Goodbye to all that




Brexit is underway.  As far as the UK and the EU are concerned, it’s goodbye and good night.


Earlier this week Theresa May sent a letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, to notify him “in accordance with Article 50 (2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.”  The same day, in the Guardian, the political journalist Rafael Behr likened the impossibility of reversing Brexit to the impossibility of restoring an omelette to the eggs it’d been made from.  Gloomily, he added: “Those of us who wished Britain could remain in the EU must understand the cultural magnitude of our defeat…  The shell of Britain’s EU membership is broken.  Let there be no more talk of remain.”


I’ve already written on this blog that I regard Brexit as lunacy so I won’t repeat myself now.  I’d prefer to write about something else – something that occurred to me when I read the headlines about Brexit being activated.  I remembered the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  That was thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the European Union (EU) we know today.


In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I’d resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school-year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so a few months later in the early autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.


(Incidentally, in 2017, it seems you’re considered mad if between school and college you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance.  Indeed, employers expect to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indication of boldness and initiative.  I was just 35 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.)


Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The hope was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.


I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems – so I thought.


For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of my school’s French Department if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.




I wondered if anything would actually come of this.  But in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.


And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist – as I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  I suppose it was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?


(I have to confess that half-a-year later, after I’d been in France, carried out the research and typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw a newsstand with newspapers on sale from other countries.  Among them were most of the French newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I hadn’t known they were sold in places like Waverley Station, where lots of foreigners passed through.  And I realised guiltily that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back…  With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project nowadays without ever leaving your house.)


(c) Le Monde


I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.


I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London – as well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London – and then on a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.


When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station (and by extension, London itself) was bloody horrible.  I realise today King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.


My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.


The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was a lot less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.




It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)


Despite it being June, I was wearing a bulky coat – it had loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  I recalled that my grandmother had given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat during the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then on the back of my coat I noticed some big brown smears.  How on earth had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  It wasn’t until I noticed the odour coming off those smears that I realised they were dog-shit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  Then, when I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.


But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.


Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Thankfully, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  (To my surprise, he immediately drank a small measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.)




Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas with modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, grey concrete, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and dinner there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with bales of Weetabix and fried egg and bacon – it was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled haphazardly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, fish, meat and veg, salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.


It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’s newly-released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’s glum, serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”


© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros


I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was a great one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse: “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…


One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which happened while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”


(c) Le Figaro


However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators – even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative – seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict  was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a grotesque cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.


Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first allowed me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  During the rest of my year out, I would build on that experience.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.


Ironically, newspapers have now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a quintet of right-wing millionaire / billionaire magnates, i.e. Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit last year.


I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to really travel during my teens.  Because of Brexit, opportunities like that will no doubt be reduced for young Britons in the future.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU but soon they will find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and – if visas are reintroduced – even move around in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.


Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.


A message from Paris




This slogan inside the gorgeous Shakespeare and Co Bookstore on Paris’s Rue de la Bûcherie is one people should bear in mind as they begin to recover their wits and react to the terror attacks that decimated the French capital last night.


Supposedly, while the security services closed the city down for fear of further attacks, the bookstore became a refuge and twenty-or-so people found themselves holed up inside it for the night:


Shakespeare and Co is, of course, the sort of stronghold of intelligence, learning, culture, science, philosophy and creativity that ISIS, were they ever in control, would shut down immediately.  I’m sure they’d drag its many thousands of books out into the street, build them into a pyre, drench them in gasoline and set them alight – probably adorning the top of the burning pyre with that banner and its message of liberal neighbourliness and decency.  Then they’d blow the venerable old shop building itself to bits.


Which makes it all the more important for the world to stay sane and civil and respond to last night’s events as rational human beings, not as arseholes.  Leave being arseholes to ISIS.


