Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye to 2008


This was the scene at 11.00am this morning, looking from our house to Hillswick. And yes, that IS a seal balancing on the tidal drain.

What a long strange year it's been....and all annotated on this blog, if you can be bothered looking for the highs and the lows.

Time to move on, and lots to look forward to in 2009: Lots to get nervous about, too, but hell, what's the point? Plans for this year: keep on broadcasting, including a major series on alcohol and the second series of Musical Genes. New novel to be published in June. More breadmaking and music. The renovation of the erstwhile Radiocroft into tourist accommodation and some REAL crofting. With a spade.

All this and more. Including the question:pigs or reindeer? See you on the other side. And speak to you Friday, as usual, two until four, BBC Radio Scotland.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

To the lighthouse, and back to work tomorrow


An absolutely cracking Shetland Sunday; mild, calm and clear. The urge for end-of-the- year clearing up and general outdoors activity struck deep. I was engaged (with help from Magnus and James) in filling up an unexpectedly empty skip, and Susan barrowed tangle (kelp) from the beach for fertiliser.

The daylight stretched longer than we're used to, and even at 3.00pm it was light enough for me to take James on a driving lesson up to the Eshaness cliffs. At 17, with hardly any real practice, he's amazingly competent. Computer games...

Tomorrow it's back to work, and that means travelling into Lerwick following the demise of the Radiocroft. There's no live show on Ne'erday (a really excellent prerecorded one instead), but apart from that, it's live radio all week. Speak to you between two and four...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The floating hotel, Christmas dinner, Wii Unfit and turkey in the fridge!


I've written before about the St Magnus Bay Hotel, which stands in white wooden splendour just a couple of hundred yards (or metres) from our house. Closed for a while until just over a year ago, its revival under the ownership of Andrea and Paul has put a lot of heart back into the village of Hillswick. We now have a bar, and great food available every lunch and dinner time.

The hotel has a fascinating history. Prefabricated in Norway, it was part of the Norwegian exhibit at Glasgow's Great Exhibition of 1896. Afterwards, it was dismantled, put on a barge and floated north to Shetland, where, in 1902, it became the Northern terminus of the North of Scotland Steam Navigation company's tourist and freight steamer service from Thurso. Hillswick was, for a while, one of Britain's centres of extreme, upmarket tourism. There was shooting, fishing, climbing, golf and much else.

Andrea and Paul have carried out major renovations and are still working on the building. It's just splendid to have it up and running again.

Susan is on call this Christmas and, while we both love cooking, the fact that the hotel was offering full-on Christmas dinners seemed too good a chance to miss. So we booked the five of us in for lunch today and it was fantastic. Turkey with all the trimmings, AND each booking had a turkey of suitable size TO THEMSELVES. At the end of the meal, we were able to take the leftovers (large amounts) away. So we can enjoy turkey sandwiches, curries and the like without having had to do the cooking OR the washing up! Very reasonable price, too.

Add to that the Buja-Buja chocolates I got from Santa and the day has been going very well. Low point was the arrival of the Wii Fit game thingy, though, which assessed my bodily state as verging on the obese and my Wii Fit age as 61...

Och weel...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

....and a merry Christmas!

Still wading through the runny-nose, coughing, wheezing and spluttering stage of something approximating a cold. My voice has dropped half an octave (at last!) but there's just today's show to go before Christmas. No broadcasting from me on Christmas Day or Boxing Day (though BBC Radio Scotland continueth, of course!), and then it's the weekend. So four days to recover. And we're off to the hotel from Christmas dinner, so no cooking and more importantly, no washing up!

Many thanks to everyone for their Christmas wishes and expressions of sympathy on the demise of The Radiocroft. As Bruce Lee always said, walk on (as quoted by Mr Frank Skinner in his excellent autobiography, £1.40 from Oxfam.

Monday, December 22, 2008

...and it's goodbye from The Radiocroft; good afternoon again from the Palace of Sheep


Well, it's been looming for the best part of six months, but on Friday the decision was taken to stop broadcasting from The Radiocroft. The official line is that we're 'resting' it, but after five broadcast-threatening (and in three cases, broadcast-destroying) failures of the ISDN line, enough is enough. My confidence, and the BBC's, in the technology's stability has been shattered.

I can only pay tribute to the Beeb's forbearance. The Radiocroft was my idea, and it's my (several thousand pounds' worth) studio. I think the idea of doing a music show beside a peat fire from a remote, seaside croft house has proved really attractive to listeners over the past five years, as well as allowing me to avoid a daily 74-miles round trip to Lerwick.

The Palace of Sheep is my nickname for Lerwick's 'Studio Seven' ( I have no idea why it's called that; there are only two) at BBC Radio Shetland in Pitt Lane. It's a 'self-op' studio often used for contributors to news and chat programmes. And it uses old-style BBC 'music lines' to connect with mainland, which I always see as great brass-cored 19th-century telegraph cables winding along the seabed. Not ISDN, although we have that as a backup.

The Radiocroft functioned reliably until this year, when the ISDN installation at the local telephone exchange began to fail with monotonous regularity. ISDN is different from broadband, which has replaced it for almost everything but broadcasting: ISDN is a high-quality, secure (hah!) one-to-one digital connection. You share that quality, that connection, with no-one else, unlike ADSL broadband, where quality varies according to how many folk are online. Although ADSL is used for remote radio broadcasts, the quality is not up to BBC standards. And it's unreliable.

Anyway, ISDN used to be reliable. Now it's not. Every lightning storm knocks the system out. Power cuts can do the same. Why? My one fellow Shetland user of ISDN believes it's to do with the Marconi equipment now used exclusively by BT; the old Motorola cards were more robust.

I want to pay tribute to the BT engineers who have, in all weathers and with great speed, come to fix the failures. Alas, though, Thursday's was the last straw. A blink of lightning at 14.40 and we were off air. I decided to drive into Lerwick while records and an 'apology loop' were played in from Aberdeen and Glasgow. The drive was a total nightmare, through ice, snow, hail, rain and high winds, and in a highly tense state, and afterwards I was forbidden from doing anything similar on health and safety grounds. And quite rightly so.

But what I was really conscious of was failing the listeners. The whole point of this kind of live radio has to be its reassuring reliability. To be always on, when expected, sounding like yourself. And not a shattered, breathless wreck fresh from The Ice Road Truckers Experience.

So from today, it's a trip to Lerwick. Probably by bus a lot of the time (roughly a fiver return) and only for three days this week, as there's no show Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

I can't complain. The Radiocroft has been fun - lots of memories: recording with Mark Radcliffe, a host of fiddlers playing live, the dawn-to-midnight midsummer special, chasing sheep from the lawn during the news, visitors barging in and refusing to believe I was on air, helicopters hovering overhead and having a second-hand bookshop operating downstairs for an entire summer. Most recently, Lulu the St Bernard being hugely disconcerted by my two-hour conversation with someone invisible.

The show must go on, and it will. To the Palace of Sheep!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The 'Hallelujah' issue, Shrek, Bathsheba and the titanic Mr John Cale fae Wales



Well, at least Ol' Lennie won't have to worry too much about his retirement fund any more(Leonard Cohen, writer of Hallelujah, has infamously been forced to return to performing after losing almost all his lifetime earnings in a management scam).

As battle rages between supporters of Ms Alexandra Cowell-Burke and those of the late Jeff Buckley over whose version of H should go to the top of the charts this Christmas, consider the many other versions of said song. There are some truly horrendous attempts out there (and on YouTube). Try Bon Jovi for example. Or better, don't. KD Lang's is pretty impressive, Dylan's (live on YT) awesomely intimidating (love those sneering 'do-yas'). But not exactly pleasant.

This is the one. Mr John Cale is the man whose edited version (I chose the cheeky verses) (originally the song had 15 verses)was essentially 'covered' by Jeff Buckley, and who sings it in the film Shrek (though not on the soundtrack CD - that's Rufus Wainwright, for some unknown reason.)Cale released two versions on the Cohen tribute CD I'm Your Fan and on his own live album Fragments of a Rainy Season.

The biblical references abound, with that extraordinary Old Testament tale of David and Bathsheba (lust, murder, friendship, politics, religion - it's got everything)kicking things off and Samson turning up later on. In the end, though, the Cale version is about sex (Buckley claimed it was simply about 'the hallelujah of the orgasm') the end of love and possibly death. Jingle Bells or Merry Christmas Everybody it isn't.

