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?

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:].  

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

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:].  

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Radiohead - Identikit.

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