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

'Finest modernist building' saved

A masterpiece of modern architecture which has been left to rot for more than 25 years could soon be transformed into a “very interesting, weird” hotel, if an offer to buy the site is accepted by the Catholic Church. St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, the first postwar building in Scotland to be grade ‘A’ listed, was completed by Andy McMillan and Isi Metzstein of the Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia in 1966. However, 15 years later, a structure dubbed “the finest modernist work in Scotland” was abandoned and the debate over its future has raged ever since.

Now the Manchester-based development company Urban Splash – which has made its name by regenerating some of most neglected and challenging sites in the north of England – has offered to purchase the seminary from the church.

The Archdiocese of Glasgow confirmed yesterday that it had received an offer and though Urban Splash would not be drawn on the details of its proposals, it is understood that senior staff favour conversion into an hotel.

The company is currently engaged in the £7.3m restoration of Morecambe’s Midland Hotel, a magnificent art deco building which had, like St Peter’s, fallen into decay. A new business, Urban Splash Hotels, has been founded to run the operation which opens in Spring and a second spectacular venue in Argyll and Bute is seen as a natural complement.

“I could imagine it being a very interesting, weird kind of hotel, not anything like a Holiday Inn,” said Mr Metzstein, who retired from private practice in 1987, but continued to teach at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. “If they imposed a standard hotel, it wouldn’t interest me at all. But if they conserve the essence of the building and the quality of the light, then I would be very interested.”

Mr Metzstein added that he regarded St Peter’s as “part of a life’s work” and said he regretted that it had been allowed to decay. But he warned that the seminary would make an unusual hotel.

“A building like that is a unique opportunity for an architect to say something beyond the utilitarian. It wasn’t designed to be adapted, it was designed to live forever,” he said. “It has a particular quality which sets the limitations on what you could possibly do with a building like that. It will not be easy. You will have to sacrifice some element of comfort if you want to turn it into an hotel.”

St Peter’s is regarded by enthusiasts as one of the most complete examples of the late modern movement in Britain, and contributed towards Gillespie, Kidd and Coia receiving the RIBA Gold Medal in 1969.

However, the outcome of the Second Vatican Council sealed St. Peter’s fate before it was even completed. The church decided that priests were bettered trained in the community than at remote seminaries, and students from St Peter’s were dispersed into Scotland’s towns and cities as the process of decay set in at Cardross.

Little more than a year ago, campaigners hoping to restore the seminary were in despair. Demolition had been mooted and a planning application to develop 29 houses on adjacent land had been lodged by the Archdiocese which would have generated enough money only to save the building only as a “consolidated ruin.”

But in June when St Peter’s was listed by the World Monuments Fund, a global organisation that seeks to protect the 100 most vulnerable cultural heritage sites in the world. Its citation stated that the seminary was “spacious and filled with light” and “in its state of severe decay it still has an evocative and powerful visual impact.”

Now a conservation assessment funded by Historic Scotland is being prepared by Avanti Architects for the Archdiocese. A first draft is understood to encourage the sympathetic restoration of the building. The final report is due to be published in December. One insider said: “A window is opening at last.”

Urban Splash’s coincides with a retrospective exhibition of MacMillan and Metzstein’s work at the Lighthouse in Glasgow.

Mr Metzstein said he had never been asked to consider alternative uses for the building, but suggested that if not developed as a hotel it could become music centre for young people or “a mini-conference centre” for scientists or artists to exchange ideas. “It could be a kind of retreat for very talented people, not double glazing salesmen,” he said.
* Gillespie Kidd & Coia, from 3 November, The Lighthouse, Glasgow

Inspector Rebus comes home

Just months after he shuffled off into retirement, the life and times of Inspector John Rebus are to be celebrated at the Edinburgh institution which laid the foundations of his tormented career. But in a twist worthy of a whodunnit, the drink-sodden detective will not be found at his accustomed haunts, St Leonard’s police station or even the Oxford Bar, but at the National Library of Scotland where this fictional policeman was originally created.