Keep calm and carry on being pains in the arse


(c) The Daily Telegraph


The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a pain in the arse.  I’m sure the magazine’s staff – both those who survived the horrific terrorist attack against its office in Paris yesterday and those who perished during it – would not take this description as an insult.  Rather, they’d see it as a badge of honour.


I found myself cursing Charlie Hebdo and all who worked for it as a pain in the arse back in September 2012, while I was living in Tunisia.  That month, outrage among Islamic extremists at the film Innocence of Muslims had caused a mob to attack the American Embassy (and the neighbouring International School) on the northern edge of Tunis.  And hardly had that happened when Charlie Hebdo decided to pour fuel on the fire by publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad naked.  This led to several tense days in Tunis, with people fearing more religious-extremist violence against Westerners and Western institutions.  I remember the French Embassy on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the city centre being cordoned off by military and police vehicles and being cocooned in barbed wire.  Nothing happened as a result of those cartoons, though.  Ordinary Tunisians seemed so fed up and embarrassed by what’d happened at the American Embassy that it was clear they didn’t want further violence perpetrated in the name of their religion.


Still, while I trudged furtively through the streets of Tunis during those uncomfortable days, I thought to myself: “Charlie Hebdo.  What a bloody pain in the arse.”


But the discomfort and insecurity I felt then was a price that had to be paid.  Having freedom of thought and freedom of speech does not come without sacifices.  And it is the duty of satirists everywhere – and indeed, of creative and artistic and imaginative people everywhere – to be pains in the arse.  They’re obliged to generate pains in the arses of all systems of authority and ideology that make people oppressed, fearful and paranoid; that set people at each other’s throats; that shut down critical thinking; and that strip the human soul of its joie de vivre.  And, yes, among such systems I include all types of organised religion.


To use a less vulgar metaphor — it’s their job to rattle cages, even if in doing so they upset and enrage the denizens of those cages.  Because any political, religious or cultural system that places people, or places people’s minds, inside cages deserves to be rattled, and mocked, and ridiculed.


No wonder that the late, great Irish comedian Dave Allen got death threats from people purporting to be members of the IRA when, in the 1970s, he poured scorn on Mother Ireland and her too-close-for-comfort relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.  Or that thanks to his TV show Al Bernameg Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef made bitter enemies both of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government and of the military junta that usurped it.  Or that Pussy Riot’s irreverent performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February 2012 ruffled the feathers both of the Russian Orthodox Church and of its good friend, Vladimir Putin.  Or that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got his knickers in a twist recently over the Hollywood political-comedy movie The Interview.


And if the agents of political, religious and cultural repression got their way, and all the Charlie Hebdos of the world were done away with, the result would probably be this:




But it would also be nice if, in the midst of their outrage at the assault on freedom of opinion, speech and expression represented by yesterday’s carnage at the Charlie Hebdo office, Western leaders took it upon themselves to withdraw support from all regimes and organisations who, irrespective of ideology, oppress anyone who uses humour to ridicule or uses art to generally question the status quo.  And it would be nice too if the West now stopped sucking up to those oil-rich states in the Gulf who, over the decades, have quietly exported, financed and supported the fanatical and intolerant brand of Islam whose armed adherents were responsible for the Charlie Hedbo atrocity.


It would be nice, but it’s not terribly likely to happen.


Art and argent




A few days ago I read a story on the BBC news website about protests at France’s Avignon Theatre Festival.  These were by actors, musicians, technicians and others employed in the French arts world and were in response to threats to the subsidy system that funds them when they aren’t in employment.  The system is known as the ‘intermittent’ one and it finances people working in areas like film and theatre.  You become eligible for pay-outs if you can prove you’ve worked formally in your profession – your creative profession – for a little more than 500 hours every ten months.


Needless to say, the system is not universally popular.  It’s loathed by those of a right-wing persuasion who believe that the arts world, and those working within it, should sink or swim according to how much profit is made, like everything else.  Also, I’m sure lots of unemployed or under-employed French people in other vocations aren’t happy to see their artistic fellow-citizens get such preferential treatment.  Incidentally, the intermittent system is said to account for a third of the deficit in France’s whole unemployment budget.


