Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Girl power

With me in tow, my 11-year-old daughter watched Avril Lavigne at the Carling Academy in Glasgow last night. Was it good? "The best night of my life", according to Wade minor, encompassing an hour and half's travel, a Chinese meal, three hours of music and screaming (a weird experience that, like listening to 1,000 deranged fax machines go off at once) and a hour and a half's travel back into the wee small hours.

Fair play to Avril, or Mrs Whibley as she is properly known these days. She puts on a show and her teeny-tiny fans go home happy. So whatever you think of the singer and her music, she at least offers something substantial to have an opinion about. It's not just a beauty contest.

Thanks to Olympus for the pic, taken from row Y of the balcony of the Academy. Glasgow was the first venue on Avril Lavigne's European tour.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Miss Scotland, ya beauty

"These girls don't feel patronised; nor do they think they are pandering to their admirers' baser instincts.

"'If you're feeling comfortable, I don't really see why you'd bother about that. I think it's just a great opportunity,' says Ashley Scott, a language student from Gourock, who sounds genuinely surprised by the notion that she might be a sex object. Stacey Sharp, 21, who works in a pharmacy in Baillieston, is more blunt. 'Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I don't think it's a meat market at all. I think it's fab. I honestly don't know what to say to that at all. It's just ugly people who say that.'"

To read more about this year's Miss Scotland contest, go to the full article in Scotland on Sunday, which is here: Ya beauty.

For the record, my wife doesn't think it's a post-feminist event at all. Who cares, eh? Sleeping in the garden is quite comfortable at this time of year.

The photo shows some of the finalists with young Master Beaumont, son of the Queen of the South club doctor - by one of those happy quirks of fate, the contestants were staying in the same hotel as the team, who were playing in the Scottish FA Cup Final. The eventual winner of Miss Scotland, Stephanie Willemse, is second left in the photo.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Al Fayed and the princess of Scots

His writing was once the preserve of dusty professors and earnest Phd students - but now the work of Walter Bower, a medieval Scottish historian, can be snapped up by the wealthy customers of Harrods, thanks to the efforts of the store's owner, Mohamed Al Fayed.

Mr Al Fayed's interest in this most obscure of scholars was tickled by Bower's greatest work, his Scotichronicon, a nine-volume treatise in Latin, which the historian wrote in the seclusion of the island of Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, 550 years ago.

Bower explains that Scotland gained its name not from an Irish tribe, as most modern historians agree, but from an Egyptian princess - a theory which, not surprisingly, appeals greatly to Mr Al Fayed, a native of Alexandria and the owner of a castle in the Highlands.

The Bower history presents as fact the tale of an Egyptian princess, called Scota, a sister of Tutankhamen, who fell out with her pharaoh father and fled his wrath sailing north with her sons to a group of windswept islands off the northwest coast of Europe. Princess Scota brought with her the Stone of Destiny to this new country and, on her death, Scotland was named in her honour.

The rest is history, if you are an Egyptian billionaire, or myth, according to most academics.

Harrods customers can judge for themselves, because Mr Al Fayed has funded a print run of the book - last printed for public consumption in 1998 - which is now stocked in his Knightsbridge store.

At present the book is unavailable in Edinburgh, but 24 copies can be bought from the Harrods' branch of Waterstones, with many more available online from the same source.

In an interview at the weekend, Mr Al Fayed revealed that as a boy he had been taught that the Egyptians had discovered Scotland, though it was clearly the recent edition of Bower which had coloured his imagination.

“Go and ask about a book called History for the Scots, it's written by Walter Bower,” Mr Al Fayed told BBC Scotland. “A sister of Tutankhamen had a fight with her father, left Egypt with her two sons and her army and sailed up north ... She was called Scota. She told her two sons: ‘This is your land, go there and call it Scotland'. They went there and married a lot of Scottish ladies and definitely increased the culture. They founded Scotland.”

Modern day historians are less likely to take Bower's account seriously. Alastair Macdonald, from the University of Aberdeen, said that the Scotichronicon revealed more about the mindset of its author than it did about the origins of the Scottish nation.

“Bower was a chronicler who was writing for his own times. He developed one of the myths which explained how the Scottish nation came into existence. Every medieval nation had myths like these. They tell us a lot about what Scottish people thought in the Middle Ages - and this is a ferociously anti-English work.

“But they don't really tell us where the Scots came from as a nation. It certainly wasn't from Egypt. They are nice stories - but I don't think any academic would take [it] seriously,” said Dr Macdonald, a lecturer in the university's department of history.

