Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Giant who captured Iona's power

The Times, April 19, 2010

Three vast canvases dominate the loft of an Edinburgh gallery. The first is a sombre patchwork of greys, like a gloomy morning; the third is similar, though flicked with colour that oozes through a more ordered design. Between the two is a much warmer image of reds and browns, a symphony of stone. Together they make Iona, Sean Scully’s triptych, which has been hailed as “one of the great paintings of the early 21st century”.

If that seems a large statement, Scully wears the claim lightly. Right now he is more concerned with a piece of body art under his right sleeve, a swirling tattoo. “That’s a Druid design – but do you know what it is?” drawls Scully, a big boxer-like man, who throws out questions as if he’s picking a fight. “It’s the three trimesters — it means endless rejuvenation. After I put that on my arm, my wife got pregnant.”

So its power seeped into his body? “Yeah. It’s beautiful though, isn’t it? A 4,000-year-old abstract drawing.”

Scully was tattooed 18 months ago at Newgrange, a prehistoric passage tomb in County Meath, where spirituality hangs in the air. Over decades, the artist, who has lived in New York since 1975, has found similar inspiration among Mayan stones in Mexico and, of course, on Iona, which he first visited while an art student in Newcastle upon Tyne. He returns to St Columba’s island this week, after this brief appearance at the opening of his Edinburgh show. “That first trip to Iona was quite a pilgrimage,” says Scully, 64. “We were four friends and we were all very moved by it. When I came to paint this big triptych, the more powerful it got.

Read the rest of the interview here: Scully.

Excellent photograph by James Glossop

Friday, 16 April 2010

On the stump: Patron saint meets national champ

This should be unpromising territory for Labour, but at either end of the long country road that separates the villages of Greenloaning from Braco, the party’s Gordon Banks keeps bumping into supporters.

This is not one of his party’s urban strongholds, like Kirkcaldy or Coatbridge, but rural Ochil & Perthshire South, Scotland’s weirdest constituency, where nothing is as it seems. Take the case of Steve Forsyth from Braco, a 55-year-old, self-made businessmen, a proud ex-Marine and, surely, a natural Tory.

“Make no mistake,” he says apologetically. “I can’t stand the Prime Minister. But it worries me that Gordon Banks might not get elected just because people want a change. He has really stepped up to the plate for this community.”

The incongruity emerges again a few hours later when Annabelle Ewing, the SNP candidate is out on the stump. Confronted by Hugh McAllister, a former mining deputy, who lives on a housing scheme in Menstrie, you might expect to find a solid Labour man. Not at all. “I’ve voted SNP for years,” he announces, shaking Ms Ewing warmly by the hand.

This is probably what happens when you create the 59th Scottish seat from the bits that are left over after the other boundaries have been drawn. Ochil & Perthshire South is a great blob, bang in the middle of the country and none of it makes sense.

For decades Conservatism seeped like rainwater into the bedrock. In former constituencies to the north and west, Tory grandees Alec Douglas Home and Nicky Fairbairn had safe seats. But in the 1990s the Tory party lost out to the Nationalists; these days no fewer than three SNP MSPs are elected to Holyrood from within this same territory.

Yet in the 2005 general election, Labour held off Ms Ewing’s challenge with a majority of 688, making this the second most marginal seat in Scotland. Much of his vote dwells in the thin band of industrial towns around Alloa, but “nowhere is no go” to Mr Banks, even Braco and Greenloaning. “Obviously some places are harder to deliver, but there are Labour voters where you least expect them,” he says.

The clash between Mr Banks and Ms Ewing will define how both parties perform across Scotland. If the SNP fail to achieve a swing of 0.7 per cent Alex Salmond’s vision of 20 Westminster seats will be seen as just so much hot air. And should either party weaken, the Conservatives are clinging to the hope that Gerald Michaluk, a millionaire businessman, can speed his Maserati through to claim the prize.