However, before we start sneering about pampered French artistes getting their pocket money from a mollycoddling establishment, there is one good point made in the article by a musician called Nathaniel Briegel.  He reminds us that the 500 hours of official working time on a stage or film-set – when, say, an actor performs before an audience or the cameras – is often just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the amount of unofficial, unpaid-for preparation and rehearsal time that has to go into an artistic production.


Still, even as someone with creative inclinations myself – I try my hand at writing a bit of fiction now and then – it’s hard to feel much sympathy for these subsidised French creative folk.  At least, it’s hard to feel sympathy when you look at their situation from a British viewpoint, where it’s long been accepted that if you want to do something creative, you needn’t expect anyone else to fund you while you find your feet.  You’ll very likely be spending years, if not a lifetime, washing dishes in noisy, steam-filled hotel kitchens, shovelling excrement out of dog kennels and stacking shelves in the local Sainsbury.  And yes, I’ve done all three.


That’s unless, of course, you have the right parents, went to the right private school and have the right names in your address book.  But I’ll talk more about that in a minute.


I don’t doubt that some hardship and drudgery, born out of financial necessity, is good for the soul.  It’s certainly good for the creative soul since it quickly acquaints you with life as many people, the majority of people, have to live it.  And it’s probably no coincidence that the writers I’ve admired most are often ones who had to go out and get their hands dirty doing a variety of weird, though not necessarily wonderful, jobs: Jack London, George Orwell, Herman Melville, etc.  Even the more well-heeled ones I like, such as Graham Greene and Malcolm Lowry, needed to get out of their comfort zones and learn at the University of Life in some pretty-desperate surroundings before they found their muse.


That said, some of the arguments made in the BBC article against the French intermittent system are laughable — no more so than when its critics point to the ‘thriving’ arts scene in David Cameron’s Britain, where the ruling class regards such subsidies as anathema.  Yes, Britain’s art scene is thriving if you consider art to be all about glossy no-brain West End musicals like Mamma Mia the Musical or We Will Rock You pulling in Chinese tourists by the busloads.  And unless you regard as art the latest cinematic awfulness by Richard Curtis, offering audiences a twee, romanticised vision of Britain that really exists only on the lids of chocolate-boxes, the British film industry is hardly something to celebrate, either.  Yes, the industry may still be blessed by the presence of a few old-timers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but why is it that any promising home-grown talent that appears, like the young director Gareth Edwards, is almost immediately lured off to Hollywood?  (Let’s hope someone nails Ben Wheatley’s feet to the British ground after he finishes making his movie adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.)


I suppose anyone wandering around the centre of London might get a mistakenly positive impression of the health and vibrancy of Britain’s arts-and-culture scene.  But that’s in London.  As was pointed out in a House of Commons debate four weeks ago, 81 per cent of lottery and private funding for the arts now goes to the capital; whereas in other parts of the country, like the North-East of England, the arts are seriously strapped.


I know about the fragility of such things outside the London bubble from experiences in my own little town, Peebles in the Scottish Borders.  There, the town’s Eastgate Theatre seems to have skated on thin financial ice for years.  If the theatre closed, it wouldn’t necessarily kill the local arts scene stone dead; but closure would certainly leave a nuclear-sized hole in it.


What depresses me most about the artistic industries in Britain, though, isn’t the imbalance of funding that exists between London and the rest of the country (though that is depressing).  No, it’s the gene pool of talent working in them, which seems to get ever smaller as the arts increasingly become accessible only to the wealthy – and as jobs in the arts increasingly become accessible only to the offspring of the wealthy.  Having a bulging contacts book, something I alluded to earlier, gives privileged youngsters a huge advantage over their working-class peers.  Also, thanks to the curse of the modern-day internship system, often the only way to get vital experience in a creative profession early on is to work in it for nothing.  Again, this state of affairs favours the offspring of the well-off – who can work for nothing, and keep on working for nothing, without having to worry about starving to death.


