Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'It was an apology when I wrote it and it is now ... Back in the day, it was too raw so I never played it live'

From the brae above Crail harbour, Kenny Anderson leads the way into a rambling old house, then down a corridor cluttered with the detritus of building work. Finally, he throws open a door.
“This is it,” he says, “the nerve centre”.

The place looks like a high-end junk shop. What might, in estate agent-speak, be described as “a practical kitchen-dining room” has morphed into a monument to his own musical life, and to King Creosote, his alter ego.

An ancient LC Smith typewriter is at the centre of a neatly-organised, crowded desk. Every shelf and cupboard groans under a weight of LPs, CDs, scrapbooks and homemade fanzines from down the years. There’s no computer in sight, we are in a mobile phone black spot and on any other day Anderson would be left entirely to his own devices.

Vinyl copies of his latest album are piled up on an easy chair in one corner of the room. Even the title, Astronaut Meets Appleman is ironic. It’s not some hi-tech flight of fancy, but a joke about a “toy”, made Louie Wren, his younger daughter, from what her dad says was “a gnarly old apple” .

The collection represents the world as seen from a distinctly lo-fi corner on Fife’s East Neuk. Musically, King Creosote’s old busking, bluegrass sound is pumped up by bagpipes, a harp, a violin, and driving rhythms; lyrically It’s funny, sad, sharp, suspicious and painfully human.

Down the years, Anderson’s bittersweet songs have been wilfully obscure because, as he says, he’s always had “a sense of being a bit wary of what I say and about who”. Yet this time around there’s a poignant touch, drawn from personal circumstances.

Anderson, 49, lives alone in this house. He is devoted to two-year-old Louie Wren, but though she helped name the album, and even makes her recording debut on it, she lives a couple of miles down the coast at Anstruther with her mum, Jen Gordon, Anderson’s former partner.

The couple broke up a while ago, but Anderson’s respect for Jen is obvious, in conversation and on the album. The lyric of Faux Call sails mournfully in on the back of a sad cello: “And I’m so sorry I let you down again / This was my call now I’m stalling / The pretence of being just friends / I wish was better at helping you through all of this /I wish I could call, have a good cry, hold you again.”

Anderson says: “It was an apology when I wrote it and it is now. Back in the day, it was too raw, I never played it live. But over time … it’s not raw any more.”

A year ago, he would hardly have spoken of such things. Now the song could be his next single. “I rely a lot on intuition,” he says. “Musically it’s evolved, I dropped it a tone so weirdly I could go higher. There are certain lines I like, a bit ouchy, but it just felt the time to do it again.”

Anderson is talking ten to the dozen as he leads the way through his Victorian house. His grandmother had a flat here but he’s bought the whole thing and embarked on a conversion. He’s had to plug the roof, but the local joiner is stalling on a loft conversion. And that hallway’s a mess, he complains.

Get him on to a pet hate, and he really goes off on one. Melin Wynt, one of the album’s most successful tracks, is the Welsh for windmill. It’s Anderson tilt at the turbines he loathes.

“Do you know what I would have done, if I was in charge of energy policy?” he says, suddenly angry. “I’d have taken out Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, got rid of all that crap. Maybe you wouldn’t have to sink banks of servers under the ocean. Then, if we still need power, perhaps put up a turbine. But why stick up an army of turbines to offset a massive power bill for all this non-essential guff?”

In Crail these things matter. “Coming home, taking in the view around the peninsula, it’s beautiful,” he says. “May Island, North Berwick law, the Bell Rock Lighthouse, the Forfar coastline, right the way round to the law at the back of Dundee.

“But now?” He thumps the turbines onto an imaginary map: “Bang, bang, bang. These ugly fucking things. It’s like taking a beautiful picture and putting a smear of shit across it.”

This is bloke with an umbilical connection to his homeground. The eldest of four children, Anderson grew up in St Andrews. Elizabeth, his mother, is a fisherman’s daughter. His father, Billy, from an East Neuk farming family, is a professional accordionist, and still plays at funerals (“celebratory but sad, it’s perfect,” reckons his son). Lynne, his sister, emigrated, but Anderson’s twin brothers still live nearby. Een (Iain) - “the best musician in the family” - makes musical instruments; Gordon - “the best songwriter” - was a member of the Beta Band.

