Sunday, 13 December 2009

The return of the oyster

Wild oysters, once the gastronomic delight of kings as much as they were the staple diet of paupers, have returned to the Firth of Forth for the first time in almost a century.

The native oyster, ostrea edulis, is thought to have disappeared from the Forth in 1920, but out of the blue, two have made their way on to rocks somewhere on the south shore of Firth near Edinburgh, prompting jigs of delight from environmentalists and the smacking of lips from gourmands.

They were discovered by Liz Ashton, an aquaculturalist, after she heard rumours that they had been sighted around the estuary, even though an extensive marine survey in 1997 found no evidence of oysters. Taking advantage of a very low tide, she went to investigate and after walking for an hour along the shoreline, came across the pair, 100 yards (91 metres) apart.

“I was ecstatic, I jumped up and down and cheered,” she said. “I phoned my supervisor and told her the good news. Then I measured them and took their photographs, and then left them there to let the tide wash over them.”

Dr Ashton’s joy is partly explained by her deep interest in the native oyster. Overfishing has all but wiped the creature out across Europe, but she and a team from the Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling University are working on a project devoted to re-establish oysters in the Firth of Forth.

The two oysters were almost certainly members of a larger bed (or colony) that remained hidden when surveys of the estuary were carried out. If numbers could be increased, the oysters would promote bio-diversity, providing a habitat and food for little crabs and lobsters, and improving water quality, because the animals are “filter feeders”, taking impurities out of the water.

These highly desirable outcomes depended on the behaviour of humans, Dr Ashton said. “We need to try and restore them. I wouldn’t want people going down there and eating them straight away.”

Her warning was timely. Edinburgh’s restaurant trade has been yearning to supply local oysters for generations. “It’s wonderful news and it would be very interesting to compare them with oysters we serve now,” said Tia Millar, co-director of Fisher’s restaurants in Leith and Edinburgh.

Fisher’s is obliged to use West Coast shellfish and its menu includes oysters in their shells and grilled oysters, although Ms Millar’s preferred method — perfect for a Forthside picnic — is to cook oysters on a barbecue and then when the shells pop, eat them “in their delicious nectar”.

Ms Millar is part of a gastronomic tradition in the city. Long before Mr Pickwick was handing out barrels of oysters to his friends in London, Edinburgh was knee-deep in the creatures, its population reportedly eating its way through millions every year.

Edinburgh’s oysters enjoyed world renown but Scots kept the best of the crop for themselves. Adam Smith even founded an oyster club, which counted the philosophers David Hume and Adam Fergusson among its members. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson dined in a reputable laigh shop, or oyster house, near the law courts; in the nearby Cowgate gentlemen could season their fun with side of orders of oysters and porter.

James Hogg, the novelist, was baffled by the sheer quantities consumed: “What desperate breedy beasts eisters must be, for the they tell me that Embro devours a hunder thousand ever day ... That is only about two oysters for every three mouths.”

As the end loomed for the oysters, the Victorians showed no mercy. Local recipes for Oyster Kromeskies and Oyster Custard from the 1890s, used 24 oysters in each serving and no true Musselburgh Pie was complete without a least a dozen to sweeten the taste of the meat.

“There was a lack of effective management,” Dr Ashton said. “We should learn from that.”

* This one was in the paper a month ago, but it's still quite jolly. And the timelag enabled me to get rid of the dreadful error that was in the original.

Friday, 11 December 2009

For these women, the future's Orange

High on Well Road, past the bookmakers, the bowling alley and Chinese takeaway, you can enjoy the best view of Auchinleck's Orange parade as it slowly takes shape outside the community centre.

The flutes of the Patna band have returned from wetting their whistles at the Railway hotel, and are forming in orderly ranks. Braided union flags and lodge banners are held aloft; the marchers have fallen into line.

I am in the middle of a housing scheme in Ayrshire. This is not the beautiful coastal strip with its luxury golf courses and prosperous commuter towns, but the eastern side of the county, where the mining jobs have long gone from tough and insular communities. For some who live here it is only a dim sense of their Protestant roots that keeps them going.

It is in communities like this in East Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and West Lothian that the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland draws its strength. That's why the residents of Well Road are out in their front gardens in their tracksuits and vests, grinning at each other and waiting for the fun to begin. But there is a curious difference to this march.

True, there are the bands, with their gaudy uniforms and their absurdly militant names, such as the Drongan Young Conquerors. But those trussed-up men with their bowler hats and sashes, who for generations have held up towncentre traffic all across Scotland, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it's women who catch the eye.

Draped in a blue sash and at the head of the parade march is Helyne MacLean, the mouse-like grand mistress of the women's wing of the Orange Order of Scotland.

Behind her, dressed in their Sunday hats, are ladies from all over the country, who are spending their bank holiday Saturday celebrating the inauguration of a new women's lodge in the village.

At the centre of the parade come the Auchinleck ladies, dressed in regulation orange and brown, proudly strutting along. These are the Sisters of Peden, Orange Lodge No205. To outsiders they look militant and uncompromising; to their supporters on the streets, they are proud defenders of the faith. Staunch or scary, I've come to meet them and to find what makes them tick.

There is a clue to the Orange mindset in the very name of the new lodge, which, like so many others, invokes the memory of a bloody and unblinking Protestant fanatic, long forgotten by the rest of the human race.

Alexander Peden was a Calvinist firebrand who defied the King's soldiers during the Killing Times of the 17th century. Peden was variously imprisoned on the Bass Rock, sentenced to transportation and forced to hide in the shadow of persecution, spending the last months of his life in a cold, dank cave. Surely a bitter and bloody chapter in Scottish history, a story you'd never wish to linger over? Not a bit of it.

After the march has ended, MacLean, nibbling on a piece of Dundee cake in the community centre, confides pleasantly: "The ladies themselves chose the name."

Auchinleck has many surprises. Out on the streets, it's easy to imagine a flash point is approaching as the parade begins to climb towards the village's Catholic church. The crowd, though, remains in good humour, laughing and joking with the scrawny ribbon of spectators spread out along the route.

High on the verge, Eddie McGilvray, the keeper of chapel hall, waves as one of the marchers shouts a greeting. "It's just something they do," he says with a smile and a shrug. "We stand shoulder to shoulder with them when we're watching the Talbot."

McGilvray is talking about Auchinleck Talbot, the village's football team. Just a week before, in a striking display of community solidarity, more than half the population of 7,500 - Catholic and Protestant, men and women - turned out to watch them win the Scottish Junior cup.

For all its modest scale, this parade effectively sounds one of the opening shots of the marching season. This summer there will be 186 marches in Glasgow alone, to celebrate a victory of Protestant forces over the deposed Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Depending on where you stand, these marches are either the nearest Scotland has to Mardi Gras or the physical manifestation of a scar on the national psyche. So why would women want to get involved? For the ladies of the order the answer is simple: their passionate belief in a Protestant Britain is unshakeable and they have every right to express themselves. "The way the country's going, it makes you value it even more," says MacLean. "I'd fight for it even more. But people just haven't got the values I was brought up on - the commitment to their church and country."

Back at the community centre, the lodge banners and union flags are arranged around a photograph of the Queen. The ladies have arranged their hats and coats tidily on chairs, and ensconced themselves in an annex where a buffet has been laid out.

These women have much to unite them. Few are in the first flush of youth and most have been members of the Orange Order for years. Nearly everyone has a parent or grandparent who was a member of a lodge. Margaret Stirkie is the worthy mistress of the Auchinleck lodge; her husband is its worthy master. Janice Frew joined the Sisters of Peden today, "but she was brought up with the lodge" and her husband is another leading Orangeman in the village.

Above all, what defines the women is their backs-to-the-wall attitude, in the face of what they see as attacks on their way of life - by politicians, by politically correct bureaucrats, by the media and by their own churches. It is difficult to meet them without thinking they are out of step with the modern world.

When MacLean joined the Church of Scotland at the age of 13, the spirit of tolerant ecumenicism, she says with regret, was already reaching the church. "That was the 1960s," she recalls, "when people were very much taking charge of their own lives. Even then I felt there was a need, that the churches weren't entirely for the people. I felt then that the Orange Order was a kind of extension of church membership." She joined the order three years later, in 1969.

Within the church of Scotland things have got far worse since the Swinging Sixties for those of an Orange disposition. Last month it was mooted at the Kirk's general assembly that same-sex partnerships might be blessed by ministers. That is anathema here.

"I don't agree with a lot of the trends the church has gone towards," says MacLean. "People in churches are the keepers of the..." she seems to stop herself saying "faith", aware perhaps that it makes her sound almost too committed.

Instead she goes on: "There are some always asking, 'What are you going to do about this?' The answer is, 'What are you going to do about it.'" MacLean is not for turning. She is staunch, in the language of the lodge.

The Grand Lodge of Scotland is firmly on its back foot. It's peak membership of 80,000 was reached in the 1960s; now it numbers 50,000, around a third of whom are women.

First came devolution, a body blow to the unionist cause. Next up was Jack McConnell's crusade against sectarianism. Last month, the Order joined with the Irish republican group, Cairde na hEireann, to sign a declaration that aims to eradicate the boorish chants that often accompany such parades.

