Wednesday, November 30, 2005

As St Andrew's Day Dissolves In A Mist Of Woolly Thinking, Cheering News Of The Limits Of English Ingenuity

As the Peebles Times-Picayune launches a thundering campaign to make St Andrew's Day a holiday, and I consider retiring to bed with a copy of Dance and Skylark: Fifty Years With Alistair Sim, I come across an advertisement for a set of four English Heritage mugs in bone china. Now, I can think of several English mugs, but these collectable pieces of crockery (£39.99 for the four, with free tea towel) celebrate the lives of those great Englishmen, Mr Bram Stoker (born Clontarf, Co. Dublin), Mr Jimi Hendrix (of Seattle, Washington), Mr Sigmund Freud (Freiberg, Moravia) and Mr John Lennon (Liverpool).
One out of four isn't bad, though which one of the four that is I wouldn't like to say.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

St Andrew's Day Is A Good Excuse To Chase Rabbits, But Is There Really Anything To Celebrate In Our Funny Wee Country?

Unaccustomed as I am to pleasure, it was with a heavy heart that I agreed to give the toast at a St Andrew's Day dinner in Peebles tomorrow night. To be honest, I have always been unsure about St Andrew, based on my general suspicion of any practice that is based on the worship of bones.
My feelings of queasiness about Andrew and the symbolism of the saltire were multiplied a few years ago, when the Daily Record ran on its front page the image of a peculiarly-shaped cloud (or possibly two jet-streams). The white cross on a blue sky was said to be a good portent for the nation, just as it was when Angus won a battle in Athelstaneford in 831 AD having observed a lucky cross in the sky. (I have been to Athelstaneford on numerous occasions, and I understand that hallucinations are not uncommon there, especially amongst those who have sampled the turnip wine).
I am told that St Andrew's Day used to be a day of feasting. St Andra'ing, apparently, was a day on which rural people chases rabbits and drank, before settling down to a tasty dinner of singed sheep's heid. Now, of course, they do that all the time, without any excuse.
My speech is supposed to be an uplifting and optimistic look at Scotland. For four days now, I have been staring at a blank sheet of paper. This morning, I wrote "Tunnock's Teacakes" on my pad. This afternoon, I added: "Miss Deborah Kerr, beautiful daughter of Helensburgh". (I recently attended a screening of Mr Michael Powell's Black Narcissus, and I have been having peculiar thoughts about ladies-in-wimples ever since).
It is not such a bad haul. Religions have been founded on less. But on this freezing November night, I wonder: is there anything contemporary to celebrate about Scotland?

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Manchester Guardian, The Barclay Brothers, The Birds And The Bees: An Apology

The "corrections and clarifications" column in The Manchester Guardian has always represented the masochistic tendency of the liberal press in its purest form, but I was taken with the entry which appeared on Monday 28 November. On the advice of m'learned friends, I reproduce it here without any further comment, and certainly no jokes about Morecambe and Wise sharing a bed, the performance artists Gilbert and George or, indeed, Messrs Phil and Grant Mitchell from television's EastEnders.
The Guardian wrote: "In our report about the events at the Daily Telegraph ... we referred to Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, and then to 'their son' Aidan Barclay. Aidan Barclay is the son of Sir David Barclay."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Death Of Mr George Best Was Reality Television For An Age In Which Religion Has Perished And Grief Means A Soft Rain Of Esso Flowers

According to today's newspapers, the funeral of Mr George Best, a former footballer, will be the biggest since that of Princess Diana. Half a million people are expected to line the streets of Belfast, though the arithmetic by which this number is arrived is not explained.
Certainly, Mr Best's passing has been a popular event. The details of his failing health were headline news for several days, and his doctor, Professor Roger Williams, became an unlikely celebrity.
No doubt the grief which surrounded Mr Best's hospital bed was real and sincere, but the play which unfolded outside the Cromwell Hospital was reality television taken to its logical extreme. I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here is a parlour game by comparison: this was a real death, served up as soap opera. It has been accompanied by all the usual paraphernalia of mass hysteria - the shrines and well-wishers' notes; the petrol station flowers, rotting in their Cellophane; the minute's silence at football games across the country. This brand of grief is often described as "an outpouring", which is helpful only in the sense that the term could apply equally to a jug of syrup.
What, exactly, are we grieving? Many who mourn the passing of Mr Best are in mourning for the loss of their own youth. Like Mr Elvis Presley, he represents a talent squandered; a shy man brutalised by the requirements of fame. He was a living symbol of the dangers of success, and the fact that wealth isn't everything, but also of the fact that a modest man could sometimes leave a mark on the surface of the earth just by being himself. Mr Best's death - the public event, rather than the private pain being endured by his family - is a parable in a time when religion has ceased to matter.
It is a hollow emotion, made more meaningless by repetition. The applause which greeted the hearse of Princess Diana as it drove through a rain of bouquets tossed from motorway flyovers was one sign of the confusion which exists in relation to celebrity and death. To be famous is to to court a kind of immortality. Fan-worship is a kind of faith. True, it is a nihilistic brand of religion, celebrating nothing but its own popularity, but that, in a sense, is where we stand in the early years of this century, in a world of war and famine and pestilence on every horizon.
But all religions are threatened when ritual becomes more important than values. This happened with Mr Best, whose death was notable for being celebrated in the newspapers on the day before it happened. That, too, is a matter worthy of grief.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sentences Which Only Sound Charming When They Are Uttered By Sir David Attenborough # 1

