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. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

'It means so much for us as a town. We all pull together here.'


In the second row of seating in the Dunblane Centre, a large blonde lady is on her feet shaking her fist: “C'mon Andy this is your time!” she yells. Within seconds, a roar has erupted around her, making the walls bulge as if they might explode. A ball from Novak Djokovic has hit the net and Andy Murray, the local boy, is Wimbledon champion, a national hero.

This was a beautiful day in Dunblane; joyous, exciting, friendly, fulfilled: four hours when locals mingled with the scores of daytrippers, determined to be in this place, at this time, to witness sporting history.

“In Dunblane, we are so grateful to Andy for positive reasons.,” said David Spooner, a trustee of the centre, above the hubbub. “Anywhere you go in the world, people say, 'Where are you from? Dunblane? Where Andy Murray's from? It means so much for us as a town. We pull together.”

It is almost impossible to overstate Murray's importance in this place. At one level, he is the ultimate role model, a young man whose success on the professional tennis circuit has boosted junior membership of Dunblane tennis club tenfold over the last seven years.


More than that, he has helped to eclipse the town's association with the killing of 16 infants and their teacher at the primary school in 1996. Murray was eight when a gunman burst into the gym at the school and opened fire. He and his older brother, Jamie, who was ten at the time, were on their way to the gym and hid under a desk in the headteacher's study.


Money flowed in from well-wishers all over the world to help the community recover, and the Dunblane Centre was built with that cash. Yesterday, Mr Spooner and his staff were able to welcome incomers from almost every corner of the world to watch an astonishing and cathartic game live on the big screen.

One man, driving from Somerset to Caithness, had broken his journey to come here, because he felt Dunblane's magnetic pull. “He told me, 'I'm so chuffed I saw Dunblane celebrate,” said Mr Spooner. “That's the magic of this place.”

Geraldine Diggins, a retired Californian on holiday in Scotland, was rocking in disbelief. “It was absolutely worth the visit,” she said. “I could hardly watch half of it. My head was in my hands for that last bit.”

All day, under a perfect blue sky, the excitement had built. At morning service in the imposing medieval Cathedral, the Rev Sally Foster-Fulton's homily seemed at first a little contentious for some of her parishioners.

“There is a certain tennis match going on today, but God doesn't have favourites,” Ms Foster-Fulton announced, with mock severity. Then: “But we do. Good luck Andy!”


Ten minutes later, in the Church Hall, Elizabeth Smith was taking issue with the minister. “I think everyone has had a secret wee prayer,” said Mrs Smith, who has retired and works in the Mary's Meals Charity Shop. “It will be tense, but I won't even leave the room when the tension gets bad. I think he will do it. This is Andy's year.”

Along the pretty high street of this little town , shop after shop had its window display, its gimmick, its banner. The Beach Tree Cafe was selling green and purple tennis cup cakes, but had a sign in the window announcing: “Due to Andy's Success, we will be closing at 1.30 today so we can all support him.”

A few doors down in McIntyre Funeral Directors there were two notices. One read “SMART. Peacefully in the wonderful care of the team at Strathcarron Hospice.” The other: “Come on Andy You Can Do It!”

He did too. In front of the man from Somerset; a Sicilian called Gianfranco, who was holidaying in nearby Perthshire; a group of tennis mad former students who made a reunion out of the day trip; a family of five who had traveled from John O'Groats to share in the magic of the Dunblane Centre. And 150 more, locals and visitors crammed into the community hall, built as a symbol of enduring humanity, all cheering and hugging each other.

“This is such a lovely community, such a friendly place,” said Mrs Diggins, her face lit up by her huge smile. “I am so delighted, so pleased for them all.”






Sunday, 24 March 2013

Drive-by theatre and ferry tales on the road to Unst



Against the black of night and in a shower of sleet, a gang of young men is picked out in car headlights, tumbling around an old Volvo. To the left and right, ballroom dancers spin to a rhythm, completing a surreal scene.

This is Brae harbour on a remote Shetland coast, as far from theatreland as is possible. Yet here, buffeted by an Atlantic wind, Ignition is being staged, a fusion of dance, drama and driving, exploring “our bittersweet relationship with the automobile”.

