Monthly Archives: May 2016

Background music


It was a long time ago when I first joined the large group of people who carried out all activities to the background of pop and rock music –  so maybe it is understandable that the habit has gradually lost its allure.

During the 1970s, a certain type of easy school or university homework was regularly done to the music of BBC Radio 1 or to whatever new record or cassette you had recently acquired. Partly so that you could do two things at one time. In later years, house-keeping activities like cleaning, cooking and ironing could be conveniently carried out to background music. Travelling in cars always needed the accompaniment of a radio or cassette.

By my late 20s in the early 1980s, I was still overwhelmingly a pop/rock music listener struggling to expand my listening into classical or jazz. Working in Toronto, Canada, during the winter of 1983-84, I had the Damascene experience of visiting a second-hand bookshop in the city and hearing an opera performance emanate gently from a local classical radio station. The music was obviously the preferred listening of the proprietor, but its particular blend of human voice and orchestral strings seemed the natural, appropriate sound to accompany the leisurely activity of moving around shelves and glancing through the pages of volumes which you had no real need of. I am pleased that similar classical music always seems to be playing in the background during my occasional visits to the multiple-spaced Bookshop in Wigtown.



College Street in Toronto in 2001. The Free Times Café was a popular haunt in 1984; happily it was still thriving in 2001 and now.


A striking and satisfying experience of background popular music was at the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While we sat waiting in the former Gilded Balloon in the Cowgate for a comedy show to start (it was still dubbed “alternative” comedy in those days), some Aretha Franklin music came on the PA.  “Respect”, “Chain of Fools” etc… Here, too, as in the Toronto bookshop, it seemed like the absolutely correct aural backdrop: this time dark, smoky, sultry, sexy, edgy, of the past yet still modern. By coincidence, about 36 hours later and before another show at the Assembly Rooms in a totally different part of the city centre, Aretha Franklin was singing again. Many of the classic black artistes of the 1960s and 1970s were being accorded fresh attention around that time so perhaps that is the explanation of the mystery.  Aretha’s Greatest Hits was purchased soon afterwards and helped to fill a significant educational gap in my collection for several years.



Canongate in Edinburgh in 1994.


Nowadays restaurants of all sorts usually play a soundtrack of pop/rock music. Especially by the modern generation of artistes who are influenced by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack etc, and who encase those influences in the sweet comfortable audio blanket which modern technology allows and perhaps enforces. It was a happy surprise to have such a blanket individualised recently at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock by Randy Newman’s  “Dixie Flyer”: similarly relaxing, yes, but made fresher by his distinctive drawling vocals.

Just as the ordinary buyer can buy mood music compilations of classical, pop, rock and jazz, bars and restaurants can probably buy similar collections, perhaps sub-titled “mellow”, “funky”, “edgy”. It makes me yearn nostalgically for that vegetarian restaurant in York in 1998 which played classical music the whole evening, and especially the Beethoven symphony I had just become acquainted with….



York in 1998, possibly Bootham Bar?




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For humility and contentment


Robert Burns lived in many parts of Scotland in his short life and these places quite reasonably exploit their Burns connection for tourism purposes. For example, the Ayrshire towns of Ayr, Mauchline, Tarbolton and Irvine, where he grew up, worked, and socialised; Kilmarnock, where his poems were first published; the capital city of Edinburgh where he was feted; the town of Dumfries where he spent the last few years of his life.




One of the more overlooked is Ellisland, the farm near Dumfries of which he was the tenant for three years from 1788 until 1791. The house he built was quite expansive for the period and indicates his relative prosperity, status and self-confidence at the time.  “Not a Palace to attract the train-attended steps of pride-swoln Greatness,” observed the bard wryly, “but a plain, simple Domicile for Humility & Contentment”. “Humility” – in the 21st century, one of the least valued and encouraged of personal qualities in anyone!




This was the period when Burns was a well-paid excise-man as well as a struggling farmer, when he wrote the timeless “Tam O’Shanter” as well as other poems and song lyrics. As Maurice Lindsay describes, “The picture of Burns at Ellisland which emerges is one of a mature and passionate man, overworked, struggling with decreasing success against impoverished soil, yet playing a full part in communal life, espousing democratic causes (sometimes indiscreetly)… a kindly picture…”


Reference:   Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend    London: Robert Hale


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