Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Jocky Wilson interview

It's nearly 26 years since Jocky Wilson won the World Darts championship, and since then, as you can read below, his life has pretty much fallen apart at the seams. I spoke to Wilson nearly seven years ago, and this is the only interview that any journalist has obtained with him in the last decade. The article appeared in the Scotsman, and was possible because the paper's sports editor, Donald Walker, allowed me a full week to find and talk to Jocky.

"Who is Jocky Wilson?" American and Faroese friends may ask. In 1982 he was one of the best known sportsmen in Britain, so famous that when Dexy's Midnight Runners released their song Jackie Wilson said, the producer of television's Top of the Pops show mistakenly put up an image of Jocky, not Jackie, when the band played the song in the BBC studio.

The picture shows Dexy's Kevin Rowland singing on TOTP, with the image of Jocky behind him.

Jocky's dart out of the shadows

The Scotsman, 17 March, 2001

CHRISTMAS 1995. Jocky Wilson is boarding a bus in Newcastle. He has left his house in Wallsend with a car on the drive and he is turning his back on the game that made him famous to head back to Kirkcaldy, to sanctuary.

Things don't quite work out. Five years on, a council flat recluse, Jocky is in a private hell of diabetes and depression and the whole of darts is suffering withdrawal.

"I've got lovely memories of him," says Eric Bristow for the sport's high and mighty. "I miss him. Darts misses him - the game needs characters like Jock."

Lower down dartdom's ladder the regrets are likewise tinged with warmth. Mention Wilson's name in Uncle's Bar and a few of the regulars edge closer to tell some happy tales of Jocky on the oche.

This pub was once called the Lister, and on a good day years ago, Jocky reckoned there was "a wee bit of the hustler atmosphere that Minnesota Fats and Paul Newman would have appreciated".

He learnt the game here - stung in his first game by a grannying from "Ginger" Snowden - and he played for any number of the local teams.

Now with the dartboard hidden away in the corner and Kirkcaldy's darts league disbanded, the game is dead on its feet in the town. "All the good players are away to Glenrothes," reckons Jocky, as he squints towards you across the hallway of his flat.

There's not many speak to him these days. His wife, Malvina, usually takes the calls, and "No," she tells allcomers, "Jocky won't talk." Today it's a little different. The man of the house answers the door, his Jack Russell terrier scampering round his feet. Jocky is still defiant.

"I just want to be left alone," he pleads from behind his big, square glasses, "because all they write about me is crap, and I don't want to read about that. That's it in a nutshell. I'm sorry. I don't want to shut the door in your face."

And if you protest that his friends are missing him, he's quick to cut you off. "Aye, but it's all over and done with now. I don't even go out. Only to the doctor. I'm sorry, but good luck to you."

Jocky wasn't always quite so shy. Fuelled by lager and vodka, he threw himself from novice to World Champion in 12 years. Once, when a social security official saw him on the television winning money at the Butlins Grand Masters, he had his dole stopped.

But he brought record crowds to darts, and in these parts of Fife he filled the pubs as folk crowded in to watch his big wins on television. When Jocky beat John Lowe for that first world crown in 1982, you'd better believe they were dancing in the streets of Raith. The image of Jocky was hung over Kirkcaldy's Mercat centre and Bill Hill penned a verse: "He's sixteen stain of fat and pain/ When he steps up to the oche/ When he throws the spears you can hear the cheers/ For Fife's wee hero Jocky."

For Jimmy Skirving, an old mate from Harrow's Bar, the pleasure was more immediate. He was there for the double ten that won the final. "Jocky came straight off the stage and gave me his darts - I've still got them. He just said, 'I've done it'. He gave my son the dartboard."

Others talk as warmly about Jocky, but even when you stand outside his door and tell him so, he won't respond beyond the hint of a toothless smile.

"Ach, I enjoyed it while it lasted. But that's life, eh? You get knocked for six, and then that's it. I couldn't do it now."

But then suddenly he raises his voice against the world. "I could have still been playing - I just didn't have it in me.

"Turning up at a venue and taking good money. Maybe my mind wasn't right, but I just couldn't get out of there quick enough. That's not on.

"And playing on TV - ach - I didn't have any go in me. I said to myself 'I'll just have to get out of this because I can't handle it any more'." The drink was part of it. Towards the end, suffering already from the diabetes, he was hospitalised after a drinking binge. That event came as a terrible blow, for reasons that the commentator Sid Waddell makes clear.

"He couldn't be Jocky Wilson without a lot of drink," Waddell believes. "He couldn't be the player he was. Unfortunately, the ten pints of lager and the three or four vodkas are going to kill you if you do it every night. I think, psychologically, he realised that, and quit when he was 45."

It's a tough old sport for the teetotaller. Waddell has got many a tale from days on the road with Jocky and the two remain good friends.

"I remember, at seven in the morning, drinking water from a Lucozade bottle and Jocky said: 'Is that gin or voddy?' I said: 'If you've had a bit to drink the night before, you should rehydrate'. He said: 'My granny told me the English poison the water.' So the only thing he'd drink was Fanta."

The stories might raise a smile, but these days they're no laughing matter for Jocky himself. "When I was brought up with the darts, it was drink and darts, drink and darts," he tells you, keeping the door half shut.

"When you have a few too many you do a lot of stupid things, but you don't think you have. I can understand now that I'm on the wagon, but at the time you never realised.

"They might like a pint now, but they know when to stop. I just kept going. I was always pissed by the end of the night. I enjoyed it while I was there. It got me out of a hole at the time. That's life, eh? I didn't look after my money, but that's another story."

That last is certainly true. Having dragged himself off the dole queue, Jocky wasn't always the luckiest with advisors. His first agent was Ron Clover, of Fourleaf management. In 1983, Jocky wrote: "Ron is much more than a manager; he is a friend. Thanks to him I do not have to worry about deals with sponsors, paperwork or tax."

Some friend. Within two years, his manager was sueing for a share of the earnings. Jocky countered he had signed for Clover when he was drunk, but the judge found for the agent, a decision that ultimately cost John Thomas Wilson around £80,000.

Later, when the Inland Revenue claimed a further £27,000 in back tax, Jocky was in real trouble. No longer earning huge sums from tournaments, he was making shift with a couple of exhibitions a week, for maybe £300 a night. Take out instalments to creditors and a hefty budget for cigarettes and beer and there was precious little left. He was declared bankrupt in 1997.

Financial problems were only part of it. Jocky suffered other pressures in the early years. For a start there was all that palaver over Malvina, when the player and his wife found themselves abused by their patriotic neighbours, for the accident of her Argentinian birth.

"I got stick through that with the Falklands War," he growls. "She's lived here since she was five years old. And they made a fuss of that. It's wrong. It's nothing to do with anything."

And here he will concede the help of friends, such as Jimmy Skirving and Sid Waddell. "Well, they knew," he agrees. "I mean, I've never been politically minded or anything, but a war's a war, eh? That's life."

And then he goes on: "Oh I've seen the world and that. I've travelled. And I'd have probably ended up in the jail if I hadn't because times have been hard here, you know. I don't miss it though. I'm glad I'm out of it, because of the way my mind was at the time."

It's impossible not to ask whether the problems were all down to booze. Jocky pauses. The Jack Russell at his feet has started to growl and he silences it by swiftly caressing the dog's backside with his foot.

"The drink came into it. But I wouldn't say it was just the drink. I just wasn't able to do it. I didn't have the energy."

In truth, depression had set in long before his playing career had finished and he was leading, he says, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde life. Then he adds insistently: "But, still, I did a lot of good for people when I was at the top, a lot of charity stuff. Nothing's said about that."

He's wrong on that score. His friends remember. Skirving can vouch for the player's generosity. "You could always rely on him," Jimmy says. "See the amount of trophies he won and gave away - I can assure you Jocky was taken a loan of quite a lot. Once he won a holiday and a nest of suitcases. He never got home with either - he sold the holiday for 50 quid and the cases for a tenner."

Somehow all the prizes were ephemeral. As long as Jocky could relax and recharge his batteries, he was happy. His most treasured assets became the fishing boats he bought with his winnings and if he could get away for a few days, he was more than ready for the battles at the oche.

Those confrontations, of course, were famously fierce - and none tougher than the skirmishes with Eric Bristow, when even the psychological warfare could turn violent

Bristow can remember a televised international from Livingston, when he was called to the stage to face Jocky in a singles game. "As I climbed up, Jocky kicked me straight on the shin. The officials pulled us apart and I had to climb up, live on TV even though I could feel my leg bleeding under my trousers.

"Jocky came up behind and I had to shake hands in front of the cameras and smile at him." He laughs craftily: "All I wanted to do was strangle him."