Launching the exhibition Crime Scene Edinburgh, Ian Rankin revealed that Rebus emerged on to the page at the library in the mid 1980s, when as a postgraduate student, the writer was supposed to be completing a doctorate on Muriel Spark.

With research funding behind him, Rankin said that he had been presented with an opportunity too good to miss. “I thought: ‘What would Muriel Spark want? A thesis which isn’t read by anybody? Or would she like me to try and be a writer?’ So I did enough of the thesis so they couldn’t kick me out and managed to write novels as well,” he said.

Among items loaned from Rankin’s personal collection, the exhibition features manuscript pages of his still unfinished thesis and his “most precious possession” a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, signed by Dame Muriel on the only occasion the two authors met.

Rankin’s first completed work was Summer Rights which he described as a black comedy set in a Highland hotel, “featuring a one-legged, schizophrenic librarian called Janine”. It was turned down by the publishers Gollancz. He followed up with the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which was published 20 years ago. The book’s denouement is worked out in the tunnels under the National Library building and in Edinburgh Central Library which is almost directly opposite on the city’s George IV Bridge.

Crime Scene Edinburgh celebrates the author and his creation and draws out literary and other connections which influenced the Rebus series. Some items highlight macabre aspects of Edinburgh’s past, such as a note book made from the skin of the murderer William Burke, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons. Others detail the musical references in the books.

A display of Tartan Noir crime fiction indicates Scottish authors who have been influenced by Rankin and who have influenced him It includes William McIlvanney’s 1977 novel Laidlaw, the first of three to feature a misanthropic detective with a drink problem.

“McIlvanney was an influence, definitely, in the early days,” said Rankin. “He was a ‘proper’ writer, a literary author who had turned to the crime novel and written Laidlaw. I remember going up to him at the Edinburgh book festival in 1985 and saying, ‘Mr McIlvanney, I’m writing a crime novel that’s a bit like Laidlaw, but set in Edinburgh.’ I gave him a paperback of Laidlaw and he wrote ‘Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw’. I still have that.

“I met him last year at the festival. I got [McIlvanney’s 2006 novel] Weekend signed by him, and he said, ‘The Edinburgh Laidlaw done good.’”

Rankin, 47, is currently working on the script of a comic book and a libretto for Scottish Opera, and intends to “beef up” a serial he wrote for the New York Times and publish it as a novel next autumn. The story, based around an art robbery in Edinburgh features neither Rebus nor his assistant, Siobhan Clarke.

The author said he remained undecided about continuing his Rebus series, which was written in real-time, and apparently concluded this summer with the publication of the 17th novel, Exit Music when his fictional hero reached the retirement age of 60.

“Next summer I will be able to take a breather or sit down and start to think about whether I want to do a book with Siobhan, or do I want to try and bring Rebus back. By then I might have discovered I have nothing new to say about him,” he said. In the meantime, he joked, he had been receiving hate mail from serving police officers for suggesting that the retirement age should be raised to enable his creation to continue in his job.

Rankin scotched a suggestion the National Library display should become permanent. “There is a permanent museum. It’s called the Oxford Bar,” he said.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

How football ruined the art of conversation

A burly man in the crush of people packed into Mather’s Bar in Edinburgh is swearing at the top of his voice. He is ugly with anger and aggression but no-one bats an eye or takes offence. All the other men keep their heads tilted up at towards the television screens around the walls, groaning or cheering as the action changes.

It is a scene familiar to thousands of people who watched the football match between Scotland and Ukraine in a bar on Saturday. But while most enjoyed Scotland’s win and the craic that came with it, there is growing evidence that behaviour in pubs is changing, and that a never-ending stream of sport on TV is destroying the charm of traditional bars and killing the art of conversation.

For the author William McIlvanney, a television in a bar is like “an alien guest”. No-one will speak in front of it.

