Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Astral Weeks

By and large I am thoroughly enjoying our second full winter on the island. Last year's vintage, a couple of Atlantic storms aside, was pretty benign. This one has been a proper winter, and as such more uncertain, variable and interesting. For a start, there have been three significant snowfalls, each transforming the landscape into a wondrous vision of white peppered with black ravaged rock - and as well causing sundry vehicles to jack-knife off our hill road (although with no injuries to report, thankfully). A brace of mighty gales have also come roaring through these parts. Both times, I was woken in the dead of night by a sound like an angry express train, as a mighty gust worked up a head steam rushing down from the hills. Rain, sleet and hail there have been in abundance, and days when all has been becalmed, the sun low in a milk-blue sky and spring whispering ahead of its arrival.

Sometimes different combinations, or even all of the above can occur within a span of hours and as was the case yesterday. Walking a three-mile circuit around Fiscavaig Bay, Denise and I were at first struck by how unseasonably warm it was and then assailed by a raw, frigid wind. Out came the sun once more, but with the caution of a bank of dark, pregnant cloud blowing in from out at sea. This loomed threateningly over the Western Isles, beyond which the next landfall is Greenland. Soon enough, all about had been turned a shade of burnt ash and snow began to fall like many frozen balls of cotton.

Such schizophrenic unpredictability I find bracing and exciting, except that is when I happen to be on the wrong end of it. In respect of the latter, I think back to another eruptive afternoon last week and when we returned home to find both of our bins hurled a couple of hundred yards down the hill, and having scattered litter like confetti. That same morning, conditions in the village, just twenty miles distant, had been bright, twinkling and with barely a breeze. And trust me, there are few things quite so lacking in grace as the sight of a late-middle-aged man in sunglasses huffing, stumbling and sweating up a mud bank, and whilst attempting to chase down wind-flown yogurt pots and toilet roll.

In fact, inclement weather and I generally don't do well together. Last weekend and once again in conditions that locals up here are wont to describe as 'blowy' (for which read: just a wisp off hurricane-force), I set off up our driveway, bent double and bound for the small industrial container that acts as our shed, several tonnes of metal being so much less susceptible than wood to getting blown to infinity. I meant to fetch the stepladders, but ended up being nearly decapitated by the container door, which got flung open as if it were made of paper and at the speed of a bullet.

Reeling backwards and perhaps screaming, though the shriek I made was so high-pitched only dogs would have heard it, I fell back into a viscous puddle of mud, slush and rainwater. To anyone who saw me on my return trip, trudging gloomily towards the house, it must have appeared as though I had soiled myself and through the portal of a water cannon.

The sad thing is that I had many years training, and experience of dealing with wild, mad and wholly unreasonable elements. Or rock and pop stars as they are otherwise known. There was, for instance, the occasion of Q magazine's 200th issue and for which we produced twenty different covers, each featuring a rock or pop deity such as David Bowie, Madonna, Kate Bush, Keith Richards... and, oh well yes, Johnny Borrell of Razorlight. In a last-minute moment that hindsight now tells me was madness, I decided to add one Britney Spears to this list.

La Spears was at that precise point in time just out the other side of her gone-bonkers-and-shaved-all-her-hair-off nadir, but also several months pregnant. I told Britney's American publicist, a woman entirely devoid of humour and likely any trace of empathy or pity too, that we meant to shoot a head-and-shoulders portrait of her client, which indeed we did. However, Britney herself had other ideas. Arriving unaccompanied on the day of our New York session, she proceeded to strip down to a bikini and instructed our photographer to "shoot the bump." Naturally, he obliged and that being the single most striking shot of the day, I duly decided to put it on one of our covers. Which was when all hell broke loose.

It transpired that Team Britney had also arranged for her to do a glamour shoot with an American women's glossy just as soon as she gave birth, and presumably had been lipo-suctioned back into pop goddess shape. The better to mask the fact that the teenager who first minx-ed into the global consciousness as a schoolgirl Lolita was now a mother of two with a propensity for calamity. Since our cover was an unexpected, unwanted impediment to this grand illusion, war was immediately declared to try and stop it from ever seeing the light of day and with me in the firing line.

In the first instance, the aforesaid publicist sent an indignant email, threatening me with the full force of the law and sundry other forms of damnation should I attempt to press ahead with publication, and in spite of her having no legal ground whatsoever to stand upon. I ignored her, and so next she phoned me at the office and shouted at me for what seemed like most of a day.

At one point, she brayed, "Are you even, like, aware of how much damage you are going to do to the Britney brand here?" Gently as I could, I pointed out that Britney had very recently been photographed driving away from a beauty salon and having neglected to remove her baby-in-a-carry-cot from the roof of her car. It was questionable, I suggested, whether it would be at all possible for anyone, or anything to visit further harm upon Spears Inc. She did not see the funny side. Rather, she went off and enlisted the services of a fellow, but even more ice-blooded publicist well-known for helping A-list Hollywood actors trouble-shoot their way out of self-inflicted tight spots.

This borderline maniac, let us call her Kathleen, since that is her name, phoned me over the ensuing weekend and with the solitary tactic of shouting at me for longer, louder and with even greater menace than her colleague. As I was at that very moment pushing a shopping trolley around a Waitrose and more concerned with having to choose between the many varieties of canned chickpeas on offer, the effect of her ravings was somewhat lost on me. Inevitably and like our storms up here, the whole affair eventually blew itself out. Britney and bump went on and graced our cover and I never again heard from my two new friends.

