Sunday, 28 December 2008

A degree in fine whine

The Scotsman, 1 May 2002

After half an hour or so of conversation, Howard Jacobson has revealed a shortlist of his dislikes. He has no time for youth culture, clubs, or conceptual art. He doesn't care for pretty, young female novelists, or for many other contemporary writers for that matter; he doesn't "do" Irish literature either. But as "the most phallocentric author currently writing in English," (we have it on the word of the Literary Review) Jacobson does at least do sex - though, perish the thought, never titillation.

"You're right," he says. "I don't 'do' anatomical. Go in any bookstore, open any book that girls would happily read on the train, and ... " He screws his face up. "It's pure filth. It's about the size of their organs and women being wet ... I'm absolutely appalled. I class myself as a very puritanical writer. I never write about that stuff, never."

Variously described as a misanthrope, a misogynist and "a snooty Pom" (this last a relic of his teaching days at university in Sydney), Jacobson, by common consent, does comedy very well. His latest book, Who's Sorry Now? is his darkest yet, its humour characteristically drawn from this unyielding, discomforting gaze at sex.

With hindsight, for this novelist, it's an unexpected outcome. Now nearly 60 ("on the cusp of middle age," he says), Jacobson once hoped to be a kind of modern Jane Austen or Henry James. But something about the world that reared him - north Manchester's huge Jewish community - made that impossible.

For years he spent his weekends trailing behind his father, a market-trader, and his evenings cosseted at home by women, while at school he discovered an oral culture which has provided material for his writing ever since.

"The greatest fun we ever had was telling stories about sex," he says, enjoying the memory. "Orations about sex. Even when the sex was going wrong and I was making a complete fool of myself, I remember thinking: 'It'll make a great story to tell the boys tomorrow.' It was the most fun we ever had - but you wouldn't have wanted the women to hear."

But if these were formative days at Stand Grammar School, Jacobson plainly believes they moulded him creatively, not psychologically. In this bike-shed braggadocio, he says, "The fools were always us. I don't think I've ever written about sex when the fool was a woman. If I ever write from a woman's point of view, it might be different."

In this respect, his latest hero, Marvin Kreitman, breaks new ground. In earlier novels, his fictional worlds have always been viewed entirely through masculine eyes. In Who's Sorry Now? women are given leave to consider, analyse and ultimately to reject the hero.

It's a painful if sentimental journey for Kreitman, the luggage baron of south London. We discover that even at the height of his passion for his wife, Hazel, he could wave her a sincerely tearful bye-bye from a Paddington platform; then, an hour later, Kreitman would be resting his head on the bosom of a woman whom he had met leaving the station. By the time the action starts in the novel, he has a wife and five mistresses.

You assume that because he's a womaniser he's bound to be ruthless, reckons Jacobson. But, in the end, the emotionally inexperienced Kreitman can't cope, while the more complete characters - the women - can make the best of things. "I like that thought," admits Jacobson. "Don't ask me if it's true, but I feel it is."

There are particular reasons why Kreitman is Jacobson's most seriously comic creation so far. With each novel, he says, he has investigated a different part of himself. This time he was alone in London reflecting on his marriage to Rosalin Sadler, which was ending after nearly 25 years. In Kreitman: "It behoved me to consider what people thought about this man." His determination affected the creative process. He held back from joke-telling "because it would work against the thing I wished to talk about, which was distress, male upset".

Like so many of his novels, it is inevitable that some reviewers will see Kreitman and Jacobson as interchangeable. It's happened before with the fictional career of peripatetic Lothario Frank Ritz in No More Mr Nice Guy, but the parallels are misleading.

"I hate the thought that one person might buy my book because they're curious about what's happened in my marriage. My private life is (a) mine and (b) has nothing to do with my novels. But I take it as proof that the writing is vivid when people are upset and think it's the real person. That's terrific."

His admirers delight in the economy of his style, the weight of each sentence, the delivery of his punch-lines. It's no surprise that he admires stand-up comedians from Bob Monkhouse to Bernard Manning (a forbidden love that brought forth scorn from his female critics) and as a teacher he developed his sense of timing: "I like to write for my voice," he says.

Yet, even at ease, in the splendid Soho flat which he shares with his partner Jenny, he can seem a fearsomely intellectual figure. At Cambridge University he was a student of FR Leavis, and was "in the front row" when his mentor launched a famous philosophical attack on CP Snow. He's still carrying the torch for Leavis's critique of mass culture (a view which connected high living standards with impoverishment of intellectual life), although he recognises "the old bastard would be appalled by what I write".

After Sydney he taught at Wolverhampton Polytechnic - the Scottish playwright Iain Heggie was one of his students - and since then he has written reams of criticism, devised and presented television series, and written entertaining and learned accounts of his Jewish roots and his love of comedy. There's also the small matter of seven novels, the last of which, The Mighty Walzer, won the Everyman Wodehouse award for comic writing.

Given his schooling, it's no surprise he deplores the new jargon, his "multicultural" critics who accuse him of an "anti-feminist" bias, or of "homophobia". That you can't dislike someone without it being described as a "phobia" is, he says, absurd.

He has a grown-up son, Conrad, by his short-lived first marriage, and is dubious about the benefits of grandparenthood - thankfully Conrad and wife are only talking about children for now, he says. Like Kreitman, Jacobson remains perplexed by the young. He's out of tune with the party people who fill Old Compton Street, and the trendy venues far beneath his top-floor flat. "Being young is not meant to be fun. All that shit the young talk about art, or club culture. When we were young, I had a rare admiration for the idea of maturity. I thought being young was bad. Other people should feel like I did. But they don't, they're too stupid to know what being young is about. That's unforgivable. We all knew the shame of being young - they don't."

So, high in his Soho loft, Jacobson bemoans the world beneath him, its anti-intellectualism, its advertising and marketing, its thrall to fashion. And now he's hitting his stride.

"People are so much more intelligent than their tastes," he moans, with a hint of a Manchester whine. "I asked a friend, 'Why are you reading that?' It was some bookstall rubbish. I said: 'If you had a conversation you'd be more intelligent than that. You'd make judgements, you have pace, subtlety, you'd have surprise. That's just what being you is like, but there you are reading a book which has none of those things. Explain to me the benefit. Why don't you read something which is as intelligent as you are?'"

But if you imagine it might hard to be one of Jacobson's friends, it must be hard to be the man himself, surrounded by all that tat. Imagine how bad he felt when some "intelligent" friends persuaded him to read Harry Potter. "They said how clever it was, full of imagination. But it's none of those things, it's none of the things they said it was. It's shit.

"What it proves is that all along we wanted nothing. Finally, someone has given it to us: no invention, no comedy, nothing."

Ironically, we might imagine that the fragrant author JK Rowling would catch the eye of a man like Marvin Kreitman. But, mercifully for Ms Rowling, Kreitman is a work of fiction.

Who's Sorry Now? by Howard Jacobson, is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Tam White, born to the Blues

The Scotsman, 16 July 2002

Everywhere he goes in Edinburgh, somebody knows Tam White, even behind his sunglasses. In the close below the Grassmarket flat where he spent his childhood, a woman stops and tells her teenage daughter: "See him, he's a great singer, he's famous." And next door in the White Hart Inn, the landlady greets White with the extravagant warmth of an old friend - even though he's been off the bevvy for 20 years.

We're revisiting his old haunts in the capital and each and every place throws up a friend or a fan. Outside the old Platform One, it's one of his stonemason buddies who greets him; at his former secondary school, the steely-faced headmistress comes to check out the group of people taking his publicity photos near the gates. She recognises Tam: "Good luck to you," she says, her mouth cracking into a smile, "I enjoy your music." "All this fame and no money," says White to no-one in particular. It's been like this for years.

At least at the Queen's Hall, Tam White will receive the recognition he deserves with his 60th birthday celebration. The show features this great blues singer with his own band, Shoestring, and then, on the same bill and for the first time in his career, at the heart of big band Power of Scotland.

It's the ideal opportunity to see an artist who's been called "one of the great European blues singers", a performer who reckons he's at the height of his powers. The critics appear to agree: The Crossing, his recent collaboration with pianist Brian Kellock, received the kinds of notice that most performers can only dream about.

If he seems the quintessential Edinburgh man, White has gigged with the greats in London and all over the world. He's played on Beale Street in Memphis, with Kellock at the Adelaide festival, and shared bills with Long John Baldry, Alexis Korner and the Animals. For six months in the mid-1960s his band, the Boston Dexters, were resident at the Pontiac Club in Putney, alongside the legendary John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, who also featured Eric Clapton in their line-up.

It's all been a fantastic buzz, he says. "It's like being in a gang, a tribe, a footballer in a team - that's what it's like in a band. You're all working together: no man is an island. Any adulation I've ever had has been down to the good fortune of working with great people. We've always had a rapport."