“Pubs were always talking shops,” said McIlvanney, who lived for a year in Canada. “The thing I missed was the ability to go in and stand in a bar like a Bedouin tribesman around an oasis and just discuss the news of the moment and way things are. It is crucial that people have a place where they exchange these things, and just talk about them.”

McIlvanney equates many of today’s bars with discos and nightclubs, where the music is so loud, conversation becomes impossible. “If Oscar Wilde spent his life there, no one would have known he was witty.”

Tourist guide books still lionise the best pubs for the pleasant hum of voices, but these places are now the exception rather than the rule. Multi-channel television sets can now be found in establishments from Thurso to Coldstream, offering live football virtually every night of the week. And unlike England, where traditional public houses are separated into Lounge and Public spaces, and TV free areas are common, Scottish bars are often single rooms, dominated by multiple screens.

You cannot avoid them in some of Edinburgh’s magnificent Victorian palace pubs like Bennett’s at Tollcross or the Kenilworth on Rose Street, where there are four in one room. Inside Glasgow’s most famous meeting place, the Horseshoe, television will inevitably draw your eye, because there is a screen on every gantry.

“Good beer and good conversation are the essence of a good pub. Now you just get people gawping at the screen. It’s so sad really,” said Michael Slaughter, the author of Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs.

Mr Slaughter expressed sympathy for landlords and bar managers. Under pressure from the smoking ban and from cut-price alcohol in the supermarkets, bars have to offer customers other incentives. Live sport provides an alternative to drinking at home and appeals to younger generation of drinkers. But the consequences are noted with varying levels of alarm by academics and members of the licensed trade.

Paddy O’Donnell, professor of psychology at Glasgow University, has no doubt that prevalence of the television in bars has not only destroyed conversation, but also led to more drunkenness and aggression.

“The pubs have got into a habit of providing TV, turning up the volume and just shoveling drink,” said Prof O’Donnell. “They often restrict seating areas as well, which again cuts down the possibility of conversation

“You used to have things like darts team and pub quizzes. Old guys and young guys, a mixing of generations which tends to have a dampening effect on male aggression. The loss of older males has probably been a bad thing.”

Sociolinguists stress that the television can have beneficial effects, allowing people to share in experiences like Saturday’s football match or in big news stories, which in turn makes conversation easier. But they also compare its impact with the effects of mobile phones and MP3 players, which have changed they way people speak to each other, and altered the content of conversation.

Dave Waterson, the chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said he had seen these trends at work outside the pub – groups of young men playing golf together, but listening to their Ipods, rather than talking. Their lack of conversational skills are just as evident in the bar, he added.

“The sociability, the banter between people is diminishing,” said Mr Waterson. “I’ve worked in pubs where young people have come in, and when you say hello from the bar, they get a fright. Because nobody ever says anything to them.”

For Mr McIlvanney, the decline of conversation in the pub is part of a wider decline of “verbal culture” , though Prof O’Donnell is less pessimistic.

“People will always find something to talk about and there is no is no evidence that gossip has declined,” he said. “Although pubs have suffered a decline in conversation, fewer people go to pubs now. In the last 10 years or so there has been a huge growth in coffee houses. Many older people are probably going to Starbucks for a proper chat.”

A shorter version of this article appeared in Monday's Times. The pic I've lifted from The Scottish Patient, which is Kevin Williamson's excellent blog, detailing the ups and downs of his life following deserving causes - Hibernian FC and the Scottish Socialist Party. You can check it out here The Scottish Patient

Book review: People's Prince of Darkness

CHARMING, energetic and once universally loved for his brilliance in front of a TV camera, Adam Lang is a former British prime minister whose world is falling apart. Terrorist bombs are going off in London and he is holed up in a Martha's Vineyard mansion with his brainy wife Ruth and a bevy of secretaries and secret service men, fearing he is about to indicted for war crimes.

