Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thirty-one 'records' I quite liked in 2013

Thirty-one of the albums I quite liked this year (new, and stumbled upon from the past)

I had a bit of a problem with this list, as I found that – partly due to the show – much of my time was spent listening to individual tracks rather than entire 'albums'. Which of course raises the question of whether the 'album' is a song-package relevant to today's digital age. I guess for me it always will be, as  my musical tastes were formed in the days of  12-inch vinyl, and there is a lot of eBay plastic nostalgia here. But I came very close to just working out a list of individual tracks, and who knows what will happen next year, 'if we're spared' ! 

I'm not saying these are the best albums I listened to during 2013, but as I write in December, they're the ones that stick in my mind. I know there are some very highly praised and obvious things that are not there, and that local and personal bias may come through on occasion, but well...what can I say? I have no defence.

In no special order:


Pictish Trail – Secret Soundz Vol 2
Johnny Lynch paints his masterpiece. 2013 saw the Eigg/Fife/Fence/Lost Map division taking place. You can smell the secret acrimony.Who knows what's really going on, but there's some great music floating from one archipelago and a seaboard.

Foy Vance - Joy of Nothing
Born in Bangor, NI, raised partly in Oklahoma, living in Aberfeldy. Fantastic Morrison/Miller voice, songwriting on this is superb. The Ed Sheeran/Bonnie Raitt guest spots were a bit obvious. Serious US record company muscle. Expect worldwide success in 2014 if he doesn't go hermit in Perthshire..

Joe West and the Santa Fe Revue – Blood Red Velvet
The bold Joe and his exquisite art/country ensemble from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Funny, charming, beautifully sung and played, very poignant and funny. Oh, to be in Santa Fe on a Thursday night to watch an evening of this unfold. 'Hometown Shit Beer' is beyond brilliant.

Mr Niz – The Gospel According to Mr Niz
In which top Scottish sessioneer Stuart Nisbet, with a curiously parallel background to Foy Vance (expat fundamentalist preacher's son) revisits some classic gospel tunes with tremendous heart, soul and instrumental expertise. And an unexpectedly affecting voice.

Yvonne Lyon – These Small Rebellions
Greenock based, Coatbridge-produced, really resonant songs with depth and great melodic strengths, beautifully sung.

Rotifer – The Cavalry Never Showed Up
Edgy, dark, witty and full of energy and insight. Robert Rotifer's classic Aberdeen Marine Lab echoes in my head every time I arrive in Castle Greyskull, but this tackles age, culture, politics and the history of rock'n'roll with a colloquial verve astonishing in one whose first language isn't even English. Loads of great scrapy jangle as well.

Legend – the first album (weird beach scene cover)
Legend – the second album (the 'flaming Chelsea boot' cover)
Mickey Jupp's three Legend albums (from the late 60s/early 70s) have been lovingly repackaged and the first one especially takes me back to Fairbairns in Troon in 1970, where it sat reducing in price week by week until my friend Dougie bought it. All acoustic, 'National Gas' is a superb track. Tony Visconti produced the 'flaming boot' record and it has the original, wondrous version of Dr Feelgood's Cheque Book on it.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
My ultra-discriminating and gig-seasoned daughter got into the Barrowland show and said it was the best thing she'd ever seen. The record has its ups and downs but it's the sense of ambition and scope, not to mention sheer breathtaking power, that I love. And Bowie's cameo makes up for his terrible album.

Nic Jones - Penguin Eggs
Introduced via the superb BBC4 documentary. Loved it so much I bought a 1979 Fylde Orsino guitar. The version of The Humpback Whale on this is absolutely staggering.

Sam Cooke – Portrait of a Legend 1956-64
Got into this via Spotify and Peter Guralnick's astonishing and massive biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, which is shocking, revelatory and moving. There is an unbelievable amount of sex in it. But the incredible depth and range of Cooke's abilities, from commerce to production, songwriting to performance are key. Put this record on and you won't believe he wrote all these stone-cold classics. And the sense of a developing talent cut short is tragic.

Dumb and Dumber – original movie soundtrack
The Farrelly Brothers have the 'proper' Dumb and Dumber sequel coming out in 2014 (original cast, with the sublime Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey, but what a soundtrack the first film (my favourite, most watched comedy of all time, no question) had. Pete Droge, Crash Test Dummies, Butthole Surfers, The Proclaimers for starters.

Attic Lights – Super De Luxe
Back with their soaring melodic jangle and some great songwriting. One of the session highlights of Morton Through Midnight this year.

This is Blues (Guy Stevens' Sue Records compilation)
I got this as a cut-out bargain in Troon when I was about 13 and had never heard people like Elmore James or Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton, Lowell Fulsom or Homesick James. Changed my life and so a total pleasure to acquire it on vinyl. This time without the ruined front cover due to scrubbing to get the bargain price stickers off.

The Age of Atlantic (1970 Atlantic compilation)
I bought this new when it came out (99p) because I couldn't afford full-price albums at 14. I know every note, every whisper on this record. Clapton's playing on Delaney and Bonnie's Comin' Home is staggering. And then there's the Allmans, the MC5, Led Zeppelin (twice!) and Dr John. Not to mention Buffalo Springfield and Yes when they were good...

Fill Your Head With Rock: The Sound of the Seventies (1970 CBS compilation)
Not as good as its 'The Rock Machine Turns You On' predecessor, but a bargain double album full of tracks that were hugely influential on my subsequent tastes: Al Stewart, Leonard Cohen, the exquisite Driving Wheel from Tom Rush, Taj Mahal and Janis Joplin. Bought on vinyl without the ostensibly devil-worshipping Come to the Sabbath scored out with an evangelical screwdriver!

Andy Irvine and Paul Brady – album
An absolute revelation, fuelled by Brady's appearance in Shetland and an interview. Hard Station may be his Gerry-Rafferty-inspired contemporary singer-songwriter breakthrough, but listen to this and you can hear why hardline devotees of traditional Irish folk felt betrayed. His approach to the ballad Arthur Macbride is utterly breathtaking, both vocally and instrumentally.

Kid Canaveral – Now That You Are A Dancer
More from the Fence-to-Lost Map stable. I fear KC (Kid Canaveral as opposed to King Creosote) may have been slightly nudged off course by all the shenanigans. I hope not.

Captain Beefheart – Safe As Milk
Featuring the young Ryland P Cooder in 1967 and as accessible as Beefheart ever was. Disturbing as ever, though, due to those strange shifts in time signature and the (best left indecipherable) lyrics.

Lost Soul Band – the Land of Do as You Please
Gordon Grahame, Mike Scott with splenetic rage instead of mysticism and ambition. A wonderful band and a major talent who had the wrong record company at the wrong time.

Gareth Davies-Jones – Now But Not Yet
Like Yvonne Lyon, Gareth is from/hovers on the edge of the Christian music scene and both albums were produced in Coatbridge's Foundry Music Labs by Graeme Duffin and Sandy Jones. There are some lovely songs on this, though, none more so than the opener, Dawn.

