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23 August 2016 @ 11:06 pm

I'm just back from one of the most remarkable musical experiences of my life: Martyn Bennett's GRIT re-envisioned for a huge genre breaking orchestra by Greg Lawson.

It included jazz, folk and classical musicians. The string section alone composed about forty violins, cellos and basses. There was a nine piece make voice choir, six or seven folk singers; several pipers, saxophones and clarinets; trumpet, trombones and horns, and three percussionists.

They filled the Playhouse stage, and produced an amazing sound. I was right at the back, near the top of the gods, and it sounded great.

Bennett's album isn't one of my favourites, but Lawson's orchestration - for me - brings it to life. The scale of the endeavour - recreating samples, all the instruments, the different musical disciplines - make it completely bonkers, but it was incredibly powerful, emotional and moving.

They played it through, finishing with their version of Gerry Rafferty's "To Each And Everyone Of You", an emotional close, getting the audience to sing along. It was practically heartbreaking. There was a standing ovation, and huge applause; they came back for an encore, reprising "Chanter", a foot stamping raucous number. Another ovation, and they decided to repeat "To Each And Everyone Of You". Thrus was even emotional. As Greg Lawson conducted the audience singing, the musicians slowly left the stage, until Lawson and the audience were left alone. Another huge round of applause. The musicians came back on to applaud the audience and take a final bow.


My only criticism - the only thing that might have made this a better gig - is that this was the biggest ceilidh band ever - but there was nowhere to dance. I really REALLY hope they repeat the gig sometime, but in a venue with no seats. Because the music made everyone want to dance!


04 June 2016 @ 06:00 pm

Last weekend, heading east, I found myself driving along one of my favourite roads. The A697 goes across country from outside Edinburgh down to Morpeth. For a long while, I regular drove south along this road, cutting the corner the A1 follows. Most of the traffic taking the east coast route from Edinburgh follows the A1, so the A697 is quieter, and so faster, and much more fun to drive. Heading for the Northumbrian coast, it was fun to become reacquainted with the road.

Then on Thursday, I took another favourite road on the West coast route, the A701 from Edinburgh down to Moffat to pick up the M74 (readers in the south may think of it as the M6, though they'd be mistaken). Again most traffic follows the A702, a road with several right angle bends, so the A701 is both faster and quieter, a joy to drive.

These are two of my favourite roads, but not my most favourite road. It somewhat disturbs me that I have a favourite road, but I do. It's the A896, through Torridon; the peaks of Liatach and Ben Eighe tower over the winding aspfalt. An A-road, but in the remote far north that doesn't mean much: it is a single track road, with passing places. But traveling along the glen floor, it is flat, so you can see the oncoming traffic (or, nor commonly, the lack of it). Which means you can speed along the A896 fast, aware of any vehicles approaching in the other direction. It is such a fun road to drive!

21 May 2016 @ 09:52 pm

I've been playing Mike Westbrook's Uncommon Orchestra - A Bigger Show. They were playing in London last night, a rare occasion, and I was sorely tempted to go. It was only being sensible that stopped me.

It is a great album, a double CD. It matches Ellington and Mingus with a British sensibility, fairs and circuses.

But whilst I love the record, and play it often, playing it all the way through - both CDs - is rare. I've done it, but not often. Which is a shame: it works well as a whole, as well as individual CDs.

Still, I'm playing out now, wondering how it might have been last night, and glad I have the CDs to record the band.

14 April 2016 @ 10:30 pm
I have just been at the hustings for the Holyrood elections next month. What with the constituency (Edinburgh N & Leith) and the list (Lothian), there were nine candidates (ten on the ballot, but Solidarity didn't show up), frankly too many to stay interested in the question. Several of the candidates were the same as at the Westminster election last year; but not the candidates who resonated then. Of the nine, two were women, all were white, and none had any apparent disability.

