Monday, 26 January 2009

Immortal memories are made of this

A battle is raging over Robert Burns's legacy and reputation that has led to threats of litigation and the kind of insults more familiar among the late-night drinkers about whom the bard so often wrote.

What started as intellectual debate has descended into name-calling and abuse, with allegations and threats appearing on the World Burns Club message board.

On one side are the fêted academics of two august universities. On the other is Patrick Scott Hogg, an amateur Burns enthusiast, who funds his studies through his landscape gardening business in Cumbernauld, outside Glasgow.

At the heart of the dispute is an edition of Burns's works - The Canongate Burns - edited by Mr Scott Hogg and Dr Andrew Noble. It includes a collection of ten “Lost Poems” that Mr Scott Hogg claims to have found more than a decade ago.

Not a bad read, but it could have been better. More here: Burns battle.

Friday, 16 January 2009

John Mortimer - a last word

John Mortimer, the English author and playwright, died today. He gave one of his last interviews to me, in April 2007. The piece was commissioned on a Thursday, for publication in that weekend's Scotland on Sunday newspaper. I had to find Mortimer, ring him, have a long chinwag, and then turn round 1,400 words by 10 the following morning. It worked out, simply because he was so tremendously obliging. It helped that I knew and liked his Rumpole and Titmuss books, but he was totally sensitve to my needs as well. I said to him: "Look John, I'd like to make it sound like I'm in the room with you. Do you still keep that glass of Guinness on your desk?" "Oh yes, dear boy, and I can almost hear my pigs grunting in the fields ..." Read how it all worked out in the piece below.

Champagne and ciggies socialist

SITTING in his Oxfordshire home, the novelist and playwright John Mortimer peers out from behind the pleasant clutter of his desk. There's a comforting pint of Guinness at his elbow, and from the paddock outside, if you strain your ears, you can almost hear the sound of his pigs grunting happily. There is an atmosphere of contentment around him - and yet there's smoke rising from the man.

The problem is this. Mortimer has been asked to consider Jo Strickland, the character at the centre of Lie Down Comic, his play which premieres in Glasgow this week. If it was true to life, he reckons, Strickland should really be dragging on a fag throughout the performance. "She's loosely based on my first wife. And she smoked like a chimney," says Mortimer, conceding in his next wheezy breath that this effect simply cannot be achieved on the Scottish stage, where cigarettes are banned.

It is a situation which is about to be repeated in England, where anti-smoking laws will soon be enacted. "Do you know, I'm so irritated with the ban I've forced myself to smoke?" he announces. "I don't really want to, but now I have to. This ban is absolute rubbish.

"These people don't realise the limits of government. They should run the legal system and see that the drains work. But you're told how to cross the road. And what to eat. For heaven's sake - think of something more important."

The play's themes are serious enough. The cantankerous Strickland (played by Alison Peebles) is already dying when she is befriended by a stand-up comedian (Sandy Nelson). Their relationship, antagonistic at first, becomes mutually sustaining. As ever, the script is etched with its author's trademark dry wit, for at 83 and reliant these days on a wheelchair, Mortimer remains inspiringly free-spirited. When you set that quality alongside his professional pedigree as a lawyer who fought for civil liberties, it is easy to see why he has fallen out with New Labour.

"Look what it's all come to," he chuckles. "We were dancing in the Festival Hall that day when they were elected, a brave new world was coming. And what have they achieved? An illegal war, a smoking ban... Nothing. "

SINCE HE IS NO longer on the guest list for party functions - and the Tories "bring me out in a rash" - these days Mortimer has to make his political views public in his writing. And that is where his most famous literary creation comes in. The next novel in his 30-year Rumpole sequence - The Antisocial Behaviour Of Horace Rumpole - deals with the efforts of his hero to resist an Asbo, a Blairite innovation which makes Mortimer spit. The book's predecessor was entitled Rumpole And The Reign Of Terror, and it's pretty antsy in tone too.

"That one was about giving away all our civil liberties to the terrorists and having trials without juries and imprisonment without trial," rumbles Mortimer. "It put us back behind Magna Carta. The terrorists have won. It's giving it away to them. That makes Rumpole very angry."

For himself Mortimer remains for the most part cheerfully energetic and remorselessly young at heart. "I don't think you change very much over the years," he says. "You are what you are when you were 11. I just don't take any notice of age." His second marriage to Penelope has endured for the better part of 40 years, but as proof of his young man's outlook he still flirts with other women. "Have you got a lover or a husband," he inquired of a woman interviewer recently. "Is he very nice to you?"

