Thursday 9 May 2019

In Bloom

Sorry, six months appear to have slipped by in a blink. During which time, I was otherwise occupied with writing a book. Since that process has so far never once failed to have the knock-on effect of sending me - even further - round the bend for a protracted period, exaggerating such winning personal qualities as self-obsessiveness, obsessive compulsiveness and whatever other obsessives you've got, I treasure like gold the mere act of being able to open the door, breathe fresh air and drink in a variation of the scene captured above.

In that span of time, winter came and went. This one, our third on the island, and no doubt because of my being hunkered down, hour upon hour, with no-one but the most tiresome version of me for company, seemed arduous, testing, unforgiving. Long, dark days of rain, wind and of sullen, disagreeable skies. The landscape drawn down in shades of grey and brown, dirt-coloured and drab. God knows, this year spring has arrived like a blessing. The plot has burst into a panoply of brilliant greens, blues and yellows, of buttercups, daisies, bluebells and more. Sunrises have dazzled, sunsets soothed and chirp-some birdsong fills the air; the high, liquid notes of Robin, Skylark, Siskin, Song Thrush and Redpoll. Why, just now even the brazen, mocking call of the Cuckoo sounds like a serenade.

The deep, welcome sense of well-being that this all engenders does also, though, bring along with it an attendant peril. So far, on any given one of these bountiful days of May, I have been brought this close to an out-of-character eruption of unfettered joy. Metaphorically, to want to launch into a chorus of 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah', and whilst skipping gaily off down our hill, smiling beatifically at the world all about. Indeed, all that has yet held me back is the stone, cold fact that I loathe that wretched song, and that I would doubtless make even more of an arse of myself than usual.

Instead, and more invigorating by far, we have gone off walking, and to parts of the island that were undiscovered to us. We have to thank for that a splendid little book, Trig Point Walks on the Isle of Skye and Raasay, by two local authors, Ian Stewart and Alistair Christie. The title's a give-away, since this pocket-sized gem maps out routes up to the fifty-six trig points that dot our island and its near-neighbour. And here's the thing. A trek up - and, of course, it's always up - to any one of these points, be it one mile or five distant, brings with it the reward of not just a vista to scramble and excite the senses, but also a fresh, jaw-dropping perspective on where it is that we actually live.

At ground level, it is very possible to forget, or else take for granted that we're on an island. A thousand-feet-plus above sea level, as we got to last Sunday and by plodding up and over viscous moorland to reach the high point of Dunvegan Head, a north-western fingertip of Skye, it's right there, in your face. Sheer, jagged, black-rock cliffs plummeting to the sea below. Off to the east, another exposed headland, Waternish Point. To the west, the cleaver-shaped buttress of land that hides and shelters the lighthouse at Neist Point. Out ahead, the hazy, silhouette-outlines of the Western Isles, ranged along the horizon, and beyond those, the immense, unfathomable expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, black-blue, white-tipped, wind-whipped, awesome to behold.

Same deal hiking to the summit of Ben Tianavaig, the big, hump-backed hill that overlooks Portree harbour from Braes. Or from Ben Geary, a wind-scorched prominence that rises up at the neck of the aforementioned Waternish Point. And, I'm betting, from any of the other fifty-three routes we still have to navigate and which, given the time it takes to persuade, cajole and ultimately bully our boys outdoors, will occupy me until I'm being fed with a spoon. All absolutely worth the effort: to be able to have these experiences, which on each occasion are essentially the same, but then again, different.

Once, in another time, another life, I was tasked with creating other moments, or happenings, one after the other, that pulled off that exact same effect, and which is to say that they be extraordinary, but also of a kind. This was all but impossible, but that never stopped from making a rod for my own back. For example, in the early days of my tenure editing Q, I took a call from David Bowie's PR, offering up rock's great chameleon for an interview, in return for the cover of the magazine. Now, this was 2003, before Bowie had been reclaimed as a pop-culture icon. Back then, he was regarded as being well past his best, a bust flush, and in terms of selling a magazine, a curse, a plague. Bowie's two most recent Q covers, both done before my time, had been nailed to the nation's magazine racks, unwanted and unloved.

