Saturday, 26 January 2008

"If there is no respect, there will be pain"

The Times, Saturday 26 January

In spring 1944, Ernest Levy was jailed in Budapest. His offence was minor and he believed he would be at liberty within a few days. Instead, over the next year, this teenage boy was to pass through seven Nazi concentration camps. He worked as slave labour in a factory and a mine, endured a forced march which killed many of his comrades, until finally he was found by British troops who liberated Belsen in April 1945, a living skeleton, ravaged by typhoid and hours from death.

Levy, who became cantor at the Giffnock and Newlands synagogue when he moved to Scotland in the early 1960s , has made it is duty to speak about these events, though they are full of unutterable sadness for him. For the last 40 years he has visited schools and churches to reveal the horrors of Nazism. Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. It is right, he believes, that he should bear witness one last time.

But no more. He is in hospital in Glasgow – his heart is weak – and Levy will not speak out again. It is “the bitter end”. He has lived long enough.

“People have to be told. If we don’t co-exist, and don’t respect difference, there will be pain,” he says, in his thin reedy voice, sitting beside his hospital bed.

“Homicide does not occur just from one day to another. I saw it coming step-by-step. Sustained hatred culminated in the Holocaust. We have to make an effort to avoid that hatred. We can’t love everybody but we can co-exist. There are fantastic things going on in the world. Unity within diversity. The world has stepped forward a lot.”

Imaging the scenes of Levy’s life is impossible without conjuring up novels and films. In a series of ghastly cinematic frames, his life flashes by as those around him perish. Many times, only his relative youth and physical fitness – he had been a keen footballer – contrived to save him.

Jailed for missing a duty with the local civil defence force, within four days he had been squeezed onto a cattle truck with hundreds of other prisoners and taken away. One of eight children, he would never see half of his family again.

The first station on his descent to hell was Auschwitz, where his few possessions were stripped away and his head shaven. He became a number, not a name. After a week, came a winnowing of the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’. Levy was wheat, detailed to a work camp, some 60km distant. The rest were bound for the gas chambers and “escaped up the chimney” in the words of some of the deranged inmates.

The dark months that followed in Wustegiersdorf in south eastern Poland were desperate enough. Starvation rations, brutal guards, and all manner of filth surrounded the captives. But as the “1000-year Reich” imploded, and the Red Army advanced, the camp was abandoned and its inmates forced to drag themselves hundreds of kilometres to Belsen in Lower Saxony.

This was a “death march”, says Levy, undertaken in bitter winter, by men who had already spent months or years without nourishment or warm clothing. Many died where they fell on the road. Others, who might use the pretence of exhaustion to play dead and then escape, were shot. One night’s act of savagery came by the River Elbe. Here, the prisoners were directed to a warehouse, and its double doors flung open.

“Four hundred malnourished Jewish men and boys were ordered into a space that could not possibly hold them. Eighty at a pinch,” remembers Levy. “We were among the first 20 or 30 inside and facing the doors we watched horror-stricken as the crush increased. It was a little while before close became too close, became difficult, hard to breathe, became painful, became a need to protest, became a need to beg and shout for help.”

The first to die were those crushed into the walls. Others sank to floor and were trampled. A stumble sent Levy down, but he was pulled upright by Joe, his friend. “It was not long before we were moving over the dead and dying. The movement of my feet provoked cries of pain, but the force of the mass compelled my feet to move. I was relatively strong. I survived. The weaker went under, some by my hands and feet. So it was.

“Just after dawn, the doors were flung open to allow the survivors to stagger out gasping and coughing. Some emerged on their knees and collapsed. Others fell to knees in prayer. I would not look back but Joe later described the shed floor covered in broken bodies.”

His first task at Belsen was to clear the railway ramp and the rail trucks alongside of the dead and the dying. “Line them up and box them like matchsticks,” he was ordered by the Camp Commandant, Joseph Kramer. “Are you listening to me? Like matchsticks. You’ll get more in. More space. Do it then.” His final memory of captivity is hauling corpses down to a giant pit of dead bodies, where lime would be added to reduce the mass of skin and bone to a chemical slurry.

Levy has told some of these stories before. But as wise as he is, he can never comprehend their meaning, nor drive their sadness from him.

“It is so difficult to understand a human situation where humanity has disappeared.
I saw it from so close. Once you are swept up in a life of violence and crying, you lose all sensitivity for human suffering. It only takes a year,” he says.

In the ‘New World Order’ of the concentration camps, the brutality of the SS was often delegated to ‘kapos’, convicted criminals, mainly Jewish, who were “given interesting things to do around work camps by the Nazis”, says Levy.

“The classical example was Schreiber – a Kapo and a Jew – who could have been an ordinary family man. He was in Auschwitz for years and they taught him how to treat people. He lost all sensitivity. He enjoyed the agony of human suffering. I saw him with my own eyes. Smiling.

“Some young Nazis, enjoyed the agony of suffering. You were lost, you were miles from home. No-one knew where you were, what you were, what was happening. There was no chance of getting out of that hell. And they were counting on that. They had lost their normal humanity.”

At yet, remarkably Levy’s memories are dappled with light. Kindnesses followed his horrendous journey. Arriving in Budapest in 1941, a refugee from Czecholslovakia, he had been separated from his family, when he was taken in by Greta, a prostitute. She fed him, gave him money and directed him to the Jewish quarter, where he was reunited with his mother and father.

