Student politics

 

© Profile Books

 

I’ve just read a review in the Guardian of Simon Kuper’s new book, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. Chums tell the real-life story of student politics at Oxford University during the 1980s, a world whose inhabitants would often become well-known public figures in the 21st century.  On the Labour side there were ‘the Miliband Brothers, Dave and Ted, and Eddie Balls and Yvette Cooper’, who were busy ‘organising rent protests at their respective colleges’.  However, it was some Conservative student politicos at Oxford in the 1980s who’d become particular big-hitters and who’d handle – or mishandle – the levers of power in Britain during the 2010s and 2020s.

 

They included Michael Gove, whom Kuper says was bought, wearing a kilt, for 35 pounds at a charity-fundraising ‘slave auction’ at Oxford Union in 1987.  Even in 2022 and even after three-and-a-half decades of inflation, 35 pounds seems rather more than Michael Gove is worth, though maybe the kilt bumped up his value a bit.

 

They also included Britain’s current Prime Minister, the walking disaster area that is Boris Johnson.  Recently, the Mail on Sunday claimed that Johnson’s ‘Oxford Union debating skills’ were so formidable that, during debates in the House of Commons, Labour’s working-class, comprehensive-school-educated deputy leader Angela Rayner had to resort to crossing her legs like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992) to distract him.  According to Kuper, the young Johnson’s debating strategy was ‘to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments’ and rely instead on ‘carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes’.

 

Also spicing up life in 1980s Tory Oxford University was David Cameron, though he was ‘rich enough and connected enough to feel himself above the “hackery” of student politics’; the BBC’s future political editor Nick Robinson; Daniel Hannan, NHS-basher, Enoch Powell fan, arch-Brexiteer and now in the House of Lords as Baron Hannan of Kingsclere, who, it’s been said, ‘may have contributed more to the ideas, arguments and tactics of Euroscepticism than any other individual’; and the future spin-doctoring Svengali behind Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings.  Cummings, apparently, was a protégé of Dr Norman Stone, the historian, lecturer, author, advisor to Margaret Thatcher and student-groping pisshead from Glasgow.  One obituary published after Stone’s death in 2019 hilariously noted that he ‘hated Oxford, which he thought… was full of Marxists.’  Actually, I can’t imagine Stone and Cummings together without thinking of Saruman and Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings movies (2002-04).

 

© New Line Cinema / WingNut Films

 

Incidentally, Kuper acknowledges that Oxford University educated and employed not only J.R.R. Tolkien but also Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis.  He notes how ‘the timeless paradise of Oxford inspired its inhabitants to produce timeless fantasies like Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Narnia and, incubating from the late 1980s, Brexit.’

 

Anyway, apart from making me mightily glad that I didn’t attend Oxford University during the 1980s, reading about Kuper’s book has got me thinking about the place where I was a student during the 1980s, Aberdeen University.  What about the student politicians I encountered there?  Did any of them ever get near – remotely near – those all-important ‘levers of power’?  There follows a heavily revised, fully up-to-date version of a piece about this subject I first posted in 2014.

 

To be honest, I wouldn’t have encountered any student politicians at all if I hadn’t got involved with Aberdeen University’s student newspaper and co-edited it for a term in 1986.  The newspaper office was located in the same building as the offices and meeting rooms where the members of the Students’ Representative Council did their business.  And obviously, those student politicians also figured in a lot of the stories we reported on.  So, I got to observe the species close up.

 

The one who probably did best for himself was Stephen Carter, who served as SRC President from 1985 to 1986.  I found Carter lacking in warmth, humour and character and at one point, in a fit of naughtiness, I published in the newspaper a spoof article depicting him as an aloof Roman Emperor in the manner of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels.  The article was entitled I, Carterus.  We didn’t get on very well, though not because I’d likened him to one of the Caesars.  Near the end of my editorship, I wrote a front-page article that made several criticisms of his reign as student president, which infuriated him.  To be fair, I later discovered that I’d made an error with a financial figure I’d quoted, so at least part of his anger was justified.  Being bawled out by the bland, automation-like Carter was a strange experience.   The abuse didn’t seem to emanate from a real human being.  It was like being scolded by an indignant speak-your-wait machine or a cranky elevator voice-recording.

 

From gov.uk

 

Decades later, in 2008, Carter served as Gordon Brown’s Downing Street Chief of staff.  Also, from 2008 to 2009, he was Brown’s Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.  As he wasn’t a member of either house at Westminster at the time, which would have barred him from taking on a ministerial position, he was quickly ennobled.  He was made Baron Carter of Barnes and entered the House of Lords.  I didn’t hear much about how that he got in on those roles, except for claims that his relationship with Brown’s notorious spin-doctor Damian McBride was ‘fractious’.  Actually, McBride was such a scumbag that it’s to Carter’s credit that the pair of them didn’t get along.

 

Coincidentally, days before Stephen Carter – sorry, Baron Carter of Barnes – ended his stint as Brown’s Chief of Staff, I found myself a full-time student again.  In October 2008 I started an MA course at the University of East Anglia.  The students there had mounted a protest against student debt, with hundreds of them sticking fake cheques to a campus wall.  On each cheque was written the sum of money that each student expected to owe by the time of his or her graduation.  To me (who’d graduated in 1987 with an overdraft of £1,500, which I paid off within two years), some of those sums were eye-watering: £40,000 or more.  What, I wondered, would we have thought at Aberdeen University in the mid-1980s if we’d known that our student president would one day be a key figure in a government presiding over levels of student debt we wouldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares?

 

Another student politician from that era who’s done well is Katy Clark.  She was a leading light in Aberdeen University’s Labour Party and in 2005 became Labour Member of Parliament for North Ayrshire and Arran.  Her career as an MP ended in 2015 with the virtual wipe-out of Scotland’s Labour seats that happened under the kamikaze leadership of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and spin-doctor John McTiernan.  However, she kept busy, working as a strategist for Jeremy Corbyn and authoring for him a review of the Labour Party’s democratic structures. Then, in 2021, she got elected to the Scottish Parliament as a Labour MSP for the West of Scotland region.

 

From wikipedia.org / © The Scottish Parliament

 

When I co-edited the student newspaper, Katy came to our attention when she led protests against Aberdeen University’s then-rector, the former Scottish National Party MP Hamish Watt.  At a debate during Freshers’ Week, Watt had made some supposedly-jovial comments in which he compared the young female students who’d just arrived on campus to ‘unbroken fillies’.  Now, while Watt undoubtedly deserved to be strung up by his sexist testicles, I didn’t enjoy having to speak to Katy about the incident.  I found her to be intense, one-note, lacking in personality and devoid of humour.  Actually, looking at what I’ve just written about Stephen Carter, a theme seems to be emerging in that regard.

 

Despite that, I felt some admiration for Katy because, unlike many other student politicians, she stuck by the left-wing principles she’d had as a university student and didn’t drift rightwards as she started to earn money.  During her career as an MP, she voted against the introduction of ID cards, against the renewal of the Trident missile system and against bombing campaigns in Iraq.  However, in 2020, that admiration was dampened by the fact that she accepted a peerage and entered the House of Lords as Baroness Clark of Kilwinning.

 

What were you thinking, Katy?  I don’t know how any socialists could debase themselves by becoming members of the archaic, undemocratic and embarrassing Lords.  It’s a place where you rub ermine-clad shoulders with the likes of Baroness Michelle Mone of Mayfair (who’s just had her home raided by police as part of a fraud investigation into her links with a dodgy PPE company); and Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe (who got where she is today through cronyism and blew 22 billion pounds of taxpayers’ money on a failed Covid-19 track-and-trace system); and Baroness Claire Fox of Buckley (the former Revolutionary Communist Party member, Bosnian genocide denier and IRA supporter, now swivel-eyed Brexiteer and enthusiast for all things right-wing); and the afore-mentioned Baron Daniel Hannon of Kingsclere… and many more.

 

While she was there, I wonder if Katy ever bumped into her old Aberdeen University compadre Lord Carter of Barnes and they reminisced about their days on campus in the 1980s. (“What was the name of that hairy, beer-swilling prick with the Northern Irish accent who used to edit the student newspaper?”  “Can’t remember…”)

 

I should add that while running for the Scottish Parliament, Katy promised to ‘stand down’ from the House of Lords; and, according to her Wikipedia entry, on becoming an MSP she took ‘a leave of absence’ from the decrepit institution.  That, though, isn’t the same as ‘quitting’ it.  Also, I notice that on Wikipedia she’s still billed as ‘Baroness Clark of Kilwinning.’

 

From wikipedia.org / © The Scottish Parliament

 

To the rightward end of the spectrum, meanwhile, I have to mention someone else from my old alumni – Murdo Fraser, who’s in the Scottish Parliament as an MSP for the Mid-Scotland and Fife region and was once deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.  That Murdo became a big name in Tory circles surprised me because he’d seemed an unprepossessing character in Aberdeen.  The detail I remember most about him was that he wore a Glasgow Rangers scarf 24/7, to the point where I wondered if it’d been stitched on.  A good friend who knew him a little, the late Finlay McLean, told me once that he had ‘the personality of a deep-frozen Cyberman’.  Then again, for an ambitious politician, not having a personality seems to be part of the course.

 

Murdo’s political ascendancy happened despite the fact that he was once associated with the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation that by the 1980s had become more right-wing than the Conservative Party of which it was the university branch.  At the time the Conservative Party was led by Margaret Thatcher, so being more right-wing than her was quite an achievement.  In 1986, after a string of well-publicised incidents – wherein FCS members had abused ethnic-minority staff at student bars, brayed their support for the Contras in El Salvador, sang the Special AKA song Free Nelson Mandela with the words changed to ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’, and so on – this extreme-minded group was disbanded by Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbit.  And yes, being disbanded by Norman Tebbit for being too extreme was quite an achievement too.

 

The FCS at Aberdeen University were particularly obnoxious.  Among other things, they had a penchant for insulting gay people and taunting them about AIDS.  The start of my term as newspaper editor coincided with an incident wherein a bunch of FCS students invaded and disrupted a health-and-welfare talk being given to an audience of new students.  Their motive for disrupting the talk seemed to be because it covered safe sex for gay as well as straight students and was therefore, somehow, encouraging AIDS.

 

Later, after the newspaper had published an article about the society for gay students, Gay Soc, we received a letter from one deranged FCS member accusing us of furthering the interests of ‘the plague rats of the 20th century’.  We published his letter in the belief that by allowing the FCS to air their views publicly, we were letting people see what arseholes they were.  Give them enough rope and they’d hang themselves, we felt.  However, at least one gay friend of mine was deeply upset that the letter had appeared in our newspaper.  Today, 35 years on, I’d think twice about publishing it.

 

In Murdo Fraser’s defence, I’ll admit that he seemed aware of what a squad of bampots he was having to keep company with in the FCS.  He kept his mouth shut when the rest of them were being as offensively vocal as possible, and whenever I saw them strutting about the campus en masse he seemed to trail silently and reluctantly along at the back, rather like Eddie Bunker’s Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs (1992).  Actually, being Mr Blue was appropriate given his footballing allegiances.

