Saturday, December 31, 2005

Let Us Douse The Old Year With Ajax And Attack 2006 With Vim. Let Us Live As If It Is Always Our Turn To Wash The Stairs

Traditionally, Hogmanay is a day of reflection. This year, before I could slip into gloomy rumination about the tea-stains on the grouting, I found myself pondering the nature of the New Year.
It has changed in recent years, and not for the better. Until about 20 years ago, New Year's Eve was the traditional Scottish festival. It outshone Christmas, and provided an evening which was rich with wonder.
In my childhood, the end of December smelled strongly of bleach, as my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) spent days scrubbing the house in a manner that was almost superstitious. She never articulated her fears, but, from the ferocity of her mopping and brushing, I understood that our home might at any time be subjected to an inspection by a higher power.
Every surface was dusted, buffed and waxed. The windows were washed inside and out. The oven was scoured, the toilet perfumed, and fresh pine cones stacked in the vestibule by the Wellington boots. The air, already loaded with a sharp cocktail of Vim and Ajax, was sprayed into submission with Glade and Vapona.
The dusting extended to places where no-one need ever look. Mrs Elder's feathery stick found its way down the back of the cooker, beneath the twin-tub, and into the bunker, where the coal was hosed clean and polished into rough, knobbly diamonds.
The ornaments - the clog-shaped sailing boat (a gift from Holland), the wild boar's head (a hunting trophy from mother's days as an elephant farmer in South Africa), the plastic back-scratcher (a sentimental souvenir of a wet fortnight in Filey) - were shampooed and blow-dried. The clock, with its Westminster chimes, and its habit of striking 13 times on the quarter hour, was dismantled, oiled, and reassembled in a way that ensured it ran three minutes fast every hour.
The advantage of this, according to Mrs Elder, was that we were early for everything, even when we were late. Indeed, it was only after Mrs Elder was promoted to glory that I discovered the clock's secret: it was made to run fast by the insertion of a rubber sycamore leaf under its right foot. Without the leaf, the clock kept perfect time, though it sometimes chimed for hours and days without a break.
Even with the chimes removed, the internal workings clanked and grumbled like an East German washing machine, so I learned to live off-kilter, secure in the knowledge that, like the clock at the North British Hotel, I was three minutes ahead of my time.
Looking back, I find myself wondering about Mrs Elder's obsessive pursuit of cleanliness. Visitors to our house were rare, but rarest on Hogmanay, when they were, I suspect, discouraged by the black-out curtains and the 38 pints of full-cream milk on the doorstep, specially ordered to give the impression that we had died, and need not be bothered at such a festive time.
Invariably, on the morning of the 1st of January, my father, Mr Elder, was our first foot. He would stand on the frosted bristles of the lawn and declare himself scunnered with everything, before retiring to a breakfast of Alka Seltzer. He was permitted to drink on Hogmanay, on the understanding he would be packed off to bed at the first signs of amorous or sentimental behaviour. From my hiding place beneath the stairs, I could time the moment of his lost inhibitions to 1:23am.
Fortunately, Mrs Elder was three minutes ahead of him, and was ready to shoo him, fully-clothed, into custody in the spare room before anything untoward could happen.
Today, of course, Hogmanay has lost its allure. Instead of cleaning their houses, people shop for alcopops. Where once they took an inventory of their personal affairs, they now stock their refrigerators with pizza slices and pre-cooked chipolatas. Hogmanay has become a time of immoderate celebration: of bad music and damp fireworks and misplaced kisses. The other night, I had the misfortune to find myself in Edinburgh's Old Town after midnight. On turning into the High Street from a darkened close, I collided with six Vikings, in full regalia, with (historically inaccurate) horned helmets, skirts, swords, and shields. I was not hallucinating. I had drunk only Lem-Sip.
But, then, none of this enforced jollity is obligatory. So, this year, as last, I will wash the kitchen floor and settle down with Miss Jackie Bird on the television and a glass of egg-nog in my hand. I will hope for better times, while preparing for more of the same.
Happy new year, and may the bells not toll for you in 2006.

