Saturday, 31 December 2011

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

Fireworks over the castle and crowds on Calton Hill. This Hogmanay in Edinburgh may look like any other, but when the new year dawns and the fog of whisky fumes has cleared, something will be different.

Like a glacier advancing, political opinion has slowly shifted in this city over the past year. Behind genteel Georgian façades I’ve seen dinner parties descend into shouting matches; listened in bars as people, once Labour supporters, talked about “taking control of our own lives”. Interviewees have turned the tables on me and asked: “You’re the journalist. You must know. Are we going to be independent?”

It’s the biggest question Scotland has faced for 300 years, let alone in my lifetime. Just months after the SNP’s historic election victory, pale-faced “unionists” (in Scotland the SNP has even seized control of vocabulary) stare at each over their coffee cups, enumerating the forces lined up in the great debate. The nationalists have a leader, a message, they appeal to youngsters and have the best and richest campaign machine in the country. On the other side, the Brits have ... well, no leader and apparently no campaign at all.

Every week has brought some new sign of the SNP’s onward march: the almost daily spectacle of Alex Salmond riding roughshod over his political rivals in Scotland; his constant point-scoring over Westminster. Whether it’s public-sector strikes or European walkouts, the First Minister deftly blames the coalition Government for all Scotland’s ills.

At SNP HQ there is, these days, an almost palpable confidence in the air. Without once uttering the word “zeitgeist”, Peter Murrell, the chief executive, argues that the party is almost completely in tune with “the nation”. The latter is a term he uses often.

The Scottish nationalism of people like Murrell, who has the mild demeanour of a clergyman, is far removed from the hairy, firebrand politics of its ancient heroes. These days it feeds off focus groups and consensus politics, fires up young people and embraces incomers from Pakistan and Poland, binding allcomers to the cause. “Outside of the political classes, people tend to say ‘Why not?’ and that gives us confidence,” says Murrell, who used to work for the Church of Scotland. “We’ve already come a long way. We are heading towards the final bit of the journey.”

This view appears to have a firm foundation. This month, the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, produced by the National Centre for Social Research, confirmed that most Scots favour a revised constitutional settlement known as “devo max”. In other words, a system of government that would give Holyrood control over all tax and spend decisions, yielding only defence and foreign policy to Westminster. These findings, as Murrell points out, demonstrate that the population already wants more powers for Scotland than any political party — apart from his own — has so far been prepared to offer.

“People simply don’t want the status quo,” he says. “The nation is far ahead of Labour, two thirds of the way towards the independence position. Our responsibility is to define the independence bit of it, and that is what we are starting to do.” Then, with a tight little smile: “We can have everything.”

Everything? Unionists will mutter, “There they go again”. But in fact, what “everything” means to the SNP remains a moot point. Around the Scottish Parliament, the party’s MSPs and researchers are working on a “referendum prospectus”, a holy book that will define a vision for the new Scotland. It has already emerged that the SNP wants to retain at least two great British institutions, the monarchy and the BBC. Up for discussion are the economic settlement and the division of oil revenues, the roles of the Civil Service and the military. One senior Nationalist has already raised a question, apparently crucial for his party: “Is there a need for a separate DVLA or even Ordnance Survey?”

According to Nationalist logic, separation from the rest of Britain will be made palatable to doubters by “the social union”, the mesh of family ties that link those 800,000 Scots-born people in England with the folks back home, not to mention the connections shared by 400,000 English people who have drifted north of Hadrian’s Wall. Why these myriad family ties should work in favour of nationalism is not immediately obvious but, according to Angus Robertson, MP, the social union will apply a kind of healing balm to those inflamed by the notion of an independent Scotland.

“Independence will be underpinned by that sense of shared historical experience — the fact that we are not strangers or foreigners in the nations of these islands,” he tells me when I speak to him at Westminster. In other words, there will be no need for border controls or passports, at least from a Scottish perspective. (English politicians may have other ideas should economic migrants head to Scotland, and then decide to take the high road south.) 

With so many weighty matters on their minds, it’s little wonder that the SNP is keen to postpone the referendum. That, and the fact that they suddenly have the resources to fight a long campaign. When the poet Edwin Morgan died this year, he left the party £1 million. A couple of months later, Chris and Colin Weir won £161 million in the Euromillions lottery, and gifted a million, with (so rumour has it) much more to come. SNP activists talk excitedly about having £20 million to spend up until June 24, 2014, when, it’s a fair bet, the referendum will be called. That date, after all, is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

The party is rich in another way. Murrell and his team are the best campaigners in Scotland by a very long street. The digital strategy at the heart of May’s victory has drawn much admiring attention from beyond Holyrood. Daniel Teweles has worked in the White House with Barack Obama as a digital consultant, and advises on politics and social media all over the world. He watched the Scottish election with growing excitement.

“Let’s be honest, Scottish politics were not really on the international map — but they firmly placed it there,” Teweles tells me. Starting from second place in the opinion polls, in the 60 days before the May election the SNP transformed its prospects, in part at least, by cleverly integrating its doorstep campaign with, in geek-speak, a “single digital platform”.

In other words, activists were able to use a new party website linked to Twitter and Facebook feeds to swap information continually between their online campaign and party workers on the streets. In practice, this meant that SNP workers could trace every user who typed “SNP” into social media boxes. From watching online conversations they identified non-members who were championing the party. They could track down any user who was interested enough to open an e-mail from the party. That one digital platform helped the canvas, raised funds and dragged out the vote. It was quite simply brilliant, says Teweles. “They didn’t separate online and offline at all. It’s an arbitrary difference anyway. In the Western world we live our lives between online and offline, with our phones and laptops. The SNP understood that.”

So is the union doomed? The party’s opponents take their crumbs of comfort from a notion that the Nationalist surge in the May poll was apparently little to do with rising support for independence. This a thought confirmed by John Curtice, professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, who has worked on the Scottish Social Attitudes survey since 1999. 

“As SNP support grew over the last four weeks of the election, it became less and less of an independence vote,” Curtice tells me. “You could see that very clearly if you tracked YouGov’s polls. The Labour Party had no vision and ran a useless campaign against one of the most charismatic politicians in the UK, and a government which was seen as effective in representing Scotland’s interests. This just wasn’t a contest.”

Where Murrell and his team see support for “devo max” leading inexorably to independence, others discern a line in the sand once those tax powers have been granted to Holyrood. A crucial question arises when people are asked: would Scotland be better or worse off with independence? 

“In most areas of life, people think independence won’t make a difference,” says Curtice. “The one area where that isn’t so true is when you come to the economy. Then opinion splits — a third think things will better under independence, a third no difference, the rest think it will be worse. This is the most vital part of the argument that the SNP has still to win. Once you start trying to predict for and against independence, the economy is very important.”

Factor in the sovereign debt crisis and the traumas in the Eurozone, and other questions arise. “In the short run, the SNP want to keep sterling — but who’s going to let them keep sterling?” muses Curtice. “The UK Treasury? Without conditions? Does the UK Treasury want an independent Scotland to be using the pound and potentially engaging in debt? Then, by the time Scotland joins the euro, there will have been consolidation. So does independence offer more fiscal freedom than ‘devo max’? It’s not so obvious any more.”

Back at SNP HQ, Murrell, unflappable, believes that there is time enough to make the economic case. And if the opposition arrives at the referendum, as they did at the election, with no leader, no message and no strategy, who knows what can happen? On that Curtice agrees. “The unionists ought to win,” he says. “But so far they have displayed a remarkable ability to screw things up.”

Saturday, 17 December 2011

"I went to art school to meet exciting people and luckily I did"

Everywhere Martin Boyce goes in Glasgow School of Art someone calls his name, extends a hand or offers a disbelieving smile. It starts in the foyer, where Seona Reid, the school’s director, has asked to meet him briefly to offer her congratulations. Next, a man in the lift, grinning from ear to ear, shouts his praise. Then a slack-jawed student almost drops her sheaf of prints as she sees the artist walking along the corridor.

This, apparently, is the price of fame in Glasgow’s friendly world of contemporary art. On Monday night, after ten years or more on the judges’ long-list, Boyce, 44, was finally awarded the Turner Prize, after Richard Wright and Susan Philipsz, the third successive graduate of this school to claim the prize.

