Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Barcelona notebook: the Catalan referendum

I spent four days in Barcelona during the Catalan referedum.  Not every thing I wrote was published in the paper, or even submitted for publication.  I've emptied some of my notebook here. 

Thursday 28, September 

A copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica carried at the head of a demonstration today in Barcelona brought home the vast gulf between the supporters of Catalan independence and the Spanish government.

The pro-independence students who assembled the banner, say it perfectly reflects the heavy-handed actions of Mariano Rajoy’s government, before Sunday’s referendum.

About ten million ballot papers have been seized, 14 Catalan officials arrested, and thousands of Spanish police are quartered in Barcelona, ready, apparently, to be deployed on polling day to halt the vote.

Miguel Sarquella, 20, who helped make the Guernica banner, was carrying the portion featuring a man screaming in his death throes, beneath a rampaging bull.

“We feel the current government is repeating the actions of repression, which we had before democracy was established here,” said Mr Sarquella, an architecture student. “We think this kind of democracy is fake.”

Picasso’s image depicts the bombing of a town in the Basque country and the slaughter of about 300 people by Franco’s Fascists, supported by Nazi aircraft.  Was that really a fair comparison with contemporary Catalonia?

It was, insisted Mr Sarquella.  “We don’t feel free to speak for ourselves,” he said. “We don’t feel free at all.   Why have they moved thousands of policemen here?”

Julia Ramon, 20, stressed the independence movement was pacifist.   Ms Ramon said. “This is a student march, but all ages support us.  Many of them had to live under Franco 40 years ago.”

Emma Clark was one of 25 drama students, who staged a show about freedom in front of the  Guernica banner, once the march reached Placa de la Univeristat

“It’s the best backdrop for our play, because they won’t even let us vote,” said Ms Clark, brought up in Catalonia by her Croydon-born father and Czech mother.

The 20-year-old was uncertain what would happen over the next few days, and it was difficult to figure out how the constitutional crisis would be resolved, she said.    The Spanish government insists the referendum is unconstitutional; not a single country in the EU has offered support to the Catalan independence movement.

“We have to do the best we can here, and let’s see what happens,” Ms Clark said.

The demonstration of perhaps 10,000 university and school students was cheerful and loud, the police presence muted, save for the local Mossos officers,  who helped to marshal the crowd.

Where it differed strongly from the mood ahead of the Scottish independence referendum was its unmistakeable sound of protest. The uncompromising attitude of the Spanish government has stoked resentment; the response of Westminster to the Yes movement in Scotland seems both sophisticated and benign by comparison.

“That’s because British democracy is much more mature,” Mr Saquella said. “It has solid government. Our democracy is much more recent. It just changed from one repressive government, when Franco was in power,  to one which is patched up, just to look good to the world.” 

Was his passion for independence making him exaggerate the failings of Mr Rajoy’s government?

“I’m not actually passionate for independence,” Mr Sarquella said. “I still have my doubts, but I am passionate for freedom of expression.  I still don’t know if I will vote yes or no, but I do want to vote. We need to be able to vote.”

Friday 29, September 

Tonight, rallying under a flag made by Rory Steel’s mother, 17 Scots joined tens of thousands of demonstrators in Barcelona, supporting the rights of Catalans to vote in the region's independence referendum.

Mr Steel, 23, the vice convenor of SNP Youth  first became aware of the Catalan independence movement three years ago when  he saw its flag alongside a candlelit display  in Glasgow’s George Square, in support of Scotland’s “Yes” movement.

Solidarity it seems is reciprocal, and SNP Youth, he said, has built strong links with  left-leaning campaigners in Catalonia  who are voting “Si”.  

The actions of the Spanish government over the last few weeks have appalled Mr Steel . He  condemned the “jack-boots “of the Spanish police in making arrests and seizing ballot papers, and noted lingering connections between the People’s Party of Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister,  and the  former  Fascist regime of General Franco.

Jordan Linton, 22, his friend, highlighted the stark contrast between the approach taken by the Spanish government and their Conservative counterparts at Westminster, who signed the Edinburgh Agreement with the SNP in 2012.

 “Two governments, in Scotland and the UK, with diametrically opposed views in terms of the outcome, were able to come together to agree a referendum which was  legally binding, which gave people the chance to have their say,” said Mr Linton, a North Lanarkshire councillor.

“A lot of the literature here, surprisingly since they are on the cusp of the referendum, has simply been about the right to vote, it’s not about taking sides. The word ‘Votar’ is everywhere.  It has underpinned my whole time here.”

