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Murmurs at the Gate by Suzanne S. Rancourt – reviewed by Duncan Harley

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Bereft of the usual capitalisation in the title line, Suzanne S. Rancourt’s new poetry anthology ‘murmurs at the gate’ makes for a quite reasonable read. I have taken the decision to capitalise the header. Not that you would really notice. It’s just that MS Word requires such pleasantries.  Ms Rancourt is of course a military veteran and her past experiences show through and not at all in a shadowy way.

There are no smoke bombs here and the 200 or so pages encompass and expose the inner workings of a thoughtful poet who has bravely shed the notion that just a few poems would do for a first shot at stardom. Not that any are superfluous. Just that there are a lot of them.
In a more equal world, where editions flow more rarely, reviewers and commentators would have the privilege of following a poetic career. There are some ‘Oh my god the tank is on fire’ moments here. But equally there many short and concisely penned pieces such as November:

The tomato
like a cup of tea
your hands cuppe…

When Donald Dinnie played Wallace – by Duncan Harley

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In his sporting career Scottish athlete Donald Dinnie (1837-1916) won around 11,000 sporting contests and competed internationally as an all rounder in events as diverse as hurdles, weight-lifting,  wrestling and pole-vaulting. Aberdeen Art Gallery holds a collection of Dinnie memorabilia, including many of his medals.
I, for my part, included a chapter about the man in The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire but seemingly I may have gotten the story of his demise somewhat wrong.

I wrote: ‘A 19th-century sporting superstar and consummate showman, Dinnie achieved international fame when, in 1860, he carried two giant boulders, with a combined weight of 733lb, across the Deeside Potarch Bridge and back.
Alongside a lucrative career touring the international athletic circuits, Dinnie reigned supreme as the Highland Scottish Sporting Champion between 1856 and 1876, as an all-round athlete.

Variously titled ‘The World’s Greatest Athlete’ and ‘All Round Champion of the World’, Donald entered in…

Fair Trickit @ Aikey – by Duncan Harley

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On July 2 1687 James II disbanded the English parliament, on the same day in 1900 Sibelius premiered Finlandia in Helsinki.
July 2 1941 saw Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit premiered in London. And on July 2 1863, the participants @ the Battle of Gettysburg began a second day of bloodshed.


Here in Aberdeen on July 2 2019 there were roadworks outside Robert Gordons and the Triple Kirks was bristling with scaffolding. The Belmont Cinema featured a few popular films and the first ever Doric Film Festival took place alongside the mainly Hollywood offerings such as Toy Story 4, The Queens Corgi and Boyle's Yesterday.

Developed and presented by Frieda Morrison of Scots Radio fame it was a lively affair and, alongside some really splendid entries from schools, individuals and groups there were fine speeches from a variety of folk. I particularly liked the school entries and Meethill Primary headed the pack with a quite splendid docu-Doric take on the Bloo Toon. 
Alongside the fine speeches…

Careless Talk – by Duncan Harley

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Alongside being the 705th anniversary of Bannockburn, on this day in 1940 the headmaster of a rural primary school in Aberdeenshire found himself under arrest for the spreading of defeatist talk in public.
Timing is of course everything. If George Hendry, the local Primary School Headmaster at Oyne, had just kept his mouth shut for a few more months then in all probability nothing much would have happened to him. He would no-doubt have been dismissed as a crank at worst or perhaps even as a well-meaning intellectual. As it was, he became an early victim of the paranoia which gripped the North-east during the early months of the phoney war.

Various Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts came into force in the early part of WW2. Some, such as Defence Regulation 18B, provided a framework for internment of enemy aliens while others, including the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939, gave the state wide-ranging powers to prosecute the war using what nowadays appear to be draconian means. Most asp…

That’s Some Catch – By Duncan Harley

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As our country teeters on the brink of old-Etonian Boris I have found a bit of light relief on Channel 4.  Unlike the somewhat Glasgow-centric offerings available from the new Scottish Channel - read Tutti Frutti, Paisley-Punk-land or some hoary old history of Glasgow’s Central Station – 4 occasionally leads the pack.