Months later, their paths would cross again, and Levy was delighted to find that Greta had married an older man, a retired postman who shared her contempt for the Nazis. The couple would later rescue two Jewish boys and hide them for the remainder of the war. Levy is moved to smile by this memory. “Like us, she came back from the dead. Because she was lost, on the streets, and she came back. With that old postman. It was an unusual story.”

There were Germans who took risks as great and who died to help the Jews. In Wustegiersdorf, Levy was saved by Anton Strummer, the German manager of the engineering workshop, whose generosity and patience towards his 80 strong staff kept them from the inhumanity of the camp outside. Strummer quit his job in a blaze of insubordination, publicly dismissing his successor, a buttoned up Nazi apparatchik, as a fool.

Above all was Helmut, a young German soldier, who was a friendly presence at Wustegiersdorf and on the road to Belsen. By the time the column of prisoners was loaded onto a train for the final stretch of that terrible journey, Levy was suffering from diarrhoea. Throughout the night Helmut repeatedly helped Levy up on to the side of the cattle truck so he could empty his bowels onto the track. “I would not expect my brothers to help like this,” Levy told his good German friend. Now he says: “Like many young men in the Wehrmacht, Helmut was caught in a cleft stick, obliged to ‘heil’ the ‘heils’ but at odds with the doctrine.”

Levy knows little of what happening to these wonderful people. He met Greta once, her hair greying, in 1958. Her postman husband had been shot dead by a Soviet sniper during the Hungarian rising. Anton and Helmut almost certainly perished in 1945 for their virtuous anti-Nazism.

Yet “by a miracle”, Levy first encountered his wife, Kathy, in Belsen. Chased by the brutal kapo, Schreiber, he had fled to an unfamiliar part of the camp, and taken refuge in a brick barracks. “I heard Hungarian, so I shouted my family’s name – ‘Maybe someone is here,’ I thought. There were women. They had their own hair, their own clothing, and something to eat. And she was sitting on a bed, looking down on me. She gave me food.

“All those years later, to remember me was impossible. I had been a skeleton, the living dead. But I had taken a long look at her and after the war, in Glasgow, in Hungarian company, I met her. She told me she was a survivor at Belsen.

“I was invited to her home. In the living room there was a montage of pictures of her growing up. I got a shock. It was her graduation photo. She was 19 and later the same year she was in Belsen. I looked at her in utter disbelief. She had given me a little piece of bread and then I had had to run away.” They married and had two children. Kathy Levy died last year.

A decade ago, a family friend who had a business not far from Belsen, asked Levy if he would like to visit the site of the death camp. “It was an awful dilemma,” he recalled, and neither then nor today can he come to terms with the visit.

“All through the journey I didn’t speak a word. I was ready to say ‘Turn back’. But something pulled me there. When we arrived. I couldn’t go to the ramp [by the railway track]. I couldn’t face it. I went into the memorial hall. And I said my prayers there, because I lost friends.”

Reverend Levy break offs. “I can’t even talk about it.

“I have a bag of earth from Jerusalem. And I brought home a bag of earth from Belsen. When I am buried, I want that earth from Belsen buried with me.”

Kennedy has the last laugh

The Times, Thursday, 24 January

With her long, unsmiling face, the novelist A L Kennedy is easy to distinguish from a ray of sunshine, but in public she performs with a witty self-confidence which rarely fails to surprise those who dismiss her as a miserablist.

Kennedy was at it again on Tuesday night as she collected the Costa Book of the Year for Day, her historical novel, which had already claimed the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year prize. In her acceptance speech she made a passionate plea for author’s rights to fair rewards, and against cost cutting retailers. This was, after all, the "most influential room that I could every play to".

It was to be expected. Whether she is reading from her books or delivering stand-up comedy, Kennedy’s fierce intelligence always demands attention.

She brought all of her intellect to bear in Day, a fiction based partially around the Forest of Dean and the Black Country, where her grandparents and parents once lived. More than five years in the making, whatever its strengths as a novel, Day is an impressive feat of historical research, which Kennedy undertook in part to understand how the world around her had been made.

The novel reveals the life of ‘Alfie’ Day, the former tail gunner of a Lancaster bomber, whose harrowing life is pieced together as the book unfolds: the brutal father, the put-upon, Methodist mother, the camaraderie of the bomber crews and their anxieties as they fly out towards death. As might be expected with Kennedy, there is no happy ending.

Joanna Trollope, the chair of the Costa judges, found Day comparable with the work of James Joyce and said the book was perfect and beautifully crafted. Yesterday, having broken a promotional tour in the United States to collect her award and despite her fear of flying, Kennedy jetted back across the Atlantic, where the New York Times has already compared “this gifted writer” to the Russian masters.

By now this author should be used to such accolades. Despite her evident dislike of awards – “prizes do not make sense” she writes on her website – she has been winning them throughout her professional career.

Alison Louise Kennedy was born in 1965, and brought up in Dundee. though notoriously cagey about her early years, her family’s religious background has plainly left a mark on her worldview, as did her parents’ divorce when she was 11.

After studying English and Drama at Warwick University, by 25 she was installed as writer in residence at Hamilton and East Kilbride social work department. Her first book, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains is described by the British Council – renowned for talking-up home-grown artists in colourful language –as “a bleak collection of short stories set in Scotland”.

Since then she has created a succession of difficult and challenging novels and short stories, and On Bullfighting, a non-fiction work which reveals how she contemplated suicide after the death of her maternal grandfather.

It is a pedigree which apparently cuts across her emergence as a stand-up comedian, but Kennedy, more than most, appears to understand that comedy is the flipside of tragedy. She first appeared on stage in 2005, and afterwards enjoyed a sellout run on the Edinburgh Fringe. She still performs, regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but on stages all over Britain.

