Non-Bond Bond songs


(c) Eon Productions


No doubt it’s a sign of my old age but I’m bemused that currently the airwaves are buzzing with the sound of a new James Bond movie theme song – Writing’s on the Wall by Sam Smith, which next month will accompany the opening credits of the 24th official Bond movie, Spectre.


A new Bond theme song – already?  Why, it seems like only yesterday that Adele was everywhere, hollering about skies crumbling and standing tall and facing it all while she belted out the theme song for Skyfall.  Yes, time definitely passes faster as you age.


Unfortunately, while I thought the Skyfall song was decent – not a classic, but it worked as a serviceable pastiche of what a James Bond song ought to sound like – I haven’t been impressed by Sam Smith’s effort.  No doubt it’ll be popular among those many millions of people out there who’re stricken with vapid musical tastes and the misguided belief that Simon Cowell is God.  But I find it as bland and unmemorable as most other James Bond songs from the past two decades.  I really can’t remember anything about, for instance, those sung by Tina Turner (for 1995’s Goldeneye), or Sheryl Crow (for 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies), or Chris Cornell (for 2006’s Casino Royale), or Jack White and Alicia Keys (for 2009’s Quantum of Solace).  In fact, the only songs I liked were Skyfall and the one that synth-rock band Garbage did for The World is Not Enough (1999).


I should add that I definitely do remember Madonna’s song for Die Another Day (2002), but only because it was bollocks.


Incidentally, there’s been talk on social media about how much Writing’s on the Wall sounds like Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, which was a hit for the alleged Prince of Pop twenty years ago.  Earth Song is imprinted on British minds as the song that Jackson performed onstage at the 1996 ceremony for the British Rock and Pop Awards (BRITS).  During the performance, with no trace of self-awareness, Jackson was suspended above a throng of young children who made out they worshipped him like a Jesus-style messiah.  (This was after he’d had to pay a large sum out-of-court to settle a charge that he’d had underage sex with a boy called Jordan Chandler.)  Famously, this distasteful, self-aggrandising and idiotic spectacle prompted one member of the BRITS audience, Jarvis Cocker, front-man of the Britpop band Pulp, to protest by invading the stage, bending over and fanning a pretend-fart at the cameras.


I’d like to think that at the start of Spectre when Sam Smith’s Earth Song-clone plays over the credits and we’re treated to the sight of ghostly naked ladies floating through the ether as is the custom in all James Bond credits sequences, a ghostly Jarvis Cocker will suddenly float through the ether too, bent over and fanning pretend-farts out of the screen.  But it probably won’t happen.




Pulp, actually, have some James Bond connections.  On Shaken and Stirred, a compilation of covers of Bond songs put together in 1997 by latter-day Bond composer David Arnold, they attempted a version of All Time High, the Rita Coolidge effort that graced (or disgraced) 1982’s Octopussy – although the song was such a dog that even they couldn’t do much with it.  Around the same time, they submitted a song to the Bond producers that they hoped would be the theme for Tomorrow Never Dies – but it was rejected.  The song subsequently turned up as a B-side on the Pulp single Help the Aged (1997).  It’s a pity.  While Pulp’s Tomorrow Never Dies is hardly in the same class as 1995’s Common People or Disco 2000, it’s rousing enough when it gets going and it’s certainly better than the Sheryl Crow dirge that was used.


I’ve been reading recently about James Bond songs that were commissioned from and / or submitted by famous performers over the decades but were ultimately turned down.  It’s a fascinating ‘what if…?’ subject.  Here’s the article in question, from the online edition of the magazine The Week.


As well as Pulp and Tomorrow Never Dies, these musical Bond might-have-beens include the Pet Shop Boys, whose tune This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave was intended as the theme for 1987’s The Living Daylights; St Etienne, who also had a go at recording a Tomorrow Never Dies song; and Swedish teeny-bop dance-pop dorks Ace of Base, who tried to get the gig for 1995’s Goldeneye.  That last film was the first Bond one to take place after the end of the Cold War – a fact that Ace of Base remarked upon in their masterful, Bob Dylan-esque lyrics: “We’re in the ’90s, nothing is the same / The Cold War is replaced by different actors using different names.”




One artist I’m sad didn’t get a chance to provide a Bond theme song was shock-rock legend Alice Cooper.  In the mid-1970s – when he was notorious for a stage show that involved the bloody chopping up of fake babies and mock executions by electric chairs, gallows and guillotines – Cooper recorded a song for 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  The reason his song didn’t make it into the film wasn’t because of its quality but because he submitted it one day after the deadline.  Mind you, the song that was used for the film was sung by someone who was almost as terrifying as Alice Cooper: Lulu.


Six years later, great New York / New Wave band Blondie contributed a song to the 1981 Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, only to have it turned down in favour of one sung by the Scottish pop starlet Sheena Easton, who’d just become famous on the back of an appearance in the proto-reality TV show The Big Time.  Again, Blondie’s For Your Eyes Only isn’t up to the standard of their classic hits, such as Union City Blue (1979) or Call Me (1980), but it’s jaunty enough and preferable to the pallid song that did end up as the theme.  Incidentally, Easton made history as being the first singer of a Bond song to actually appear in the opening credits while the song was playing.  At the risk of sounding like a male chauvinist pig, I have to say that I’d rather have watched the delectable Debbie Harry cavorting through those credits instead.




But surely the most fascinating song commissioned, but not used, was for 1965’s Thunderball.  It was sung by Johnny Cash – yes, Johnny Cash! – and it begins with the lyrics, “There’s a rumble in the sky and all the world can hear it call / They shudder at the fury of the mighty Thunderball”.  This gives the song an apocalyptic quality reminiscent of Cash’s The Man Comes Around (2002), which itself accompanied the credits sequence of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.


Admittedly, I doubt if Cash’s song had any chance of beating the Tom Jones Thunderball that was used in the end because it’s unashamedly country-and-western in tone.  It doesn’t conjure up the image of an insouciant Sean Connery in a tuxedo searching for SPECTRE-hijacked nuclear missiles in the 1960s Caribbean as much as it conjures up the image of a squinting Clint Eastwood in a dirty poncho, neckerchief and bullet-holed hat riding into a dusty one-horse town in the 1850s Wild West to sort out a power struggle between rival gangs.  Still, it’s a fascinating collision between two great icons of popular culture, the Man in Black and the Man with the Licence to Kill.  Though while Connery’s Bond is undoubtedly a ruthless, cold-hearted shit at times, he isn’t in the same league as some of Cash’s characters, such as the one in Folsom Prison Blues (1955), who “shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.”




Thanks to the miracle of Youtube, you can now watch the credit sequences of Tomorrow Never Dies, The Man with the Golden Gun, For Your Eyes Only and Thunderball accompanied by the alternative tracks by Pulp, Alice Cooper, Blondie and Johnny Cash.


Finally, there’s another category of non-Bond Bond songs: ones that weren’t written with the Bond movies in mind but which, when you hear them, cause you to think, “Wow!  That should’ve been a James Bond song!”  A while ago, I saw Justin Hawkins, of the tongue-in-cheek glam-metal band The Darkness, on the heavy-metal channel Scuzz TV and he argued that Nirvana’s 1993 anthem Heart-Shaped Box would’ve made a great Bond song.  It’s an interesting idea, although I can’t quite hear the resemblance myself; and I’m sure the sensitive Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have been happy to have his song played against a montage of ghostly naked ladies floating through the ether and silhouettes of Roger Moore in his flared Saville Row suit.  But in fact, on the Internet, someone has tried to turn it into a Bond song:


One song that was so achingly Bondian that I could never understand why the filmmakers didn’t snap up the rights to it immediately was 6 Underground, performed by the glossy 1990s trip-hop band the Sneaker Pimps.  Mind you, the song’s Bondian sound is hardly surprising, considering that it borrowed a sample from 1963’s Goldfinger – not from the theme song sung by Shirley Bassey, but from the John Barry-written tune Golden Girl, which plays during the scene where Connery discovers Shirley Eaton’s body covered in gold paint.




Lately, I’ve read comments on social media claiming that one of the greatest songs-that-should’ve-been-a-Bond-one is Supremacy (2012) by the alternative / progressive rock band Muse.  I’m not a big Muse fan but I have to agree.  Indeed, if I were watching a spectacular Bond opening sequence – such as Roger Moore skiing off a cliff and opening his Union Jack parachute in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, or Pierce Brosnan riding a motorbike after a pilotless plane and into a near-bottomless chasm in Goldeneye – and then Supremacy’s thunderous guitar suddenly kicked in for the credits, the massive surge of adrenalin I’d experience would probably be enough to kill me.  It’s my old age, you see…


Cinematic heroes 10: Burt Kwouk


(c) United Artists


It was just as well for Burt Kwouk and his fellow star of the Pink Panther movies Peter Sellers that in the 1970s Britain had fewer lawyers and was a less litigious place than it is today.  Otherwise, Kwouk and Sellers would’ve surely faced a raft of lawsuits brought by furious parents whose offspring had injured themselves in primary-school playgrounds, trying to imitate Kwouk and Sellers’ kung-fu fights the morning after one of those Pink Panther movies had been shown on TV.