(A while back, in a pub, I got chatting to an old schoolmate I hadn’t seen for 25 years.  He’d spent most of that time working as a stagehand and technician in London and he was mightily proud of the productions he’d been involved in.  But now he’d become disillusioned with the theatre industry, particularly with its growing reliance on unpaid interns.  Not only was it shrinking the talent-pool, but it was putting older, experienced technicians out of work and the profession was losing their knowledge.  A lose-lose situation all around – except, of course, for the money men.)


(c) The Guardian


I don’t normally agree with the columnist Julie Burchill.  In fact, most of the time, I think she talks a load of cobblers.  However, apart from some customary whining about political correctness, she’s pretty much spot-on with this article that she penned recently for the Spectator about how working-class kids in Britain are increasingly shut out of work that’s artistic, creative, in any way interesting.  Of the modern British music world, for instance, she notes: “While fewer than one in ten British children attends a fee-paying school, a whopping 60 per cent of rock music chart acts are now ex-public school, compared with one percent 20 years ago.”


It’s just ironic that Burchill wrote this for the Spectator – a magazine whose writers consist largely of the young, and generally ghastly, offspring of Britain’s upper classes.


Haughtiness and naughtiness


(c) Washington Post


January is drawing to a close and the dust finally seems to be settling on the month’s number-one salacious news story, i.e. that French President Francois Hollande has been cheating on his partner of a half-dozen years, Valerie Trierweiler.  For the last two years, it’s transpired, he’s enjoyed furtive ‘soirees’ in the company of actress Julie Gayet.  A few days ago Hollande issued a statement saying it was now all over between him and Ms Trierweiler.  Presumably, he’ll now be devoting his ‘amour’ to Julie Gayet alone, and doing so in a more open manner than he’d done previously, when he would sneak off from the Elysée Palace and visit her on a motorbike, his visage concealed under a motorcyclist’s helmet.  Cue the inevitable tittering in the British media about ‘Francois’ and his ‘helmet’.


So the media, at last, seems to be moving on to other tittle-tattle.  That’s the British media I’m talking about, not the French one.  Indeed, I suspect the Anglo-Saxon press has had its knickers in much more of a twist about Hollande’s infidelity than its Gallic counterpart.


Actually, it’s been embarrassing to see British newspapers wallow in the supposed scandal that’s befallen the French presidency.  They’ve wallowed metaphorically, of course, although I’m sure there are plenty of British journalists who’d happily wallow in a wheelie-bin of real garbage in the hope of locating used condoms, stained underwear or some other evidence of celebrity misbehaviour.  Their prurience is in contrast to the ‘sang-froid’ that many members of the French public have displayed regarding the shenanigans in their president’s personal life.  Indeed, over the years, I’ve met a number of French people who’ve told me, in a tone of haughty indifference, that they don’t care what improprieties their politicians get up to in their spare time, sexually, financially or otherwise.  All that matters to them is that those politicians do a decent job of running the country.


There’s much to be said for this ‘laissez faire’ attitude.  During World War II, Winston Churchill had a fondness for alcohol that some would consider a major character failing; but thanks to the account that Churchill gave of himself as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, it would seem churlish to criticise him for being a pisshead.  And Bill Clinton may have done the dirty with at least one of his White House interns but, unlike his clean-living and God-fearing successor, he managed to avoid starting an illegal war that cost trillions of dollars and resulted in the deaths of (according to most estimates) between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians.


I generally don’t give a damn what naughtiness politicians indulge in during their private lives, then, but I think it’s fair to expose and pour scorn on them if they’ve devoted their time in office to lecturing us on how we should behave.  For example, I think it was reasonable for the press to declare open season on Iris ‘Mrs’ Robinson, who was a Northern Ireland Assembly member, wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and someone who was never shy about denouncing homosexuality as being ungodly, when she got herself embroiled a few years ago in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old.  And when it emerged that former British Prime Minister John Major, who during his premiership had launched a campaign called Back to Basics to encourage greater public morality, had once enjoyed a secret affair with the silky seductive siren that was Edwina Currie, I reckon he deserved all the ridicule he got.