“Anyone who likes her writing, would like her stand-up. It is the same dry style which she has in her writing which she brings to her routine. There are very well crafted jokes there, but it is not ‘ho ho ho’ type comedy,” said Tommy Sheppard, the owner of the Stand clubs.

Kennedy lives in a flat in Glasgow’s West End, a seemingly determined loner, plagued by a bad back. She doesn’t care much for journalists, but appears to delight in the question and answer features which fill up magazine pages. In one telling answer, she urged would-be writers to avoid using drugs or drink as stimulants.

“Sometimes your substance of choice will sucker you in with a little good foreplay (writing you would have produced anyway) but eventually you’ll end up on the rag heap with Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Brendan Behan and all the rest of the much more numerous drunks and junkies who didn’t even make it to visibility before they destroyed themselves.

“You do this by yourself, because you are made that way. Try faking it and it will f*** you and your ability to do what you were born to do. But feel free to try it the other way first, many people do. It's frightening to write - people who are frightened run to substances. That's normal - but we can't run from the fear. We need it.”

Kennedy still teaches creative writing, but advocates “just write” if you want to succeed as an author. Her own love of her craft and her endless pursuit of perfection suggest we have not seen the best of her yet.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Cookalong live is a kitchen nightmare

"Such is life when you become a bit part in Ramsay's manic world. You swear. You attempt self-harm. You lie to your children."

I join in Gordon Ramsay's Cookalong Live and write a not-as-amusing-as-it-should-have-been piece for Scotland on Sunday. Still, one of the photo captions was funny. The fat bastard in the photo above with Ramsay is his on-screen victim, Chris Moyles, not me. Over here on the right is me being fat, while making a chocolate mousse. Which was excellent, by the way.

You can read the rest here: Kitchen nightmare

Stage set for the mother of theatre revivals

The Times, November 29, 2007

Halfway down the hill which runs south out of Dunfermline town centre, hidden away behind a non descript façade, one of Scotland finest theatres is slowly being brought back to life. So obscure that few locals even know it is there, yet the sheer scale of the Alhambra Theatre is breathtaking.

It boasts a 1500-capacity auditorium, an elegant balcony and its royal boxes command a view of one of the biggest stages in Scotland. Yet despite its magnificence the Alhambra has lived through decades of ignominy since it opened in 1922, converted first into a cinema and then limping along since the 1960s as a bingo hall.

This weekend the past will be forgotten. The venue which has staged the Alexander Brothers, Jimmy Logan and the White Heather club will host local dance and musical extravaganzas to kick-start a fund-raising campaign to restore it to its former glories. By spring 2009, a group of enthusiasts believe the Alhambra will be booking some of Britain’s biggest bands and best shows.

These may seem lofty ambitions, but the man behind the restoration, Paul Gudgin, has already seen his growing obsession with the Alhambra begin to turn its fortunes round.

Mr Gudgin is the former director of the Edinburgh Fringe and a Dunfermline resident who for years walked past the theatre every morning on his way to catch the train to work. Alerted by a friend to the building’s glorious past, he caught his first glimpse of the interior five years ago, when he sneaked in during a bingo game.

“I went to the front desk and told them I wanted to find my granny just so I could come in,” he recalled. “When I walked in, there were one-armed bandits, the fug of smoke and the smell of the deep fat frier, but it was still an overwhelming sight. I was bowled over by the scale, by the beauty and how intact it all was as a theatre.

“I found myself drawn to the Alhambra more and more ever after. You get in that frame of mind: ‘I just want to see it open’. I don’t know what the classic signs of obsession are, but that must be pretty close. Every day I’d walk past and think: ‘I’ve got to get that place open.’”

When the Alhambra came up for sale in 2005 – for offers of around £700,000 - Mr Gudgin wrote an article in the local paper proposing it should be saved, and was contacted by Bill Fletcher, a Dunfermline-born property developer. The businessman took the “remarkably brave” step of purchasing the building, said Mr Gudgin, because he shared the desire to regenerate his home town.

“There’s a lot of pride in Dunfermline but you don’t meet anyone who doesn’t think it needs to do better. It’s a bit down on its luck, it needs a lift.

“I am a passionate believer in culture as a force of regeneration. I have worked all over the world, but I have never seen anything with as much potential to help regenerate a town as this place,” said Mr Gudgin, who is a visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and an international consultant on the arts.

It is estimated that a new large scale arts facility on this scale in a town centre location would cost £20 million. The refurbishment of the Alhambra as a local arts centre and a stage for bands and touring productions will require £2 million and should be achieved within 18 months.

Already, the first steps have been taken. The false ceiling which enclosed the stage has been removed along with cheap chandeliers that lit up the bingo caller’s station. Partitions which once closed out the old balcony have been removed, and the glorious space of the auditorium revealed.

The launch of the appeal at the weekend will coincide with the launch of an Alhambra Theatre trust, and the funds it raises will be spent on new dressing rooms and backstage facilities, stage equipment, new seating and on the building’s façade.

Local politicians have spoken out for the project and celebritiy endorsements are trickling in. Richard Jobson, the film maker who fronted the local punk band, The Skids, has called the “a fantastic opportunity for Dunfermline to come out of the artistic shadow of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and other Scottish cities and to establish a reputation for itself as a major cultural centre.”

The alternatives are dispiriting. Conversion to flats or office space is a possibility. The Alhambra might even go the way of its illustrious former companion, Dunfermline Opera House, which was scheduled for demolition in the 1980s, when its interior was sold and shipped to a theatre in Florida.