Yet Mr Al Fayed is not without supporters. In his book From the Holy Mountain, the travel writer William Dalrymple explores some intriguing connections between the Middle East and Scotland dating back to the Dark Ages. He points out that the English scholar Alcuin, writing to the Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century refers to the Celts of Scotland as “pueri egyptiaci” - the children of Egypt.

He says that there are many striking similarities between the Celtic churches of western Europe and the Coptic Churches of the Middle East, dating back to medieval times. Handbells, T-shaped crosses and crowned bishops, familiar after the Picts were converted to Christianity and widely used by the Copts, were unknown in other churches. The “wheel” cross was a Coptic invention, appearing as a symbol there 300 years before it first appeared in Scotland and Ireland.

It may just be, therefore, that Mr Al Fayed is rather nearer the mark with his medieval theory of a fleeing princess who founded a nation than he was with his theories about the flight and tragic end of a more recent princess.

And in this he has an ancient historian to back him. When he completed his greatest work, Walter Bower wrote in the margin of the Scotichronicon: “He is not a Scot who is not pleased with this book.”

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The ladies who like to climb

The Times, 17 May, 2008

Buchaille Etive Mor, the “Big Shepherd” of Rannoch Moor will never have seen a gathering quite like it. At 1.00pm today, 37 women, aged been 35 and 92, many with their exhausted male partners in tow, will gather at the summit, 3,352ft above sea level. Some will be dressed in Edwardian skirts and knickerbockers; a few will be a little out of breath. But all will join in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.

Such is the centenary celebration planned for the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club, a unique institution founded in the heat of Suffragettism and still going strong. From its inception, the “Ladies Scottish” challenged the male establishment, set records and sent its members off to tackle some of the toughest climbs in the world.

The club produced the first female Munroist, Annie Hirst, and in Kathy Murgatroyd has the first woman to complete all 284 Munros (peaks in of 3,000ft or more) in an unbroken chain, travelling between them on foot or by bike.

In 1955, members of the Ladies Scottish formed the first women-only expedition to the Himalayas. One of the veterans of that extraordinary trek, Evelyn Nichol (nee Camrass) will be on Buchaille Etive Mor today, her friends say, but only “if she gets back from Thailand in time”.

But while it may be plain that the Ladies Scottish is more than just a book club with altitude, its members insist that they are nothing out of the ordinary. “There are women who cycle, or run or play hockey - I don't think we are any different, this just happens to be our hobby,” says Alison Higham, 60, a retired teacher from Kirkintilloch.

“Most women enjoy getting out into the countryside, away from the stress of work or town or driving, and they enjoy the companionship. Some walk, some climb. Older members just enjoy being out there. The important thing is the companionship.”

Many of the women say a single-sex club allows them to develop at their own pace, and, unlike mixed clubs, offers them the chance to lead. Karin Froebel, 58, is an accomplished climber who will ascend today by Agag's Groove, one of the Highland's classic rock walls. A former research immunologist specialising in HIV, she believes that mountain craft brings with it a sense of achievement which transfers into every aspect of life.

“I enjoy mixed climbing clubs, but the women's only side is important,” she says. “It's not necessarily better but its different. I know that I could not have done what I have done in leadership terms without this.”

The club's ideal were founded in the Edwardian era by Jane Inglis Clarke, her daughter Mabel, and Lucy Smith whose husbands and fathers were members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Ladies were barred from the SMC - so they founded their own.

At first membership was the preserve of the upper crust, who had the leisure to take advantage of the Highlands. But gradually it widened, and the notion that sisters could do it for themselves persisted.

In the 1970s, as the women's movement grew, the Ladies Scottish acquired a new impetus. “It was a time of women branching out, burning their bras. It was attractive to me,” says Mrs Higham, 60, who has often climbed with her husband, but found that a women's club offered a new dimension.

“I used to climb with my husband, usually in a ‘second' capacity. But I got as much fun leading at a lower grade. It's not that we are anti-men, but women can find their own level, without the pressure of a mixed group.”

The spirit of adventure established by the club's pioneers is alive and well among the 115 members. On Sunday, club president, Helen Steven, 65, will lead a three-week trek along a 112-mile (180km) route between Glencoe and Dundonell. And in July, 20 women are heading to Bolivia to tackle Pequeno Alpamayo, a daunting 17,552ft glacial peak. Mrs Nicholl, an octogenarian hopes to make the trip.

Younger women are welcome too, but don't always want to join. Mrs Froebel says that in her twenties she too was reluctant. “At that time I was looking for a partner, that was part of the agenda.

“But a ladies club is simply about what you are doing on the hill. Ultimately that is the attraction.”

