STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH

I suppose I was slightly jangled as I made my way to the End of Term Concert of the Lews Castle College Music Department last night (9 June). Anna Wendy Stevenson and Simon Bradley promoted this event. The venue was St. Mary’s RC Church Hall in Griminish and the place was stowed.

Right. What was bugging me? I was remembering a similar musical soiree in Nunton I attended and wrote about under the heading VOODOO about six weeks ago. I had a few critical remarks to make then about how the youngsters spoke onstage, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to don my teacher’s mortarboard again on this occasion.

Whence, you may ask, comes my authority for carping at anyone’s continuity? I’ll have you know I have a doctorate in rhetoric. Once at a school dance when I was about thirteen, the girl I secretly loved allowed me to escort her home. On the way I asked her why had she allowed me to be her lumber?

‘Because you’re the funniest at doing accents.’

My patter – the one thing I was any good at – had got me the girl!

This taught me a valuable lesson. You have to make the most of what you’re given in life, and while my choices for a career – cowboy or French Foreign Legionary – would have provided more excitement, a flair for spoken language (and, later, grammar) were what I had been given. Accordingly, my lifelong quest is to have other people speak better in public.

Okay, it’s doors open time at St Mary’s. Simon welcomes us. He starts off well, speaking clearly in Gaelic and English. He has obviously rehearsed his salutation. I think I’m in safe hands until a judgmental lapse worthy of Theresa May lands on my lap like a cannonball. Uh-oh, he’s now ‘luggin’ it. Simon subjects us to a barrage of ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and ‘likes’ as he tries to explain that there will be a formal element in the proceedings before we’ll be exposed to the musical part of the evening’s entertainment. Fair enough. He and Anna Wendy are going to present HNC certificates to a couple of this year’s students. His entire spiel however lasts for ages. I peg it at about three days. He seems to be lost in a tangle of announcement he simply has to express. But he hasn’t sorted them out beforehand and the result is information overload for members of the audience. I am aghast. Daingeadaidh! This man is a member not just of a group who work at the College but of some über group within the College.

Dear Simon, you’ll really have to jerk out a lot of fatuous prattle from your delivery. Do it like a dentist extracting rotten teeth. As a stopgap measure I suggest you write down what you wish to say – nothing like writing about something to fully understand it – memorize your notes, and deliver them in clear, honest English. Let’s face it: most public speakers in Uist favour a rambling, boring, tangential style of delivery. You’re not the worst offender. You are, however, a much-loved teacher and a pedigree composer. Don’t you want to turn the sow’s ear of your onstage chat into a passable imitation of a silk purse?

I want the members of the group Eabhal who also spoke, namely Jamie MacDonald and Hamish Hepburn, to take these injunctions to bed with them tonight as well.

What about the music? It made my old heart go pitter-patter with pleasure. Chloe Steele sang Sìne Bhàn, a terrific song from Islay. (By the way, in my not so humble opinion, the best Gaelic songs of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were composed in Islay, Mull and Tiree.) In her desire to hit all the notes bang in the centre she perhaps sacrificed tempo. The most entertaining bagpipe playing of the night came from two young men who came from overseas: one from Austria and the other from Vermont.

After the raffle was drawn, the stage was left to the headliners: Jamie MacDonald (fiddle), Nicky Kirk (guitar), Megan MacDonald (accordion) and Hamish Hepburn (pipes flute and whistle). As expected, they sparkled. The guitar playing of Nicky particularly impressed me.

The billed singer songwriter Wilf Stone intrigued me. He adopted a shouty style of delivery, particularly in his upper register that I first found disconcerting. His forte was a genre which included suffering, injustice and protest songs,  and he didn’t spare himself. Rage is rare in the Gaelice canon, but the urban folk clubs where Wilf learned his trade must be full of highly educated Berghaus wearers with red faces and throbbing veins in their foreheads. They appreciate protest because a lot of features in their lives – I’m not getting into them – make them angry. Wilf’s covers, Waltzing Matilda and The lakes of Pontchartrain, were acceptable. As he went on, however, the intensity of emotion he displayed increased. He sang about a woman whose husband had been hanged for poaching deer. He made me want to get up and shout ‘INJUSTICE FOR THE POACHER’S WIFE!’

What I did, after a final stramash dominated by Nicky, was get up and trap for Grimsay.

