Saturday, 27 March 2010

Jack, the crumpet's smashing

"Show me a man who doesn’t like his shoulder blade pierced by a stiletto heel, and I’ll show you a liar,” chuckles Jack Vettriano. He looks up from a copy of his painting, Night Calls, a kind of still life with dominatrix. “It may never have happened – but you’ve thought about it.”

The artist is sitting in the Vettriano Suite, part of a brash hotel in Glasgow’s West End, where the name on the door honours this famously self-taught Scottish painter. An exhibition that travels to London and Milan opens this morning in Kirkcaldy museum, his home-town gallery, featuring many of his sexually-charged images, along with the trams and boats that set his brush a-twitching when he’s not gazing at women.

Already the Vettriano publicity machine has been cranked into overdrive, embarrassing the ‘official’ art world into near silence. The public may love him – he is said to make more money from reproductions of his work than any other artist – but the snobs at the national galleries in England and Scotland just won’t hang him. “Painting by numbers” are the three little words that durst not be uttered.

Fortunately for Vettriano, these days he occupies some weird artistic otherworld, where critical opinion has no meaning. At 58, he has homes in Knightsbridge, Nice and Fife, and is noticeably more at ease with the world than he was a decade ago. Who cares what the critics write? “People like my work,” he says. “ They don’t have to scratch their heads and say, ‘Is that the side of a cow?’ They look at it and know what it is. Accessible – that’s the whole bloody point.”

The Vettriano industry is a marketing masterpiece. When he broke through in the early 1990s, the press latched on to his anti-establishment pose, while the public devoured his cards and prints, a combination that pushed the price of his originals towards the stratosphere.

The process reached a zenith when, with uncanny timing, his best known work, The Singing Butler (then owned by his friend, Alex Cruickshank) appeared at auction precisely one month after a stunningly sycophantic edition of the South Bank Show had given Vettriano maximum publicity. It fetched £750,000. “I was staggered,” says Vettriano. Did he manipulate the market? “How could I?”

Afterwards, he broke with his agents, the Portland Gallery, and his publishers, the Art Group, went into liquidation. Vettriano now runs his own publishing company, Heartbreak, which he set up with Nathalie Martin, formerly a director at Portland.

So are Jack and Nathalie ...? Vettriano’s right eye bulges. “No comment on that,” snaps his publicist. Yes, these days, the man christened plain Jack Hoggan, a miner’s son from Fife, travels with a PR minder.

The truth is that life and art have always been about sex for Vettriano. He was never a man’s man, and in his 20s and 30s, he’d hang out in Bentley’s disco, down by Kirkcaldy’s drab Esplanade, nursing a half pint of lager and lime and eyeing up the talent on the dance floor.

“It was all about strutting your stuff and picking up the women. I always thought that sex was more interesting than alcohol, and I still do,” say Vettriano. “What was fortuitous was, I knew I could paint, but I didn’t know what to paint. Then it just dawned on me: Why don’t you paint the thing you love most of all? Women. And glamorous women at that. I make no apologies for using the term glamorous – I don’t particularly like to see women in jeans or trainers, I don’t think it does anything for them. I like to see them dressed to kill.” He laughs: “And guess who’s dying?”

He took care over his own image. It helped that he inheritied the swarthy good looks of his Italian grandfather. He annexed his surname too, Vettrino, but added an ‘A’ because it sounded cool. Style still matters – Vettriano’s hair may be wisped with grey, but he cuts a dash in his dark frock coat and black jeans.

And the women still love it. Those who get close can get hurt – it’s not long since he up the broke up the marriage of a lady reporter from the local paper, and she had only gone along to interview him. But there are plenty more gagging to meet him. It’s most noticeable at book signings and exhibtions, he says, when the fans turn up dressed to the nines. “They like the work and they find it sensuous, and if they themselves are attractive, they enhance the occasion a bit ,” he says.

“One of the attendants at Kirkcaldy said me, ‘It’s great to have you back Jack.’ I said: ‘I’d have thought you would be upset because it’s too busy, and you can’t just sit around talking.’ He said: ‘No, Jack. Some of the crumpet’s smashing’”

A slightly shorter version of this ran in the UK edition of the Times. Read it here, Jack

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Faces from the Ark

Richard Ellingham, 47, ship’s chaplain
“I am the chaplain, the Bish as they call me, along with the God Botherer, the Sin Bosun, the Devil Dodger. I get everywhere, down in the engine rooms, up on the bridge. When we take fuel from a tanker, I get on the bridge roof. The lads will be flashing lights at the vessel that’s supplying us, they’ll say, ‘What do you want to say Bish?’ I’ll tell them to say, ‘Jesus Loves You’. It’s great – that’s the way the guys are. They’re up there, it's bloody cold, and why shouldn’t I be up there getting cold with them, chewing the fat, and building those small bridges, because those bridges become very important. Six months later Able Seaman Bloggs might think, ‘I need someone to talk to ... I might go see the Bish. He’s a decent bloke – he was out there on the bridge when I was flashing lights and it was raining, it was cold.’ It’s these tiny things that are vital.”