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The online Vettriano

The Times, May 13, 2008

After falling out last year with the art dealer who helped to make him rich, Jack Vettriano, once dubbed “the people's painter”, has set up a website to sell his work.

Vettriano tells prospective buyers who visit his site that they will be able to find “images of paintings that are for sale in between exhibitions”. Unfortunately for those in the market for originals - which can sell for upwards of £300,000 - says that there are “currently no paintings available for purchase”.

Vettriano's artworks - originals and reproductions - have proved very popular, with galleries and art shops ringing with his sales for the better part of two decades. In 1993 he established a lucrative relationship with Tom Hewlett, an art dealer at the Portland Gallery in London. He profited from the sales of canvases but he made his fortune from the rights to his works, which have been used around the world on postcards, posters and gifts.

After a long period of creative inactivity, the partnership with the gallery was dissolved in July last year, amid rumours that he had failed to produce pictures for a promised exhibition.

To scotch that tittle-tattle, the artist's website features several unseen works. One of these, Blades, was apparently painted recently and, according to the site, is “part of series of paintings on a French Riviera theme” that Vettriano is working on.

“When Jack next has an exhibition, the images in his next show, wherever that might be, will be displayed,” said Isabelle Delacroix, who is helping the painter with his business. “In principle, if the paintings haven't been pre-placed with private collectors and they are available, there will certainly be an image and details on the site.”

Mr Hewlett is not involved in the website, and was unaware that it had gone “live”.

Other unseen works in the virtual gallery include Showgirl, which Vettriano painted in 1997, and the artwork for a CD cover, produced by the band Saint Jude's Infirmary, who recorded a song Goodbye Jack Vettriano.

Though none of these works is for sale, potential buyers can bid for Olympia, his recently completed portrait of Zara Phillips, which was commissioned for the charity Sport Relief. Olympia will be sold, along with works by Peter Blake, Gerald Scarfe and Stella Vine, at a fundraising auction in London this year.

Born Jack Hoggan, in St Andrews, Vettriano was brought up in Methil and began his career as a mining engineer, and he took up art in his spare time after being given a paint box by a girlfriend. He later adopted the name Vettriano from his mother's family, because he thought that it sounded more fitting for an artist. For admirers, his curious and often uncomfortable narrative scenes of human life have attracted comparison with the American figurative painter Edward Hopper.

In 2003 Vettriano was made an OBE for services to the visual arts and he has an honorary doctorate from St Andrews University. His celebrity buyers include Jack Nicholson, SirAlex Ferguson, Robbie Williams and Raymond Blanc.

Others remained unimpressed. In 2005 critics seized on the revelation that characters in some of Vettriano's best-known pictures appeared to have been copied from a teach-yourself painting manual. And neither Tate Gallery nor the National Galleries of Scotland has ever bought his work, with only one public collection in the UK displaying his paintings - and even those were a gift by the artist to his local gallery in Kirkcaldy.

Friends of Vettriano say that he is hurt by this lack of “official” recognition, but in a statement yesterday the painter said that he remained aloof from the argument. “I'm often dragged into the debate about whether or not my work should be shown in public collections, and while I feel that this is for others to decide I'm delighted that fans of my paintings will now be able to see a body of work of which I'm very proud. I've had some very flattering approaches but I've no plans to join another gallery just yet,” he said.

Even Vettriano's worst enemies acknowledge his unfailing instinct for publicity. In 2004 ITV's flagship arts programme, The South Bank Show, profiled him in a documentary entitled The People's Painter. Within a month The Singing Butler, his best-known work, which was owned by one of his friends, was sold at auction for £750,000, a record price for a living Scottish artist.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Waving not drowning, at last

The Times, 13 May 2008

In the living room of his Ayrshire home – with its panoramic view over the estuary to Cumbrae – James Watt sits surrounded by some of the paintings which have established him as Scotland’s finest maritime artist.

For decades he has captured the hubbub of life along the Clyde. Admirers of his russet-coloured harbours and dark tugs and trawlers compare him to the French Impressionists; the Queen collects his work; and tomorrow, the Royal Glasgow Institute will celebrate his career.

But recognition has not always come so easily. Setting out to paint in the austerity of the 1950s, Watt simply could not sell, and he vividly recalls how in a fit of anguish he destroyed some of his finest early works. He had, he says, made an appointment at a famous shipyard, confident of persuading its owner to invest. As he prepared to meet his new patron, Watt laid his pictures proudly round the walls of the boardroom.