 

Having dissed the Labour and the Conservative Parties, I suppose in the interest of balance I should say something about Aberdeen University’s 1980s Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats as they are now.  The Liberals’ most visible representative was one Dan Falchikov who, with his excitable and eccentric manner and his striking dress sense (a psychedelically-coloured sweater), possessed something that other people I’ve mentioned lacked: a personality.  And I think Dan was a genuinely well-meaning guy even if he wasn’t endowed with a great deal of common sense.  However, he was also an easy target for us unscrupulous hacks at the student newspaper and we spent a lot of time poking fun at him, calling him ‘Dan the Man’, ‘Desperate Dan’ and (when he was being particularly off-the-wall) ‘Dan F**k-me-off’.

 

From the Sutton & Croydon Guardian

 

Out of curiosity, I googled his name a while ago and discovered that, in 2010, while he was a Liberal Democrat activist in the London constituency of Kingston-upon-Thames, Dan got himself embroiled in controversy.  He was overheard boasting on a train that he’d managed to ‘plant’ a story, a false story, in the Evening Standard newspaper about the Labour Party having plans to close Kingston Hospital.  Unbeknownst to Dan while he blabbed about this into a mobile phone, a train-passenger sitting nearby was none other than the journalist Kevin Maguire, political editor of the Daily Mirror.  Maguire not only tweeted about what he was overhearing but also sneaked a camera-phone picture of Dan and posted it online.  Thus, it was a bit unsettling to find the eccentric, psychedelically-sweatered Dan the Man of Aberdeen University dabbling in the political dark arts and establishing himself as the bad boy of local politics in Kingston-upon-Thames.

 

I should add that since then Dan seems to have ditched the Liberal Democrats and joined the Green Party.  Considering that the Lib Dems were part of David Cameron’s discredited, austerity-obsessed coalition government from 2010 to 2015, and were disastrously led by Jo ‘nuke-’em’ Swinson in 2019, this suggests he has more sense than I’d credited him with.

 

I don’t think any of the student politicos I knew in the Scottish National Party went on to have political careers.  Probably having to deal with Hamish Watt, the university rector, ex-SNP MP and vocal admirer of young unbroken fillies, put them off politics for good.

 

I’ve tried to keep this account of student politics at Aberdeen University light-hearted, but there were some goings-on I found pretty unsavoury.  For example, before I graduated, some nasty rumours circulated in the SRC building about one student politician making another one pregnant.  There wasn’t actually a pregnancy but this didn’t prevent two SRC people, from two different political parties, both of whom had axes to grind with the guy involved, from approaching me and assuring me it was true.  One even swore that she’d seen the results of a pregnancy test.  Presumably, I was fed this false information in the hope that, as a student journalist, I’d spread the word to the detriment of the guy’s reputation.  Never mind what distress it’d cause him or the woman.  None of the people I’ve mentioned above, I should say, were involved in this saga.

 

Some student politicians I did genuinely like.  Indeed, if I ever bumped into the likes of Graeme Whiteside, Tim Morrison, Alan Strain or Stuart Black again on the High Street of Old Aberdeen, I’d invite them into the St Machar Bar and buy them a pint.  However, with regard to those people, there’s a sobering point to make.  None of those decent sorts, as far as I know, pursued their political careers any further than university.  None of them ended up becoming real politicians.

 

It reinforces Douglas Adams’ famous comment in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) that “it is a well-known and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

 

From wikipedia.org / © Nick Bramhall

Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?

 

© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+

 

I recently watched The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), directed by Joel Cohen (without, for the first time ever, his brother Ethan co-directing) and starring Denzel Washington as William Shakespeare’s king-stabbing, crown-grabbing Scotsman.  Meanwhile, in the role of Macbeth’s spouse, the ruthless Lady Macbeth, is Cohen’s real-life spouse Frances McDormand.  It’s difficult to sum up my reaction to the film. I suppose you could say: liked it… stopped liking it… started liking it again.

 

The opening sequence, the aftermath of the battle between Scotland and the combined armies of Ireland and Norway, takes place on a beach.  Thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s monochrome cinematography, it’s palely, clammily and impressively atmospheric.  Mind you, within a couple of minutes of hearing the performers’ accents – Ralph Ineson speaking broad Yorkshire, Harry Melling speaking broad RP and Brendan Gleason speaking broad Irish – you realise this isn’t going to be a particularly Scottish take on the Scottish play.

 

Enter Washington’s Macbeth, speaking broad American, and Bertie Carvel’s Banquo. They encounter the Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter) and hear their fateful prophecies.  Soon after, the prophecies start coming true as Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor thanks to his valour during the battle.  And the plot – literally a plot, with Washington and McDormand conspiring to kill Gleason’s King Duncan and seize the Scottish throne – is underway.

 

So, for me, the film gets off to a strong start.  I went off it, however, when the action relocates to Macbeth’s castle, where Duncan spends the night as a guest, and we get the build-up, execution and aftermath of his murder.  Ironically, this was because of something many critics have praised the film for, its stylised sets and lighting, which give the castle’s interior the look of a perspective-bending M.C. Escher illustration, shot in the manner of a German expressionist silent movie or a 1940s American film noir.

 

My problem was that the shafts of stark white light (necessary to produce the black shadows elsewhere) and the sense of silence, stillness and solidity evoked by the sets make a nonsense of Shakespeare’s theme that, by murdering Duncan and violating the human social order, Macbeth sparks a chain reaction with violent effects in the natural world too: “Where we lay / Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say / Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death / And prophesying, with accents terrible / Of dire combustion and confused events… / …Some say the earth / Was feverous and did shake.” Well, you don’t get any impression of falling-down chimneys, lamentings, dire combustion, confused events and feverous earthquakes in an environment as still and sombre as this.  In fact, there’s little suggestion that night-time occurred at all – the castle windows seem to blaze permanently with light.

 

I actually didn’t respond well to the overall, stylised, sometimes artificial look of the film, though I suspect that’s just me.  I spent some of my formative years in Scotland, so to me the places mentioned in the play – Glamis, Cawdor, Fife – aren’t just names but real geographical locations.  I prefer Macbeth movies with proper Scottish landscapes, with primordial mountains, moors, glens and lochs that to my mind create an appropriate backdrop for the dark and bloody goings-on.

 

© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+

 

However, The Tragedy of Macbeth regained my interest later on.  The sequence where Macbeth has his second meeting with the Weird Sisters is staged with wonderful inventiveness and thereafter the movie gets its second wind.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family is impressively done too, conveying the cruelty of the deed without descending into a bloodbath.  (As the first murderer assaults one of the young Macduff-lings, he utters the memorable Shakespearean cry, “What, you egg!”, although the punning follow-up line, “Young fry of treachery!” is excised here.  Also removed is the doomed youngster’s exclamation, “He has kill’d me, mother!”  At school, while my classmates and I studied Macbeth for the Scottish O-Grade, we found this really funny for some reason.)

 

One thing many critics have remarked upon is the age of the two leads. Washington and McDormand are both in their late middle-age, no longer able to have children.  This makes their murder of Duncan and the seizing of the throne more egotistical – they aren’t doing it for their line, which doesn’t and won’t exist, but purely for themselves.  Their childlessness, of course, contrasts with the fecundity of the two thorns in their sides.  Banquo has a son, Fleance, and Macduff has a whole brood of kids.  It also underlines Macbeth’s wariness of Banquo, for whom the Weird Sisters prophesise: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”

 

Elsewhere, my impression of The Tragedy of Macbeth was that some things worked well and other things less well.  Kathryn Hunter is splendid as the Weird Sisters.  There’s only one of them who’s flesh and blood, though that twisted, contorted body of hers seems to be inhabited by the spirits of all three.  The figures of the other two only materialise in the physical world as reflections – Macbeth’s and Banquo’s first sighting of them, at the edge of a pool, is memorably creepy. Perhaps Hunter’s performance gets slightly too Andy Serkis at times, but it’s still very effective.

 

On the other hand, the promotion of the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) from being one of the original play’s interchangeable Scottish thanes to, here, being a Machiavellian, possibly even supernatural, manipulator who’s playing both sides – he delivers the warning to Lady Macduff about Macbeth’s evil intentions, but also turns up as the mysterious third murderer who does for Banquo, and there’s even a suggestion that he has a hand in Lady Macbeth’s suicide – is intriguing but doesn’t really come off.  With the Weird Sisters, the play already has Machiavellian manipulators.  It doesn’t need any more.

 

© StudioCanal / Film4

 

It’s interesting to compare this Macbeth with the cinematic adaptations that have come before.  I preferred it to the Justin Kurzel-directed version, released in 2015, which despite a great cast – Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff – seems rather subdued, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  It also chops out parts of the play that, while admittedly hammy, I’ve always enjoyed, for example, the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter, and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the Weird Sisters.  At least in The Tragedy of Macbeth these are reinstated.  Stephen Root gives a funny turn as the porter and Joel Cohen seems to relish the macabre incantations of the Weird Sisters: “Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab / Liver of blaspheming Jew / Gall of goat and slips of yew…”  Well, he did start his movie career as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981).

 

Still, the 2015 Macbeth looks lovely and it satisfies my craving for proper Scottish landscapes in a Macbeth movie.  Many of its outdoor scenes were shot on the Isle of Skye, although admittedly parts of it were also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.  Also visually striking is the sequence where Macbeth squares up to Macduff.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal, almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.

 

For me, though, the best movie Macbeth is Roman Polanski’s version of it back in 1971, which had Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the lead roles.  This made a big impression on me.  I was 15 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and artiness – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething at the time in my teenaged self.  And no doubt I felt a connection with the film too because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics, upset by its violence and disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to replicate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

Incidentally, the exteriors in Polanski’s Macbeth look rugged enough to be Scottish, but the film was actually shot elsewhere, in Wales (including Snowdonia) and north-eastern England.  And, yes, Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle makes an appearance in this version too.

 

One other cinematic Macbeth I’ve seen is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets, and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in its eyes and shaking its ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.

 

There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth.  It doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

 

And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth is shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, sounds like Scotty in the original series of Star Trek (1966-69).  Meanwhile, the Weird Sisters’ accents are so piercing they remind me of those advertisements that Scottish children’s entertainer and showbiz personality Molly Weir used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching!”

 

And on that topic…  While one of the play’s strengths is that it can be adapted to countless different settings and styles, I would one day like to see a truly Scottish film version of Macbeth, with authentic Scottish actors and accents as well as those brooding Scottish landscapes I’ve talked about.  You can’t claim, as you might have been able to in the past, that there aren’t enough bankable Scottish actors to draw audiences to it.  Not with the likes of Peter Capaldi, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane, Martin Compston, James Cosmo, Brian Cox, Kate Dickie, Lindsay Duncan, Karen Gillan, Shirley Henderson, Jack Lowden, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald, Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd, Bill Paterson, Dougray Scott, Ken Stott, David Tennant, etc., on the go nowadays.

 

Hell, I’d even pay money to see Gerald Butler as Macbeth.  Cawdor Has Fallen, anyone?

 

© Mercury Productions / Republic Pictures

Things get frosty for Tiger Tim

 

From durham.academia.edu

 

The other day I discovered that my old alma mater, Peebles High School in the Scottish Borders, had a Wikipedia entry.  Near the end of it was a ‘notable alumni’ section.  I reacted with a disgruntled “Oh God, him,” when I saw listed among those notable alumni ‘Tim Luckhurst, journalist and academic’.

