Sunday, 25 November 2018

Across the Great Divide



I might have mentioned it before, but a persistent rejoinder to incomers to the island is this: "Right enough, but have you gone through a winter yet?" Often as not, this is spoken slow and in a dolorous tone, so as to accentuate a proper sense of foreboding. Fair dos, there is something fearful about the sound of a storm wind roaring in from the ocean, or the spectacle of shroud-black clouds massing over the hills; as if the Rapture had come upon us and the end was nigh. Or at the very least your rubbish bin is about to get scooped up for the umpteenth time that week and sent crazily off, gambolling down hill, at each turn regurgitating litter from out of its great, flapping plastic mouth.

That being said, we are at the teeth of our third winter up here and much more so than before, it seems to me now a season of wonder, intoxicating because of its very wildness. Admittedly, to this point the wintry elements have been relatively kind to us: there have been a couple of chastening Atlantic storms and last year a brace of significant snowfalls. But not yet a long, slogging spell where for weeks at a time the daytime skies are a singular, dead-flesh grey, the down-pouring rain relentless, the wind-chill vicious.

We have instead experienced many moments of being, well, awed. A few days ago, for example, on a crisp, clear night and under a luminous half-moon, I sat out on our decking and gazed up in a kind of trance at a vivid panoply of stars, planets, nebulae, far, far-off solar systems and other such celestial wonders, soothed by the background whoosh and hum of the sea waves and the melancholy hooting of an owl. On another evening and bid by an excited shout from young Charlie, I dashed out to watch the sun set behind the hills at back of the house. Quite magically, it went down slashing blood-red streaks across a billowing, charcoal-shaded canvas.

Ah, but the onset of this latest winter has jolted us. For a fortnight in October, we took a family road trip around California; the last week of which was spent traversing the scorched expanses of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. From furnace-heat in Joshua Tree one day, to a frigid Glen Shiel blizzard the next was quite the shock. Though even that stark contrast was not nearly so jarringly incomprehensible to me as setting down in Los Angeles near enough direct from Skye. I could only imagine that to be like beaming down from the Starship Enterprise to the surface of an infinitely distant planet that teemed with a mad sort of alien life.

As dear, pointy-eared Spock would surely have appraised it, Hollywood Boulevard, with its cavalcade of  gawking tourists and sharking shysters, was especially illogical. Not so much a thoroughfare, as a petri dish into which all manner of counter-clashing elements have been stirred, then left to co-habit in an indelicate, counter-clashing balance. Though on the slightest reflection, I have long thought that way about the place and its various tribes, and even from the perspective of my old - and ever so vaguely - rock-and-roll life. During those years, I had occasional encounters with what one might call, entirely accurately, 'Hollywood types', which means to say movie stars and the odd, in both senses of the word, film director.

Once, over a long, liquid-heavy lunch, I met the British head of a Tinsletown film studio. With each vat of wine that he consumed, he became exponentially more indiscreet. Among other things - and on all available evidence, ever-so-slightly hypocritically - he told me of one superstar American actor who had to have all of his promotional duties scheduled before midday, lest he be too inebriated to form a coherent sentence. Also of a well-known actress whose particular quirk was to demand to be spoken to, and furthermore pampered as if she were a toddler. He made mention of how she would serially sit, corkscrewing her own hair and ask a minion to fetch for her "lunchy-wunchy."

Clearly, these were extreme cases. Yet even in other, more normal-seeming circumstances, I could not shake the feeling of having entered into another dimension. As when Tim Burton, visionary creator of such distinctive movies as 'Beetlejuice', 'Sleepy Hollow' and 'Edward Scissorhands', turned up at the annual Q Awards ceremony to present an award to the Killers (he was a fan). As Editor of Q, I felt duty-bound to welcome him, and so was at the door when he was led into the ballroom of the swanky London hotel at which the ceremony was held.

Things from there did not go quite as I had planned. To the best of my knowledge, I don't come across as being especially menacing. Point of fact, there are paper bags I would struggle to punch my way out of. Even so, as I approached Burton, hand held out, he reeled back as if I were thrusting at him a chainsaw. "Hello Tim, I'm Paul, the Editor of Q," I pressed on. "Thank-you for coming today and if there is anything at all I can do..." By the horrified look on his face, what Tim Burton actually heard me say was: "I'm going to spill your intestines over the carpet and make you eat them with a nice Chianti." He blinked once, twice, mumbled, "Um, OK," and then shuffled off to a corner of the room, away from me and most everyone else. We didn't speak again.

The next year, Tim Robbins, of 'Shawshank Redemption' fame, was embarking on a not-at-all bad, but to date short-lived side-career as an alt-country-themed troubadour. He had been booked as opening act for Paolo Nutini at a Q-sponsored gig held at the two-thousand capacity Kentish Town Forum in north London. After Robbins had played a politely received set, his formidable PR scurried me backstage to meet him. He emerged from his dressing room hunched up, crumpled-looking and sweet-natured as a kindly uncle.

We small-talked for a bit. After which, seeking to prolong the conversation, I asked Robbins if his long-time partner and fellow thesp, Susan Sarandon, had also made the trek over to London. In a beat, his face sagged, a world of hurt flashing across his deep, watery eyes. At the same time, his PR prodded me sharply in the ribs with her elbow and whispered urgently in my right ear, "She's left him! She's left him!" Robbins made his apologies immediately thereafter, stepping back into his dressing room and closing the door behind him, firmly and definitively. Perhaps it was right there and then that he decided to run like the wind away from the music business.