Lieutenant Commander Lindsay Falla, 29, ship’s dentist
“This is a big job for me because it is so high profile. This is the fleet flagship and there are only two dentists at sea in the whole Royal Navy at the moment. It’s wonderful. What prestige. There is no other ship like this - you can say Ark Royal and they know exactly what you are talking about. I say I am the dentist on board. People say, ‘There must be quite a lot of dentists.’ I say, ‘No, just me.’ I knew early on in my career that if I could get this job, it would be what I wanted to do. You had to be a certain rank before you could get the job. I knew I had to do post-graduate diplomas; I did them. I knew I had to work in a hospital for a year, jobs which don’t come up very often, but I did that too. Then another diploma. But I was lucky the job came up when it did.”

Dear reader, these photos are only here because of the great work of James Glossop. James was recently anointed Scotttish Young Photographer of the Year, and has just started a blog of his own on The Times website. Go here for Glossop.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Spirit of the Ark

It is a little after dawn in the Moray Firth, 30 miles north of Lossiemouth. In Flyco — air traffic control — high above the deck of HMS Ark Royal, six officers have their eyes fixed on the horizon, and there is an almost tangible sense of expectation.

Suddenly a voice rings out: “Here he comes.” A Harrier GR9 jets across the slate-grey sea from the port side. The aircraft powers low towards a target that is being dragged along behind the aircraft carrier, like some giant, deranged water skier.

Just as it reaches its goal, the Harrier drops its dummy bomb, which smashes into the water, just short.

A groan goes up in Flyco. “Rubbish,” says one.

“I knew they couldn’t hit two in a row,” says another.

The third: “They peaked too soon.”

It proves to be a rare miss and, to cheers, the next aircraft scores the second direct hit of the morning.

Here on the famous Ark, the flagship of the Royal Navy, a crew of 770 are readying for the multinational Auriga deployment off North America this summer.

After more than a year’s preparation, and the recent delivery of six Harriers from the Naval Strike Wing, the excitement is intense. But the brutal fact is that the next 18 months are likely to represent the last great adventures for the ship.

Launched in 1985, Ark Royal was designed to carry six Harrier jets. Once the cutting edge of naval and aviation science, a generation later both ship and planes are part of a familiar modern problem: like video recorders and in-car cassette players, they are technologically obsolete.

Though she will work again as a helicopter carrier for a couple of summers, Ark Royal is likely to be decommissioned by 2015.

In the 21st century, it seems aircraft carriers are all a matter of scale. When HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two new vessels, is launched from Rosyth in 2014, she will be twice the size of the Ark and carry six times as many jets, American-built Joint Strike Fighters. The second ship, Prince of Wales, will launch in 2018, with the same capacity.

If these modern carriers are a boon to the Navy, great old names are another thing altogether. Hanging heavy in the air in the Ark Royal’s ward room and its messes is the absolute belief that its badge should live on, whatever happens to the old ship.

Off the record, it seems every officer and crewman or woman is keen to let you know that Prince of Wales should have its name changed to Ark Royal.

True, such a move might be problematic; the sensitive matter of naming is dealt with by a sub-committee of the Ministry of Defence. But it is whispered that if the Prince of Wales himself could be persuaded of the sense in preserving a powerful naval tradition, who knows what could happen.

John Clink, the captain of Ark Royal, protests that he will not endorse a proposal to change the name of the second of the two new carriers. Prince of Wales is after all a famous warship name in its own right, and history shows that in the rarefied air below decks, men and women soon get used to the idea of a ship’s badge.

Creating a sense of pride begins in the shipyard, argues Captain Clink. “When the ship’s company arrive, it’s very special. There is a palpable pride. It starts with the badge: ‘You’re joining HMS Queen Elizabeth? Have the Queen Elizabeth cufflinks?’”

That said, he will admit that when he was informed by the Admiralty that he was to captain a ship, he sent an e-mail saying: “I don’t care what one it is — as long as it has two names.”

