Sunday, 18 June 2017

Running to Stand Still





A solitary lucid thought raced through my mind as I crossed the finishing line of the Skye Half-Marathon the Saturday before last. At that precise point, seven minutes under two hours after I had set off running from almost the exact same spot outside of Portree High School, it was the only part of me that was able to speed. Nor was it anything specifically to do with the torture that I had just inflicted upon myself. Not, 'When will any sense of feeling return below my knees, and how much is that going to hurt?' Or, 'What is the correct spelling of defibrillator, and where might I find one?' Rather, in that flash I determined that this was the very week that we had truly arrived upon Skye, and in the sense of putting down roots, both real and symbolic.

The half-marathon had for me been a totemic event, something that I had challenged myself to do but only once we were actually domiciled here. Four years had passed between me formulating this conviction and joining one-thousand other souls on the start line, and ten months since we had moved up here from England. What's more, that very same week, ground was also broken on our plot in Fiscavaig and meaning that our house-build has begun in earnest. The picture above is how the site looks just over one week later and having been levelled, the foundations dug down, and with what those of us - very tenuously - connected to the trade refer to as 'Big-Bastard Bricks' being delivered.

In truth, I don't actually know what the 'B-BBs' are specifically meant for, but then neither have I quite yet got to grips with any aspect of how things have, or will continue to progress, and because no-one connected to the build has told me. In fact, in the best case scenario a collective decision appears to have been taken among these various parties that Denise is our person in charge and as such that just she should be admitted into their circle of trust. Denise knows everything from the angle to the sea at which the house will be sited, right down to the cubic volume of our septic tank. I don't get these memos. This much I can understand and even appreciate, since whenever it is has been in my adult life that conversation has turned to matters practical or DIY-related, I have never failed to drift off and think of something else instead. The B-side of Motorhead's first single for just one example. I don't 'do' jobs requiring manual dexterity and craft, and as anyone proficient in the same can tell from the merest study of the vacant and/or clueless look on my face.

The worst case scenario is more troubling to me. This is that they haven't even realised, or troubled that I am part of our family and much less the house that we will eventually live in. Unfortunately, two developments have made this option seem all the more likely. Firstly, in all correspondence that Denise now receives from the amorphous mass that is 'them', I am referred to, if at all, as 'Mr Jeffrey'. Clearly, this is not my name. It is instead Denise's maiden name, and the one that she has retained, but the use of it in this context means that I may as well not exist. I am Denise's someone else, otherwise invisible and wholly unimportant.

In the second instance, just last week Denise and I took two friends with us up to the see the plot. The two men working on site that day greeted Denise warmly and as a pleasantly familiar face. Our one friend is also a builder and so was soon talking shop, whilst his wife, who is unarguably more attractive than me, was at the same instant on nodding and smiling terms. I may as well have not been there. Indeed, after fifteen-minutes of small talk had passed between the five of them, everyone looked surprised that I still was and when I happened to sneeze. The builders especially regarded me as if I had appeared out of thin air, and like a remedial sprite.

All that being the case, the pace of on-site developments has taken both of Denise and I by surprise. There we were one minute prevaricating over whether or not to have an IKEA kitchen and a concrete or wood floor, and the next these decisions have to be made now, this instant. Along with the precise amount and position of plug sockets, lighting tracks and OSB-walling that we want, and the confirmed size of our hallway recess cupboard, window sills and toilet. In short, there is all of a sudden so much to do and in what seems to me like double-quick time.

I happen to do better and happier at a steadier, more considered pace. That much was also demonstrated by the half-marathon. For the first six miles of the race, vaulting hills and all, I was going along at a decent, if unspectacular clip. Then the local pipe band appeared on the scene, as they are ever wont to do. I love a pipe band in all the ways that I don't the English variation of a trad-folk grouping, Morris Dancers. And which is to say that I have never yet wanted to do the members of a pipe band serious physical harm. The combination of pipes and drums, I find, stirs the soul and quickens the heart. Mostly this is a very good thing, but not in the middle of a long-distance test of endurance and when they are belting out something bracing. Up till then I was, in proper athlete speak, 'managing my run'. Straight afterwards, and in perfect time to the whir of the pipes and tattooing drums, I lengthened my stride, lifted my knees and was off up a steep incline like a man possessed. I sustained being out of my comfort zone for as long as it took their sounds to fade into the wind, and by when I was left so depleted that I lumbered the rest of the way home with all the assurance of a one-legged man in an arse-kicking context.

This, I am now afraid, will go on to become a metaphor for the next three-to-five-to-who-really-knows-how-many months that I am to spend as our build's spare part. Inevitably, I will try to carefully consider each option and decision that is thrust upon me, only to get overwhelmed, panic and require Denise to act as our energy gel and get us over the line. It really should not be this way and I know that. In the days when I went out to work, I did educate myself to multi-task and to manage such things as deadlines, budgets and teams of people. I may even at one time have been mistaken for someone diligent, organised and capable. What's more, what passes for the professional me can still pull off the same act of transformation whenever required.

I have someone to thank for this being the case, and that is Madonna. Yes, that Madonna. I had been Editor of Q for not more than three months when Madge, as we never once failed to refer to her, wheeled what was to be her ninth album, American Life onto the launch pad. Part of the promotional campaign scheduled to lift it off was a Q cover interview, and which Madge herself stipulated be conducted by whoever, or even whatever was then Editor of the magazine. Our meeting was scheduled to take place in Los Angeles and fatally, in advance of it I listened all too keenly to office gossip pertaining to grilling the erstwhile Queen of Pop.

One particular tidbit stood out as news to me. This was the revelation that Madge would have her personal assistant on standby and close at hand whenever it was that she did an interview. This doubtless cossetted and over-praised individual would be instructed by her boss to enter the scene after it had been running for precisely thirty minutes. If Madge was finding the exchange ordinarily tiresome, she would instruct her minion to bring it to a close in another ten minutes and not more. If, on the other hand, she had found herself taking against her inquisitor, Madge would up and leave right there and then. A predecessor of mine had fared so badly with Madge that she had actually shouted out for her PA after just fifteen minutes of being sat with him.

Off I went to LA and consumed with thinking how this odd little dance would play out. Madge and I were due to meet in the restaurant of the Beverley Hills Hotel at 4pm on an atypically wet California afternoon. I got there ten minutes early and was shown by a liveried waiter to a table and chairs at the very far end of a room roughly the size of a football pitch. It could seat hundreds and would normally have been heaving with Hollywood's movers, shakers and poker brokers, but Madonna had got it emptied for her personal use. She arrived twenty minutes late.

The fabled PA, a young, officious looking woman in a business suit. accompanied her to the door and was then dismissed. Madge was still at that time married to Guy Ritchie and affecting to be an English Lady right out from the pages of Country Life. As such, she was wearing a tweed jacket, jodhpurs, riding boots and of all things a flat cap. She walked the hundred yards from entrance to me at a slow, deliberate pace and ramrod straight, her boot heels clicking on the tiled floor like gunshots. When she reached our table she stuck out a hand and said, 'Hello, I'm Madonna'. I refrained from saying, 'Of course you are.'

Like all exceptionally famous people, in the flesh Madge looked just like herself, only more so. She was softer featured than I had anticipated, prettier too. Her eyes were unwavering and as dark and unfathomable as plunge pools. When she spoke, it was in an accent that veered, all in the same sentence from LA Valley Girl to New York hipster to Sloane Ranger, and back again. She didn't even bother to make small talk, but got straight down to business, instructing me, 'Shoot.'