Anyway. Here's the former classical wunderkind violist, Velvet Underground graduate and unrepentantly Welsh Mr Cale, with a truly magnificent string arrangement and cadaverous vocals to match his appearance.

This was recommended weeks ago by a listener to the show whose name now, alas, escapes me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Peatiness, dodgy phenols, and the new Bruichladdich...

From the Drinking for Scotland blog:

Below is the press release from Bruichladdich, announcing the release of the 63.5 per cent alcohol Octomore (five years old, £79 a bottle).

I have (what remains of) a bottle of Bruichladdich"s 3D3 Norrie Campbell Tribute bottling, which is nice enough but peculiar. It's as if the phenols have been layered, like oil, on top of a thin base. The cask-strength Octomore may well be better. I have some of the Infinity and it's very good.

If, however, you're one of the folk who actually managed to get hold of a bottle, don't knock it back all at once. As if you would! Apart from the alcohol, high phenols usually mean bad hangovers. Phenol (the stuff that makes a whisky 'peaty') is a poison, and in sufficient quantities, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry can be very nasty indeed. The organisation says that effects (not from whisky,which in truth only contains tiny amounts) but from, I assume, ingesting fairly large, pure concentrations) can include:

Health Effects

* Exposure to phenol by any route can produce systemic poisoning. Phenol is corrosive and causes chemical burns at the contact site.
* Symptoms of systemic poisoning often involve an initial, transient CNS stimulation, followed rapidly by CNS depression. Coma and seizures can occur within minutes or may be delayed up to 18 hours after exposure.
* Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, methemoglobinemia, hemolytic anemia, profuse sweating, hypotension, arrhythmia, pulmonary edema, and tachycardia.

Acute Exposure

As a corrosive substance, phenol denatures proteins and generally acts as a protoplasmic poison. Phenol may also cause peripheral nerve damage (i.e., demyelination of axons). Systemic poisoning can occur after inhalation, skin contact, eye contact, or ingestion. Typically, transient CNS excitation occurs, then profound CNS depression ensues rapidly. Damage to the nervous system is the primary cause of death from phenol poisoning. However, damage to other organ systems (e.g., acid-base imbalance and acute kidney failure) may complicate the condition. Symptoms may be delayed for up to 18 hours after exposure.


Hey, now that's what I call a hangover! Pass the Lagavulin/Laphroaig/Ardbeg/Caol Ila...

Actually, I've just come across some even more interesting stuff about phenol, from the Absolute Astronomy website. To say that the substance has a bad history is putting it mildly...it's quite putting me off my Islay malts. Must see if I can get some of that £14.99, not-very-peaty Aberlour...


"Bruichladdich distillery announce the release today of the world’s the most heavily peated whisky ever.

The inaugural bottling of Octomore, a single malt whisky distilled at Bruichladdich from barley peated to 131 ppm, three times more peaty than any other whisky ever produced.

Demand from 'peat-freaks' has exceeded the 6000 bottle supply. The stocks were sold out before the whisky left the distillery.

6000 bottles Bruichladdich Octomore were bottled @ 63.5% ABV, at 5 years old, RSP £79."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rayburn loaves on a very windy night


The ferries to and from Shetland have been cancelled for another night...it's force nine gusting A LOT higher. A friend's son was on one of the flights that did make it in to Sumburgh - two attempts, people vomiting and screaming. What a relief not to have any more trips away before the new year.

Susan and the kids went into Lerwick today, leaving me to vacuum (Dyson: the most overrated domestic appliance EVER) light fires, clean, mop and cook. And sneak a few wee sleeps on the sofa, once the Rayburn was all stoked.

It's seen some action, that stove. Before we moved in, 10 years before, in fact, the sea invaded the manse and the Rayburn was three feet deep in salt water. It's back boiler doesn't work, its enamel is cracked and its handles are missing. But it works a treat. Anyway, with the peat-fuelled oven reaching some seriously impressive temperatures, I decided to make some bread. Two loaves. Plus coq-au-vin for the returning shoppers. And now another wee nap, I think...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The bouncing St Bernard


This is an old picture, but I don't think I've ever blogged it before. Lulu in full flight, before the wind took the trampoline away...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Now That's What I Call Quite Distracting, Vol.1

...This is the track listing and sleevenotes for a wee best-of-2008 mix-tape/CD I've put together for family and friends. I know, I know: Some tracks are from 2007 or earlier, and there should be some Hello Saferide. But on the whole I think it's pretty good stuff. Elbow and Ry Cooder really shine for me. Album of the year has to be the Ry Cooder Anthology The UFO Has Landed, which is stunning (and, technophiles, BEAUTIFULLY mastered)

I think all these tracks are available from iTunes if you want to investigate further:

NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL QUITE DISTRACTING
Twenty top Tom Morton tracks from 2008 (with some obvious omissions and anomalies)

Steve Earle: Way Down In The Hole (2:56) from the album Washington Square Serenade. Theme for the fifth season of the Greatest TV Series Ever Made (Way Down in the Hole is a Tom Waits song, used with different performers as the theme for each season of The Wire). Steve acts in the show as an alarmingly overweight addiction counsellor.

Elbow: Grounds for Divorce (3:39) from The Seldom Seen Kid. Stunning album, bringing long-deserved success for the band. First time I heard this track I thought my car stereo was going to explode

Bon Iver: For Emma (3:41) from the album For Emma, Forever Ago. Recorded on a laptop in a wilderness log cabin, apparently. Hugely atmospheric album, literally out of nowhere.

Ladyhawke: My Delirium (4:17) 'Ladyhawke' is the debut CD from the woman also known as Philippa Brown, who writes and plays everything. She's from New Zealand, and this album took ages to penetrate my consciousness. But, as the year ends, this is 80s electronica revivalism destined to dominate in 2009. Maybe.

Colin Macintyre: Be My Saviour (3:46) From The Water. Mull Historical Society was a much better name. This is a very good album but Colin seems to be slipping further and further under the radar. He's a kind of Calvinist Prince (pop star not royalty).

The Fortunate Sons: Wasted Time (3:41) Eponymous debut album from the Glasgow team is an absolute cracker, Sam West's voice almost ripping the microphones to shreds. Great songs, fantastic playing, loads of good humour and they're supposed to be excellent live.

Mark Knopfler: Secondary Waltz (3:44) This is from the 2007 album Kill To Get Crimson, but I only really got into Mark's solo stuff this year. It's enormously underrated and under-exposed, considering he's such as huge star with Dire Straits. The songs are worthy of Richard Thompson.

The Killers: Spaceman (4:45) I am not ashamed to say that I absolutely love The Killers. There's something endearingly odd about them...they're like Abba trying to be U2, or Roxy Music crossed with Deep Purple and Slade. Three great albums so far and Day and Age is no exception.

Martin Simpson:Never Any Good (4:14) Hold onto your hats and prepare to weep. Martin wrote this about his dad, and it's on the 2007 album Prodigal Son. Songwriting to break the hardest heart.

Ry Cooder: Ridin' With The Blues (3:01) I've played this obsessively ever since I almost crashed a VW camper when I first heard it. Brand new Ry, as good as anything he's ever done, showing where Keef got those licks. From I, Flathead. The anthology The UFO Has Landed is exemplary. This track's a tad politically incorrect, though...

George Formby: Andy The Handy Man (2:49)...and speaking of politically incorrect...2008 was my ukulele year. From the absolutely essential double CD The Ultimate Collection. Technically, he was a uke genius, too. But filthy.

Nick Lowe: Failed Christian (3:56) Came across this via David Mundell at the Inn At Lathones. It's a song by Henry McCullough, once of Wings, and among David's collection of rock memorabilia there's a letter from Nick pleading with Henry for the use of it on Dig My Mood. Chillingly sad.

Peter Case: I'm Gonna Change My Ways (3:25) Peter is one of the greats. It's just nobody knows it except me and a few folk in Greenock! I'll be heading there I hope in February when he arrives for a wee tour of...Inverclyde. from the mini-album Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (4:12). Apocalyptic Testamental rock with great Australian jokes. Grinderman were superb at the Connect Festival, and this Bad Seeds album is a joy and a dark thrill.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Killing The Blues (4:19) Raising Sand was the groovy dinner party album of the year, beautifully produced by T-Bone Burnett but, like Springsteen's Magic, horribly mastered. This is a transcendent John Prine song.