Billy Bragg - Tooth and Nail
Produced by the wondrous Joe Henry, this album has a laid-back Americana feel that initially distracts from the typical political power of some songs, notably the apocalyptic There Will Be a Reckoning.. Some lovely lascivious wordplay on Handyman and the closing optimism of There Will Be a Better Day is splendid. Bastard wouldn't do an interview though.

Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
I was worried that FR had spent too much time on this and that their thunder had to an extent been stolen by fellow travellers in glottal stop territory Admiral Fallow, but no worries. All Scott Hutchison's plangent power is intact.

British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
Why aren't this lot as big as U2? They have the electric muscle and the anthems. Is it the onstage-shrubbery? They're a stadium band hiding their light show under a bush.

Howlin' Wolf – Blues from Hell
Arrived at via Beefheart and an old TV appearance. Mighty, mighty music with enormous amounts of humour, aggression and style.

Kevin Ayers – Songs for Insane Times (Anthology)
Huge compilation that reveals one of the great English eccentric talents in all its variations. Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes...it's like Graham Greene filtered through Lord Snooty, Noel Coward, Chuck Berry and, well, Soft Machine.

Clifford T Ward – Home Thoughts from Abroad
Am I the only person in the whole world who rates the late Clifford? Lushly orchestrated, very English chamber pop with real emotional power. Avoid the whimsy and there's some wonderful things here.

Graham Kendrick – Footsteps on the Sea
As a member of the Key Record Club in 1972, this arrived in the post, unrequested, and at 16 I was transfixed. Christian singer-songwriter material, sung with serious sinus issues and with the legendary Gordon Giltrap on guitar, but done with a lot more than just sincerity. Proper poetry, actually, in places. I later got to know Graham and he became the titan of waved-arm worship song that he is today. But before he was hoist on his own theological petard, he was great. The acoustic sound of this on vintage vinyl is magical too.

Larry Norman – Only Visiting This Planet
Lyrically it's almost unlistenable, and hindsight/knowledge/the internet makes the late Larry's up-and-down (but very American gospel – see Sam Cooke) life seem odd and disturbing. But the sheer bonkers power of 'Six O' Clock news' and the threatening fundamentalist bombast of 'Why Don't You Look Into Jesus' crunch effectively. Hugely important figure for those of us who grew up in the extreme corners of Christianity.

Peter Nardini – Hug. Came to this and indeed getting Peter on the show through the fuss over his song 'Larkhall' which is both very old and very funny, still. I had no idea of his own family ties to the place. One of the great overlooked Scottish songwriters – better and a lot funnier than The Proclaimers and with a real cutting intelligence. His paintings are superb, and very good value for money when you compare the prices to those of other visual artists.

Tom Waits – Round Midnight: The Minneapolis Broadcast 1975.
Waits at his (apparently) sozzled piano bar peak, with all the tall tales and Nighthawks at the Diner songs. For some of us, everything from Raindogs on will be a let down. But this? This is gin alley magic.




Monday, December 09, 2013

Spirit of Shetland: Exclusive interview with the man behind the UK's most northerly distillery




Stuart Nickerson is the man behind the second attempt to establish a Shetland whisky 
distillery, at the former RAF Saxa Vord in Unst. He means business. And he has the 
experience to back up his plans. He spoke exclusively to Shetland Life Magazine about the possibility of being up and running within two years, making gin as well as whisky, and why Unst is the perfect place for a distillery.

(copyright Shetland Life Magazine 2013)


Can you tell me a bit about yourself? What are your 
credentials for setting up a distillery?

I left university back in 1979 – I did chemical
engineering – and joined a processing equipment
company, Henry Balfour in Fife. They serviced the
whisky industry, mainly buiding mash tuns and
evaporators, and as a result I visited a few distilleries –
Bunnahbhaiin, Convalmore, Rothes – and I just fell in
love with the industry. It might have helped that there
were a few drams on offer each time I went! It was
fabulous.

The next minute an opportunity came up to join
Bells as it was in those days, an independent company,
at Dufftown. I joined them as a chemist, theoretically,
but basically worked as a chemical engineer across
four distilleries. I took over Bladnoch (in Wigtown) and
got that back working for them. Then an opportunity
came up to become manager at Highland Park in 1984,
and that took me to Orkney for three years. Highland
Distillers then asked me to move to Glenrothes, so I
took that on until 1987, when I spent a couple of years
at Glenglassaugh. Due to the lure of some extra pennies
I joined United Distillers as project manager, looking
after all their malt distilleries. I loved that so much I was
there for 15 months! Draw your own conclusions.

In 1990 I went to work for William Grants. I
was that company for 14 years, and that probably tells
you how much I liked William Grants! So I was there,
general manager at Glenfiddich-Balvenie-Kininvie
for five years before moving down to Girvan where I became
general manager for a year. For the rest of my
time at Grants I was Distilling Director for the whole
company.

By 2004 my kids had left home – it was mutual
decision, shall we say, that I leave Grants and that
was when I started up on my own, running my
own business, the Malt Whisky Company, initially
as a consultancy. A couple of years down the line
I was asked to look at purchasing a distillery for
some investors, and I approached Highland about
Glenglassaugh. I bought it on behalf of those investors
and then managed it for five years before it was sold to
Benriach earlier this year.

Since then I’ve been running the Malt Whisky
Company and it’s going very well – the consultancy
in particular as so many people are wanting to build
distilleries at the moment! I’ve also started trading
in casks, to a small extent. Mostly I deal with two
independent bottlers overseas.

Why consider a distillery in Shetland?

I’d only been in Shetland once, when I was asked to do
a bit of work on behalf of the previous business that
was trying to set up a distillery – that’s Blackwoods,
Caroline Whitefield. I had a look at the water source
on her behalf, had a quick look at her business plan
and I saw great potential if the business plan was done
properly. Coincidentally, I happened to hear from Frank
Strang (owner of the RAF Saxa Vord site) earlier this
year, and he was keen to the resurrect the idea. We got
together and we’ve seen an opportunity to build a wee
distillery.

Why specifically Shetland?

Because it is the last
remaining part of Scotland that doesn’t have a distillery.
And it is the most northerly – it’s got a fantastic USP.
And once you get to Shetland – I’ve lived in Orkney,
I’ve lived all over the mainland – but Shetland has
something unique, definitely.

You’ll have to bring in barley, but what about natural 
resources?

The water supply is very good. Unst water – no problem
there. But it’s the people. everyone’s so interested,
and that for me is very important. There’s no point in
making a product if you don’t have the people beside
you who want to sell it. Every single resident as far as
I can see in Unst – everybody I’ve met – seems very
enthusiastic.

Will there be a tourist element to the distillery?

There won’t be a lovely big fancy visitor centre –
because we just don’t have enough visitors up there.
But there will be a tourist element, so that people
can see round. Snd we’ll try and sell things to people
as well. Another thing that attracted me is that right
next door we have Valhalla Brewery and just having
somebody with that experience next door to you is very
helpful. Plus the fact that there will be some synergies
between brewing and distilling we can build on.

