Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye to 2008


This was the scene at 11.00am this morning, looking from our house to Hillswick. And yes, that IS a seal balancing on the tidal drain.

What a long strange year it's been....and all annotated on this blog, if you can be bothered looking for the highs and the lows.

Time to move on, and lots to look forward to in 2009: Lots to get nervous about, too, but hell, what's the point? Plans for this year: keep on broadcasting, including a major series on alcohol and the second series of Musical Genes. New novel to be published in June. More breadmaking and music. The renovation of the erstwhile Radiocroft into tourist accommodation and some REAL crofting. With a spade.

All this and more. Including the question:pigs or reindeer? See you on the other side. And speak to you Friday, as usual, two until four, BBC Radio Scotland.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

To the lighthouse, and back to work tomorrow


An absolutely cracking Shetland Sunday; mild, calm and clear. The urge for end-of-the- year clearing up and general outdoors activity struck deep. I was engaged (with help from Magnus and James) in filling up an unexpectedly empty skip, and Susan barrowed tangle (kelp) from the beach for fertiliser.

The daylight stretched longer than we're used to, and even at 3.00pm it was light enough for me to take James on a driving lesson up to the Eshaness cliffs. At 17, with hardly any real practice, he's amazingly competent. Computer games...

Tomorrow it's back to work, and that means travelling into Lerwick following the demise of the Radiocroft. There's no live show on Ne'erday (a really excellent prerecorded one instead), but apart from that, it's live radio all week. Speak to you between two and four...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The floating hotel, Christmas dinner, Wii Unfit and turkey in the fridge!


I've written before about the St Magnus Bay Hotel, which stands in white wooden splendour just a couple of hundred yards (or metres) from our house. Closed for a while until just over a year ago, its revival under the ownership of Andrea and Paul has put a lot of heart back into the village of Hillswick. We now have a bar, and great food available every lunch and dinner time.

The hotel has a fascinating history. Prefabricated in Norway, it was part of the Norwegian exhibit at Glasgow's Great Exhibition of 1896. Afterwards, it was dismantled, put on a barge and floated north to Shetland, where, in 1902, it became the Northern terminus of the North of Scotland Steam Navigation company's tourist and freight steamer service from Thurso. Hillswick was, for a while, one of Britain's centres of extreme, upmarket tourism. There was shooting, fishing, climbing, golf and much else.

Andrea and Paul have carried out major renovations and are still working on the building. It's just splendid to have it up and running again.

Susan is on call this Christmas and, while we both love cooking, the fact that the hotel was offering full-on Christmas dinners seemed too good a chance to miss. So we booked the five of us in for lunch today and it was fantastic. Turkey with all the trimmings, AND each booking had a turkey of suitable size TO THEMSELVES. At the end of the meal, we were able to take the leftovers (large amounts) away. So we can enjoy turkey sandwiches, curries and the like without having had to do the cooking OR the washing up! Very reasonable price, too.

Add to that the Buja-Buja chocolates I got from Santa and the day has been going very well. Low point was the arrival of the Wii Fit game thingy, though, which assessed my bodily state as verging on the obese and my Wii Fit age as 61...

Och weel...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

....and a merry Christmas!

Still wading through the runny-nose, coughing, wheezing and spluttering stage of something approximating a cold. My voice has dropped half an octave (at last!) but there's just today's show to go before Christmas. No broadcasting from me on Christmas Day or Boxing Day (though BBC Radio Scotland continueth, of course!), and then it's the weekend. So four days to recover. And we're off to the hotel from Christmas dinner, so no cooking and more importantly, no washing up!

Many thanks to everyone for their Christmas wishes and expressions of sympathy on the demise of The Radiocroft. As Bruce Lee always said, walk on (as quoted by Mr Frank Skinner in his excellent autobiography, £1.40 from Oxfam.

Monday, December 22, 2008

...and it's goodbye from The Radiocroft; good afternoon again from the Palace of Sheep


Well, it's been looming for the best part of six months, but on Friday the decision was taken to stop broadcasting from The Radiocroft. The official line is that we're 'resting' it, but after five broadcast-threatening (and in three cases, broadcast-destroying) failures of the ISDN line, enough is enough. My confidence, and the BBC's, in the technology's stability has been shattered.

I can only pay tribute to the Beeb's forbearance. The Radiocroft was my idea, and it's my (several thousand pounds' worth) studio. I think the idea of doing a music show beside a peat fire from a remote, seaside croft house has proved really attractive to listeners over the past five years, as well as allowing me to avoid a daily 74-miles round trip to Lerwick.

