exclusive, hard-hitting piece by former council chief Dave Clark, a profile of Shetland-born EIS boss Ronnie Smith, a heroic tale of Arctic survival, Lerwick's poisonous pies, and a marvellous photo essay on the late lamented North Star by Chloe Garrick. Who also took this front cover shot of the Market Cross in snow:

Friday, December 30, 2011

Defacers Of The Thistle strike again!

It's a Shetland thing. Whose oil did you say it was?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Back garden, Wednesday morning

The view out over Ura Firth and the Ness of Hillswick towards St Magnus' Bay, 8.30am
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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Top 10 albums of 2011 my humble opinion...

Tom Waits: Bad as Me
Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest
Frank Turner: England Keep My Bones
Babybird: The Pleasures of Self Destruction
Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know
Josh T Pearson: Last of the Country Gentlemen
Ryan Adams: Ashes and Fire
British Sea Power: Valhalla Dancehall
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (compilation)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011

Dawn over the wee plastic weather station

That was my Christmas present two years ago, that weather station thingy. There's a wireless connection to a screen inside, but frankly, I'm not sure how it works or what it means. The wind is always worse than the weather station says, because the anemometer is too sheltered. If it weren't, it would be in tiny pieces by now.

Anyway, this morning we had a red sky which had gone pink by the time this picture was taken. Shepherd's warning. And that's about as far as my weather predictions go...

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The most influential album in the whole world, ever...came from Bellshill in 1969

If there was one record that set my feet upon the path of rock'n'roll, it was...Prodigal, by The Gospelfolk. Released in 1969, we had one of the first copies to see the light of day, as the lead singer, one John MacCalman, was my mum's wee brother and a hero to me and my sisters. He played the guitar. I got a guitar. He bought me my first LPs (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, The Monkees, and the eponymous Taste album). He was a journalist. Eventually, so was I.

But he was in The Gospelfolk (later known as National Debt) who began as a neat and tidy evangelical pop group from Bellshill, Motherwell and Hamilton before morphing into a kind of weird amalgam of psychedelia, heavy rock and singalong Christian hymnology. They made this album in Emblem Records' tiny Strathaven studio, and we thought it was just the business. John wasn't happy with it, and you can hear why, now. It's muffled, distorted, rough as hell and, at a distance of over 40 years, utterly charming.

It's also a major collector's item, worth anything up to £1200 if you can find one in perfect condition. There's a rumour that only 99 were ever pressed, which I think is untrue. Numerous copies were sold through THE Christian outlet in Glasgow, Pickering and Inglis. I've a feeling mum bought loads to give to her friends. The lyrics are standard full-on fundamentalist rhyming, and if you want to hear them in full the whole album is available for download here . The same site features a download of the less valuable album by one Tom Morton and Mr Graeme Duffin. But that's another story. Incidentally, I don't have a copy of Prodigal. I've checked with my sisters and my sons, and neither do they. It was, if I remember correctly, scratched to bits and with a coffee-stained, torn cover the last time I saw it. Being able to view the artwork and hear it again on the web is...disconcerting. Strange. And good.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Leaning Bottle of Glen Grant

Just back from Pisa (it has a tower that leans) and Lucca, wherein I got lost, in a car, in streets that grew ever narrower, until it was just me and this tiny wee old woman in a red oilskin...or am I thinking about somewhere else? 
Anyway, here's a thing: Glen Grant Five Year Old, a delicious if undemanding malt, yours for 10 Eurotokens per bottle here in Italy. A good breakfast dram!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Last ride

Sold on eBay, my last motorbike. Today was my final powered ride, 35 gruesomely cold, wet and windy miles from Hillswick to Lerwick so I could check the bike in as freight for Aberdeen. Tomorrow, all being well, a man called Gordon will ride away on the old Suzuki GS1000G. It will be out of my life.

I've said this before, of course. But with a new Surly Long Haul Trucker touring pushbike arriving tomorrow, I can't afford any more motorised two wheel indulgences. Big acoustic motorbike tours (cf Luka Bloom) loom next year. And besides, I've had enough.

Enough of the fear, the cramped fingers, the wetness and cold, the discomfort. The fear. Terror compounded by the inability to see anything through that useless condensation-prone AGV helmet, the most expensively hopeless I've ever owned.

I've been lucky. No motorbike-related breakages, no serious harm in the, ah, 40-odd years I've been riding the things. If you count that Vespa I had at 14. But last year's epic 3000-mile plus Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland tour saw my first spill (static in a car park). And the sheer awfulness of high-speed motorway dodgems on the M6 would put anyone off.

2011 was the year of four motorbikes for me: The beautiful Moto Guzzi Bellagio, two old Kawasaki GT550s, and the Suzuki, three years in and out of the shed. but mostly in. And now there are none. All gone through eBay and Shetlink.

Loads of two-wheeled memories remain: Riding a BMW R1150GS through the remains of a bushfire (and much more) in South Africa. Transporting Kaye Adams in vintage BSA combination along Rose Street in Edinburgh (a TV thing). The MZ ETZ250 combo of Spirit of Adventure fame, raced at midnight for money and whisky round a car park in Islay. Honda 50, Troon to Kirkcudbright and back, aged 17, in a single night. Norfolk to Drumnadrochit in one day last year on the Bellagio and a Triumph Street Triple. Morris Dancers welcoming Rob Allanson and me to St George's Distillery last year, again on Street Triples. Caught in blizzard on the Drumochter Pass on a BMW, in April. Dropping a borrowed Ducati 996 (fortunately on soft grass). Riding a  Road King at the Perth anniversary Harley rally. Nearly totalling a Harley Sportster on a cattle grid near Tomintoul. And on and on and....

Stop. Time to start pedalling.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Exercise - on The Treadmill of Doom and the Cycle of Destruction

Overweight and unfit, I bought a treadmill. This wasn't difficult, as there are always second-hand treadmills and exercise bikes for sale. One wee 'wanted' ad on Shetlink snagged a Reebok motorised Thighripper Mk 2, and for the last fortnight I've been using it every morning. Almost.