I conclude with a freebie for Anna Wendy Stevenson and Simon. How about I conduct a workshop on presentational skills in the autumn?

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MONODRAMAS

Let’s face it: storytellers I hear at public gatherings in the islands these days aren’t very good. They’d put the stones to sleep. Hold on, I’d like to explain. I’m not blaming the performers. The majority of these, young and old, who try to please their audiences, are well prepared and willing to share sweet-sounding Gaelic in public.

​No, what gets up my nose are the stories themselves. The favourite subject matter seems to be ‘a walk on the moor’ or ‘by the shore’ or ’in the city’. Personally, I rejected that swill about seventy years ago. Okay, now you know where I stand. Pick one of these lame subjects, and you’re putting yourself in a straight-jacket. You can only relate, at one step removed from your environment, what you say, heard or felt. Unless your descriptive powers are right up there with those of Jonathan Franzen or John Updike, you are unlikely to grab the listeners. Of course, if you come across a camel, a mermaid or Justin Bieber, and tell us about it, you’ll have nailed it, won’t you?

​It’s been a lifelong mission of mine to create drama, sometimes where it has no business to be. It’s a genetic thing. My maternal granduncle, Seumas Mòr mac Aonghais ‘ic Iain Mhòir, Big James Macdonald, of Old Mill, Benbecula, could spin a drama out of something as mundane as feeding the hens. I have a similar weakness. If I give an account of a shopping trip to MacLennan’s Supermarket in Balivanich, you can be sure I’ll try to jazz it up a little.

​Whoops! I’ve wandered off at some kind of nostalgic tangent here, and I don’t really want to pursue it right now.

​How would I improve the anaemic tales we are offered in the oral section of festival competitions, for example? Well, instead of the method adopted by present day storytellers – this is me, Donald or Mary, and my aim is to get you to like the way I portray myself. Yes, I’m a pleasant enough little person who has obediently memorised a boring piece of prose for your delectation.

Smash them! I should like to offer monodrama as a substitute for ‘traditional folk tales.’ Most of the authors of these bland narratives wouldn’t know a ‘traditional folk tale’ if it bit them on the leg in the Dark Island Bar.

​In a monodrama there has to be a story, right? I’d prefer Donald and Mary to forget about themselves and pretend to be different characters. They ought to be acting parts: crabby old woman, repentant church member, tipsy dinner guest, shy suitor, and ignorant school pupil . . . whatever.

​I want the performer to make a frontal assault on the audience. The character will be free, without restraint but with propriety, to become a spinner of dreams. The content, the form and the performer are inseparable; they are all one.

​He or she can stand motionless or be seated. He or she has permission to go walk-about among his audience, and, if he or she fancies it, he or she can stop and chat with anybody during the course of his or her stroll. The performer can mime and mimic with feet, hands and face. He or she can, and must, adopt the accents and physical mannerisms of each person who appears in the story. That’s my vision of monodrama.

​I hope to have published later this year a bilingual collection of monodramas. They may encourage folk: not only to have a go at acting solo but also to create their own monodramas. There could be ‘poppy’ in this, folks – low overheads and a chance to sell tickets at the door yourself!

VOODOO IN THE TOWNSHIP OF THE NUNS

Shiorraidh, I think, it’ll be cold in here tonight. It’s the evening of Thursday 11 May. I’m teetering on shaky legs up the roughly cobbled driveway leading to Nunton Steadings in Benbecula. The occasion is an instrumental soiree of traditional music organised by the South Uist Folk Club. The headline performer is James Duncan Mackenzie, champion piper and gifted flautist, supported by John Lowrie on percussion and keyboards and Allan Nairn on electric guitar. An accordion/clarsach duo who calls itself Peach/Skeoch will provide a warm-up overture.

​As I crawchle up to the entrance,  I anticipate an uncomfortable evening, with uplifting music certainly, in a space bounded by gloomy stone walls and cobblestone flooring. The only thing missing from this environment, I speculate, will be a massive steel butcher’s hook from which the carcass of a cow may be suspended. Brrrrr!

​I am suddenly struck by a flashback of my maternal granduncle, Seumas Mòr mac Aonghais ‘ic Iain Mhòir. He spent a considerable period of indentured servitude as a cattleman/shepherd in this gloomy place when the MacLean family from Coll occupied Taigh Mòr Mhic ‘ic Ailein over a hundred years ago.

