Tuesday, February 28, 2006
In recent years, newspapers have tried numerous tricks to tempt customers into buying them. They have changed shape, redesigned themselves, and added pages of something called "lifestyle", which is a feminine way of saying "insecurity". They once offered bingo, now it is sudoku. For a while, they gave away compact discs, but now DVDs seem to be the bribe of choice. In Scotland, the problem is acute, and the papers here have fallen back onto nationalism - most memorably in the form of the "free mince" once offered by the Sunday Scot.
As an enthusiastic reader of newspapers - albeit one who indulges his habit in the public library - I have witnessed all of this with a heart as weary as my fingertips are inky. Papers have become creatures of marketing rather than news, and their opinion columns have eschewed reason in favour of sensationalism.
But finally, amidst all of the experiments with formats, comes an innovation of which I approve. The Independent on Sunday, having already enjoyed considerable success in its new tabloid shape, is experimenting with a new style; printing its pages on small cakes. The edition I tried tasted quite similar to one of Mr Kipling's French Fancies, and was infinitely preferable to the competition. I once tried to eat the Sunday Times, and found it quite indigestible, especially the motoring section.
Monday, February 27, 2006
The Tonbridge Robbers Are Guilty Of Bringing Balaclava Helmets Into Disrepute, And Deserve To Be Betrayed By Their Dandruff
For some time I have been irritated by the tone of coverage afforded to the Tonbridge bank robbery. When it was first reported, this criminal act was breathily described by television news reporters as "audacious". It was also called a "heist"; a word more usually encountered in police dramas, and one which prompts fond memories of bad lads in camel coats being apprehended by Mr Gordon Jackson in The Professionals. Both Channel 4 News and Newsnight gave airtime to a former bank robber, who - while adding nothing intelligent to the debate - expressed his hope that the thieves would get away with their crime, which was, according to every expert, a work conducted by a criminal gang of considerable sophistication.
Now, it seems, the robbers are bunglers, who have left a stream of clues behind them. Not the least of these clues are the abandoned balaclava helmets, which are thought likely to be festering with criminal DNA. According to some reports, the identities of the criminals may be betrayed by their dandruff.
If so, let it be soon. In the meantime, I hope this experience will do something to discourage the wearing of balaclavas in criminal endeavours. For too long, the jaggy woollen helmet of childhood has been appropriated by terrorists, rapists, skiers and thugs of every variety, leaving the heads of youngsters exposed to the elements or - worse - clad in the checked crown of the ned, the Burberry baseball cap.
Reports that the Tonbridge gang had their mittens attached by elastic to the sleeves of their duffel coats have yet to be subtantiated.
Friday, February 24, 2006
Mr Blair Offers A Waspish Sweetie To The First Meenister, And A Sweet Treat To Everyone Else As He Challenges The Status Quo
I have just watched a speech by the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, broadcast from the Labour Party’s Scottish Conference, or possibly the Scottish Labour Party Conference, or the Party Conference of Scottish Labour. It was, as is customary for Mr Blair, a technocratic affair, spiced with theatrical pauses, and too frequent use of the word “agenda”. The most entertaining parts were his frequent references to the First Meenister, Mr McConnell, who greeted each compliment with an expression of such unbounded joy that it was tempting to speculate that he had reached for a pandrop and swallowed a wasp.
My hearing is not what it was, but I noticed three important statements in Mr Blair’s speech. One was a question: “How can the status quo ever be the answer to a changing world?” Well, unless he was referring to the denin-wearing musical group – in which case I tend to agree – the PM seems to be suggesting here that merely because the world is changing, everything else has to change too. This is patently nonsensical, as Mr Blair would realise if he applied the same logic to the question of the leadership of the Labour Party.
Secondly, I was intrigued by the BBC onscreen summary of the speech, which claimed that Mr Blair had observed: “We have always done our best when we have lead and not followed.” My guess is that the subtitler was a fan of the Status Quo, and was making a subtle reference to “heavy metal” music.
Finally, I was intrigued by the passage in Mr Blair’s speech which referred to “pudding power in the hands of the many”. This, I think, was the mark of a truly progressive politician. I hereby pledge my vote to the first party with the foresight to add free custard to this novel proposal.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Scotland's New National Theatre Is A Puce Rhinoceros (What You Get When You Ask A Committee Not To Design A White Elephant)
The launch of the National Theatre of Scotland should be a moment of pride and joy for the nation. Why, then, does the occasion offer only confusion to the traditional theatre-goer?