I've always been heartily opposed to the idea of gyms and indoor exercise equipment. There's something so inherently ridiculous about running to stand still. But then I read REAMDE, the vast new novel by Neal Stephenson (patchy, ill-disciplined, ragged but with brilliant bits) which introduced me to the notion of 'nerd fitness'.

This centres on the fact that you can combine walking/running on a treadmill, climbing on a Stairmaster or spinning on an exercise bike with computer gaming, TV watching or reading. Intellectual and cultural stimulation AND physical exercise. Whatever the weather. I could become a  fully rounded human being, albeit lacking in fresh air and UV (unless you get a sunlamp). As opposed to just full. And round.

So far so good. Half an hour in the morning seems to activate me for the day. And I've combined some muscle-straining with, let's see, a few episodes of Spiral, two Andrea Camilleri books, Simon Ings' The Weight of Numbers and a re-read of The Cruiskeen Lawn.

But then today, I went cycling.

Now, I don't just love cycling. I love bikes. In fact, I love bikes more than cycling. Looking at them. Repairing them. Thinking about them. And particularly buying them.  I have...let's just say several. With another on the way. And a few weeks ago (see below) I completed the first Shetland Sportive. 40 miles. At my age.

I came last. But at least I finished the course. Well, it was the only way to get a free fish supper.

I thought today's seven-mile jaunt to Ollaberry (to collect a car from the garage there) would be easy. I was treadmilled up! I had been exercising like a proper gymrat! I was wearing a tracksuit and using SPD cleats!

Friends, it nearly killed me.  It was a beautiful, calm day for cycling, Yet I huffed and I puffed. My heart palpitated, knocking like an overloaded washing machine with a burnt out motor. With nothing to distract me, no book or video, all I could feel was my own pain and nausea. I wobbled. I wheezed. Last night's pint of Dark Island squelched around my internals

It got better. Then I was there. Then I was home, consuming cheese-and-bacon toasties and home-roasted coffee. And pondering: Exercise, it seems, is non-transferable. Indoor doesn't work outdoors. Reading on a treadmill won't cut it when it comes to real hills on a real bicycle.

But then, that's reality for you. Probably overrated.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The end of REM?

And, let's face it, it was about time. It was over for REM a long time ago. It was over when Bill Berry left.

The first interview I ever did for Melody Maker was with Peter Buck and Mike Mills. They were playing at the Caley Paley in Edinburgh, and we met in the George Hotel. At that time, the poshest they'd ever stayed in. They couldn't afford the bar prices and made me help smuggle beer in from the tour van. Not bus. Van.

I said hallo to Michael Stipe backstage after that gig. Even then, with hair, I thought he was one of the strangest people I'd ever met.

Saw them at the Barrowlands. Can't remember when that was. Michael had 'DOG' written on his forehead. "It's GOD backwards."

And then, memorably, met and interviewed Stipe and Mills in Athens, Georgia, while I was hitching a ride with Del Amitri  on their 'sleeping on people's floors' tour of the USA. Went to Mike M's house, where Iggy Pop had been partying the night before. Mills took me to his favourite record shop and insisted on buying the REM bootleg 'We're Blinking As Fast As We Can', and the Hindu Love Gods single. We lunched on buffalo chicken wings. First time I'd ever seen frozen beer glasses.

Stipe cycled right into the Rendezvous Lounge that night, and we repaired to the tea shop he owned (this was just before Life's Rich Pageant's release). And that's where this picture was taken. By me. On the Braun Super Paxette camera my dad bought me for my 17th birthday.

Stipe was still strange. But not as strange as his companions, a young man and woman, both dressed as Alice Cooper. I've always wondered, with hindsight, if the guy was River Phoenix.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The last record shop

Clive Munro's record shop has always been the last in Britain, or at least the northernmost. It has been my favourite, too, for the quarter of a century I've known and used it.

That was mainly due to Clive himself, the same age as me, with similar tastes in music. His recommendations could be trusted. His tendency to stock obscure Nick Lowe box sets, not to mention every jot and tittle of the Costello oeuvre, was wholly admirable. He is one of only two people I know who can talk knowledgeably about the work of Californian singer-songwriter Peter Case.

I  helped Clive with his stall at a couple of early Shetland Folk Festivals, watched vinyl vanish from his shelves (the second-hand tapes he once dealt in at two previous,  tiny locations, had already disappeared) and was happy to spend cash when he moved to large Commercial Street premises, where computer games and DVDs featured heavily. A branch in Orkney opened and closed quickly. But Clive's in Lerwick would go on forever, surely? On our remote archipelago, we needed, deserved a great record shop. How would we get the good stuff otherwise?

Then came Amazon. Then came iTunes. A big new Lerwick branch of Tesco. And now Spotify. For me, deluged with free CDs due to the radio show, and with a Spotify Premium account as well, my CD purchasing fell away to almost zero. Clive announced that the shop would operate using half its floorspace, concentrating on specialised material, local folk, country and with a range of new vinyl too.

But it didn't work. History is against shops like Clive's, and especially in Shetland, the internet has revolutionised shopping. Now we can have DVDs and CDs winging their way from one island (tax-free Jersey, where is based) to the Greater Zetlandics in a flash, and at prices less than Clive was paying wholesale. Or we can stream  and download, listen and forget in less time than it takes to say: "How much diesel will I use getting into town and back?"

So it's nearly over. The shop doors will soon shut forever. There's a closing down sale, but I've been avoiding the place, because I didn't want to look like some kind of scavenger, having spent so little there in recent months. Today, though I went in, bought a DVD, and found Clive in positive mood, looking forward to a new start doing - well, he knows not what, as yet.

He has been a musical mentor and guide, a shaman for hundreds, maybe thousands of Shetland's music fans. He has stocked indie releases by local bands, put up posters, sold tickets and been a crucial force for all that's good in the world of twangy guitars and great lyrics.