Imitating the kung-fu practised by Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French detective played by Sellers, and his Chinese servant Cato, played by Kwouk, as they engaged in friendly but bruising combat through Clouseau’s apartment was easier than imitating the skilled, athletic and balletic kung-fu practised by the likes of Bruce Lee.  Basically, it involved doing lots of frantic foot-kicking and hand-chopping and shouting “Haaaiii-ya!” every few seconds.  It also involved doing stupid things such as attempting to jump / kick your way through the air in slow motion.  I tried this once after seeing a clip on TV of Sellers doing it – possibly from The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) – and was perturbed to discover that slow motion doesn’t occur in real life when you’re sailing through the air with your body parallel to the ground.  Luckily, I landed on something soft.  My head.


(c) United Artists


Cato is the role running through Burt Kwouk’s career like toffee lettering running through a stick of rock.  Mention him to any British person my age and that person will still probably sink into a crouched kung-fu fighting position, raise their hands combatively and go, “Haaaiii-ya!” (though they’re unlikely now to try to jump through the air in slow motion).  Yet Kwouk deserves a place in British acting history for a more general reason.  For many of the sixty-odd years that he was active in the nation’s films and television, his was probably the only British-Oriental face that the public were familiar with and could put a name to.


By British standards, Kwouk’s beginnings weren’t exotic – he was born to Chinese parents in the Lancashire town of Warrington, almost midway between Liverpool and Manchester – but his upbringing was.  His family took him to Shanghai, where he remained until the age of 17, and later he headed to the USA and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine.  Back in Britain in the mid-1950s, he was supposedly ‘nagged’ into the acting world by his girlfriend of the time.


Unfortunately, Kwouk’s roles were subject to the narrow mind-set of post-war British cinema, meaning he had to play a lot of bit-parts and (minor) villains – adding a little Oriental colour to pictures whilst conforming to the period’s common stereotypes.  One early job, though, must have given him hope of meatier roles to come.  He played a convict called Li in Mark Robson’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the 1958 film-version of the real-life story of British missionary Gladys Aylward, who in 1938 saved a hundred young orphans from a Chinese town before it was overrun by invading Japanese troops.  Aylward wins Li’s respect when she intervenes to defuse a prison riot and later he helps her evacuate the orphans, although he loses his life in the process.


(c) 20th Century Fox

(c) 20th Century Fox


With an ingenuity born out of budgetary restrictions that was typical of the British film industry at the time, the filmmakers, unable to make the film anywhere near China, shot its exterior scenes in northern Wales.  The Chinese orphans, meanwhile, were played by youngsters bussed across the Welsh / English border from the Chinese community in Liverpool.  Incidentally, the real Gladys Aylward detested the film.  She was unhappy about being portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, who was altogether more Scandinavian and less Cockney than she was; and infuriated at how the filmmakers overly romanticised her character’s relationship with another character played by Curt Jürgens.


Around the same time, Kwouk debuted on British television – an early appearance being on Hancock’s Half Hour, perhaps the greatest of all British TV comedies, where he manifested himself before the inimitable Tony Hancock dressed as a robed Chinese mandarin.  Thereafter, Kwouk appeared in espionage and adventure shows like Danger Man (1961 and 1966), The Avengers (1964), The Saint (1965, 1967 and 1968), Callan (1967 and 1969) and Jason King (1972): sci-fi ones like The Champions (1967), The Tomorrow People (1978), Doctor Who (1982) and Space Precinct (1994); crime ones like Shoestring (1980), Minder (1980), The Bill (2003 and 2005), Judge John Deed (2005) and Silent Witness (2006); comedies like It ain’t Half Hot Mum (1977-78), Robin’s Nest (1979) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1983-84); and populist dramas like Warship (1977), Howard’s Way (1987), Noble House (1988), The House of Eliot (1991) and Lovejoy (1993).


Never losing his Eastern accent, he was also useful as a voice-over artist for anything with an Oriental theme.  Thus, he lent his distinctive tones to such items as the BBC version of the Japanese-made, Chinese-set drama The Water Margin (1976-77) and the no-holds-barred spoof Japanese gameshow Banzai (2001-2003).


For many years, his most famous TV role was probably as Captain Yamauchi in Tenko (1981-84), the BBC wartime drama about a Japanese POW camp for women.  Poor Yamauchi is a patriotic type who’d rather be fighting for his country on the front but, due to ill-health, has to suffer the indignity of running a camp full of gobby, snotty and saucy British, Dutch and Australian females instead.  Predictably, Tenko was filmed nowhere near where it was set – it was shot in Dorset – and it wasn’t the only time that the Chinese-blooded Kwouk was cast as a Japanese.


(c) Eon Productions


During the first half of his career, Kwouk was the go-to guy if your film needed an Oriental assistant, henchman or minion.  Not only was he bossed around by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films but he was at the beck and call of two James Bond villains, Gert Frobe in Goldfinger (1964) and Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (1967).  He also took orders from two different versions of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and Peter Sellers (again) in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980).  It’s telling that in both Fu Manchu films, the Oriental supervillain was played by a British Caucasian actor – at the time it was unthinkable that he could be played by a Chinese one.  (I’ve heard a story about Christopher Lee making his way to film a scene in a Fu Manchu movie when, in full make-up, he was stopped and quizzed by a genuine Chinese person.  Discovering Lee’s real ethnicity, the man remarked, “Well, at least your second name is Chinese,” and walked off.)


(c) Constantin Film Produktion

(c) Constantin Film Produktion


Some of the movies featuring Kwouk were bizarre.  He turned up as a ‘Soho youth’ in Val Guest’s take on the late 1950s music industry, Expresso Bongo (1959), in which Laurence Harvey plays a showbiz hustler trying to turn a young Cliff Richard into a star.  (Changing the name of Cliff’s character from the unappealing ‘Bert Rudge’ to the even less appealing ‘Bongo Herbert’ hardly seems the best way to do it.)  Dated in the way that only old British rock ‘n’ roll movies can be, Expresso Bongo was nicely summed up by critic Dennis Schwartz, who wrote that it “has a charm of its own, but that’s not enough to take the ringing of bongo drums out of my ears.”  Still, it’s probably a masterpiece compared to The Cool Mikado (1962), a pop-music version of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan opera directed by Michael Winner and starring comedians Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Mike and Bernie Winters, plus Lionel Blair, Dennis Price, Stubby Kaye and Kwouk (in the role of an art teacher).  I’ve never seen The Cool Mikado, but most people who have consider it a terrible film, even by Michael Winner’s standards.  The writer Christopher Fowler, for instance, noted how “(t)he crimson and green sets were emetic, the dialogue and dancing below the level of a drunken stag night.”


Also bizarre, and terrible, was the 1967 ‘non-official’ James Bond film Casino Royale, an all-over-the-place spoof that’s nowhere near as smart or funny as it thinks it is.  Kwouk appears in it briefly as a Chinese general; while among the big names at the top of the bill (David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles) is, yet again, Peter Sellers.


(c) Columbia Pictures


Elsewhere, Kwouk’s movie CV is pleasingly varied, ranging from modest British comedies like The Sandwich Man (1966), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990) and Leon the Pig Farmer (1992) to big-budget Hollywood epics like The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), The Chairman (1969), Rollerball (1975) and Empire of the Sun (1987).  Needless to say, though, a large part of that CV is taken up by the Pink Panther movies.


These days I have mixed feelings about those movies – Kwouk appeared in A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), and he was also on duty as Cato in three more films made after Sellers’ death in 1980, The Trail (1982), Curse (1983) and Son (1993) of the Pink Panther.  In parts, they’re very amusing, thanks largely to Peter Sellers portraying Frenchman Inspector Clouseau in a way guaranteed to appeal to British and American audiences: convinced of his own intellect, refinement and irresistibility as a lover, whilst blind to the fact that in reality he’s a clodhopping, accident-prone idiot.  Anglo-Saxons have an inferiority complex before the French when it comes to cultural and romantic matters, and they enjoy nothing more than seeing French assumptions of superiority shot down.


But at the same time, I find the films a bit superficial — although their mastermind, writer-director Blake Edwards, gives them a glossy, sophisticated sheen, they’re essentially just strings of slapstick and (obvious) verbal gags.  Also, post-1980, Edwards milked the franchise beyond all human decency, until its reputation was as dead as Sellers was.


Not that this mattered when I was a kid.  I loved the Pink Panther films then, and in particular I counted the minutes until the next set-piece battle occurred when Cato sprang out of a refrigerator, dropped from the top of a four-poster bed, etc., and assaulted Clouseau.  (Although Cato was Clouseau’s manservant, he’d been instructed to attack Clouseau at unexpected moments, thus training the detective to be eternally vigilant.)  In fact, I suspect that for my generation Cato was a more popular character than Clouseau himself was.