"The copulatory behaviour of slugs is just mindblowing."
(Overheard on Radio 4's Front Row)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In Brechin, Where The Berries Were Plump And The Budgerigars Were Supersonic, Pleasure Was A Warm Heckly Biscuit

Several concerned readers, on digesting my "blogger profile", have written to ask about heckly biscuits. It is, I think, a sad fact of modern life that, though our High Streets are filled with restaurants from China, from Thailand, and from India, local delicacies are dying out. As a devotee of the Aberdonian buttery (a flat Frisbee made of pastry and lard) I find it baffling that our supermarkets are full, instead, of croissants, a breakfast roll from Turkey via France.
But at least it is still possible to find a buttery in Aberdeen. The heckly, a presbyterian treat (and thus a contradiction in terms) has all but disappeared. Several times last summer I took the Dormobile on safari into the North East - the natural habitat of the heckly - and returned empty-handed.
What, then, is a heckly? Well, A Heckly is the author of Epidural Hematoma as a Complication of Endoscopic Biopsy and Shunt Placement in a Patient Harboring a Third Ventricle, a paper in the bestselling journal Pediatric Neurosurgery. But that is not particularly helpful unless you are having trouble with your ventricles, which I am not, now that I have started wearing Wonderpants.
You will, recall, I'm sure, that M. Proust once wrote of a winter visit to see his mother. He was out of sorts, and was offered tea. Reluctantly, he accepted. His mother produced a "petite madeleine", a "plump little cake" which looked as if it had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.
"And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal."
M. Proust over-writes a little, but the general thrust of his prose is good. A heckly is a reminder of my childhood trips to Angus, where the berries were fat, the jam was sweet, and nothing ever happened for a whole summer.
Before they colonised Peebles, the Elders lived in Brechin and Montrose, towns in which the depressing morrow was greeted like a bank holiday. They were kind, sweet-toothed folk, but suspicious of pleasure. They rode bicycles and raced budgerigars for sport. They were happy.
And when they were happiest, my grandmother, Mrs Elder (or Grandma'am), would make tea in the stewing kettle and fetch into her pinnie for hecklies, warmed from the hot cotton of her voluminous combinations.
I ate of lot of hecklies in Angus, and a great many Simmer's Butter Biscuits, and the thought of them makes me hopeful in a way that little else does.
I have teased long enough. A heckly is made of flour and the tears of the baker. It is a melancholy biscuit, a treat almost without pleasure. It is flaky, and slightly sour, tasting faintly of salt. You can eat it with butter, but to do so is to dabble with decadence. The true heckly eater takes it plain, with milky tea (stewed and boiled for no less than 45 minutes).
The name of the biscuit is something of a mystery, though I have heard suggestions that it is derived from the pattern of holes indented on the top of the biscuit with a "hackle", similar to the comb used in the manufacture of jute. It is possible to buy something called a "sweet heckly", but not advisable, unless one is licensed for public dancing.

Monday, November 21, 2005

If The Ladies Of The World Toilet Organisation Had Visited The Gentlemen's-Excuse-Me, They Would Not Be Asking For Equality

From Singapore, some extraordinary news. Acting on recommendations issued by the World Toilet Organisation, Singapore's National Environment Agency has issued guidelines which require public facilities such as restaurants, bars and nightclubs to have "equal facilities" for men and women. In larger venues, such as cinemas, the Ladies'-Excuse-Me will have facilities outnumbering the Gentlemen's by a ratio of 14:10.
The Australian newspaper, The Age, quoted Ms Elisabeth-Maria Huba, a German social scientist, as saying that: "The human female tendency to go to the lavatory in pairs is a natural instinct that has evolved over millennia, and is merely reinforced by social practice. Men have it quick and easy. For a lot of women the toilet is a place they are afraid of. When there are … disgusting toilets, women go together to protect each other."
Now, I am all for equality, and some of my best friends are ladies, but this - to paraphrase one of the Scotsman's vast legion of ex-editors - is "political correctness gone rife". One need not be incontinent to understand that the public lavatory is in crisis, and the facilities for gents are often of a standard that would be flattered by the word "basic".
A few years ago, against my better judgment, I attended a football match at Hibernian's Easter Road Stadium in Edinburgh. I still have flashbacks from my visit to the facilities there. It was quick, but it was far from easy.
The Gents was housed in a dark, damp cellar. There was no porcelain, or tiling. One went, so to speak, against the wall, and the urine ran down the famous Easter Road slope towards a gurgling maw. I cannot recall whether there were sinks in there, but I did get the distinct impression that anyone who loitered in order to wash his hands might have found himself embroiled in the kind of mortal danger one reads about in Japanese war comics.
Personally, I am all in favour of parity in public conveniences, but this would often mean that the facilities for gents required upgrading. As a rule of thumb, urinals should be replaced by cubicles with at least two reinforced doors and a ready supply of Marigold gloves and Toilet Duck.
Shy Bladder Syndrome is no joke. The World Toilet Organisation must get to grips with it.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Late Mr John Timpson Was A Gentleman Of The Radio, Who Never Presented Today Whilst Dressed As A Swiss Pirate