The last record shop in Britain will be sorely missed. But not enough, and by not enough people, for it to remain open.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A wee Sunday cycle in Shetland

At the finish: Last but only slightly embarrassed
James with his free fish supper and milkshake

Almost over

I felt sick. It could have been the over-abundance of granola and porridge (carb loading, on son James's advice) or simply nerves. This morning was Shetland's, and my, first cycle sportive, in aid of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea fishermen, organised by local (and Britain's most northerly) chip shop, Frankie's.

I wasn't nervous because I was competing to win the thing. At nearly 56 and a lover of bikes and their ability to get you legally to and from pubs, rather than actual cycling, that was never on the cards. It was just that having been sponsored to the tune of £200, I was very uncertain that I had the stamina or fitness to actually cover the required 40 miles. Yes, there were 10 and 20 mile options, but 40 seemed only right.

James, on the other hand, fresh from a term of fixed-wheel endurance cycling and triathlon training, thought he had a good chance. He wasn't far wrong. Only a half-hour puncture repair hiatus (I had the pump; he had to wait for me, and I was last) stopped him (he claims, and I agree) finishing in the first bunch. He hauled back a good swatch of the field and finished in two and a half hours.

It took me an hour more than that. There was a nasty incident with my rear derailleur (jammed chain) which took 10 minutes of oily hands and swearing to fix. But by the time I'd finished the first 20 miles ( we were doing a double loop from Brae to Voe, then up Dales Lees to Firth, over to Sullom Voe then back to Brae via Voxter; 1000 feet of climbing )I knew I could manage 40, and fuelled by sultana cake and Ribena, I kept going through some of the best Shetland Sabbath summer weather this year.

The wind was as friendly as it could be. The long, near-eternal climb up Dales Lees was unbelievably easy, but by the time Scatsta airport arrived for the second time, the windsock was pointing straight at me and it hurt. Bad windsock!

I was last in of the 40-milers (all of us male, which was surprising; there are some great woman cyclists in Shetland). But I claimed my free fish supper and milkshake with some gusto. Pain? A few back twinges but my 20-year old Brooks B17 saddle had done its job supremely well.

Thanks again to all who sponsored me through Just Giving and with real cash. Finally, some of you may wonder about the choice of RNMDSF as a charity to support. Those who live or have lived in fishing communities won't. The 'Mission' does a unique and wonderful job without any kind of proselytising, and as a journalist reporting on fishing tragedies in Shetland and elsewhere I was always gobsmacked by the commitment and service to the survivors and the bereaved shown by Mission staff.

Friday, September 02, 2011

(More) Talk Radio

The move towards ‘more speech’ on the radio show I present (BBC Radio Scotland, 14.35-16.00 weekdays, except Fridays, when it starts at 14.00) has not meant I simply talk more. It means, basically, that I talk more to other people.

We’re booking what are various called ‘guests’ or ‘contributors’, mostly musicians, who come on because they have product (gigs, CDs, downloads, their own bountiful personalities, charitable endeavours, chains of boutiques, ranges of wine) to promote. Yeah, I know the Beeb's good and decent and doesn't do product placement. But the truth is, you don't get guests with nothing to sell. Unless you pay them. And we're MOST reluctant to do that, except as a last resort.

So anyway,we’re widening things out to include comedians, authors, journalists and indeed anyone who might give good guesthood, on a show which is still basically about music. Speech. We like it.

We review albums, preview gigs, examine people’s record collections, talk about golf, cycling, food (always a favourite on the ever-hungry TMS) plumbing, roofing and about Scotland; we sift nostalgically through our pasts. Memory works well on the wireless.

Only very rarely am I face to face with any guest. I work for the most part out of a tiny self-operated studio (basically a microphone and a PC) in Lerwick, Shetland, some 200 miles from my producers in Aberdeen and the Big Huge Box that plays out all the music. The music, by the way, is mostly gleaned from what’s called ‘The Radio Scotland Daytime Playlist’ - it takes a few cues from Radio Two, but there’s a distinct Scottish dimension and me, the producers and our various contributors have a hand in what gets played too. In particular, anything I’m passionate about, and that fits into our general, uh, vibe, man, can usually be shoehorned in. No Crass so far, though.

This week, among others, we’ve had Ryan Adams on, promoting his new album Ashes and Fire, and Joan Wasser, who is/is in Joan As Policewoman. Check them out on iPlayer if you want. I found myself asking Ryan how it felt to perform sober (“It’s nice not to feel…sick’) after which he became virtually monosyllabic; and horrifying Joan with the tale of the Dave Matthews Band’s tour bus driver, who accidentally emptied the tour bus’s toilet tank while on the top deck of a road bridge. Pity the guy immediately underneath was driving an open-topped sports car...

American artists, even ‘difficult’ creatures like Ryan, know how to play the promo game, and are mostly used to the long-distance remote interview, where all the cues have to be auditory. No body language to help. It’s ears and brains only.

But then, that’s what the wireless is all about. Ears. And voices. Brains. People talking to each other. Telling stories. And playing records.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Truly incredible: By folding bike and inflatable raft from Sumburgh Head to Muckle Flugga

Kudos to these guys. This was almost unthinkably hard and very, very dangerous. They were lucky with the weather.
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Inverness and the Belladrum Festival, before the deluge

Two days working in Inverness, staying at the eccentrically excellent Anderson in Fortrose, and reacquainting myself with Dolphinsludge, Queen of the Highland Fleshpots.

The quilted shooting jacket, with its bandolier of shotgun cartridges, is for age eight or thereabouts. Hidden corners of Inverness still display aspects of the landed gentryism lurking around the Highlands.

But there are so many glorious aspects to the place...not just the river, the Ness islands, the bouncy bridges, but the substantial and robust cultural scene. The Eden Court complex was absolutely buzzing when we arrived to see the Canadian film Incendies - movies, the imminent book festival, the presence of the Netherlands Youth Orchestra. I met old friend John McNaught, who proudly pointed me in the direction of the revived Highland Print Studio. And then there is Charles Leakey's bookshop.

I love it best in winter, when the massive woodburning stove is throbbing and crackling with heat. But to point my camera at corner of the huge 'Scottish' section and know that I could comfortably and happily buy the whole's a kind of happiness. I didn't, though.