The Labour-SNP clash comes with a scent of animosity, which hangs in the air around the candidates. Mr Banks’ view of Ms Ewing roughly equates to: she’s all mouth and no action’. Ms Ewing’s assessment of Mr Banks is the same ... but different: he’s no mouth and no action. Should either win, the other will offer congratulations through gritted teeth.

The SNP candidate could hardly be better known — the daughter of Winnie Ewing, the party’s grande dame, and sister of Fergus Ewing, a minister in Alex Salmond’s government. Ms Ewing held the old Perth & Kinross seat in Westminster until she lost out to the Boundary Commissioners, making her mark in Parliament for her voluble campaign to retain Scottish regiments. In the process she called Geoff Hoon, then Defence Secretary, “a back-stabbing coward” and was ejected from the Commons.

For Ms Ewing the incident is a battle honour. Scotland needs “national champions” she says: “I pursued the regiments relentlessly, that is the job of a constituency MP.”

Mr Banks is more low-key, a founding director of a builder’s merchants business who only joined the Labour Party in 1996. Little known outside constituency or party circles he dumbfounded even his allies when he won in 2005, then, as now, campaigning on local issues. Labour installed him as manager of their Glenrothes by-election team. When Lindsay Roy won well in a tightly-focussed campaign, Mr Banks was anointed his party’s patron saint of lost causes.

Conservatives hope the Labour vote stays at home, and think the SNP is not hitting the heights of the Scottish election. Liz Smith, a local MSP, insisted the Conservatives could make up the 4,000 votes they need to spring a surprise.

“There is a sense the Nationalists are not firing on all cylinders,” she said. “If they have lost their punch, there is no reason at all why we cannot come through.” And while Mr Banks plays the local card Ms Smith, believes the wider picture counts. “Even in 2005, not enough of the public saw us as the next government — this time they do and it will make a difference on the ground.”

Stranger things have happened in Ochil & South Perthshire, the constituency which even voters can’t comprehend. “I stay up in Comrie,” Ms Ewing tells a man out with his kids in Menstrie. “The wee village in Fife?” he asks, thinking, that’s handy, just a few miles away. “No, no the one up in Perthshire, the place that’s actually in the constituency.” It will only make sense on May 6.

Read more in the Times of London: here. Photos by James Glossop.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Love of the common people

The Times, 3 April, 2010

Like some unfortunate in one of his stories, James Kelman can’t help walking into trouble. “Literary Scotland torn apart over Kelman spat”, a recent headline ran after the Glaswegian author went into battle against “f****** detective fiction” and that “upper middle class young magician”.

Kelman unflinchingly aligns himself in one tradition — “Joyce, Beckett, Camus, Tolstoy” — while he places Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J. K. Rowling in another. “There’s room for everybody as long as you don’t run them all together, simply because they all use language,” he has said. “I mean, we all sing in the bath, but we’re not Maria Callas . . .”

If, for kicks, you set about your fellow writers with such gusto, you had better be good at your day job. If it is your life, Kelman’s latest collection of short stories, makes plain that he is very good indeed.

For readers accustomed to thinking of him as a dour writer, the happy surprises here are the love stories, recounted by Kelman’s male narrators as they try to make sense of the women in their lives. In talking about my wife, a man returns to his tenement flat from the night shift, after a row with his foreman that may well have cost him his job. He’s back early and he knows his wife, Cath, will be surprised, “up and about and giving me looks”, just another one of the problems sent to try him.

In Kelman’s world familiarity does not breed contempt. Cath’s unfathomable understanding and patience slowly overtake him. He notices her tapering fingers, her smile, her body — “she didnay have what they call a girlish figure”. They end together by the window gazing out on life and at each other. “She looked at me steadily, unsmiling. I kissed her on the forehead, cupped her chin in my hand, angling my head to kiss her on the lips. She was always so cool, so calm, but I could never have told her that, never.”