The death on Saturday of the former Today presenter, Mr John Timpson, was greeted with a suitably affectionate profile on the BBC news. The report concluded with the observation that Mr Timpson, a journalist who preferred tweed, was "probably the last journalist you could imagine reading the news in a dinner jacket".
Obviously, it is a source of regret that the Corporation's hacks no longer dress properly, but what seems incontrovertible is that the gentleman broadcaster is almost extinct. There are isolated survivors - Mr Timpson's former colleague, Mr Robert Robinson on Brain of Britain - but, in general, broadcasting has abandoned the civilising strictures of that great son of Stonehaven, the late Baron Reith, in favour of the brusque idiocy of demotic speech. At times, listening to Radio Four is like eavesdropping at an audition for Billy Liar, or standing at the bus stop, waiting for a bus that never arrives.
Mr Timpson's successors are not really dinner jacket men. I have difficulty imagining Mr John Humphrys in anything other than a quilted gilet, moleskin plus-twos, and green wellington boots. In my mind's eye, I see Mr James Naughtie in rough tartan trews, a pirate's blouse, and a tyrolean hat made of mustard-coloured felt. I trust he will never pursue a career in television and spoil the illusion.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Mock Sociology Of Little Britain Is Copied Lock, Stock and Tutu From Mr Dick Emery, But That Doesn't Make It Right Or Clever

Failing to get a joke is not a pleasant experience, but it is trumped, I think, by the sensation of getting a joke, recognising its characteristics, and concluding that it still isn't funny.
Over 9 million people watched Little Britain on BBC1 last night. (Roughly the same number voted Labour at the last election, though this may be a coincidence.) In these banal times, such statistics qualify the programme as a phenomenon, though it should be remembered that public executions, Mr Michael Barrymore, and the weary toilings of the England football team have all attracted big audiences.
Little Britain is original only in that its skits are threaded between a mocking sociological voiceover, delivered by the former Doctor Who, Mr Tom Baker. Everything else has been borrowed, lock, stock and tutu, from Mr Dick Emery, a comic actor whose stock-in-trade was the repetition of cartoonish characters to the point where the audience felt obliged to laugh out of a sense of familiarity. His types ranged across society: there was a frustrated "boot boy", a toothy spinster, and a posh tramp. He had a camp man called Honky Tonk, and Mandy, a silly blonde who located an innuendo in everything, giving Mr Emery his catchphrase, "Ooh, you are awful, but I like you," delivered with a clump of the handbag to the side of the head.
I have long been of the opinion that the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 was made possible by Mr Emery's Mandy. The subsequent transformation of the word "handbag" into a verb (see also Ms Annabel Goldie, another Emery-esque political character) is a further sign of the lingering masochism of the British psyche.
Personally, I preferred Mr Harry Worth, particularly when he did the splits in a doorway.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dixon Of Dock Green Is Shot Dead, As Is An Innocent House Sparrow. What Now For Our Troubled Police?

The troubled Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, has been musing aloud about the type of police service required by the British people. It is, to be fair, a vexed question. The British people can't be trusted to give a sensible answer on any matter of serious import, as they have proved repeatedly in general elections.
On policing, the public always asks for more bobbies on the beat, as this is seen as reassuring, ignoring the fact that if the Peelers are walking up and down the public avenues or - as is more often the case - queuing for white pudding suppers at Toni's Fish'n'Chicken Bucket, they are not really solving crime.
In general, the public hankers for a Dixon of Dock Green style of policing, while politicians favour the community policing of Mr George Orwell's 1984 (with CCTV, "thoughtcrime" and the "Two Minute Hate" on satellite television). The nostalgia for dear old PC George Dixon is in any case misplaced, as he was shot dead by Mr Dirk Bogarde during his first screen appearance, in the splendid Ealing film The Blue Lamp.
Sir Ian Blair suggests that the answer to the problems of policing lies in something called "targeted intolerance". As he says this, news arrives from the Netherlands that an innocent house sparrow has been shot dead after knocking over 23,000 dominoes, thereby disrupting a world record attempt organised by Endemol, the television company responsible for Big Brother. In other news, the shrill "wine expert" Ms Jilly Goolden; the "long-haired lover from Liverpool", Mr Jimmy Osmond; and Ms Carol Thatcher, the daughter of the former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher; have signed up for the fifth series of the ITV "reality" TV series, I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.
If ever there was a justification for a display of targeted intolerance, that is it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