You could hardly makes this stuff up, but Robert Harris claims he has. Probably the least believable thing in his new thriller The Ghost is its disclaimer - "any resemblance to persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental". Whether it is Adam Lang/Tony Blair or Ruth/Cherie you won't get the image of real life doppelgangers out of your head anywhere in this novel, even when the narrator finds himself "staring into the surprisingly deep and shadowy valley of [Ruth's] cleavage."

I was asked last Wednesday to review Robert Harris's new thriller The Ghost, read the book overnight and delivered the copy at midday Thursday. Luckily Harris's publishers used a big font and large line spaces.

Read the rest at: People's prince of darkness

Another mountain to climb

THE view from the summit of El Capitan rewards those climbers foolhardy enough to defy death and inch up its sheer rock wall. A four-day climb will take them to its peak, 1,000 metres from its base. Each morning from the safety of a harness and a 'bed' on a narrow ledge, they can marvel as the dawn breaks to reveal California's Yosemite National Park is in all its glory.

For Karen Darke, 36, who last week became the first British paraplegic climber to scale this intimidating mountain, achieving the summit was an extraordinary triumph. Fifteen years ago she was left paralysed from the chest down, when she fell 10 metres from a cliff in Aberdeenshire. Aside from some practice this summer in Scotland, El Capitan was her first climb since the dreadful day that changed her life. She calls the ascent of El Capitan "her journey into fear".

But less than a week after her achievement it is clear from Darke's halting conversation that she still has not fully come to terms with its psychological significance. "The mental side was challenging and I'm absolutely certain it was triggering all sorts of things at a subconscious level, though I'm not sure in what ways," she says.

Darke is, however, fully aware of the climb's physical consequences. She has a plaster cast on her leg, and yesterday morning she was struggling to get out of bed at her home in Inverness. During her descent of El Capitan, as she was piggy-backed down by her partner, Andy Kirkpatrick, she broke her tibia bone close to her ankle.

"I think it probably got stretched or pulled into an awkward position, but because I don't have any sensation, I don't really know," she says without the slightest note of concern. She flew into Manchester on Thursday, was checked over and treated in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on Friday, and that was that, she says. Life goes on.

This is a remarkable woman. Read more at:

Another Mountain to Climb

Alexander's trip of a lifetime

KEM Izzet and Karl Duguid (both Colchester). Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich and France). Andy Morrell (Blackpool). Forget for a moment that Graham Alexander's career as a professional has spanned nearly 20 years and taken in something over 800 games. In the just two weeks of football last month, the roll call of his opponents was enough to expose the absurd contrasts which this game can throw up.

Fourteen ridiculous days began like this. On 1 September, Alexander made his debut for Burnley at Colchester's Layer Road stadium, playing in a 3-2 win to just under 5,000 people. Then, in his very next match, Scotland's improbable victory over France was fought out at the Parc des Princes in front of 43,000 people and the £200,000 club signing marked the £18 million Ribery out of the game.

Within three days, Alexander had come back to earth with a bump. Morrell - remember the name - scored Blackpool's equaliser in a Lancashire derby. The goal came late and, for the Burnley players, a draw felt like defeat. At least by now, Alexander knows better than most that the odd reverse helps keep things in proportion.

The contrasts are vivid and the memories bright from this recent rush of excitement. After the Colchester game, Alexander remembers how his new Burnley friends mocked "the poor old man" for leaving the field early with cramp. In Paris, the sounds of his team-mates were of pure delight, following the win which propelled Scotland to the top of Group B in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

"Out there on the pitch, the result felt stunning, unbelievable," he said. "Then in the dressing room we were just looking at each other and laughing. There was that sense that you had done something amazing at Hampden - and then you'd done it all over again in Paris. We'd proved it wasn't a fluke. You get great belief from things like that."

These pieces don't come my way very often - the opportunity to interview a Burnley footballer for a Scottish newspaper. The curse of Wade struck immediately, of course, and Alexander wasn't picked for Scotland's game against the Ukraine. He is however almost certain to start tomorrow night in the match with Georgia. Two words of thanks - to the sub-editor who came up with Alexander's trip of a life time (Alexander is a bus company in these parts) and to the old geezer who helped me set up the interview.