A Hogmanay Message From Mr Kirk Elder, esq

Mr Elder has recovered from the beanstalk incident, and is currently performing in the Peebles' Showboaters' Christmas Show, Peer Gynt on Ice. He had hoped to post a seasonal message today, but found himself struck dumb by the ferocious imagination of the recent address by the First Meenister, Mr Jack McConnell, who [paraphrasing slightly] said that, with luck, a good deal of hard work, and the continuing goodwill of HM Treasury, London, Scotland could be quite a good wee place, occasionally. If you didn't think about it too much.
In the true spirit of the season, Mr Elder has agreed to re-publish his Hogmanay message from 2003, amending a word or two to "freshen it up".

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Mr Elder's Seasonal Greet

Mr Elder apologises for his unexpected absence. This was caused by an accident involving a giant beanstalk during a performance of Peer Gynt On Ice at the Clubrooms of the Peebles' Colporteurs. He hopes to be back onstage, and online, soon after the New Year, and wishes a happier new year to everyone (with one or two important exceptions, on whom a swift and Hellish vengeance would be preferred).

Thursday, December 22, 2005

As The Scotsman's Most Loyal Reader Disappears, Is There A Conspiracy Of Statues?

The disappearance of the Scotsman's most loyal reader - the brass man in the foyer of Barclay House (see comments below) - is, indeed, symbolic. It is is hard to resist the conclusion that it is, in some devious way, connected with the theft of My Henry Moore's Reclining Figure from Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, and the return of the 9ft statue of the First Mumbler, Mr Donald Dewar, to an elevated plinth in Glasgow.
But it brings to mind other questions about the few aspects of the Scotsman's heritage which survived the move from the paper's handsome warren in North Bridge to the shopping mall in Dumbiedykes where it now trades. Veterans of the move will recall how one of the many ex-editors had to plead for the custody of his antique furniture - carved with the paper's thistle emblem - only to see it removed by his successor, and replaced with white leather settees of the type advertised on television by Ms Linda Barker.
And what of the boardroom? In the paper's boom years, employees were often invited into this curious space with a balcony facing Salisbury Crags, to toast their latest sacrifice with a cup of warm wine. On one wall of the room was a portrait of the Barclay Brothers, one of whom was holding a copy of the Scotsman, painted at an odd perspective. It was a strange painting: a bit like a portrait of the artists Gilbert and George done in the Royal Impressionist style by that master of the wobbleboard, Mr Rolf Harris. Has it gone too? Or does it remain in the boardroom, keeping watch over Barclay House, its four eyes swivelling from side to side like a portrait of the Laughing Cavalier in a Hammer horror?
There was an American Indian head-dress in that room, too. No one ever knew why, though the feathery crown was worn by an assistant editor of the Scotsman during a heated argument with an ex-editor on the subject of Israel.
Looking back, as the pain recedes, these memories seem almost funny.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

From The Dumbiedykes Headquarters Of Scotland's Notional Newspaper, The Sorry Tale Of The Publisher's Pebbles

Over the past 48 hours, the mood around The Scotsman's Dumbiedykes headquarters has been one of dread and gung-ho fatalism, so it is fair to say that the departure of the Barclay Brothers and the Publisher, Mr Andrew Neil, has changed little.
However, the dawning of a new era has prompted a few brave souls to start sharing their favourite moments of the Barclays-era. There are many - and survivors are encouraged to send more - but my favourite tale took place on the day of the official opening of Barclay House, when HM The Queen, HRH Prince Philip, the Barclays and Sir David's son Aidan (smoking a huge cheroot, in blatant contavention of the no-smoking policy in Barclay House) were shown round the building by luckless Scotsman executives. The Publisher was there, of course, in proud and relaxed form, but perhaps even he was feeling slighly dry-mouthed in the presence of royalty. So he reached for a bowl of pan drops and tossed a couple into his mouth. Unfortunately, the peppermints were decorative pebbles, and The Publisher was forced to suck manfully on the stones until royal eyes were averted.
Coming soon (maybe): The Time a Scotsman Feature Writer Almost Set Fire To The Publisher's Hair When Flamboyantly Lighting A Fat Cigar

Monday, December 19, 2005

What Future For The Scotsman, The Notional National Newspaper Of A Notional Nation?