​I enter the West wing and Immediately all my doors are blown off at the hinges. Shazam! The place has been transformed. A lot of money and hard work has been expended in the refurbishment of the gaff. Gone are the hulking stone walls and the uneven cobblestoned floor. Swathes of magnolia cotton drape the walls and, at regular intervals oil paintings and watercolours, some framed and others in canvas print, hang just below the v-lined roof and gleam invitingly. The smart terra-cotta tiles would not be out of place in any well-appointed mansion on the Mediterranean coast. The creaky sound I hear as I lower my skinny tòn into a well padded chair in the front row doesn’t come from my rickety knee joints but, I swear, from Seumas Mòr turning in his grave.

​The place was full to bursting. Congratulations, organisers, for having the nous to pre-sell tickets electronically. Anyone who has ever shopped for anything online knows that the costs to the purchaser are next to nothing. Unless you have to dig into your wallet or purse for paper currency, you don’t really notice what you’re spending, do you?

​Peach/Skeoch aided by friends on percussion and synth /keyboard opened the concert itself. I liked the look of these guys – tall, handsome guy with an engaging smile on accordion and a lovely young woman on clarsach – but I’m embarrassed to confess that I personally didn’t fancy their energetic and innovative sound that much. I accept, however, that contrast is useful and their music may have appealed more to others in the audience. The continuity definitely needed tightening up a bit. If they really feel they have to comment on a previous or forthcoming set, they ought to write their thoughts down, memorise them and deliver them at a leisurely pace. Less confabulation and more projection, please.

Peach/Skeoch took us on a musical tour of Europe, starting in Ireland, moving over to Northumberland, briefly visiting Belgium, and ending up in Norway. It was at this point I realised that, irrespective of claimed provenance, the repetitive musical figures they favoured was the really the same tune. It was shortly after this I fell into a metaphorical snowdrift and a deep dream of peace.

The James Mackenzie Trio rocked. James has not just awesome technique, he almost has demonic power – in a positive sense. He took up the traditional wooden flute and played impeccably some of his own compositions. The stand-out set was a version of the Gaelic song Mairead Og:

‘O, Mhairead Og, ‘s tu rinn mo leòn,

‘S tu dh’ fhàg fo bhròn ‘s fo mhulad mi . . .

This was pure bliss. He also played on a well-tuned Highland pipe a set of 2/4 Marches and a medley of P/M Donald Macleod’s Jigs and Hornpipes. This galvanised Allan Nairn to show us what he was capable of on his magnificent Gibson guitar. John Lowrie on drums and keyboards displayed admirable restraint in his contributions.

​Oh, yeah, when the large crowd dispersed just before ten o’clock, there I was, clutching the portrait I’d won in the raffle and bopping like a teenager down to the car.

​Truly there was voodoo abroad in the Township of the Nuns that night.

BYE-BYE

In a couple of minutes we are back in our recliners.  From the corner of my eye I get a fleeting impression of the leader of the Celtic supporters registering grudging approval.  Pumping his clenched fist up and down he seems to be acknowledging I have done something quite astounding.  I know of course that I have been the recipient of an enormous slice of good luck.  I smugly consider my good fortune before a feeling of numbness creeps through my entire system.  I fight fatigue and determine to find out more about this creature of barely hidden fire.

“Where from you come, Trish?” I croak from a parched throat.

“Oh, back there,” she replies, flicking the back of her hand towards the starboard bulkhead.

“Name of country, please,” I ask.  “Thailand maybe?”

I take a quick look at my companion’s jaw line.  There is no trace of a prominent Adam’s apple.

“No, thank you,” comes her reply.

“Cambodia?  Vietnam?”

“Somet’ing like that,” she breezily replies.  “Shhh – don’t ask.  It’s never mind for you.”  She sounds suddenly angry with me.

“Okay,” I say resignedly.  But I don’t give up.  “What you goin’ to do, if job in Glasgow fails?”

“Me?” she replies, as though the Observation Lounge is full of beautiful young Asian women bound for the Outer Hebrides, each waiting to give a reason.

The young woman stares at me for a minute or so as though contemplating a major revelation.  “Nude man,” she says, “I am sorry.  You are a very funny man – funny face and ver’ funny legs.  But, darling, I must remain silent.”  She places her smooth left palm on my right thigh and squeezes.

