Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Weekend of Whirlwind Wonder in the West of Scotland

It's 603 miles to Ullapool from here: I set off on the train for a stopover in Inverness on Friday, where I stayed in a room so hot that I thought that the radiator had been left on. And that was in the north of Scotland, not in London where the temperatures are nothing short of searing.

I'd been worried that the bus to Ullapool itself might not take my guitar. It was very cramped but apart from that, no problem. The journey between Inverness and Ullapool is utterly beautiful. The mountains appear to be covered in luminous green velvet, dotted with little jewelled trees. What you lose in art galleries and street art in urban environments is more than made up for in a constant streaming gallery provided by nature for travellers passing through the Highlands.

I was staying with Anne Wood, violinist/viola player who plays for The Raincoats as well as creating her own projects; she is currently learning to play an instrument from South Asia called the Sarangi. Also staying there were Adam Blake, who played sitar for the band Cornershop, and his partner.

After travelling for so many hours, I spent a bit of time wandering around the village, chatting to some bikers who had journeyed from the Lizard in Cornwall to (I think) John O'Groats. They were on their way back home, and were riding a selection of vintage bikes. There was also a Morgan three-wheeler, apparently with a Ford Focus engine in it, which was being driven as a promotional stunt. Well, that won't be running for long then!

On Saturday evening, I played a solo set in The Wee Bar at the Argyll Hotel. It was an inaugural gig for the bar. I've played The Argyll a few times, and sometimes the audience can be a bit rowdy. In this tiny bar, people really listened and we had a good chat afterwards. It was a very charming night, with Anne and Adam playing a delicate and beautiful instrumental on the Sarangi and Sitar respectively to introduce the evening.

On to Sunday and the big event, which was the open mic at The Ceilidh place. There were 21 acts in all, and it really was the most astonishing evening. Local heroine Sot Otter had put the whole weekend together, and this was the culmination of a weekend to address mental health issues in the local community. She asked me to start the evening off, which was great because I could then just sit back and enjoy it all. In front of me, two Scandinavian tourists who'd seen me walking along with my guitar and asked me if they could follow me to see where the music was happening, sat and filmed and enjoyed it just as much as the audience, almost all of whom were also performing. There was so much: a little girl playing violin with her mum, a funny song about the scourge of campervans and their poor etiquette, lots of harmonising, cover versions, traditional songs, people singing their own songs, a poet, Anne and Adam improvising, Sot's lovely song about a house she'd lived in in Canterbury, an oddly moving rendition of Pharrell Williams' Happy by the choir. Beginners followed consummate professionals, and Sot and Anne underpinned a lot of it with keyboards, bass and viola. The audience had time, patience and applause for everyone, and at one point I was moved to tears. It was quite literally heartwarming, and more than served its purpose. I thought of all those people, many of them single and potentially solitary: instead of sitting weeping into their whiskey in front of the TV here they all were socialising, singing and collaborating, all ages, all genders. How very lovely.

The journey back was all done in a day of watching the landscape change across and down the British Isles, a huge deer staring into space in a field in Scotland, a chestnut-coloured hare lit up by golden evening sunlight in a field in England.

You know what, I am so glad to be a gigging musician. Sometimes my guitar feels too heavy to bear, my feet hurt and I'm dog-tired. Trains get cancelled, buses are late. I got stranded in Munich once. I'm getting older and what I'm doing feels sillier in comparison to what other people do. But I don't care. I'm doing it now, and inspired by those wonderful women blues musicians, will carry on until I have to stop. These adventures into happiness are what it's all about.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Sparrow Takes A Bath


A small child's voice ricocheted round the back gardens, which have a particularly strong slapback echo due the the building layout. I was awake already; the only other sounds were the wheezing flap of pigeons wings (the ones that have relocated from Trafalgar Square, who think of the tall building nearby as a cliff on the South American continent), and the chirrup of sparrows.

An hour later, the tintinnabulation of the bells clattered through the morning air, calling us to church. The one that local toxic Tory politician Theresa Villiers frequents during political hustings. 


Last night, there was a teenager party in the street: 56 of them in a one-bedroom flat, according to the street Whatsapp. It lasted for hours. Like a flock of enormous sparrows (or a herd of young donkeys), they chirruped and brayed in the street outside, muting themselves for the occasional 20 minutes before revving up again for more clouds of noise and chaos. Apparently, the police ended the party for them eventually, but you could still hear pockets of teenage revelry in the distance.

Then just as I fell asleep, a burglar alarm went off opposite. O noise!