Music is in his blood. White's grandfather was bandmaster in Gilmerton, the mining village on Edinburgh's southern fringe, who had six sons who played in the local band. His mother, Marion, sang and Matthew, his father - "the most laid-back man I've ever known" - loved music. The pair used to cycle on a tandem at weekends up to Perth or down to Moffat, "him on the front, me at the back, singing."

It's a matter of pride that the family home was above the tavern where Burns spent his time during his last visit to Edinburgh, and you sense the songs of Burns in the moodiness of White's music. "What about Times Tougher than Tough?" he asks. "It's just the same deal as A Man's a Man for 'a That."

As a boy he took piano lessons - though he never learned to read music - and he was in the school choir. At Darroch Senior Secondary he sang tenor in the Mikado and the Beggar's Opera and, encouraged by his music teacher, auditioned with the Edinburgh Opera Company. "My teacher wanted me to join, but rock 'n' roll had just hit the streets," he says, as if no further explanation is required.

At 15 he was out of school and learning to be a stonemason. He made his musical debut in a skiffle band at Sandy Bell's, but honed his tastes for new American sounds on Lothian Road, where US servicemen hung out. "I got friendly with a couple of guys and they turned me on to Jimmy Witherspoon, so I got into blues, the jazzier side of blues. Then I got turned on to Mose Allison. He was doing all these songs with jazzy chords and good scenarios like Seventh Son, which was more interesting that: 'My baby woke up this morning'. I just kept moving on."

White moved happily into a booming Edinburgh club scene, with the Place and the Gamp club open for business on Victoria St, the Green Light Club on Gilmore Place and the Blue Door at Churchill. These were stages set for his band, the Boston Dexters. The Dexters have gone down in legend on the blues scene. These days their singles from the 1960s change hands for anything between £10 and £75, and one of their tracks, Ray Charles's I Believe to My Soul features on the EMI compilation, R&B at Abbey Road.

But the Dexters' stay in London was ultimately disastrous. Signed to Columbia, like many bands before them they were cast as "the next Merseybeats". Their single I've Got Something to Tell You, foisted on them by record company executives, was a disaster, completely at odds with their R&B style. " It blew our credibility," growls White.

There was more pushiness to endure from the entertainment business. "Decca wanted me to be the next Tom Jones. Everyone wanted me to be somebody else. I did a series for STV in the 1970s, my own show, and I ended up in a monkey suit - it was incredibly embarrassing - and doing working men's clubs, I got hooked into that, anything to make a living. And then I stopped and went back to the stonemasonry."

Later, as White set about reviving his singing career in the 1980s, he showed he had learnt his lesson, when his agent rang and asked if he would consider doing a commercial. "For a while I was walking up and down my house singing: 'Food GloriRoss food' then I thought: 'What are you doing man?' I rang my agent and told her to forget it. She said: 'But it's a lot of money.' 'I don't care, forget it.' She said: 'But Ken Russell's directing.' 'Tell Ken to fucking sing it himself then'.

"The funny thing was they made the advert with a director sitting with his back to the camera, and singers, dressed up like clowns, coming on and going: "Food ..." And then he'd shout: 'Next'. It would have ruined my image all over again."

White's return to stage and to top form began at a gig in Norway in 1982, and was swiftly followed by the reformation of the Dexters as a ten-piece band. Later, he started writing his own material and for a while in the 1980s hooked up with Boz Burrell; he also had headline gigs at Ronnie Scott's and even made a live album there. White's gravelly voice became known to millions when he sang the role of Danny McGlone for Robbie Coltrane in John Byrne's Tv classic Tutti Frutti. Coltrane was good, but an octave or two above where he should have been. "It's strange that," reckons White. "Sometimes you get big men with wee high voices."

Throw in the matter of a small acting career, including a part in Braveheart, his children, his grandchildren and a happy and enduring marriage, and you might wonder what Tam White's blues are all about, and what drives him on.

"It's just in my nature to perform, man," he answers. "I have to do it. I like the message in the music I play. Music is communication."

Tam White 60th Birthday Celebration, Queen's Hall, 26 July. Tam White's Shoestring Band, Bridge Jazz Bar, 82 South Bridge. 18-25 August.

Watch Tam White and Brian Kellock perform The Water is Wide.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

On the trail of Rankin's Rebus muse

Sunday Times 18 January 2004

These are dangerous times for shrinking violets to be out and about in Edinburgh, even in an unassuming little pub in a shadowy street near the city centre. This is the Oxford Bar, and here Ian Rankin is at work researching his 15th Inspector Rebus novel. A careless word, a gesture, a nervous habit, and you might find yourself immortalised in its pages.

When he was in his early twenties and starting out as a writer, Rankin found "everything I wanted to say about Edinburgh" in the Oxford's claustrophobic rooms and social mix -policemen, postmen and the rest who jostled together at the bar.

Two decades on, munching on a "Rebus roll" of corned beef and beetroot, he finds the place as inspirational and congenial as ever.

It's not that he sets out to monitor the behaviour of his fellow citizens, Rankin explains between mouthfuls, it just happens. The other night he was listening to two taxi drivers discussing the computerised codes they use to identify police cars and speed cameras. "Brilliant stuff," he says. "I was scribbling it down on a beer mat, maybe for the next book or maybe not. Just that bit of inside information, then if you put it in a book, every taxi driver who reads it says, "Wow, he really knows his stuff," and all you've done is listen in a pub. It's like Muriel Spark says, 'Nothing is lost to the writer'. We loiter with intent, we sit around and without knowing it we are actually picking up characters, the tics, the little personal things they do, which they don't know they're doing."

For an interviewer -like those cabbies looking askance at him with his beer mat - this watching brief can be unnerving. "It's like you with your pen," he says, "click click, click. Six months down the line I might want a character who is slightly nervy and I'll think, 'Maybe he's clicking his pen ...' You just never know where you're going to get a character from, or a trait or a one-liner or a story. I don't know what's useful until I start writing, then this repository of stuff seems to come to the surface."

It may be part of creating the perfect Rebus environment, but weaving fact and fancy like this can be a risky business. In Let It Bleed, the fire, the fug of smoke and the folk musicians in the Oxford were lovingly described as "Rebus rested his foot on the polished brass bar-rail and drank his drinks". For years afterwards regulars were chiding Rankin about that nonexistent bar-rail. "I misremembered," he shrugs. "I was living in London at the time. Make a mistake about the Oxford and I get picked up more than for any mistake about police procedures or historical inaccuracies."

In the early novels some of the Edinburgh scenes were only composites of real places. Then, Rankin says, "I decided I was making life hard on myself -why don't I write about real pubs and real police stations?" So he burnt down the fictional Great London Road copshop; Rebus moved to St Leonards police station on Edinburgh's Southside.

More changes will be required for the novel due in the autumn. Lothian and Borders police recently closed their CID operation in St Leonards and the detectives moved out; Rebus will follow suit. "You have to stay true to the changes in the city," says Rankin. "It means he'll lose a lot of people he used to work with." Rebus is "95% certain" to be assigned to the Gayfield Square station off Leith Walk, though the author has never set foot inside it. "I just need a rough idea of the layout - I could do it by talking to a cop," he adds.

Here in the Oxford, the symbiosis between the writer's pub and his pen expressed itself in the names of his characters. John Curt was the post-graduate student who worked in the bar and introduced Rankin to its nicotine-stained charms. He lends his name to the trusty pathologist of the novels, outranked in fiction as in life by Professor Gates, named after the landlord of the Oxford, John Gates.

The pub began to feature by name by the sixth novel. Harry Curran was immortalised as "Edinburgh's rudest barman" in Dead Souls. When Rankin embarked on A Question of Blood, Curran asked the author to improve his sex life, at least in his fictional persona. The result? "Siobhan noticed that Harry, the dour barman, was smiling. 'He seems unusually chipper,' she commented to Rebus. 'I think young Harry's in love'." Rankin winks across his pint: "Mission accomplished."

Real customers began to appear at the bar alongside the fictional Rebus. Leith gallery owner Muir Morrison was consulted by the detective after an art theft, and Hayden Murphy, Edinburgh's most charming Irish journalist, was identified as "the writer", his work spread over a table in the Oxford's back room. "I went over to give a serious lecture at Trinity," says Murphy, who has joined Rankin among the late morning customers, "and their introduction was: 'Hayden's main claim to fame is he appears in Set in Darkness'." The Oxford has a website devoted almost entirely to its place in the literary hall of fame.

The blurring of fact and fiction, says Rankin, helps to suspend reality. Those featured in the books don't mind because it is done without malice. True, the cops who once used to drink in the Oxford have found a new watering hole ("You're not really surprised, are you?" asks Murphy) but the author insists most people are flattered to think they might make it into the novels.

On the other hand, there are many people who mistakenly believe they have appeared in a Rebus book. "I say: 'Have I ever met you before?' 'No.' 'Well how can it be you?'"