Kelman, 63, was born in Govan, the heart of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry, but brought up in Drumchapel, a vast, sterile postwar estate on the northwestern edge of the city. He left school at 15 but by 21 knew that he wanted to be a writer. His socialism has never wavered.

His difficulty at first was finding a voice. Whenever he encountered someone in English literature who shared his working-class roots, they were often caricatures of Glaswegians, perceived from the outside. Inspired by great European writers — Kafka is an obvious point of comparison — he began to make his own world the mainspring of his writing: snooker halls and bars, DSS offices and hospital queues, writing his characters’ lives from the inside and using their language.

He had already produced two books of short stories before his first novel, The Busconductor Hines, was published to critical acclaim in 1984. A decade later he won the Booker Prize for How Late it Was, How Late, a savage, darkly comic encounter between Sammy, a bruised and blinded former convict, and the stifling welfare system that is meant to help him to piece his life back together. There are said to be 4,000 examples of the F-word in the text. Simon Jenkins, writing in this paper, called Kelman an “illiterate savage” and compared reading his work to being stuck in a train carriage with a drunk Glaswegian.

The controversy hurt sales, and there have been times in Kelman’s career when he has needed the financial prop provided by Marie, his wife, a social worker. But his approach has never wavered, and he has revisited, time and again, different points in the same bleak landscape.

One of these stories, Man to Man, is set in a pub: a drinker inwardly froths with righteous anger as he watches another man verbally abuse his wife. In another we join four impoverished friends as they gather round a fire on a piece of waste ground to banter away their lives. In Vacuum, an old man ruminates on his empty relationship with his wife, as she fills her day by endlessly hoovering the flat.

For Kelman’s critics this may all seem too familiar. The Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan suffers from cancer and lives in a nursing home in the city, a Kelmanian scenario if ever there was one (three of these stories are told from hospital beds). Yet Morgan last year chided the author for his “overly bleak” outlook, saying, “if you have a proletarian novel it should take account of all the extraordinary things that people do, including various kinds of enjoyment”.

Kelman is rescued by his black humour. Pieces of shit do have the power to speak is a tale told by an impoverished traveller, who, during a storm, dines lavishly on prawns, mussels and fruits de mer in a ship’s restaurant. Meanwhile, “strong men crumbled, their bellies succumbing to the heaving seas. Why oh why did we have the last six pints of stout, they screamed to an uncaring hurricane! . . . Always spew portside. Such I had learned from a venerable sage of the sea.”

If that passage comes with some of the verbal comedy of Flann O’Brien, so does another. In On Becoming a Reader, a young guy, in a single sentence, rounds on the “greatbritishsocialsystem ... the last straw being the charred remains of a book I had purchased, found in the fireplace, having been judged licentious by my mother and set in flames”.

There’s even slapstick in Tricky times ahead pal when we view the world through the eyes of a man who has just had his leg amputated. A social security woman orders him a pair of trousers from the Oxfam shop, but when they arrive she inadvertently snips off the wrong leg. The poor chap suffers agonies pulling the things on — and then he has to wear his trousers with the fly at the rear.

What larks! It is certainly never difficult to distinguish between this Scotsman and a ray of sunshine. But If it is your life is a fine collection and an excellent window on Kelman’s brooding world.

If it is your life by James Kelman (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99; Buy this book; 279pp)

This was the lead book review in Saturday's edition of the Times, which was a first for me. Read it here.

Cells in a dish, science on a plate

The Times, March 26, 2010

“One of the key things of this decade — and I think it will prove to be one of the key things of this century — is the ability to give tissue cells from adults the characteristics of embryo stem cells,” says Sir Ian Wilmut, the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep. “In the long run they will be used for cell therapy but the immediate interest is in using them to study diseases. If you have a family where you have one or two generations who have had MND, then it is very likely that it is inherited — so you don’t need to know the mutation that causes the disease in order to study it.

“For the first time this offers exactly what we were wanting — cells in a dish, which are equivalent to a person with an inherited disease, and that’s the trick you get from IPS.”

