The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Sunrises and Smugglers.

Saturday 5 Sep

After yesterday’s full and busy itinerary, with its 6:17am start, I resolved to take things a little easier today. I gave myself an additional two full minutes in bed and got up for the sunrise at 6:19.

I can’t quite remember the last time (before yesterday) I witnessed a sunrise. And the thought of having seen two on consecutive mornings is frankly mind-boggling.

Singing along to Justin Townes Earle in the car later

Ain’t seen a sunrise
Since I don’t know when

I (with, I admit, a dash of smugness) change the words to

…since THIS MORNING!

Which doesn’t, I confess, fit the song rhythmically or thematically, but I’m on holiday.

Faced with a plethora of beach choices, I settle on Balmedie Beach, on the basis that it’s the closest, and thus will maximise the good weather beach time, given that the forecast is for it to cloud over by the afternoon.

Walking from the car park, I crest the final sand dune to discover a massive sandy beach stretching away to the north and south, but my heart sinks just a little at the eleven wind turbines rising up out of the sea just offshore.

I am not entirely proud of this reaction, since I know that wind-generated energy is clean and green, and therefore A Good Thing, and also subsequently discover to my dismay that my views are momentarily aligned with Donald Trump on something, finding out that he complained to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that the turbines would spoil the view from his golf resort.

And, what’s more, just yesterday I was eulogising over the beauty of a lighthouse in the middle of the sea.

I kick off my flip-flops and carry them, walking northwards through the fringes of the surf, away from the turbines. It’s breezy, and clouds frequently obscure the sun, but it doesn’t rain.

I come across a bunch of sandpipers scuttling backwards and forwards with the incoming tide – it looks like they’re playing chicken with the water.

After a few miles, with the beach still stretching endlessly off into the distance, I park myself on a sand dune once again, make coffee, and eat my lunch, pondering the difference between wind turbines and lighthouses.

It’s a curious one. Both the lighthouse and the wind turbine are entirely man-made. Both are there for laudable reasons. Both are brilliantly conceived and (especially when built in the middle of the sea) genuine feats of engineering.

But the lighthouse is somehow more beautiful to me. The achievement of the lighthouse engineers is also considerably more impressive when one considers that they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, without the assistance of modern shipping and helicopters. But, purely from an aesthetic perspective, the turbine is too sharp, too angular, has too many edges for me. But like them or not, I guess they’re here to stay.

I walk back the way I came, with the wind getting up and the tide coming in. The beach is deserted. I take the opportunity to run, and fling my arms wide, and sing at the top of my voice. And maybe even skip and dance a little. Then I notice there are two people sat back on the dunes, watching the antics of a crazy person, no doubt preparing to call the police if I turned in their direction. Ah well, I’m on holiday.

I drive a little further north, to Collieston, purely on the basis that it has an ice cream shop called Smugglers Cone, and in doing so stumble across perhaps the most glorious find of the trip – another gorgeous little seaside fishing village, built in a natural cove, flanked by cliffs on one side and dunes on the other, with a great little harbour and a rich gin-smuggling heritage.

In the late 1700s an estimated eight thousand gallons of foreign spirits were being landed here, and the surrounding area, in a given month.

I eat ice-cream and read a book, sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour, where wet-suitted youngsters are jumping off the harbour wall, and a young family paddle-board their way around the cove.

In the evening I attempt to eat local (at Brewdog!) but they’re fully booked, and so I walk along Union Street to the familiar surrounds of Pizza Express, a chain in some trouble even pre-COVID.

With sparsely-arranged tables and furniture stacked in the corner, it looks like they’ve just moved in. With so few diners, it was a fairly soulless experience, if I’m honest. Made me wonder: how much of our enjoyment of a meal out is conditional on the atmosphere?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Lighthouses, but still no dolphins.

Friday 4 Sep

I rise early, with the forecast having promised a clear sky in the morning. The Airbnb I’m staying in is about 50m from the beach, and right beside where the River Dee flows into the North Sea. There is a steady stream of ships making their way into port as dawn breaks.

I walk down to the beach to watch the sun come up. There are several mad Aberdonian women swimming. And a guy with a drone. 

The sunrise is beautiful. On returning to the flat for coffee, my Airbnb host asks if I saw the dolphins, which were frolicking off the end of the pier. I didn’t.

I head north to Cruden Bay, and hike along the clifftop to Slains Castle. Before that I stop off in Boddam for a quick photo of the lighthouse.

