Saturday, 15 August 2015

From Scotland with love - and a little bit of badness

Today, the Edinburgh International Festival will stage a production of the most beautiful film to have been produced in Scotland during the year of its independence referendum. 

From Scotland with Love is a mesmerising account of the country in the 20th century, assembled from newsreel footage by Virginia Heath, and set to a soundtrack by Kenny Anderson, known as King Creosote.

First reviews were unanimous. “A magical window on Scotland’s past” ran one headline; “delicate and beautifully observed” said another. But almost as soon as the film was released, it proved a battleground for Anderson, who will perform the soundtrack live at the Hub on Friday and Saturday.

All the strife, he admits, was partly his own fault. The singer-songwriter may be a Scot born and bred, but cocooned in a creative bubble, he had never really considered the impact of releasing the most emotive of titles at such an historic moment. “I know I was an idiot,” he says, mock apologetic, “but I just didn’t see in coming.”

Now, ensconced in a Glasgow rehearsal room, he can remember the shock when he sat down for the media calls which followed film’s release. “First interview, early question: ‘You’re obviously going to vote yes, so how are you going to feel when you wake up and there’s an independent Scotland?’ I’m like: ‘Whoa, wait a minute, where are you getting that?

“It just went on from there. More annoyingly it was always Yes-loaded. Everyone who asked about the music assumed I was pushing for independence. Every interview, I had to say. ‘Isn’t there an argument that I can love Scotland as part of the UK? Why am I less Scottish in your eyes if I have alliances with different people around the place?

“In the real world, best pals I had through school and university were hitting me with this nationalist, ‘We are better on our own, without the English.’ Worst of all, I was being lambasted for having a different opinion from them. And of course I was being negative, because ‘No’ is negative.

“When I saw it happening in my family, my brothers picking on my mother. I thought, ‘What is going on? It’s ridiculous that some wedge has been driven in.’”

Kenny Anderson, Glasgow: He was like: "Go on, stick it to them."
Things came to a head at a packed gig in Dennistoun, Glasgow. The memory is hazy, something about Anderson announcing his intention to vote ‘No’ in preference to the alternative, “a banana republic”.

He grins. “I’ve got that little bit of badness in me. I thought, ‘I’ll see what happens if I say something about the No side. Derek (O’Neil) on keyboards is from Blantyre, staunch Labour, he was like, ‘Go on, stick it to them.’ I did. People were shouting: ‘We are here for your music, not your politics!’

“One guy shouted: ‘Shut up!’ I yelled back: ‘No, you shut up!’ People were leaving, there were boos. But then this big guy, right at the front, stretched out his arm and just yelled ‘Nooo!’”

After the gig came the backlash. “At the heart of the storm, people would say: ‘Who’s going to buy your record now?’ I’m like: ‘Get over yourself. I might lose less than half my Scottish sales? And what are they going to do? Burn the albums? Not like my music any more?”

He doesn’t take part in social media, but when friends told him about the abuse being heaped upon is head, he couldn’t resist a peek. “I saw one guy, ‘King Ringpiece’ he called me. I was like ‘Bring it on!’ That’s Scotland, right there.”

He loves the little details in life. Anderson was born on Candlemas, 1967, and brought up in St Andrews. His mother came from a Crail fishing family and his father was a professional accordionist.

Aside from taking an electronics degree in Edinburgh, and two years busking in France, he has spent all his life in north east Fife. The essence of the place, the swathe of rolling green countryside, the people, the pretty villages and the sea beyond formed his outlook and a music, spanning more than 40 lo-fi albums.

Like the Crail boats that used to trawl for herring between Portsoy and Great Yarmouth, he doesn’t acknowledge conventional boundaries he says. There are far more King Creosote fans in “music towns” like Norwich, Nottingham or Manchester, than in Dundee and Kirkcaldy, places which are a bike ride from where he lives.

His background helps to explain his attitude to the film project. Aside from some of the most recognisable events and locations – images of ‘Main St’ St Kilda or tanks in George Square, Glasgow – he insists this isn’t about Scotland. Any faded colonial power could have supplied the archive of screen image: mines, steel works, factories, dance-halls, fun fairs, harvesting, holidays.

A year since From Scotland with Love caused so much angst, he remains “wrankled constantly” by the mood he still sometimes encounters . ‘People are like ‘Grrrr, f*** ing no voter,’” he says laughing.

As for the “machinations” of the SNP at Westminster, he detests the party’s assumption that it speaks for the whole of Scotland, and the breach of faith which has allowed ‘once in a lifetime’ to become another referendum in a year or two.

“The amount of times I have thrown my rubber-soled shoe at the telly when Nicola Sturgeon comes on ….,” he says, with a shake of the head.