The Palace of Sheep is my nickname for Lerwick's 'Studio Seven' ( I have no idea why it's called that; there are only two) at BBC Radio Shetland in Pitt Lane. It's a 'self-op' studio often used for contributors to news and chat programmes. And it uses old-style BBC 'music lines' to connect with mainland, which I always see as great brass-cored 19th-century telegraph cables winding along the seabed. Not ISDN, although we have that as a backup.

The Radiocroft functioned reliably until this year, when the ISDN installation at the local telephone exchange began to fail with monotonous regularity. ISDN is different from broadband, which has replaced it for almost everything but broadcasting: ISDN is a high-quality, secure (hah!) one-to-one digital connection. You share that quality, that connection, with no-one else, unlike ADSL broadband, where quality varies according to how many folk are online. Although ADSL is used for remote radio broadcasts, the quality is not up to BBC standards. And it's unreliable.

Anyway, ISDN used to be reliable. Now it's not. Every lightning storm knocks the system out. Power cuts can do the same. Why? My one fellow Shetland user of ISDN believes it's to do with the Marconi equipment now used exclusively by BT; the old Motorola cards were more robust.

I want to pay tribute to the BT engineers who have, in all weathers and with great speed, come to fix the failures. Alas, though, Thursday's was the last straw. A blink of lightning at 14.40 and we were off air. I decided to drive into Lerwick while records and an 'apology loop' were played in from Aberdeen and Glasgow. The drive was a total nightmare, through ice, snow, hail, rain and high winds, and in a highly tense state, and afterwards I was forbidden from doing anything similar on health and safety grounds. And quite rightly so.

But what I was really conscious of was failing the listeners. The whole point of this kind of live radio has to be its reassuring reliability. To be always on, when expected, sounding like yourself. And not a shattered, breathless wreck fresh from The Ice Road Truckers Experience.

So from today, it's a trip to Lerwick. Probably by bus a lot of the time (roughly a fiver return) and only for three days this week, as there's no show Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

I can't complain. The Radiocroft has been fun - lots of memories: recording with Mark Radcliffe, a host of fiddlers playing live, the dawn-to-midnight midsummer special, chasing sheep from the lawn during the news, visitors barging in and refusing to believe I was on air, helicopters hovering overhead and having a second-hand bookshop operating downstairs for an entire summer. Most recently, Lulu the St Bernard being hugely disconcerted by my two-hour conversation with someone invisible.

The show must go on, and it will. To the Palace of Sheep!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The 'Hallelujah' issue, Shrek, Bathsheba and the titanic Mr John Cale fae Wales



Well, at least Ol' Lennie won't have to worry too much about his retirement fund any more(Leonard Cohen, writer of Hallelujah, has infamously been forced to return to performing after losing almost all his lifetime earnings in a management scam).

As battle rages between supporters of Ms Alexandra Cowell-Burke and those of the late Jeff Buckley over whose version of H should go to the top of the charts this Christmas, consider the many other versions of said song. There are some truly horrendous attempts out there (and on YouTube). Try Bon Jovi for example. Or better, don't. KD Lang's is pretty impressive, Dylan's (live on YT) awesomely intimidating (love those sneering 'do-yas'). But not exactly pleasant.

This is the one. Mr John Cale is the man whose edited version (I chose the cheeky verses) (originally the song had 15 verses)was essentially 'covered' by Jeff Buckley, and who sings it in the film Shrek (though not on the soundtrack CD - that's Rufus Wainwright, for some unknown reason.)Cale released two versions on the Cohen tribute CD I'm Your Fan and on his own live album Fragments of a Rainy Season.

The biblical references abound, with that extraordinary Old Testament tale of David and Bathsheba (lust, murder, friendship, politics, religion - it's got everything)kicking things off and Samson turning up later on. In the end, though, the Cale version is about sex (Buckley claimed it was simply about 'the hallelujah of the orgasm') the end of love and possibly death. Jingle Bells or Merry Christmas Everybody it isn't.

Anyway. Here's the former classical wunderkind violist, Velvet Underground graduate and unrepentantly Welsh Mr Cale, with a truly magnificent string arrangement and cadaverous vocals to match his appearance.

This was recommended weeks ago by a listener to the show whose name now, alas, escapes me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Peatiness, dodgy phenols, and the new Bruichladdich...

From the Drinking for Scotland blog:

Below is the press release from Bruichladdich, announcing the release of the 63.5 per cent alcohol Octomore (five years old, £79 a bottle).

