Friday, December 27, 2019

God, a guitar, a grave. At Christmas.

For the past three years, I've been conducting funeral services for folk who, for one reason or another, don't want any of the churches or their representatives involved in saying goodbye to their loved ones.

I'm not an official Humanist 'celebrant' ( I hate that word;  I'm not that crazy about 'Humanist' either) and I'm happy to include religious content. Or to provide a completely secular service. My aim is to meet the needs of those mourning their loved one, to provide whatever will help in the grieving process. I've written about how this all began elsewhere but so far, over I think nearly 80 funerals, there has been uncompromising  Marxism, Theravada Buddhism, some Star Wars, open-minded agnosticism, and Christianity in most of its manifestations. To a greater or lesser extent.

Anyway, in the run-up to Christmas two things happened. I conducted a graveside service on one of the most beautiful mornings of the Shetland winter, in one of the most lovely, remote cemeteries.  I had been asked to pray, in public. So I did. And then, I found myself playing guitar for the choir at the Hillswick Kirk's Watchnight service. 

A few of you will know that I'm not exactly a stranger to either prayer or playing the guitar in church, though that period of my life ended in the 1980s. Some may find it very hard to, well, believe. An obsession with guitars has continued, however, and as I stood among the Advent candles, picking at the latest guitar in my collection (a cheap Vintage VE660, if anyone cares...and of course, you should) I found myself remembering the first time I ever played the guitar in public, at Bethany Hall in Troon, almost exactly 50 years ago.

As for public prayers, the deal in the Brethren (Christian, Gospel Halls, not necessarily Plymouth-related in west central Scotland) was that they should always be extemporary. And I was never that good at making things up as I went along...until I'd had a lot of practice.

These verses were both written on an iPhone in the early hours of the morning:

On hearing myself praying beside an open grave at Christmas 

There’s nothing very odd
In thinking there might be a God
Or a first cause behind creation
it doesn’t take much imagination
Or mean you need even a smidgeon
Of badly organised religion
With a promise of eternal glories.
You can still enjoy the stories,
The language and the architecture.
You don’t have to accept conjecture 
Or control. Or fear and dread
Of what might happen when you’re dead.
It’s possible to be a deist
Without the trouble being a theist
Always involves. There’s too much grief
Comes with the baggage of belief,
That endless hope of revelation 
Which always ends up in frustration.
No voice of guidance from above
Can contradict the care, the love
The fragile heart, community
Humanity. Divinity.
So on this still and sunlit day
 I stand beside a grave and pray
With others. Together we trace
The silent, healing truth of grace.

A Guitar for Christmas 

A wall of sound:

My dad’s Elizabethan tape recorder
Volume at 11
An Eko archtop, Hoyer pick-up
The first electrified guitar
In any Ayrshire gospel hall

Now I play, gently,
It Came Upon The Midnight Clear
Counting down to Christmas 
With the Kirk choir
All acoustic, chords familiar
From half a century ago

Too many guitars to count
Since that first public strumming
Gibsons, Martins, Fenders
Costly as cars, encased, carried
From Texas to Bavaria
Even as far as Fife
Loud as war in churches
Drowned by conversation
In indifferent pubs and clubs

This steel-strung Chinese flat-top
Cheap as chips
Rings out like a bell.

Copyright Tom Morton 2019.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Season’s greetings...

A Hillswick Christmas. Season’s greetings.

For anyone interested, this is acrylic and pastel on a professional print made from a picture taken on an iPhone 7 through an old Brownie TLR Reflex! Then sandpapered.

Right, off to practise all those crazy chord changes on Hark The Herald Angels Sing while eating more of @marthamorton ’s mince pies. Not easy when you add Dailuaine to the mix...

Let’s get through this with as little damage as possible.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The Tory Midge

From the (out of print) book Beatcrofting.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Reluctant Secessionist

We have a local election. Tavish has abandoned Shetland for Embra and, of all things, rugby. Stuff much hoped for locally, notably the end of life care at home policies Tav was championing, are now in limbo. And a bizarre clutch of candidates, 10, including four independents, has emerged to fight what has traditionally been a Liberal and Lib Dem stronghold.