Incidentally, apart from inherent prurience, I suspect another reason why the British media has made so much about the Hollande fiasco is due to a deep-seated insecurity experienced by the British whenever they contemplate things French.  Or maybe more accurately, an insecurity felt by the English, as I don’t think the same Franco-obsession exists among the Northern Irish, Welsh or Scots.  (Indeed, a French visitor north of the border will, sooner or later, be bored rigid by some local havering on about the Auld Alliance, that glorious period in French history when they were lucky enough to have Scotland as a military partner.)


In some sections of English opinion, there seems to be irritation at the fact that France, no matter how serious its economic problems, and no matter how much embarrassment is caused by its philandering president, still does certain things better than dear old Blighty.  France has better cuisine (obviously); a better sense of style, which translates into better-dressed citizens; a more highly-rated health service; a functioning film industry; and cities and countryside that attract more tourists.  It also has a military that is still capable of staging an intervention in another country (e.g. Mali).  Over the next few days we’ll find out if the British military is capable of staging an intervention in Somerset.


And all this is despite the fact that France is, by the standards of our beloved Daily Mail, a ‘socialistic’ country – horror of horrors!  Of course, many of the right-wing columnists, commentators and polemicists in the British media, who constantly poo-poo the French way of doing things as not being ‘capitalist’ enough, pack their bags every summer and head for the rural south of France.  If a properly Anglo-Saxon capitalist outfit like Sainsbury or Tesco opened a branch in one those picturesque French villages where they hole up for the summer, and put out of business the pretty little boulangeries, charcuteries, fromageries, poissonneries and magasins de fruits et légumes from which they buy their local produce, I’m sure there’d be no end to their moaning and complaining.


The marvellous Mr Méliès

While I was in Barcelona a couple of months ago, I happened across a gallery called the Caixa Forum, which inhabits the buildings of a former factory down the hill from the massive Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.  The Caixa Forum’s main exhibition at the time was dedicated to George Méliès, the legendary French illusionist, theatre-owner, artist and filmmaker.  As a filmmaker, he is now revered for being a pioneering special-effects wizard and the father of the science fiction movie genre.


From Wikipedia


To Méliès’ CV, I reluctantly have to add the professions of candy and toy salesman – because that was what he was reduced to doing at Montparnasse Station in Paris in the 1920s after a combination of bankruptcy, family tragedy and World War I had ended his movie-making days.  Happily, though, Méliès lived until 1938, by which time his achievements had been recognised by a younger generation of filmmakers and he’d been awarded France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’Honneur.


Before reaching the stuff in the Caixa Forum exhibition that was actually about Méliès, I had to pass a lot of preliminary displays detailing how modern cinema evolved out of the technology of late 19th century parlour trickery, magic shows and fairground arcades.  Arranged along several galleries were cameras obscura, magic lanterns, phantasmagorias, zoetropes, praxinoscopes and kinetoscopes.  I’m fascinated by such antique optical gizmos, but I would’ve been happier if the galleries hadn’t been inundated with babbling crowds of children, desperate to set their eyeballs against the various eyepieces that protruded from the devices’ brass casings.


Yes, I should’ve found it heartening that, in 2013, a collection of charming and ingenious machines from a century-and-a-half earlier still proved captivating for the kids of the smartphone and Nintendo Wii era.  However, I couldn’t help wishing that those noisy juveniles would bugger off and leave the magic lanterns, phantasmagorias and so on to people who could properly appreciate them, i.e. old farts like myself.