Inadvertently crossing Chris Martin left me with a rather more lasting impression. This happened at the Q Awards of 2010. Coldplay had scooped up a handful of golden Qs, the ceremony itself had zipped by like a well-oiled machine, and there we all were in the plush ante-room of a posh West End hotel doubled up for the day as our photo studio. Martin, the consummate politician, was gaily pressing the flesh of well-wishers and assorted other music biz folk, and at the same time as having his picture taken for the magazine and holding a conversation with me.

Earlier that afternoon and during one of his acceptance speeches, he had brazenly come on to Kylie Minogue, also in attendance. In the joshing spirit of the day, I chided him about this, pointing out that as his words had been dutifully recorded for our website, his then-wife Gwyneth (this was pre- their 'conscious uncoupling') was bound to find out about his transgression.

"Ah, we have an agreement," he replied airily. "I get a pass for Kylie."

In retrospect, it would have been much better for me to have let this go. I was, though, giddy from the success of the event and fortified by a lunchtime beer or three. So, I offered the rejoinder that I hoped he had made much the same concession to the fragrant Gwynnie and mentally scrambled for an appropriate figure of male perfection to offer up by way of example. To that end, there were scores of celebrity beefcakes and/or brain-boxes I could have alighted upon, your Clooneys and your Goslings and anyone else who had not at one time been engaged-to-marry Gwyneth Paltrow.

But no, the name that I spoke was Brad Pitt's, Mr Paltrow to-be before love's light dimmed for the couple and Martin entered the picture. I didn't meant to. To make matters still worse, I realised the enormity of my error even before I had finished speaking and so trailed off, guiltily and like a headlong car crash taking place in slow-motion: "Brad Pi...iiittttt." Before that last muffled 't' was out, Martin's face had darkened, his eyes narrowing to slits. Momentarily, and in spite of myself, I marveled at how the man who warbled Yellow with all the oomph of a trainee geography teacher had made himself appear so threatening. "You complete and utter... fucker," he exhaled, perhaps not unreasonably. And then he hit me. It was a quick, jabbing blow to the solar plexus and carried with it a surprising deadening effect. Enough anyway to make me audibly gasp.

With that, he recovered himself, returning to his default unruffled state, smiling again and able to pass the whole thing off as a bit of lighthearted fun between international rock star and blundering oaf. Nevertheless, I rather suspect he would have enjoyed the spectacle of me falling on my arse in a puddle, seeing it as a kind of karmic intervention or some such and who could blame him? Doubtless, I am at times a very foolish man.

That much will assuredly be made clear to me time and again over the days that remain of this second Skye winter, and as I am being made snow-blind, wind-blasted or otherwise inconvenienced by the ruthlessness of our weather. The trade-off will be in beholding the wild wonder of it all; the might of the forces unleashed and the soothing lulls that follow. A brilliant morning sunset streaking the sky pink, or the moon rising in a clear night sky of starry translucence. Seeing the aurora shimmer on a pre-dawn horizon, and as one might imagine magic caught in a bottle to look. Or the marvel of sensing one season passing into another and of the wounded land beginning to heal and rejuvenate.

The glories of all that are surely worth a punch off Chris Martin, or anyone else for that matter.

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Bob Dylan - Shelter from the Storm

Brilliantly ravaged and windswept, you say...

Saturday, 23 December 2017

I Won't Back Down

Yes, yes - I know I said after the last one that I wouldn't be doing any more of these. So easily am I swayed when it comes to such things, it took just a couple of people to say, 'Actually, I was quite enjoying reading the blog,' both deeply appreciated nevertheless, and a few additional views for the supposed parting shot, for me to be convinced to carry on, carrying on.

In other respects I am nothing like as susceptible to turning, and not necessarily for the better. This much was made glaringly apparent to me last weekend. It was the occasion of Skye's second annual Santa Fun Run and also marked the almost-end of our first full year on the island. The former event sends a couple of hundred-plus souls dashing - or alternately huffing and puffing - up and down a two-mile course around our capital village in Santa outfits for a good charitable cause and imbued with both festive and community spirit. It is hugely enjoyable and the clue of it is in the title - 'Fun Run'.

That last bit escaped me altogether at 2016's inaugural running. As most people trotted gaily together in loose groups of families and friends, I charged, red-faced, to the near-front of the field, mentally at  least face-palming several young children and a pensioner out of my path. Whilst others were exchanging banter about their Christmas plans, the weather and, quite conceivably, who the fearful berk was who had just sprinted by, I was, well, being a fearful berk. I came in eighth and felt shamefully triumphant about it, even in spite of the fact a nine-year-old boy had comfortably, even disdainfully held off my crazed lunge for the finishing line.

This year, I resolved, would be different. For one thing, we know more far people about the place now, which I reasoned would mean that I too could this time gab the Santa Run away and not be compelled to go off like a lone twerp. For another, immediately after my 2017 'triumph', I could have sworn I was the recipient of several disapproving looks in the local Co-Op and one of which was from a man of the cloth. I supposed that it may just be God's will that I suppress my near-psychotic competitive edge, at least when in Yuletide costume.

Unfortunately, things started to go very wrong for me from the moment the Skye Pipe Band struck up a typically rousing tune with which to march we two-hundred and forty-six runners to the start line in Portree's Somerled Square. I'll get my excuse in early. Our eldest, Tom, challenged me to a race. More accurately, he had, in so many words, suggested that I was a near-decrepit has-been. A more rational, less neurotic and, well, better parent would have smiled this taunting off and let the wee scamp/mouthy git scurry off into the far distance, secure in the knowledge that a generational baton had been passed on to him. I, though, am not that parent.

Oh, I didn't mean to beat Tom (and tragically, I had no doubt that beat him I would). No, I schemed to run the race tight on his shoulder, give him the sense of being in the heat of a battle, and than at the crucial last moment, the sprint for the line, let him nose ahead - only just, mind you - and claim victory. Not once did it occur to me that in the process of carrying out this - as-it-turned-out - delusional plan, I might again appear to others as someone taking the whole thing all too seriously.

