Galashiels gets groovy


The Scottish Borders town of Galashiels, which is 18 miles and 45 minutes by bus along the road from my own town of Peebles, has been in the news recently.  The regional council has announced it will inscribe the lyrics of a popular 1980s song in the paving stones at Galashiels’ Market Square.  The lyrics make mention of some ‘cherry blossoms’ and these, supposedly, were inspired by the cherry trees that used to grow in that particular square, before the trees became diseased and had to be cut down.


I’ve always had a soft spot for Galashiels.  Among the towns of the Borders, it was never pretty enough to become a big tourist attraction (unlike, say, neighbouring Melrose), but it always seemed to me a solid, business-like town during the day and, afterwards, a fun place for a night out.


I hazily remember being there on the evening of December 31st, 1990.  After joining the throng that’d gathered at the town centre to hear the bells and drink to the beginning of 1991 — something that never happened in Peebles, where communal New Year festivities were non-existent — I found myself wandering into a variety of houses and wandering through a variety of raucous Hogmanay parties that were seemingly open to all-comers.


The final party I ended up at was hosted by an eccentric group of guys who would later launch a music magazine, edited in Galashiels but distributed nationally, called Sun Zoom Spark.  (I have fond memories of Sun Zoom Spark because I contributed a couple of music articles to it – those were the days when I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become the Borders’ answer to Lester Bangs or Nick Kent.  My stuff was fairly overheated but the editors kindly published it.)  Later, the same crew, still based in Galashiels, decided to stop writing about music and start making it, and formed a marvellously off-the-wall indie band called Dawn of the Replicants, who were championed by Britain’s most influential disc jockey, the late John Peel.


Unfortunately, recent years haven’t been kind to the town.  A lot of what gave Galashiels its individuality has disappeared.  The approach to the town centre from Peebles used to take you past several mills, but these have been torn down and replaced by ugly retailing blocks, so that now you run the gauntlet between the likes of B and Q, Curry’s, Comet and McDonald’s.  In the centre itself, the main shopping artery, Channel Street, has become a typical clone-town eyesore consisting of the usual suspects – Carphone Warehouse, Dorothy Perkins, Ladbroke’s, Boots, W.H. Smith, etc.  Meanwhile, the ultimate act of vandalism against Galashiels was commited in 2006 by Tesco, who demolished the historic textile college building in Green Street and stuck up one of their unlovely supermarkets in its place.


Yes, I know, the public gets what the public wants.  And if the public wants to shop till the public drops, every day, in two dozen soulless, identikit chain stores, supermarkets and fast-food outlets, so be it.  But the presence of so many retailing big shots has brutalised the look of the town, as well as making it well-nigh impossible for a local entrepreneur to open a private shop and compete.


With so much damage done in the past decade, I should welcome the decision to enshrine those song lyrics in Market Square.  This at least shows a little creativity by the town planners.  However, the lyrics in question come from a certain song that reached number two in the British charts in the summer of 1985.  Yes, it’s bloody Kayleigh.  By bloody Marillion.


Marillion were – are – a band of English musicians, though back then they were fronted by a Scottish singer, the giant-sized Derek Dick, who was more commonly known as ‘Fish’.  They specialised in progressive rock and turned out grandiose concept albums with titles like Script for a Jester’s Tear.  Although by the 1980s, progressive rock was a genre that was generally considered as fashionable and socially acceptable as crucifying thieves and burning witches, Marillion did manage to win a loyal following.  Actually, it was commonly and cruelly believed that Marillion fans were to a man (‘man’ being the operative word) engineering students who had beards and didn’t have any friends, though I can testify from my 1980s experiences that this stereotype wasn’t accurate.  I knew an accountancy student at that time who had a Script for a Jester’s Tear poster on his bedroom wall, and he didn’t have a beard.  Though as far I could tell, he didn’t have any friends, so that part of it might be true.