 In his dignified acceptance speech on Monday, Boyce had no doubt about the importance of this great institution in his own development. After thanking the Baltic (the gallery is the first non-Tate institution to host the show and it has been a barnstorming success, with 120,000 visitors to date) and his mum and dad, he ended by saying: “I want to acknowledge the importance of teachers.” It’s why we’re meeting here. His worries are now for the next generation, who may never get the same opportunities he experienced.

 “Would I go to art school today? I don’t know. It was easier to go to then. Just the sheer economics of it today ... Funding, cuts and all these kinds of things. The fees ... ” He lets that thought linger.

In Scotland, home-grown students don’t have to pay fees, but English, Welsh and Northern Irish incomers can expect to pay £27,000 if they arrive in Glasgow to study art. It’s even worse in other schools, particularly English colleges, where the number of arts applications is down by 16 per cent, according to the National Union of Students. For architecture you might need the Turner Prize winnings of £25,000 and half as much again to complete the five-year degree these days. There are grumblings among teaching staff on both side of the Border that art schools are becoming elitist playgrounds and the arts will suffer if only a certain type of person can afford them.

Glasgow’s magnificent Mackintosh Building bears the marks of straitened times. Boyce, a friendly self-effacing guide, has agreed to lead a tour of the school’s famous building. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it’s a mad, ornate, draughty and utterly marvellous place. The most famous rooms — the library, the lecture hall, the Mackintosh Room itself — are places to linger, and think. But even the eerie stairwells and dark wood corridors are full of inspiration: a name and date — “Izzi 78” — carved into the wall is a jagged echo of the details in some of Boyce’s own work.

 When he was a schoolboy, this place inspired him, and even now Boyce can hardly contain himself. “There was something about the art school, before I came here, and this incredible building,” he says. “I wanted to come here; then to be accepted as part of it; then to come to the building every day.”

His success at Monday’s Turner prize-giving, along with the triumphs of his immediate predecessors, suggests that the Turner’s shock factor, epitomised by Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided and Tracey Emin’s My Bed (which didn’t even win) has receded. How would he describe his work? “Ooof,” he exclaims, as if he had never been asked. “You really could say it is like landscape painting. It’s not far off that.”

At the Baltic in Gateshead, Boyce converted three large white gallery pillars into concrete trees, scattered leaves from wax-coated crepe paper across the floor, and introduced a wonky, out-of-place library table (scarred with what appears to be student graffiti). He sealed in the strangeness of the setting with a canopy of white-metal leaf-like panels.

“I was always interested in arrangements of things,” he says. “You collect things, you arrange them in your bedroom or on your wall. In a way it’s an extension of that process. I guess I’m as interested in an idea of a place as much as the things themselves. There’s something, a relationship with memory, but the installation also triggers snapshots of things, fragments that come together.”

 By now we are wandering along a ground-floor corridor, with Boyce leading the way past the college war memorial and a phalanx of Classical statues. Outside a studio, he fills in the chronology. Born and raised in Hamilton, it was a gifted schoolteacher who switched him on to art and piqued an interest in post-punk design.

Cosseted by a student grant (remember those?) he matriculated in 1986, arriving serendipitously, just after a key moment in the school’s history. A couple of years earlier a department that once had been “murals and stained glass” was transformed by tutors Sam Ainsley and David Harding into something called environmental art. At that point, says Boyce, there was a rebellion by “determined, mouthy, dynamic” students — Douglas Gordon, Roderick Buchanan, Iain Kettles, Nathan Coley, Ross Sinclair, Christine Borland — and Harding decided he should sit down and redraft the course curriculum with his lippy undergraduates.

It was a teaching revolution. By the time Boyce arrived, the department had acquired a magic all of its own, and was based in a former girls’ school, near the Mackintosh Building. This too was an alluring place: Boyce remembers a couple of intertwined staircases; you could walk all the way up and hear someone coming down, but never meet the person.

“David Harding said context had to be 50 per cent of the work,” says Boyce. “The classes and the teaching extended into the bars and people’s flats, with folk throwing parties and socialising all the time. David and Sam were great at getting people together. David would start a song and people would sing. It was natural for David, and his personality just rubbed off on the students.”

This was an irresistible mix to a 19-year-old, who studied environmental art from the beginning of his second year. “It was the kind of people as much as anything,” he agrees. “I remember seeing the work coming out of the department. There was a bit of a pop sensibility, it seemed interesting, something was going on. But the people you saw in the Vic Bar [the college bar] and around the school — they were so open and friendly. I remember when I was accepted on to the course, Roddy Buchanan stopped me in the street and congratulated me and welcomed me into the department. That kind of feel is important.”

During studio time, there was no sense of hierarchy. “Even in my second year I’d be doing a project and stay late, and I’d go down to the old gym hall, where Roddy and Douglas and the others were in ‘the Big Studio’, and I’d hang out, talking late into the night. There was no sense of, ‘beat it’. There was a desire to engage. I loved it. It was the whole reason I went to art school, to meet those kinds of people. You have an idea that you will meet exciting people, and luckily I did.”

The broad definition of environmental art — it really just meant “art in a place” — opened a window on every kind of discipline. Painting and sculpture, collage and film could all be studied and purloined from inside the Mackintosh Building. Scavenging had a literal meaning too, in the streets around the college.

“People used to get into the old Metropole theatre and drag out all sorts of amazing things,” recalls Boyce. “There was the whole thing of using found objects. There was — not quite a gang mentality — but a group identity within environmental art. There was a sense of doing things together.”

After graduation, that sense of togetherness remained. Many of the school’s young artists lived in Garnethill, just a street away from the Mackintosh building. “We were always in and out of each other’s flats, especially the ones who made good soup,” recalls Boyce. “We used to joke that it was a little like that scene in the Beatles movie where they all walk into separate front doors of terrace houses only to reappear in the same big open house.”

This shared experience translated into Transmission, an artist-run gallery in Glasgow, and quickly into international collaborations and worldwide recognition. Douglas Gordon was the first Glasgow-trained Turner prizewinner, in 1996. Boyce, too, rapidly emerged with shows across Europe culminating in Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours at Glasgow’s Tramway in 2002. “You should have won the Turner for that,” another well-wisher tells him, as he passes on a gloomy staircase.

Yet amazingly, all this recognition began with something like abject failure. Boyce was unsuccessful in his first application to the school, and spent a year signed up to life-drawing classes in the Mackintosh Building, creating a new portfolio for his second attempt. “You got one lesson a week,” he recalls. “But full-time students from the college would come in too, to get an extra lesson. I was talking to this guy and he thought I was a proper student. That made me think. I started coming in twice a week and sitting in the students’ lesson when I wasn’t meant to. So I got extra lessons. It seemed to work.”

By now, we have reached the basement studio, where Boyce spent that first year at college. The famous Turner prizewinner pushes open a door to reveal a strange and colourful interior of fabrics and felt, occupied by a middle-aged woman, a would-be student who is putting the final touches to the portfolio that she hopes will gain her entry to the college next year. This large lady looks up from her desk and regards Boyce with irritation. “Who are you? Do you work in the college?” It is perhaps as well that Boyce is indifferent to fame. “No, I’m an artist,” he says, with a wan smile. “I occasionally come in . . . every so often they ask me to come in.”

Portrait by James Glossop

Thursday, 1 December 2011

"We're all in this together"

From first light in Edinburgh city centre, it was obvious that something was up.  Every government office, each law court, museum, clinic and hospital,   had its own little crowd,  the gaggle  of people that signified the biggest public sector strike  for a generation was under way.

The last time  people came together en masse like this was   — as many Scots would have it — in the dark days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

Yesterday’s action, like those of the 1980s, might simply be caricatured as a battle between resolute government and self-serving union leaders. But now, as then (in Scotland at least) it would be a foolish politician who chose to ignore the sense of dignified outrage among these protesters.

By the end of the afternoon, the strikers’ case against government attacks on public sector pensions had been articulated by many an earnest speaker. Hours before in the bright morning sunshine, Alex McKay, a picket outside the High Court,  put it as well as anyone.

“Public sector workers are just a ridiculously easy target for the government,” said Mr  McKay, who on any other day would wear a little white wig, and go about his business as a clerk of the court. “They don’t look at Trust Funds, or stopping tax frauds, they just take the easy option.