Especially so since sticking to Tom like glue required me to be right with him from the start line, and he took up station at the very front of the pack. I must tell you now, there is no dignity to be had from pushing by, or else shoving to one side many packs of small children to get to the head of the queue in a Santa Fun Run. Even worse, pictorial evidence of my ultimate progress exists in cold, harsh print. This Thursday gone and prominently, the local paper, the West Highland Free Press, ran a photo of all of us Santa's readying for the off. Among lines of beaming cherubs, there was I, a solitary, overgrown fool with a beard and a half-mad glint in his eye.

I was not even pulled up by having an actual Santa, fat, jolly, fully bearded and clanging a bell, summon us to our marks and fire us on our way. Not at all, since I streaked from out of the blocks, audibly tutting at a toddler who had the temerity to get under my feet, and up the steep-ish climb that begins the race. In my own mind I was proceeding like a projectile fired from a cannon. In reality, I was soon wheezing and sweating. In my worryingly blurry vision, there was Tom, dancing ahead of me and growing steadily more distant.

As it happened, there he stayed, many yards beyond me and maintaining a quick, even pace without visible effort, whilst I reared unsteadily on like a rabid pit-pony and always in his arrears. Worse, it was only at the halfway point and as I was able to look back down on the rest of the field, that it occurred to me that I was the one adult who was making anything like such an effort. I would like to say that it was then that I came to my senses and eased off, having been granted the merest soupcon of wisdom, but instead I set off again downhill as if someone were cattle-prodding me along.

The personal nadir of the whole experience came some time later and after the run, as everyone was gathered about the square, drinking hot chocolate and eating mince pies. Loudly, an amplified voice hailed: "Will Paul Rees report to the Christmas tree to collect his prize." Right then, I would have preferred to be anywhere and doing anything else.

Almost as penance, and well, tugged along by young Charlie and his friend (both of them grinning maliciously), I was transported to the aforesaid tree, whereupon it was announced to all and sundry that I had 'won' the adult race (there was no rejoinder about there being precisely no competition for this prize, or even that several lads yet to reach teenager-dom had given me a good spanking in the overall scheme of things). Rather, I was handed a big box of chocolates - Heroes, entirely inaptly - and made to stand for a photograph with the two of my fellow victors who had also bothered to show for the ceremony - the seven-year-old winner of the girls' race and a stout, elderly gentleman who had walked the course for Cancer Research.

The winners of the boys' and women's races had already gone home by then, possibly not wanting to have any further association with me and for fear it would somehow contaminate them socially. At all events, doubtless not a scrap of the smattering of applause that accompanied the prize-giving was directed at me. At least not judging from the battery of scornful stares being aimed at me from among those watching on, and that's just to mention my wife, children and a couple of others who until the events of that morning had been friends of mine. Wishfully, I am now again imagining that next year will be different, and while as well knowing not-so deep down that it won't. If a half-century of being me has taught me anything it is that I am a man of rigid, eternal habit.

Another Christmas still stands out for me. This was in 1994 and when I was invited to have Christmas dinner round at Ozzy Osbourne's house. Rock’s enduring wild man was just then emerging from self-imposed retirement and his return to action had been marked in America by the launch of his official website. At that time this was still a new-fangled concept and Ozzy’s wife and manager, Sharon, had arranged for the first twenty American fans to log onto the site to be transported across the Atlantic and whisked to rural Berkshire to meet with their hero at the couple’s rambling estate.

The formidable Sharon had hired a fleet of caterers to serve turkey and trimmings in a candle-lit dining room otherwise adorned with a towering Christmas tree. I was dispatched by Kerrang! magazine to document the festive tidings, but arrived to find Ozzy in mutinous mood. I had met Ozzy on several previous occasions and was re-introduced to him now by Sharon, once he had stopped rampaging up and down their baronial staircase like a caged animal. Though within ten minutes he had convinced himself I was a cocktail waiter and loudly demanded that I be put to work. “Ignore him,” Sharon soothed me, adding as if to explain all of her husband’s actions: “He’s a daft old sod.”

A series of comical episodes ensued just as soon as the over-enthusiastic Americans pitched up, gaggles of them roaming the house in search of souvenirs and Ozzy stomping off after them. “Sharon!” his Brummie-accented voice boomed from a far-flung wing of the house at one point. “Someone’s nicked the bog roll.” 

Dinner itself passed without undue incident, and once Sharon had shepherded her light-fingered guests off the premises, I joined Ozzy in the library for our agreed interview. Skittish at the best of times, Ozzy set off at once on a rambling and wholly libelous discourse intending to ‘out’ a score of his fellow rock stars as gay. I asked him instead what he did for a hobby. At this his eyes widened and he leaped from the sofa. “A fan of mine is a Colonel in the US Marines,” Ozzy enthused and with added expletives, throwing open a cupboard, “and he gave me these.” These being two pairs of infra-red, night-vision goggles.

And so it came to pass that on a frigid December’s midnight, Ozzy and I embarked upon a stroll around the verdant hills and woodland encircling his home, he wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jogging bottoms and me tramping and stumbling in his wake. In the inky blackness, we viewed each other in a luminous green glow. A downpour had turned the ground underfoot into thick, viscous bog and I suggested we might incur Sharon’s wrath by trailing mud across her carpets. “Bollocks to that,” Ozzy trumpeted for he had a mission in mind. He meant for us to seek out and count his recently acquired herd of Fallow Deer.