This “Spirit of the Ark” is part myth, part history. The first such vessel began life as the Ark Raleigh, before it was commandeered by Queen Elizabeth I from Sir Walter Raleigh and became the English flagship at the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
It took more than 300 years for a second — a converted collier — to sail from port, but that Ark Royal saw action at Gallipoli as an aircraft carrier. Its successor was even more illustrious, and one of its Swordfish bi-planes crippled the Bismarck in 1941. The fourth Ark never fired a shot in anger but spawned a 1970s TV series, still cheerfully remembered by the older crew. This vessel, the fifth, has seen action in the Balkans and in the Gulf.

Tradition, in other words, looms large here. Even the ship’s dentist, Lieutenant Commander Lindsay Falla, 29, takes up the cry. “What prestige to work here,” says the lieutenant, who achieved her qualifications at Glasgow University, where she signed up after seeing a Navy advertisement offering “Dentistry with a difference”.

“I knew almost immediately that dentist on Ark Royal was the one job for me,” she says. “There is no other job for a dentist in the Navy. I knew early on that if I could get posted here it would be what I wanted to do.”

The same mood has swept away the ship’s chaplain, Richard Ellingham, who has a fleece emblazoned with his nickname, “The Bish”, that he wears with pride. “I am sure there are plenty of chaplains out there who would love to be ‘the Bish’ in Ark Royal — it’s the fleet flagship, its a massive community, we are doing great things, and it is exciting,” he says.

At his breakfast table, with his commanders around him, Captain Clink remains phlegmatic about those two words, the name of his ship. He served in Fearless, a vessel that sailed for many years after it was due to be decommissioned. When it finally docked at Portsmouth harbour for the last time, he watched as men in their 50s and 60s lined the quay and cried.

So when this Ark Royal makes its last voyage, will he join the people weeping at the dockside? “Yes,” he says with a smile. “Sign me up for that.”

But the Spirit of the Ark moves in mysterious ways. As his senior officers troop off to work, one of them says: “Listen, you never know what might happen.”

Photograph by James Glossop, whose photoblog should be on line soon. This article is also available at timesonline.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

"I want people to feel things"

Louise Welsh dips a spoon into her soup bowl, pausing between sips while she rolls the notion of “sensationalism” around. “It sounds such a bad word, doesn’t it?” she says. “But there has to be something going on, some kind of excitement.”

The spoon now halfway to her mouth, she stops again. Yes, she says, “I do think I write sensationalist fiction, I do want people to feel things when they are reading it — thrilled, appalled, sick, happy.”

Miss Marple would have loved this: murder over the soup tureen. No one could be more charming than Welsh, the most acclaimed of literary thriller-writers, and her surroundings are delightful. Here in the top-floor Victorian tenement flat that she shares in the West End of Glasgow with her partner, Zoe Strachan, there are all the marks of domestic happiness: the bulging bookcases, the sunlit dining table, the Sunday china and the pretty milk jug. “Would you mind?” she asks, too small to reach up and pluck it from the shelf.

Inevitably, when the conversation turns to the author’s fictional world, things become darker. From the city beyond her window, the seemingly demure Welsh conjured a tale of pornography, abuse and murder for her 2002 debut The Cutting Room, which won a Crime Writers’ Association award. She returns to Glasgow again for Naming the Bones, her fourth novel, pulling Murray Watson, a prudish academic, out of his comfortable university office in pursuit of Archie Lunan, a dead poet of the 1970s. As he seeks to disinter the life of his hero, the hapless Murray encounters an increasingly chaotic world — drugs, infanticide, swinging and death — before he is finally thrust into a storm, on a remote island, for the book’s Gothic conclusion.

“Did you follow it? Oh, good,” Welsh says brightly from over the dinner table. “I spent ages on that. It’s quite quiet at the beginning. Hopefully you pull people along until, at the end, they are so much in the world that it all seems credible. Of course, if you started with all that” — “all that” being excess in almost every form — “it wouldn’t make much sense. It has to become sensational.”

The novel’s darkest moments are played out on the real island of Lismore, a short sail from Oban. Events become so extreme that Welsh felt obliged to write an apology to its residents on the final page. “Lismore is a beautiful island rich in wild life and archaeology situated in Loch Linnhe on the West Coast of Scotland,” it reads. “The islanders are friendly. The B&B is well kept and welcoming.” She chuckles at these words, but somehow her creative impulse always leads to a dark place. Welsh loves horror movies and reckons that a well-written thriller can bring on an endorphin rush in the reader. She adores Stephen King. Typically, when she embarked recently on the libretto for Remembrance Day, one of five 15-minute works commissioned by Scottish Opera, she “couldn’t help twisting the story” that Stuart MacRae, the composer, had suggested. So Welsh put in “something awful and disgusting”, to whit: a student whose heart is full of hope is murdered by an apparently senile old couple, after accidently rekindling their past as serial killers. The reviews were ecstatic.