Mr Gudgin hopes no such fate awaits his beloved theatre. “Anyone who has been in the building can understand why it became a bit of a cause. They can see it is a unique opportunity. It won’t come around again, certainly not in Dunfermline,” he said.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

New sign language opens up science

A fantastic, inspiring story from Edinburgh makes page three of national editions of the Times.

Click here to link to the Times: Sign language

Click here to go straight to the new sign language for science: BSL Glossary

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Loch Ness film wins monster approval

I wrote this piece about the film The Water Horse for the Times just before Christmas, ahead of its release in the States. I'm a sucker for a feelgood U-rated movie, and this one looks the part, as many of the US reviews made clear. I snaffled some of the quotes from You Tube and the internet - but the story had a real interest in Britain, where Alex Etel, the young lad in the film, had just starred in a BBC version of Cranford. Which is why a supposedly 'Scottish' story made the national edition.

Click here to link to the Times: Monster hit

The film has its British premiere this Saturday in Edinburgh, so you'll be reading more about it soon, here and elsewhere. The show is in aid of the Maggie's Centres which provide care and counselling for cancer sufferers in Scotland. Find out more here: Maggie's Centres

Blowing his own trumpet

I interviewed Hugh Masekela last July/August, ahead of the Edinburgh festival, where Truth in Translation, a play with music he'd written was showing in the city. It was a phoner - he was touring in the States at the time - but he gave great quote.

A news story ran in the Times from this interview, which you can read elsewhere on this blog (look under 'News Stories' in the column on the right). But although this feature ran in the Cape Argus, and three other South African papers, I've never been able to find the article on-line. So I've stuck it in the entry below.

Masekela blows up a storm

Cape Argus and others, August 2007

Greedy. Selfish. Corrupt. Sitting in his comfortable hotel room the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela is counting out what the calls the “defining characteristics” of humanity. “Cruel,” he exclaims. He forgot cruel.

The defining characteristics? Masekela looks up and gives a throaty laugh. “They are,” he insists. “When I say that, it’s not a blanket statement. But the people who fight injustice, who do charitable work, or who have goodwill – they’re always regarded as oddballs.”

He thinks for a moment and then decides on another tack. “Look at what we have done to the water and the earth and the music. We destroy everything we come into contact with. I wake up many days feeling ashamed to be a human being.

“I would rather be a dog,” he says emphatically, “or a bird.”

Here in Cleveland, Ohio, Masekela, 68, should have everything to smile about. At the end of a triumphant US tour he’s looking forward to a few days of quality time with his three grown-up sons, who live in southern California.

Then in a week or so, he hopes to fly to the Edinburgh festival in Scotland, where Truth in Translation has opened a three-week run to ecstatic reviews. He wrote the music for Michael Lessac’s chilling drama about the lives of the young translators who revealed the barbaric crimes of the Apartheid regime to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The production has gripped British audiences as much as it transfixed people when it premiered in Johannesburg almost a year ago.

But Masekela is remorselessly downbeat. Partly it is the common cold which has brought him low. Throughout the conversation, he sucks noisily at a bit of ginger root – “it helps to break down the mucus” he says tetchily. But it is our discussion of Truth in Translation which has really ignited his ill humour.

Lessac has told the British media that the show demonstrates South Africa’s ability “to forgive the past, to survive the future”. Masekela, who first began to workshop the music for the show back in 2005, takes the opposite view and believes passionately that neither the play nor the political reality in South Africa has achieved any such reconciliation.

“At the end of the play you still wonder whether reconciliation is going to work,” he says. “What is amazing is how the perpetrators almost reluctantly apologised – ‘I’m sorry, forgive me’ – because a deal was there. It’s the same old story. After the Allies overran Germany you couldn’t find anybody who supported Nazism. It’s the same thing in South Africa. You can’t find anyone who supported apartheid.

“The thing is that apartheid is there, even now it is still there. You can’t disconnect with it. That is like asking someone in Northern Ireland ‘have you ever disconnected with the Troubles’. Because the after effects and structures and the damage it did will take ages to heal.”

There are plenty of ironies in the situation, says Masekela who fled the country after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. For a time it was people like his own mentor Archbishop Trevor Huddleston who led the fight against apartheid. But eventually music came to the fore, a “ major catalyst” in regime change, he believes. “By 1985 there was nobody recording without having a song on their CD which said either ‘Free Nelson Mandela,’ ‘Free South Africa’ or ‘down with Apartheid’.”

His own song Bring Him Back Home became an anthem for Mandela’s release, and the musician himself returned to South Africa in the early 1990s ready to let the good times roll. Fifteen years later he sees only mediocrity in the arts, a few opportunities for corporate gigs and perhaps a handful of one night stands on home soil.

“The administration today are terrified of music,” he growls. “They deny it. They know that a musical commentary can put them at a disadvantage. They are not afraid of print and journalists, that is considered freedom of speech, but they are very comfortable with the absence of music.

“I am not bitter. I am disgusted. And I am lucky – I can work all over the world. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, they spend most of their time abroad, because they can hardly play at home. What about those other musicians in South Africa? How do they make a living?”

For decades he has been an itinerant, though his home base is Johannesburg where he lives with his wife Elinam. Masekela owns his own entertainment group, publishing and recording music, which he runs with his 29-year-old daughter Pula Twala. Any commercial success puts him in a tiny minority among the black population.