Anderson excelled in maths and took a degree at Edinburgh University in physics and electronics. By then he was playing accordion and at 19 he began to write songs. He would spend two years busking in France, but declined the offer of a teaching job at a music school in the Dordogne, to return to Fife.

The rest is legend. Back home he founded the Skuobidh Dhu Orchestra, a post-punk busking band, and went on to establish the Fence collective, nurturing a unique musical culture, which ever so slowly put Crail on the musical map.

Along the way, he eked out, among others, a certain Kate “KT” Tunstall. He was 25 at the time, and had a day job in St Andrews Woollen Mill, about ten miles from this house.

“A friend of hers asked me to go and see her singing in a café,” he recalls. “She was absolutely incredible. At 16. I got a grilling from Kate’s mum, the kind of thing you might get from your girlfriend’s parents. ‘What’s my daughter playing at? You should be more responsible. Make sure she follows a sensible career, not this.’ I said: ‘I’m not going to dissuade her, she’s a natural.’ Kate still gives me brownie points for that.”

By 2005, Tunstall had a big label and a CD at the top of the charts. King Creosote took longer to reach a wide audience, but in 2012 Diamond Mine, recorded with Jon Hopkins, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Its successor From Scotland with Love brought a breakthrough in sales. Retailers in Edinburgh say Astronaut meets Appleman, released last Friday, is their biggest seller since Adele’s 25 hit the shelves two years ago.

But life has its downs too. In 2011, intent of formalising business arrangements around Fence Records, Anderson set up a limited company with Johnny Lynch, his good friend and long-time musical collaborator.

He was soon ill at ease, he says. “The mentality of it was different. I’m sure someone with a financial background would look at it and say ‘that’s a great thing’. But I’m not from that school of thought.

“I found myself really unhappy and artistically stifled. I’d never gone into anything thinking, how much profit will this make? For me, it’s about a gang all getting on with it.” Within little more than a year, the limited company was over and the friendship with Lynch hit the rocks.

Now, here in the “nerve centre” Anderson has “gone back to the tiny”. He is quietly ramping up the number of record releases organised under the old, unlimited Fence banner, supported by the fanzines he makes himself.

“I keep all the artwork” he says happily, yanking a bale of it out of a cupboard. He’s already drafting publicity for the 50 small gigs he has planned next year in a hotel up the road, to celebrate his own half century.

Would he ever leave Crail? “You’re joking,” he laughs. “It’ll take me ten years to sort this house out.” In the fields beyond, the Fife countryside is singing with life. “I love this season,” Anderson says, “when the cornfields are ripe, there’s the deep blue sea and the deep blue sky. My heart rises, I’m jubilant. On drives from here to St Andrews, I want my life to be 300 years long.”

Questions in the Key of Fife 
When were happiest? At the birth of my daughters, Beth and Louie Wren.
Desert island song? A Talk Talk ‘B’ side, It’s Getting Late in the Evening.
Favourite place: The Dutch village in Craigtoun Park, St Andrews.
Favourite destination? (outside Fife): Easdale.
The best advice you’ve had? My dad said, ‘ Whatever you do, look after your feet.’ It came out of nowhere.
What advice would you give an aspiring young musician? Listen to yourself. Even when you haven’t found your true voice, you learn from that. It’s that will make you a songwriter. Ignore advice.
Do politics make a difference in life? No.
Does music a difference? Music absolutely makes a difference. 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Better late than never - Leith lauds its conquering heroes

Once every millennium is about right for this kind of affair. As the world and his wife knows, Hibernian last won the Scottish Cup at the beginning of the last century. Yesterday, Edinburgh city centre, and more especially the old port of Leith, came to a halt when unlikely sporting heroes returned home, 114 years later, with the trophy.

Overnight, council workers found themselves obliged to plant “Special Event — No Parking” signs from the Royal Mile to Leith Links to make sure that the victory bus made the journey in good time. As tens of thousands of well-wishers flooded out of bars and tenements on to Leith Walk it took the full 90 minutes to cover a distance that might take 25 at a brisk trot.