(c) United Artists

(c) United Artists


Interestingly, when the Pink Panther movies were rebooted in 2006 and 2009 with Steve Martin playing Clouseau, the role of Cato was offered to Jackie Chan – who supposedly turned it down because he didn’t believe it was politically correct in the 21st century.  (Instead, Cato morphed into a French sidekick called Gendarme Ponton, played by Jean Reno.)  As a kid, any evidence of political incorrectness in the Pink Panther movies sailed over my head, although there are moments in them now – I can recall Clouseau referring to Cato’s “yellow skin” on one occasion – that make me uncomfortable.


Thanks to Roger Lewis’s 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and its film version nine years later, much has been made of Sellers’ awkwardness, insecurity and volatility, both as an actor and as a human being.  Kwouk, however, has always been gracious about him.  Describing the day that Sellers’ death was announced in Britain, he said: “it seemed that the whole country came to a stop.  Everywhere you went, the fact that Peter had died seemed like an umbrella over everything.”


The last two decades have seen Burt Kwouk become an institution himself in Britain.  Fittingly, his last two big TV roles were in shows aimed at opposite ends of the viewing spectrum.  A younger audience enjoyed him in Channel 4’s surreal, off-the-wall Harry Hill show (1997-2000), in which he played the Chicken Catcher, who each week would offer an excuse for failing to catch a chicken before breaking into a rendition of the song Hey, Little Hen.  Hardly had he finished his stint with Harry Hill than he started an eight-year association with the gentle and seemingly never-ending BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), whose fans tended to be of pensionable age.  Meanwhile, in 2011, the British establishment finally got around to acknowledging Kwouk’s ubiquity and popularity by awarding the actor, then 80 years old, the Order of the British Empire.


(c) The Press


The last credit on IMDb for Burt Kwouk OBE was dated 2012, meaning that the great man has spent the last three years in retirement.  I hope he’s enjoying that retirement, for he’s certainly earned it.  And now, after writing all this, I feel an unaccountable urge to practise some foot-kicking and hand-chopping kung-fu again.  Haaaiii-ya!


Yangon rain



A while ago, I did some work in Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar.  I arrived just before the country’s rainy season was due to begin; and I was assured by people living there that this rainy season really was rainy.


Having seen a good bit of rain elsewhere – for instance, the thunderstorms that lash Sri Lanka from time to time, or the drizzle that seems to smother Scotland in wet grey gauze for months at a go – I was somewhat blasé about these warnings.  It wasn’t until I was out on Yangon’s streets one Saturday morning and I got caught in an early-rainy-season downpour that suddenly I understood what they meant.


When the rain started pounding down, I was walking along Be Aung Kyaw Road, which runs north from the Yangon River.  I took shelter on some steps in the entrance of a shut shop and spent the next two hours there, unable to do anything but watch the deluge in front of me.  Within seconds, the paving slabs at the street-side had vanished under inches of water that pulsed and rippled and even frothed as more rain pelted down on it.  Across the street, the slightly-dilapidated building-fronts faded to near-invisibility behind a thick dark veil of precipitation.  The fronds at the top of the street’s palm trees suffered a terrible pounding and drenching.  And it was unrelenting – during the long, long time that it fell, it never seemed to slacken for a moment.



After a while, a bedraggled street dog retreated into that entrance too and parked himself at the other end of it from me, sitting in a solemn pose like that of the hound in the old His Master’s Voice logo.  The two of us remained on those shop steps, in mutual silence and immobility, for an hour at least.  Finally, a pair of guys came trudging along the street and through the rain, bearing on their backs two big mysterious sacks.  At the sight of them, the dog was suddenly off like a shot.  I wonder what it was about the men, or about their sacks, that spooked him so.



Later, when the rain eventually did ease a little, I emerged from the shop-entrance and made my way to a junction with Maria Bandoola Road.  Peering along this second road, I saw how Sule Pagoda – the neighbourhood’s chief landmark, which stands at the centre of a busy traffic intersection – had taken on the appearance of an island because the four streets radiating from it were flooded.  Actually, while the rainwater sluiced down the streets towards it, I thought of another comparison.  It was as if the water was draining into the plughole in a giant bath – the pagoda looking like a plug-stopper that wasn’t big enough to block the hole beneath it.



Yangon’s pavements were quite a bit higher than the road-surfaces and for the most part that morning they were higher than the floodwater too.  I naively thought that by following the pavements I could make it back to my hotel and not get my feet wet.  Of course, as soon as I’d walked along a pavement for the length of a block, I arrived at a junction.  And then I had to step down into a lake that’d formed over the mouth of the side-street and wade / run / hop across it.  After traversing a few blocks and side-streets like this, my shoes, socks and trouser legs were sodden.


It eventually occurred to me that the easiest place to walk was not along the pavements but along the middle of the roads, between the traffic-lanes.  The roads seemed slightly higher in the middle – and as a consequence most of the rainwater had accumulated at their sides, whereas the central strips along the roads were under only a few centimetres of it.  Files of people were now using these strips as unlikely pedestrian walkways.  They trod between the cars, under their big umbrellas.  So I waded out into the middle of the road and joined them.



There was still a problem, though.  As traffic ploughed through the floods on my immediate left and right, the wheels constantly threw up water and threatened to douse me in it.  Along some roads, the central line between the traffic-lanes was marked by a row of vertical, thigh-high, yellow-painted concrete slabs; and I soon learned that the trick was to take shelter on the far side of one of those slabs whenever a vehicle went by, spraying water.


Despite my best efforts, when I got to my hotel I was soaked from the waist down.  The morning’s experience showed me why everyone in Yangon seems to wear sandals or flip-flops.  And no doubt the world’s worst business idea would be to open a shoe-factory or sock-factory there.



Incidentally, expect more Yangon-related blog entries over the next few weeks.


Zola slums it


(c) Dodo Press


Each year I usually read one novel by the great 19th-century French writer Émile Zola.  This year’s Zola novel, which I’ve just finished, is L’Assommoir – an account of life in a Parisian slum and the misery wreaked there by poverty, human cruelty and, especially, alcohol.  L’Assommoir is a difficult word to translate.  It’s derived from the verb assommer, meaning to knock or stun, and it was a colloquial term of the period for a drinking venue whose liquor was distilled on the premises and where the patrons, presumably, could ‘get hammered’.  Hence, certain English translations of the novel have given it the title of The Dram Shop.


I admire Zola because, basically, all life is present in his work.  Each of his novels focuses on a different aspect of French society at the time.  La Bête Humaine (1890) is set on the railways, Germinal (1885) in a mining community, Nana (1880) in Paris’s theatrical world, and so on.  Also, a wide range of emotions motivate those novels’ characters: greed, lust, jealously, hatred, vanity, cruelty.  Admittedly, the emotions in question are nearly all negative ones, because Zola’s outlook on humanity is pretty grim.  But I’ve never found his works to be too depressing because the miserabilism of his philosophy is leavened by a great deal of humour, often earthy humour.  Read a Zola novel and usually you’ll feel the urge to laugh out loud as much as you feel the urge to throw yourself out of a window.


Actually, Zola’s mixture of cynicism and bawdiness, and the similar cynicism and bawdiness found in the books of French contemporaries like Gustav Flaubert and Guy Maupassant, provide a refreshing contrast to the puritanically buttoned-up literature that was produced during the same period across the English Channel.  The motto of Victorian English literature was definitely, “No sex please, we’re British.”  For instance, I seem to recall that in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles Alec d’Urberville only had to look at poor Tess in a mildly interested way before, by some magical alchemy, she found herself with a bun in the oven.


I have to confess, though, that I found L’Ammossoir dark even by Zola’s standards.  That’s not to say it’s without laughs – parts of it are very funny indeed – but it’s generally a bleak work because it deals with a character who meets with an awful fate that, for the most part, she doesn’t deserve.


L’Assommoir’s central character is Gervaise, whom we meet at the start of the book as a young woman newly arrived in Paris.  She’s come with a cruel and dissolute lover called Lantier and two young sons that she’s had by him.  Lantier soon abandons his family but Gervaise is able for a time to find contentment and even achieve a semblance of prosperity.  She marries a roofer called Coupeau who’s initially kind, affectionate and able to hold down a job.  With Coupeau, she has a third child, a girl called Nana.  She makes a home for herself and her old and new family in a huge block that, though it’s a slum, isn’t that diabolical: “The place did not strike her as ugly.  Amid the bits and pieces at the windows there were happy touches of brightness… And then, in almost every window, against the poverty just visible as a background, could be seen laughing, tousled heads of children, or women sewing, their calm profiles bending over their work.”  And with the help of a loan from a nice-but-dim young man called Goujet (who’s quietly smitten with her), she opens her own business, a little laundry, which flourishes for a few years.


This being Zola, of course, the good times don’t last.  Coupeau is injured when he falls off a rooftop, becomes slothful during his convalescence and ends up a workshy drunkard.  Worse, Lantier returns.  Supposedly a reformed character, he ingratiates himself into Gervaise and Coupeau’s household and then corrupts it – he lures Gervaise back into his bed – and bleeds it dry financially.  This takes place before a cast of hostile supporting characters: for instance, a couple called the Lorilleux, who are Coupeau’s spectacularly stingy and backbiting sister and brother-in-law; and a lady called Virginie, who’s superficially friendly towards Gervaise but who bears her a secret grudge for a beating she received from her when the pair had a fight years earlier.  They’re only too happy to see Gervaise in the wretched condition that she’s in by the book’s end: abandoned, destitute, prematurely aged, almost crippled and partly insane.


