Saturday, 30 January 2010

I won't pay through the nose

A businessman has been fined £60 and had his driving licence endorsed for blowing his nose while stuck in a traffic jam.

Michael Mancini, a furniture restorer from Prestwick, Ayrshire, was given the fixed penalty and docked three penalty points after leaning over and pulling out a paper handkerchief to wipe his nose when stuck in Ayr High Street. Mancini said that his van was in neutral with its handbrake on, and that he was flabbergasted when he was signalled into a parking bay by an approaching policeman.

Matters became “a little bit surreal”, he said, when he wound down his window and was promptly charged by the stern-faced PC Stuart Gray, a man known locally as “Shiny Buttons” in recognition of his zealous attention to detail. “I honestly thought it was a joke,” said Mancini, 39, who was booked for failing to be in control of his vehicle.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding’. But he was absolutely deadpan. He’s a policeman, so you’re not going to start shouting abuse at him. I thought, ‘What is the world coming to?’ You pick the papers up every day and they are full of horror stories — but this bloke has nothing more to do with his time.”

Another amusing tale that, like the whisky thing below, got a huge number of hits on-line, and a very prominent place in the national edition of the Times. Read the rest here: Snot funny.

A huge row is brewing up around the Law Society of Scotland,the body that represents the country's 10,500 solicitors. Read about that here: Tesco law and no confidence vote.

Finally click here for more on this startling revelation: "Scotland even led the field in space sciences, Professor Glover said, though more dogs than Scots have experienced space travel so far."

Curse of MacLeod the builder

Over the centuries, plenty of blood has flowed around these walls, occupied by MacLeods for 800 years since Leod, son of Olaf the Black, founded the dynasty. But for modern clansmen the problems really set in after a fire in 1938 destroyed part of the castle.

Dame Flora MacLeod decided to commission an architect to construct a new south wing, handing the brief to a certain MacLeod — it was no coincidence — of Inverness. This proved unwise. The resulting “diseased limb” of stone, pebbledash and tar has all the charm of the worst public housing of the postwar era accentuated by the application of grubby harling to the castle walls. To make matters worse a copper roof was installed which failed within four years and has continued failing ever since, rendering many of the private rooms uninhabitable. The buckets indoors speak for themselves.

More here on the travails of Hugh, 30th MacLeod of MacLeod: wee Shug.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Burns night whisky sensation

A palpable sense of astonishment has overtaken a small but convivial crowd of whisky enthusiasts, assembled in Leith’s historic Vintners Rooms.

In fact, not since 2007, when the Taipei First Girls’ Senior High School marching band made its jaw-dropping entrance to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, has such a sense of profound shock overwhelmed a select Scottish gathering.

“Oh. My. God,” breathes Charles MacLean, author and whisky connoisseur, from behind his impressive moustache. “Is this an April fool?” Fellow panellists register the same amazement. Whispers of “unbelievable”, “incredible” and “oh no” reverberate around a bar which for more than 250 years housed a Scotch whisky warehouse.

This was the weekend finale of an exclusive blind tasting, and against all odds a selection of three-year-old Scotch whiskies have been beaten by a rank outsider, distilled not in Scotland, Ireland, nor even England. But in Taiwan.

More here: whisky. As a point of information, I witnessed the Taipei First Girls’ Senior High School marching band's performance at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The gals, all 150 of 'em, gave an "eyes right" as they left the arena, and it's a fact that they were all looking at me as they high-tailed it out of there.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Bigwigs in the frame for art theft

The theft of a valuable painting from a private library during a presentation by a former bishop has left an audience of 200 distinguished Edinburgh citizens among the suspects for the crime.

In a case worthy of Isabel Dalhousie, the dignified Morningside sleuth created by Alexander McCall Smith, a painting entitled I Cannae Hear You, by the Borders artist Tom Scott was taken from the Signet Library, probably on January 1. To add a certain piquancy to the case, the theft occurred during an event to commemorate the Protestant Reformation, the only occasion on which the building was occupied during the New Year’s holiday until the library re-opened the following week.

The theft of the £4,000 water colour, by a relatively unknown artist who died a century ago, has mystified and saddened members of The Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, who own the library, a magnificent classical building in Parliament Square.