In Knots and Crosses, Rankin recalls, there is a reporter who plainly works for The Scotsman. "He's quite sloppy -not his journalism but his personal habits, egg down his tie and everything. James Naughtie reckons it's him." The villain (described as "insane ... the most dangerous-looking man Rebus had met in his entire life") works in the public library on George IV Bridge. Rankin says: "Alan Taylor (associate editor of the Sunday Herald) thinks it's him, because he was working at the library then."

Other hardened professionals discern themselves. Thomas Richey, serving 65 years for shooting a woman dead while under the influence of LSD, wrote to Rankin from an American jail in Washington state. "He said: 'In Dead Souls, you've got a Scottish guy who's released from Walla Walla state pen and comes back to Edinburgh with a score to settle. It must be me.' He wasn't pissed off, he thought it was just a bit odd." Rankin had chosen the prison because he had visited a friend who lived near it.

In fact, these days the most dedicated fans can book a place in a Rebus novel through charity auctions. A merchant banker parted with Pounds 5,000 for a mention in A Question of Blood; Belle and Sebastian's bassist got a part in another book.

One woman handed over Pounds 200 for her cat to appear. "That was really hard work," says Rankin. "The thing was called Boethius." The first time Rankin auctioned off a fictional role, a pal of his wife's won and asked for her American friend -Fern Bogot -to have a part. "Fern Bogot?" shrieks Rankin, still incredulous. "How the hell do you get her in an Edinburgh-based book? I made her a prostitute. Fern was a bit iffy at first, but she's fine about it now."

But Rankin continues to borrow from real life. One novel was based on the case of Bible John while Rankin admits a lingering fascination with the Edinburgh World's End pub murders. "I quite like writing about unsolved crimes because it's telling the people who did it, 'Look, we've not forgotten, people are never going to forget and eventually they are going to get you'."

But he doesn't approve of those true-life crime books, which fill the shelves next to the fictional detectives. They're apt to attract some unhealthy minds, though Rankin reckons he's in the clear on that score. "I'm not worried about being obsessive," he retorts in the face of the accusation. "I'm not that obsessive."

This from a man who has just eaten a Rebus roll for breakfast.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Not all white on the night

What a party it promised to be. In June, when the Scottish government revealed plans for Homecoming Scotland, its big tourism initiative for 2009, it gleefully presented in its publicity material an image of hundreds of happy white-faced “heroes” marching off to celebrate their Scottishness.

When, six months later, the SNP administration unveiled its latest vision for next year's festivities, a late arrival had appeared among the group of party-goers. Pictured in the front ranks was a single, solitary Asian man. Apparently oblivious to the rumpus around him, he can be seen thoughtfully reading The Life of Robert Burns.

The updated image features on the cover of the new Homecoming events guide and is said by officials to represent “the diversity of modern Scotland”. Alex Salmond, the First Minister, says in the introduction: “Whether you're a Scot, you have Scots ancestry or you have a passion for our great nation, 2009 will be an exceptional year for Scotland.”

But if any government spin doctor hoped that a little bit of airbrushing might bolster their promotion, they were sadly mistaken. The move was lambasted last night as insulting tokenism by campaigners for racial equality.

More at: Token figure.

This article was followed up in most of the Scottish Sunday papers, and provoked much debate, a sample of which you can find if you scroll down to the comments here: Airbrushed into history.

The regular reader will recall that it was this very blog which first raised issues about the tone of Homecoming Scotland, and raised questions about the "heroes" image, as both VisitScotland and the Scottish Governement refer to their original piece of artwork.

Monday, 8 December 2008

"Do not forget the role of Scots in slavery"

In the bar of an Edinburgh hotel, Geoff Palmer is hooting with laughter. After decades toiling away in the drinks industry, that most masculine of trades, he is amazed to find he is suddenly something of a ladies' man.

A year ago, he gave a lecture on Scotland and the Caribbean slave trade to 2,000 women from the Church of Scotland Guild. They were enraptured; now wherever he goes, a tweedy woman will be ready to accost and tell him how wonderful he is. “There's nowhere to hide, they always find me,” he laughs.

It seems faintly ridiculous that such a engaging man should be cast as a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad. Yet Palmer has recently become a thorn in the side of the SNP administration, one of the fiercest critics of Homecoming Scotland, its £5 million tartan, golf and whisky tourism initiative for 2009 which has been aimed at people described as expatriate “affinity Scots”.

“'Affinity Scots?'” Palmer growls in disbelief. “They mean 'affinity Scots with money'. No Scot I know would use those words. Affinity means white money and this is all aimed at wealthy Americans. But you could go to Jamaica, and find as many Scottish towns as there are in Scotland: Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness. In fact, why not hold Homecoming Scotland in the Caribbean?”

Palmer, 68, was born and brought up in Jamaica, but has lived in Scotland since 1964 (“in other words, longer than Sean Connery”).

Two years ago he retired as professor of grain science at Heriot-Watt University, where in the course of a distinguished career he compiled the standard work on beer and whisky-making.

Even in retirement he still regularly advises the industry giants. “You should inform Mr Salmond that he has insulted his leading expert on whisky,” he says with mock solemnity, before subsiding into laughter.

For all his good humour, there is a gravity to his message. Palmer's quest is to make the Scottish government and VisitScotland, its tourism agency, understand that Jamaica should feature prominently in any “Homecoming” campaign, because Scotland's imprint is all over the island.

This is a moment, he says, for Scots to get to grips with an untold history, a past which still divides the world today.

His focus is slavery and its legacy, which has left most of modern Jamaica in poverty while Scotland, whatever the talk of credit crunch, still basks in the glow of prosperity.

This huge disparity is built on 150 years of the transatlantic slave trade, a period from around 1700 when Britain grew rich and Scots played a decisive role in ripping 20 million people out of Africa.

Individuals such as Henry Dundas, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and island governors like Lords Balcarras and Home organised the sea trade and administered the Caribbean.

Illustrious Scots owned the most prosperous sugar and tobacco plantations; infamous Scots were the “whippers-in” of the slaves who laboured there.

In its most benign form, you can look up the legacy in the Jamaican phonebook. There are more Grants, Reids and McFarlanes per acre on this one tiny island than in Scotland, twice as many Campbells in Kingston as there are in Edinburgh. The Afro-Caribbean heroes who adorn Jamaican banknotes have strangely familiar surnames: Bogle, Gordon and Sharp.

But you should not imagine for a moment that the ancestors of these families were named after benign protectors, he says. Thousands of Jamaicans are truly “blood Scots”, to use the ridiculous phrase which was bandied around in the early marketing of Homecoming Scotland.

“My mother has Scottish blood in her. Not because she wanted it, because it was put there,” says Palmer, whose ancestors were chattel slaves, with no right even to life. For these people, existence was inevitably nasty, brutish and short; many of their descendants still live in poverty.

After a lifetime in academia, Palmer only began lecturing regularly on Scotland and the Caribbean last year, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

At first he was dubious that Scots would respond to his story, but he has been overwhelmed by the interest. “Intelligent, educated people ask me: 'Why was I never told this?'” he says. He now has a packed roster of engagements at schools, universities and churches. On January 25, he will be delivering the address at the Lothian and Borders Police Burns Supper.

Has this anything to do with Homecoming Scotland? Shouldn't he accept that a tourism campaign can only do so much? It is not designed to be an education campaign, or an apology for the sins of the past.

He replies: “I thought this was meant to be about Robert Burns too. He was one of the world's great humanitarians, 'a Man's a Man for a' that'. What happened to a' that?”

Ironically, Burns himself was attracted by notion of emigrating to Jamaica to seek his fortune. He had already bought his ticket to sail, when at last fame and fortune arrived with his first published book and he decided to stay in Scotland.

But he was inspired by another Jamaican voyage. When the poet’s muse, Agnes McLehose – remembered as Clarinda – sailed out to the Caribbean to visit her husband, a slave master, Burns was distraught. His sweet sorrow inspired Ae Fond Kiss, arguably his greatest love long, though happily for Burns, Clarinda would soon return sent home by her angry husband, who told her he preferred “my ebony woman and my mahogany children”.

“Those mahogany children are us,” says Palmer. “We are not affinity Scots, we are much more than affinity Scots. We are people born under extremely difficult circumstances and we will not be insulted.”

He insists he is not one for apologies over the sins of the past. Instead, Palmer would like to see more financial aid from Britain and some positive interventions from Scotland to try to lift up those countries that “suffered the brunt of this awful slavery”.

He is no campaigner, but — who knows? — the furore around Homecoming Scotland could be a start.

Link to the original article in The Times.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Pub games - right or wrong?

YOU'VE GOT to hate the way TVs have transformed the pub. It doesn't matter what night of the week you roll in for a quiet pint, you'll never get any peace. Because there's always a fan of 'Ereford, 'Iston or 'Uddersfield who'll walk in and ask politely, "Would you mind switching on the box? My lads are playing tonight."