Lighthouses. They fascinate me. Sometimes short and stumpy, but more often slender and elegant, beautifully engineered, and yet capable of withstanding the worst that the seas and the elements throw at them. For hundreds of years.

I grew up with the light from St John’s Point Lighthouse in Co. Down illuminating my room every night. It’s the nostalgia, no doubt, which has fostered an ongoing fascination with them for me.

The locals here have funny accents. The facemasks aren’t helping. I find myself, in conversation with a local person, hearing a full sentence and fully recognising it as English, and having a vague sense of understanding, and yet they get to the end of the sentence and I haven’t a scooby what they said. I adopt a ‘nod and smile’ approach at these times.

The locals here also have fast cars. I am losing count of the number of high-performance cars that I find agitating on my rear bumper, harrying like a sheepdog at my heels. And I’m not a slow driver.

The next stop on the Harbours, Castles and Lighthouses tour is Rattray Head. This, I reckon, is positioned at the most north-easterly point of Great Britain. There are no signs to tell me that, indeed there are no signs to advertise its presence at all, which is refreshing.

Rattray Head Lighthouse is what I later learn is called a ‘rock tower’ – a lighthouse built on a rock out from the coast, not on land. As such it sits in the sea, and looks all the more dramatic for it, I think.

It takes a bit of getting to, mind. After a long-ish drive down an increasingly ropey lane, I abandon the CR-Z on a grassy verge (avoiding sheughs) and walk the remaining mile or so, past a French campervan (of course) and over the dunes.

When I crest the final sand dune, there it is, rising out of the sea like a lone sentinel. And there’s only one other person to share the beach and the view with. I park myself on a sandy slope, facing the sea and the lighthouse, and make espresso, like the UK’s most northeasterly coffee hipster. There are seals, and crashing waves, and the sun is shining. 

I spend a large part of the afternoon in the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. Thanks to COVID, all tours (which I have booked ahead on this time) are for bubbles only. Ergo I get a personal tour at no extra cost. My very own personal tour guide – Michael – is interesting and engaging. Although clearly a local, as from time to time incomprehensible phrases float past me, like a cloud of random syllables. I can only wave at them as they drift past. And smile and nod, of course.

The lighthouse at Kinnaird Head, where the museum is based, was built in the 18th century, inside a castle. It was the first one owned and run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, which used to be called the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. I think they should have kept their old name.

The original lighthouse at Kinnaird Head has now been replaced by a newer automated one. Which prompted the question – are lighthouses really necessary these days given the effectiveness of modern navigation systems? I was desperately hoping he’d say yes.

‘Yes.’ 

Turns out sailors have more confidence in an actual lighthouse showing them where they really are, than a GPS system telling them where it thinks they are.

I continue west, picking my way along the coast, taking every right turn that looks like it might have something interesting at the end of it. It always does. I visit Pennan, and Crovie – both not so much villages as single rows of houses, squeezed into the space available between the cliffs and the sea. It’s a massively steep gradient to get down to both villages, and back up again. How do the residents get up those hills in the winter? 

Westwards again, accompanied all the while by Natalie Merchant…

Hypnotised 
Mesmerised
By what my eyes have seen

Through MacDuff, and the best fish and chips of my life in Whitehills, near Banff. My faith in the region’s fish suppers is restored. I eat it in the car while watching a farmer gathering up round bales and stacking them in groups. It’s that time of year. Already I have driven past many fields of wheat, or barley, or corn. Or hay. Or something. I am a little fuzzy on the horticultural specifics. It’s golden, at any rate.

This farmer is whizzing around his field in what looks like an agricultural sand buggy, with a front loader pincer thing which carry the bales. It’s all a bit different from my childhood, when bales were almost always rectangular (round bales were a new-fangled thing) and they were small enough that they could be lifted and stacked by hand.

I drive on to the iconic Bow Fiddle Rock, hoping it would be catching some late evening rays from the setting sun, but the sky is overcast. Still, it’s an awesome rock formation. I’m the only one there.

A long day over, I drive a cross-country route back to Aberdeen. Halfway through the journey I come across what I now believe to be Aberdeenshire’s only slow driver. I am stuck behind them for 10 miles.

[Update: apparently Duncansby Head, near Wick, is the most northeasterly point on the GB mainland. I do apologise.]

The C-19 Diaries. Facemasks and colouring within the lines.

I confess to being uncertain to whether I should continue with the C-19 Diaries. Here in Edinburgh, we are no longer under lockdown, strictly-speaking. But Glasgow has just been shut down again. And life is still not back to normal. So I will persist.