“We cannot think of any other occasion when the painting could have disappeared,” said Robert Pirrie, chief executive of the society. “We’re very disappointed that our hospitality should be abused. It’s a private building but we open it up to the city as often as he can.”

Grizzled detectives from Lothian and Borders police have been left scratching their heads at the complexity of the case, as they ponder crucial questions of means, motive and opportunity.

With no sign of forced entry, it seems probable that the painting was removed during or after an event billed as The New Year Conversation. At the heart of police deliberations is the question: what kind of evil genius would target a discussion designed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin and John Knox, the grandaddies of Scottish Presbyterianism?

The event itself featured the Most Reverend Richard Holloway, the former primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Harry Reid, the some time editor of the Glasgow Herald, in a discussion chaired by Catherine Lockerbie, who was until recently the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. While a police source said that all three had been eliminated as suspects, audience members may yet have their collars felt.

One theory suggests that a thief entered the building during the event and made off with the watercolour, which hangs in an attractive 2ft gilt frame. A picture hook was left at the scene of the crime.

The country’s leading salerooms have since been made aware of the theft in case someone attempts to sell the painting through them.

“We have no idea why this painting was taken, but doubt very much that it was targeted. It’s not a very well known painting, but it is also not very big. I suppose it’s on the outer limits of something you could try to carry, although you’d still be taking a risk that nobody would notice,” said Mr Pirrie.

A spokesman for Lothian and Borders Police said: “This has been an opportunistic theft of a relatively expensive piece of artwork and we are eager to ensure it is returned to the library. If anyone has information that can assist with our investigation they are asked to contact the police immediately.

The stunning interior of the Signet Library has been described as “a classical cathedral” and was designed in 1813 by William Stark.

The cupola painting in the centre of the Upper Library depicts Apollo and the Muses, accompanied by Burns, Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, Virgil, Cicero, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Livy, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, Newton, Bacon, Napier and Adam Smith — all bearing silent witness to a perplexing crime.

This appeared last Saturday, and made a few people chuckle, so I've stuck it here. The painting has been recovered, and I hope to have a follow up piece soonish.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Smugglerius unveiled

When he was hanged from the gallows at Tyburn, in London, the world seemed well rid of James Langar, a robber who had preyed on Georgian gentlemen strolling through Hyde Park. Now, almost 250 years after his execution, a cast of the criminal’s body has been identified in Edinburgh College of Art where, ironically, it is used to inspire students of life drawing.

Langar’s unlikely immortality has been uncovered after a remarkable piece of detective work by Joan Smith, an artist and lecturer, and Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist. Intrigued by the sinuous cast, nicknamed Smugglerius, which has been an essential element in anatomy lessons for generations of Scottish art students, the pair decided to trace its original identity.

They searched through libraries in Edinburgh and London, pored over trial records and dates from the Old Bailey and examined details of the original Smugglerius casting. Finally they had pieced together an extraordinary life-after-death story that will be told next week in an exhibition entitled Smugglerius Unveiled.

Though it took months to identify Langar, Ms Smith said she had known from the outset that it was unusual for a full body cast to survive intact. In the 18th century a guilty verdict for a capital offence brought with it the certainty that a criminal’s remains would be handed over to medical science for dissection. Condemned men would go the gallows knowing that they would have no Christian burial.

Langar owed his preservation to the intervention of William Hunter, the surgeon and anatomist whose eyes lighted on the corpse shortly after it had been cut down from the gibbet. Dr Hunter was immediately struck by the body’s muscularity, the result of Langer’s eight years in the army.

“The story goes that Hunter saw the body and thought he had such a fantastic physique that, instead of cutting him up, he would take his skin off and make a cast,” Ms Smith said.

“He took the skin and the fat off so all the musculature was visible and then had a plaster cast made. It is a fantastic specimen. You can see all the muscle strands and the fibres and you can see the muscles working. It is a bit macabre, but it is fascinating.”

Hunter, a keen patron of the arts, had the cast made by Agostino Carlini for students at the Royal Academy. The body was arranged in a famous classical pose known as the Dying Gaul. It is thought that William Blake studied the original. A drawing of the cast, by William Linnell, is held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge.

Though Carlini’s original work is lost, copies are held at the Royal Academy and in Edinburgh, both cast by William Pink. The Edinburgh piece has been at the college since its foundation in the 1850s and has been an inspiration for thousands of students.