Admittedly, Gervaise contributes to her own downfall.  She’s too passive, too easy-going and too eager to please the whims of those around her.  At the same time, though, she’s responsible for most of the book’s acts of kindness and decency.  She takes in Coupeau’s ailing mother when it becomes clear that the Lorilleux want nothing to do with her.  She also shows pity towards a befuddled old man with the nickname of Daddy Bru, who lives as a pauper and sleeps in a cupboard under one of the block’s flights of stairs.  Ironically, at the very end of the book and after Daddy Bru has died, this cupboard is where Gervaise has to live too.  However, it’s largely bad luck, the poverty of her circumstances, the dishonourable actions of other people, and alcohol – which ruins Coupeau first of all and later takes a fatal hold of Gervaise – that brings about the tragedy.


It’s unsurprising, incidentally, that temperance campaigners once used L’Assommoir as a propaganda tract to warn against the dangers of drink.  It’s also fitting that my copy of the novel – a 1970 Penguin Classics edition that I picked up in a second-hand bookstore – has on its cover a detail from Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe.  In fact, this was painted in 1877, the year that L’Assommoir was published.




But like Zola’s other books, L’Assommoir manages to be funny.  The humour is particularly marked during two set-pieces.  The first describes Gervaise and Coupeau’s marriage day, which runs the gamut from the pathetic – a church ceremony where “the high alter was being got ready for some special saint’s day, for there was a banging of hammers as the workmen were nailing up some hangings… the irritable priest passed his hands quickly over the bent heads of Gervaise and Coupeau, thus seeming to unite them in the middle of some house-moving job” – to the bacchanalian.  The wedding banquet is an amusing mixture of gluttony, drunkenness, ribaldry and apprehension over whether or not they’ll be able to pay the bill.  And during the afternoon, between the ceremony and feast, the wedding party kills time by traipsing around the Louvre, whose exhibits they singularly fail to appreciate.  (“Coupeau stopped in front of the Mona Lisa who, he thought, was a bit like one of his aunts.”)


Later, when Gervaise’s laundry business is doing well, she decides to organise a banquet for her family, employees and supposed friends with a massive roast goose as the main dish.  Zola devotes 35 pages to describing the preparations for the party and then the debauched blow-out that it turns into.  He writes with riotous gusto, but underlying the humour is an ominous feeling that this signals the beginning of the end.  Everything’s going to go downhill for Gervaise, her business and family after this.  And indeed, it’s in the midst of these festivities that Lantier – Gervaise’s ex-lover, and soon to be the destructive cuckoo in her nest – makes his reappearance.


L’Ammossoir isn’t perfect.  A sub-plot involves a character called Lalie, who’s an eight-year-old girl and one of Gervaise’s neighbours in the block.  Following the death of her mother and despite the beatings she gets from her drunken father, young Lalie struggles heroically to look after her infant siblings and keep their household in order.  Eventually, though, she receives one beating too many and dies whilst professing herself to be “sorry to be going off like this and not finishing bringing up the children.”  Lalie is so angelic that she makes Little Nell in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop look like a spoilt brat in comparison.  And given the harsh, unflinching realism with which Zola depicts the rest of the block and its inhabitants, her saintliness seems very out-of-place indeed.


Lalie also seems improbable compared with the other main child character in L’Ammossoir, Gervaise’s daughter Nana.  Zola portrays her in an unsentimental manner and has her become vainer, more calculating and more wicked as she grows older.  Nana runs away from home late in the book, when she’s in her teens — and she reappears in Zola’s canon as the actress / seductress / harlot title-character of his 1880 novel, Nana.


One problem I had with my edition of L’Ammossoir was a decision by the translator, Leonard Tancock, to have Coupeau and his workmen friends talk in a faux-Cockney dialect.  Tancock intended this to highlight their proletarian nature and they constantly come out with utterances like “Coo!” and “it don’t half niff!” and “What a nosh-up!”  As a consequence, Coupeau certainly sounds like he works on the rooftops; but as an all-singing, all-dancing chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke in the Walt Disney version of Mary Poppins.


But those were minor impediments to my enjoyment of L’Ammossoir.  Overall, I thought it was a splendid book.  Downbeat as hell, but hey, that’s Zola for you.


A story of Scotland’s independence referendum: ‘Mither’





Today, September 18th, is the first anniversary of 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. 


That’s right – a year has now passed since the Scottish electorate voted, by a majority of 55% to 45%, in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.  A year has passed since the circuses of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns were in full swing, which brought with them all manner of spectacles and happenings: interventions in support of the ‘no’ camp from personages as mighty as Barack Obama, the Pope, the Queen and J.K. Rowling; George Osborne threatening Scots that he wouldn’t let them continue using the pound if they voted ‘yes’; Alex Salmond losing his cool at Nick Robinson and the BBC; Jim Murphy getting struck by that dastardly egg; and the mainstream newspapers assuring us that a ‘yes’ vote would cause the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to gallop across Scotland spreading war, conquest, famine and death.


One narrative that the media peddled back then was that Scotland had become a divided country.  Families were in turmoil.  Parents and children, brothers and sisters, who’d previously lived together in harmony, had changed into rabid yes-sers and no-ers who were suddenly at each other’s throats.  For instance, last summer, the journalist Jenny Hjul wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “In Scotland… politics has become deeply personal.  We might have friends who are nationalists but they aren’t speaking to us at the moment…  The coming referendum has rendered such cross-party camaraderie inconceivable and it’s hard to see the day when things will return to normal.”  To be honest, considering the anti-independence poison and bile secreted by Hjul and her husband, the Telegraph’s Scottish editor Alan Cochrane, into their writings over the years, I’m amazed that they ever had nationalist friends in the first place.


Anyway, the Scottish-families-divided-by-independence theme inspired me a while ago to write a short story that took the idea to its logical extreme.  And seeing as it’s September 18th again, I thought I’d take this opportunity to post the story here.  So I now give you…  Mither.




I must have dozed while I sat in the office and read the literature that’d landed on our porch floor that morning.  I hadn’t heard her go out.  I only heard the porch door scrape open and shut as she came back.


‘Mither,’ I said when she entered the office.  ‘You were outside.’


She settled into the armchair with the tartan-patterned cushions that’d been her seat – her throne, we called it – when she ran the business by herself.  Now that I was mostly in charge, I had my own seat in the office but I kept the throne there should she want to use it.  She smoothed her skirt across her knees.  She was a modern-minded woman – at times too modern-minded because she had some ideas you’d expect more in a giddy teenager – but she avoided trousers and stuck to old-fashioned long skirts.  ‘Aye, Norrie.  I’ve been out and about.’


I didn’t like the sound of that but before I could quiz her she leaned forward from the throne and took the leaflet out of my hand.  ‘What’s this you’re reading?  Don’t say they’ve shovelled more shite through our door.’


It pained me to hear her genteel voice soiled by coarse language.  But I stayed patient.  ‘It’s actually interesting, Mither.  It’s an interview with a normal young couple, a professional young couple, about what might happen if the referendum result is…’  I searched for a word that’d cause minimum offence.  ‘Unexpected.’


Mither sighed and her eyes swivelled up in their sockets.


‘Now I ken you’re sceptical, Mither.  But they seem decent.  He’s called Kenneth and she’s called Gina.  And they’re worried about the effect independence would have on them.’


Mither’s eyes swivelled down again.  Then I saw them twitch from side to side while they scanned the text on the leaflet.


I pressed on.  ‘It wouldn’t have a good effect, Mither.  It’d be bad for them.’  Why did my voice tremble?  Why was I afraid?  ‘The financial uncertainty. How would decent hardworking people like them – like me – cope if all the business fled south and the prices shot up?  And the banks…  Why, I read in the paper the other day about an expert who said the bank machines would stop dispensing cash if the vote was yes!’


‘Does,’ asked Mither, ‘this say what Kenneth does for a living?’


‘And even if we still have cash, Mither, what would our currency be?  We won’t have the pound – George Osborne and Ed Balls down in Westminster won’t allow it!  We’ll have to make do with some banana-republic-type currency.  Or worse, the euro!’




‘Norrie,’ said Mither, ‘calm down.  Does this leaflet actually say what Kenneth’s job is?’


‘Aye, of course it does.’  I faltered.  ‘Well, no. Maybe it doesn’t.’


She sighed.  ‘It certainly doesn’t, Norrie.  And I’ll tell you why.’  She raised the leaflet so that I could see a picture of Kenneth, Gina and their children on it.  She placed a fingertip against Kenneth.  ‘It’s because he’s Kenneth Braithwaite, who’s one of our local councillors.  One of our Conservative Party councillors.  But that fact isn’t mentioned here.  It pretends that he’s an ordinary unbiased person like you or me.’


