Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Exchange visit to France

I started today thinking about the exchange visit I did back in the summer of 1980 with a French lad called Olivier. It was arranged through our schools but despite us being a similar age, my over-riding memory of Olivier is of a very serious young man who seemed a good couple of years older than me. He came over to Scotland first and arrived while I was coming to the end of my term at school. I don’t remember much of his visit though I think we went swimming at the Commonwealth Pool and did some of the tourist things like visit Edinburgh Castle. I also have a photograph of us, along with my cousin Gillian, visiting some tourist attraction further north with me and Gillian looking a good few years younger than our French companion who wore a raincoat whereas we had anoraks on.

We left Edinburgh and stopped off in London, staying with my aunt, on our way to Calais and the ferry crossing to France. I wasn’t much of a teenage rebel but do remember taking a packet of cigarettes with me and smoking one on the ferry as we headed over the Channel. Olivier said that we would carry on speaking English until we got on to French soil and I remember being on the Metro on the day we arrived in Paris.

Oliver’s family were quite wealthy and had an apartment close to the Champs-Élysées. When we arrived there, I was greeted by the sight of his younger brother and his German exchange running around the flat. Presently his father returned from work and collapsed in a chair in front of the TV. While Olivier had been in Edinburgh my dad discovered that monsieur liked his Scotch. So, I was given a bottle of malt to give to Oliver’s dad on my arrival. I will be forever grateful to my dad for this as it was the best possible present I could have arrived with. Olivier had introduced me to his father, but he had barely acknowledged my presence until I presented him with this gift from Scotland, saying in my best schoolboy French, “Un cadeaux pour vous, Monsieur.” His eyes lighted up. Suddenly I was his best friend and he started speaking English to me. Unlike his son or wife, he was concerned that I would find it difficult to start speaking French right away and spoke English to me for the first few days.

Olivier and I visited the Eiffel Tower, we went down the Seine on a boat one evening but what stuck in my mind was the day we went to the Sacré-Cœur with the German lad. It was an overcast day and after climbing all the steps to the roof we were greeted with torrential rain so had to return below without seeing the views. Back down in the “body of the kirk”, as we’d say in Scotland, Olivier left the German lad and myself while he went and prayed. I can’t remember the lad’s name, but we realised that French was our common language so had a stilted conversation in French as my German wasn’t too great and I don’t think he spoke much English.

It was this conversation that came to my mind this morning while hearing of the problems Angela Merkel is having forming a government in Germany just now and the on-going Brexit negotiations. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to meet fellow Europeans when I was a teenager. Maybe if there was more contact between kids from different countries not so mnay people would have voted to leave the EU last year. But to use a quote from the comedy series WIA, we are where we are and that's never a good place to be.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Top Folk & Acoustic Albums of 2017

I've put together my list of favourite albums of the year now as it's unlikely I'll be getting any more new releases as I'm no longer presenting my radio show. As ever, thanks go to the promoters and artists who have sent me cds and free downloads. Along with the albums listed below I should mention a couple of releases which were made up of just a few tracks - they might have been called EPs back in the days of vinyl - namely 'Five Songs' by Barbara Dickson and 'The Wren And The Salt Air' by Jenny Sturgeon.

2017 must be the first year in quite a long time that I didn't make it to any music festivals apart from the one here in Lancaster. I've only been to about a dozen gigs this year but most have been very enjoyable, the best being the Pitmen Poets, Breabach, John Doyle, Jamie Smith's Mabon, The Young 'Uns, Rory McLeod and Edgelarks. 

My favourite album and gig would probably go to The Young 'Uns as I was blown away by their harmony singing when they came to the Dukes Theatre here in Lancaster and their album "Strangers" is packed full of brilliant songs. They are playing in Kendal on the 9th of December if you fancy going to see them. 

Top 15 UK Albums 

The Deadly Winters - Ravynstoun
Amy Duncan - Antidote
Robert Foster - Raven
Peter Knight's Gigspanner - The Wife of Urban Law
Rosie Hood - The Beautiful & The Actual
Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys - Pretty Peggy
Geoff Lakeman - After All These Years
Madam Tsunami - Long Way From Home
Siobhan Miller - Strata
Moonlight Gazette - Moonlight Gazette
Oka Vanga - Dance Of The Copper Trail
Old Blind Dogs - Room With A View
Skinner & T'witch - The Fool's Journey
Turnstone - Hollow Ground
The Young 'Uns - Strangers 

Top Albums from North America

Bruce Cockburn - Bone On Bone 
Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough - Mockingbird Soul
Stephen Fearing - Every Soul's a Sailor
Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors - Souvenir
Steve Hussey & Jake Eddy - The Miller Girl 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Off The Beaten Tracks radio show 27 October

I thought I'd record a show with songs written about refugees and immigrants and their journeys around the world. I found quite a few suitable ones just by UK artists, though there is a song by German group Fellerband, with my first choice being a very powerful song by The Young 'Uns titled 'Dark Water'. It was written about two young men who decided to swim across the sea to Greece as they didn't have the money to pay the people smugglers. There are a couple of songs about Calais where people used to gather in a camp called the Jungle though it has since been destroyed by the French authorities. But I'm sure people are still heading there to try and get across the Channel to England.