“We ended up with less than 2% of the economy, less than 5% of the land. We are a free but poor people, he says. “Amnesia always sets in after freedom. People go from discrimination and oppression to dictatorship. It has happened in Angola, the Congo, it is happening now in Darfur, in Somalia, in Zimbabwe. It’s human nature. People fight for freedom and then they forget and oppress their own people. There are people in South Africa who have abandoned their communities.”

But surely he has felt elation, at least when apartheid crumbled? On the day of the 1994 election archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked by the BBC to describe his feelings and his response was “Yippee!” Didn’t Masekela have a yippee moment?

He takes a mighty suck on his ginger root. “I had that sense of it. But it was momentary. Because ‘yippee’ doesn’t change the way the way that bastards feel.” The settlement he says was “an agreement , a hard compromise”. There has been “no charity, no trickle down.” Even Mandela – whom he lists among his heroes – ultimately couldn’t change things in the ways he wanted.

“Mandela was bad for business because he was too interested in the quality of life for the poor and that wasn’t good for economics. It threatened all those people who had big properties,” says Masekela. “I’m not saying he made a deal to only stay five years but he might have felt that the visions he had were not going to be realised and it was better for him to resign at a timely moment. He definitely he didn’t get what he had hoped for.”

Are there any grounds at all for optimism? Well he has his heroes, Masekela replies. He admires Tutu’s ability to “ call the shots” of the government in South Africa. In the wider world he is drawn to the imperturbable dignity of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “At one time I used to admire Mugabe,” he muses. “When I meet him, if he will talk to me I’m going to ask him ‘What the f*** happened to you man?’

“But I describe myself as a pragmatist. I look at what is happening on the ground and how people are behaving. And usually what people say and do are completely different things. Because human beings, we are a bunch of hypocrites.”

He pauses, weighing up another list, the great musicians who can still lighten his gloom. He counts them out on his fingers: Makeba. Belefonte. Dylan. Marley. “I admired Miles Davis very much because he never bit his tongue - he always said what he felt. These are all figures who are not universally popular with powerful people. I admire the people the establishment hate. And I am not a favourite of the establishment.”

Is that a good sign?

“I hope so,” he says, standing. He has one more gig to prepare for and no more time to talk. “Sorry to bring you down.”

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Scottish? English? Library thinks twice

Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; Page C05


The stroke of a pen at the Library of Congress -- which rebranded 700 years of Scottish literary tradition as "English literature" -- has in recent weeks generated a spluttering uproar here. And last week, faced with Celtic fury, the American institution made an undignified U-turn.

The decision by the library's Cataloguing Policy and Support Office to abandon 40 headings and subheadings for Scottish writing meant every author in Scotland would be categorized under predominantly "English" categories. In a country whose domestic policy is run by a minority Scottish Nationalist government, the "English" labels caused disbelief.

Not even the national bard, Robert Burns, was exempt from the new Library of Congress rules. Despite penning the indisputably Scottish line "Wee, sleekit cow'rin, tim'rous beastie," he stood to be reclassified from the heading "Scottish Poetry" to "English Poetry, Scottish authors," under the system.

The reclassification took place in 2006 but wasn't noticed until the London Times called attention to it just before Christmas.

Then, after weeks of protest from "appalled" government ministers, writers and academics, Washington relented. In an apologetic letter to the National Library of Scotland here and the British Library in London, Librarian of Congress James Billington said the institution would return writers to their former Scottish status.

"The letters acknowledge that it was their interest and concerns over the issues created for them that led to the reversal," said Matt Raymond, a library spokesman.

The letter to the British institutions states: "After reviewing thoughtful comments received from several correspondents, the Cataloguing Policy and Support Office of the Library of Congress will be reinstating headings for Scottish literature, Scottish poetry and similar headings. . . . Bibliographic records will also be updated to restore former subject entries."

It is hard to overestimate reaction to the Library of Congress policy. Many Scots believe the country is enjoying a literary renaissance with writers such as Irvine Welsh, A.L. Kennedy, Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre selling millions of books worldwide. The country's literary tradition is founded on authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, who strongly asserted their sense of Scottish identity.

The effect of the recent Library of Congress system had meant that works by John Buchan, a Scottish aristocrat, would be found under "Adventure Stories -- English," rather than "Adventure Stories -- Scottish." The same was true in other categories, from science fiction to gay literature.

The absurdity aside, the change was likely to have dramatic consequences. Library of Congress subject headings are adopted by libraries, publishers and retailers throughout the world, raising fears in Scotland that its proud literary heritage would be buried.

"The Library of Congress did not make a logical decision," said Cairns Craig, professor of Scottish and Irish studies at the University of Aberdeen. "If you are going to have national literatures in English, then Scottish literature ought to be one of them since it is the oldest national literature in English other than English itself."

Craig was one of a number of Scottish delegates at last month's American Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, which agreed to lobby to have the policy reversed.

Rankin, who has sold 20 million books worldwide, had also bitterly opposed the Library of Congress decision and said he was delighted by the reconsideration. His Inspector Rebus series was written and set in Edinburgh but would have been filed under "Detective and Mystery stories, English" had the library policy continued.

"If you talk to Scottish crime writers and ask, 'What are your influences?,' instead of answering Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie, they will tend to say 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner' or 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, or John Buchan's 'Thirty-Nine Steps.' We have grown up reading different books and grown up in a different culture," Rankin said.

Linda Fabiani, the minister of culture in Edinburgh, played a leading role in seeking to have the policy overturned, lobbying Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), who then raised the issue in Washington. "I am very pleased," he said, "that the U.S. Library of Congress has made the proper decision to recognize Scottish identity for Scottish literature. This is a very important issue to the Scottish people, Scottish heritage and to Scotland-U.S. relations."