On to Belladrum, where I was working at the Co-op Verb Garden, the spoken word tent, interviewing the likes of Sharleen Spiteri, Fyfe Dangerfield, Frank Turner and Kassidy, appearing on panels about the press and music, and performing (with Jon Beach) The Malt and Barley Revue (great local whisky tasting from Jon) and the new religion show My Bad Gospel.

Highlights for me elsewhere were Woodenbox And A Fistful of Fivers - stunning live - Admiral Fallow, Teddy Thompson, the superb local food (especially the venison burger and the puddings) the new healing Fields setting in the old walled garden and the presence of Tchai Ovna for tea, and the Piano Ranch, complete with mossy VW.

We stayed at the legendary Caley in beautiful Beauly (next time, a length of tweed for a suit, if I can afford it). A wise move, given the deluge that descended on Saturday night. Then it was a flood-ridden route to Aberdeen.

Congratulations to Joe and team again for Bella and to Stephen, Jim, Chris (sound/light) and everyone else. Thanks to everyone who said hallo. And thanks too to the Campbells at the Caley and to Jon Beach of Fiddlers for the whisky (which I never got to drink). Next time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Raleigh

My first bicycle was essentially a toy; its removable stabilisers saw me safely though various wobbly adventures on the streets of Shawlands and Pollokshaws in Glasgow until, at the age of six, I found myself in the leafy seaside suburbia of Troon in Ayrshire.

It was on Ottoline Drive's sleepy tarmac that I learned to balance that old yellow and red Tri-ang, with its white, 12-inch Speedmaster balloon tyres. The stabilisers came off and I pedalled it at furious cadences up and down, often dressed as a cowboy. Finally, at the age of perhaps eight, I was presented by my dad with a second-hand 'proper' bike, a cherry-red Raleigh single speed which seemed vast, enormous, unrideable. Of course, I rode it immediately, my feet dangling inches from the ground with the saddle at its lowest.

The day a police car slid silently alongside as I was perched atop this machine, and a cop said 'you're too wee for that bike, son.' was the day I fell messily and tearfully into a hedge. Delivered home by the policemen, I was banned from riding until my feet could actually touch the earth while sitting on that flappy plastic Wrights saddle. Eventually, they did.

I have had a host of bicycles since then. I deeply regret the loss of my Uncle John's Dawes Dalesman, my first bike to have derailleur gears. But I still have my beloved early 80s Orbit Gold Medal Alivio. I was contemplating restoring its Reynolds 531 frame to original, pristine glory, when I began to check prices. An Argos (top stove enamallers) frame restoration starts at £600.

And then, on eBay, this came up. An Argos-restored early 80s Raleigh 531 Clubman, handbuilt in Nottingham, back in the days when Raleigh made their own frames. An absolute classic, albeit scratched and with some non-standard components. I coveted the Campagnolo derailleur, though.And surely it couldn't go that cheaply? It did.

Today I assembled it. It rides like a dream. It looks...breathtaking. You may have noticed that it's cherry red. Yes, the same cherry red as that long-ago single speed. I adjusted the saddle carefully. My feet touch the ground when I stop, just. If I stand on tip-toe. But when I ride, I ride my dreams back in time, faster and faster and faster.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rebekah, Flame-Haired Temptress Of My Dreams

She's the queen of the quality press
In her little black Balenciaga dress
She's got three gold-plated iPhones
One for James, one for David one for Rupert alone
Divorced her husband - he was too bald
He said he was scared, because she was too tall
Used a Mulberry bag like a baseball bat
No SAS training could deal with that

Oh Rebekah, flame-haired temptress of my dreams
Oh Rebekah, things are not as bad as they may seem
Don't go
Your people love you so

She and Samantha like their girlie nights in
They watch Sex in the City, they drink Bombay gin
Later they might put on a Coldplay CD
Ask Gwyneth and Chris round for afternoon tea

Rebekah, ignore what those bad papers say
I don't believe that your hair's turning grey
I hope you, James and Rupert will have mercy on me
When NewsCorp take over the BBC..

"News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks received an honorary degree from the University of Arts London (on 20 July 2010) in recognition of her outstanding contribution to journalism and the media..."
- with thanks to -

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Afloat in the simmer dim...

...Just offshore from the house last Sunday night at about 10.45pm. Picture by Stewart Cunningham/Great Scot Photography.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Strange sculptural objects on a hot day in Eshaness

One of those weird Shetland days when the morning starts cold and glowering, changes to mild and then warm, and by the time we got round to Eshaness, was actually, positively hot. I can truthfully say I have never sweated so much on a walk around the UK's most spectacular peninsula (apart from Hillswick Ness).

Here are some Sea Pinks on the edge of Calder's Geo, and, most oddly, a ceramic sculpture of a viking (broken axe and helmet, probably sheep activity) which has appeared on a little outcrop of rock not far from the Hols of Scraada. Who made it? Who put it there? Who knows?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Andy Murray's mum gets an apologetic reply from a non-interventionist God

Sorry if you've already seen this, but I did promise to put it up on the blog...

Monday, June 27, 2011

A mother's prayer for Andy Murray (Non-interventionist God)

Will try and get a video of this being sung up on YouTube - it's part of the live show My Bad Gospel: The Backslider's Songbook Vol 1, due to debut at Belladrum 2011

Hallo Andy I heard from your mum

She’s most concerned about what you’ve not become

The people of Scotland, they’ve been calling too

I’m not sure there’s a lot I can do for you

I suppose I could send some sort of plague

On your opponents, but that seems pretty vague

I could turn Nadal into a pillar of salt

But everyone would guess it was all my fault

And I’m a non-interventionist God

I’m a non-interventionist God

People laugh, and say it’s odd

But I’m a non-interventionist God

The thing is Andy, what people don’t get

I can’t help you get the ball over the net

I’m trying to make it plain, believe me it’s true

When it comes to racquets, it’s all up to you


Prayers are nice, praise is so rare these days

It’s always good to see you on your knees to pray

But my advice is to hone your skill

I’m saying God won’t, but maybe you will


Frankly Andy, your hope is quite forlorn

My interventionist days are all but gone

I don’t feel at home on a tennis court

I much prefer golf.