The deer remained entirely elusive for the hour that we fumbled about in the dark. Eventually, Ozzy shrugged and concluded in a baleful voice: “Fuck ‘em, let’s go home.” He, at least, knew when he was beaten.

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Brian Fallon - If Your Prayers Don't Get to Heaven

If Bruce Springsteen were thirty years younger and heavily tattooed...

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Thinking of a Place

This week I entered my fifties. I would like to say that I did so with grace, dignity and in the grip of a boundless sense of optimism, born of the belief that age is but a number. Except in reality I began the day attempting to run seven-and-a-half miles into a gale whilst wearing Lycra, next listened to some Therapy? (very apt that), drank half a bottle of wine, and afterwards sunk into a kind of maudlin trance during which the only words I seemed able to speak were 'all', 'go', 'where', 'did' and 'it', often as not in that precise order. The members of my family may well have been temporarily concerned for my mental well-being - but if so they each of them hid it well by either taking care of the rest of that bottle (one party), or else scoffing great slabs of my birthday cake (the other two), and then running about the house shrieking "Old Smurf" and laughing hysterically (all three).

Determining that Adam Ant was spouting a load of old bollocks when he maintained "ridicule is nothing to be scared of," I shuffled outside to escape this torment and skulked into the night. The intense blackness that is usual up here at this time of year suited me very well. However, it was my blessing that it was as well a frigidly cold evening and so the sky was entirely clear of cloud.

This being a 'dark sky' area, when I looked upwards I was able to regard a dazzling spectacle of stars and other celestial bodies (Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and Mars were all distinguishable even to my untrained eye). The entrancing opaqueness of the Milky Way was clearly apparent. Out of the murk and under the starlight, I could also make out the sheerness of the hills and mountains round about, a slightly inkier shade of black. Altogether it was magical and enough by far to stop this self-pitying grump in his tracks, metaphorically shake him by the collar and sonorously intone something along the lines of: 'Good Lord man, behold your world!' Though that might have been as a result of the wine.

At all events, I'm over turning fifty and ostensibly because I'll soon enough be over full stop, so better by far to revel in the act of simply being. And more particularly being here, up on 'our' hill, overlooking 'our' loch, on 'our' island and in our home. To appreciate the grand wonders: the first dusting of snow on the Cuillins' peaks; the snake-shapes the sea water is made into by a strong wind; dawn's light dancing down to us from over the hillside; our daily visits by deer, fox, eagle, owl, and a female Hen Harrier that swoops by the front of the house as if on display. All such moments make the heart and soul skip and sing.

Equally so the smaller wonders: the trickle of people who until that precise moment were complete strangers and that have knocked on our door and welcomed us to the area; the fact that we never bother to lock up the house, or car anymore, because there is no need for us to do so; the boundless cheer with which our postman bursts through that same door each afternoon; and, since that's quite enough door action, the so-far inexhaustible sense of disbelief that comes with driving down the track that leads to the house and, at the bend, gasping at the fact that the building is even there at all.

All that being the case and after more than a year of sending out these scattershot missives from the island, now is as good a time as any for me to stop waffling on about our place and simply be in it. This then is the last of these reveries and as such I don't feel obliged to find an excuse for segueing into an otherwise shameless bout of name-dropping...

Truly, though, I did find myself the other day attempting to match up experiences from my old life to that of walking down to our local beach, carefully prising razor clams from out of the sand, and cooking and eating them that very afternoon, as we did just the other Sunday. Two especially sprung to mind and since both entailed me meeting... 'heroes' is the wrong word; 'artists I hold in the very highest esteem' perhaps more accurate, but a crap way of expressing as much... Anyway...

The first encounter was with the essential two-fifths of the Rolling Stones. The occasion was a photo shoot for an anniversary issue of Q and the venue an opulent suite at London's swish Mandarin Oriental Hotel off Hyde Park. The subject was Keith Richards. I went along purely to be able to be in the same room as Mr Rock-and-Roll incarnate. Brilliantly and completely unexpectedly, Keef brought along with him for company one Charlie Watts.

What an afternoon that was. Keef, as one would have hoped, arrived looking like he had stepped from off the deck of a pirate ship; his hair made to rattle by all the metal trinkets he had bound up in it, eyes a-twinkle, a laugh like a wheezing gas pipe. He proceeded to drink most of a bottle of vodka from a pint glass. He did apply a measure of pineapple juice, but barely enough to merit a mention. When he was done with the magazine's business, I had my picture taken with him. He threw an arm around my shoulder, cackled something in my ear that sounded like it might have been hilarious, and for sure doubled Keef up, but alas was completely unintelligible to me. And then he was gone from the room, like an apparition, off to wreak his very Keef-ness on some other fortunate.

Charlie was even better. Immaculately groomed and the perfect gentleman, he took himself off to an armchair in a corner of the room, and there sat cross-legged, quietly regarding his band-mate of many, many years with a kind of affectionate amusement. I went and sat with him for an hour or so and he couldn't have been more attentive. He spoke of his love of jazz and the horses he kept, but also asked me about my life - where I lived, did I have children? - and actually appeared to be interested in my answers, to which I was utterly unaccustomed after by then twenty-plus years of interacting with rock stars.

Even still, right up to the moment Richards' manager Jane Rose arrived on the scene and as the afternoon was drawing to a close, I assumed he was merely being professionally courteous. "You've introduced yourself to the magazine's editor I see," Rose chided Charlie as she came over to join us, and at which his eyes widened and he spasmodically uncrossed his legs. "I'm dreadfully sorry," Charlie gasped, thrusting out a hand for me to shake. "I just assumed they had sent you up from downstairs to empty the ashtrays and clean the room."