Christina Cannon, 19, another member of SNP Youth is already a Glasgow City councillor. She agreed with Mr Linton. “The principle of democracy has become the theme of our visit,” she said.

Over the last few days, there has been condemnation of the Spanish government heavy-handed approach  from across Scotland  and that was a matter of pride for these activists. 

 "Christina McKelvie (the SNP MSP) wrote to Donald Tusk,  of  the EU Council, a cross-party group of MSPs wrote to Rajoy,”  Mr Linton said. “That is leadership  - it would have been good to see that more around the world.”

Mr Steel agreed: “The Scottish government has already stood up more for the rights of Catalonia than the other major players in Europe.  Not a lot has been said by other nation states.”

Were they frightened  by the possibility of violence in the next 48 hours?  Worried would be a better word, said Mr Steel, “worried that the police should be sent out to stop a democratic process.”

Saturday 30, September 

Opponents of the Catalan referendum believe they are silent majority, but when 3,000 gathered in Placa D’Urquinaona  yesterday evening, they quickly found their voice.

These demonstrators were older and angrier  than those who had been on the streets proclaiming “Si” just 24 hours earlier.  They felt they had been ill-served by Catalonia’s political leadership  for years.  “SOS Intimidats pel Nacionalisme”,  read the poster taped to a shop window – "intimidated by nationalism".

This demonstrators had been too afraid to speak out in the past, believed  Roberto Pardo and Laura, his wife, both lawyers from Barcelona. 

 “Today is the day,” Mr Pardo said, a Spanish flag draped over his back. “We have been silent for too long – it is time to do something."

No-one here would  vote, he added.  His wife agreed. “Why would we?” Mrs Pardo wondered.  “This is an illegal situation.”

An office worker, who said his name was Jose, was not going to vote.  “We support the constitution, we support the law,” Jose said.  “Catalonia has been part of Spain for 2,000 years and we want to continue.  This is not some kind of colonial situation – we have been united since the foundation of the Spanish state.”

Over the last 30 years, the government in Madrid had given away too much to Catalan politicians.  “They needed support for this or that policy, so they made too many concessions,” Jose said.

“They have allowed Catalan separatists to indoctrinate people.  In TV, in the media, in schools, all we hear is Madrid is wrong.”

Around Jose, the cries went Up.  “Catalunya es Espagna”, and then as more people arrived, the procession moved off down Via Laietan, and the marchers burst into song: Y Viva Espagna.

Rafael Lopez, 58, an office manager, had come all the way from Madrid with some friends to join the procession.  The referendum he said was “illegal, immoral and unjust.”  It oppressed the people who had gathered here. 

Nothing would happen next week said Mr Lopez, whatever the result, because the vote had no validity.  

But there would be a reckoning, predicted Mr Pardo, the lawyer.

“Afterwards,” he said,  “some of the government in Catalonia will go to prison.  It must be so, because this is sedition.  They have declared war on the Spanish government and the people.  The law in Spain says you have a trial, you pay the penalty, and you go to prison.”

Notebook: Inside Pau Casals School, Gracia Saturday night

The school was occupied on Friday and Saturday night.  Scores of kids were playing games, when we turned up in the early evening.  The school gym had been requisitioned for people to sleep in; others slept in pop-up tents in the playground. 

Only the adults stayed in the school overnight, but when we were there, because the kids were still around, we were asked not to take photographs. 

Jordi Mir, 53, an administrator. 

The police, the Mossos, came round earlier in the day and told us we had to be out by six in the morning.  The only people we will open the door to at that time will be the people  who bring  the (voting) urns and the ballot papers.  We won't let the police in.  

If the cops beat their way in there is no particular plan.  The idea is that people will sit in front of the door.  They are going to have to play a game with us: it will be like picking onions.  We will be sitting  there in rows.  The police will have to pluck us out one by one.  We will invite them to play.  The idea is the cops will eventually give up.

Ramon Massana, 52, marine biologist

It’s been organised because of social media.  The fathers from the school came here about two days ago, and the proposal was made to occupy the school.  I have two kids here. 

Most people will vote ‘Si’.  The people who would vote ‘No’ will not vote.  They will say, ‘This is not fair.’ If they really want  to stay in Spain, they should come and vote, but instead they prefer to say, ‘This is not legal.’

I saw a banner on the anti-referendum march.  It said: ‘We are oppressed by nationalists’.  What do you think of that?

It is a joke, a joke.  They are very emotional.  We are not oppressing them.