Without doubt, one of the most influential British scientists of his generation - there's more from Sir Ian Wilmut here: Stem Cells.

Pic by Glossop.

"It's like being the queen ..."

The Times, March 20, 2010

Sexism in the police force? There probably is, but rank lends a fresh perspective on life, chuckles Justine Curran, the new chief constable of Tayside, from her perch on the edge of a black leather sofa.

“Sometimes,” she says, “it’s like being the Queen, the world smells of fresh paint. It’s certainly different than I’ve experienced as I’ve come up. When people think about chief constable, they tend to think about a big man.”

She tilts her head back and the chuckle becomes a guffaw. “But they do think that. I’m not the image they have in their head.”

Police headquarters, Dundee, will never be the same again. Blonde, 42, and much nearer to 5ft than the burly, 6ft copper of legend, Ms Curran cuts an extraordinary figure in the macho world of the Scottish constabulary.

She is disarmingly open in conversation, sounds like the comedian Victoria Wood (she was raised in the same part of Lancashire), and introduces herself as Justine over the phone to colleagues. She is, in the words of a junior officer, “very attractive” — and they never said that about James Anderton, the chief of police when Curran joined the Manchester force 20 years ago.

Not the least of her recent achievements has been to win successive posts as assistant chief constable, in Manchester and on Tayside, while her first marriage fell apart. These days, after yet another promotion, Ms Curran lives in rural Perthshire with her two primary-age children and Gordon Meldrum, the Director-General of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency — “The Plod Couple” as they were christened by The Sun. The embarrassment, she giggles.

For all her good humour it would be a mistake to think of Ms Curran as a soft touch. In 2007, she was the first woman to be appointed assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester Police and was Gold Commander in charge of public order the day — and night — that 150,000 Rangers fans descended on the city for the 2008 UEFA Cup Final. That event rapidly descended into scenes of public drunkenness and violence. Films of vicious attacks on the police were flashed around the world over the internet and on TV.

When news came through on Thursday that one of the worst offenders, Scott McSeveney, 21, from Shotts, had been found guilty at Manchester Crown Court of violent disorder, Ms Curran could scarcely conceal her delight (“I thought: ‘Bloody good’.”). Just two years go she had watched open-mouthed in horror as live CCTV footage showed a brutal attack on PC John Goodwin in Piccadilly Gardens.

“This was an officer who had a crowd round him,” she recalls. “When you see the footage, it is really sickening. It looked like they were trying to kill him, they were trying to pull his helmet off.”

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, one Scottish newspaper tried to pin blame on the police and city council for their failure to control the crowds or provide adequate facilities. That is simply ridiculous, says Ms Curran.

“It interests me when people say, ‘What when went wrong that day?’ As if you could control everything to stop these things. There were up to 150,000 people in Manchester city centre.

“If all 8,000 officers from the force had been on the street, we wouldn’t have been able to stop people.

“The numbers don’t stack up. To turn up in a city which had offered you hospitality and behave like that? It is appalling.”

Ms Curran’s no-nonsense streak emerges again in her attitudes to the Scottish government’s plan effectively to abolish short sentencing for minor offences, including some crimes of assault. Senior colleagues, notably David Strang, the chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, support the proposal and believe it will reduce crime, but she can manage only the faintest of praise.

It’s “a bit counter-intuitive” she says, “a bit difficult”, but “maybe there is a combination” of approaches. The fact is, “as a cop, you want to get to those who are causing problems for people, who are blighting their lives, just generally being bad, and get them locked up”.

Crime is simply ingrained in some people, she believes, a learned behaviour picked up from mums and dads. “We have been dealing with the same people for generations,” she says. So does she have a name for folks like that? Ms Curran guffaws. “Aye, one or two,” she laughs.