Darwin Song Project - Trust in the Rolling Ocean
Roving Crows - Refugee
Richard Thompson - Take Care the Road You Choose
Gilmore & Roberts - Warmonger
The Young 'Uns - Dark Water
Kate Rusby - Life in a Paper Boat
Fellerband - Road to Calais
Skinner & T'Witch - Calais Nights
Thea Gilmore - I Pity the Poor Immigrant
David Ferrard - I am an Immigrant (I'm From Here)
Julie Matthews - Road to Eden
Geoff Lakeman - The Road Together
June Tabor - Across the Wide Ocean

Monday, 23 October 2017

Radio Daze

It was my old pal of mine called Phil who asked me, a number of years back, if I had ever thought about doing a radio show. He suggested that I contact my local hospital radio and find out if they were taking anyone on. So I sent them an email and never heard anything back.

But as fate would have it I discovered there was a radio station at the Lancaster YMCA called Diversity FM. They were looking for volunteers but when I applied they seemed more interested in getting me involved with their website than presenting a music show. This was mainly because I had been doing a bit of web design work but the setup at Diversity was very different to what I'd been doing and I was hardly jumping with joy at the thought of having to get to grips with this new software.

Part of the induction to becoming a volunteer involved sitting in with one of the presenters and I sat in with Boogie Bill. As his name suggests he is a fan of boogie-woogie, blues, jazz and and bluegrass which he played on his show, and he is also a damn fine piano player. So sitting there alongside him in the studio I got an idea of what was involved in presenting a live show. 

One week Bill couldn't make it in and I was asked if I would like to fill in for him. Not, I hasten to add, doing a live show - they weren't that cruel - no, they had a second studio which could be used to pre-record shows. The advantage of doing that was that if I made any mistakes or simply dried up then it could be edited afterwards. Obviously I would have been nervous recording my first ever show but it went ok and got the thumbs up from those in charge. When it became apparent that I was not really interested in developing the website, I was asked if I would like to present my own show. As they didn't have anyone playing folk music, would I like to make that the focus of my show? 

And so Off The Beaten Tracks was born (thanks to John H for the name). Not having a huge amount of folk music in my collection I started emailing artists asking if they could send me a cd and most of the time they were happy to oblige. I was blown away one day when I arrived at the station to find that Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention had not only sent me a copy of the band's latest studio album but also four other CDs and a copy of the programme from the tour they were half way through. As the saying goes, if you don't ask you don't get.

Having been involved with the local music scene - I occasionally played at the Gregson Open Mic - I was keen to include local musicians on my show and they, along with established artists like Fairport and Kate Rusby, were also grateful for the airplay. On a few occasions I even had live sessions or guests in the studio choosing tracks and chatting about their music and latterly I co-presented the show with a mate of mine called Wes who certainly livened things up. We had a blast doing the weekly show together but sadly it was not to last as the funding dried up and despite some last minute attempts to bring in money, Diversity FM closed down. 

I feel I'm at a crossroads now as things are not going very well at the station i joined a year ago. I won't go into the details, as it's not helpful to wash any dirty linen in public, but I feel torn about what to do next. Should I carry on presenting live shows on what now feels like a commercial radio station or should I do what Mike Harding has been doing over the last 5 years, ie recording shows at home and uploading them to Mixcloud or wherever? Mike has co-incidentally just recorded his final podcast and is retiring from broadcasting.

I had this conversation with someone the other day which makes me feel that I should go down the latter path - 

Her - You do a folk show on local radio, don't you?
Me - Yes it goes out on a Thursday.
Her - I'm normally busy on a Thursday so I can't tune in. Is there a podcast I can download?
Me - No, sorry, we're not allowed to do podcasts for copyright reasons.

End of conversation.

If you'd like to listen to the mixes and shows I've recorded at home, check out my page on Mixcloud 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Some thoughts on UK politics and electoral reform

This is in response to some comments posted yesterday by a friend on Twitter. She was moaning about how all the Greens seem to do is go on about PR though she did admit she likes Caroline Lucas. I pointed out the unfair situation with the First Past The Post voting system (FPTP) whereby in 2015 the SNP got 1.4m votes and 56 seats whereas The Green Party got 1.1m votes but only 1 seat in the House of Commons and this was her reply...

"UKIP changed the country with one seat. There's more to politics than seats."

Rather than continue on Twitter, with the limit on how much you can type, I decided to post my reply here...

And now UKIP has no seats in Westminster and they only have one council seat* so they have been reduced to little more than a one issue pressure group. But because of Brexit they still get alot of press coverage and are invited on to shows like Question Time on the BBC. So you are right - for UKIP, seats in Parliament don't matter as since the EU referendum they are still regularly in the news. But that's also because Brexit goes beyond party lines. There will have been voters from all parties who voted to leave the EU, not just Tories and UKippers.