 

Minutes later, I headed over to the Guardian’s website to check the news headlines.  It seemed a mighty coincidence when I started reading a story under the headline DURHAM HEAD STEPS BACK AFTER CALLING STUDENTS ‘PATHETIC’ AT ROD LIDDLE EVENT and discovered that the head in question, the principal of Durham University’s South College, was none other than Tim Luckhurst – that distinguished journalistic and academic graduate mentioned in Peebles High School’s Wikipedia entry.

 

During the mid-to-late 1970s, Tim was a few years ahead of me at school.  He was a well-kent figure, lanky, curly-haired, lugubrious-faced and sloping around the place in a combat jacket and a T-shirt saying LEGALISE CANNABIS – in those permissive times at Peebles High you weren’t obliged to wear a school uniform.  To my mates and I he was known contemptuously  as ‘Chairman Mao’.  I think he spoke to me just once, at a careers evening being held in the school.  I was about to go into a classroom where the affable Atholl Innes, then editor of local newspaper the Peeblesshire News, was dispensing advice to young people who were interested in becoming journalists.  Out of that classroom emerged Tim and, to me, he declared emphatically, “Well, I know what I want to be!”

 

Probably Tim had already resolved to become a journalist and Atholl Innes had been preaching to the already-converted.  But I sometimes wonder if he hadn’t made up his mind until entering that classroom and his meeting with Athol Innes had been a moment of revelation – “Yes, newspapers,” Tim had cried, “that’s the life for me!”  If the latter is the case, I can only say, “Atholl…  You created a monster.”

 

Incidentally, that Tim had to attend a lowly comprehensive school like Peebles High, up in the windy wilds of North Britain, full of horrible little oiks like myself, still rankles with the man.  Writing for the Guardian in 2010 he quoted Ellen Wilkinson, Secretary of State for Education in the post-war British Labour government, as saying of her childhood in non-selective schooling in Manchester: “The top few pupils were intelligent and could mop up facts like blotting paper, but we were made to wait for the rest of the huge classes…  We wanted to stretch our minds but were merely a nuisance.”  Tim noted sourly, “Thirty years later I experienced comparable misery at my Scottish comprehensive.”

 

From the Peeblesshire News

 

I should point out that although it denied Tim the chance to stretch his fabulous mind and soak up facts like a sheet of super-absorbent blotting paper, Peebles High School must have done something for his education.  In fact, it was good enough to get him into Cambridge University.  At Cambridge, incidentally, according to one Luckhurst-bio I’ve found online, “…he played bass guitar in Tony Tiger and the Frosties.”  I know it’s wrong to judge bands by their names alone, but Tony Tiger and the Frosties sound like the most horrible thing to have strutted onstage on the Oxbridge music scene since the early 1970s, when a student band called the Ugly Rumours featured one Tony Blair as their frontman.

 

I suspect the disdain Tim feels for his alma mater in Peebles is mutual.  I recall several years back chatting to one of my old teachers, now a sweet little pensioner, when Tim’s name somehow cropped up in the conversation.  The teacher underwent a startling metamorphosis, hands becoming clenched and claw-like, face dark and scowling, and blurted wrathfully, “Tim is just an ARSEHOLE!”

 

During the 1980s and 1990s, Tim served as press officer for the Labour Party’s then-sizeable cabal of Scottish MPs, including Shadow Secretary State for Scotland Donald Dewar; stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in Roxburgh and Berwickshire in a general election; and worked for the BBC.  I’d forgotten that the guy existed until February 2000, when he was announced as the new editor of my Dad’s favourite newspaper, Edinburgh’s venerable and respected Scotsman.  Actually, by then, the Scotsman was a lot less respected.  It’d been acquired by the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings Group and for several years had suffered under the crass stewardship of Andrew Neil, the Group’s editor-in-chief.  Tim lasted as Scotsman editor only until May that same year, when he was replaced by Rebecca Hardy, whom I knew from a previous phase of my life too – but that’s a story for another day.

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

In 2013, Tim and his old boss at the Scotsman, Andrew Neil, had a rammy on twitter.  Tim contradicted Neil on something and Neil replied, “And I made you Editor of the The Scotsman.  Most stupid decision ever.  But at least I fired you six days later.”  When Tim countered with, “Would you care to retract that statement, Andrew?  It might be wise,” Neil retorted, “Bring it on.  And let me pay to straighten your teeth.”  For the record, I’ll print what the Evening Standard said about the row: “…Professor Luckhurst was not ‘sacked after six days’ from the Scotsman, as Neil claims, but resigned due to ill health after four months.”  And I assume that, following the debacle of his involvement with GB News, Andrew Neil now considers giving Tim the Scotsman’s editorship only his second most stupid decision ever.

 

Following the Scotsman, Tim spent seven years as political editor of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail (which, with hindsight, was surely a good fit for him).  Then he entered academia with a job as Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent, and then joined Durham University in 2019.  Despite having been a one-time backroom operative with the Labour Party, his politics by this time had clearly shifted rightwards.  However, I’ll hazard a guess and say he views himself as a moderate, old-school Tory rather than a ranting, frothing, hard-right one.  From the occasional glances I’ve had at his twitter feed, he seems impressed neither by Brexit nor by the antics of Boris Johnson.

 

That said, his moderate Tory-ness stops at the English-Scottish border.  One step north of that border and his moderate Tory-ness changes to rabid Unionism.  He might once have worked for Donald Dewar, viewed as the ‘father’ of the Scottish devolution settlement and the devolved Scottish parliament, but by 2001 he was demanding in a Guardian opinion piece that Whitehall consider abolishing the parliament, Dewar’s baby: “Scotland needs Whitehall at least to threaten repeal.  To demand less in the present climate would be unpatriotic.”

 

That article was mild, though, compared with one he wrote for the New Statesman that same year.  Entitled SCOTLAND RETURNS TO THE DARK AGES, he used it to blame devolution for releasing a tsunami of evils like homophobia, sectarianism, misogyny, racism and, er, the banning of fox-hunting.  In the civilised days before devolution unleashed the Scots’ inner beastliness, he wrote, such things had been ‘diluted by the soothing balm of the British state’.  Strangely enough, that article is no longer available on the New Statesman’s website.

 

Meanwhile, his twitter feed has been punctuated by tone-deaf pronouncements on Scotland that surely only appeal to a minority of ultra-Unionist Scots for whom 1690 is as important a year as 1707.  I remember him expressing horror at the Scottish government punting a few million pounds towards the promotion of the Gaelic language; or retweeting a video of Ross Thomson – the demented hard-Brexiting, Boris-worshipping Tory ex-MP for Aberdeen South – professing his undying love for the United Kingdom amid a thicket of Union Jacks.  I wonder what will happen if Scotland becomes independent.  Poor Tim’s head will probably explode like the guy’s head did at the beginning of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981).

 

But onto 2021.  Tim landed himself in hot water when, as head of South College at Durham University, he invited his old mate and colleague Rod Liddle to give a speech at a ‘college formal’ event in early December.  He and Liddle have known each other since 1985 and worked together on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.  Indeed, in 2010, Tim wrote a Guardian piece in support of Liddle’s candidacy to become editor of the Independent newspaper.  This was a prospect that alarmed many readers of the reasonably-liberal Independent because Liddle had earned himself a reputation for being misogynistic, homophobic and racist.  Pretty much all the things Tim once accused the Scottish parliament of being.

 

From twitter.com/sunapology

 

Liddle is a ‘columnist’ – i.e., gobshite-provocateur – with the Spectator, Sun and Sunday Times and even by the standards of the gobshite-provocateurs that infest the pages of Britain’s mostly right-wing press, forever seeking new ways to upset people, the charge-sheet against him is disproportionately long.  Here’s just a few of his low-points.  He was a pig towards Labour politician Harriet Harman.  (“So – Harriet Harman, then.  Would you?  I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober.”  In his Guardian puff-piece about Liddle, Tim euphemistically described this remark as ‘not gallant’.)  He mocked another female Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, for speaking out about verbal abuse and humiliation she’d received from a former partner – “the sobbing and oppressed Rosie ‘MeToo’ Duffield”.  He’s complained about the Conservative party not being Islamophobic enough and suggested that elections be held on days when “Muslims are forbidden to do anything on pain of hell.”  He’s raved about “black savages”.  He’s dismissed Welsh language activists as “miserable, seaweed-munching, sheep-bothering pinch-faced hill-tribes”.  He’s explained: “…the one thing that stopped me from being a teacher was that I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids.”  And so on, and so forth.

 

When Liddle stood up at the event and launched into a speech filled with his predictably reactionary schtick – jokes about sex workers, comments about trans-women having ‘long, dangling penises’ and the charming hypothesis that British colonialism never did anyone any harm because its subjects weren’t intelligent anyway – members of the student audience started walking out.  Tim, tigerish about defending everyone’s right to freedom of expression, and everyone’s right to have Rod Liddle inflicted upon them, reportedly shouted at them that they were ‘pathetic’.  There’s also video footage in circulation on twitter showing Tim arguing with students after the event.  Meanwhile, his wife Dorothy Luckhurst, who might have been slightly over-refreshed at the time, can be seen shouting at those students things like, “I think you are an arse…  Arse, arse, arse, arse, arse…!  Arse, arse, arse, arse, arse…!”

 

From twitter.com/RDuskedd

 

Did Tim honestly believe that he could invite Liddle onto a university campus and there wouldn’t be trouble?  He must be a bit thick.  Or maybe he was deliberately trying to stir up a hornet’s nest – which, if that was the case, he succeeded in doing.

 

I’m actually not a fan of censorship by the left, in the form of ‘no-platforming’, ‘cancel culture’ or whatever you want to call it.  That’s because I’d always assumed censorship was an instrument used by the right and there was no excuse for the left to use it too.  But there’s a time and place for debates where extreme views, offensive to many, can be aired and argued with.  And the event at South College was clearly neither the time nor place.  For one thing, the attendees had paid ten pounds a head to be there and hadn’t been warned in advance that the entertainment included Rod ‘shag the kids’ Liddle.  If I’d been present, I’d have walked out too when Liddle started spewing his crap at me – just as I’d have done in the 1980s or 1990s if I’d bought a ticket for what I expected to be a mild-mannered comedy night and then Bernard Manning had lumbered on stage and started cracking jokes about ‘darkies’ and ‘poofs’ and ‘Paddies’.  And incidentally, isn’t walking out a legitimate form of expression in itself?  Especially when, as with Liddle’s audience, you don’t have access to a microphone.

 

It’s fascinating how Tim, and the whole media / political establishment that he’s a member of, claim to be champions of free speech when there’s a danger that people might stop listening to right-wing establishment opinions.  Yet it’s pretty difficult in Britain, if you interact with the media in anyway at all, not to be assailed relentlessly by right-wing opinions.  There’s the front-page headlines of reactionary rags like the Sun, Mail and Express screaming at you daily from the newsstands.  There’s the now completely cowed and broken-backed BBC parroting the right-wing agenda of the press when it does its morning newspaper round-ups.  There’s a seemingly endless parade of right-wing pundits from Nigel Farage downwards (and Farage is pretty far down already) getting platforms on TV news channels.  If Tim and co. are so desperate about promoting freedom of expression and making people experience views they wouldn’t otherwise hear, shouldn’t they be trying to expose hardcore readers of the Sun, Mail and Express to the opinions of Owen Jones, George Monbiot, Laurie Penny, John Pilger, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky?  Well, they should, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Currently, following a storm of Liddle-related protests, Tim has been parked on the naughty step at Durham University while his employers decide what action, if any, should be taken against him.  But even if he’s shown the door, I’m sure that a lucrative future awaits him at one of Britain’s countless right-wing news and / or opinion outlets, which will take him to its bosom as a martyr to the cause of freedom of (right-wing) speech and as a blameless victim of horrible, lefty, woke, cancel culture.