Didn’t it used to be illegal to have a brewery and a 
distillery so close together?

There are lots of things that used to be against the law,
and no longer are! Illicit distilling is certainly against the
law – we won’t be doing that!

How many folk will be employed?

Initially only a couple of people. But they will have a lot
of responsibility and an incredibly varied job. I think
we’ll have lots of fun.

Will all the product be tankered south? Will it be aged or 
bottled in Shetland?

The plan is to have a warehouse and a small bottling
hall – nothing elaborate. Everything we did at
Glenglassaugh was hand bottled until we were taken
over by Benriach. We were doing over 2000 bottles a
year there – so if we could do that out of the kitchen of
an old house we can make a better bottling proposition
here.

Have you any ideas about what the whisky you make will 
be like, what it will taste like? Will it be a peaty malt?

The plan is to have lots of character. There will be a bit
more depth than lighter lowlands, a roundness to it and
hopefully quite a bit of fruitiness. I’d like to have a lot
of sherry wood content. Many people like that and it’ll
help give it depth. Will there be peat – in my opinion
yes, there will be a bit of peat, but it might not be there
all the time. We might have two streams of contrasting
whiskies, in fact.

How much whisky will the distillery make?

Initially 30,000 litres of alcohol per year, which to be
honest is tiny – an absolute drop in the ocean!

What about branding, image, names?

We don’t have a name yet. If anybody wants to come
up with names please give us a shout! I’m leaning
towards Saxa Vord for the distillery, because, well, that’s
where it is, but the branding of the actual product –
that would be different. It could be associated with
music. I don’t see why not. Music is so much associated
with Shetland – I was at this year’s folk festival and I
found it was stunning. It was amazing to see the young
kids and what they can do with their music here, so
yes, it would be good to have some kind of association
with music.

Obviously there will be a Viking connection in there
somewhere. There’s got to be because I think that’s
what brands Shetland around the world, to be honest.

When do you expect the distillery to be up and running?

If everything had gone to plan – we were hoping to
buy a second hand distillery, mash tuns, stills and
all, a very small one – and we were up to speed with
planning permission, HMRC approvals and the like …
then we could have been up and running sometime
in April next year, 2014. However, it looks like we will
not get the second hand equipment from Sweden. We
have already started to investigate other options which
basically means installing new equipment.

We are obtaining quotes at the moment and this
will result in an inevitable delay to the project and
will make the capital cost higher. However we still
believe that the finances work and will be appealing to
investors and so we are all fully committed to it.

As we will now be installing new equipment then
the installation of a whisky distillery in Shetland is
provisionally delayed by up to two years, however
we are also looking at options that will speed up this
process.

We are trying to push ahead, and there are things
that help us are first, the size – because it’s small the
planning permissions are much less restrictive – and
second, we don’t have to construct a building – it’s
there already.

I have to say that we’ve had great co-operation
with the council and all the other organisations we’ve
had to deal with. They’ve all been great: SEPA, SNH,
the Scottish Agricultural Colleges and Environmental
Health – everybody is very much behind it I think.
Obviously we have various regulations to comply with,
but people are trying to be helpful, and not put barriers
in the way.

The last attempt at a distillery asked people locally to 
invest in bonds which would possibly give them a 
return, and at least a case of whisky …

No, there will be no bonds like that. Our business plan
is being ratified at the moment by our accountants
and once that’s done we will be looking for some
amount of investment – but that will be from the City,
larger financiers and the like. what we will do once
the kit is in place and we’re running is offer people the
chance to buy casks of whisky for investment or for
drinking the future, once the whisky is mature. I’ve
been in this business for 30 years, and I wouldn’t want
to do anything which would harm the project or my
reputation. I’ve heard too many bad stories.

You can’t sell what you’ve distilled as Scotch Whisky until 
it’s matured in oak for three years. What will you do to 
make money from the distillery during that initial three 
years?

As I’ve said, we plan to sell casks and warehouse them
for the purchasers. And we’ll sell brand new spirit. I’m
thinking that could be called Spirit of Shetland. When
I was at Glenglassaugh we bottled six-month-old spirit
from red wine casks and 12-month from bourbon
casks. That provided – different colours and different
flavours. It was interesting and we might look at that.
I’m also investigating the possibility of putting in a
gin still as well, and running that in parallel. And that
would be gin actually made and bottled in Shetland,
with real Shetland provenance! Cheers!

Copyright Shetland Life Magazine 2013. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Then play on: Looking back at the weekend, the Clutha tragedy, and being on air when it happened




If there was one thing I was looking forward to during the three live, three-hour Morton Through Midnight shows I present (10.00pm to 1.00am, BBC Radio Scotland, Friday through Sunday) it was playing a track called Maybe I'll Come Back Home, by a band calling themselves Fantastic Lights. An old friend was involved, emerging from a musical silence, at least in public, that had lasted almost 25 years, and we would be first to play it anywhere.
We played that track at 10.29pm. By the time the segue of it and the following song, The Rolling Stones' Fool To Cry, was over, Twitter was already flickering with aghast stories that seemed to make no sense: a helicopter had apparently crashed onto a crowded pub in Glasgow. The Clutha Vaults.

I broadcast from my home in the Shetland Islands, but my producer Ravi Sagoo and senior producer Nick Low of Demus Productions, the company that makes Morton Through Midnight for BBC Radio Scotland, were both working from the BBC's Glasgow HQ at Pacific Quay, a couple of miles along the River Clyde from the Clutha. Twitter and Facebook are crucial aspects of the show's identity, allowing listeners throughout the world to participate, argue, suggest songs and generally become involved in the whole process of broadcasting. And the vibrant Scottish music scene is heavily represented in my own and the show's social media. A band, Esperanza, had been playing at the Clutha which is one of the city's most active small music venues. Amazing, shocking iPhone pictures of absolute clarity emerged quickly. Were they too clear? Was this some kind of movie shoot, or a hoax?

We played more music (the show has a particular bias towards Scottish pop, folk and rock, new and old, but plays quality music with a middle-aged bent from all over the world) but it was difficult to concentrate on the usual comedic conversational trivia of a Friday night (one theme was home brewing). More and more pictures and shocked eye-eyewitness accounts were coming in. Nick spoke to Martin Smedley, one of a handful of journalists across BBC radio and TV who were in the building so late, on what is usually one of the week's quietest nights. He was getting the same unconfirmed information. Sky News and BBC News 24 began carrying the Tweeted pictures, but again there was absolutely no official confirmation.

We had a live news bulletin imminent at 11.00 pm and it became apparent that this was no hoax, that something truly dreadful had happened. As Martin mobilised the news team in Glasgow, I pulled the comedy home brewing tales that were coming in and kept the introductions to records short. We began referencing the incident on our own Twitter and Facebook feeds. The 11.00 bulletin ran the story at the top, cautiously and rightly prefacing everything with 'reports are coming in' but brilliantly using the first, shocked telephone interview with Jim Murphy MP.