This in mind, I posited that we would only grant Bowie another cover in exceptional circumstances. Such as, persuading another international, but still zeitgeist-surfing and preferably unutterably glamorous celebrity to interview him for us. After a round of office brainstorming, some hook and a little crook, this ended up being Kate Moss. We arranged to have the two of them meet up in Manhattan, across the street from Bowie's apartment. They were photographed together by the great Ellen Von Unwerth and in the style of Michelangelo Antonioni's seminal 1966 movie, Blowup (and for which I claim no credit whatsoever; that much was the brainchild of our hugely talented then-Art Director, Warren Jackson). Altogether, they looked fabulous and that issue of the magazine sold like hot-cakes. Ever after, a succession of publishers, managing directors and other 'suits' would in meetings make a point of asking me: "So, what's your next Bowie/Moss?" As if such a thing was always just a phone call away, and the plain, dogged Kaiser Chiefs simply weren't good enough.

Fast forward four years and to the Q Awards ceremony of 2007. That year, Sir Elton John was our guest of honour and there to pick up the Classic Songwriter award. Prior to accepting his award and having learnt that I was a West Brom supporter, the erstwhile Chairman of Watford FC made a point of regaling me with his abiding memory of attending a game at the Baggies' hallowed stadium, the Hawthorns, in the 1980s. "Ah, I can remember it now," said Elton, eyes moistening, or I may have imagined that particular detail. "Twenty thousand Black Country voices singing the same song all afternoon long: 'Sit down! Sit down! Elton wants your arse!'"

Upon accepting his award from Elvis Costello, Elton used his speech that day to make a point about one of his fellow nominees. "Madonna?" he mugged to the assembled great, good and not-so-good of the music business. "Best fucking Live Act? Fuck off! Sorry about that, but I think everyone who lip-syncs in public should be shot." [Exhibit A:] After which, he bounded off the stage and right over to where I was stood. "There you go," he told me jauntily, "that's sorted out your publicity for you."

About that Sir Elt was proven entirely correct. A couple of hours later, his speech was being replayed on both the BBC News channel and on CNN. Next morning, it was splashed all over the newspapers. All the years following that I was on Q, those self-same publishers, managing directors and suits would want to know: "How, Paul, you plan on replicating the Elton John publicity stunt?" Short of setting Bono on fire - and though that might have gone over even better in some quarters - I was always at a complete loss for a reply. Obviously, I was. Hare-brained, out-there goings-on such as these can't be re-done, or re-made. They just are, and then they're gone.

Except, that is, through that open door, up one hill or the next, looking off out to sea and with every breath of fresh, virgin air. Out there, out here, it still is possible to be held rapt, struck dumb, but with awe and wonder at a near-miracle, and at any moment. The preciousness of that is immeasurable, incalculable. Patently, evidently, the need for it to be protected and preserved is growing more urgent, more incumbent on us all. And you just can't say any of that about miming old Madge.

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Pete Yorn - Just Another Girl

Because any moment of unexpected magic is always worth revisiting.

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.

Friday 7 September 2018

How to Disappear Completely

Midsummer began with one of those perplexing little domino effects that are habitually sent careering off through the British media, unchecked by trivialities such as common sense or the facts. One after another, the travel sections of various newspapers, magazines and online portals put it out there that Skye is all but overrun with rampaging tourist hoards. That tracts of landscape are near-spoiled and despairing locals on the point of barricading off the road bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Lochalsh. Or at least something nearly so hysterical.

No doubt that up here complexities, controversies and different extremes of opinion have been brought about by the island becoming the second most-visited spot in Scotland after the capital, Edinburgh, and since this seasonal influx shows no sign of abating any time soon. Why, though, wouldn't lots of people want to come here? Skye is very beautiful, after all.

Generally, so much for the better I would say were anyone to ask me, which they haven't. There are the obvious economic benefits (and pontificating here as an in-no-way-Fawlty-esque B&B proprietor, two thumbs up for that). Being so enthusiastically visited also equals to me a commensurate sense of living somewhere that is alive and vibrant and in the moment, and as such is a precious commodity not to be discouraged. Hence the photograph at the top of the page, taken to support a local initiative aimed at correcting any lingering impression Skye has battened down the hatches (see here for more: - and which features cherubic young Charlie as an infinitely more welcoming alternative to old potato-headed me.