At last I reached the section about Méliès, which was stocked with film clips, stills and posters, with pre-production sketches and with re-constructed props from his most famous works – including a strikingly remodelled Selenite from his 1902 masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lune, all claws, spikes, beak and crustacean-red body armour.  Inevitably, in the final room, clips were being shown from the Martin Scorsese’s 2011 children’s movie Hugo, which featured Méliès as a character, played by Ben Kingsley.



There was at least one error among the movie posters displayed.  According to Méliès filmography ( on Wikipedia, which attributes to him an astounding 500 films — the number seems more astounding still when you consider that his film career lasted only 17 years and was over by 1913 — the 1908 movie Excursion to the Moon was actually directed by Segundo de Chomon and not by Méliès at all.



Of all the inventors, showmen and entrepreneurs who were present at the birth of cinema, Méliès was surely the most influential technically and culturally.  Not only did he write the whole special-effects manual – developing the stop trick, the dissolve, the multiple exposure, the time lapse – but when you view films like Le Voyage dan la Lune today it’s clear that he was a founder of the steampunk genre more than eight decades before the term was coined.  His influence can even be glimpsed in modern music and the attendant medium of the music video, as the work of Air ( and the Smashing Pumpkins ( testifies.


The surreal images that Méliès is remembered for – giant lunar mushrooms, somersaulting Selenites that explode in puffs of stage-smoke at a blow from an umbrella, celestial skies that are a weird mixture of astronomical charts and mythological figures, and of course, the moon’s girning visage when a space capsule embeds itself in its eye-socket – must’ve seemed astonishing to dawn-of-the-20th-century audiences.  Even today, they retain their magic.



If you want blood… you got it


This is an old story, but as this blog is called Blood and Porridge, I thought I had better put some blood in it.  (The porridge will appear later.)


Last year, a couple of friends of mine in France thought of a novel way to illustrate the vast cost in human lives of the wars, conflicts and genocides of the past century.  In history books, these losses can only be presented as multi-digit numbers.  However, seeing 100,000 or 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 printed on a page hardly gets across to the reader the sense of massive carnage — a long sequence of zeroes is unlikely to convey the horror of slaughter conducted on an industrial scale.


Instead, my friends decided use blood to communicate this loss of life.  First, they made a huge amount of fake blood.  Then they gathered together an array of common kitchen receptacles and filled them with it, making sure the quantity in each was in proportion to the numbers of deaths caused by a particular conflict in recent history.  And then they assembled the blood-filled vessels on a kitchen table and photographed and labelled them: Armenia, Cambodia, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan…


Once you get past the visceral, visual impact of the blood itself, you start to make unsettling comparisons.  The death toll of the 9/11 attacks is represented by a tiny red bead.  The bead is dwarfed by a crimson bowl that looms over it, representing the atrocity of Holodomor in 1932-33 — the ‘terror-famine of Ukraine’ that claimed something in the region of 3,000,000 lives, engineered by Joseph Stalin.  I knew about 9/11, of course.  With shame, I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Holodmor before I saw this.


For more information, check out the 100 Years of World Cuisine website at:



On a less serious note, I should mention that a few times I’ve been in the room where this was put together.  It belongs to two of the artists’ parents and is both a charming and (as you’d expect in France) a well-equipped apartment-kitchen in the heart of Paris.  Seeing it transformed into a scene that resembled the trophy room of a vampirical serial killer was a shock.  Not surprisingly, to create this display, they chose a weekend when their parents were away from home.


(I suspect this shows the cultural gulf between Paris and where I come from.  The Parisians used their parents’ absence from the premises to make an artistic statement about the utter hideousness of human history.  In the past, in Scotland, when my parents were away for the weekend, my immediate instinct was to commandeer the house for a debauched party fuelled by Southern Comfort, beer and AC/DC records.)


Incidentally, if you want to know how to make your own fake blood, here is an instructive clip by Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentlemen.  I’m told that my friends followed much the same recipe, although they heated the mixture to make it thicker and used ‘maize-starch’ instead of ‘corn flour’.