And now, well beyond the glare of TV lights and smiling in the gloom at some memory of his own, Jocky can reflect on the genuine friendship the two men shared. "I liked Eric, if you want the honest truth. I could trust him. No matter what the papers thought about cats and dogs, we got the wages."

They brought the punters in, you could say. "That was it. But no matter what, we still wanted to beat each other. Wind-ups and all that. But Eric's got a heart of gold, and I mean that."

And yet it's Bristow, who loudest of all, has urged his friend to end his self-imposed exile. In the gloom of the hallway, Jocky still won't entertain the notion.

"If you've not got it in your heart, what's the point? And I've not. Seriously, I've not. If I went back to darts, I'd end up drinking again, that's a cert. And I'd end up - bump. I'm better out of it. I just can't handle it.

"I liked a drink - Eric's probably the same because we all came up the same way. They like a drink, like's of the older school, but the younger school, they don't drink much. In fact, they're not very entertaining if you want the honest truth."

But surely, whatever his troubles with girls, that Phil Taylor's a good player. "Oh excellent, excellent. He's brilliant. It's a shame what's happened to Phil because I like him and all, by the way. I still think he was set up.

"But that's it, eh? I don't want to talk really."

And, at last, from behind the neat little door with its silver nameplate, J Wilson emerges to shake my hand before he disappears.

Jocky Wilson is a gentleman.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Writing on the wall for Captain Scott

Little known fact. Captain Robert Falcon Scott took more than 1200 books with him to Antarctica, and around half of them were novels and poetry anthologies. Click here for Captain Scott's Christmas reading list, published in today's Times.

Scott's Christmas reading list

Sunday, 23 December 2007

How America rewrote Scottish literature

The Library of Congress has abolished its headings for Scottish literature, provoking outrage in Scotland. This story, my exclusive for The Times, has been picked up by the BBC and is running on the Press Association wire. You can read it in the entry below.

Great Scottish authors? No they're English

The Times, December 22, 2007

With a few strokes of a bureaucrat’s pen, the entire Scottish literary tradition stretching from the medieval epic poetry of John Barbour to the drug-addled excesses of Irvine Welsh has been dismissed by the US Library of Congress and now appears as a subheading of another topic: English literature.

The decision to reclassify 700 years of Scottish writing as a subset of English has prompted the Scottish Government to raise the matter with the US Congress and sparked outrage among Scottish authors and academics.

The Washington-based institution is accused of “subjugating” a unique literary canon and classing Scots as an ethnic group within England. The poet Liz Lochhead described the American move as “appalling” while the crime writer Ian Rankin said the library’s dictat “made no kind of sense”. Even a spokesman for that most reserved of bodies, the National Library of Scotland, accused the Library of Congress of “a gross inaccuracy” and urged it to reconsider its decision.

Under the new rules – announced in the library’s Cataloging Services Bulletin - the heading “Scottish Literature”, and more than 40 Scottish subjects ranging from “Erotic poetry, Scottish” to “television plays, Scottish” are replaced just three headings: “English Literature – Scottish authors”, “Dialect Literature, Scottish” and the catch-all “Scotland - Literatures”.

The results are almost laughable. Readers searching for The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan and similar works of derring-do by Scottish writers will have to look for the books under the heading “Adventure Stories – English”, rather than “Adventure Stories – Scottish”, because that category has ceased to exist.

Similarly, differences between genres of Scottish poetry are wiped out. “Science Fiction, Scottish” becomes “Science Fiction, English”, while fans of crime writing seeking modern “Tartan Noir” authors will have to search in “Detective and Mystery Stories, English” .

But if the changes can seem absurd, they could have far reaching consequences. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are routinely used around the world. Even local libraries which employ the familiar Dewey decimal system for organising collections refer to LCSH when accessing material by topic. Publishers and booksellers worldwide are heavily influenced by the classification, raising the prospect that modern Scottish literature and poetry will be subsumed under the heading “English”.

Some of these difficulties have already been raised by the National Library of Scotland, which has urged the Library of Congress to restore distinct subject headings for Scottish literature. A National Library spokesman said that “aside from the obvious objections on the grounds of national identity”, the American decision presented practical problems.

“We are now in the position of having to choose between adopting these changes, thereby adopting what we consider to be a gross inaccuracy to our catalogue records and risking the alienation of many our readers, or else we abandon this international standard and accept a substantial increase to our cataloguing workloads,” said the spokesman.

Linda Fabiani, the Culture Minister, said the decision was ultimately one for authorities in the USA. However, she added: “This government believes that Scottish Literature is quite distinctive from English Literature and should be recognised as such . I shall also be raising this issue directly with Congressmen early in the new year.”

The Library of Congress maintains that “English literature” does not refer to the literature of England, but to all the literature of the countries of the United Kingdom, and the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Irish authors writing in English conform to “the customary scope of English literature as a discipline […including] works by authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas and James Joyce.”

The wider Scottish literary community reacted to this position with a mixture of incredulity and rage.

“Any Scottish writer would be appalled by this,” said Lochhead, the award winning poet and playwright. “We write in English – but sometimes not. I can’t imagine how this can happen, without anyone being consulted. There must be a very strong protest. The British Isles is not England alone. This goes absolutely against the political and cultural movements in Scotland.”

The crime writer Ian Rankin – who has sold around 20 million copies of his novels worldwide – said he was mystified by the library's stance.

“There are specific cultural differences between the countries of the United Kingdom but this smoothes them all out, If I was Irish, I would think it very odd to find Irish poetry lumped in with English poetry. And it is very odd to find Hugh MacDiarmid listed as if he was Shakespeare,” said Rankin.

The novelist AL Kennedy – who recently won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award for her novel Day – said that the decision was depressing and harked back to her literary apprenticeship in the 1980s, when Scottish writers were routinely treated as if they were part of the English tradition.

“There has always been this difficulty that English literature can mean literature in English. I have one collection of English literature in my house which contains only one author who is actually born in England. It is depressing that there are centres of very fine centre in America which specialise in the study of Scottish literature. It is disappointing that this has happened,” she said.

A spokesman for the Library of Congress said it would consider the issue again.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Edinburgh's Sikhs mourn their 'Queen'

A remarkable journey, which began 60 years ago, when a heavily pregnant Sikh woman walked to safety from the strife-torn region of the Punjab, has ended this week in Edinburgh.

The body of Lachmi Wanti Singh Landa, 86, dressed in fine robes of peach and powder blue, was laid to rest at the centre of a crematorium chapel in Leith.

To her right, a priest in a golden jacket led a chant that was taken up by hundreds of men crushed in around the dead woman. "Satnam waheguru," they cried, "The truth of the creator is eternal", lifting their prayers to heaven for one of the most significant and beloved of women, whose life story echoes the experience of the entire Sikh diaspora.

No-one could doubt the depth of feeling for Mrs Singh, whose passing meant so much to so many. She bore eight daughter and six sons. Between them, her children have produced 63 offspring. There are 85 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, Luckvinder Singh. A further 34 wives and husbands have married into the clan. All are members of a family who knew this woman as "the Queen of Queens".

Edinburgh's Sikh community numbers between 500 and 600. Mrs Singh, who died after a short illness last week, almost 12 years to the day since her husband passed away, was directly related to more than a third of them.

In the chapel, the crowd kept moving forward. From the pews in the body of the kirk, older women in white robes shuffle up to the coffin. They approach the body to touch the dead woman’s feet, paying her the respect which age is due.

Finally, after the coffin lid had brought from the south wall of the chapel, it fell to Akbal “Aaki” Singh, Mrs Singh’s eldest son, to push the button that consigned the body to the incinerator.

An hour later, In Leith’s Gurdwara, the temple converted from St Thomas Church, the family could at last come to terms with their grief.

“She was very highly respected by everybody,” said Aaki Singh. “She loved to give people things. She spread happiness. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. If someone said a bad thing about another, ‘She would say, ‘Never say that.’ She was a peacemaker.”

Born in Lahore, Mrs Singh’s journey to Scotland began after her marriage to Karnel Singh. Sikh tradition dictates that a woman joins her husband’s family and the couple set up home in Gorashah in 1944.

This was the age of partition, the division of India and Pakistan by the British authorities, which led to a form of ethnic cleansing as Muslims were driven from the India, and Sikhs were forced from the new Muslim stage, Pakistan.

Eight months pregnant, and leaving all her possessions behind, Mrs Singh was among thousands of refugees forced to walk the 100km which led to safety in the town of Phagwara, south east of Amritsar, in the Indian Punjab. Here her first daughter Raspal Kaur, was born in August 1947. Four more children would come into the world in Phagwara and Ludhiana, before in 1958, she followed her husband to Britain, and settled with her family on St Mary’s Street in Edinburgh.