We all know what happens. Twenty minutes later, you're trying to read the paper when this same fellow is slapping you on the back, triumphantly yelling: "I told you Scroggins was lethal in the box." Just after half time, he's squaring up to you, because you looked up up from your crossword to suggest the referee was correct to give a penalty against his team. And by the end he's hurling expletives up at his crestfallen goalie, as the landlord gently pushes him towards the door. It's unbearable.

Unless of course it's your team ...

And here's an amusing comparison, between Burnley and Glenrothes

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Teacher who pulled faces struck off

A teacher who seemed to be “acting or pretending” to do her job, and pulled faces at her pupils from behind their headmistress, has become the first person to be struck off the Scottish teaching register for incompetence.

Susan Barnard, 55, from Dunning, Perthshire, had admitted incompetence while teaching at three primary schools between 2004 and 2006.

She argued at a hearing of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTC), however, that her incompetence had been temporary, brought on by a “dark period” in her life, and that she was fit again to do her job.

Until last month Mrs Barnard was teaching at Kippen Primary School, Stirlingshire, but a subcommittee of the GTC rejected her argument. Although she can apply for reinstatement in a year’s time, without references she is unlikely to work again.

More here: Teacher.

Artist's tribute to troops killed in Iraq

A powerful piece of war art, featuring more than a hundred men and women killed in Iraq since hostilities began in 2003, will be delivered into every home and office in Britain – but only if it is finally finished to the artist’s satisfaction.

Until then, Steve McQueen’s poignant work, Queen and Country, will be on show in Edinburgh. It commemorates 136 service personnel, each featured on their own individual stamps which are displayed in strips in a large oak cabinet.

Mr McQueen says he will regard the piece as incomplete until the Royal Mail issues editions of the stamps to the public.

His stance was supported by relatives of some of the dead soldiers, who attended yesterday’s opening at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. An on-line petition, with over 15,000 signitures, can be accessed from the exhibition.

The work occupies one room of the gallery, a looming presence which invites viewers to pull out drawers and examine the often-smiling faces of the dead.

The result said Diane Douglas, was an “incredibly moving” artwork. Her son, Lance Corporal Allan Douglas of the Highlanders, became the 99th British serviceman killed in Iraq when he was shot by a sniper in January 2006.

“All these young kids have died. We need something, because people forget that they are even out there. Hopefully the Post Office will come round,” said Mrs Douglas, from Aberdeen.

Mr McQueen’s multi-award winning film, Hunger, about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, has made him an international star, though he underlined his credentials as a video artist as long ago as 1999, when he won the Turner Prize

He was appointed an official war artist in 2003, but his commission in Iraq at first seemed doomed to end in frustration. Chaperoned by MoD personnel, he was unable to gather the footage he wanted. It was only after he had returned home to Amsterdam that he had his eureka moment, as he was sticking a stamp on his tax return.

“The stamp had a picture of Vincent van Gogh on it. And then it hit me - a stamp has a beautiful scale, the proportions are right, the image, it is recognizable, and then it goes out into the world, who knows where,” he said.

Like the artist, relatives of the dead men said they were neither for nor against the war, but believed the stamps would at least bring the conflict Iraq into the public eye. Margaret Thomson, from Whitburn, recalled her son, Robert, had been part of the original invasion force.

“He felt they were liberating people and when they saw the conditions that people lived in they thought, given time, they would create a better Iraq. But as the months went on, it wasn’t to be. You wouldn’t like to think after five years that it had all been for nothing,” said Mrs Thomson. Her son, Sapper Robert Thomson, was killed in an accident in Basra in January 2004, aged 22.

Carol Paterson’s son, Private Scott ‘Casper’ Kennedy, 20, was killed by a roadside bomb in June 2007.

“This is a different type of war, there’s a lot of badness to it. But it’s something that’s happened and stamps would keep it out there in front of people,” said Ms Paterson, from Dunfermline. “If they do issue the stamp, I will get a special one of my own, so I can take it with everywhere. Just now I have a picture of Scott and when I go on holiday, I can take it out and give it a kiss.”

* Queen and Country, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until February 15, 2009.

Sign the petition

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Homecoming Scotland - hype or bonanza?

To the unlikely soundtrack of Sir Sean Connery warbling a sentimental song, Alex Salmond started Homecoming Scotland, a £5 million tourism promotion aimed at expatriate Scots that celebrates golf, whisky and the life and work of Robert Burns on the 250th anniversary of his birth.

On an occasion dripping with national pride and featuring the musical talents of a phalanx of “iconic” Scottish celebrities, Mr Salmond said that he was delighted to endorse the year-long promotion, which would both excite thousands of tourists to Scotland and thumb its nose at the pessimists at home who so often talked down the best of Scotland.

The First Minister defined this upbeat tone as the “most important thing” about the Homecoming Scotland campaign, which already boasts a calendar of more than 200 events.

“Homecoming is full of people who see their glasses half full as opposed to people who see glasses half empty. What you'll see in this campaign is a victory of optimism over pessimism and folk who are prepared to say, ‘Look, my God, something really important has happened.'

It's worth going through to this link Homecoming to pick up some of the criticisms of Homecoming Scotland which are beginning to surface, not least because of the bizarre language which is being employed in this campaign.

At first, we were told that the initiative would reach out to 'heart Scots' and 'blood Scots'; now the phrase being employed is 'affinity Scots'. I wonder if VisitEngland would ever run a campaign which appealed to 'blood English' or 'affinity English'. Or perhaps it's an idea we could run past the German tourist board...

To capture the essence of contemporary, ethnically diverse Scotland, check out the image below, which is used on the cover of the main Homecoming Scotland programme.

Monday, 24 November 2008

We fled Hitler

If you scroll down, you'll find a decent piece which I wrote last year, to coincide with a play about the Kindertransport, the trains which were organised by British well-wishers to help Jewish families get their children out of Nazi Germany. Ten thousand children escaped the death camps because of this initiative, which was organised from London. A handful of these kids came to Scotland and I met three of the survivors in a flat in Glasgow's South Side on a cold afternoon last spring. The article introduces the personal testimonies, which are very moving.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Escape from hell

IN THE ten months before the outbreak of the Second World War, 10,000 children embarked on a traumatic journey from Germany. Clambering aboard sealed trains, most travelled alone and left weeping parents behind as they set off to find freedom in a strange land. These were the children of the Kindertransport, whose tearful flight to Britain ensured they cheated the gas chambers.

This week a play at the Bank of Scotland Children's International Theatre Festival will dramatise the loneliness, fear and excitement that gripped the youngsters who made this trek. But, as the play's title makes plain, The End of Everything Ever will deliver the emotional agony that followed the defeat of the Nazis, when most of the children discovered that their families were dead.

It is nearly 70 years since hundreds of these refugees, the majority of them Jewish, found homes in Scotland. Prompted by the play, three of the survivors - 84-year-old Rosa Sacharin, 79-year-old Isi Metzstein and 75-year-old Dorrith Sim - recently met up in Glasgow to share their memories. Each of them has a remarkable but very different tale to tell.

Much of what they say is about loss, but along with heartache for families who disappeared there is also defiance and courage, quick-wittedness and excitement. The emotional impact such an event had on these children is almost unimaginable. Picture the youngest of these witnesses, Sim, then aged seven, crying and clutching her favourite toy as she hugged her parents at Hamburg station in the summer of 1939. Or consider the emotions of the eldest of the three, Sacharin, who would never see her father again after he was imprisoned in 1936. Although her mother survived the war, the stress of their long separation ensured that the relationship between the two was never the same when they were finally reunited.

By contrast, every member of Metzstein's family survived. He conjures up images of delighted children running wild as he went charging around the luxury liner that carried him and his companions to freedom. But what unites all three is the experience of living though what Metzstein calls "the aberration" of Nazism. Their clear memories and articulate tongues vividly recapture Germany in the dark valley of the 1930s.

Take Metzstein, who grew up in Berlin. An intelligent boy, he was small enough to be ignored by the thugs who made everyday life a misery for the adults around him, but sharp enough to observe their brutality. "It wasn't necessary for a German to be a member of the Nazi party to go up to a Jew and pull his beard," he says in his heavy accent. "They just did. It was like kicking a dog. They did it as a kind of hobby."

Sacharin lived in the same city and was equally aware of the Nazis' viciousness. Now a sharp-eyed and assertive woman, she was equally single-minded as a youngster. With her father in jail, she decided she wanted to see the evil of Nazism with her own eyes, and went off to witness Hitler in full cry at a rally in Berlin. "We just stood there, onlookers," she remembers. "Hitler spoke - he shouted, really - and Goebbels too. The effect was electric. I don't think people can understand it unless they have been part of theatricals like that. People were mesmerised, just as I was as I stood there and listened to that harangue. Once Hitler had finished, they sang the anthem and all that rubbish while the army marched away. I was pulled along by the crowd. There were huge numbers of people, all of them hysterical because they wanted to see the Führer. They absolutely pleaded to see the Führer," she says.