I have such a tiny back yard, but so much happens in it. I looked out of the bathroom window about an hour ago, and a sparrow was having a bath in a tin tray of water I'd put out for the birds. It started with a sip or two of water, then jumped in and had a good old splash about. I stood stock still to watch. It was so funny and joyous that I burst out laughing. Finally, it's feathers drenched, it flew off to dry in the sunshine.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023


After a lovely lunch with Caryne, I headed off to the exhibition to do today's invigilation stint. It was more entertaining than I thought, though I was a bit disappointed by the place where my embroidery was: it was rather dark and it's so small that it almost disappeared. Lesson to self: be there on hanging day!

Anyway, I sat in a different gallery and worked on the pelicans. There was a strong student element in the exhibition and I spent a few idle minutes wondering if they were Generation Zs or millennials. I wonder if it works like car registrations and starts again at 'A'? There were actually a lot of visitors, whihc is very good for the organisers.

The blend of three different looped soundtracks became mesmerising after about an hour, and blended into  a sound soup that threw our aromas of Portugese speech (or possibly Spanish), a rather irritating piano phrase and something grumbly and scary from downstairs. I made a blooper in my embroidery which I'll have to fix today. I also need orange thread if I'm going to do the pelican's beaks correctly- during reproduction season their beaks become very colourful. I hope I've got some at home.

That being said, there is some really excellent art on display: the British imagination has not gone the way of everything else, but is thriving and productive. 

I checked in at the hotel I'm staying at, which has a rather unpleasant manager. I thought it was just me, but I spotted him making a family miserable as they checked in later on. What's the point?

Out for a wander, all the food places seemed extremely expensive. I popped down an alley and found a really nice, simple, friendly pizza place called Dough, where I had possibly the most tasty pizza I've ever had in my life. They hadn't over-salted it and I could taste everything. They didn't make faces when I said I wanted water- indeed they offered that and didn't try to up-sell drinks, which is a wonderful thing for a solo traveller.

I thought I'd treat you to the portrait at the bottom of the stairs at the hotel. Shame Churchill couldn't fix the broken shower, isn't it?

Monday, June 05, 2023

Word Soup

The week passed like lightning. From tears at a seeing young severely disabled boy in a fancy dress wheelchair at Whitley Bay Carnival, through visiting my close schoolfriend Andy's mum, still robin-like and funny at the age of 94 (on the waiting list for heart bypass surgery, an ideal candidate according to her surgeon); through a plane flight back from gorgeous Spain accompanied by two junior football teams, the smell of teenage boy farts and the chaos of lending phones, bouncing on seats, shouting in just-broken voices blending with the air turbulence to make the flight seem like  journey in a duvet filled with cats; through Attila the Stockbroker's boutique (he'd hate the term) festival with a deeply-mooing bull duetting with a trumpet in the first band's soundcheck, surviving being hugged by notorious Brightonian Smelly, feeling like I'd done a fab gig and driving back in the dark exhausted, diverted off the M27; through getting back to Robert and Edith's message saying they'd played McCookerybook and Rotifer's Balloon to a crowd of 1500 people at an antifascist rally in Salzburg.

Oh windy, sandy north-east coast and fish and chips, oh chilled horchata through a straw, oh stripy bent-beaked hoopoes cracking insects just a few centimetres from our feet, oh lusty-voiced male-heavy audiences singing along to my song At The Bathing Pond and a woman hooting with laughter at the line 'In a gap between the bushes...'. 

Oh bands, music, musicians with your/our foibles and Venn-diagram overlaps of life and experiences. Oh extraordinary art and artists, a world to rejoin and explore.

Oh life, I love you. 

I won't open the dark cupboard door, even as it grows larger and more full and tries to press me into testing my resilience. 

'Just one little look won't hurt!'. 

It will, and I won't do it.

Fringe Art, Bath: ThreadEd

This work's in an exhibition in Bath (from last week to end of this week) and I'll be there Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons embroidering the next one, which will probably be finished in ten year's time if this one's anything to go by.


Exhibition site:


Saturday, June 03, 2023

Resting in a Tree at Glastonwick and Attila's Review

'Helen McCookerybook, formerly of indie treasures The Chefs and Helen & the Horns, is now a clever, tuneful singer- songwriter in a Velvet Underground meets Tracy Thorn kind of way. Shame she wasn’t on the same day as The Monochrome Set, who play today, because they would have appreciated her song ‘Saturday Night with the London Set’, about the interface between hedonism and the ageing process. But I’m sure they’ve heard it already. She had the crowd captivated, a gentle, strong, clever woman in her prime.'