We are talking Catch-22 here. Yes, I know that there was a book then a 20th Century film and some kind of abandoned prime-time mini-TV series. But hey, the new take on Heller isn’t that bad really. The uniforms are right and even the CGI is kind of passable if you ignore the neatly choreographed flying formations – daytime B-25 bomber pilots tended to jiggle about a bit in the face of groundfire rather than just steer right through it. But hey, this is Heller’s masterpiece so a bit of black-humoured in-flight management is kind of in order. If only someone had taken the time to sort out the overall colour masking. This pumped-up Clooney series jumps back and forward to t…

McCombie's Black Prince - by Duncan Harley

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On 12 June 1878 a ponderously titled farming journal, The North British Agriculturist,published an article honouring Scotland’s ‘Cattle King’ - Mr William McCombie, of Tillyfourie. McCombie had, the previous Sunday, carried-off top honours for livestock at the Paris Exposition Universelle - better known perhaps as the Third Paris World Fair.

“This is indeed a proud week for Tillyfour and for the polled Angus or Aberdeen breed of cattle … Mr McCombie having been adjudged the £100 prize for the best group of cattle, bred by exhibitor and reared out of France,” ran the article. “McCombie’s successful group numbered six animals…every black polled animal has a ticket of some kind!”

Preparations for the Paris Exhibition had involved major upgrading of the French railway network, and it is fair to assume that McCombie’s cows had travelled in some comfort from Alford to Paris by train, before alighting at the delightfully named Gare du Champ de Mars, alongside the Eiffel Tower.
The Alford farm…

D-Day minus Trump - by Duncan Harley

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The Normandy Landings, more commonly referred to as D-Day, took place on 6 June 1944. The term D-Day is of course military-speak for the jumping-off date for any military operation.
Timed to the minute, large scale military interventions rely on precise timing in order to coordinate both the delivery of firepower and the delivery of the necessities of warfare.

The D simply stands for "day" and the designation traditionally marks day one of manoeuvres. Thus, the day before June 6, 1944, was known as D-1, invasion day was highlighted as D-Day and the subsequent days are described as D+1, D+2, D+3 and so on. Today is 4 June 2019 so by definition we are now at D+27,391.
Mind you, the 1944 invasion planning had begun some months if not years before and were it not for a break in the weather, the landings might have been delayed by weeks. But, apart from losing the element of surprise, the planning would simply have been delayed by D+10 or even D+30 and the carefully worked out t…

An Evening of Eric and Ern @ HMT Aberdeen

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Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stevens capture the brilliance of Morecambe & Wise in this homage to Eric and Ern and, if the PR fluff is to be taken seriously, you’ll feel like you’ve seen the real thing when you take in the show described in glowing terms as being:
‘Straight from their hit West End, Olivier nominated show "Eric and Little Ern" which Ian and Jonty wrote and performed in ... see them as Eric & Ern and be taken back to a world of sunshine and laughter.
Their brilliant homage hits all the right notes! From Greig's Piano concerto to Mr Memory, "Arsenal!" A show full of Morecambe and Wise's most loved routines. Highly acclaimed for their portrayal of the legendry comedy duo, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, talented actors Ian Aspital [sic] and Jonty Stevens return in this new and fabulous show, crammed full of renditions of those famous comedy sketches, evokes memories of times when whole families would huddle around the telly on Sunday evenings t…

On This Day in 1964 – by Duncan Harley

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The Aberdeen typhoid outbreak began quietly on this day - May 16 1964 when two university students were admitted to hospital suffering from ‘pyrexia of unknown origin’. Further cases soon emerged and by the end of the epidemic a total of 507 cases had been confirmed including 86 children under the age of twelve.

There were three deaths plus an additional eight linked cases treated elsewhere including one in Canada.
By June 17 the epidemic was deemed officially over. A William Low supermarket in Aberdeen city centre was identified as being source of the epidemic and it was concluded that a 3kg can of Argentine corned beef had been the initial infective source.

Argentine factories at the time routinely used untreated river as a coolant in the canning process and suspicion focused on the possibility of contaminated water entering through burst can seams causing bacterial contamination of the contents.
The news of the epidemic was reported widely around the globe with one Spanish periodi…

Lady Chatterley's Lover - by Duncan Harley

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The media today reported on the export ban placed on the original annotated High-Court copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Seemingly, if anyone in the land has a deep-enough wallet, then the actual copy used on the bench during the landmark 1960 obscenity trial can be had for a measly £56,250 or thereabouts.