This ambitious project is a far cry from the road safety show first suggested in memory of Stuart Henderson, a local boy who died in a car crash in 2007.  Developed at a cost of about £170,000 by Shetland Arts and the National Theatre of Scotland, Ignition has generated exhibitions and songs, staged parkour classes and mounted story-telling sessions on local buses. It has even created a piece of public art, a knitted car made in sessions of “makkin and yakkin” (knitting and talking) proof that Shetlanders know more than one way of spinning a yarn.

The piece de resistance is the finale, drive-by theatre performed in and around a community hall, and requiring the audience to take cars between venues and even light the stage.
At the centre of all this artistic activity is the character of the White Wife, a latter-day legend brought to life by Lowri Evans, the project’s hitchhiker-in-residence. Rarely out of her ghostly costume, over the last six months Ms Evans has hitched rides by car and ferry all over the archipelago recording the 157 stories behind the show. Last September, her first night on Shetland ended with a hen party on Unst, the most northerly populated island.

I’d got on a ferry, because the last drive had taken me to Yell,” said Ms Evans, 30, a performance artist from Manchester. “I saw Scooby Doo walk across the deck. There were hens and stags going between the islands. The young girls were dressed as old grannies and I just squeezed in on the back seat beside them.”

In Lerwick she met   Nepalese waiters from the Gurkha restaurant. “They’d ping-ponged around the world and ended  in Shetland,” she recalled. “I gave them tea, fancies and sandwiches from a camper van. I danced in the rain with the manager. It was a really nice exchange.” 

Ms Evans even helped recruit the Ignition cast. Just before Christmas, in character as the White Wife, she encountered Barry and Wendy Broadbent on the No 9 bus from Walls to Lerwick. Now, clad in white, husband and wife are each spending ten nights acting out their own strange hitch-hikers’ tales, as they sit beside audience members during Ignition’s peripatetic performance. “Barry will kill me if get my lines wrong,” said Mrs Broadbent. “We must have rehearsed 600 times.”

If the cast all live on the island, key figures in the creative team are outsiders, recruited by the National Theatre of Scotland. Wils Wilson, Ignition’s director, is from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire; Rob Evans, is its Glasgow-based writer. Hugh Nankivell teased out the soundtrack from local song-writing sessions. Mr Nankivell’s home is Torquay, roughly 700 miles away.
Jacqui Clark, a Shetlander who has helped script the show, believes the outside help was essential.

There have been people brought in by NTS, but they haven’t inflicted their opinions on us,” said Ms Clark. “They have taken the time to listen to the folk who’ve engaged with us. As a local you can see the legacy, folk learning, picking up new skills. It’s important for a small community like this.”

Is the final production worth a round trip for a West End enthusiast? It is nothing if not striking and while some of the songs have the sound of the community workshop, the parkour is exciting; the car theatre is intense and unsettling.

Outside Brae Community Hall, Davy Cooper, one of the show’s story tellers, is delighted with the premiere. He reveals that the key to good drama is to base it on truth not fiction.

My uncle Charlie died in 1940, before I was born,” said Mr Cooper. “He was a whaler and had overwintered up north, when his ship couldn’t get back because of the wolf packs of U-boats. They finally sailed home in a convoy. But within a week he had died in a boating accident just 100 yards from the house. He was found standing up in the water, dead.

Now that would be difficult to make up.”

* Ignition, various venues, Shetland until 30 March.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

I'd sit in the park, glueys on one side, spliff smokers on the other, and I’d read Jane Austen. 'Weirdo,' they said.



Russell Kane won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2010, and is one of the best known stand-ups in Britain. His comedy schtick is very much his tough upbringing in Enfield, his surly father, the bleakness of his surroundings. When I heard, like many comics before him, he had written a novel, I was pretty skeptical.  But when I started reading The Humorist, I was impressed, so I approached him for an interview.  This is what he said about how he discovered books.  

“Part of it was to try to piss my dad off,” he reckons. “Some people did drugs or got involved in crime or slept around.  I wanted to be different.   I thought ‘I’m  going to read everything just to show I  can.’

