Peebles High School Film Club

 

© Handmaid Films / Python (Monty) Pictures / Orion Pictures

 

The death of Terry Jones last month prompted many tributes – obviously because he was a member of Monty Python, one of the most influential comedy teams of the 20th century, but also because he was a skilled (though underrated) film director.  Indeed, a few of the tributes cited the Jones-directed Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) as being the funniest movie of all time.

 

I don’t know if it’s the funniest, but I’d surely put Life of Brian in my favourite half-dozen comedy movies.  One interesting thing about the film is that it’s practically part of the DNA of modern British cultural identity.  Lines like “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a  very naughty boy!” have become national catchphrases and Eric Idle got to sing the film’s climactic song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.  Yet at the time of its release, it was incredibly controversial.

 

Its tale of an amiable, innocuous oaf called Brian (Graham Chapman) born in the Holy Land at the same time as Jesus, and then getting continually mistaken for Jesus as he bumbles through life, put more than a few religious noses out of joint.  In Britain, the film attracted the ire of the usual sanctimonious suspects: Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, the Nationwide Festival of Light and Glasgow’s Pastor Jack Glass (a Scottish Mini-Me of the Reverend Ian Paisley).  It was banned in various municipalities.  The Welsh town of Aberystwyth was a particular hold-out – it didn’t get publicly shown there until 2009 when, amusingly, the town’s mayor was none other than the former actress Sue Jones-Davies, who’d played Judith Iscariot in the film.

 

And yet, despite it being such a hot potato, I remember being shown Life of Brian at the start of the 1980s, when I would have been about 15, on a big screen in the assembly hall of my school, Peebles High School.  It was shown to an audience of a hundred or more pupils by one of the teachers.  When I think about this now, and recall the censorious and disapproving mood of the time and how much the religious establishment detested the movie, I find this pretty amazing.

 

Life of Brian was shown as part of the programme for that year’s Peebles High School Film Club. The club was run by an English teacher called Dr Mike Kellaway.  I have to say that these days when people my age gather in a pub in Peebles and Mike Kellaway’s name comes up in the conversation, it’s usually greeted with sighs, winces, shaking of heads and rolling of eyes because the guy had some serious failings, which I’ll talk about later.  However, just now, let me relate the story of the Film Club, which I actually believe reflects well on Kellaway, or as he was also known, ‘the Doc’.

 

First, some historical and geographical context.  In the 1970s Peebles was a small country town of several thousand people.  It had its own cinema, the Playhouse, up until 1977.  Then the Playhouse closed down and thereafter, if you wanted to go to see a movie in a cinema, you had to travel to Penicuik (10 miles away), Galashiels (18 miles away) or Edinburgh (21 miles away).

 

Your only other way to see films was to watch them on the era’s three terrestrial TV channels.  Talk of cable and satellite TV still seemed like science fiction to most people, and concepts like the Internet, YouTube, online streaming and so on were incomprehensible.  Miss a film at the cinema and you had to wait four or five years before it might appear on TV and of course you were still limited by what the programmers chose to show on their schedules, already congested with TV series.  Also, there were no such things as DVDs and DVD players, and video cassettes had barely made an appearance – even by 1982, only 10% of homes in the UK owned a video cassette recorder.  So in other words, if you were a film-lover in a Scottish country town without a cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s you were, basically, screwed.

 

The Film Club was meant to address this problem.  Membership was open to pupils from third year to sixth year.  They paid a membership fee of a few pounds at the start of the academic year and got to see a film – sometimes two on a double bill – most Monday evenings during term-time.  Occasionally, certain films would be for pupils in fifth and sixth year only ‘because of their adult nature’, as the club’s promotional leaflets put it.  So Monday evenings at the school would usually see the assembly hall turned into a cinema auditorium.  A big screen was erected at the front and Mike Kellaway, the Doc, would set up a projector on a table at the back.  Into this projector were fed spools of film that he’d ordered from a catalogue designed for private film clubs like ours.

 

I joined as soon as I could, in 1978, and renewed my membership every year until I finished school in 1982.  One thing that strikes me about the club now was that Kellaway was potentially walking on thin ice because some of the films he showed, like the aforementioned Life of Brian, could be accused of having content unsuitable for schoolkids.  One way that he circumvented this danger was by opening the club’s membership to parents as well.  You could get your folks to come to the school  and watch the films with you.  This was in keeping with the AA film certificate that existed in British cinemas up until 1982, whereby certain films were deemed “suitable for those aged 14 and older… those under that age must be accompanied by an adult.”