There was so much that I could, and had intended to fire at her. For example, just then a new generation of pneumatic divas had emerged to challenge Madge for pop-tastic dominance, the Britneys, Christinas and Pinks, and for perhaps the first time she was in real peril of being made to look out of touch and grasping. American Life wouldn't help her on that account either, since it was one of her weaker efforts and on it she had made a risible, cack-handed attempt at rapping. Then there was her stuttering acting career and recent adoption of the ancient Jewish religious teaching, Kabbalah, and this after she had outraged the members of the religion that she was born into, Catholicism, by boffing Jesus in the video to Like a Prayer. And also that accent, her horsey garb and the fact that her movie director husband was widely perceived of as being a one-trick posh-o who had lucked out.

About all of which I proceeded to ask her precisely nothing. I froze, stunned by being in such close proximity to her sheer Madonna-ness, and instead allowed her to waffle on unchallenged about such things as yoga, reincarnation, karma, English beer, her horse and much else that was bollocks. I was so fearful too that she would prematurely summon her power-dressed foot soldier that I sat largely mute. Right on cue, the PA did indeed appear, but Madge waved her airily away. Of course she did, she was enjoying an uninterrupted conversation with herself and about herself. Eventually, she filled up more than an hour of tape. Barely one word of what she said would have interested anybody but for Madonna and the fault for that was all mine, so badly had I failed to run the interview.

Even then, I somehow conspired to make her not like me. Attempting to fashion a silk purse out of my sow's ear of a piece, I resorted to observational detail and recalled how Madge had turned up that day with a sniffle. At one point, she pulled a tatty looking tissue out of her jacket pocket and into it blew her nose. I had made a mental note of the fact that Madge, like all of us, took a quick glance at what she had expunged before returning the tissue from whence it came, and committed that to print. Soon after the interview was published, Madge was an afternoon guest on Chris Moyles' Radio 1 show. Moyles raised with her the tissue incident and as I had reported it. She groaned and sighed audibly, and then in that see-saw accent of her's snapped: 'Not true. That guy was an asshole.'

Since when I have made sure never to go into an interview unprepared, and as far as is possible to dictate the direction that it takes. Such was the genesis of the better me. However, outside of actual or virtual office hours, the other me, hapless and intermittently hopless, has remained the dominant force. Of late, I have liked to think that our builders, architects and project manager have somehow detected the more assured, ballsier me, and assumed that I am able to take a back seat and delegate duties to others. Far closer to the truth, of course, is that they actually have appraised me drifting off at the mere mention of 'self-levelling concrete', 'untreated Larch panels' and the like and a solitary lucid thought has also occurred to each of them, and that being just the one word: 'Eejit.'


This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2O6duDDkhis

The National - The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness

Terrific return and the video also features what I like to think of as a completed wooden house, built to budget and without undue stresses having been brought to bear on its owners...

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Band on the Run



This week we received a cursory note from our architect to tell us that the decisive Building Warrant for our new house had been granted and as such work would begin on it imminently. Those few lines of email were to me at least all at once thrilling, greatly symbolic and laced with elements of foreboding. Altogether, reading it, over and again was to feel as if I were on a small boat that had slipped its moorings and was being cast out towards a distant, wholly entrancing but also ever-unpredictable horizon. In the first instance, there is the entirely obvious anticipation for seeing what is now a scrub of rough heath transformed into one's home and everything else that will entail. In the second, and following on from our initial move up to Skye last summer, this is the next leaping off point in a journey that began for us the better part of three years ago now.

The foreboding bit? Well, that can be broadly categorised as 'The Grand Designs Effect'. Way back in the dim mists of time, or whenever it was that I was safely employable in an office environment, Denise and I would watch Kevin McCloud's do-it-yourself behemoth, with its seemingly infinite number of repeats, all too often. Denise as if it were made of chocolate and me with a sick feeling of dread. For having seen in every episode otherwise salient-appearing couples driven to the edges of madness and bankruptcy, Denise would inevitably announce to the final credits: 'Wouldn't you love to do that?' To which the only sane answer would be, 'Are you fucking kidding me?' Though the more prudent one always was: 'Um, possibly. Would you like a cup of tea?' Back then, the prospect to me of having any part in a house build, much less my own was about as appealing as the administration of boiling oil by hosepipe enema.

Quite why I subsequently performed such an extreme about-face is still a matter of some personal reflection, but doubtless much to do with the fact that I no longer troop into a fixed place of work. And also that my wife would very likely be able to cajole me, using gentle, but inexhaustible degrees of encouragement and enthusiasm, to flush molten liquid up my bum. Anyway... so it is that for the next several months there will be room for nothing in my thoughts but for the specifics of a fitted kitchen and bathrooms, the choice between wood or concrete flooring, what precisely an air-reclamation-or-something heating system is and the like.

At the very same time, for me there is another associated landmark that is looming ever nearer. Way back when the Big Move became a subject for serious debate between us, I also resolved to run the Skye Half-Marathon and what's more to do it in my fiftieth year of bumbling haphazardly through life. And smite me down, both beast of a run and what young Tom described to me recently as 'old-but-not-that-old' have subsequently rushed towards me like twin express trains from Hell.

I've been training for the former event for several months now. Taking into account that all my running for the previous ten years had been done around rural Lincolnshire and on terrain the consistency of an only slightly scrunched pancake, I have to say that I don't think it's gone badly. For sure, I have had mishaps involving free-ranging livestock and on one occasion, during a local running club race around a vertically-inclined forest track, damn near coughed up my diaphragm having missed a marker sign and as a result ran four miles more than the designated ten-mile distance. BUT... despite this I have grown used, if not remotely fond of the fact there is nowhere to run on Skye that doesn't involve putting oneself at the mercy of both the elements and big bastard hills.

To that end, I have coped to the extent that just before Easter I was able to run the full just-over-half-marathon-distance-and-really-quite-challenging course and not require the services of an air ambulance. Consequently, as race date, Saturday 10 June fast approaches I am very much looking forward to the whole thing. Much that the same could be said about my turning fifty. The explorer James Cook, Steve McQueen, Gianni Versace and the self-proclaimed King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson all got to be fifty and see what good it did them. No more moon-walking that's for sure. Why, just the other day I happened to be stood over an idle iPad screen and caught sight of my reflection. That's something I won't be doing again, since the features of my face appeared to me like runny clay or melting candle wax. In too many respects, I sag and droop where I really don't want to.

Worse, there's no bloody escaping 'fifty' in this of all years, marking as it does the anniversary of the Summer of Love, apogee of the Swinging Sixties, and the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's...masterpiece. These now seem to have come into another, and all but vanished world to the one we now inhabit and so I suppose must I. One of the last major interviews I conducted as Editor of Q was with Sir Paul McCartney. I can't remember now what occasioned it, but we had no less than David Bailey shoot the Fab One for our magazine cover and over the course of a month I was whisked down to Macca's bucolic Sussex recording studio, backstage at London's O2 Arena and to the Hollywood Bowl in order to meet and speak with the great man.

And in terms of presence, charisma and all round been-there-done-that-ness, 'great' really is the only word that can apply to James Paul McCartney of Speke, Liverpool. Sat across from him, one to one, I found it all but impossible not to be distracted by the very fact that he was, in fact, Him. As much has never happened with regard to anyone else that I've interviewed, but then he is a Beatle and as such different from most everyone else by simple dint of having changed the world. Altogether from stepping briefly into his world, I gleaned tidbits of information that I found stupidly fascinating... Among these that he collects vintage instruments; has every aspect of his day divided into half-hour segments [including chatting to me, lunch and meeting an  old school-friend he hadn't then seen in twenty-odd years]; that he has - and uses - a set of Beatles fridge magnets; smells of nothing so much as clean, fresh air, dresses to the right, and can never fail to command your attention whenever it is that he begins a sentence with these words: 'That reminds me of when me and the lads...'