I chuckled nervously.  ‘Now Mither.  I wouldn’t say you were unbiased.’


Mither rose from her throne.  ‘I am unbiased.  My mind’s open to facts and I form opinions and make decisions based on those facts.  Facts, mind you.  Not the propaganda and smears and scaremongering that’s poured out of the political and business and media establishments during the last year.  Not the drivel that’s clogged and befuddled your impressionable young mind!’


Before I could reply, she tore the leaflet down the middle and returned it to my hands in two pieces.  Then she hustled out of the office and shut the door behind her with enough force to make a stuffed owl wobble and almost fall off a nearby shelf.  I heard her shoes go clacking up the stairs and then another door slam, presumably the one leading into her room.


I seethed.  How I hated, how I loathed this referendum!  Setting family members against one another day after day!  I looked at the leaflet again and realised that by a creepy coincidence Mither had ripped it down the middle of the family-picture.  Now Kenneth and a little boy occupied one half of it while Gina and a little girl were sundered and apart in the other half.


And they seemed such a nice family.




I hated the referendum but I couldn’t wait for the day of it, September 18th, to come – and take place and be over with.  The problem was that the time until then seemed to pass very slowly.  And during this time it felt like a war of attrition was being waged against me.  I grew more tired and depressed the longer those separatists raved in the media and on the streets and from the literature they popped through the slot in our porch door.  A rash of yes stickers and posters spread along the windows in the street-fronts of our neighbourhood.  Some of them even appeared on the houses of people I’d thought were decent and sensible.


I began to panic.  God, could it happen?  I had visions of the doors padlocked and the windows boarded up on the old family business and Mither and I living in poverty alongside hundreds of thousands of other suddenly-penniless Scots.  While around us, food prices and fuel prices skyrocketed, the banks and financial companies whisked all their offices away to London, the housing market disappeared into a giant hole, the hospitals became like those in the developing world, and terrorist cells congregated in Glasgow and Edinburgh and prepared to attack England across the new border.


But worst of all was the madness this referendum campaign inspired in Mither.


She sensed when I was worn out.  While I was napping, or dozing off behind the desk in the office, or slumped in a stupor in front of the TV, she’d leave her room and creep down the stairs and do things.


These might be wee things.  If I wasn’t in the office, she might use the computer and I’d discover hours later that it was open at frightful separatist websites like Bella Caledonia or National Collective or Wings over Scotland.  The day’s Scottish Daily Mail might disappear from the kitchen table and turn up, scrunched into a ball, in the recycling bin in the corner.  Or if the Mail was left on the table, any photographs in it of Alistair Darling or George Osborne might have shocking words like tosser or bampot graffiti-ed across them in Mither’s curly handwriting.


More worrying was her tendency sometimes to sneak outdoors.  It would’ve been bad enough in normal times because she was too old and frail to be wandering the streets alone.  But in these dangerous times – who knew what she was up to and who she was associating with?


The evidence disturbed me.  When I visited her room I found a growing collection of things that she could only have acquired during trips outside – little Scottish saltire and lion-rampant flags, booklets of essays and poems written in support of independence, brochures for events with sinister titles like Imagi-Nation and Yestival, posters where the word can’t had the t scrawled out so that they read can instead.  She’d amassed badges, stickers and flyers with the word yes emblazoned on them.  What a disgusting-sounding word yes had become to me.  I’d contemplate Mither and imagine that horrible word spurting from her lips –


‘Yes!  Yes!  Yes – !’


And she’d argue.  Goodness me, what had got into the woman to make her so bloody-minded?  In between quoting names of people I’d never heard of, but who were undoubtedly up to no good, like Gerry Hassan and David Greig and Lesley Riddoch, she’d taunt me mercilessly.


‘So go on.  Tell me.  Explain.  Why can we not be independent?’


‘Because… We can’t!  We just can’t!  We’re too… too…’


‘Too wee?’


‘Aye!  Well, no.  Not that, not only that.  We’re also…’


‘Too poor?’


‘Aye, that’s true, Scotland’s too poor to be independent.  But the main reason is that we’re…’


‘Too stupid?’


‘Och stop it, Mither!  Stop!  You’re putting words in my mouth!’


‘But you agree with that basic proposition?  Scotland can’t be independent because it’s too small, its economy’s too weak and its people aren’t educated enough?’  She sighed.  ‘That’s what we’re up against.  A mass of our fellow Scots, yourself included, brainwashed by the establishment into believing their own inferiority!’


I stormed out of the room at that point.  What horrible people had she been talking to?


(c) The Independent



A few weeks before the referendum-day, her madness reached what I assumed was its peak.  After the last guests had left the premises and after I’d washed and put away the breakfast things, I took the vacuum cleaner into the porch and started on the carpet there.  It took me a minute to notice something odd about the rack on the porch wall where I stored leaflets about local attractions that our guests might be interested in: Rosslyn Chapel, Abbotsford, Traquair House, Melrose Abbey and so on.  The leaflets in the rack had changed.  The tourist ones had disappeared.  In their place were different ones.  Political ones.


I put down the vacuum-hose and approached the rack.  Crammed into it now were leaflets I’d seen in her room advertising those sinister-sounding events like Imagi-Nation and Yestival and other ones promoting the unsavoury websites she’d consulted on the computer like National Collective, Bella Caledonia and Wings over Scotland.  Also there were leaflets for organisations with different but strangely-repetitive names: Women for Independence, Liberals for Independence, Polish for Independence, Asians for Independence, English for Independence, Farmers for Independence…  One organisation, whose leaflets were merely sheets of A4 paper that’d been photocopied on and folded, was even called Hoteliers for Independence.


I couldn’t help reading that Hoteliers for Independence leaflet.  It ended with the exhortation, ‘Please contact Hoteliers for Independence for more information at…’ and gave an address.  My insides turned cold as I read the address.  I found myself pivoting around inside the porch and facing different internal doors that led to different parts of the guesthouse.  I half-expected one door to have hanging on it a sign that said HOTELIERS FOR INDEPENDENCE – THIS WAY.


Then I peered up towards where a certain bedroom was located on the first floor and lamented, ‘Oh, Mither!’




One afternoon, close to September 18th, I woke from an unplanned doze at the desk in the office.  I’d been dreaming.  A voice in the dream had droned about – what else? – that ghastly referendum.  Disconcertingly, back in the conscious world, the voice continued to talk to me.  I realised it came from a shelf above me, where the radio was positioned between a stuffed gull and a stuffed pheasant.  The radio was tuned in to a local station and the voice belonged to a newsreader.  He was explaining that a politician, a Labour Party MP, was visiting our region today.


This MP had toured the high streets and town centres of Scotland lately.  To get people’s attention he’d place a crate on the pavement, stand on top of the crate and deliver a speech from it.  He’d speak bravely in favour of Great Britain and the Union of Parliaments and denounce the separatists and their vile foolish notions of independence.  And I’d heard from recent news reports that the separatists hadn’t taken kindly to his tour – well, as bullies, they wouldn’t.  They’d gone to his speaking appearances with the purpose of heckling him and shouting him down.


(c) BBC


Then the newsreader named the town the MP was due to speak in this afternoon.  It was our town.


And immediately I felt uneasy because I realised I hadn’t seen or heard anything of Mither for the past while.  I went upstairs and knocked on her door.  There was no reply.  The guesthouse was empty that afternoon and so I hung the BACK SOON sign in the porch-window, went out and locked the door after me.  Then I headed for the middle of town.


It wasn’t hard to find where the Labour MP was speaking because of the hubbub.  The MP seemed to have turned his microphone to maximum volume so that he could drown out the heckling and shouting from the separatists in his audience.  I emerged from a vennel and onto the high street and saw the crowd ahead of me.  It contained fewer people than I’d expected.  Some of them wore no badges and carried no placards – among them, I thought I glimpsed Kenneth and Gina from the brochure that Mither had ripped up – and some had badges and placards saying yes.  Looming above everyone was the MP on his crate.


The separatists present were trying to make themselves heard – without success, thanks to the MP’s bellowing voice and the amplification provided by the microphone.  It wasn’t until I reached the edge of the small crowd that I could understand what they were saying.


‘Answer the question, Murphy!’


‘He won’t answer the question!’


‘Quit shouting, man, and answer the question for God’s sake!’


Then I saw a figure standing at the back of the crowd a few yards along from me.  The figure wore a long flowing skirt, a woollen cardigan and a lacy Sunday bonnet that obscured its face.  A handbag dangled from one of its elbows and a small egg carton was clasped in its hands.  As I watched, the figure prised the lid off the carton,  lifted one of the six eggs inside and stretched back an arm in readiness to throw it –


I rushed at her and shouted, ‘Mither! Oh my God!’


(c) STV


What happened next is confusing.  I remember reaching her and knocking the carton from her hands so that eggs flew in all directions.  I remember not being able to halt myself in time and crashing into her so that she fell and I fell too, on top of her.  But then, somehow, I found myself lying alone on the ground.  Mither had disappeared.  She must’ve been sprightlier than I’d thought.  She’d gathered herself up and hurried away and left me there.