Some of the fans had, as the song says, walked 5,000 miles for this moment. Ian Borge, 57, is one of four members of the Hibernian Supporters of Alaska and had a green banner to prove it. “I go to every final Hibs play in,” he said. “That’s two this year.”

Mr Borge, 57, grew up in Leith and moved to Anchorage half a lifetime ago to work for BP. Kenny Radin, 58, his friend, went in the opposite direction and has spent much of his life in Sydney, moving recently to Jakarka with his wife.

Mr Radin was at his mother’s deathbed in 2012 when Hibs played Hearts in the Scottish Cup final. He asked the hospice nurse if he should go to the game. She said: “What would your mother want you to do?” He went to the game. Hibs lost 5-1; his mother died.

Had he no fears on Saturday? “Do you know, I thought we’d do it?” he grinned. “And to be there. Grown men crying. Kids, marriage, whatever — that was one of the best days of my life.”

These two have seen some changes while waiting for their team to triumph. The pub they had chosen, the Mousetrap, they once knew as the Volunteer Arms, the violent “Volly”; another stamping ground was the Victoria, now a Scandinavian Bar. And they’d visit Robbies, now a respectable real ale bar.

We used to say ‘The Volly for a swally,” said Mr Radin, “the Vicky for a quickie and Robbies for a jobby,’” Carnival in Leith.

As anyone ensconced in EH6 knows, this party had started 24 hours earlier. Not everything is lovely around a high-spirited football crowd, drunk on victory and everything else.

Outside Leith Dockers Club, four women argued about who would go back home to look after the kids, while the rest remained to celebrate. A man walked by in a maroon top, his pit bull on a short lead.

By The Marksman, two women in saris smiled at the crowd gathered on the pavement holding glasses, the flotsam occasionally tumbling on to the road.

Further up the street a crowd with scarves and banners gathered around a drummer outside the Hing Sing Chinese supermarket. Within the hour, a police cordon had formed to keep them off the road. By midnight, with the street blocked to traffic, the rules were: “dance” in the middle of the road, sleep propped by a wall at the side.

Next morning, at Picardy Place, Sherlock Holmes was wearing a Hibs scarf and waving a green chequered flag. The statue marks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthplace. The author, who was a goalkeeper and believed in fairy stories, would have felt vindicated by the sight of the trophy which last passed past this way in the year that The Hound of Baskervilles was published.

Banners hung from every other tenement; women dangled the feet over window sills; a man with a green and white flag blasted Sunshine on Leith from his berth above a hairdressers.

When, at last, the victory bus turned into Constitution Street, two young men clinging to the statue of Queen Victoria, raised their arms and shouted: “We are amused!” Or words to that effect.

Mr Sherry, a Sikh shopkeeper, had gone to Saturday's game with his sons and grandsons, three generations of the Singh family. They came out to celebrate again, clad in green and white turbans, and Hibernian tops emblazoned, “Singhs go marching in”.

Mr Sherry, 57, has been to every big final since he was youngster. Witnessing victory at last was a joy, but “ruined a bit” by the crowd invasion, which has sparked a police investigation. He was smiling now though. “I thank my father and my Sikh faith,” he said, “they have made me a proud Hibee.”Proof, if any were needed, that, in Leith football is a religion.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

From Scotland with love - and a little bit of badness

Today, the Edinburgh International Festival will stage a production of the most beautiful film to have been produced in Scotland during the year of its independence referendum. 

From Scotland with Love is a mesmerising account of the country in the 20th century, assembled from newsreel footage by Virginia Heath, and set to a soundtrack by Kenny Anderson, known as King Creosote.

First reviews were unanimous. “A magical window on Scotland’s past” ran one headline; “delicate and beautifully observed” said another. But almost as soon as the film was released, it proved a battleground for Anderson, who will perform the soundtrack live at the Hub on Friday and Saturday.