Sigur Ros: Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur (4:03) from the wonderful album Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. probably best asked for as 'the one with the arses'.

Vampire Weekend: M79 (4:16) This eponymous debut lasts the pace, for me, whereas I'm quite sick of Fleet Foxes, and I'm not sure why. If I want America, I'll just have CSN and Y, thank you. or possibly just Y.

Geraint Watkins: Easy To Say "Bon Temps Rouler" (4:00) Low-key Welsh delight from aged ex Dominators frontman and Nick Lowe pianist. From the CD In A Bad Mood. Great cajun version of Heart of the City on it.

Justin Currie: What Is Love For? (3:10) Title track from one of the great depressive break-up albums, a long time coming from former Del Amitri frontman, who looked seriously pissed off during his set at Belladrum.

Shebang: Sheena is a Punk Rocker. Swedish punk-pop courtesy of Mr L Hutton. Gloriously, intelligently dumb. Like all the best pop.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday, farewell to Robertson's Jam and more book action

The news that Robertson's Jam is to disappear from our shelves means that an icon of my childhood will vanish forever. The Robertson's Golly has, of course, already gone amid much controversy, but somehow Hartley's, which Premier Foods will concentrate on when Robertson's disappears, has always been an English jam to me. Something to do with the TV adverts when I was a kid. I'm sorry to appear in any way parochial, but the fact is that James and Marion Robertson kicked off the jams (sorry) empire by inventing Golden Shred marmalade in Paisley.

Won't be able to avoid talking about all this on the show today.

Probably won't talk about David Simon's Homicide:A year on the Killing Streets which I've just finished and is not just the source material for The Wire, but one of the great pieces of in-depth 'immersion' journalism. And one of the last? Let's hope not.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Serpentine - I can't believe it's really happening...but it is!


Working with the editor Jennie Renton today on the manuscript, which I think she's improved manyfold...publication date is 4 June next year, but if you want a sneak preview, click here.

Sunday Herald Diary today....nudist broadcasting exposed!

...read all about it here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Bob Dylan to play Edinburgh Playhouse and SECC

...Tour just announced. Tickets are on sale NOW for the SECC gig, but there's some delay regarding the really hot one, the Playhouse in Edinburgh. Tomorrow or the day after, according to Ticketmaster. The chance to see Dylan (as previously with Waits and Young) in a small, seated venue is too good to miss.

Meanwhile, today's show is mostly about your choice of covers (second hour) though I may mention speed cameras (alternative uses) and the top 10 stupid Christmas gifts.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Mighty Torslanda is back! Remakes and sequels...

Picked up the Volvo 240 this morning, all decked out in its new exhaust system, battery and brakes. The Torslanda is back just in time to cope with some truly nasty weather!

Just getting sorted for today's show...looking at the music presented to Barack Obama by David Cameron (The Smiths, Lily Allen, Radiohead and Gorillaz) and what albums you'd give the president elect...

Also: Russell Brand is apparently going to star in a remake of the Dudley Moore film Arthur...and Keanu Reeves is planning (further) sequels to both Bill and Ted and Speed.

So...what should be remade, who with, and which sequels are we dying to see?
0500 929500, tommorton@bbc.co.uk or text 80295.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Festive Radiocrofting

Moustaches and bad Christmas trees

The Radiocroft now has a Christmas tree (I'll take a snap after it gets dark) and it is pretty scabby....but with the people of Peterlee claiming theirs is the worst civic Christmas tree in the UK, where is Scotland's most appalling?
And as for Brad Pitt's attempt 'to rehabilitate the moustache', well...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Rainbow and approaching snow, Hillswick


Phone snap from Findlin's Farm, looking north-north east. 60 seconds after this, it was snowing heavily. On me.

Indiana Jones and the....search for a plumber in Shetland?

According to Harrison Ford, a fifth Indiana Jones movie is at the planing stage. But having found the Temple of Doom, the Crystal Skull and the Philosopher's Stone (or was that a Star Wars movie?) what should Indy be looking for?

Also: A Russian advertising agency is using pet dogs as mobile hoardings - what could your dog or cat sell? And who put the traffic cone on the highest spire of Marischal College in Aberdeen? Who has the skills? Who put the Santa hat atop the supposedly unclimbable 'Humility Tower' at Gaius and Gonville College in Cambridge? Who are the mountaineering pranksters and are you among them?

Meanwhile, we're desperate to cut our oil bills by linking a peat-fired Rayburn to the central heating system. Not a single plumber in Shetland has shown the slightest interest in doing it. I'm thinking of retraining...

Monday, December 01, 2008

December dawns!

Good grief, but Sweden looked amazing in the new TV version of Henning Mankel's Wallnder books. The acting was, in general, absolutely brilliant, with Branagh's brilliance quite awesome at times. Fabulous photography, but scripting was occasionally iffy and the choice of Nicholas Hoult from Skins to play the avenging wee brother rendered the whodunnit element laughably redundant.

Please, though, if you like Wallander, get hold of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Beck series. Set in Stockholm in the 60s, explicitly but not overbearingly Marxist in ideology, the books are cool, laconic, character-driven, and somehow very human. Wallander, with his depression and illness, is clearly based on the constantly suffering Beck Not everybody will find that appealling, but I've read the whole lot twice and I think they're among the best police procedurals ever written. There's one, very good English-language film version of the Beck book The Laughing Policeman, set in the USA with Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern, but only available on US region DVD. Try and see it.

Today's show...

Hmmm...It's the start of December so i think we'll go Christmas tree spotting...Scotland has just introduced compulsory seller's surveys for house sales, so I'll be asking about houses you've moved into and found very different from the property you viewed...and the Campaign for Universal Festive Folding Female Flip Flops starts here...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Friday at the Radiocroft...

...and we're talking mail order disasters (or at least surprises, like the 20 chrome ethernet sockets that arrived yesterday). Unexpected brushes with the law ('allo, 'allo, 'allo, Mr Green...) cover versions that are better than the original and something else that just slipped my mind...oh yes! Forgetfulness. That and embarrassing moments in garages. The engine, sir, is in the back...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

So, I was in this teashop in Athens, Georgia...



...in the summer of 1986, when in comes the owner. On a bicycle.

Can you guess who it is yet?

The wonder of Woolies, secret crushes and pleading ignorance

Yesterday on the show we nattered about driving tests and strange rockstar names (and those of their children, such as Dweezil Zappa, Zowie Bowie and -most recently- Bronx Mowgli Wendt). Woodside Wullie brought up the demise of Woolworths, and blamed himself - for a shoplifting incident (Dusty in Memphis on vinyl) and his offspring's abuse of the Pick'n'Mix counter.

This unleashed a host of memories: Embassy Records, Woolies' own label; Rigonda TVs and record players, cheap and appalling, all the way from Russia; Audition guitars, the worst you could get. Ladybird kids' clothes and cheap cut-out LPs...

No wonder they've gone bust...

Today, as the tragic international news just gets worse and Robert Peston continues to rant about house price drops, I'm taken (and hey, it's early yet) with this: Polish border guards said Wednesday they had foiled an attempt to smuggle kangaroos, miniature ponies and 11 pheasants in a passenger bus across Poland's border with Ukraine. The bus driver pleaded ignorance. 'I know nothing....nuuutheeeng!' How many of us have said that all too many times? And also Chris Martin from Coldplay's announcement that he has a 'shameful crush' on sometime vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the Alaskan bear-skinner. Unlikely attractions to public figures, anyone? C'mon, confession is good for the soul!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New whisky blog - Drinking for Scotland

The demise of the Nippy Sweeties blog, along with two whisky columns I was writing (for the US publication Scottish Life and The Scots Magazine) was provoked by several things: exhaustion, unhealthiness, the need to complete a novel and a complete absence of anything worth saying.

Now, with the book finished (Serpentine: due for publication next June by Mainstream) and some rest and recuperation, I'm back thinking (and writing) about drinking. The new blog is here. In print, too, as a contributor and regular columnist for Unfiltered, the superb new magazine of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

All this and The Malt and Barley Revue - the hour-long musical show I've put together about whisky, Scotland and inebriation - has been a quiet success this past summer. My book Spirit of Adventure, republished, is selling well in the runup to Christmas, and is available here.