"Everyone flirts don't they?" he wonders now. "Naturally, I very much like working with women."

This ever-flowering adolescence burst out most spectacularly in the 1960s, when his work in film and theatre drew many actresses into his circle. At 37, Mortimer had an affair with Wendy Craig, who was married to the journalist and musician Jack Bentley. Craig gave birth to a son, Ross, though at the time nothing was said about the boy's true origins. It was only when Mortimer's "unauthorised" biographer, Graham Lord, outed the relationship that Mortimer heard about his son, who is also a writer.

"It was the one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me," says Mortimer. "For that I forgive [Lord] all his rubbish he wrote.

"Ross and I met after Wendy told me about him and he came to see me. You don't quite know what to say to your 42-year-old son. I had a signed picture of Fred Astaire on the wall. Ross asked: 'Do you like Fred Astaire?' I said: 'I love him - you should write the way Fred Astaire dances, do something difficult and make it look very easy.' And he said: 'Yes. I listen to Stacey Kent, who sings Astaire numbers.' I went to my hi-fi and pressed the button. And on the turntable was Stacey Kent.

"We have many more things in common. It's all nature, not nurture. It has nothing to do with upbringing."

Mortimer was born in Hampstead and educated at Harrow school and Oxford University. His father was a successful lawyer, specialising in divorce, and it was expected that John would follow the profession. But soon after graduation in 1942, other skills emerged when he worked at the Crown Film Unit. Selected as a writer by Laurie Lee, he met "everyone" in the British film industry - the Boulting brothers, Noel Coward, David Niven, Peter Ustinov. He wasn't in the least overawed, Mortimer remembers, but he found the environment strange. "There I was, a middle-class public schoolboy, suddenly in this world of trades unions and carpenters. I got called 'comrade' and 'brother' - that's how I got fixed into the Labour Party."

After the war, twin careers as a writer and lawyer ran in tandem. While he enjoyed a level of notoriety as a high-profile QC - defending the publishers of Oz magazine, and later Gay News, from obscenity charges - his big breakthrough as a writer came with the 1957 radio play The Dock Brief, which became a stage hit and a film starring Peter Sellers ("brilliant in his way, but he thought that next week he would be back on the end of the pier"). His most famous stage production, A Voyage Round My Father, also began life as a radio play in 1963, and was revived last year in a triumphant London production starring Derek Jacobi.

It was a courtroom encounter in Singapore that finally convinced him to quit the legal profession, after Mortimer was asked to defend an opposition politician against a libel suit brought by the president. "I arrived in the robing room at the central court with jet lag. A Chinese lady was in charge. She said. 'There you are: Lumpore of the Bayrey'. I thought: 'I can't spend the rest of my professional life being called this.' I gave it up.'"

Since then, writing and performance have sustained him in an idyllic world of work. He has just completed a three-week run at the King's Head, in London's Islington, where he appeared in Mortimer's Miscellany, alongside a changing cast of young actresses, who were engaged to read his favourite poems and literary extracts while he recounted legal anecdotes.

Last week a DVD of the show was filmed and he was delighted that "my daughter Emily, who is a film star" could fly in from New York to take part in it. Mortimer, who occasionally visits Scotland because "my wife shoots things", is chewing over the possibility of bringing the show to the Edinburgh Fringe later in the year.

For now, he can look forward to visiting Glasgow to see his latest stage show premiered in a tight little arts centre, with its pleasant little bar alongside. The perfect environment for a man of Mortimer's stamp. Perfect in all ways but one. That cigarette-free environment just won't feel right. "I mean, women smoking in pubs were so attractive, I always felt."

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Beware Eck, bearing gifts

The Times, 6 Jaunary, 2009

After years of uncritical support for the Scottish Nationalist Party, Sir Sean Connery is reaping unexpected rewards, receiving a succession of unsolicited gifts, courtesy of Alex Salmond, according to documents obtained under Freedom of Information regulations.

The First Minister, a long-time admirer of the veteran actor, has kept up a steady stream of offerings, including an early copy of the latest Sandi Thom CD, The Pink and the Lily, complete with a glowing appreciation of the singer from Mr Salmond himself.

That light, musical gift was followed a much heavier item, the White Paper on a “national conversation” over the country's future, signed by the First Minister.