“When we came to Edinburgh we were welcomed with open arms, not like we came from some foreign land. Until I was 16 I didn’t even realise I was coloured – this is why the love for Edinburgh is so great,” said Ragbir “Rab” Singh, who came to the city at the age of four.

“There was a difference in England, a kind of segregation. We came from a community with love and care. I was welcomed into my friends at Christmas or at any other special occasion. That was the love we got from Scotland and Edinburgh.”

The family have moved around, briefly as far as Birmingham, but mostly in Edinburgh, to Gayfield Square and now a little further north, to Pilrig. Some of Mrs Singh’s children have been trailblazers. In 1971 Aaki was the first Sikh to win his case as a bus conductor and to be allowed to wear a regulation turban to work. Many of the men have been shopkeepers with premises of their own, others property dealers. Some work in the community, others in big city stores.

These days, many of the younger women are not content with just being housewives, and take jobs, unlike Mrs Singh, whose life was dedicated to her husband, her children, and her children’s children. But all honour and adore her. Mrs Singh will never be forgotten.

“She was more than a mother to us,” said Jagdish Kaur, who married into Aaki Singh in 1969. “ One of her babies came after my own first child. She was very beautiful. We looked after her like a queen. She was a queen.”

The photographs show Karnel Singh and Lachmi Wanti shortly after their marriage, Lachmi Wanti with her great-great grandson, and, immediately abover, at her 75th birthday party with her sons and daughters alongside. Thanks to the family for helping with this article, which first appeared in The Times.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The Odd Couple: Trump and Salmond

One has big hair, a $2.9bn fortune and an ego the size of the moon. The other is a former racing tipster whose own prodigious vanity is swollen by the knowledge that he is his nation's most impressive politician.

They are an unlikely pair, Donald Trump, US tycoon, and Alex Salmond, First Minister. But they have conspired to plunge Scotland into something approaching a political crisis.

Two years ago, Trump, who proudly proclaims Scottish heritage, announced plans for a luxury golf resort on a windswept, lonely stretch of the Aberdeenshire coast. He expected the move to divide environmentalists from the business community, and it did. Now, though, it has turned uglier, with bitter claims of American bullying and Scottish toadying.

Where others see windswept dunes and hear only the relentless squawking of oystercatchers, Trump harbours a dream for a 2,000-acre seaside estate with two championship links golf courses, a new clubhouse, a modern gothic hotel, 500 private homes nearby and 950 timeshare flats. All accompanied by the joyous tinkle of cash registers.

Until two weeks ago, Trump had every reason to believe this huge venture would become a reality. His promise to deliver more than 1,000 permanent jobs and inject £47m into the local economy had wowed businessmen and journalists. He claimed 91 per cent support in the community. And he seemed to have convinced the local Member of the Scottish Parliament; the fact that this was Salmond, the SNP leader, appeared to seal the deal.

More at the Independent on Sunday:The Odd Couple

Sex doesn't sell ... to an 11-year-old

IS THE singalong High School Musical game your must-have Christmas present? Are you vaguely aware that something called "rehab" dogs the life of Lindsay Lohan? Or are you too excited to care because you have just received a free gift of glittery eye make-up?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may already be a subscriber to Shout magazine. If not, be warned: you are about to enter the shrill world of girls on the verge of adolescence, a place where the cocoon of childhood is wearing thin but the horrors of acne are yet to erupt.

Ria (short for Maria) Welch, Shout's editor, dressed in black from top to toe, has lived in this world for 14 years. "Maybe I don't want to grow up," she says, with a mildly hysterical laugh. "I love trivia. I like fun."

More of the same at the Sunday Herald: Sex doesn't sell

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Faroe islanders ask: Where's Primark?

The Times, December 5, 2007

* 24-Hour voyage to go Christmas shopping
* Whale meat and lager served onboard ferry

They thought they’d seen it all in Leith. Over the centuries, kings, queens and great armies have landed here, along with drunkards, drug addicts and writers. But the old port has seen nothing like this friendly invasion. It’s the first Tuesday in December and the Faroe Islands – or to be precise 945 of their 48,000 inhabitants – have landed to do their Christmas shopping.

It’s not long after dawn, but already the passengers from the huge Norrona ferry are shuffling through passport control alongside the Ocean Terminal shopping centre, chattering away and checking their purses to make sure they are carrying their plastic.

It is a strange sight. As if they are about to claim political asylum, each person is carrying a huge suitcase, to carry their purchases home. The women rehearse their most important words of English: “Where is Primark?” The rejoinder – the nearest one’s Dundee – brings looks of dismay – but only briefly, as the hordes make their way to a line of 15 coaches ready to carry them up retail heaven on Edinburgh's Princes Street.

As shopping excursions go, this should be one of the most arduous. The guidebook to the Faroes advises against the 24-hour sail to and from the islands from Scotland - unless you have "a cast-iron stomach” . It can be a daunting prospect “far out to sea with nothing to break the swells and towering waves sweeping in unopposed from the coast of North America.”

And that’s in the placid summer season. This was a winter voyage, when even the hardiest old tars revise the lyrics of Nearer My God to Thee before weighing anchor. Not these islanders. In the teeth of a north-north easterly, they sat in Norrona’s Naust bar, eating whale meat and downing litres of Faroyer lager as they lapped up the entertainment from Hilman Jan Hansen, “the funniest man on the Faroes”, and a troupe of Polish hoofers.

“As soon as we got past Orkney it was perfect, as steady as the floor we are standing on now,” says Svein Heidunum, the marketing manager for the ferry operator, Smyril Line, still perceptibly swaying as he reaches out to shake hands.

Halfway between Scotland and Iceland and a day's sail from both there are no chain stores or trendy boutiques in Torshavn, the Faroes capital. Nintendo Wiis are even rarer than they are in Edinburgh.

The bus journey to the city centre is one of quiet anticipation. Susanna Toftegaard and Berghild Jacobsen, young women who work in tourism, have made the three-day trip, are comparing notes. Susanna is checking through her shopping list, which itemises around 30 relatives who must have presents. “We have many second cousins on the Faroes,” she says.

The early forays into the shops are disappointing. Harvey Nichols evokes only laughter – “Seven hundred and fifty pounds? My month’s wage” – and the John Lewis department store is likewise too expensive. The women are thoughtful as they finally emerge on to Princes St.

Here the mood instantly changes. An advance guard of islanders is outside the H&M clothes shop, taking a smoking break. They nod and gesture, as if to say, “This is where the action is.” They’re not wrong.

Inside, it's carnage. There are hundreds of Faroese in the shop. In the women’s and children’s departments every till has lines of 20 or more snaking away, with purchases piled high. In the wide open spaces of the sales floor, men women and children are tottering between the racks of clothing, rapidly striping them bare.

Susanna disappears into the throng near the “Belt Detail Skirts”. She’s spotted 20 minutes later, clutching a child’s jacket, skirts, shirts and three make-up bags. Another half hour passes before she hoves into view again having added to the pile a a Spiderman outfit for her young son and a pair of polka dot pyjamas.

“Do you want a bag for that?” enquires the shop assistant, a film of sweat breaking out over her brow. “That won’t be necessary,” smiles Susanna, deftly flicking open her suitcase.

At 2pm, on coach to Leith, Sonni Jacobsen, who works in the timber trade, is the on the way back to Norrona, with his girlfriend Joan Heinessen and their baby. They have two H&M bags and one each from Curry’s, Lush and the Disney shop.

“We have to drop the bags off at the ship now,” says Sonni. And then what? “More shopping. There are still four hours left.”

* The photo shows Susanna Toftegaard (left) and Berghild Jacobsen outside the Dome in Edinburgh. Thanks to Tom Main for the image. You can link to Tom's excellent website in the column on the right, and from here:

Thomas Main Photography

Monday, 3 December 2007

Flagging up our national day

The Times, December 1, 2007

First the history. The year is 832AD and deep in East Lothian a weary band of Picts and Scots is surrounded by a mighty Saxon army led by Athelstan. Fearing the worst, King Angus (he’s a Pict) turns his eyes heavenwards and sees to his surprise the cross of St Andrew marked out in white clouds spread across a blue sky. The sign is both omen and inspiration. Angus marches out to victory, and in gratitude installs Andrew as his country’s patron saint.

Fast forward to November 30, 2007. Under leaden skies, Scotland’s culture minister Linda Fabiani has chosen to launch the holiday celebrations to mark St Andrews Day at this ancient battlefield now occupied by the village of Athelstaneford - the only place on Earth named after a loser.