I have (what remains of) a bottle of Bruichladdich"s 3D3 Norrie Campbell Tribute bottling, which is nice enough but peculiar. It's as if the phenols have been layered, like oil, on top of a thin base. The cask-strength Octomore may well be better. I have some of the Infinity and it's very good.

If, however, you're one of the folk who actually managed to get hold of a bottle, don't knock it back all at once. As if you would! Apart from the alcohol, high phenols usually mean bad hangovers. Phenol (the stuff that makes a whisky 'peaty') is a poison, and in sufficient quantities, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry can be very nasty indeed. The organisation says that effects (not from whisky,which in truth only contains tiny amounts) but from, I assume, ingesting fairly large, pure concentrations) can include:

Health Effects

* Exposure to phenol by any route can produce systemic poisoning. Phenol is corrosive and causes chemical burns at the contact site.
* Symptoms of systemic poisoning often involve an initial, transient CNS stimulation, followed rapidly by CNS depression. Coma and seizures can occur within minutes or may be delayed up to 18 hours after exposure.
* Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, methemoglobinemia, hemolytic anemia, profuse sweating, hypotension, arrhythmia, pulmonary edema, and tachycardia.

Acute Exposure

As a corrosive substance, phenol denatures proteins and generally acts as a protoplasmic poison. Phenol may also cause peripheral nerve damage (i.e., demyelination of axons). Systemic poisoning can occur after inhalation, skin contact, eye contact, or ingestion. Typically, transient CNS excitation occurs, then profound CNS depression ensues rapidly. Damage to the nervous system is the primary cause of death from phenol poisoning. However, damage to other organ systems (e.g., acid-base imbalance and acute kidney failure) may complicate the condition. Symptoms may be delayed for up to 18 hours after exposure.


Hey, now that's what I call a hangover! Pass the Lagavulin/Laphroaig/Ardbeg/Caol Ila...

Actually, I've just come across some even more interesting stuff about phenol, from the Absolute Astronomy website. To say that the substance has a bad history is putting it mildly...it's quite putting me off my Islay malts. Must see if I can get some of that £14.99, not-very-peaty Aberlour...


"Bruichladdich distillery announce the release today of the world’s the most heavily peated whisky ever.

The inaugural bottling of Octomore, a single malt whisky distilled at Bruichladdich from barley peated to 131 ppm, three times more peaty than any other whisky ever produced.

Demand from 'peat-freaks' has exceeded the 6000 bottle supply. The stocks were sold out before the whisky left the distillery.

6000 bottles Bruichladdich Octomore were bottled @ 63.5% ABV, at 5 years old, RSP £79."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rayburn loaves on a very windy night


The ferries to and from Shetland have been cancelled for another night...it's force nine gusting A LOT higher. A friend's son was on one of the flights that did make it in to Sumburgh - two attempts, people vomiting and screaming. What a relief not to have any more trips away before the new year.

Susan and the kids went into Lerwick today, leaving me to vacuum (Dyson: the most overrated domestic appliance EVER) light fires, clean, mop and cook. And sneak a few wee sleeps on the sofa, once the Rayburn was all stoked.

It's seen some action, that stove. Before we moved in, 10 years before, in fact, the sea invaded the manse and the Rayburn was three feet deep in salt water. It's back boiler doesn't work, its enamel is cracked and its handles are missing. But it works a treat. Anyway, with the peat-fuelled oven reaching some seriously impressive temperatures, I decided to make some bread. Two loaves. Plus coq-au-vin for the returning shoppers. And now another wee nap, I think...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The bouncing St Bernard


This is an old picture, but I don't think I've ever blogged it before. Lulu in full flight, before the wind took the trampoline away...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Now That's What I Call Quite Distracting, Vol.1

...This is the track listing and sleevenotes for a wee best-of-2008 mix-tape/CD I've put together for family and friends. I know, I know: Some tracks are from 2007 or earlier, and there should be some Hello Saferide. But on the whole I think it's pretty good stuff. Elbow and Ry Cooder really shine for me. Album of the year has to be the Ry Cooder Anthology The UFO Has Landed, which is stunning (and, technophiles, BEAUTIFULLY mastered)

I think all these tracks are available from iTunes if you want to investigate further:

NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL QUITE DISTRACTING
Twenty top Tom Morton tracks from 2008 (with some obvious omissions and anomalies)

Steve Earle: Way Down In The Hole (2:56) from the album Washington Square Serenade. Theme for the fifth season of the Greatest TV Series Ever Made (Way Down in the Hole is a Tom Waits song, used with different performers as the theme for each season of The Wire). Steve acts in the show as an alarmingly overweight addiction counsellor.