All the strife, he admits, was partly his own fault. The singer-songwriter may be a Scot born and bred, but cocooned in a creative bubble, he had never really considered the impact of releasing the most emotive of titles at such an historic moment. “I know I was an idiot,” he says, mock apologetic, “but I just didn’t see in coming.”

Now, ensconced in a Glasgow rehearsal room, he can remember the shock when he sat down for the media calls which followed film’s release. “First interview, early question: ‘You’re obviously going to vote yes, so how are you going to feel when you wake up and there’s an independent Scotland?’ I’m like: ‘Whoa, wait a minute, where are you getting that?

“It just went on from there. More annoyingly it was always Yes-loaded. Everyone who asked about the music assumed I was pushing for independence. Every interview, I had to say. ‘Isn’t there an argument that I can love Scotland as part of the UK? Why am I less Scottish in your eyes if I have alliances with different people around the place?

“In the real world, best pals I had through school and university were hitting me with this nationalist, ‘We are better on our own, without the English.’ Worst of all, I was being lambasted for having a different opinion from them. And of course I was being negative, because ‘No’ is negative.

“When I saw it happening in my family, my brothers picking on my mother. I thought, ‘What is going on? It’s ridiculous that some wedge has been driven in.’”

Kenny Anderson, Glasgow: He was like: "Go on, stick it to them."
Things came to a head at a packed gig in Dennistoun, Glasgow. The memory is hazy, something about Anderson announcing his intention to vote ‘No’ in preference to the alternative, “a banana republic”.

He grins. “I’ve got that little bit of badness in me. I thought, ‘I’ll see what happens if I say something about the No side. Derek (O’Neil) on keyboards is from Blantyre, staunch Labour, he was like, ‘Go on, stick it to them.’ I did. People were shouting: ‘We are here for your music, not your politics!’

“One guy shouted: ‘Shut up!’ I yelled back: ‘No, you shut up!’ People were leaving, there were boos. But then this big guy, right at the front, stretched out his arm and just yelled ‘Nooo!’”

After the gig came the backlash. “At the heart of the storm, people would say: ‘Who’s going to buy your record now?’ I’m like: ‘Get over yourself. I might lose less than half my Scottish sales? And what are they going to do? Burn the albums? Not like my music any more?”

He doesn’t take part in social media, but when friends told him about the abuse being heaped upon is head, he couldn’t resist a peek. “I saw one guy, ‘King Ringpiece’ he called me. I was like ‘Bring it on!’ That’s Scotland, right there.”

He loves the little details in life. Anderson was born on Candlemas, 1967, and brought up in St Andrews. His mother came from a Crail fishing family and his father was a professional accordionist.

Aside from taking an electronics degree in Edinburgh, and two years busking in France, he has spent all his life in north east Fife. The essence of the place, the swathe of rolling green countryside, the people, the pretty villages and the sea beyond formed his outlook and a music, spanning more than 40 lo-fi albums.

Like the Crail boats that used to trawl for herring between Portsoy and Great Yarmouth, he doesn’t acknowledge conventional boundaries he says. There are far more King Creosote fans in “music towns” like Norwich, Nottingham or Manchester, than in Dundee and Kirkcaldy, places which are a bike ride from where he lives.

His background helps to explain his attitude to the film project. Aside from some of the most recognisable events and locations – images of ‘Main St’ St Kilda or tanks in George Square, Glasgow – he insists this isn’t about Scotland. Any faded colonial power could have supplied the archive of screen image: mines, steel works, factories, dance-halls, fun fairs, harvesting, holidays.

A year since From Scotland with Love caused so much angst, he remains “wrankled constantly” by the mood he still sometimes encounters . ‘People are like ‘Grrrr, f*** ing no voter,’” he says laughing.

As for the “machinations” of the SNP at Westminster, he detests the party’s assumption that it speaks for the whole of Scotland, and the breach of faith which has allowed ‘once in a lifetime’ to become another referendum in a year or two.

“The amount of times I have thrown my rubber-soled shoe at the telly when Nicola Sturgeon comes on ….,” he says, with a shake of the head.