As well, I had in his company numerous giddy, time-has-stopped moments. He took me into the recording room at his studio and played piano for me and me alone. I watched him soundcheck Get Back and Wings' Jet to an otherwise empty Hollywood Bowl, sat front row and centre on a brilliant, Pacific blue California day. Spotting me in a backstage corridor afterwards, he rushed over and gave me a bear hug and didn't make it seem at all like an affectation. That night, I was sat next to Jack Nicholson as McCartney and his stellar band played a three-hour show that contained more extraordinary pop songs than any other single human being can lay claim to.

Ultimately, I also gained an absolute sense of how unreachable, and unattainable all of this had made him and in spite of him seeming such a Very Good Bloke. Since the piece was meant to be a life profile, I simply had to ask him about his ex-wife Heather Mills and although his 'people' had suggested to me in advance, and in the nicest possible way, that I didn't. That required the use of the oldest trick in the journalist's handbook, which is to say that as it was bound to be my most difficult question to him, it would be my last.

So there we sat, he and I, on an expanse of well-plumped cushions in his candlelit dressing room at the Bowl, an hour before show-time. I spent twenty-nine minutes bowling harmless Beatles and Wings-related deliveries for him to bat back, and then unleashed my bouncer. 'You've written some of the greatest love songs in popular music,' I said. 'But what was the last one and who was it for?'

At this McCartney sat back, frowned and furrowed his brow as if he were lost in thought and chewing over the specifics of an answer. Then after a few seconds of reposeful silence, he leaned back toward me, his eyes trained on mine, smiled genially and said, whilst at the same time patting me on the knee: 'Nice try.'

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWrGSa-Asdk

Paul McCartney & Wings - Maybe I'm Amazed

Who and what else?



Monday, 20 March 2017

Gimme Shelter



Yesterday evening, Denise, Charlie and I went for a tea-time stroll just down the road from our house in Portree and around Scorrybreac headland. That once again we are able to get out and about at such a time is indicative of the fact that we have all but come through our first winter on Skye. Spring is nudging its way towards us. Just then it appeared to be right on the cusp of blooming with the sun sinking in a pale-blue sky and the sea calm and the colour of a fresh bruise. The clocks go forward this coming Sunday, of course and we will then be looking out for puffin, razorbill, guillemot and other open ocean birds to make land for the spring nesting season.

Aptly enough in this time of new beginnings, we are also expectant that next month our building contractors will begin to dig the foundations for our new home. Since we are at present deep into the process of getting the last building warrant signed off by the Highland Council, I have begun to feel as if my moorings are being unpicked and that I'm about to slip out from my comfort zone. Plenty of people who've already had houses built up here have tried  to reassure me that I'll adapt in no time to the ebb and flow of the process. However, to date not one of them has seen me try - whilst swearing a lot - and then fail to change a plug or a washer on a tap.

Since we moved up here last August, Denise and I have also been told on several occasions that if remoteness is our thing then we simply must visit Sutherland. So last month we did. For those unfamiliar with the finer details of the geography of Scotland, Sutherland is located around 150-miles upwards from Skye and occupies the very north-western corner of the British mainland. By area, it is Scotland's fifth largest county but also its least populated. Indeed, per square mile there are fewer people in Sutherland than there are anywhere else in all of Western Europe. What there are in abundance instead are soaring mountain ranges [the county is home to the two most northerly Munros - Ben More Assynt and Conival, great slabs of limestone both], ranging lochs, vast swathes of russet-coloured moorland and squelching peat bog, and mile upon mile of dramatic coastline which is characterised by plunging clifftops and brilliant white-sand beaches.

It is very, very beautiful indeed. And utterly wild. We drove the five hours from Portree to Durness [at population 400 a veritable conurbation in these parts] up the A835 coastal road - just recently fabled as the North Coast 500 route. The further north we got, the more the wind howled and the rain lashed down. However, upon arriving in Durness, hunkered at the foot of rolling hills and facing out to an epic expense of battleship-grey sky and turbulent ocean, we parked up and set straight off on foot to investigate Faraid Head. One of the most exposed points of the British mainland, The Head, as I imagine ruddy-faced locals must call it, is a fingertip peninsula that pokes out into the roaring seas of Pentland Firth and wind-blasted year round.

The image above was captured on route, looking back towards Durness and gives some idea of what an ill-tempered day it was - though without the attendant sensation of having one's skin flayed off. Truly, local social services may yet still be fielding calls about the sadistic interlopers who dragged (quite literally) their young offspring out into the teeth of a ferocious gale. But what a walk. The photograph was taken at the mile-mark and from the far end of Balnakiel Beach, a picture-postcard crescent of sand that is one of the best spots for surfing in the British Isles. Not that anyone but us was intrepid/stupid enough to be out in the tempest.

From there, we proceeded on through a second mile of vaulting sand dunes, alien in their hulking aspect, headed across open moorland for still one more and finally reached an ominous clifftop that fell hundreds of feet to the rearing seas below. Crazily, we were stood closer there as the crow flies to Reykjavik than London and as if at the very end of the world.

By the time we battled back to Durness village (imagine if you will having to headbutt a passage through a brick wall and whilst wearing an ill-fitting bobble hat), a blue-painted lorry and trailer had turned up and filled the little public car-park right opposite our bunkhouse. This was the 'Screen Machine', a mobile cinema that throughout the year travels to the most out-of-the-way parts of the Highlands and Islands and brings these communities the twin delights of the Pearl & Dean theme tune and fold-down red-cushioned seats. At 8pm, I joined a fifth of the village in paying £7 to watch La La Land from inside a metal box. Outside the hoolie had got even more formidable and as we watched Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone cooing to each other, we were buffeted from side-to-side. I felt quite discombobulated by the end and nothing to do with the fact of the film being a musical.

In total, I found Durness and its surrounds both intoxicating and inspiring. We went and met Paul Maden, a jovial sort who had moved with his partner up from Edinburgh and on a whim started a gourmet chocolate company. As one does. Eleven years since it was founded, Cocoa Mountain exports its sinfully scrumptious creations around the world and to customers including American senators, Russian oligarchs, Arab sheiks and Yoko Ono.

They're based a mile down the beach road from Durness and within the Balnakiel Craft Village, a square of squat grey buildings built in the '50s by the MoD as a Cold War early warning station but moth-balled. Today, the Craft Village is in more charming use and also home to a couple of wee art galleries and a handful of other artisan businesses. I could have whiled away the day investigating them all, but it was chucking down and unlike the Cocoa Mountain cafe they didn't serve hot chocolate. Cocoa Mountain are tremendously proud of their hot chocolate and rightly so, since it is a rich, velvet-smooth elixir that tastes simply divine. Unfortunately, it also had the knock-on sugar-rush effect of cementing both our boys' teeth together and rendering them deranged. We had no option but to make our apologies and leave.

Next day we paid a visit to see Danish ceramic artist Lotte Glob at her 14-acre Sculpture Croft, five miles up the A835 from Durness and around the shores of Loch Eriboll. Perusing the loch apparently inspired JRR Tokien to create his Middle Earth and its easy to see why. Miles long and ringed by snow-dusted peaks, it is all at once imposing, immense and otherworldly. Now 72 but sharp and spry enough to pass for half that age, Lotte arrived in the Scottish north from her native Jutland in the early-'60s and with just £5 to her name. She also set up shop in the then all-but derelict Balnakiel Craft Village and from where she initially went into business as a potter.