There were eight questions over ninety minutes, covering:
  • tax (the dog-whistle issue in this election) - most would raise tax by 1p, except SNP, Tories and UKIP
  • what they would spend any tax raised in (frankly the much more important topic) - out of a choice of NHS, education or council services, most went for NHS, education AND council services (including the SNP, which is ironic since over the last five years the SNP have underspent the NHS budget!); the LibDem and Labour stance on using tax raising powers to invest in education are clear
  • what private members bill would they raise (the consensus seemed to be "housing")
  • what to do about Police Scotland (which is in a mess following centralisation), the consensus being localisation and local accountability (even the guy from the SNP)
  • the living wage (I was getting bored by now and didn't really pay attention)
  • tuition fees, where there was a typical left/right split - SNP, Labour, Greens and LibDems keeping universities free; Tories and UKIP wanting to introduce fees to pay for better universities. Labour, the Tories and RISE held the SNP to account on their cutting of FE college places
  • supermarkets v local shops and the use of planning rules, which I didn't really follow much
  • and the last question which I don't remember, and I left at that point anyway.

The team I play for (!), the LibDems, frankly put up a poor speaker (same candidate as last year, Martin Veart), and he didn't impress then or now. The way the election in the constituency goes, I don't think he has a chance, and I'll probably be voting tactically again. (God I hate the FPTP system.) They will get my vote for the Lothian list, where, should he not be successful in the Edinburgh Western constituency, we have a pretty strong candidate topping the list.

I was surprisingly impressed by the Labour candidate, Lesley Hinds, who is a councillor I've come across and didn't rate. She spoke with conviction, attacked the SNP government its failures over the last nine years and was the most convincing speaker.

The guy from RISE ("Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism", a left wing alliance), Calum Martin, was also rather impressive, which came as a surprise to me. (This says more about me than him.) He was articulate, had some interesting ideas, and had conviction. But probably unelectable - they're only standing on the list, so won't get my vote.

The UKIP guy was absolutely hopeless. He waffled, he deviated from the question, and I don't think he has a chance. He even lacked the charm of Coburn...

The Tory boy is also unelectable, I'd say, particularly given the disdain most people hold for the Tory government in Westminster. He held his own, but basically toed the party line.

The Green candidate, Andy Wightman, lacked the charisma of their candidate last year. They're only standing on the list, too.

The Women's Equality Party candidate, Lee Chalmers, was interesting. Another list-only party, every question was answered through the lens of equality. Which of course is why they're there, but seemed a bit limiting. Still, she said she didn't know in answer to one or two questions, which was refreshing.

The SNP candidate, Ben MacPherson, seemed to try to be contrite, but had to toe the party line. He'll probably get the constituency vote, though.

The audience was curious, as it was last year.  There was no heckling. I wanted to, but clearly felt restrained by the New Town respectability. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes there was no applause, either. We just sat politely listening. After that there was a smattering of applause, particularly for Labour, SNP and the Greens, but frankly no one seemed to be getting that excited.
26 March 2016 @ 04:23 pm

In February I went to the Scottish LibDems' spring (and, more importantly, pre-Holyrood election) conference. There are always many debates; usually there is little contentious - the motions tends to be no-brainers, with little dissent - but there three or four this time which I found challenging, and I ended up voting against my natural position. It was uncomfortable, though I think I did the right thing.

First there was a debate about supporting communities in the highlands and islands. I actually missed must of the discussion, and I didn't actually vote because of that - it didn't feel right. The motion was that differentially high charges for utilities, like electricity, petrol, heating oil, deliveries and broadband, were hindering rural communities, and should be capped so that prices were the same throughout Scotland. It was passed more or less unanimously. What felt wrong, despite what I feel was a well deserved motion, was that it also felt illiberal: increased regulation, what might be anti-market behaviour, and a centralisation of control rather than devolving power. (Markets do however need regulating.)