What to do next? Facebook and Twitter were going into overdrive and it was quickly clear that this was very, very serious. But there was still no official confirmation or anything yet from BBC reporters on the ground. We had a half-hour pre-recorded interview, heavily trailed, with the legendary guitarist and singer Dave Edmunds, which would run from about 11.15pm to 11.45pm. After discussions with news, it was decided to play that out, while the news gathering operation swung fully into action, and there would be an extended bulletin at midnight. I began reTweeting and Facebooking links to confirmed BBC Breaking News reports online.

I was reeling by that time as we were all aware of the Clutha and feared we'd know some of the victims too. After the 11.00pm news I just said I was shocked (“slightly shocked...disturbed...well, more than slightly...”) . That Dave Edmunds interview seemed hours long. Always, in the back of my journalistic mind, I was wondering (a) if we should be playing music at all, (b) how much should a music presenter say during a massive breaking story like this, and (c) how much could we trust the stuff coming in on Twitter?

Before and after the package (which gave our news folk the time to get reporters to the Clutha and to organise what quickly became a massive news gathering operation) I reiterated what we knew for sure and that there would an extended news at midnight. By this time one of the clearest dichotomies between Twitter and official news reports was the nature of the helicopter. Pictures online showed clearly that it was a police aircraft, but news outlets were hesitant. Retweeting the pictures without comment seemed enough, though I found myself referring to 'the crash of a police helicopter' while trailing ahead to the news...

The midnight bulletin had eyewitness reports, BBC reporter Andrew Kerr at the scene, what official confirmation was to be had and the detailed account of the helicopter's descent by The Sun's Gordon Smart . Glasgow-based staff were now covering the story for all BBC outlets in radio, TV and online and the demands on them were enormous. Now what for us? Pull the show from midnight and hand over to rolling news reports?

News settled on an extra bulletin at 12.30. We sifted through the music running order and extracted everything potentially jarring or offensive in tone or lyrical content. We began scheduling in calmer, longer, more instrumental tracks. Otis Redding first, and trailing ahead to the 12.30am news.

By this time we'd had one or two angry texts asking why we were playing music at a time like this, but many more praising the way things were being handled. This probably represented listeners who had tuned in only to try and catch up with what was happening, and those who regularly listen to BBC Radio Scotland at that time of night.
That last hour was very difficult. It seemed right to briefly comment on the seriousness of the situation and to segue tracks together, as well as constantly trailing ahead to news, while keeping the social media feeds up to date and relaying any confirmed information we could. The delay in any official number being made available for emergency information seemed interminable. On reflection, we did the best we could in trying circumstances. 

At 1.00 am there was I think an absolute model of responsible news reporting from BBC Radio Scotland: Proper, thoughtful choice of eyewitness reports, calm reportage, the facts and the right amount of background and colour. At the very least, the fact that there was music being broadcast beforehand provided the time for that to happen.

SATURDAY

By late Saturday afternoon, the scale of the tragedy was clear, official and political responses were in and the awful situation had stabilised enough for us to know that we would be broadcasting three hours of music that night. But what to play? And to talk about? On what was St Andrew's night?

To me, there seemed no choice: Glasgow is my home city and we should pay tribute to it, celebrate it, long for it, recognise its spirit and try and grieve with it. This had been a seven-nights-a-week live music pub, some of our regular listeners knew the place well, knew its owners and the bands who played there. Anything else would be disrespectful. But it was also St Andrew's night and the notion we'd had previously of playing lots of records by people called Andrew might still work, if toned down.

I began looking for songs about Glasgow or from Glasgow musicians. Co-incidentally, my former colleague at The Scotsman, the London-based writer Audrey Gillan, posted a link to her own Glasgow playlist on Spotify and notably the Billy Connolly song I Wish I was in Glasgow, performed by Iain Mackintosh. By the time producer Gregor Reid and I  were preparing the programme down the line between Shetland and Glasgow at 9.00pm, we had a rough running order worked out.

We started with Michael Marra's great anthem Mother Glasgow, performed by Hue and Cry. We ended three hours later with Frankie Miller singing Dougie Maclean's Caledonia. We had many responses and reactions to the tragedy from listeners. By the last hour, people were sharing stories about other St Andrew's nights they had known, and the mood was growing less sombre.

I suppose I've always seen these late night radio shows as the conversations I would have with a bunch of friends if they were all round at my house and I was in charge of the record player. Like any social gathering you respond to circumstances, talk seriously, laugh, cry, fall out and make up. Sometime you even let folk choose the occasional record themselves...

In the end, it's about community, I suppose. We talk, we listen, we love music, we play records. And music, is, of course, eternal.


Links:
Morton Through Midnight, 29th November


Morton Through Midnight, 1st December:


Friday, November 22, 2013

Bighugedogs: Bulletin #1 - prospect of cat

Twenty-two stones of St Bernard, in two moulting packages, currently adorn the red couch in the kitchen.

They are snoring. Well, five-year-old rescue mutt Rug is snoring, rhythmically. Lulu, who is 11 years old - ancient for a dog as enormous as she is - is dreaming, so she yelps, grunts and groans, twitching occasionally, all her past adventures with sheep, postmen, Historic Scotland building inspectors, seals and the Great Dane who lives next door (Baskerville by name) presumably bouncing around her enormous head and minuscule brain.

As she twists and turns in her sleep, the room shakes. As she breathes, the room wobbles, the air vibrates. Rug, poor soul, mistreated throughout her previous life, kept in a cage, battered and berated, makes less immediate impact, but is friskier when awake. And that can see tables upended, crockery smashed, and small children sent flying by an innocently wagging tail.

So this is what passes for quiet, with both dogs asleep. And they sleep a lot. I've known them collapse after their evening walk and not haul themselves from their various sofas (they favour four, the most comfortable in the house) until two the next afternoon. They are, thankfully, both continent. Only once, after Lulu managed to get at a bucket of used chip oil, drinking about four litres, did disaster strike, and a seriously soiled sofa had to be disposed of. She had the grace to be very upset. But not as upset as I was. Or the binmen.

In the morning calm, I regard the two dogs, and think about cats. I'm pondering a local advert: 'Wanted, feline mousekiller, housetrained, neutered, not viciously vengeful when aggrieved, non-allergenic, must like dogs. Very big dogs. Or at least put up with them. Also, must be robust.' We have killed, in this old house, 90 mice since the end of September. It is now mid-November. There are mousetraps in every corner, poison all over the place. The metallic aroma of rotting rodent is omnipresent.

Alas, the last kitty was killed by Lulu. Not in a frenzy of saliva-flecked violence, but because Lulu  fell asleep on top of the poor creature. He wasn't flattened, just somewhat squashed. And suffocated. Arnold - that was his name - had gone to sleep, ill-advisedly on a St Bernard couch. Perhaps the soft, warm underbelly of a dog was initially not too uncomfortable. Twelve hours later, though, the pressure and lack of oxygen had done for Arnie.