“I used to sit in the park, glueys on one side, spliff smokers on the other.  I had my own gear, my own spliff, waiting for my friends, and I’d read Jane Austen, just to make people say, ‘What are you doing, weirdo?’    Accidently it fell from rebellion into love.”

At first, it was a torrid affair and grew into something beautiful only because Kane was incorrigible.    He read slowly  and when he could,  kept a dictionary and an encyclopaedia by his side.  “Pride and Prejudice was the first proper book I read,” he recalls. “Every word I encountered that I didn’t know got its own index card with a meaning written on it, then I’d put it in a pack, which I carried around in a bag.   I went through it again and again  until I had expanded my vocabulary.”

He was, he says, 14 when he started creating his portable dictionary, but then corrects himself. “I’m exaggerating, because I’m ashamed.  I was about 17. I’m ashamed  I did it that artificially, that late in life.   But eventually ‘impudent’ became a word I  was comfortable with. That was the first word: impudent. The first word I ever wrote down on a card.”

He collected 3,500 cards over the years.  “I would pick a pack up, and I would go along the street, and I would say, ‘Oxymoron – what does that mean?’   The card was discarded when I felt the word naturally occur to me,  when I could use it without thinking.  I thought, ‘I now own that word, I know what oxymoron means, I’ll never forget it.’ And I never forgot any of them.”

You can read more about Russell at The Times website.  The photograph is by James Glossop

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Lasseter on Jobs: "I get to work with Dad today"



John Lasseter is the creative genius behind Pixar. He achieved worldwide fame as director of Toy Story, and is now chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar.  He has a long connection to Scotland, first visiting on a Eurorail pass when he was a student. I interviewed him when he returned in June to promote Brave ahead of its US premiere. 

The interview was set up as part of the "junket", the huge publicity splurge around the film, that brought 150 journalists over from the states. Disney had hired a couple of floors of the Balmoral Hotel to service the hacks, and  reaching Lasseter, was like getting into Fort Knox.  I got a military 45 minutes with the Big Fellow, in which time I got to ask about eight questions. This is what  he said about Steve Jobs, who co-founded Pixar, and bankrolled it for ten years before Toy Story was released. 

Jobs  became his sounding board, a confidante, a decision maker,  both a father figure and “like a brother” .  Jobs’ death from pancreatic cancer last October was a desperate loss.  Life must be difficult without him?

“It is,” says Lasseter carefully. “I miss him a lot.  The way I describe Steve,  he’s like I was with my sons, learning to ride a bike.  You run alongside and you hold on to the handlebars,  then   you let go and they wobble and you’re still running beside them. But pretty soon they are riding by themselves and you stand  and watch them.  Steve was like that with us. He had no desire to ride the bike,  but he wanted to be there to help.”

Jobs contribution is built into Pixar’s bricks and mortar. Its headquarters at Emeryville near San Francisco has been dubbed  “Steve’s movie” because Jobs spent  four years designing the perfect Californian office space to house what he called "a community of collaborative filmmakers''. 

And he was a creative influence.  “He wasn’t  there  crafting the stories, but he was my fresh set of eyes that I’d show to all the time,” say Lasseter. “I’d get a note from him and I was  always like: ‘I didn’t even think of that.  Wow!’   Or he’d simply say, ‘I just don’t get this, right here.’  I’d  been too close to something,  but he’s the one who makes me look at it from a distance and say, ‘Man, he’s right.”

A year after Toy Story was released, Jobs returned to Apple – “I was so proud of him” says Lasseter -  but he never dropped his connection with  Pixar. Six years ago, when  the two  animation giants merged  Jobs became Disney’s biggest individual shareholder, and Lasseter its driving creative force.

The two men remained close.   “I would go down and visit him (at Apple) all the time,” says Lasseter.   “It was like ‘I get to go to work with Dad today’. It was really special.  We used to talk all the time. I miss him.”

Read the 2000-word interview at The Times Review cover story. Picture shows Lasseter with Julie Fowlis, the singer