The sideboard has been ringing all afternoon with reports that The Scotsman - a small newspaper in Edinburgh - has been sold. Certainly, this was news to me. For some time, I have been reading The Scotsman in the public library, where it is possible - if one is quick-fingered - to photocopy the crossword by a) distracting the librarian by suggesting that the sticking plaster on the leg of her glasses has worked itself loose and b) jamming an Esso 1970 World Cup coin (preferably the one made in the image of Mr Peter Shilton) into the 2p slot and running before the machine overheats and makes a smell like a dentist burning bones.
Of course, it was not a single issue of the newspaper which had been sold - though that would be a cause for celebration - but the title itself.
I can offer no comment on the performance or personality of the previous or future owners. I have not met them, and nor am I ever likely to. I understand that they are not often in Peebles.
But I did start wondering about the purpose of a notional national newspaper in a notional nation. Should it focus its energies on the notion of the nation, or the nation itself, because a notional nation is, at the best of times, hard to define?
After thinking about this for several minutes, my head began to hurt. Through the pain of the moment, I remembered one of the rare occasions on which I ventured into the old Scotsman building on Edinburgh's North Bridge. I was taken to a small room on the first floor, and into the offices of the Weekly Scotsman which, true to its title, appeared every seven days, offering a summary of events.
The room had a fine view of the heating vents at the back of the tenements of Cockburn Street. It was a dark, confined space. On the far wall I noticed a map of Scotland with the words "THE WORLD" printed boldly above it.
I do not say that it was necessarily a grand ambition, but in those days, The Scotsman knew what it was about. It wasn't the notional national newspaper of of a notional nation: it was the newspaper of the national notion.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Random Thought Concerning The Abominable Snowman, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Deputy Prime Minister

Why do you never hear of the Abominable Snowman or the Bermuda Triangle any more? Did they collide and disappear? I do hope not. There was something rather comforting about a world in which aircraft disappeared without explanation, and trekkers in Nepal were regularly startled by giant footprints in the snow.
I miss the Yeti terribly, though Mr John Prescott should be applauded for performing a similar role in public life.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

This Is Not The First Time King Kong Has Returned. Last Time, He Almost Signed For Celtic FC

Even in the boondocks of Greater Peebles, it has proved impossible to ignore the dismal fact that the great imaginative masterpiece of cinema, King Kong, has been remade by Mr Peter Jackson (who is to film directing what Mr Jonathan Ross is to cogent speech). I will leave it to the accountants and publicists to determine whether this latest unnecessary remake is a success, but the mention of Kong had me reaching into the sideboard, where I uncovered a record by the bard of Dundee, Mr Michael Marra.
Mr Marra, who is sometimes known as the "Scottish Randy Newman" - a claim I am in no position to verify - used to play a fine song called King Kong's Visit To Glasgow, in which the great ape made a trip to Celtic Park, chaperoned by an angel with a shamrock on her thigh. The age of the song can be judged by the fact that the angel tells the ape: "If this team is to flourish, don't kill McStay."
Poor Kong wanders around Paradise, banging into the floodlights, and the crowd begins to sing: "Why don't you take him to Ibrox? There we think he might blend in."
As a card-carrying Calvinist, I am uneasy about the theological implications of the song, but it has an air of verity to it.

If, As A Result of Global Warming, The End is Nigh, Why Are The Bright Lights Still A'Twinkling All Across The Town?

At first, I confess, I was sceptical about global warming. Even now, with the planet on the brink of extinction, rare is the day when it is possible to go vestless in Peebles. As far I can see, global warming is a misnomer, and the chaos which man has wreaked upon the planet is more obviously manifested in gales, freak tides, and seagulls living inland, growing flabby on fish suppers.
Since seeing Mr Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds at a Playhouse matinee in 1963 I have been nervous of seabirds, and my fear is increased by the suspicion that their arteries will be hardening as a result of over-exposure to the products of Mr Toni's Fish'n'Chicken Bucket and Barbers'. Mr Toni - a businessman and pragmatist - observed the synergy between deep fat frying and men's hair styling products, and now markets his patented Haddock Styling Mousse at Stolen Goods Markets from the boot of a Vauxhall Victor. So fearful am I of a hard rain of cardio-vascular cormorant that I have taken to wearing a pith helmet on windy afternoons.
But I digress. My point is global warming, and the fact that no one seems to take it seriously. Either it is a crisis which will bring about the end of everything, or it is not. If - as most scientists attest - the End is Nigh, then why are our streets full of Christmas lights and illuminated window displays? Why have the poor been allowed to turn their ex-council properties - which, in the 1980s, we knew as Boat Hooses, because they had been "boat" from the cooncil, and decorated with carriage lamps - into "ho-ho" displays which would eclipse the waltzers at Bastable's Fun Fair? Why are our public buildings illuminated by spotlights? Why are the shops as over-heated as the hummingbird enclosure at Kew Gardens? Why do public houses have outdoor heaters which scorch the scalp as effectively as cheap shampoo?
To those of us who enjoyed the Three Day Week this lax behaviour is a mystery. Since 1973, I have cleaned my teeth in the dark. It is not difficult, though sometimes the Steradent tablet misses the glass.