Some of the more cynical among you might be muttering into your facemasks to the effect that I haven’t continued with the C-19 Diaries a whole lot lately, since June in fact, and you’d of course be right. If it’s any comfort, I feel chastened.

But here we are.

It’s September. Facemasks are everywhere. Everyone looks like either a bank robber or a theatre nurse. When I smile, I try to make a conscious effort to let the smile reach my eyes. And I have learned to recognise the slight crinkling around the eyes as meaning that I’m being smiled at. 

This is important to know. Some days all I need is a smile.

It’s September. The fair weather of spring and early summer has been chased away, tail between its legs, by the bullying storms Ellen and Francis. But I’m not ready to close the door completely on summer just yet. After an evening sortie to North Berwick on one of the nice days, I remarked to a friend that I was determined to squeeze every last drop out of the summer this year. I’m not sure I have managed that. 

Cricket has restarted, in a shortened and slightly neurotically over-sanitised way. Most Saturday nights, post-cricket, I have driven out to Longniddry, and eaten fish and chips in the car with a John Lawton book and a sunset – sometimes spectacular, sometimes not – for company.

Eating a fish supper in one’s car on a Saturday evening means that the in-car fragrance is still there on Sunday, and usually Monday, and occasionally Tuesday too. I console myself at these times that at least I know I haven’t contracted COVID.

Day 127 

I complete another longish Edinburgh walk today. The Royal Mile is getting a little busier. Tourists are a thing again. I pass a Japanese girl getting her photo taken in front of the Fringe office. Felt like she might have been settling for the consolation prize of a photo instead of a bunch of now-cancelled Fringe shows.

Day 141

One of my favourite Lockdown discoveries has been the bay window in my living room. The sun slants in from the east until it’s time for elevenses.

I’ve taken to having breakfast there every morning. Bay windows being as they are, I can see anyone similarly-positioned in the adjacent flats. Our bay window neighbours in an easterly direction have a small dog. On a chance encounter in the street I discovered that she is called Emma. (Her owner pointed this out, Emma herself was unforthcoming on the matter.)

Emma, like me, loves to sit in the bay window and watch the activity on the street. I wave and say hello every morning to her, which she largely ignores. Tonight we had an epic thunderstorm, which Emma and I watched, fascinated, from our respective bay windows.

Day 163

Today I take breakfast, once again, in the bay window. There is no sign of Emma.

The angle of the sun slanting in betrays the season. Summer is on the wane.

In the last few months I have rediscovered Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. Am so envious of their voices. Sarah McLachlan, in a 1998 interview referred to her voice as “always there… it was a constant friend to me… I knew I had control over it.”

Envious of their mastery of the vocal art, of the seemingly effortless way they take a deep breath, open their mouths, and throw a melody line into the air knowing that their voice will land pretty much perfectly on the notes they’re aiming for.

It feels like a kind of elastic control, where the path to the note is organic and analogue, not precise and accurate and anodyne, but pregnant with risk, and yet always – just – under control.

A similar control to those shown by masters of other arts – the driver who throws their car into corners sensing, without perhaps knowing, the limits of its road-holding.

Or the skier carving down a mountain, sometimes on the very edge of control, banking right and left, creating exhilarating sweeping arcs down the slope.

For all – the singer, the driver, the skier – the freedom, and the creation of something beautiful and unique while knowing that pushing the limits just a fraction too far would spoil the beauty. And in some cases be life-threatening. 

The risk. The reward of taking that risk. No reward if the risk isn’t taken. Colouring within – always within – the lines, but too far inside the lines and there’s no appeal. 

Colouring within the lines. Just. 

Tomorrow I am heading north, doing what I’ve long wanted to do – waiting until the last minute, checking the forecast, and heading for where the sun is going to be shining. Going to squeeze out the very last drop of summer.

The C-19 Diaries. Mausoleums and Meanderings.

Day 61 [cont’d]

On the way home from the park, I notice that the price of a litre of petrol had fallen to below £1. I checked my records. Last time petrol was so cheap was in April 2009.

I would like to claim that I checked some sort of online archive to find out that particular stat, but no – I do indeed have records of the price I paid for fuel, and indeed the mpg of my cars, stretching back to 1999. It’s quite the spreadsheet. There’s a spreadsheet for every activity under the heavens, as a little-known translation of Ecclesiastes 3 reads.

