Photo: Alex Cluness with a group of young musicians from Uist
Sometimes real friendships emerge from surreal times. Alex Cluness and I first spent long hours together when I was working in – what was beyond doubt – the most bizarre school in which I was ever employed. Among its many absurdities were posters illustrating the work of Edward de Bono blu-tacked to the corridor walls in the learning support department. It was this I recall fulminating about one night in his home – how I was struggling to take seriously the 'educational philosophy' this involved, how it was impossible to contemplate for a moment a crackerjack theory in which people were instructed to put on (and remove) caps that illustrated their thinking skills, whether these were imaginative, organisational or motivational.
It was during the course of one of these diatribes, that Alex disappeared into the toilet. He emerged speaking a cod-Hebridean accent a few moments later, a towel tightly wrapped around his head. 'Do you not think this improves my imaginative thinking, Tonald?'
There were many such moments in Alex's company, times when we struggled to stifle schoolboy giggles before going onto more serious discussions. I was not alone in experiencing this. There was the occasion at a conference when a Faroese government representative announced that there were grants of money available to both travel and study the dialect of that island group. These words provided the cue for an earnest academic to leap to his feet. Providing a roll-call of his qualifications, he declared that he was the ideal person for such a task. He possessed a degree in this field, a doctorate in another, a masters in some obscure but clearly closely-related discipline. A moment or two later, his litany was interrupted by Alex rising from his seat. 'But I've got a suitcase,' he announced.
Yet Alex's humour never quite concealed his energy and dedication. This was especially true of his passion for literature. This came through in all his labours. In his working life, he was employed first of all as an English teacher in Anderson High School in Lerwick before moving on to become literature development officer for Shetland Arts. His time there was followed by two spells at Literature Works in south-west England and a period at Taigh Chearsabhagh in North Uist.
When he died just before his 49th birthday, he was staying in Carnoustie, while working – at a distance – for the Poetry Archive. There were a number of constants in all of this. The first was in his encouragement of both others and their talents, being blessed with a real ability in both recognising this in people and enabling it to shine. He was also a gifted writer; his poetry in short collections such as 'Mend' and 'Disguise' is both individual and unusual, as Kevin Macneil recognised in his selection of island verse, 'These Islands We Sing.' Thirdly, and most importantly, he had a rare capacity to love and inspire that same affection in others. This ability was mirrored by the fondness of his many friends and the strength of love and affection of his family.
It is the last whom we think of today – his father Sandy and mother Elizabeth; sister Honor; his wife Leona; his children, Sandy, Robert and Eva. While he is absent from all our lives, they are the ones who will miss him most. (Alex Cluness: born 7 February 1969. Died 20 January 2018 )
Different forms of fire have prevented me seeing Highland musician, Fergie Macdonald on a number of occasions. The first of these occured when I was in my mid-to-late teens. Two events coincided. I succeeded in gaining permission to attend my first dance at the Ness Hall of my youth. I also managed to obtain my first half bottle of whisky. After swilling down a quantity of this liquid fire, I paid my ticket and stepped into the dance hall to see Fergie and his bandmates tuning up.
A few moments later, I stepped out again, aware that something of the rhythm of the eightsome reel was sweeping over me before its notes had begun to play. I returned from the 'fresh air' several hours later – only to hear the last ripples of the last waltz emerging from Fergie's accordion. An entire performance had come and gone in my drunken, teenage oblivion.
The other week, a different kind of blazing stopped me attending Fergie's farewell performance at the Glasgow Pavillion on the second last night of that city's Celtic Connections. I had intended to travel on the overnight ferry from Shetland to make sure I did not miss the celebrations. Unfortunately, all this went somewhat agley.
In the aftermath of Shetland's midwinter bonfire, Up Helly Aa, all bunks and berths were booked on the voyage south. As a result, I was unable to be among the company at Fergie's leaving do. This was a shame and disappointment to me. Fergie was always the warmest and most individual of all the Highland accordionists I have witnessed over the years. It wasn't just his music-making that made him an outstanding ambassador for the tradition; a sense of mischief and mirth always mingled with the notes. Yet any regrets I had at missing Fergie were partly assuaged by another performer I saw at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.
This was the Texan Sam Baker whom I watched at the festival's final night in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Church in Maryhill. More a 'speaker' of his songs than a singer, Sam performed an extremely wide range of material in his long session. Much of this focused on the lives of misfits in American society, particularly its southern states, but not exclusively so. There were tender songs like 'Margaret' whose 'face turns red' as she laughs and 'Waves', a love song that encapsulated the joint lives of an elderly couple and the ache of absence after one of them is gone.
The strongest series of songs, however, were the final ones in which Sam recounted what had happened to him during a visit to Peru in the 1980s. He had been in a train when a bomb planted by the terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso (or the Shining Path) had gone off. His gaze had even fallen on a haversack left on the luggage rack on the other side of the compartment, unaware that it contained enough dynamite to blow apart a German family – including a child – who sat opposite him. It left a legacy for him too – and not only one of anger. Till this day, he suffers from serious hearing loss as a result of the carnage.
To employ the title of one of his final, moving songs, he also has 'Broken Fingers'; the damage done to his hands such that he had to teach himself to play guitar in the opposite way from how he was once accustomed. And then, too, the entire experience has provided him with a sense of moral purpose, the task of reminding his audience that no cause is worthy of violence to meet its goals. The end of art is peace...
And so let me finish with that – in a month where my native island of Lewis once again revealed the division that two extremes have often fostered there. On the one side, there are the stern Sabbatarians. On the other, there are the equally spirited secularist lobby, stirred by a similar self-righteousness. Neither side seems able to give an inch or reach out to its reflection. Nor do they seem to be aware that most people stand somewhere in the middle of this particular battlefield.
It seems especially ironic that this month's squabble should have erupted over the activities of an arts centre. Clearly someone has forgotten that the end of art is peace. I also seem to recall that this was among Christ's most important ends too.
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