This was heightened by a discussion for consultation (not a motion) over funding local finances. There were several options discussed: local income tax (a long term LibDem favourite); land value tax; property value tax; or an amended council tax. What became clear Is that there are significant problems with all of them. And what became clearer was that the current system of funding local services is broken. Council tax raises only 12% of local expenditure (figure here , most of the rest coming from a grant from the Scottish government funded by national taxation. In Scotland, the SNP government has frozen council tax since 2007. This has broken the link between council tax and local accountability.

What I took away from the discussion was that local councils needed to raise much more funding locally - someone suggested 50% would be a reasonable figure - using a range of different taxes, including perhaps income, land and property taxes, rather than just one. National taxes would be reduced accordingly.

The thing is that the cost of delivering services in rural areas is more than in cities, but rural populations are less able to pay. Supporting devolution of tax raising powers to fund local spending goes against the motion supporting unified charging across Scotland for utilities.

There was a similar dissonance raised in two strongly argued motions to amend the party's constitution to allow the selection of all-female shortlists for candidates. For all its talk of equality, the LibDems have a woeful record on diversity, and this motion would allow the party to tackle its gender bias. I supported it, particularly after two excellent speeches by Jo Swinson and Sophie Bridger, who argued that all attempts to reduce gender bias had, to date, failed, and the lack of LibDem MPs meant that there were fewer problems with incumbents.

The difficulty for me is that this goes against the perceived meritocracy (though clearly unless one believes men are better than women, that hasn't been a worry to date) and inhibits the ability of local parties to select the candidates they believe best for their constituency (albeit that these seem mostly to have been men in the past). The motions were passed, for a trial period.

(With a lesson in chairing a meeting: if someone demands a count if hands, give it to them. To fail to do just appears undemocratic, and the more you put it off, the stronger the demand will become.)

What caused most dissonance for me was the amendment to a motion, to remove the party's support for a moratorium on fracking. I'm anti fracking: it appears harmful to the environment, and I'm in favour of renewables. The amendment was based on the fact that this stance goes against evidence-based policy making, of which I'm in favour.

The 2014 Independent Expert Scientific Panel Report on Unconventional Oil And Gas found that there was nothing harmful with fracking per se, and the amendment reckoned that, given an adequate regulatory and planning environment, fracking should be permitted.

In addition, without onshore fracking in Scotland, we are simply exporting the problem to areas which may not have an adequate regulatory regime. Scotland currently imports shale gas from the USA (where, for instance, some of the problems attributed to fracking - such as contamination of the water table, leading to people being able to set fire to tap water - apparently stem from earlier contamination, not fracking).

Supporting evidence based policy making goes against the moratorium on fracking. It was not possible for me to support both. I came down in favour of the amendment, but it still rankles.

The amendment was passed.

(The decision was overturned by the party's policy committee (aka Willie Rennie, the party leader) on environmental grounds. The amendment was inconsistent with the party's policies to reduce CO2 emissions and promote renewable energy sources. That's fine by me, but there's been quite a row about this. Frankly, it's a political party, and allowing fracking is a vote loser. I'm quite happy with the ambiguity.)

21 March 2016 @ 08:21 pm
This may not mean much to most of you, if any, but it's something I wanted to post, but not on FB.

Some of you may be aware that I occasionally write reviews of jazz CDs for the LondonJazz blog. (The platform it uses is rubbish and it doesn't search on author, so I can't directly link to my posts. WordPress works so much better.)

I do about one a week, and get to choose what to review, so generally I just get to listen to music I write and try to write intelligent things about it.

Jazz PRs are pretty hopeless, on the whole, and I was aware that there were several CDs that hadn't arrived, so I let the review co-ordinator know last week, with the result that I now have four CDs to review.

And by some really strange co-incidence, three of them involve Esbjorn Svennson, one of my favourite musicians who died a few years ago.

There's a (very good) live reinterpretation of his music, and the music of his band, est (Esbjorn Svennson Trio, but he decided it was a band rather than his trio early on, so it was always est).