Her vision for ideal community policing is something like the TV series, Heartbeat, in which an affable country policeman holds sway in a tiny Yorkshire village. “It’s that model where your officer knows the community, the families and knows the partners too —– in Heartbeat it’s the doctor and various others. Between them they know the people to be involved with. It’s about trying to get upstream from it.”

If the cultural reference point seems trite, it might be excusable. Ms Curran loves drama and ballet and studied both as a child; it was only after a degree in classics at the University of Hull that she settled on a career in the police.

Her earlier passions lingered in her day job, and she was never averse to practising pirouettes and pliés in the corridors of the old police headquarters building in Manchester. “It had these long wooden block floor corridors, some of them would have only a couple of doors,” she says.

“It’s screamed out for me to do something. It’s not quite the same here. Well, women of a certain age, you have to try.” She tells these tales in a way that makes it easy to believe that women officers — who still only account for 25 per cent of the Tayside force — could bring a fresh approach to the interview room and the interrogation of suspects.

They can, she says, because whatever ruses her male counterparts come up with, in that rarefied environment, there is still a physiological reaction, man-to-man.

“It’s the rutting stag thing, isn’t it?” she says. “It is easier [for a woman] to build a rapport. People are not threatened, it is easier to have that conversation, people are more willing to open up. There are some stunningly skilled interviewers of both genders, its not exclusive, but as a generality, there is a reaction for women.”

Ms Curran took up her post on Tayside last month, a vast territory embracing the city of Dundee, along with rural beats, that extends far into the Highlands. Heartbeat meets Taggart, but as different from Greater Manchester — with a population greater than the whole of Scotland — than it is possible to imagine.

Won’t she miss the big city? “The reason I get up in the morning is the thought that I can make it better here. I have loved the operational challenges of big cities, so a bit of me hankers for that. But I love it here. I know this probably sounds a little Pollyannaish, but I am passionate to do my bit.”

The fisherman's hues

The Scotsman, 9 November, 2002

From his window, high in a New Town flat, John Bellany can still see the Lomond hills, the "Paps o' Fife", just as he saw them when he was a boy in Port Seton.

"Every day, when we saw it looking beautiful over there, it was always 'the Kingdom of Fife'. We'd go to my grandma's on the Sunday night and she'd say: 'Aye, the lights are sparkling there in the Kingdom tonight'. I'd think: 'The Kingdom? What the minister's talking about in the church?' 'Does God live there?' I'd ask. 'God lives everywhere,' she'd say."

It seems that this whole year has been spent celebrating Bellany's 60th birthday - they carried in a cake for him in Dublin just the other day - and now in Edinburgh, a film and a retrospective will mark the artist's progress from boozy, woozy sadness into the lights and shades of an older, wiser, happier life.

So much has been written about the man that his biography can seem as familiar as your best friend's: those hard-drinking days with Hugh MacDiarmid in Milne's Bar, the harrowing trip he made to Buchenwald concentration camp, his broken marriage to Helen, followed by the death of Juliet, his second wife. Then came his illness and liver transplant; remarriage to Helen; the recovery. If the corporeal Bellany is well fleshed out these days, this skeleton CV informs every critical judgment of his work.

Conventional wisdom says his work has moved from darkness into the light of a life reborn. After all, he splits his time these days between Edinburgh and Italy and his latest paintings - Barga Rooftops or Tuscan Landscape - are seemingly filled with optimism.

It is not quite as simple as that, as he'll explain, but first he wants to think of something different to say about his life. And - perhaps inspired by the sight of the Paps - he talks about his childhood and a life swept by the salt of the sea.

Two things are central: the fire and brimstone of his Calvinist upbringing and his surroundings in two east coast fishing villages, at his parent's house in Port Seton and his grandparent's home in Eyemouth. These experiences are the "anchors of his life", drawn together, symbolically in the 1881 Eyemouth disaster - when 45 fishing boats set sail into a storm and only 26 returned. He has been revisiting that scene as long as he can remember.