To Save Edinburgh's Beautiful Cameo Cinema, Visit This Website And Tell The Cooncillors, Politely, Where To Stuff Their Rotten Planning Application

On a non-satirical note, the campaign to save Edinburgh's most atmospheric cinema, the lovely Cameo, has a website, set up by Ms Genni Poole, whose father, Mr Jim Poole, started the picture house in 1949. Visit to see a photograph of the delightful interior and to object to the planning application, which seeks to turn the main auditorium into a drinking den for young men without manners or jackets.

Further Evidence That The Dadaists Have Taken Control Of The BBC, And Are Intent On Mocking Mr Peter Mandelson

Tragically, television subtitles are one of the few areas of modern life which go unrecorded. They do not live on in video recordings, and no amount of CCTV enhancements can coax them back to life. Once they are gone, they are gone. Thus, the unfortunate episode described below fades into myth. However, I have been contacted by a mole in Bletchley Park, who provides visual evidence of the Surrealistic tendencies which have infected the Corporation's subtitlers. Tantalisingly, this picture is taken from the same Newsnight film as the episode involving Mr Mandelson's "pant".

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Partial Apologies To The BBC, To Mr Mandelson, And To Ants Everywhere

In the interests of accuracy, I have checked my notes on those errant Newsnight subtitles, and realise - with some reluctance - that I made a mistake in the transcription of my shorthand. Mr Mandelson's fellow "participants" in the EU were not "piss ants" at all. They were "piss pant".
I think there was only one pant involved. I have now written to Ms Martha Kearney, c/o Radio 4's Woman's Hour, to try to ascertain the style of pant in question.

The European Union Is Run By Mr Peter Mandelson And His Team Of Willing Piss Ants

An ill-advised experiment with a Hopi ear candle has left me almost deaf, and reliant on subtitles when watching television. This is unfortunate, as the BBC's subtitling department seems to be in the midst of a dispute between two factions. One group, the Dadaists, favour subtitles which comprise ambiguous nonsense, while the other, the Burroughsians, employ the "cut-up" techniques of the drug addict and author, Mr William Burroughs. Occasionally - and I apologise in advance for the obscenity - a kind of sense emerges from this accidental poetry. Last night, on Newsnight, in a film about Mr Peter Mandelson's work at the European Union, the word "participants" was rendered as "piss ants".

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mr Michael Parkinson May Have Drooled On His Tie, But His Tete-a-Tete With Madonna Was Nothing Compared To Mr Peter Sellers In A German Helmet

For some time now, I have been worried about Mr Michael Parkinson. It is not, you understand, that the old goat is any mortal danger. He has a television show, a house band, and he is allowed to witter at length to his celebrity guests, who are delighted to encounter an interviewer whose idea of an interrogation is a little light banter, a few questions about their relationship with their father, an interlude on the silliness of celebrity, and a free advertisement for whatever it is that they are selling.
Indeed, a year or two ago I was in the cold meats queue at Tesco when I overheard a young woman explaining to her friend why she had just placed a CD by Mr Rod Stewart in her basket, alongside the jumbo packs of potato crisps, the 10 gallon drum of Coca-Cola, and the dieting magazine. "He was on Parkie last night. He was magic." (Having witnessed the alleged performance, I wondered for a while whether the word "magic" had changed its meaning, in the manner of the word "wicked", so that it now meant something with no mystery or sparkle.)
There was a time - around 1974 - when Mr Parkinson's talk show made for revelatory viewing. Some of the guests came from Hollywood's Golden Age, and the deference of the host seemed appropriate, if facile. Memorably, Mr Peter Sellers once wore a helmet and pretended to be a German for 25 minutes, which was peculiar, but more entertaining than anything that was on television last Saturday night. The memory of Mr Parkinson's interview with Ms Raquel Welch still makes me blush in places where the blood does not usually flow.
These days, Mr Parkinson is forced to interview people who are less famous than himself, and he gives the impression that he considers them to be less interesting too. But what are we to make of his behaviour when faced with the singer and dancer, Ms Madonna Ciccone? The fawning was almost obscene to witness, as Mr Parkinson extracted from Ms Ciccone the astonishing news that her father was reasonably proud of her, and that she remained relatively fond of her husband. Ms Ciccone had rehearsed a joke about her love of Timothy Taylor - an ale, and not a former member of The Goodies - and pretended that she was auditioning for a singing job at Mr Parkinson's pub.
Frankly, I was, and am, disappointed. In his interview in the Radio Times, Mr Parkinson revealed himself to be a true son of Cudworth - an opinionated old curmudgeon who would delight in calling a spade a bloomin' shovel. Yet here he was, behaving like an old headmaster with a crush on the French assistant.
I often think fondly of Mr Parkinson's extraordinary interview with Mr Orson Welles, or the special moment when the old gunslinger, Mr John Wayne, appeared at the top of the staircase in a tuxedo; a celestial cowboy, sick with cancer, back for one last ride across the range.
After Madonna, I am nostalgic for Emu.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Is Rebus Down To His Last Cigarette, Or Have The Affairs Of Our Funny Wee Country Slipped Beyond Parody? (NB - The Answers Are Not Mutually Exclusive)