Read the rest of the article at:

Colchester to Paris

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Crisis? What Crisis?

MY NEW pal Dave is sitting in his conservatory smiling at me as if he's got a surprise in store. He has, too, but it's not something nice like a party invitation or a late birthday present. Dave's a therapist and he's ready to dispense some pretty tough advice, because I've come to talk to him about my man problem. Or rather my supposed man problem, which obviously doesn't really exist. A midlife crisis? Me?

"The thing is, Mike, you can find all kinds of ways to postpone this stuff," says Dave - aka Professor Mearns - drawing his palms together in an attitude of prayer. "But at some point, it is probably going to hit you. You say it hasn't affected you... well, that's probably true."

In the pause that follows, it would be easy to crowbar in the words "but quite possibly not", though Dave politely forbears. "What we're talking about here is a crisis all right, an existential crisis. It often happens when things are changing sexually - testosterone dropping and so on. For some people, it's okay, no big deal. But for others, seeing themselves change physically can be very frightening."

I'll do anything for the money, even therapy. You can read the rest of my encounter with mid life crisis at:

Crisis? What Crisis?

Friday, 5 October 2007

The day we left a climber to die near the summit of Everest

The Times, October 5 2007

It will be remembered as one of the blackest moments in mountaineering history - the day when a stricken climber was left to die near the summit of Mount Everest. A team of four men elected to continue their climb rather than go to the aid of Dave Sharp, an engineer from Guisborough on Teesside, despite the fact that they knew he was still alive. It was a decision described as "pathetic" by Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to reach Everest's summit.

Now a harrowing new documentary has been produced revealing the tensions and doubts which gripped the climbers who might have saved Sharp's life. It will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. Dying for Everest focuses on the expedition of four New Zealanders, including the celebrated disabled climber Mark Inglis, who encountered Sharp on their ascent to the summit in May 2006, and passed him again, still breathing but close to death, as they descended nine hours later.

Testimony from all four men makes clear that there were divisions within the party after their first encounter with Sharp and while the experienced climbers elected to continue their trek, the relative novice among them – Wayne ‘Cowboy’ Alexander – was deeply moved by his predicament.

The group’s failure to help a dying man caused at international outcry and prompted Sir Edmund to accuse the party of sacrificing their humanity for ambition. A few hours after his first encounter with Sharp, Inglis became the first double amputee to summit Everest.

Sharp was an experienced climber who had attempted the ascent of Everest unaccompanied, and with only two bottles oxygen. His decision to strike for the summit in the afternoon of May 14 exposed him to one of the coldest nights of the short climbing season on the mountain.

When the New Zealand group first encountered Sharp at 1am the following morning they were ascending into the ‘Death Zone’ of the North Ridge to Everest’s summit. He was unconscious but sitting upright, huddled in a cave, with his breath emerging from his hooded jacket. Only Alexander appears to have been drawn towards him.

“It was incredibly uncomfortable, it was horrible. The worst thing I have seen in my life. I became transfixed,” said Alexander, who is the designer of Inglis's prosthetic legs.

“There was movement, just a small movement of the head. In something seemingly lifeless it is a huge movement because it represents life. There is a desire to be tactile to someone in such need, drawing me right to him, to a point that I wanted to touch him. But there is a dignity in death that makes it hard to touch. I said ‘God bless and rest in peace’ because I knew we were leaving.

“The people who knew about these things had seen this before and they’re qualified to make that decision. They had made it we were leaving him, we were moving on.”

A reconstructed sequence in the documentary shows Sharp, huddled in cave 300m from the summit, while the New Zealanders assess his condition before continuing their climb. One man, Mark Whetu, is heard to shout, “Hey mate, get moving.”

Despite Sharp’s evident signs of life Inglis and the ascent leader, Mark Woodward, were in no doubt that the Englishman was doomed.