“The Government like to play off the private sector and the public sector, but the truth is we’re all in the same boat. The people who run supermarkets might say ‘Well, we pay a huge amount of tax’, but it is the government who has to fund tax credits, to help out all the low paid staff who work for them.  We should come together and say, ‘Enough is enough’.”

 This was a protest, that, like the beer adverts of old, hit  parts of the establishment that other protests don’t  hit. It wasn’t just the courts that suffered. A mass walkout by 34 members of UCATT closed the stonemasons and carpentry workshop at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh; Pete Smith, the only carpenter at Edinburgh Castle withdrew his labour for the day.

Nurses  were quick to try to scotch the notion that they had put lives at risk or had even so much as upset a passing patient. 

At the Edinburgh Eye Pavilion, Paula Johnston, a  Unison shop steward, said that members had decided not to picket outside the Sick Kids Hospital, because it was “inappropriate to picket a paediatric hospital or alarm the kids at all”.    

Outside the Blood Transfusion Centre, another health service picket, Tom Hiddleston, made a different kind of point. “We’re allowing the collection of apheresis platelets,” he said, “the kind of red blood cells that which might be used in children’s operations of cancer treatments.”

Gradually, to the toots of support from passing motorists, all these people assembled themselves into a march of 10,000, delighted apparently to find themselves among so many of like mind. Among them were many who might be have once considered themselves  Conservative, or Liberal Democrat,  parties which have become endangered species in Scotland.

But it is not only the Coalition Government who the strikers have in their sights. The SNP administration at Holyrood, whose ministers spent much the day criss-crossing  picket lines are also under scrutiny.

“We welcome the verbal support of many of the issues  from the Scottish Government but this is about actions,” said Jude Ritchie, Edinburgh organiser for the PCS trade union.

“If they just pass on the cuts that will make no difference to our members.  They are better than the Tories, but they can’t just pass the buck.”

Pic by James Glossop

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mr Pooter comes to Scotland

“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.” Not since these Charles Pooter’s opening words in Diary of A Nobody, has the journal of an ordinary bloke gone on to cause such a sensation. Yesterday, scarcely 18 months after Sir Peter Housden moved from London to take up his post as permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, his collected business bulletins were published. And, to the astonishment of critics, a sheaf of on-line documents revealed – unintentionally or otherwise – a comic masterpiece.

Written every week for the benefit of thousands of civil staff, Sir Peter’s letters to his subordinates might be expected to show the cares of state weighing heavily on such a powerful mandarin. Not a bit of it. From the adventures of his cat, to his domestic struggles with a damp proof course, this author gives his domestic life equal billing with government business.

Many of his most painful agonies are felt, not in the concrete corridors of Holyrood, but out on the golf course, thumping balls around in the rough. "I won’t tell you about my quite disastrous 106 in the Spring Competition,” he writes. “Suffice it to say that I lost four balls in the first four holes, and a fifth later on. I wish I could blame the wind.”

But whatever the trials of his own life, Sir Peter — who earns £175,000 — appears to know how to fire up his colleagues with enthusiasm. Every letter is signed off: “Have a great week.”

This first collection of the permanent secretary’s writings appeared in response to a freedom of Information request, but earlier this year, some teasing extracts were released. Those seemed to show that Sir Peter had “gone native” and actively supported Alex Salmond’s drive for independence. He criticised the Coalition Government’s plans to devolve more powers to Holyrood as “lost in the mists of time” and, responding to the SNP’s election victory in May, urged his staff to recognise the “new political trajectory”.

The unexpurgated text however reveals the man in full, in all his humdrum glory: his love of vinyl records, the shopping trips down Rose Street, the afternoon teas in the modern art gallery (“don’t they do a good soup?”). 

On an Away Day with the Culture Division he falls - “inevitably” into a discussion about music. “When pressed,” writes Sir Peter, “I did ask Culture colleagues to reflect on the absolute perfection of ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha & the Muffins. Lots of people nodded. Well, a few anyway.”

Throw away paragraphs are deliberately comical. When Sir Peter turns up on “Wear Your Trainers to Work Day” he is devastated to find he is the only one who has joined in the fun, and scours the building looking for any besuited civil servant shod in Nike.

“Finally, I saw a woman zipping across the forecourt in trainers and stopped to congratulate her,” he writes. “She shouted back over her shoulder that she didn’ae work here, and was just dropping off her husband.”

Over one weekend he’s delighted to visit the public rubbish tip three times and by his purchase of “one of the those pressure washers”, a reflection that immediately puts him in mind of his wife. He adds: “Thursday was the 38th anniversary of the first time that Maureen and I went out with each other. I am the one who remembers these things in our house.”

The letters bear witness to the rapid tartanising of Sir Peter’s cultural reference points. In the early bulletins, from June last year, he remains solidly metropolitan, musing of the failings of the English football team, watching cricket at Lords and walking from St John’s Wood to Holland Park “to see a beautifully sung Fidelio.”

By the turn of the year, Scotland has entered his veins. His cultural highlights of 2010, he writes, are And the Land Lay Still, a pro-nationalist novel by James Robertson, Caledonia, a play about the Darien adventure – a key moment in the history of political union – and a performance of the Marriage of Figaro, by Scottish Opera.

Then, suddenly, after months of writing, Sir Peter’s tone changes. Her patience eroded by the weekly maunderings of her boss, one of the cabinet secretary’s minions has finally snapped, and fired in a letter of complaint.

It is a chastened Sir Peter who returns to his keyboard on September 12 this year. “Last week,” he says, “I was very nicely taken to task by a correspondent for not giving enough information in this column on the work I am doing.” Finally, he is ready to tackle the question, “What do I actually do?”

For the next 800 words he picks over his duties, including a hospital visit, the approving of a paper on Corporation Tax, a forthcoming cabinet meeting, and a date with some Hong Kong dignitaries - but the poor man cannot help himself, at the end looking forward “hopefully, (to) a trip to the range over the weekend to do something about my short game.”

Sir Peter’s diary ends last month, with a comment on David Croft, whose death is a cause for reflection on the scriptwriter’s TV comedy creation, Are You Being Served?

“I was struck,” writes Sir Peter, “by the character of Captain Peacock. Lower-middle class England of my youth was somehow full of lost souls like him, using their military titles and not quite finding their place in Civvy Street... I wondered whether it is just in fictional representations that such characters are so prevalent, and this has fed back into memory. Appearance and reality, eh?”

Too right. Who would have thought that in real life, a comic book Pepys from the English shires could rise so effortlessly up the greasy pole in Scotland?

Have a great week.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Written on the body

The artist Alison Watt could hardly have found a more apt title for  her latest exhibition, opening today in Edinburgh. Hiding in Full View is  a portrait of humanity, in all its tender beauty and sadness, and yet not a single painted image of the human face can be seen on the walls of the Ingleby Gallery. 

The show  is a collaboration between Watt  and  the poet Don Paterson, and has grown out their joint meditation on the life and work of Francesca Woodman, whose elusive self-portrait, taken as a 13-year-old, is one of the first pictures  in the exhibtion. 

It is, as Watts says, an extraordinary and mysterious photograph. It shows Woodman sitting on a bench, her face obscured by her hair, as she reaches out to pull a chord and close the shutter of the camera.  The image was the first of hundreds of works  made by the American, in which she often pictured herself, nude or semi-clothed, in strangely distressed settings. Then, in 1981, aged 22, suffering horribly from depression, Woodman threw herself to her death from a high rise building in New York.   

Against that stark biography, Self Portrait at Thirteen seems a portentous work and it had, admitted Watt, a mesmeric effect on the painter. 

“It was produced by someone just out of childhood, but it is such a fluent, sophisticated image,” she said.

“It seemed from the moment of that photograph  her whole life was set. Everything she did afterwards was camouflaging, concealing, hiding herself and yet she had done  that from the very beginning. To have consistency of vision is a very difficult to achieve.” 

Watt, 45, is one of Scotland’s finest contemporary artists. Born in Greenock, she excelled at Glasgow School of Art and won the John Player Portrait Award in 1987 while still a student. More recently her prodigious talent was recognised by a two-year residency at London’s National Gallery. It speaks volumes for her international reputation  that Hiding in Full View follows perhaps her most prestigious commission, earlier  this year, from the Uffizi gallery in Florence. 