That disruptive outpouring of candidature could work in favour of Beatrice Wishart, the Lib Dem councillor who can depend on a solid core vote and a weel-kent island name. The independents, Tory, Green, Labour and UKIP could diminish a forceful and credible SNP challenge, seen as a real threat this time around and with all kinds of big names and resources being flown north in support of young, articulate local boy Tom Wills.

Who is the son of my old pal and sometime editor Dr Jonathan Wills, unsuccessful Labour candidate back in the day and among much else, first student rector of Edinburgh University. Before acting as agent for his friend Gordon Brown. No longer Labour. But then, who is?

How to vote? Another old friend, until recently a lifetime Labour activist, told Tom he was minded to support him ‘as long as you don’t paint your face blue, wave flags and use the word yoons.’

Ah yes, flags. There’s one of my problems with Caledonian nationalism.  I hate flags. My heart does not swell with pride at the sight of a billowing banner, no matter how fetching its combination of colours and shapes.

I sometimes think this is down to my pennant-deprived childhood. In 1960s Troon there was a busy shipbreakers yard at the harbour, and several of my classmates had dads who worked there. They were forever parading the nautical paraphernalia salvaged from these rusting hulks - glorious brass compasses, and dozens of flags: triangular signalling burgees, gigantic Red Ensigns. Houses were festooned. I begged for something, anything to display in our own front garden, but was forbidden by my parents. Besides, there was only one flag we flew, I was reminded, and that was a metaphor. Whatever a metaphor was:

There’s a flag flying high, o’er the castle of my heart
O’er the castle of my heart, o’er the castle of my heart
There’s a flag flying high o’er the castle of my heart
For the King is in residence there

That would be God, in case you were wondering. In the fundamentalist world of Bethany Gospel Hall, literal flags of political or military belonging were a kind of blasphemy. Besides, the Lord was arriving soon to take all the believers to heaven and nothing mattered but converting the heathen. And that meant Everyone But Us.

The rapture, however, did not materialise.

Exclusivity. Flags. That sense of superiority and specialness. Fantasy theology. Starry-eyed, belligerent certainty. All things I learned, eventually and painfully, to regard with intense dislike. All fuelling my opposition to what seemed like the aggressive romanticism of the 2012-14 Yes campaign in Scotland. You could, I argued,  take that blue face paint and  all those nylon saltires and, with whatever Flowers of Scotland you care to choose, shove them up your bared Braveheartian arses.

(And another thing: Flower of Scotland - could there be a less inclusive, more ethnically divisive anthem? A song promoted way beyond its meagre abilities.)

Anyway. Fast forward two years from the exhausting, horribly painful Scottish Independence Referendum, and along comes the Brexit vote. More flags. This time Union banners proclaiming a toxic broth of anti-immigration, mad nostalgia and right-wing-nurtured fear of the foreign. Plus rampant dark money and Russian mischief. Sheer illegality. Didn’t matter. The UK electorate wouldn’t be that stupid…


(And was some of that sense of Alf Ramsay/Dunkirk/Rourke’s Drift English specialness fuelled by the spectacle of Scottish nationhood emerging as a power in the lands? Did it matter if leaving Europe meant jettisoning the Jocks? I began to lose count of the folk from Tunbridge Wells, Newcastle and Luton I knew who shrugged and said. “Leave if you want to, if you think you can make a go of it. We’ll miss you, but not that much.”)

And then things got worse. I had always argued that social justice was a universal right, that values of equality and alleviation of poverty, of good health care and free education for all should be distributed no matter one’s geographical location or ethnic origin. That, as one psychologist put, I have more in common with the workers of Wapping than the lairds of  Largs (whoever they may be). But the traditional repository of those values, the Labour Party, fell into the hands of bourgeois nostalgists for the kind of dumb Stalinism we all thought had been flushed down the toilet of history. As the worst Conservative government in centuries floundered from incompetence  to embarrassed idiocy, the Corbynistas raced to make themselves appear worse:  irrelevant, viciously racist and eventually deranged. Unelectable and proud of it. Good grief.