“I know if I met these people I would probably like them, but I just don’t think that Scotland has all the answers. I think it’s a horrible thing to even try to say: ‘O no we are way more sociable and socially inclusive up here. We are different. We are better.’

“We are not better. We are colder and wetter, but not better.”

Monday, 23 March 2015

Salmond extends the hand of friendship

The early morning mist hangs low over the polling station in Alex Salmond's Aberdeenshire constituency. This is Strichen – pronounced, unpromisingly, 'stricken' - and the first minister has just cast his vote in the village hall. He is sauntering across the damp gravel when I blurt out the question I've had in my head for three years. “Haven't you been been campaigning for a redrawing of the Act of Union, rather than independence?”

Salmond stops, leans back in surprise. “You're almost right,” he says.”I am redoing the union of the parliaments, not the union of the crowns. Of course, the United Kingdom is first mentioned as the Union of the Crowns.” He starts walking again. “I'll talk to you about this when I get chance.”

He will too. Anyone who has seen Salmond at close quarters knows there's nothing he likes better than to lecture on matters historical. Five minutes later, the first ministerial limousine is pulling away from Ritchie Hall, and I am in the back seat, absorbing a lesson on the constitution.

“You're absolutely bang on historically,” says the First Minsinster, enthusiastically. “This is re-establishing the Constitutional relationship of the 17th century – if we lose Cromwell for a second. By definition a United Kingdom comes from a Union of the Crowns (1603) not the Union of the Parliaments. (1707)”

He leans forward. “Go down to the lake, Alec,” the First Minister tells his chauffeur. The car turns left down a driveway, before rolling slowly to a halt.

The lesson recommenceth. From Salmond's point of view it seems the notion of renegotiating a treaty sounds a lot less threatening to people south of the Border, than the bolshy idea of Scots breaking away. So, in 1997, he introduced this historical angle into the first consultation documents on independence, known as the National Conversation.

The historical point proved too complex, he claims. “Apparently you have to be aware of clouding or confusing an issue, and being seen to be too clever by half. Therefore we had the straight question (on the referendum ballot paper): 'do you want Scotland to be an independent country.'”

His academic background in history explains key strands of his thinking. Salmond is, for example, an unabashed monarchist, anathema to today's Radical Independence supporters as much as it was to his left-leaning comrades in the SNP '79 Group, the cadre of young politicians formed to champion devolution in 1979.

“I argued (then) against republicanism as a policy, I thought it a daft thing to do,” he recalls. “If you were starting the constitution of a country now, it would seem anomalous to have a monarchical position.

“But my view is the monarchy epitomises the social union and in my consistent support for Queen Elizabeth as Queen of Scots, and her heirs - obviously I have deep respect for Her Majesty the Queen – I am also trying to get across the point that there is a social union beyond the Westminster Parliament.”

This “social union” - the cross-border network of family, friends and business ties – may seem an baffling concept to many south of the Border. Salmond is convinced it will be the glue that make could make new arrangements as tolerant as before.

The public meetings he held recently in Liverpool, Newcastle or Carlisle showed him articulating this comradely position, he says. “Some people accepted the point, but a lot haven't. People often see the thing through the prism of received wisdom. That will certainly change if we carry the day. I will articulate these sentiments very positively in terms of how we move forward.”

Friendly relations can persist even in the vexed area of defence. The SNP's only sine qua non, he says, is the removal of Trident. Everything else is up for negotiation. “We are perfectly happy to co-operate in anything else that is appropriate and proper”, he insists. Moreover, It would “rather anomalous” if Scotland, given its geographical position, were not allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

The hand of friendship extends further. With the agreement of Westminster, Scots should be able to sign up for the Royal Regiment of Scotland, just as the Irish Guards are an integral part of the army. Similarly, British troops could be based and train in Scotland, independent or not.

A dog-walker, passes by. Weak sunlight twinkles on the lake, and the first minister, takes a moment to contemplate the political landscape in an independent country. The SNP may have won the day, but their victory is likely to reinvigorate both the radical left and the Conservative right.

“As of tomorrow, if there is a new dawn over Strichen I suppose one of the ironies is that lots of people from a variety of political positions will have great encouragement,” he says. “What could be better than having a vital representation of people's views in that first Scottish election?”

A few years ago, I tell him, a prominent banker reported a conservation with the first minister. The banker said to Salmond: “What you want from this referendum is an amicable divorce', isn't it?” Salmond replied cheerily: “And co-habitation.'”

Is the story true? “I wouldn't demean the debate in these terms.” retorts the first minister, with the possibility of a twinkle in his eye. “Can we take Mike back to the village?”