By 1985, however, Marillion had obviously had enough of being considered a ‘niche’ band and they unleashed the unrepentantly mainstream and sentimental Kayleigh on the nation’s airwaves.  The song consisted of Fish apologising to an ex-girlfriend about messing up their relationship, whilst also reminiscing in maudlin drunkard-crying-into-his-beer fashion about past good times where they’d danced in the snow and watched cherry blossoms in a certain market square.  Yes, Fish got that bit from the cherry trees in the middle of Galashiels.


But to be fair, Kayleigh was by no means the worst thing in the British charts that year.  1985, after all, was when this was released:  The horror!  The horror!


I should mention that when I lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne several years ago, I noticed how most of the girls in their late teens working at the supermarket checkouts there seemed to have ‘Kayleigh’ on their name-tags.  So I guess that was the song of choice for Geordie couples to make out to in the mid-1980s.


Marillion are still on the go, though they have long since parted company with Fish.  I read somewhere that these days they hire out Butlin’s holiday camps for whole weekends and give weekend-long concerts in them.  The Marillion fans book into the chalets, so that for two or three days and nights at a time they do nothing but eat, drink, sleep and watch their favourite band perform.  Now I don’t want to sound nasty.  All credit to the band for showing such consideration for their followers.  And I admire any music fan who doggedly sticks by a favourite band for decades, long after their popularity and street credibility — if they ever had such things in the first place — have waned.  (I’ve stuck by a couple of bands like that myself, for instance, Hawkwind and the Groundhogs.)  But spending a weekend in Butlin’s with Marillion and a crowd of middle-aged, bearded and possibly-still friendless engineers (with the odd middle-aged accountant thrown into the mix) seems uncannily like how I imagine hell to be.


Anyway, the news that Fish’s romantic doggerel is going to be immortalised at Market Square in Galashiels will no doubt be welcomed by any middle-aged engineers living in the town, and possibly too by a couple of checkout girls called Kayleigh working in the Tesco on Green Street.  However, I’m disappointed that the planners didn’t use some song-lyrics with a stronger local connection.  Why couldn’t they, for example, have chosen a song by Dawn of the Replicants, whom I mentioned earlier in this entry?  Unlike Marillion, they’ve actually lived in Galashiels.


Yes, in my opinion, a few lines from a Dawn of the Replicants masterpiece, like, say, Hogwash Farm (“I did use to be a priest… but all my good deeds are done…”) would be much more appropriate to engrave into some Galashiels paving stones.  What do you think?  Here’s Kayleigh by Marillion:  And here’s Hogwash Farm by Dawn of the Replicants:


Hold on.  Admit it.  You all prefer Kayleigh.  Don’t you?


George, where did it all go right?


At the beginning of this week, George Galloway was sworn into Britain’s parliament as newly-elected MP for Bradford West.  The Scottish politician known as Gorgeous George, who was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003 for his opposition to British involvement in the invasion of Iraq, and who then formed the anti-Iraq-War and anti-Afghanistan-War Respect Party, won the Bradford West constituency in a by-election on March 30th.  This was a major embarrassment for the Labour Party and its current leader, Ed Miliband, for whom victory at Bradford West had been universally forecast.


Galloway reacted to his victory with characteristic humility, describing it as merely ‘the most sensational victory in British political history’.  He also drew inspiration from the recent Arab Spring, calling the result a ‘Bradford Spring’ – as if giving Ed Miliband a bloody nose was somehow on par with chasing Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Gaddafi out of power in Northern Africa.


Like (I suspect) many people with my political leanings, I have mixed feelings about George Galloway.  In 2005, I greatly admired him for taking on the US Senate during their Oil for Food hearings and sledge-hammering them with some home truths about what their government had been up to in Iraq.  His performance is here in all its blistering glory:


After that, however, it all seemed to go wrong for old George.  He got a job hosting a current-affairs programme on Press TV, the dodgy London-based news channel run by the Iranian government.  His claim that a homosexual put to death in Iran had been executed for committing sex crimes rather than for his homosexuality was condemned by respected gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.  He also started writing a column for that dismal cap-in-hand Scottish tabloid the Daily Record.  If this was an attempt to heighten his profile in his native land, it failed, for his attempt to win a seat in the Scottish parliament in the 2011 Scottish elections saw him get just 3.3% of the votes in Glasgow.