To start at the start: there are no bricks and mortar in the National Theatre of Scotland. There is no equivalent of London's South Bank - a concrete complex of cultural venues designed to bring cheer to the nation. Instead, the National Theatre of Scotland is - if I may adopt the jargon of contemporary theatre - a "space in the imagination". With this in mind, the director, Ms Vicky Featherstone, has commissioned 10 works which will occur in unusual venues around the country.
In Edinburgh, children aged from nine to eleven will re-enact First Minister's Question Time (a duplication of effort, surely, as our MSPs already govern with an air of pre-pubescence). In Musselburgh, children will be taken on a magical bus ride (the mind boggles). In Inverness, something unusual will occur in a Nissen hut (though the Herald's spelling of the hut as "Nissan" suggests a surprise involving a Japanese hatchback). In Caithness, an old lady suffering from dementia has been marooned in a glass factory filled with 150 tons of sand.
I do not wish to mock the National Theatre any more than it mocks itself. But as a judge of amateur theatre contests, I have the sense that these works have been designed to satisfy a craving for novelty which is based on a fear that theatre is no longer - oh, my weary heart - "relevant".
Well, one way of making sure that something becomes irrelevant is to let it wither. I fear that our drama lovers are being denied the experience of real theatre, most obviously in the absence of a grand building in which the work can be framed. The theatre is the temple of the dramatic arts. It should be welcoming and intimidating, plush and forbidding. As usual, I am in agreement with Dr Johnson, who said of theatre: "At all other assemblies, he that comes to receive delight will be expected to give it; but in the theatre nothing is necessary to the amusement of two hours, but to sit down and be willing to be pleased."
To that, I would add a caveat. He that is willing to be pleased should be able to buy Matchmakers, or a family box of Maltesers, and doze gently until the cad - played by Mr Tom Fleming OBE - is unmasked.
Friday, February 17, 2006
Have You Got A Light Mac? No, But I've Got A New Diving Suit: A Reluctant Outlaw's Response To The English Ban On Smoking
The recent vote by MPs to ban smoking in public places in England and Wales has, I am sorry to say, scuppered my plans to run a Puffer's Bothy at a secret location in the borders. An unventilated building had been identified, and a membership of 17 breathless souls had signed up with the intention of forming the Pestilent Air Society, a private members' club catering for those who find fresh air too taxing. The articles of assocation also included a designated drivers' rota, to take this bold constituency of Scottish wheezers to and from the club, wherein pipes would be packed, stogies chewed, and cinammon sticks lit, as a prelude to a ceremony in which we would chase a fox around a Wicker Man before settling down to a dinner of half-cooked beef-on-the-bone and eggy soldiers in a salmonella sauce.
As the society has now been outlawed, I have contacted my tailor, Mr Taper of Aitken and Cousteau (School Uniforms and Wetsuit Specialists of Hawick), and had him design me a smoking suit which will allow me to indulge my pipe in public without fear of arrest. The outfit is modelled on an early diving suit, incorporating the closed-circuit oxygen re-breather invented by Mr Henry Fleuss in 1876. As Mr Fleuss died from breathing pure oxygen when testing his device, the adapted garment includes a watertight tobacco pouch - a Walnut Plug plug - and a sealed helmet which traps the smoke inside the suit. It is effective to a depth of 20 metres, which is slightly more than 20 yards.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
The Sonic Teenage Deterrent Is A Bold Attempt To Tackle The Problems Of Youth, But A Holiday On Gruinard Is More Efficient
I was intrigued to hear, on Radio 4's splendid PM programme, of an invention which deters teenagers from gathering outside fish bars and late night corner shops. Intrigued, partly, because the story was reported in The Grocer last autumn, and has - I am reliably informed - been tested on daytime television's Richard and Judy.
Nevertheless, there is something appealing about the Mosquito, or Sonic Teenage Deterrent, manufactured by Compound Security Systems of Merthyr Tydfil. It emits a high-pitched sound which is inaudible to anyone over the age of 20, though unsporting academics have suggested that some older people may still be able to detect the din.