Day 64

Fascinated by Christie Miller, I dig around on Wikipedia and find out that he was in fact the nephew of William Henry Miller, who owned the whole Craigentinny area of Edinburgh. I discover that old WH, towards the end of his life in 1845, commissioned an extremely grand mausoleum to be built over his final resting place. Now known as the Craigentinny Marbles, it has spectacular bas relief marble friezes (of those words I properly only recognise ‘marble’) on both sides, depicting Biblical scenes. He also stipulated that he was to be buried 40 feet under ground, in a lead-lined coffin, a task that took 80 labourers to complete.

It seemed disrespectful to not pay a visit, so today I did, on my way to my new Ghetto Squash venue in Seafield. At the time of its completion in 1856, the mausoleum stood in the middle of a windswept moorland. Now, it’s surrounded by 1930s bungalows, and is immediately adjacent to a bowling club. It’s a surreal sight.

Day 67

The FM eased the Lockdown situation today. We are now allowed to have furtive meetings with other households in our respective gardens.

Day 68

I miss Proper Lockdown already. I head to the corner shop to get some sausages, and have to wait actual minutes to cross the road it’s so busy. 

I surrender after two attempted corner shop visits. They’re both mobbed. Plus they didn’t have sausages. I consider a Morrisons trip, but I can’t face it. 

I return to the flat and make a lunch based on what’s left in my fridge. Last time I this happened I had a bacon, mushrooms and cheese toasted sandwich. This time I have no mushrooms but I substitute in a fried egg and all is well.

Day 77

I am on annual leave this week.

I considered a walk along the old Innocent Railway path, but I think it’s going to take more commitment to complete than I can muster right now. So I amble around Duddingston Village instead, where I discover a community land area complete with allotments and benches in the sun. 

I sat on one of those benches for a while, and tried and failed to listen to a couple of podcasts. I am hopeless at podcast-listening, and I’m not entirely sure why. It feels like I don’t have the requisite attention span, and yet I enjoy watching Test cricket. 

I wander round the Duddingston Kirk graveyard, and skirt round Duddingston Loch for a bit before climbing back up to the road through Holyrood Park. I walk past the fountain where I kissed my second girlfriend for the second time, and on through the little valley between Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, which I’d never been through before. 

Stopped off at Usave and picked up some cream and bacon with a view to making a pretty decadent dinner. 

All the time, having abandoned the podcasts, I was listening to Wiseman Wedding – a playlist I put together for the great man’s big day in 2012. I remembered this collection of great tunes as comprising some upbeat stuff followed by more laidback stuff suitable for dining to. 

Turns out it was 24-carat melancholy from start to finish. I think the most upbeat song was about the day Frank Delandry died. 

Sorry about that Wiseman. I guess my subconscious was mourning your loss to the ranks of the married…

The C-19 Diaries. Essential Shopping and Disco Dancing.

Day 23

My mum turned 80 today. My Sister and I had arranged for a hamper from a nice Edinburgh deli to be delivered. She seemed pleased with the contents. The nice man from the deli had described them to me over the phone. I recognised roughly one word in three, and by this I knew that mum would like it.

I sat in my car outside her house and joined a family Zoom call to sing her Happy Birthday. She also passed some cake out the window to me, which felt borderline illegal, but I took it and ate it while sitting on the wall.

Day 30

Many of my friends seem to be succumbing to the current fad of cultivating their own sourdough cultures with the aim of ultimately making bread.

I don’t quite know how to break it to them that someone seems to have got there first. It’s actually quite easy to just walk into a supermarket and buy a loaf of sourdough bread. I just did – at Morrison’s. I feel they will crushed to discover this, so haven’t had the courage to bring it up.

Day 39

Nicola and Disco Dave organised an actual disco over Zoom tonight. I became somewhat reluctantly involved as the technical director, which then by default meant I became the DJ. As a result I had to download a considerable number of tunes onto my laptop which would – under normal circumstances – never have been considered for inclusion into my music library. I am still actively seeking software which cleanses microchips from the corruption they have been exposed to.

One of the tunes on the playlist was Tragedy. I assumed they were looking for the Bee Gees’ version. It turns out that it had to be Steps. I was apoplectic about this, but my hands were tied by my contractual agreement. Steps it was, alongside S-Club and various other non-bands. Not even an Atomic Kitten track in sight.

Day 43

Mum coerced me to do some shopping for her. She “needed” some items from Waitrose. On pointing out to her that this might not be considered “essential shopping”, she quite deliberately played the “vulnerable persons” card. What could I do?