 

Now that his old nemesis Andrew Neil has left the building, I could even see him ending up at GB News.  He could form a double act with Neil Oliver, where they both whinge and gurn about the ghastliness of modern-day Scotland under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and how the Scots need their uncivilised natures to be ‘diluted by the soothing balm of the British state’.  Meanwhile, Tim’s better half could get a gig there as well.  Perhaps Talking Pints with Nigel Farage?

Tears of an ermine gown

 

From the Daily Record

 

For reasons of preserving my sanity, I’ve avoided writing about politics lately.  That includes the politics of my old homeland, Scotland.  However, I feel compelled to type a few words on the topic thanks to the coverage given to a recent interview with Jack McConnell.  Oops, sorry, I’ve misnamed him.  It should be Baron Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale.  The twitter handle he’s given himself is @LordMcConnell, so evidently these titles are important to him.  Baron McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007 and the last First Minister to belong to the Scottish Labour Party.

 

Last week, Baron McConnell was interviewed in the Scottish current affairs magazine Holyrood and had plenty to say about the current state of Scottish politics which, since he was nudged out of power by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party in 2007, have been dominated by the SNP.  The Baron is not happy at what he sees.  He laments that nothing has changed in Scotland since the 2014 referendum on independence (which, of course, his side won), laments that modern Scottish politics has ‘no public debate and no public accountability’, and pines for the good old days ‘of ministers doing their jobs well’.

 

Indeed, so strongly does he feel that at one point the interviewer notes, “McConnell’s voice starts to break and his eyes well up.”  “Sorry,” he says, “I’m feeling quite emotional about it right now…  I genuinely feel like we are stuck in treacle and I don’t know how we get out of it.”

 

Commentators in Scotland’s (heavily unionist) mainstream media have seized upon the article as both an articulation and confirmation of all that’s ghastly about modern-day Scotland, which has had the SNP in power for the past 14 years now and is currently under the First Ministership of Nicola Sturgeon.  In the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, for instance, pundit Kenny Farquharson wrote, “I challenge anyone, of any political stripe, to read this interview with Jack McConnell and not find themselves agreeing with at least some of his analysis of where Scotland finds itself right now.”  And in the New Statesman, Chris Deerin opined about Jack – sorry, Baron! – McConnell’s outpouring, “Coming from a politician who is known for his optimism and problem-solving approach, and who rarely lacks a twinkle in his eye, the anguish is all the more powerful.  And it is very hard to disagree with anything.”

 

Incidentally, Deerin has form in lambasting Scotland’s prevailing political orthodoxy.  In 2015, in the right-wing online news outlet CapX, he wrote that the place “has become a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink…  It is certainly the viewpoint that dominates our polity and media – an unholy alliance of Nationalists, Greens and socialists. I’m sure many consider themselves to be all three.”  I find it mind-melting that the left-leaning New Statesman saw fit to make him its Scotland Editor.

 

Baron McConnell apparently bewails a lack of vision in modern Scottish politics, though I’m surprised that someone with his broad vision doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in the last decade, by way of being part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has had to deal with the austerity cuts imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, and then the vote to leave the European Union (powered by anti-European votes in England – every part of Scotland voted to remain in the EU) and its ongoing, toxic legacy, and the Covid-19 epidemic.  Not to mention that the UK as a whole is currently governed by a set of Conservative politicians whose moral compass seems to be the same one that Al Capone referred to in the 1920s.  I doubt even a Scottish government with impeccable Unionist / Labour credentials headed by the noble Baron himself would appear particularly dynamic having all that to contend with.  So, it seems a bit myopic of him to overlook it.  Unless, of course, he’s just being disingenuous.

 

From angelfire.com

 

Also, when I think back to the supposed golden age of public debate, and public accountability, and ministers doing their jobs well, and not being stuck in treacle – i.e., Baron McConnell’s tenure as First Minister – I can’t remember much that was outstanding.  Well, apart from the ban on smoking in public places, the first such ban implemented in one of the constituent nations of the UK, which made life pleasanter and healthier for non-smokers like myself who liked to visit the pub sometimes.  But otherwise, I just remember him making an arse of himself by wearing a pinstriped kilt to a charity fashion show in New York in 2004.  (Even my old Dad, not normally one to get worked up about Scottish politics, exclaimed, “Christ, what an embarrassment!”).  Oh, and a stushie about him and his family holidaying in Majorca with Kirsty Wark, a senior journalist at the supposedly impartial BBC.  And his enthusiasm for promoting Public Finance Initiatives which, by 2016, were projected to cost Scottish taxpayers some 30 billion pounds during the decades to come.  And the fact that one year he returned 1.5 billion pounds of devolved money to the London treasury, when there were clearly things in Scotland he could have spent it on.

 

Still, Baron McConnell must have fond memories of those years.  A staunch Blairite, he had the satisfaction of knowing his smiley, warmongering hero was ensconced in Number Ten, Downing Street.  Also, the Labour Party was massively powerful in Scottish local politics, and it held the lion’s share of Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament too.  Labour were the top dogs in Scotland.  This was their territory.  No wonder political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster.

 

Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases.  I’m thinking of such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s one-time Labour MP Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show.  And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”.  And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”.  This shower became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs.  And with numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.

 

Yes, I know, in 1999, early in Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.  But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London.  The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e., the SNP) could never win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition.  And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co. assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.

 

It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration.  It was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats there.  Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen?  And things got even worse in 2015 when, with the Scottish party led by the hapless Jim Murphy, Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs to the SNP in a Westminster election.  Yes, it must’ve been tough for poor old Labour to witness all that.  There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.

 

From unsplash.com / © Serena Repice Lentini

 

Baron McConnell is a good example of a particularly rotten aspect of the Scottish Labour experience.  Secure a seat in the London or Edinburgh parliaments, follow orders, doff your cap to your masters, and after a few decades of loyal service you’ll get the ultimate reward – a peerage.  Scotland was meant to be not only Labour’s stomping ground, its fiefdom, but also its station of departure for a gravy train running all the way to the House of Lords.  These days, in the Lords, the second largest legislative chamber in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress – which is about as democratic – the good Baron of Glenscorrodale gets to rub ermine-clad shoulders with such other Scottish Labour luminaries as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock, Baron George Robertson of Port Ellon and Baron Alastair Darling of Roulanish.

 

No doubt he also enjoys a chinwag with the Margaret Thatcher-worshipping former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth, who was supposedly booted out of power in 1997 – I can’t remember his title, but I assume it’s something like Lord Freddy of Krueger – and another of Chris Deerin’s heroes, the former Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whom I believe nowadays calls herself Baroness Colonel Davidson of Jar-Jar Binks.  Obviously, there are plenty of former Conservative Party treasurers to fraternise with as well.  Accountability, eh?

 

In the Holyrood interview Baron McConnell talks about how in the Labour party “there was an absolute commitment to the redistributive nature of the UK.”  But isn’t that the real reason for mediocrity and poverty of imagination in Scotland?  Isn’t it the message that Scots have to stay in the UK because their country is a basket case and their wealthy neighbour – well, part of it, London – has to continually redistribute money to them?  Wouldn’t it be wiser in the long run to remove the dependency set-up, through independence, and give Scots the powers to make their own decisions, implement their own courses of action, make their own mistakes and hopefully learn from them?  But that would necessitate dismantling the cosy British constitutional system that the Baron and his friends currently do so well out of.

 

Ironically, there is a part of the UK where the local Labour Party doesn’t feel obligated to kowtow to London and is prepared to do its own thing.  I refer to the Labour Party in Wales, whose leader Mark Drakeford bucked the dismal losing trend set by Labour in England and Scotland and won the biggest number of seats in the Welsh Senedd election earlier this year.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, Drakeford has won plaudits by refusing to work in lockstep with London – which I suspect Baron McConnell would have done, had he still been Scottish First Minister.  Instead, Drakeford has followed his own instincts and implemented health measures he thinks are appropriate for Wales.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions

 

Just the other day, it was announced that Drakeford’s party has come to an agreement with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh pro-independence party, so that legislation can be passed smoothly in almost 50 policy areas.  Could you imagine a similar agreement being reached in Edinburgh?  No way.  Not with the idiotic ‘Bain Principle’ still holding sway, and Scottish Labour being so obsequious to their head office in London, who would frown on any moves by Labour in Scotland that might not play well with voters in England.   Plus, some Scottish Labour members would sooner chainsaw off their legs at the knees than have anything to do with the hated SNP, those frustraters of their sense of entitlement, those derailers of their gravy train.

Scotland or Not-land?

 

From unsplash.com / © Stewart M

 

Most people in Scotland last week were disappointed, though probably not greatly surprised, to see their national team get a drubbing in the first round of the Euro 2021 tournament.  However, I suspect not everyone in Scotland was sad to see the team fail.

 

One person I’m sure was delighted was the Scottish, but very British-nationalist, blogger Effie Deans, who before the start of the tournament had tweeted a picture of a past Scotland-England football match and demanded angrily, “Why are there international matches between parts of the same country?” Similarly, I imagine certain fans of Glasgow Rangers, a football club whose culture revolves around such British symbols as the Queen and the Union Jack, weren’t sorry to see the Scottish national team flop.  Indeed, an article in the Daily Record newspaper on July 8th confirmed that some Rangers fans were unwilling to support Scotland during Euro 2021.

 

For Deans and a certain segment of the Rangers faithful, the belief seems to be that if you regard your country primarily as Britain, then you can’t support Scotland.  In fact, acknowledging Scotland on an international stage is damaging to your sense of Britishness and shouldn’t be encouraged.  Scotland?  No, it’s Not-land.

 

It’s not just in sport.  The idea that Scotland might have its own culture and languages is anathema to some people.  The right-wing Spectator magazine has printed pieces by embittered Scottish Daily Mail columnist Stephen Daisley and uptight Scottish composer James MacMillan complaining that (a) Scottish culture is infantile and embarrassing; but (b) if you’re stupid enough to be into Scottish culture, you’re somehow a Mussolini-type fascist too.  Amusingly, after MacMillan complained – falsely, because the man has actually won a number of Scottish awards – about Glaswegian novelist Andrew O’Hagan being cold-shouldered by the Scottish arts establishment for not being sufficiently supportive of Scottish independence, O’Hagan began, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, making favorable noises about Scotland becoming independent.

 

Particularly nasty has been the abuse aimed at the Scottish Gaelic and Scots languages.  Right-wing unionist twitter in Scotland is a constant whinge-fest about road-signs having names printed in Gaelic as well as in English.  Effie Deans again, complaining about travelling to Fort William last year: “The number of times I missed my turning made me wish the signs were in one language or the other, but not both…”  Well, dear, maybe try reading the parts of the signs that are written in the language you understand?