Of course, George’s biggest miscalculation during this period was to become a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.  The results were excruciating and he left the show with his credibility in shreds.  Six years on, some TV viewers are still traumatised by gruesome scenes like the one where George – by then not so gorgeous – donned a leotard and pratted about with transgendering pop singer Pete Burns, or the one where he pretended to be a cat and supped cream off actress Rula Lenska’s lap.  On the grounds of good taste, I won’t provide links to those sights in this blog.


Well, okay, actually, I will.  Here’s one:  And here’s the other:


But like the cat that he pretended to be on Celebrity Big Brother, George obviously has more than one life and now he is back in parliament.  Will he prove a major annoyance to those bland, privileged suits who run Britain’s three main political parties these days?  Hopefully.  Will he finally blow this second chance that fate has given him, and end up making an arse of himself again?  Probably.


In the meantime, here is an account of some comments that George recently made to the Big Issue magazine.  His explanation of why he has always been a big hit with the ladies will either have you chuckling, or chucking up.  I think my reaction was a combination of both.


Squirm II: The Return

Among the people in my office, I’m the only Westerner who lives in downtown Tunis.  Most of my colleagues from Europe, North America and Australia live up the coast in wealthier districts such as Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa.


Living near the city centre has both advantages and disadvantages.  I’m only 15 minutes’ walk from my workplace, so I’m spared the long bus-or-taxi commute that my colleagues face twice a day.  And although life here is often noisy, crowded and chaotic – when I step out of my front door in the mornings I often find myself navigating round old guys sitting on chairs and smoking shishas on the pavement, gangs of school-kids, beggars, stacks of boxes and plastic drinks crates (outside the local grocery), bags of garbage and feral cats – I get a buzz that I wouldn’t get if I lived in a posh suburb where most life is concealed behind iron gates and garden walls.


The down-side is that the local buildings, including the one I’m living in, are of old French-colonial stock and are not in good repair these days.  In the year and a half that I’ve lived here, I’ve had to deal with blocked drains, leaking pipes, failures in the hot water supply, a hallway light that exploded when I switched it on one evening and a drainpipe descending from the roof that got clogged up and managed somehow to inundate my kitchen with dirty rainwater – the water came up through my sink, which for some reason was connected to the drainpipe.


Now that Tunisia has just experienced one of the coldest and wettest winters on record, I’ve discovered another problem.  The walls of my building seem to have a sponge-like ability to absorb water, and this water is finding its way into a disused cavity above my bathroom.  Then the water percolates into the bathroom itself – either as puddles that appear at the bottom of the bathroom walls or as drips falling from the ceiling.


As well as discovering this dampness above my bathroom, I’ve discovered something living in the dampness.  Yes, human beings aren’t the only species that inhabits my building.  I don’t know how they manage it, but there are worms surviving quite happily in the building’s sodden masonry.  These worms are thin, dark red-brown in colour and are usually one-to-two inches long.  What I find most disconcerting about them is that some of them have decided to follow the water on its downward journey, i.e. into my bathroom.  Every day, two or three of them emerge through little cracks in the ceiling, wriggle along it and down the surfaces of the walls, and eventually end up on the floor, in the wash-hand basin or (worst of all) in the toilet.


Once they reach the floor, alas, their worm-lives are over.  They promptly dry up, die and decompose.  I found out about the decomposition process one day when I gathered up half-a-dozen worms, put them in a glass and then stuck the glass in a cupboard – intending to show them later to Jean-Yves, my long-suffering landlord.  When Jean-Yves finally showed up and I took the glass out of the cupboard, there were no longer any worms in it – just a putrid red-brown layer at its bottom, which the unfortunate worms had dissolved into.  I have not drunk out of that glass since.