“No, no,” I squeal.  I mean to say it coolly, without the one-octave-up notes that issue from my lips.  We get up from our seats at the same time and stand facing one another in the aisle.  “Tashi, I . . . I . . .,” I sigh, then start again.  Tashi, you are very beautiful . . .”

“I know,” she says calmly.  She takes a pace forward and imparts a soft kiss on my left cheek.  She caresses the spot with soft fingers.  “Soon,” she says with assurance, “you will become cool man.”

My mysterious Asian beauty pirouettes away from me and skips towards the entrance to the Bar, never to be seen or heard from again.  I don’t know this at the time and I fear she may return and do something that may cause me great embarrassment.  Alarm spreads throughout the lining of my skull.  I grab the newspaper and clutch it before me like a shield.  I back away from the row of seats and start to crab walk backwards like I don’t want to turn my back on Tashi Daleq.  I am creeping backwards towards the rear of the lounge.  I never make it.

The paper drops from my numb fingers and flutters to the deck.  I plunge forward as though to capture it.  My body lurches and begins to collapse in sections – head, then shoulders, the knees, and finally the tòn.

It’s the face of young MacPhee from South Uist, the leader of the Celtic gang, I see when I come round.  He is peering down at me, eyebrows raised in astonishment s though I have just delivered a complicated joke in Serbo-Croat. Tashi was gone from my life forever   What happened to me?  Well, I was deposited in Ospadal Uibhist agus Bharraigh in Benbecula, and for the second time in fifteen hours I found myself in a wee white hospital bed.  Plus ça change . . . and all that.

In a bizarre way her prophecy was fulfilled.  Our encounter marked the start of the ‘straight edge’ (fags and booze free) period of my life.  My world and the way I look at it, as well as how I regard myself, is now gratifyingly different.  Alleluia!

PS  That’s a wrap.  My thanks, viewers.  Beannachdan – Tormod.

 

 

BONG

Nude-man . . . Nude-man . . . Nude-man,” is the urgent call that brings me round. “I want to give you something.” She reaches into the pocket of her jacket, pulling out a small brass pipe and a plastic bag containing big lumps of yellowish white stuff. “Follow me, please,” she commands, rising and smoothing her skirt over her thighs. The deck is pitching violently as we stagger through the bar out into the open air.

In the lee of a lifeboat we crouch on all fours and try to ignore the driving rain slanting in from the southwest. I reach into the pocket of my dressing gown for my cigarettes. The girl slaps the packet out of my hand.

“No smoke cigarettes,” the girl commands shrilly. “Take ten years off you’ life.”

Great. My eighties. Don’t want to miss those.

Tashi pinches off a large slice of material from one of the lumps, rolls it between thumb and forefinger, and stuffs a plug into the bowl of the brass pipe. She fires up a disposable lighter at the fifth attempt and sets the contents of the bowl alight. Sucking vigorously at the stem of the pipe she takes a couple of hits before handing the implement over to me. I suck in tentatively and blow out a small cloud of smoke. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh,” I go in a tone of intense satisfaction. She raises the brass pipe to her mouth, taking repeated light puffs, the bowl glowing briefly, then growing dull, and again turning red. We spend the following twenty minutes re-packing the pipe and passing it back and forth. We blow smoke into each other’s faces.

“You go to Barra?” I ask.

“Correc’, is the reply.

“What waits fo’ you there?” I say.

“A man,” she sighs.

“He from Barra?” I enquire.

“Correc’” she says. “I meet him first time in park in KL>”

“In Kinning Park in Glasgow you meet?” I say, mystified.

“Kuala Lumpur, silly man,” she says.

“You go to Barra man – let me get this straight,” I say. “You go marry?”

“No marry,” she says. “Strict cash only.”

“Why you need cash?” I ask.

“I maybe find – I dunno – new me,” comes the unexpected reply.

“A new you?” I gasp. “Old you more than good enough.”

“No,” she stresses. “In new land I find somet’ing all mine.”

“Four acres of croftland in Nask?” I enquire doubtfully.

“Maybe it work,” she says. A new thought strikes her. “Eeef it no’ work, I wait to hear if I get part.”

“What part?” I ask, becoming increasingly confused.

“In Bushfire,” she retorts.

“This is a film?” I say. She really could be a model or an actress.