All these dark imaginings bring to mind the furore surrounding remarks by Ian Rankin, who noted during an Edinburgh book festival the “interesting” tendency among some women writers to accentuate violence, reported in this paper under the headline “Revenge of the bloodthirsty lesbians”. She ran into Rankin (“a nice guy”) the next day and made a pretence of stabbing him while he pleaded for mercy.

Welsh laughs at the memory but appends a serious point. “We know women get relatively higher sentences than men for violent crime because women are not expected to do anything like that at all,” she says. “Women’s books seem more violent than the men’s because we are not expected to put anything like that in. In actuality, I’m not sure that they are more violent at all.”

Her own informal audit tells her that women in literature are patronised in other ways. They write as many books as men, form more than half the readership, yet only a third of the articles in The Times Literary Supplement are written by or about women. “That does cheese me off,” she says. “That is reflective of the rest of society — women still don’t hold the same positions as men, and anyone who doubts that simply has to look at their own institution, academic or business. How many men bosses are there, and how many women? Not many. When people say it’s because women take time out to have children, well don’t any of these men have children or families?”

None of these sentiments is delivered with anything like campaigning zeal. Indeed, in her soft voice, Welsh quickly shifts conversation on, puzzled, apparently, by aspects of her own work. It’s odd that women characters have often remained in the background in her books. Each of the first three novels is narrated in the first person by a male, but if Naming the Bones is in the third person its central character is still a bloke, Murray, who busies himself unearthing the remains of another man.

At its core, like so much of her work, is the notion of obsession. Welsh, 45, once ran a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow. She still loves the trade, and the passions of the readers and buyers as they chase down long-dead poets, or whatever secret urges drive them on. And from up here, over the teacups, she seems able to untangle all their lives. “It’s like the foxes in the back garden. Sometimes you look out and there is a whole world going on, a whole ecosystem — birds and foxes and cats. Everyone has their own world and sometimes we know nothing about it. Even the kinky stuff. It’s just a different way of being from us, a different type of hobby, I suppose.”

There is a pause. “All these parallel lives going on,” she sighs. “Would you like another slice of bread?”

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate, £12.99

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Critic finds his voice again

A distinguished American critic who had his vocal chords removed during surgery for thyroid cancer has been given his natural voice back following the intervention of a Scottish company that specialises in synthesising speech.

Roger Ebert - the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize - appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show on Tuesday where he was able to deliver his Oscar tips and give an emotional account of how he regained his voice.

“It still needs improvement, but at least it still sounds like me,” said Mr Ebert, who uses a keyboard and laptop to voice his words. “In first grade, they said I talk too much. And now I still can.”

After a series of operations in 2006, Mr Ebert’s face-to-face communication was at first restricted to hastily scribbled notes and rudimentary sign language. Then he began using off -the-shelf text-to-speech computer packages that enable users to speak in a computerised version of standard English.

These made him sound like “Robby the Robert” said Mr Ebert, and in a blog entry last August, he complained: “Eloquence and intonation are impossible. I dream of hearing a voice something like my own.”

During an internet search, he came across CereProc a spin-out company from Edinburgh University that specialises in synthesising “natural” voices. He trialed samples of former President George W Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, and was amazed. “Their Dubya and Arnold wouldn’t fool their wives, but you can certainly tell it’s them," he said.

When he contacted the company - which occupies a single small office within the university's school of informatics - CereProc told him they could clone his voice if he could provide good quality tapes. Mr Ebert had recorded commentaries for classic films such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca and was able to provide these pure audio tracks. The result is the company's first historical recreation of a human voice.

“Roger doesn't want to sound like everyone - he wants to sound like Roger,” said Matthew Aylett, the company’s chief technical officer. “We took the audio commentaries but it was much more challenging than the normal process when we would control the recording environment."

For its business clients, CereProc records five hours of material to compile a library of hundreds of thousands of sounds. Common phrases are reproduced verbatim, but more complex sentences are blended from natural sounds on the database.
The same techniques have been used to recreate Mr Ebert’s voice and he already has three hours of sounds on his computer. CereProc say they will double that amount and could even include the sound of Mr Ebert’s laughing, sighing or screaming.