The new  show comprises six works, all of them pattered by  rich swirls of cloth that evoke the female form, with varying degrees of sexual charge.

She has not painted figures for years. Instead each of these works takes its contours from some aspect of a Woodman work, though Watt cannot pin down a precise reference point in any one photograph. 
“It’s not as linear as that," she said. "It’s hard to tell me exactly. I don’t think painting is necessarily about conscious thinking.  You have these long periods in the studio where you are unaware of time passing. That’s the way it happens for me - when you stop and look back, that's when you being to think about where the painting might go." 

Two of the new  works, Shoal and Fount, have a power that still baffles the artist herself though she has lived with them for months. “There is a darkness in that work that I can’t really explain,” said Watt, a “gothic quality” which believes shares with the photographer. 

There is a  something in these paintings that's defined by one of Watt’s friends as  “concupiscence” —  ardour or lustfulness —   but which might be better described as a deep and dark eroticism.  Complemented by six of Paterson’s 14  single-line poems  they form an unsettling  sonnet to the frailty of human life and love.   One of the monostichs reads: “We don’t exist; we only dream we're here.  This means we never die. We disappear.” 

The  artistic  collaboration between poet and painter was born when Watt first encountered Paterson after she had attended on of his   reading  at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few years ago. He had stalked off to meet his public  in the book signing tent, when she joined the queue of admirers. 

“I thought I’d love to talk to him about his work, but it’s a difficult thing to do,” she says. “I was clutching a book of his poetry, and I spoke to him very briefly, but there was a massive line of people behind me. I  said, ‘If you are in London, do you want to come into the National Gallery? I’ll take you round.”

A great friendship was born, along with the a creative partnership,  which progressed from email converstaions, to regular meetings, as the Woodman project grew. 

The two found they shared an extraordinary attention to detail. Painting for Watt is a lonely and labourious, which begins with her notion of the simple geometry of a canvas, and ends, some three months, in a beautifully proportioned work. Paterson  approaches poetry, indeed the very arrangement of words on a page, with same obsessive verve. 

That much is apparent from the book published to accompany the show.  Watt is inordinately   proud of it, not least because so admires Paterson’s attitude in its composition.

“Don was very particular about the typeface his poems were going to be in - his letters have to be round,” she said. “He didn’t want his Os to be flattened. I love that. 

I’m obsessed with particular things in my painting,  Don is obsessed with typeface. Its like Concrete Poetry. They are like artforms, the way they are placed on the page.”  

Paterson, Professor of English at the University of St Andrews, is regarded by some critics as the best Scottish contemporary poet, but he can be a bleakly opague and difficult writer. Watt concedes that she does not understand all of his verse; sometimes though, “you just look at someone’s work  and  just get it”.

She went on:   “I’ve always thought painting  was analogous to poetry. It is a way of paring things down and editing, as a painter you are constantly editing what you see. Poets do the same thing.” 

“Don’s poems are  like looking at a truly great painting, because you keep going back to them. They can be awfully painful, but every time you go back, there is more to give.” 

This is why they both like Woodman’s work so much concludes Watt. 

 “Some of her work is so raw, it hurts,” she said. “ You have to look away you actually can’ look at some of the images. I think when work affects you that way, you have to pay attention.”  The same could said of Hiding  in Full View. 

* Alison Watt: Hiding in Full View. Ingleby Gallery 5 November - 28 January 2012

Alison's father, Jimmy, is a artist, whose work has chronicled the long, slow decline of the Clyde estuary. You can read about him here.

Photograph of Alison Watt by James Glossop

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fugitive 'justice' minister run to ground at last

After days of speculation about his precise whereabouts, a prominent member of Scotland’s all-powerful Salmond regime was yesterday tracked down to a tough housing scheme on the southern edge of Edinburgh.

With his enemies closing in, Kenny MacAskill had taken refuge in a school on the Craigmillar estate, and surrounded himself with a human shield of pasty-faced teenagers and their spritely teachers, all primed to express delight at the appearance in their midst of the justice secretary. But while some fed him biscuits and others posed for pictures, no-one seemed at ease.

These days the disquiet around Mr MacAskill is tangible. Fully two years ago, it was his decision to release Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, on compassionate grounds, that sparked worldwide protest. The Libyan had been found guilty by three Scottish judges of the worst terrorist atrocity in British history, killing 270 people when his bomb blew up Pan Am flight 103.

In August 2009, Al-Megrahi was said to have three months to live, before he succumbed to prostate cancer. Instead, until recently at least, he has been able to live out his life playing frisbee in a suburb of Tripoli, his sole duty in respect of his Scots law, the requirement to remain in telephone contact with East Renfrewshire Council, whose officials supervise his release.

No surprise then that in rare sightings, Mr MacAskill has cut an increasingly careworn figure. His recent remarks too to suggest a man who is losing control of events. It was no different at Castlebrae Community High. He was asked, had he been in contact with rebel leaders?

“Well obviously the UK government is speaking to them,” he said, embarking on the ramble of a man on the brink. “We are operating on a variety of fronts. From a media perspective, who goes where, who speaks to what, it’s difficult to fathom matters. That’s why we are waiting for the dust of battle to settle and in the interim to find out what is happening and to communicate through all appropriate routes.”

In a more lucid moment, Mr MacAskill did seek to deflect criticism, by turning the spotlight on those who had “glad-handed” the hated Libyan government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a reference to the infamous “deal in the desert” struck by Tony Blair, then Labour Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, Mr MacAskill’s charge of duplicity against his Labour enemies has begun to ring hollow in recent months.

In February, documents published in Westminster showed that senior government ministers and officials, including Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, were utterly convinced that they had been told in 2007 by the justice secretary himself, that the Scottish Government was ready to include Al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement, in return for concessions over firearms legislation and slopping out in prisons.

“There was then a conversation when he (MacAskill) asked for a deal,” Straw told The Times. “He obviously spoke to Salmond.”

Mr Salmond had gone on television himself to counter the claim of seeking a deal, but had found himself unable to call Mr Straw a liar. Would Mr MacAskill say that Mr Straw was a liar?

“I’m not bandying around matters here,” retorted Mr MacAskill, refusing to call Mr Straw a liar. “We stand on our record, north of the border, of having always been open, above board, the one authority that has acted with fairness and transparency throughout.”

In the fog of war, it all made as much sense as a placing a mass murderer, domiciled in Libya, in the care of a Renfrewshire parole officer.

* Pic James Glossop

Monday, 22 August 2011

"I'm not sure the government have it in them"

On the wall of Karyn McCluskey’s office is a photograph. It shows a man of about 30, his head oozing blood and his body slashed with ugly knife wounds. Almost out of frame, a doctor is trying to help, but above the medic's outstretched hand, a livid tattoo cries out his patient’s defiance: “Only God Can Judge Me”.

A brutal portrayal of gang culture? McCluskey grins. “That image epitomises Glasgow to me,” she says. “I had it framed but people still ask me why I have it the office. I am very unusual."

She is unusual not least because of her sudden notoriety. In the wake of three nights of rioting in English cities, an anti-gang regime pioneered by McCluskey and her colleague John Carnachan, of Strathclyde police, has been singled out by David Cameron as a model of success in combating street violence.

The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV, pronounced “serve”), has exposed 400 gang members to psychological shock therapy to jolt them out of lives of gang crime. In three years, the offending rate among participants has dropped by 46% and even among gang members who have resisted, offences have fallen by a quarter.

McCluskey, garrulous and confiding, in defiance of the police stereotype, appears oblivious to prime ministerial praise. On the contrary, she applauds Ian Duncan Smith, who declared this week that the country “cannot arrest its way” out of social breakdown, and she dismissess Cameron’s notion that the riots in England were “criminality pure and simple”.

She says: “You cannot just look at enforcement. For me, this is Cameron’s problem.
“I know he has looked at CIRV but we are just one small part of it. I am proud of what we have done, but I’m proud of our work with the public services. It is all part of the same jigsaw.”
For McCluskey, the roots of gang violence lie insidde chaotic homes in places such as Ruchazie and Easterhouse, vast, ugly housing schemes where Glasgow’s gang culture has been endemic for the 60 years.