In just the last three or four weeks, we have welcomed to The Passing Place guests from Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Denmark and Germany. Listening to all of their combined rhapsodies to our island home has been nothing but joyful and life-enhancing. And I am by nature a sour-faced grump who would hitherto rather have eaten his own feet than make small talk.

Besides all of which... The idea perpetrated that Skye is now irreparably teeming and chaotic is by and large utter nonsense. Certainly, there can be unsightly congestion at some of the more gushingly guide book-listed spots such as the Old Man of Storr, the Fairy Pools or Neist Point, but we are able to revel in these during the 'other' six months of the year. Then again, at six hundred and thirty-nine square miles, there is still a lot more of the island to go round.

Two examples to illustrate this last point. Couple of weeks ago, we joined a group of friends for a seaside hike on the north-eastern fringe of Skye. We began by squelching across a peat bog; bundled down a knotted length of rope left hanging by a good-neighbourly climber and to help with traversing a short, sharp slab of glassy-surfaced, gnarly-tree-peppered rock; and popped out on an expanse of stone-pebbled beach. The beach is half-encircled by hulking black-grey cliffs, looks out to the ocean and further to the Mordor-esque Torridon range on the even more northern extremities of the mainland. As well there were a vaulting sea cave, a rushing waterfall, and clearly visible underfoot, scores of fossils vividly preserved in the shoreline rocks.

Quite a spot, and the more so for it being an overcast, milk-sun day that altogether gave the sea the look of gently bubbling liquid silver. We spent a good three hours there and encountered a grand total of two other people in all that time, both of them locals.

Then the other Saturday night, I determined to walk the five-plus, mostly uphill miles home from our nearest pub, the splendid Old Inn in Carbost. By 'I determined', what I actually mean to say is that the local taxi service wasn't running (the sole designated driver was also enjoying himself in the Inn instead). A half-moon was up in the sky, but all along the route it was otherwise a pitch, inky-black. It is a winding, climbing single-track road, the shadows of craggy hilltops off to one side, the spectral glimmer of Loch Harport a couple of hundred feet and more below.

Once I had overcome the potentially bowel-vacating fear that a great, snorting Highland Bull might lurk around the next all-but invisible corner, I began to stop at regular intervals, the better to take in the silence and the stillness, each like a physical manifestation. At the crest of the hill that heads out from our next-door township of Fernilea, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Up above, the aurora was in glorious effect in the sky, its green, luminescent shimmer dancing between billowing clouds the colour of soot.

Now of course, nobody, but nobody else was stupid enough to be lurching home along this same path at two in the morning. But then, at any given time of day, I would have encountered almost no-one but for the scattering of islanders living along the way. We have it to ourselves and for that we are blessed. As I may have attempted to wax lyrical to Denise and the boys when I finally surfaced the next midday, believing it would add a frisson of questing romance to my nocturnal wanderings and spare me pitying looks. In this, as in so many other regards, I was wholly wrong.

This week, I have also been cast back to my previous life and as a result of a newspaper commission to review Gary Barlow's forthcoming memoir. Eight years ago almost to the day, I conducted the first press interview given by the reunited-with-Robbie-Williams Take That. We met, the five of them, a fleet of stylists and hairdressers, a couple of managers, several burly bodyguards and me at Bryan Adams's photo studio in Chelsea. Yes, that Bryan Adams. Singer, Canadian, bloke who will be eternally culpable for the wretched 'Robin Hood song'. Bry, as he didn't seem to mind being called, had established a side-line for himself as a rather capable portrait photographer and the idea of pairing him with the once-again all-conquering behemoths of Brit-pop seemed to me all to good to pass up.

Anyway, Bry was very nice and so too were Take That - straightforward, businesslike Gary; Artful Dodger-ish Mark; softly-spoken Howard; wry, knowing Jason; and dear bonkers Robbie. Aside from the fact they had about them a flapping, fussing entourage, four-fifths of the group seemed to me wholly down to earth and well-adjusted, and one appeared anything of the sort, though all but impossible to dislike. At one point, Barlow announced in his best professional Northerner voice: "Ey up, it's chocolate o'clock!" - occasioning an assistant to spirit into the room a tray laden with mugs of steaming builder's teas and many, different-flavoured bars of Green & Blacks.