My reaction, and it was widely shared, was to look at the SNP’s independence-in-Europe arguments and say, well, why not? After all, this so-called civic nationalism, with its promises of left wing policies, a welcome to immigrants, a Scandinavian high-tax economy providing great social care and a stable (eventually) economy replete with Euro subsidies...isn’t that what being Scottish is, or at least should be, about? We love the English. Let’s set them an example.

I said so, publicly.

Suddenly, the wearers of woad and the wavers of flags were congratulating me, offering their tubs of face paint and their Willie Johnston replica shirts. The ones who felt forgiving, that is. Others spat venom and suspicion. Fair enough.

Time passed. Things got worse. Salmond? We can’t talk about Salmond. May failed. Boris (no relation to Willie) Johnston/Johnson/Johnstone switched rhetoric, women, drinks and hairstyle. Gove swivelled like a halibut on a hook. And Sturgeon, while assuming the stature of Easily the Most Convincing Politician in the UK And the Only One Who Reads Books, was faced with a Battle of the Flags.

By the way, speaking of flags, I was fascinated by the ‘technical fault’ which meant the Duke of Rothesay couldn’t visit Shetland the other Saturday. Nothing whatsoever to do with the unexpected presence in the isles at the same time of Scotland’s first minister, campaigning in the by-election. Nothing to do with the preponderance of Saltires as Irvine’s erstwhile Marymass Queen arrived, bursting with wit, bonhomie and popularity…

It’s not really a battle of the flags, of course. It’s a war of attrition between the standard-flourishing Rob Wallace, Roy Bruce, Willie Macrae chanters and marchers, those forever seeing St Andrews crosses in vapour trails as they demand Indyref 2 Right This Minute or even, madly,  UDI (cue civil unrest in West Central Scotland) and the moderate minds of Tendence Sturgeone, who know that  now is not the time. As they finger their discreet silver lion rampant-lapel badges. Och, just when I was starting to like you..

Even the ‘soft’ nationalists, those driven to thoughts of secession by the desperate state of the Westminster pantomime and the Brexit disaster cannot face the ravages of another brutal referendum. Not that a binding poll would be signed off by either the Johnson or (in some alternative universe) Corbyn bunkers.

Psychologically, emotionally, in the end psephologically,  an Indyref 2 anytime soon won’t deliver a majority for independence. Dulled punch drunk stasis will rule if it’s attempted. Everyone but the raging partisans is sick of the binary bullshit. As for a general election, called by a bouncing Johnson in an effort to bury Labour once and for all, even winning every seat in Scotland would probably not give the SNP an overall win in votes cast.

We are not activists, we feel no real nationalist stirrings, we reluctant secessionists. What we see is an inevitability. What we feel is despair, and the sadness as a long marriage winds to an end. As the ties that bound slowly wither and die.

And then what? Confusion, loneliness, economic uncertainty. All the classic divorce issues, no doubt. Regrets. Arguments. Anger. Call it freedom if you insist.

But the thing is, we’ve been learning to live separate lives for so long. And if we think it through, there’s really no way back now. The genie is out of the bottle.

So in this inevitability, what do we do? Talk up mysterious oilfields in the Atlantic? When carbon-energised Climate Change threatens the planet? Put our trust in the mercy of multinational offshore frackers and ruthless big time fishing companies? Rejoice in Trumpian golf courses and more megalithic companies selling stupid whiskies to daft collectors?

I don’t know.  I hope the Scottish Government is quietly talking to Brussels. I hope all parties are thinking things through. That detailed plans are being made which transcend party boundaries. Scenarios gamed, outcomes valued. Work done. Balance and compromise struck.

Furl the flags. Cut out the trash talking. It’s coming yet, for a’ that.

      I think I’ll vote for Tom.

Helpful tips for Airbnb guests from an occasionally aggrieved host (Warning - may cause offence)

1 - You are not obliged to use every clean towel in the building. Especially if it’s just you and you’re only staying two nights

2 - Checkout is 10am for a reason. It’s so we can clean the apartment, change linen and wash and dry 27 used towels before the next folk arrive at 3.00pm. So, no, “we assumed it was noon” isn’t good enough. Similarly, arriving at 10.30am and expecting to move in immediately is not going to work. See above.