Here, she says, young children are cut adrift from opportunity as soon as they are born. “When I speak to kids and they aspire to nothing, I think that is the most crimnal. thing of all. I say, ‘What did you want to be when you were in primary shool?’ They can’t tell me. No astronauts. nothing.

“We need 21st century solutions to a 21st century problem. You need to support young people and kids in families. And give them an aspiration.”

McCluskey, from Falkirk, is a very singular police officer. A lone parent, she has no partner and admits getting pregnant “wasn’t in my career plan.” She is hugely proud of her 11-year-old daughter.

Off duty, she’s training for a half ironman, the most punishing of events, and giggles when she describes the masochistic training regime. She’s been knocked off her bike seven times by white van man and deplores attending the gym because of “all those perfect women looking calm and composed and me sweating like a badger”.

A forensic psychology graduate steeped in US and Scandinavian anti-violence theory, she arrived in Glasgow in 2002, after serving as head of intelligence for the West Mercia force. The difference in environment would have been laughable had it not been so tragic: from the Porsetshire of the Archers to Taggart's Glasgow.

“We’d have three killings in a year in West Mercia,” she says, “in Strathclyde all we got was murder, murder, murder (71 in her first year). I couldn’t grasp the scale of the problem. We’d had 30 years of hard policing, but it hadn’t made a difference”

Over a three-week holiday she wrote a report identifying violence as a disease. “That was a eureka moment,” she recalls. “Once you to talk like that to people, they get it. Violence is like measles: you catch it in the house from your mum and dad, from child abuse, from domestic abuse, and when you go out into the neighbourhood you pass it on. You form a gang, a team, and the violence goes round. You grow older, you get married and the whole cycle starts again.”
These days, with John Carnochan, she is co-director of Strathclyde’s Violence Reduction Unit, formed in 2004 in the wake of her report.

The unit was quickly in the forefront of campaigns against knives and alcohol, but soon afterwards she had a second eureka moment. At a violent crime summit in Boston, she met David Kennedy, the Harvard criminologist who pioneered Operation Ceasefire an initiative that used shock tactics against gang members to combat a soaring murder rate.

McCluskey immediately made the connection between young black Americans in Boston and the people she was dealing with in Glasgow. “Their lack of aspiration, the lives that weren't manageable; they had no communication skills, no empathy. I thought, 'This could work in Scotland.”

CIRV's success is built on a simplest of scenarios, known as a call-in. As many as 200 young men are dragooned into court and lined up to face representatives of communities they have terrorised. Then, under the strict regime of the presiding sheriff, they are harangued by senior police officers, doctors, and convicted murderers before they are finally presented with stark ultimatum. Reform, or your life will be hell.

If they sign a pledge to renounce violence, the men are offered help from social services and community groups.

The call-ins begin with short contribution from the chief constable. As CCTV images of the offenders flash around the court-room wall, he tells the young men that he knows where they live; that he can arrest them any time he likes; that they will all be hunted down if a single one of them commits another offence.

“We catch the feckless and the stupid,” says McCluskey. “You saw it in Manchester and London. We flash up their pictures, we show them their houses. At first they’re all pointing and saying, ‘There’s such and such…’ Then they suddenly realise. I love that look on their faces.”

The witnesses keep coming. A doctor describes the kinds of injuries he has treated, and the condition of the kids who have died. A convicted murderer describes the reality of prison. He asks them, “Who do you think will come to visit you in prison?”. He adds that within ten days of incarceration, a young offender’s best mate will be sleeping with his girl.

A bereaved mother makes the most powerful intervention of all. “It doesn't matter how crap their mums have been to them, they still love their them,” says McCluskey. “The mother says: ‘I lost my son and I'll never get over it. I go into his bedroom every single day. You boys might not care, you think you’ll live for ever - but this is what it like.’

“I thought Scots wouldn’t be able to show their emotions like the black guys in Boston. But it was exactly the same. They are shattered by it. You can see them sobbing.”

How does she react? “I’m sobbing too,” she says. “If you stopped being moved by this, then you need to go. I am zealot about his. It’s a big part of my life. John and I are relentless."
If it sounds like a story of unbounded hope, it is not, and McCluskey acknowledges as much. After seven years of the VRU, still, every six hours in Glasgow, someone receives a grievous knife injury. And, after falling to 41 in 2010, the murder rate had risen to 59 this summer, when the latest annual statistics were issued. In 2009, Strathclyde Police area, containing 43% of the population, had 55% of Scotland’s murders. Glasgow’s old, unwanted title, “the murder capital of Europe” is hard to shake off.

Locally and nationally, politicians will have to be “brave, resilient and aspirational” warns McCluskey. The national prognosis is not good.

“I’m not sure the government have it in them yet,” says McCluskey. “The bravery might be wavering a bit and the resilience is important - you can’t do it overnight. It has to go beyond the political imperative, the four-year government.

“They need some verbs in their sentences, some doing words. You can talk about changing things all you like, but you need to do things and shift your spend to those who need it most, even in a recession. That means some tough choices for them. Transferring money to difficult families is not going to please middle England. But you absolutely have to do it, because it will make middle England safer too.”

Friday, 5 August 2011

Pregnant and still living on the run

The Scotsman, 4 September 2000

There's a gloominess about the haar lingering over the deserted coast road. It's early and certainly too dreich for the great and the good of Carnoustie to be taking the air. But for Liz McColgan, at ease in the foyer to her gym, it's already been a good morning. The damp breeze cooled her on her first five-mile run of the day, which she finished long before we begin to talk at nine o'clock.

Injury may have ruled her out of Olympic Games qualification, but McColgan is sticking by her gruelling marathon training schedule, three full-pace sessions every week, and a daily routine to prepare her for the next two years of running. There are Commonwealth Games to look forward to in 2002, and she feels there are three, maybe five 26-milers inside her before she retires.

It would be a punishing regime for anyone. For a woman who is five-and-half months pregnant with her third child it is almost unbelievable. You say so and almost by way of mitigation she offers: "This is the only pregnancy I've trained through like this. I'm surprised. Normally when you get to four months you feel..." she grips her stomach and makes a sickly sound "... and you can't keep the sessions going. But I'm actually doing hard sessions which I can't believe I'm capable of doing."

It all seems so typical of the McColgan image: the fierce commitment to family, spliced with that single-mindedness which so unsettles some observers.

That competitiveness though is the mark of a major athlete, who despite her talent has had to cope with disappointments which arrive in four-year cycles. Just remember: there she was, smiling with the British team in the opening parade at Atlanta in 1996, all hope and glorious medal expectation. That was before an insect bite prevented her running. Four years earlier she was laid low by anaemia.

This time around, a second operation on a toe injury disrupted her schedule and made it impossible to achieve a qualifying time within the limits set for the British team. Her fate seems especially cruel. After all, as she says herself: "Sydney was going to be the one where it happened. The temperature would be right, the course was perfect - it's quite tough and would have suited me - but it's out of my hands. I can't do anything about it now."

There's no bitterness she says, though her foot feels better and she believes she could compete. But she admits it was the disappointment which prompted her decision with husband Peter to have another child. They already have Eilish, ten, and Martin, ten months.

"We want more children, and we thought we can't sit and dwell on what can or can't be.
"I felt I could give myself six months where I didn't over-stretch myself and just gradually build up my strength. So we thought, 'What the heck', and that's when we decided. By the time I have this child, my foot will have been through a lot of training."

She's laughing at herself now, perhaps knowing that she sounds, even by her standards, a trifle focused. "So when I have had the child I'll be able to get right back in and not worry about any more children for a couple of years!"

At 35, it's improbable even McColgan could win Olympic gold now. With a third child on the way why not simply retire?

"That would be the easy option, to put my feet up. But that's not me. I've got other things to do, not for anyone else but your myself. I don't see the point in throwing in the towel just because your biggest dream has been taken away from you.

"I've trained but I haven't raced for two years and I feel I'm two years short in my career. I still feel mentally strong. If the mind's willing and the body's able, age isn't a problem."

It been a lifetime's work already. The facts of the young Liz Lynch's early career are well known. Brought up on a council estate, she was thrown into athletics by a PE master with a yen for cross-country and a membership at Dundee Harriers. At the club she met her mentor, coach Harry Bennett, who instilled a competitive philosophy which has shaped her life.