Lotte bought her croft in 1999 and since when has transformed a once barren expanse of open heath into a veritable wonderland - planting thousands of trees and peppering the site with her dazzling works in rock. Pebbled pathways wind around the croft and down to the water's edge, but as yet another storm had blown in from off the North Atlantic, Lotte invited us instead to have coffee in her award-winning house. One of the first timber homes built in Scotland, this sleek and altogether striking structure rises from the ground on stilts and tapers out to the loch like the prow of an old sailing ship.

We spent a magical hour there being regaled by the magnificent Lotte. To this day, she hews rock from the hills round about, cooks it at volcanic temperatures in her kiln and then, by way of giving something back to the land, lugs one mighty sculpture after another up into the mountains and then leaves them there for others to enjoy. Lotte's works are dotted about all over Scotland's upper extremities and must be wonders indeed to happen across.

Our return journey to Skye was also made into the teeth of a beastly wind. Out on the moors and slopes, we counted up to 50 Red Deer along the route. Then a cloak of mist descended and we got battered some more by hail and sleet. I was moved yet again to ponder just how much my life has changed in such a relatively short span of time (and as well I was desperate for an excuse to shoe-horn a segue into this narrative). At all events, it was not so very long ago that the only forces of nature I encountered on a daily basis were human and almost exclusively rock or pop stars.

Adele being a case in point, though in nothing but good ways. In October 2010, I went to interview her at the South London flat she was then sharing with her mum and for Q's annual new year curtain-raiser issue. This was still four months before she unveiled her 21 album to the wider world and hard to credit, but she was supposed to be at a career crossroads. One way lay the fulfillment of all the promise she had shown on her first record. The other the grim fate that was then known as 'doing a Duffy.' Not that such thoughts appeared to trouble Adele any.

She welcomed me at her door, dressed head to toe in black, hair scraped back, face unmade-up but porcelain-lovely and with a laugh that could crack cement. In the broadest Cockney, punctuation be damned and in a voice so loud she might have been heard in Watford, she bid me enter: "Cam' on in and 'ere I was going to bake you some chocolate muffins but see I'm on a diet and I'll be fucked if I'm going to sit and watch you stuffing your face ha-ha-ha-HAAAA!!!"

I liked her immediately and very much. Altogether she was loud, rude, warm, funny and disarmingly honest and as such vulnerable seeming. We spoke for what was on my part a tremendously enjoyable hour and then she offered to play me a couple of songs from off her iPod. We sat opposite each other at her dining room table and through a small, single speaker together listened to Rolling in the Deep and then Someone Like You.

No-one outside of her management, record company and closest confidantes had heard either of these tracks before then and I believe I absorbed each with a kind of jaw-flapping, goggle-eyed expression on my face. This being the one and only time I heard something that I knew was going to utterly transform the life of the person who had made it and who was before me right then. I was as sure as I've ever been about anything that very soon nothing for Adele was going to be the same again.

Four weeks later I flew to Madrid to see her play an intimate club gig and to interview her some more. This occasion is etched into my memory for a very different reason. I was at the time in the first throes of gastric flu and as we spoke, I started to sweat profusely. My stomach next began to grumble and moan ominously and soon enough audibly. I was made to squirm in my seat and had to cross and uncross my legs over and again to try and ward off the coming deluge. God knows what Adele thought of these gymnastics, though her PR told me later that she had asked him if I was alright (I never did determine whether she meant physically or mentally).

Anyway, in the end she did at least make it worth my discomfort. As our conversation drew to a close, her face lit up and she recalled for me an appearance she had once made on Dutch television. It was a morning chat show and the host had also brought along Adele's number one fan - a robust woman from Amsterdam who it soon enough became apparent wanted rather more from her pop idol than an autograph. "She could not keep her hands off me!" Adele exclaimed to me.

"Then no word of a lie, at the end of the show she asked me to go home with her. I said to her," she boomed and with another laugh like an express train about to erupt out of the tunnel. "I said to her, 'Thanks and all love... but I like dick.'"

[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday and repeated on Mondays from 3pm-4pm at:  www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].  


This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJ77qFtnfe0

Ryan Adams - Outbound Train

Effortless-sounding but magical all the same from one-time boy wonder now master craftsman.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Over the Hills and Far Away



The other week we learned that the Highland Council had approved outline planning permission for our house. A couple of days later, the builders broke ground on our plot to test the underlying soil. This also revealed no nasty lurking surprises, such as a stream of impenetrable rock, news which was met by us with a giddy sort of relief. All things being equal, the start of the build itself is now just a few more weeks over the horizon. So close, in fact, that I have begun to write up a blizzard of 'to do' lists, manic like one of those toy bears that crash cymbals together and the content of which my wife Denise absorbs with saintly tolerance. And perhaps 'source and erect American-style postbox' is not the most pressing of our needs.

Yet this is the looming beginning of something we have pondered dreamily, discussed avidly and in total been planning and considering for more than two years now. And as well, its close proximity has left me vulnerable to outbreaks of Wistful Reflectionitus. This is a state of mine that all of my family have come to flinch from since it causes my eyes to mist and me to gibber on with tales they have heard countless times before. Why, I fell into it just last Friday and as I drove to collect young Charlie from school. As the sea loch that will be ours to look out over, Loch Harport, came into view at the crest of the hill road to Carbost, huge and deep purple on this crisp midwinter's afternoon, I thought back to perhaps the very moment I decided that I had to get the hell out of Dodge. Never mind that I am not, nor ever have been and would in every aspect entirely useless as a cowboy.

Anyway... This was in the late spring of 2010 and I was at that time alone in a motel room in Bend, Oregon. I had just spent three days interviewing and in the company of the grizzled American singer-songwriter John Mellencamp. Then 59-years-old and with the hooded eyes of a hawk, Mellencamp is a William Faulkner kind of character; hard-bitten, ornery and mean but also heroic in the sense of his being among the last of his dying breed. Johnny Cash, a man who knew about such things, once hailed him as one of the ten greatest ever American song-writers and I for one am not about to go against the Man in Black.

Mellencamp's story is also right out of the pages of fiction. He was born one of five children in the blue-collar town of Seymour, Indiana in 1951 and grew up to be a high school track and football star. By 19 he was married and the father to a daughter, but ran off to New York to get himself a record deal. A couple more wives, two sons and a heart attack later, he had sold many million albums, initially under the stage name of Johnny Cougar, but was so consumed with rage at the world in general that he took to calling himself Little Bastard. Eventually, and after punching out a record company president and writing and recording a hit album in a week just to win a bet that he could, Mellencamp gave up being a rock star and transformed himself instead into a dyed-in-the-wool folk singer. At this, he has also excelled. By the by, he is too an accomplished and acclaimed painter and has had his work exhibited in galleries and museums all over the US.

I had gone to meet him at the space-age chrome-and-glass barn that acts as is his art studio and is located deep in dense woodland right off the highway near Lake Monroe, Indiana. He stalked into the airy room like a bull: squat and musclebound and albeit with his hair made up into a towering quiff. He peered at me through a fog of smoke from a cigarette clamped between his teeth and was dressed in black and carrying a wooden cane of Victorian vintage. He looked spectacular. Unscrewing the top of the cane, he produced from it, like a rabbit from a hat, a three-foot-long blade which he proceeded to brandish within inches of my nose. And then he barked at me: "You've got 30 minutes, motherfucker."

In fact, once he ascertained that I wouldn't recoil from him, Mellencamp warmed up. We sat across from each other at a long, dark-wood table and he chain-smoked and chatted away for more than two hours. He spoke in a slow, measured drawl and in a way that was utterly transfixing as he reflected on the storied passage of his life. I could very happily have heard him out for many hours more, but I got together with him again the next morning and to fly up to Bend in his private plane for an outdoor show that he was doing with Bob Dylan. On the flight and apropos of nothing, he began to list for me his various ailments and which included diabetes and a high-pitched and incurable ringing sound in his ears. "But I'm ready ready to roll with time," he concluded. "Because Johnny Cougar was not going to amount to a hill of beans, but son of a bitch, he's still hanging around 43 fucking years later."