Elbow: Grounds for Divorce (3:39) from The Seldom Seen Kid. Stunning album, bringing long-deserved success for the band. First time I heard this track I thought my car stereo was going to explode

Bon Iver: For Emma (3:41) from the album For Emma, Forever Ago. Recorded on a laptop in a wilderness log cabin, apparently. Hugely atmospheric album, literally out of nowhere.

Ladyhawke: My Delirium (4:17) 'Ladyhawke' is the debut CD from the woman also known as Philippa Brown, who writes and plays everything. She's from New Zealand, and this album took ages to penetrate my consciousness. But, as the year ends, this is 80s electronica revivalism destined to dominate in 2009. Maybe.

Colin Macintyre: Be My Saviour (3:46) From The Water. Mull Historical Society was a much better name. This is a very good album but Colin seems to be slipping further and further under the radar. He's a kind of Calvinist Prince (pop star not royalty).

The Fortunate Sons: Wasted Time (3:41) Eponymous debut album from the Glasgow team is an absolute cracker, Sam West's voice almost ripping the microphones to shreds. Great songs, fantastic playing, loads of good humour and they're supposed to be excellent live.

Mark Knopfler: Secondary Waltz (3:44) This is from the 2007 album Kill To Get Crimson, but I only really got into Mark's solo stuff this year. It's enormously underrated and under-exposed, considering he's such as huge star with Dire Straits. The songs are worthy of Richard Thompson.

The Killers: Spaceman (4:45) I am not ashamed to say that I absolutely love The Killers. There's something endearingly odd about them...they're like Abba trying to be U2, or Roxy Music crossed with Deep Purple and Slade. Three great albums so far and Day and Age is no exception.

Martin Simpson:Never Any Good (4:14) Hold onto your hats and prepare to weep. Martin wrote this about his dad, and it's on the 2007 album Prodigal Son. Songwriting to break the hardest heart.

Ry Cooder: Ridin' With The Blues (3:01) I've played this obsessively ever since I almost crashed a VW camper when I first heard it. Brand new Ry, as good as anything he's ever done, showing where Keef got those licks. From I, Flathead. The anthology The UFO Has Landed is exemplary. This track's a tad politically incorrect, though...

George Formby: Andy The Handy Man (2:49)...and speaking of politically incorrect...2008 was my ukulele year. From the absolutely essential double CD The Ultimate Collection. Technically, he was a uke genius, too. But filthy.

Nick Lowe: Failed Christian (3:56) Came across this via David Mundell at the Inn At Lathones. It's a song by Henry McCullough, once of Wings, and among David's collection of rock memorabilia there's a letter from Nick pleading with Henry for the use of it on Dig My Mood. Chillingly sad.

Peter Case: I'm Gonna Change My Ways (3:25) Peter is one of the greats. It's just nobody knows it except me and a few folk in Greenock! I'll be heading there I hope in February when he arrives for a wee tour of...Inverclyde. from the mini-album Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (4:12). Apocalyptic Testamental rock with great Australian jokes. Grinderman were superb at the Connect Festival, and this Bad Seeds album is a joy and a dark thrill.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Killing The Blues (4:19) Raising Sand was the groovy dinner party album of the year, beautifully produced by T-Bone Burnett but, like Springsteen's Magic, horribly mastered. This is a transcendent John Prine song.

Sigur Ros: Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur (4:03) from the wonderful album Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. probably best asked for as 'the one with the arses'.

Vampire Weekend: M79 (4:16) This eponymous debut lasts the pace, for me, whereas I'm quite sick of Fleet Foxes, and I'm not sure why. If I want America, I'll just have CSN and Y, thank you. or possibly just Y.

Geraint Watkins: Easy To Say "Bon Temps Rouler" (4:00) Low-key Welsh delight from aged ex Dominators frontman and Nick Lowe pianist. From the CD In A Bad Mood. Great cajun version of Heart of the City on it.

Justin Currie: What Is Love For? (3:10) Title track from one of the great depressive break-up albums, a long time coming from former Del Amitri frontman, who looked seriously pissed off during his set at Belladrum.

Shebang: Sheena is a Punk Rocker. Swedish punk-pop courtesy of Mr L Hutton. Gloriously, intelligently dumb. Like all the best pop.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday, farewell to Robertson's Jam and more book action

The news that Robertson's Jam is to disappear from our shelves means that an icon of my childhood will vanish forever. The Robertson's Golly has, of course, already gone amid much controversy, but somehow Hartley's, which Premier Foods will concentrate on when Robertson's disappears, has always been an English jam to me. Something to do with the TV adverts when I was a kid. I'm sorry to appear in any way parochial, but the fact is that James and Marion Robertson kicked off the jams (sorry) empire by inventing Golden Shred marmalade in Paisley.