I am, of course, in favour of anything that discourages the formation of mobs of yobs outside fast food establishments in general (and Big Eb's Chippy in particular), but I remain uneasy about the introduction of further noise pollution into the urban environment. Even when wearing wax ear-plugs, muffs, and a trapper's hat with sheepskin flaps, I can detect the distant symphony of car alarms and bus engines and the Grand Prix whine of the overpowered saloons gliding up the A72 to the bantustans of executive housing. I hear the neighbours' telly, and the shouting over tea-trays from Tenerife as the baby's cries are drowned by Mr Eric Spear's mournful Coronation Street theme. At night, as I think of waves and peaceful beaches, I catch their breaths and their saturnine moaning without the need for an Esso tumbler pressed hard to the anaglypta. Then I absord the human percussion of the all-night drinkers shouting and fighting and singing that song they sing about time taking a cigarette. And just as I drop off, exhausted to the point of death, I hear the sirens: of ambulances (mashed heads); fire engines (chip pan infernos); or Z-Cars going softly, softly into the good night. I hear the urban foxes barking, and the depleted dawn chorus, and the milkman crying as his electric car glides towards oblivion. I hear the postman checking the mail for loose change. And then, just as the ferryman of deep sleep beckons, I awake with a start to the sound of the Radio Four UK Theme - the drunken sailor and the National Front - and the strange but sturdy crash of the Roberts radio as it bounces on the bedroom wall.
If I can hear all of this, I fear that I will hear the teenage repellent as well. Which leads me back to my original conclusion. The Mosquito, like the playing of Haydn and Mozart on the Tyne and Wear Metro, is a bold attempt to deal with a nasty problem. But it is less effective than encouraging young people to grow up and get a job or, failing that, sending them to "find themselves" on the island of Gruinard.
Monday, February 13, 2006
In A Nation Of Eeyores, Krankies, and Mr Tim Luckhurst, The Dunfermline By-Election Was A Victory For The Fed-Up Party
Sometimes - more often than is medically advisable - words fail me. According to the Sunday Herald, Scotland's Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing has just celebrated a year of existence with an initiative in which "Scottish celebrities and thinkers" are being enlisted "in a bid to create happiness where it's most needed".
Now, even if we accept that the work of a fine institution has been reduced to a cartoon for the purposes of making sure that the intellect of newspaper readers is not stimulated, this is quite awful news on several levels.
Firstly, whenever I hear tell of the word "celebrity" being attached to the word "Scottish", I reach for my spud gun. It is one of this country's finest qualities that it has no celebrities, with the possible exception of "Wee Jimmy Krankie". There is Sir Sean Connery, of course, but he is more of an abstract ideal than a creature of flesh and blood. He is well-known, but his celebrity really belongs to Commander Ian Fleming's 007. Otherwise, Mr Connery would be famous for playing Irish policemen with slurred diction, and for issuing political advice to his homeland from the golf courses of Barbuda.
The directory of Scottish celebrity consists of animals, mostly; from the Loch Ness Monster to Dolly the Sheep, via Greyfriars Bobby. I have not yet managed to see the latest cinematic interpretation of Bobby's life, but I have always thought it appropriate that one of our national myths should be based on a dog which stood vigil around it's master's grave. If there is a more precise definition of the condition of Scottishness, I have yet to discover it.
But I digress. After a year, what has the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing Achieved? Well, according to its national report, the centre was mentioned in "at least 22 newspaper articles", which is something. You may have noticed, also, a tangible increase in your own confidence and wellbeing, without ever attributing it to the good works of the centre. Next year, apparently, the charity hopes to have an impact on Scotland's suicide rate, though it is too early to say in which direction.
Facetiousness aside, I have a suggestion which would have an immediate impact on the nation's sense of wellbeing. The political commentator, Mr Tim Luckhurst - whose use of the pages of the Scotsman to upbraid Mr Donald Dewar sent the First First Meenister into a blue funk from which he never recovered - has been busy playing Eeyore in the pages of the Observer. His point is that the Chancellor, Mr Brown, and the First Meenister, Mr McConnell, are rubbish, and that people are - in the words of the new Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Willie Rennie - "fed up with Labour".
This may be so, but it is odd, then, that they were not also fed up with the Liberal Democrats, who share power in Holyrood. The by-election result also suggested that people are fed-up with the Scottish National Party, and with the Conservatives.
In fact, people are just fed up. Whether this is a matter of free will, or a side-effect of the DNA of Scottishness, I am too scunnered to say.
My suggestion for an increase in national wellbeing and confidence? Mr Luckhurst should be strapped to the roof of a kipper lorry and exported to the Tory shires of England, leaving the rest of us to get on with being doomed.
