Surgical Edinburgh

 

 

Almost twenty years ago I lived in Edinburgh and worked as a teacher.  Occasionally in the afternoons, when I couldn’t be bothered planning a proper lesson, I’d herd my students along to the medical museum at Surgeon’s Hall on Nicholson Street.   I’d get them to look around the place and make notes and then, back at the school, write a review of it for a pretend travel magazine or a comparative essay measuring medical care a couple of centuries ago against medical care now.  The students always seemed to enjoy the experience, even though while they looked at the items in the many glass cases and glass jars, they’d grimace and exclaim, “Ick!” or “Yuck!” or “Eeew!”

 

Then, a few years ago, while I was posting entries on this blog about various museums in Edinburgh, I thought I’d check out Surgeon’s Hall again.  But I discovered that it was shut.  It’d closed for refurbishment in 2014 and didn’t reopen until a year-and-a-half later.

 

I was recently back in Edinburgh and took the opportunity to visit the new, improved Surgeon’s Hall.  Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to use cameras inside, so the photos accompanying this post are from the street, grounds and stairwell outside.

 

The museum is bigger, more comprehensive and more attractively laid-out that it was in its old incarnation.  It’s actually comprised of three museums – not just the main medical one, but the Wohl Pathology Museum and the Dental Collection.

 

 

The first change I noticed, though, was the addition of a £6.50 entrance fee – twenty years ago, you could wander in and explore the place for free.  If, like me, you remember how it used to be and this sudden, unexpected expense causes a sinking of the heart, it’s perhaps appropriate that the first room you enter after the desk is one devoted to the heart.  Among other things, it houses 27 real human hearts in glass jars and containers, in various conditions of illness and disrepair, often misshapen and leathery and at times so swollen that they resemble giant brown gourds.  The most bloated heart there was apparently afflicted by cor bovinum or ‘cow’s heart’, whereby “increased pressure in the heart chambers causes it to slowly get bigger.”

 

Close by is a pleasantly retro-looking room called the Anatomical Lab, which displays such artefacts as a shark’s jawbone, a six-kilo stone removed from the bladder of an elephant and big, old-fashioned teaching models of the human eye, ear and torso.

 

The museum’s main chamber has in its centre a mock-up of an anatomical-medicine lecture theatre from about two centuries ago.  Banks of wooden seating rise from a dissecting table with a cadaver on it.  You receive an anatomical lecture when you sit there, but it’s conducted in a resolutely ungory fashion – a lecturer in period dress talks from a screen and, as various organs and internal body-parts are mentioned, images of these light up on the cadaver (which appears to be a fibreglass dummy).

 

Meanwhile, a wealth of information and a multitude of objects are displayed on the surrounding walls.  For a start, you get an account of the history of surgery in Scotland.  Key dates include 1505, when Edinburgh town council granted a seal to the Incorporate of Surgeons and Barbers, and the following year, when things were ratified with a Royal Charter from King James IV.  This recognition meant that the guild was entitled to one body (of an executed criminal) every year to be dissected, so that its members could get a proper knowledge of anatomy.  By the late 1500s the Surgeon-Barbers had become the most prestigious guild in Edinburgh and by the 17th century they even had the privilege of being allowed to distil ‘whisky or Aqua Vitae’.  It wasn’t until 1722 that the guild split and the surgeons and the barbers went their separate ways.  The stripy red-and-white pole that still adorns barber’s shops today, representing blood and bandages, is a reminder of how the two professions used to be entwined.

 

The collection’s oldest artefact is a dissected body of a child presented in 1702 by “Archibald Pitcairne, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and one of the Chirurgen Apothecaries of Edinburgh”.  Standing in an upright wooden case, the body resembles a grotesque puppet left hanging in its box after a performance.  Other items include a baby’s caul (“membranes from the head of a female child born at Colchester, Essex, 10th April, 1888, and much prized by the mother on account of their supposed, supernatural virtues”); a cast of the shoulder of an American soldier blasted by gunshot – the surgeon “cut into the joint and removed the shattered head of the humerus”, leaving the shoulder oddly sunken and deflated; and a bust of the unfortunate Robert Penman before the removal, in 1828, of a huge tumour on his lower jaw – the tumour filled his mouth like a giant, obscene second tongue and is now on display as a weird honeycomb-like structure containing part of Penman’s mandible and a couple of his teeth.  (The surgery took place in the days before anaesthetic, but according to the museum’s website Penman “bore it well” and later grew “a large beard to disguise the scarring.”)

 

Indeed, the museum has countless reminders of why we should feel grateful to live in an age after the development of anaesthetic and after doctors and scientists had learned about the dangers and causes of infection.  One information panel shows the ridicule aimed at Joseph Lister and his theories about infection and micro-organisms by a 19th-century medical contemporary: “Where are these little beasts?  Show them to us, and we shall believe in them.  Has anyone seen them yet?”  Nearby hangs a painting called Opisthotonus, done by Charles Bell in about 1805, showing a dying soldier in the final hideous convulsions induced by tetanus.

 

© Surgeon’s Hall Museums

 

Upstairs, there’s a dental section with antique toothbrushes, toothpicks, dentures, drills and unappetising-looking forceps for pulling out teeth and ‘elevators’ or ‘punches’ for levering out those tricky little stumps or roots left behind by extracted teeth.  It was here that I discovered how the Battle of Waterloo kept Britain supplied with dentures for many years – that’s to say, the market demand for ‘false’ teeth was met with ‘real’ teeth pulled from the mouths of thousands of slain soldiers.

 

Also on display upstairs are more things relating to surgery.  These include an array of ‘foreign objects’ that have been removed from human bodies over the decades, including giant hairballs, lengths of TV cable, hat pins, nails, screws, pieces of a horseshoe and a cherrystone that’d spent 18 years lodged up somebody’s nose.

 

On the other side of the stairwell is the Wohl Pathology Museum, whose shelves contain examples of every conceivable part of the body, suffering from every conceivable disease, disorder or injury.  Hence, you see such things as a skull massively inflated by hydrocephalus, a gangrenous foot, pieces of intestine with Crohn’s disease, a row of five foetal skeletons ascending in age from five-and-a-half months to seven-and-a-half months old, and ten containers – I counted them – housing testes that have been dissected and opened out.

 

Finally, space is given to the Edinburgh medical world’s two best-known overlaps with popular culture.  There’s a portrait of the perceptive and observant Joseph Bell MD, FRCSE, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and one-time teacher to a young medical student called Arthur Conan Doyle.  Later, Doyle recalled how, when he was first formulating the character of Sherlock Holmes, he thought of his “old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his eerie trick of spotting details.  If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but inorganised business to an exact science…”  On display too is a letter from Doyle to Bell dated 4th May, 1892, in which the author confesses: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”

 

And inevitably, there’s material about the body-snatchers who 200 years ago kept the medical schools’ dissecting tables supplied with illegally obtained corpses.  In Edinburgh, of course, this practice led to the murderous activities of William Burke and William Hare, providers of suspiciously fresh corpses for the formidable and determined anatomist Dr Robert Knox in the late 1820s.  Burke and Hare are synonymous with body-snatching but in truth they did no such thing – they didn’t snatch bodies but created bodies, by murdering people, and the cadavers they brought to Knox had never been in the earth of the cemetery.  At the museum, this grisly episode is commemorated by the presence of such items as Knox’s violin and Burke’s death-mask and, bizarrely, a little pocketbook that’s said to be bound with a portion of Burke’s skin.