Scotland's resistance to English rule goes back centuries. Responsibility for domestic government in Scotland was given over to the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh in 1999 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party administration. In last year's Scottish election, the National Party, which favors complete independence for the country, won the biggest share of the vote.

There's more of this Scottish literature story further down the page. You can link to the Washington Post here: Washington Post

The story has also been picked up by the Scottish media website, allmediascotland. Read about it here: Mike Wades in - to the rescue

Last glimpse of a St Kildan's way of life

The Times, January 15, 2008

For most people, St Kilda is remote and mysterious, a windswept outcrop in the North Atlantic which against all odds supported human habitation for more than 4,000 years. But for Norman John Gillies, the last survivor of its tiny population, a new edition of a black-and-white film offers a glimpse of a lost way of life that was once familiar to him.

Britain’s Loneliest Isle was shot in summer, 1928, two years before St Kilda island was evacuated. This unique 16-minute documentary has been incorporated in The Island Tapes, a DVD which mixes archive footage with music in an evocation of Hebridean life.

When the original film was made, the islanders still clung to the hope that St Kilda – cut off from the Scottish mainland for nine months a year - had a viable future, eked from their few cattle, and the woollen goods the islanders made. Most movingly, for Mr Gillies, 82, it includes footage of his own mother at a spinning wheel, her shawl wrapped around her head against the fierce wind.

Mary Gillies’s death, in February 1930, would be the catalyst for the departure of the last 36 inhabitants. She fell ill while she was pregnant but storms prevented her leaving for a few days, and by the time she was finally taken from St Kilda her fate was sealed. She and her baby daughter died at Glasgow’s Stobhill hospital.

“I remember that well, as if it happened yesterday. Me standing down at the seashore and waving to her as she was rowed out in a boat with her shawl on and her waving back,” said Mr Gillies, who has lived with his wife in a village near Ipswich for the last 60 years.

His mother’s death had far-reaching consequences for the islanders. “They realised that they were in a hopeless position if anybody took really ill. That was one of the things. All households had to sign that they would leave St Kilda. That happened on 29 August, 1930,” said Mr Gillies.

“For the younger people it was an opportunity to do things which would help their entire lives. To the older inhabitants it was almost as if they had cut off their right hands, to have left their island home. I remember being on the boat and recall some of the older ones at the rear of HMS Hairbell, which took us of. Them waving to the island, until is was out of sight.”

Though only five when the island was evacuated, the last St Kildan still has evocative memories. “I can remember when I used to go into the church with my parents and how I used to be carried by my grandmother on her back when she went milking in the glen. One of my most treasured memories is of my mother calling me home to dinner, when I was playing at one end of the island or the other,” he said.

Mr Gillies left Morvern to join the Royal Navy in 1943, serving on torpedo boats which were based at Felixstowe. One Sunday, he accepted the invitation of a Free Church minister to attend a service in a nearby village. It was there he met his wife, Ivy: "That’s how I came to settle here, a St Kildan in Suffolk."

In the film a series of images show women with weather-beaten faces staring into the camera, children hiding behind a rowing boat and men plucking sea birds from the cliffs to eat.

The original silent movie is scripted through a series of cards which adopt an ever more patronising tone as the Glaswegian filmmakers take in the realities of St Kildan life. In one sequence after a make shift picture house is installed in one of the cottages the film describes the villager’s reactions. “We showed the St Kildans their first moving pictures”, “The show was free, but the girls were shy”, “The machine puzzled them”.

After they left, many of the islanders settled near Lochaline, Morvern. “It was very hard and difficult for the older people. St Kilda had been their way of life. They’d found it hard – but everyone had to knuckle down and get on with it,” said Mr Gillies.

* The Island Tapes is launched on January 21, at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.

Monday, 14 January 2008

How Scottish literature was saved

Well, it was saved here, in a manner of speaking. Following my page 3 report in the Times on 22 December, which revealed how the Library of Congress had effectively abolished Scottish literature, this Saturday the Times published the follow-up: in the face of fierce opposition from Scotland, the Library of Congress had backed down on its proposal to abolish around 40 category headings and sub-headings.

This story ran as the page one splash in the Scottish edition of Times, with a page five lead. This is the link to the Times splash in Scotland which ran on an inside page of the national edition.

Times splash

I also wrote up a piece for the Washington Post, which appears in today's edition. You can read it here:

Washington Post

The story in the entry below is the long Page 5 piece from the Times Scottish edition.

The original Times story, which revealed the Library of Congress decision to abandon its Scottish literature headings is here:

Scottish authors are 'English'

The excellent illustration above is by Jonathan Williams, and is used as the cover for Scotland's Books, Robert Crawford's history of Scottish literature, published by Penguin. I will issue a beer token to the first person to name all the pictured writers. For more of Jonathan's work, go here:

Blazing fruit

Great Scots written back into history

The Times, January 12, 2008

When cataloguing staff at the world’s most powerful library consigned a 700-year-old literary tradition to history, they little realised the storm they would release on the other side of the Atlantic. But now, just weeks after the revelation that it had abolished its Scottish literature headings, the American Library of Congress has been forced to climb down.

Last month, The Times revealed that a decision of the library’s Cataloguing and Support Office in Washington had effectively reclassified authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Irvine Welsh as ‘English’. The policy cause outrage, prompting an intervention from the country’s culture minister and drawing an unprecedented condemnation from the National Library of Scotland, which accused its American counterpart of “a gross inaccuracy” in its cataloguing system.