Friday, February 10, 2006
Mr Joaquin Phoenix Is No "Man In Black", But Watching His Impersonation Of Mr Johnny Cash Is Like Visiting A Fond Memory Of Brigadoon
The latest of my cinematic excursions - as part of the long trudge towards the Bafta awards - took me to see Walk the Line, a film in which the long career of Mr Johnny Cash is condensed into a sanitised account of his love affair with Miss June Carter, of the Carter Family.
Now, I have nothing against the late Mr Cash. True, his singing voice lacked the velvety richness of "Gentleman" Jim Reeves, and he had none of the unapologetic peculiarity of Mr Charlie Poole (whose repertoire included such timeless favourites as Goodbye Booze and The Man That Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man). But, if what you were seeking from a singer was a man who walked like one of Mr Sergio Leone's spaghetti gunslingers, and who sang with the unworried abandon of a travelling salesman in the shower stall of a stucco-fronted motel, the brown-eyed and handsome Mr Cash was, indeed, your man.
The film is an act of impersonation and amplification. Mr Joaquin Phoenix does a decent job with his turn as Mr Cash, while Miss Reese Witherspoon is too sweet and normal to be truly convincing as Miss Carter, a woman whose charm was best described as "folksy".
For the purposes of the drama, Mr Cash's life is simplified. There is no real acknowledgment that the "Man in Black" was also in awe of "The Man in White": the disciple Paul was the subject of Mr Cash's novel, and he experienced his own Damascene conversion when God spoke to him as he lay in a cave, waiting to die.
These elements of Mr Cash's life are absent from the picture, which concentrates instead on his empathy with the inmates of Folsom Prison, thus casting him in a fashionably rebellious light.
The reality of the man was more complex. I witnessed him in concert on several occasions, and the most moving moments were not always musical. For instance, I recall seeing him at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow, when he introduced a mawkish tune, written in the style of a Scots ballad. The song was called A Croft in Clachan, and it had more to do with Brigadoon than Scotland, past or present.
Nevertheless, Mr Cash, who had traced his ancestry to a distant sea captain in Strathmiglo, Fife, was overwhelmed by the power of the moment. With the salt of fresh tears staining his face, he apologised for the song, saying that he knew it would sound false to Scottish ears, but that his intentions were sincere, and that he felt intimidated and honoured to be singing it on Caledonian soil. Well, the song was just as sentimental and bogus as it had sounded on record, but there was no doubting the emotional turbulence of the moment. Just as Mr Cash had cried, so did his audience.
Walk the Line performs the same trick. It celebrates a version of Mr Cash's life that is partial and distorted. It is a tribute to a sentiment. Nevertheless, it has the power to evoke the memory of a romantic myth.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Caveat Emptor: The Soul of Mr George Galloway (But Not His Saucy Red Leotard) For Sale. Offers Over £2050. Iraqi Oil Vouchers Not Accepted. Honest.
You might think that Mr George Galloway, having emerged from the Big Brother house to a reception of ridicule and mockery, might have applied the first law of holes: when you're in one, stop digging. Instead, the Respect MP has apparently licensed a friend or colleague to sell - on the internet auction site, eBay - souvenirs from his time in the overlit bungalow of cheap celebrity. At the time of writing, Mr Galloway's Big Brother suitcase and overnight bag have attracted a bid of £102 (roughly, one suspects, what one might pay for them in the luggage department of John Lewis). More surprisingly, Mr Galloway's "Cuba hoodie", his VIP pass, and "the famous eye mask he wore in bed" have attracted a bid of £1040. A Sir Jimmy Savile "job lot" including Mr Galloway's "Jim Fixed It For Me" medallion are currently standing at £102, though there are six days remaining on the auction.
Thankfully, there is no sign (yet) of Mr Galloway's snug red leotard. Sadly, the administrators of the site have seen fit to withdraw the entry offering the soul of Mr Galloway. After less than a day on offer, this item had attracted 57 bids, up to a price of £2050.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
As The Tories Turn Republican And The Diana Conspiracy Theories Multiply, Pity The Poor Queen, Stuck With The Poetic Admiration Of Mr Andrew Motion
When it comes to poetry, I am a MacCaig and Larkin man, with a sneaking admiration for the surreal word-play of Mr Ivor Cutler and the nonsense verse of Mr Spike Milligan. Indeed, the recent debate on the letters pages of Scotland on Sunday about the existence of porridge drawers in the sideboard of Miss Clarissa Dickson-Wright's memory caused me to recall the late Goon's eternal tribute to the Scottish national breakfast.