I consoled myself with the knowledge that I might find myself in a better class of queue outside. The sort of people that the Rector’s Administrator would associate with.

As it turned out, when one enters this particular Waitrose via the lifts from the car park, one bypasses the queue and the Supermarket Bouncers completely. Who knew? I proceeded guiltily into the fruit and veg section, and duly found myself in aisles stacked with products with unfamiliar-sounding names. Like “tomatoes” and “flour”. Except there was no flour. Seems like everyone’s baking these days.

Later, I went for a run again. Achtung Baby is the album spinning on my turntables – both real and virtual – this week. It brings back a hazy memory whirl of sixth form schooldays, my friend Raymond, who became obsessed with U2 around this time, and the excitement of newly-possible drives up to Belfast to buy records and books. The sound of Achtung Baby was such a departure compared to U2’s previous two releases – the inordinately successful Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, which has always felt like a non-album stopgap to me.

Anyway.

As I labour, gasping for breath, up the cruel gradient of Holyrood Park, I have Achtung Baby in my ears.

“Is it getting better?” asks Bono, gently.

No, Bono, it’s really not.

“Or do you feel the same?”

Yes, Bono, I do. I still feel out of shape and desperately unfit.

And I miss people.

Saturday at the Hideout

And so I wake in the morning // And I step outside // And I take a deep breath and I get real high // And I scream from the top of my lungs // What’s going on?

It’s Carol Service week at our church. Carol Service fortnight, really. In my world, this means longer hours – prepping, planning, emailing, video editing, and picking up kit. Crossing task after task off the to-do list, without the Tasks-Still-To-Do figure seeming to reduce at all.

It’s late morning on Saturday. Nicola is probably at the Cameo watching a foreign subtitled documentary about a year in the life of a rural French primary school teacher.

Money’s too tight to mention // I can’t get an unemployment extension // Money’s too tight to mention.

I am ensconced in my new favourite coffee shop, in Leith, having picked up some hired sound equipment from the nearby Warehouse. Another thing off the list.

My new favourite coffee shop has those hipster lightbulbs hanging in the window, slightly oversized, with filaments glowing brightly enough to emanate a sense of warmth, without, probably, any actual warmth, and very little actual light. But they look great.

I just wanna dance the night away // With señoritas who can sway // Right now tomorrow’s lookin’ bright // Just like the sunny mornin’ light

The coffee is decent, and the almond croissants are epic.

Nailed to the wall are a cluster of box-shelves, housing a variety of historic museum pieces. There are a couple of old alarm clocks, an old telephone with one of those rotary dialling mechanisms, a gas lamp or two, and a hand-operated coffee grinder sitting alongside a stovetop espresso maker. It brings me a perverse sense of pleasure that I am using a museum-worthy method to make my coffee every morning.

It’s just a little crush (crush) // Not like I faint every time we touch // It’s just some little thing (crush) // Not like everything I do depends on you // Sha-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la

The place has an unmistakable whiff of nostalgia. It’s winter, and in the middle of the room, contravening all manner of health and safety regulations I imagine, is something I haven’t seen for a serious number of years. It’s what I want to call a Calor Gas heater, although I daresay that’s like calling all vacuum cleaners Hoovers.

But by far its most prominent nostalgia-inducer for a child of the 80s such as myself is a wall-full of stereo cassette decks. Some single, mostly twin, there’s even a TRIPLE for maximum-efficiency mixtape-making. And on another wall, sitting atop an emptied-out TV cabinet (now jammed full of cassettes), is the cafe’s working model, a white plastic Sharp with stickers proudly advertising its main features.

Continuous Play™. 2-way 4-speaker. 14W PMPO, for goodness’ sake. Made in Malaysia.

That’s what is providing the tunes. Right now it’s a Simple Minds number which I can’t quite remember the title of, and can’t quite hear the words to Google them, because they’re just a touch too muddy.

None of your digital multi-room wireless bluetooth remote app-controlled streaming devices here. Proper music, without too much bass OR treble to speak of, and, Continuous Play™ notwithstanding, the periodic need for a staff member to come and turn the tape over. 

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning // The sun shining for your eyes // Wake up it’s so beautiful // For what could be the very last time

I had a Sharp twin cassette deck myself, back in the day. Featured hi-speed dubbing as I recall. But what sold it to me way back then in 1989 was a fully separate subwoofer speaker, positioned on top, slightly off-centre, pointing upwards. “X-BASS” proudly emblazoned on the speaker grille. This speaker could be activated by pressing the almost magical X-BASS button, which brought a definite and noticeable additional boominess to the music, without any extra bass as such.

