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.

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