The big question was why the Other Four had so readily welcomed back their erstwhile clown prince. By then, their Take That reunion had yielded two monster hit albums and the most profitable UK tour ever, while his once-stellar solo career had somewhat hit the skids following a couple of half-baked albums and a raft of very public 'personal issues'. The answer revealed itself just as soon as He arrived, a few steps behind the others. Precisely as I wrote it at the time, whatever strange combination of chemicals it is that allows certain famous people to change the temperature of a room whenever they enter it, Williams had it - and doubtless still has it - in spades. The others knew it too. Unbidden, when Bry asked them to line up for his first photo, Barlow and Owen, Orange and Donald split on two sides, so as to allow Williams to stand in the middle of them.

Later, Bry coaxed them outdoors to look over the vintage moped he kept in his yard. Williams it was who bestrode it. Upon sighting the rush-hour traffic crawling along the main road a stone's throw from the premises, he next set off towards it at a march, the others trailing in his wake. Crossing the road between a red, double-decker London bus and a black cab, he proceeded to hop up onto the wall that ran along the other side, the Thames now as his backdrop and where he was soon joined by his beaming band-mates. The five of them caused quite a stir: horns honked, people pointed and shouted from the top deck of the bus, the cab mounted the opposite kerb, its solitary woman passenger hanging out the rear window, the better to take pictures with her iPhone. Never for a beat was Williams not on display, the cockiest of peacocks.

Back inside Bry's, I got to view him at close quarters in the room set aside for our one-on-one interview. Strangely, it was furnished with nothing but for a pair of stools of Nordic design and a king-size bed draped in crisp white linen. "Ooh," he gasped devilishly as he entered, "this is a setting I'm used to!" We sat together for an hour, though he was never still; alternately leaning back with both hands clasped behind his head, or else crouching forward like a boxer at the bell, one or other leg furiously bobbing away. 

He didn't do eye contact very much, knew his lower league football, the plight of his hometown club Port Vale in particular, and fair oozed charisma. All at once, he came off like the hyperactive lad from down the street and an alien being from Planet Pop. At one point, I asked him the main difference between Barlow and himself. "He's a well-rounded grown-up," he shot straight back. "Meat and two veg. Me? I'm meat and two veg, a Mars bar and maybe a cake, all on the same plate."

Ah, but that was then and this is now... As I write, it's mid-afternoon. The sky is one half pale blue with a smattering of lamb-fluffy white clouds, the other a uniform shade of days-old cigarette ash. The air is fresh from a recent downpour and so hushed that, stepping out onto our decking, I can hear the lapping of the sea from a mile downhill. The exact scene, and at the precise moment as in the picture posted right below. And why ever would you not want to share it?

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

John Mellencamp - Longest Days

That long, deep breath at the start and end of the day put to music...

Monday 9 July 2018

Hot Fun in the Summertime

There is obviously no great shakes in me noting that time speeds on, and all the quicker the older, or as I prefer it, more interestingly grizzled one gets. Yet here on the island, as spring has rushed headlong into summer, and apparently with barely an intake of breath between flowers bursting to bloom and the comings and goings of squadrons of marauding cuckoos, there have been a couple of properly jarring occurrences, one elemental and the other more personal.

In the first instance, the sun did not only sit high in the sky for most of May, but was still present to greet June and has barely been absent during daytime hours ever since. Or for a healthy chunk of night-time too for that matter, since our sunsets have consistently extended to eleven o'clock and sometimes later on these long and lovely evenings. In my experience at least, this is not the usual state of affairs up here. A couple of balmy weeks if you're lucky, yes. Anything even approaching an unbroken wave of fine weather, no, no, and furthermore, no.

So, it's been something of a shock to be woken daily at four-thirty am by the burst of a brilliant sunrise and with the land about bathed in many golden hues, the sea below utterly still, but full of latent drama and evocative as an oil painting, and the heavens above piercing blue and cloudless. One morning we watched rapt for four, five minutes as three Sea Eagles, parents and chick, soared in ever-widening, ovoid patterns high up over the local sea-loch, and along which neighbours of ours have recently spotted the passing of pods of porpoise and dolphin and three Minke Whale.