"My grandfather was born the year of the disaster; it used to be the book at the side of my bed when I was a little boy; it was a topic of conversation. So, every time I go down to Eyemouth I don't just see boats bobbing around in the harbour, I see the Eyemouth disaster, I see my grandparents, I see it all there."

It is the same, he believes, with the communities of young men wiped out on the Somme - we are defined by our reactions to these terrible catastrophes.

"It's an either-or," as simple as that. "You can say, 'Ach, that was years ago now,' but it's our history, living history, if you feel it. And as a little boy, your imagination is running riot. Imagine all these fishermen you're used to seeing and then you no longer see them any more."

Memories and reflections tumble out of Bellany - "wafting out of the window with the cigarette smoke" - but he feels lucky to be blessed with the skill to distil his emotion and decant it into art. And, like the great Italian masters who depicted the Bible under the glorious light of Tuscany, this artist reveals his Christ in Port Seton.

"To have grown up in the environment I did ..." he says, lost in a reverie. "I've done some pictures of Him standing in the boat, things like that. I think of these fishermen of my childhood, there in the church, surrounded by stained glass that shows the catching of the miraculous draught of fishes; and with model boats all around the church and the fishermen really singing their hearts out, these redemptive hymns. The sea of Galilee for them is the Firth of Forth.

"When they sing: 'Will your anchor hold in the storms of night,' they will be going out in four hours and their anchor has to hold, or they're drowned. Their faith is linked to this dancing with death every day but it's closer than that because these Bible stories are going through their heads and they are the people in the stories with the disciples."

His art is "a memory, a moment, time passing, it takes on a metaphysical presence, inside looking out". And as the hymns ring in his ears, Lallans trips off his tongue and the sensations of childhood are transformed into images.

Bellany takes an exhibition catalogue and opens it at O' wha's the bride that carries the bunch of thistles blinterin' white, which transforms into colour the work of the "giant" MacDiarmid.

"I could recite the poem but that would be boring for you," he says. Instead, he explains: "It's about this man marrying a woman and this is her wedding day. He finds she's lost her virginity before he's touched her. The poem says we 'didna need your breists like stars' your 'limbs like willow wands' and it goes on about how much he loves her - we 'didna need her maidenheid'. The man's really saying 'it doesn't matter, because I love you so much. I love every part of you, I love you, and I love you inside. I'm not just marrying a maidenhead, I'm marrying the whole person'.

"But when we were younger at school, there must have been so many girls just like that who were shunned. I know what the poem's about, deeply, and I've made a painting of that. I've made it into a Port Seton situation."

When Bellany was just four, he knew he was going to be an artist and recently he came across one of his childhood drawings, drawn on the back of one of his father's Sunday School certificates. "It wasn't the scribble that children normally do, when they first start drawing with crayons," he says. "It was an excellent drawing, this little figure with the arms and the legs - which was me obviously - was looking at a big aircraft carrier and the little frigates and battleships. Little men were on top of the aircraft carrier and some rocks and things and they were all drawn really quite well. It was like a war artist's painting."

Almost from the beginning he drew boats at Eyemouth. "Painting a boat is like painting a portrait, because I had to get the likeness so everyone would know which boat it was. When I was five, I had a big book, a ledger, and I drew the boats in that. There would be my grandfather's boat, Margarets, and one which covered two pages, called the Adoration. That was the biggest boat in the harbour, this big drifter. I wish that book still existed."

With the passing years came knowledge and at 16 or 17, an understanding of the sacred and profane. He discovered a different side to Calvinist Port Seton, the boozing, the joie de vivre, the dancing.

"There was the Box Meeting, which started off in the church. The people all went along with their big flags, one for each boat, and they paraded through the streets with the box, which had all the deeds of all the boats. They thanked the Lord for their wonderful year, the box was blessed and put away for safe keeping.

"The service, luckily, finished at 12 o'clock, just as the pubs were opening, so they got slaughtered beyond belief.