Fabiani’s schedule is hectic. In roughly 12 hours time, her day will end at a ceilidh in Edinburgh’s Princes St Gardens. By then she will have presented the Saltire awards for literature, judged a student debate “this house believes that you don’t have to be born in Scotland to be Scottish” (co-incidentally the motto of the country’s rugby selectors), and planted a tree in nearby St Andrews Square gardens.

But for now it seems appropriate that she should absorb the nationalist spirit at the home of the saltire. Appropriate too that she is surrounded by flag-waving children who on the count of three yell “happy St Andrews day!” The minister beams.

Fabiani’s smile grows broader a few moments later, when Sheena Richardson, the Provost of East Lothian reveals that henceforth, the ruling SNP/Liberal coalition have decreed that every public building in the county will fly the cross of St Andrew.

“That an absolutely fantastic idea,” Fabiani tells the children. She will tell every council in Scotland to follow the lead of Athelstaneford and fly the saltire from their buildings. Isn’t that a good idea, she asks the kids.

Silence. And a shuffling of feet. “Well, isn’t it?”

“Yes” groan the kids at last. This must be the “freedom” Mel Gibson was on about in the movies.

When she has finished a photocall, Fabiani takes time out to explain to any remaining doubters that the saltire is a warm, friendly and inclusive banner. “We are so determined that everyone who lives here should feel themselves part of Scotland," she says

It all sounds wonderful, unless you happen to be one of the chippy English incomers, 400,000 of whom make up Scotland’s largest minority group. Isn’t the symbolism of the flag also a sign of their defeat?

“It was the 9th century you know,” the minister oozes reassuringly. “It wasn’t the English and the Scots as we know them now. It was the Picts and the Scots and the Angles and the Saxons. Everyone likes to look back on their history to find wee bits of glory. It is all a bit of fun and games. It’s never the reality.”

So by the same token surely the 800,000 Scots who live in England should feel English?

Not at all, says the minister. “To me, it’s more about saying, isn’t it pretty fantastic what this country’s done. Whether it be Scotland, whether it be England or Wales, we’ve all got a fabulous history, lets celebrate it. Just be part of it. Because it’s about having a good time. It’s about no more than that.” She adds for good measure: “My concerns are about all the jingoism which comes with the union flag.”

That ministerial pronouncement comes to mind again 90 minutes later as she plants her tree in St Andrews Square, to celebrate the opening of the gardens to the public for the first time in history. Above her looms the monument to Henry Dundas, the fiercest advocate of the union in the later 18th century. Out of respect the man dubbed “the uncrowned king of Scotland” has been shrouded in a tarpaulin so he can’t see his sanctuary as it is opened up to the nationalist hordes.

Letting in the public in the public will make this place seem a whole lot “more Scottish and European” says the minister, carefully avoiding the B-word. But, she’s asked, what would Henry Dundas make of it all? “I’m not even going there,” she hoots. “Your’re paranoid.”

She may be right. In the years ahead, it is easy to imagine the comfortable English minority sharing a dram with their tolerant Scottish friends on warm and friendly national holiday shared by everyone. Or almost everyone. Ancient Britons, Angles and Saxons had best beware.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Speaking of nationalism ...

Two English musicians with views on national identity, but only one of them is an arsehole. Can you identify him? No prizes, it's just for fun.

"Britain's a terribly negative place... With the issue of immigration, it's very difficult, because although I don't have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. If you travel to Germany, it's still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are! It matters because the British identity is very attractive, I grew up into it, and I find it quaint and very amusing. But England is a memory now. Other countries have held on to their basic identity, yet it seems to me that England was thrown away."

Morrissey, NME, 1 December, 2007.

"I am totally English. I love the lyrics of Noel Coward. I even like Gilbert and Sullivan. But the point I would make to the BNP and the people who go on about their culture being threatened by alien things, is that no-one has allowed and welcomed non-English cultures so whole-heartedly into their lives and into their brains and into their food more than I have. Yet I don't feel the slightest bit compromised or diluted as a human being. I'm as English as my Staffordshire great grandparents. As my Lancashire dad would say, 'What the fuck are you all scared of? What kind of wimps are you if the man standing behind you is wearing a turban, how does that threaten your identity, you twats?' Get over it, for fuck's sake."
Robert Wyatt, Uncut, October, 2007

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Heard the one about the marketing budget

"Six months after lavishing £125,000 on the marketing initiative – the SNP administration yesterday revealed its exciting new slogan: “Welcome to Scotland”. The phrase is also rendered on the posters as “Failte gu Alba” for monoglot Gaels in transit. The copywriting component of the budget has not been disclosed."

A brilliant new marketing campaign from the Scottish government. Read more at The Times online.

Welcome to Scotland

Independent mind

Ahead of St Andrews Day, the (Scottish) historian Niall Ferguson gives his view on Scots, Scotland, independence and nationalism. This article appeared in the Times in August this year. You can read it in the entry below.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Chipping away at nationalism

Climbdown? What climbdown? Little more than 18 months after he said “the country hitherto known as Scotland should go into liquidation” and the myth of Scottish nationhood should be forgotten the controversial historian Niall Ferguson has acknowledged the independence is inevitable – whether Scots like it or not.

Making a rare trip to his home country Ferguson told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that constitutional separation would come at the gift of the English, who would tire of subsidising government north of the Border and finally realise that they had allowed themsevles to be ruled by “a bunch of chippy Scots” for so long.

Ferguson who is professor History at Harvard University in the US said: "My sense of this is that independencce will come, but it is a good example of that old adage 'Be careful what you wish for – you may get it'.

"I am always struck when I come back here how very English the popular culture is, and in that sense how bogus the claim to a distinct national identity is. This is not a foreign country: this is north Britain. That is the great irony. We are in fact more culturally homogenous in the British Isles than at any time in our history. And just at that moment there is going to be political fragmentation.

Ferguson, 43 was in Edinburgh to promote his book The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred, which in part calls attention to the bloody consequences of ethnic disintegration in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. But he said that he was not apprehensive about future conflict between England and Scotland because national hatreds had burnt out in struggles along the border centuries ago.

After having scornfully compared Scotland last year to Belarus "when it comes to just about everything", Ferguson unveiled a new but duller model for the country's independent future.

"I don't think it will end in tears – it will end in yawns. Suddenly the Scots will discover what it's like to be Denmark," he said. Ferguson argued that the impetus for constitutional change in Britain would be provided by English nationalism. which so far had been the "great absentee" in the independence story. The English were still not as chippy as nationalists tended to be, he said.

"My sense is that sooner or later probably rather against their own wishes the Scots will find themselves truly independent. And that will be beause English nationalism finally takes on a concrete form.

"The Scots, who have mastered chippiness and turned it into a source of power so that they have governed the English while at the same time being chippy – finally have their bluff called and the English say, 'Actually come to think of it, this is rather expensive. Goodbye'," he said.

He did however acknowledge that thre were signs of economic green shoots in Scotland. Entrepeneurial activity was rising, while the belief that it was the state's job to shore up failing industries was crumbling.

He even praised Alex Salmond, the first minister,, for "trying to learn intelligently" from other samll countries in Europe.

"Independence is a wonderful thing to sing about at Murrayfield after a few pints but is a much harder thing to deliver in practice on Monday morning when suddenly you have a yawning fiscal deficit. I sense a rather advisable caution on his part as they frantically try to work out how on earth they could balance the books."

But Ferguson added: "I speak with caution here, there is nothing more odious than the expatriate who comes back and starts to lecture those who stayed at home about how they should live."

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Legal and indecent tale of revenge

The Times Scotland, November 27, 2007

A maverick lawyer who went on hunger strike after she was wrongly struck off for dishonesty by the Law Society of Scotland has exacted revenge by writing a steamy work of romantic fiction about sexual antics within Edinburgh’s legal establishment.

Maria Thomson and her husband Gordon achieved notoriety as motorbiking solicitors, who drove their Harley Davidson to work and started the day to the tune of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best. To boost their radical image they established ‘law cafes’ to break down barriers with their clients, or ‘friends’ as they liked to call them.

However, the couple fell from grace when they were found guilty of the misuse of legal aid by the Scottish Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. The Thomsons lost their home, sold their cars and were forced to the brink of bankruptcy, before they cleared their names of dishonesty on appeal in 2001.

Over that period Mrs Thomson spent 10 days on hunger strike outside the Law Society of Scotland’s headquarters in Drumsheugh Gardens. She has since worked as a hypnotherapist and a physiotherapist before embarking on a full time career as a novelist.

Revenge said Mrs Thomson was in her mind when she began writing Dark Angels.

“It was really enjoyable, a cathartic experience. It’s working title was Child of Vengeance. In the end if was a kind of therapy. You write best about what you know and the fantastic thing is, [my heroine] Brodie McCLennan always wins. Which I didn’t – but then he who laughs last, laughs longest.”