I'd approach the Cats Protection League for one of their surplus-to-requirements kittens, but is it fair to bring one into this dog-heavy (and heavy dog) environment? And how would the St Bernards feel?  Once you've seen two 11 stone dogs trying to chase a cat up a set of curtains, you don't easily forget.

Maybe I'll have another think about it. And let sleeping dogs lie.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two gigs on the mainland this week: new whiskies, new songs, new guitars...




The Malt and Barley Revue hits the road again this week with gigs in Bo'Ness and Birnam, three brand new whiskies to taste, one or two new songs and a couple of guitars that fit my over-large hands rather better than the wee travel instrument I was using. Good as it was!

I'm looking forward to the show at the Bo'Ness Barony Theatre on Thursday 14 November - tickets still available. As In Birnam, (the Arts and Conference Centre) on Saturday 16 November, I'll be accompanied by Angus MacRaild from Whisky Online. Angus is a specialist in valuing old and rare whiskies, so if you have anything lying about in cupboard, cellar or loft, bring it along and he'll tell you how much it's worth!

He'll be guiding you through the delights of the three superb drams we have for your consumption. As usual, there will be songs, stories and a daft poems as well as the whisky. Oh, and signed copies of my new book A Whisky In Monsterville will be on sale - a rare chance to get hold of the print-and-paper version. Also the last few copies of Spirit of Adventure at a bargain price.

Tickets cost less than the price of three drams in a bar! Bargain!

Hope to see you there.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Remembrance: The tragedy of HMS Bullen and the bodies the sea returned

My editorial from this month's Shetland Life Magazine:

“To the world, he was just one. To me, he was all the world.”




November is the month of remembrance. Remembering the dead of not just two world wars, but the wars that have taken place since. The ones still going on. Those who left to serve and fight, but never returned, and those who came here to die. There were 78 recorded air crashes on or around Shetland in World War Two, many involving multiple fatalities.
And there were those given up by the sea. It’s something rarely mentioned or discussed, and awful to contemplate - the many, many bodies washed ashore here in the course of world War One and World War Two. But a cursory look at the stones in our cemeteries reveal the appalling numbers. The recent notices that have appeared on graveyard gates pointing out that Commonwealth War Graves lie within will perhaps have drawn folks’ attention to this for the first time. The ones in Eshaness and Hillswick drew mine.
There are other signs of death and destruction still visible. The remains of some of those air crashes, are, as this magazine has often pointed out, still lying on Shetland hills. You can see the solidified remnants of heavy bunker oil from long-lost convoys ingrained in outcrops of rock, and until quite recently a bale of raw latex, cargo from a sunken cargo ship, was used to hold down hauled-up boats at Heylor.
But the gravestones all tell stories. Notably the one on the front cover of this magazine, which you will find in the old Hillswick graveyard at the West Ayre - site of an ancient kirk, with nearby monastic settlements and a broch also indicated. A place which has always been special, probably always holy, for as long as humans have been here.
The story of Petty Officer NE Lown  centres on HMS Bullen, a Captain class Frigate built in the USA as part of the lend-lease scheme which saw a great deal of military materiel being provided for the use of British Forces in the Second World War. She was system built as a submarine hunter, welded together like the notorious Liberty Ships, and her crew, probably including PO Lown, travelled to New York aboard the Queen Mary to bring her back across the Atlantic. They had some adventures in the USA, some of which you can hear about in the voice of one of the crew members, Rating John Albert Hodge interviewed here http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80020888 for the Imperial War Museum’s archives.
HMS Bullen - named for one Nelson’s commanders at the Battle of Trafalgar - joined the 19th Escort Group based at Belfast, and on 6 December 1944 she was off Cape Wrath, protecting a convoy which came under U-Boat attack. A torpedo from  U-775, commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Taschenmacher, hit her amidships, an explosion occured on the starboard side, just behind the funnel. The aft engine room and boiler room probably flooded immediately. The ship quickly broke in two, the forepart turning on its beam ends and the aft-section floating vertically Within an hour and six minutes, both parts of the ship had sunk completely. Ninety-seven men were rescued, many in a poor state from cold, injury or from inhaling oil. Seventy-two died. U-775 sank only the Bullen and one merchant ship. She was only at sea for a total of 86 days.
Erich Taschenmacher survived the war, surrendering U-775, which was sunk by the Royal Navy along with dozens of other empty U-boats. U-775 was used for target practice.
Petty Officer Norman Lown, aged 27 and leaving a widow at his home in Dover, Lilian Rose, was carried hundreds of miles to Shetland, along with three other HMS Bullen crew: Able Seaman Arthur Wealthall was buried at Eshaness, Leading Stores Assistant Francis Farrell and Leading Stoker Felix John Read  in Lerwick. PO Lown lies within the calling of the sea at the West Ayre, and the Eshaness light flares in the distance every night.

Lilian Rose's heartbreaking inscription, easily missed at the bottom of the stone, perhaps expresses the real cost of war, the true and eternal story of loss. And sums up why it is important that we remember, not just on 11 November, but always, the price that was paid by so many.


“To the world, he was just one. To me he was all the world. Always loved,deeply missed.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Ballad of Daytime TV (Here Come the Hearse Chasers)

The ballad of Daytime TV (Here Come the Hearse Chasers)

Former coppers, all
Sweaty in Vauxhalls and Fords
Fourth cousins twice removed
Answering doors
Warned by researchers
To look sorry and shocked
For folk never heard of
Until the hearse chaser's knock
An inheritance? How much? Where do I sign?
And I watch and I wish that the money was mine
So I could roam car boot sales,
Sifting through trash
Searching for treasures
To flog at auction for cash
I know my Royal Doulton, my Wemyss Ware and Delft
My Faberge, Wedgewood, but there's so little left
In charity shops, or in skips or in attics
Everybody's an expert, everybody's an addict
Of Bargain Hunt, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is
And then there's the question of investing in houses...
Who are these people, with money to spend
In hundreds of thousands, or do banks still lend
To tattooed guys in fleeces with half-shaven heads
Who buy sad repossessions and the homes of the dead
Tart them up, sell them on, or just rent them out
It's all about profit, not a scintilla of doubt
Ever appears on a presenter's face
As they Escape to the Country
To avoid the disgrace
Of every being reduced to
Price Drop TV
The Jewellery Channel
Or QVC
Where faded celebrities go
Just to keep being in vision
Before finally graduating

To become politicians.

