Thursday, August 29, 2013

Playing the Bouzouki, Blues Style...

Last Friday saw the official launch of the "Lost Wasp" record label at the Mill on the Fleet - where the Mill Sessions take place (music events I photograph and have occasionally played in) - which also acted as a fundraiser for the Mill Sessions and a showcase for many talented local musicians.

Lost Wasp is the brainchild of Alan McClure - singer and guitarist of local band, The Razorbills - and its purpose is to support and promote original material by locally based singers, songwriters and musicians. There is no financial backing at this stage (fundraisers might occur in the future), but it is acting as a way to draw talent together and pool resources.

Because of my attachment to the Mill and the local music scene, I was keen to get involved, but the timing didn't suit the rest of the band I usually play with, Scruffy Buzzards. So I put out the word that I was up for collaborating with anyone else.

Marcus Wright records the Mill Sessions each time, and was the producer on the last Razorbills album (and on the one they have just begun recording), but he's also a superb musician and songwriter in his own right, so I was delighted when he took up my offer.

Together we created "Loving The Sun", which we performed at the launch. I handed my camera to a friend in the audience and asked him to video us.

The Irish-style bouzouki I'm playing is most commonly seen in folk music (see my post Bouzouki Comparison about the difference between Irish and Greek bouzouki), but I don't often play it in a particularly folky way (nor Greek way, for that matter). Indeed, for this song I start string-bending in a much more blues-style approach. Ultimately, any instrument is a tool designed to create sounds - and so long as those sounds are interesting to listen to, then I don't think it matters if it is played in one style or another.

The picture quality isn't great due to the low light, but the video does give a pretty good idea of the performance. At some point, we hope to make a proper recording of it.

Hope you enjoy it

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Goodbye Stella

Stella started commenting on my blog way back in late 2005, barely 3 months after I'd started it, and she was always warm, kind and encouraging with her words.

I discovered one of the things we had in common was we both had daughters with Down's Syndrome, but although it sort of acted as a way of introduction, it didn't define our relationship. She began a blog of her own, although it only lasted a few months. She felt guilty at not keeping it going, but was happier commenting on other people's sites rather than writing about her own life.

We connected on Facebook several years back, and periodically I would see her posting photos of her family, but more than anything we played a wee game called Lexulous - a word game very similar to Scrabble.

Pretty much every day then, for the past few years, we've made our moves and left little comments in the chat box. Periodically, though, there would be gaps. She was battling with cancer and there would be times she would disappear for treatment.

I knew it was ongoing, but I hadn't realised things were as advanced as they were. She took her last move a few days ago. Today I saw her son had posted on Facebook that Stella had passed away in her sleep early this morning.

Stella was a lovely woman and I was privileged to know her in that strange way of knowing people online, yet never having met in person.

My heart aches at her passing, and for her family who loved her dearly.

Goodbye Stella.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Photographing for the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland

The Environmental Arts Festival Scotland (EAFS) is a new event, hoping to be repeated every 2 years or so, happening across this corner of Scotland.

I was fortunate enough to be one of two photographers selected to cover the event, which takes place from 30th August to 2nd September.

Earlier this year I helped out at the press launch, which was attended by Fiona Hyslop, the Minister for Culture in the Scottish Parliament. My role was initially to work out the best place at the location for the press shoots, in order to get the kind of shots into the papers that the EAFS wanted, primarily with the combination of an old stone bridge and a more modern dam both acting as a backdrop. I then also documented the launch as well as taking a few photos for the EAFS to use for their own publicity.

Photo used for the EAFS brochure

Press launch featuring Minister for Culture, Fiona Hyslop

The fact that all went to plan no doubt helped in my application to be considered as one of the photographers for the forthcoming event.

In advance of the EAFS, I've been taking photos of some of the preparations. This past week I've twice been out to Carstramon Wood, near Gatehouse of Fleet, where Japanese sculptor, Ueno Masao has been creating the "Dome of Silence".

This began with the construction of a bamboo frame, with the help of several volunteers, then later in the week I went out to observe him on his own, weaving willow into the structure.

Below are a couple of photos from each session, but you can find plenty more, along with blog posts I wrote specially for Environmental Arts Festival Scotland, here:

Ueno Masao, the Dome of Silence, Volunteers and Tasty Food...