But that gesture does not hide the resentment felt among the women tucking into tea and cake about McConnell's determination to put sectarianism "in the dustbin of history". For it is clear to these ladies that the first minister has them - and the organisation they love - in his sights.

"The Orange Order is a celebration," says Margaret Blakely, who has come from Irvine for this little tea. "In Ireland, sectarianism went alongside terrorism - and that's totally wrong."

"If somebody can actually give us the meaning of sectarianism, what Jack McConnell means by the word, it might help," says MacLean. "People don't know what the Orange Order is about, so they say we're sectarian. But what is that? This is our culture, and we feel it's being eroded. If we were any other religion ..." she lets the sentence trail off in exasperation. The women sitting opposite me feel they live in an all-inclusive, liberal society, which embraces the freedom of expression for all religions. Except their own.

"It's like the rest of society is ashamed of the Orange Order," somebody says. "I think they are," agrees MacLean. "You might see a religious parade abroad and think it was interesting, and you would have tremendous respect for these people.

It seems that people don't have any respect for our faith. Tolerance is accepting people for what they are and not for changing them to what you want them to be."

The women's lodge was established 97 years ago, when democratic and socialist principles were taking hold. Yet despite their numbers - women account for 164 of its 432 lodges - they remain discriminated against, with no voting rights at any important level in the organisation.

"It's something we want to change," says MacLean. "We're striving, and I think it will come. There's still a lot of what we call dinosaurs in there, but we really do have a good working relationship with the men. We are an organisation that believes in democracy. We are getting there." But in an organisation that has steadfast as its watchword, don't expect change any day soon.

At least on a local level the women believe they can make a difference. There's talk of increased involvement in Auchinleck's community council, and a determination to continue fundraising for good causes.

It will seem ironic to some that this fiery brand of Protestantism should now be putting its energies into helping others, but the irony

is lost on Walker. "It's about tolerance, isn't it?" she says. "It's about freedom of civil and religious liberty. And if we believe that for ourselves, we have to believe it for other folk."

That's how it is for the ladies of the Orange Order. They have feelings; they can be cheerful and generous with their time. But they are blinkered, and fanatical about their cause. And it's impossible to ignore another irony: the very tolerance they now crave could well sound the death knell for an organisation that, for centuries, has thrived only because of its rigid resistance to progress.

With the marching, talking and the fruitcake taken care of, the ladies of the Orange Order collect their hats and coats, and head home. The Sisters of Peden need to get ready for their celebration dance. But how long can the party continue for the Orange Order?

This piece was written in 2006. The picture is of a parade in Northern Ireland, not Ayrshire.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

It's Bathgate not Broadway

It's early morning in Bathgate’s main street, and there is an unaccustomed buzz of excitement. The small queue outside WH Smith disappeared as soon as the shop opened, yet half-an-hour later there is still a steady stream of people struggling upstairs to its music department to purchase their copy of I Dreamed a Dream, the debut album by Susan Boyle.

For those who have been holidaying on the dark side of the Moon, Boyle is the last word in local-girl-made-good stories, transformed from pub singer into “SuBo”, the Diva, in the space of just seven months. Her album is already the biggest pre-ordered CD in the history of the online retailer, Amazon, and she is the bookies’ favourite to be Christmas No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Under the circumstances, it’s a shame that the Bathgate store has only 70 copies of the CD, because it is destined to be sold out by noon, says Winnie Campbell, the manager. “It’s normally absolutely dead in here before 11 o’clock,” said Mrs Campbell, smiling in wonder. “This morning we just can’t get anything else done.”

Such is the magic of reality TV. A year ago, no one in Bathgate would have looked twice at Boyle, 48, whose only real work had been with the local Catholic church in her home village of Blackburn, three miles away.

Then, in April, she went to audition for Britain’s Got Talent, the ITV show, changing buses six times before she reached the studio at the SECC in Glasgow. She was a sensation, and within 48 hours, her sweet soaring voice, and her awkward manner had made her famous all over the world.

Nowadays her extraordinary story is so familiar, it seems only natural that on Saturday, she should be jetted off to New York to sing outside the Rockefeller Centre, on American’s leading network breakfast programme, The Today Show.

Bathgate is as far from the Rockefeller Centre as it is possible to imagine. Every other retailer is a pound shop. British Leyland shut up shop in the town long ago and there has not been a substantial employer here since 2003, when Motorola pulled out, laying off 3,000 people. It can seem a bleak and broken place and for the locals, Boyle’s success and her resilience burn even brighter.

“The town has been dying a death — Susan has done a great thing,” says Thomas Burns, whose wife, Liz, is clutching the couple’s treasured CD. She agrees: “It’s nice that people get to hear about the place.” That they have. Within days of her first TV appearance, paparazzi were following SuBo as she bussed into Bathgate to visit Stein’s the butchers, or meet her friends at the Balbairdie Hotel. So many reporters sat on her garden fence, outside her drab house in Blackburn, that the fence fell over and had to be replaced by the council.

James Murphy, 77, a former miner, has bought eight copies of the album, to give to friends and family. He has more reason than most to invest his hard-earned pension in the music — he organised concerts for Boyle 30 years ago, when she was a teenager.

“The first time she won a competition, she gave the prize money away,” remembers Mr Murphy. “It was at the Happy Valley pub in Blackburn and she won £300. She said: ‘I don’t do money — what would I need it for?’.”

Mr Murphy, a singer himself, toured with Susan around the clubs and pubs of West Lothian. Was it a proving ground for Broadway? Mr Murphy has no doubt that Susan will hold her own in New York. “She’ll do well as long as no one takes a loan of her — some people can latch on and bleed you dry,” says Mr Murphy. “But I’m not too worried for her. Susan’s no dolly bird and in America, they love that rags to riches thing. Last week she went to M&Co to get her outfit. She’ll never change.”

By now, its 10am, at the Balbairdie Hotel and the sound of Cry Me A River, the album’s third track, is seeping through the window. The landlady, Lorraine Campbell, 47, has been a friend to Susan since childhood, and her hotel is a refuge for the singer.

“Susan is a very independent lady,” says Ms Campbell. “She went and found success on her own terms and she deals with it on her own terms. There’s always been a purity about Susan: she not after the fame or the money. She just wants to be accepted.”

That's from the Scottish edition of the Times. There's also a splash about Trump, and a something in the national edition about the Fringe.

Friday, 30 October 2009

"He was a monster in a human skin"

“I see James Rennie as somebody who I thought I knew, but actually I didn’t know that person at all. That person is someone I once spent a lot of time with, a face I know and recognise because we shared experiences together. But he was actually an outrageous and disgusting monster. He had a job and a suit and went to work and bought Ikea sofas and shopped in Sainsbury’s, all the usual stuff. But it was just a façade. That’s how I rationalise it. I never saw this as a betrayal. I think, ‘You weren’t my friend at all. You just pretended to be to suit your own ends.’ He was just a skin and a shell. Underneath, that person was not in any shape or form a person I knew. He is an inhuman and amoral monster.”

That's the father of a child abused by James Rennie, who, with Neil Strachan, was given a life sentence for his central role in a criminal conspiracy to abuse children. Their network of contacts reached out all over the world through the internet, and the information obtained by police in Scotland will ultimately lead to hundreds of convictions in Britain, Europe and America. Read about it here:

Times front page.

Rennie profile.

How the internet normalised child abuse.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Dark sky at night, astronomers' delight

At the end of a garden path, in a home-made observatory overlooking Wee Glenamour Loch, there’s an air of expectancy among a gaggle of astronomers who have gathered. Not because it’s a good night for star-gazing. It’s not: the skies are leaden and the rain is rising in stair-rods. But here on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park, locals are preparing to celebrate its recognition as a Dark-Sky Park, an award unique in Europe, that will rank this lonely corner of South West Scotland alongside just two other areas in the world.

Next month, the International Dark-Sky Association – based in Tucson, Arizona - will convene to ratify the report of its inspectors in Britain. Final tests, which begin tonight in the shrouded hills of Glen Trool, are almost certain to confirm a first batch of readings that registered parts of the vast and lonely forest at Bortle 2 on the international darkness scale. For the uninitiated, Bortle 2 is as dark as it gets on dry land, anywhere in the world; only in the middle of the ocean, where light pollution is entirely absent, could you experience the profound blackness of Bortle 1.

“There will be a little bit of pride. I will be able to say: ‘I live in the dark-sky park’ and I’ll push it for all its worth,” says Dr Robin Bellerby, 69, a former headmaster, and chairman of the Wigtownshire Astronomical Society. “All teachers are missionaries. This can be a solitary hobby , but we like to interest people to join with us and turn their heads up.”

Barring perhaps Cape Wrath, the most remote point of mainland Britain, nothing compares to Galloway for astronomers. Far from large towns and cities – Glasgow and Edinburgh are over the hills and more than two hours away to the north – and with the atmosphere cleansed by frequent rain, the quality of darkness is exceptional.

You don’t need rocket science to explain why the forest park is special says Steve Owens, the UK national co-ordinator of the International Year of Astronomy, and one of tonight’s three inspectors. It’s simple: high quality darkness depends on an absence of light. Light pollution from sodium lamps in the city “is a terrible spoiler for astronomers," he says. “On the clearest night in London, you might be able to pick out only 200 stars.” In Galloway Forest Park some 7,000 fill the sky. Weather permitting.