“This man walked slowly round them. Then he called me to the window looking over the yard and said, ‘I’ve been staring at this every day of my working life. The last thing I want is to take any of it home with me.’ He didn’t buy a thing. I took all the paintings home and burnt them. I regret that now,” says Watt evenly.

Only two paintings in his living-room gallery are not his own, a white flower, gifted to Nancy, his wife, and a self-portrait of a woman in a soldier’s bonnet. Both unmistakeably are in the hand of his daughter Alison, whose exhibition, Phantom, has just opened at the National Gallery in London.

Their work seems light years apart – Alison’s stylised paintings are often full of eroticism – but the very difference in their outlook is a matter of pride to her father. For 38 years Watt was art master at St Columba’s High in Greenock, and though all four of his children attended the school, he made sure he taught none of them.

“There is nothing I hate more in the art world than children rehashing their mother’s or father’s paintings,” he says. “I know some artists and I feel like saying to them, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’ It’s a bit sad, a father virtually imposing his personality on his children. All I did when was encourage them, no more than that. But Alison used to win competitions and people would say, ‘O, your dad did that for you’. Well, I didn’t.”

Watt was born in Port Glasgow and spent his own artistic education by the Clyde. His father, “an old school socialist” was a riveter, his grandfather too, and every man he knew worked in the yards. Poverty rooted families to the town for generations, yet everyone spoke the exotic language of the sea. His “total immersion” in this hard but strangely beautiful world gave Watt a canvas for life.

“The men, the women, the children, everyone used nautical terms,” he says. “Just as city children become streetwise, as river children, we were riverwise. We built rafts, we repaired old boats and sailed them. Everything we did prepared us to be shipbuilders.”

In the 1940s, this cocoon was punctured briefly by the arrival of Stanley Spencer, despatched by the government to work as a war artist in the town. Watt remembers Spencer sketching his Port Glasgow Resurrection series from hill above the cemetery and the way “he wheeled around his canvas and easel in an old pram”. Spencer “dressed weirdly, everyone’s idea of what an artist should be – something beyond our ken.” Watt never thought for a moment that he could be such a man.

It was an equally eccentric figure who finally connected him to his life’s work. Joe Kelly, a one-legged ex-miner from Lochgelly, arrived at his school to teach art when the boy was 15. Kelly was an enthusiast whose inspiration fired up Watt’s natural talent and sent him on his way through Glasgow School of Art.

Watt’s later encounter with the shipyard owner did not prove terminal. In his 20s and 30s, the painter toured Greenock’s harbours looking for inspiration and found it in the Lady Bute, a puffer tied to the wall. “It was an inspirational thing. I could stand 20 feet from it and yet see the entire puffer. It came to symbolise the whole of the Clyde.”

He spent summers on the little boats, watching the hard lives of their drink-addled crews unfold in front of him, painting the puffers and the ports they visited, and arriving on Islay or Harris, to be introduced as “Oor artist, Jum.” Not that he needed any ntroduction. Watt remembers the harbour master at Port Ellen telling a skipper, “Wullie, your Jum’s got more paint on his jumper than you’ve got on your puffer.”

These days, the puffers, like the yards have gone, and there’s “not so much as a rowing boat” in Greenock harbour – a decline recorded by Watt in thousands of paintings over five decades. That shipyard owner who so casually dismissed the struggling young artist might wish he’d kept just one picture as a keepsake.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Where have all the cloth caps gone?

Scotland on Sunday, May 11, 2008

[Amusing guide to Manchester, published for the benefit of Rangers fans attending the UEFA Cup Final. Not enough of them read it, apparently.]

The Smiths. The Stone Roses. Oasis. That whole Madchester scene. Welcome to Manchester, England’s hippest city, reborn as the host of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and now drowning in posh shops, tasty restaurants and a social life which matches its claim to be a great European destination. That’s the good news, and even better for Rangers fans on the march, you can still find a pint for £1.50 and buy your chips with mushy peas.

Rangers headquarters - Albert Square

You can’t miss the city’s most famous square which is earmarked as Ranger’s fans “dedicated area”, because it sits under Manchester’s vast Town Hall. There’s a big screen and outlets for as much over-priced official UEFA merchandise as you can carry. Convenient for the adjacent Bootle St police station.

The Briton’s Protection - a home from homes

Almost too good to be true. One of Manchester’s best traditional boozers, complete with union jacks, great beer and more than 150 whiskies. And, at 50 Great Bridgewater St, The Briton’s Protection is just round the corner from Albert Square.

What the IRA did for the Manchester – Exchange Square

In 1996 the Provisional IRA detonated the largest bomb to explode in Britain since the Second World War. A large chunk of Manchester was blown away, but so was its clothcap image, as outraged Mancunians set about rebuilding the “Millennium Quarter”. Exchange Square was born, with its trendy pubs, cafés and shops.