In total, this encounter had a profound effect on me. It was that night that I sat perched on the end of a motel bed and thought about how short all of our time is here on Earth. Right there and then, I resolved that I must spend what was left of mine doing what I truly wanted to do, which was not to go into an office every day and be a manager of people and budgets, and to live where I pleased, which was on a relatively remote Scottish isle. It took me a good while after that for me to free myself on one hand and on the other for Denise to be convinced to join me on the island, but inadvertently we have John Mellencamp to thank for whatever's left of our lives and how many others can say that?

At the weekend we all four of us took a trip back into our recent past. The small West Coast township of Applecross is one of our very favourite places. On a clear day, it is visible to us on Skye from the higher points of the Staffin Road and out across the sea; a ribbon of tiny-seeming white buildings tucked under the vast Torridon range of peaks and set at the lip of a gaping natural bay. We first went there on holiday six years ago and on Sunday visited again. Despite its geographic proximity to Skye, getting to Applecross from here necessitates a two-hour drive made in an almost perfect arc. This is mitigated by the fact that the journey off the island and around the mainland coast is one taken through a landscape of hulking mountains, pine forest and rust-coloured moorland and with the sea a near-constant passenger's side companion.

Furthermore, the most direct route is via Bealach na Ba, the Pass of the Cattle, the highest mountain road in Britain. An 11-mile stretch of hairpin bends and stomach-churning sheer drops, this single-track pass is cut between two jagged peaks and rises steeply to a height of 2,054 feet before plunging down again into Applecross. Often as not, inclement weather causes it to be closed in winter but we were fortunate to have picked a clear day on which to navigate it. Nonetheless, the higher up we went into the cloud line the darker, more brooding the sky became. Snow covered the ground on these upper extremities and flecks blew at us from out of the grey-black gloom. And then in an instant the sun broke through and off in the distance we could see back to Skye, rugged and imposing out of a blue, blue sea.






Back at sea level, we drove at first west out of Applecross and for the four or five miles extra miles it takes to reach Golden Sand beach [that's it pictured at the top of the page]. This idyllic inlet is backed by a sheer wall of sand around 70-feet high and which the fit and intrepid among us [ie; the boys] habitually run up and roll down again. We had discovered this place on that first family holiday up here and it has retained from then its sense of utter serenity, since there does not appear to be more than three or four other people and a dog on it at any given time. After an hour of death-defying, head-long slaloms down the epic dune [them] and gentle strolling along the shoreline [us], we drove back the way we had come and made for the Applecross Inn.

Let me say without reservation that this is the best pub in all of Scotland and perhaps in the whole of Britain. Certainly, it has won numerous awards testifying to the former and with good reason. There it stands at the sea's edge, off-white and welcoming, beckoning the visitor to come inside and sit beside a roaring log fire. They also serve the most divine fish and chips at the Inn, which we all feasted upon and then sat nursing our full stomachs as we gazed happily out at the bay where battalions of Oystercatchers and waders picked over the rocks and squadrons of gulls swooped above the water.

Of course, this vista was more than enough to set me off again remembering and I went back to the summer's morning of 23 July 2011. Here we all were then in Applecross, the boys paddling in the shallows and when my phone beeped with the news that Amy Winehouse had died. I'd had the pleasure of meeting her just once and on that occasion she had tried to throttle me. It was at the Q Awards and in between the times of her first album, Frank and the planet-gobbling Back to Black.

Amy had bowled up to me across a crowded hotel ballroom, beehive set like rock and announced herself like this: "'Ere, you should give me a fekkin' job." Mildly shocked, I replied that since she couldn't get it together to make a record every couple of years, she hardly seemed cut out for a magazine's monthly deadlines. At which point she grasped my throat in her hands, squeezed briefly but hard and then flounced off once more, cackling like a banshee. That was the extent of our exchange, but stood there years later and amidst the beauty of Wester Ross, her death at 27 seemed to me all the more tragic, senseless and wasteful.

"Did I ever tell you about the time Amy Winehouse strangled me?" I asked the boys on Sunday. "God Dad, about a million times," announced Tom, sighing deeply. And then he led his brother off to do something more interesting such as count pebbles.

Back in Portree, I have also started to wonder how long it will be before we move into our new home and then again can start to feel as if we are locals. Ever unable to keep a thought to myself, I mentioned the latter to a colleague at the radio station. "Och, I've been here 43 years and the lady who lives next door still calls me an incomer," he told me, laughing. "So the answer to your question is never." Presently, though, I am looking forward to nothing so much as putting that to the test.

[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday and repeated on Mondays from 3pm-4pm at:  www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].  


This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oTw6n-rHJw

Radiohead - Identikit.

Thom Yorke and his merry men: the perfect soundtrack to a drive up and over a mountain. Who knew?

Friday, 6 January 2017

Blowin' in the Wind


Storm Barbara hit Skye like a battering ram just before Christmas. Whilst not as destructive as was initially feared, nevertheless it was a weather front to be reckoned with, unleashing winds of 75mph and causing schools to be closed and ferry crossings to be cancelled. More than enough to prompt us to head off a day earlier than planned to be with family in England over the holiday. I was surprised at the wrench I felt as we drove over the road bridge to Lochalsh on a brooding 22 December morning. It has been just four months since we pitched up here, but already of course we have started to put down roots. With each passing day, I have felt drawn deeper into the ebb and flow of island life, to both its gentle rhythms and wilder beats. And with that exponentially further and more apart from many aspects of the world we left behind.

These twin senses of settlement and remove were sharpened in the weeks leading up to Christmas. To be here then was to feel, well, Christmas-y. What's more this was in the kind of warm, wide-eyed and abundant way of my childhood. The mountain peaks dusted with snow, the crisp, bright mornings when frost twinkled on the ground or each evening when Portree's ring of festive lights blinked and winked in the gloaming, our youngest son Charlie's school Nativity Play - no doubt each encouraged an unfettered festive spirit to well up. Yet it surged through me, I think, mostly on account of how time seemed to have been rolled back to another, more innocent age and when we weren't all bombarded at this time of year with... stuff.

Since there are no chain stores on the island, or HD screen billboards or teeming retail parks, there is also no compulsion from early October on to submit to the orgy of consumption that is the modern Christmas. Frequently, I was bid a happy Christmas by beaming strangers and as if they really meant it, and for all that glory be. Having in recent times spent the season grouching and grumbling, as if begging for a visit from Scrooge's ghosts, this year I instead gaily put together a Yule-some playlist for my weekly radio show and even once caught myself whistling while I walked.

The most Christmas-y day we had on Skye was actually the Saturday before Christmas itself. That afternoon occasioned the inaugural Santa Dash around Portree, and in which the four of us were enthusiastic participants. In this we joined 230 or so other happy souls for a run up, down and around the town and in ill-fitting Father Christmas suits. A wonderful event, it began with our red and white-clad horde being led into the town square by a band of pipers and ended with us all feasting upon mince pies and sponge cakes washed down with piping hot tea, coffee and mulled wine. However, in between times I became as shamefully competitive as it is possible for one in fancy dress to get.