Sheltered by a stand of pines near the small town of Newton Stewart, Dr Bellerby and his friends feel the benefit. The observatory sits on the edge 320 square miles of parkland in which there are just 414 “points of light”, or houses. When the Forestry Commission contacted the householders asking for their assistance in the dark-sky campaign, all but three agreed to douse unnecessary lights and keep buildings dark.

It is probably helps that, according to legend at least, astronomy is a secret passion for many locals. A couple of years ago, sensors in the roads, that count vehicles, registered a surprisingly high volume of traffic travelling into the forest park in the darkest hours of night. The local constabulary, alerted to possible foul play, descended on a car park by the inky blackness of Clatteringshaws Loch. They found not drug dealers, sheep rustlers or even Stan Collymore and friends; just a group of guys with cagoules and thermos flasks, their telescopes trained on the Crab Nebula

But not tonight, as the rain clatters on the observatory roof. “Won’t see anything, I’m afraid,” says Dr Bellerby, with the cheery demeanour of a man who, for once, is looking forward to a good eight hours sleep.

Last Wednesday, “a lovely night”, he had wiled away the evening totting up the man-made objects he could see above his head: two American military satellites; two pieces of Russian rocket; the international space station – “that’s bloody large” - and a communications contraption. All this in the silent sky above the unsuspecting farmers of Newton Stewart? “Yes, yes,” says Dr Bellerby contentedly. “Two hours after dark you’ll probably see 30 satellites. A deck chair’s super. Just lie there and slowly track them.”

But the real joys come with the Heavenly delights: the Milky way sprawling east to west across the hills; Jupiter, with its moons clearly visible in the southern skies. Or, with the right alignment of sun spots, a stunning display of the Northern Lights. “I never saw it for a couple of years,” said Dr Bellerby. “Then a neighbour rang me. He said, ‘You know how you were complaining about never seeing the Aurora? Get into your garden now.’ And there it was, in all its glory, from west to east and following the coast north. Absolutely extraordinary.”

The final decision of the International Dark Sky Association will be taken on 16 or 17 November. Should Galloway make the grade, the announcement will coincide with the Leonid meteor shower, an annual celestial firework show which promises to be more spectacular this year than it has been for a century. “As if in celebration,” says Dr Bellerby, eyeing the sky expectantly.

I didn't think this article would make the paper. It did, puffed on the front. A shortened version is currently (ie as I post this) the most read article at the timesonline website, Dark Place. Don't these people realise you only get the unexpurgated version on Wade's World?

Photo by James Glossop, who, in the words of Barry Manilow, made it through the rain.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Herta who?

“It is a great regret that the Anglo-Saxon world is so rich in itself but so insulated to the outer world,” says Per Wästberg, chair of the Nobel literature committee. "Only detective stories cross borders. Nothing that is truly well-written and original counts. There are exceptions, but the poor British are often so astounded when it comes to a Nobel winner. They say, ‘Who is that? We haven’t heard of him.’ ”

Behind the scenes at the Nobel Prize for Literature, in the Weekend Review section of today's Times. Inside the Nobel.

Comrades. Does anyone read this stuff? Indeed they do - there's already a link to the "fascinating" original from The Literary Salon.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Scrub my skin with women .. .

Adrian Mitchell's theatricality was famously captured on film, when he read To Whom it May Concern, his stirring anti-Vietnam poem, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965. He is pictured striding away through a rapturous audience of 7,500 after his final rhetorical flourish: “So scrub my skin with women / Chain my tongue with whisky / Stuff my nose with garlic / Coat my eyes with butter / Fill my ears with silver / Stick my legs in plaster /Tell me lies about Vietnam.”

“He was so nervous before that show,” said Mitchell's wife, Celia Hewitt, an actress, who had been unable to attend the reading because she was on stage at Stratford East. “He had been to buy himself a blue suit from Carnaby Street, which he wore. But nobody expected so many people to turn up and the steps of the Royal Albert Hall were strewn with flowers. I arrived late and saw Alan Sillitoe coming out. I said: ‘Was he any good?’ Alan told me: ‘He was the star.’”

More of this story here. The bit at the top is a rather tenuous Scottish link; the rest is quite jolly. Mitchell.

And whether you've read Mitchell's stuff or not, you'll love this. He's reading at the Royal Albert Hall. The guy on acid is Allen Ginsberg. All I see is flames.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

When Benny met Harry

Ben Jonson, so often portrayed as the haughtiest of English playwrights, emerges as a joyous bon vivant, frolicking with shepherds, fleeing crowds of hysterical admirers and even seducing an older man, “fat Harry Ogle”, in a newly-discovered account of his epic trek on foot from London to Edinburgh.

The 400-year-old travelogue, written by an unknown accomplice of the playwright, depicts the 46-year-old Jonson reveling in his life on the road and embracing Scotland – in marked contrast to his near namesake, the curmudgeonly Dr Samuel Johnson, who made a similar journey 160 years later, but found only “a worse England” north of the border.

The manuscript was discovered by Dr James Loxley and will be included in the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Entitled My Gossip Joh[n]son his foot voyage and myne into Scotland, the 7,500-word account details Jonson’s travels as far as his investiture as an Edinburgh burgess.

It reveals the playwright as “a good fellow, someone who likes to entertain people and who is attractive to all members of society,” said Dr Loxley, the head of English at Edinburgh University. “There is a sense of a man who is a literary celebrity, indulging and really enjoying his popularity. He sometimes comes through as a carnival king. It is a rather more mixed and generous picture than has emerged before.”

Until now, accounts of Jonson’s remarkable footslog to Edinburgh in the late summer of 1618, have been based largely on the “Informations” of the Scottish poet William Drummond, who met the playwright when he arrived at Edinburgh on 17th September. The newly-found manuscript, by a previously unsuspected travelling companion, was probably written by a younger man of similar social standing to Jonson and was discovered among the papers of the Aldersey family of Aldersey Hall, near Chester.

The document recounts a kind of journey which had become surprisingly fashionable in the early 17th century. In 1600, Will Kemp, the actor, had danced all the way from London to Norwich, while Gervase Markham, a writer, undertook to walk to Berwick from London, without crossing any rivers by bridge or boat. Jonson himself mentions an unnamed traveler who “backward went to Berwick”.

If Jonson’s 71-day trek seems mundane by comparison to some of these travelers, it sheds new light over the playwright’s reputation. Over the centuries, he has been seen as self-obsessed, a contemporary of Shakespeare who, some critics suggested, might have been the model for Malvolio, the sullen steward in Twelfth Night.

Not according to this account. At towns and villages along his 450 mile route, Jonson was feted by his fans, and always indulged them – at least until the crush became too great.

At Royston in Hertfordshire, “the Maydes and young men came out of Towne to meet us’. On his arrival in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Jonson and his accomplice “cam[e] the backe way because all the towne was vp in thronges to see vs.”

The account goes on: “There was dancing of Giantes (stilt walkers); and musick prepard to meete vs(.) … a swarme of boyes and others crosse[d] over to overtake vs, and pressed so vpon vs, that wee were fayne to present our pistols vpon them to keepe them backe ...”

The manuscript also includes what Dr Loxley called a fascinating detail about Jonson’s sex life. His arrival at Sir William Cavendish ‘s estate is introduced with the arresting sentence. “From thence to Wellbeck where my Gossip made fat harry Ogle his mistress”.

It is, said Dr Loxley, the only suggestion of bed-hopping in the entire account, and the most obvious reading suggests that Jonson seduced an older man. “Some have suggested that Jonson was not averse to sexual relationships with men, but there is no direct biographical information. People have read into the author’s work to come to conclusions about his behaviour, but this is written as a purely factual record,” said Dr Loxley.

By the time he approached Edinburgh, there is a sense of celebration about the playwright’s progress. Near North Berwick, “Sir John Humes told my gossip that his sheerers (shepherds) hadd made a great sute to him to haue a sight of him. So wee walked vp into the fieldes where was a number of them with a bagpipe, who no sooner saw my gossip, but they circled him and daunc’d round about him[.]”

Finally, when Jonson and his companion reached Edinburgh, “the women in thronges ran to see vs.” The following day, a huge crowd gathered to witness the formal end of an extraordinary journey, and Jonson entered the city.

“People … being so thicke in the street, .., wee could scarce passe by them that ran in thronges to have a sight of my gossip. The wyndowes also being full every one peeping out of a round hole lyke a head out of a pillory,” reads the account.

“All these gentlemen with others of the town brought my gossip to the heigh cross, and there on their knees drancke the kings health, testifying in that place that he hadd performed his iorney.”

Jonson remained in Scotland to the following January, and was not sighted in London until May. How did he return? “It is usually assumed he walked,” said Dr Loxley.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Hats with attitude divide the Isle of Arran

Placing his peaked cap carefully on his head, Sergeant Bob Mackay, the senior officer in Arran’s tiny police force, is wearing a weary smile. “You cannot tilt this hat aggressively,” he says. “It has a non-tilt mechanism.”