Copyright Tom Morton 2013. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Shetland Roads: madness of the high-speed Hi-Lux. Shetland Life editorial, October



Shetland Life editorial, October 2013


Slow. Slow. Quick, quicker, slow.
And stop, probably without giving any indication that you’re about to, because your brake lights are broken or you’re towing a trailer which doesn’t, indeed never had brake lights. Or brakes. Or proper wheels, seeing as these ones came off an old lorry you found rotting in a field in the South Mainland and only turn when you use three cans of WD40 on each axle. Which you do at the beginning and end of the sailing season as you need to get the boat into and out of the water.
Number plates? No need. Felt tip marker pen scrawled on a piece of cardboard will do fine. And as for the ‘proper’ Ifor Williams stock trailer you use for sheep, house moves, fetching peats and removing large quantities of stone chips and road grit from council stockpiles under cover of darkness, well. The electrics failed on that a long time ago, and hanging a couple of hurricane lanterns from the back with skein of twisted wool seems to work just fine...
But let’s not get sidetracked by Shetland trailer culture. Even though it is vastly amusing that there is now a ‘trailer test’ young drivers have to sit before they get a chance to demolish the rear light clusters of the Hi-Lux when reversing a horsebox-load of inebriated Up HellyAa guizers into the hall car park.
I wish to discuss driving, generally.
It’s appalling. And it has worsened, of late, as traffic on our wondrously pothole-less roads has increased due to the arrival of Evil Soothmoothers in droves.
And how evil they are, coming here, drinking our beer, vomiting on our pavements, trying unsuccessfully to steal our women, criticising our golliwog industry and making loud gutteral noises in bars. Away with them, I say, send them and their tiger-striped Dazzle Ship accommodation barges off into the misty befuddlement of the Orcades, or worse, Wick. We don’t want their money or their genetic material! Do we? Of course, speaking as soothmoother myself, albeit one of many years standing, sitting and yes, driving, I may be slightly biased.
Although come to think of it, the blame for bad driving has be evenly apportioned, in my experience. Local idiots who think pick-up trucks are Formula One cars. Dawdling tourists in Star Kias who slow down every time they see an attractive fencepost. Even more dawdlesome local ancients, peering through the steering wheel at 10mph, saving their sidelight bulbs from ‘wear’ by never switching them on until it’s pitch dark. Crazed oil and gas executives running late in their Range Rovers, overtaking on blind bends, tailgating hapless commuters and hitting 120 on the Tingwall Straight. And don’t even mention the Whalsay fishing skippers in their Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugatti Veyrons. I have no idea how they get some of those cars up the linkspan onto the ferry without ripping their underparts off. The cars, that is.
(Incidentally, has the Tingwall Straight sunk? I don’t remember that blind dip when I arrived here a quarter of a century ago?)
Who else is on our roads? Bad-tempered bus drivers, and those trucks being driven at ludicrous speeds, festooned with unnecessary and blinding fairy lights , transporting important consignments of caviar and Champagne to Total management at Sullom Voe. The days of the tarted-up Vauxhall Nova are long gone, but we still have nedmobiles , lowered Japanese saloons with sound systems blasting out One Direction and Calvin Harris so loudly they have to keep the windows slightly open or they’d blow the windscreens out.
Then there are the drunks. Hugging the verge, driving oh-so-carefully, veering towards and then away from approaching headlights, slowing down when other cars appear, slamming their brakes when the giant rabbits appear. Be ruthless. Seriously, please phone the police if you see one. Save them from themselves. They don’t need a fatality on their conscience.
Obviously, you’ll pull over before using your mobile...
Finally I have three tips, for everyone who chauffeurs/chauffeuses themselves or others around our islands. And here they are, maker of them what you will.
(1) There is a blanket 60 mph limit on Shetland. If you drive faster than that you are are breaking the law. No, I’m not joking.
(2) Vans owned by building firms are not exempt from this limit.
(3) Neither am I, even though I now own an elderly Mercedes 300TE with sport gearbox and a kickdown which is capable of sending it into temporary orbit.
(4) All trailers should have working lights, brakes and not be made out of old safety handrails and water pipes. Unless of course you’re in the People’s Republic of Northmavine, where the law is quite, quite different. Obviously.



Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Journalists: working for the clampdown?

A slight variation on my Spaekalation column from The Shetland Times of 4 October

Journalists. According to various polls, right down there among the least trustworthy members of society, along with social workers and prostitutes.
And sometimes the most cavalier with the truth, too. Especially those traders in tittle-tattle and loose-mouthed opinion, columnists. Take that 'according to various polls' phrase in the first line of this article. I have no idea what those polls are, or were. I was told that stuff about journalists and social workers in the pub, and it stuck in my mind. I added the prostitutes in for effect. 
This, however, being the age of internettism, I can Google 'journalist+trustworthy+poll' and discover that a survey by the Royal College of Physicians, no less, found in 2009 that journalists were considered the least trustworthy creatures on earth (well, in Britain), even less than politicians.  Most trusted were doctors, funnily enough. They scored 90 per cent against the hacks' 19. But as I'm married to a doctor, I reserve the right to average out our score. Even though Susan may object.
So, that was 2009, long before the grisly horrors revealed by the Leveson Inquiry. Goodness knows how low public opinion of reporters has now sunk. And this week, it all got a whole lot worse.
The Daily Mail – for which I have, I will admit, written in the past – is one of the last newspaper success stories, widely bought and read in print and online, making money, employing large numbers of staff. Yet it is despised and derided in left-to-liberal circles as a cruel, prurient, sexist, racist, hopelessly biased organ of the right. And most hacks would give their right arms for a job there. Members of the NUJ? Hell, yeah. 
It's always filled me with both amusement and despair, that the National Union of Journalists would strike to the last sub-editor sitting to defend the employment rights of its members, some of whom work happily or unhappily for organisations with the toxic morality of not the gutter, but the sewer. In the case of the Daily Mail, with its 20th century past including Hitler-supporting Nazi sympathy, its present-day,borderline racism, its ghastly, preening self-satisfaction, I look back on my freelance news-gathering self and am appalled that I ever had anything to do with it. But I needed the money. Proprietors? It wasn't our job to worry about proprietors. They were all The Forces of Evil, after all. We took the money and, err...undermined the system. Man. In a subtle, intellectual fashion. World War Two Bomber Found On Moon!
But there are other papers, worse ones and better, and there are, as well as evil journalists, plain bad ones, wilfully careless or personally vindictive. Good ones too, and sometimes good ones working for bad editors or against scary subs. I have the dubious distinction of having both written a front page splash for The Sun (headline, not mine, SCABNOST! about blackleg labour unloading reefers at Shetland Catch) and being the subject of one, the result of a vicious, anonymous letter sent by a well-known Shetlander.
In the latter story's case, the fact that it was untrue ('we know it's not, Tom, but my editor says I have to write something') did not stop the Sun's management from splashing it with addition of the word 'slur' to keep things 'honest', in red-top moral terms. If you've forgotten, it was to do with the supposed existence of gay orgies in the village of Voe involving various weel-kent Zetlanders.
Now, as at the time I was hosting a national daytime radio show, this was the kind of rubbish I suppose I should have been able to shrug off. Not that it matters, but it was all invented, vindictive nonsense. However, my elderly father, despite being quickly warned about the whole business, was upset and confused. For him newspapers still had power, still had authority. The idea that they might print something untrue was anathema to him. Even The Sun. Even with 'slur' in the headline.
My assorted bairns just thought it was funny. But the anger really took hold when I thought of my father, filling his car with petrol as The Sun's disposable headlines blared across the forecourt, and his pals gossiped.
Lately, I've watched one of my own offspring navigate the celebrity waters with remarkable assurance. Not that it owes anything at all to me. The tabloids have never been anything but kind. Only one newspaper has traduced him, inventing quotes and misrepresenting his views to reinforce what was obviously journalistic bias. And that was a Scottish 'quality', one apparently proud of its broadsheet past. So that's all right then.  
This week, Ed Miliband had to read the most scurrilous, pathetic vicious portrayal of his late, eminent  father's views in the aforementioned Daily Mail. He hit the roof. And on his behalf, we had the fantastic spectacle of Alistair Campell returning to full-on Malcolm Tucker Terminator mode on Newsnight, ripping the Mail and Lord Dacre apart like pieces of soiled tissue. Gone was the cuddly, calm Campbell we have learned to live with on Twitter and telly. Tony Blair's Rottweiler was back, and for once he had the moral high ground.
True, Ed and the Labour Party had political capital to make, especially during a Tory Party Conference which has seen the Conservatives portrayed, or portray themselves, as frankly and happily repellent in policy and style. But my heart was with Ed. And I wondered about the reporters who had to work on the Mail stories, the anonymous newshounds digging through poor old Ralph's memoirs, the  kid researchers on work experience or Bank of Mum and Dad subsidy, the desperate hackers at the newsface, harangued by newdesk dictators, trying to hang on to their jobs, holding fast to the Mail line.