To the untrained eye, Mr Salmond's behaviour might appear to be fawning, but psychologists say that in a celebrity-obsessed age, it is not unusual for politicians to forge links with famous people, in the hope that some stardust might rub off on them. In these circumstances, Sir Sean, often described as “the most famous Scot in world” is a natural target.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, said the relationship between leading politicians and celebrities could be traced back at least to 1960s America and the symbiosis between President John F. Kennedy and entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

“It is a two-way relationship. Part of it stems from the celebrity's desire to be doing something serious, other than just singing songs or acting - he or she wants to show they have more substance.

“But in the multimedia age we live, and with issues such as the funding of parties, getting the support of celebrities becomes even more important to the politicians.

“They want to be linked to celebrities. It's good exposure in the public eye - because normally celebrities are far more significant than most politicians,” he said.

The correspondence shows that Mr Salmond wrote four official letters to Sir Sean's home in Bermuda in 2008. The first reads: “Dear Sir Sean, Sandi Thom has very kindly sent me an advance copy of her new album which will be released in the spring.

“I have greatly enjoyed listening to Sandi's album, so I am forwarding it to you in the hope that you will too.”

The letter is signed: “Best wishes for 2008 to Micheline and yourself. Yours for Scotland, Alex.”

The letters drew derision from opposition politicians and were described as “deeply embarrassing”.

“The way Mr Salmond comes across in awe of the rich and famous will make most Scots look askance at his spin-doctors' desperate claim that he is a man of the people,” a Scottish Labour Party spokesman said.

Mr Salmond has an enduring regard for Sir Sean, which he is unashamed to flaunt in public. Last August, he took a front-row seat at the actor's sell-out event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and in November spoke in glowing terms of Sir Sean's physique, at the unveiling of the Homecoming Scotland television advertisement, in which the actor makes a contribution.

“As for Sean, 78 years old and not wobbling at the knees. it's just not fair. What's he got that we've not got?” Mr Salmond asked.

On receipt of the answer - “a warm climate” - the First Minister refrained from further comment.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

McCall Smith digs up literary heritage

The Times, 3 January, 2009

... Connections with the city are shot through his own fiction. McCall Smith has virtually pioneered “the New Town novel”, with his social comedies set in 44 Scotland Street, a nonexistent tenement building in a very real Georgian street.

More recently, Isabel Dalhousie has come to the fore, an Edinburgh lady with a philosopher's inquiring mind. She flits around a very carefully realised landscape in the Bruntsfield and Merchiston districts of the city, where McCall Smith has made his home, within doors of two other world-renowned authors, J.K. Rowling and Ian Rankin.

Even Precious Ramotswe, the redoubtable founder of the No1 Ladies' Detective Agency - and the original source of McCall Smith's reputation as a writer - bears the mark of the city. McCall Smith spent part of his childhood in Zimbabwe, but something in his heroine's unshakeable moral core reminds many readers of a certain type of Edinburgh lady, most likely to be found living in Morningside, the city's most respectable area.

“Perhaps that's the subtle influence of the place on a writer,” he muses. “People say to me that my Precious Ramotswe novels are about Morningside. I see what they mean, because many of her attitudes would be perfectly resonant with the attitudes of Morningside.”

A literary tour of Edinburgh, with Sandy McCall Smith. You can read more here: Sandy.

This piece was written in a hurry and should have been better. 6 out of 10. Must try harder. But a happy New Year to all our reader.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Smallest radio station rings in the new

The Times 2 January, 2009

Broadcasting their breakfast show from a tiny studio inside a stone cottage overlooking the icy waters of Loch Gairloch, two ladies in the prime of life are bringing in the new year at the smallest commercial radio station in Britain.

And, if Anne Gray and Maisie Lyall, the DJs for Two Lochs Radio, are to be believed, it promises to be quiet in Gairloch, the idyllic village that straggles along the margins of remote Wester Ross. In this place you have to make your own fun in the aftermath of a raucous Hogmanay, because there is precious little else to do — a fact that Mrs Lyall makes abundantly clear when she addresses herself to the script marked “What's on today”.

“The Aultbea and Gairloch medical practice will be closed until Monday 5th January,” she tells her listeners. “Gairloch filling station will be closed today and Friday; the waste transfer station is also closed and so is the Gairloch leisure centre.”

However, not all is quiet. “On Friday, Gairloch Golf Club has its annual Paracetemol Open for members and guests. Tee time is 10.30 am and the captain recommends relative sobriety, though this is not essential.”

The smallest commerical radio station in Britain hits the ground strolling on Ne'er's day. Read more here: Live from Gairloch.

Listen to the station online here: Two Lochs Radio.