“I know if I met these people I would probably like them, but I just don’t think that Scotland has all the answers. I think it’s a horrible thing to even try to say: ‘O no we are way more sociable and socially inclusive up here. We are different. We are better.’

“We are not better. We are colder and wetter, but not better.”

Monday, 23 March 2015

Salmond extends the hand of friendship

The early morning mist hangs low over the polling station in Alex Salmond's Aberdeenshire constituency. This is Strichen – pronounced, unpromisingly, 'stricken' - and the first minister has just cast his vote in the village hall. He is sauntering across the damp gravel when I blurt out the question I've had in my head for three years. “Haven't you been been campaigning for a redrawing of the Act of Union, rather than independence?”

Salmond stops, leans back in surprise. “You're almost right,” he says.”I am redoing the union of the parliaments, not the union of the crowns. Of course, the United Kingdom is first mentioned as the Union of the Crowns.” He starts walking again. “I'll talk to you about this when I get chance.”

He will too. Anyone who has seen Salmond at close quarters knows there's nothing he likes better than to lecture on matters historical. Five minutes later, the first ministerial limousine is pulling away from Ritchie Hall, and I am in the back seat, absorbing a lesson on the constitution.

“You're absolutely bang on historically,” says the First Minsinster, enthusiastically. “This is re-establishing the Constitutional relationship of the 17th century – if we lose Cromwell for a second. By definition a United Kingdom comes from a Union of the Crowns (1603) not the Union of the Parliaments. (1707)”

He leans forward. “Go down to the lake, Alec,” the First Minister tells his chauffeur. The car turns left down a driveway, before rolling slowly to a halt.

The lesson recommenceth. From Salmond's point of view it seems the notion of renegotiating a treaty sounds a lot less threatening to people south of the Border, than the bolshy idea of Scots breaking away. So, in 1997, he introduced this historical angle into the first consultation documents on independence, known as the National Conversation.

The historical point proved too complex, he claims. “Apparently you have to be aware of clouding or confusing an issue, and being seen to be too clever by half. Therefore we had the straight question (on the referendum ballot paper): 'do you want Scotland to be an independent country.'”

His academic background in history explains key strands of his thinking. Salmond is, for example, an unabashed monarchist, anathema to today's Radical Independence supporters as much as it was to his left-leaning comrades in the SNP '79 Group, the cadre of young politicians formed to champion devolution in 1979.

“I argued (then) against republicanism as a policy, I thought it a daft thing to do,” he recalls. “If you were starting the constitution of a country now, it would seem anomalous to have a monarchical position.

“But my view is the monarchy epitomises the social union and in my consistent support for Queen Elizabeth as Queen of Scots, and her heirs - obviously I have deep respect for Her Majesty the Queen – I am also trying to get across the point that there is a social union beyond the Westminster Parliament.”

This “social union” - the cross-border network of family, friends and business ties – may seem an baffling concept to many south of the Border. Salmond is convinced it will be the glue that make could make new arrangements as tolerant as before.

The public meetings he held recently in Liverpool, Newcastle or Carlisle showed him articulating this comradely position, he says. “Some people accepted the point, but a lot haven't. People often see the thing through the prism of received wisdom. That will certainly change if we carry the day. I will articulate these sentiments very positively in terms of how we move forward.”

Friendly relations can persist even in the vexed area of defence. The SNP's only sine qua non, he says, is the removal of Trident. Everything else is up for negotiation. “We are perfectly happy to co-operate in anything else that is appropriate and proper”, he insists. Moreover, It would “rather anomalous” if Scotland, given its geographical position, were not allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

The hand of friendship extends further. With the agreement of Westminster, Scots should be able to sign up for the Royal Regiment of Scotland, just as the Irish Guards are an integral part of the army. Similarly, British troops could be based and train in Scotland, independent or not.

A dog-walker, passes by. Weak sunlight twinkles on the lake, and the first minister, takes a moment to contemplate the political landscape in an independent country. The SNP may have won the day, but their victory is likely to reinvigorate both the radical left and the Conservative right.

“As of tomorrow, if there is a new dawn over Strichen I suppose one of the ironies is that lots of people from a variety of political positions will have great encouragement,” he says. “What could be better than having a vital representation of people's views in that first Scottish election?”