On another luminous day, a pair of Roe Deer skipped down our drive and across our plot which in a matter of weeks has erupted into a seductive tangle of vivid green, yellow and purple grasses and wildflowers. Altogether, it is almost perfectly blissful and especially with the air so becalmed that the ever-present chatter of birdsong is accompanied now by yet more sonorous background notes - and these the sounds of the sea lapping on the rock-dashed shoreline of Ficavaig Bay. Almost, and but for a brace of scourges, both of them species of insect.

In the blue corner, we have the monumentally irritating Scottish Midge. In the red, the even more repulsive, blood-sucking Common Tick. The former are present in their millions from early June through August, most notably on still, humid days and so incessant in their buzzing-biting persecutions they would have made a raging, swearing madman of, say, St Francis of Assisi. The latter are simply disgusting, burrowing into exposed skin to find a vein and from where they gorge themselves to bursting point.

As everyone hereabouts knows, the trick upon discovering protruding from oneself the bloated miniature rear-end of a Tick - and after resisting the urge to projectile vomit, or else pass out - is to extract it with the utmost care. This is done by prising it gently between thumb and forefinger out from its feasting and so that no part of it breaks off and is left embedded in your flesh. Since: a/ Tick's in rare instances can carry Lime Disease which is relentlessly unpleasant; and b/ No-one, but no-one in any case wants a vampiric parasite stuck in them for any longer than absolutely necessary.

This being the case and having found one of the little beasts feeding in my right thigh during an otherwise happy afternoon playing football with the boys in the Carbost play-park, it would have been an act of utter lunacy to allow my youngest to try out his until-then nascent Tick-removal skills. Except that is just what I did. And with the inevitable result that I was left with a decapitated Tick's head inside of me. In no way was this the unfortunate Charlie's fault and nor did he merit being on the wrong end of the barrage of expletives I inadvertently shrieked out, but then my ever-fertile imagination had conjured up a stomach-churning, bowel-evacuating image of the body-less horror as it carried on gnashing away at me like a rabid Pac Man.

Charlie took this in his stride, bless him. Whereas I went right ahead piling on the shame. For what it's worth, a few, and perhaps unnecessary words of advice for any fellow male readers who may in the future find themselves similarly blighted. Yes, you will have to endure a degree of discomfort in such circumstances and when a loved one is minded to dig the offending bit out of you with a sewing needle. But however long this process takes and no matter the depth of your pain threshold, trust me in this one thing... It will be manifestly for the better that you refrain from hysterically informing someone who has birthed children that, and tragically I quote here: "You have absolutely no idea how much this hurts!"

The other unexpected aspect of recent months has come with the regular influx of guests to our B&B annex room. Speaking as someone predisposed to take a dim, cynical and some would say thoroughly miserable view of the human race, I have been knocked sideways by the sheer friendliness, niceness and many kindnesses of folk in general. Most particularly when confronted first thing in the morning by a red-eyed, unshaven grouch brandishing a basket of food prepared for them by someone much more appealing. For sure, this much has done, and will continue to do my soul nothing but good.

In respect of me providing any kind of public service, I am operating here veritable continents outside of my comfort zone. Though having worked for more than twenty years on the fringes of the madhouse they call the music industry, it is a feeling I am well used to. An example to illustrate the point. Soon after Lady Gaga ascended to becoming a cast-iron all-singing, all-dancing phenomenon, we determined to put her on the cover of Q. In double-quick time an interview and photo session were arranged through her 'people' and from there things proceeded like clock-work right up to the very moment the former Stefani Germanotta arrived at the appointed location.

The Lady, you see, had come armed with a plan. She had with her a large cardboard box. Opening it with a flourish, she extracted from this box what can only be described as a strap-on dildo the size, and shape of a baseball bat, since that's precisely what it was. "You are going to put me on your cover in this," Gaga announced, or at least words to that effect. Furthermore, she stated, and but for the aforesaid dildo, she meant to be photographed naked from the waist down.

It had doubtless occurred to her that Britain's magazine retail collective might take a dim view of parading before their shoppers a bottomless woman, who also happened to be thrusting out at them a great big sex aid. All the more so since the issue in question would be going on sale smack bang in the middle of a school holiday. About that she did not care one jot, since she was a pop star and not at home to such trifles as the innate conservatism of Tesco, WH Smith et al. Very much unlike me, she would not be on the wrong end of a P45 should they deem not to stock the offending organ.