I invented that sport.


Saturday, June 04, 2011

All at sea with 2.5 Honda horsepower

I've owned three Honda outboard motors, and this is the third, attached to a diminutive inflatable boat (also made by or rather for Honda). Four-stroke engines, none of that nasty petrol-oil mixing. All have been brilliant starters, even after weeks lying idle at storm-lashed moorings. One saved my (and my venerable Shetland Model's) bacon when the boat broke away from its mooring in a storm, was chased down by me aboard a salmon farm tender, and, amid cartwheeling waves and threatening rocks, started first pull to haul me back to shore and safety.

The inflatable arrived yesterday, was duly inflated and tested, with motor, this evening. You'd hardly go waterskiing using it, but for the odd spot of fishing and picnicking it's just the job. And the outboard works beautifully. Better, I have to say, much, much better, than the character-forming British Seagull I last used. Now, however, that two-strokes have been consigned to history by European environmental regulations, the monstrous Seagull, once the engine of everyboat, will gradually fade from the memories of boatie folk. It is already assuming the aura of legend: stories of Seagull motors left in a hedge for a year, cleaned up and started at the first pull. What they don't mention is that you took all the skin off both set of knuckles doing it. And had a nervous breakdown in the process.

Seagulls were crude. All you needed to fix them was a hammer, it is said. I bought into that fantasy. But after 20 minutes of hitting it with a hammer, it still wouldn't go. All you have to do with a Honda is speak nicely to it occasionally.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Every duck has its day: Glasgow without humans.

Mallard on the banks of the Clyde, right at the walkway/cycle path. It's there every day. This morning, a man on a bike stopped and said to me: 'it's beautiful, isn't it?' Set me up for the whole day.

Weird patch of old cobbles on the lost cycle route between Shields Road Underground and Paisley Road West. Not a place to be after dark.

Architectural model town planning. What exactly was the point of this, with lumps of the  Clyde  Walkway mysteriously closed to pedestrians?

Shields Road Underground Station at its spookiest.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Up on the roof, checking the bitumen...

View from atop The Old Bookshop holiday cottage

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shetland Times review of download-only EP from young Shetland trio Kollifirbolli

This is my review of the new download-only EP by top Shetland trio Kollifirbolli. if you like fiddle music. you'll love this. Available on iTunes for just £3.95:

Kollifirbolli: The Loveliest New Version of a Favourite Style.

Croft Records – digital download only. Available on iTunes

Topsy-turvy. Upside down and round the wrong way. In a state of pleasantly chaotic discombobulation. That's roughly what 'Kollifirbolli' means. And one might accuse the three lasses who make up the band of that name to have gotten things a little mixed up:

I mean, first of all this is an EP (stands for 'Extended Play' by the way; used to refer to quaint things called 'singles' which had two sides and were pressed on black plastic; there was this vibrating needle thing that...oh, never mind). Who issues EPs these days? Answer: all the seriously cool folks who understand that introducing yourself by way of a long, long CD or 'album' (took its name from sheet music, but that's another story) is too time-consuming in this digitised age.

Speaking of digital, what's going on? The Loveliest New Version of a Favourite Style (great title, wonderful cover concept; knitting is the new Playstation – no hacking) is only available as a digital download via iTunes, streamed on Myspace, or maybe on Spotify sometime soon. If you don't know what any of these things are, ask someone wearing a hoodie. Not a hi-viz one.

There's a good reason for all this. The whole auditory escapade is a final year project for commercial music student Karlyn Grains, and it's a fascinating experiment which should give some very interesting indicators for the marketing of specialist music in the digital environment. Is there a local market for music you can only listen to on your phone, computer, iPad or iPod? Of course you could burn it to a CD. But that would be illegal; at least after the first 100 or so...

My own feeling is that issuing this on CD would open up the - fairly conservative, small 'c' - local market and that digital downloads have to be linked to attractive real-world 'souvenirs' – limited edition vinyl pressings, hand-painted covers, bits of Fair Isle knitting, you name it. But all of that is assuming the music is worth listening to in the first place.

Ah yes, the music. Kollifirbolli – Astryd Jamieson (piano, concertina) Kaela Jamieson and Mary Rutherford (fiddles) are young stars of the local scene, and have been for some time. They are, individually, brilliant players. Together though, they possess a carefree magic that has both the casual, intuitive swing and fastidious attention to detail that hallmarks the best of Shetland music. Astryd's piano playing is both rhythmically rock solid and melodically inventive, while the two fiddles intertwine, soar and whisper in ways that can move both your feet and your soul.

The occasional bass and guitar of John o' da Burns add weight and colour, but apparent simplicity is the key to production, if not arrangements. The girls dig deep into the tunes to find some novel approaches and unexpected twists. Above all, the sprightliness, insight and energy cannot be contained. The final three tunes – Joe the Jigger, Snookered and Mary Rutherford's own Mavis's Farewell to Gletness are classy and powerful, but it's the harnessing of technique to emotion, the telling of tuneful stories that really impresses.

Ronnie Jamieson's classic air Aald Noost is wonderfully interpreted. Kaela and Astryd's dad must be proud. As must their mum, Debbie Scott, when Ronnie's Da Day Dawn – tackled with an intensity of purpose and focus which fair takes the breath away – segues into Debbie's own Medoc.

And suddenly I'm back in the pre-digital days, recording a blue-haired Debbie in Kenny Johnson's old shop in Harrison Square, hearing Medoc for the first time as we tried again and again to get a decent sound on a cheap Tascam Portastudio, recording what would be part of the Shetland Calling cassette compilation (The New Sound of Young Shetland). 1988. Twenty-three years ago. Cassettes? Oh, they were...terrible things that kept breaking.

Back to today, or tomorrow. Kollifirbolli's The Loveliest New Version...was recorded by Marvin Smith using state of the art digital thingummybobs, and is now available for you to pluck pristine from the ether, digitally, using the internet equivalent of money. I heartily commend it to you, because no matter how you hear it – on an iPhone or a phonograph, great music is great music. And that's what this is.