That said, thee book bears the imprint “any resemblance to actual persons .. is entirely coincidental”.

Dark Angels, published under the pseudonym Grace Monroe, is the first in a four-book sequence featuring a feisty female lawyer with a motorbike who battles the sexism of the legal establishment and refuses to accept its privileged codes. The book is said to have caused consternation within the law society.

It opens with the murder of “Lord Arbuthnot of Broxden, Lord President of the Court of Session … the highest Law Lord in Scotland” who has just left a public toilet frequented by “cottagers” when he is slain by Kailash Coutts “the most notorious dominatrix” in Edinburgh.

Coutts, the reader discovers, already has form. She was pictured on the front page of the Sun with the senior partner of one of Edinburgh’s oldest legal practices, “trussed up like and turkey” after paying her “to inject him with water until his testicles swelled up like footballs”.

As the novel rushes along, the reader is overwhelmed by the depictions of a legal world which is secretive and old fashioned in public life, but outrageously debauched behind closed doors.

“To preserve my sanity over the years I’ve had to do lots of things tongue in cheek, but it’s really very close to the truth,” said Mrs Thomson, 46, a mother of four. “ The recent stuff that has come out about the judiciary and solicitors really proves that. When it strayed too close, my editor red-penned it.”

The author cited the cases of two prominent legal figures – Julian Danskin and former Sheriff Hugh Neilson - who had recently become embroiled in sex scandals as proof that the spirit of her book was essentially correct.

Danskin, the former chairman of East Fife football club, was convicted in 1999 of abusing members of the Boys Brigade Company of which he was captain, and served nine months in prison. “He was dismissed by his bowling club long before the Law Society took any action against him,” said Mrs Thomson.

Neilson quit after he was picked up by police at a sauna in Glasgow in 2004. Wearing a towel, he told officers he was only there “to have a shave”. “I laughed and I laughed when I heard that,” said Mrs Thomson.

Dark Angels is published by Avon – which bills itself as “Real Reads for Real Women” – but is “more hardcore” than Mills & Boon said the author, who has worked with an editor, Linda Watson-Brown.

The racier writing of romantic fiction breaks through occasionally, such as Brodie’s encounter with Somerled Buchanan, a scion of one of Scotland’s oldest families: “Opening his shirt, I ran my hands down his chest, the small hairs catching on my fingers.”

Even robing for court is described in a way which the more masculine barristers might not recognise: “The black cotton felt heavy and warm as I pulled its voluminous warmth around my shoulders.”

The Law Society refused to comment on the book, though a spokesman said it was unlikely that members would attend an author’s reading in Edinburgh tonight.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Funny old game

A sports news story which runs nationally in the Times. Written in a heck of a hurry, because, unlike most other football writers I had to dash off to a meeting with a small squad of professors and a former government economist. The rush produced a couple of mistakes, and that familiar feeling, when you sit bolt upright in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and exclaim, 'It wasn't Everton it was Manchester City.' Bummer. Hit the link below to read the story.

Owen goal for Burnley

Monday, 19 November 2007

Fuel Fighters

IF IT wasn't for his decidedly civilian demeanour - the big belly and the baggy trousers - you might take Duncan McCracken for an army general, surrounded by his aides-de-camp as he monitors the progress of a campaign from the safety of company headquarters. Above his head, on the wall, a vast satellite screen shows the deployment of his vehicles. At Greenock, one is marked by a red rectangle, while to the east in Bonnybridge there are three green shapes edging down a single street. Further south on this electronic map, many more trucks are visible, scattered along the highways of the north of England. Duncan moves his cursor over a green mark which shows a driver heading for Winsford in Cheshire.

"If you hover over Lawrence, you can see his speed," he announces, rapping out a series of statistics. "Fifty mph. He's done 576 miles in two days. Only 62 miles have been without a load. Not bad."

Comparisons with military operations are not out of place here. Sandy McCracken and Son may be just another "typical Scottish hauler", with Duncan as its operations director, but like many in the road transport industry, its troops see themselves engaged in a battle. Their objective? To persuade an unyielding government to reduce the duty on fuel as costs soar and to impose a pricing formula that will enable hauliers to survive. Passions are running high.

Reportage from the frontline on the UK's fuel dispute, from the Sunday Herald. For the bigger picture go to:

Fuel fighters

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Hell on Channel 17

It is undoubtedly a TV first. Live and exclusive to Sky Sports One: experience purgatory on a Saturday night. Dante would have appreciated this one.

More of the same, from Scotland on Sunday's 'Armchair analyst' column, as Scotland's football team unluckily lose to World Champions Italy, and go out of Euro 2008

Armchair analyst

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Ironing out the wrinklies

OUT in the middle of the Ponds Forge arena, Andrew Easy is fiddling with his earring as he considers whether to play a forehand with his next bowl. Money is at stake here, the possibility of international selection and Easy's position in the world rankings. The pressure is plainly beginning to tell. A big man in his late thirties, he looks unhappy and perspiration is breaking out along his brow.

In the Sheffield crowd, one of his rivals is watching, beside him a young woman. "That's Paul Foster relaxing," breathes the commentator. "And that's Pamela Wilcox his fiancee. They've been working very hard on the wedding plans ..."

Paul seems barely old enough to shave; Pamela looks like Aphrodite. With growing horror the truth dawns. Bowls players are younger than me.

A rant about the noble sport of bowls. And not before time. You can read the rest here.

Ironing out the wrinklies

Friday, 9 November 2007

I was Monty's trouble

My second encounter with General Dwight D Eisenhower in a year. 'Ike' turned up yesterday in an exhibition of the Cornelius Ryan archive, which is running for just two days at Edinburgh University. And in the transcript of Ryan's interview with the big man, which is simply pinned to the wall, Eisenhower says more about his true feelings for his British opposite number, Montgomery, that in anything previously published. Which is why the story is running nationally in the Times today. You can read it here.

Bitter rivalry of a 'dreadful' leader and a 'psychopath'

After the war, Eisenhower was gifted an apartment at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire by grateful Scots. On a mildly surreal day earlier this year, I visited the apartment with a group of Russian tour guides. Read about it here.

The Russians are coming

Thursday, 8 November 2007

How the West was won

A couple of articles below for my American friend from today's Scottish edition of the Times: how our brave tartan-tinted crimefighters helped inspire the foundation of the FBI. The pieces concentrate on one tiny element of a much wider new study of the FBI, by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, whose earlier work on the CIA got big reviews on both sides of Atlantic.

So I've gone for the token Scottish line, but then I'm selling my stories to Scotland. When I get a big commission from the New Orleans Bugle, I'll give you more about New Orleans, OK? In the meantime, if you want more, read Rhodri's book.

Crime-busting Scots who inspired the FBI

One was a New Orleans gunslinger who was destined to become the nemesis of the Ku Klux Klan. Another was a detective whose agency became embroiled in bloddy and unpopular attacks on striking workers. But both had strong Scottish ties and the exploits of Hiram Whitley and Allan Pinkerton (pictured) later inspired the foundating of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War a variety of detective organisations took shape which predated the FBI in the US and that many were led by immigrants or American-Scots, says Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a professor of history at Edinburgh University, in a new history of the FBI.

Scottish interest in crime had long been recognised in its literature, he says, pointing to generations of adventure and detective story writers who followed in the wake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan. However, his research shows an interest at a more hands-on level.

He says: "Scots tend to be well educated, literary and speak English, compared with, say, many of the Irish immigrants to the US at that time, who would have spoken Gaelic. And it could be that later on the Sherlock Holmes stories inspired them.”

Whitley, a larger than life character at 6ft 10in, is ironically the most often overlooked among American crime fighters. The son of Glaswegian émigré, he had been a gunslinger, a slave catcher and a bounty hunter who fought on both sides during the civil war, before he turned his career around by working for the government.

“He got himself hired by the Secret Service, a precursor of the FBI, and became its head. When the Department of Justice was established in 1870 with a view to achieving justice for black people, it hired the whole of the Secret Service and put them to breaking up the Ku Klux Klan,” says Jeffreys-Jones, whose previous works include an acclaimed study of the CIA.

“Whitley was well equipped to do this, because in the past he had been hunting down moonshiners [distillers of illegal whisky] in the Blue Mountains, often the very same people who rode with the Klan.”

In the later 1870s, a reaction spread from the American south against the radical policies which had given rights to black people, and right-wing historians wrote Whitley’s triumph over the Klan out of history, says Jeffreys-Jones.

After Whitley left – he went on to set up in business and founded an Opera House – the federal government had only a very weak detective facility and turned increasingly to private companies for help, and particularly to the business established by another Glaswegian, Pinkerton.

Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, whose logo is shown, achieved notoriety by infiltrating and breaking the Molly Maguires miners organisation and was later hired on 28 occasions between 1885 and 1892 by the government and often pitted against organised labour.

In 1892, in a confrontation at the Carnegie steelworks near Pittsburgh, ten strikers were shot dead by Pinkerton agents, causing outrage in America, and leading to five Congressional inquiries. The incident would lead the government gradually to abandon private detection agencies and to seek a national solution.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the Bureau of Investigation in 1908. One of its most prominent early directors, William J Burns – the son of Scottish immigrants – was acknowledged as one of the most brilliant detective of his day.

“He was proud of his Scottish descent. Burns cracked a lot of cases, but was a little bit dodgy as far as ethics were concerned,” says Jeffreys-Jones.

Burns was forced to resign in disgrace in 1924, after he became embroiled in the Tea Pot Dome oil scandal which convulsed America. He was succeeded by J Edgar Hoover, and the rest, as the academics say, is history.

The FBI: A History, by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, is published by Yale University Press

The making on an ugly myth

The FBI: A History explodes one of the most enduring myths of the last century – that Scots were deeply involved in the foundation of the racist Ku Klux Klan, which began terrorising black communities in the American south in the 1860s.

Professor Jeffreys-Jones, who studied records of the US Justice Department from the 1870s, said he found only a handful of Scots, or American Scots among the lists of arrested Klansmen.

The myth of Scots involvement was established by Thomas Dixon, whose 1905 novel The Clansman, was the inspiration for DW Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation. This early silent feature film likewise glorified the bloody exploits of the hooded criminal gangs.

“Dickson wrote in a lyrical way about how the Klansmen saved southern womanhood from carpetbaggers from the North and bad black people. The protagonists of the novel are of Scottish descent. He calculated that if his heroes were of Scottish descent, people would be sympathetic to them, and the myth grew up that way,” said Jeffreys-Jones. “It is rubbish. I looked at the records and I came across a couple of Scottish names in the Carolinas, but that is all. More of interest is the fabrication. It has entered the popular psyche, and the Dixon novel has a lot to do with that.

“Historians in America have assumed that because there was Scottish emigration to the Carolinas, the Klan was populated by Scottish immigrants and their descendents. But it is a case of coincidence, not causation.”

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Blast from the past

A few months after the launch of the website friendsreunited - which seeks to link up old school friends who have lost touch with each other - I wrote a personal piece about it for the Scotsman newspaper.

I lived in Kirkcaldy in Fife between the ages of eight and 13, and beyond the age of 15, I'd never spoken to anyone I'd known from those days. Until my article appeared. After which several former pupils and one teacher got in touch with me.

I thought about this article and those days after I'd heard the first minister Alex Salmond proclaim, among a load of saltire-waving school kids, "they don’t need any encouragement to celebrate their Scottishness." Quite right. As the only kid with an English accent in my class, I can well remember the really big Scottish celebrations. Like on 14 June 1970, after Germany knocked England out of the World Cup. They didn't need any encouragement then. I was nine, but I thought I'd died and gone to hell.

I've changed some of the names in the article which was written in 2001. You can read it in the next entry, 'Let's all meet up ..." The photo above must have been taken in 1971, and the picture below is about the same time. Since I wrote the article, friendsreunited has spawned many imitators, notably

Let's all meet up in the year ...

Manchester people by birth and outlook, my parents had taken us to live in faraway Fife when my mother took a phone call which told her, suddenly and shockingly, that her father had died. She wept (I'd never seen a grown-up cry), my father fussed and I was devastated.

My grandad, Fred Williams, had lived all his life in Hyde, and though I'd seen him infrequently in my first ten years, I loved him uncritically as only a child can. Nor did distance dull the pain of his passing, and a week or two after his death I found myself one school break-time lying flat on my back crying my eyes out.

It was then one of my tiny buddies pottered up from the playground to ask what was wrong. He listened to my bad news, sat down and soon we were both staring up at the sky, talking about heaven and the probability that my grandfather was looking down at us at that moment and smiling. My ten-year-old friend had really helped me feel better.

This sentimental image is my one clear memory of Dougie Ross. At the end of the year he moved away from Dunearn Primary School and out of my life. I was happy enough to be left with the memory but, cajoled by the people I call friends today, I logged on last week to an internet website at And there was this Ross, no longer in short trousers, but instead grown up, called Douglas and teaching in London.

One of the media phenomena of the year, friendsreunited is the most successful of a number of sites that are making the most of some people's strange desire to dig up their pasts (rival sites are and None of them are produced by the schools organisations, but instead by faceless IT people who have cleverly wrested control of the rose-tinted spectacle industry from Channel 4 and come up with a new way of making money from nostalgia.

Last week Marketing magazine reported the number of visitors to friendsreunited had doubled since July, from 542,000 unique visitors to 1.1 million in August. That made it the 29th most-visited website in the UK with visitors spending an average of 40.7 minutes there over the course of the month. That's serious traffic as any computer nerd could tell you.

It works like this. The site has a database of 22,000 schools and under each institution there is an ever-expanding list of former pupils who have signed up in search of their pasts. Many of these schmucks provide an account of their lives since leaving school, which range from the pitiful ("I am now blind but can typpe verry well so pelase get in toucj") to the plain harrowing ("Sales director of leading-edge marketing company. Drive Jaguar. Married to Sally, three kids").

To get full use of the service you'll have to register for a fiver - allegedly to discourage unsolicited e-mails and "spam" - and the evidence of your eyes will tell you that thousands of people are handing over their money. Someone, somewhere, probably with big thick glasses and precious few social graces, is making a heap of money.

For the well-rounded but curious punter the site is like a bad accident: you don't want to look, but you just can't avert your gaze. Through endless school noticeboards, it is a storehouse of semi-literate sentimentality and the chillingly mundane. It acts both as a repository of the saddest people you ever knew and as a place for bigheads to brag about their successful careers in IT.

The worst offenders? Possibly those who, in their mid-forties, refer to themselves by an old nickname to try to encourage communication from others, long gone from their lives. Thus one 41-year-old former pupil of a minor public school details herself "Linda Rankine (Skunk)"; from another we find "Mark Rhodes (Cecil)". How long did these people take to live down those nicknames only to paint them up in public view again?

Add to them the people whose lives you don't want to share. "Worked for Braithwaites' Prime Meat for the past 20 yrs. Started as a van boy now I'm the buyer." If you think that's a pretty tragic life, think again, for our subscriber adds breezily: "Can't complain". Or there's this: "Working in telecoms, Bristol-based and still playing the organ". Good for you, mate. Now get a life.

Then there are the sad boys, the ones studying physics you used to walk past at school who want to tell you how successful they've become. There are thousands of them out there justifying dismal existences - but behind the certitude of their CVs you sense a howling loneliness. "Living in Leicestershire with wife Clare and three children (ages 11,13,15). Following a degree in Economics and Economic History at Bristol Univ qualified as an accountant. Now working in Essex as commercial director for a private company engaged in retailing. Leisure pursuits are rugby (as coach and referee) and tennis." Or take David Toole from one of my old secondary schools: "I have my own textile business." Yes, but you're still called Toole.

Strikingly absent among this human detritus are people who live productive lives in the midst of healthy communities. Tinkers, tailors, soldiers and sailors are hard to find, or anyone else making something useful for the common good. Similarly, opinion formers, cabinet ministers, broadcasters or the otherwise rich and famous have not taken time to sign up here. At Morrison's Academy, for example, there is no entry for: "Ewan McGregor (Shorty). Just finished making out with Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge (and yes she Can-Can!)"

But at least at the same school we find one of the shafts of humour which are the site's redeeming feature. Rodney Munch ("Muncher") informs his pals that, after a career in Columbia with American covert ops, he is now working for Aeroflot and based in Moscow where: "I live with my partner Horst and two adopted children." If true, Muncher's invitation to the alumni dinner may get lost in the post.

In the same vein, alleged sex-changes are infrequent but funny. Michael/Michelle Graham of Annan Academy (alias "Poof" or "Girl") now lives "in leafy Tufnell Park, with a long-haired Chihuahua called Gerald". Fergus Stevenson ("Ferg") of Nairn Academy has come a long way since the class of '87. "Former research scientist at Huntingdon Life Sciences. Spend my day injecting cancer into puppies' heads. Very rewarding job. Making money to have a gender reassignment operation so that myself and Andrew Clucas can be legally married as man and wife."

At friendsreunited you can travel the length and breadth of the country to chuckle at freaks of all shapes and sizes. But when you narrow the focus and search for what's really important to you, the laughter stops and a happy memory is ruined by someone else's recollection.