The friction between Scotland and England is a source of much merriment, the latest example of which is the campaign by the Scottish National Party to send a Scottish football team to the London Olympics in 2012. The idea is absurd, but the fact that it is treated as a serious proposition by the country's second-most popular party is an indictation of how trivial Scottish politics have become.
But new heights of absurdity were reached by the Times newspaper today, which ran a story by its Scotland correspondent suggesting that Detective Inspector John Rebus, "the overweight, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking loner" created by the writer Mr Ian Rankin might be forced to emigrate South as a result of the imminent ban on smoking in Scottish bars.
The last time I looked, DI Rebus was a fictional character. He is free to live wherever Mr Rankin plants him. But when did the news pages of the Times start to concern themselves with fantasy?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Increasingly, Nostalgia Is All I Have To Look Forward To. But, Ah, The Skies Of Yesteryear Are Blue!

If, as one of my correspondents suggests, I am to eschew nostalgia, what, I wonder, will I have left to look forward to?
For years now, I have only managed to face forward by thinking backwards, to a time when things were less cruel, less venal, less fuelled by greed, selfishness, and a boorish disregard for the welfare of others.
Nostalgia is my electric blanket. It is my hot water bottle, my Thermos full of sweet tea. It protects me, sustains me, and keeps me warm. In my rear-view mirror, which is jauntily placed on the front wing of my metaphorical Dormobile (and not - as on modern vehicles - by the driver's door), distant objects may look closer than they are, but I find it tremendously reassuring to be able to reflect on a world before "hoodies", or bad language, or graffiti, or iPods on the bus; before Little Chefs punting hoki from New Zealand, before the streets were strewn with half-naked posters of models selling scent, or pants, or scented pants; before concrete and plastic, and boys at the chip shop acting with menaces; before kittens with bangers tied to their tails; before the streets were stuck with dog mess and Wrigley's Spearmint Gum; before seven-day supermarkets and "booze cruises" and carrots with no taste; before Ministers in leather jackets or congregations of "happy clappers"; before coffee shops selling fatless froth for the price of five pies; before children were obese; before kebabs, and Sunday morning sick; before sudoku and free DVDs; before American beer, and rappers over here with their jeans around their knees; before spin, and wheelie bins, and industrial cheese; before the tyranny of convenience turned newspapers into comics edited by cartoons for an audience of fools, but without the wit of Oor Wullie or Little Plum; before football was played by millionaires and supported by bigots; before dead princesses were treated like Mexican saints, when their lives were no more admirable than that of the average sunbather; before traffic jams or cycling helmets or wheelchair parking bays, and the general all-pervasive feeling that, although we have never been richer, or brighter, or faster, the world is travelling like a supersonic handcart on a journey to Hell, with a guest appearance by Mr Richard Branson, a flypast by the Red Arrows, and a sponsored jog by an Olympian athlete who has yet to fail a drugs test.
At times like these I like to imagine myself as Mr Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. I raise my sights to the heavens and, though they are grey, I see only blue. "Look at that sky!" I say to myself. "Look at that sky!"

Mr Sean Connery Must Ride In On A Milkfloat Of Human Kindness And Save Edinburgh's Beautiful Cameo Cinema

I read in The Herald that Edinburgh's Cameo Cinema is to be sold, and its main auditorium transformed into a "super-bar".
Oh, how the heart sinks.
I have a great fondness for many of the Capital's picture houses, and a great many of them have disappeared. But the Cameo is a special place, which should be treasured. It has stood on the same site since 1914, when it opened as the King's Cinema - a companion to the King's Theatre, across the street. Although it spent some of the 198os in the doldrums, most of its essential architecture is intact.
It is a lovely place, and one of the few cinemas in Scotland where it is possible to experience the thrill of going to the pictures as it used to be. True, the live orchestra is no longer in attendance, but the Cameo's interior marks it out as Edwardian palace of entertainment, which has a long tradition of showing continental films. I remember the excitement in 1963, when a Milk Bar was added to the cinema, and for a while, the local papers carried advertisements wth the image of that famous milkman, Mr Sean Connery, implying that 007 could be glimpsed nightly in the bar, sipping a pinta.
Clearly, Lothian Road is not in need of a super-bar. By evening, the area around the Usher Hall and the already-defiled Caley Palais cinema is like one of the outer rings of Hell, as it fills with aggressive, under-dressed teenagers trying to cram a lifetime's pleasure into an evening of over-indulgence. The King's Theatre is already a shadow of itself, but to add the Cameo to the endless happy hour of Lothian Road would be an act of unforgiveable cultural vandalism.
Does Edinburgh still have a council? Is it too much to hope that it will stand against the licensing trade, and the forward march of crude money?
Also, what of 007? Well, Mr Connery is to receive the Life Achievement Award, the highest accolade of the American Film Institute. Closer to home, one often hears of schemes by which Scotland's greatest film star is to be commemorated. The Cameo is five minutes walk from the dairy where young Tam Connery used to work. Let him buy the place, and keep the special intimacy of a beautiful cinema alive.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mr Ross Kemp Is No Ena Sharples, But His Big Potato-Head Might Have Been Designed In Prototype By Mr Leonardo DaVinci