Determinedly, up the stiff opening climb of the two-mile course I streaked passed my wife Denise and Charlie and scores of others, my eyes blazing, arms and legs pumping like pistons, red bobble hat bobbing savagely. Utterly mindless of the fact that most everyone else was out for nothing more than good-natured fun and proceeding merrily along in jolly groups of families and friends, I was like a one-man band playing death metal at a barn dance. The nadir of my manic performance was reached on the ensuing descent. Ahead of me and crossing a muddied field, I spied my other son, Tom and his friend Connor happily bouncing along together. Not for long. In my temporarily deranged sights they were vulnerable young zebra to my predatory lion. I bounded upon and then by them and as I went may even have cackled sadistically.

Not long after and perhaps hastened by appalled looks from my fellow parents, I belatedly jolted to my senses. On the home straight, a hundred yards in front of me and closing was a lad of nine (which does rather put my imagined Mo Farah-like dash into perspective), and who seemed to me to be faltering. Clearly, none of the throng lining the route would cheer me were I to take him down and with the finishing line in sight, since that would make me an idiot. As this rationale flashed across my mind, the youngster turned his head, smiled, somewhat maliciously I must say, and then quickened his pace, leaving me gasping and for dust. And there is no fool quite so sad as a beaten old one.

Afterwards, the four of us drove to a secluded spot four miles up the road and sawed down our own Christmas tree. Syke's byways are peppered with saplings sprung from seeds blown out from its verdant pine farms and the harvesting of them is welcomed, since otherwise they would grow to become obstructive. The kids loved it, though this was as much to do with the fact that in order to claim our prize, I had to wade through a bog and impale myself on pine needles, still attired as Santa, albeit a wet, bedraggled and thoroughly abject looking Claus.

It was Christmas 14 years ago that Denise and I first came to Skye and for our honeymoon. We spent a fortnight nestled in a wee bungalow in Struan on the north-west coast, and the whole time the wind howled like a wounded beast. We had a coal fire for warmth and ate Christmas dinner looking out through our picture window to a broiling sea loch. Doubtless, the pull in us towards the island dates back to that time. Skye is a temptress and she seeps into your bones and soul,

Partly, it's the primal beauty and sheer ruggedness of the place that does it; how it engenders in you a profound sense of being out on the edge of things. As well, there is the strong suggestion here of timelessness, of belonging to place as old as the Earth itself. Its plunging cliffs are comprised of rocks of the blackest basalt which date back 2,800 million years and to when the planet was blast-furnace hot and still being formed from molten magma and poisonous gases. Human beings arrived on Skye some time between 10,000-5,000BC, making our occupation of the island but a rapid eye movement in the grand scheme of things. These were Mesolithic settlers and with a primitive culture, but they established Skye as a homeland and archeologists have unearthed remnants of a subsequent Iron Age fort and Bronze Age settlements on its heath, hill- and moorland.

In the ninth century, Viking invaders from Scandinavia crossed the sea, shed blood and gave the island a name, Skuy, Norse for 'misty isle'. After their occupation, the next hundreds of years belonged to the clans. Clan MacLeod ruled to the north, Clan Macdonald in the south. In 1745, a daughter of the Macdonalds, Flora, achieved lasting fame by helping Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee to Skye from the mainland, escaping from the dashing of the Jacobite rebellion and the clutches of the victorious English forces at the decisive Battle of Culloden. Seventeen years later, a scion of the MacLeods, John Ross, a Royal Navy officer and sometime MP, secured his infamy by beginning the Clearances, the enforced eviction of thousands of small-hold farmers that for more than a century bedeviled the islands and highlands. A venally cruel act meant to free up the land for livestock, it served to reduce Skye's population alone by two-thirds, the dispossessed and destitute shipped off to uncertain new lives in North America, Australia and New Zealand.


I was all but ignorant of this history when we left Skye for London in the new year of 2003, but I was bound for another maelstrom and one partly of my own making. I had not long been made Editor of the venerable monthly music magazine Q and one of my first tasks had been to secure an attention-grabbing cover star for its looming 200th issue. I wanted someone who was steeped in rock and roll tradition, but who might also prick the stuffy air of blokeishness which permeated on the title. So it was that I alighted upon Courtney Love, just then attempting to recover her music career from years of self-inflicted carnage.

Love was residing in London over that Christmas and I arranged to have her respectively photographed and interviewed for the cover by the estimable team of Rankin and John Harris. I returned to find the office in a rare state of excitement. Rankin's session had gone better, more extraordinarily than any of us could have anticipated. For Love, who appeared scarily decadent and unhinged, had during the course of an eventful, shambolic night set fire to the racks of clothes hired for her for the occasion, stripped down instead to her knickers and led Rankin a not-so-merry and topless dance down Park Lane at 11pm. This concluded with her flagging down a black cab and to the bemusement of its driver, prostrating herself across the vehicle's back seat. And consummate pro that he is, Rankin had recorded the entire episode for posterity.

Alas, there was also an all-too-significant hitch. Love had not yet sat for the interview and wanted to speak to me before she would. Consequently, on the first Monday evening of that year the two of us had a two-hour phone conversation, me in our poky north London flat, she in her West End hotel room. What she made of I cannot possibly say, but even now I shudder at the memory. Mostly, I recall how she ranted and raved at me and in a way that made her sound quite insane. "Hey!" she barked when I was first put through to her. "I'm just having my anus waxed."

Impossibly, things only got progressively more surreal from there. With the full horror of the photo session having evidently dawned on her, Love had formed a damage limitation strategy. She told me that now she wanted to design our cover herself and for it to also include a motley assortment of her friends and contemporaries. Otherwise, she said, there would be no interview. I refused and she railed at me. She tried again and once more I said no, and she shouted at me a whole lot more. Round and round we went in this seemingly endless circle. At one point, she broke off to instruct a nanny to put her daughter, poor Frances Bean to bed. At another and as I slipped into a catatonic state, she seethed: "Fucker, I just told you who my real father was and you missed it, didn't you?" Indeed I had, but I could have cared less.

Eventually, I was able to squeeze more than a word in edge-ways and to bring matters to a head. "Let me ask you Courtney," I said, though by no means assertively, "would you allow me to write a song for your next record?" "God, no," she shot back. "Then whatever makes you think I'm going to let you do my job for me?" And at which point the phone line went dead.

In the event, we didn't get our interview but put a photograph of a dishevelled, half-naked Courtney on our cover anyway. Predictably, she exploded with rage, firing off a statement in which she claimed I had arranged to have someone break into her hotel room and steal from her private pictures. For good measure, she added that I was an 'asshole'. Over the next ten years and through many other situations, I grew used to having a gnawing feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach and of living my life in monthly increments of panic as I waited on each issue's sales report or found out the latest economy I would be required to make.

At such times, I yearned to run away from it all, to isolate myself and always to the misty isle. We would  holiday on Skye each summer and it would be as if I could breath again. Eventually, the job and my own inability to turn the magazine's sales and fortunes around burned me out and I left. It took another four years for me to depressurise and be de-institutionalised and only then was I ready to go off and seek a sanctuary on Skye.

Ever since we returned home here the day before New Year's Eve, it has felt that much to me at least. For days we have endured the tail-end of a second storm, Connor; its winds frigid and hostile, rain lashing from foreboding skies. In the teeth of such conditions Skye retains its splendour but in darker hues. On two of our now regular walks, one around the Scorrybreac promontory at Portree, the other out to the tip of the Braes headland, we have the sea for company and at present it chops and churns in various shades of moody blues, greens and blacks. Yet it also teems with life. Common and Grey Seals regularly surface and dive; Great Black-Backed, Common and Herring Gulls skim the waves whilst doughty Shag, Divers and Red-Breasted Merganser huddle closer to the shoreline. And when the rain abates, you might be lucky enough to see Sea Eagles riding the thermals.