Now if, like me, you are a connoisseur of old low-budget horror films, you may at this point be thinking of a 1976 American movie called Squirm, which features a lot of worms, and which was directed and written by Jeff Lieberman.  (Its worms-burrowing-into-faces make-up was by a young Rick Baker, who would later win an Oscar for his special-effects work on An American Werewolf in London.)  Squirm is about a rural community where a storm knocks over an electricity pylon, with the result that the fallen cables send thousands of volts pumping into the earth.  You’d expect that all this electricity would drive the local earthworm population further underground, but – displaying a logic that is only found in horror movies – the agitated worms react by burrowing upwards, to the surface, where they inundate and devour most of the film’s human cast.


In 1976, I was seven years too young to get into the cinema and see Squirm.  Also, this was long before the days of video cassettes and DVDs, so there was no prospect of me seeing it at home, either.  All I could do was listen to lurid accounts of the film told by schoolmates (who claimed they’d heard these accounts from a friend of a friend of a friend who’d actually seen it) and use my imagination.  In fact, I imagined it to be the most horrifying film that’d ever been made and ever would be made.  I was firmly convinced that Squirm was so extreme that, if I ever saw it, it would boil my brain with disgust and terror.


A few years ago, I finally did see Squirm (on the British satellite TV channel Zone Horror) and I’m afraid that the Two Rules of Old Horror Films applied to it.  Those rules are: (1) the horror films you saw as a kid are never as scary as you remembered them to be; and (2) the horror films you didn’t see as a kid are never as scary as you imagined them to be.


36 years on, though, the film is still quite icky and is not to be watched by anyone who has a worm phobia.  However, what I found most disturbing about it was not the gore and gruesomeness, but the setting and the characters.  The natural scenery in the movie is lushly beautiful – it was filmed around Fort Wentworth in Georgia – but it seems have a smothering and stupefying effect on the people living amid it.  Simple-minded and reactionary, shuffling about in baseball caps and bib overalls, the locals seem as blindly embedded in their environment as the worms are in theirs, underground.


Nonetheless, Squirm contains one scene that still packs a nightmarish punch.  A woman goes to take a shower and discovers worms wriggling out of the shower-head, like strings of sausage-meat oozing from the end of a meat-grinder.  For me, that’s the scariest use of a shower-fitting in a horror film since Anthony Perkins’ mother took a dislike to Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  And I can safely say that if any of the worms I’m sharing this building with decide one day to come out of my shower-head, I’ll be taking all my future showers at a friend’s house (even though the little bastards are only an inch or two long).


(c) American International Pictures /


Meanwhile, for your edification, here is the trailer of the most terrifying movie in my eleven-year-old imagination: Squirm!


Fight for your right to (annoy the ruling) party


A couple of entries ago, I said that the Tunisian government’s recent decision to ban protests from the main street in Tunis, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, was bad news for people’s right to protest.  Since then, it has become clear that more than a few citizens share my opinion.  Firstly, last Saturday, April 7th, 400 graduates demonstrating about the high unemployment rate attempted to enter the avenue and were clubbed and teargassed by riot police enforcing the ban:


Then an attempted march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue last Monday, April 9th – which is a holiday known as Martyr’s Day and commemorates those Tunisians who lost their lives during the struggle against French colonial rule – led to more trouble still, with parts of the thoroughfare disappearing under a smog of teargas.  Here is a vivid (though de-contextualised) account of the event by a Western eyewitness, who managed to get his report published in the Guardian:


The Guardian story received some Internet comments from Islamophobes, who jeered things along the lines of: “Oh, one ruthless dictatorship gets replaced by Islamic politicians who form another ruthless dictatorship!  What a surprise!”  However, I think the recent shenanigans on Habib Bourguiba Avenue had less to do with dictatorial tendencies in the new government (though I assume that some or most of the riot cops involved had learned their teargas-first-ask-questions-later tactics under the Ben Ali regime) than with inexperience and incompetence.


This is a society where ministers are still trying to master the art of decision-making – as opposed to taking orders and not questioning them, as they did in the bad old days.  (Back then, the orders came from the top – either from Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or from his ridiculous and repulsive ex-hairdresser wife Leila Trabelsi, who appears to have worn the trousers in their relationship.  She may even, some Tunisians have told me, have kept the poor old Grecian 2000-ed dictator doped up on drugs for most of the time.)