"I was standing in the first row, just in front of the balcony, and then Hitler, Himmler and Goering appeared. It was unbelievable. When I looked at Hitler, I could see there was that smirk there, which said, 'I've got you where I want you'. People were going absolutely mad."

For Sim, who grew up in the town of Kassel, memories of a happy home are coloured by meetings with Nazis. She remembers walking by the Fulda river with her father. "We met a Brown Shirt and his wife and daughter. He came up to my father and said, 'My daughter wants to go in the Fulda. Your daughter will come with her.' I know now that it was very dangerous, but at the time I didn't know why my father had to say yes. We kids ended up in the water and had to be rescued. When I got home, my father told me for the first time about what it meant to be Jewish, and how we had to be very careful," she says.

The Nazi era scaled its first ghastly peak on Kristallnacht, November 8 and 9, 1938. In an widespread act of organised brutality, 1,668 synagogues and countless businesses and homes across Germany were ransacked by stormtroopers and their civilian supporters. Some 91 Jews were murdered, and in the aftermath many thousands were sent to concentration camps.

Any lingering hopes that German Jews might be able to survive the Nazi regime were obliterated. The British Jewish Refugee Committee secured a debate in the House of Commons, when it was agreed that an unspecified number of children up to the age of 17 would be admitted to the country. The first Kindertransport arrived a month after Kristallnacht, the last in September 1939.

The children were dispersed all over the country, taken in by foster families or cared for in orphanages and children's homes. It was initially assumed that Britain would be a first port of call, and that these refugees would be settled elsewhere. The children would move on "to Palestine, America or the Colonies", reported The Scotsman, as the first of them - including Sacharin - arrived in Edinburgh. The outbreak of war derailed that notion and six years later, after the final defeat of the Nazis, most chose to stay in Britain.

The years since have not been easy. From the outset, everything was coloured by that first full realisation of the death camps and their six million victims, revealed in cinema newsreels. For those who had fled, there was an extra dimension to the tragedy - a sense of loss and guilt. Sickened and astounded by the images, says Metzstein, "You always wondered if you might have been among them. You were always looking among the dead to see yourself."

Sacharin agrees. "Very often I hear this voice saying, 'Why me?' I get quite emotional about it. I sometimes think, 'Have I done enough to deserve this?' There is a sense of guilt. It is not easy."

Many survivors have a sense of rootlessness, she says. She seems self-possessed, a wife and mother with a successful career behind her. Yet she confesses to feeling insecure. "When people ask me who I am I find it difficult to answer," she says. "I don't know how to reply when they ask, 'Are you Scottish?' The Scots are a clannish people, and I'm not part of that. I wonder what am I, who am I. I don't know."

However, Metzstein is more confident. "I have no feeling for Germany at all," he says. "People ask, 'Would you ever go back to Berlin?' I never 'go back'. I visit. Only when I am going back to Glasgow am I coming home, because I am confirmed Glaswegian - all my life, effectively."

Nobody needs to ask if he is Jewish, he adds. They know instantly. Part of it is to do with his accent, which he says he could happily do without. "Every time I get in a taxi in Glasgow, the driver says, 'Where do you come from?' Usually I ask, 'How old are you - 50?' Then I say, 'Well, I have been here much longer than you, my friend.'"

Sacharin laughs. "People do ask that. To shut them up I say I'm from Ballachulish." But for all the laughter, that there is a note of anti-semitism in some people's attitudes still riles them.

But overriding everything is the cost of the 20th century's vilest aberration - the human loss and its consequences for the survivors. Sim has spent years looking for clues to her parents' fate, and to this day admits that she still cannot reconcile herself with their deaths. "You know, I don't even think I believe it now," she says. "I just couldn't believe it. Even when I was grown-up and married, I kept thinking there must have been a mistake."

The End of Everything Ever, by NIE Theatre Company, is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 228 1404), from May 24 to 26, and at the Garrison, Lerwick (01595 692114), on 29 May

Rosa Sacharin's story

Rosa Sacharin remembers her parents discussing whether they should leave Germany. "My father said, 'I don't want to leave - these are such intelligent, cultured people. This will all just pass over.' He was a dreamer. My mother was much more worldly wise. 'It will end in tears. We should go,' she said."

The passing of Hitler's Nuremberg laws, in September 1935, delivered the first devastating blow to the family. Sacharin's father owned a tailoring business that employed 20 people, and he was soon taken into custody. "He was arrested as an enemy of the state. Jews were not allowed to employ non-Jews," she says. "My father had a small factory, and that was enough. He wasn't convicted of any particular crime. It was a means of confiscating what the Jews had." Her father was tried and imprisoned, and she never saw him again.

Sacharin watched the devastating impact of Kristallnacht, and was conscious of the growing clamour among the Jewish community to leave Germany. Then, out of the blue, she was told she would be leaving on the first Kindertransport, in December 1938. "I was told one day that I was going. That was it. I had no idea where to. I was told, 'Go to school and tell your teacher you are going away.' At the time, everyone was desperate to get out. I went to the school and said it was my last day. The teacher said, 'Why you?' I didn't know why me. I felt utterly lost. All I knew was that everyone was desperate to get out.

"Early the next morning, we went to the station and waited until our names were called out. There were no parents there. We were all told to get on to the train. There was not a sound. I felt utterly lonely as I became aware of the gravity of the situation. It was then that I cried. The moment I stepped on to that train, my world collapsed.

"Adult chaperones took us to Holland, but they had to go back to Germany. The train stopped at Hamburg and collected more children. Just before we crossed the border out of Germany, the adults told us, 'The soldiers will come and examine your cases. If they take anything you will not complain, you will not cry.'

"I had only a tiny case. I remember the SS men came to look at our things. One opened my case and there were sanitary towels inside. I wished the ground could have swallowed me up - the stupid man had to show them. But on this train full of children, there wasn't a sound. Eventually, the soldiers left, and the moment we crossed the Dutch border, all hell broke loose."

Suspicion, rudeness and anti-semitism dogged the children even after their arrival in Britain. The first refugees were sent to a holiday camp in Essex, where they were given English lessons while foster families were found for them.

None of the first group of children had homes to go to before they arrived. But, says Sacharin, "[The British authorities] had to get us out quickly because the next transports were coming. They said they wanted to send me to Palestine, Ireland or Australia. I wouldn't go. They had nowhere to put us.

"All the time people would come in to look at us. A man came into an English lesson once and said, 'Stand up, little girl.' I stood up. 'Are you Jewish?' he asked. 'Yes. Pity.' And he chose someone else. This happened constantly. The little ones with fair hair and blue eyes were picked. But I was 13. It was extremely difficult. Eventually the Edinburgh Jewish community decided they would take 13 of us, because we had to move on - more children were coming."

Rosa Sacharin qualified as a midwife, became a nursing teacher and has written four books about healthcare

Dorrith Sim's story

"I had a happy childhood in a town called Kassel," says Dorrith Sim, who has on her lap two albums of photos taken by her father in the 1930s. "I have pictures of myself on skis - I must have been five or six - and I had to go away when I was seven. But after Kristallnacht, if there were ever children playing outside I wasn't allowed to go out. I can't remember if I ever went back to my school, because the Nazis had made such a mess of it.

"What I do remember is that my mother and father wanted me out of the country. We went to the town hall many times to try to get my papers, but we were always told, 'Your daughter's papers have not yet arrived.' It was July 1939 before I could leave.

This is all she can remember of the journey. "My parents took me to Hamburg station. I had a red bag and I was carrying a toy dog called Droll under my arm. My parents had to stand behind a barrier - they weren't allowed on to the platform. Just before I got on the train, I dropped the dog and it slipped down underneath the wheels. Everyone was crying, but I was crying the loudest. I was howling. Then one of the helpers climbed down and got the dog for me, and instead of putting me straight into the carriage he took me back to my parents to say goodbye again. I didn't realise then that it would be for the last time.

"When I went into the carriage there were some older girls in there playing cards. It seemed so strange," she says. "I sailed to Harwich and then went on the train to London, where my foster parents found me." Sim's new guardians, Fred and Sophie Gallimore, then took her to their home in Edinburgh.

Sim returned to Kassel for the first time on the 50th anniversary of the Kindertransport. "My picture was in the Jewish Chronicle, and I had some letters. One was from a woman called Helen Cartledge, who had stayed in Kassel throughout the war. She had met and married a soldier and moved to Britain. She wrote to me and said, 'The first thing I want to ask is your forgiveness - for what my race did to your race.' She said that if my husband and I ever went over to Kassel they would find the house I had lived in.

"So I returned to Kassel, and everyone there was very kind. Our house was still there, and I managed to get a look around it. It looked just like it did when I left, a lovely house with a balcony.

"At the town hall, we were given an enormous book, The Jews in Kassel. Before the war, there had been 3,200. Now there are 40 to 60. The people there tried to find out what had happened to them all. I was able to discover that my parents had been sent to Frankfurt in 1942, and from there to Auschwitz," says Sim.