Since Gaga wasn't for getting her perfectly manicured hands dirty and I had stayed put at the Q office, there ensued a drawn-out battle of wills waged by phone and email between a handful of Gaga's minions (and yea Gods, an 'image consultant' was among them) and me. One after a-tiresome other, they relayed to me the fact that 'The Star' was not for diluting her art, or something equally ludicrous. Whilst I attempted to negotiate a compromise and not tear what was left of my hair out from my skull by the roots.

In the end, Gaga was cajoled into believing that secreting the dildo down a pair of leather trousers would be an even more subversive act and we got our shot. And it was quite literally just the one picture. For no sooner had Q's photographer snapped his camera than Gaga took a phone call that left her shaking and on the verge of tears. We never did find out who was on the other end of the line, much less what ill tidings they imparted to her. But upon hanging up, she scooped up her things, dildo among them, and flounced out of the room without so much as a goodbye or by your leave, and never to return.

Now, I'm not really anticipating that anyone will turn up at The Passing Place brandishing an enormous phallus. But should they ever, I will be ready.

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

The Elephant Sessions - Summer

Based just across the country in the Black Isle and currently on repeat play, this band's all-round wonderful second album All We Have Is Now might have been made just for days such as these.

Friday 27 April 2018

AKA... What a Life!

Since the turn of the year I have generally been wrapped up in the always half-expectant, half-tremulous act of setting out on a new book. Hence the lack of anything new here. The blessed thing is that, however many hours I can vanish away on the computer or poring over reference material, I am also able to make it seem as if time has paused from ticking inexorably on. And simply by opening our back door and walking out into the land about us.

Randomly, these are three relatively recent snapshots of this other side of things...

One clear, crisp Sunday afternoon back in March, Denise, the boys, a couple of their young pals and I trooped to the end of Ardtreck Point, a finger of land jabbing out into Loch Bracadale. In basic terms, the path, such as it is, takes you across a rough, invariably boggy expanse of moorland and up to the punctuation point of the peninsula, a squat, altogether inglorious box-lighthouse. However, the journey is rich with other details and most particularly the panoramic aspects it affords. Back at first to the Black Cuillin, still snow-capped at this time of year, and then over to the course of the Loch as it flows into the North Atlantic. The spectral-seeming peaks of Uist stretch along this horizon. As the accompanying photograph is intended to show, under a blue sky and a serene early-spring sun it is a spot that all at once brings about a kind of sensory overload and also a sense of being utterly at peace.

A few weeks later, we welcomed old friends to the island. Since it was their first visit to Skye, we took advantage of the bout of glorious weather we were having to 'do' one of the big draws - the Old Man of Storr. The path that winds steeply up to this impressive rock pinnacle is trod by thousands of feet each year, to the point of being overcrowded in summer. As a family, we have traipsed it any number of times and so that it is possible to become numbed to the sheer jaw-dropping, ages-old wonder of its vantage. The quickest counter to this is to see it as if through another's eyes.

On this particular day, the sun was again high in a cloudless sky and yet we trekked up into the snowline and where the air was cold and sharp as crushed ice. From the very base of the Old Man, we looked out along the spread of the Trotternish Ridge, its arrow-point rocky outcroppings as ancient as the Earth itself. Ahead, the land rose, fell and soared up again to the peaks of the Red and Black Cuillin some thirty miles distant. Off out to the east and over a deep blue sea which was as still and reflective as a mirror, Skye's smaller sibling isle Raasay, its contours a symphony of greens and greys, and beyond that the foreboding mass of the Torridon Hills on the mainland. Late in the afternoon, we spotted a Golden Eagle high up on the thermals.

Then just last week, I was driving home from my regular Thursday night game of five-a-side football in Portree. The game is a precarious, often as not fruitless exercise in pretending that I am not quite as old as I am, the drive not nearly so chastening. It was some time after 9pm, but not yet dark, the nature of the light bruised and brooding. From the turn off the main road at the Sligachan Hotel, my journey home is made between two flanks of craggy highland and from there alongside and up above the ribbon run of Loch Harport. It's around thirteen miles in total, but altogether magnificent. In the space of ten, fifteen minutes that night I spotted a fox stalking by the roadside, a Red Grouse, a hare, a Roe Deer, many flitting bats and at the crest of our driveway the ghosting shadow of a Tawny Owl.