 

However, the museum doesn’t contain the skeleton of William Burke (who, following his execution, had his body handed over for dissection just as the bodies of his victims were).  That’s to be found in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

 

 

All over bar the scouting

 

 

Illustrating this post are pictures of what, for me, seems like the most ancient structure in my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders – the Scout Hut, headquarters for as long as anyone can remember of the 1st Peeblesshire Scout Troop.  And that really is for as long as anyone can remember, because I read somewhere lately that it was built more than a century ago.

 

The green corrugated-iron hut, containing a hall with two adjacent rows of rooms along its front end and rear wall – the Scoutmaster’s office, the Venture Scouts’ room, the toilets and several storerooms stuffed with tents, canoes, wooden benches and tables, paraffin stoves, lamps, tools and other outdoor and sports paraphernalia – already looked ramshackle when I first set foot in it as a novice boy scout in 1977.  It blows my mind to think that for decades afterwards it continued to serve as a base for subsequent generations of scouts.  Indeed, just a few years ago, I was astonished to learn that one of my little nieces was attending a playgroup held in the hut.  By this time, it looked in a state of severe disrepair and its back half seemed ready to be swallowed by a jungle.

 

 

Still, despite its decrepitude, seeing the old place again always brought back fond memories.  I’d recall games of indoor football played there before and after the scout meetings (which were held every Friday evening), conducted with the recklessness and abandon of a rollerball derby, with little scouts getting heeled off the ball by bigger scouts and frequently sent flying into walls, doors, doorframes, window-ledges and various other hard surfaces, corners and edges.

 

And I’d recall doing outdoor activities on the steep slopes of Venlaw Hill overlooking the hut.  The best one I remember was when each scout patrol was told to rig together a makeshift stretcher and use it to carry one patrol-member from the top of the hill to the bottom, in a race to see who could get their man down first.  This was great fun, except for the poor bastard on the stretcher, who must have found the experience akin to being on, but not strapped into, a hurtling and disintegrating bobsleigh steered by half-a-dozen mad idiots.

 

What else?  I’d recall treasure-hunt sessions spent running around the streets of Peebles, and canoeing on the River Tweed next to Hay Lodge Park, and games of British Bulldog – the least health-and-safety conscious activity in the history of children’s recreation – back in the hut.  (With so much thumping and crashing going on inside, no wonder the place was falling apart.)

 

Every July, just after the start of the summer holidays, the troop would go on its annual week-long camp, which for a couple of years was at a site a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick.  I remember those camps as being an odd mixture of the miserable – stepping in cowpats, being nibbled incessantly by midges, getting pushed into the latrine pit*, enduring the potato-peeling, stew-stirring, sandwich-making drudgery of the day when your patrol was the duty one – and the wonderful.  One day, we went on a four-hour hike around the surrounding hills and for the first time I realized what truly wild and beautiful and inspiring landscapes the Borders region possessed.  I became a keen hillwalker after that.

 

Also memorable were the campfires, around which we would gather after dark and try to freak each other out by telling the scariest ghost stories and most horrific horror stories our imaginations could summon.  Needless to say, I was pretty good at that.  I remember my patrol really freaking out a few hours after one such campfire session.  We were asleep inside our tent when suddenly, in the pitch blackness, a mole surfaced and crawled over someone’s face.

 

© John Baker

 

On the last full day of the camp, we’d get to go into Hawick, which I remember then as a solid, prosperous country town.  We’d trail around the shops and stuff ourselves with ice cream and cake in the cafes and then, in the evening, go to watch a movie in the little Hawick cinema – I remember seeing there 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which elicited big cheers when Sinbad managed to spear the giant saber-toothed tiger at the end.  I didn’t return to Hawick until 35 years later, when I went on a cycling trip around the Borders, and I was upset to see how much it’d changed since my scouting days.  The high street was run-down and infested with derelict properties, which was no doubt due to the usual culprits – Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl – opening their doors in the town and sucking all the retailing life out of it.

 

I find it ironic that the Boy Scouts of America have recently been embroiled in political controversy after a lad got thrown out of his local cub scout association for asking a Republican senator, who was meeting a group of them, some awkward questions about her attitudes towards gun control and African Americans.  When I was in the Peebles troop, I knew at least two kids – all of 12 or 13 years old – who declared themselves proud communists.  Imagine the awkward questions they’d have asked Margaret Thatcher if she’d come to talk to us.   There was also muttering about why we had to salute the Union Jack when it got unfurled at the beginning of each scout meeting and a few souls were constantly threatening to sneakily and subversively replace the furled British flag with a furled Scottish Saltire beforehand.  But they never did.

 

Looking back, I have to admit I was a pretty crap scout.  I did just enough camping, hiking, cycling, canoeing and knot-tying to earn the basic Scout’s Standard badge, but that was it.  I never bothered to get any of the available proficiency badges.  Mind you, the Scoutmaster did once tell my parents that I was the best storyteller the troop had had for years, so if there’d been a proficiency badge for storytelling, I suppose I would have got that.

 

For the first year or two, I was blissfully happy being an ordinary scout.  I also enjoyed it when I became an assistant patrol leader, serving under a patrol leader called John Ogilivie, who later went to Sandhurst and became an army officer – I imagine him doing well in that career.  But I enjoyed it less when I became a patrol leader myself, because there were a couple of lads in the patrol whom I didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye with and to get my way I became bossy and ended up throwing my weight around too much.  Many years later, when I started to supervise people as part of my work, I underwent enough management courses to know all about such important leadership techniques as going for a win-win solution in confrontational situations and dealing with people assertively, rather than passively or aggressively.  If only I’d known back then what I know now…

 

Later still, I became a Venture Scout, which was okay, but by then I was experiencing the siren call of other things – girls, parties, rock ‘n’ roll, underage boozing, the social scene at the local rugby club.  I’d hung up my scout neckerchief, lanyard and toggle by the time I was 16.

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

Still, I always feel a surge of nostalgia and kinship when I’m in a foreign country and stumble across traces of indigenous scouting activity – for example, one afternoon when I was strolling along the seafront at Algiers and discovered the office and shop of the Boy Scouts of Algeria, or the day I went exploring the east coast of Mauritius and encountered a camp set up by a Mauritian scout troop.  And I was pleased to find out that Keith Richards, one of the coolest – if gnarliest – organisms on the planet, was once in the 7th Dartford Scout Troop.  According to his 2010 autobiography Life, he rose through its ranks and became leader of its Beaver Patrol.  He was obviously a better scout than I was: “I had badges all over the place, unbelievable!  I don’t know where my scout shirt is now, but it’s adorned, stripes and strings and badges all over the place.  Looked like I was into bondage.”  I’d like to think that from his experiences of running Beaver Patrol, old Keith got a handle on how to run the Rolling Stones later on; and particularly, he learned how to keep Mick Jagger in line.

 

Anyway, I was inspired to write this blog entry because, a few weeks ago, I was back in Peebles for a short visit; and when I wandered past the site of the old scout hut, I discovered it was gone!  It seems that the Peebles scouts have finally managed to find the funds to replace it with a new building, a fragrant, varnished-timber, IKEA-looking effort.  If it can withstand half as much punishment as its predecessor did – a century of wear and tear, plus countless hell-for-leather games of indoor football and British Bulldog – it’ll do well.