She has been back to Kassel since, she says, and is returning this summer with her son and daughter-in-law and their baby. "I've made a number of good friends there. I'm looking forward to it. But the first time was difficult. I've forgotten most of my German, but I tried to speak to some people I met on a tram, to tell them what had happened to me. And getting on a train was hard - the caps that the porters were wearing frightened me. It must have been a bad memory."

Dorrith Sim is a children's writer. Her book In My Pocket is an account of the Kindertransport. She lives in Ayrshire.

Isi Metzstein's story

Isi Metzstein's parents left Poland in the 1920s because violent anti-semitism was a fact of life in that country. In those days Berlin appeared to offer a beacon of hope. "Germany was seen as one of the great radical places," he says. "They thought they were moving to a very liberal, modern country that was far removed from the constraints of Poland."

But in 1933, Metzstein's father died in hospital during a routine operation. His mother was left to feed a family of five. It was hard for her, says Metzstein, and the Nazis provided "a bad background". Still, he says, his own life went on fairly normally.

But then came Kristallnacht. "The next morning I went to school as usual," he recalls. "As I approached, I saw smoke and was intrigued. Other children told me that the synagogue had been set on fire and that the fire had spread to the school. Still, I didn't feel threatened. It was a day, an event in my life calendar. Later I recognised it for what it was, but as children we weren't bothered."

Kristallnacht confirmed the dangers for Jews in Germany. "Jews were meeting in the street. I was just a boy, listening, and they were asking, 'When and where are you going?' That was the conversation - it was a major preoccupation in my family and in other families.

"My mother and my older sister began making every effort to get out of Germany. We had no other family there, so there was no sentimentality about it. Get out. There was no choosing or picking. We went when we had the chance, and for me that was to Scotland, to a family. My older brother was about to turn 16 - when adult laws would apply to him - and he was sent on a special scheme to England. My mother and my older sister, who was 17 or 18, went into service in a stately home in Dorset.

"We could have all gone to Dorset, but my mother thought it would be safer if we went separately, in case war broke out. This helped alleviate a little of the child's anxiety, because we knew that my mother and sister would be getting to England. And it was a smooth passage."

Permission for Metzstein's journey had yet to be granted by the Nazis. "I had to go with my mother to a big house in west Berlin," he remembers. "Sitting on both sides of long desks were SS officers in uniform. You had to go from one to the other - it was all very correct, a civil service kind of approach."

Travelling on the Kindertransport was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to the 11-year old boy. "Once we had got over the immediate trauma of separation, we started enjoying ourselves. Two hundred miles, and 40 or 50 children travelling as ordinary passengers. I can't remember who shepherded us off in Hamburg, but we got on this marvellous big boat and we ran wild. We went screaming through the corridors. For three days."

After the SS George Washington had docked in England, Metzstein set off for Scotland. "My brother, who had been living in London, met me and saw me off at Euston station. There were six of us in the compartment - a sleeper with six spaces. It was all a new adventure. I had never been on a long-distance train before. I remember that my brother gave me a box of matches. All the matches in Germany were safety matches - but these were not. I woke in the night and smelled something burning. My immediate reaction was, 'My matches have gone on fire!' That wasn't the case, but I remember it very well."

Until his retirement, Isi Metzstein OBE taught architecture at Glasgow School of Art

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Pie shop picture

Outside a butcher's shop in Glenrothes, John Prescott is seeking to bend the arc of history, while modestly soaking up praise for his new television series - an examination of class in modern Britain.

“It's brilliant, pure entertainment,” John Martin, a local drug support worker, gushes. The former Deputy Prime Minister beams a self-satisfied smile.

It is here in the murky interior of the Kingdom Shopping Centre, a concrete monstrosity at the heart of one of Scotland's unloved new towns, that Britain's latest television superstar and most infamous bulimic believes that he can pull off the impossible.

He was parachuted in at the eleventh hour to swing an improbable by-election victory, save the Government, put spring in the Brown Bounce and knock the Scottish National Party off its perch.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It's been busy, because of the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe in August, and then just because it's been busy. So here are links to some the stuff that I've had in the paper.

You can read more about John Prescott, Labour grandee, in a piece written the morning Barack Obama won his victory (hence the arc of history) if you go here: Prescott.

Here's a nice beaver piece: Beaver.

One with Sean Connery in it, a piece which prompted a reader to write in and tell me that I was a sneering, horrible person: Connery.

An article about coffee houses, past and present: Coffee.

Mary Queen of Scots stirs up a controversy here: Mary.

And lots more at this website: journalisted.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Wind turbines - a blot on the landscape

David Bellamy, the broadcaster and environmentalist, has lambasted the Scottish government's “baffling” decision to approve the construction of the huge Clyde wind farm in South Lanarkshire, describing the project as “an enormous blot on the credibility of Scotland as a green place”.

His comments are a stark contrast to those of Alex Salmond, the First Minister, who last week announced the scheme as a step on the road to making Scotland the “green capital” of Europe. A total of 152 turbines are to be installed in clusters in the South Lanarkshire hill near the village of Abington, close to the M74.

Bellamy is one of that small band of environmentalists who doesn't believe in global warming. Read more at the Timesonline, Blot.

Over at the Edinburgh Fringe, I can report that I have met Lynn Ruth Miller, my favourite septuagenarian stripper, who quotes Browning: "Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be." That Lynn Ruth - she's a rum 'un.

And hats off to my colleagues at the Scotsman, whose unrivalled coverage of the "Fringe ticketing fiasco" led them to quote an apoplectic spokesman for the Ladyboys of Bangkok. Spokesman? Spokesman? Spokesperson surely.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Heard the one about the kid on the Fringe?

“Adults tend to keep quiet when kids are on stage. But if I did get a heckler, I'd have to deal with it - think of a couple of comeback lines, or hand them a colouring-in book or something like that,” said Eros, who debuted on the Fringe last year with a walk-on part in a children's comedy show.

That experience planted the germ of an idea, and next month he returns with Problem Child, a 50-minute set of his own. “I've been writing new stuff all the time, so I have way enough material to fill it out,” said Eros. “It's about pointing out the stupid things that adults do - then they go, ‘Oh yeah, he's right, I do that too,' and they laugh.”

The tale of a 12-year-old comedian, who is on his way to Edinburgh. Read more here: Kid on the Fringe.

Eros is just one of thousands of peculiarly-driven people who are about to descend on the city. I wrote recently about the 75-year-old stripper from San Fransisco who's heading to Edinburgh(a story subsequently picked up by Jay Leno, and by a number of US papers), and there are many, many more all with tales of their own.

A year ago, I had a proposal for a TV documentary about some of these fantastic people accepted by one of the bigger independent production houses, but unfortunately knocked back by the BBC. It's worth it though, I think. So if anyone out there feels like funding a book or a film don't hesitate to get in touch, because there is a great longer piece to be written about the eccentricities, dreams and ambitions which drive these folk on.

The Fringe is not the only show in town. Hit the link here to read a story in the Times at the weekend, about the £5 million cloud hanging over the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

PS: Overwhelmed by the publicity which has come her way since my article in the Times, Lynn Ruth Miller, the ageing stripper, has proposed marriage to me.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

From the Wainwright tapes

I'd been thinking of a way to contrive an interview with Loudon Wainwright for years, and I finally found a method, tieing the thing up to an Edinburgh show which is coming up, and presenting it as part of Scotland on Sunday's Fringe preview package. Unfortuantely, the interview was "a phoner" - half an hour of the telephone - so I never really got the material to do the great man justice. And then the article was shoe-horned into a tiny space.

You can read my article in the blog entry below. It's not as good as it should have been for all of the reasons above, plus my own inadequacies as a writer. But I read another magazine interview with Loudon which appeared yesterday in the UK, and despite that journalist visiting Loudon at his home, and writing a huge intro about dysfunctional families and what have you, I don't think the reporter got any more of interest out of the man than I did.

There's some decent exchanges on the tape too and since I didn't have much room in the paper, I'll stick a few of them here.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A year after, Martha, Loudon's daughter, appeared with him on his own live album, she wrote a song entitled You Bloody Motherfucking Arsehole, about her dad.

What about Martha’s song about you, You Bloody Motherfucking Arsehole. What did you make of that?

Arrm … well you know … it’s a very powerful … er … emotional statement. I myself have been making powerful emotional statements, so you know … if you dish it out, ya gotta take it.

My 11-year-old daughter listened to your song, Five Years Old [about his love for Martha] and loved it. When I played Martha’s song about you, she got really depressed

Well, I’m pleased to hear that, but if she’s 11, she might just change. It is part of your job as a teenager to hate your parents. I mean it er … is a natural thing. Martha’s mom and I split right after Martha was born, so that is a personal tragedy. For everybody. So anger is certainly there, and understandibly so.

'A powerful emotional statement' sounds a bit meally
-mouthed – what did you say the next time you saw her ….