One of the eggs had made its way into my right hand.  Now it was a ruin of flattened broken shell.  Meanwhile, the yolk, white and shell-pieces of other eggs formed a gelatinous mess on the front of my woollen cardigan.


Then I was being helped to my feet.  Around me, I heard voices:


‘Who is it?’


‘Some auld lady.’


‘No, wait… Christ!  It’s a man!’


‘It’s young Bates.  You ken, Norrie Bates?  Him that runs the Bates Bed and Breakfast?’


‘Why’s he togged out like that?’


Someone took my arm and led me away.  Behind us, the MP, who seemed not to have noticed the commotion with Mither and me, kept roaring into his microphone.  We turned a corner into a side-street and paused there.  I identified the man steering me as Charlie Massie, who was the proprietor of another B and B in the town, a few streets away from ours.  He’d always seemed a gentle friendly type and it surprised me to see a yes badge stuck to his jacket lapel.


Charlie looked perplexed.  He scanned me up and down as if my appearance was a puzzle he wanted to solve.  ‘Norrie,’ he said at last.  ‘I think you need to go home.  As fast as you can manage.’


My head ached.  Something was squeezing my skull, which in turn was squeezing my brain.  I raised a hand and found my head enclosed in a lady’s bonnet.  It exuded two ribbons that were knotted under my chin.  In a final gesture of spite Mither must’ve fastened it on my head before she’d escaped.  ‘Aye,’ I whispered.  ‘I’ll go home.’


‘By the way,’ added Charlie, who seemed greatly troubled now.  ‘How’s your mither?  I haven’t seen her for a while.’




It was the morning of September 19th.  The radio had disappeared from the office and I guessed it’d travelled upstairs to Mither’s room and informed her of the result.  Still, in case she hadn’t heard, I felt obliged to go to her room and let her know.


She looked very small, thin and frail as she huddled there amid the paraphernalia she’d acquired, the flags, placards, badges, posters, leaflets and booklets.  On the floor around her, in a serpentine coil, there even lay a blue-and-white woollen scarf with a pair of knitting needles embedded in one unfinished end of it.  That was another lark she’d been up to.  Knitting for independence.


Because she looked so weak and unwell now, I understood that she knew.  The result seemed to have drained the life from her, leaving her a husk.


But I repeated the news.  ‘Mither.  It’s a no.’


She didn’t answer.  No sound came from her mouth, which was stretched back in a rictus – if I hadn’t known she was grimacing in pain and dismay, I’d have thought she was grinning.  I looked into her eyes, trying to find a glimmer of acknowledgement for me, a spark of recognition that I was standing before her.  But the eyes were blank and gaping, almost like they weren’t eyes at all but two dark holes.


And although I was relieved and delighted about the result, I suddenly and inexplicably felt as though a part of me was dead.


(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount


Strange places in the Scottish Borders 7: the Polish Map of Scotland




The Polish Map of Scotland at the Black Barony Hotel is proof that unusual things can exist in your backyard for a long time without you knowing about them.


The Black Barony Hotel stands on a hillside above the village of Eddleston, which is a few miles up the road from where my family live in the Scottish Borders, and for a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s it served as my parents’ local pub.  Since 1968 it’d been owned by Jan Tomasik, one of many Polish people who’d arrived in Scotland and in the United Kingdom generally during World War II.  He’d served as a sergeant in the 1st Polish Armoured Division, which in 1942 was stationed in the Borders town of Galashiels.  There, he married a Scottish nurse and he remained in Scotland after the war, becoming a hotelier.



I remember being brought to the Black Barony one public-holiday afternoon in 1981 – for it’d been decreed that the Barony was where my family and their friends would sit in front of a big TV screen and watch live coverage of the wedding of that famous (and obviously deeply-in-love) couple, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.  I felt bored rigid about five minutes after the coverage started, but at least the adults in our party were in a festive enough mood to keep me illegally supplied with pints of beer.  (I was 15 at the time.)  I remember how at one point the sixty-something Jan Tomasik walked past with a hooked pole over his shoulder – yes, he was a Pole with a pole – intending to open a high-up window for ventilation.  He pointed at the Royal Wedding parade on the TV and exclaimed, “Me too! A guard of honour!”



It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered, thanks to the BBC news website, that the grounds of the Barony contain the ‘largest topographical relief model of its kind in the UK’ – a giant, contoured map of Scotland set in a pool, now drained, some fifty metres wide and one metre deep.  The Scottish mainland and islands are depicted on a scale of 1:10,000 although, to make them more visually striking, the Scottish hills and mountains are five times higher than they should be at that scale.  The Polish Map of Scotland, as it became known, was constructed by five geographers from a university in Krakow whom Tomasik brought over in the mid-1970s: he and his former wartime commanding officer, General Stanislaw Maczek, oversaw the project, wanting it to symbolise their gratefulness for “Scottish hospitality to Polish soldiers during World War II.”  The Map’s terrain was completed and painted in 1976.  By 1979 a basin-wall had been constructed around it and water was then pumped in to represent the seas surrounding Scotland and the firths indenting it.


Unfortunately, 1985 saw the closure of the hotel – Jan Tomasik would pass away six years later – and the Polish Map of Scotland was left to fall into disrepair, becoming overgrown with and almost hidden by vegetation.  It wasn’t until 2010, when the Barony was back in business as a Mercure Hotel, one of a chain run by the French multinational Accor, that a voluntary group called Mapa Scotland was formed with the intention of restoring the Map.  In 2012, it was given B-listed status and a year later the Mapa Scotland project received Heritage Lottery funding.


In July, while I was back in Scotland for a visit, I walked up to the Black Barony Hotel to take a look at the Polish Map of Scotland as it is today.  The Map’s certainly on the map now, as a sign for it stands on the A703 road that runs through Eddleston on the way to Edinburgh.  When you’ve reached the hotel, you follow some smaller signs – which identify it as ‘Maczek’s Map’ – along the left-hand side of the building and then across a wooden footbridge that spans a deep, wooded gorge.  The Map is a few yards beyond the bridge’s far end.



The Map is no longer concealed by undergrowth and its circumference wall has been equipped with some useful information panels.  However, some work still needs to be done on the restoration of the Map itself.  In places, the surfaces of the terrain are scuffed and scarred, and it’ll clearly be some time before water can be pumped in so that this mini-Scotland is surrounded by sea again.  For now, the ‘seabed’ around it is mostly covered by short grass and weeds.  Barrels and buckets are positioned here and there and lengths of hosepipe are strewn about it too.  Meanwhile, the island of Lewis and Harris acts as a side-wall for a shelter housing various sacks and containers.



While I was there I took some photographs of the Polish Map of Scotland, although to do full justice to Jan Tomasik and Stanislaw Maczek’s vision you need to view it in an aerial picture, like the one at the top of this entry (which I borrowed from the Black Barony’s website).  Here are a few of my photographs, taken while I was looking in at the Map from various points around the circumference wall.  Can you identify the sections of Scottish coastline each time?



And here’s a link to Mapa Scotland’s website:


A tyrannical, brainwashed one-party state… but that’s enough about Scotland




Scotland’s political and media landscapes are weirdly juxtaposed these days.  On one hand, since the arrival of Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011, it’s become a common, indeed, a tiresome joke that Scotland now has more panda bears than it has Conservative Party Members of Parliament.  On the other hand, when it comes to having conservative journalists, Scotland is indeed blessed – or cursed, depending on your point of view.  For in Scotland, right-wing newspaper scribes seem to outnumber the midges.


(c) BBC


For example, there’s Gerald Warner, whose last Scottish-related musings were sighted on the right-wing website, which “brings you the best thinking on popular capitalism from around the web.”  These concerned the Scottish government’s Land Reform Bill, or as Warner puts it in his even-handed, non-partisan way, “another retrograde initiative by doctrinaire Scottish socialists”.


Then there’s Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish editor, who late last year published some scribblings he’d made during the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence under the title of Alex Salmond: My Part in his Downfall – The Cochrane Diaries.  The resulting book attracted breathless, if possibly not 100%-serious reviews on Amazon.  (It “shines a light on the dark and twisted mind of one of the most narcissistic individuals in Britain today.  Also has a few mentions of Alex Salmond.”)


And let’s not forget Cochrane’s missus and fellow-journalist, Jenny Hjul, who’s contributed to the Telegraph, Herald, Scotsman and Sunday Times.  During the referendum campaign, Cochrane and Hjul seemed to see themselves less as journalists and more as a crusading husband-and-wife propaganda team dedicated to keeping Scotland British: a sort of Union Jack-bedecked Hart to Hart.


There’s also the strangely bitter Tom Gallagher, columnist and Professor Emeritus of History at Bradford University, who once wrote a Telegraph item slamming Scotland for its antipathy towards the Conservative Party.  It was a “Scottish hate-fest”, he claimed, which could be likened to “the fear and detestation of papists in John Knox’s Scotland which delayed the arrival of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act by a good number of years.”  So that’s you told, Scotland.  Not voting Conservative – that’s as evil as hating Roman Catholics.