3 - Towels again. They are not a substitute for toilet paper.

4 - I’m sorry you felt the need to remove and wash every plate, pan, knife, fork  and cup (100 objects of kitchenalia) as they ‘did not meet your standards of cleanliness.’ They were all autoclaved before you arrived.

5 - The description and pictures in the listing are accurate. You didn’t read or look properly though, did you?

6 - I’m glad you enjoyed swimming in the sea and walking around in your bare feet. Vacuuming the sand and grit left in the flat would have been appreciated. But thanks for adding to the coastal atmosphere.

7 - Bed linen. That cupboard contains sheets and duvet covers for the next guests. You don’t need to change the bedclothes nightly.

8 - Do not try to cook salmon in the dishwasher.

9 - Do not leave the mackerel you caught that first day in the fridge as a gift for us when you leave.

10 - I apologise for the weather but possibly you should have done some research

11 - I’m sorry about the ‘humidity’ in the flat. See above re weather

12 - That curry you made still smells...interesting. No need to send the recipe. I don’t like whelks.

13 - There’s a list of instructions regarding recycling and rubbish disposal. Do not sneak into the neighbour’s garden at night to use their bins. I know those dogs are unexpectedly large and move quickly.

14 - Glass and can recycling is down the road about 100 metres. Do you recommend Buckfast and Relentless as a tonic in such quantities? I prefer Sanatogen and Lucozade.

15 - The toilet. It has now been unblocked.

16 - The shower. The drain has now been unblocked. The hair has been carefully dried and is being sold to a wig maker.

17 - Kitchen knives. I’m sorry you felt they were ‘too sharp’. This is because they are knives.

18 - I’m sorry you didn’t see any otters. They were around. I saw one stealing the chicken carcass you left on the beach ‘for the birds’.

19 - I'm so glad you liked that bottom bed sheet enough to steal it, or do whatever it is you've done with it.

20 - Thank you for downloading so much unidentifiable ‘dark web’ material on the free WiFi that it has now stopped working and we’ve had a visit from the police.

21 - I hope you enjoyed Shetland. I understand Peterhead is interesting in winter and the accommodation commodious and well supervised.

22 - It would be helpful if we could identify those marks on the ceiling. The health authorities have been alerted.

Copyright Tom Morton 2019

Friday, July 12, 2019

Food Memory betrayed: Jacob's Club, ruined by the French, reclaimed by the Irish

Food memory. It’s a funny thing, our ability to recall the shape, texture and taste of  particular foods. Childhood taste experiences not only resonate down the years, but influence our adult food choices. We seek out the morsels which recreate past, innocent pleasures.

And sometimes, food memory deceives. Of late I’ve been eating Jacob’s Club Orange biscuits reasonably often, for one simple reason: my wife hates them, and so does my daughter, who was home for the summer. Therefore I could guarantee a secure supply of sweetmeats was lurking in the fridge when I came in from my daily grind of mild dogwalking, in need of a snacky sugar rush.
Memory played its part, of course. Club biscuits were as near a chocolate bar, a proper sweet, as you could get when I was a child in the 1960s, and cheaper than a Mars or a Crunchie.

But I’ve gradually become aware that the Club Biscuit is different these days. I always recall it as squat, brick-like, very chocolatey, very crunchy. It still has a hint of that that, but it has definitely slimmed down. It’s thinner,  there’s less chocolate. I didn’t realise the reasons for that, or that the Club is mired in fear, loathing, hatred, anti-French sentiment, anti- (and pro-) Irish sentiment. 
It all starts in Ireland, where, just prior to World War One, WR Jacob started producing the ‘Club Milk’ biscuit from a tiny bakery in Waterford. They quickly moved to Dublin and grew. It was a classic format: two biscuits, sandwiching cocoa cream, surrounded by thick layer of milk chocolate, wrapped in foil and then a slip wrap of paper. Within a year it was being made and marketed in the UK, from the company’s Liverpool factory. By the 1920s, the UK and Irish branches were operating separately.