Shetland Times, 6 May 2011

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Hound of Hillswick takes the air on a pleasant if chilly evening

Other hounds are available. Actually, other hounds are available here in Greater Hillswick, and a proper Wolfhound/Great Dane cross at that, bouncy and inquisitive and not best friends with Lulu, the ageing and irritable (with other dogs) St Bernard in the picture.

I beat a hasty retreat if I see neighbour Pete and the Other Hound, as last time we met, cordial human greetings were accompanied by Lulu silently grabbing the OH's lower jaw in her considerable mooth and just...hanging on amid the howling. I understand this genetically-imprinted trick is common among dogs with a background in, well, attacking military horses. And St Bernards are supposed to be descended from the war-dogs that accompanied Hannibal's elephants over the Alps. The idea was that the dogs would leap at the jaws of an approaching pony, grab it in their own teeth and haul the horse to the ground headfirst. After that the rider was elephant-stomped.

And what is a Wolfhound/Great Dane cross but a small equine? Anyway, no long term harm was done, everyone's still on speaking terms. Apart the OH and Lulu, of course. But then, one of them thinks the other's a horse...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Glasgow from a distance.

It's the end of a frenetic week back in Shetland, one full of council and broadcasting business, great weather,a flurry of filming with Jolene and Rich's Precious Productions for BBC Online, preparation of holiday cottages for the season and the climbing, in torrid conditions, of a very small hill.

And of course, after a fortnight in Glasgow, thoughts turn to the weans and grandweans on the mainland or in Northern Ireland. Only Martha at home these days, for another year or so. And then...

Leaving aside the food poisoning (fish pie, chicken salad or Eggs Benedict?) and ripping the back/bottom off the Subaru (potholes and gatepost) we had a splendid time in the Dear Green Place. Lots of friends and family, movies, great coffee,music and the sense of urban connectedness you get from working in Europe's most advanced digital broadcasting  centre at Pacific Quay, and hurtling there on a groovy folding bike.

Now we're back on The Rock, missing everyone, working hard, driving and bussing everywhere, soothing the troubled psychology of Lulu the St Bernard, and connected, plugged into the very different network of Shetlandic life.

Looking at Glasgow from our northern outpost, we can take a deep breath and wonder: what would it be like to live in...oh, the west end, Kinning Park, Tradeston, the south side, the east end...why is there no north side in Glasgow? Creating villages of likemindedness again, slipping into the teeming mass where there's both anonymity and familiarity, where finding the stuff, the talent, the people you need is easy, instant. Because people and abilities gather in cities, coelesce, hit the market, buy, sell, live...

A million people in Greater Glasgow. 23,000 in Shetland, a place and a population it's easy to idealise. There are huge disadvantages to living here. The cost of travel, food, fuel and indeed, everything but housing, which is rapidly catching up with the mainland. Being apart from the extended family.

But there are many good things. Shetland's economy is still relatively buoyant. There are jobs, massive industrial projects like the gas plants at the Sullom Voe oil terminal and the impending wind and tidal energy developments. If you love the landscape and the wildness of the weather, there's only the religion-afflicted Western Isles to compare.

And as we gaze at Glasgow this weekend, the absence of a religious culture in Shetland (there are churches, tolerated as ritual providers for deaths, marriages, births and the lke) seems an enormous blessing. There will be Shetland folk at the Old Firm match. I have no idea if they're travelling down in a shared bus, as has happened in the past. Sectarianism here is looked upon as baffling idiocy, occasionally flaring as it does in bars, courtesy of incoming casual workers. Amazingly, people support Rangers or Celtic because they' teams.

Glasgow on Easter Sunday. It'd be good to drink some West beer out at Glasgow Green, go to the Barras, listen to some jazz. But do I really want the walk back into town amid whatever the Buckfastian outcome of the match is? Someone's being sending 'viable' nail bombs to Neil Lennon and other Celtic supporters. Easter, eh? Undoubtedly, tomorrow, there will be blood.

So I worry about the kids, mine and other people's. I wonder about the separation of state schools on sectarian grounds. I look at the people who have literally fled west central Scotland for Shetland, come here to escape the brutal divisiveness of  cartoon religiosity, found a rough and ready sanctuary.

Like them, on the whole, I'm happy to be here. And for the moment, I can afford to visit Glasgow relatively often. Choosing the dates carefully.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Birth of the mediacrofter, death of the hack

Yesterday, before salmonella laid me low, I had a meeting about a planned media training programme for councillors and council officials back in Shetland.

It went well. The people involved, three of them, have a company which specialises in this sort of thing, and has done effective work for all kinds of major league corporate clients. This doesn't take up all of their time. They have other irons in various fires.

All three were vastly experienced, high-flying journalists. None of them make any money from journalism as such any more. And neither do I.

Instead, it became apparent, we're all mediacrofters. True, I was the only officially registered crofter there, with a smallholding in Shetland on which sheep cavort and subsidies were once claimed. But the essence of crofting as a rural lifestyle has always been multitasking – you can only survive by adaptability, by doing a bit of fishing, growing some veg, keeping some sheep, maybe delivering letters, repairing walls, selling paintings, philosophising or bartending. Self reliance, if not self sufficiency. Because you depend on the community too.

Journalism, certainly freelance journalism, is dead in the water, other than for a privileged few who must all be gazing into a very uncertain future. I am a light entertainer, trading on a life-long passion for music and trivia and a church upbringing that forced me to perform from the age of seven. I do a bit of freelance PR, write online for free. We have a holiday cottage we rent out. I sell second hand books, speculate in bad motorcycles. No pension, no fallback, no contracts. The three men I met with yesterday do PR, training, consultancy work, design, copywriting, wedding photography, videos, online telly, clever little projects to sell words and pictures. And tellingly, they collaborate to survive and thrive. With each other, with small, imaginative companies.

But, and this was telling, they said it was the established media organisations that deny the new digital realities, who refuse collaboration and instead cut payments and staff to the bone. Who see what individuals like them do as threatening.