If there is an air of resignation about Sgt MacKay, it is understandable. A week ago, under the headline, “Police accused of ‘not smiling enough’”, he and his squad of four officers were lambasted in the Arran Banner newspaper by Campbell Laing, the chairman of the island’s community council. Prominent among the charges was “the aggressive way they wear their hats” - though surely this could hardly apply to the peaked cap now sitting benignly atop Sergeant McKay’s ruddy face.

“People are telling me that the hostile nature of the police and their finger -pointing attitude is unwelcome,” Mr Laing told the council at their August meeting. “You know what my background is and I do not think this aggressive style of policing is justified. How hard would it be for officers to smile?”

Allegations of authoritarianism seem incongruous. True, Sgt Mackay and his colleagues come equipped with all the disturbing accoutrements of modern policing: pinned to his body armour is a canister of CS gas, a walkie-talkie, a baton and handcuffs.

But this is Arran (population: 5,000) , marketed as “Scotland in miniature”, 167 square miles of ravishing mountains and glens, marooned an hour from the Ayrshire coast, a place where, says Sgt Mackay “sheep-worrying is a particular concern.” The sergeant’s attitude to his baton speaks volumes for the distinctiveness of island policing: “It’s useful if an old lady’s fallen down in her house, and you’ve got to break a window to get in.”

So why doesn’t he just dismiss the allegations of aggression, or say something rude about the people who accuse him? “It’s not in me,” said Sgt Mackay, whose police station is a converted cottage, next to his own little house in Lamlash. “I’ve been here ten years and that’s not how it works. Confidentiality is the key on the island. Confidentiality looks after everyone. You’ve got to build trust.”

It is, however, this same issue of trust that fires up his most strident critic. Mr Laing is a former detective, who gave up his uniform and retired to the island 17 years ago. These days he wears a kilt in the Graham tartan, and works as a tour guide in the Arran Distillery.

This argument is not about hats at all, he protests. It is about “the demeanour and attitude” of the police, about people being stopped for speeding, when travelling at 32mph (albeit through one of the island’s tiny villages) on the way to a funeral, or finding themselves being questioned in the back of a police van for their failure to wear a safety belt. “It’s something foreign in a small community. It’s a question of demeanour – I see a change, an attitude change in how the police deal with the public,” he says.

And, according to at least one of Mr Laing’s supporters, Ian Small, the argument turns on Arran “getting like a police state”. “I’ve lived her all my life and I’ve never known it so bad. It’s like they have quotas to fill,” says Mr Small, 54, an electrician. The worst incident he says occurred earlier this summer, when the police set out to breathalyse every driver coming off the ferry from Ardrossan.

“Why did the police target everyone getting off the boat,” wonders Mr Small. “They said they had received a tip-off that there had been drinking in the bar. What was the result? Queues forever, and bad feeling. Welcome to Arran.”

The truth is, counters Sgt Mackay, nothing has changed. There are no quotas. The policy on drink driving is designed both to up hold the law and to stem a shocking wave of road accidents – seven deaths in 8 years. – and is supported by the Arran Alcohol Forum, a impressive local alliance of health and education services.

If Sgt MacKay is too canny to attack his critics in the press, there is little doubt that he went along to last month’s community council determined to lance this boil of criticism. Irked by a minutes of July’s meeting in which “Campbell Laing expressed concern that over-aggressive policing was resulting in a loss of public confidence”, Sgt Mackay’s opening gambit was to pull out a picture of the Jack Warner, the actor who played Dixon of Dock Green, the friendliest of TV bobbies and suggest: “This is what you think we’re like.”

One observer - who asked not be named - wondered whether this bold move “could have gone horribly wrong for Bob”, Instead, Mr Laing’s explosion of anger “turned things into a farce”, made the headlines, and set tongues wagging in every bar from Lamlash to Lochranza.

The letters page in this weekend’s Arran Banner is bulging with indignant responses to Mr Laing’s remarks. “I could not care less how they were their hats as long as they carry out their duties properly," wrote Lady Jean Fforde, [the Arran police] are a great advertisement for the youth of today.” Mr Laing’s comments were “Fatuous nonsense” wrote Tom Sheldon of Lamlash. “We are fortunate to have Bob MacKay” wrote Brenda Stewart, who is, like Mr Laing, a community councillor.

This very public demonstration of support for the police, may not be the end of the matter. Mr Small is an inveterate agitator, something of a local legend for his campaigning. Mr Laing is no less of a fighter. Out numbered on the community council, and derided by the letter writers, he intends to take his case to a higher power, and write to a chief inspector of Strathclyde Police to air his grievance.

Sgt MacKay is too polite to comment. He shakes his head, and from beneath the chequered band of his hat he says: “Everyone is entitled to an opinion. If he represent a section of the community, I’ll take what he says on board. If not...” And with a shrug, it’s back to the sheep worriers.

Picture by James Glossop, who is really very good. You want proof? James Glossop.

This article is published by the Times, here: Times article.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

McWilliam returns to the light

The last time she took to an Edinburgh stage, Candia McWilliam was wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane. Yesterday at the closing event of the city’s International Book Festival, she took to the platform unaided, to celebrate the most remarkable of personal transformations — the return of her sight, achieved, as she said, “by the power of words”.

For much of the past three years McWilliam, 54, whose novel Debatable Land won the Guardian fiction prize in 1994, has lived as a virtual recluse, “a parrot in a cage with the hood over it”, because she had no wish to burden her friends and family with her blindness, brought on by a rare condition called blepharospasm.

She has stumbled around her own home, “an unpractised, blind, big person” breaking her leg in a fall down the stairs, and alarming her family so much that they insisted she could no longer live alone.

Then, in May last year, she was commissioned to write an article about her blindness for the Scottish Review of Books. A fellow sufferer of blepharospasm, who had been successfully treated, read the piece, and wrote to her recommending a surgeon who had developed a technique to tackle the condition. Little more than a year later, McWilliam, to her evident delight, can see again.

"Language is saturated with vision People say, ‘I see, I see’. It’s extraordinary. I haven’t caught up with being sighted, because I am so used to being unsighted,” she said. “Had that piece not been in the paper, she would not have written to me. It really does show this human generosity. My hope is that someone, in a similarly difficult situation, might read this.”

Blepharospasm, which may be caused by a malfunction in the brain, is a condition that causes the lids to close over otherwise healthy eyes. In the most acute cases, like McWilliam’s, it causes functional blindness and from the first diagnosis she visited more than 20 doctors, but none came close to restoring her vision.

McWilliam was working as a Booker Prize judge in 2006 when her condition first appeared, a juxtaposition which led to an initial diagnosis of exhaustion. She knew that this was not true: “I had always read exactly that much. A punishment for reading really does seem too atrocious an idea.”

McWilliam’s fate, it seemed was to have an “unwelcome resident” in her head for ever. “The more you fight, the more your eyes won’t open. It is a cunning, baffling, powerful adversary,” she said. Because her eyes functioned normally behind her eyelids, McWilliam had a consciousness of light and dark, “which I came to relish”. Occasionally, she said, “I would get moments of sight after rest, after a happy dream or after crying. Unfortunately, I am rather self-trained not to cry, I am trained to soldier on”.

Her lowest point came when a drug treatment failed. “A paper had been written saying that very high doses of prescription drugs could occasionally cause relief. In my case it didn’t,” McWilliam said.

“I was so intensively medicated that I had a grand mal fit, an extreme fit, a neurological crisis. I fell to the ground, I have no recall of it. I lost a day through a drug overdose.”

She awoke in a “dying ward” of a large London hospital. Ever since she had lost her sight, McWilliam added, people had asked whether her other senses had compensated. In that hospital, she was all too aware of the world around.

“My sense of smell worked very well. And my hearing had always been very acute — people were crying to be released from life. It was sad. I knew I was further from the end than that,” McWilliam said.

Her life has been transformed by Alexander Foss, a surgeon at Nottingham University, who has carried out his two-part treatment for blepharospasm just 15 times. He described it yesterday as a “route-one treatment” that first removes the muscle that makes the eye close, before a second intervention ensures that the patient’s brow remains suspended.

McWilliam underwent her first round of surgery in January. It was, she concedes, a touch macabre, “it sort of toughened up my eyelids, by stripping them out”. Then, in June, tendons from her legs were stitched into her eyes, effectively to pull them open, and keep them that way. She awoke to the mundane sights of a hospital ward. Her vision had returned.

McWilliam must have Botox treatment every three months for the rest of her life, to maintain her sight. She can close her eyes, but not in the conventional way. “I have to bring the lower part of my face up to meet my eyelids,” she said.

Other sufferers have to wear masks when they go to sleep, but McWilliam is lucky, she can close her eyes at night. Better still, by day, “I can talk to you, looking into your face, which I couldn’t do. The eyes speak. Without eyes I was denied a means of communication. Eyes are deeply empathetic things.”

McWilliam says she is now “tidying up a memoir” and has two novels in her head. After those, how her blindness plays out in her writing remains to be seen.

“Insofar as blindness has any gifts to offer, it offers a new way of seeing,” McWilliam said. “I can either use it to deplete my life or to add another layer. I would suggest I should do the second. I want to report from that other country.”

Monday, 24 August 2009

Tutti Frutti, Tilda and me

John Byrne — artist, playwright, author — is dubiously checking off the current media classifications of his life and work. National treasure? “Yeah, yeah, that one. I can’t stand that one,” he says with a humourless chuckle. Eccentric old Scotsman? “Yeah, that one too.”