 

Meanwhile, dodgy, right-wing Unionist political carpetbagger George Galloway – at least, he’s right-wing when he’s in Scotland trying to hoover up Conservative votes; when he’s in England he campaigns as a left-wing man of the people – recently caused a pile-on on Scots-language poet Len Pennie after he made disparaging remarks on twitter about her and the medium in which she works.  And a few years back, Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Machar (poet laureate) received brickbats when one of her Scots-language poems was among the items given to new mothers as part of Scotland’s ‘baby box’ initiative.  “A woman from Bishopbriggs, writing doggerel,” sneered Ian Smart, prominent social media presence and self-styled ‘lefty lawyer’ and ‘Scottish Labour Party hack’.

 

Again, among many Scottish people who don’t see Scotland as a country but as a region, or as a big glorified county, of the mightier and more majestic entity that is the United Kingdom, there’s a conviction that Scottish culture can’t be real.  Accepting the existence of Scottish culture implies the place being different from the rest of the UK.  Therefore, culturally, there’s no such thing as Scotland either.  It’s Not-land.

 

From youtube.com

 

Predictably, the fact that there’s now a Scottish parliament in existence, separate from the parliament in London, is something that drives many British-loyal Scots to distraction, especially when the past 14 years have seen it run by a party, the Scottish National Party, dedicated to pulling Scotland out of their beloved UK.  Particularly guaranteed to make them gnash their teeth and froth at the mouth is any suggestion that the Scottish government, like the Scottish football team, might be recognized on an international level.  The moment First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pronounces on some international matter or dares to show her face at some international conference, Scottish twitter is raging with indignant people who have Union Jacks in their profiles (and usually the words ‘Rangers’ and the acronym ‘WATP’, which a Glasgow-Celtic-supporting friend assures me stands for ‘We adore the Pope’) slavering about her having ‘ideas above her station’ and being just the head of a ‘wee parish council’, and not knowing ‘her place’.  Can’t she see that she isn’t the First Minister of Scotland, but that of Not-land?

 

This desire to erase the concept of Scotland from everyone’s consciousness is, it has to be said, one that’s been exhibited lately by the British government too.  British diplomats have been ordered to stop talking about the ‘four nations’ of the UK and talk about it as a single country only, while supermarkets have seen a recent craze for plastering Union Jacks over foodstuffs made in Scotland.  Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that symbol of everything decent, moral, honest and faithful about dear old Blighty, was heard bragging that at the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow he was going to slather the event in Union Jacks and wouldn’t allow Nicola Sturgeon anywhere near it.

 

Just last Friday, Johnson’s education minster urged schools across the UK to honour something called One Britain, One Nation Day, wherein schoolchildren were made to sing a song, specially composed for the occasion, that ended with the four-times-repeated refrain: “Strong Britain, great nation!”  Though considering what’d come to light by Friday, I suspect the savvier kids had changed the words to: “Matt Hancock, penetration!”  Unfortunately, hopes that this would convert all Scottish children to worshipping Winston Churchill, Spitfires and the Union Jack were dashed by the fact that in Scotland most schools had broken up for the summer holidays the day before.

 

This strikes me as ironic because I’m old enough to remember a time in Scotland when it was perfectly possible for many people, possibly even a majority of people, to wear their Scottish identity as proudly as they wore their British identity and segue effortlessly from one to the other even when it involved expressing contradictory sentiments.  This meant they enthusiastically supported Scottish sports teams, enthusiastically recited Scots-language poetry by Robert Burns and, generally, enthusiastically indulged in all things Scottish: golf, whisky, tartan, ceilidhs, Highland games, etc.  Simultaneously, though, they thought the Royal Family were wonderful, cheered on the British Olympics team and got misty-eyed with nostalgia about how ‘we’, meaning Britain, had fought off the Nazis during World War II.

 

They also voted for anti-Scottish-independence political parties, mainly the Labour Party, although there was support for the Conservative Party too.  Scotland’s Tory MPs, incidentally, were experts at broadcasting a dual Scottish / British identity.  See Albert McQuarrie, MP for Banff and Buchan, who loved whisky and called himself the ‘Buchan Bulldog’; or Nicholas Fairbairn, the tartan-swathed representative of Perth and Kinross.  Although McQuarrie worshipped the ground Margaret Thatcher walked on, I think he was at heart a decent bloke.  Fairbairn, however, was a vile specimen.

 

When I look at Scottish right-wing / pro-British twitter, I see a common sentiment expressed in many of the profiles: “Hate what the SNP have done to Scotland!”  Which suggests that in the old days, before the SNP achieved political dominance, Scotland was a kinder, less partisan place.  But I remember it being far worse when there was no parliament, the SNP had only a handful of MPs and independence was regarded as a crazy pipe-dream.  In the 1980s, I recall crowds of Scottish rugby fans in pubs in Edinburgh, after international rugby matches, coming out with vehemently anti-English abuse that would probably get them arrested today.  Indeed, English rugby skipper Will Carling has terrible memories of playing in Edinburgh in 1991, when the Scottish Rugby Union decided to air the anthem Flower of Scotland, with its references to sending the English ‘homeward, to think again,’ before the start of the match.  There was, he claimed, “more noise, more patriotism – more hatred – than I have ever experienced”.  Yet many of these Scottish rugby enthusiasts were well-to-do and would have voted Tory. The prospect of an independent Scotland would have horrified them.  Evidently, feeling British for a good part of the time was no barrier to you wanting to stick it to the English.

 

Incidentally, before the SNP took power in Scotland and even before the Scottish parliament was created, Scotland was still allowed near the international stage occasionally.  This was despite it being an era when Margaret Thatcher and then John Major ran Scotland from London with what at times seemed an imperious disdain you’d associate with a colonial governor.  For instance, in 1993, while I was living on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, I remember the Scottish Office sending a group of officials there for a special Hokkaido-Scotland link-up.  I blagged an invitation to the event through a Japanese colleague with political connections who’d later serve in the House of Representatives in the Japanese Diet.  Obviously, the Scottish group had the delicate job of talking up Scotland without commenting on the running of the place by their bosses, the British Conservative government, whom few Scottish people had voted for.  They remained impeccably straight-faced, non-committal and evasive when, during a panel discussion, my colleague raised the possibility of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up.  (Actually, I’d primed her to mention this.) Their masks only slipped, from blandness to dismay, at the reception afterwards.  Some hapless Hokkaido bigwig gave them a speech of welcome and told them how he loved “that great Scottish song, Danny Boy.

 

© James S. Kerr

 

I suspect the comfortable co-existence of Scottish and British loyalties was fostered largely by the military. The British Army’s Scottish regiments were canny in exploiting soldiers’ sense of Scottishness, decking them out in tartan and having them led by pipe bands, even while they defended and promoted Britain, the Crown and the Empire (an empire that, admittedly, the Scots did very well out of).  I found it fascinating in my youth to see how normally uppity and cantankerous Scotsmen would suddenly become deferential and forelock-tugging at the sound of a posh, officer-class, English accent.  However, cuts to the military budget have left the 21st century British Army a shadow of its former self and the old Scottish infantry regiments have been reduced to just one, the Royal Regiment of Scotland.  So that influence barely exists now.

 

Another thing that once made Scots feel proudly British, certainly working-class ones, was the existence of many nationalized industries that provided them with employment and had the name ‘British’ in their titles: British Coal, British Gas, British Rail, British Steel and so on.  These encouraged the idea that working-class Scots were toiling alongside their comrades in England and Wales for a common cause, for the good of a benign, fair, welfare-state-supporting UK.  Of course, that idea died a death when Thatcher, with her zeal for privatizing the British economy, arrived in power in the 1980s.

 

I’m not sure how this will end.  It may be that Scotland gets another shot at an independence referendum in the future and votes to go its own way.  Or it may be that the stringent British nationalism / unionism of the 21st century prevails and Scotland becomes merely a Union-Jack-swathed province at the rump-end of right-wing, post-Brexit Britain.  If the latter option happens, I expect Westminster to abolish the Scottish parliament at some point.  Not-land indeed.

 

But what’s isn’t an option now is the comfy middle-ground, the old fashioned, dual-loyalty, at-ease-with-both-worlds, Scottish / British identity.  As far as that’s concerned…  Well, to quote a well-kent Scottish anthem: “Those days are past now, and in the past, they must remain.”

 

From unsplash.com / © Kristina G.

The kraken’s un-woke

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

Are you one of those many British people who feels ‘underserved and unheard by their media’ because your politics are a wee bit to the right?  Are you hostile towards that trendy left-wing phenomenon called ‘wokeness’ and convinced that ‘the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people’?

 

Yes, life must be horrible for you in 2021 Britain.  There’s absolutely nobody in the British media to defend your views because it’s all so hideously lefty and woke.  Well, except for the Daily Express.  And the Daily Mail, of course.  But aside from those two newspapers, there’s nobody…  Oh, and the Sun.  And the Daily Telegraph.  And the Spectator.  And a good chunk of the opinion pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times.  But that’s it.

 

Meanwhile, with so many volleys of lefty, woke bullets whizzing around nowadays, there aren’t any right-wing commentators at all who’re bold enough to stick their heads above the parapet.  Apart from Toby Young, bless his baldy little socks.  And that feisty Julie Burchill.  And Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Darren Grimes, Daniel Hannon, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Katie Hopkins, Quentin Letts, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Kelvin Mackenzie, Jan Moir, Tim Montgomerie, Charles Moore, Douglas Murray, Fraser Nelson, Brendan O’Neill, Alison Pearson, Melanie Phillips, Andrew Pierce and Sarah Vine.  And that plucky actor chappie, what’s his name?  Lawrence Fox?  Anyway, there’s only a tiny handful of brave right-wing holdouts against wokeness.  You can’t even include Piers Morgan among them.  Poor Piers used to be good on Good Morning Britain, but he’s been off the telly since his crusade against Meghan Markle, Woke Evil Personified, made him so angry that his head burst in a geyser of liquified gammon.

 

Thus, there’s hardly any media outlets or media people in Britain to defend your honest, decent, patriotic, right-wing sensibilities against the predations of the horrible, lefty, woke establishment.  That’s an establishment headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That’s right, the shamelessly woke Boris ‘tank-topped bumboys’, ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’, ‘Muslim-women-look-like-letterboxes’ Johnson.  An establishment run by a cadre of Marxist provocateurs like Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, who’re forever up to no-good, lefty, woke activities such as imprisoning asylum seekers in pestilent hellholes, protecting statues of mass-murdering slave traders, wallpapering the rooms where they do Zoom calls with Union Jacks, and doing anything up to and including eating live cockroaches and hammering rusty nails into their eyeballs to prove their loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen.

 

Luckily, salvation is now at hand.  Today sees the launch of a new TV channel called GB News, which promises to push a right-wing agenda that all sensible, salt-of-the-earth Britons will agree with and promises to call out this woke nonsense that possesses our lefty British media and government.  Needless to say, just by existing, GB News has gone against the grain of the British establishment, and its creation is thanks to the efforts of several, heroic, anti-establishment figures.  These include financial backers like the anti-establishment American TV company Discovery; and the anti-establishment investment fund Legatum, which is based in that hotbed of punk rock, Dubai; and the anti-establishment hedge-fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, whose son Winston plays the banjo in Mumford & Sons, a band so hardcore anti-establishment it makes Rage Against the Machine look like wimps.