 

 

* I should point out that the camp latrine pit was a pit with stones lining its bottom that people peed into.  There was a chemical toilet-tent if you wanted to release anything solid.  So when you were pushed into the latrine pit, you dropped a couple of feet and landed on a bed of small stones.  You weren’t soiled when you climbed out, but you might smell slightly of wee.

 

No news is good news

 

From Twitter / @Fergoodness

 

Well, that was embarrassing.  On August 9th, the Scottish edition of the Times printed a column by journalist Kenny Farquharson headed THROW THE BOOK AT POLITICIANS WHO DON’T READ.  Its first six paragraphs took aim at former Scottish First Minister and former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond because, supposedly, he wasn’t a reader.  Farquharson based his assertion that Salmond didn’t read books on two things: an acquaintance who’d visited Salmond’s home in Aberdeenshire and hadn’t seen any books lying around and a quote Salmond allegedly gave to a student newspaper about not having read a book for “eight years straight”.

 

Later the same day, after a photo of the library at Salmond’s house (which Farquharson’s first source evidently hadn’t seen) had circulated on twitter and Salmond himself had tweeted that in the student-newspaper interview he’d been misquoted – he’d said ‘write’, not ‘read’ – the column vanished from the Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.  Apologies to @AlexSalmond.”

 

At least, Farquharson apologised.  Fellow Scottish newspaper hack David Torrance, who’d also peddled the Salmond-doesn’t-read story, reacted to Salmond’s intervention by tweeting: “It’s like being harangued by a mad old man in a pub.  ‘I used to be First Minister you know…’”  Thus, if the mainstream Scottish media smears you and you object, you’re the equivalent of a pished auld haverer in a bar.  That’s journalistic integrity in Scotland 2017.

 

I knew Farquharson slightly from my college days in Aberdeen, when he was a stalwart member of the campus Creative Writing Society (along with now-celebrated novelist Ali Smith), so I’m surprised a literary-minded man like him failed to question and check his sources.  Among other things, Salmond has interviewed both Iain Banks and Ian McEwan at the Edinburgh Book Festival, feats that’d require massive amounts of chutzpah (even by Salmond’s standards) to pull off if you were a non-book-reading philistine.  I suspect Farquharson rushed to conclusions because, like most of the Scottish press, he just doesn’t like Salmond and is happy to believe the worst about him.

 

© The Guardian

© Pauline Keightly Photography / From musicfootnotes.com

 

Now I admit that Alex Salmond, a man not known for his modesty, can be hard to like.  Even sympathetic profiles of him usually contain, at some point, the phrase ‘love him or loathe him’.  But the mainstream Scottish media’s antipathy towards Salmond is symptomatic of wider antipathy.  It also just doesn’t like Salmond’s party, the SNP, and how they’ve run Scotland since they won their first Scottish parliamentary election in 2007.

 

You get the impression that Scotland’s national print media – Scottish editions of the London-based dailies like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun plus supposedly ‘home-grown’ titles like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record, though the Herald and Record’s owners, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, are based in England – never forgave the SNP for disrupting the old status quo in Scotland.  That old status quo had seemingly stretched back through the mists of antiquity to the Stone Age.  Simply put, Labour dominated Scotland (first at council level and then, after its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament); while the Conservatives and, occasionally, Labour oversaw Scotland and the rest of Britain from Westminster.

 

As the sainted messengers who conveyed information from that establishment to the great unwashed and who offered interpretation and comment on how the establishment was doing things, Scotland’s journalists had their own comfortable and privileged niche in Scottish society.

 

The relationship between Scotland’s old politicians and journalists was a symbiotic one.  Iain Macwhirter, columnist with the Sunday Herald, one of only two newspapers in Scotland that gives the SNP much support, has recalled how the Sunday Herald’s decision to back the party in 2014 was made in spite of “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.”  He also noted that “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”

 

Many Scottish journalists seem unaware of those wise words by American novelist and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky: “Things change and friends leave.  Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”  They’ve reacted to the SNP’s decade in power with continual aggrieved negativity.  Nothing the SNP government, originally headed by Alex Salmond, now headed by Nicola Sturgeon, does can ever be good.  It can only be bad.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, their headlines have regurgitated the message that Scotland is going to the dogs and it’s all the SNP’s fault.

 

What must be awkward for Scotland’s newspapers is the evidence that pops up now and again and suggests that things might not be going so badly after all.  For example, figures in June showing Scotland’s economy grew during the first part of 2017 – at a rate of only 0.8%, admittedly, but four times the equivalent rate for the UK as a whole.  Or Scottish unemployment dropping to its lowest level since the start of the 2008 financial crash.  Or passenger-satisfaction levels with ScotRail reaching 90%, its highest-ever rating (and way better than the 72% satisfaction-level for Southern Rail in England).  Or the Scottish National Health Service exceeding its targets for treating accident and emergency patients.  (Or indeed, evidence that the Scottish NHS is the best-performing one of the four health services in the UK.)

 

The condition of Scottish education remains a concern, with the 2016 Pisa rankings showing Scottish pupils performing considerably less well than English ones (though better than Welsh ones).  However, one thing that commentators have constantly lamented about, the small number of Scottish school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university, seems to have improved.  Recent figures show an increase of 13% in university entrants from poor backgrounds.

 

So hey, it’s not all bad news, is it?  Scotland’s newspapers will surely let a little sunshine filter out of their normally dour front pages and give credit where it’s due, right?

 

Dream on.  The Herald’s front page on August 7th gave a rubbishing of ScotRail: HALF OF TRAINS ARRIVING AT BUSIEST STATIONS ARE LATE.  After it was pointed out that the figures for this story were inaccurate, it vanished from the Herald’s website and an apology appeared the next day admitting, “The most recent figures show that 93.7% of ScotRail trains met the industry standard public performance measure (PPM).”  However, this wasn’t before similar stories had appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, Daily Record, Scottish Daily Mail and Dundee Courier.  Meanwhile, I only have to type ‘Scottish NHS’ into Google and click on ‘news’ underneath to get a long list of headlines suggesting that Scotland’s health system is ‘doomed, all doomed’ (© Private Fraser, Dad’s Army): SCOTTISH NHS AT RISK OF STAFFING SHORTAGES THANKS TO POOR PLANNING (the Daily Telegraph); HOSPITALS AND NHS FACILITIES MAY NEED TO BE ‘AXED’ (the Scotsman); NHS STAFFING SHORTAGES ARE COMPROMISING PATIENT CARE (the Scotsman again); SCOTTISH NURSES SLAM NHS STAFFING CRISIS FOR AFFECTING CARE OF PATIENTS (the Daily Record); etc.

 

Even the jump in students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been sourly received.  In January 2017, the Times’s Daniel Sanderson wrote an article decrying the fact that in Scotland FEWER THAN 10% OF STUDENTS COME FROM POOREST BACKGROUNDS.  Well, those new statistics about university entrants should cheer him up, right?  Nope.  This week, the same journalist wrote in the same newspaper an article decrying the fact that in Scotland MORE MIDDLE-CLASS STUDENTS ARE MISSING OUT ON UNIVERSITY PLACES.