You want independence?

Yes, yes.  I have always wanted that.  Many years ago it didn’t seem possible.  Now it does, and I feel very happy.

To the outsider, life in Barcelona seems to be going on as a normal – it seems such a prosperous, comfortable city – but this argument is so heated and angry …?

Look back in history, go back 300 years ago – we had our country.  And the civil war – many things have happened – it was a very heated moment.   

But in the present (crisis) things started 10 years ago. The starting point was our parliament proposing  a route for Catalonia, a new future.  The proposal went to Madrid: it was changed quite a bit, but then accepted in the parliament.  It came back to the Catalan Parliament and passed.  But the Madrid started rolling back on this again, they started changing our law.  People realised that we had been positive, but (Madrid) always made the law.

Things have happened very quickly recently, but this is not something that came from nothing.

Do you feel Spanish at all?

No. In this movement though there are so many people for whom identity is not important.  It is about dignity, about respect.  

Some people shouted today that they are Catalan and Spanish …

You think they feel Spanish and Catalan?

That’s what they said.

It is what they say now, because they are forced to say so.  But it is not true.  Ten years ago, these people would not have said they were Catalan at all. They would say they were Spanish.  Now they say they are Catalan and Spanish, we have to live together.  It is a strategy.  Again, it is like a joke.

Ton Barniles, 46, General Manager of the Catalan Alpine Club

If they produce violence in us, they win.  It’s what happened in the Basque country.   We will use non-violence and humour.  Like the placards of Tweety Pie  (Piolin)

I won’t find trouble here, from what you are saying?

Oh I don’t know.  I wouldn’t be naïve.  But on the citizen’s part there will be no violence.  I think now the Spanish government is quite afraid of this, because they saw the reaction after the recent arrests.   They thought they could smash this.

There has been an increase in support, simply because of their violence.  And more people want to vote now.   For example, the Mayor of Barcelona, she is not for a free Catalonia, but after the police intervened, she said ‘Enough.’   She will do a “white vote”  (she will go to vote – but abstain).

Monica, 47, a journalist/publisher, who didn’t want to give her surname

I need the right to vote.  I am not going to say whether I will note yes or no, I am not some kind of independence nut, but I am here to defend the right to vote.   I’ve always thought there should be a referendum, to settle this issue.

I need Catalans to express what they think, whether it is yes or no.  The Spanish government crossed a red line with its behaviour in the last week.

But I don’t like the Catalan government.  They cheated to create this referendum.  They changed the law to make the referendum happen, it wasn't good. They haven’t been clean, but equally the attempts by the Spanish government to outlaw the referendum are ridiculous.

Many Scots who voted “No” in the Scottish independence  referendum because they said they felt Scottish and British. Do you  feel Catalan and Spanish?  

I like to live in this grey area. I feel  Catalan, it is the motherland. I used to feel Spanish but not anymore.   For me it is a very sad situation.  I wish I could have both.  But I am more Catalan for sure, because you always feel attached to the motherland.

Laura, a reporter for a Spanish-owned TV station, did not want to give her name

It is hard to work for the Spanish media when my heart is here.   From the Madrid point-of-view, what the press has been saying has not been fair at all, it doesn’t reflect what people feel and what is happening here.

Some of the journalists from our station made an anonymous protest, and I was part of that.  For example of on the day of the terrorist attack, there was a big protest, but my channel simply didn’t show that, it didn’t show all the people who turned up.  Forget about what you do or don’t believe in, it just wasn’t a true portrayal of what happened.

The Spanish media is poor – you can’t believe what you see and read.   People get their new from international media.

Imagine.  My work is my money, but my heart is Catalonia.
We should just be open about what is happening in Catalonia, a referendum with campaigns for Yes and No  - this is what should have happened.  That’s why I am here, now.  So that people can vote.

Sunday morning write-up

When polling finally opened in Pau Casals school, Monserrat Llajuirri, 83, was one of the first to vote. 

"For so long, I lived under Franco,” she said, recalling the Fascist leader, who died in 1975.  “Now I can die with the satisfaction of helping my children and grandchildren to freedom.  I voted Yes for the liberty of my country and to stop repression.”

Outside the school, Carrer de la Providencia, a narrow street in a crowded residential area, had been filling up with people over the four hours before the referendum was due to begin.  They had come to vote and to defend this polling station.

At 7am, two officers from the Mossos, the local police, advised the crowd of about 1,000 they were breaking the law, but said they would do take no more action.  There were cheers and applause, as the officers pushed through the crowd and walked away towards a café at the end of the street.  