Under pressure from the authors, academics and politicians, the library has reinstated around 40 Scottish headings and sub-headings. It turns out that Scottish literature – whether is the medieval epic poetry of John Barbour, the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall, or the modern ‘Tartan Noir’ school of crime writing - is not English after all.

The Library of Congress confirmed its revised policy in an e-mail to the National Library of Scotland and the British Library yesterday. The text reads: “After reviewing thoughtful comments received from several correspondents, the … Library of Congress will be reinstating headings for Scottish literature, Scottish poetry, and similar headings. The reinstatement will appear on a future weekly list of subject headings issued by the Cataloguing Policy and Support Office. Bibliographic records will also be updated to restore former subject entries.”

The move was met with delight in Scotland. Ian Rankin, whose works are quintessentially Scottish, said: "If you talked to a lot of Scottish crime writers and asked, ‘What are your influences?’ instead of answering Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie, they will tend to say Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, or John Buchan’s Thirty-nine Steps. We have grown up reading different books and grown up in a different culture.”

Under the system which had been proposed Library of Congress, the heading “Scottish Literature”, and sub-headings ranging from “Erotic poetry, Scottish” to “television plays, Scottish” had been removed and re-categorised under English headings.

The object had been to introduce “conformity” in cataloguing practice, by removing “redundant” headings, explained a policy document. The aim was not “to imply that such authors are ethnically English”, but that their works formed a “subset” of the totality of English literature.

The effect of the new system meant that John Buchan’s works were filed under “Adventure Stories – English”, rather than “Adventure Stories – Scottish”, and that novels filed under “Science Fiction, Scottish,” were filed under “Science Fiction, English”.

The proposals had far-reaching consequences. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are used by libraries, publishers and retailers throughout the world, raising fears that modern Scottish literature would be buried under the heading “English”.

The climbdown was welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. "I am very pleased that the Library of Congress has made the proper decision to recognise Scottish identity for Scottish literature. This is a very important issue to the Scottish people, Scottish heritage, and to Scotland-U.S. relations,” said Congressman Mitchell. The Scottish culutre minister, Linda Fabiani, said she was delighted that there had been a change of heart.

Cairns Craig, professor of Irish and Scottish studies at Aberdeen University, said that the issue was a matter of logic. “This is part of the old difficulty about whether the literature is a function of the language, or whether the literature is the function of the nation. If you are going to have national literatures in English, then Scottish literature ought to be one of them, since it is the oldest national literature in English other than English itself,” said Professor Craig.

Alasdair Gray, author of Lanark said it was important that libraries were accurate. “If a library is allocating literature to national areas then it ought to do it accurately. If you put all the authors who wrote in German under the heading ‘German literature’, Kafka would become a German, along with umpteen others, he said. "And by God! If they are going to put Scottish authors into English literature, I insist they put the Americans there too.”

The author Allan Massie said: “English is both a country and a language and the language has a wide application. Most Scottish writers write in English, so there is a grey area, but then so do most American, Australian and many Indian authors. My novels are not set in Scotland, but I think of myself as a Scottish writer. “

Not everyone was celebrating. Gregory Burke, who wrote the hit play Black Watch, said Scottish literature headings were unimportant. “Someone once said: ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’ It [Scottish literature] is a dialect of English. I don’t care about things like that – you can file me under anything you want. There are bigger things to worry about.”

Monday, 7 January 2008

Taking the bull by the horns

In the piece below you'll find an interview with Douglas Gordon, a Scottish artist with a huge international reputation. Douglas is as nice a guy as you could ever meet, but the world's least convincing Partick Thistle fan. The article appears today in the Scottish edition of Times.

Eighteen months ago, Douglas mounted a huge retrospective of his work in Edinburgh. For another interview with him, which appeared at that time in the Sunday Times, just click here: The beautiful game

The image immediately below is of Philippe Parreno (left) and Douglas Gordon, the co-directors of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. In the article below are pictures of José Tomás, caught at a bad moment on his return to bullfightiing in Barcelona, Zinedine Zidane, and an engraving of Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the elder.

Art, sport and the history of IPA

The Times, January 7, 2008

The problem with a five-star success, as any Hollywood producer knows, is how to follow it up. It is conundrum the artist Douglas Gordon has been wrestling with since 2006 when rave reviews for his film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, spilled out of the arts pages into the sports supplements. This brilliant production, said one critic, was ideal if your “idea of a perfect Saturday is a morning at the Tate Modern followed by an afternoon at the match.”

Now at last, Gordon and his co-director Philippe Parreno have settled on the sequel. Ratcheting up the testosterone levels, they are shifting focus from football to bullfighting, from the enigma of Zinedine Zidane, the great French player, to José Tomás, Spain’s most famous matador.

Gordon is a Turner Prize winner, breathes the rarefied air of contemporary art. But he is a disarmingly unpretentious man, who chuckles as he describes how he was swept up in the cult of Tomás.

Last summer the bullfighter returned to the ring in Barcelona after a self-imposed exile from the sport of five years. Expectation was high and the stadium packed. Tomás did not disappoint, producing a brilliantly mannered performance and – despite being knocked to the ground - was carried out of the arena shoulder high in triumph. Gordon was agog.

“It was the most astonishing bullfight I’d seen. He is an amazing character who has obviously gone against the grain in that very macho culture and Philippe and I are interested in him as a matador. But we can also see things from the point of view of the animal, this beautiful beast,” recalls the artist. He envisages his film as “a game between the matador and the bull,” which will employ all the artfulness and technology which created Zidane – 16 cameras were trained on the footballer throughout a full match, to achieve an astonishingly intimate portrayal “every bit as detailed as a painting or a photograph”.