The older I get, the more I find myself pondering the meaning of, well... life. What it is I am supposed to extract from our universal blink and good-God-it's-gone passage through the whole messy shebang and beyond the fact of my simply being. For all that it's worth and in the absence of any concrete evidence that I'm bound for a heavenly eternity, or otherwise, the conviction I have come to hold onto is that ultimately it all falls to precious, magical moments such as those I have just mentioned. To the states of grace that they engender and with it the vivid sensation of being alive and of being a microcosmic part of something so much greater.

All that being said, let me put down what I've been smoking and hurry off into the creaking segue that it was meant to set up. And which is how even rarer it is to experience a state of grace through one's work and the everyday. In my previous life, I did, quite possibly, feel myself being transported by the way a photograph appeared on the page, or a set of type sat on a cover, or with other similarly aesthetic and entirely fleeting things. Interviewing certain people too, a McCartney, a Springsteen, full-force Adele or mad-as-a-badger Ozzy, there would moments of feeling rapt, suspended and as if in a completely different reality.

Just once that was extended over an entire evening. The occasion was a dank Tuesday night in late-February or early-March of 2009, I forget which, and in the company of a certain Noel Gallagher. It was for the purpose of a cover story for Q, a profile piece. Noel elected to have this conducted over dinner in a favourite restaurant of his in posh Primrose Hill, north London. Noel being Noel, we had an upstairs room cleared for the two of us and an especially attentive waiter. It was then no more than a matter of months before Noel walked out on Oasis and he was in reflective, but expansive mood.

"Do you know anything about wine?" Noel asked gruffly, perusing a wine list as involved and complex-seeming to me as an astrophysics text rendered in Mandarin. I told him as much and he barked back, "Well, it's a good fookin' job I do, isn't it?" Adding with a flourish: "Let's have a nice, full red, shall we?" When our waiter returned within a heartbeat cradling what was very evidently a white wine, Noel's face crumpled up in what was now that familiar way of his, which is to say like a cushion being sat on, and he let out a snickering laugh. At himself. Which rock stars almost never do and is one of the reasons why I liked him so much.

We had met in passing a couple of times before this encounter. Witty as a stand-up comic, street-smart, self-assured, undoubtedly charismatic, but with the suggestion of a soft centre, he had struck me as an impressive figure indeed. That impression was re-enforced over the next several hours we spent together fine-dining, and as Noel picked back over the bare bones of the Oasis story. I don't remember ever laughing so much when interviewing anybody else, or feeling quite so certain that I could ask anything and it would get a full, reasoned answer that was also ever likely to spiral off into an only vaguely connected series of anecdotes.

In short, he was brilliant company. Inevitably, the conversation kept coming back to his younger brother and the pair's notoriously fractious relationship. At one point, he told me about the most recent fight they'd had. The pair of them had gone drinking with mutual friends over Christmas and a debate had sprung up about the best Christmas single. Noel nominated Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody. Volubly, Liam had disagreed and gone instead for Lennon's Happy Xmas (War is Over).

"And from that starting point," Noel embellished, voice rising, "the two of us ended up out in the car-park of the pub, trading punches with each other. I'm in my forties, man. I can't be getting into fist-fights over Christmas songs."

At another juncture and more shockingly, Noel revealed to me that he wouldn't allow Liam in his house and as such that he had not so much as set eyes on his nephew, two-year-old Donovan, Noel's first-born son with partner Sara MacDonald. "I don't know you well enough to tell you why, but I have my reasons," he said, darkly and before lightening again with a crack about Liam's fixation with his own hair or some such.

Finally, he got around to summing Liam up and with a single, off-the-cuff line that has lingered with me longer and more memorably than any other that he uttered that night. "Liam is a really angry person," he began, leaning across the table, face deadpan and as he alighted upon his punchline. "He's like a man with a fork in a world of soup."

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

The Little Unsaid - Day is Golden

Excellent new band from Oxford, also make it seem as if the clocks have stopped.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Astral Weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Bob Dylan - Shelter from the Storm

Brilliantly ravaged and windswept, you say...

Saturday 23 December 2017

I Won't Back Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

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

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