This inevitably means they will make some bad decisions.  With hindsight, the Habib Bourguiba Avenue ban was stupidly short-sighted, coming as it did just a few days before Martyr’s Day.  This day is now more emotionally charged than ever, as the Revolution a year ago gave it a new crop of martyrs to celebrate.  And as I said in the very first entry on this blog, the section of Habib Bourguiba Avenue around the Ministry of the Interior building is now of great symbolic importance for the Revolution and those who gave their lives during it.  Obviously, people will want to gather there on April 9th.


Anyway, at the risk of looking weak-willed, the government has now back-tracked.  The ban on protests on Habib Bourguiba Avenue has been lifted again, though certain rules and conditions have been placed on would-be protestors.  It’s a pity they didn’t decide to do this in the first place:


Incidentally, I live about 15 minutes’ walk from Habib Bourguiba Avenue.  Even a year ago, any trouble on the main drag would have been instantly detectable in my neighbourhood.  First of all, my local Monoprix would have yanked the shutters down over its alcohol section, presumably because its staff-members believed that people who drank alcohol were also people who caused trouble and started riots.  I don’t know how they squared this logic with the fact that a good amount of the trouble in post-revolutionary Tunisia has been caused by the Salafists.


Then it and the other big supermarket would yank down their shutters altogether.  Several supermarkets got thrashed during the Revolution, so they were quite sensitive to any disturbances that happened afterwards.  (I suppose getting thrashed was the price you paid for allowing Leila Trabelsi and her family to own most of your shares.)  A helicopter would be heard prowling low above the rooftops.  And people would gather on the pavements, and housewives would emerge onto the upper-floor balconies, and everyone would gaze apprehensively towards the centre of town.


Yet this Monday, while riot-police were rampaging about Habib Bourguiba Avenue, my neighbourhood was weirdly calm.  There were no helicopters in the sky or apprehensive-looking people on the streets.  Even the two supermarkets – which I’d regarded as the canaries-in-the-coal-mine for alerting people about ruckuses downtown – remained open for business.  Folk here seem to have grown immune to such disturbances and an odd (if you’re an outsider) sense of normalcy prevails.


Another example.  A few months ago, one Sunday afternoon, I was drinking in a pub called L’Ambassadeur on the far side of Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a block or two up from the rear of the Ministry of the Interior building.  An incident seemed to be in progress there and, while I was in the pub, some riot cops and even a few soldiers ran past its windows and vanished down the side-street opposite its front door.  The guys in the pub didn’t bat an eyelid at what was happening outside.  They were too busy watching some football on TV.


Cultural interfaces on Habib Bourguiba Avenue


A detestable piece of terminology I forgot to mention in my previous entry was ‘cultural interface’, defined in one dictionary as ‘the common boundary where direct contact between two different cultures occurs’.  Well, the other Sunday — March 25th — Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main drag in central Tunis, was the scene of a memorable cultural interface involving two very different cultures.


In fact, the cultures concerned were so jarringly different that I can’t think of a more extreme interface.  (Apart, perhaps, from the interfaces seen on those reality TV wife-swap programmes where, for instance, the wife of the Duke of Buckinghamshire spends a week sharing a house on a Doncaster council estate with a man who’s the local drug dealer, with seven ASBO-garlanded children and with a pit-bull terrier.)


I wasn’t around at the time, but according to news websites like those of Tunisia Live ( and the Tunisian News Agency (, two demonstrations took place on Habib Bourguiba Avenue simultaneously.  One, around the clock tower at the northern end of the avenue, was a mass protest by our old friends the Salafists, demanding that Tunisia adopts Sharia law in its new constitution.  The other was a more cosmopolitan affair in the middle of the avenue, beside the National Theatre building, where ‘dramatists’ (Tunisia Live) or ‘theatre men’ (the Tunisian News Agency) from the Tunisan Association for Drama Arts were celebrating the upcoming World Theatre Day.