Byrne leans forward, his head nodding in exasperation as a third category is laid out for him. “Ménage à trois?” He wheezes, eyes closing in apparent pain. “I’ve got to the stage where I don’t give a toss about that. I just do my work, that’s what interests me. I don’t want anything else to identify me.”

Some chance. With his great white beard and pale skin, Byrne is just about the most identifiable man in Scotland. He’s sitting in a basement café in Edinburgh, every inch the dandy, from the pink scarf wrapped round his neck to the bare feet thrust into his ankle boots. As if to ensure that he is the centre of attention, he is in the Traverse Theatre, scene of his 1978 stage triumph, the Slab Boys, a place where he’s pointed at by punters and greeted by old chums.

Their admiration is understandable. Byrne won six Baftas for his bittersweet TV series, Tutti Frutti and was the prizewinning graduate of Glasgow School of Art who went on to portray the Beatles. Yet for all his manifest brilliance, at 69, there are some who refuse to recognise him for anything other than one half — or one third — of a celebrity partnership.

For 15 years he was the companion of Tilda Swinton, that rare thing, a British actor with Hollywood cachet. Byrne was habitually portrayed as the older man, 21 years her senior, a father figure and rock for Swinton’s jet-setting career. Then, in March last year, Swinton revealed that she was in love with Sandro Kopp, an artist 17 years her junior. Since it seemed the domestic arrangements comprised Byrne, Swinton and Kopp in the same (albeit massive) house at Nairn in the Scottish Highlands, a prurient press descended.

Ever afterwards, to a great or lesser degree, Byrne has been pursued by reporters. And he’s sick of it. Even today, he took a call from a tabloid journalist prying into his domestic arrangements.

“The thing is,” he says, “I have been miscast as living under the same roof as Tilda and Sandro. I’ve been painted as a benign eccentric who’s living there while some guy’s shagging his sweetheart. Why would I do that? Let me put the record straight. No way is it a ménage à trois. Neither of us would have had any truck with anything remotely like that. People would like to think that wouldn’t they? Bizarre.”

For three years he has been in a relationship of his own and here, he says, are the brief facts of the matter. The “wonderful woman” he has met is Jeanine Davies, a stage lighting designer. Last December, he moved in with her, in a house across the street from Swinton and Kopp. And no he doesn’t spend all his time looking after his two young children — Swinton and Byrne have employed a childminder to do that.

So why is this all coming out today? A Sunday newspaper has been rung by someone in Nairn, says Byrne bitterly. “Who’s got the time to do that?” he wonders. “A good Christian person probably. I thought it had died a death, that story.”

Byrne hates talking about this relationship stuff, his discomfort only amplified by the preceding hour, when he was lost in reverie about Tutti Frutti. After inexplicable wranglings over copyright and distribution, the series is to be aired again on BBC Four and a DVD went on sale a month ago. It flashed straight to the top of the chart at online retailer Amazon, where it remains in the top five bestsellers despite briefly selling out.

The plot centres around the Majestics, a band of aged rock’n’rollers, and two young pretenders, who set off together on a “Silver Jubilee Tour” of dead-end, provincial Scotland. Along the way, the journey made stars of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson and transformed Byrne into one of the most sought-after writing talents in television.

Tutti Frutti oozes its author’s humanity and the making of the thing says everything about his creative intensity. Handed a title and the idea for the band by Bill Bryden, head of drama at BBC Scotland, Byrne took himself off to his home in Fife, and locked himself in a coalshed. There, for eight weeks, he laboured night and day to create six hour-long episodes.

He started with the names of an unforgettable cast: Danny McGlone (played by Coltrane) and his will-they-won’t-they sidekick Suzi Kettles, (Thompson); Bomba MacAteer, Fud O’Donnell and the magnificently dark Vincent Diver, with his scatty girlfriend, Glenna; Eddie Clockerty, the Majestics dubious manager, and his shrill sidekick, Miss Toner. Once he had the characters, Byrne let them loose in the gloom around him. They were really in that coalshed with him? “Yeah — running round, and they’re saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. You’ve sent us up a blind alley, let’s take a few paces back.’ Then I’d send them off to do something else and if it turned out right, it didn’t matter if they were comfortable or uncomfortable in it, it was where they knew they had to be.”

As he started each episode, Byrne never knew how it would end. So, at the climax of the penultimate instalment, when Glenna commits suicide by jumping off a bridge, he was as surprised as any viewer. He doesn’t inquire into his characters’ motivations. “It’s part of the mystery. Totally.”

If only others would apply the same polite rules to his own life, and not inquire within. For while his fictional work is “99 per cent imagination” and rarely based on life, if so minded, he could produce a painful memoir of his childhood in Paisley where his mother’s life was blighted by mental illness. The details are ghastly and only fully explained in 2002, when Byrne learnt from a cousin that his mother had been sexually abused by his grandfather, from her mid teens until 31. Later, she was found to be suffering from schizophrenia and repeatedly confined in a local hospital.

This discovery did not pitch Byrne into depression. Quite the contrary. “I was just overwhelmed,” he says. “It was the opposite of being upset. It was a total release. I saw it as a justification for my mother’s life.

“This woman was made mad by her father. I thought at the time, ‘I’m glad he died of cancer’. But that’s such a mundane reaction to something. He was such a charming man. I don’t forgive him — he’s dead, for God’s sake. He totally stole my mother’s life away, so it’s difficult to say I still love him. But I remember I loved him. It’s incredibly complex.”

The real bitterness is reserved for the gossipmongers who tortured his family. A friend’s mum was a cleaner at the hospital, he recalls. “She met my mother there and said, ‘I won’t mention I’ve seen you, Mrs Byrne’. Then she told everybody. At a later date, when she was manic, my mother ran up the road and saw the cleaner at her kitchen window. She put her fist through the glass and punched her right in the face.”

Another horrible memory is conjured up by his courtship of Alice Simpson, his former wife. “Her mother worked for the doctor, who said, ‘Don’t let your daughter marry this guy, because his mother is mad. A f***ing doctor! I don’t care what people think, they can think what they like. The truth has come out now. This was a vindication of my mother’s life.”

Byrne’s voice is low, his sentences trail off and there are things he is reluctant to bring to mind. But it is plain that by 1989, when Swinton was cast as the lead in Your Cheatin’ Heart, a second big commission for the BBC, his marriage was over. He fell in love with his star and soon afterwards left Scotland for London. When Honor and Xavier, their twins, were born in 1997, the couple moved north again. But by 2005, as Swinton has made clear, they were no longer together. “What are you gonna do — punish someone for falling in love with someone else?” he says. That’s not the way to go about anything. I’m saying this after four years. It’s something you come to terms with. You wouldn’t say it was wonderful, you wouldn’t be human ... but ... it’s wonderful in the sense that we are such good friends — all of us — you only want happiness for the person you love and your children.”

Love finds artistic expression. Next year, Donald and Benoit is published, a children’s storybook that Byrne is writing and illustrating, based on stories he told his twins.

“Donald is a cat, Benoit is the boy who looks after him. They live in Fishertown [part of Nairn] and they have adventures. An Egyptologist comes to town to give a lecture. In that episode Donald gets mummified. Xavier would be asleep by the end of the story, but Honor would be wide awake. I had to satisfy her yearning for a really earned ending.”

It’s a beautiful image of a happier man. As for all that other stuff: “They’ll go on and on,” he says. “And on and on and on. I can’t understand why anyone is interested.”

Tutti Frutti is out now on DVD

Photograph by the excellent Tom Main.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Beckett, at your convenience

It’s taken 11 months to get this far. Harry Michell conceived his idea for a production of Waiting for Godot at the start of the autumn term at the boys’ school. “We really tried to make use of the toilet, and give ourselves a reason for being in there,” says the young director. “We tried to make the best of everything – the urinals, the sinks, the cubicles, we had people climbing up on the cubicles, a little boy hiding in one.”

Weekend rehearsals were endlessly disrupted as pupils and staff drifted in to use the facilities: members of the school first XV, gym teachers, the bursar, and an occasional house master. “They’d arrive and see four schoolboys standing there in the toilets, one with a noose around his neck. They’d stop and do a double take and either walk out quickly or decide to duck under the rope and go about their business. Very brave of them,” Michell chuckles. “But really, it was as amusing for them as I think it was for us.”

Schoolboy stages Beckett's Waiting for Godot in a toilet, but incurs the wrath of the great man's estate. Read more in the Times Weekend Review: Beckett in the bogs.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

How many women does it take ...

“This is an empirical point. It is intensely annoying when you read that there aren't enough of us. There are so many women on the Fringe, from people like Lucy Porter, Sarah Millican and Pip Evans, to comedians who are just starting out. We're not a rarity. People should stop saying ‘Oh, there's a lady on stage'. Just say, ‘There's a comic - are they funny?” Treat us the same as you would a male comic.”

So says Susan Calman, the moving spirit behind a protest by women comedians. Read more here: Ladies.