          And I thought: journalists? Prostitutes? Which is the less hypocritical profession?

Anyone done a survey?

Copyright Tom Morton/The Shetland Times 2013



Monday, September 30, 2013

Rugby: In a different league?

 I hadn't watched any Rugby League since the days it was on telly every Saturday, when for me it was a puzzling substitute for my beloved Union (played, very badly but with enthusiasm, until just after Uni). Yesterday I watched the TV highlights of the two Super League semi-finals, Wigan Warriors versus Leeds Rhinos, and Warrington Wolves against Huddersfield Giants. I was mesmerised.

What I remembered from those teenage telly weekends was a downmarket sense of grim, slow physicality: then you had the puzzling breakdowns after every tackle, the lack of lineouts, that silly wee joke scrummages. But this? This was lean, mean, brutal yet open and very, very fast. The handling skills were on a different level from any recent RU international I've seen. 

Because modern RU is a frustrating watch, even at the top level. The set scrum is now a hopeless, tedious farrago of bulk and fakery. The referee is the most important player. It's no longer a 'loose maul', it's a static one. Kick, catch, hold, maul, kick, lineout (another piece of ludicrous tedium and gigantism: and in my day lifting was rightly illegal)... kick,maul,  run, breakdown, maul...Interesting too that the bulk of RU players is so vast now, even among the backs. There is so much sheer...lumbering.

The first thing that struck me about League yesterday was how thin everyone was. And then I realised it was all about fitness, fluidity and breathtaking speed. Fewer rules, and fewer daft ones. No allowances for the occasional one-role giant or muscled blob. No passengers. 

Also: I have no idea of comparative injury levels in top class Union and League, but I'm betting that at the very least the kind of injuries sustained in League matches are nothing like as serious when it comes to necks and spines. Scrums and mauls look like passports to intensive care nowadays, and about as entertaining as a week in traction.

(UPDATE: According to a study in New South Wales,  Rugby Union is more than 400 per cent more likely to cause serious spinal injury than Rugby League - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16800205 )

League is and always has been professional, of course, with £700,000 transfer fees and an evident sheen of cash in stadia and presentation. But Union is pro too now in all but the brandy-soaked delusions of the class-ridden top administration. And if it is to have a future in TV it has to take even more lessons from League. RU has already tried to appropriate the family-friendliness, the cartoon names, aspects of the showbiz. But the time has come to go further. Like perhaps, I don't know...13 men per side, slashing numbers in the scrum, abandoning lineouts and loose mauls?

You never know. It could just work... 

Friday, September 13, 2013

A wee trip to Peebles, some whisky, music, Ollie Reed's chair and a damn fine breakfast

The Peebles Malt and Barley Revue gig was another chance to visit the rather beautiful town in which I once purchased a breadboard for my wife and was bought a vintage wristwatch in return.

At Villeneuve Wines with Alister and Gregg
It happened like this: Ali Wilson, aka Drumslinger, mastermind and skinbasher behind various eminent east coast bands, was at the launch of A Whisky in Monsterville in Drumnadrochit, and offered to organise an M&BR in his native town. Which he proceeded to do, brilliantly.
In Oliver Reed's chair, Crown Hotel

Thanks to Audrey at the Courthouse, and all the staff there, especially Nicola and whoever made the excellent fish and chips. Also Fay at The Crown, whose breakfasts are deservedly famous. Very nice rooms, too. I do like a high-threadcount-sheet-situation! Great to meet the legendary Evan 'Hard As Nails' Balfour, former Airdrieonian, now singing with the terrific Taylor Brothers. I see you can still buy those 'Hard As Nails' stickers from an Airdrie fan website!
Taylor Brothers: Evan, Ali, Glyn
Peebles really is a lovely and very friendly place, full of splendid pubs, shops and restaurants, including the truly impressive Villeneuve Wines, run by Alister Rae and Kenny Vannan, with help from Gregg Parker. I liked it so much a bought a bottle of Clynelish 14. It's the only small(ish) town in Scotland with an internationally-acclaimed academy for chocolatiers and pastry chefs, as far as I know.
Full Scottish at The Crown
Great crowd at the gig, and thanks too to Ian Rankin for donating a signed bottle of the 'Rebus 20' Highland Park which was auctioned for an eye-watering (but still reasonable, as they're £2500 online) £1500. It will stay in Scotland, and was bought by a Fifer!

Next Malt and Barley Revue is at Ayr Gaiety Theatre on Saturday night. We'll be tasting Some highly unusual whiskies including, dare I say it, something from...let's just say outside of Scotland. And my special guest will be whisky valuer and auction specialst, Angus MacRaild from Whisky Online.
Ali in Ollie's seat

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Top review for A Whisky in Monsterville!

Buy my new book here.

Whisky Magazine: "It's got everything a pop-lit novel for guys needs...sex, guns, black humour, Scotland, religious fanatics, mercenaries, drinking...It even comes with recommended drams and tasting notes for each chapter."