So I'm back in the whisky blogosphere. I'll be publishing some of the print-only articles from the past couple of years, and, from first principles, some tasting notes.

And news as it comes in. Robert Ransom from Glenfarclas sent me the following, and as the 105 10-year-old is one of my all-time favourites, I'm happy to say...Slainte!

Speyside, November 2008; J. & G. Grant are pleased to announce the release of Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength Aged 40 Years, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bottling of Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky.

The first commercially available cask strength whisky of the modern age was born in 1968 when George S. Grant, the fourth generation of the Grant family to own and manage Glenfarclas, bottled a single cask straight from the warehouse, and sent the bottles to family and friends as Christmas gifts. By chance the strength of the cask George S. Grant selected was 105 British Proof, and along with the name of the distillery, this was all the information he detailed on the hand written label. By the end of January the recipients of the gifts requested further bottles, George S. Grant obliged, and Glenfarclas 105 has become a much enjoyed expression of Glenfarclas.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bottling of Glenfarclas 105; J. & G. Grant have created this special limited edition bottling of Glenfarclas 105 at 40 Years Old, and at 60% Vol.. With only a couple of casks of the right style, age, and strength available, the Glenfarclas 105 Aged 40 Years truly is a limited edition. There are only 893 bottles available.

George S. Grant’s grandson, also George S. Grant, the company’s Brand Ambassador,

commented, ‘Dark and mysterious in colour, with hints of toffee and sherry, a sip reveals a powerful, yet smooth and elegant whisky. It has taken three generations of my family to create this extraordinary dram.’

Glenfarclas 105 Aged 40 Years has been well received, scoring 96 out of 100 in Jim Murray’s 2009 Whisky Bible. This limited edition is available from specialist whisky retailers in the UK, Europe and Asia, and retails for £550.00 at the Glenfarclas Distillery Visitor centre.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom Morton show in full flight from The Radiocroft (well, actually, while a record was playing)


The Tom Morton Show is brought to you by BBC Radio Scotland. Online, on FM, Medium wave, on your digital telly and by clamping a wet piece of string between two amalgam fillings (but not during electrical storms, please).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A question of light



At this time of year in Shetland (now officially possessing the highest quality of life in Scotland, whatever that means) you've got to grab whatever daylight there is and try to absorb as much as you can. Even in windily icy conditions like those we have today.

So Susan and I took the dogs up to Eshaness for a wee wander. We were heavily layered up in fleece/fleece/Goretex, and the Russian proverb did, for once seem, accurate: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. The poor old dogs had to make do with what God gave them, but they seemed happy enough. Shiveringly invigorated, we watched Ronnie out creeling and the fisheries protection gunboat doing nothing in particular, and wondered what conditions were like out at sea. Time to go home!

The peat-fired Rayburn is on and we're anticipating a further, short walk tonight up to the hotel for dinner. More snow tomorrow, so they say...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bitterly cold in Hillswick, and the end of newspapers, again


Not as much snow as expected this morning, and the predicted severe gales are just bitter and brutal breezes. However, much more extreme weather is expected later today and tomorrow. If I sound a little disappointed, it's just that I take a childlike delight in snow. It's always fun to see a St Bernard plunging through the drifts!
Meanwhile, news that the Johnston Press (owners of The Scotsman and loads of local newspapers) share price has fallen within 18 months from £6 to 6 pence. Much fulminating about the possible end of printed newspapers in the face of online competition.
Maybe. But as I write, they're queuing - yes queuing - at the Hillswick shop to buy this morning's Shetland Times. Local newspapers with an effective online strategy (and the Shetland Times pioneered that) seem pretty safe prospects to me, if not the licenses to print money they once were. Now, combine a local newspaper with a proper online presence AND a local radio station (or even a morning news programme online) and you'd be covering all the angles.
Meanwhile, it looks like the Scotsman will be sold, again. Hot bets are on either The Herald taking over (an historic blasphemy, surely!) or the family owned DC Thomson. As a practising freelance hack who has worked for everyone on the Scottish newspaper scene, I can say this: Thomsons are pros and pay promptly and better than most. And despite anything you may hear, in my experience they treat their journalists well. They're also financially secure. Unlike everybody else.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hot Hot Heat! And all from peat!


I'm currently trying to keep peat stoves going in two different houses...this is the Radiocroft pot-bellied Machine Mart stove, making the TM Show the only peat-fired radio programme on earth, probably. Along at the hoose, I've lit (or litten, as they say in Shetland) the Rayurn and have left it with two chickens in the top oven. It's a gamble, but if push comes to shove, there's always the microwave. Unless the wind takes out the power lines again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Home, and how to buy a Book'n'a Bevvy


Slept for 12 hours on the north boat, with occasional wakings for particularly bumpy bits of sea. And that's the last Phenergan outing (I hope) until the new year. It's great to be back in Shetland after nearly three weeks away in Glasgow, Ireland, Lewis, Inverness, Ullapool, Aberdeen and all points inbetween. Some good work was done, I think. But it's all been very tiring.

Just nipped round to our neighbour Fiona's new craft shop, which is going to be really fantastic when it opens. She's running the Designed in Shetland website which offers all sorts of locally-produced goodies for sale. She's got a special offer for Christmas of my whisky book, Spirit of Adventure, bundled with a miniature of Highland Park whisky and with an inscription of your choice by the author. It's a Book'n'a Bevvy for just £11.99! Bargain!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dundee, the legend of The Gunga Din, and chicken livers at The Malabar



To Dundee, home of some of the greatest pubs in the universe - this time, The Speedwell, universally known as Mennie's, and The Phoenix, universally known as Bannerman's. And to the magnificent Malabar on Perth Road, home of Goanese and Keralan cooking.

For those of a certain age, Jacob, who owns the Malabar, will be remembered as proprietor of the legendary Gunga Din, also in Perth Road. In the late 60s and 70s, this was lauded by the cognoscenti as the best place to eat 'Indian' food in Scotland. A favourite of rock stars (and especially Billy Connolly), at a time when Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurateurs were setting the tone for 'the Scottish curry', the Gunga Din was always different. And the Malabar still is.

It's unpretentious. Formica tables, basic decor. It's not dear. (Bottle of Montepulciano, very good, £10.99). And the food is astonishing. I had chicken livers in chili sauce to start, followed by marinated trout fillets served with daal, boiled rice, salad and a nan bread unlike any other. Everything here is different. The Saag Gosht is intense in a way it never is in the 'common pot' school of Asian cookery; even the spiced onions are dark and much more like a real chutney than chilli-powdered red-raw slices.

The trout (can't remember its Goan name)is similar to the salmon dish served at Balbir's in Glasgow, and there are similarities to some of the Mother India and experimental Wee Curry Shop recipes to be found on he menu.

But the Malabar truly is the motherlode.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ron Mathewson - Shetland's forgotten genius of the double bass



It was my old friend and colleague Ian Leask (drummer and philosopher) who first mentioned the name 'Ron Mathewson' to me, and since then I've been tracing his incredible jazz career through various websites. Best to start with Wikipedia, but if I say that he played or recorded with, to name just a few, Ronnie Scott,Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Ben Webster, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Tubby Hayes, Dick Morrissey, Ian Carr and here with Johnny Griffin....that should give some indication if his ability. I've ordered a couple of the albums he plays on (just to show my son James, in-house bassist, what it's all about).

Details of Ron's current activities are difficult to find. I had heard he no longer played, indeed, no longer had a bass, but gave occasional lessons in London. If anybody can help with information, without trespassing on his privacy, I'd appreciate it.

In the meantime, this is just unbelievable, thrilling stuff. It's the Ronnie Scott quartet, plus (in the first video) Johnny Griffin. On Green Dolphin Street features, at about 2.35, an astonishing bass solo.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A pint of Mongrel, please, and a hangover to go.


Out for a pint at the Three Judges in Partick with my old pal Stewart, and as his long-lived mongrel Clio had just passed away, we decided to toast her memory in a pint of this. Afterwards, I was feeling just a bit...ruff!