"I just thought they were having fun," he exclaims in mock disbelief. "I didn't realise they were doing all the drinking, getting sloshed, as drunk as skunks and all the women dressed in fishwives costumes dancing a long the street."

After knowledge came wisdom. At Edinburgh College of Art, he would immerse himself in the National Gallery and realise that he could paint allegories of his own experience, "philosophical essays in paint". From there began the grand procession though the darkness and back again.

But even now, don't assume that because his colours are bright, the emotion is light. "It's like looking at Balzac and then someone like Maeve Binchy, and thinking: 'No, that's lightweight.' No matter what I do, I never paint lightweight paintings."

He picks up the catalogue. "These harbour paintings, because I've lived all my life in these places, all my childhood memories and childhood thought are there. I've grown up with it, that's a rock on which I've built. I'm looking from the inside out. There are people who go and do pictures of Penzance and they paint the harbour, they are painting from the outside in, they're only seeing the surface.

"It's not like somebody coming along to me and saying: 'O that's a pretty sketch.' It's never been that. It doesn't matter whether you're feeling chirpy or happy, there's a part of you which will always come through, whether you like it or not. If you're any good that is."

Bellany: A Life, Death and Resurrection is at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, until 15 November. A retrospective of Bellany's work is at the Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, 10-27 November.

Her and her big mouth

The Scotsman, 5 August 2003

She's got big hands, bloody big feet and a great big voice. "Hurry up," she yells, "I'm freezing me tits off."

Janet Street Porter is sitting with her Olive Oyl legs dangling over the triangulation point on the top of Edinburgh's Blackford Hill. She's not being rude, unkind or unpleasant, she just's being, well, Janet Street Porter. Sort of stentorian.

Behind her, a huge panorama stretches away to Edinburgh Castle, Inchcolm and beyond to Fife, half of Scotland united in the sweep of an eye. But around her, opinion has quickly divided into love and hate, high on this hill. The photographer - the object of the tits remark - is in the former camp, he's lapping it up; in the latter, the birds have stopped singing.

They are not alone. Wrapped in their raincoats and cowering under flat hats, the Calvinist residents of Edinburgh's villa quarters linger warily below the summit, their morning constitutionals on hold. Even their mutts know instinctively to avoid this woman. The bravest scamper up, slobbering, but quickly retire with a whimper. "I hate dogs," Street Porter calls after a Labrador as it dives down the slope to its owner, both of them now sharing a gloomy kind of look.

Street Porter is a real walker, out and proud, the former president of the Ramblers' Association who has trodden the pathways with the rich and famous on a television show, As the Crow Flies, and ambled more discreetly with local groups, like the Selkirk Plodders.

She lives in London, but has a house by the sea at Whitstable and another in Niddersdale in Yorkshire's West Riding, two hideaways which help her make the most of the landscapes she loves. Her ideal is to get on the top of the moors and walk for miles in a "huge expanse of emptiness" or to tramp round the marshes in a Kentish sort of way.

So much for likes. But in the manner of dedicated walkers everywhere, Street Porter tends to dislike a sizeable array of things. Those joggers you meet on mountain tops? "Oh fing hell, them. Or people on bikes," she shrieks.

"Just for a bit, I started running again along canal towpaths and not only have you got dogs, you have people cycling with dogs on leads. Stupid. Mind you, I looked a sight - I was like an octopus having an epileptic fit, a lot of wobbly bits and tentacles flying about."

Before the image can burn itself into your brain, she's off again: "And what about when you're out walking and you get the mountain bikers coming up behind you and they've got no bell? But then they just couldn't have a bell, could they? It wouldn't be macho enough. Hate them.

"They come up beside you and you don't hear them coming if it's windy. They make you jump. You say: 'Why don't you have a bell?' And basically they tell you to f off."