 

For the record – as opposed to the Daily Record – I don’t think it matters much politically if 90-95% of Scotland’s mainstream press hate the party in power and monster them at every turn.  I’d rather live in a society like that than in a Putin-esque one where the government controls everything the newspapers say about them.  The fact that, despite the overwhelming hostility, the SNP have won two more Scottish elections since 2007 suggests that not many people believe what the newspapers tell them to believe these days.  (See also how Jeremy Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in the last British election despite the massive abuse he received in the British press.)

 

What does depress me is how this adversity must affect the many people working in the Scottish public sector and / or in services widely used by the Scottish public: hospital workers, teachers, train-staff, etc.  Clearly, they’ve made huge efforts to achieve good results in an era of austerity and financial uncertainty.  (That might sound like a platitude but it isn’t – for months now a close family member of mine has been looked after by the Scottish NHS and received excellent care.)  But when you go the extra mile for your patients, pupils or customers, and still get nothing but negative headlines screaming at you about your profession and your sector from the newspaper stands, it must be demoralising.

 

The Scottish press’s negativity-at-all-costs policy is not a case of, as some people have argued, ‘doing Scotland down’, because the SNP government is not all of Scotland – no more than Teresa May’s lunatic Brexit-obsessed Conservative government is all of England.  But, often, it seems discourteous to an awful lot of ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs well.

 

From scotbuzz.co.uk 

 

Edinburgh has fallen

 

From you.38degrees.org.uk

 

It was announced back in 2013 that the Picturehouse on Lothian Road, the main venue for rock and pop gigs in central Edinburgh, had been bought by big, bland, corporate pub-chain J.D. Wetherspoon and would be transformed into another of Wetherspoon’s big, bland, corporate pubs.  At the time, I lamented on this blog about how Edinburgh’s powers-that-be seemed hellbent on destroying any spaces where music fans could congregate and hear music played in its proper form, i.e. live.

 

I compared the situation in 2013 with how it’d been in the 1990s, when I’d lived in Edinburgh for a wee while: when you could go to gigs at The Venue at 17 Calton Road, “which started trading as The Jailhouse in the early 1980s and spent the next quarter-century hosting bands big and small” but which closed its doors in the mid-noughties; the Cas Rock on West Port, “now a bland glass building that houses, among other things, a Sainsbury supermarket”; and punk-loving pub the Tap O’Lauriston just up the road from the Cas Rock on Lauriston Place, “which was demolished to make way for a Novotel.”

 

Alas, the slaughter of Edinburgh’s gigging spots has shown no sign of abating since Wetherspoon banished live music from the Picturehouse.  The news broke at the end of last year that the nightclub, cabaret and music venue Electric Circus on Market Street is due to be taken over by the adjacent Fruitmarket Gallery, which plans to use the premises to “greatly improve and expand” its exhibition area and boost its “café, library and bookshop.”  It’s depressing to see culture in one of its most egalitarian, communal and spontaneous forms – being in the same room as some musicians giving it their all and sharing the experience with a like-minded crowd – being displaced like this in favour of culture in a far more elitist, moneyed and rarefied form.  (If you’ve ever had a nosey around the Fruitmarket Gallery’s existing bookshop and taken in the topics and prices of the books on sale, you’ll know what I mean.  It’s provides art for the few rather than the many, which is the opposite of the service provided by a good live-music place.)

 

© The Skinny

 

Also due to close – sometime this month in fact – is the Citrus Club on Grindlay Street, whose description on Google Reviews as a “no frills, black-walled dance club and live music venue with an emphasis on indie and retro sounds” chimes with my fond memories of it.

 

Now comes the news that the owners of Studio 24 on Calton Road, which functioned as a nightclub offering ‘eclectic’ (i.e. non-mainstream) music and occasional gigs, have decided to sell up following a long war of attrition waged by local residents complaining about noise levels and the city council imposing expensive soundproofing regulations.  In a statement, they said: “We’re gutted we’ve had to come to this decision, but with years of investing thousands upon thousands in soundproofing and legal fees in order to stay open, alongside complaining neighbours and harsh council-enforced sound restrictions, we feel these problems won’t leave us, with more complaints recently received and no real support from licensing standards officers, therefore threatening our ability to stay open.”

 

What’s particularly annoying is the fact that Studio 24, while admittedly not contained in the most gorgeous building in Edinburgh, was on the site before the soulless glass-and-concrete apartment buildings that’ve sprouted up around it.  The inhabitants of these complain about the noise from the Studio, which begs the question: if you want to live in brand new yuppie apartment with zero noise levels, why move into one that’s been built on a street next to a long-established and much-loved music club?  Shouldn’t you move into one instead that’s been built on a street next to a crematorium?

 

Given that Calton Road would probably be noisy even if Studio 24 wasn’t there – thanks to the trains entering and exiting nearby Waverley Station – I wonder if the noise complaints were a smokescreen for the real gripe, which was that the venue was luring so-called undesirables into the neighbourhood, lowering its tone and lowering potential property prices.

 

I’m depressed to see Studio 24 go because for a decade from the late 1990s, when I lived in Edinburgh, to the late noughties, when I’d still visit the city for a night out, I’d go there if it was hosting a heavy-metal or goth night.  I have to confess, though, that when I last went to a Studio 24 heavy-metal night, the guy at the desk clocked my time-worn features and asked politely if I didn’t want to check out the 1970s rock-nostalgia night being held upstairs instead.

 

Anyway, Edinburgh is now in the seriously embarrassing position of being the capital city of Scotland yet hardly having a decent music venue to its name.  It’s ridiculous that a city that makes such a hoo-ha about being the world’s cultural capital when the Festival and Fringe and a zillion well-heeled tourists set up camp there every August is, for the rest of the year, as musically bereft and barren as one of Simon Cowell’s armpits.

 

So music lovers of Edinburgh, heed my advice.  Your once-proud city has fallen – into the hands of a bunch of suits, nimbies and money-chasing ghouls whose iPods are no doubt crammed with James Blunt and Coldplay songs and whose idea of musical edginess is probably to tuck into a salad in the Hard Rock Café while a paunchy, balding cover band play Hotel California in the corner.  There’s only one thing you can do now.  Pack your bags.  And move to Glasgow.

 

But before you start packing, sign this petition to save Studio 24 on the off-chance it might work.

 

Glasgow trades

 

 

The Trades House of Glasgow was created in 1605 during a period of local-government reform and was designed to give leaders of the city’s craftsmen more say in Glasgow’s running.  It incorporated 14 distinct trades or craft-guilds.  These were: bakers; barbers; bonnet-makers and dyers; coopers; cordiners (makers of boots, shoes, jerkins and other leather goods); fleshers; gardeners; hammermen (blacksmiths, goldsmiths, armourers and other metal-workers); maltmen (brewers); masons (builders and stonemasons); skinners and glovers; tailors; weavers; and wrights (carpenters).

 

Today, technology, automation and mechanisation are consigning professions to the dustbin at a frightening rate.  Filing clerks and telephone switchboard operators have probably already gone and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before farm-labourers, check-out cashiers and fast-food chefs go too.  Thus, I find it strange and sad that if you had to pick one of the above 14 trades to recommend as a career to your children, you’d probably opt for the barbers.  The last time I counted, my home-town of about 8000 people contained at least a dozen hairdresser’s or barber’s shops – so I guess that profession is safe for the foreseeable future.  (Of course, being a barber a few centuries ago involved more than being able to trim someone’s hair.  As the red-and-white barber’s pole reminds us, barbers then were also regarded as surgeons and as well as offering the proverbial short-back-and-sides they were available to do ‘bloodletting, cupping, tooth extractions, lancing and even amputations.’)