Inevitably, the two events rubbed up against one another and the results were not pretty.  The Salafists didn’t take kindly to the performances being staged on the avenue by the theatrical people and, in Tunisia Live’s words, they ‘damaged equipment, disrupted outdoor performances and threw eggs, empty bottles and sharp objects.’


The Drama Association had been licensed to hold its demonstration first, a point conceded by one of the Salafists’ organisers, Fawzi Guara: “We knew they got permission before us.”  But, he went on, “they should give priority to defending the Koran and our religion.”  In other words, although the dramatists were ahead in the queue, the Salafists were entitled to shove them out of the way because they had God and the Koran on their side.  I just hope I never find myself standing in front of Fawzi Guara at the post office counter.


Now I have to make a terrible confession.  While I sympathise with any writer, artist or journalist whose right to self-expression or right to disseminate information is disputed by a bunch of fat, scowling nutcases with beards, robes and sneakers, I must admit to a slight feeling of schadenfreude at what happened to the theatrical event the other Sunday.  I’m not proud of myself, but reading about those shenanigans on Habib Bourguiba Avenue brought a certain grim smile to my face.


You see, I have been tainted by personal prejudice against so-called dramatists and theatre men.  A dozen years ago, I had the misfortune to work in the centre of Edinburgh during August, the time of the Edinburgh Festival – the biggest arts festival (or more accurately, the biggest grouping of art festivals, happening at the same time and in the same place) in the world.


In fact, I was working on the Royal Mile, the old high street in the middle of the city, which is the Edinburgh Festival’s Ground Zero.  In the morning, I worked in premises at the top end of the Mile, and in the afternoon I worked in other premises halfway down it.  This meant that every lunchtime I had to make my way along the busiest stretch of the Mile, which was crammed with mime artists, jugglers, conjurers and other street performers and, worse, with costumed and made-up participants from the hundreds of plays, shows and revues going on at time, who were desperately shoving flyers at every person walking by.


Invariably, the members of the latter group belonged to university drama clubs and spoke in such cut-glass accents that I got the impression their weekly parental allowances were more than I earned in six months.  And each time I tried to ignore a flyer that’d been thrust into my face – advertising, say, a show that described itself as being like Bambi crossed with Last Tango in Paris directed by Lars Von Trier – I’d inevitably receive a disdainful comment such as, “Oooh, you need to get over your sexual repression.”


After a couple of days of constant molestation by flyer-wielding luvvies, I was ready to get a T-shirt printed – emblazoned with the message, F**k off, I live here.


Just imagine.  All those people are probably stockbrokers now.


So, if a few costumed, face-painted, upper-class nincompoops like those were on the receiving end of the Salafists’ ‘eggs, empty bottles and sharp objects’ that Sunday, I can’t say I feel absolutely sorry for them.  And if the Tunisian government could send a few hundred Salafists over to Edinburgh this coming August, to be let loose on the Royal Mile in order to scour it of flyer-wielding Am-Dram nuisances, I wouldn’t complain either.  In fact, afterwards, I’d happily buy all those Salafists a round of Caledonian 80 in the World’s End pub, just across the street from where I used to work in the afternoons.  Not that their religion would allow them to drink it, of course.


Anyway, since that Sunday, things seem to have turned out positively for everyone – apart from the Salafists.  Tunisia’s biggest political party, the moderately Islamic Ennahdha party, has declared that it doesn’t support the insertion of Sharia law into the constitution – which will be a relief to the sensible, non-extremist majority in this country.  Meanwhile, shopkeepers along Habib Bourguiba Avenue were no doubt pleased to hear the government’s announcement that future demonstrations there will be banned.  (This is actually not good news for the right to protest, which everybody has, even religious fruitcakes, but that’s a subject for another blog-entry.)


And those dramatists and theatre-men at least have the satisfaction of knowing they’ll be able to regale their grandchildren with tales of how they suffered for their art on Sunday, March 25th, 2012.