“I was taught anatomy looking at Smugglerius, studying skeletons and looking at live models,” said Ms Smith. “I drag him out from time to time and point out his muscles to the students. It is a fantastic way to see forms of body that you cannot see in a living person. “Anatomy for artists tends to be about superficial structures — the surface forms, rather than what the liver looks like.”

In today’s climate of community sentencing and leniency towards first-time offenders, Langar’s punishment may seem harsh. He was convicted as a footpad, a highwayman without a horse, and was arrested by the Bow Street Runners — sometimes called the first professional police force in London — when he was home in bed with a woman. Among his clothes the Runners found items that had been stolen from his victims. This evidence, and the testimony ofwitnesses, were enough to convict him of armed robbery, then a capital offence.

Langar’s final known words make chilling reading amid the court records, said Ms Smith. He is reported to have said: “I see they are determined to swear my life away, I leave myself to the mercy of the Court.”

In the Old Bailey papers from February 21, 1776, the court recorder immediately notes both verdict and sentence: “GUILTY. Death.”

Picture by James Glossop. Is he a good photographer? Judge for yourself here: James Glossop

Thursday, 14 January 2010

An audience with Lemony Snicket

Thousands of children share Lemony Snicket's tastes and after an hour-long performance, it takes him three hours to work through his signing session.

As the procession of children thins to a trickle, a bespectacled boy with a serious face approaches. “What’s wrong?” demands Snicket. “Is life getting you down? Are you watching as the sands of time tumble down the hourglass as you march towards death, the chill breath of mortality on your skin?” The boy takes the signed book with a sheepish smile. “Say thank you,” barks Snicket. He turns to a shy little girl in a pink coat who is last in the queue. “Oh, I’m sorry. We are right out of time.”

This is quite jolly. There's more here: Snicket. Readers of the Scotsman will be surprised to read this, because their newspaper is claiming a Snicket exclusive. (Exclusive to the Scotsman, the BBC, 1,000 children. And the Times.)

Pic by the excellent Tom Main

Thursday, 7 January 2010

In conversation: John Burnside

Sprawled across the sofa in his living room John Burnside looks anything but comfortable, as if he was a patient enduring a particularly irritating session with his shrink. The conversation has taken a difficult turn, and the poet and novelist finds himself explaining why he embarked on the love affair with a 15-year-old schoolgirl so vividly realised in Waking Up in Toytown, his new memoir.

This obsession, this “amour fou” as Burnside calls it, blew up 16 years ago when he was 38, and, yes, he says, it was entirely chaste. One morning, as he stared out alone cross the sands at Lytham St Annes, in Lancashire, Burnside heard a voice behind him say: “The people round here used to eat wading birds.” He turned to see a girl leaning against the promenade railings, her eyes “so bright they suggested a perpetual, amused curiosity”. He was hooked, he writes: “in a single uncalled-for moment, everything changed forever — though to be fair that wasn’t her fault”.

The romance as it is written in black and white is a beautifully told tale, right down to its tearful conclusion, when, in confusion, Burnside utterly rejects the girl’s first pleas for sexual intimacy. It is, however, much harder to express in conversation, even in the secure surroundings of his home in rural Fife.

In response to each question, a rising note of irritation registers in Burnside’s voice, a curious hybrid of Cowdenbeath and Corby, the two places in which he grew up. Sure, it was risky to tell the story, he concedes, and — “it’s quite right” — he should have walked away from the relationship before it had even begun. But it was important to tell his readers why he nurtured this doomed flirtation — and imperative to be truthful about the girl’s age.

“If I had made her one year older it would have been more acceptable,” he growls. “But this isn’t a May-September story, or a paedophile story. This is a tale about someone who was so disconnected from the human world that when he formed a connection with another person, he could completely overlook all the other stuff. How old she was, the fact that she found me attractive, it just didn’t matter, because there was a possibility of talking to a person in a meaningful conversation.”

To emphasise the girl’s allure and the confusion she provoked, he renames her Esmé in his book, after the teenager whose beauty and assurance utterly overwhelms the soldier she briefly meets in J. D. Salinger’s famous story For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.