While I am no fan of their policies the fact that UKIP got 600K votes at this year's General Election but have no seats in the House of Commons is bad for democracy. But it suits Labour and the Tories to have as few Green and UKIP MPs as possible and they achieve this by continuing to support FPTP.

But arguably it lost Labour the 2015 election. Why? Because in Scotland, despite the SNP only getting 50% of the vote, they won all the seats apart from three - one each to Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Corbyn needs those Scottish seats to win a General Election. The Greens are now pretty much a minor distraction in national elections. We had hoped to add to our one seat, or at least come a good second in a few constituencies, but that did not happen. But we have 40 council seats* and this is where we can make a difference and push councils to be greener.

Caroline Lucas does the best she can to push environmental issues in parliament but she is just one voice out of 650 seats. Most of the time she can be ignored with the main parties just paying lip service to green issues. But the environment should be central to our political system - it is the basis of life on earth. It is the air we breathe, the land we live on and grow food on, the water we need to survive but we use and abuse it putting profit above all else which is deeply depressing.

Of course, people of all political colours care about the environment especially here in Lancashire where there is great alarm especially among rural communities about the government pushing ahead with fracking. Even Tory politicians are speaking out against it here though that may be because they sense the public mood and fear they will lose votes if they are seen to support the shale gas industry.

Given the choice I would obviously prefer to see a Labour victory at the next election rather than more Tory-led austerity and I sincerely hope that if Corbyn is our next Prime Minister he stops fracking and adopts more environmentally-friendly policies.

The reason that was always given in the past for not changing from the First Part The Post voting system was that PR leads to hung parliaments. Well, we've had 2 hung parliaments out of the last 3 general elections. We need a new voting system, such as the one used in the Holyrood elections.

Colin Bertram

The above are my own personal views and not necessarily those of the Green Party of England and Wales of which I am a member.

* These were the figures after the seats contested in the 2017 local elections but the total number of councillors in the UK are UKIP - 438 and Green Party - 175 according to Wikipedia.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Mental Illness

There is much in the news about mental health, with frequent reminders about about how many of us will suffer from stress-related illnesses and this is the key word - illness. When my anxiety is bad I feel ill. I am on medication but it doesn't help very much and sometimes feels like I'm actually on a placebo as it has so little effect. While there seem to be countless anti-depressants, there are very few options for those of us struggling to control feelings of anxiety and the temptation is to self-medicate with alcohol which of course is not recommended.

I did see my GP earlier in the year and he referred me on to the Mental Health team but the only thing they could offer me, after a telephone appointment, was a series of lectures on stress control. At the end of the last session we were told that we should now have the tools necessary to become our own therapists and we were all discharged from the service. Great. Six lectures where me and a dozen or so others just sat there and listened - there was no interaction, no discussion - and at the end, that's it. You're on your own. 

I do understand that we have to take some responsibility for our own health, be that healthy eating, taking exercise, not drinking too much, but I don't feel qualified to be my own therapist.

So the anxiety gets worse. First thing in the morning I often seem to have thoughts about ending it all but these thoughts pass once I'm up and doing. It's horrible feeling like that, but it's just part of the illness. 

A friend tells me he has had treatment from a hypnotherapist which has helped to control his feelings of anxiety so maybe I'll give that a go. I can't really afford to pay for private treatment but at least it's something else to try.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Breabach gig review

Breabach at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal - 25 Feb 2017

At the start of this gig singer and guitarist Ewan Robertson said it had been a few years since they had played at the Brewery Arts Centre and asked if anyone in the audience had been there on that previous occasion. The silence was deafening, which took Ewan aback a bit, but by the end of the evening it didn't matter where all their old fans had gone as the new audience were on their feet applauding them like they were homecoming heroes.

Ewan, along with fiddler Megan Henderson, double bass player James Lindsay and pipers James Mackenzie and Calum MacCrimmon were in good spirits thanks to the Scottish victory over the Welsh at Murrayfield and the Cumbrian crowd was happy to join in the celebrations. While I'm sure I wasn't the only Scot in the audience, that old saying about the enemy of your enemy being your friend certainly applies in the Six Nations rugby tournament.

As for the music, there were plenty of tracks from their latest cd 'Astar' which includes compositions written on their travels to Scandanavia and Down Under. Each band member took it in turn to chat between numbers and there was some nice Outer Hebrides humour from James (We were poor but we were miserable!). I was mighty impressed with his flute playing - they are all accomplished musicians but I felt James' playing in particular was superb. Megan's Gaelic singing and step dancing are also worth a mention and there were some nice vocal harmonies when Ewan and Calum stepped up to their mics to accompany Megan. Ewan also gave us a lovely rendition of the Dick Gaughan song, "Outlaws and Dreamers".

With this having been the final date of the English leg of their current tour, they had the unenviable task of driving up to Inverness for a gig the following night, but on their current form I'm sure they will go down a storm in the Highlands. 

Hopefully it won't be another few years before Breabach play in the north-west of England again and all I can say to the band is, haste ye back!