The worst meal I've had in Glasgow since the great tripe disaster of 1978


We went there because we were in a hurry, Papingo was full and Atrio wasn't. Mistake. Cullen Skink? I think not. I had a superb Cullen Skink at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool last Tuesday night, made to the classic recipe: chunks of tattie, smoked haddock, cream, onion. Atrio provided something of a contrast. Five minutes after everyone else had finished their (adequate) starters, I was served a bowl of tepid, creamy, salty water, sprinkled with chopped chives. At the bottom was what looked like reconstituted dried onion. No fish. No potato. I sent it back, protesting on behalf of Cullen and indeed all Skink everywhere.

Worse was to come: The attractive menu description of the veggie option was: aubergine with cous cous on a bed of rocket. What I got was this massive deep-fried lump of inedible leathery leather-substitute. Closer investigation showed that a thick slice of aubergine had been char grilled, coated with a pungent pink paste, then DEEP FRIED in a coating of cous cous. It was beyond appalling.

Service was delightful, the wine was chilled, the chips and vegetables were good. Magnus and Laura said their chicken and risotto were both good. Perhaps I was being punished for something.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Road Equivalent Tariff - now THERE'S an Idea....and the excellent Ralia Cafe


Sounds boring, but Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) is a system aimed at encouraging tourism and business in the Scottish islands. Basically, you charge for ferry trips what the equivalent would be if you drove the same distance. Roughly. All is explained here. The pilot project has just started (I've only just realised)on the various mainland-Outer Hebrides routes, including the Ulapool-Stornoway ferry I've just been on.
So that was £87 return for me and the Citroen. They're calculating the cost on the basis of 60p per nautical mile and £5 per car. So for Shetland, that would be, uh, 400-odd miles return to Aberdeen, making it, £240. Plus a cabin. And two meals.
Hmm...that seems somewhat dearer than what we pay at the moment. Maybe NOT such a good idea for the Ultimate Seaborne Commute, and the longest ferry trip in UK waters.
I'm back in Glasgow, missing Shetland and home, but Susan, James and Martha are heading south next Wednesday for a jaunt, so we will be panting various towns red then during and after Children in Need.

Got the ferry out of Stornoway (latest check-in 6.30am) and it was a very reasonable 2 hours and 45 minutes to Ullapool in a choppy but not brutal sea. Calmac Lorne sausage was fine! But let me recommend the Ralia Cafe just outside Dalwhinnie on the A9 - great soup, wonderful views, and the owner is an A9 traveller who knows what folk really want - great service, free internet, phone charging. Proper coffee too.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Stornoway, Tolsta, lamb tikka bhuna and an imminent storm...


To Tolsta this morning, with Dave Halliday and his Harley Sportster 1200, photographer John Maclean and the trusty, very far from home Citroen C4 (why are so many Citroen C4 four-doors metallic maroon? I saw ANOTHER one today). It was freezing, but spectacular. Again, that amazing Lewis phenomenon of bleakness suddenly giving way to astonishing coastal beauty.
Back to Stornoway for the show, a quick look round the An Lanntair gallery/cinema/cafe/theatre, which has great coffee but looks very quiet. I wonder if the progenitors of the controversial Shetlandic music venue and cinema, Mareel, have looked at Ann Lanntair's books?
Anyway, old acquaintance from Harris Willie Fulton has an exhibition there, and his paintings are not only superb, but very reasonably priced. Check out his online gallery here.
There's a very bad forecast for tomorrow (gales, possibly severe) so I've changed my departure to the 07.15 ferry for Ullapool. There's a lunchtime boat from Stornoway and one from Harris to Skye around the same time. If they don't sail, there's nothing until Monday.
It's been an interesting few days in Lewis. Compared to Shetland, it feels...well, it feels much less...wealthy. And it's not just the Zetland County Council Act's 30 years of oil cash.
Well, actually it is. People talk about the religion thing, but compared to 15 years ago, its grip is much, much looser. In the face of a nosediving economy, and the departure for Glasgow and points south of the most talented young folk, fundamentalist protestantism may be a consolation for the elderly and the left behind. But letters in the Stornoway Gazette complaining about a "Heaven and Hell" fancy dress ball seem quaint and somewhat sad. Surely God has more urgent concerns? I hear that drug convictions and alcohol-related violence have soared lately.
There is a kind of resigned anger about the largest Harris Tweed mill laying off workers, and its owner having jackets made up to only four designs. In China. It's a glorious substance, Harris Tweed, and I've coveted a suit for years. But when faced with £200 for a tweed jacket, I had to sneak out of the shop. In the distance, I could hear Primark calling.
The folk here have been delightful - friendly and hospitable. The BBC team have been splendid. The Balti House is a really good Indian restaurant and I'm sorry to have missed the Thai Cafe and Digby Chicks. But I'm praying for the Isle of Lewis to set sail on time tomorrow.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Lewis, more Norse than Gaelic?



I kept seeing place names that were familiar from Shetland: Mangersta, Mealista, Kirkibost (same as Kirkibister); the photographer I'm working with, John Maclean, told me that most Lewis place names are Norse in origin, though many have been Gaelicised. Much of Lewis even looks like Shetland, in its bleak bogland. But it's a lot more mountainous and the beaches are on a bigger, blonder scale.

The oak sculpture of a Lewis Chessman is by Stephen Hayward, and is sited near where that legendary set was found, in a stone chest covered by a sand dune. The beach at Ardriol, seen here from Carnish, is fantastic.

I'm working on a magazine story in Lewis and I've been asked not to reveal anything about it, which is understandable, but annoying: It's a truly fantastic tale. All will be revealed, eventually.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Heavenly Nescafe on Rannoch Moor, and a stag at (parking) bay


I took a last-minute decision this morning to take the westerly route from Glasgow to Inverness, by Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Fort William and Loch Ness. It's four hours, as opposed to three and a bit, but what a wonderful drive. All of the Highlands' autumnal glories were on display, and by the time I hit Rannoch Moor, the sun was breaking through the low cloud to spectacular effect.
Nescafe and a bacon roll from the caravan at the Black Mount car park was, I pondered, like having a snack in heaven. I didn't realise the cairn next to the snackvan, commemorating the Munro of all those mountainous Munroes, contains a stone from every peak in Scotland over 3000 feet high.
And this car-park has its own stag, though rather a wee one. Lots of notices saying not to feed him; lots of people ignoring them. Note the carrots.
It's the same with ducks, in my experience...only not with carrots.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Old Bushmills I staggered...


...you'd bury the dagger/in your silhouette window light go... Ah, there's nothing like a bit of Tom Waits's Tom Traubert's Blues (that's Waits Mark One, when he had proper tunes), especially in the vicinity of Bushmills itself, which is a real village, with a pub called The Distiller's Arms.
Sandy, Elaine and I had the six quid tour (good bit dearer than most Scottish distilleries), which includes a choice of free drams but, due to maintenance, no access to the (triple still) stillroom, always the highlight of distillery visits for me. Never mind, it was all really enjoyable and the place is beautiful, especially considering its size. This is very nearly industrial whisky production - the bottling lines alone are massive. It's a bit like Glenfiddich on steroids.
Great cafe with all home-made food, Irish stew and Pavlova the highlights, and a gift shop with some seriously desirable stuff, including a Great Gatsby-style Irish tweed cap which I narrowly avoided buying. I bought a half-price bar towel. The 12-year-old malt is very sweet but good.
Had a wee walk by the shores of Lough Neagh, the biggest (by area) body of fresh water in the UK. What a great place for casual boating and especially canoeing! When I come back for the North West 200 I'll bring my paddle.
Caught Quantum of Solace at the Ritz multiplex in Cookstown, and loved it. It is VERY Jason Bourne-ish...The Bourne Ultimatum second unit director did all the action scenes, Sandy told me...and the rooftop chase/fighting with every day objects material/handheld car chase material is derivative, but none the worse for it.
Anyway, to Belfast today for the show, with everyone locally breathing huge sighs of relief after yesterday's parade and protests in the city. One broken windscreen, one arrest. Times change. I remember my first visit here in 1978 as a terrified young hack, with the whole place looking broken and half-dead. what a difference. Belfast is fairly sparkling this morning. Still can't get used to policemen with handguns, though.
Back to Glasgow tonight, then Inverness in the morning. Ullapool and Stornoway still to come.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Giant's Causeway, Portrush and the delights of Northern Ireland