And both former members of his the trio, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Orstom, have new CDs coming out too.

It's all a bit weird.


21 March 2016 @ 12:23 pm
It was the semi-annual "Scottish Defence League" (more commonly known as the Sunderland Defence League up here, since they have to be bussed in) protest in Edinburgh yesterday, which means it was also the semi-annual Edinburgh Against Racist SDL march, too.

It was a rather lovely afternoon. A crowd gathered outside the Assembly Rooms on the Mound, listened to a few speeches by local politicians (the SNP prospective candidate for somewhere was overtly political, the Green candidate was impressively unpolitical, reinforcing that it was a coalition of different people come together to protest, and the Labour councillor was just rubbish) and then marched a long way to oppose the SDL outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile. (A distance of maybe 250 yards.)



When we got there, there were about four of the SDL gathered with union flags, a St George's cross (doh!) and some anti-refugee banners. A few more arrived - there were about fifteen of them at most, I'd say. I reckon there were a hundred or more on this side of the very large non-man's land established by the police, who probably outnumbered both sides put together.

Our chants of "There're many many more of us than you!" were once again accurate. Several of the other chants made me feel uncomfortable: shouting "scum!" at anyone dehumanises them, enables you to think of them as "other", which is exactly what racists do (and is how the Nazis thought about jews, homosexuals and other "degenerates", which allowed them to rationalise the Holocaust), and, for me, singing "build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top, put the racists in the middle and burn the fucking lot" frankly produced images of piles of bones from extermination camps. So no, I'm not going to sing your hateful songs: I'm not going to sink to the fascists' level.


DSC_1905 DSC_1904

I guess I could have come up with some chants of my own. Except I couldn't. I did think of shouting out "you're going home in the back of a taxi!" when there were only five of the them, but I didn't think it would catch on.

Aside from the more objectionable chants, the anti-racist crowd was really, really friendly. The weather was lovely, there really were more of us than them, which always feels good, there was a lot of good banter.

I just wish we could come up with some more positive chants!


12 February 2016 @ 04:50 pm
A couple of weeks ago I learned that a friend from my teenage years had died. Pancreatic cancer. I don't think I had seen her for over 35 years (I may have seen her at the occasional wedding or celebration since, though I can't remember doing so), but she was a very good friend of one of my oldest friends, and I know several people who knew her.

I took it upon myself to call my friend in case he hadn't heard. Not that I thought he hadn't, but just in case. He needed to know, much more than me. I left a message on his voicemail. If he knew if her death, that wouldn't be a problem, and if he didn't, he'd rather know than not, however the message was delivered.

As it happens, he did know. But that's not point.

Leaving a message was hard. It reinforced how hard it is to talk about death. The words we use. Or don't: outside of the event, it's not something we really talk about. Unless we're watching detective shows on tv. (Then, it's not usually pancreatic cancer which is the cause of death.)

* * *

I was struck like many at the effect that the death of David Bowie had. I was never a huge fan of his music, but I found myself profoundly affected. Switching on radio, I heard the news, and then every tune for the next six hours had some correction to Bowie - either one of his songs, or something he worked on, or someone he influenced.

The thing is, every single one of his own tunes that was played held memories. (Well, not every single one; not from the new album, nor the one before that... But aside from those...!)

I remember Space Oddity from around the time of the moon landing in 1969. Starman makes me think of a family holiday in the south of France (as does Cat Stevens' Moon Shadow: I was reading Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea). I bought Aladdin Sane when it came out (though I didn't really understand it and swapped it a couple of years later with an LP a school friend had and didn't want. I remember I swapped Aladdin Sane - but I have no idea what I swapped it for).

I picked up Low, Station to Station and Heroes in the sales, not as they came out but a couple of years later, as much for Robert Fripp as David Bowie. A little later I bought Scary Monsters and, a few years after after that, Let's Dance.