 

© British Lion Films / F.A.R. International Films

 

Actually, I don’t remember many Film Club members taking the Doc up on this offer and inviting their folks along.  I certainly didn’t.  Although I recall a guy in my third-year class bringing his mother with him to see one of the first offerings that year, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).  Sitting next to your mum during the long, explicit sex scene that takes place between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the middle of that film can’t have been much fun.

 

Thinking about it now, I suspect many of the films shown during those four years were ones close to the Doc’s heart.  He’d have been a young man in the mid-to-late 1960s when a new generation of stars, writers and directors took hold of the reins in Hollywood and elsewhere: Robert Altman, Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Warren Beatty, Albert Finney, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, Dustin Hoffman, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, Malcolm McDowell, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Roeg, etc.  It must have been great being a film-fan whose youth coincided with all this.  Everyone in those films was radical and cutting edge on one hand and cool and beautiful on the other, and it was easy to imagine you were those things too.

 

Accordingly, the Film Club’s choices were frequently either socking it to the Man and His traditional conservative values, like If… (1968), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H* (1970), Performance (1970) and Le Cage aux Folles (1978); or simply exuding a glow of youthful, affluent, liberal gorgeousness – usually American, occasionally French or swinging-1960s British – like Blow Up (1966), Un Homme et une Femme (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).

 

Alas, having worked for many years as a teacher myself, one thing I’ve painfully learned is that to preserve your sanity and faith in humanity, you should not expose your pupils to your favourite things – films, books, music – and expect them to react with the same enthusiasm.  Nothing is more depressing than playing your most cherished late-1960s Rolling Stones album to a class and then discovering that the little thickos think Ed Sheerin is better.  So it was with the Film Club.  Some of those films, which surely meant a lot to the Doc, we just didn’t get.  It didn’t help that we were teenagers.  We saw ourselves both as knowing, blasé hipsters and as tough, hardened cynics reared on the mean streets of, um, Peebles.  If anything struck us as unintentionally funny, silly or lame in those films, we reacted immediately with jeers and laughter.

 

We were particularly unforgiving to any film that seemed old to us.  There were notable exceptions, but I remember us barracking the black-and-white The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).  Samurai we didn’t like because we knew it’d been the basis for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which we thought was much better because (1) it was in colour and (2) it didn’t have subtitles.  Today I find it ironic when I hear middle-aged film buffs complain that modern kids are cine-illiterate and incapable of enjoying the classic movies they enjoyed in their youths, back in the 1980s.  In fact, the gap between 2020 and, say, ET (1982) is three times greater than the gap between 1978 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which we had such a problem with.

 

© Warner Bros.

 

Another film we were brutal towards was Franco Zeferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.  The moment that Leonard Whiting’s Romeo first came onscreen wearing a pair of medieval tights, some tosser in the audience shouted: “Imagine gettin’ a hard-yin in those!”  Thereafter, the crotch area of every male character’s tights was watched rigorously; and if we thought we spotted a slight curvature, we screamed with laughter.

 

With depressing regularity, when we got out of order, a disgruntled Doc would have to turn off the projector, switch on the lights, come down to the front and give us a bollocking.

 

Significantly, as my classmates and I progressed through four school grades, got older and acquired a little wisdom and maturity, we found our attitudes to the films changing.  We were baffled by the non-linear structure of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in 1978 (though fortunately it had Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s sex scene, and a good, graphic throat-slashing, to hold our interest).  Yet four years later, we were discussing Roeg’s no-more-linear Performance in enthusiastic and hopefully intellectual-sounding tones.  By 1981 I’d even asked the Doc if he could book David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) for next year’s Film Club – to which he replied, deadpan, “I think most people would find that one a bit obscure.”  And as we grew up, we found ourselves getting increasingly annoyed at the braying, cackling third and fourth-years whom we had to share the club with.  “Those stupid wee shites!” we raged on more than one occasion at the end of a viewing.  “They totally ruined that film for us!”

 

Thankfully, there were plenty of films on the club’s programmes that everyone enjoyed.  Comedies did very well. In addition to Life of Brian, we got Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), the Billy Connolly tour-documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), at least four Woody Allen efforts – Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again Sam (1972) and Sleeper (1973) – and at least three Mel Brooks ones – Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976).  The Doc was evidently worried about how we’d react to the later scenes of Blazing Saddles, when the film becomes increasingly ‘meta’ and characters burst out of its western setting and invade the settings of other movies, and he gave us a talk before it started and explained the anarchic effect Brooks was trying to achieve.  However, we hardly noticed when Blazing Saddles broke the fourth wall because we were still guffawing about the much-earlier scene involving the campfire, the plates of beans, and the cowboys farting like mad.  We were such sophisticates.