For me, conkers and getting the bumps on my birthday seems an important part of the past. I don't recall the notion that one school friend of mine was "resolutely single and heterosexual" cropping up in a 1970s conversation, though nearly 30 years on, he feels his old mates should know he's "still the same guy".

And that's how it is with wee Dougie Ross. At the website he writes: "After school I went to Stirling to do economics, spent some time working in Edinburgh then went to teach in Japan. Now married with a two-year-old son." These days he might be short and bald with a beer gut and black teeth, whistling for his wife to bring him a bottle from the fridge while he gawps at the footie on the box. Alternatively the pair of them could be saintly figures, working with the street children in the east end of London, teaching life skills to make them whole again. Who knows?

In the spirit of professional nosiness I sent Dougie Ross an e-mail, care of friendsreunited. I hope Douglas Ross doesn't reply. I preferred him in shorts.

* Mike Wade lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two kids. He still plays conkers and drinks like a fish.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Waving the flag for St Andrew

The Times, Scotland, 4 November, 2007

According to legend, the appearance of a saltire in the skies over Athelstaneford in East Lothian once inspired a ragged band of Scots to defeat a mighty English army. Gripping the same emblem in his fist Alex Salmond yesterday pledged to lead his country to an equally unlikely victory, by establishing St Andrews Day as a bank holiday, despite the forces of bureaucracy ranged against him.

Surrounded by flag-waving school children, the first minister launched a St Andrews Day and Winter Festival, saying he would “lead by example” and establish 30 November as an official day off for everyone who works for the Scottish government. Other employers would quickly follow suit, he added.

However Mr Salmond’s desire to create a holiday to rival the exuberant and lucrative celebrations associated with Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day remains thwarted by legislation passed last year by the Scottish parliament.

A private member’s bill introduced by Dennis Canavan, the former independent MP for Falkirk, ended in a compromise under which banks and other organisations were permitted, but not compelled, to close on November 30. Business leaders argued successfully that the cost of a lost day’s production was too great for the country to bear.

This year, by using flexitime and by swapping holidays, government staff have been encouraged to take the day off. But Mr Salmond wanted something more formal, and said the existing “enabling” legislation would eventually achieve his goal.

“We will be looking to establish ... St Andrews day as a full holiday. We are talking to our staff about that, and then will spread it from there. We know it has to be voluntary because of the legislation, but I think it will gather pace and become a national holiday over time. We will be leading by example,” he said.

This year’s St Andrews day is seen as a prelude to a winter spectacular of events, scattered over Hogmanay and Burns Night, once a simple night of poetry and haggis eating which has been magically extended into something the government calls “the Burns season”.

The first minister predicted that business would soon see the benefits of these celebrations. “As the marketing aspect of the Winter Festival kicks in many businesses will see the commerical as well as the social advantages of celebrating St Andrew’s Day and promoting Scotland over the winter months,” he said.

Taking his cue from Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – which has twice been rained off in the last four years – Mr Salmond said these events would combine to project “Scotland the place to be over the winter months”.

Cynics will suggest that Barbados has a strong claim in that respect, particularly since questions remain over the quality of the fare on offer which is intended to kick start Scotland’s winter tourism initiative.

Travellers who favour beach bars, palm trees and water skiing may not be tempted by St Andrew’s day celebrations which include a Doric cabaret night in Aberdeen, a ceilidh in Stirling and a living history display at Culloden, as well as a “shindig” in Glasgow, and a “jig” in Edinburgh.

A flavour of the joys to come was provided by the pupils of St Margaret’s primary school in Loanhead, Midlothian, where the first minister appeared with secretary for Education, Fiona Hyslop, and the London-based Scottish singer, Sandi Thom.

Adorned in tartan ribbons, the children performed Westering Home, Mairi’s Wedding and Scotland the Brave, favourites chosen from their repertoire of Scottish songs which includes Johnny Cope, a victory celebration of the rout of the English at the battle of Prestonpans in 1745.

Mr Salmond has faced criticism from some quarters this week for using children to promote nationalist propaganda, but he dismissed these attacks.

“This is not Scottish propaganda, this is Scottish promotion. This is Scotland. The saltire doesn’t belong to the SNP it belongs to the country. As you can see the children here don’t need any encouragement to celebrate their Scottishness,” he said.

“Schools are an essential part in celebrating the national day. You would have to have the most enormously developed Scottish cringe to believe [otherwise]. It is the normal thing for people in Scotland and across the world to celebrate their nationality and to understand and respect other people’s nationality. That’s what being a young self confident Scot is all about.” he said.

The first minister also dismissed the remarks of Jeremy Paxman, the presenter of the BBC Newsnight programme, who spoke this week of his pleasure in baiting “chippy” Scottish politicians.

“You have to take these things in good part. A gentle, patronising of Jeremy is the correct way to treat him. I enjoy his humour and I hope he enjoys mine. You’ve got to be grown up and adult and not too worried about banter, that’s the way it is,” he said.

“Jeremy believes that every Scot will rise to his bait. Here’s one Salmond that won’t rise to his bait.”

Desperately seeking success

The Times, Scotland, 4 November 2007

If you are going to announce yourself as the next singing sensation with your very first song on the West End stage, you might as well think big. Alec Newman, the Glaswegian who has landed a plum part in one of London’s most hyped shows of the new season, is definitely thinking big.

In a fortnight’s time, Newman will mark his arrival as a vocalist when he is cast as Dez, the main love interest, in the world premiere of Desperately Seeking Susan, a new musical which features the songs of Blondie. He opens his account with that classic of love and desire, Picture This, immortalised in 1979 by its original singer Debbie Harry. And Harry will be in the audience watching as Newman performs. From a bed.

“The mind boggles,” Newman acknowledges with a smile as he takes time out from rehearsals at the Novello Theatre.
“But there is only one place to be singing that song isn’t there? You’d have to be between the sheets. And it’s worked into the show very well, there’s no sense of announcing ‘And now I am going to sing...”

At first sight, the show is an unlikely proposition, a remake of an inviolable piece of celluloid Americana. It was conceived four years ago by Peter Marino, a New York dancer who found himself idly wondering about pop acts who might benefit from a stage treatment. He landed on Blondie, connecting their songbook with Desperately Seeking Susan, the film which had made a movie star of Madonna.

It took a year to work up a script but after Harry enthusiastically endorsed the project, the show was on the road. It is premiering in Britain because the band’s music was first embraced here.

For Newman, 33, the role has brought a new set of challenges. It’s true that a training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art included singing lessons but nothing to compare with the intense regime deployed by Desperately Seeking Susan’s musical director, Matt Brind.

“It’s unbelievable. I have been getting what I can only assume are opera classes from him,” says Newman. “The school of thought is ‘the better the singer, the better it will be on the night’. It is a challenge, but it’s the classic thing – it’s good to stretch yourself and this is a stretch.”

Steeped in the music of the 1970s and 1980s Newman was a prime candidate for his role. His father, Sandy Newman, has been lead and singer with The Marmalade since 1973, and Alec grew up to a soundtrack of Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Wings. “It went in subconsciously. It dictated my musical tastes.”

If those tastes are profoundly MOR and Mid Atlantic, Newman has no doubt about his roots, even though the family quit Scotland for Berkshire when he was only four. His Scottishness was “positively bullied” into him by his father, and the end result is good, he says.

“I know where I come from, and I think that is important. Especially when you move around and live in different places,” says Newman. “I remember going into school as a teenager with this weird estuary English accent. And then one day I began insisting I was Scottish. That was me trying to asset my identity, but it ended in tears in a corner of the history class. For the other kids it was weird. Here was a guy coming in all of a sudden speaking in a Scottish accent.”

Newman has spent much of his working life in Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend. He has he starred in two long-running US TV series, Dune and Children of Dune, but more recently earned a West End run in The Soldier’s Fortune at the Young Vic.

The Scottish connections are coming good now. Earlier this year he starred in the BBC production of Reichenbach Falls, an Edinburgh thriller about a crime writer and his creations. And next year Newman is slated to play opposite James McAvoy, in Three Way Split, a comedy drama directed Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter.

For now, the music of the 1970s and 1980s are his head, and Newman’s mind is turning to new possibilities.

“I found myself on the bus the other day with the Ipod listening to old Marmalade, the last big album, Heartbreaker. I thought ‘these are great songs’.

“It was like the musical, I was listening to a bit of the 80s, but I just hadn’t thought of my old man as an 80s thing before. Then I began thinking, ‘I wonder how you could cobble these songs into a musical?’ Because he owns them all and it would be cheap. It made me appreciate my dad’s work. I was quite something, sitting there on the bus, staring out of the window, listening to Heartbreaker.”