And there’s Daily Mail journalist Chris Deerin, who recently announced his withdrawal from Twitter.  Tweeting “was fun,” he wrote the other day, “until the trolls took over.”  These trolls weren’t only horrible Scottish nationalist cybernats, whom Deerin once described as “repellent individuals… who roam the Internet in search of unionists to duff up”.  No, he also got abuse from another tribe of trolls, newer but equally ghastly, the Corbynistas – supporters of the left-wing Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn, who looks set to become the Labour Party’s next leader.  I’ve been trolled myself occasionally but I don’t feel an iota of sympathy for Deerin.  After all, he works for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that’s elevated the trolling of everyone non-white, non-Conservative, non-middle-class and non-English-Home-Counties into an art-form.


Also deserving mention is Andrew Neil, now something of a TV star thanks to shows like The Daily Politics and This Week, who served as editor-in-chief with Scotsman Publications from 1996 to 2005.  During this time he managed to transform the once-formidable Scotsman newspaper into the cantankerously-conservative and moribund wee rag it is today.  And there’s the Caledonian clique currently running the Spectator magazine: Fraser Nelson, Hugo Rifkind and Alex Massie.  Young and unfashionably right-wing, Nelson, Rifkind and Massie were once defended on Twitter against charges of anti-Scottish prejudice by the comedian Brian Limond, who pointed out: “They’re Scots.  The ashamed Lulu-voiced kind, but still.”  Hugo Rifkind is son of former Tory Secretary of State for Scotland and disgraced former MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind; while Alex Massie’s Dad is Alan Massie, a novelist of some repute and – yes! – another conservative Scottish journalist.  Massie Senior writes columns for the likes of the Scotsman and Daily Mail.


I have tried to list these Scottish right-wing journos in order – going from out-and-out dingbats like Gerald Warner, who basically lives on a planet of his own, to ones whom I think show vestiges of civility and rationality, like the two Massies.  Mind you, both of the latter have blotted their copy books recently – particularly Massie Senior with a ridiculous (and unpleasant) piece for the Mail on Sunday prior to the last general election, which predicted that the River Thames could run red with blood if the Labour Party and Scottish National Party formed a coalition government.  Meanwhile, his sprog, Alex, recently earned my ire not for his political opinions but for his musical ones.  He slagged off Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind at the site Ruth and Martin’s Album Club, calling it “the sound of bored teenagers trapped in a garage waiting for the rain to stop…  They should shut up and do something useful.  Like, read a book.”  Memo to Massie Junior: It’s possible to like Nirvana and read books.  I’m proof.


(c) STV

(c) DGC


Anyway, what happens when you have so many people of a certain political outlook scribbling away in the organs of the mainstream media?  You get the emergence of narratives.  These narratives may not bear any relation to the facts, or to how things look to the ordinary man or woman on the street.  But fashioned within the cosy – if these days beleaguered – bubble of Scottish conservativism, they are bounced back and forth, refined and fleshed out as one right-wing hack echoes what another right-wing hack said a few days earlier, in turn echoing what a third right-wing hack said the week before.  And as these narratives are served up to the reading public, they’re treated as givens, never to be questioned.


One such narrative that’s surfaced recently that Scotland is now a one-party state.  Typical of the hyperbole is a piece Tom Gallagher wrote for another right-wing site,, warning that Scotland was falling prey to a Russian-style ‘creeping tyranny’.  The Scottish National Party have a majority in the Scottish Parliament and, according to opinion polls, look likely to clean up at the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016.  And they hold 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the UK Parliament.


They’re everywhere.  They control everything – well, everything apart from the many areas of sovereignty that haven’t been devolved to Edinburgh from London.  Any institutions that retain a vestige of independence in Scotland, like the BBC, are subjected to their bullying.  At the Edinburgh Book Festival last month, didn’t the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson accuse the SNP of sending 4000 supporters to picket the BBC’s offices in Glasgow because they didn’t like the corporation’s coverage of the referendum campaign?


(c) The Spectator


Small wonder that Alex Salmond has been likened to Benito Mussolini (by Alan Cochrane), Joseph Stalin (by Cochrane again), Robert Mugabe (by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman), Adolf Hitler (by barking mad right-wing historian David Starkey), Slobodan Milosevic (by former Labour MP and former convict Denis McShane) and Vladimir Putin (by Nick Robinson, who compared the BBC protests to something that’d happen in ‘Putin’s Russia’).  And don’t be fooled by the fact that last September Salmond resigned as Scottish First Minister after defeat in the independence referendum and handed the reins of power over to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.  That was dynastic stuff, which happens in one-party states too.  Power passed from the Great Leader, Kim Jong Eck, to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Nic.


(c) Daily Telegraph 


The North Korean parallel is apt since another narrative has emerged – that the SNP is a cult that’s brainwashed the Scottish electorate into voting for it.  The SNP is offering a “millenarian, hallucinatory vision… mystical Gnosis… the catechism of shared faith…” wrote Gerald Warner at  The SNP is “bluntly dumb, faith-based and irrational,” wrote Chris Deerin in the Mail.  “If Nicola Sturgeon claimed the moon’s made of green cheese,” opined Alex Massie in the Times, “a plurality of Scots would, at the present moment, be inclined to agree with her.”  Yip, those Scots who support the SNP are as deluded as the North Korean public who’ve been force-fed all those propaganda stories about the Kims, such as the one where Kim Jong Il managed eleven holes-in-one the first time he ever picked up a club at the Pyongyang Golf Course.


So dreadful are these narratives that it’s a shock to recall that Scotland is actually a democracy.  Its turnout at the last general election was 71%, five percent more than that for the UK as a whole.  The SNP are in the ascendancy because people, you know, voted for them.  Oddly, I don’t remember hearing many complaints about Scotland being a one-party state a few years ago when the place seemed to belong, body and soul, to the Labour Party.  At one point, from 1999 until 2007, the Labour Party ruled Scotland from London under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; and it ran the Scottish government in Edinburgh as senior partner in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and it’d wielded power at council level in places like Glasgow since, it seemed, the dawn of time.  The lion’s share of Scotland’s MPs were Labour ones and it was another well-worn joke that in Glasgow you could stick a Labour Party red rosette onto a monkey and it would get elected.


And the Labour Party’s links with the Scottish media were extensive.  These ranged from Scotland’s (then) most popular tabloid the Daily Record acting as unofficial in-house journal for the Scottish Labour Party; to a Scottish journalist as respected and influential as the BBC’s Kirsty Wark going on holiday with former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell.


No, nobody seemed bothered by Labour’s long supremacy in Scotland – not even during those periods when the Conservatives ruled in London.  The assumption seemed to be that it didn’t matter if the Jocks were dominated by Labour because Labour’s Scottish branch was never going to rock the boat in Westminster, where real power resided.




Also, I find it odd that Scotland is described as a one-party state when not only are Warner, Deerin, the Massies and co. free to criticise the party in government but the overwhelming majority of daily and weekly newspapers there are anti-that-party too.  Only the National, the Sunday Herald and – when it suits them – the Scottish Sun will give them the time of day.  I have to say that the government of a one-party state must be a bit wimpish when more than 90% of the one-party state’s mainstream media doesn’t actually support it.


Incidentally, a quick reminder to Nick Robinson.  For full-on, destructive bullying of the BBC, look no further than 2003’s Hutton Inquiry.  This absolved – many would say whitewashed – Tony Blair’s Labour government of responsibility for the death of biological warfare expert / weapons inspector David Kelly following the alleged ‘sexing up’ of the government’s dossier on WMDs possessed by Saddam Hussein.  At the same time it castigated the BBC for inaccurate reporting and caused the resignations of BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director General Greg Dyke.  Oh, and the demonstration Robinson alluded to at the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters wasn’t organised by the SNP.


Perhaps the unpalatable truth for Scotland’s many right-wing newspaper hacks is that: (1) many voters have decided, after decades of disagreeing with the Tories and being taken for granted by Labour, that they rather like the cut of Nicola Sturgeon’s jib (especially her anti-austerity rhetoric); and (2) they’ve had to put up with so much biased crap from the mainstream media that they’ve decided it’s not to be trusted.  That, indeed, the more it tells them that one thing is the case, the more inclined they are to believe that, no, it’s the opposite that’s really the case.




Food, glorious food — too glorious for the likes of you




We looked around the interior of the restaurant and my father uttered some depressing but predictable words: “Oh-oh.  This looks too good for the likes of us.”


This happened a few years back while my Dad and I were taking a holiday in Malta.  We’d spent the morning wandering around the island’s charming old former capital, Mdina.  Having taken in the place’s splendid Norman and Baroque architecture, and admired its medieval fortifications, and experienced its uncanny atmosphere – which made you feel like you’d stepped through a time-warp and arrived a half-dozen centuries back in the past – we were ready for lunch.  The restaurant we went into had dungeon-like stone walls, thick white candles burning inside glass globes, and hulking antiquated chairs and tables.  It also had a crew of immaculately-clad waiters and several groups of well-heeled customers who, seated stiffly around their tables, clearly knew the correct order with which to lift their cutlery.  It may have been our imaginations but both staff and clientele seemed to view our entry with suspicion.