Pic by James Glossop.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Dead centre of the city

Ian Rankin leads the way down a dark, stone stairway into the bowels of his city. He takes a turn, passes under the massive stone arch of a bridge and, after walking another 50 yards, turns and stops. "There it is," he shouts above the traffic. "Anyone who dies in Edinburgh starts their death here." We have arrived at an anonymous 1960s brick building, its two stories dwarfed by the towering structures around it. Inside, piled up against the highest window, is a stack of pots that look a lot like paint tins through the opaque glass. But it's doubtful that they ever contained anything quite so benign as paint, because this is the City Mortuary. Embalming f luid, perhaps?

Another Ian Rankin invterview - this one the cover feature in the T2 section of the Times. Read more here: Rebus Walk. The pun on the dead centre of Edinburgh was in the original copy but removed by a passing sub. It would never happen to Giles Coren, eh?

Here's a jolly spread about the joys of second hand books, which I helped out with: Old books.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Jealousy, madness, kidnap, death

"... on her husband's orders, on a January night, a group of Highlanders broke into Rachel's lodgings on Niddry’s Wynd, Edinburgh, and attacked her, knocking out some of her teeth. They tied her up and carried her out 'as if she was a corpse' ..."

Read the tragic story of Lady Grange here Exiled to St Kilda. Government's may fall, but historical trivia will always have its place in a Saturday edition.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

On the pleasures of ownership

Climbing the staircase to the very top of his 19th century townhouse in the middle of Geneva, Jean Bonna itemises each magnificent work of art as he shuffles past, pausing a couple of times to gesture and offer an observation.

“Here you have some of the Italians,” he says languidly. “Castiglione … another Tiepolo. Those are three of the Durer prints of the unicorn. This is the Whore of Babylon” At the top of the staircase he pauses, and then heads off into an airy room. “Now this Courbet, it really is absolutely exceptional. And the Delacroix and the Gericault… “

The list goes on and on, through all three floors of his house. This Friday, the most spectacular of this endless parade of drawings will find their way into an Edinburgh exhibition: Raphael to Renoir: Master Drawings from the collection of Jean Bonna. It is, as they say, unmissable.

The show is the only European outing of a unique selection of artworks originally chosen by curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It will form the centrepiece of the National Gallery of Scotland’s festival exhibition schedule, an extraordinary display of works, which together capture, as Mr Bonna puts it, “the first thoughts” of the great artists. “Even when they are finished drawings,” he says, “they are more immediate than a painting, more spontaneous. There is movement, more life.”

Each of the Edinburgh works is taken from the walls of this rambling, very intimate house. From Raphael’s Study of Soldiers (which normally adorns the ground-floor sitting room) via Woman in a White Bonnet by George Seurat, and Odilon Redon’s vibrant pastel, La Barque, they hang in its bedrooms and parlours, the corridors and anterooms, arranged for their owner’s particular delight.

Mr Bonna, now retired, was the fifth generation of his family to enter the well-rewarded and very grown-up world of merchant banking, but he has been an incorrigible collector, since childhood. When he was 11, he was gifted a book written by the president of the Bouquinistes – or booksellers – of the Paris Quais, even then inscribed “to one of my good clients”.

Thus encouraged, for decades French Literature consumed him, until he had collected everything, “from the first literary work to the beginning of the 20th century”. Everything? It seems an astonishing claim. This dapper little man in his neat jacket, a striped shirt and braces, stops and considers for a moment. “I am missing maybe 15 major books.” he says thoughtfully.

But it was never just about literature for Mr Bonna. He has knitted together in his many different collections a personal world of high culture, in which his own good taste is arbiter.

There are autographs of most of those French authors, from A to Zola, filed away in a cabinet on the third floor of the house. The Durers on the staircase are symbols of what he modestly calls “the nucleus of a print collection”. He has an assortment of Louis XV and Louis XVI chairs and other antique furniture; an array of vintage photography; and what he describes as “a few bronzes and a few terracottas”. He loves music, though he protests that he doesn’t collect it. “I have a few things by Wagner I could show you,” he says, “but that is slightly besides the point.” Mr Bonna, in his mid-sixties, even collects ex-wives – there are two of those bumping around Switzerland.

Drawings by the great masters, however, have been the heart of his obsession for the best part of 25 years. He purchased his first in 1985, L’Aubergiste courtisee (The Courted Maid) by Hubert Robert, though it was three years before he bought again at Christie’s in New York.

Gradually he met dealers, curators and other collectors, becoming immersed in a whole new world of high culture, studying, learning and buying whenever he found something he liked and could afford. The 120 drawings he has loaned for the Edinburgh show represent slightly more than a third of his total collection, and the larger portion will remain on the walls of this house. He even employs two full-time curators.

There is a price on all this. Over these last two decades he has parted, he admits, with millions of dollars, including the [euros]650,000 he spent at auction on Parmigianino’s The Holy Family with Shepherds and Angels, a work he describes as “the most important Italian old master drawing, his best study for his finest painting”.

But playing this market is not just about wealth, he insists. “‘Means’, as they say in France, ‘is a condition which is necessary, but not sufficient,’” he says. “The first quality you require to build a collection of either books or drawings is passion. It you are not passionate you do not do it. Even when I was working, if I had a free hour, I would visit antique shops, a dealer, a museum, a curator. It consumed all my time, besides my profession and my family. It takes you over completely.”

Mr Bonna’s passion for art never ends. In a drawing collection, he says, each image has a different subject, and their number is almost limitless. Theoretically you could collect forever, though there are constraints.

“If you decide to make a collection, say, of French literature, you will inevitably buy an author which you don’t like. I am not particularly fond of Rousseau but I still have everything written by him, in first edition and in contemporary bindings, because he is very important in the history of ideas. But you could never buy a drawing you don’t like – or at least I cannot,” he says.

He has a some tips for anyone with a few spare shekels and time to cultivate the market. It is not wise to buy at auction too often, he advises, it only antagonises the dealers. Better to cultivate the dealers and curators, and keep track of the ownership of the finest drawings – this way you’ll know in advance when an opportunity to buy might arise.

And learn where to shop for bargains., he says Not at flea markets – “I never find things in flea markets” – but at booksellers who will occasionally buy whole libraries from dying collectors. Often there are drawings in among these books, and the dealers sometimes have little idea of their true worth. Occasionally, Mr Bonna has left a shop with an old master in a paper bag, worth many times its purchase price, and a satisfied smile on his lips.

From such efforts, great collections grow, and with them a warm sensation which he recognises as the pleasure of possession. “I wouldn’t say it made you feel good or even better. You simply feel different.”

Can he define the pleasure of passion more precisely? Mr Bonna has an anecdote to encapsulate exactly what he means. He recently spent a fascinating day at the Uffizi in Florence, poring over the drawing collections, and absorbing the wisdom of the curators. It was absolutely fascinating, he says.

“But ownership is another ingredient altogether,” he adds, suddenly animated. “To have a Raphael on your own wall – when you come home at night you can say: ‘This is mine!’”

* Raphael to Renoir: Master Drawings from the Collection of Jean Bonna, 5th June to 6th September. £4 (£3). National Galleries complex, the Mound, Edinburgh.

Beaver - tastes like ...

This morning the mood in Mid Argyll matches the weather: warm, sunny, optimistic. Darren Dobson, the native Isle-of-Wighter, who moved north and took over the Cairnbaan Hotel ten years ago, is convinced that the beaver is a good news story.

“It’s great for the profile of the area. It’s such a beautiful place. We’ve sea eagles and pine martens - and now beavers. It’s a wonderful day, it will bring many more visitors in,” he says. The hotel proprietor is a keen angler and has made it is business, he says, to research the beasts’ impact on fishing stocks. He has not found any evidence of harm. If he had, he says, he would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow anglers”.

So keen is Mr Dobson to get his head round his subject, he has even eaten beaver. Tastes like chicken? “Like rabbit, actually,” he says. “I had it on fajitas. In Norway.”

This line never made it into the final copy, which appears here: Beavers back in Scotland.

Voice from the gods says 'fudge'

Fudge. Fudgetastic. Fudgalicious. Only an institution as innocent and unworldly as the Church of Scotland could end 17 years of debate on homosexuality with a victory acclaimed by the winners as “fudge”.

In the corridors of New College, Edinburgh, as midnight loomed, smiling liberals grinned at the very notion of it; minsters in earrings slapped each other’s backs and lauded its very creation. And on the floor of the Assembly Hall, where the appointment was approved of Scott Rennie an openly-gay minister, to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, Rev George Whyte wallowed in the sticky sweetness of it all.

“Moderator” concluded Mr Whyte, after more than four hours of debate, “it’s been said I’m proposing ‘a fudge’. I don’t regard that as a great insult …” and on he rattled in his sugary tongue, to glory.

From the rousing chords of Spirit of Truth and Grace Come to us in this Place, which opened proceedings, it was plain that this would be a passionate encounter. It was by turns eloquent and polite, revelatory and occasionally emotional. And always, appearances were deceptive.

A muscular pastor, unwittingly sporting a pink tie, spoke out against Mr Rennie’s appointment. From the other side, a white haired gentlemen in a tweed suit, every inch, it seemed, the social conservative, spoke up for the gay minister. Rev Derek Browning – a card-carrying tree-hugger on any other evening of the year - seemed ready to start a fight. “The church does stand at a crossroads tonight,” growled Mr Browning, “God is calling us to break new ground,” and a few evangelical foreheads, he almost added. His liberal allies soon drowned him in fudge.