For us, the year ahead will be one of further and accelerated changes. As I write, the proposal for our house build is passing through the various planning stages required by the Highland Council. We hope to break ground on our plot in the spring and move into our new home by the summer. At the same time, we will have a virgin business to tend to and will no doubt be encouraged into other experiences that will be fresh and unique to us. Though I don't in any eventuality foresee myself having my bum waxed.

[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday and repeated on Mondays from 3pm-4pm at:  www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].  


This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTU1YRYdhcI

Trail West - Close to Home.

Hailing from another West Scottish island, Tiree, but entirely evocative of Skye as well.

Monday, 21 November 2016

White Winter Hymnal



The other day my friend Paul Pike was good enough to forward this item on to me: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/most-desirable-place-to-live-britain-isle-of-skye-devon-a7422051.html Of course, I agree wholeheartedly with the consensus expressed. Indeed, upon learning of it my first reaction was one of giddy over-exuberance. That, coupled with an urge to share the news as if it were that of a bouncing new-born and I the proud father. And then I calmed down. On reflection, I suspect it was the word 'desirable' that dampened my fireworks since I really don't care for its use in this context. It seems to me too twee and smug; stockbroker-belt tidy and bringing to mind cream teas and the sound of leather upon willow. Whereas in my mind Skye is wild and not for taming. It has its own particular beauty for sure, one that gets into your bones and seeps down to your soul. But it can as well be a roaring, howling beast, forever unsettled and unpredictable. It is sensuous and evocative, raw and thrilling much more than it is plain old desirable.

Or perhaps I am being an inverted snob and terrible ponce, and certainly not for the first time. At all events, winter's shroud has fallen across the island in recent days and accentuated its most primal features. The peaks and crevices of the two Cuillin ranges and the Trotternish Ridge are laden with snow; the north wind bites and freezes as it swoops down from the mountains or in from the sea; mornings arrive glistening, evenings fall at a beat to a fathomless black and with cloudless skies so devoid of light pollution one is able to behold the iridescent splendour of the Milky Way.

In total, it is very often right now just as wondrous as I could ever imagine a place to be. Hunkered down in our warm little house on frigid nights, which is to say every one during this past week, the effect is like being wrapped up in a cocoon and made safe from the world outside. Often times that too applies in a more general sense to living on the island: there is here a tangible feeling of being distant and at a remove from events elsewhere. No bad thing this past fortnight at least, when in our glorious isolation even Donald Trump's election to the US Presidency has been made to seem out of reach of whatever demons might soon be summoned forth.

For us these last three months have been a steady, but continual learning process. The warmth of our welcome has been enriched by the steady diet of tips and recommendations we continue to be fed. Among the knowledge we have latterly been gifted is the location of a shop from which to buy fish straight off the boats that chug out from Portree harbour each weekday dawn; directions to a secreted path that winds up from the town, through pine forest and onto a plateau from which to view the island's three mountain ranges, and panoramas of ocean, loch and ochre-coloured moorland; and the details of doctors and dentists, and teachers at everything from acoustic guitar and yoga to karate.

From a personal perspective, I have also begun to acquire a belated education in live broadcast radio. In the first instance and just the other week, I received instruction on how to operate the 'board' from a gentleman who necessarily had the patience and forbearance of a saint. Now, I have done radio before. Indeed, for several years I presented a weekly show on Q magazine's sister radio station. This was the Q Show [and how we laboured over that title...], and through the course of it I must have racked up hundreds of hours on air.

During all that time, though, no-one was ever foolish enough to let me loose on things that required any kind of technical aptitude. Rather, I would simply roll up at our poky but well-appointed London studio each Wednesday afternoon and waffle away for a couple of hours, while a very nice man named Andy Westcott did all the hard work for me. Andy was the show's producer and he it was who operated the galaxy of knobs and buttons that make up the regulation sound board and which were as mysterious to me as the finer points of astrophysics.

The two of us hosted an assortment of guests on the show, all of whom had the dubious pleasure of being interviewed by me and also reviewing a batch of new singles' releases. It was a simple format, and a 'borrowed' one too, but I left it with a richness of memories. Among the younger, wide-eyed visitors to Andy's and my domain were Florence Welch and Mumford & Sons, just in advance of either of them becoming the strutting, planet-gobbling pop stars they are today. Of our more seasoned celebrities, Belinda Carlisle appeared to enjoy the experience as much as root canal work. Manfully as I tried to coax a smile from the one-time Go-Go's girl, she sat tight-lipped and stony-faced, regarding me as if I were something she had found on the bottom of her shoe. I couldn't think why.

I thought I had at least tempted a chortle out of the actor Rhys Ifans. He had turned up somewhat over-refreshed and apparently unable to form a coherent sentence. "That's easy for you to say," I informed him when his first utterance proved to be unintelligible gibberish. He made a sound like an engine back-firing and which I took for laughter. Until, that is, he pressed his lips to my ear and whispered very clearly, and with an overpowering stench of booze and no little menace: "You're a cheeky c**t, aren't you?" And then he kicked me hard on the shin.

Bald-bonced dance boffin Moby on the other hand greeted me as if I were an old friend, throwing his arms around me and pondering aloud when and where it was we had last met. The two of us had in fact never before been in the same room together, much less exchanged even a passing word though I didn't have the heart to tell him. Then there was erstwhile Housemartin and Beautiful South-er Paul Heaton, who really was lovely but also bonkers. At one point, I asked him if he had any hobbies. It sounded a harmless enough inquiry, but unleashed the hounds. "Oh yes," said Heaton, eyes ablaze and he began to reel off a list of all the things that he collected. Among them were football shirts, beer mats, crisp packets, road atlases, ring-pulls from cans of pop, and last but judging by Heaton's exultant expression not least, single items of litter that he retrieved from the roadside when walking his son to school each morning. I backed as far away from him as was possible in a space with the dimensions of a shoebox.

Perhaps my favourite guest of all was Tom Jones. We heard him coming long before we saw him, as his voice resounded down the corridors of our floor like rolling thunder. "Hello my lovely!" his baritone boomed on numerous occasions and as we were to learn later at every female who happened across his path. The Human Crotch subsequently swept into the studio in a dazzle of brilliant white teeth and expensive cologne, trailed by an attentive man-servant who carried with him several bottles of beer. Tom instantaneously proceeded to regale us with tales of his running around Las Vegas with Elvis and Frank Sinatra, old school charm personified. When it came time to play the first record, he reached out for a beer. "Tsk," admonished his minder, nodding at the digital clock on the wall which read 5.47pm. Tom withdrew his hand like a chastened child. Twice more this routine was repeated and then the electric-red numbers turned to 6pm. "Ah, the sun is over the yardarm," Tom delightedly informed his Jeeves, cracking open a bottle and supping from it with evident relish.

Thanks to Cuillin FM's equivalent of Yoda, I am no longer so ignorant of the nuts and bolts of the radio operation and have been enabled to fly solo. To date I have done so four times and with only the occasional mishap. Notably, once when pushing up my 'on air' microphone fader at the very same moment as I choked on a rogue sliver of Brazil Nut. Two sheep and an agoraphobic are still wondering at how Kate Bush's Cloudbusting was interrupted by the resulting violent barking noise.

Sadly, I have had no reason as yet to test out a further nugget of wisdom passed on to me by another of the station's elder statesmen and who is the live on-air commentator on local shinty matches. The other day, this gracious soul informed me that, whenever doing an outside broadcast the best method of protecting a microphone from unwanted noise pollution is to roll over it a condom. "Aye, but the only trouble is that they're delicate wee things and split," he noted sagely. "Every Friday morning now I buy five packets of condoms from the chemist's. Course, I haven't told the old girl in there yet what I'm using them for," he added, beaming, "and she looks at me like I'm superhuman. And you know, word gets around quickly in a place such as this..."