A few years ago, I tell him, a prominent banker reported a conservation with the first minister. The banker said to Salmond: “What you want from this referendum is an amicable divorce', isn't it?” Salmond replied cheerily: “And co-habitation.'”

Is the story true? “I wouldn't demean the debate in these terms.” retorts the first minister, with the possibility of a twinkle in his eye. “Can we take Mike back to the village?”   

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Poles in Scotland could swing independence vote

A wave of new arrivals from Eastern Europe could play a decisive role in the fate of the 300-year union between England and Scotland, pushing Alex Salmond over the winning line in the Scottish independence referendum.

For campaigners like Ania Lewandowska, a 29-year-old who works for Alyn Smith, the SNP MEP, these are exciting times. She has no doubt that many “new Scots” will vote yes in September’s ballot.

“They know that change can be for the better,” said Ms Lewandowska, “but also they are not afraid of it. Of course, some are still undecided, but that’s true of any sector of Scottish society. But in my mind most Poles will decide Yes.”

About 55,000 Polish-born people were living in Scotland at the time of the 2011 census, an 18-fold increase since EU enlargement in 2004. By the time of the referendum it is possible the population will have almost doubled again, though because many younger immigrants work in the hotel trade, the total is hard to assess.

Maciej Wiczynski, a passionate SNP supporter has pooled information from local authorities and found 30,000 Poles on the electoral register, though he has still to receive data from Edinburgh, home to Scotland’s largest single Polish community. With these kinds of numbers, the immigrant vote could be decisive.

Mr Wiczynski, a health worker, arrived in Scotland four years ago. At first he says he was sceptical about independence, but “engaged and did my own research,” emerging a passionate Yes supporter. “Money is not the issue,” he said. “It is more to do with social justice. Westminster is not working for the people of Scotland. We are more centre left.”

Tomek Borkowy, 61, agreed. An actor and well-known Edinburgh Fringe promoter, he has been in Britain since 1982 when he fled martial law in his own country. For the last 25 years he has lived in Scotland, sufficient time to come to a view on the political situation.

He drew parallels with 19th century when parts of Poland were incorporated into Austria-Hungary. It was “quite like Scotland and England,” said Mr Borkowy, “we had a lot of freedoms, but still it was not our own country.”

He went on: ”There is a very nice English saying: ‘small is beautiful’. Recently I needed to speak to someone in the Scottish Government. I asked to see John Swinney. In a month’s time, I was having lunch with Cabinet Secretary for Finance. Me, a foreigner, living in Edinburgh.

“Would that have happened if I had approached George Osborne? Absolutely not. Small is beautiful, small is better government. This is now my country. I will vote for independence and I believe most Poles will. This is a no-brainer.”

In Edinburgh. there are plenty of opportunities to test opinion. Michal Uarwat, one of the half of the team behind the Polish sandwich shop at Holyrood, puts his thumbs up for a Yes Vote. His business partner, Piotr Balcer, is a sceptic: “Heart says yes, head says no,” he said.

In Leith, Pawel Nuckowski, 41, took a different approach. This filmaker has lived in Edinburgh for 18 months with his wife and son. Inclined to the Yes cause, he is unlikely to vote. “How would Poles feel if British people moved in and decided on the future of my country?” he said.

In his shop on Leith Walk, surround by Polish hams and pickles, Marcin Wilkolaski took a dim view of the Yes campaign, even though “Tak” – a Yes Leaflet – is available from a community newsstand in the corner.

“Scotland and England have been together for centuries and there has been no war between them – that is very profitable for everyone,” said Mr Wilkolaski. “There are no boundaries in Europe now either. There’s been a huge recession for years, but no fighting. Countries are cooperating. It is better that way.”

Mr Wilkolaski may be in a minority. Such data as exists indicates that Scottish residents born outside the UK are almost twice as likely to vote for independence compared to residents who were born elsewhere in Britain.

Even now, the community remains too small to register in many pollsters’ surveys. The numbers involved, and the transitory nature of a substantial part of the population, make some inclined to dismiss the notion that Pole could influence the result of September’s referendum.