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Little Chef Hoki Laid Me Low, When I Should Have Been Doing Battle With A Langoustine

To those of you who sent kind wishes during my recent ailment, thank you for your concern. An unpleasant interlude, in which I was unable to eat, drink, or concentrate on the Scotsman crossword, has been curtailed, with no thanks to the National Health Service. My Polish doctor, Miss Walinka, was unaccountably absent during my recent discomfiture, and I was forced to rely on the ministrations of her assistant, Miss Spasski, a harsh woman, who would - I suspect - have forged a career in the Russian secret police if the Berlin wall had not fallen. She is an unforgiving woman, with the complexion, and manners, of a baked potato, and the empathy of an unseasoned bowl of borscht. When I told her that I had been unable to keep anything down for six days and had lost 48% of my already meagre bodyweight, she scoffed and informed me that the human body could go for three weeks without food, and that I should come back when I had something notable to report. Needless to say, I did not return, and cured myself by eating porridge (for the nutrients) and drinking fine malt whisky (for the germs).
To the kind correspondent who questioned my sanity, I can only report that mentally I am in reasonable shape, though I often have the urge to ape Mr Peter Finch in the film Network, by throwing open my windows and proclaiming that I am mad as hell, and unwilling to take it any more. This, I think, is a measure of sanity, though I have a feeling that my neighbours are beginning to disagree.
On the substantive point mentioned by my correspondent, it is true that hoki is, or are, a fish native to New Zealand, but the perilous state of the Scottish fishing industry means that it, or they, are part of the menu of the Little Chef chain of restaurants, whose claim to culinary excellence is not enhanced by their wipe-clean menus, or the fact that the waiting staff seem to have been recruited from the outer wings of Bedlam. The hoki, as far as I can see, has been selected for its texture (vaguely fishy) rather than its taste (like warm aluminium), and it remains a mark of national shame that these sandshoes of the sea are offered as sustenance in the laybys of our B-roads, while our Nephrops travel South to keep the gourmands of Paris in the fleshy luxury to which they have become accustomed.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mr Elder is unwell

As a result of eating a malodorous hoki in a transport cafe whilst exercising the Dormobile, Mr Elder is unwell. He hopes to return soon. No flowers, please. Postal orders and pan drops only.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ms Kirsty Wark Is One Of Our Finest Millionaire Newsreaders, But To The Hard-of-Hearing She Is More Noted As A Dada-ist Poet

I yield to no one in my admiration of Ms Kirsty Wark. As a newsreader, she combines the matronly good looks of Ms Mary Marquis with the charisma of Miss Jean Brodie. She is a fan of Mr Roy Orbison. I have not seen her dance, but I would not be surprised to discover that she is an expert at the cha cha cha.

As is traditional in our petty wee country, she has been criticised: for sharing her holiday home in Mallorca with the First Minister, Mr "Wee" Jack McConnell (a lapse of taste, certainly, but not of principle), and for her part in the decision by which the Scottish parliament was housed in a concrete bunker with driftwood trim. Recently, Ms Wark earned £1m for selling her share in the television company which made educative works such as Wife Swap, in which members of the public agreed to look stupid for the entertainment of the broader public.
However, I am aware that Ms Wark's enunciation is a cause of some concern South of the border, where the poetry of the Scots tongue is less appreciated than it should be. As a thespian, I think Ms Wark suffers occasionally from lazy diction, with the result that listening to her reading the news is akin, sometimes, to over-hearing a re-enactment of a horse race commentary in the bar of the Crown Hotel, Portpatrick. Personally, I have no objection to this, but I understand that there are those who do not share my generosity of spirit. Some of these poor souls are housed in the BBC's subtitling department, where Ms Wark causes chaos with her fruity vowels and quickly chewed consonants, as these photographs show.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Horny Gollochs, Mary Marquis and Oor Wullie's Moose: Several Reasons Why Scotland Is, After All, Heaven On Earth