Arrived at George Best Belfast City Airport yesterday courtesy of FlyBe, on time and in good shape, and then got comprehensively lost trying to get the hire car (petrol, not diesel, so I kept stalling it)out of Belfast and onto the Cookstown road. Not helped by the SaNav, which refused to recognise the existence of the BT80 postcode I was heading for.
Anyway. Arrived at Cookstown ('The Retail Capital of Mid-Ulster') to find it has...an M&S Food, a giant Tesco and reputedly the widest streets in Northern Ireland. Not to mention some of the worst traffic. Northern Ireland is rural but heavily populated: well-groomed fields, high hedges and lots of houses. There's absolutely no sense of remoteness.
I called Sandy and his wife Elaine came and rescued me from the temptations of Tesco. They live in an idyllic spot not far away, down a corkscrewing set of one-and-a-half track roads, where nobody brakes for anything oncoming short of a juggernaut and horns are sounded all the time, mainly, it seemed to me, for fun. It's a bit like driving in Madrid, only grassier.
Lunch (I had imported half a dozen well-fired Glasgow rolls) and then we headed off to the Giant's Causeway, which is one of those natural phenomena that lives up to expectations in every way. It's really hard to believe that the rock formations are not man-made, and it goes on and on. It was genuinely thrilling to see it.
Tea in Portrush, the perjink (how do you spell that) Blackpool of Ulster, at a really excellent restaurant called 55 North. Slow-cooked lamb shank was splendid.
And Cuillin the husky-labrador cross got the bone.

Friday, October 31, 2008

That's quite enough about Ross and Brand. But...

...BBC Radio Five Live carried an astonishing interview (by, of all people, Nicky Campbell) with Paul Gambaccini which is easily the most revealing piece of journalism associated with the entire saga.

A full transcript is available, courtesy of Ian Wylie at the Manchester Evening News, here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Seth Lakeman live on the show


Seth Lakeman in brilliant form on today's TM Show - check it out for seven days at
BBC Radio Scotland.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Radiocroft



A beautiful day in Shetland...and the Radiocroft with its digital heart relocated to the main room downstairs..

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

That Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand radio debacle, the power of celebrity super-agents, and the unsung genius of Andy Davies

Here's a confession: I'm a Jonathan Ross fan. I think his Saturday morning radio show frequently ascends to brilliant heights, though the pally interviews with the likes of Ricky Gervais and the constant puffing of David Bowie can become wearying.

Well, I say I'm a Jonathan Ross fan. In fact, I'm a Jonathan Ross and Andy Davies fan. And here it's worth pointing you in the direction of Andy's own little corner of the BBC megasite, where he describes his role on said radio show.

Andy is a producer (one of the show's producers - there's a team of researchers and anxious young haircuts in addition to him), but what's fascinating is Andy's own definition of his role - 'producer, sidekick, giggler and devil's advocate'. Here's what he says:
Devil's Advocate - I've made this a distinct category because I believe it is a very important part of how the show has been received. If I agreed with everything Jonathan said, it would be a waste of time to be there, challenging him once in a while brings out the best in Jonathan, and gives him a chance to show off his depth of knowledge and be entertaining with it.
Andy's advantages (and he's flown in from Spain every week just for the show, so it's obviously recognised) rest on his experience, his knowledge and his maturity. He's been around the block a time or two, and he's not afraid of Ross. Who's always on the edge of that bullying sense of over-worth that's endemic among successful presenters. Especially those getting £6million a year from the BBC.
The current, and huge, controversy over Ross's comments on Radio Two's Russell Brand Show (available on YouTube
and elsewhere) is rooted in weak production. An absence of Andy, in fact. It's said that the producer looking after the segment (which was pre-recorded, unbelievably) is aged 25. Asking someone as young and presumably inexperienced to cope with the monstrous egos of Brand and Ross in full, self indulgent flight, is ridiculous. But the fact that this whole section was sent up the management line, allegedly, and approved for broadcast in the cold light of day, is about something else.
And that something else is celebrity power. Ross and Brand carry enormous clout and certain sections of the BBC are utterly under the sway of celebrity. To be precise, celebrity agents.
Brand is not Jonathan Ross, who possesses a ferocious intelligence and tremendous knowledge (film, trivia and music), not to mention that crucial weapon for radio presenters, warmth. Brand is almost entirely a product of agency grooming and hustling. His actual talent is minor, disguised beneath his looks, image and terrified, convoluted verbals. His humour depends on aggression, derision and toxic scorn.
Let's have a wee look at the management muscle behind Ross and Brand. Ross is represented by Addison Cresswell at Off the Kerb, who also have Jack Dee, Mark Lamarr (regular Ross radio-stand in and Radio 2 presenter) Jeff Green (also frequently on R2) Phill Jupitus (formerly BBC Six Music), Rowland Rivron (R2 again) Sean Lock, Alan Carr, Mark Steel, Andy Parsons and others. Brand is managed by John Noel, who also has Dermot O'Leary (Radio Two), George Lamb (Six Music) gardener Diarmuid Gavin, Mariella Frostrup, Tess Daly and the One Show's Christine Bleakley. Both have a host of 'new talent' They are keen to boost along the path to Ross-dom and Brand-dom.
Now that, from any point of view, is serious clout. More than I'm saying, in fact - take a look at their websites. From the BBC's point of view, negotiating with that kind of muscle is both easy and hard. It's easy just to take what they offer and it's hard to get on the wrong side of them. Give the unknown a try, go on. Oh, and we've got those contract renegotiations for your big time glamourpuss celebrity success coming up, haven't we? Haven't we? Have another glass of Mimosa, darling.
So, the BBC's promised investigation of the Brand-Ross-Sachs horrorshow: what is the likely outcome? A case of deputy heads must roll? Will Brand and Ross get off Scot-free? For an offence which would have brought instant dismissal for all concerned in any other industry, and possible police action (breach of the peace in Scotland, harassment in England)?
No. And it's Ross who will suffer most. The once-obvious Wogan succession now looks distinctly wobbly. He's of an age where he needs to lay foundations for elder-statesmanhood, not sad dad-rebel-without-a-contract status. Brand's a one-trick donkey who will fade as his paunch grows and his hair falls out. But Jonathan's a real talent. If only he'd had Andy by his side, this would never have happened.
In the end, celebrity power, wielded by the big agents, will tell. Expect the production staff involved to bear the brunt of blame. A quiet period from Brand and Ross, and then they'll be back. Ross may be irreparably damaged long-term, but hey, think of that £18 million three year deal. It'll last him for a few years yet. And his wife, Jane Goldman, is now a successful movie scriptwriter.
Who's her agent?

Monday, October 27, 2008

That was a hurricane, that was...

...details of our weekend trials at The Shetland News. Ferries are all over the place...no imported food in the shops ('sooth bread' has vanished) and looks like severe disruption for the rest of the week. I'm due on the boat south on Thursday night - let's hope things have settled down by then.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

During the power cut... after the storm



There's Neville, psychokiller cat, hypnotised by the candles last night. No, it's not Photoshopped! And that's Hillswick, on one of those fantastic post-storm days when you really just have to get out for a wander. And now...the northerlies!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Violent storm 11

...or thereabouts. This is Eshaness at about 2.30pm today, Saturday, from the lighthouse car park. Sorry about the shoogly video. It was extremely windy. With gusts of anything up to 80 mph even the Mighty Torslanda was creaking on her springs. As for the three thrill-seekers who had left their car and were leaning almost horizontally into the wind, anoraks extended like wings, no doubt one of them survived to tell the tale.

It's so windy at the moment that the seas are being flattened. It's also very murky, so the cliffscape is not as spectacular as it might be. So far, the power has stayed on - always the way when you invest heavily in petrol for the generator.

It's a soup kinda day: chicken stock from last night's roast, mushrooms, sweet potato and lentil with a leek and some barley thrown in. Works for me...

Friday, October 24, 2008

The greatest living singer-songwriter

I heard - indeed, was rivetted by - Randy Newman on BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs this morning. (I'd provide a link here, but for peculiar 'music rights' reasons, Desert Island Discs is not available on iPlayer or Listen again) For the first time in my life I was convinced that Kirsty Young actually knew what she was talking about: insightful questions, for the most part, though she ignored( I think: had to do morning stuff as I listened) the huge importance in the post-Katrina rehab of New Orleans of the astonishing song Louisiana 1927.