John Curtice, Professor Politics at the University of Strathclyde noted that only 8 per cent of the country’s population was born outside the UK and Ireland. He said: “EU citizens are less likely to be on the register, partly its motivational, partly it’s circumstantial. How much they engage in politics is debatable.”

But if it is a Yes vote, and by a narrow margin, David Cameron will only have himself to blame, said Mr Borkowy. The prime minister should have been prepared to offer ‘Devo Max’, additional powers to the Scottish Parliament.
“What did Westminter do? Decided not to offer more powers. They must be kicking themselves. The stupidity, the lack of forward thinking at Westminster is something we can do without.”

Like Mr Wiczynski, Mr Borkowy easily identified with “we” Scots. “We should escape,” he said. “We have the possibilities now, an historic chance to change everything.”

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Kiss for the groom as gay marriage is legalised

Things get a bit confusing, apparently, if you are one half of a gay couple whose symbolic wedding was as public as it could be, right outside the Scottish Parliament.
Inside, a few hours earlier, MSP had passed the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill by 105 votes to 18.
This was one of the “great historic days” said Alex Neil, the Health Secretary, “because of the message it sends out about the new Scotland we are creating: live and let live.”
For Larry Lamont, 80, Mr Slater’s partner, the historic day had been a long time coming. The brutal discrimination and abuse he had suffered as a young man only stopped when he “had the wisdom to marry” his wife in 1965.
“My life was transformed, the trouble suddenly all stopped,” said Mr Lamont, an Aberdonian. “I had a happy marriage. I’m sure my wife must have known [about my sexuality] though it was never mentioned. But I think she strongly suspected the vicar who married us.
Sadly, said Mr Lamont, his wife had died of cancer after 21 years. He didn’t rush out and take control of his life, but continued working as a psychiatric nurse. The truth about his sexuality eventually dawned in 1991, when he watched the BBC film adaptation of David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes. It told the story of a married father who is secretly gay.
“I thought, ‘Dear God, I am that very man,’” recalled Mr Lamont, dressed for yesterday’s ceremony in a Lamont tartan kilt. “I knew what he was going through: he was gay, trying to live out his life in a married world. I thought: ‘I must do something about this. I can’t just waste the rest of my life waiting on the grave.’”
He rang a helpline in Newcastle, close to where he was living. “I said to the young girl who answered: ‘I’ve always had gay feelings, but I’m 60-odd.’ She said, ‘O, you’ve years to go yet’ and sent me a copy of Gay Times. There was an advert for old gays looking for company. I sent a cheque off and the cuts came back a month later but I couldn’t find anybody. Another ad came up, so I sent another 15 quid. That was how I met Jerry.”
The two moved in together in 1994. Marriage was important, said Mr Slater, 73. “Equality is the main thing, something we have been denied all our lives. Larry has had to live from times when homosexuality was illegal. Now equality is in kissing distance and it’s fantastic.”
Outside the parliament, the crowd slowly dispersed, and the handful of protesters from United Christian Witness against Same-Sex Marriage began to pack their placards into the boot of an estate car. “Be sure your sin will find you out,” read one banner; “Where will you spend endless eternity?” inquired another. “In heaven or hell?”
The Equal Marriage legislation reflected neither majority opinion in Scotland, insisted Donald John Morrison, from Inverness, nor the message of the Bible.
“The first time they discussed this in Parliament was on 20 November — to us that was Black Tuesday. Within three weeks a helicopter fell out of the sky in Glasgow. At this moment there are floods and winds that are causing havoc. These are God’s judgement on our land and on our nation.”
Just 50 yards further on, Sister Ann Tici of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence could find no words of encouragement for Mr Morrison. “We have equal marriage but many more things need to happen — polyamorous marriage for one,” said Sister Tici, whose white make-up almost concealed his beard. “There needs to be a helluva a lot more rights. When we have finished with this country and the countries round about we will spread out across the world until every single person can wake up and not feel threatened or unequal in their society. We are all essentially human.”
A rainbow burst out over the Parliament building. There was no plague of frogs.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Portrait of an artist who thinks most contemporary art sucks

Ken Currie’s work divides opinion. The story goes that when his ghostly painting Three Oncologists was delivered to the back door of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in February 2002, the porter took one look at it, and, horrified, rang up the head curator. “You’d better come down,” he whined. “We could have a problem.” The curator ran down, fixed his gaze on those three haunted faces, then turned to porter and said: “No problem. That is a masterpiece.” 