In truth, the vote had been tipped against the evangelicals by a procedural manoeuvre on Thursday, when the Assembly voted to hear Mr Rennie’s case ahead of an overture proposed by conservative Lochcarron and Skye Presbytery, which would have banned “two men in a manse”.

In the event, the evangelicals were forced to deal first with the whys and wherefores of the decision of Aberdeen Presbytery to appoint their new minister. Here they were on difficult legal ground, attempting to persuade commissioners that Rev George Cowie, the apparently saintly presbytery clerk, was in fact Beelzebub in disguise. Mr Cowie hair stands on end, but nothing about his imperturbable demeanour suggested that his astonishing wind-blown barnet concealed horns.

The structure of the debate also required another Aberdonian, Ian Aitken, to lead for the evangelicals.. Mr Atiken is a good preacher, but not a brilliant preacher, a master of the pernickety legal details of the case, but apt to slip when he stumbled into areas where bodily fluids flowed.

A question from the gods floored him. Rev James L Wilson leant over the first floor balcony to enquire: “There’s a whole gamut in marriage beyond sex – what do you mean by homosexual practice?” The moderator smiled. Homosexual practice? Mr Aitken stood up, burbled, grunted and sat down again. It didn’t sound good. In theological debate, like life, practice makes perfect

There was a strong news piece out of this debate, which you can read here: Evangelicals vow to hold back cash after Scott Rennie defeat.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Kirk plunges into the great gay debate

It took only one hour for the issue that could split the Church of Scotland to surface. After the pomp of the General Assembly's opening ceremony had died down and once the tea cups were put away after the morning break, the first intervention came. Not surprisingly, it came from the hard-liners.

No one doubts that this weekend will be epoch-making for the Kirk. Whether it accepts the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie - an openly gay minister and divorced father of one - has become its defining issue. Such are the passions aroused that many believe that the Kirk is on the brink of its first schism since the Disruption of 1843, which led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

The debate about gay ministers has rumbled on since January, when Mr Rennie's opponents succeeded in referring his appointment to this Assembly for judgment. It has earned acres of newspaper print, provoked passionate radio phone-in debates and kept blogging ministers glued to their computers. The result was, as the Rev Derek Browning told a packed Assembly Hall in Edinburgh: “The eyes of the Church, the eyes of the country and the eyes of the wider world are upon us at this time.”

In the event it was the evangelicals who suffered the first defeat, failing to win a procedural motion that they thought would ensure Mr Rennie's appointment was rescinded. Led by the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skye, they had hoped to define Church policy on homosexuality by winning an overture (motion) on sexual morality tomorrow evening, before the Assembly, the highest court in the Church, was due to decide Mr Rennie's case.

“There is a danger that we will make a decision [about homosexuality] based on the prevailing culture of our time,” said the Rev Peter B.Park, who moved the procedural amendment. He was defeated, but while some saw the two-thirds majority as an omen of the decisive defeat they hope to inflict on the evangelicals tomorrow, others insisted that the coming vote was far from cut and dried.

Members of Aberdeen's Queen's Cross Church had voted overwhelmingly to appoint Mr Rennie, who lives with his partner at Brechin Cathedral, with Aberdeen Presbytery endorsing their appointment.

The case against his appointment has been led by the evangelical organisation Forward Together. While it is easy to suggest that their anti-gay support is predominantly drawn from far-flung parishes in the north and the Western Isles, and the Orange Order heartlands of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, its theological position - that the Bible does not permit the appointment of a gay minister - has a much broader base.

Edinburgh parish ministers spoke on both sides of the debate, illustrating the depth of the divide. One, the Rev Jerry Middleton, from Davidsons Mains, said that the overture would “affirm and clarify the principles underlying basic Christian morality”. Mr Browning, from Morningside, disagreed, saying: “It is not right to depart from what is right, what is fair and what is just.”

From the anti-gay grouping, there is a sense that the Church authorities had deliberately timed the debate to sit in a “graveyard slot” so they could quietly approve Mr Rennie's appointment. No one now expects the debate to be quiet or brief.

Some who support the evangelicals' theological position have been appalled by the personal attacks on Mr Rennie. Forward Together has already issued a pubic apology to the minister over false claims about his personal life. No sooner had that apology been issued than the Rev Ian Watson, the secretary of the organisation, published a 3,500-word sermon comparing the fight against homosexuality with the fight against the Nazis, which was condemned by many of his peers.

A month ago, the debate was stirred again when Life and Work, the Kirk's house magazine, published a piece in support of Mr Rennie by Muriel Armstrong, its outgoing editor. She said that yesterday's vote did not mean that the evangelicals would be defeated. “I do think there is a moderate majority in the middle. The Church is defined by its moderate majority but whether that moderate majority is represented here I don't know,” she said.

Should the evangelicals be defeated, allies in other churches are ready to reach out to them. The Monthly Record, the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland, appealed to evangelicals to join them in a new united British Presbyterian Church.

Ministers opposed to Mr Rennie said that they would not walk away from the Church, and at all times in the debate they remained respectful to the Moderator. “Wait till Saturday night,” said one commissioner, “then you'll see the fire in their eyes.”

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Art, by Jupiter!

The view from the end of Nicky Wilson’s garden is incomparable. Southwards, over the rooftops of Wilkieston village, loom the Pentland Hills; east, beyond rolling green fields, lies Edinburgh; and towering 30 feet above her head is the vivid yellow bulb of a giant orchid, made of steel aluminium and created by the sculptor Marc Quinn.

“Amazing isn’t it?” said Mrs Wilson cheerily. “Marc positioned Love Bomb opposite the house. He said to me, ‘Scotland has such terrible weather, you’ll want to come out of the house and see something colourful.’”

Mrs Wilson, 42, housewife, mother and owner of nine miniature donkeys, is the moving spirit behind Jupiter Artland, the title she has given to her 80-acre estate in West Lothian.

If the name sounds grandiose, it’s probably deliberate, reflecting an artistic indulgence to match the wildest Victorian folly. In essence she has commissioned more than 20 works by contemporary artists, urging them to respond to the grounds of her 17th-century country home, Bonnington House.

The responses are often of epic proportion. Quinn’s 12-metre orchid is the work of the artist who created the sculpture of Alison Lapper Pregnant for the fifth plinth in Trafalgar Square. In the woods, Temple of Apollo and a head of Sappho represent the last works of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay.

The entrance driveway to the house winds through a terraced landscape moulded by Charles Jencks, a creation so vast it dwarfs even Landform, his best-known work, which fills the grounds in front of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Even the bollards by the road are by Antony Gormley, and the garden gate, by Ben Tindall, is all twisty vines mingled with blooming metal flowers. “Looks like a flu virus doesn’t it?” Mrs Wilson said. “Don’t write that down.”

This was a great day out. Read more here By Jupiter.

The pic, as many more have been here recently, is by James Glossop. Remember that name. The lad is minor genius.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Paedophile gang found guilty

The Times, Friday, May 8, 2009

A paedophile gang that carried out a series of attacks on children and infants, including a three-month-old baby, were found guilty yesterday at the High Court in Edinburgh in a groundbreaking legal case.

The abusers, including a respected youth leader — who had met Tony Blair and the Queen — a civil servant, a bank clerk and a Church of Scotland elder, were part of the largest paedophile network to have been dismantled in Scotland.

The convictions were the culmination of an 18-month international police operation codenamed Algebra, which has identified a further 70 suspects in 16 regions of Britain and led to action against another 35 suspected child abusers.

Police and the prosecution hailed the verdicts as an important advance in the fight against child sexual abuse. For the first time in Scottish legal history the Crown brought a case of conspiracy to participate in the commission of sexual offences. Advocate Depute Dorothy Bain, QC, asked for a full risk assessment for two members of the gang; Neil Strachan, who has previous convictions for child abuse, and James Rennie, a respected youth leader and gay rights campaigner who met Mr Blair and the Queen in the course of his work.

The move would allow the court to impose an order for lifelong restriction, which would enable a judge to set a minimum sentence, and the men would be freed only when the parole board considered they were no longer a risk to the public.

Lord Bannatyne, the judge, described the gang’s crimes as “utterly horrific”.

The seven men and seven women of the jury sat through nine weeks of evidence, which presented a selection from a total of 125,000 still and video images shared among the eight men on trial, and a log of internet chatroom conversations revealing the extent to which child-sex abuse had engulfed their lives,

These digital records detailed how Strachan and Rennie were able to breach relationships of trust formed with friends, procure and abuse their children, then invite their paedophile circle to assault the children too.

Detective Inspector Stuart Hood, who led Operation Algebra, said that this breach of trust had been horrific and hugely significant, illustrating the plausibility which these serial sex offenders brought to their apparently normal lives.

Rennie was able to abuse the three-month-old baby of close friends without them suspecting him. He gave the child presents, was allowed to change its nappies and babysat for the couple. It was only when police arrived with images of abuse that the couple realised any crime had been committed.