The Dome of Silence Revisited

Ueno Masao demonstrating weaving with strips of Bamboo

Volunteers helping to construct the bamboo framework

Volunteers helping to construct the bamboo framework

Ueno Masao adding willow to the bamboo structure

Ueno Masao weaving willow to the bamboo structure

Willow woven around the bamboo framework

Friday, August 16, 2013


My son and I returned from our road trip on Wednesday. One week and over eleven hundred miles had taken in a visit to a friend I’d known for a dozen years but never met in person, a chance for us to catch up with Rogan's cousins and my siblings, a gathering of people I went to school with and haven’t seen for thirty years, and a stop-over with blogging legend, Pat.

It was a journey packed full of memories, both nostalgic and melancholic.

Brixham, in Devon, is a fishing and tourist town, and Rogan loves it there. For him it is a place to be with my side of the family, which has only really happened a handful of times over the years, and most of those times have been on these road trips where it’s just the two of us away together.

For me, it is a place I spent the tail end of my youth in a drug-addled haze, suffering from Depression, feeling my life was going nowhere and never would, in the company of other stoneheads who would do nothing with their lives. Although I escaped from the town and that lifestyle when I was 21, when combined with the loss of my mother to cancer eleven years ago, after my parents moved back to Brixham, a grim sombreness pervades my mood when I’m there. I find I am torn between wanting to spend time with my brother, sister, nephew and nieces, and a desperate desire to run as far away as possible from the town, as quickly as I can.

With my kid sister and big brother

The Family - Season 4 begins this Fall on HBO...

We moved to Devon shortly before my 15th birthday, but despite living on the outskirts of Brixham to begin with, local authority boundaries meant I went to school in Dartmouth – a slightly more upmarket tourist town 3 miles in the other direction. As well as the bus ride, the journey to school also required a trip across the River Dart in a passenger ferry. That watery boundary became as much psychological as physical. In my head, Dartmouth could easily exist in a different country rather than just down the road. When we all left school, aged 16 (there was no 6th form at Dartmouth), I visited on and off over the following year, but then it ceased to be a part of my life.

The 30-year School Reunion was an evening of strange and mixed emotions. I don’t have particularly fond memories of my school days, but I was curious as to how some of these lives, that I shared 2 years with back in the early 1980s, had turned out.

Dartmouth was not a big school – there were no more than 80 pupils in our year. 25 or so turned up to the Reunion, many of whom were not the ones I hung about with much, meaning in some cases there was a great deal of brain stretching to try and figure out who they were. And even when I did have clear memories, it wasn’t always easy to overlay the image of the skinny, floppy-haired teenager with the overweight balding, middle-aged man standing before me.

The 30-year Reunion

"Anyone remember Jeremy’s party?"
The woman opposite me turns bright red.

"Is that Carmen? Bloody hell, she doesn’t look any older than 26. She must have had surgery!"
"No, it’s genetic. Her mum always looked really young too."
Time has not been so kind to everyone. I know everyone there is 46, but looking round the room you would guess they ranged from 26 to 66.

"Oh look! There’s Gary!"
Gary... Gary... who the hell is Gary? "Where?" I ask.
"Just there – the tall guy!"
Nope. Doesn't look familiar. Sigh. Another one. My glass is empty, I’ll get another pint of soda water.
"Gary!!!" I say with a big smile and a firm handshake, thinking I still have no idea who he is.
"Do you remember when you, me and Brian used to listen to Heavy Metal in your bedroom?"
Suddenly Gary loses 30 years, 20 pounds and sprouts black curly hair. How on earth could I have forgotten Gary? Brian, him and me sitting in my bedroom, listening to Black Sabbath and ACDC and moaning about how pathetic the pop charts were, full of pappy synth music.

And as the evening goes on, more memories creep to the surface, although there are 2 or 3 people I still cannot place. I hear tales of love and loss, triumphs and tragedies, embarrassments, accidents and suicides. Promises are made to keep in touch and friend requests on Facebook will be honoured.

At the end of the evening I have a car full of people needing lifts home who noticed I wasn’t drinking alcohol. One woman, who should have been the last to drop off, I detour several miles to get her home first. More than a little worse for wear I fear she might throw up in the car, or worse, pass out before we get there, as I have no idea where she actually lives and am reliant on her giving me directions. Fortunately she stays conscious and the contents of her stomach remain inside her.

Maggie thought I was completely insane to even contemplate going along to a school reunion. She can’t think of anything more hellish to endure. Why would anyone seek out the company of people they’ve been actively avoiding for decades?

For me, though, it was part curiosity, part nostalgia and partly an opportunity to reconnect with a couple of people I did genuinely have good friendships with, which I hope will now continue.