Curators are paid well to be correct. A decade later, Three Oncologists is critically acclaimed, the gallery’s top-selling postcard and a never-ending source of fascination for visitors of all ages.  This week, it will be joined in Edinburgh by 11 new pieces  by the artist, in Currie’s first big show in Scotland for a decade. The exhibition, timed to attract the biggest festival crowds, is  not portraiture at all, but a bleak meditation on mortality.

New Works draws out Currie’s obsession with death masks - “strange objects, haunting things” - which began when he saw Himmler’s likeness in the Imperial War Museum. He recalls the perfect, shimmering white of the mask against the rich black velvet on which it rested. Beautiful, yet this was the last image of the most reviled mass murderers in history. It was, he says, a disconcerting sensation. 

That was the early 1990s, but the feeling stayed with him. Ten  years on, he took casts from the three real-life surgeons and used them to complete the Oncologists at his studio in Glasgow's east end. The moulds helped him work out the play of shadow across living faces. 

The latest paintings draw even closer to death. Masks or the process of making them feature in four of these disconcerting images, with their dead or dying subjects encountered in eerie timeless stage sets, as if in a dream. A fifth canvas, Bath House, evokes David’s The Death of Marat, “one of the greatest paintings ever made,” he says. 

It might seem that Currie, 53, has moved away from  his famous life-affirming murals commissioned for the People’s Palace in Glasgow in 1987. Not necessarily. 

“As someone pointed out, even in those pieces, which were meant as a sort of glorification of the march of labour, there are a lot of ambiguities and tensions.” he says. “That was one of the problems I had with the Left: everything had to be this pitched-forward thing. Politics is always about certainty. Temperamentally I was never that kind of person. I am riddled with doubt.”

Fundamentally, he believes, his politics haven’t changed. In 1992, with, among others, the novelist William MacIlvanney and the poet Liz Lochhead, he helped found Artists for Independence. He remains passionate in his support of the Yes Campaign and believes “separation” (Currie rather likes the word) can make a fairer Scotland. 

There are other continuities. Along with Peter Howson, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski, Currie was part of a last great generation of painters to emerge from Glasgow School of Art. He remains the consummate technician with only contempt for the ephemera of the more fashionable end of the contemporary scene. 
He recalls  a timeline at Tate Modern charting the evolution of art into the 21st century and rattles off the list of great names. “Manet, Monet, Van Gogh,” he chants, “into the Cubists, through the Vorticists, then post war, Rothko, Pollock, Warhol. Then, it started to get mushy and ended with all the recent Turner prize winners. Their names in that pantheon! I was rolling on the floor with laughter.”

People have become spectacles, he complains and fame can come without talent. He says: “Too many artists are like that. ‘How do I get the big lens of the media to look at me? I know, I’ll do something crazy like having an exhibition where the lights go off and on.’

“The Turner Prize is not really about art, it’s about media and artists have become media personalities. Everyone has a band; everyone has tattoos; everyone could take fashion photos if they turned their hand to it.” The alternative? “This is the thing I’ve learnt. Ideas are important but there are six million people on Earth and all of them have ideas. What makes an artist’s pearl of wisdom any more important? What's different is a painter has the ability to physically realise the idea. That involves technique. Painting is entirely about technique.” 

He taps his chest. “I do sense there are works to come, in here. I feel there are paintings that need to be made, sense them boiling up. Sometimes I don’t know if they are actual thoughts or just fragments of dreams, but they are there. There is a sense of where they want the work to go.”

New Works will shock. Pray we all live long enough for Currie’s Future Works to emerge.

* Ken Currie - New Works, from 20 July, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.