 

And the chair and main presenter of GB News is the most awesomely anti-establishment figure you can imagine: Andrew Neil.  Well, he’s anti-establishment if you look at his CV with one eye closed and the other eye half-open and manage somehow to miss his 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times; his involvement in the founding of Sky TV; his decade as editor-in-chief with the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings group, overseeing the Scotsman, the Business and the European; his 15 years as chairman of the publishing company ITP Media Group (also based in Dubai, home of the Sex Pistols and the Clash); and his 17 years with the BBC.  And that villa he owns in the South of France.

 

Anyway, setting the sarcasm aside for a moment… I was aware of Neil’s malign influence in the British media from an early age.  At school at the start of the 1980s, I did a Scottish Higher course in Modern Studies and I remember being advised by the teacher, Sandy Bowick, to read a ‘quality Sunday newspaper like the Observer or the Sunday Times’ every weekend to keep abreast of what was happening politically in the world.  Accordingly, I got into the habit of reading the Sunday Times, which was still under the stewardship of the much-respected Harold Evans.  But tragically, the gimlet-eyed Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sunday Times in 1981 and by 1983 had installed Andrew Neil as its editor.  Neil wasted no time in transforming this once laudable newspaper into the snide, shrill, right-wing shout-sheet that it remains to this day.

 

The Sunday Times wasn’t the only example of a newspaper being subjected to Andrew Neil’s reverse-Midas touch, i.e., instantly turning to shit in his hands.  Hired by the Barclay Brothers in the mid-1990s, newspapers he supervised like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.  Worst of all, he became editor-in-chief of Edinburgh’s one-time quality daily, the Scotsman.  It’s hard to believe today but the Scotsman was a newspaper that once was widely read, made its points intelligently and carried some influence – as much as any newspaper published 400 miles from London could.  Among other things, up until the 1990s, the Scotsman was a keen supporter, in its cautious and genteel way, of constitutional change in Scotland to allow the country more say in running its affairs.

 

In the late 1990s, after spending most of the decade in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a few issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London, even though the Scottish population had just voted for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in a referendum in 1997.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been in favour of Scottish devolution?  Then one night I saw Neil’s visage on a Scottish current affairs programme, where he was introduced as ‘editor-in-chief at the Scotsman’.  Horribly, it all fell into place for me.  Oh no, he’s back, I despaired. Returned to wreck yet another, once perfectly-good newspaper.

 

I suspect Neil’s tenure at the Scotsman alienated the Scottish demographic that it needed to survive as a healthy business concern.  I knew plenty of folk in Edinburgh who were around my age and, like me, were centre or left politically and interested in current affairs.  They weren’t young enough to be into new-fangled digital media and would have happily bought a traditional, physical newspaper if they thought it was worth reading. But whenever its name came up in conversation, such people would shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

Although Neil had nothing to do with the Scotsman after it was acquired by the London-based Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right, where he’d dragged it, and never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his regime.  By 2018, it was in the hands of JPIMedia and had a daily circulation figure – the one currently quoted on its Wikipedia page – of under 16,400 copies.  It’d had to lay off staff-members, reduce its numbers of pages and supplements, and flit from its old headquarters on Holyrood Road to a new one on Queensferry Road that was less than half the size and a third of the rent.  The last time I looked at it, much of what it printed was either shallow and vacuous, or hysterical, kneejerk, Daily Mail / Daily Express-style crap.

 

You’d think that with his antipathy to all things mild-mannered, lily-livered, pussyfooting and, well, woke, Andrew Neil would have given the BBC a body-swerve.  And yet during the past two decades he’s done very nicely out of the venerable corporation.  Most prominently, he hosted the BBC’s This Week programme (2003-2019), in which Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott and him would sit in a studio and discuss the week’s current affairs whilst indulging in a gruesome three-way mutual-admiration / flirtation fest.  Indeed, at the time, I thought it was the most fascinatingly dreadful thing on British television.  Not only did Neil and co. believe they were offering cutting insights into the nation’s politics, but they also seemed to think they were cool.  Funny, even.  And nothing is worse than people who think they’re funny, but aren’t funny, trying to be funny.

 

For example, I can think of few things more ludicrous than the sight of Neil and Portillo prancing around in the style of the video for Peter Kay’s chart-topping Is This the Way to Amarillo, as they did during the title sequence of one episode in 2005.  At least in 2018, when they got Bobby Gillespie from the impeccable post-punk, alternative-rock band Primal Scream onto This Week to talk about Brexit – yes, this is a strange sentence I find myself writing – Gillespie summed up the viewers’ feelings at the episode’s end.  By this point, Neil, Michael Portillo and Caroline Flint (drafted in as a replacement for Diane Abbott) had jumped up and starting cavorting around the studio in the manner of the briefly popular, crap Internet dance craze the Skibidi Challenge.  Not only did Gillespie refuse to take part in this cringe-inducing farrago, but he sported the stony countenance of a man who’d just discovered a giant dog turd on the end of his shoes.  (Mind you, having Michael Portillo dad-dancing beyond the ends of your shoes wouldn’t be much better.)

 

 ©BBC / From clashmusic.com

 

I’ve written scornfully about Andrew Neil and GB News and the guff they’ve tried to peddle about being some courageous, anti-establishment bulwark against a supposed tidal wave of wokeness.  It’s complete disingenuous garbage.  However, I have no doubt that they’ll find an audience.  One thing about right-wingers is their unswayable belief that they’re the victims, even when a mountain-range of evidence proves they’re actually the victors.  Britain has been in thrall to right-wing doctrines since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed there was ‘no such thing as society’, till today, when those in power claim to belong to the Conservative Party but are basically Nigel Farage’s reactionary, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in all but name.  For a few years in the middle, Tony Blair might have constituted a blip, but he was hardly a left-wing blip.  Yet in the paranoid minds of right-wing Britons in 2021, the nonsensical belief that everything they hold dear is threatened by Marxists and social justice warriors is probably more intense than ever.

 

He might be an utter chancer, but there’ll always be plenty of deluded souls willing to lap up Andrew Neil’s brand of bullshit.

Don’t play it again, Salm

 

© Slainte Media / RT / From archive.org

 

On March 26th, six weeks before the elections for the Scottish Parliament, former Scottish First Minister and former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond launched his new Alba party to contest those elections.

 

In response to the news, George Galloway – a man with a lengthy political CV himself, having been Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and Bradford West and leader of the Respect Party, and now leader of the Alliance for Unity party, which he launched last year in anticipation of the Scottish parliamentary elections too – tweeted: “So it’s me and Alex Salmond in the ring.  Heavyweights.  Him for separatism, me for the union.  Seconds away…”

 

In the event, neither Salmond’s Alba nor Galloway’s Alliance for Unity got enough votes to send any of their representatives to the Scottish Parliament.  The former amassed 44,913 votes and the latter managed 23,299 out of a total of 2,716,547 votes cast.  So that tweet, as they say, aged well.  Both heavyweights got their arses kicked.

 

I’m not shedding any tears over Galloway’s humiliation.  He’s a politician whose couple of good deeds – his involvement with the Scotland United campaign for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in the early 1990s; squaring up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in the aftermath of the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2005 – have been obliterated in the public memory by the tsunami of crap things he’s done in his endless quest to promote himself.  These include dishing religious-related dirt on his political opponents during his campaigns with the Respect Party; defending the execution of a gay man by the Iranian government whilst working for Press TV, funded by the same government, in 2008; climbing onto the Nigel Farage bandwagon by endorsing a vote for Brexit in 2016; hugging extreme right-wing strategist and evil incarnate Steve Bannon in 2019; and, let us never forget, pretending to be a cat slurping cream off Rula Lenska’s lap on the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.

 

Meanwhile, lately, Galloway’s antics during his doomed campaign to get into the Scottish Parliament via the second-vote / proportional-representation ‘list’ system have included him urging voters to give their first vote to the Conservative Party (the former left-wing firebrand had declared a few years earlier, “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative, please shoot me”); causing a twitter pile-on, intentionally or unintentionally, against Scots-language poet Len Pennie; making unsavoury references to the ethnicity of Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf (“You are not a Celt like me”); making a hilarious video where he sucked up to the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and promised to end Green Party ‘tyranny over rural communities’ whilst resembling a cast member from Last of the Summer Wine (he obviously believed gamekeepers had short memories considering that in 2002, as an MP, he’d supported a hunting ban); and generally trying to reinvent himself as a true-blue, Union Jack-waving, Churchill-and-spitfires-obsessed slab of gammon.

 

Now that he’s torched every left-wing principle he once professed to have for the sake of self-promotion, it’d be nice to think that this beyond-disastrous election result will make Galloway slink off beneath a rock and never show his face again.  But of course he won’t.  He’ll be back.  The creature knows no shame.

 

I’m not shedding tears for Alex Salmond either, but I’ll admit to feeling at least slightly conflicted.  For the last 35 years, since the dark days when Margaret Thatcher ran Scotland with the imperious disregard one would give a colonial possession, Scottish politics have felt like a rollercoaster with both giddy peaks and despairing troughs.  And Salmond has been a constant presence on that rollercoaster.  I know plenty of people who loathe him but I’ve seen him as a force for both the good and the bad, the good earlier on and bad more recently.  It’s the memory of the good things that gives me a twinge of sadness to see him end up like this, even if he brought most of it upon himself.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

I remember when I first saw him.  One afternoon in early 1987, while a fourth-year undergraduate student, I was nursing a pint in the Central Refectory building at Aberdeen University.  I noticed from the corner of my eye a group of students whom I knew as members of the campus branch of the SNP – Alan Kennedy, Val Bremner, Gillian Pollock, Nick Goode – enter and wander over to the counter.  They were in the company of a young, round-faced bloke in an un-studenty suit, shirt and tie.  I identified him as an up-and-coming SNP politician whom Alan Kennedy, a good mate of mine, had told me was standing in the next general election in nearby Banff and Buchan against the incumbent Conservative Party MP Albert McQuarrie.  He’d come to the university that day to address the SNP group and this was the SNP students showing their visitor some post-talk hospitality.  The politician, I’d been assured, was one to watch.  Indeed, Alan said something along the lines of: “He’s going to do great things.”

 

A few months later, on June 11th, the general election took place and this rising SNP star wrestled Banff and Buchan away from Albert McQuarrie and became its new MP.  I recall McQuarrie, a doughty old-school Scottish Tory MP who revelled in the nickname ‘the Buchan Bulldog’, bursting into tears during a subsequent interview at what he saw as the unfairness and indignity of losing his beloved constituency to an SNP whippersnapper.  He was perhaps the first politician, but certainly not the last, to have his nose put out of joint by Alex Salmond.

 

By the early 1990s, Salmond was SNP leader.  I lived in London at the time and occasionally I’d drink with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland.  He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was.  With his appropriately smart-Alec manner and habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and a general arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish Labour MPs, you could understand how much of an annoyance Salmond was to his opponents.  But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so at least he could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.