I suppose I did ask for it. Last night, during the first dress rehearsal for the Peebles Showboaters' Christmas production of Peer Gynt on Ice, the Superser heater exploded, leaving several of the company in full blackface, and the rest of us very cold. We adjourned for a while, first to the Accident and Emergency unit, and thence to the Woolly Pheasant Bar, Thai Grill and Poodle Parlour, where - despite the smell of dog shampoo - the "spirit of the blitz" prevailed. Some of the company entertained the local worthies with a display of minstrelsy, while the others took me to task for a perceived lack of patriotism, after my suggestion that there was little to celebrate in Scottish culture.
We played a version of the old game "I went to Paris and bought..." But, instead of going to Paris we journeyed inward, to the dark corners of the Scottish psyche. The challenge was to find the best of Scotland, and repeat the litany as new things were added. By the end of the night, with the saloon bar singing Mammy, and the rest of us in the snug reciting the finest things about our funny wee country, it was a peculiar scene.
Here, for what it's worth, is the list. Please feel free to add more. When the list is complete I will apply to the Scottish Arts Council for a grant and retire on the proceeds, emerging only to collect honorary degrees and wheelbarrows full of public money.
(NB, I share some of these preferences, but the appeal - and even the meaning - of others is obscure to me. The comment about Wee Jimmy Krankie is especially crass, but as a democrat I feel it must be included).

A thing I love about Scotland is ...
Jeely pieces, Oor Wullie's moose, Hen and all the Broons. Hillman Imps, Chrysler Alpines, the Scottish Daily News. The panstick of Mary Marquis, so thick you could skate on it for a day and never see the same mountain range twice. The click in the thatched roof of Peter Sloss's mouth as he forecast weather, and more weather, all of it bad. Sydney Devine's Tiny Bubbles, Archie Macpherson's "woof!", George Galloway's exploding cigar. Ivor Cutler saying "gruts for tea", John Laurie prophesying doom, the battle between the beanstalk and Wee Jimmy Krankie. The East Coast mainline from Berwick to Dunbar, the A198 from North Berwick to Cockenzie. Barra airport. Billy Connolly's Big Banana boots. Denis Law's porcupine hair. PC Murdoch's waterproof cape. The Dingle Dell, Brechin. Butteries, rowies, softies, baps, or whatever names they are using now for rolls in old Aberdeen. Horny gollochs, forkytails and earywigs. Whale jawbones on hills. Luca's ices. Putting greens. The Forth Bridge. Red puddings, white puddings, black puddings, mealie puddings and all kinds of pudding, with the exception, perhaps, of Tam Cowan. McCowan's chews, pan drops and grannie sookers. Jammie dodgers, Aero leathers. Dr Finlay's Casebook. Billy Mackenzie's whippets. Heckly biscuits. The Northern Lights, seen from Fife. Fraser Elder, wearing a jacket made of old hotel carpet, reading a football report like a loon dictating a thesaurus to a hippo with a typewriter. Tutti Frutti: Eddie Clockerty saying "Miss Toner". Tutti Frutti: the Majestics watching Postman Pat in Gaelic. Thingummyjig. Gregory's Girl. John O'Groats. Skara Brae. Tar macadam, tablet, Orkney fudge. The Cameo cinema. The smell of hops in Fountainbridge. Weddings where a drunken auntie sings Patsy Cline. James Cameron. Gnasher. Black bun. Pola Cola. The post office in Drem. Bannocks. Deborah Kerr. Oh, yes, Deborah Kerr.