But I realise now, the main reason I wanted to go, even though I didn’t consciously realise it at the time, was I needed a benchmark.

My life has gone in many different and completely unpredictable directions. However many guesses I might have had, aged 16, about how my life would turn out, I would never have come close.

We moved a lot when I was a kid. My father would never stay somewhere long before itchy feet would make him want to see and live somewhere else. So I don’t have a hometown as such – a place where I spent my whole childhood, full of extended family and school friends. My life has been such a random journey I’ve not been able to gauge any sense how it compares.

So taking a slice of time – meeting up with people my age who I shared a point in history with three decades ago – gave me the opportunity to assess my own progress.

Although it didn’t really. How much can you find out about a class full of people’s lives over a few hours in a pub? And what would I compare against? Number of children? Number of partners? Financial success? Size of car? Ability to consume a large number of drinks and stay upright-ish? It was a bit stupid to think I would find any kind of resolution. Perhaps, though, it lays to rest the ghost that it’s actually possible to find that sort of resolution. I think I can let go of it, for now, at least.

The following day we left Brixham and headed up to see Pat – a soothing salve to the emotional turmoil of the previous few days. The size of the spread she laid on for lunch when we arrived made me wonder if she had also invited the local cricket team to join us. Over the next 24 hours she was the perfect hostess and warm and wonderful company. As always, next to her elegance and charm I was aware of my own slovenly appearance – "Mr Odorous Crumpled at your service, ma’am" – but she was polite enough never to comment on it. Walks, meals out, meals in, a drive over Exmoor, bacon and eggs for breakfast, lots of talking and a few photos, and we left Minehead in high spirits.

Pat, now in her 80s, looks younger than one or two of my classmates at the reunion

On the way back to Scotland we detoured via Chesterfield and spent the night with my father, puling out the old photo albums so Rogan could see what I looked like when I was his age, and what his grandparents looked like at his age too. Family resemblances are there, although no one else had a Mohawk like his...

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Road Trips

Rogan was only 6 years old when we did our first road-trip together.

Perhaps I should just point out that a road-trip in the UK isn’t on quite the same scale as the Great American Road-Trip, where you can travel for thousands of miles in the same direction. From where I live, nowhere in mainland Britain is more than 519 miles away.

However, it was a road-trip in that it was just me and him, travelling down from Scotland to the South coast of England, which entailed spending quite a few hours in the car together (anyone confused about the difference between the UK, Great Britain and England should watch this video -

This first one was not under the best of circumstances. I’d just discovered my mother had a rare cancer of the ear (who knew such things existed?). Knowing I had to travel several hundred miles in a highly emotional state I decided to take Rogan in order to keep me grounded. When you have a 6-year-old dependant with you, falling apart completely is no longer an option, no matter how much you might want to. It also meant he got to spend a bit of time with his Dad on his own, and was in charge of doling out the sweets (candy) on the way.

Despite being only 6 years old, he was extraordinarily good company, and it became one of those father-son bonding things.

7 months on, the 2 of us went down again for a few days. We got to meet my new one-week-old nephew, but it was the last time Rogan would see his granny, who passed away 3 months later.

When Rogan was 13 I was chatting to him about things he might like to do, and he suggested another road trip for the two of us. It had been 3 years since I’d last seen my brother and sister down in Devon, so it seemed like a good excuse.

Last year we did it again. Now aged 17, I thought this would probably be the last chance for us to spend that kind of time together.

But I was wrong.

There’s a 30-year reunion thing going on with some of the people from my old school. I missed the 20-year one but thought it could be quite fun. Maggie thinks I’m completely insane to want to go along – she can’t think of anything more torturous than being stuck in a room of people she hasn’t seen for decades out of choice.

I was humming and hawing about it, then mentioned to Rogan he could come with me if he liked, and he said yes. That sealed it, so tomorrow the two of us are heading off for a week together again.

This probably will be the last one: he's now 18 and in September he heads of to Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh to study physics. I’m going to miss him terribly.

However, these road trips have become a defining aspect of his childhood and our relationship, which will always stay with us. And in many ways, I don’t think they would have happened, had it not been for the tragic circumstances of my mother dying from cancer. If I choose to look at it in this way, then it could be said these trips, and the particular level they have allowed me and my son to connect on, was an inadvertent but powerful parting gift from my Mum.

Meanwhile, our road-trip wouldn’t be complete without also taking the opportunity to call in on everyone’s favourite blogger, Pat. We’ve met up with her the last 2 times we’ve been down that way and are delighted that she’s agreed to meet up with us once again.