The range expanded (orange, fruit, mint, plain, even a honeycomb version ) and became hugely popular in the UK, until in 1970 the Irish and British divisions of Jacobs were separated. If you’re old enough you may still remember the ‘playing card’ packaging used for the original biscuit, which provided the name ‘Club’ in the first place.

‘If you want a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club.” The jingle was everywhere and there WAS a lot of chocolate on a Club. You could nibble it off leaving the biscuit layers shorn and naked. Oh, and despite many west of Scotland jokes, Orange Clubs had and have no sectarian connotations.
Disaster struck in the mid 1990s when French firm Danone bought both the Irish and British branches of Jacobs. They changed everything: The packaging (no foil, no paper, just cellophane) and the recipe. One biscuit, less cocoa cream, a different, thinner layer of ‘chocolate-based coating’. There was outrage. Sacre Bleu!

In 2004 things got complicated. Danone sold the UK arm of Jacobs to United Biscuits who reinstated the packaging but left the skinflint French single-biscuit recipe intact. The Irish arm was sold to the Fruitfield Group, and Jacob Fruitfield Foods was formed, who are now marketing the original Jacob’s Milk Club, made exactly according to its full-thickness, double-biscuit, real chocolate recipe. There are stories of legal action in Ireland to stop cheaper (and inferior) biscuits being imported. And Jacobs in the UK are apparently in frequent legal ‘communication’ with Jacob Fruitfield over the use of the name on a number of other lines (like Cream Crackers, for instance; you can see how confusion could arise). Then in 2014 United Biscuits was acquired by Turkish group Yildiz for a reported  £2bn and is run by a division of the business called Pladis, whose other brands include McVitie’s. Last year (2018) there were reports that the Jacobs biscuit factory was for sale.

As for availability of the ‘Original Milk Club’ in the UK, I know nothing, though I am hoping to source some next month during a trip ‘across the water’. No double wrapping, though, if the pictures are anything to go by.

In 2008, the massive old Jacob’s factory in Tallaght, Ireland, closed, although biscuits are still being made elsewhere. As for Jacobs in the UK, I have my Orange Club, and I quite like them. The thing is, before researching this piece, I had no yearning for the old, higher, double-sandwich, real chocolate pre-Danone version. My food memory had been traduced.

Now I want them back. Now I remember. 

A wee political domestic...

It seems nobody loves me
But you and the SNP
I know you’re quite particular
But I’m not sure about Nicola
Our relationship was full of promise
But in her e-mails she calls me ‘Thomas’
She never uses ‘Tom’ or ‘Tommy’
She's always wanting money from me
Her or that Peter Murrell
I'm not inclined to quarrel
But they don’t seem to remember
It’s six months since I was a member

At least you know how to say my name
And married life is pretty much the same
I cook your breakfast, lunch and tea
Although politically we disagree
About the basics of independence
We both hate the binary nature of referendums
(Although some say the plural’s ‘referenda’)
I detest everything about Eastenders
You never miss a single show
But there’s one thing we both know
One unifying truth we’ve been absorbed in
Neither of us can abide Jeremy Corbyn

That romantic, 1970s pseudo-Marxist
That deluded, arrogant  narcissist 
Who’ll destroy the Labour Party, given time
I don’t know why you’ve not resigned
But where would you go then?
You ask how I can defend
The posturing hypocrisy
Of the governing SNP
Navigating a road to ruin
When there’s so much they could be doing?