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.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Mr Jack Vettriano May Be Sexually Rampant, And His Butler May Sing, But The Biscuit-Tin Artist Has Yet To Prove Himself On The Wobbleboard

The agony of the artist, Mr Jack Vettriano, is quite infectious. Over the years, I have grown weary to the point of exhaustion from reading about the fact that Mr Vettriano, a dauber of crude imagery, has been snubbed by the commissars of our public art collections, while his paintings, in the form of prints, and Marks and Spencers' biscuit tins, have grown ever more popular.
On the level of patriotism, one should be be sympathetic to Mr Vettriano. He hails from Fife, and that is discomfort enough for most men. He portrays himself as a lonely soul, gaining sparse comfort from the broad popularity of his works, or the wealth that they bring.
Most recently, this unfortunate son of Kirkcaldy has been charged with plagiarism. The figures in his most famous work, The Singing Butler, were, it seems, copied from an artists' manual. Mr Vettriano added the beach, while his viewing public brought their own sense of drama to bear on the work. Oddly, the fantasy of dancing on the sands while being serenaded by a butler has captivated thousands of viewers, even those who are not aware that Mr Vettriano grew up in a town where the air smelled of linoleum.
Mr Vettriano is not a versatile artist. His command of the brush is less captivating than, for example, that of Mr Rolf Harris, who is also a better soloist on the wobbleboard.
But we should not be too dismissive, as Mr Vettriano tends to react to the criticism of his work by making bizarre statements. At the weekend, he told his house journal, Scotland on Sunday, that the art world "doesn't like rampant heterosexual behaviour. Somehow," he continued, "they think that it is a bit tawdry, not what real art should be."
This remark reminded me a little of Mr Alfred Hitchcock's regrettable 1972 film, Frenzy, in which a potato merchant strangles the young women of Covent Garden with his tie. There is some unfortunate humour about rape in the film, and a good deal of unnecessary nudity. But, near the end of the picture, as the net closes around the killer, Mr Hitchcock chooses to frame him between the two prints which he has on his wall. The pictures are both by the South African artist, Mr Vladimir Tretchikoff, whose works included Chinese Girl, which is sometimes known as Blue Lady. Mr Tretchikoff was a quite terrible painter, but that did not stop him becoming, by some definitions, the most popular artist in the world, by virtue of the fact that his prints sold at Woolworth's as quickly as the Pick'n'Mix.
Clearly, Mr Vettriano is Mr Tretchikoff's heir. But he should know that rampant behaviour, whether heterosexual or not, is always bad manners.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Mr Jean van de Velde Should Not Have To Shave His Legs In Order To Prove That Women's Lib Has Gone Too Far (Again)

I would not, I confess, be able to tell the difference between a cleek and a mashie niblick, but I was encouraged by the news that the eccentric French golfer, Mr Jean Van de Velde - whose decision to paddle in the burn at Carnoustie in 1999 almost caused Mr Peter Alliss to drop the Bisodol and reach for his blunderbuss - is to apply to play in the Ladies' Open golf championship. Mr Van de Velde's action has been inspired by the decision of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to allow women to participate in the men's event. The French golfer has offered to shave his legs and wear a kilt if required. We must hope that he is not forced into such a drastic course of action. A swinging sporran could play havoc with his putting stroke.
Of course, it is absurd that a men should expect to play in a ladies' sport. Why, though, is it expected that a woman should be allowed to compete against the men? To think that they should is to deny the facts of physiology. There are some things women are not suited for. Championship golf may be one of them. Keeping secrets is another.
Frankly, I am still getting used to lady newsreaders. There is something about the arched eyebrow of Ms Fiona Bruce which impairs understanding of the situation in the Middle East.

My Dream Of A One-Legged Dictator Is Unexpectedly Followed By A Windfall In the Morning Post