For those not in the know, the novel was penned just prior to D.H. Lawrence’s death in 1930 – well I suppose that would be a given really. Eventually published by Penguin some 30 years later the lusty tome became an underground sensation as both inquisitive schoolboys and curious adults swapped secret dog-eared copies in the hope of finding out what the lady did with the gamekeeper in the bushes behind the big house. A Crown Prosecution followed under the Obscene Publications Act and sales rocketed when the case was decided by a jury who took just a few hours to decide that the content did not deprave or corrupt anyone in the land.

A permissive 1960’s society had seemingly triumphed…

Lost at Sea @ His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen - Duncan Harley Reviews

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“Ask not the price of fish, for it is measured in men’s lives” runs the old adage and even today fishermen in the UK are exposed to an accident rate several times that of construction workers. Many fatalities are attributed to men going overboard. Often no burial is possible and the bereaved are left without closure.
As a troubling take on the ultimate price of fish, Lost at Sea scores highly. The best in writing often comes from personal experience and playwright Morna Young’s pedigree includes a father swept from the deck of the trawler Ardent II in 1989 and with only the ocean for a grave.

In this new and important play Sofia McLean plays Shona, a young journalist, returning to her roots and determined to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of her dad, Jock. Played ably by Ali Craig, Jock has died some decades previous to the action and those who saw him swept away are loath to speak of the dead.

At the heart of the matter, alongside the mystery that surrounds the death of Al…

Air Raids and Sardines - by Duncan Harley

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It's amazing what you learn in a pub. Although the Garioch town of Inverurie was never bombed during WW2 many, now elderly, survivors of those stressful days vividly recall being shepherding by  panicked primary school teachers towards the local bomb shelters when the air-raid siren sounded. 

Coastal towns such as Fraserburgh and Peterhead bore the brunt of enemy air-action. Raiders from occupied Norway could make landfall over the Buchan ports, drop their bombs and make off over the North Sea well before fighters from airfields at Banff and Dyce were able to intercept them. The fishing port of Peterhead suffered at least 28 air raids during World War II with nearby Fraserburgh not far behind with perhaps 26 Luftwaffe raids.

Retired railway engineer Joe Strachan recalls being in Peterhead visiting his auntie in 1940. “I must have been around eight or nine at the time. My aunt and my cousin panicked and I can vividly recall them jumping up and down on the double bed. How that was g…

@ HMT this week - Lost at Sea

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With thanks to Rachel Campbell of Aberdeen Performing Arts

One of the stars of a new drama about the lure and the risks of life on the ocean has spoken about her own life growing up in Aberdeen as the daughter of a deep-sea diver.

Sophia McLean is taking her first major Scottish role in Lost at Sea, playing Shona, a young woman returning to her home village searching for answers about her fisherman father’s death.

Lost at Sea, by Moray writer Morna Young, comes to His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, from 9 to 11 May as part of its world premiere tour and Sophia is one of several cast members with links to the North East.She said:“I’m thrilled that my first major stage role in Scotland should be one about North East Scotland where I’m from, and that it’s written in the Doric that I grew up with; living in Aberdeenshire and visiting my Dad’s family in Elgin.
“When I was wee, you didn’t get often get major productions in Scots, or about the lives and stories of rural people in this part of the …

The Terror Bombing of the Garioch - by Duncan Harley

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The editions of both the Aberdeen Free Press and the Aberdeen Daily Journal for Thursday May 4 1916 carried the news the war had finally arrived on Aberdeenshire’s doorstep in the form of aerial bombing by a German Zeppelin on the night of May 2nd. Headlines screamed “Terrific Noise of Crashing Bombs” and “Zeppelin at Rattray Head” alongside descriptions of up to 17 bombs having been dropped over the North-east in the course of the attack.

Zeppelin raids were common over Southern England and the Continent but it had been assumed that North-east Scotland was well out of range of raiders, whose bases were around 12 hours’ flying time away in Germany. The usual targets for the German crews were naval and military bases, but in 1916, the art of night time bombing was uncertain at best, with many bombs falling on civilian areas. The airships mainly relied on navigation based on ground observation and bombs were often dropped by hand.

There had been a raid on Scotland on 2 April 1916, when …

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - by Duncan Harley

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There’s a splendidly spectacular circular hiking route around Gight over at Methlick. Known locally as the Braes of Gight, braes they certainly are. Plunging variously down some 300ft to the River Ythan and back up again this is not a walk for the faint hearted and for those more used to the gentle gradients of abandoned railway tracks the walk will fairly take your breath away. Of course, the essence of this trail is its association with the romantic poet, Lord Byron.