As a rule, I am not in the habit of watching the BBC's continuing drama, EastEnders. As a younger man I invested too heavily in dramas which disappeared, leaving me in a state of permanent mourning for the stern dignity of Dr Cameron (from Dr Finlay's Casebook), the pier-end puggishness of Coronation Street's Ena Sharples (played by the indomitable Miss Violet Carson), or the rakish fortitude of Mr Peter Gilmore's Cap'n Onedin in The Onedin Line. Sometimes, in my darker moments, I find myself identifying with Champion, The Wonder Horse, who had the distinction of being the first horse to visit the top of the Empire State Building in New York. (Of course, Roy Rogers' mount, Trigger, once rented a suite at the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh).
But the hullabaloo about the nocturnal activities of Mr Ross Kemp made me curious. The reporting of the assault on Mr Kemp by his significant other, the "flame-haired" Ms Rebekah Wade, editrix of the Sun, was founded on the notion that there was some hilarity in Mr Kemp, a "soap hardman", being thumped by a lady. I can only conclude that the reporters who penned such piffle were not raised in Presbyterian households, where it is a mother's duty to wallop her offspring in the manner of a Japanese monk drummer , while Father sits quietly in his favourite chair fantasising about dominoes.
Be that as it may, I was astounded by EastEnders. As a thespian of several decades experience, I have never witnessed a performance like that perpetrated by Mr Kemp. I was reminded of a story told about Lord Olivier, who once terrified his supporting cast in rehearsals by playing a repressed homosexual as a mincing pantomime dame. All were horrified, as the purpose of the play was the character's reserve. Eventually, someone summoned the courage to raise a query with the great man. "My dear boy," he replied, "I like to start big, and then bring it in!"
Mr Kemp, I think, has started big and let it out. His invisible moustache twirls so quickly that he is in danger of becoming a helicopter.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Porridge-Eaters May Not Be Cultists, But A Boy Must Pay Attention When His Mother Waves The Spurtle

The clocks may change and the leaves may fall, but in the Old Manse, the true sign of winter's advance is the opening of the porridge season.
I am, when it comes to porridge, something of a fanatic. As Mr George Orwell was to a cup of tea, so am I to the swollen oat. I make it fresh every morning while attempting to recover from the Radio 4 UK theme, in which Greensleeves, Early One Morning, Scotland the Brave, Danny Boy and What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? all blend, quite hellishly, into Rule Britannia. Has a worse medley of music ever been constructed? I think not, though I have some sympathy with Mr Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, who encounters a military band playing Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and responds by saying to his superior: "Tell me who wins". (After this incident, it comes as no surprise that Mr Palmer can survive psychedelic torture at the hands of grim-faced Albanians.)
But I digress. My point is porridge. As my mother Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) used to say, when flicking a slice of mature porridge from the bureau with her spurtle, "there is the way you would like to make it, and there is the right way".
But Ma'am was not inflexible on the matter of porridge. She eschewed it entirely when the Quaker company took over Scott's Porage Oats sometime in the early 1980s, as she had a lifelong suspicion of Quakers, believing them to be a cult in which forgiveness and fondness were too easily dispensed.
I have subsequently discovered that there is no connection between the Quaker religion and the cereal company. If anything, Kellogg's is closer to a cult, being the product of a Sanitarium founded by Dr John Harvey Kellogg to discourage the consumption of coffee, meat, alcohol or tobacco, with the curious - yet not unappealing - motto: “Eat what the monkey eats, simple food and not too much of it”. (Quaker, the oat company, is now part of Pepsico, the company which, in 1898, attempted to woo customers in China with the slogan: "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.")
Nor am I convinced that Ma'am had ever encountered a Quaker. In the Store, she would wave furiously at the wall of Porage and declaim: "I'd rather burn for eternity than eat breakfast in Penicuik!" These were strong words, and I cannot explain them, except to say that her beliefs were as hard to shift as they were to comprehend. It may be that she had filed Quakerism alongside the various unnatural habits which were said to be rife whenever one crossed the county line. "Midlothian Practices" was a catch-all term, the details of which I was encouraged never to explore.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An Edwardian Solution To The Problems of Youth - Lock Them Up Until They Mature

In his review of the new book by the admirable - if unfortunately-named - Ms Lynne Truss, (Talk to the Hand: the utter bloody rudeness of everyday life) the Labour MP for Birkenhead, Mr Frank Field, makes an interesting observation. Writing in the New Statesman, the former Minister for Thinking The Unthinkable states that crime levels in Edwardian Britain were so low, and yobbish behaviour so exceptional, that the penal system was able to cope with matters which go unpunished today.
"A quarter of those serving time before the First World War were inside for such misdemeanours as riding a bicycle without lights, playing games in the street, gambling or making lewd comments. If Edwardian criteria for imprisonment were applied in today's Britain, there would be no young people on out streets."
The scheme may have had its disadvantages but, for the moment, I find myself unable to locate them.