 

Anyway, the trades had already made their presence felt in Glasgow before 1605, particularly with their support for the city’s most venerable building, Glasgow Cathedral. They helped finance major extensions made to it during the 13th and 14th century.  And according to the Undiscovered Scotland website, it was also the city’s tradesmen who helped to save the cathedral during the Reformation.  In the 1560s they defended it against ‘reforming’ mobs who would have ransacked and wrecked it, which was the sad fate that befell most other medieval-built churches in Scotland at the time.  As a result, Glasgow Cathedral was the only cathedral on the Scottish mainland to survive the Reformation intact.

 

Visit Glasgow Cathedral today and you’ll see how the support of the 14 trades has been rewarded.  Their titles, mottos, symbols, banners and tools are commemorated in stained glass in the south wall of the choir area.  Here are a few pictures I took of the glass-work whilst exploring the building a few months ago and I hope my lack of skill as a photographer doesn’t diminish its gorgeousness.

 

 

I hear you’re a racist now, SNP

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Well, that was nice of the Scottish Labour Party.  Last weekend, they held their spring conference and presumably, like any political party, they hoped they’d present themselves in a good light.  Good enough to win a few new voters or, in their case, win back a few old voters.  Because in recent years the Scottish Labour Party has haemorrhaged support – in 1999 it had 56 seats in the Scottish Parliament and another 56 in the Westminster one, compared with 24 Scottish seats and just one Westminster seat today.  And a great many of those former Labour voters have defected to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

 

So in their wisdom what did Scottish Labour do?  They got Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, to come to Scotland on Saturday and give a conference speech that accused the SNP of racism.  Yep, that’ll win those old supporters back.  Call them racists.

 

Specifically, Khan talked of “Brexit, the election of President Trump and the rise of populist and narrow nationalist parties around the world” and said there was no difference between the likes of the SNP and “those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.”  Which sounds like a pretty good definition of racism to me.

 

Admittedly, when Khan delivered the speech, he tried to tone it down slightly – but the damage had been done for it’d already been printed in the Scottish Labour-supporting tabloid the Daily Record.  And it sparked a tremendous uproar from SNP supporters, furious that despite backing a party that’s probably the most pro-immigration and pro-European Union of the major parties in Britain today, they’d been told they were no better than, say, the British National Party, National Front and English and Scottish Defence Leagues.  You know, real racist organisations.

 

One thing that stuck in many people’s craws was the fact that back before the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, while the SNP had campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote, the BNP, National Front, EDL and SDL had all campaigned for a ‘no’ one.  Indeed, the racists’ campaign literature had often warned that in an independent Scotland the SNP would bring in more immigrants, more refugees, more Muslims, etc.  Though I have to say this picture tweeted by ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin as a warning about how an independent Scotland would look is so cool it surely made more people vote for independence than against it.

 

© Metro

 

Incidentally, Khan’s mention of religious divisiveness seems ironic too considering that there have been moments in recent history when his party in Scotland has cosied up to the pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic Orange Order – Labour councillors in Falkirk handing more than £1000 of public money to the Order in May 2016, for instance, or Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council throwing more cash at it in June 2012 so it could stage street parties in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

 

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8416/labour-party-council-leader-votes-give-orange-order-community-funding

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13060185.City_funds_Orange_events/

 

Labour’s response to the furore was to claim that, because Khan comes from a British Pakistani family, anyone disputing his ‘SNP equals racism’ claims were themselves racist. Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Anas Sarwar, also of Pakistani descent, tweeted: “Quite ironic that 2 brown guys are being abused / trolled by mob of angry white men in a racism row.”

 

Actually, the people who got angry about Khan’s speech included the correspondent Robert J. Somynne, lawyer Aamer Anwar, entrepreneur Yasmin A. Choudhury and SNP politicians Humza Yousaf and Tasmina Sheikh, none of whom are ‘white guys’.  Not all of them are ‘guys’, either.

 

At least Khan received some backing from Scotland’s not-in-love-with-the-SNP mainstream press.  Among those voicing support for him were Stephen Daisley, columnist for the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Mail, and Iain Martin, former deputy editor, head of comment, columnist and blogger with the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Telegraph newspapers.

 

Then on Monday evening the Guardian newspaper poured fuel on the fire and published an opinion piece by a PhD student at Stirling University called Claire Heuchan.  Baldly titled THE PARALLELS BETWEEN SCOTTISH NATIONALISM AND RACISM ARE CLEAR, the piece promptly started its own shitstorm.  By the time the Guardian decided to close the comments thread underneath, two hours after it’d appeared, there were 1242 comments – many of them not written in admiration of Heuchan’s thought-processes.

 

Well, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m sympathetic to both the SNP and its goal of an independent Scotland and I have to say Heuchan’s Guardian piece annoyed me even more than Khan’s speech, mainly because her arguments were so half-baked.  For example: “Zeal for national identity invariably raises questions of who belongs and who is an outsider”, which makes me wonder why this has to be a peculiarly Scottish issue.  After all, zeal for national identity in Britain as a whole amputated the country from the European Union recently and left many EU nationals living in Britain fearful for their futures.  Actually, if national identity’s so bad, shouldn’t Heuchan be petitioning for Britain to shed its borders and merge with France, Germany and everywhere else in Europe?

 

She criticises the independence movement for its supposed belief that that Scotland is better than England, which will be news to those who simply want an independent Scotland run by the people who live in it – including English folk, ethnic minorities and EU nationals – because they believe it would be better run that way than by Westminster.  Not better than England or anywhere else, but just better than how Scotland is now.

 

She castigates independence supporters for holding England “accountable for all the wrongs of imperial expansion while denying this country’s own colonial legacy”, which forgets that prominent pro-independence Scottish historians like Tom Devine have written extensively about Scotland’s role in shaping the British Empire.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6524149.stm

 

Then there are the claims that Heuchan, who’s a person of colour, makes about whiteness.  Being white means your’re entirely immune and oblivious to racism, apparently.  The trade unionist Claire Hepworth is criticised for tweeting that she’s never heard any of her SNP-supporting friends and followers being racist.  “Comments such as Hepworth’s only make it harder for people of colour to come forward about the discrimination we face…”  Suggesting that because she doesn’t know anyone who’s racist, Hepworth is an accomplice to racism.  And a claim that “(w)hite SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism” seems unlikely considering that many SNP voters in Scotland are of Irish descent or belong to other white national groups and quite possibly have been subject to racism.

 

Soon after the Guardian’s comments thread was closed, Heuchan disappeared from Twitter too.  I imagine certain newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the also totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Express will soon be running horror stories about her being hounded off Twitter by racist SNP scumbags.

 

To be honest, I suspect the real reason why the Twitter account vanished was because people were reading her past tweets and finding items from before the 2014 independence referendum that showed she was a ‘British and proud’ activist campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. Now Heuchan is free to define her identity whatever way she likes.  But it might have been wise to temper her piece with a wee bit of balance and admit that British nationalism can be racist too.  Ask those many people who were abused on British streets for speaking a language other than English during the giddy days that followed dear old Blighty voting for Brexit.