For my part, I wasn't at all taken aback. I had long ago accepted as fact that I wasn't built or able to sweep through the Corridors of Rock as if I belonged. A decade earlier and on my first encounter with U2, I had been bid by their PR to troop unaccompanied into their Dublin studio and introduce myself to Bono and the Edge, the pair of them still overdubbing onto tracks meant for their How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album. Gingerly, I poked my head round the door and to find the two of them sprawled on an old leather couch, Edge strumming a guitar, Bono singing into a hand-held mic. Bono looked up and motioned for me to come sit beside him.

There I tried - and surely failed - to casually recline for the next twenty minutes and all the while the pair of them sang and played. When Bono at last spoke to me, he said this: "Did you leave them upstairs?" "The others?" I replied, somewhat flustered. "Yes. Yes, I did." "No," he pressed on patiently. "I meant the pizzas." Oh yes indeed, he had mistaken me for the lad from the Domino's round the corner and there ensued much merriment at my expense.

The second meeting I have so recently recalled was with Bruce Springsteen and occurred in 2009, just a few weeks before he headlined the Glastonbury Festival. I had spent a significant portion of my seven-year editorship of Q to that point attempting to coax the Boss into speaking to the magazine, a task that required dogged persistence since he didn't do sit-down print interviews all that often and only with a select few publications. Over that period and on this quest, I had trailed him, and his gate-keepers from London to Frankfurt to Milan. Not that this was a remotely selfless act. Fact was, I just wanted to interview Springsteen for myself and more than I did anyone else.

Eventually, all that buttering up paid off and I was flown to Houston, Texas to witness Springsteen and the E Street Band tear up the local arena. The plan was for me to then take a commercial flight up to Denver, where I would see the next barnstorming show on the tour and before which I was promised a half-hour interview with Springsteen in his dressing room. Like all such best-laid's, things didn't quite work out that way and much for the better.

What actually happened was that Springsteen invited Q's photographer and me to join him and his band on the private jet piloting them up to Colorado. In and of itself, that journey was for me pinch-yourself-remarkable. As we flew over the great expanse of the American heartland, various members of the E Street Band dropped by our table (made of chestnut since you ask, and surrounded by plunge-pool-deep leather seats) to bid us welcome. First, the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, suitably larger than life, and next  'Little' Steven Van Zandt, as funny and foul-mouthed as Silvio Dante, the strip club-owning mobster character he played so expertly in The Sorpranos. Finally, Springsteen himself sauntered up the aisle and to regale us with tales from the earliest days of the E Street Band and when they would travel America by rickety old bus.

I did grab thirty minutes with him in his dressing room that evening and he couldn't have been more gracious. When we were done, Barbara Carr from his management company pulled me to one side. "Bruce doesn't feel that he's been able to give you enough time," she told me solemnly. "Right after the show, he and Patti are flying home to New Jersey for the Easter holiday while the band are going on to LA. Bruce is taking the jet. If it's OK with you, he would like for you to join him and he can talk some more with you on the flight." I didn't even attempt to suggest that I might have give this offer some consideration. I may even have let out an audible squeak.

So there we went again, Bruce and I (and apart from his wife, his personal assistant and two or three others, it really was just  Bruce and I), flying private class into the boundless dark of an American night, as Springsteen himself might have put it. We talked some more, sat side by side in the middle of the plane, and about which I can't much remember. Later, when he had returned to sit with Patti and I assumed gone off to sleep, since it was two in the morning, and as I was looking down on the lights of Chicago thousands of feet below, I felt a bump in the seat next to me. I turned to find him beaming at me, a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.

"Thought you might like to see what I have on my iPod," he said. He spent the next hour or so flicking me through the machine's contents, which he had arranged by musical genre. As one would anticipate, he had a library of American singer-songwriters that ran from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and up to Ryan Adams, but also a vast selection of 'punk rock' (as he filed it). He told me that his youngest son took him out to club shows in New Jersey and how he would stand at the back of the room watching Gaslight Anthem, Bad Religion and sundry others do their thing. Admirably, he had remained a fan heart and just as it was with Keef and Charlie, I couldn't imagine I would ever again feel more like I had been whisked off and deposited in a kind of dreamland.

Until now. Now, I feel that way every morning that I am lucky enough to wake; every time that I look out of the window; and every night that I'm lying in the dark and listening to the deafening silence.

And so, with heartfelt thanks and much appreciation to all of you who have read and troubled to respond to these half-cocked waxings of mine over the last year or so, I will here take your leave and head on back to living in this moment and the ones to come...

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Joshua James - Broken Tongue

The song currently sound-tracking our mornings, and he lives up a remote hillside too.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Sort of Homecoming

It is a mid-Saturday afternoon on Skye as I write. The wind is chasing a bank of white clouds across a watery blue sky and the shades of green and grey radiating from the craggy peaks in the near-distance are vivid beneath a lemon coloured sun. Such is the view from my new office window. A short walk down the corridor and turn right, and there is a still more dramatic vista through the expanse of glass that fronts our open-plan living room and this one of rugged heath, deep blue sea and way over yonder the mighty elevations of the Trotternish Ridge. An occasional car labours up the single-track ribbon road that we look down upon, but we are just as likely to see plunging gannets, a soaring sea eagle or an inquisitive red deer, such as the young doe that crossed our car's path yesterday morning.

Exactly one week ago, we moved at last into our island home. Altogether, it took us a month over four years to complete our journey from chocolate box English village to here. Try as I might, I still haven't found the words to adequately convey the overwhelming force of emotions that last weekend brought about. Among this battery, though, there was what I can only describe as a kind of euphoric disbelief. Not only that we had reached a point I had hardly even dared to dream of, but that a fully-formed house - a home - was now perched on the hilltop plot that until two months ago had been a half-acre of scrub, dirt and rock.

