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...

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