You Say Tomato - The BBC Reveals How To Make An American Bomb

Reporting on the French riots on last night's Ten O'Clock News, Mr Gavin Hewitt of the BBC talked of "gasoline bombs" being thrown. How, I wonder, do these differ from petrol bombs?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Did You Hear The One About Mr David Blunkett, Flame-Haired Rebekah Wade, and Mr David McLetchie? If You Did, Keep It To Yourself

I try, when I can, to avoid contact with journalists, as they are a dour and paranoid breed, and I have all the dour paranoia I can handle at home. However, there is a kind of dark excitement about the best of the hacks, which can make them engaging company.
This afternoon, against my better judgment, I was tempted to Edinburgh, where a contact of mine from the old hot metal days had assured me I would hear something that would make my hair curl. As my hair - and it is almost a singular hair - is kept in position by the daily application of a geyser of Vitalis, I was sceptical, but intrigued, so I made the journey to the Doric Tavern, which is the preferred resting place of the growing band of Scotsman refugees. (Others are to be found in the Halfway House on the aptly-named Fleshmarket Close, but I have not ventured in there since a sports reporter from Scotland on Sunday threatened to serenade me with selections from the songbook of Mr Elton John unless I provided him - the reporter, not Mr John - with a packet of pork scratchings).
Well, my hair did curl. At one point, it curled so much that it could have been described as an "afro". But what did I hear? Well, even here, amid the unlicenced anarchy of the "internut", I am not at liberty to say. But I now know a great deal more about the private affairs of Mr David Blunkett, and I understand certain things about the social diary of the editor of the Sun, whose name appears to be "Flame-haired Rebekah Wade". More intriguingly, the strange affair of Mr David McLetchie's trial by taxi chit has been placed in a context in which his resignation almost makes sense.
Needless to say, m'learned friends have informed me that I may say no more about these matters, and that similar advice will have been issued to the men in green visors who determine what appears in our public prints.
But it does make me wonder. If newsmen have one set of stories which they tell to each other in the snug, and another which they relate to the public, and the two sets of stories barely match, is it any wonder that newspaper circulations are falling more quickly than the skittles at the Sheep's Heid?

The iPod Is A Public Nuisance, Newspaper Editors Are Odd Coves, And The Sunday Telegraph Would Be Better Compared To A Hearing Aid

I am not, I confess, a regular reader of the Sunday Telegraph, but I found myself buying the paper yesterday. There were two reasons for this. It has been re-designed to resemble the Peebles Times-Picayune, and it was offering a free DVD starring Ms Tilda Swinton, whose early career included a sensual turn as a spectre in the Peebles Showboaters' 1973 production of Blithe Spirit. Ms Swinton is a daughter of the Berwickshire town of Swinton and, though I have not always been able to understand her work as an actress, I have often toasted her with a ginger beer and lime in the town's excellent Wheatsheaf Hotel. Needless to say, I am unable to play the DVD as the crumb tray in my toaster is overflowing, but I feel sure that her performance in Orlando is every bit as compelling as her Cissie Crouch in Mr John Byrne's much underrated country'n'western drama, Your Cheatin' Heart.
But I digress. The Sunday Telegraph has been redesigned. The editor, a lady with a bow-tie on the front of her cardigan, explained the changes in an indulgent letter to her readers which concluded, "I want the Sunday Telegraph to be like your iPod - full of your favourite things."
Well, I have worked with several editors, and I have met only one who was capable of talking as if English was his first language, but this talk of iPods seems very peculiar. I understand, through painful experience on the Peebles-Edinburgh omnibus, that iPods are used by the young to advertise their dislocation from everyday life while introducing noise pollution into the environment. Sitting in the vicinity of one of these contraptions is like contracting tinnitus, and it has always been my view that a person wearing white earphones is advertising his selfishness, and not - as he might have thought - his fashionability.
Why, then, did the editor of the Sunday Telegraph wish to compare her newspaper with one of these infernal devices? Well, my experience of newspapers has taught me that editors have a fetish for youth, precisely because young people do not buy newspapers, and they will do anything they can to court them, even if this means that they alienate their existing readers, which they do with quite astounding consistency.
I remain to be convinced that the comparison with an iPod will be attractive to readers who are more likely to be asking Santa for an ear trumpet.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Mr Jeremy Paxman Looks Pained, But Talk Of Mr Blair's Decline Makes Me Want To Don A Turquoise Track Suit And Shout Obscenities At The Television