Nightlife: Theatre or dance?

The city council’s helpful “fan information guide” recommends that brainy Rangers fans attend the Library Theatre, the Opera House or the Lowry Centre. The rest of us will be in the Fab Café, 111 Portland St, a dark cave filled with daleks and sci-fi weirdness, or at 42nd Street, at the junction of Bootle St and Deansgate, a Manchester indy institution.

It’s queer up North

Don’t be a square, Albert. Manchester’s throbbing “gay village” is close to Rangers fans’ city centre HQ. Try Manto, 46 Canal St, the “mixed” style bar which started a revolution. Or take a taxi to Cupid’s, a swinging club on Sutherland St, Swinton, with a reputation for satisfying Glaswegian clients. Make sure it’s not your round when the £50 membership charge is mentioned.

Where’s the tripe?

Old fashioned delicacies like cowheel, tripe and sarsaparilla may be off the menu these days, but there’s plenty of good grub. Try Stock, 4 Norfolk St for superb Italian food, and Gaucho’s, 2a St Mary’s St, decadent, opulent and Argentinean. China Town, close to Albert Square, is packed with cheap restaurants – try the Pan Asia for a-better-than-average buffet.

Cathedral Gardens – clean, wholesome fun

Part of the Millennium Quarter and on Wednesday home to a wholesome three-a-side football tournament for local kids. Adult refreshments are available in the nearby Printworks bar and restaurant complex.

The beautiful game

It’s just a tram ride to Manchester United’s club shop and museum, offering a chance to gaze on the many trophies won by Sir Alex Ferguson and his merry men. Alternatively, step out early for the cup final, and visit the Manchester City Experience Museum, where you can admire the carpets.

Old Manchester

Have a shufti inside the John Rylands Library, the City Art Gallery or the Town Hall, and take in their stunning Victorian opulence. Once the pubs have opened, beetle off to Castlefield, where the city’s industrial heritage has been refurbished in a variety of popular venues, including BarCa, Duke’s and the Rain Bar, which takes its name from the prevailing weather conditions in the city.

New Manchester

The Beetham Tower is the soaring skyscraper which dominates the city, and Cloud 23, at the top of the Hilton Hotel, commands a stunning view. It’s a 15-second elevator ride to the summit - but you might have to book.

Dining at the City of Manchester stadium

Thai is the flavour of the month and Swedish meatballs are off. But try the dish named in honour of the Sky Blues’ most famous fans, the Gallagher Brothers. That’s the Oasis Soup – you getta roll with it.

Speak Mancunian

“Now then, our kid” - “Hello, my friend.”

“Y’alright, our kid – “Hello, my friend.”

“Ay up, our kid” – “Hello, my friend.”

“Sound” – “I am well, thank you.”

“Booger. Me keks are soaked wi' Boddies.” - “Oh dear, some beer has been spilt on my trousers.”

“Bobbins” – Dreadful. As in “Zenit are bobbins.”

“Ref, tha’d mither a boathorse till it dropt in t’ cut” – “Referee, your persistant interference would cause the horse pulling a barge to fall into the canal.”

“Yer not gerrin in. Yer look like wreck o’th’Esperus.” – “No entry without a tie”

Monday, 5 May 2008

Against all odds

"Violence erupted in the spring of 1992. 'For 48 hours, we were killing one another,' remembers Imam Ashafa. 'I was fighting, believing I had to defend my faith, maiming and killing the others. My spiritual teacher, a man of 70, was murdered by the Christian community in his area. Two of my cousins were killed, and I came to know that it was Pastor James's group who had organised that militia. I was nursing an anger. For three years, my group and I were planning to eliminate the leaders of these groups.'

"Later that same year, Pastor Wuye and his entourage were set upon. Wuye's bodyguard was killed, and he was left for dead. When his friends found him, Wuye was lying in a pool of blood, and his right hand, completely severed at the wrist, was on the ground beside him. He now wears a prosthetic hand. Throughout his recovery, he thought only of vengeance. 'I felt propelled forward, even with a bandage on my arm,' he says. 'I went out to train people to fight, to show that this thing must be continued. I thought, Even if I die in this cause, I will be happy. Even when I started working with the imam, I nursed the ambition of killing him.'"

Extracted from my feature in Spectrum magazine. Imam Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye are now the driving forces of a peace movement in Kaduna, Nigeria, which is slowly becoming influential around the world. This extraordinary tale of reconciliation is back online at Read it here: Against all odds