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A song to set your clock by

The late singer Michael Marra.
The late singer Michael Marra.

Even as planet Earth began to teeter on its axis in a desperate attempt to counter the effects of America’s decision to install a one-man wrecking ball in the White House, two events unfolded – as a result of which, you might say I was all covered in a scarlet light.

Firstly, Michael Marra, sometime of this parish, was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.

If you are unfamiliar with the above reference to “scarlet light” I suggest you check out his masterpiece Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar. You will not be disappointed and I will still be here when you come back.

Secondly, a 69-year-old Dundee jazz fan called Alan Steadman won a competition to be the new voice of the Speaking Clock. (“At the thurd stroke, the time wuhll be fehv fufty-fehv…”)

This coincidence of events not only struck me as a dovetailing of symbols of hope in an increasingly uncivilised world but it also permitted me to indulge in a small fantasy.

If only Michael had been spared a few more years, can you imagine the song he would have written about the Speaking Clock with a Dundee accent? (“At the thurd stroke, the time wuhll be twa thur’y-seeven…”)

As it is, if ever there was such a thing as a match made in Heaven, it will be that particular songwriter sitting on his cloud in the afterlife, St Peter hot-footing up from the pearly gates to give him the word on the pavey from downtown Dundee about the Speaking Clock.

And he smiles a knowing smile and reaches for celestial parchment and quill, or celestial iPad or whatever they’re using these days. He writes down a title, something like Timed to Perfection and he begins…

He thinks maybe there will be complaints in the Letters Page of The Times and on phone-ins to Radio 2… can’t understand a word the man says, it’s not English, is it whatever else it is…

No, it isnae. (“At the thurd stroke, the time wuhll be fower-fufty-fower and fufty seconds…”)

It’s all grist to the songwriter’s muhll and no one knows more about muhlls than a lad born in Lochee. He once said in a radio interview that Dundee was a beautifully lit vantage point from which to look at the world and I think he never spoke a truer word.

For all my often illuminating travels across Highland and island Scotland and occasional forays into a few of the cold, northern places of the world, I’m better at making sense of life and the world at large whenever I am happed in the benevolent mist of Dundee and Dundee voices.

And of all Dundee voices, his is the one that articulates most truly the good humoured humanity of its streets.

I worked with him once. I was making a wee radio programme about my footballing grandfather, Bob Crumley, based on a short novel I’d written about him.

In that book, I used skylarks as a kind of symbol of hope through the darker parts of his story and included the lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael’s song, Skylark. When the radio thing happened, I thought it would be appropriate to have the song sung by a Dundee voice – THE Dundee voice.

We recorded it in the chapel at Dundee University (it had good acoustics and a good piano) and while I was listening to his unique approach to that sublime song, I finally realised what I had been getting at when I came up with the skylark symbol in the first place.

So Michael Marra has always had a special place all his own in my affections.

When I heard about his Hall of Fame evening at the Marryat Hall, I took his Posted Sober CD out in the car with me and I was covered in a scarlet light all over again.

The family of the late Michael Marra accepting his hall of fame award at the Marryat Hall.
The family of the late Michael Marra accepting his hall of fame award at the Marryat Hall.

There was a curious little offshoot to all of the above which impinged briefly on my personal universe.

I had been asked by the John Muir Trust to do a voiceover for a very short film to be screened at the trust’s Spirit of John Muir event in Edinburgh last Tuesday, even as America was voting in the wrecking-ball.

The next day, Alan Steadman was installed as the voice of the Speaking Clock and I got an email as follows: “Just heard that a 69-year-old jazz addict fae Dundee is the new Speaking Clock. It isnae you, is it?”

No, it isnae.

But to Alan Steadman and from one Dundee jazz fan of a certain age to another, warm congratulations. And commiserations for missing out on being the subject of a Michael Marra song.

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