As a family, we arrived at a landmark of our own at the start of this month. It was then that final plans for our house were submitted to the Highland Council for planning permission. At a stroke, time was made to seem elastic. The 12 weeks it will take for the council to rule will doubtless seem like an age, and yet we can look over the horizon of 2016 and into next year and regard the outline of our approaching future life. That this now has tangible form and a sensation of permanence is a thrilling thing indeed and all the more reason to bunker down and shut out whatever evils lurk beyond our borders. Or at least to not be quite so slapdash when it comes to digesting nuts...

[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday at:  www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].  


This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGpRQyCV7Iw

Chris Stapleton - Parachute.

Stapleton's Traveller album comes on like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger chewing the fat with Kris Kristofferson. Really, what's not to like?...

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Faraway, So Close!



Right now we are enjoying an unexpected but very welcome Indian Summer upon Skye. Blue skies and an amber sun have encouraged us out into the island's great wide open. And with the days seeming longer and less hurried, I have also been given the chance to pause and reflect upon the scenic road along which we have traveled to this place, the course of which has as well often appeared impossible to predict. 

One moment of reverie that happened just the other day was for me particularly resounding. At the time, I was sat on a heather-coated outcrop that afforded an aspect of the impressive span of Glen Brittle, an arrowhead of land carved out between rolling hills and the looming teeth of the Black Cuillin range. The great glen looks out towards a majestic sea loch and whilst appreciating the dulcet lapping of the waves and scanning the clear skies for eagles, it occurred to me that almost five years ago to that day I had regarded another evocative sea view. This one, though, was from many thousands of feet in the air and the vantage of a private jet ferrying the members of U2 across the Irish Sea and on to London.

Just then I was coming to the end of my ten-year tenure as Editor of the music magazine Q. Being fully appreciative of this fact, in the time that I had left at the job I had resolved to enjoy as much as possible its manifest fringe benefits. I had therefore commissioned myself to write a cover feature marking the 20th anniversary of perhaps U2's best album, Achtung Baby. This endeavor had taken me at first to the band's hometown of Dublin where I had interviewed the Edge over a pint of Guinness in the lounge bar of the city centre hotel the professorial guitarist co-owned with his shy, retiring singer, Bono. And since the band were going on the next day to an awards ceremony in London, I had hitched a ride home with them. 

So there we sat, U2 and I, in tan-coloured leather seats as deep as buckets and as comfy as a mother's embrace. Opposite me the Edge and Bono reclined, the latter with his eyes shaded by dark glasses and talking a mile-a-minute about how he had spent many a childhood day spotting planes at Dublin Airport. Across a wide, carpeted aisle, debonair bassist Adam Clayton was stretched out with the morning paper. Only drummer Larry Mullen was absent attending to a family matter, which had deprived us of the party's driest sense of humour. We proceeded in this state of gentle repose for perhaps 10, 15 minutes and until the plane suddenly dropped through the air like a stone, the murmur of its engines turning to a protesting whine. The craft then jolted and lurched to one side and the other. "Turbulence," muttered Clayton, hands tightening on the arms of his seat. 

The next several minutes passed with our plane being bucked and buffeted wildly through banks of deceptively benign looking milk-white cloud. Expressions froze on faces. Sphincters tightened. And no-one spoke, until that is Bono leaped to his feet, stood rigid to attention and announced in his loudest voice, "I'm gay!" And just like the classic scene from Almost Famous that he referenced, we also did not end up crashing to earth in a fireball, but instead landed at a well-appointed airfield on the outskirts of the city and from where we were chauffeured to our final destination aboard a fleet of sleek, black executive cars. I shared a vehicle with Bono, and on occasion even managed to get a word in edge-ways as we glided along. 

We were disembarked at a discreet side entrance to the Savoy Hotel. At Bono's bidding, I followed him inside the grand building. His was not a routine check-in procedure. Rather, we were led by a liveried gentleman past a group of staff lined up to greet their VIP guest, their uniforms crisp and freshly starched, and into a private elevator that whisked us several floors up to the Winston Churchill Suite, named after the Prime Minister who had resided there during the dark days of the Second World War. The suite was the size of a football pitch and as opulently dressed as a papal palace in dark teak and crushed velvet. 

Bono and I had tea and biscuits together. I had spent time with him previously in London and also in the South of France and Hawaii, and on each occasion he had been warm and entirely engaging. Since I very much suspected that this would be our final meeting, I savored the last fleeting details. How tiny and vulnerable a bone-china cup looked in his meaty hand. How the late-afternoon light cast him in the glow of a sepia-tinted photograph. How much I desperately needed the toilet. Before I left, he took me out onto the balcony to better appreciate our elevated location. As we gazed down at the Thames, shimmering in the gloaming, Bono threw an arm around my shoulder and said with a smile: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Over and again during the past two months I have thought similar, albeit that the circumstances and context have been so different. For example, I would once not have imagined that I might undertake a five-hour round trip by car just for the purpose of viewing a fitted kitchen. But as Denise and I now have to make decisions on the fixtures for our future home, the venture of driving 90-plus miles coast-to-coast to Inverness to acquaint ourselves with an example of precisely what can be achieved within our budget seemed not only entirely worthwhile, but rich with tantalizing possibilities. Likewise, and upon hearing from a neighbour of an unfortunate incident involving a gale and a blow-away trampoline, I spent an afternoon pottering about our temporary garden in quiet contemplation of what could and should be tethered down in the event of the inevitable winter storms. Bikes, bins and even the shed fell under my steely gaze, though given as I am in such matters to eternal prevarication, all remain at risk of being swept away.

It was on another potter, and to familiarize myself with the immediate area, that I happened upon Cuillin FM. The island's local radio station is sited across an undulating cow field and uphill from us in a small wood cabin and from where one can look out over a sleepy collection of homes and beyond to the hills and sea. In many respects Cuillin FM is wonderful. For instance, thanks to its Catholic approach to programming it is entirely possible to hear a Scottish jig, a Broadway show tune and Judas Priest all within a couple of hours of each other. And so closely is the station linked to the people of the island, that no-one listening would have been surprised that a morning news bulletin led off with a story about a Dunvegan lady who had woken to find her garden gate had vanished and was appealing for information on its whereabouts, as was indeed the case just the other day.

Cuillin FM is also island life in microcosm. It is populated by a motley collection of folk, all of whom band together to bring it to life and keep it running and in their various and different ways. The station MD, for instance, doubles up as on-air commentator on the island's shinty matches and also as Skye's resident grief counselor. It is also ever likely to throw open its arms to interlopers offering assistance, which is how it is that I have come to be presenting a weekly Friday night show between the hours of 8pm and 9pm. As much was arrived at via an introductory email and an afternoon coffee, and in my case most certainly on account of my willing and enthusiasm rather than any particular talent. This seems to me - if not whatever audience I happen to be broadcasting to - a very good and healthy way to progress through life. 

Doubtless I shall ponder as much and more when I sit in the darkened radio studio next Friday night and the one after, and am otherwise just about as content as I believe its possible to be. Such will be the case for the next 12 weeks at least and by when I expect to have reveled in yet more interior design porn and for our path to have undergone a few more twists and turns.

[Hear the Friday Night Chronicles 8pm-9pm each Friday at: www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].  


This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gPQLB3AQcQ

Bon Iver- 00000 Million.

The new Bon Iver album is, I think, one of three bold, beautiful and often extraordinary records to have come out in recent weeks. Another is Nick Cave's. That the third so happens to be by Marillion I'll just leave dangling here...