Anticipating Barbara

The second storm of winter 2016/17 to be serious enough to be named by our excellent Met Office – Barbara – is firmly on her way. Indeed, her horsemen are already here, with winds over the last 24 hours gusting up to the mid-50s, in mph, according to the precise forecast for our very local area. But they are very much the warm-up act: Barbara herself, when she arrives into town sometime around high noon tomorrow, will bring us winds gusting into the low 70s and an average of an apparently meaningless 1 mph below 50. And then she stays around [Edit: apparently she then changes her name to Conor], with threateningly high winds extending, after a small respite in the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve, most of the way through until Boxing Day. Thanks, and Happy Christmas.

This is the first real storm I’ve been through since moving here and I’ve been anticipating its arrival for some time, through the weeks and the months of calm weather we’ve had up to now. You haven’t lived in the Hebrides until you’ve been through a proper storm, and I’ve been awaiting it with all the pre-flight nerves of an anxious teenager anticipating a first sexual encounter. Barbara, we were made for each other, you and I. Let’s get it on.

Meanwhile, Calmac ferries are hugely disrupted: 26 of, er, 26 routes are currently already either cancelled, disrupted or have ‘be aware’ tags on them; and Flybe/Loganair flights, while normal today, have significant changes to them tomorrow as the brief weather windows are sought out which can be exploited so that people at least have a chance of getting to their Christmas destinations. The Western Isles Council (the Comhairle) has also put out its advice. Here, I’ve spent a few minutes outside this morning shifting our recycling bins into the byre where they will be a little more sheltered, so that they don’t cowp over and spill their contents all down the road and into the sea; moving picnic and garden benches to the eastern-facing side of the house (Barbara approaches from the south and then, kindly, shifts her angle of attack to the west) – after all, we don’t want a repeat of September’s gales (below), or worse; and shifting miscellaneous loose left-over bits of timber, plant pots and other garden detritus into the shed.

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As I write from our west-facing office, I watch, alarmed, as the glass in the double-glazing bulges inwards as an intense gust of wind pokes a testing, probing finger into it, before re-shaping itself back to normal, unbreached, as the finger retreats, flexing itself for another assault. Sitting quietly, I feel the structure of our house tense as it solidly resists, standing firm against the desire of the wind to shift it out of its path. Intermittent, but furious, showers of small hailstones beat short-term, but insistent, rounds of applause against the window panes. Outside: a loose strip of something-or-other underneath the eaves oscillates violently in the wind, making a buzzing sound like a low-pitched kazoo as the wind is forced to turn, against its will, by the house’s refusal to budge. The sky and the land are dark and the headlights of approaching cars coming down our road shine brightly in the gloom from a couple of miles away.

The gulls are quietened and the waders have, mostly, departed for wherever it is that waders go at these sorts of times, although a couple do emerge whenever the wind drops a little to allow them enough respite to seek out a sustaining snack or two from the incoming tide, nearly now at its height; very few of our gang of starlings remain scratchily at work in the field and on the shore; but the lapwings, however, continue to fly around, anxiously, piteously, calling out as they twist in the wind, testing and, so far, managing its strength. They know what’s coming. Likewise, the sheep in the field adjacent to our front door are hunkered down against the (wire) fence, back ends to the wind and, it seems, shaped for resistance to nature; at the other end, little appears to interfere with their stoical chewing. They, at least, are experienced at and with this; nay, they are used to it.

As for a soundtrack to the storm, opening my iTunes pre-sorted by album brings me, at the top of the pile, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from 2004’s Abbatoir Blues. Not so much linguistically but certainly sonically, the sound and the fury of Cave’s delivery, and the intensity of the Bad Seeds’s playing and singing, call to mind the fear of what’s to come and the changes that Barbara’s arrival may bring.

I’m trying not to think too much about Cave’s title, though.

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Busy, busy, busy

Not had the time to post anything over the last couple of weeks, what with work, SEER Journal, Christmas shopping (and wrapping!) and a housewarming (today…) for which, among other things, invitations need to be made and people invited, cider mulled and playlists drawn up, tested and adjusted.