My spring 2000 meeting with Tom Cruise was more surreal by multiples of ten-to-one, but only on account of it being my meeting with Tom Cruise. The background to this bringing together of global superstar and bumbling hack is a tale too convoluted, and frankly dull to tell here. Suffice to say, it happened in a big top tent erected in sight of Tower Bridge on the Thames and scene of the 'Mission Impossible II' UK premiere party. I was along as plus-one to a 'Smash Hits' writer and a surreal affair it was, too. In the middle of this vast venue, a cascade of water fell floor to ceiling, into which disjointed scenes from the film were beamed. The movie having been shot in large part in Australia, the many guests were plied with silver platters piled high with fried crocodile and kangeroo kebabs.

Cruise's two support players, rugged Dougray Scott and gorgeous Thandie Newton, rubbed shoulders with lower wattage types like all five members of Boyzone, who for some unfathomable reason were tailed by a retinue of bodyguards. An hour into the bash, popping flashbulbs and a scrum of bodies at the entrance flap signaled the Cruise-ster himself's arrival. At a brisk clip, he was led through the throng by a pack of stone-faced PR ladies. As Cruise was hurried in our direction, I jokingly suggested to my 'date' that she introduce him to me.

At which point and with a kind of preternatural self-confidence possessed only by hardened SAS commandos and teen-pop writers, she stepped out right in front of Cruise's path, hooked a hand under his arm and propelled him over to me, all before any of his minders could react. "This is Paul," she said to him gaily. "I know that you're a big music fan, Tom, and so is he." 'Tom' didn't so much as blink, but rather slipped straight into a rap about how he had got Metallica to contribute to the 'Mission Impossible II' soundtrack. And we were off.

The two of us went on chatting away - the actual details are a little fuzzy - for the next five minutes or so. He never once broke eye contact, which was impressive but also somewhat unnerving. I remember his teeth being a dazzling white and that we stood the exact same height (best described as 'compact', as opposed to 'short', obviously). He looked so precisely as he did on screen that it wasn't at all like being in the presence of a real flesh and blood person, but more of an out-of-body experience. "Good talking to you," he said at last. And with a radiant smile and a firm, clenching handshake, he was gone, bound for the uncharted other-world that he exists upon.

Then there was Rhys Ifans, who was not at all bewitching, but was quite spectacularly drunk. Back in 2008, the gangly Welshman had swapped character roles in 'Notting Hill' and the 'Harry Potter' franchise for fronting a humdrum indie-rock band called The Peth. Attempting to drum up interest in their unremarkable debut album, he appeared as a guest on the Q Radio show I presented. We pre-recorded this installment at a lunchtime, by when Ifans had evidently been going full steam ahead for a good couple of hours. He lurched into the studio, collapsed into a chair placed next to mine, hair and shirt askew, breath toxic, and without any form of greeting or acknowledgment whatsoever.

Besides one indeterminate grunt and a non-committal shrug at the producer's offer of coffee, he made not a sound until we began recording. When it was that he started to emit a phlegm-rattling gargle, necessitating us stopping and starting all over again. As I made the on-air introductions for a second time, Ifans sat gazing off into space, his glazed eyes rolling around in their sockets like marbles. "So Rhys," I said, turning to him, "Why The Peth and why now?" There is no possible adequate translation for his reply, but it went something like this: "Shhhllll-a-noooo-ach-shhh-lach-an-so-achhhhh," and after which he slumped forward over the desk.

For a split-second, I was utterly unsure of what to say. However, after a beat or two of uncomfortable radio silence, I shot back at Ifans's now-inert form: "Well, that's easy for to you say." This did at least have the effect of rousing him from his slumber. Uncoiling slowly back up, he blinked over at me, the fog clearing from his eyes. When then his face creased into a lop-sided grin, I relaxed. All too soon, this proved to be in error. The grin vanished, Ifans went puce in the face and started to furiously wag an admonishing finger at me. "Well, well, well," he said murderously. "Now aren't you the cheeky c**t." With that, and on the epee-sharp tip of one of his winkle-picker shoes, he kicked me, hard, fast and painfully in the shin. The resulting fifty-pence piece-sized bruise flared for weeks.

I thought back to this chastening, sozzled incident just last weekend. Doing so was nothing if not discombobulating, since at the time I was looking out over the lapping waters of Loch Bracadale. I had trooped down to the shoreline from the house, through fern, heather, scrub and copse and at the gloaming. A pale, iridescent moon was flickering in the sky, shadows lengthening over the water.

At the time, I was watching a Diver, Red- or Black-Throated I couldn't tell, bobbing for food yards out to sea. When, from out of my peripheral vision, I spied a bigger bird gliding in low over the water. It was a Sea Eagle; a large female, barn-door wing-span, pure white head, ominous yellow beak, altogether magnificent. She was there and gone in mere seconds, but long enough to bring me back to the present and my saner, better reality.

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:


Kurt Vile - I'm An Outlaw

Launch point for a California desert playlist. Just as evocative against a wintry Highlands backdrop.

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