 

How long ago that seems now.  In those far-off days, the Labour Party controlled much of Scotland at council level, provided the lion’s share of Scottish MPs for Westminster and, when it arrived in 1999, dominated the Scottish parliament too.  If their party also happened to be in power at Westminster, which it was occasionally, Scottish Labour-ites surely felt like masters of all they surveyed.  If the Conservatives were in power at Westminster, which they were most of the time, those Scottish Labour-ites grumbled a bit, but diplomatically kept their heads down while right-wing Tory policies were imposed on Scotland.

 

Then in 2007 the sky fell in.  Salmond’s SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament and he became Scotland’s First Minister.  The SNP have remained in power there during the 14 years and three Scottish parliamentary elections since.  They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019.  They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister and making way for his deputy and supposed protégé Nicola Sturgeon – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.  They upended the cosy old tradition of Scottish deference to the London-based overlords.  Thank God for that, in my opinion.

 

© William Collins

 

This stuck in many craws. Not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, whose hacks had enjoyed a close relationship with the old political clique and liked to see themselves as part of Scotland’s establishment. It must have horrified them to discover that, no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance in government, a significant proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP.  Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of their good times coming to an end, grew ever wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.

 

However, from 2017 onwards, Salmond’s many foes scented blood.  2017 saw him lose the Westminster seat that, after quitting as Scottish First Minister, he’d been elected to in 2015.  That same year, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven mess.  Soon after, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel.  Associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was not a wise move.  Salmond hadn’t just given his detractors ammunition to use against him.  He’d handed them a whole arsenal.

 

I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Salmond, for the simple reason that if there had been, his enemies in the old Scottish establishment would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.  Thus, it was a surprise in 2018 when the Daily Record newspaper reported that Salmond faced allegations of sexual misconduct while he’d been First Minister.  This had lately been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and its findings had been passed on to the police.  Although Salmond made sure there was a legal review of this, which resulted in the Scottish government admitting that its investigative procedures had been flawed and paying him half a million pounds in legal expenses, the police still charged him with 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape, in 2019.

 

One year later, Salmond was cleared of these charges. The prosecutors dropped one charge, the jury found him not guilty of 12 more and the final charge was deemed ‘not proven’.  Nonetheless, Salmond’s defence admitted he’d acted inappropriately, had been overly ‘touchy feely’ with female staff and ‘could certainly have been a better man’.

 

Meanwhile, the Scottish government and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, now totally at odds with Salmond, were subject to both an investigation by a Scottish Parliamentary committee and an independent investigation by Irish lawyer James Hamilton about how they’d handled, or mishandled, the affair.  The committee concluded there’d been both individual and corporate incompetence but these conclusions weren’t enough to topple Sturgeon.  Hamilton judged that Sturgeon hadn’t breached the ministerial code, something that Salmond and his supporters, convinced of a conspiracy against him in high places, maintained she had.

 

From facebook.com

 

Salmond claimed his new Alba Party, supposedly more gung-ho in its desire for Scottish independence than the cautious SNP, was not another attempt to undermine Sturgeon.  But it was generally perceived as an effort to diminish her party’s vote in the May 6th Scottish election – Salmond’s revenge as a dish served cold, a year after his acquittal.  Whether Alba’s purpose was malevolent or benevolent, it didn’t succeed.  The SNP ended up with 64 seats in the new parliament, with the Greens bumping up the number of pro-independence MSPs to 72, compared with the Unionist parties’ tally of 57 MSPs and Alba’s tally of zero.

 

It didn’t help Alba’s cause that it attracted a lot of fringe-dwelling dingbats in the independence movement, dingbats whom I’m sure Sturgeon’s SNP will be glad to see the back of.  These included one vocal faction who seemed to spend all their time baiting and frothing against trans people.  It also didn’t help that Salmond showed little contrition for his past misbehaviour.  Fair enough, that misbehaviour hadn’t been enough to warrant a court conviction and prison sentence.  But it did make him come across as a sleazebag whom no young woman would want to be around.

 

One thing I will say in Salmond’s defence.  While I find claims of a conspiracy against Salmond in the upper echelons of the Scottish government, legal system and police force fanciful – conspiracies imply objectives, strategies and clear thinking, and to me the messiness of Salmond’s investigation and trial simply suggests witless blundering – I agree with his supporters that the Scottish press was pretty disgraceful in how it reported the case.  From columnist Alex Massie trumpeting at the investigation’s outset that ‘whatever happens, it’s over for Salmond’, to the Herald previewing the trial with a ‘Big Read’ feature that it illustrated with pictures of the Yorkshire Ripper, Fred and Rosemary West, the Moors Murderers, Dennis Nilsen, Charles Manson and Adolf Eichmann, to a dodgy, nod-and-a-wink post-trial documentary by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark, the tone of the coverage didn’t suggest that a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  Rather, it suggested that a person is ‘guilty because we want them to be guilty’.

 

But that’s the only thing I’ll say in his defence.

 

Meanwhile, post-election, Salmond has announced his intention to become an influential Twitter presence, just as a certain former US president once was.  “I am going to unleash myself on Twitter,” he said the other day, “now that Donald Trump has created a vacuum for me.” No, Alex, don’t.  Just don’t.  Call it a day for Christ’s sake.

 

It isn’t so much that the Salmond Rollercoaster has reached the bottom of the deepest dip yet.  It’s more that the Salmond Rollercoaster has run out of track.

 

From the Jersey Evening Post

The holiest relic in Peebles

 

 

I’ve not had time to write much on this blog recently because of my current work commitments.  Unfortunately, in this era of Covid-19-imposed confinement, none of this work involves me moving away from the laptop on the desk in a corner of my bedroom.  Moreover, because I’ve had quite a few short stories published recently under the pseudonyms of Jim Mountfield and Rab Foster, I’m also trying to keep momentum going with those and am devoting additional time to writing, revising and submitting short fiction.

 

In the meantime, in the absence of new blog entries, here’s a reposting of something I wrote for this blog in 2014.  It seemed to get an enthusiastic response at the time and, indeed, I think someone made the entry into a poster that was put on the wall of – where else? – the Pub in Valetta.  Alas, since this was written, Peter Cassidy, the then-owner of the Crown Hotel, has passed away.  Meanwhile, I assume that the chair is still there.

 

Certain towns and cities around the world can boast of having ancient and holy relics.  In the Christian world, for example, Sienna has the mummified head of Saint Catherine in its Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico.  Paris has what is alleged to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion in its Notre Dame Cathedral.  And in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, you can see part of the index finger of Saint Thomas, the finger that as a sceptical disciple he poked into the wound in the side of the resurrected Christ to check if it was real.  Some places have relics so special that they are said to have healing or protective powers.  Naples, for instance, is lucky enough to have in its city cathedral the dried blood of St Januarius, which protects it from disasters like earthquakes and plagues.

 

However, my hometown of Peebles in the south of Scotland contains surely the most powerful holy relic of all.  Because in the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street you’ll find the armchair of Oliver Reed.

 

This hallowed item of furniture, on which the legendary hell-raising star of movies such as Hannibal Brooks (1969), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Three and Four Musketeers (1973-74) and Tommy (1975) once rested his butt, is rumoured to have healing powers too.  A pilgrim who reposes against its upholstery will, with time, be cured of certain pernicious ailments.  He or she will be cured of sobriety, for instance.  And common sense.  And dignity.

 

The story behind the chair is that, in the middle of the 1990s, Oliver Reed found himself staying in Peebles whilst doing some location filming for a Scottish movie called The Bruce (1996), a quick, cheap cash-in on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which had recently been cleaning up at the box office.  I’ve never seen The Bruce, but from all accounts it’s terrible.  Reed being Reed, of course, he soon managed to sniff out the pub in town containing the biggest number of what are euphemistically known as ‘local characters’, which was the Crown’s public bar.  He then set up camp there for several days, much to the joy of the Scottish tabloid press.

 

At one point, the Scottish edition of the Sun published on its front page a photo of an inebriated Reed passed out against the inside of the Crown’s entrance door, while someone outside tried to push his way in.  No doubt he was thinking, “What the hell’s blocking the door…?  Oh…  It’s Oliver Reed.”  For some reason Reed was clutching a toy sheep at the time so the Sun’s headline was, inevitably, SHAME ON EWE.

 

During his sojourn in the Crown, Reed complained to the hotel owner Peter Cassidy about the hardness of his seats and then thrust a bundle of notes into the hand of a regular called Davie Lees and ordered him to go to the local furniture store, the Castle Warehouse, and buy the pub a properly upholstered, properly comfortable armchair.  Davie obliged, and the armchair now resides against a back wall of the public bar, under a framed photo of a well-refreshed Reed posing with Cassidy outside the hotel.

 

Reed departed for the great pub in the sky back in 1999, when he expired during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) in Malta.  He keeled over and breathed his last in, appropriately enough, a Valetta bar called the Pub, after he’d taken on a squad of British sailors in a series of drinking and arm-wrestling contests.  However, I have a feeling that the great man’s psychic residue lives on in that armchair in the Crown.

 

Just a few days ago, I’d arranged to meet my Dad for a meal in the Crown’s restaurant.  As the Oliver Reed armchair is aligned with the pub’s front door, I sat down in it so that I could watch the door and spot my Dad as soon as he walked in.

 

Immediately after sitting down, I found myself possessed by strange urges – to drink 104 pints in one sitting and then climb up the nearest chimneystack naked whilst roaring, “I’m Santa Claus!”; to indulge in a nude fireside wrestling match with Alan Bates; to vomit over Steve McQueen; to smuggle an elephant over the Alps; to take the local rugby club on a drinking spree and then organise a naked cross-country run with them through the surrounding moonlit fields; to film a Musketeers movie and stab several stunt-swordsmen during the fight scenes; to insult Jack Nicholson about his height, Richard Harris about his toupee and Raquel Welch about the thickness of her ankles; to arrive drunk at Galway Airport lying on the baggage conveyor; to chase ace snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins around a house with an axe; and to get a bird-claw tattoo done on my willie, which I’d subsequently threaten to whip out and display to the cameras every time I did a TV chat-show interview.

 

But then my Dad came into the hotel, I rose from the seat and the strange spell was broken.  So instead I ordered a half-pint of lager shandy and a plate of supreme-of-chicken with honey-and-mustard sauce, and later washed everything down with a nice cup of coffee.  And then went home to my bed.

 

© 20th Century Fox

Favourite Scots words, A-C

 

From the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

 

Today, November 30th, is Saint Andrew’s Day, the national day of Scotland.  To mark it, I’d like to post something about a favourite topic of mine, the Scots language.  And yes, the way that non-Gaelic and non-posh Scots have spoken for centuries has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic resources like Ethnologue.

 

Sadly, I think that Scots is now living on borrowed time.  It’s not likely to expire due to the disapproval of educators who dismiss it as a debased dialect (or accent) of standard English and regard it as the ‘wrong’ way to speak, although their hostility certainly didn’t help its status in the past.  No, the fatal damage to Scots has probably been inflicted by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of southern-England programming and conditioning them to speak in Eastenders-style Mockney or, worse, in bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’.

 

Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots.  Here are my favourite Scots words starting with the letters ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ that I’d be sad to see slip into linguistic extinction.  Most of the definitions given come from my heavily used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.