So, here in place of a post is a photo I snapped a couple of weeks back (on 19 November) from my kitchen door steps of some oystercatchers, and a few redshank, seemingly anxiously waiting for the tide to recede a bit:

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img_4149-customPicture taken looking west towards Ardivachar (and a bit north), Mol Mor beach at Kilaulay, at 1617 on 5 December 2016.

Well, a bit of afterglow, really rather than sunset (which was at 1548 today) since the band of clouds on the horizon obscured the actual setting of the sun. Nevertheless, the quality of the light continued to be extremely high giving, at this stage of the day, soft reflections and a beautiful apricot sky.

In between the above and the below, we had this:

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Pictures (a composite – there were actually only two gulls drifting lazily on the sea….) taken at 1421, looking north-east across Bagh A Tuath (= North bay) from Rubha Aird na Machrach.

The weather is due to break tomorrow, with rain forecast and a stronger wind. Today, however, another day of eerily, portentously calm weather: of warm sunshine and blue, and almost milky white, stilled seas that gently shimmer under barely a breath of wind, as the picture above (taken on a receding tide) seeks to show. This is not just unseasonal, but unreal. There will be worse (much worse) weather to come – which makes the anticipation of just how hard it is going to be that bit tougher. There will, most probably, be a price to pay for all this via a storm whose ferocity reflects, in the opposite direction, the calmness of these early winter days. Aside of some gales around the autumn equinox and a cold snap (lasting no more than a couple of days) in the middle of November, the south of England seems to have had worse weather thus far.

In the meantime, I could (and if I could abstract the beauty of moments like this) get very used to island days like these.

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Before sun-up, 5 December. View looking south-east from Ardivachar, taken 0837. Sunrise time for our postcode: 0853 (though the actual appearance of the sun is about half an hour later at this time of year since its actual rise is obscured by Thacla, on the right of this photo).

Great views all round this morning, aided by starry skies overnight and an absence of cloud cover, a complete absence of wind and thus a sharp frost which left the grass crunchy underfoot and the light clear and the visibility well-defined. There were very strong views to the hills of Harris to the north, about 65 kms distant; to the Monach Isles to the north-west; east to MacLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins (red and black) on Skye; and, here, south-east to Thacla’s foothills and, in the far distance, the 70kms down to Rum. That’s also a thin sliver of Loch Bi following the photo’s lower third. And soft colours everywhere: gentle pinks and blues and greys reflecting the early sun to the north and west; stronger, but still very soft focus, oranges and blues to the east and south.

Bill Drummond, memory and 13th birthday top tens

I was touched last week by artist (and former musician) Bill Drummond’s memory tape for Lauren Laverne’s 6Music show (here for the original; and here for The Spill’s post on it), both in terms of what he said about the decline in the role and significance of recorded music as a result, partly, of over-commercialisation; and about his own experience of fading memory. This led him to construct a playlist of ten songs drawn from the top 20 in the week he turned 13 (i.e. at the point of becoming the teenager for whom recorded music had most impact and indeed, at whom it was largely aimed).

As a veteran pop-picker myself, and lifelong constructor of mix tapes, CDs and playlists, I was intrigued and of course proceeded immediately to dig up the top ten for my 13th birthday, via the Official Chart‘s website. Sad to report that, in the fourth week of September 1976, there really was not a lot going on in the charts. Abba was (still) no. 1, with Dancing Queen; and, frankly, I’m struggling to get very much at all out of the top 20: there’s one, possibly two, songs in the top ten that I wouldn’t mind hearing again; barely even that from 11-20. Outside the top 20, there’s a few songs which raise a fair bit of interest now (Lou Rawls, James Brown), even if unlikely then to have provided much in the way of teenage kicks, but it’s only really when we get down to No. 43, up from No. 46 this week, would my 13-year-old self have sat up: Eddie and the Hot Rods’ ‘Live at the Marquee’ EP (a record, in its picture sleeve, that I still have: they were one of my favourite bands). Otherwise, this was a chart which was the antithesis of the energy and the drive of Eddie and the Hot Rods: dominated by dross, comedy records and novelty acts, unchallenging disco hits and, simply, a welter of soporific, bland tunes; unobjectionable fare put out as the UK recovered from that summer’s sweltering heatwave and drought – the charts were ripe for the musical revolution that they were about to get. Or did they?