Arrrrrr … I can’t remember. How’s that for a diplomatic answer?

So it was a ‘powerful emotional statement’?

Er … You do what you do. Man the torpedos!

This bit of the transcript is about Loudon's dad.

I was surprised to find your father was a journalist … Because I sense in some of your songs that you don’t particularly like journalists …

Oh … You might be thinking of that song How Old Are You. I don’t dislike them as a group, Mike. Certain journalists I don’t like. My dad was a writer, a journalist and an editor. He worked for the great American magazine, Life, which was a huge thing in the 60s and 70s and in the war years, my God, it was the most important magazine in the World for a while.

Anyway, I … er … I think my writing has a journalistic quality, you know I describe things, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Hopefully people can follow the through line. But he was a journalist and a great one too.

A great one?

I’d say so, yes. He was a great writer. He has been dead now for 20 years. I’m always … I did a thing, a show up in the state of Maine not too long ago and I stayed in a bed and breakfast. They had a couple of old issues of Life Magazine. I opened one up and there was a column my father had written. About our dog being put down. This would have been in the early 1970s. And I was just …. I knew the writer and I knew the dog. I was in bits basicly, sobbing away. But I also scanned that article and sent it out to people. My dad really was a very good writer. Wrote a couple of very good songs too, so I was very influenced by him.

Did he admire you being a songwriter?

I think he liked some of the songs, or a lot of the songs. He probably didn’t care for a few of them, but that makes perfect sense. I think he liked the idea of me being a writer. He was pleased that I did wind up doing that.

About his mum's death, and his songwriting career.

You released Last Man on Earth after the death of you mum. Since then, there's been only one album of original songs, and commissions for a film and a show, and now there's a retrospective album. Is this some new phase in your career?

It’s hard to get an overview, when you’re actually writing. If you take the last two things, the Carl Hiassen project and Strange Wierdos, they were commissions. I was writing songs with another process in mind, a film and now a theatrical adaptation. I write pretty much how I write.

But you’re right, Last Man on Earth was a particularly personal album. A lot of that album was informed by the death of my mother and that was a hugely personally devastating event.

I would imagine that something like that would be almost exhausting …

Ummmm. Well, I wrote some liner notes for that record. I remember when my mother died I kinda folded up. I cancelled shows and stopped writing songs, just went in to a very …. Ah …. I want to say a kind of fetal position. But once I started writing the songs and got back to job – which is doing that - I wrote a lot of songs and it wasn’t … it’s an overused word when it comes to song writing, but things did kind of ‘flow’. That’s my memory of it anyway – that was about ten years ago.

You've had all these titles, the new Dylan and what have you, but now you seem to be accepted just as a songwriter, in the way that Randy Newman is … Not as a folk musician or any other kind of musician. And therefore to me it seems you get asked to do film soundtracks and involved in projects like this, just a songwriter. Does that make sense?

Yes it does. And I’m happy to be thought of in that way. I love folk music and folk musicians and I was influenced by some of them. I do think of myself as a song writer. My first influences before Bob Dylan and Jack Elliot and all those guys were the writers of musicals and Broadway shows, like Rogers and Hammerstein. They were my first role models really. I think my wrting is hopefully theatrical and whatever. But I am happy to be thought of as a song-writer – I don’t think of myself much as a folk singer.

Loudon proud

Scotland on Sunday, 27 July, 2007

Some collaboration this. Take the playbill at face value and you’d think the songwriter Loudon Wainwright had sat down and worked hand-in-glove with novelist Carl Hiassen in the stage adaptation of the author’s Lucky You. But you’d be wrong.

Before this project, one of the most anticipated productions of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Wainwright had walked past Hiassen’s thrillers whenever he’d seen them in airport bookstores. He’d never even picked one up, still less read a word. Even now the two have not met, and they have no immediate plans for a big hello. “I’ve a sister in Florida. Maybe I’ll go see Carl while I’m down there,” muses Wainwright diffidently, who’s talking at his summer home on Long Island.

When at last he was persuaded to read the novel – by the TV comedy producer, John Plowman - Wainwright was instantly hooked. The action focuses on an eco-friendly lottery winner called Jo-Layne who is pursued across Florida by two robbing rednecks. Along the way corporate greed, indifferent government and a poisoned environment have their bellies exposed in the darkest of comedies.

The result of their long distance relationship, is a stage play drawn from a bitter but hilarious novelist, enlivened by three songs penned by a writer who could have been Hiassen’s long lost creative twin, so close is their shared vision. “His book was truly funny and scary and funny and scary are two of my favourite things. In combination they’re always good,” reckons Wainwright. “You know, the world is a crazy place. Like me Carl can veer into pessimism, realism. I tried to put that into the songs, because its territory I’ve explored a bit myself.”

Just a bit. Over the best part of four decades, Wainwright has been the archetypical singer-songwriter, the One Man Guy of his own song. What sets him apart is his focus. Few writers are as funny, clever and articulate; none are as remorselessly personal.

His August album release, Recovery, features a re-recording of tracks from his first three albums including School Days (musings on college life) Drinking Song (about being drunk), and Motel Blues (the aftermath of a one-night stand), all mediated through Wainwright ironic eye. Some, he admits, he had to re-learn, “they’d just faded from the repertoire” but rediscovery was a revelation, and the recording sessions were a joy.

He has written so often about himself over the years, that anyone familiar with his work feels they know him. On the Acid Song, we laughed at Wainwright’s antics after he dropped a tab of LSD for the first time in ten years; we chuckled when he unwittingly tried to bed a lesbian in Synchronicity; we suffered when he was left bereft by the death of his mother. But in all this navel-gazing, is it an exaggerated version of himself described in the lyrics?

He chews over the question for a second. “I don’t know if it’s an exaggeration – it’s a variation. Certain things are changed to protect the guilty. But it’s a personal account, condensed and crafted and tailored to elicit the a response that I want. I had an acting teacher who once who said ‘You can’t just speak to camera and put it over to people just like that. There has to be a heightened reality.’ That’s true about writing and performing songs - it’s a heightened version of the person I am.”

Inevitably, when the subject matter is so often close to home, friends and family are drawn into the firing line, and named in his lyrics. He ticks them off on a list: “My parents, my kids, my sister, my brother, ex-wives, present wives, future wives. They are all in there. You know, they make for great song fodder.

“The people in my life are the most important in the world to me. I think about them all the time. I love them – they frustrate and infuriate me as I do them. So it seems perfectly logical to me that they’re in the songs.”

Perfectly logical too that Rufus and Martha, the children from his marriage to the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, should fire some shots back, now they have established themselves as successful artists. Rufus’s Dinner at Eight ruefully picked over the relationship between father and son, but kept matters fairly clean. Martha came up a whole lot dirtier with her song, You Bloody Motherfucking Arsehole, dedicated to the father who left home when she was a baby. Some title. What on earth did he make of that?

It was like taking a blow in the solar plexus, apparently. Three years on, Wainwright can hardly get the words out. “Arrm …well you know … it’s a very powerful … emotional statement. I myself have been making powerful emotional statements, so if you dish it out, you gotta take it. I mean, it is a natural thing. Martha’s mom and I split right after Martha was born, so that is a personal tragedy. For everybody. Anger is certainly there and understandably so.”

So “a powerful emotional statement” – how did he respond when he next met his daughter? “Arrm …I can’t remember. How’s that for a diplomatic answer?” He retreats: “Man the torpedoes!” Wainwright simply doesn’t want to talk about this. But it’s a fair bet that he doesn’t have the song as a ringtone.

What he might have said is that his own work is rather more subtle. History, the album written in the wake of his father’s death, exposed all his own emotions, but delivered a universal message. The song Four by Ten was about the wall that’s built into any loveless marriage, though his fellow feeling was with the father: “Once it’s up it won’t come down/ And mom's a queen and dad’s a clown.” No wonder so many heterosexual men of a certain age turn up at his concerts.

Well that’s a fact, he acknowledges with a laugh. “You know I am a guy, so I do write from that point of view. I know absolutely that some women enjoy the songs but it doesn’t surprise me that men show up at gigs and some of the women are dragged along kicking and screaming. I’ll meet a couple after a show and she’ll say ‘I’ve been subjected to your records since 1976. Thanks a lot!’ But I like to think, I hope, that some of the songs are just about being human, about being a person.”

After he debuted in 1970, for years he produced an album of original work every 18 months or so, and toured relentlessly. It’s not like that any more. These days Wainwright records a whole lot less and acts a whole lot more. He’s moved from New York and is mainly based in Los Angeles. Building on his training – he studied acting at university – he’s racked up an impressive list of credits in TV and film over the last six years, appearing opposite Ewan McGregor in Big Fish, and playing in Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

All the while, the songwriting has never stopped and although he had a cameo in Apatow’s latest movie, Knocked Up, his most important commission was for film’s score. “As good as he has ever been” ran a New Yorker review of Strange Wierdos, the soundtrack album: “He has not only retained his sharpness of wit but has also learned to cut with greater skill.” It’s a tribute to Wainwright’s genius, and his ability to channel himself into his work, that songs created for a teen comedy about a pregnant girl manage to shift the focus onto a poetic middle-aged man with a paunch.