Won't be able to avoid talking about all this on the show today.

Probably won't talk about David Simon's Homicide:A year on the Killing Streets which I've just finished and is not just the source material for The Wire, but one of the great pieces of in-depth 'immersion' journalism. And one of the last? Let's hope not.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Serpentine - I can't believe it's really happening...but it is!


Working with the editor Jennie Renton today on the manuscript, which I think she's improved manyfold...publication date is 4 June next year, but if you want a sneak preview, click here.

Sunday Herald Diary today....nudist broadcasting exposed!

...read all about it here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Bob Dylan to play Edinburgh Playhouse and SECC

...Tour just announced. Tickets are on sale NOW for the SECC gig, but there's some delay regarding the really hot one, the Playhouse in Edinburgh. Tomorrow or the day after, according to Ticketmaster. The chance to see Dylan (as previously with Waits and Young) in a small, seated venue is too good to miss.

Meanwhile, today's show is mostly about your choice of covers (second hour) though I may mention speed cameras (alternative uses) and the top 10 stupid Christmas gifts.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Mighty Torslanda is back! Remakes and sequels...

Picked up the Volvo 240 this morning, all decked out in its new exhaust system, battery and brakes. The Torslanda is back just in time to cope with some truly nasty weather!

Just getting sorted for today's show...looking at the music presented to Barack Obama by David Cameron (The Smiths, Lily Allen, Radiohead and Gorillaz) and what albums you'd give the president elect...

Also: Russell Brand is apparently going to star in a remake of the Dudley Moore film Arthur...and Keanu Reeves is planning (further) sequels to both Bill and Ted and Speed.

So...what should be remade, who with, and which sequels are we dying to see?
0500 929500, tommorton@bbc.co.uk or text 80295.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Festive Radiocrofting

Moustaches and bad Christmas trees

The Radiocroft now has a Christmas tree (I'll take a snap after it gets dark) and it is pretty scabby....but with the people of Peterlee claiming theirs is the worst civic Christmas tree in the UK, where is Scotland's most appalling?
And as for Brad Pitt's attempt 'to rehabilitate the moustache', well...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Rainbow and approaching snow, Hillswick


Phone snap from Findlin's Farm, looking north-north east. 60 seconds after this, it was snowing heavily. On me.

Indiana Jones and the....search for a plumber in Shetland?

According to Harrison Ford, a fifth Indiana Jones movie is at the planing stage. But having found the Temple of Doom, the Crystal Skull and the Philosopher's Stone (or was that a Star Wars movie?) what should Indy be looking for?

Also: A Russian advertising agency is using pet dogs as mobile hoardings - what could your dog or cat sell? And who put the traffic cone on the highest spire of Marischal College in Aberdeen? Who has the skills? Who put the Santa hat atop the supposedly unclimbable 'Humility Tower' at Gaius and Gonville College in Cambridge? Who are the mountaineering pranksters and are you among them?

Meanwhile, we're desperate to cut our oil bills by linking a peat-fired Rayburn to the central heating system. Not a single plumber in Shetland has shown the slightest interest in doing it. I'm thinking of retraining...

Monday, December 01, 2008

December dawns!

Good grief, but Sweden looked amazing in the new TV version of Henning Mankel's Wallnder books. The acting was, in general, absolutely brilliant, with Branagh's brilliance quite awesome at times. Fabulous photography, but scripting was occasionally iffy and the choice of Nicholas Hoult from Skins to play the avenging wee brother rendered the whodunnit element laughably redundant.

Please, though, if you like Wallander, get hold of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Beck series. Set in Stockholm in the 60s, explicitly but not overbearingly Marxist in ideology, the books are cool, laconic, character-driven, and somehow very human. Wallander, with his depression and illness, is clearly based on the constantly suffering Beck Not everybody will find that appealling, but I've read the whole lot twice and I think they're among the best police procedurals ever written. There's one, very good English-language film version of the Beck book The Laughing Policeman, set in the USA with Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern, but only available on US region DVD. Try and see it.

Today's show...

Hmmm...It's the start of December so i think we'll go Christmas tree spotting...Scotland has just introduced compulsory seller's surveys for house sales, so I'll be asking about houses you've moved into and found very different from the property you viewed...and the Campaign for Universal Festive Folding Female Flip Flops starts here...