 

Agley (adv) – wrong, askew.  The saying, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ (which provided John Steinbeck with the title of his second-most famous novel) is an anglicised version of lines from the poem To a Mouse by Scotland’s greatest bard Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

 

Aiblins (adv) – perhaps.  The late, great Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray borrowed this word for the surname of the title character in his short story Aiblins, which appeared in the collection The Ends of Our Tethers (2003).  This is about a creative writing professor being tormented by an eccentric student called Aiblins who is, perhaps, a literary genius or is, perhaps, just a fraud.

 

Avizandum (noun) – a word in Scots law meaning, to quote the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, ‘a judge’s or court’s consideration of a case before giving judgement’.  Avizandum is also the name of a bookshop on Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row specialising in texts for Scottish lawyers and law students.  Not being a lawyer, I’ve never had cause to go into Avizandum-the-shop, but I do think it’s the most majestically titled bookstore in Scotland.

 

 

Bairn (n) – a baby or young child.  I once saw an episode of Star Trek (the original series) in which Scotty lamented, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!”  So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least.  Also, the Bairns is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon, either.

 

Bahookie (n) – rump, bum, backside, ass or, to use its widely-deployed-in-Scotland variant, arse.

 

Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person.  During the documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, Connolly responds to a heckler with the gruff and memorable putdown, “F**king bampot!”

 

Bawbag (n) – literally a scrotum, but normally, to quote the online Urban Dictionary site, ‘a derogatory name given to one who is annoying, useless or just plain stupid.’  Thus, when former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage steamed into Edinburgh in May 2013 in a bid to raise UKIP’s profile north of the border, he ended up besieged inside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile by a horde of anti-racism protestors who chanted, “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Na, na, na, hey!”

 

Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for cauld, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’.  Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967.

 

Bide (v) – to live.  Derived from this verb is the compound noun bidie-hame, which refers to a partner whom the speaker is living with but isn’t actually married to.

 

Blether (v) – to talk or chatter.  Journalist, editor and Rupert Murdoch’s one-time right-hand-man Andrew Neil used this word a lot while he was editor-in-chief at Scotsman publications.  He was forever fulminating against Scotland’s blethering classes – the equivalent of the ‘chattering classes’ in England who were so despised at the time by the English right-wing press, i.e. left-leaning middle-class people who spent their time holding dinner parties, drinking Chardonnay and indulging in airy-fairy political discussion about how Britain should have a written constitution, proportional representation, devolution, etc.  Then, however, Neil started working for the BBC in London and suddenly all his references to blethering ceased.

 

Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit.  One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance.  In his stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray – him again – represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Bowffin’ (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly.  Once upon a time, mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’.  Now, however, mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead.  It has thus fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective bowffin’ to describe the olfactory impact of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, used socks, on-heat billy goats, old hippies, etc.

 

Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.

 

Bourach (n) – sometimes a mound or hillock, but more commonly a mess or muddle.  Charmingly, this has recently evolved into the term clusterbourach (inspired by the less ceremonious ‘clusterf*ck’), which Scottish politicians have used to describe the absolute hash that the London government is making of the Brexit process.

 

Callant (n) – a lad or young man.  The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival.  Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.

 

Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch.  Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.

 

Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable.  For example, “Thon Belfast singer-songwriter Van Morrison is a right carnaptious auld c**t.”  There’s a lot of carnaptiousness in Scotland and another common adjective for it is crabbit.

 

Chib (n/v) – a knife, or to stab someone.  Considering the popularity in modern times of wearing Highland dress at Scottish weddings, and considering the custom of having a ceremonial sgian-dhu (i.e. dagger) tucked down the side of the hose (i.e. socks) in said Highland dress, and considering the amount of alcohol consumed at such affairs, it’s amazing that Scottish weddings don’t see more chibbing than they do.

 

Chitter (v) – nothing to do with the sound that birds make, this means to shiver.

 

Clarty (adj) – dirty.  A dirty person, meanwhile, is often called a clart.  And a pre-pubescent boy who avoids soap, shampoo, showers and clean socks and underwear, like Pig Pen used to do in the Charlie Brown comic strips, would undoubtedly be described in Scotland as a wee clart.

 

Cleek (v) – to hook, catch or capture.  It’s also a noun denoting a large type of hook, especially the gaffe used by fishermen, and poachers, when landing fish.  At least once, in my hometown next to the salmon-populated River Tweed, a cleek has also been used as an offensive weapon.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Cloots (n) – a plural noun meaning hooves.  By extension, Cloots came to be a nickname for the world’s most famous possessor of a pair of hooves, Auld Nick, a.k.a. the Devil.  In his poem Address to the Deil, Robert Burns not only mocks Auld Nick but brags that, despite his wild and wanton behaviour in this present life, he’ll escape the fiend’s clutches and avoid going to hell: “An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin’ / A certain bardie’s rantin’, drinkin’ / Some luckless hour will send him linkin’ / To your black pit / But faith! he’ll turn a corner jinkin’ / An’ cheat ye yet.”

 

Clype (n) – a contemptible sub-species of schoolchild, i.e. the type who’s always running to the teachers and telling tales on his or her schoolmates.

 

Colliebuckie (n) – a piggy-back.  Scottish playgrounds once echoed with cries of “Gie’s a colliebuckie!”

 

Corbie (n) – a crow or raven.  The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.

 

Cowpt (adj) – overturned, fallen-over.  Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines.  Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coachload of his mates.  As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a cowpt ewe in one of the fields.  Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did.  The young farmer got out and put the cowpt ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed.  That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.

 

I’ll return to this topic in this blog and cover further letters of the alphabet.

 

© Viz Unicorn Entertainment / Brent Walker

Cinema Peebles-diso

 

 

I recently noticed a discussion about the Playhouse Cinema on the Facebook page Auld Peebles, which is a site devoted to pictures, information and simple nostalgic reminiscing about past times in Peebles, my hometown in the Scottish Borders.  This inspired me to dig out the following entry, which I’d originally posted on this blog back in 2013.  In it, I indulge in some nostalgic reminiscing of my own about my town’s old Art Deco cinema…

 

The photograph above this entry shows the Art Deco building at number 60 of the High Street in Peebles, my Scottish hometown.  The building opened in 1932 as the Playhouse Cinema.  Its architect was Alister G. MacDonald, a son of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Britain’s first Labour Party prime minister and served in office in 1924 and from 1929 to 1935.  MacDonald Junior designed the cinema with a particularly wide auditorium and with stalls and a balcony that held a total of 802 seats.  The name Playhouse was spelt out in a squiggle of neon along the top of its façade, although the roof behind was less glamorous, being made of corrugated iron.

 

The Playhouse showed films for the next 45 years and for a time, in modest-sized Peebles, it wasn’t even the only cinema.  It had to compete against the Empire Cinema on the Bridgegate and the Burgh Hall, further up the High Street, which also showed films.  By the 1970s, however, with just about every home in Peebles possessing a television set, only the Playhouse was left and it was struggling, to the point where it’d introduced bingo a couple of nights a week as a way of attracting extra custom.

 

I became acquainted with the Playhouse at a very late stage in its life.  In 1977, when I was eleven, my family moved to a new home just beyond the outskirts of Peebles.  The town centre was only 30 minutes’ walk away.  Previously we’d lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and if I wanted to visit a cinema there, I had to talk my parents into driving me several miles to the nearest one and then returning to collect me afterwards.  I was movie-crazy and having a cinema on my doorstep, as it seemed at the time, was a wonderful new luxury.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

I didn’t see any masterpieces in the Playhouse, but every film I did see seems to be engraved on my memory just because I’d seen it there.  For example, there was Earthquake (1974), the big, rumbly disaster movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and George Kennedy.  George Kennedy was a portent of doom in 1970s movies, having already appeared in two of the Airport movies (1970 and 75).  If his craggy face appeared onscreen, you just knew a destructive earth tremor was going to strike the city or a Boeing 747 was going to fall out of the sky.

 

It was also in the Playhouse that I had my most disappointing cinematic experience ever, which was seeing Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake of King Kong.  I’d really been looking forward to this, as I’d watched the original movie on TV and was desperate to see how they’d update all the fights that King Kong had with the dinosaurs on Skull Island.  To my horror, there weren’t any dinosaurs on the 1976 Skull Island, so Kong didn’t have any fights with them.  The only battle was an altercation between Kong (played by Rick Baker in a gorilla-costume) and a crap-looking rubbery giant snake.  I’d like to think that a young Peter Jackson saw the same movie and shared my feelings of profound disappointment.  For that reason, when he remade King Kong in 2005, he made sure his film was choc-a-bloc with dinosaurs.

 

Sometimes at the Playhouse you got to see a familiar feature of 1970s movie-going, which was a cinematic double bill.  Among the two-for-the-price-of-one marvels I was treated to were Carquake (1976) combined with The Giant Spider Invasion (1975).  Carquake was little more than a montage of car chases and car crashes and I suspect that the filmmakers had cast David Carradine in the lead role only because his surname started with the word ‘car’.  Nonetheless, it seemed like a masterpiece compared with its partner.  In The Giant Spider Invasion, the invading giant spiders were played by real-life tarantulas when they were babies, and played by giant wobbly-legged blobs of paper-maché mounted on top of cars when they were adults.  One scene showed a tarantula clamber unnoticed into a kitchen blender.  Then a character unwittingly blended it with some fruit and took a massive swig from the resulting Vitamin C / pulped-hairy-spider concoction.  That was about the most revolting thing I saw in a film until Hugh Grant started making romantic comedies.

 

© New World Pictures

 

But I had barely seven months to enjoy the Playhouse, for on September 10th, 1977, it went out of business.  It would’ve been fitting if the final end-credits to scroll up the Playhouse’s screen had belonged to a film that was memorable – Star Wars (1977), say, which was breaking box-office records at the time.  However, the last film shown there was another one about cars, an unremarkable horror film simply entitled The Car (1977).  This starred James Brolin and was about a rural American community being terrorised by a deadly, driver-less and demonically possessed automobile.  In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King described it as “the sort of movie where you can safely go out for a popcorn refill at certain intervals because you know the car isn’t going to strike again for 10 minutes or so”.

 

Thereafter the Playhouse was derelict for a time.  I seem to remember a report in the local newspaper at one point about it being broken into and vandalised.  Then its foyer was converted into a shopping area and it became another High Street retailer.  For a while, it served as the premises for Visionhire, a TV shop, which meant that films were being shown on its premises again (at least, when one of the televisions on display was switched on and tuned into a channel broadcasting a film).  These days it houses an outlet for the cut-price chemist’s chain, Semi-Chem.  Thanks to Alister MacDonald’s Art Deco design, it’s now a listed building and has been given a Grade C status by Historic Scotland.  Incidentally, I’m only talking about the building’s front part.  As far as I know, most of its back part, containing the 802-seat auditorium, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

 

Losing the Playhouse in 1977 was a blow for Peebles film-lovers because video cassettes and VCRs were still things of the future.  If you didn’t have transport to get to a cinema in another town to see a film on its first release, your only option was to wait a couple of years until it turned up on TV.  However, you still had a chance to see films, old and not so old, on a big screen if you were a pupil at Peebles High School.  In the wake of the Playhouse’s demise, a teacher there, Dr Mike Kellaway, started up a Film Club and showed movies one evening each week with the school’s assembly hall acting as an auditorium.  But Peebles High School’s Film Club is a story for another blog-entry.

 

© Auld Peebles / David Brunton