It was such an amazing machine that someone’s made a Youtube video about it.

Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere // That I can find you // Oh, now, // Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere that I can find you, oh no

It cost £100, and I saved up for it with my own pocket money. I remember using it to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria on repeat, and used it to record U2’s 1989 New Year’s concert – broadcast live on Radio 1 – as they brought in a whole new decade at the Point Depot, Dublin. Heady days.

So take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // Oh Lord, // ‘Cause I’ve been a prisoner all my life

It now seems to be Phil Collins on repeat. Nostalgia can put a gloss on only so much. Take me home, indeed.

Life in Music City

 

My good friend Kat emailed me from Edinburgh back in mid-February.

Subject: Good beards
Message: Avett Brothers @ Bridgestone Arena on 18 May

On seeing the subject I thought she had caught sight of my facial hair (an ill-advised experiment earlier this year) on Facebook and was writing to compliment me. It seems not. Kat has her finger on the musical pulse and goes to more shows than anyone else I know. She even knows the upcoming shows in Nashville, and emails me when she sees something coming up which will enhance my musical education.

I had never heard of the Avett Brothers, which is pretty much par for the course where her musical suggestions are concerned.

There is an abundance of live music in Nashville, as you might expect. But more than that, music pervades the culture, in such a way that they have guitars slung on the walls (and decent music playing overhead) in the grocery store. Overheard conversations at coffee shops will frequently reference technical aspects of record production. At any given restaurant your waiter or waitress is probably an exceptionally talented musician or singer waiting for a big break.

This can make life interesting for touring bands. My roommate informs me that artists hate playing Nashville, sometimes avoiding it altogether, because at any given show in the town, a significant proportion of the crowd will be professional, semi-professional or good amateur musicians, who stand with their arms crossed, and an attitude which screams “Go on then, impress me!”

And that makes sense.

But the enormously refreshing thing is that at church (at least at Grace Center) that attitude doesn’t seem to exist. At least not within the worship team, in my experience. I have never before come across a place where there was such a proliferation of phenomenally-talented musicians who were still excited by playing music and yet apparently indifferent to their own skill and achievements.

Last night was a case in point. Before our midweek worship service, the bass player, a former member of Sonicflood, recently back in Nashville after playing for several years with Jason Upton, and about to depart on a tour of Asia with Don Moen, asked our guitarist if he listened to bluegrass at all.

Our guitarist drawled “Yeah man, that’s mainly what I play.”

Bass player: “Ricky Skaggs? Man I grew up on that stuff.. Kentucky Thunder..”
Guitarist: “Yeah man, I played in that band for a year”
Bass player: “Whaaaaaaatt?!?”

And he starts looking around for a piece of paper and a pen to get his autograph. Half-jokingly. Conversation turns to Ricky Skaggs’ recent collaboration with Bruce Hornsby and the live album that ensued.

Guitarist again: “Aw man, I’m on that record somewhere.”
Bass player: “Are you SERIOUS?!?”
Guitarist: “I had no idea they were recording the shows until I got a cheque in the post and thought ‘What’s this?'”

Meanwhile the drummer, a successful recording artist in his own right, is sitting quietly on the sofa minding his own business. Looking on is the worship leader, a songwriter with several worship albums under his belt. And I am standing off to the side, (last musical achievement: Grade 7 piano twenty years ago), wondering “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HERE?”

But here’s the thing. This is worship, and not just music performance. And so although these guys operate in a different musical stratosphere from me, I can still contribute. It’s taken me a while, but after a year and a bit of teaching on it and exposure to it, I’ve learned the reality of the supernatural/spirit realm and how my actions and words can have an impact there as well as in the earthly, visible realm. And for that matter, how the spirit realm can have an effect on my thoughts. And so I understand that when I play, it’s heard in heaven and not just in the room on earth where I happen to be. And people in the room are not just hearing the notes and chords but are being ministered to by the Holy Spirit.

I realise that this is an ‘out there’ concept, but am fully convinced that the supernatural realm is just as real as the wind, while being just as invisible to most of us, most of the time.

Overheard conversation between the sound engineer and a guy I only know to be a car park attendant as I left the church..

“You have a demo tape?”

“Yeah”

“Ok, well, we’ll probably do the drums in the morning..”