More than that, Bennett cajoled Liz's parents to take their daughter out of a jute mill and send her to America. He funded the journey; he even picked her Mormon college, because he understood his protege would require the support such a restricted environment could provide.

There's a shine in her eyes when McColgan talks about Bennett. Though he died while she was a student, he had already fitted her for the long haul. By the time Eilish was born she was a Commonwealth 10,000m champion. Within another year she had added a world crown, a world record and was ready to step up in distance. The marathon, the greatest of all challenges, is an extraordinary event, requiring a fanatical level of preparation for the most unpredictable results. It is a roller coaster, she admits, and not everyone enjoys the ride. How does she feel on the morning of the race?

"I just wish I wasn't there! It's like D-Day and you really have a feeling of dread.

"The worst thing is you know you're going to hurt, it's going to be tough. So many emotions are going through your mind, it's very hard to deal with. One of the thoughts is 'Why do I do it?' But it's not until you've run the race, good or bad, that you realise why you're there - the enjoyment of it. But the worst side of it is at the start."

As a teenager, Bennett had thrown books at her, to help her attune to the sport. One she enjoyed was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, though these days she has worked out her own version.

"When you're running, you've got to keep yourself as relaxed as possible so you've got to concentrate on your breathing. I tend to go into myself: I listen to my body and my muscles, and I try to relax myself when I'm running.

"When I'm focused and when I'm right up there, I haven't got time to think of things about me. Normally all I hear is a buzz ... you just run through it. On the track I don't hear anything."
It's not the thought of a gold medal which drives her through the silence, nor the prospect of fame. It's a belief that she can do better.

The closest she came to her perfect race, she reckons, was in Tokyo.

"We had Eilish with us, and she had really bad ear problems. I'd just arrived in Japan and I was up walking the floor with her all night, a three-month old baby. Then I took my period on the morning of the race, so it was all doom and gloom.

"I thought, 'Well I don't care, I'll just go and run flat out'. I honestly thought I'd run badly. But I thought, 'Stuff it, I'm just going to go from start to finish'.

"I remember running 10,000m in about 31 minutes and I thought I'd die a death. But I just kept going. I was surprised. In the end, I took two minutes off my personal best for the half-marathon and a good chunk off the world record."

Results like that are built on a fierce asceticism, and it's not surprising that she deplores drug cheats. There's a bit of history too - after all she was denied Olympic gold in 1988 only by Olga Bondarenko, from a since-discredited Soviet team.

These days, McColgan supports proposals to bring in blood testing and though sympathetic to some of those enmeshed in the current drug-taking scandal, she frowns on what one might charitably call a careless approach to food supplements.

"There's so much stuff on the market now," she tells you. "For me, before I consume anything, I sit down and read the label and I phone up to check. Some blame has to fall on the athletes."
Then there's Linford Christie. He failed a drugs test at the Seoul Olympics, a result later overturned because the sprinter said he had taken ginseng. Last year in Dortmund, he was found to be 100 times over the limit for Nandrolone.

"That's a different story altogether," she says. "He was extremely high. Goodness knows how he was that high. It's not for me to say he's not taking it or he is taking it, but at the end of the day he's been involved twice and you know ... it's a very hard subject to approach.

"There are people who are blatantly doing it, and others who are not. It's very harsh when they get banned, but I'd rather see a stronger stance."

That's for the future, and McColgan is realistic enough to anticipate the days when competitive athletics are behind her. Already, through her health club, she is involved in the rehabilitation of patients discharged from organ transplant and heart operations.

"When I see the progression and enthusiasm they find for their lives again, it gives me as much enjoyment as running London or winning medals. That's where I'll be when I stop running altogether."

Some television work would appeal, she admits, but she was once told by a PR company she would need elocution lessons.

"I just said, 'Yeah, stuff that. I'm happy being a Scot'. If people don't like my accent or don't accept me like I am, too bad. Why hide what you are? So I turned my back on that right away."

She's had the problem before. After Eilish was born she told Woman magazine she hoped eventually for four to six children. The front cover from March 1992 is on display in the health club. There she is, smiling with her darling daughter, the picture embellished with the slogan: "Liz McColgan - my race to have 46 children". In the real world, before even her third child arrives, she will have to sit at home and watch an Olympic marathon. She'll be "very agitated", she admits.

"It would be easy to sit back and say I'd have won it. I wouldn't do that. It's when you see girls you know, who aren't any better than you, that you realise you could be out there competing, that's the annoying thing. At the end of the day, I'm sitting in Carnoustie with my feet on a chair watching it and they're out there doing the work. But there's no comparison."

Saturday, 2 July 2011

'She sang the songs, as the songs should be sung'

Ottilie Patterson, the singer who became Britain’s greatest exponent of the blues, has died in Ayr aged 79, after living for four years in a local nursing home.

Patterson, who at the height of her powers was compared with Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, sang with the Chris Barber Band in the 1950s and 1960s, gigging with some of the giants of jazz and blues. She married Barber in 1959, and though they divorced in 1981, they remained friends, even performing together after he remarried.

“She was a most excellent singer and a lovely person,” Barber said last night. “The world will be poorer without her.”

Patterson was born in Comber, Co Down, the daughter of an Ulsterman and his Latvian wife (Ottilie is a Latvian form of Matthilde). She trained to be an art teacher, but as a student sang with local Belfast bands.

In 1954, during a school holiday, she travelled to England, to visit Humphry Lyttelton’s club in Central London, where she asked if she could sing with the band.

“Humph always said no,” recalled Barber, “but Beryl Bryden, another larger-than-life singer, told Ottilie she should go and see us.”

Patterson did so, arriving at the London Jazz Centre on Greek Street in Soho, when the Chris Barber Band was playing — though the band leader and trombonist was at home unwell.

“At the end of the evening, the others were packing the instruments up when Johnny Parker, the piano player, started playing,” Barber recalled. “Ottilie got up on stage and started singing, whereupon, in true Hollywood musical fashion, the rest of the band got their instruments out of their cases and began to play.”

In a quick succession of gigs, Patterson proved her star quality, but Barber was unable at first to persuade her to give up her teaching career in Ulster. However, by the time he formally wrote inviting her to join the band, she had changed her mind. Patterson answered in a telegram: “I’m coming, if I have to ride the rods [jump the train].”

Patterson recorded a series of albums under her own name and loved music of all types, but it was her command of the blues that was magical, Barber recalled.

“Blues is a mixture of musics; the metre of the singing, the way the words are accented is all part of it,” he said. “Ordinary black people reacted to her singing with so much excitement, it was almost embarrassing.”

In 1959, Ottilie gave one of the greatest performances of her life when she was invited on to the stage at Smitty’s Corner in Chicago to sing with Muddy Waters’s band. “The reaction she got from the people was exceptionally moving,” recalled Barber.

“She sang in a way that meant something to the audience, and they responded to her as if she was from Mississippi. She sang the songs, as the songs should be sung.”

Patterson received the same respsonse on her final American tour, when, in the summer of 1962, she sang at President John F Kennedy’s First International Jazz Festival in Washington. After another show-stopping performance, she was approached by the Staples Singers, the most accomplished of American Gospel groups, and invited to record with them.

“Ottilie was so scared, she couldn’t do it,” recalled Barber. “Mavis Staples was the absolute marker for gospel singing — Ottilie said ‘I can’t compete with that’.”

That reticence and her reluctance to travel hampered Patterson’s career. She was also self-conscious about her looks. On one occasion, a make-up girl on a TV show told her: “I thought you must be a singer, because you wouldn’t be here for your face.”

Barber said: “People in showbusiness are harsh. She felt like she was meant to look like someone."

Though she and Barber moved to Ulster in 1972, he continued to tour and almost inevitiably, they began to drift apart.

Following the divorce, Patterson moved to St Albans with her mother, and then north to Scotland, where her sister lived in Ayr.

Troubled by epilepsy from chilhood, she also suffered from depression, which intensified as she aged. She died ten days ago in Ayr and was buried in Co Down on Tuesday.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

God and Wittgenstein before Reese Witherspoon

If it weren’t for the Sunday telephone calls from Reese Witherspoon’s people, Sang Cha, once a high-flying Hollywood agent, might not be where he is today.