As a resident and council tax payer in several parallel universes, I have grown used to a sense of dislocation from current affairs. In some text-books, most of them out of print, my condition is described as "paranoid melancholia", the symptoms being that I understand the truth of everything and feel very sad, while remaining powerless to affect my fate. Readers who wish to observe this phenomenon are referred to the 1976 film, Network, in which a newsreader played by Mr Peter Finch grows "mad as Hell", and decides that he is not going to take it any more. Indeed, he grows so mad that he encourages everyone to open the windows and shout about how mad they are too.
Well, that is where the film goes awry and the viewer is reminded of such inspirational characters as the former sports presenter, Mr David Icke, who started dressing in a turquoise track suit while predicting the imminent disappearance of the isle of Skye.
But, still, the old feeling returns from time to time. So it was that I let my fair-trade cocoa go cold last night while watching a Newsnight discussion about the declining power of Mr Tony Blair. (Pedants in the Peebles area may wish to know that I have adjusted my aerial so that it receives "English" Newsnight, as I have grown weary of those "Newsnicht" panel discussions in which a media studies professor from Cumbernauld University, a former councillor, and a disoriented political correspondent who is still in shorts, cower helplessly, as Mr Gordon Brewer breathes the hot fire of Trotskyite rhetoric across the studio, illuminating nothing except the sense that all of them have better things to do than discuss a) taxi chits b) the 458 varieties of the Scottish cringe or c) parrot farming as a solution to the shortcomings of the Common Agricultural Policy.)
There were three pundits, and one Mr Jeremy Paxman. For ten minutes, which felt like ten years, they discussed the ups, the downs, and the spin-it-arounds of Mr Blair's reputation. The three pundits were very excitable, and reminded me of pigeons in a state of high arousal, puffed-up with their own brilliance. Mr Paxman, as usual, gave the impression that he would rather be fishing. In the end, all were agreed that nobody knew anything, and that events would sort themselves out, and it was all a matter of rhetoric and opinion, but, eventually, if pundits like them seemed bored enough for long enough, then - bingo! - Mr Blair's number would be up. (I paraphrase slightly).
What, I wonder, does this have to do with the price of fly cemeteries? Nothing. Will it remove the chewing gum from the pavements? No, it will not.
By the end of the night, I reached the unfortunate conclusion that I was beginning to agree with the opinions of Mr Blair's former henchman, the marathon runner, Mr Alastair Campbell. Earlier in the week, I had found myself in agreement with the Scottish correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Mr Alan Cochrane.
These are dark days, indeed. I fear I am in need of stronger medication.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

As Mr McLetchie Hails His Final Cab, Scotland Looks Like A Wee Country Led By Lemmings

So, after much prevarication, the taxi can be ordered for the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Mr David McLetchie. Mr McLetchie does not have the look of a Buddhist, so it is unlikely that he believes in the principle of "karma", but there is a symmetry in the fact that his political demise came after a protracted campaign over an apparently trivial matter which grew larger and more damaging the more he tried to ignore it. Perhaps, as he plays keepie-uppie on the asphalt fields of Fife, the former First Minister, Mr Henry McLeish, will allow himself a smile. It was Mr McLetchie who hounded Mr McLeish on the question of his administrative probity, and now he, too, has fallen.
In this regard, the Scottish parliament has been peculiarly unlucky. The Scottish Nationalists misplaced their leader when the waxen presentation of Mr John Swinney failed to set the heather alight, and they are now in the peculiar position of having one-and-a-half leaders. The old Cheshire Cat, Mr Alex Salmond, is in charge, but not in the building, so his bidding is done by Ms Nicola Sturgeon. This surfeit of "heid-bummers" cannot disguise the fact that the SNP is a party which has misplaced its purpose, which - traditionally - was to act as a protest vote when Labour governments failed to deliver a land of milk, honey, and free mince for every voter.
The Liberal Democrats, who are - lest we forget - in government, have misplaced their top man, the 40-watt firebrand, Mr Jim Wallace, and replaced him with someone whose name I have yet to register. The Scottish Socialists have imploded too, sending their leader, Mr Tommy Sheridan, for an extended holiday on the electric beach, despite the fact that he was the party's only electoral asset.
For Labour, Mr Jack McConnell remains unassailable, even though his most memorable contribution to the gaiety of the nation was his decision to wear a modernist kilt to a celebration of tartan in the United States. Thanks to the accent adopted by Mr Sean Connery in The Untouchables, the Americans already assume that Scotland is a suburb of Ireland, but they must have been doubly confused when the country's administrative head wore pinstripes when the dress code said "plaid".
Can it really be true that we get the leaders we deserve? One trusts, with diminishing certainty, that it is not.