Friday, September 06, 2013

Shetland Life: an editorial on helicopters


Download the full Shetland Life here
Editorial: Helicopters and Shetland

Helicopters have played an important role in Shetland’s modern history, from their crucial role in the exploration for and exploitation of North Sea oil and gas to the rescue of many from the sea and the evacuation of sick local folk to hospital.
They are, however, among the most unforgiving pieces of equipment used for transporting human beings, should any mechanical failure occur. And Shetland is fully aware of the consequences. The most recent, fatal incident involving a Eurocopter Super Puma AS332 L2 just off Garths Ness, which took the lives of four passengers, is a shocking reminder of how at the mercy of machinery we are.
It is impossible to pay sufficient tribute to those who moved with great speed, bravery and skill to save the 14 survivors, and then to recover the bodies of the victims. In what were difficult conditions, the rescue services carried out a hard and harrowing task
What went wrong? As I write, the Civil Aviation Authority's unprecedentedly quick hint that the problem was 'not technical' has brought the grounded fleet of Super Pumas back into service. However. The 2009 crash off Peterhead that killed 16 people involved the same model of helicopter, and two non-fatal ditchings last year were of EC225 Super Pumas. There are questions about the machine that need answered. The EC225 was banned from flying for 10 months and only recently came back into service. The confidence in all models of Super Pumas of those who work offshore has been shaken. And the results of investigations into the reasons for the EC225 ditchings are not encouraging. Experts found a whole range of gearbox problems, including manufacturing errors, corrosion and even basic design faults. All, it seems, now sorted.
It is impossible to ignore the economic pressures to get the majority of the British offshore helicopter fleet flying again. There are around 57,000 workers travelling to 600  installations each year, and capacity is tight, given the high level of activity in new developments such as Clair Ridge and activity west of Shetland. With aircraft grounded, workers were asked to take longer shifts offshore and supply boats were pressed into passenger service.  It wasn't 'economically workable'.
The bottom line is this: helicopters are necessary if offshore oil is to be exploitable. And yet, despite assurances and knowing hints, confidence in them is low.  It is not hard to imagine the dread oil and gas workers must feel at the thought of a flight to the rigs and platforms.
We have been here before, and in even more tragic circumstances. The 1986  crash off Sumburgh killed 45, making it the world’s worst ever helicopter incident. As a result the giant twin-rotor Boeing Model 234 Chinooks, capable of carrying almost twice a Super Puma’s payload, were taken out of service in the North Sea. History has proved that there was nothing wrong with the Chinook’s basic design. The CH47 military versions remain crucial to armed forces throughout the world, including the RAF. Columbia Helicopters in Oregon still use the 234 and its little brother, the twin-rotor 107, for passenger transportation and heavy lifting. There is said to be a much-upgraded Chinook in Afghanistan being flown by the grandson of the man who originally piloted it in Vietnam. Yes, there have been other disasters involving the machine, notably the controversial 1994 Mull of Kintyre crash which killed 29 people, and which was blamed on both pilot error and poor maintenance.
But that is not the reason Chinooks no longer fly in the UK offshore oil and gas industry.  It’s back to the unforgiving nature of helicopter technology: If anything goes wrong, the results are likely to be catastrophic, and a machine with nearly 50 people on board offered a level of fatalities which was simply unacceptable. More people died in the  Chinook disaster than in all the other eight fatal North Sea helicopter crashes. Public opinion, not technology or inherent safety, forced a change, and the decision was taken to move to  the Sikorskies and (mainly) Super Pumas now in service. 
 The switch to smaller helicopters was about reducing the numbers of potential casualties, but saw an inevitable increase in flights, and therefore the statistical risk of mechanical failure. But remember too that 14 people survived the most recent crash, and several Super Pumas have ditched without loss of life. Could a Chinook do that? 
As offshore activity peaks, it is absolutely essential that every step is taken to minimise risks to workers. Complete confidence may never be restored in Super Pumas, and in the end, one fatality is too many. But the risk will always be there. Helicopters are unforgiving machines, and offshore oil is an unforgiving industry.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Reply from Strathclyde Partnership for Transport re Cessnock Subway signage

Dear Mr Morton

I refer to your enquiry below, dated 21 August 2013.

It has been over 30 years since the last upgrade of the Subway and we believe that the time is right to bring it into the modern age.  The upgrade of signage at Cessnock is part of that work and will enable us to establish a consistent and contemporary external design for the Subway in advance of the Commonwealth Games next year.

SPT’s refreshed external signage was given full planning permission last year and approved on the basis that SPT is delivering improved signs with higher quality materials and better lighting which will result in clearly visible entry points for the Subway and better accessibility for customers.

We believe it will help anyone wanting to travel underground, to identify the Subway quickly and easily and in turn, encourage more people to use it.  The distinct design also aligns perfectly with the overall plans for the modern refurbishment of each station.

That does not mean we will forget our heritage.  Many elements of the 70’s design – brought in during the last modernisation of the system – will be preserved and we are endeavouring to capture as much of that as possible during the upgrade.  Pieces of significance are being stored and we are in discussion with the Riverside Museum and others about how people might enjoy these again in future.

The Cessnock metal arches are part of that preservation strategy.  Despite the fact they may not be considered as architecturally significant (they are a pastiche rather than an original Greek Thomson or Rennie Macintosh design), we do appreciate that they have been a key part of the area since 1989 when they were installed.  One arch has already been safely dismantled and put into storage and we are currently considering the removal of the second.

We value all the feedback sent to us and will endeavour to keep you updated on any further decisions made.

Yours sincerely
Sent on behalf of
M Watt
Communications Manager

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tearing down the landmarks of memory...my letter to Strathclyde Partnership for Transport

When my mum and dad moved back to Glasgow from England in the 1950s, dad's first job was in a dental surgery in Walmer Crescent, just off Paisley Road West in Glasgow. I remember snippets from that cavernous, freezing cold, smelly flat. There was a cat. As a toddler, I tried to embrace what seemed like the cuddliest ball of fur in the world. The resulting agony remains with me as one of my earliest memories.

I don't like cats. I love Walmer Crescent, though, and covet a flat there, someday. A catless one with proper heating. And I'm a fan of the subway.


Walmer Crescent is in Cessnock, an area served by the Cessnock Subway station. The station is one I use a lot whenever I'm in the city, as it's the nearest to the BBC HQ at Pacific Quay. I always feel delighted by its location, by the listed 'Greek' Thomson terrace of which Walmer Crescent and the station is part (though the station entrance is on Cessnock Street, at the Crescent's end). I always thought the metal archway was part of the station's original livery. Though apparently it was erected in 1989 and is a Charles Rennie Mackintosh 'pastiche'. 


Better tear it down then.


As reported in The Daily Record, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, without consultation and probably illegally, has begun to remove the signage. 
They wish to, ahem, "establish a consistent and contemporary external design for the Subway in advance of the Commonwealth Games next year."

Still seems like brainless vandalism to me.


There is a Twitter campaign, hashtag #savecessnocksign and SPT are asking for 'public opinion' via the email address enquiry@spt.co.uk . I urge you to make your opinions known.


Here's my email:



I wish to object in the strongest possible terms to the removal of the classic signage at Cessnock station. 


The notion that overall 'branding' will be improved by such vandalism is gainsayed by the sensitive handling of historic signage in Paris, where the Metro's various station signs have become beloved works of art, and ones utterly identified with the network.

As someone with strong personal connections to Cessnock, I find this decision offensive and short sighted. If the Subway wishes to be identified with the best of Glasgow and its heritage, Cessnock station should, yes, be improved, but sensitively and with its lovely exterior left intact.

Tom Morton