Winning Tomás’s continuing support for the film which will take months to plan and execute may not be decisive – another matador could step into the limelight - but with the spectre of an EU ban hanging over bullfighting, time is of the essence.

The urgency of the project only adds to the sense of activity and optimism which surrounds the artist. Eighteen months ago during the Edinburgh retrospective of his work Gordon was still coming to terms with the break up of his relationship with Anna Gaskell, and fretting over how he might maintain a closeness with his young son in New York.

Now he is relaxed and assured and in the throes of moving back to Glasgow, which hasn’t been his permanent base since 2000. Gordon is looking forward to playing golf and watching Scotland’s efforts in football’s World Cup qualifiers. And he has any number of artistic projects on the go.

The last “astonishing summer” convinced him to return to Europe. It wasn’t just Barcelona. Gordon participated in the ‘artists’ opera’, which was part of the Manchester Festival and spent enough “fallow time” in Scotland to make him realise that he had been a “bit too cranked up” In New York. He will keep a flat in Manhattan, and probably buy another in Berlin, but he already has two places in Glasgow, one of which, near Park Circus, is being converted into a non-profit-making gallery. Gaskell is likely to be one of the first artists to exhibit there.

The notion of an exhibition space in his house was dreamt up with Katrina Brown, an old friend who is the former director of Dundee Contemporary Arts. Over dinner, she told Gordon about her Common Guild foundation which is dedicated to mounting public programmes of contemporary art. “I said, ‘I have a big town house in Glasgow, but I only ever live in the kitchen. Why don’t we try to run it as an art space?’ “

The homecoming is enticing to an artist who feels both Scottish and European. “It made sense to get back to a context in which I was challenged in a different way. And people didn’t keep saying to me, ‘O your accent is so cute’, and I didn’t have to predicate everything I said with subtitles.”

Gordon was born the eldest of four children in Maryhill, Glasgow, where he absorbed all the obsessions which beset many Scottish men growing up in 1970s: sex, death, football and religion. When he was four, his mother became a Jehovah’s Witness; at nine, Gordon was giving Bible readings to audiences of 200 at the Kingdom Hall.

He would have studied literature and history and university if his guidance teacher hadn’t persuaded him to apply for Glasgow School of Art. Now at 42, he intends to right that decision and will apply to study the Reformation at St Andrews University. It should help, he says, in one of his current projects, “to rewrite the Bible”.

“I was in Germany recently looking at works by Cranach. There is a beautiful portrait of Martin Luther, and I thought, ‘Douglas, you just don’t know half as much as you should. Maybe it’s time to go back to school. You can be one of those cool, mature students for once.’”

Luther he admires for his “attempt at inevitable failure”, his 1517 protest. “I think what interests me in it – it’s very tricky - is that aspect of Protestantism which is the introduction of choice as oppose to dogma. We know that a few hundred years later it became dogmatic, but in those days …”

He lets that thought drift off. “If I study in St Andrews and have a flat in Berlin, I can go and see a lot of the paintings and go to Wittenburg.”

And you can study religion and have fun, he reckons. As if to prove the point, his most recent experiences in Berlin – absorbing the art of Cranach and Durer – were leavened by his new career as restaurant reviewer for the French edition of Playboy. He calls his column 24 Hours Gastronomy, echoing the title of arguably his best known work, 24 Hour Psycho. It first ran last October with a despatch from St Andrews.

“I thought I should start it off with a little patriotic nod. ‘Dear Reader’, it began, ‘I’m sitting aboard an Airbus, coming in from Charles De Gaulle to Edinburgh airport … Don’t go directly to St Andews. Stop off at the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh and have a pint of IPA.’ I give them a wee history of India Pale Ale. Then we stopped off in Crail for a lobster, we played golf, we went to St Monans for dinner. The French Playboy people loved it.”

He even takes his own photographs on his camera phone and e-mails them into the office. Now wonder Yan Ceh, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, lists Gordon as one of his heroes on his YouTube website.

In Berlin he wanted to dine in an exclusive restaurant, frequented by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. “I called the concierge and asked him to book. He said ‘Zees is not possible.” I said: ‘I am the food and drink editor of French Playboy magazine and I’d like to check the place out.’ I had a table in five minutes.”

Not bad, he laughs, for a man from Maryhill.

Screen but not heard

IT SOUNDS like the worst kind of joke. There are these two blokes arguing in a pub. One man, his face growing redder and redder, insists that the proliferation of television screens is destroying the traditional Scottish bar by killing the art of conversation. The other - in the person of Ian Rankin, the Edinburgh crime writer who plots his novels through a glass, darkly - says mildly that his companion is spouting much hot air.

To help advance his view, Rankin has theorised that his companion is possibly a little paranoid. Perhaps, Rankin suggests with a snigger, whenever his red-faced friend walks into a bar, someone switches on a telly just to annoy him: "Or maybe you're just a jinx."

Maybe. But I am that red-faced man and a graduate of the hard-drinking school of journalism. Years of observation and a heavy use of alcohol have convinced me that pubs - to be specific, traditional one-room Scottish bars - are spiralling into decline

A return to my one-man crusade against tellies in pubs, this time in the Sunday Herald. The images shows Ian Rankin pouring a pint and, below, an image of the interior the Oxford Bar, one of around ten on Ian's list of "great traditional Edinburgh pubs which don't have a telly". Keen-eyed readers may observe a television in the back row, second from the left. Read more at: Screen but not heard

You can visit one of Edinburgh's best bars (two tellies notwithstanding) at: Oxford Bar