There was, of course, an awful lot happening on the music scene at that precise point – just that it wasn’t yet troubling those in charge of the sales tallies: The Damned’s New Rose wouldn’t be released for another month although, in the very week I turned 13, the 100 Club held its ‘Punk Special‘. I knew all about punk at that point, from the pages of the Melody Maker that my Mum presciently ensured was delivered to the house every week (until such times as the language got a bit too coarse to take), though I was a couple of years too young (and probably far too provincial) to be at the 100 Club that night. (BTW, my mum managed to undermine my fervour for the punk rebellion in one swoop, declaring of ‘New Rose’ when I proudly took it home from Quicksilver Records in Reading that she loved it. But then, why wouldn’t she: it’s a cracking song, as Tim Sommer highlights in the link above, with a spirit and a vitality that still resonates forty years on owing not least to Nick Lowe’s knock-out production job.)

Though, interestingly, things weren’t a lot better, chart-wise, precisely one, two, and three years later, either. Punk did change a lot of things for the better at least for some people, and perhaps only for a short while, but it’s a mistake to think that punk was as revolutionary as all that, since an awful lot of the same old dross simply survived it. I would actually struggle to pick more than a couple of songs that I’d want to hear from any of these subsequent top tens even while punk was in its pomp – a testimony, no doubt, to the sorts of people who run the record industry. And, indeed, the reinstatement of the old guard once punk and what had by then become badged as ‘new wave’ had burned itself out on the fripperies of the new romantics was largely what sent me running in an entirely different direction musically by the mid-1980s (inspired largely firstly by King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System, which I would have seen on The Tube; and then by the African stars on Tam Tam pour l’Ethiopie, part of Two-Tone’s restitution of the black voice to musicians doing things to raise money for starving children in Africa, after which point I was gone).

So, no 13th birthday chart playlist for me: sorry, Bill. This was the week (and, perhaps, the mini-period) that lets down the idea that we can have a decent musical conversation based on our memories of the music that accompanied us precisely as we started our most exciting, and troubling, years.

And yet Drummond’s essential belief in the power and the art of the three minute record to have a hold on us and to trigger cultural and individual change (and, years later, to spark our memories) is too good to let go just like that. Here, instead of a ten-song playlist from the top 20 of late September 1976, is one song from each of the top tens that accompanied me from 13 to 23: right through my teenage years and taking me right up to the start of my finals year at uni:

1. 1976: Rod Stewart – The Killing of Georgie

2. 1977: The Rods (ha!) – Do Anything You Wanna Do

3. 1978: Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hong Kong Garden

4. 1979: The Crusaders – Street Life

5. 1980: Stevie Wonder – Masterblaster (Jammin’)

6. 1981: Soft Cell – Tainted Love

7. 1982: The Message – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

8. 1983: UB40 – Red Red Wine

9. 1984: Sister Sledge – Lost In Music

10. 1985: Midge Ure – If I Was

They’re not a collection of the greatest songs (I actually only own five six of them, and I had to remind myself of what ‘If I Was’ sounded like – something that is likely to be increasingly the case in the years that follow. Indeed, having checked, the first year in which I can recall, off the top of my head and from the list on the screen in front of me, less than half the top ten on my birthday is as depressingly early as 1987, although I continue to be able to recognise at least one top ten song, in that version by that artist, at least until 2002 (my point of No Chart Consciousness: now there’s an idea for a post…)).

Further, there’s not a lot of rebel message in that list, and in some (other) respects I’m clearly a prisoner of the format I’ve selected. However, I think they do form a reasonably cohesive, and interesting, selection which is enough at least to get people talking about the power of music in the way that Drummond intends. And, maybe, helping in some way to keep alive recorded music’s role as creative and inspiring force.