In a statement issued last night the couple said: “For 15 years James Rennie seemed the closest of family friends, and . . . it would be fair to state that he was with us, appearing to give friendship and support, during the most difficult and vulnerable times in our lives. To subsequently learn that he abused our son, and invited others to do the same, has been devastating. As a family we have had to learn to live, and cope with, the effect these horrific events have had.”

Read more of a Times splash here: Guilty men.

This is the follow-up, from today's paper, in which a leading psychologist warns of a new kind of sex criminal emerging from the internet: compulsive disorder.

The blog entry below is the long "backgrounder", which appeared in the Scottish edition, and reveals how Strachan, Rennie and the rest were tracked down.

This was an indescribably shocking case to cover, but there was a grim satisfaction in court that these men were found guilty of conspiracy and are likely to go down for a very long time. As one of the detectives said to me, Scotland will be a safer place because of that verdict. I'm not one to hand out praise to the police every day of the week, but they were absolutely magnificent in this case.

The men who preyed on their friends' kids

The Times, Friday 8 May, 2009

It might have been any working day for Richard Harper, a young IT engineer, as he sat down to mend a failed computer base unit in workshop in Reading. He booted up the machine and began to run tests. Then he stumbled on a folder marked “young boys”, held on a hard drive which had been slotted into the back of the machine. He clicked on an icon. What he found stopped him in his tracks: a shocking, indecent image of a child had appeared on the screen in front of him. Appalled, he called his manager.

This was the moment in August 2007 when the most vicious criminal conspiracy in recent Scottish legal history began to unravel. Over the next 10 months, eight serial child abusers would be picked off by the police, as their casual internet chats and brutal photographic exchanges revealed lives of lurid fantasy and the all-too-real abuse of children and babies.

“It’s a disgusting world they inhabit, a world in which images are a kind of currency, which make the men involved enjoy a kind of wealth,” said Detective Inspector Stuart Hood, who led the investigation for Lothian and Borders Police. “Access to a child is the best currency of all – then they gather round like so many disgusting flies.”

Exposing the conspiracy was to involve an extraordinary international operation, which stretched from police headquarters at Fettes in Edinburgh, and drew in the skills of Scottish and American academics, FBI agents, and Microsoft personnel in San Jose, California revealing on its way a paedophile network which extended all around the world.

But it might never have succeeded had it not been for a single act of forgetfulness by one of the criminal gang. Neil Strachan, the only man among the eight convicted who had previous convictions for sexual assault, worked at the Crown Decorator Centre in Newhaven, Edinburgh. Part of his job was to mix paints on a colour-mixing machine, a computerised system on which he had concealed a portable hard drive.

When his computer broke down, Strachan made his mistake, carelessly delivering it, images and all, into a depot at Haltwhistle in Northumberland, operated by Akzo Nobel, the owners of Crown Paints.

Following the discovery, Strachan himself was among the first to be informed by an outraged manager. With his lover, Colin Slaven, 23, an IT worker, they set about destroying further evidence at their home on Duff Street in Dalry, Edinburgh.

The hard drive, meanwhile, had been returned from the computer service company and despatched to Northumberland Police. Officers confirmed that a significant collection of abusive image images was present, and passed the drive to their colleagues in Scotland. Finally it arrived at Lothian and Borders Police Headquarters. DI Hood of the Serious Crimes Unit was appointed to lead what became known as Operation Algebra, a team of 13 detectives assigned to close down the paedophile network.

As they set about tracing the source of the appalling images they found on his computer, detectives realised that Strachan was at the heart of an internet-based web of child exploitation, trading and manufacturing images of assault, and photographing and distributing his own attacks on children and infants. Just ten days after receipt of the hard drive Strachan was arrested.

He had hidden his identity behind a series of e-mail aliases, most commonly calling himself “marksmith29” or "mark_scott29". Detectives penetrated this secret world, recovering some 7,200 images, a succession of extreme emails and chatlogs which even hardened investigators found deeply shocking. Chief among Strachan’s correspondents was another paedophile, who also disguised himself behind an alias. It soon became apparent that he too was a vicious criminal, a local man with access to a child who had to be caught quickly. That man was James Rennie, 38, a gay rights campaigner.

Rennie led a double life. In public he was “intelligent, articulate, successful”, said Dorothy Bain QC, who led the case for the Crown. In reality he was “someone who had allowed his profound interest in the sexual abuse of children to engulf his entire life, his mind polluted by deviant sexual compulsion.”

As a student he had taken a keen interest in student union politics and when he graduated, Rennie had moved into youth work, rapidly rising to prominence. He managed the Stonewall Youth Project before his appointment as chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered young people. Rennie was an opinion former, a mover and shaker. He was consulted by the Scottish Parliament over policy. He met the Queen and went to Downing Street to shake hands with Tony Blair.

In public he seemed whiter than white. Writing in a public sector magazine in autumn 2007, Rennie rounded on the “homophobic bullying” of gay teenagers and said “ignorance is the root of most discrimination”. But at exactly the same moment police had identified "", Rennie’s secret internet account. It contained a vast correspondence revealing how he had used the trusting relationship he enjoyed with close friends to gain access to their three-month old boy.

For more than a year he had assaulted the baby – referred to as Child F throughout the trial - broadcasting one attack over a mobile telephone to one of his perverted friends. He invited these same men to join him in the abuse and published pictures of the attacks in emails to other offenders at on-line galleries he opened at the Photoisland and Photobucket websites.

Rennie’s identity was revealed only after DI’s Hood’s team had invoked the International Mutual Assistance Treaty, which enabled Scottish investigators to request assistance from their American counterparts. An intervention by the FBI enabled the Edinburgh detectives to place a "preservation order" effectively freezing all the contacts, chatlogs and emails recorded on kplover’s email account at the Microsoft offices in San Jose. That one action has since enabled police forces to follow up 70 leads around Britain, half of which have led to arrests, and already some convictions. It also exposed a sinister link between Rennie and Matthew Grasso, a notorious sex offender in Salem, Massachusetts, who was indicted in 2007 for having 150,000 images of child abuse in his home. Rennie had further connections to 300 child abusers in United States, Australia, Germany, Holland and Poland.

In late 2007, detectives were closing in on kplover. But Rennie was sly. From his home computer, he moonlighted on insecure broadband accounts held in nearby houses, so when police believed they had finally traced his computer’s address, they arrived instead at the homes of two of Rennie’s innocent neighbours, who lived streets away from his flat.

Further information from San Jose proved crucial in his arrest. This demonstrated that the kplover account had been used on a handful of occasions by someone who had access to the LGBT Youth premises in Edinburgh. Police then consulted Damian Newrick, a specialist in radio transmission with the Child Expoitation and Online Protection Centre in London. His expertise revealed that Rennie’s home address at Marionville Road would enable him to hotspot onto the insecure wireless networks which had been identified as a source of his account. Police now had two locations for kplover, united by a single criminal. Rennie was arrested on 17 December 2007.

In the weeks after Christmas two more arrests followed, as police follow up leads from the kplover internet account and Rennie’s mobile phone. These conspirators were Ross Webber, 27, a bank clerk from North Berwick, 25 miles east of Edinburgh, and Craig Boath, a slovenly 24-year-old insurance worker from Dundee.

By now more shocking evidence of the relationship between Rennie and Strachan had emerged. On 3 December 2005, Strachan e-mailed Rennie to tell him that his boyfriend, Slaven, “has told me he is into the same as me, so now I have a bit of access”. The Crown would prove that Strachan had meant he had the opportunity to commit an assault on a child, and share images of his attack among his paedophile circle.

Strachan and Slaven preyed on two young children who were occasionally left in their care, who became known in court as Child JL and Child B. The boys’ mother and father who assumed their friends were just a conventional gay couple, a misapprehension which was to have devastating consequences.

Shortly after New Year, Strachan sent Rennie a photograph which became known in court as “the Hogmanay image”. It showed a man assaulting an infant. Though the head of the attacker was not in the frame, Dr Sue Black, a forensic pathologist at Dundee University, identified Strachan through 13 points of similarly on his thumb, which was visible in the photograph. Another photograph showed Strachan abusing the baby’s sleeping elder sibling.

Further expert evidence was called in to convict Strachan, who continued to deny all charges against him. Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire and Dr Miroslav Goljan, of Binghamton University, New York extracted computer data from the images. This established that the Hogmanay image had been taken on a Sony Cybershot. Crucially, the two scientists found that in one of his few “normal” transactions, in which Strachan had sent an image of himself to another worker at his company under his own name, he had used the same Sony camera. With typical charmlessness, the picture he had sent to shock a female colleague showed his body disfigured by shingles scars.

The cases against Glaswegians Neil Campbell, 46, a church elder, 40-year-old civil servant John Milligan and John Murphy, 44, the last man rounded up, emerged from the wealth of chatlogs and e-mails in police possession, and from the numbers on Rennie’s mobile phone. A ninth man, Lachlan Anderson, were arrested by police, co-operated fully with their enquiries, and has already received a 4-year jail term.

There is no doubt that Milligan – who had 75,000 images of sexual abuse - along with the other conspirators will face many years in prison. Murphy and Campbell’s caches of images were smaller, and like Slaven they will be jailed for the lesser crimes of making and distributing images, though police are hopeful that the judge will apply the highest possible tariff.

These sentences will be passed next month. For the families of Child F, Child B and Child JL, there will be no release.