"Why is there no monument/To Porridge in our land?" Mr Milligan wrote, "If it's good enough to eat/It's good enough to stand!/On a plinth in London/A statue we should see/Of Porridge made in Scotland/Signed, 'Oatmeal, O.B.E.'".
In times of trouble, I reach for The Quangle Wangle's Hat, by Mr Edward Lear, particularly the verse which mentions: "the Pobble who has no toes/And the small Olympian bear/And the Dong with a luminous Nose/And the Blue Baboon, who played the Flute/And the Orient Calf from the Land of Tute".
By contrast, the work of the Poet Laureate, Mr Andrew Motion, leaves me cold. Mr Motion recently advised that children should be encouraged to read Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Eliot, James, and - most worryingly - Ulysses, by Mr James Joyce: an experience that would, most likely, cause them to run to their computer games and their bags of glue, never to read again.
In my view, children should be encouraged to read for pleasure, starting with Oor Wullie and the adventure stories of Mrs Enid Blyton, before coming to rest somewhere to the east of the literary Eden of Mr Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
As if to illustrate the dangers of Mr Motion's wholemeal diet, the Laureate recently published The Golden Rule, a poetic tribute to HM, the Queen, in which he alludes to "shrinking woods" and language which "bursts its bounds and breaks new ground".
"The fledgling words lay down a treasure-trove,
The speed of heart-to-heart accelerates:
The Golden rule, your constancy, survives."
It cannot be easy being the Queen at a time when your son and heir is making organic biscuits while the Daily Express speculates that Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington is about to announce that Diana, Princess of Wales was pregnant when she was assassinated by the Security Services, and even the leader of the Conservative Party is making guerilla raids to the far shores of Republicanism. But bad times are made no better by bad poetry.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
Brokeback Mountain Has As Little To Do With Cowboys As It Has To Do With Gaiety. Mr Gary Cooper Must Be Spinning In His Chaps
One of the travails of a life on the boards is the requirement, every year, to view all of the films which have been shortlisted for BAFTA awards. I qualify for this dubious pleasure because of my role as a screenwriter and extra on the little-remembered television serial, The Miffed Loons, which was Scottish television's response to the drama of the Angry Young Men, and featured the travails of Hector (or Eck), a young man from Laurencekirk, who rejected a job in the canneries of Angus to try his luck in the toon (Dundee). Sadly, the bright lights were a mirage, and he returned with his tail between his legs to run an agricultural supplies shop on the outskirts of Fettercairn. By the time the series ended, he had grown a moustache, and was operating a mobile discotheque from the back of an Austin Allegro.
But I digress. My point is the BAFTAs, and the oddness of the films which are shortlisted for awards.
I may offer my views on the complete shortlist at a future date, but I feel most urgently compelled to mention Brokeback Mountain, the "gay cowboy" picture, which has as much to do with gaiety as it does with cowboys, which is to say, not much.
Now, it is not that I am a prude. During the summers of my youth I was a volunteer at the open air pond in Stonehaven, and I witnessed things there that I hesitate to recall, only some of them involving water-wings. As an amateur thespian I am familiar with "theatrical" behaviour, though I don't enjoy having it - pardon my French - rammed down my throat.
When it comes to cowboy pictures, I am a traditionalist. I require some shooting, some Indians, and an ending where the cowboy shuns domesticity in favour of a lonely life out on the range. I am on the side of Mr John Wayne and Mr Gary Cooper. I favour dusty, one horse towns in which the saloon doors are kicked open by a stranger in a black hat, causing the piano man to stop playing and the local "good-time gal" to freeze in the middle of a can-can, revealing a vast undergrowth of silky bloomers. I like an incorruptible sherriff and a tame Indian squaw. If possible, the theme tune should include whistling. If modernity is required, let it be Mr Burt Lancaster, dying under a rock in Ulzana's Raid.
None of these tropes is present in Brokeback Mountain.
Certainly, Wyoming looks pretty. But the film is a love story in which the moments of affection resemble violence. The lady characters are less sophisticated than Mrs Wilma Flintstone. And the diction of Mr Heath Ledger (a nominee for Best Actor) is deplorable; at its clearest, he sounds like Mr Marlon Brando, talking in his sleep with a mouth full of Skoal Bandits.