Where he is, precisely, is in the draughty manse adjoining St Mungo’s Parish Church in Alloa, a chilly, 14-room cavern he shares with Wittgenstein, his border collie pup. It is an unpromising setting in a tough little industrial town, and the contrast with his past life could hardly be more vivid. Ten years ago this newly ordained Church of Scotland minister was immersed in a world of scripts and casting couches, working 80-hour weeks and bending to the whims of stars such as Witherspoon, Juliette Lewis and Sandra Bullock.

“The hours I didn’t mind but church was important to me,” he explained yesterday. “I got paged twice on a Sunday, which has always been a special day for me. There was a casting call in NYC, for Sweet Home Alabama, with Reese Witherspoon. Something happened and I had to deal with it on a Sunday. That was breaking point.”

In this corner of Clackmannanshire they refer to Mr Cha’s epiphany as the biggest conversion since St Paul took the road to Damascus. Even the Reverend himself sounds a little perplexed by his change in circumstances and admits to feelings of “fear and awe” at the prospect of the future.

His trepidation is understandable. In its Victorian pomp, 700 communicants squeezed into St Mungo’s pews, and his predecessors in the pulpit have included five Moderators of the Church of Scotland. These days attendances have dipped below 100, and the church is at crisis point.

Mr Cha, 34, said he is steeled for the fight. His weapons are a PhD in theology, an engaging preaching style, a sense of humour and the wiles of his Tinseltown past, which he will rely on to woo the lapsed Presbyterians of the Forth Valley.

At 21, at the William Morris Agency on Wilshire Boulevard, he endeared himself to the legendary John Burnham, the agency’s head of motion pictures, by smoothing the feathers of a ruffled Sean Penn.

He soon found himself booking restaurants and buying cigars for A-list film stars and hotshot producers.

“When you are on a desk as an assistant to Burnham, you have to figure things out, like how to get your clients into Spago or how you can get hold of a box of Cohibas at short notice,” he said.

“You have to be an operator. That skill set I picked up will be invaluable in Alloa, making something out of pretty much anything. Making things happen, that’s part of churchmanship.”

Mr Cha was born in Seoul, a third generation Presbyterian, whose grandparents had been converted by John Ross, the Scottish missionary who translated the Old Testament into Korean. His family moved to New Jersey on America’s East Coast when he was 8.

He went on to study business at the University of Pennsylvania, and on graduation moved to California and into the movie business After three years he had tired of the fleshpots of Beverly Hills and signed up for Americorps, a national community service organisation. Not for the last time, Mr Cha found himself at a crossroads, awaiting a posting.

“I was thinking Hawaii, they sent me to Alaska,”

There, in Anchorage, he worked in a prison, teaching basic English to inmates who could barely read, and worked at an after-school club.

“During that time I seriously reflected on what is happening to us as people, and I knew I had to do something,” he said. That something was a divinity degree at the University of Cambridge, and a further theology degree in Edinburgh.

Mr Cha was happy in Edinburgh but when the vacancy in Alloa came up, he heard God calling. He was appointed to the post by a presbytery vote of 133 to one. He jokes: “What does it say in Corinthians? ‘I will flush out the unbeliever among you’.”

Humour will serve him well. The fear, too, will keep him sharp, he thinks.

“People say fear is a bad thing, but sometimes it hones and clarifies a purpose of who we are,” he said. “I am aware of the size of the task ahead. If I don’t as a leader rally the troops and turn the ship around with the help of the parish, there will be no more St Mungo’s. Everybody knows that. It is the most interesting fight in town. That’s why I joined it.”

* How good is the photo by Tom Maine? Superb

Friday, 10 June 2011

Arthur Smith's sober look at celebrity

Ten years ago at the Edinburgh fringe, a group of stand-ups and journalists were glumly discussing the imminent demise from alcoholism of the comedian Arthur Smith, when a strangely familiar cadaver walked into the bar.

“Arthur?” said a voice in disbelief. Smith held his thin arms wide and proclaimed to the disbelievers: “I have arisen, but the jokes remain the same.”

This year, alive, well and on the wagon, Smith returns to the Edinburgh for a new show - “maybe my 25th” - which is built around the drinking habit that nearly killed him. The title speaks for itself: Arthur Smith’s Pissed-up Chat Show.

The format will be familiar to television viewers of Parkinson, Wogan, Norton et al, but the rules will be radically different from mainstream on-the-couch entertainment. Smith, 56, the host, will be stone cold sober (as he must be, one drink could kill him). His interviewees will be breathalysed to make sure they are drunk.

The compere already has some of his guests lined up, and has been surprised at the very positive reaction he has received from his friends in comedy.

“It’s an excuse for them to be drunk I suppose,” said Smith. “People generally are quite drunk when they go on late night chat shows in Edinburgh. Normally they would try to be sensible. In this show, they’ve no need to be. In fact it would be disappointing if they were sensible.”

The show features stand-up mixed with with facts and figures about alcohol and its consequences, before Smith leads his audience into the main event: his celebrity drunk.

He said: “I figure that if someone starts on a long rambling drunken story I can interrupt and give a commentary: ‘You’ll notice the drunk here is doing the classic manooeuvre of embarking on a long-winded, boring story, repetitive and without any punchline...’ before turning back to the guest, and saying, ‘Please, carry on.’

“Drunk pople often say more interesting things than they do when they’re sober, or chained up by a PR girl. In vino veritas, I refer you to Pliny the Elder.”

After a lifetime on the razzle, Smith almost died of acute necrotising pancreatitis (“when you have the necrotising in the middle you are in real trouble - my pancreas was consuiming itself”). He was seriously ill for four months. Now a diabetic, he looks askance at his drunken past.

There’s a comic path running through all this, which appears to lead to the moral high ground. Smith admits as much.

“When I first quit,” said, “I thought, ‘how stupid is drinking?’ It’s such a dangerous thing, yet it's treated like our jolly friend. I used to go out at midnight and look at the drunks weaving up the road near my house, and thought ‘Jesus, they look so strange’. People absue it so badly. I’ve so many friends who have fallen foul of booze.

"But I wouldn’t want to adopt a moralistic tone. Everyone’s funnier when you've had a drink. If there was no drink there would be no stand up."

Not all of Smith’s fringe shows have been hits. Sod, the follow up to his hit show An Evening With Gary Lineker, caused at least part of his audience to fall asleep. Another production - the title eludes him - was meant to be staged halfway up the Pentland Hills, south of the city. The buses bringing the audience were unable to climb up the dirt track and the show had to be performed instead in a nearby beer garden.

This year’s offering at least has a certain commercial logic. Edinburgh boasts more bars and restaurant per head than city in Britain, and has a legendary drinking culture. With it’s broad-minded fringe audience the box office should be good, or at least that how it seems to the unbefuddled comedian.

"Edinburgh’s like a little cocoon during the festival - it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t matter,” he said. “Audiences are genuinely up for something, they’re a pretty sophisticated bunch."

They have to be sophisticated for this? “No. Yes. They’re sort of open, aren’t they? Goodness knows what the show will be like, to be honest. It might be terrible.”

* Arthur Smith’s Pissed-up Chat Show, Pleasance Somewhere

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Does God want more than Devo Max?