But soon, by the packed entrance to the school, people were sharing mobile phone footage of attacks by Spanish police, wearing hard hats and riot gear.  “This is a school on the other side of the city,” said one woman fearfully. “My cousin is there.” 
 She showed a picture of two police in riot gear hauling a woman away.

“We have been warned about secret police,” said Lena Oliverez, 22.  “They come in pairs and in plain clothes.  They will come and seize the ballot boxes.”  These officers might be armed with tasers, she warned.

It took longer than expected to open the poll.  The destruction of ballot papers and the confiscation of ballot boxes forced the organisers  to improvise.  Huge cheers went up when plastic boxes  were held aloft for the crowd to see through the plate glass entrance.  Ballot papers were freshly published on office printers. 

Yet another problem arrived when an app went down linking the polling station to the electoral roll.  Miguel Collomae, an economist, came to the doorway to explain the difficulty had been anticipated – the Spanish government had closed down other internet channels.  “We have contingency plans,” he assured those eager to vote. “Be patient. You will vote.”

They were patient and they were rewarded.  Maria Dolores, 81, was second to cast her vote, when polling opened. 

“I am ridiculously happy, she said, her eyes filling with tears. “We don’t have anything, they are squashing us all.  We are peaceful people, not animals.  They cannot deny us our freedom.”

Notebook: Lena Oliverez, 22

Lena returned from Argentina a month ago, after completing an interior design degree.  She stayed in the school overnight and was one of about 20 people who came out to mingle with the huge crowd outside.  She was weeping as she embraced her friends and family, and sometimes was overcome by tears during the interview.

It was coincidence that I finished my studies and was able to come back, just in time for the vote.

It was a very special for me last night.  It is just a year since my grandmother died. She was 91.  She was very emotionally involved with this: it is important to me to vote for the people who are no longer with us.

Why is it important that Catalonia is independent?

Two things. It is important for my family to come to Barcelona because they had so many problems when Franco was alive.   My grandparents, and parents came from Granada: Barcelona gave them everything.  It is so hard to explain.

Catalonia and Barcelona has a deep meaning for them?

Yes.  All those things that happened in those days: we don’t want to be part of it.

Did you think like that, even before the brutality of the last couple of weeks?


But isn’t it time to move on from the Franco era?

What we see in Spain, is Franco is very present. Posters, organisations, defending Franco.  This hasn’t disappeared.  A lot of things that are happening now, happened when Franco was in power.

Sunday afternoon write-up

At 5pm, Marcel Graell, 21, a politics student, addressed a crowd of an least 1,000 in the quadrangle outside Barcelona’s Industrial School.

By then, 500 people had been seriously injured in police attacks on crowds across Catalonia, and footage of the brutality widely shared on the internet.

In a passionate speech, delivered through a megaphone, he urged the crowd to “calm, peaceful, determined”.   The crucial thing was not to provoke the police.  “We have videos of them being violent and us being peaceful,” he said.

 “These are the images, the attitudes we want the world to see.  Then our president can carry on his strategy of taking our message to the world.”

Mr Graell   emergence as a charismatic local leader was the direct result of the heavy-handedness of the Spanish government.  Two weeks ago, he told me, he was undecided about how to vote in the referendum.

“I don’t hate Spain,” he said. “I don’t hate Spanish people.  I have been all over Spain.  A nanny who helped bring me up is from Aragon – I love her as a second mother. 

“Over the past two weeks, our institutions, our Catalan government has been taken by the Spanish institutions.  It meant I voted yes without hesitation.”

Mr Graell was among a group of 50 people who occupied the Industrial School on Friday night, when fears grew that Spanish police would attempt to shut it, ahead of referendum day.

"I seriously doubt the police have the  means to dissuade us.  We will sit on the floor, hands wrapped together. 

"If they do use violence to enter the college, they will have won the battle to defend the college but we would have won the moral battle, because we would have been peaceful."

The pic at the top was taken at about 8pm, when Mr Graell declared the ballot closed, thanked the people who had turned out to protect the polling station, and thanked the international press.  The barricade was at the back of  the industrial, opposite a hamburger joint. 

There was no violence at either the Pau Cassel School, or the Industrial School.  The brutal actions by Spanish police appeared to die off about lunchtime.  About that time, we tailed a convoy of police vans through the city, expecting them to stop at a polling station, and deploy their truncheons.  Instead they parked up in a layby, as if they had been stood down. 

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?”