The depth of that feeling has gone on growing all through this week. As I've woken to roaring winds and with the sunrise, the dawn sky over the ocean pinkish and pregnant. And then again enjoyed long, lazy evenings listening to music and being struck time and again by how the ever-changing light here constantly reveals wonders and secrets over the land, and so that no scene ever looks precisely the same from one hour to the next. This much is endlessly transfixing, magical seeming, and even more so now that every last box is unpacked and there is no piece of tat left for me to haul up into the loft.

Also, it must be said that the last few weeks for the four of us, and as a net result of all of the above, have been very strange indeed. Now, I can do common or garden surreal. Indeed, for the longest time it was my business to be and operate in such a state. Why, and in no particular order of outright oddness, I have at one time or other done all of the following:

1/ Paraded on stage before several thousand young Japanese dressed up as a pink teapot. This was the doing of the all-too-briefly pop-tastic Mika. Touring the Far East in what now appears to be the final flush of his fame, young Mika put on a splendidly camp show that was one part acid trip to two parts Mad Hatter's tea party, and which incorporated the intermittent appearance of various costumed extras who got to cavort around a stage-set done up to be like a giant doll's house.

For a handful of diverting days, I trailed this merry spectacle from Hong Kong to Seoul and finally to Tokyo, where it was that Mika, scamp that he was, determined that I should join in the fun. So it was that at a certain point in the show, I was hauled off to the wings, had the papier-mache teapot pulled down over my head, shoulders and to my knees and was shoved out into the spotlight. Whereupon I immediately knocked over a keyboard stand and nearly impaled a shocked female backing singer on my spout. In my defence, one could barely see out of any of the costumes, though no-one else wreaked quite so much havoc as I.

2/ Undertaken an epic, sphincter-tightening fourteen-hour flight from the South of France to somewhere nearby Luton through a howling storm and in a six-seater light aircraft piloted by none other than Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson. The self-proclaimed 'Air Raid Siren' has long fancied himself a bit of a boys' own adventurer in the guise of a heavy metal Biggles, so relished the idea of taking off his eggshell-fragile aircraft into the teeth of a furious gale and the dead of night. I, on the other hand, have a pronounced fear of flying that renders me a gibbering wreck and would rather have been anywhere, doing anything but putting my life in the especially hairy one's hands. But then, I had next to no choice in the matter.

"If you want a bloody interview with him, you'll have to go with him on his bloody plane," Dickinson's manager Rod Smallwood, a formidable Yorkshireman, had told me hours earlier, and back when I was still watching a solo Dickinson attempt to entertain several thousand bikers at a festival staged at an ugly race-track a few miles outside of Marseilles. The measure of his success in this matter was that at the midpoint of his set, the crowd parted so as to let through a hulking, bearded gentleman with a hessian sack slung over his shoulder and who was intent on marching up to the very front of the stage. It soon transpired that the sack was filled with potatoes and our fearsome-looking friend proceeded to throw them, one after another and with unerring accuracy, at Dickinson once he had reached his preferred vantage point and for the next thirty minutes or so.

Smallwood serenaded me onto Dickinson's Cessna with a verse or two of Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day, a malicious glint in his eyes, as well he might since he was catching a British Airways charter home. Whereas we, which is to say Dickinson, his co-pilot, a photographer from the News of the World so inebriated that he could have cared less and I, spent far too long in each other's company being bucked and buffeted like a barrel in a white water rapid. "If you happen to see ice forming on either of the wings or spot a bigger plane coming our way, don't assume I've noticed and do shout," Dickinson advised me as we reared over the Channel. I was so traumatised by then that I could only squeak a reply. Eventually, gloriously, we landed at a small airfield in rural Hertfordshire and with all the grace of a fridge being tipped off a cliff, and after which I had to listen to Dickinson ramble on about his hopelessly unfunny Lord Iffy Boatrace 'comic' novels for what seemed like several weeks.

And 3/ During the course of twenty entirely memorable minutes had Britt Ekland swear at me and  my testicles crushed as if in a vice by Marilyn Manson. The occasion for this unique two-hander was the annual Kerrang! magazine awards, which were typically the scene of decadence and depravity (for just one tawdry example, at the event the year before this one I - and a few hundred others - watched the three members of Green Day lasciviously pass between them a female dwarf).

That year, we had enlisted the erstwhile Swedish sex kitten as our surprise guest of honour and for the purpose of presenting Manson, then styling himself the 'God of Fuck', with the evening's principal trophy. Things didn't quite go according to plan, but then they never did. As La Ekland tottered stage-wards in skyscraper heels, she slipped on off all things a carelessly discarded slice of lemon and tumbled to the floor in an undignified heap. Several pierced and tattooed gentlemen rushed to her aid, and she was carried up on to the stage like an injured queen.

As magazine Editor, it fell to me to meet her there. I had procured for her a chair, and as she was sat in it, I leaned over and, gallantly I thought, asked her how she was feeling and whether or not there was anything else I could do to help. I wasn't to know that the mishap had, in fact, resulted in a broken ankle. For a beat, the one-time Bond girl gazed up at me with the blinking eyes of a wounded rabbit. Then a sneer curled at her unnaturally big lips and she snarled back at me: "Oh, fuck off."

Britt recovered her poise enough to hand Manson his gong, a golden 'K', but since she was by then weeping with pain, I was detailed to accompany him to the media room and to pose with him before a scrum of photographers. The two of us lined up shoulder to shoulder before this mob and Manson whispered to me, "Say cheese, motherfucker." At which point, he reached a bony arm down between my legs, sunk the long, sharpened-to-a-point fingernails of one hand into my scrotum and squeezed so tight my eyes watered like a burst dam. No-one laughed more than I when his next album flopped.