 

Also approved of were action / thriller movies, such as The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974), both of which were directed by Michael Winner – the Doc, though he had good taste in movies generally, seemed to have a blind-spot when it came to le cinéma du Winner.  Curiously, the action movie I remember provoking the biggest and most visceral response during my four years in the club was, of all things, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978).  The audience almost blew off the assembly hall’s roof cheering that film’s finale, when Eliot Gould and Telly Savalas swooped down in an old crop-duster plane and rescued James Brolin from the bad guys.

 

© Paramount Pictures / Shamley Productions

 

What I feel especially grateful for now was that the Film Club allowed me to see certain films where they ought to be seen, on a big, cinematically proportioned screen, as opposed to on a pokey little television set.  I was four years too young in 1979 to see Ridley Scott’s X-rated Alien when it was released in cinemas, but the Film Club gave me the chance to see it in its full, terrifying immensity a couple of years later.  That big screen also gave much, extra impact to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) – of which Stephen King once said, “In terms of ideas, the film is an idiotic mishmash.  In terms of image… the film is brilliant” – and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), whose white backgrounds seemed especially suffocating on a large scale.  Best of all, though, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in correspondingly epic dimensions.  I felt I was hurtling alongside Keir Dullea through that stargate at the movie’s climax.

 

And not only did you get to see movies in large form – you got to see them in the presence of a lot of other people too.  This could be a pain when many of those people didn’t appreciate the film, as I’ve said.  When they did appreciate it, though, and the hall was filled with a shared and palpable sense of excitement, the experience was electrifying.  I’ll never forget the terrifying final scenes involving Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), which caused everyone in the audience to jump six inches off their seats.  Meanwhile, we shouldn’t have enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because it was old and monochrome and relatively bloodless.  But it managed to scare the bejesus out us while we watched it communally.  In fact, I feel privileged that I got to see Psycho on a big screen, with an audience, at a time when the film’s twist ending hadn’t yet become common knowledge.

 

As I hinted earlier, things didn’t end well for Mike Kellaway at Peebles High School.  Shortly before I finished school, he was discovered to be in a relationship with one of his pupils.  She was above the age of consent, but nonetheless he broke the bond of trust that’s supposed to exist between teachers and pupils and caused much hurt and embarrassment to his family and colleagues.  Astonishing though it seems today, he was allowed in those more lenient times to quietly move away and start a teaching job in another part of Scotland.

 

I really wish I could say that was the end of it.  However, years later, he took his own life after he was suspended at another school over allegations that he was in another relationship with a pupil.  The investigation into these claims was dropped immediately after his death.  And that’s all I know of the matter.

 

Anyway, in Peebles, when my contemporaries and I reminisce about school, Kellaway’s name sometimes crops up and inevitably the conversation turns to the scandal he was embroiled in.  But occasionally we go on to discuss his Film Club and we agree that, whatever pain and mess he caused in his professional and personal life, he showed his pupils some great films, in optimal circumstances; and in some of those students at least, he encouraged a love of cinema.  Look at me now, for example.  I’m obsessed with films and rarely shut up about them.  A good quarter of this blog, if not more, is devoted to the topic.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Incidentally, here’s a list of all the movies I recall being show at the Film Club between 1978 and 1982.  But I’m sure there are a few gaps in my memory and a few omissions in the list…

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozetto, 1976), Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968), Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967), Big Banana Feet (Murray Grigor, 1976), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Le Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978), Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967), Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), Car Wash (Michael Schultz, 1976), The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979), Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Every Which Way but Loose (James Fargo, 1978), From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963), Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977), The Graduate (Mike Nicholls, 1968), Gumshoe (Stephen Frears, 1971), Heaven can Wait (Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, 1978), Un Homme et une Femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)…

 

If… (Lindsey Anderson, 1968), Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977), The Jokers (Michael Winner, 1967), Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton, 1970), Kes (Ken Loach, 1969), The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Lancelot Du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963), Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978), Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971), M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman, 1970), The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1980), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Blake Edwards, 1976), Play It Again Sam (Woody Allen, 1972), Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (Jonathan Miller, Roger Graef, 1976), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)…

 

The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson, 1966), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeferelli, 1968), The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 1976), Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973), Snoopy Come Home (Bill Melendez, 1972), Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Stardust (Michael Apted, 1974), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), That’ll be the Day (Claude Watham, 1973), The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), The Ultimate Warrior (Robert Clouse, 1975), The Vikings (Richard Fleisher, 1958), Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967), The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966), Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).

 

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

 

From www.derekthomas.wordpress.com

From www.sodahead.com

 

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!’

 

From mairnorarochwind.wordpress.com

 

‘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

From www.yeshighland.net

 

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