“When I think about it,” he says, “Esmé for me isn’t a kind of Lolita figure, she’s more like Salinger’s character, or maybe the angel in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, who is also a beautiful girl in her mid to late teens,” he says. That angel is “a messenger, come to speak for grace and for a larger narrative than what we want, or think we want”. Or to put it another, simpler, way, he adds: “This was a story about love, and love changes all the rules. But I can see it is problematic to read.”

Since his first book of verse in 1988, Burnside’s writing has been published to huge critical acclaim and a rich sprinkling of literary awards, but his poetry and prose mark him out as a man of extremes. For the writer Candia McWilliam, his poems catch “the dark of unhappiness in the light of his writing”. For another reviewer, “a livid streak of psychopathy” runs through his seven fictional works, beginning with The Dumb House, in which a deeply disturbed narrator recounts the horrible experiments he carried out on his twin babies.

When he finally turned to autobiography, Burnside dragged his own damaged past into view. In A Lie About My Father, with his poet’s eye he portrayed a catastrophic relationship with his drunken and violent parent, and his own descent into LSD, barbiturates, alcohol and mental illness. The reviewers were ecstatic.

This second volume is just as painfully intimate as it takes the story on, tracing Burnside’s ten-year struggle to realign himself to the world. It more or less begins in the early 1980s as he is undergoing cold turkey in the spare bedroom of a friend’s house. There and then he decides to quit his drug-happy haunts in Cambridge, where he had once scraped a degree from the local college of arts and technology. He sets his sights instead on the perceived safety of suburban England.

“Physical pain is nothing compared to the mental pain of being in that bedroom. I thought: How do I stop myself sliding back to where I was before? Answer: I live as a completely normal person.” Burnside snorts at the notion. “I had no idea what normal was. I thought ‘A completely normal person is someone who works in an office and lives in Surbiton. He watches telly, walks the dog and goes in to work each day’. I’d never had that, so I thought, ‘If I do that, it will save me’.”

Friends helped him out with the costs of the move and the offer of a flat-share in Guildford. There he managed to enrol himself on to a programme to deal with his addictions, but it didn’t last long. “Jolly red devil on one shoulder, anaemic white angel on the other,” he was doomed to fail. After little more than a year he could be found sloshing from bar to bar, inevitably passing through a series of disastrous and painful encounters with his fellow casualties.

Burnside kept no diary in those years but instead builds his fictionalised account on memories. “I remember quite a lot of it in pictures, bits of things and then you construct a narrative from that. How reliable is it? It’s reliable to the extent that it rings true to me. I can’t estimate how much of it is coloured, or is partisan. Hopefully, I don’t try to make myself look better than I was.”

There are reasons to suspect that the reverse is true — he could have made himself seem far worse than he appeared to his contemporaries. Autobiography inevitably involves choices and Burnside admits that he could have given a very different account of himself. After slopping around in temporary jobs for a year, he passed a Civil Service exam in 1985 and took a job in IT with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Two years later he joined a commercial software company and quickly made a name for himself as a consultant, working in knowledge-based systems. (His consultancy role explains his presence in Lytham in 1993, where he had been hired in by a local company.) As his professional life apparently flourished, his literary reputation grew. His third book of poetry, Feast Days, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1994. A turning point came two years later. Dangled the carrot of a directorship at a computer company, he chose instead to write and teach. The following year, in 1995, when he was working as a tutor at Moniack Mhor, a writers’ retreat near Loch Ness, he met his wife-to-be, Sarah. All of that would add up to the appearance of normality, Burnside concedes, had it not been for his utter failure to engage with the world of work, and the social life around it.

He remained a phantom while, against all his expectations, most of the inhabitants of suburbia had, he says, quoting Don DeLillo, “a thick-lived tenor” to their lives. “I spent all those years trying to be normal, but not for one moment was I ever decent,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to be, I now realise, not normal but decent. Normal isn’t possible for someone like me. It wasn’t authentic, it wasn’t me. There were times when I ran five miles in the morning, had a shower and went to the office, times I went swimming — then I’d fall back into my old ways. I really didn’t give a f*** about anything or anyone during those spells. I didn’t like me during that time.”