Each of those records is very different; each intersects with my life at different stages. And each is intimately connected with their times: the memories associated with them are very strong.

And that is one reason I think I, and many others, found Bowie's death so affecting. Even those who weren't particularly into his music knew it, and it was woven into our memories of the times, whether we wanted it or not.

Bowie isn't the first rock star to die. I can remember when John Lennon was murdered, and, as with Bowie, for hours the radio was filled with his music. I can remember Elvis Presley dying too, though at that point I was into iconoclastic punk and the death of a middle of the road Lass Vegas sequined entertainer didn't feel out of place. (Love his 1950s stuff; hate his 1970s stuff.)

No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977.

But whilst they may have been around as I was growing up, neither Lennon nor Elvis had the impact on me that Bowie did, partly because of his longevity and partly because of his variety. He was there the whole time.

And partly, I'm sure, because of social media. Twitter and Facebook were alive with Bowie-phernalia. People sharing memories, videos, articles. Articles about people sharing memories and videos. All the tweets and posts reinforced each other. It built up into a tsunami of grief. People my age grieving the loss of our youth.

Bowie had always been there. He seemed immortal. And then he was dead.

And it reminded us that we will all die, and, if you're a middle aged man, you've got maybe twenty or thirty years left to do all the things you want to in your life.

* * *

My friend wasn't the first of my contemporaries to die. One friend - we'd been in a band together - died in his twenties. (I can't remember the circumstances.) Another, a journalist, was blown up when the IRA blew up Harrod's just before Christmas 1983. A third, a contemporary rather than a friend, was killed by a lorry as he was cycling to his research lab; this was hard because I had turned down the project that was then offered to him - it very easily could have been me.

But this death is, I think, the first of my friends to die of natural causes after reaching middle age. She had a husband and kids. She was younger than my father at his death (who, at nearly 57, had died painfully young. At some point in the next twelve months, I will be older than my father was at his death. If I'm lucky).

And it is a savage reminder, again, of our impending mortality. This is of course not news. But somehow knowledge of my death didn't seem so pressing thirty years ago, or even ten years ago. Nonsense, of course - like my friends and acquaintance who died young (all in their twenties) a fatal accident could have happened at any time (and of course still could. Would that be preferable?).

* * *

For many years, I have bought wine en primeur - buying young vintage wine, free of duty, to be delivered at a future date when the wine is matured and ready to drink. A bit like wine futures, I guess. I currently have about twenty cases of claret, Rhone and port in store.

Last year, I had a health scare which, had the worst case scenario been borne out could have dramatically reduced my foreseeable life span.

Buying wine to drink in ten years time suddenly didn't seem such a good idea.
23 January 2016 @ 01:21 pm
This lunchtime's time-sink.

Reading that article about independent filmmakers, I recalled a couple of movies I saw in either the late 1980s or early 1990s (because I could remember the cinema I saw them in - the Everyman). I could remember vaguely the stories, and the main actress (the same in both). Not the name, nor the director.

I google "independent films 1990s". Lots of interesting links, nothing that clicks.

Ditto with "independent films 1980s".

I google "independent film lips", because the actress had amazing lips. Frankly, you don't want to go there. There are an awful lots of fan-sites about actresses' lips.

I have a hunch that the lead actor was in a film from the 1990s with one of the actresses in "Friends".

I google "actress friends". Lisa Kudrow.

Search her filmography. "The Opposite of Sex".

Look at the actors. Martin Donovan.

Search his filmography. Bingo: "Trust" (1990) and "The Unbelievable Truth" (1989).

They were directed by Hal Hartley. The actress was Adrienne Shelley. She died in 2006, the victim of a murder.
17 January 2016 @ 09:26 am
I wore my kilt last night, the second time in three months, and only the second time in ten years after it was forbidden by my ex, for a variety of reasons.

She was also at the party last night. An "anonymous source" close to her remarked how good it looked on me.