Newman (Oscar-winning soundtrack composer, orchestrator, arranger, notably on Toy Story I and II) is the greatest living singer-songwriter, despite(or because) of only making three albums in the last 20 years. His music, often drawing on hymnology and ragtime, veers from the achingly simple to meticulous parody and classical tribute. But his lyrics are easily the equal of Raymond Carver's best epigrammatic short stories. He is unafraid of truly appalling, and sometimes compulsively seductive first-person narrators (Rednecks, Short People) or of dealing in multi-layered narratives. He goes where no other songwriter has ever gone, both in black humour (Political Science) and this, a song which leaves me breathless and awed every time I hear it. Sorry about the sound quality and the uneasily moronic laughter at the start. But this is as sophisticated and emotionally insightful as songwriting has ever been.

Oh, and Desert Island Discs is repeated on Sunday morning. There's loads more performance stuff on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Glasgow in the autumn, Lathones in Fife and back to Shetland (briefly)


Autumn's my favourite time of year to be in Glasgow, probably to do with memories of University and the beginning of term, all that hope and expectation. Anyway, it was good to be in the Dear Green Place as it began to turn red, yellow and brown, with James and Martha. Susan, alas, was stuck in Shetland as we were unable to find anyone who could look after the redoubtable Lulu. It was her turn to stay at home, honest!
We stayed, first of all, at the new Travelodge at Braehead (the Krankies were also in residence)and visited what must be the worst Pizza Express in the world, at the XScape indoor skislope thingy. Rooms were OK at the TL, but the promised WiFi didn;t work and the breakfast was an abomination. Thank goodness for IKEA's cheapo pre-opening canteen offers: £8 for full ('Bigger') breakfasts for three, and unlimited free coffee. We also had one night at the Etap, atop a car park in Springfield Quay. Cheap (£32 a room) but dirty and pitched somewhere between a student hostel and a prison. Vaguely threatening clientele, too, though the fresh-baked croissants were good. Still and all, we saw family and old friends and generally absorbed ourselves in Glaswegiana. Ate Japanese, Indian, Italian and Italian and Italian. The Battlefield Rest was magnificent.
From there on in, it was luxury all the way: The Inn at Lathones, which hosted the Tom Morton Acoustic Showcase (Kevin McDermott and Esther O'Connor, with the Malt and Barley Revue next day) was absolutely lovely. Great rooms, superb food and the proximity of St Andrews. A million thanks to David, Nick and Jocelyn. A dash for Aberdeen, a rock'n'roll trip on the boat (gusting severe gale nine, but southerly, so that was OK) and we were home.
And it's good to be perched on my red sofa with the Rayburn roaring and Lulu snoring. Have to go away again next week for a trip which will take in Belfast, Cookstown, Ullapool, Glasgow, Stornoway, Rodel in Harris, Inverness, Aberdeen, and Nairn, but that should be it before Christmas. God willing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sorry, I seem to have been hacked

Someone has hacked or hijacked my Google account. It seems to have originated from China, so any strange emails or posts are NOT from me. Apologies for any alarm or annoyance caused.

69 days to Christmas in IKEA...


Following yesterday's amazing revelations of early Christmas decoration erection, I was in IKEA this morning (went in for the free coffee, was sucked around the Maze of Bankruptcy and ended up spending £75) and saw this.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Off on the boat, shopping and the Acoustic Showcase calling

Not a great forecast for tonight - up to a force eight westerly as we wallow south - me, Martha and James - in search of curries, coffee and the systematic revival of the economy through Martha's shopping.
Susan was meant to come but a dogsitting problem has developed, and as I HAVE to be south for the Acoustic Showcase at Lathones (not to mention staying behind to mop up the St Bernard slobber last time) I'm heading for Glasgow with the weans. The show will come from Pacific Quay from tomorrow through Friday.
Just to remind you: The Acoustic Showcase at the Inn at Lathones (Fife, near St Andrews) is next SATURDAY AND SUNDAY - Saturday night, starting at 9.00pm, features KEVIN MCDERMOTT (solo) and ESTHER O'CONNOR; Sunday afternoon is THE MALT AND BARLEY REVUE - me, music, three free malt whiskies and some poetry. It's quite funny...that's at 2.30 pm. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

National Poetry Day - some lines on the 'black economy'

We're inviting listeners to send in their poetic meditations on 'money' today.
Here's mine:

THE INVISIBLE MAN

I've never owned a share or stock
I have a safe but it won't lock
I've never even seen the key
such things have never bothered me
Because my cash is all in hand
I fix up cars, I service vans
for notes and coin. I find that's best
I keep it all close to my chest
In pockets in a boiler suit
And sometimes in my jeans to boot
On one thing I always depend
I get a discount when I spend
Except in certain situations
which always cause me great vexation
Like when it comes to hiring cars
And they demand a credit card
A driving licence, some ID
Some proof that I am really me
Which I don't have, but they insist
And then they say 'you don't exist.'
I shrug. Perhaps you're right I say
For now, let's just keep it that way
All that you see is what I own
A pay as you go mobile phone
Some decent shoes, a sublet flat
No need for for real names renting that
My tools, my car - it's old but goes
Some books, some music, a few clothes
When I die, I just won't be there
And you won't get your car repaired

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Changes to Acoustic showcase at Lathones (Largowards, Fife)

The Tom Morton Acoustic Showcase gigs at The Inn At Lathones, Largowards, Fife, have had to be altered.

The FRIDAY (17th October) show, with Yvonne Lyon and Dropkick, has alas had to be cancelled.

The SATURDAY show, with Esther O'Connor and Kevin McDermott, will go ahead as advertised. So will the SUNDAY afternoon performance of the Malt and Barley Revue.

More details at Mundell Music

Apologies to all concerned.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Through the snow (yesterday!) to the UK's most northerly chip shop



Blizzards on 4th October! Good grief!
We ploughed through the sleet and snow to avail ourselves of Frankie's (named for the owner's late dog) in Brae, the UK's and possibly the world's most northerly fish and chip shop. And it's FANTASTIC! Not only the wondrous frying, the freshest fish in the universe and batter of an unearthly lightness but the presence of the legendary Maria's home-made bannocks. Jean-Christophe Novelli (in Shetland for the Food Festival this weekend) eat your unctuous reduction out.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

All at sea...and check out the Sunday Herald

I'm responsible for the Sunday Herald's diary this week and next, so check it out if they put it up on their website, which sometimes, they don't. Otherwise I'll post it myself here.

Home again, for 10 days before we all head sooth to Glasgow for the October holidays. I thought the absurdly hectic summer was going to segue into an autumn of peace and quiet, but instead there seems to be loads of travelling:

After the holidays (I'll still be broadcasting, but from Glasgow) there's the Tom Morton Acoustic Showcase at the Inn at Lathones, 17-19 October. Featuring Esther O'Connor, Yvonne Lyon, Dropkick, Kevin McDermott and another performance of The Malt and Barley Revue. And before Christmas there will be other trips away for Whisky Live, a probable jaunt to Northern Ireland and then of course Children In Need in November, for which I'll be in Inverness.

All this and some very exciting news I can't blog about until contracts are signed.

Travel to and from Shetland for me has of late meant NorthLink ferries. I have to admit to having become a bit of a NorthLink fan - the 'new' (post-P&O) boats are relatively comfortable and mostly efficient, plus booking is both easy and very flexible. There's no charge for any changes or cancellations (immediate refunds if necessary) and sometimes I change bookings four or five times. Islander discount too. But if you're booking MAKE SURE you use the official NorthLink site (northlinkferries.co.uk) and and not the disgraceful imposter lurking at northlinkferries.org.

Having said that, the longest and most dangerous ferry crossing within the UK archipelago can throw up some bad weather, highly conducive to, well, throwing up. I have never been sick yet, but that's due to various techniques involving steak pie, alcohol, chips, going to bed at 6.00PM and the seasickness pill called Phenergan. The video, by the way, is the Orkney ferry Hamnavoe, though the two Shetland boats Hjaltland and Hrossey are well nigh identical. And I've been onboard when this sort of thing has been happening.

Bon voyage!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Buying copies of Spirit of Adventure


Due to my own stupidity in forgetting to bring any books with me (I ended up having to BUY my own book second hand from Charles Leakey's excellent emporium), folk attending my Inverness Bookfest do last night were unable to buy copies of Spirit of Adventure.