“It is a hard thing to explain and it is not an easy decision to make, to go past someone like that, but that’s what it takes, these are the hard calls you sometimes have to make in mountaineering,” said Woodward. “If you are going to have an accident up there, you need to be walking, you need to be conscious to be rescued.”

The minute you die, you stop being flesh and blood and you become part off the mountain,” said Inglis who lost his legs to frostbite after being trapped for 13 days in a blizzard on Mount Cook in 1982. “You can’t be moved, you adhere to frozen rock. I felt desperately sorry for whoever it was in there. The level of frostbite was tragic.”

In the weeks following Sharp’s death controversy raged over radio messages which the party claim to have sent to their expedition organiser, Russell Brice, seeking advice about a possible rescue before they continued their climb. Brice, who operates teams of sherpas on Everest, insists he received no such messages.

“If I had received a message that David Sharp was in trouble at that time of the morning, yes maybe I could have done something. Who knows the day might have been totally different if there had been a radio call,” said Brice.

Inglis concedes that altitude sickness may have caused his mind to have played tricks on him. “From my memory I used the radio, I got a reply to move on, there is nothing that I could do to help. Now I’m not sure if it was from Russell or from someone else or whether it’s just hypoxia and it’s in your mind,” said Inglis.

At 9.30am that day, a Lebanese climber called Max Chaya encountered Sharp, whose face by then was black with frostbite. Chaya radioed for help and was told by Brice at Camp Four that for his own safety he should continue his descent. The New Zealanders heard that radio conversation and they too passed by Sharp for a second time as they continued their own journey from the summit.

Two of Brice’s sherpas, travelling with a third party then found Sharp and carried him into the sun. Sharp revived sufficiently to tell them his name with his dying words. “It took him about 25 minutes to move four steps before they put him down again. So here’s two extremely strong sherpas going ‘There’s no way we can rescue this man,'” recalled Brice.

Sharp’s body was abandoned on the mountainside. He was one of 11 climbers to die on Everest last year. However, by what Woodward described as “a twisted irony” a week after Sharp’s death, an Australian climber called Lincoln Hall survived a night on Everest.

Dying for Everest will be shown later this month at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. Its producer, James Heyward sympathised with the New Zealand group. “Your decision making process is altered at the at kind of altitude and in those circumstances. These people are humane – they are not all blinded by summit lust,” he said.

* Dying for Everest, Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, October 20.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Janet and Me

She’s got big hands, bloody big feet and a great big voice. "Hurry up," she yells, "I’m freezing me tits off."

Janet Street Porter is sitting with her Olive Oyl legs dangling over the triangulation point on the top of Edinburgh’s Blackford Hill. She’s not being rude, unkind or unpleasant, she just’s being, well, Janet Street Porter. Sort of stentorian.

Behind her, a huge panorama stretches away to Edinburgh Castle, Inchcolm and beyond to Fife, half of Scotland united in the sweep of an eye. But around her, opinion has quickly divided into love and hate, high on this hill. The photographer - the object of the tits remark - is in the former camp, he’s lapping it up; in the latter, the birds have stopped singing.

They are not alone. Wrapped in their raincoats and cowering under flat hats, the Calvinist residents of Edinburgh’s villa quarters linger warily below the summit, their morning constitutionals on hold. Even their mutts know instinctively to avoid this woman. The bravest scamper up, slobbering, but quickly retire with a whimper. "I hate dogs," Street Porter calls after a Labrador as it dives down the slope to its owner, both of them now sharing a gloomy kind of look.

That's the opening to a jolly interview I had with the journalist and British TV personality Janet Street Porter four years ago when she came to the Edinburgh festival. I had to write it fast because as soon as we came off the hill, I was right on deadline, so I hammed up the incident with the dog a bit, in the interests of speedily-achieved comic effect. Strangely enough, Street Porter repeated the insignificant dog incident in an article she later wrote for the New Statesman.

You can read my Scotsman interview and Street Porter's New Statesman column if you click on the links below.

Her and her big mouth

New Statesman Diary