 

No political movement consists wholly of angels.  I’m sure a few racist bampots who object to both coloured people and English people do support the cause of Scottish independence.  And I know that in the past the SNP had its share of anti-English bigots.  (Though in the 1980s I knew some Scottish Labour supporters who’d mouth off about ‘English bastards’ too, on account of them voting Maggie Thatcher into power every four years.)

 

But if the pro-EU, pro-immigration SNP are going to be maligned as racists, what does that make Theresa May’s Conservative Party, hellbent on steering Britain out of Europe, using EU nationals in Britain as ‘bargaining chips’, ramping up the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees and toadying to a bigoted thug like Donald Trump?  Indeed, what does that make Sadiq Khan’s Labour Party, now that at Westminster they’ve resolved to support the Conservatives over Brexit?

 

Worse, I’d say.  Much worse.

 

© The Independent

 

Time’s up for Tam

 

© BBC

 

It’s fair to say that the state of modern British politics is dire.  Desperate for a trade deal that might punt a little money the way of post-Brexit Britain (and desperate to show that the country still has friends on the international stage and isn’t a global Billy No-Mates), our Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has just hobnobbed in Washington DC with President Donald Trump.  Trump is a man whose idea of a successful trade deal is to make sure he ends up with all the money in his pockets and the other guy is left with a big, fat, humiliating zero – he wrote a book with Tony Schwartz in 1987 called The Art of the Deal but it should really have been titled The Art of the Steal.  So I suspect that Theresa’s attempted wooing of the Trumpster isn’t going to end well.

 

Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is an oaf whose ideas about how to make friends and influence people involve such antics as going to France and cracking jokes about World War II punishment beatings.  And the British Labour Party seems to have given up on providing any meaningful opposition to May, Johnson and co and has gone from setback to disaster to catastrophe to apocalypse.  Instrumental in this has been the woeful leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Ethically, I don’t think Corbyn is a bad bloke, but he seems to have the management skills of a drunk chimp.

 

This makes me nostalgic for an older era of British politics when at least a few politicians managed to combine intelligence with conviction.  One such person was Tam Dalyell, Member of Parliament for West Lothian and then Linlithgow for over forty years, who died a few days ago at the age of 84.

 

Tam had a privileged background.  He spent his childhood in a grand Scottish mansion near the Firth of Forth and inherited a title, the Baronetcy of Dalyell, from his mother’s side of the family.  He got much of his education at Eton College and Cambridge University, whilst doing national service with the Royal Scots Greys for a period between the two institutions.  Significantly, he didn’t get through officer training and ended up serving as a common soldier.

 

Later, he taught for three years at Bo’ness Academy, near to his family home, and he also wrote a column for the New Scientist magazine.  This interest in science was just one example of his eclecticism – he’d started off studying mathematics at university, then changed to history and then done an additional degree in economics.

 

Despite his well-heeled origins – which gave him a rather languid, aristocratic air – Tam was left-wing in his politics and when he became a Member of Parliament it was for the Labour Party, not the Conservatives.  Not that Labour Party leaders had less reason to curse him than Conservative Party ones had, for when it came to being a contrarian Tam was in a league of his own.  Whenever he got his teeth into an issue he felt was worth fighting for, he didn’t release it in a hurry and didn’t give a damn whom he annoyed.

 

An early cause was the injustice wreaked upon the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, whom the British evicted between 1968 and 1973 to clear the way for the establishment of an American military base there.  He was also a thorn in the side of the 1970s Labour government when it tried, then unsuccessfully, to introduce devolved governments for Scotland and Wales.  Tam’s argument was that the devolution proposals made Britain’s system of government unfair and unbalanced.  It would be wrong to still have Scottish MPs present in Westminster influencing decisions that affected England, if there was a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh making decisions affecting Scotland that English MPs had no influence over at all.  Four decades later, the UK has a devolved system of government and the conundrum identified by Tam – which became known as the West Lothian Question after the name of his old constituency – has never been satisfactorily addressed.

 

Elsewhere, Tam’s role as a one-man awkward squad knew no bounds.  He spent years hounding Margaret Thatcher’s government about the General Belgrano, the Argentinian warship sunk with heavy loss of life by British forces during 1982’s Falklands War.  The Belgrano had been torpedoed outside, not inside, the 200-mile-radius Exclusion Zone established by Britain around the Falkland Islands as the war’s official combat zone.  He also questioned the verdict of the Lockerbie Bombing trial, the legitimacy of the first Gulf War and of military intervention in Kosovo, and the justification for invading Iraq in 2003.  Indeed, the Iraq fiasco prompted him to brand his then party leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair a war criminal and he came close to having the Labour Party whip withdrawn, i.e. he was nearly kicked out of the party.

 

Needless to say, Tam blew his chances early on of being considered for a ministerial position and high office.  He got as far as being Parliamentary Private Secretary to the minister Richard Crossman in the 1960s.  But I suspect he was happier sitting on the back benches, being a pain in the neck.

 

After retiring as an MP in 2005, one way in which Tam kept himself busy was by writing obituaries – often for people from Scottish political backgrounds such as Sam Galbraith, Bruce Millan and Albert McQuarrie – for the Independent newspaper.  His obituaries were erudite and gracious towards political friends and foes alike.

 

I recall one obituary Tam penned a few years ago about Margo MacDonald, the formidable one-time Scottish National Party MP (and later an independent Member of the Scottish Parliament).  Tam concluded by sheepishly admitting that he’d liked Margo so much that, despite his credentials as a long-time opponent of Scottish self-government and her credentials as a long-term supporter of it, he’d gone and voted for her in the last Scottish parliamentary elections.  More evidence that right to the end Tam Dalyell was his own man.

 

© The Independent

 

The multiple personalities of Ruth Davidson

 

From caltonjock.com

From zimbio.com

(c) BBC

 

I’m looking forward to the new movie Split, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  Ever since Shyamalan made his name in 1999 with the spooky classic The Sixth Sense, he seems to have frittered away his talent with a string of increasingly disappointing films like Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), but early reviews of Split have been largely positive and suggest Shyamalan has retrieved his mojo.  What has particularly impressed the critics is the film’s central performance by Scottish actor James McAvoy, who plays a man with multiple-personality disorder.  In fact, McAvoy’s condition is so extreme that he’s inhabited by no fewer than 23 different, competing and sometimes conflicting personalities.

 

But James McAvoy isn’t the only Scot who’s displayed symptoms of multiple-personality disorder recently.  If you examine the pronouncements of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, it’s clear that poor Ruth isn’t a single psychological entity either.  Rather, she’s a walking battleground where various, often diametrically-opposed personalities fight for supremacy.

 

For example, there’s one personality within Ruth that’s staunchly pro-European Union.  This personality was in control, temporarily, when she took part in a debate before last June’s vote on whether or not Britain should leave the EU.  Railing against the Brexiting likes of Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom, she declared, “The other side have said throughout this debate that they don’t like experts but when it comes to keeping this country safe and secure I want to listen to the experts.  So when the head of GCHQ says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When five former NATO chiefs say we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of Interpol, who is a Brit, says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of MI5 and MI6 says we are safer in the EU I listen.”  Even the left-wing, anti-Tory New Statesman magazine was sufficiently impressed to call her a ‘stand-out performer’ afterwards.