THEY ARE STILL AVAILABLE!

The books can be obtained from Amazon UK
http://www.amazon.co.uk

or (signed, with personal dedication if required) direct from my eBay shop, which is:
http://stores.ebay.co.uk/The-Bookcroft. Oh, and there are copies of the Tom Morton 2's rather nifty wee CD too...

BUY EARLY FOR CHRISTMAS!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Eden Court backstage

Malt and Barley Revue went brilliantly in the fab new Eden Court.

Inverness - lost glories of the Station Hotel



It's now the Royal Highland Hotel, and alas, not what it once was. For years, I would choose to stay the The Station because I loved the fading grandeur of its foyer, which was full of nooks and crannies , ancient paintings, gigantic, untended plants and lumpy sofas. It also provided a truly splendid breakfast, with the best porridge in the country. The eccentric, very aged South African barman, allegedly a former head steward on the Queen Mary, added to the general vibe.

You could get absurdly cheap room rates, too, due to an arcane hangover from its days as a railway hotel: bona fide 'highlands and islands residents' were granted a very cheap tariff, though I always suspected the worst rooms were provided in exchange. Never mind, I liked the ancient aroma of old steam trains too.

Now that absurdly grand foyer has been ruthlessly, tastelessly upgraded, the art has vanished, the shrubbery pruned. The adjoining bar has been converted into something called Ash, and the breakfast is one of the worst I've experienced in any Scottish hotel. Watery porridge, very strange scrambled eggs, greasy bacon. Worn towels, a dodgy shower BUT, it does provide free unlimited wifi.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interviewing musicians on live radio - the horror! The horror!



The live radio interview with a musician is normally, like much else in the media, a conspiracy of implicit, mutually agreed fakery. The musician has a product to promote (CD, DVD, download, gig that has sold fewer than seven tickets) and the interviewer has a show to promote. The presence of the musician serves to add 'furniture' (I prefer the word' decoration') and a tiny bit of glamour, should they be even slightly famous. On the other hand, finding and showcasing new musicians who may later become famous and glamorous is also part of promoting the show's image.
Straightforward? No. The musician will normally have done hundreds, possibly thousands of interviews where the same tedious questions keep getting asked. Even if they are comparitively obscure. Their job, if they are as professional as most US country artists (who respect the promotional process and the fans reached through it to an almost inconceivable degree) is to pretend that it's a pleasurable, fresh, interesting business, being asked (Josh Ritter) about their dad and mum the neurosurgeons or (Elvis Costello) which comes first, the lyrics or the music.
Some do act like pros,, and some behave like assholes. They do that for various reasons: jetlag, loneliness, boredom, cocaine, contempt for ill-researched questions or the bad haircut and beard of the interlocutor. Cocaine. Not enough/too much cocaine. Or sometimes because they can't (or don't want to) speak the language of the interviewer and the audience. Young or inexperienced bands are sometimes nervous, and they can try and disguise that with aggression, surliness or lots of giggling.

This is one reason for splitting a group up, asking beforehand for the two best speakers - or one - and INSISTING only they have a microphone. Shut the smartass drummer (or whoever) up! An interview with four people at the same time NEVER works, and that's one reason the Sigur Ros interview shown here is such a car crash. There's a group dynamic (fuelled by the band's common Icelandic language) and a subtext: there's been a problem beforehand, one member of the group is in a total, simmering fury, and his colleagues know that. Unfortunately, the DJ - well-researched, clearly a fan, knowledgeable and doing his bloody best - is outnumbered and indeed shut out of what any band is - an exclusive gang. And in the case of Sigur Ros, not just people whose first language isn't English, but highly self-conscious 'artists' as well. As soon as someone says 'we just make music; success is immaterial to us' you know they couldn't give shit about communicating with their audience. and always, the DJ IS the audience.
The interviewer, it must be said, is often at fault. Fandom, a desire to be loved or respected by the musician, is often fatal (the radio guru Dan O'Day was the first person I've heard articulate this). It leads to a feeling of intimidation and sometimes wandering, nervous questions. The interviewee ALWAYS picks up on this, either through verbal cues or body language (if the interview, as comparitively few are, is face to face; most are done using remote studios and ISDN connections).

For me, a first encounter with Steve Earle (the epitome of utterly pro country attitude, even though everything he says has already been said in EXACTLY those words) was nerve wracking and at first embarrassing, as I couldn't speak properly; and then there was the legendary Ivor Cutler interview, in which the horrible old bastard determined to sneak in some swear words and did his level best to intimidate the hell out of me. Succeeding, it should be said. Games players. To hell with them.

Musicians never, or hardly ever ask you out to dinner, or really want you backstage for drinks. If they do issue an invitation, you should never go. They are all, without exception, egomaniacs you can never praise enough (they have hundreds of people slavering over them, remember at gigs every night). They hate criticism of even the most constructive kind. They are always right. They are, like footballers, afforded a respect that has nothing to do with their intelligence. They continually pontificate on subjects they know nothing about. They think they can do your job better than you do. And if they are friendly, it's because their PR person suggested it, or because they want something. And it's never your physical charms or witty conversation: It's a session, an album of the week or just whimpering, lifelong devotion they seek and expect.

The thing is, for that period when you're on air, when you're presenting the show, doing the interviews, you're the host in YOUR house, and they're YOUR guests. OK, it's a pleasure, maybe even a privilege to have them there, but they should know the etiquette and behave with respect. They (or their people) should have researched the expectations and context of the show. They should also realise that always, always, ALWAYS, the DJ and the audience has the last word. That when he or she has been shown out, the show goes on and that the audience is for the SHOW, not the guest. The emails will start flying (what a dickhead that guy was) and the presenter may pass some dismissive comment or more likely, cease to play the artist's records as much, as enthusiastically, or at all. That affects sales. And they're selling. That's what they do.

So. Only EVER have people in you're actually keen to talk to. Don't waste your time on famous people you despise. Don't allow yourself or your producers to be sold some loser by a PR person in exchange for a promise of somebody famous and good the following week. Do (or read) the research, get (one or two of them) in, ask the questions, get them to play a couple of songs. Enter into that conspiracy of familiarity and ease with them. That's your job, and theirs. Psychologists call it 'deep acting.' Everyone else calls it pretending.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it will be a magical encounter of true minds. Or seem that way to the listener.

Oh, and never do phone interviews with people on tour buses or in taxis. Particularly not with Rufus Wainwright or Adam Duritz from Counting Crows. It probably helps not to call him Adam Durex. And if you want to interview Sigur Ros, speak Hopelandic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Radio interview hell

Hell's teeth. This interview with Glasgow's own Hardeep Singh Kohli almost gave me a panic attack, such is the horrific, beyond-toe-curling embarrassment in listening to Les Ross of BBC West Midlands (Three Sony Awards, MBE for services to broadcasting, won DJ of the Year in 1965, beating Johnnie Walker) channel Alan Partridge while Hardeep maintains his dignity and eventually walks out.

I mean, I've had some truly dreadful moments myself on radio. There was the time, nervous as a kitten, I informed a survivor of a concentration camp as follows 'your interrogation will begin in a few moments'. Or the famous opera singer I described as 'performing in a pair of encrusted underpants.' Oh, and probably worse.

Thanks to those who passed this link on to me. It's widely available, notably on Media Monkey at the Guardian and on The Word Magazine blog.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Scary lift


The Best Western Palace Hotel next to the River Ness in Inverness is bus tour central, a heaving maelstrom of (mostly elderly) travellers. And me. Actually, it's not a bad hotel, with a new swimming pool and really good service. Great porridge at breakfast time, too. I wasn't paying, but it's not cheap. There were a few businessfolk taking advantage of the (at last, a hotel with intersense!)free wi-fi, but the really striking thing for me about the place was not the (rather lovely) room with giant flat screen telly or the availability of Starbucks coffee, but the extraordinary lift.

The rest of the hotel has been refurbished and modernised, but the lift is like something from a 1940's black and white movie. There's a kind of cage door that you slam shut, then two wooden doors you have to close manually, before pressing a button sends it shooting jerkily upwards or downwards. You watch the wall passing by, keeping your fingers well clear.

Alas, it's noisy, and woke me up at 6.30 this morning. And, no, I wasn't sleeping in it.