Yet for all that, nothing has made me reel inside quite so much as sitting down to watch our house go up in one day for a second time and on prime-time ITV1. Not that in total 'our' episode of Robson Green's Coastal Lives didn't make Skye look ravishing, or living here seem such a boundless adventure and with a plethora of fascinating, funny and wholly inspiring folk to happen across, but good Lord, it's discombobulating to see precisely how it is that you look and act at the very moment that the biggest thing you have imagined becomes reality.

In the case of the rest of the family, this was with a level of delight that was entirely appropriate, but not embarrassing. However, I didn't so much cross over that line, as bound beyond it at full pelt and with a stupid, slack-jawed expression on my face. For who knows what reason, I greeted the raising of the house walls with a ridiculous, fit-like dance, hopping from one foot to the other in rapid succession and as if I were being subjected to a series of violent electric shocks.

This whole routine lasted only a split second, but enough to make me recoil into the sofa in abject horror, accentuated by my untamed onscreen appearance which made me think of nothing quite so much as Santa Claus on hunger strike. Truly, it was awful to behold, and what's more the show's producers elected to repeat this same shot no less than three times throughout the course of the programme. Doubtless, they thought they had captured us in our most natural states and likely they had, but if only mine were not that of a berk.

All of this I shall very probably continue to ponder over the days and weeks ahead, and perhaps before too long will feel returned to a more normal state. For now, here in this incredible-seeming new home of ours, even time itself seems made of elastic, moments stretching out, the beat of the days appearing to me to be longer, the simplest of things - rain on the window, mist over open ground, dew on the grass - otherworldly and miraculous.

It is as if I, and we are seeing such things for the first time and with fresh eyes, or even beginning again, which I guess was the point all along.

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Tom Waits - Ol' 55

The first song played in the new house and never sounded better or more evocative.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Strange Days

Over the last four years there were a number of things I had anticipated happening on the day that our house finally went up. In the event, two proved to be spot on. These being that it would pour with rain. And that seeing the frame of our virgin home being driven onto its plot on the back of a lorry, unloaded by crane and erected in just twelve hours by a handful of willing and very able hands would be an overwhelming experience. However, at precisely no point in all of that time did I envisage that also present on site would be a nine-strong TV crew and Robson Green, but there they were with the rest of us, wet, cold and very much in the flesh.

Indeed, Robson Green's was the first face we saw as we turned into our soon-to-be new driveway at eight am on the morning of Saturday 15 July. The man well-known for acting in such dramatic fare as Wire in the Blood, hosting the piscine orgy that is his Extreme Fishing show and singing a smattering of best-not-remembered '90s pop hits alongside his somewhat less adaptable Soldier, Soldier sparring partner, the lolloping Jerome Flynn, emerged at a gallop through the spray and mist thrown up by a Biblical deluge. Already sodden and windswept, he all but flung himself into the back seat of our car, squeezing in alongside Tom and Charlie. Whereupon he shouted out, "Are you insane?" and introduced himself as if to old friends. Clearly, this one was going to be a very strange day indeed.

Some context might be in order. Several weeks beforehand, our architects had called to tell us of an approach made to them by the producers of Robson's Green's Coastal Lives. They were planning an episode devoted to Skye for the second series of the ITV1 show and to participate wanted a family that had moved up to the island from across the border and were having their own house built. I think the exact words used were 'young family', but in the case of me at least someone was evidently prepared to make an exception. At all events, we were asked if we would be interested. I would like to say that I spent restless hours ruminating over the offer, carefully weighing up the preciousness of our privacy and the possible pitfalls of subjecting the boys to such scrutiny, versus the benefits that might accrue for our future B&B business. But I didn't. In fact, I instantly shrieked, "Yes!" and at such a high pitch that it pricked up the ears of several dogs around the neighborhood. In fact, so enthusiastic did I sound that Denise mistakenly assumed I was having an out of body experience.

The thing is, in my previous life I got asked to appear on TV quite a bit and never failed to acquiesce or enjoy it. Invariably, and as those who suffer with insomnia and have found themselves at some ungodly hour watching repeats on Channel Five will testify, I appeared as a talking head on shows with titles that included the words 'One Hundred,' 'Worst' and/or 'Most Shocking'. Doubtless, I would pop up for mere seconds at a time, but enough for one or other acquaintance of ours to have seen me and be left wondering at the ridiculousness of the world. I say 'doubtless', because whenever it was that these shows aired, I could never bring myself to watch me on the telly.

That would have been all too much of a horror, since I imagine I always looked like nothing so much as a disgruntled potato. What's more, I was meant to be informed but pithy, but fear that the act of sound recording would have stretched my Black Country vowels like elastic and so that instead I came across as a man still mastering the art of speech.

As such, I think I can get away with dismissing rampant ego for my seemingly boundless willing to 'do telly'. Rather, I much prefer to subscribe as much to my being inquisitive and eager for new and different experiences. In this regard I am very likely delusional, but for sure TV has served me with some enduring memories. For instance: appearing live on CNN to explain how, and furthermore why Elton John had accused Madonna of lip-syncing at the Q Awards on that very same October day in 2004. Or having an almost comically plummy-voiced BBC reporter venture to me the opinion that Radiohead's Thom Yorke was, and I quote, "a terrible c**t."