He can’t always control his emotion so well. He shares a memory of his father, “a journalist and a great one too,” with Life magazine. “I did a show up in Maine not too long ago and stayed in a bed and breakfast. They had a couple of old issues of Life there. I opened one up at a column my father had written, about our dog being put down - that would have happened back in the early 1970s. I was just overcome. I knew the writer and I’d known the dog. I was in bits, sobbing away. I took that article, I copied it and sent it out to people.”

On top of his work for Lucky You, these days he’s prodigiously busy, what with the album, promotional gigs, and the acting. He’s happily married again – to his long-term partner, Ritamarie Kelly - but there seems to be a sense of urgency around his work. He laughs at the notion, and quotes a song from Strange Weirdos. “I’ve been Doing the Math,” he says.

“I’m going to be 62 soon and you’re never too young to die anyway. I do want to get some more work done. I love the job. It’s still exciting write a song, to get a commission, to act. But I wanted to be in show business. That was my dream and it came true. My life is a cinch, incredible. All I have to do is get rid of this paunch.”

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Bond's inspiration?

“My father couldn't understand how Dunderdale, in an apparently lowly job, could have a magnificent flat in Paris and gave amazing champagne and caviar parties all on the salary of a postmaster. But Dunderdale was a spy,” said Sir Charles. “Fleming, Fitzroy and Dunderdale. That mix was probably quite close to the Bond character: a writer, a man of action and a spy with a love for the finer things — there were a lot of beautiful émigré Russian ladies in Paris at that moment.”

He was widely thought to be the model for James Bond, and now Sir Fitzroy MacLean's personal collection of James Bond books have gone on sale. His son, Sir Charles told me that there was no sentiment attached to their sale. Read more at the link: Under the hammer.

My prose style is bad enough, but if you bother to read the copy at Timesonline, it has been mildly mangled in subbing, towards the end. The Sean who suddenly walks into the story is in fact Sean Connery.

There's more on the contraversial Caltongate project here: Inspection will not halt development.

I've also updated the Broadcast Sport link, in the column on the right. My pet whippet, Payton, gets a namecheck in this Sunday's offering. Or you can link to the article in Scotland on Sunday here: Wednesday morning, 3am.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Second impressions

To the Victorian mind, it was a decidedly off-message image. A woman, probably a prostitute, sits in a bar with only a drink for company. Her glass is filled with absinthe, as potent a spirit as money can buy. With the picture's heady mix of sex and alcohol, it is little wonder that Arthur Kay, the upright Scottish collector who had bought the painting in 1892, so rapidly sold it on.

But times change. Later this week, when L'Absinthe is unveiled in Scotland for the first time in more than 100 years, Edgar Degas's masterpiece will be one of the star attractions of the festival exhibition taking place at the National Galleries of Scotland.

Impressionism and Scotland will present more than 100 paintings by French, Dutch and Scottish artists whose careers intertwined around the end of the 19th century.

A large and valuable chunk of their output was bought during the passion for collecting that swept through the wealthy industrialists of Glasgow. More than that, say art experts, the relationships between buyers, dealers and artists would create a unique moment in history. Sadly, for Scotland at least, many of these extraordinary private collections were broken up long ago and the great masterpieces sold on, often to American collectors.

The Edinburgh show not only brings back many of the most famous works, “it will also tell us a great deal about a very important episode in the development of our own national school of painting,” said Michael Clarke, the gallery's director.

Among the most famous paintings to come to Edinburgh are At the Café La Mie, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge and many of Degas's great works including L'Absinthe and Jockeys Before the Race. There are three paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, others by Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Paul Gauguin, and eight works by Claude Monet.

Part of Monday's Times preview of the big Impressionist show. If you want to read more, you can either wait till the other papers catch up on Friday, of go to the full version of the Times article here: Scotland's second impression.

If you're interested in the continuing row over the Caltongate development, go here for the latest coverage, including reaction to the news that Unesco will send an inspector to assess Edinburgh's claim to be a World Heritage site: City at risk.

Monday, 14 July 2008

The bare facts of ageing

False teeth, sagging breasts and varicose veins might not combine in a conventional image of the body beautiful, but a 75-year-old stripper from San Francisco believes that she can storm the Edinburgh Fringe with a show that will explode society's obsession with youthful good looks.

Lynn Ruth Miller, a former journalist who has only been stripping for three years, said that she was “living the dream” in an act that celebrates every fold and crease of her body, “revelling in the disasters” that the ageing process wreaks.

“If you want to feel old and inadequate, that's up to you, but there is a choice. I look like an old lady, I know I do, but I never suffer pain, I never get tired and it is so exhilarating to communicate with people. When I'm on stage, I'm talking to the world, saying, ‘Don't sit in your rocking chair - get out there and live',” she said.

For her show, Ageing is Amazing, Ms Miller has devised an eye-catching opening sequence that echoes Samuel Goldwyn's dictum: start with an earthquake and build up to a climax.

Emerging to the tune of the Strip Polka, over the next four minutes she sheds a robe and several chemises, to be left standing in front of her audience clad in billowing underwear, elaborately decorated with a fringe, bells and feathers.

Those who have seen her performances are rarely left unmoved. “I swear the audience went completely bonkers when this crazy lady stripped down to her granny panties,” one admirer wrote.

To read more about the sensational Ms Miller, go to the Times online: Old age stripped bare.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Motty saves best until last

SO. FAREWELL then John Motson. You were almost as irritating and humourless as Jimmy Hill, but not quite.

For years, decades even, Motson has been riling me with one of the strangest verbal tics on TV, his weird habit of placing the subject of a sentence at its end. It works like this, in a typical Motsonian moment: "That's the second chance that's fallen his way and this time he's hit the post, Fernando Torres."

This isn't how normal people talk, at least not these days. It's the Roman way of speaking, which you'll know if you ever took a Latin 'O' grade. Translating one of those sentences, you never quite knew where it was going until you reached the end – darned confusing, I called it 30 years ago, and it's still as baffling now.

Still, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Motty, who'd plainly had enough of his job by the time he took his last bow, at the final of Euro 2008. At the end of the game, his colleagues should have given him a chocolate watch right there in front of the cameras, but they didn't and I bet that hurt the lad. Motson certainly struck a downbeat note when he told Ray Stubbs in an interview on BBC online why he wanted to quit: "I didn't want to be seen to be deteriorating or declining and I wanted to finish in a finals tournament while I was still coherent."

Those are not the words of a happy man of 62. She really needs to take old Motty far away from his so-called friends, lie him down on a beach and rub fragrantly-scented oils into his back, Mrs Motson.

On to SW19 (as even Radio Scotland calls Wimbledon), where the week's most absurd hype surrounded Andy Murray, whose sporting prowess was paraded in every corner of the BBC after he came from two sets down to beat a certain Richard Gasquet.

It wasn't just the broadcasters who got steamed up. "Murray had come off the ropes like Muhammad Ali" sang a front-page puff on one of the dailies, evoking memories of the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle', when Ali took seven rounds of punishment from George Foreman, before knocking him out in the eighth.

But can you really transpose tennis to the boxing ring? Having a limp-wristed Frenchman ping a rubber ball in your direction for three or four hours is rather different from absorbing hit after hit from an 18-stone heavyweight champion. One way of testing the strength of the comparison would be to put Foreman and Murray in the ring together. Imagine the superannuated barbecue salesman laying into Curlylocks of Dunblane – I for one would've queued all night to witness that spectacle.

On Wednesday, the muscular Rafael Nadal destroyed the fantasy that the Scot might win Wimbledon, dismissing Murray in an hour and 50 minutes, the equivalent of a first-round knock out at the Royal Albert Hall. In the eerie silence which followed, Sue Barker wondered: "What can Murray do to beat Nadal, what can he add to his game?"

John McEnroe had an answer, but it wasn't one the player wanted to hear. "All he's got to do is look at his opponents, who work unbelievably hard," said Macca. "Nadal's spin and intensity are unbelievable. And one thing about Roger Federer, his serve has got better and better. Look at a guy like Murray, and you have to improve… Everything, to be honest." Bummer.

Naturally, Murray received lots of advice from Jeff Tarango and Pat Cash, the kings of the BBC podcast, who love to talk about themselves and about the men's game, but are curiously short of ideas when confronted by women – unless it's to rate them for their looks. This week they barely nodded at the Williams sisters as they processed towards the final. Perhaps the two male chauvinist piglets find these particular women more intimidating than Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova, whom they'd so brazenly patronised during the earlier rounds.

I hope my own favourite among the players wasn't hurt by being so overlooked. If she was, I'd be delighted if she dropped by my place in sunny Leith, where she could show me how she strings her racket, Serena Williams.