In commercial applications, such as an avatar devised for the Scottish Qualifications Authority website, the software has to overcome difficulties with words such as “permit”, in which intonation changes the meaning between a noun and verb.

Mr Ebert finds it easier to overcome these problems himself, said Dr Aylett. “He can type, listen and modify. He can control emphasis and pitch. He can modify the way he speaks, when he speaks. We want to give people more control so they can use the synthesis like a musical instrument.”

You can find this article, in abbreviated form, at the timesonline website. Readers may be interested to know that after a redsign of the Times pages, most news stories in the paper and online will be considerably shorter than before, around 500 words, rather than 650-900. A shame in my view, but I am merely the monkey, not the organ-grinder.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Blockbuster puts accent on empire

It seems a credible scenario. A well-intentioned modern army marches off convinced that it can impose its superior culture on a distant country. But within months, its leaders are tragically disabused and, among mountains far from home, the troops face an implacable foe and, ultimately, bloody defeat.

If film lovers leaving The Eagle of the Ninth find their thoughts turning to events in Iraq or Afghanistan, its director, Kevin Macdonald, will have achieved at least one of his goals. For though it tells the tale of a Roman legion that is said to have perished in Scotland, his new film is just as concerned with today’s events in faraway lands. To ram the point home, the American actors Channing Tatum and Donald Sutherland are cast at the head of the occupying Roman force.

“It was always my concept for this film that the Romans would be Americans,” says Macdonald.

“That was my first idea about the movie and it still holds up whether or not we had any money from America, that would have been my approach.” The Eagle of the Ninth is based on a 1950s novel by Rosemary Sutcliff and stars Tatum as Marcus Aquila, an idealistic Roman soldier, whose uncle, Aquila, played by Sutherland, epitomises the confidence of the occupying army.

“It’s a film is about a guy who believes wholeheartedly in the values of Rome, and believes everyone else must want to become a part of the great family of Rome,” says Macdonald, who has completed the director’s cut of the movie.

“Marcus thinks, ‘It would benefit them so much — can’t they see it is the only way to live their lives?’ He comes to realise there are other value systems, other people have a claim to honour in the same way that he as an American — or a Roman — can claim honour. This is a film which is some way reflects the some of current anxieties and the political questions that we all have.”

The Romans’ attitudes are contrasted with those of Esca, a Celtic slave, played by Jamie Bell, whose distance from his master is emphasised by his voice — Bell speaks in his native Teesside accent for the first time since Billy Elliot, his breakthrough movie.

The same linguistic trick is accentuated as the Ninth Legion heads beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans encounter the Seal People whose Gaelic language is unintelligible to their uninvited guests, and their world and values remain a mystery to the invaders.

By casting Mahar Ramin as the Seal Prince, Macdonald adds the promise of good box office from a rapidly- rising star. Ramin, lauded at the Baftas for his role in The Prophet, voted best foreign language film, “brings a humanity, a roundedness, to even the most evil moments, the difficult, dark decisions that a person makes”. Macdonald, 42, believes his film stands squarely in the Hollywood tradition of Ulzana’s Raid, a Burt Lancaster vehicle or A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris, both 1970s Westerns that carried a fierce anti-war message about the conflict in Vietnam.

“That’s what we are doing — not simply reflecting on the Afghanistan or Iraq wars, but a sense of cultural imperialism,” he says. “Those films dealt with torture and maltreatment of prisoners, but in the context of Indians. The parallel is definitely there, and it is part of what you would want the audience to take away from the film. But it is not necessarily literal. Literalism is very often the death of films.”

The US is not the only country to have established a modern empire. Over generations, millions of Scots felt the benefit of the British Empire. So why not British actors attacking the Seal People? “Britain isn’t a force any more, we aren’t cultural imperialists. That just didn’t seem the right way to go.”

Macdonald, who was brought up near Loch Lomond and cut his teeth as a documentary maker, has been widely praised for the attention to detail he brought to State of Play and The Last King of Scotland. Despite the absence of clear historical data, to deliver the discomfort of the Roman soldier he filmed in Argyllshire and Wester Ross in October and November in the belief that “Scotland looks best when it’s brown, yellow and dreich”. For the cast it was “quite a trial” but the effect is “to make you feel what it was like to have no shoes on, and to be in that landscape in that climate”.

The result, he believes, is a film with an epic dimension — without the excess of Gladiator — but in the sense of “men alone in the landscape, and the unfamiliarly of the world they have come across”.

Eagle of the Ninth will be released in September.

Read in at timesonline, Romans, complete with even more interesting copy.