And yes, we swopped war stories. Terrible, scary, hilarious moments back in the day. The Braer, Lockerbie, BCCI. Big stories. Huge hotel bills. Unlimited expense accounts. Taxis from Glasgow to Braemar and back. Privately chartered aeroplanes, for heaven's sake (and that was me, for The Scotsman).

But that was the past. Now, we're about surviving. Now, we live by our wits. Now, we're crofting.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From gravitas to chavitas in a period of Purdah

AS we swing into what I was astonished to find out is still called Purdah (curtained-off women's quarters in traditional Persian household / the six weeks before election during which government must not issue policy which could swing election outcome), the purveyors of gravitas and chavitas furrow their brows and practise their glottal stops.

For this is the time when politicians must illustrate to voters  not only their depth and intellectual strength, but also that man/woman of the people ability to kiss babies, head footballs at shell-suited toerags, and generally show how much they know about Lady Gaga,  dubstep, Plan B and other such down-with-the-kids cultural touchstones.

And they fail, nearly all of them. I'll mention no names, as the Representation of the People Act probably precludes me, as a BBC presenter and (very part time) paid local government advisor, from picking out my least favourite. But the nauseating sight and sound of suited and booted Holyrood habituees swivelling uneasily between the Tragedy of Japan and the Need For Caution In Libya, The Price of Petrol and The Importance of Take That, Tinchy Strider's iconic status and the state of Sharleen Spiteri's haircut leaves me reeling with irritation.

It's their sound. The way they change their voices to meet different kinds of question from different types of questioner. Their vocal equivocation is caught on camera and microphone ('awright, big man, howzitgawn...ah yes, the tragedy of Afghanistan lies in the global inability to recognise the country's key historical and geo-political role...") one voice for the landowner, one for the serf. One noisy slurp for the mug of council tea, one dainty hissing sip for the Rotary Chardonnay. And is there contempt once the doors are closed, the dram is in hand and they're relaxing with series three of The Thick Of It? Contempt akin to Harry Dean Stanton's when he tells Emilio Estevez in Repo Man: "ordinary people. I f*ckin' hate 'em"?

Names? You want names? Nah, mair as ma joab's worth, pal. There's an election on, doncherknow?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

That first ride home

I was, frankly, concerned about riding the old Kawasaki the 35 miles home from Lerwick tonight. It was gusting up to a force seven, sidewinds for the most part. It was getting dark, and my eyesight is increasingly bad at coping with lack o'licht. And this was a £400 bike, old, if well cared for, that I'd never ridden before.

It was great. There were a few problems - the bike hadn't been ridden for a while, it needed to blow some gunge out of its venerable (F-reg) systems and it took a wee while to get used to the controls. But after 10 minutes, in a blowy but dry twilight, the GT550 was a delight to ride.

First rides home. Sometimes they're the best, the quintessence of what biking is about. You're discovering, hopefully, the worth of what you've bought, usually after a period of un-biking.  I was especially pleased by the fact that my last motorcycle ride, a horrendous, sleet-and-gale battered journey to the ferry with an eBay-flogged Moto Guzzi, was on a bike worth 10 times the Kawasaki. And  the lovely, newish Guzzi was a worse performer - for my needs - in everything but looks.

Because there's a reason the wee GT550 was - still is - the ultimate courier's tool. It's small and light. Very nippy up to 60. It has a huge petrol tank, massive range and the best headlight of any motorcycle I've ever ridden. And best of all, for Shetland conditions, it's rock solid in sidewinds. 

Also, I wore my cheap as chips Max flip-up helmet, which unlike my excruciatingly expensive AVG does not steam up and stay opaque. Coupled with powerful headlight, for once I could see where I was going as darkness fell.

So there we go. The bike came complete with a box of spares, manuals, and a newish helmet. Steve, the owner, is giving up biking for good. Or so he says. 

That's what I said, just three weeks ago. And now...well, now I have both the old Suzuki GS1000G for high days and holidays, and the Kawasaki for...other occasions. Oh, and did I mention Hugh Kerr's lime green GT550 which I'm picking up in April when I'm on the mainland? No? I was sure I did...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mumford and Sons gie it laldy at the Whiteness and Weisdale Hall

Marcus Mumford and 'Country' Winston Marshall were on the show today, straight off the plane from Inverness, with the lovely Rachel Sermanni, who supported M&S tonight. Rachel played beautifully (both on the show and tonight, though she had to struggle at W&W with a boisterous crowd), the lads were splendid (I mean, from the Grammies and 19 million viewers to our humble wee show from Lerwick...what a privilege. For them...)

Found out afterwards that Marcus M is not only a biker (Triumph Bonneville T100 - excellent choice) but a lover of malt whisky. A very good sign indeed, as long as they're combined carefully.

Took Martha to the gig and she loved it, oblivious at the front to the considerable rammy of noise and conversation behind. It's an old Shetland problem - a night out is a night out, no matter who's playing, and that means craic with pals and much drink. Nothing wrong with that, but you'd think, having queued in many cases all night for tickets, a bit more attention might have been paid to the band.

Anyway, M&S (unlike Franz Ferdinand, who played the same venue a while ago) were unstinting in their performance. They really, really went for it, and appeared to love what they were doing. Generous. Winning. Gentlemen. New songs very good too.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Friday is pie and print media day

I came into Lerwick on the early bus this morning. Buses, really - the 07.35 from Hillswick to Brae (10 miles) then the main Mossbank commuter run into Lerwick. There's always a degree of weary grumpiness on said vehicle; and who can blame any of us for being irritable at that time of day, especially when you're battling for a seat on an urban low-level pantechnicon that seems somewhat unsuited to a rural, 25-mile run with loads of braking for sheep? A bus where today, several - humans, not sheep - had to stand most of the way?

Actually, while waiting for the Hillswick feeder service I met old friend and neighbour Scott, out walking his dog and waiting for 'da pipper' (the paper) to arrive. Not that Scott has a Shetland accent, being from England via Edinburgh. He likes to watch the traffic queue building up outside our community shop, as people wait for the arrival of The Shetland Times on the post van. In Shetland, despite local radio, an alternative online news service (The Shetland News) and its own regularly updated website, the arrival of the new Shetland Times, in tabloid newsprint form, every Friday, is the media event of the week.