Most indelible of all was a short-lived appearance I made on The Weakest Link. Back when I was editing Kerrang!, I was invited to appear on a one-off, music-themed edition of the Beeb's light-entertainment behemoth. Ludicrously given my involvement, this was billed as a 'celebrity music special.' Someone within closer grasping distance of musical stardom, a local church organist perhaps, had evidently pulled out at the last minute. The in-a-pickle producers had spotted a broadsheet newspaper piece on the glories of heavy metal that I had just then written, panicked and before I knew it, I was being whisked off to BBC Elstree Studios on a springtime Tuesday afternoon in the back of a chauffeur-driven car.

Among my fellow guests on this ill-starred ...Link were glam-rock vixen Suzi Quatro, middle-England's one-time soprano of choice Leslie Garrett, unreconstructed DJ Dave Lee Travis, Carol Decker from '80s one-hit wonders T'Pau, and the Bard of Barking himself, Billy Bragg, who seemed even more surprised than I to be in the midst of this decidedly odd company. Each of us was granted our own dressing room and with a glittering star stuck to the door. 'Paul Reeves' read the name tag pinned to mine, instantly dispelling any inflated sense of self-worth that I might otherwise have felt.

Cementing my place in the day's pecking order, I was the first of the 'celebs' to arrive by at least an hour. Not long afterwards, and whilst helping myself to a pot of tea and fruit plate in my misspelled sanctuary, I heard a door handle being furiously rattled in the corridor outside and then an expulsion of expletives. Gingerly opening my own door, I found the show's acid-tongued dominatrix, Anne Robinson, looking all at once forlorn and furious. Spotting me, her expression softened. "My dressing room is locked," she pleaded.

In advance of the day, I had been told I should make no attempt whatsoever to fraternise with La Robinson, since her tyrannical act was dependent on her being able to convincingly convey utter contempt for me and also my fellow contestants. However, it seemed unduly harsh to leave her stood out there in a corridor, so I invited her in for tea. She accepted and we proceeded for the next half-hour or so to have a most diverting chinwag. I can't actually for the life of me recall most anything that we talked about, though I seem to remember trying to explain death metal to her at one point.

From there on, it was downhill all the way for me. Everyone else turned up in the nick of time: Quatro charming; Garrett effusive; Decker scary; Bragg nonplussed; and Lee Travis just like you would expect a man who nicknamed himself 'The Hairy Cornflake' to be. We were all of us made to line up behind a thick, black curtain drawn across the at-that-point-all-too-familiar ...Link set. And so that an over-jolly compere could introduce us, one at a time, to the audience of blue-rinsed ladies and perhaps mentally ill and/or long-term unemployed single men.

Each of the others got a loud cheer, even Lee Travis, but for Billy Bragg and even he was afforded polite applause. Yet when I was announced it would have been possible to hear a pin drop from several miles away. I walked out to utter silence. As I mounted my podium, one old dear loudly inquired of another, "I know the others, but who's he?" Angry-looking Anne stalked onto the set right behind me (cue the most effusive cheer of all) and the quiz-show antics began. I thought I did OK in the first round, answering my three allotted questions correctly. Nevertheless, and to my consternation, and how shameful that is to me now, I received two nominations to be ousted. I was only saved from an embarrassingly premature exit by hoofing soul belter Shola Ama, who recorded a one-hundred percent rate of failure and got yanked instead.

Directly afterwards, I had an even greater shock. As a fleet of technicians and clipboard-armed assistants rushed onto to the set during the break in filming that followed each round, Leslie Garrett sneaked up and pinched me on the bum. Next, she whispered in my ear: "Sorry about voting you off, darling, but no-one knows who you are." Aghast, I somehow flustered through the second round, but slipped into a blind panic in the third, breaking out in a cold sweat and wrongly answering a succession of questions barked at me by my erstwhile tea-time companion. "You are the weakest link," Anne Robinson eventually told me, bringing my torture to a merciful end and leaving the way clear for someone not entirely anonymous to win (Mr Bragg as it happened).

Aspects of our ...Coastal Lives adventure were nearly so surreal, though nothing like as barbed. Robson Green was a consummate pro, as relaxed and down-to-earth seeming as his jobbing persona. His crew could not have been more patient or attentive towards putting us at our ease. Even still, it was impossible to escape the sheer bonkers-ness of being stood out there on an exposed hillside, watching our house being built before our very eyes, and all the while the bloke who once co-crooned the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody to the UK Number One spot was asking Denise and I what had brought us to this point and how it felt now that we were here.

We were all brought back together again the week following, and thanks to the vagaries of TV to film what will be seen on screen as our first meeting with the Green machine. This took place harbour-side in Portree, Skye's capital and under blue skies and a milky sun, and before a gaggle of curious onlookers, tourists from overseas most of them and so doubly bemused. Once this scene-establishing footage had been shot, the boys and I were shepherded aboard a boat and sent off on a fishing trip with our rod-bearing host. Now, I'm not going to make any pretense toward dispassionate coolness here: it was fantastic. All the more so since young Charlie has, for reasons still mysterious to me, been an obsessive-compulsive consumer of Extreme Fishing since toddler-hood and Tom fetched an enormous eight-pound Pollock out of the sea with almost his first ever cast.

All things being equal, we will be both in our new home and 'on' ITV1 some time in September. Some semblance of normality ought to have returned to our (coastal) lives by then. For now, though, Denise and - to a lesser and more ineffectual extent - I are caught up in a mad dash to ensure that a kitchen, two bathrooms, a wood burner and much else besides are delivered to us in correct order and good time, and fretting about countless other details big and small. For me, there is also the looming and more chastening concern of once again appearing before a not insignificant portion of the nation as a babbling root vegetable. Then again, no-one ever said this self-building lark would be easy...

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

The View - Grace

Because at times such as these, it's good to be made to feel wide-eyed and exuberant all over again.

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:

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:

Paul McCartney & Wings - Maybe I'm Amazed

Who and what else?