“No,” she announces proudly with a broad grin. “Ees Tapas Bar in Hillhead. Een Glasgow.”

Abruptly I decide to give up. My breathing is coming in short, jagged gasps. My fists are clenched and, despite the cold wind scouring the deck, the back of my neck and my forehead are soaked in sweat.

Soon, not soon enough, my gorgeous new friend stands up and extends her hand to give me a little touch on my shoulder. “Come,” she says. “We go back for more fun talk.”

What are we on? Whatever it is, it feels good. It is like nothing I’ve ever felt before.   As I glide behind her effortlessly I marvel at how sure-footed I have become, the rising and sinking carpet of the Bar and the Observation Lounge magically smoothed out. I repeat to myself ‘We go back for more fun talk.’ What is she proposing? Is she intimating dalliance in full view of all the folk in the Observation Lounge? Getting into something freaky-deaky with this person would be one for the book: especially in full view of all the Barraich and Uibhistich in that crowded place. Strangely enough I am not too worried.

TALK IT LIKE TARZAN

Although I’ve always prided myself on my ability to get females to listen to my patter, it is only when I attempt to turn up the corners of my lips in a welcoming smile that it occurs to me that I don’t know what to say to this glamorous vision.

“’l don’t mean to presume . . .” I make a gesture with my hand casually – cool – and say, “Well, why don’t you take the weight off your . . .legs?” No sooner do I mention the divine appendages than I don’t know what to say next.

“I may sit beside you nude?” comes from the sensual mouth above me.

What am I hearing? Is this Asian girl proposing to do a striptease before sitting in the reclining chair next to mine?

It takes me about three seconds to realise that ‘nude’ is in the vocative case and the question is a simple request directed at me. She points a forefinger at my pallid bare thigh, which protrudes from the ragged hem of my dressing gown. In my late seventies the circumference of my thighs is about the same as that of my calves.

“Of course,” I gush, sweeping a newspaper and an empty crisp packet from an adjacent seat. “Please, I want you to . . . recline . . . I mean, relax next to me. The world was made for you alone . . .you’re most welcome.”

“You I t’ank,” she says.

As an aficionado of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I immediately twig that we are communicating in Tarzan language.

“What name for you?” I ask. Our vessel has just left the comparatively

sheltered waters of the Sound of Mull and now is being buffeted by very heavy waves in the Southern Minch. Indeed, for the month of May recent weather in Scotland has been most unseasonal.

“Tashi Daleq” – she pronounces it Ta-shee Daal-ek – “name for me.”

“How you are?” I demand, believing nothing can challenge my increasing

confidence in this dialect. I shake her hand and receive a little extra squeeze before we disengage. I fleetingly register that for such a slip of a girls she has some mitt on her.

“First is last,” is the unintelligible reply.

I hypothesize that in her native language – Pashtun? Tagalog? – this is the locution employed to indicate complete satisfaction with current conditions.

“What name for you?” she asks.

“Norman is name for me.”

“Noh-maan,” she repeats slowly. “I call you ‘Nude Man’ because yo’ flesh is bare.” Her index finger points to my naked peely-wally legs poking out of my old.bobbly dressing gown. She shrieks: “Nude!” and slaps her bejewelled fingers over her eyes and laughs uncontrollably. “You’ legs hurt my eyes.”

“You going to Lochboisdale?” I ask.

“No, to bar I go soon.”

This reply is promising. It occurs to me that if she intends to go next door to the Lounge Bar I may take the opportunity to sneak a double-double or two to sustain me for the remainder of the long voyage.

“Look . . . er, Tashi,” I say, handing her a twenty pound note from the crumpled heap of bamknotes I’ve taken from my pocket. “When you get to the bar, get me whisky – a lot of whisky. You understand?”

She becomes rather grave. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “I no’ goin’ get whisky. I go to island of Barr.”

“Oh, you go to Barra?”

“Yes, I tell you before.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“Beezness, of course,” she replies. She doesn’t seem to find the alternative worth considering. Only a half-naked old man would imagine that any degree of pleasure could be found on a rock in the North-east Atlantic.

“What kind beezness?’ I press. The diction adjustment is becoming contagious.

“Yes, darlin’” says the Asian beauty.

I wait for amplification but no explanation comes. In the ensuing silence despite myself my eyes close and for a brief period I am out the game.