All over the islands you can see vans and cars parked up of a Friday, their drivers hidden behind the full-colour, locally printed paper.  First call is always the Births, Marriages and Deaths section, followed by the advertising (which always makes me wonder if the old newspaper habit of putting these on the front page was, in fact, psychologically correct). And then the rest, including one of the biggest sports sections of any weekly, though there are some unusual forms of competition in there ('Laurenson to fore in radio car event'. )

There are around 23,000 people in Shetland, and the Times sells between 11,000 and 12,000 print copies. It's editorial department is well resourced, paid and staffed. It makes loads of money. And it's a good, serious newspaper, independent of tone and, still family owned, very much part of the community that gave birth to and still sustains it.

One of my jobs as communications consultant to Shetland Islands Council is to look at the way we can use the internet and social media to communicate more effectively with the community, and there's no doubt that the likes of Facebook and Twitter, not to mention blogs, RSS feeds and participation in community forums such as Shetlink  can provide certain advantages. Yet the ubiquity of the Shetland Times of a Friday morning, in almost every shop you can think of, from bakeries to butchers to ship's chandlers, and its value as an artefact (it's hoarded, re-read, kept, lent) always makes me wonder at those media statistics claiming that local print is on the way out. Not in Shetland. Surely, in an insular but scattered rural community, print will retain its power and value?

Having said that, my bus journey was spent in the company of today's Guardian, unavailable in the islands in print form until late morning. Using software called Calibre, each morning's Guardian is automatically downloaded to my Kindle e-reader, free. It's transformed my day. I no longer buy print dailies, except in dire necessity. 

But I still bought a Shetland Times in Malcolmson's bakery this morning, along with a mutton pie and Chelsea bun. Sometimes old forms of sustenance are best.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The 20 best whiskies in the world, and a horrible liqueur

The final flight. These are the 20 best whiskies in the world, according to the panel of 'experts' (the quotes are for me) that has been sniffing, gargling, swallowing and occasionally spitting over the past couple of months.

I can't remember how many I've dealt with. Maybe 60. Scored out of 10 and described ('overtones of diesel and two-stroke, fish barrels, herring and Macaroon bars mixed with Marmite') until finally, we're here. Twenty whiskies (and whiskeys). North American, Irish (controversially slung in with single malts from Scotland and Japan), One grain, a few blends and blended malts. Oh, and a single liqueur, either Glayva or Drambuie. I neither know nor care. Both are beyond horrid in my opinion.

No names. Just genres and numbers. But the best whisky in the world, in my humble opinion, is Single Malt 6. Treacle, tar, lemon zest and that infamous port-Guinness cocktail, plus some dark rum. Chewy.

Time for a cup of tea, methinks...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A glorious day in the Greater Zetlandics

Saturday morning. The sun is shining. Surely some mistake? But no, God has shown some mercy on these pagan isles, and everyone is suddenly in a good mood. To Lerwick so Martha can attend the music club and be interviewed for work as a Red Cross volunteer. Followed by lunch at the excellent and beautifully situated Hay's Dock Cafe at the Lerwick Museum. The fishing boats are the view. Or at least are in the view

Oh, and the Lewis Chessmen exhibition was on at the museum, so we had a look at that. Very good. I've been to the site on Lewis where the chessmen were found. Appropriately, it's very near the excellent Abhainn Dearg (Red Rocks) whisky distillery.

Home then, and no wasting the weather. For Marf it may have been OK to wear a wetsuit, but I was taking no chances in my Fladen flotation suit and wooly bunnet. Kayaks were fine though one had lost its bung, which had to be replaced with a winestopper from a Christmas cracker. Seriously.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Record shops. It's over

This is actually a posting on the Shetlink discussion forum, from a thread inspired by rumours that my favourite record shop, Clive's in Lerwick, might be closing. As I write, Clive Munro hasn't shut yet, but it has to be a matter of time. My shopping there would only be on a social basis, these days.I haven't bought a CD since signing up for Spotify Premium.

I've spent shed loads of cash in Clive's, going right back to the days when he sold second hand stuff from that tiny wee shop opposite the Lodberrie. And Davie's right, his prices were at one point really competitive. Coupled with the tasteful selections of obscurities and the sheer breadth of music on offer, Clive's was one THE great UK record shops.

But the sad fact is that Clive's is now one of the last independent record shops. They've disappeared. If you're committed to music, if you're a serious fan, and especially if you live remotely, you now have Spotify Premium, you have iTunes, you have Bleep, Bandcamp and - for the brief interim period when we're actually still buying hard copies of digital information - Amazon and Indigo and And that takes in DVDs and games, too.

For the majority of consumers, music is a whisker away from being a completely online, mobile, almost free phenomenon. Once the fibreoptics are up and running here we won't need Blu-Ray or DVDs. Everything will be coming down that digital pipe. Or to our phones/tablets. And, Davie, I think you'd admit that musicians who depend on CDs are drinking in the last chance saloon, most now accepting that their money in the future will come from live shows and associated merchandise sales.

But. Fans will always want a souvenir. Committed fans will always want the best. They will want cover art and lyric sheets and other goodies. And so there will forever be a market for high-quality, luxurious sonic souvenirs of the band you love. For that, there's nothing better than vinyl. One of my sons is thinking of buying the £33 luxury vinyl package of the new Radiohead album. Even though he doesn't have a record player.

On the other hand, technophobes, late adopters and the elderly are going to want a sound format they can understand. Which is why Tesco is full of all those Sinatra compilations, and £1.99 Kinks/Stranglers/Sinatra/Buzzcocks/Val Doonican Greatest Hits.

I've had this conversation with Clive. I told him I thought there were fantastic online niches available for someone selling rare vinyl, souvenir, limited edition box sets, curated, recommended downloads, and merchandise of every sort. But that, sadly, the days of the record shops we loved and once lived for are over.

Google 'Lefsetz Letter' for the cutting edge music industry thinking on this.