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/eu-referendum-debate-sadiq-khan-and-ruth-davidson-give-remain-punch-it-needs

 

From politicshome.com

 

Presumably it was the same pro-EU version of Ruth who, before the referendum, posed with other Scottish political party leaders of in support a ‘remain’ vote.  And the same version again who, two years earlier, had urged the Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence (and ‘yes’ to remaining part of the UK) for the reason that this would guarantee Scotland’s place in the European Union: “No means we stay in, we are members of the European Union.”

 

Oops, that didn’t work out well, did it?

 

But fast-forward to today.  The British public narrowly voted to leave the EU and suddenly a new personality has wrested control of Ruth Davidson, one that’s in favour of Britain quitting the EU too; one that sees juicy economic opportunities for post-EU Britain; and one that opposes everything the Scottish National Party, which runs the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh, is trying to do to preserve Scotland’s place in the EU.  Britain – though admittedly not Scotland, which voted by 62% to 38% to stay – chose to leave the EU, barks this new Ruth.  So get over the result and get on with Brexiting!

 

Admittedly, Ruth’s new pro-Brexit personality has at least expressed support for the UK, and by extension Scotland, remaining in the EU’s single market.  It’s something she believes Scotland should have “the largest amount of access to.”   Though Theresa May, British Prime Minister, Tory supremo and Ruth’s big boss in London, ruled this out in a speech a week ago when she declared that Britain “cannot possibly” remain in the single market because it would mean “not leaving the EU at all.”

 

Oops again.  That didn’t work out well, did it?

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-38555683

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-38641208

 

I suspect a third personality might surface in Ruth Davidson soon.  One that’s totally hard-line in its support of Brexit and rejects the single market as much as it rejects every other aspect of the EU – you know, sort of like what Theresa May’s been saying.  I don’t know why I think this.  Call it a hunch.

 

There’s yet another personality lurking inside Ruth that manifests itself occasionally – one that loathes the USA’s new president, Donald Trump.  This personality was clearly in control of Ruth last year when she borrowed a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and trolled the ginger-skinned tycoon on Twitter: “Trump’s a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch, right?”

 

Yet two days ago, her boss Theresa May arrived in the USA to meet President Trump and suddenly another personality took hold of poor Ruth – one that seemed a lot more sanguine about the clay-brained, knotty-pated, whoreson, obscene, greasy, etc. businessman-cum-world-leader.  This new version of Ruth believed May – who described Trump’s presidency as dawn breaking “on a new era of American renewal” – just had to open her mouth and talk a wee bit of sense into him and everything would be okay.  May’s first speech in the USA, tweeted this new Ruth, “promotes liberal internationalism, warns on Putin, defends Muslims and makes case for democratic leadership in the world.  Bravo.”

 

Actually, Ruth’s words about May defending Muslims were perhaps a bit premature seeing as soon afterwards Trump slapped a ban on refugees entering the USA from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.  On Holocaust Memorial Day of all days, too.

 

Oops, that didn’t work out well, did it?

 

Some people would argue that Ruth Davidson doesn’t have a multiple-personality disorder at all – that her situation as a Conservative with reasonably liberal instincts and something of a social conscience who runs the Scottish branch of her party but who has to take orders from a considerably more right-wing regime in London means that during her pronouncements she needs to do more twisting and turning than a whirling dervish.  But I don’t believe Ruth could be as supine and pathetic as that.  I think there’s something genuinely, seriously wrong with her.  She ought to see a psychiatrist immediately.

 

But who’s going to have a word with her?  Who’s going to take her aside and give her this well-meaning but unpleasant advice?  Probably not her many sycophantic fans in the mainstream Scottish press, who kiss her arse as enthusiastically as Theresa May’s been kissing Trump’s arse recently.

 

© Blinding Edge Pictures / Blumhouse Productions

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 1: haggis

 

From donaldrussell.com

 

Food is something I’d like to write more about on this blog – especially since I’ve eaten a lot of unusual and occasionally mind-bogglingly strange varieties of food in different parts of the world.

 

And where better to start this new series of postings about glorious international foodstuffs than with Scotland’s national dish, haggis?  After all, today is January 25th, 2017: the 258th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard.  And tonight, the devouring of haggis will be one of the main activities (alongside the reciting of Scots-dialect poetry, the playing of bagpipes and the downing of industrial quantities of Scotch whisky) at Burns suppers held in honour of the great man the world over.

 

Haggis is a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver, traditionally (though not normally these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  The fact that the main ingredients of haggis are offal has earned it a lot of abuse over the centuries.  For example, someone called Lils Emslie once wrote a famous piece of doggerel that went: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  More recently, in the 1990s, I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis inelegantly as ‘a bag of shite’.

 

Well, the ignorant may sneer.  But in my experience anyone adventurous enough to try haggis for the first time usually ends up enjoying it.  The Wikipedia entry on it describes its taste as being ‘nutty’ (as in ‘nut-like’, not ‘crazy’); but I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it like that.  ‘Spicy’ is the adjective I’d use – though spicy in a dark, subtle, slightly teasing way.

 

Culinary historians have argued about where haggis originated, although I’m sure it wasn’t in Scotland itself.  I’ve seen the invention of the dish attributed to northern England, to medieval Scandinavia and to ancient Rome and Greece.  Personally, I suspect the basic format of haggis dates back in history to soon after humans started hunting and killing their food.  Once you’d tracked down and slain a big animal like, say, a stag and removed the best cuts of meat, there’d still be a fair amount of flesh in the carcass that you couldn’t let go to waste – especially not when there was no guarantee when you’d be getting your next meal.  So you’d gather up the squelchy bits too – the heart, lungs, intestines – and find something to put them in.  And handily, there was another squelchy bit you could use as a container – the stomach.  Then you’d cook all this before the contents went off.  Hence, haggis.

 

And that’s one reason to cherish it.  Haggis, or the original concept of haggis, is the meat dish of the common man.  You can bet that by feudal times it was the aristocrat or wealthy landowner who was carting off the best meat from the big game animals he’d hunted down.  Whereas it was the serfs – who’d done all the hard work, looking after his horses and hounds, carrying his weapons, chasing the wild animals out into the open – who’d be stashing the left-behind offal into left-behind stomachs, boiling them and tucking into them afterwards.

 

© Daily Record

 

Appropriately, Robert Burns, of humble origins himself, appreciated a good haggis and wrote a poem in honour of the dish – Address to the Haggis, customarily the first poem to be recited at a Burns Supper, with the carrying in and cutting of haggis the first thing on the schedule.  It begins: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” Though it’s usually around the third verse that things get exciting and the reciter-cum-haggis-cutter starts waving a big blade in the air: “His knife sees rustic labour dight / An’ cut you up wi ready slight / Trenching your gushing entrails bright / Like onie ditch / And then, o what a glorious sight / Warm-reekin’, rich!

 

Not that haggis has remained unchanged since the time of Burns.  It’s evolved.  As culinary tastes and habits have developed, so has the way it’s been eaten.  It’s possible now to get haggis burgers, haggis pakora and haggis-topped pizza.  Vegetarian haggis – with the squelchy meaty bits replaced by nuts, lentils, beans and other vegetables – has been on sale for many years and it’s also been a long time since I munched my first-ever bag of haggis-flavoured crisps.  If someone hasn’t already invented haggis-flavoured ice cream, I’m sure they’re working on it.