I felt like saying to my Dad that the chic diners present were probably all investment bankers and hedge-fund managers: folk who’d made piles of imaginary money by moving numbers on a computer screen, representing sums of more imaginary money, from one virtual account of yet-more imaginary money, to another virtual account of yet-more-again imaginary money.  Whereas my Dad owned a sheep farm in the Scottish Borders that, though it was relatively small, at least had substance.  It had acres of ground.  It constituted physical wealth.  No doubt it was much more valuable than the pretend-wealth commanded by the creeps here.


As for myself – well, I wasn’t rich physically or imaginarily, but I was at least rich in experience.  I’d met a few great writers in my time, plus a couple of important diplomats, and politicians, and even the odd lord or two.  So socially, I could hold my own at a table alongside some of these pseuds, even if I wasn’t sure which bloody knife, fork or spoon to wield first.


Too good for the likes of us?  No way, José.


But confronted by those withering stares and intimidated by that posh ambience, we decided not to risk it.  We retreated from the restaurant.  Indeed, we retreated from Mdina.  We eventually ended up at St Julian’s, where we had a belated feed of fish and chips in some British-themed pub.  (I don’t remember its name, but it was probably called something like The Dog’s Bollocks.)


Yes, food is a paradox.  It’s a basic human need – at regular intervals, all human beings, whether billionaires or paupers, have to shovel it into their faces, chew it, masticate over it, swallow it, digest it, process it as bodily fuel and eventually crap it out of their rear ends.  But, as humans, we’ve managed over the millennia to refine and embellish the eating experience.  We’ve devised a vast array of dishes so that our food is served to us in a near-infinite variety of combinations and configurations.  We’ve devised a vast parallel inventory of drinks – juices, ales, wines, liquors – with which to wash those dishes down.  And we’ve come to understand that the more congenial the surroundings, and the more congenial the company, the better that food goes down too.


And yet, in the age of capitalism, we’ve turned food culture into something else – something elitist, exclusive and joyless.  Oh, and extremely costly.  Aided and abetted by our sycophantic snake-eating-its-own-tail media, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that you can’t really say you’ve eaten unless you’ve done so in an airlessly-formal and cripplingly-expensive restaurant that’s made the top ten in some Mammon-worshipping glossy society magazine or on some achingly-hip where-to-be-seen website.


In fact, the top restaurants don’t seem like restaurants anymore.   They seem more like temples where the worshippers – the paying mugs – come to prostrate themselves whilst the temple-priests weave webs of intimidating ritual around them and then demand exorbitant donations to the temple-funds.  Temples that above their entrances bear the arcane and fearsome symbols of the gods, or as they’re called in the food-snob world, Michelin stars.  Temples whose high priests did their vocations in the mysterious and mystical schools of TV celebrity chef-dom: Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Antony Worrall Thompson, Marcus Wareing et al.  Guys of whom Keith Floyd (the only decent TV celebrity chef in history) once said, “I’d like to napalm the lot of them.”




Maybe I’m uncultured but by far and away the most rewarding dining experiences I’ve had weren’t in places like those.  No, I’ve actually had the time of my life devouring cheap, hale-and-hearty Nipponese grub in back-street izaka-yas, ramen-yas and yakitori-yas in Japan; or guzzling kitfo and tebs in the unassuming Ethiopian eateries of Addis Ababa (or more recently, along London’s Caledonian Road); or munching seafood in some ramshackle establishment on the shores of County Suffolk, or the Carthage / La Goulette stretch of the Tunisian coast, or the beach at Unawatuna in southern Sri Lanka; or indeed, just sitting on a pavement and stuffing my face with street-food in India, Thailand or Myanmar.


But I must be wrong.  I can’t have eaten properly.  Not according to the media hyperbole that surrounds the culinary scene in, say, London – where you can part with a small (or big) fortune in order to sample the grilled fillets of Scottish beef, Cumbrian rose veal and suckling pig available at Le Gavroche in Mayfair (a venue masterminded by ‘the highly adored Roux family’ according to; or the poached Scottish lobster tail and foie gras at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship joint in Chelsea; or the French haute cuisine at Alain Ducasse in the Dorchester Hotel in Piccadilly, which has a super-pricy Table Lumière where you can dine in front of thousands of dangling, glittering fibre-optics (designed, no doubt, to take your mind off the banality of your fellow-diners’ conversation).


But I have to say, because I have a sick mind, that my favourite-sounding posh restaurant in London is the Coq D’Argent in the Bank area, which was once owned by Terence Conran.  Not only is a popular spot for City-of-London high-fliers to eat, but it’s also a popular spot for them to kill themselves.  The last time I checked, no fewer than five people had thrown themselves off its seventh-floor terrace since 2007.  I’m not sure whether that was before or after they’d seen the bill.


A few weeks ago, the posh-restaurant scene in another great city, New York, was subjected to the forensic stare of British food critic Tanya Gold in an article appearing in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  Gold described how she went to four of the Big Apple’s most prestigious eateries and found them, well, wanting.


(c) The Times


Now I’m generally not a fan of British food critics.  Indeed, my idea of hell would probably be to spend eternity eating in an infernal branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken with A.A. Gill on one side of me and Michael Winner on the other.  (Come to think of it, Winner, who passed away in 2013, is probably there just now – barking abuse at the infernal KFC staff-members whilst waiting for me and A.A. Gill to turn up and occupy the two empty seats next to him.)  And at its worst, Gold’s writing is bitchy, show-offish and juvenile.  For example: “the food is so overtended and overdressed I am amazed it has not developed the ability to scream in your face, walk off by itself, and sulk in its room.”  Comparing food-items to spoilt adolescents?  That’s a bit… adolescent.


But when she hits the target, which is more often than not, Gold is wonderful.  She goes to Per Se at New York’s Columbus Circle and observes that the food “is not designed to be eaten…  It is designed to make your business rival claw his eyes out.”  The restaurant has “six kinds of table salt and two exquisite lumps of butter, one shaped like a miniature beehive and the other like a quenelle”, and her bill comes to $798.06 – half of which Gold confesses to vomiting up later in her hotel.  She visits Eleven Madison Park in the Metropolitan Life North Building and marvels at the pretentious vulgarity of what’s on the menu.  “One tiny dish of salmon, black rye and pickled cucumber is, we are told, ‘inspired by immigrants’.”  Among other things, there’s a turnip course, and “a golden, inflated pig’s bladder in a dish.”  That sets her back $640.02.


In Brooklyn, she goes to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, where “the novelty is the relative poverty of other people and their odd ways: emerge from Chef’s Table and fall over a homeless person.”  Inside, she disrupts the sombre atmosphere by trying to negotiate her way around another diner’s legs, cutting herself on a mysterious piece of metal sticking from the wall and screaming in pain.  She pays $425.29 for the privilege.  Finally, she eats in Masa, next door to Per Se, which is “the most famous sushi bar in New York” but “looks like a shed, or a ghostly corner of Walmart… two tiny rooms with beige walls and pale floors, some foliage, some rocks, a dismal pool.”  She and her companion fork out $1706.26.


Gold’s article has not gone down well in the food-loving quarters of New York.  One writer on the site lambasted her for “5000 words of baseless complaint, poor personal behaviour blamed on others, and easily avoidable factual errors, all wrapped in words and phrases playing dress-up as jokes.  For writing this thoughtless to appear in a magazine of this profile is a tragedy.”


Elsewhere, a comment-poster pointed out that, back in Blighty, Gold once wrote an article calling on Oxford and Cambridge Universities to admit more students who’d been educated at state schools.  Well, if she said that, she must be a commie.   And as we know, commies hate America.  And the American way.  And the American dream – which is, if you work hard enough, one day you’ll be rewarded by having enough money to be able to go to a snotty restaurant that insults your intelligence with turnips and pig’s bladders and then fleeces you with a ginormous bill.


However, I believe that there’s one person at least in America who’d sympathise with Gold and might even applaud her demolition of New York’s finest eateries.  That person is the ultra-prolific writer Stephen King, who in 1995 penned a short story called Lunch at the Gotham Café.  The story, which eventually found its way into the 2002 collection Everything’s Eventual, thumbs its nose at posh restaurants – and in particular at one of the worst features of posh restaurants, the supposedly welcoming but intimidatingly officious maitre d’.




In King’s story, a man facing divorce agrees to have lunch with his soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer at the restaurant of the title.  Not only does the lunch go badly because the couple immediately start quarrelling, but also because in the middle of it the maitre d’ turns homicidally insane.  He hacks the lawyer to death with a chef’s knife and then pursues the hero and his wife / ex-wife through the restaurant and kitchen.  Why the maitre d’ so spectacularly flips his lid isn’t explained – though you get the impression that, working in a place like that, it’s not a surprise that he does.


Stephen King, incidentally, has said of himself: “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”  Good old Steve!  No literary snob, he.  And, I suspect, no food snob either.


(c) The Huffington Post