Four weddings & the Maple Leaf Bar

 

Having been at a ministry school for the best part of a year, I feel I am now entitled to include a Verse Of The Day in my blog posts. Verse for today comes from Ecclesiastes:

“Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—
so the living should take this to heart.”

Especially, one suspects, if the funerals are in New Orleans. Sadly(?) we didn’t see or hear any funerals while we were there, but did see four weddings. No, seriously. Parading through the streets with jazz band and second line. Was awesome. New Orleans was a lot of fun all round. Great food and great music.

One evening we lined up for a show at Preservation Hall – a venue which has been showcasing New Orleans jazz since 1961. It was a smallish room – held about 100 people – mostly standing. Ryan, Katie and I found a little bit of space at the back and, not to be put off by the humidity and an absence of air conditioning, “danced” for most of the 45 minute performance.

During the 8 hour drive down from Nashville, we were forming plans about what to do and where to go. Being a man of great awareness, I, all of a sudden, remembered that the Maple Leaf Bar was in New Orleans, and was the primary reason I had wanted to visit the place for years. So Katie, who was in the back researching activities and venues online, checked it out.

The Maple Leaf came across my consciousness because of one man – James Booker. A friend in the hearing aid industry introduced me to a recording of Booker playing some live show in Switzerland, and I was blown away. Blues piano like I’d never heard. Sounded like he had four hands. Further investigation online revealed that he did in fact only have two hands, he was from N Orleans, was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf from 1977 to 1982, and had done some recordings there. Mostly, to be honest, his recordings are patchy, as I understand a lot of his performances were, due to various addictions. Booker died young, probably as a result of said addictions, and became another tragic-tortured-genius statistic. But any hearing of him play at anywhere near the top of his game is breathtaking.

And so it was that Ryan, Katie and I traipsed into the Maple Leaf Bar at around 10pm one evening. There was a live band advertised as starting at 10. As is the way of these things, the live band were mostly not there, and certainly not ready to play. So we wandered through what was the sketchiest looking bar/venue I’d been in for a while, and headed towards the back – because that’s always a good thing to do in a sketchy bar in a town that you don’t know very well and has a reputation for random shootings.

There was another bar at the back, with a couple of customers chatting to the bartender. We kept going, out the back door, into the walled beer garden, which was so dimly lit that we could only tell a couple of the tables were occupied by the sounds of people talking and the interesting aromas wafting across from where they were. (Note to any HX readers: this was the safest beer garden I’ve ever encountered)

Sat there for a bit, then wandered back inside. The two customers at the back had gone, so I approached the bar and asked the barman if this was where James Booker had played in the 70s/80s.

“Aw yeah, this is where Booker played, man.”

I turned and pointed to an old, frankly knackered upright piano in the corner. It seemed implausible, but the piano was certainly old enough.

“Um, that wasn’t the piano he played, was it?”

“Yeah man! That was Booker’s piano, and Jamie Foxx also played it in the Ray Charles movie! It’s kinda wrecked, but the manager is looking to get it tuned and fixed up so people can use it in live shows and stuff.”

Mildly stunned, I made my way over and played a few keys.

“EASY THERE SOLDIER!” came the warning from the bar. I froze.

“Aw I’m just kidding man, fire away.”

Breathed out. And played it a bit more. Truth was, it was so wrecked so as to make it unplayable. But man, it still felt good. The keys that *did* work had a really easy action, like they’d been hammered into submission by someone who really knew how to hammer a piano into submission.. which they had.

In due course the live band came on. They were terrible. At least, they probably weren’t terrible, but I have a limited tolerance for 6 saxophones playing modern jazz. What a racket. But nothing could spoil that night.

A documentary on Booker’s life has, I understand, recently had its premiere at the SXSW film festival earlier this year. If that movie comes anywhere near Edinburgh or Nashville while I’m in town, I’ll be all over it.

Three more days here in Tennessee, and then am heading back to the UK, and work again. This will be the biggest shock to my system since I first sucked orange juice through a straw as a small child.

But on Saturday I have a date with Wiseman at PizzaExpress. So it’s all worth it.

Curry, cricket and Charleston

 

Found myself at an Indian restaurant the other night. Nothing unusual in that, except that Indian restaurants aren’t that common in Nashville. And this was a vegetarian curry house, which I’m reasonably confident I haven’t had the dubious pleasure of experiencing before.

It turns out Mushroom Masala is very similar to Chicken Tikka Masala, but without the chicken, and with more mushrooms. Who knew? It was extremely tasty. And since poppadums, mango chutney and peshwari naans have no meat content, not too much of my regular Indian restaurant experience was disturbed.

