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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hexgsXeSIhs] 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.

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