Something else set him apart, he adds: the long shadow of mental illness. He recently self-diagnosed his former apophenia — an obsessive tendency to see connections where none exist — and he has a piece of paper from long ago on which some medical authority has defined his “psychosis and paranoia”. In other words, he could seem “high-functioning for 90 per cent of the time” but there were times when his life “just fell away”. On those occasions everything was managed by Prochlorperazine, a powerful drug used to control excessive anxiety, delusions, agitation and confusion.

He itemises how life arranged itself in those circumstances. “I went to work, I held up my end of conversations. I sat in the bar. I drove around. I went to antique fairs. I did my garden. But some of that time, all sorts of stuff was going on in my head. I have never known many people who had the weird mental life I knew then. I would walk along the street doing calculations with numbers. And I was having hallucinations — hallucinations that were as vivid as you sitting there. I don’t think I ever believed it would ever get that bad. I had an hallucination of St Augustine, in a cardigan, making tea. My God, that’s not normal.”

It is probably significant that he keeps in touch with only one workmate from that suburban era. Other companions fell by the wayside. One, a charming young drunk in a suit, died alone when his pancreas exploded. Another seemed a harmless bar-room nerd, until he lured Burnside back to his house and implored his guest to murder the wife who was lying in a vodka-induced stupor on the couch. For the record, Burnside declined.

Long before Esmé came along, Burnside mortified himself most of all around women, who came and went in a succession of worthless encounters. Even when he managed to rekindle a beautiful relationship with Adele, a former lover, the story is tainted by the fact that she had already married another man. His liaison with Gina (like all the names in the book, it’s invented), a single mum, he describes as an altogether more “tawdry” business. He enjoyed visiting her at weekends, but it was not long before he was watching in horror as she doped her three kids with Valium to keep them quiet while she went partying. To his shame, he barely protested.

While he was writing his memoir, Burnside asked himself why he had conjured up such a bleak tale. The answer, he says, was his deep regard for Gina’s kids. For the first time, he had a sense of family around him, and he loved it. “In the end, I look back and tell myself that they really had a good life. That was really true, you know, she gave them Valium to make them sleep, so we could go out on Saturday night — but most of the time she was a really good mother.”

Near its conclusion, Waking Up in Toytown advances to the present and to this house, where, with Sarah and the couple’s two young sons, Burnside has created a proper happy family life at last. “It’s winter,” he writes, “the cold as hard as a knife, the snow perfect and unmarked on the fields around this house where I now live, almost perfectly sane, with a road into the afterlife running right past my front door.”

The language suggests that he might be a religious man. “That’s an interesting question,” he snorts. “I find that much harder to answer than ‘are you a quasi-paedophile?’” He mulls the religious matter over. “Yes and no. I am philosophically religious, but not attached. I have no sense of having a personal God or a personal soul.”

So is there an afterlife? This time there is no hesitation. “There is an afterlife all the time,” he retorts. “I don’t believe the person I am will survive, but I believe that life will continue, because we are all part of that greater life.

“Imagine being John Burnside for all eternity. I’ve hardly been able to stand it for 54 years. Who could possibly wish for that?”

Waking Up in Toytown is published by Jonathan Cape on January 7 at £16.99. To buy it for £15.29 call 0845 2712134 or visit

This article appeared on page 3 of the Times Weekend Review (its book pages) but can be found here online, filed under "women - celebrity", Burnside.

Friday, 1 January 2010

New Year on the edge

This morning, in his cliff-top café 300ft above the waters of Cape Wrath, Scotland’s loneliest restaurateur is rubbing his hands and readying his kitchen for the first guests of the new year.

John Ure, 54, is wise enough to season his anticipation with a large dose of realism. Even without the snow and ice lying thick around the place, he knows his café — set in the former lighthouse keeper’s cottage at the northwestern tip of Britain — is as seriously inaccessible as it gets: a ferry ride across an inlet and an 11-mile hike over rugged moorland.

The journey can defeat even the most experienced travellers in these parts. Eight days ago Kay, his wife, set off to Inverness to fetch the Christmas turkey. She still hasn’t made it back.

“The snow only began after she’d left,” says Mr Ure regretfully. “It’s the first Christmas we’ve spent apart for 30 years. She’s been stuck in Durness all this time.”

More of Mr Ure, a surprisingly happy man, at: Cape Wrath Cafe.

Happy new year, comrades.