A bunch of us from the school were meeting to mark 3 weeks since we graduated. Three weeks is not especially significant, I think we were all just missing each other.

As the meal was winding down, I asked the waiter if he liked cricket. I always do this in Indian restaurants over here. The last time the guy was Nepali and liked football. Very disappointing. This guy was more rewarding. We dived straight into a conversation on corruption in the IPL and spot-fixing in general. I felt like I was getting reacquainted with proper sports chat, after many months of double plays, RBIs, and rosters. It’s going to be wonderful to again watch a game that’s allowed to finish with the scores level.

And then, just as my internal sporting equilibrium was returning, news filtered through that the Holy Cross 2nd XI had won a game. What gives?

Since school got out I have done a bit of travelling around.. toured the Jack Daniels distillery, which I discovered is located in a dry county. Alanis, that’s ironic. Spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina and then a weekend in Memphis. Charleston was beautiful, unusually walkable-around for a US city, and very relaxing. Memphis was sketchy, run-down, full of deserted buildings, and jammed with music history and history in general. Loved them both. Tomorrow morning Ryan, Katie and I hit the road south again, for New Orleans this time. Katie is nervous about spending yet more extended periods of time in the car with Ryan and I, on account of us both being extremely talkative. We have both promised to tone it down and try hard to maintain periods of silence now and then.

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world I have specifically wanted to visit for a long time. For the cajun, and the music. Not going to lie, am kind of hoping to see a funeral while I’m there. Not an easy thing to arrange, but you never know…

Worship

 

So, I am now the proud owner of a car. I managed to get hold of a car with a manual gearbox, and have been re-acquainting myself with the art of the clutch. Has proved extraordinarily difficult to translate many *cough* years of left-handed gear changes to the other side. Couple of times I have tried to change gear with the door handle. Several times, usually at intersections, I have stalled, which is not a failing I can blame on the location of the stick. The gearbox seems a little clunky at times, especially when going from first to second, even after a few hours behind the wheel. But it’s been fun.

Point of note: it’s intriguing that with nothing more than a driving licence acquired through making a couple of turns and stops in an automatic transmission-equipped car, I can, perfectly legally, drive off into heavy traffic in a car with a six-speed manual gearbox.

Worship times at church have been fun too. Not least because our worship leaders insist on singing songs several keys higher than I’m used to. And that’s just the male worship leaders. The song “In Christ Alone” which has made a few appearances recently, I have always played and sung in Eb. Here we have twice sung it in A. One of our worship leaders in particular seems to be possessed of a voice pitched high enough to minister to dogs and bats. Accordingly mass harmonies break out in the room during worship. At some points I am unsure if there is anyone left in the room either capable of, or willing to sing the melody. It should be said that this is Nashville, there is a significant number of talented musicians and singers in the room at any one time, and mass harmony would probably be breaking out anyway.

Apart from the appearance of songs like “In Christ Alone”, which has been around a while, most of the songs we sing are fairly new, if not brand new. Most days we will sing at least one song that has been written in-house. I have learned a few new songs here, although I’m not sure I’ve learned the melody.

There is a tendency in the most recent worship songs to include a chorus or bridge which consists entirely of “oh oh oh oh” or “whoaaa whoaaa”. I’m not going to lie. I love this. There was a time when I would have wondered about the theological profundity of such a sentence, if oh x 4 can be considered a sentence. I would have given it a short amount of thought, and decided that it scored quite low on the theological profundity scale. Probably zero, on a scale of one to ten. And dismissed it as yet another inane modern worship song.

But here’s the thing. In worship we sing songs to our heavenly Father. And God isn’t, as far as I know, impressed with our lyrical eloquence. Were I a father, and my child came to me and told me, in a childlike and grammatically incorrect way, that they loved me, would I correct their grammar, or would the sentiment of their expression move my heart?

I think the latter. And I think God’s heart is moved when we come to him worshipping with our heart rather than our head. Further, I now think “whoaaa” is a deeply profound expression of worship. And much more versatile than most words. It can express wonder, awe, love, adoration, mystery and more. When the Spirit moves you (sometimes physically) in worship, or when God takes you by surprise with a revelation during worship, “whoaaa” is probably the only apt response.

Jesus said that unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. God has been reinforcing the importance of this to me, and I have discovered new levels of childlikeness recently. I am learning new things about the Kingdom every day. I’m still only moving from first gear to second, and it’s still a bit clunky, but I’m getting there.