In the wake of SNP’s apparently miraculous majority in the Holyrood election, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland  has acknowledged that God works in mysterious ways and instructed its officers to investigate the consequences of  independence for the Kirk.
The inquiry was outlined yesterday by the Rev Dr Douglas Gay, the commissioner whose proposal was endorsed in Edinburgh.  It will report to a future assembly, spelling  out the constitutional challenge of full independence, and providing a road-map for the church’s new role.
Politicians and economists may fret about the consequences of Scotland going it alone, but, said Dr Gay, the church had equal cause for concerns about the future.   The Bible is its foundation, but the Act of Union and the Articles Declaratory are its biggest  buttresses, helping to enshrine  its  unique position in national life.
To make matters worse for those who dislike radical change, Dr Gay, an SNP member,  was inclined to believe the Lord does not favour “Devo-Max (a few more peers for the Scottish Parliament), but  more inclined to confederalism (equal powers for equal nations). If He does, the constitutional implications for the Church of Scotland are immense.
“A confederal solution  would recognise  that an independent Scotland should be in structured relationships with other states,” said Dr Gay,   “The Union of the Crowns would carry on.  The Queen would send her annual  letter to the General Assembly, but it might no longer say  that ‘I pledge to uphold the Presbyterian nature of Scotland’, because that belongs to the Treaty of Union, and not to the Union of the Crowns.”
The Kirk’s standing as a national institution would be undermined in other ways  by a  new constitutional settlement. In the 1707, at the time of the union,  Presbyterianism was a truly national religion, its values invading every corner of Scottish life.  That had changed completely, said  Dr Gay, a lecturer in practical theology at Glasgow University. 
 “Scottish society was remade in the 19th century by large scale immigration from Ireland,” he said. “If you only characterise Scotland as Presbyterian  you also miss out the other religious traditions. The future has to be one in which we are all recognised.
“The Kirk is described as  ‘a’ National Church not ‘the’ national church in the Articles Declaratory. That is a very important distinction. Whatever the recognition of the Church of Scotland within a future constitutional settlement, it can’t be one of  privilege.”
Dr Gay’s approach requires substantial shifting of the Kirk’s mental furniture.  Much of its ceremonial is tied up in its status, acknowledged by Queen, through the Lord High Commissioner, who passes her letter into general assembly as  its opening ceremony.  “These are interesting moments, they  disclose something  about the relationship between church and state,” said Dr Gay.
On issues such as the morality of nuclear weapons,  the Church position already coincides with SNP policy, opposing the Trident base at Faslane.   This could prove significant in building support for independence,  said Dr Gay.
 “If the Kirk continues to suggest that the favoured option is to get rid of nuclear weapons, and there is one party in Scotland offering people a means to do that, it is clearly going to have an effect on the climate of opinion in Scotland, and patterns of political support,” he said.
The Church been in the vanguard of political debate about Scotland’s future. Home Rule, championed by the Labour Party in the 1940s, became a cornerstone of Kirk discussion from 1947.  In the 1980s, the General Assembly became a proving ground for the devolutionary ideas that flowered in the 1990s.  For many in the Kirk, it was fitting that when the Scottish Parliament first met, it did so in the Assembly Hall.   
Dr Gay conceded however, that many Church members harboured a deep-rooted hostility to nationalism, dating back to the struggles against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.  
“ This is a theological and ethical suspicion of nationalism; for some people it is a very toxic word and idea,” he said. “Any theological consideration of it has to address those very toxic things. The Church will make a great contribution to this debate.  Instinctively we are continually guided to respect  each other, by love thy neighbour – these are the key ethical that lie behind our stance on political issues.”  
Ian Galloway, the convenor of the Church and Society Council said it was essential that the Kirk addressed in its deliberations the possibility of independence.
“The worst thing for the church would be to be unprepared for constitutional change,” he said. “Whatever the outcome, we have to work through the implications.”  

Friday, 20 May 2011

Andy Goram: bowled over by cricket

The Scotsman, 15 May 1999

I suppose being told to stop my cricket was a small price to pay for playing football for Rangers for seven years. But it would be great to be playing now, to be part of the Scotland team for this World Cup.

It's a while since I had my last game for Scotland against Sussex at Myreside. It was 1991, I'd just signed at Ibrox. The gaffer, Walter Smith, let me have it as a farewell, by mutual agreement if you like, but it wasn't always as easy as that.

A year or so earlier, when I was at Hibs, the cricket team were due to play against the Australians in Glasgow. The manager, Alex Miller, pulled me aside and told me he didn't want me to play in case I got injured and he made it crystal clear I'd get fined if I did turn out.

But this was just one of those things. A lot of English county players would never get the chance to play against Australia, who were the world champions. I thought about it and I realised I would never get the opportunity again, so I decided to take the consequences.

It was some occasion. Both sides were taken to a dinner the night before the match at the City Chambers and we got on like a house of fire. None of the Australians could understand how I could be fined for playing for my country, and Merv Hughes, the big fast bowler, really stood out as someone who was sympathetic.

Next day, when I came into bat, Merv was bowling. I thought he would be the same nice guy from the night before and he certainly wouldn't give me a bouncer first ball. But, sure enough, I got forward early, he dropped one short and he nearly took my head off.

When I looked up, he was standing right in front of me. "You should have stuck to fucking football, mate" he snarled. "You're probably right, big man," I thought. Then I got down the other end as quick as I could, and shouldered arms to the spinner Tim May just to get out of there.

We got beaten, but it was a great experience. Back at Hibs, I knew I was going to get fined but that didn't compare with playing cricket against probably the best team in the world.

The thing is, I love the game. It's not as good a livelihood, but I prefer to play cricket rather than football because it's one-on-one, him against me.

Of course, you need the lads around to help you, but it's the one team sport where you can be in total control. If you're batting you can take control of the bowling, and you don't need much help. Whereas in football you need help all the time. I can't control a game from the goal.

I got into cricket when I was about 12 years old, playing for the juniors at East Lancs Paper Mill in Radcliffe. I joined because my auntie was the scorer. After that, I played for four or five clubs in the Saddleworth League on the Manchester side of the Pennines.

It's a hard league, one of the toughest. They're wonderful family clubs, just a bunch of lads that enjoy a game of cricket at the weekend. Even the clubhouse was an institution of its own, its all drinks and talking about the game.

In Scotland, it's not snobby, but a little bit more upmarket. Down there they're all cotton villages with their mills, they're boys with hard upbringings, so it was always pretty fierce - that was a big difference down there.

But it had its own atmosphere. Look at these World Cup games coming up, they'll be great days out. There's no fighting, there's no bad blood, or anything like that. You can go and have a couple of beers and just enjoy the day, especially if it's sunny.

It was the same at clubs like Austerlands or Moorside in the Saddleworth League. It was a different atmosphere altogether and it was a release for me, coming out of the football and just going to enjoy myself.

I was a very natural type of player, with an eye for the ball. I probably didn't have the best technique in the world, but I'd always score runs. I was one of the lucky ones. I just loved batting and bowling and if I was left idle, I wasn't too pleased.

Later on it became more of a hobby, but when I was a kid and I was made captain of Lancashire schoolboys, I thought: "I fancy this as a job." But the first team all drove sponsored Ladas at the time, that was the drawback. I didn't fancy that, so instead I ended up playing football at Oldham - where they gave me a bus pass.

I won my first Scotland football cap while I was at Oldham, in 1986, but it didn't occur to me that I might play cricket for the national side. When I moved up to join Hibs I joined Penicuik and then Kelso and I was just delighted to get in the district team, in the South side.

Then I got a phone call. I was in Dumfries, and I'd just got a hundred and a couple of wickets and a voice said: "You've been picked for Scotland." A letter followed saying I would get my debut at Headingley in the NatWest trophy. There I was, born and brought up in Lancashire to hate Yorkshiremen and making my debut for Scotland at Headingley - I thought it was a wind up. In the end we lost, but playing there was very special.

Of course, I won't be playing this time, but I'll be going to a Scotland game at Durham during the World Cup.

What'll happen is we'll probably lose against Bangladesh and beat the rest. But I'd love to be there. In my time we'd rely on Clive Rice or Omar Henry, but now there's no-one who is really standing out, apart from the boy from Yorkshire, Gavin Hamilton. It's going to have to be a massive team effort.

But I won't support England if we lose either - I've never been one for supporting England at cricket. That was all down to my dad, who was born on Easter Road. We were close and because he was Scottish he didn't want England to do well at cricket, so I took his lead that way. In the end, I've become more of a West Indies fan.

Once I went to see them at Old Trafford against England and watched Viv Richards get a big century. He walloped Bob Willis all over the park and the harder Willis tried, the worse it got. Richards just murdered him.

The same night, Oldham were playing Liverpool in a friendly so I had to dash off after the West Indies innings. Of course, I crashed on the motorway and ended up getting escorted to the ground. Manager Joe Royle spotted me coming in with a police escort and I could see him thinking: "What the hell's he been up to this time?" But we beat Liverpool 1-0 and I did well.

Think of it: we beat Liverpool and earlier Richards had been just unbelievable. That's one of the most memorable days of my life. He smacked one of those balls from Willis right out of the ground and I swear it's still going up.

*  I ghost-wrote this article for Andy Goram.