Which is unfortunate, because Street Porter is, she confides, very thin-skinned. That's why she's turned her life into her solo show, All the Rage, which is already playing to rave reviews on the Fringe: it's all just one helluva cathartic experience for her. Often patronised in the media, she is content to let her achievements speak up for her, both on stage and in conversation. She has been the editor of the Independent on Sunday, a successful television executive and she has won prizes for her programmes.

"What I haven't won awards for is being a big woman with big tits and funny glasses," she says. "I can't control what people write. There's no point in moaning about it ..." and for once she slows down "... it's - just - the - way - it - is." Isn't it simply sexism? "I couldn't care less."

She can at least vent her spleen on her mother - she, by Street Porter's account, was a nightmare. On stage she calls her bitch and worse. She says: "I remember wishing after she had her thyroid operation on her neck that they'd cut her head right off."

Here on the hill, she sounds less strident but just as bitter. "My mother was Welsh, and we spent all our summer holidays in Wales. We did a lot of walking then. But you weren't allowed to do the kind of walking where you actually enjoyed it - it always had to be allied to something, collecting firewood or bilberries or blackberries. You had to learn to have fun yourself."

The rest of the year her childhood was spent in a working-class district of Fulham, where she says she spent a kind of schizophrenic existence. She was a fashion-conscious mod who made her own clothes but at the same time she was isolated and withdrawn. "It sounds bad, but I lived in my head, and walking was just something I did. I felt very different from everyone else and I don't know why."

By now Street Porter has clambered down from this morning's peak of achievement and we're dropping away from the Blackford summit. Tramp, tramp, tramp. She could go on for hours.

"A lot of people are surprised that I like walking by myself. They say things like: 'Is it dangerous?' And that's never even crossed my mind.

"I like walking alone, or with one other person, that's the best. I did Hadrian's Wall the other week with a friend, and it was funny. A cab driver said: 'There's a really famous tree you're going to pass,' and he said something about a movie with Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner; he was going on about the most famous tree in the north of England.

"We were doing that bit of the wall coming out of Housesteads, it's fantastic, like being on a switchback. We were walking along the top and it was really windy, and we were wittering on about face cream and sun block and stuff, and suddenly she shouted: 'Where's that tree?' We'd walked right past the north's most famous tree, and we hadn't even noticed it. It's like that isn't it?"

She reckons the most hopeless person to walk with is another woman who is having a relationship crisis. You can have a five-hour discussion about why she should leave her husband, but she'll just go meekly back to him.

They never learn, do they? "No. And then you think, that should have been a fantastic walk - but why have we expended all this energy on a second-rate person, the bloke, the source of all the trouble? He's probably lying in front of the telly asleep, completely unaware of the fact he's been analysed."

You might imagine with her rich experience - itemised with an accountant's care and attention in All the Rage - that Street Porter might have enjoyed the odd romantic stroll with one of her four husbands or other lovers. "I'm not a very romantic person," she says. What, not a single amble down lovers' lane? "Well, they've all walked," she says. "But walking's my thing anyway. I don't think of it like that."

Anyway, men bring their own problems to the hillside. "They think if they don't get to the top before you they have failed some kind of virility test. Myself, I'm a bit of a plodder."

And then there's worse: those Munro-baggers. It's simple. They're sad. "Why've you got to tick them all off?" she demands. "Why can't you just have mountains you enjoy? What is it about bagging Munros? Just tell me what happens." It has to be conceded: it's a male thing, just a bit anal.

"It is," Street Porter agrees. "Obviously I've spent most of my working life with men and they have this way of operating which seems a bit alien to me. At a big meeting at the BBC this bloke said to me: 'I'm going to put my dick on the table at this point...' I thought: 'No, not really.' What he meant was, 'I'm going to be perfectly honest.'"

A duck quacks. We've reached Blackford Pond, the end of our hike. Then she delivers the bombshell for ramblers everywhere. "Bagging Munros is a dick-on-table exercise."

Janet Street Porter - All The Rage is at Assembly, 5:10pm today, and until 24 August.