Truth is, I'm no starry-eyed student
And I wouldn't.
As for  the Greens and the Lib Dems
No-one gives two Tweets about them
And their fantasies of power and glory
Don’t even mention the Tories
Who - some of my best friends fear -
Could be in power for the next 15 years
In thrall to the far right
Led by a suppurating bucket of Etonian shite

Oh, it’s a crisis, all right; but let’s not make it a domestic drama
We both like Homes under the Hammer
And though, largely, I favour secession
We need to wait for a proper recession 
When London house prices start falling
And the Trotskyist Hampsteaders start calling
Estate agents in Wick
Saying: 'Buy me a shooting lodge, quick'
And Dion Dublin's advice
Is that Thurso is nice

I know, I know. It's a fantasy
Fuelled by daytime TV
So let's not argue, please
Have some more toast and cheese
Crowdie for me, and  Cheddar for you
Camembert or Rauchkässe would do
Cambozolo, Weisslager, 
Queso Cabrales or Limburger
Manchego, Roquefort, or Mimolette

At least Brexit hasn't happened

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trowie tragedy. Wind farm proposals blamed

(With thanks to Rev Couth Rivvens (retd) for this contribution)

As can be seen from the photographs which accompany this instalment of North Notes, disaster has struck the burgeoning community of trowies just off the main A970 near the Heights of Olnesfirth. It is understood a combination of the recent northerly breezes and marauding sheep have caused some of the trow offspring to come to grief, either through being wedged in crevasses, or simply falling over and being unable to rise from their prone positions. One trow has complete lost his (or her – it is difficult to ascertain gender among trows) hair.

The invisible presence of trows in the empty hill land between the Flossy Loch and the Burn of Eela Water has been an accepted fact for many generations, but their more public advent in recent times is thought to be connected with the prophecies of the 18th century hermit known as the Shunn of Sheenabrek. He it was who warned, in a statement made while he was being forcibly removed from a Christmas service at the old Hillswick Kirk, of ‘a great advent of whirling wheels in the sky over Hamargrind Scord’, which is now thought to be reference to the impending Contracts for Difference auction  regarding the Viking Energy windfarm at the Lang Kames. 

The Shunn also said, as he was submerged in the sea off the West Ayre by Kirk minister Rev Humpff Bailliwick in an effort to shut him up, that ‘the Trows of Flossy will stand guard against wind farm developments anywhere in Eshaness’, a  statement little understood at the time by  those watching. However, the appearance of, initially, a mother and father trow and what is clearly a flourishing offspring, followed by perhaps a dozen much smaller creatures (known as ‘micro-peerie trowies’, and once extremely common in North Roe) has caused much conjecture locally as to the relationship between windpower developments and the trowie population, so long well-nigh dormant, except in Bressay.

Suggestions that electric fencing and windbreaks be erected to prevent sheep causing further alarm, despondency and injury to the trow population have been vetoed by locals, concerned at the possible effect on the many tourists who stop to photograph and occasionally bend the knee in trowie-worship. 

A proposal for grant funding to carry out a consultation on possible trow-protection measures is understood to be on its way to the SIC, and meanwhile, anyone passing is urged to stop and rescue any fallen or wedged trows. An application for retrospective planning permission to site what is called ‘suitable trow accommodation’ nearby has been with the SIC Planning Department for, it is said, over 20 years.

There are no plans for any major windfarm developments in Eshaness. Yet. Though it is understood some steps have been taken.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Seven Waves - the finished installation

From now until September, the 'Seven Waves' installation by Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson is open to the public at St Clement's Church, Rodel on the Isle of Harris. See posts below for details.

Based on the the cycle of poems by George Mackay Brown called Tryst in Egilsay, which have been specially translated into Gaelic for this project, the spectacular sails painted by Dave and Erlend meditate on the tragic - and inspiring - events on Egilsay, which saw the martyrdom of  the Earl who would become Saint Magnus.

Seven Waves was opened on 1 June by Jane Ryder, chair of Historic Environment Scotland, the organisation which manages St Clement's.

All photographs by Lea Schuetz-Cohen

Friday, May 31, 2019

First pictures of 'Seven Waves' installation at St Clement's, Rodel, Harris

'Seven Waves' opens at St Clement's Church, Rodel, Harris, on Saturday 1 June, and will be there until September. The huge 'sails' painted by Dave Jackson and Erlend Brown to interpret George Mackay Brown's poem-cycle 'Tryst on Egilsay', about St Magnus, Earl Haakon and the murder of Magnus offer a breathtaking counterpoint to the stunning medieval architecture of this ancient Hebridean kirk.  All photographs by Lea Schuetz-Cohen.

A write-up on the project is in the latest Orkney News.