Marmalade: The Musical. We have been warned.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

What's wrong with Edinburgh?

Two posts below about some of the changes which are happening to Edinburgh, one of the world's most beautiful capital cities. The first is an interview with Terry Farrell, a world-renowned architect who was appointed design champion by Edinburgh City Council three years ago, to help them develop a vision for city. As you can read, Farrell is not impressed with the mentality of many of Edinburgh's civic leaders, and sees failings in both the public and private sectors which are in grave danger of damaging the city. The second piece itemises recent work by Allan Murray Architects who are involved in a large number of new building projects in the city centre. These two articles appeared as a double page spread in The Times Scottish edition last month.

Murray responded to these articles with an essay of his own in Prospect magazine, which is dedicated to Scottish architecture. If anyone can supply a reference, I would like to link to it from this website.

City at risk from the forces of lethargy

It was the city “that Paris ought to be” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, a place so beautiful that George Eliot thought she “had waked in Utopia”. But now Edinburgh has been subjected to a damaging analysis by its own architectural supremo, Sir Terry Farrell. He says it in “dire need of regeneration”, gripped by “the forces of lethargy” and in danger of becoming “second rate”.

Farrell was appointed design champion in 2004 by the City of Edinburgh Council, but after three years of mounting frustration in the role, he has rounded on the council, attacking its leaders for their lack of vision, its “atrophied” planning process and a prevailing complacency which could “damage” the city.

His comments come as Edinburgh embarks on the most far-reaching building programme since the New Town was commissioned in the late 18th century. This will see the creation of a new seafront development in Leith, the rebuilding of the reviled St James shopping centre and the development of areas around Haymarket and Waverley Stations. It also includes new building on three sites at the heart of the Old Town which could have a dramatic impact on the city’s traditional architecture.

Farrell had not even been shown the plans for Caltongate, one of the most controversial of the Old Town proposals, but said he was dismayed by the almost every aspect of the council’s moribund approach to planning. This he contrasted with the dynamism of Manchester and the Medway towns in Kent, where local authorities and business leaders had combined to retivalise failing urban centres.

“Edinburgh is a town which has dire need of regeneration. But nobody believes it – because there is a fantastic festival and the world heritage site is in the middle,” said Farrell. “There’s no-one beginning to think that they even need a vision. Not just at officer level – it’s very apparent there – but also in the elected leaders. There is no belief that they need do anything other than sit back. I despair of Edinburgh recognising that city making, which is the greatest tradition in Edinburgh, is ongoing.

“Towns on their knees like Manchester after the IRA bomb, or Medway after the royal naval dockyards closed, can see it. They are in there playing the bigger game. Here I can’t make any headway.”

Visionary city making and wealth creation would only come through proactive planning said Farrell, but the Edinburgh system works in the opposite way, devolving big projects to private developers who sought approval for their plans through the council’s development control department.

This entirely reactive process encourages “shooting and sniping” he said. Changes in full-time personnel and in the political leadership of the council were unlikely to improve the situation, particularly as the authority faces a £14million deficit this year.

The last Labour administration approved several big projects by the architect Allan Murray. While Farrell had no criticism of Murray he said that proactive planning would attract architects of the highest calibre.

Farrell added that £600m tram system adopted by the council had likewise been selected with little consideration of its visual impact. Its carriages require raised platforms and intrusive safety poles. “If you do it wrong, it will be detrimental,” he said.

When he embarked on his unpaid role as design champion, Farrell’s ambition was to help Edinburgh “get its act together,” he said. “Now it’s in danger of becoming a bit of a failure. The impediments to getting things done in a local authority set-up are major. One is up against the forces of lethargy. They are so great. You need a city leader, you need chief officers, a supportive council – it’s like Tony Blair turning Labour round, for good or ill – you need that kind of will and a group of people behind it. Edinburgh needs that.”

If Farrell had his way, Princes St would exploit its position as “the best urban promenade in the world”, abandon its attempt to compete with out-of-town shopping centres, and retain substantial retail only at its east end. Pavements should be wider, al fresco dining encouraged and apartments and boutique hotels should flow into upper floors currently used for storage by chain stores.

Moira Tasker of the Cockburn Association – the Edinburgh Civic Trust – welcomed Sir Terry’s intervention. “There must be more coherence, vision and leadership, and less short-termism,” she said.

Farrell added that often only a crisis provoked civic leaders to take city-making seriously. “Manchester had the bomb. Then they had to do something,” he said. “What will make Edinburgh people feel they’ve got to do something?”

A spokesman for the council said: “Sir Terry’s appointment indicated that the council was passionate about design and determined to secure the highest standards in design for an international capital city with World Heritage status.”

Man whose vision will dominate Edinburgh

Allan Murray’s work is not yet cherished like some of his illustrious predecessors in Edinburgh, but soon it will dominate some of the city’s most beautiful and famous streets.

Murray cut his teeth as an architect in America, returning to Scotland to establish a private practise in 1992. He has since put his stamp on a series of very visible and potentially controversial projects many within the area designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

It is Murray’s vision which will raise a new hotel – The Bridge – high on the Royal Mile, on the site of the old Lothian Regional Council offices. And it is Murray, who, with his plans for the Cowgate Bridge site – cleared by fire in 2002 – will create “a vibrant new city district”.

He is also the lead architect on the £300 million Caltongate development that requires the demolition of two listed buildings. These proposals have outraged conservation groups and residents and the project has been referred back to planning.

His practice handles an extraordinary volume of work. His buildings dominate Leith Street and Greenside Place. His masterplan gave the city the plate-glass façade of the Omni Centre and he designed the adjacent Calton Square offices. Recently he was appointed to prepare designs for a new St James centre and has planning permission for offices on the site opposite. Between 2002 and 2004 he completed the Tun on Holyrood Road, the adjacent clock tower and the Cowgate Nursery.

The practice does not confine itself to the city centre. It has completed three corporate buildings on the Edinburgh Park estate, with a combined value of more than £25m, for New Edinburgh, a joint venture between the Miller Group and the city council. He is masterplanning the re-generation of a 32-hectare site in Fountainbridge and in Leith, Murray has designed phases one and two of Coalhill., for the developer Buredi.

With commendable chutzpah, he announced that the dome on the top of his South Bridge Building is inspired by the nearby Old College, designed by Robert Adam, Edinburgh’s great architect of the Enlightenment. Who knows, in 200 years, designers might be erecting plate glass walls in homage to Murray?

Saturday, 27 October 2007

For your eyes only

How newspapers work (i)

Wandering round the City Art Centre as the centenary exhibition for Edinburgh College of Art was being installed this week, I saw a very familiar picture hanging on the wall, a young, naked Sean Connery painted by Al Fairweather. I'd seen prints of it before though never the thing itself, but there was a distinct impression of being whisked past it by my hosts. "Please don't mention that - it's such an old story," said the folks from the college. "I know, but the news editor will love it," I bleated.

And he did. I bigged it up for Sean as much as I could when I filed my copy but not enough for the news editor. He bigged it up a bit more and thus inserted a mistake, which you'll notice if you click on the link below.

Sir Sean

But I was right, and the folks at the college were wrong. The story ran nationally in The Times, was picked up by most other British nationals, was on the front page of Yahoo, and was published in India and America, among other places. Type the words 'Sean Connery' into blogger search now and you'll find the painting all over the place. And it all started with me. Still, that was not enough for the Scottish editor of The Times who was sore pissed off about the mistake (as was I). On the morning of the edition, drawing himself up to his full height, he declared icily: "That's not a towel, it's a codpiece." I couldn't deny it. Dear reader, how that codpiece stung.

How newspapers work (ii)

The foreign editor of Scotland on Sunday calls. "Can you write a profile of Pakistan's prime minister-in-waiting?" Now, the time was when foreign desks were paying stringers in every major city of the world to write this stuff, or using their own in-house team of experts to cook up reams of copy. But in these days of budget cuts and downsizing, at last they come begging to me for help. Aye, the Bhutto's on the other foot now, innit?

Benazir's return

As well as hitting the links for Sir Sean and for Benazir, do read the two pieces which are below this. One is with the crime writer Ian Rankin, and there is interesting stuff there about his debt to William McIlvanney. The other is a very good story about a world famous modernist building, hidden away on a country estate near Helensburgh. The two architects, Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein are both remarkable and delightful men. Isi in particular has an extraordinary life story, part of which I wrote about earlier this year. You can read that if you click We fled Hitler. The piece was written to co-incide with a play so the first couple of paragraphs relate to that, but if you scroll down you can find some very moving accounts from Isi and two other survivors who fled Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport.

We fled Hitler