 

From guff.com

 

And of course, the deep-fried haggis supper has long been a fixture of Scotland’s many fish-and-chip shops.  One admirer of haggis in its deep-fried form is New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  In one episode where he visited Scotland, he identified it as his favourite Scottish dish and described it as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”

 

A tribute to haggis that’s almost worthy of Robert Burns in its eloquence.

 

The Dear Green Place

 

 

During the five years I’ve produced this blog, I’ve made little mention of the city of Glasgow.  Indeed, I don’t think I’ve written about Glasgow at all.

 

Nothing against the Dear Green Place, which is the meaning of the Gaelic version of its name, Gleas chu.  (The Dear Green Place was also the title of a 1966 novel by Archie Hind, one of the finest works of Glaswegian literature ever.)  I just haven’t been there lately.  Come to think of it, I’ve only made four brief visits to Glasgow in the 21st century, three of them to attend concerts and the fourth to pick up a new passport at the Passport Office on Milton Street.

 

However, on December 30th and 31st, 2016, my partner and I got an opportunity to spend a day-and-a-half in the city.  Here’s what we did there.

 

Just before noon on the 30th we got off a train in Queen Street Station and, not wanting to waste time, went out of its southern exit, down the side of George Square and into the Gallery of Modern Art.  The gallery was hosting three exhibitions at the time, though only one made much impression on us – a display about the work of the eclectic Scottish filmmaker John Samson, responsible for documentaries “covering topics such as tattooing, amateur railway enthusiasm, clothing fetishism, professional darts and the sex lives of disabled people.”

 

But the building is handsome, especially the lobby and the spaces above it.  Oval-shaped openings with ornate balustrades on each floor allow you to look all the way up from the lobby to a gorgeous glass dome with a spider’s-web pattern of panes in the roof.

 

 

Maybe the most famous work of art at the gallery is the statue on a plinth outside its entrance, of the Duke of Wellington on horseback.  What makes the statue iconic is how the old warrior’s head has, for many years, disappeared into the interior of a Glaswegian traffic cone, perched on top of him like a dunce’s cap.  Any attempts by the city council to remove the thing have prompted an outcry – the common argument being that the statue and cone constitute a Glaswegian landmark and symbolise the city’s healthy disrespect for authority.

 

In the early afternoon we checked into our hotel at Pacific Quay on the River Clyde.  Once the site of the commercial docks Plantation Quay and Princes’ Dock Basin, Pacific Quay is now a redeveloped area serving as (to quote its website) “Scotland’s most important location for broadcasting, media, digital and creative industries.”  Its attractions include the headquarters of BBC Scotland, housed in a six-storey glass box; the Glasgow Science Centre, whose building is a truncated hemisphere with a slanted-back glass façade; the Clyde Arc bridge, whose most prominent feature is a big steel hoop above its main span; the SSEC Hydro, a concert and conference arena shaped like a giant bucket; and another concert and conference venue, the Clyde Auditorium, whose segmented shell has earned it the nickname of ‘the Armadillo’, though looking at it across the river from our hotel-room I thought it looked more like a giant woodlouse.

 

 

One relic from the old days is the hulking Finnieston Crane, which loaded and unloaded ships from 1932 to 1969.  Rather sadly, it’s marked on Google Maps with a little medieval-tower symbol that denotes a ‘historical monument’.

 

Despite there being crowds of kids hanging out around the SSEC Hydro and Clyde Auditorium, most of the quay felt oddly bleak and empty – like a post-industrial ghost town.  Perhaps it was because of the grim end-of-year weather.  A vaporous ash-grey sky seemed to press down upon the tops of those architectural boxes, hemispheres, hoops, buckets and shells and it drained the scene of life and colour.

 

In the mid-afternoon, we walked north from the quay to Kelvingrove Park and then to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.  In contrast to Pacific Quay – a study in grey – the park seemed on this wintry day to have been coloured with a palette containing nothing but shades of brown.  It was populated with brown leafless trees and littered with fallen brown leaves.  Even the gothic Glasgow University Tower that rose above the park’s far edge looked like an extension of its brown foliage.

 

 

The gallery was hosting an exhibition by Alphonse Mucha, about which I’ll write in detail in the near-future.  Meanwhile, part of its foyer floor was devoted to the Glasgow Boys, the two-dozen-or-so artists who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pioneered the celebrated Glasgow Style of painting – about whom I’ll also write more in future.  By the time we’d viewed Mucha and the Glasgow Boys, the building was ready to close, which meant there were still many parts of it we hadn’t seen.  Which means we’ll need to make a return visit someday.

 

 

Incidentally, I appreciated the fifty or so disembodied heads hanging above the foyer.  Devised by Sophy Cave in 2005, these heads are bald and albino and variously yawn, smirk, grimace and gurn.  They’re simultaneously funny and creepy.

 

 

After stopping off at a branch of the craft-beer pub-chain BrewDog opposite the gallery – which, pleasantly, seemed to cater for a range of ages, including grumpy old farts like myself, and not just the loud young hipsters who often seem to fill BrewDog pubs elsewhere – we headed back to the city centre.  There, we ate at an Italian restaurant on Hope Street and then retired to a rock-music-themed pub further up the street called Rufus T. Firefly.  It happened to be showing Joe Dante’s anarchic Christmas movie Gremlins (1984) on a big screen – yay!

 

The following morning, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, resolved to do some shopping in the Argyle Street branch of Next.  I left her to it and took a wander around Buchanan Street.  The first time I ever visited Glasgow, I was with my family, I was eight years old, we lived in Northern Ireland and we were over in Scotland on a holiday.  I was a big fan of Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who and one of my main memories of that visit was spotting what looked like the Doctor’s Tardis, i.e. an old blue police box, standing on the corner of Buchanan Street and Gordon Street.  More than 40 years later I discovered that the thing is still there, though the sign at the top now says HOTDOGS instead of POLICE.  I wonder if the current Doctor, the Glaswegian actor Peter Capaldi, goes to that corner whenever he’s back in town and plays jokes on passers-by by leaping out from behind the police box and accosting them in character.

 

 

Later in the morning, we walked to Glasgow Cathedral, which is nearly nine centuries old and is a rare example of a Scottish medieval church that survived the Reformation wholly intact.  The hill behind the cathedral is home to the city’s famous Necropolis and bristles with stone crosses, columns, plinths, sepulchres and stelae, but we didn’t have enough time to explore it and besides, the weather was turning wet and wintry again.  Instead, we contented ourselves with looking around inside the cathedral itself.  And again, this may be the basis of a future blog-entry.

 

 

That was all we had time for, save for lunchtime drinks in the Horseshoe Bar on Drury Street, famous for its 104-foot bar-counter that’s supposed to be the longest in the UK – although since it’s an island bar rather than one than runs in a straight line, you may not notice its great length.

 

And so ended my first substantial visit to Glasgow in many years.  My verdict?  There’s plenty to see and do, the people are hospitable, much of the city is handsome and it won’t be long before I’m back.  Though I hope next time the Dear Green Place really is green, as opposed to grey or brown.