Byron's mother was of course Catherine Gordon of Gight.

‘Mad bad and dangerous to know’, the poet and adventurer and 6th Baron Byron died in April 1824 aged just 36 years. In a nod to the burial fate of the poet come artist come visionary William Blake (1757-1827), Byron was denied a final resting place amongst his literary equals at Westminster Abbey. Instead he lies buried alongside the 14th century church of Mary Magdalene’s in Hucknall.

Few, outside Aberdeenshire realise that he grew up in Aberdeen’s Broad Street…

The Royal Poo – by Duncan Harley

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Recently rebuilt following a disastrous fire, the timber-clad railway station at Ballater was at one time frequented by the Royal family in the days when the journey north to Balmoral involved rail travel.
When the Deeside line closed to passengers in 1966 the building had found new use as shop units and even incorporated a Tourist Information Centre and a restaurant.

A part of the building was turned into a museum and visitors could, if they were lucky, meet up with a tartan-clad mannequin dressed up as Queen Victoria’s loyal ghillie John Brown on the station platform. A second mannequin, representing an ageing Victoria in mourning dress, could be seen taking tea in the private Royal Apartments of the station building.

Those Royal Apartments naturally featured a Royal Loo. Thunder-box in form and with an ornately decorated porcelain pan, replete with Acanthus leaves and brightly painted woodland flowers, the loo was of course off limits to ordinary travellers during Victoria’s time…

Kinky Boots @ HMT Reviewed by Duncan Harley

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The Kit Kat Klub meets Ridley Scott's Hovis Bicycle Boy halfway up the cobbled hill in this tale of a down-on-its-uppers footwear factory revived in the nick of time by a troupe of handsome men in dresses. Based on the original 2005 Deane and Firth film and with an impressive musical score courtesy of Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots apparantly reflects true events and this feelgood tale of crotch-length shoes should please folk of all genders intent on a good night out.
Following a death in the family, Charlie Price finds himself in command of a bunch of singing mill-workers and inherits the failing family shoe-business. What to do for the best, he wonders. Enter stage left lovely drag queen Lola. A seedy nightclub and a troupe of ‘Land of Lola’ drag-dancers later, Charlie has his Damascus moment. Seemingly the world of drag is replete with unreliable footwear. Yep, I kid you not and what’s not to like? Make them red and make them sturdy is the mantra.

Some suitable product development en…

Doorways in Drumorty @ Aberdeen Arts Centre - Duncan Harley Reviews

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The play 'Doorways in Drumorty' was first aired in 2010 and is loosely based on the writings of a Strichen lass by the name of Lorna Moon who made it big in Hollywood.
Alongside her one published novel Dark Star, Lorna – born Helen Nora Wilson Low – escaped her native Buchan age 24 in around 1910.
Broken relationships and abandoned offspring followed before the talented, and by now re-badged, Lorna Moon took up with the son of Hollywood mogul Cecil B. DeMille and forged a successful career as a scriptwriter. 
Her short stories, first published in Century Magazine, feature a clutch of thinly disguised Buchan folk and pull few punches. Titles such as ‘The Sinning of Jessie MacLean’ and ‘Feckless Maggie Ann’ did not endear her to the locals and, in true Lewis Grassic Gibbon tradition, legend insists that her books were shunned by the local library service.
Penned by author/playwright Mike Gibb the play explores the curtain twitching mentality of small-town Buchan. Questionable mor…

Arts in Aberdeen – by Duncan Harley

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During the next two weeks, alongside Kinky Boots, there are a couple of must see's in and around Aberdeen.
Kinky Boots of course arrives at HMT for a two-week run on Tuesday 23rd April. Described as “A joyous story of Brit grit to high-heeled hit” it should at the very least be a hoot.

The blurb/fluff reads something like ‘Charlie Price is struggling to live up to his father’s expectations and continue the family business of Price & Son. With the shoe factory’s future hanging in the balance, help arrives in the unlikely but spectacular form of Lola - a fabulous performer in need of some sturdy new stilettos.’ So, what’s not to like.

On a more local level, we have both Lost at Sea and Doorways in Drumorty to look forward to. Doorways dwells on the extraordinary tale of a Strichen lass by the name of Lorna Moon who made it big in Hollywood script-writing circles.
Penned by author/playwright Mike Gibb the play explores a curtain twitching normality last seen in Grassic Gibbons…