This morning, the morning of my birthday, I awoke early, having suffered one of my recurring dreams, in which I am summoned to an audience with a one-legged military dictator, who receives me with courtesy, and then gives me a demonstration of his power by stuffing cigarettes up my nostrils, then - retrieving them - chews on them until nothing remains but the cotton wool of the filters, which he spits triumphantly onto his hand .
As a card-carrying Freudian - Clement, not Sigmund - I am at a loss to explain this dream, but its recurrence may be related to the ubiquity on the television news of the indefatigible Mr George Galloway who, for all his defiance, suddence looks quite fatigible after all. Either that, or I should stop eating Toast Toppers last thing at night.
Still, the birthday post brought an unusual haul. The youth wing of the Peebles Showboaters - the Peebles Peewits - had clubbed together to buy me a collection of DVDs by Mr Alfred Hitchcock, which I look forward to watching, just as soon as I work out how to fit the discs in the tray of my slide-projector. There was a parcel of "cotton modal" socks, with "built-in Freshtech technology", a gift from Mrs Thricenightly, of the Selkirk Thricenightlys, who may have been making a point about the subtle perfume which wafts from my Polyveldts when the central heating at the church hall burns too fiercely. And there was a letter from the Vice President of the International Lotto Commission in Madrid, Spain, announcing that I had won 615,810 Euro in a prize draw which I had not knowingly entered.
Needless to say, this is splendid news, though the letter urges me to keep the information to myself, and forward details of my bank account so that I might be made rich overnight. Apparently, my service agent, Mr Danniel Gomez, awaits my call.
The news is most unexpected. The last time I was the beneficiary of what might be described as good fortune was in 1974, when I received a box of chocolates at a Beetle Drive in North Berwick, and was permitted to shake the hand of the Rt Hon Michael Ancram, QC, MP. On that happy occasion my joy was shortlived. Every one of the chocolates was Montelimar.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Potato Crisps Are Not Food, But Pork Scratchings Might Be. On The Cheese Sandwich, The Government Is Undecided

From this morning's Today programme, an exchange between Mr John Humphrys, and the English Health Secretary, Ms Patricia Hewitt.

Mr Humphrys: "Is a packet of crisps food, or a cheese sandwich food?"
Ms Hewitt: "No. A packet of crisps, no."
Mr Humphrys: "Pork scratchings?"
Ms Hewitt: "We'll define that in the regulations, John, I'm not going to try and do it on the radio this morning."
Mr Humphrys: "A ham sandwich?"
Ms Hewitt: "We'll define all that in the regulations. It's one of the more difficult aspects of drawing the distinction between food and non-food, but I'm sure with common sense and the help of consumers and the industry, we'll do it."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dr John Reid's Underpants Are In A Fankle If He Thinks Socialism Is About Allowing The Poor To Smoke Themselves To A Happy Death

It is not, I confess, an edifying image, but Dr John Reid, the Minister for Bluster and Loudly-Stated Obfuscation, has got his fraying underpants in a twist over the proposed ban on smoking in England. The working classes, whose misfortune it is to be patronised by Dr Reid, should - he says - be allowed to keep puffing, because, often, smoking is their only pleasure.
Is that not a peculiar thing for a Labour politician to say? It wasn't so very long ago - when Labour still counted a few of the Socialist brethren amongst its senior ranks - that the politicians of the People's Party would argue for egalitarian ideals. True, progress towards these aims was rarely substantial, but there existed a clear and admirable strand of leftist thinking which aimed towards the elevation of the working class, in both economic and spiritual terms. Being poor was to be no barrier to becoming cultured and intellectually-fulfilled. The masses would have libraries, and Socialist Sunday Schools. Their whippets could aspire to cashmere coats.
That, at any rate, was the ideal.
Of course, my own views on the smoking ban are complicated. As a two pipes a day man, I am reluctant to condemn tobacco, though I do think there is a qualitative difference between the sweet perfume of Walnut Plug and the industrial smog produced by a room full of cigarette-smokers. As it happens, I tend to indulge my pipe habit at home, while struggling with my photocopy of the Scotsman crossword. On the whole, I think a restriction on smoking in public places will be beneficial, and I will happily support the ban in Scotland if it is followed by a ban on the chewing of gum in public.
Still, there is something deeply comic about the suggestion that certain English clubs may be allowed to maintain smoking rooms. I foresee chaos at the Border, as wheezing men rush South to indulge in the freedom to breathe polluted air.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Guy Fawkes Was a Terrorist Who Hated The Scots, But That Doesn't Mean We Should Tolerate Lanterns Made of Pumpkin

This morning, at the bus stop, I was stopped by three youths. As is the custom of the ill-mannered and the uncouth, they kept their hoods up, only revealing the full cruelty of their features when they strained forward to howk up a globule of spit. The boys - I assume they were boys, though they might easily have been infant baboons - demanded a penny for the guy, though they had no guy, and I doubt very much whether their demands would have been satisfied by a penny.
I pointed this out, and was received with astonished insolence. "Aye but," said the leader of the three, "gies a penny for the guy, but."
It was at this point that I made my mistake. I attempted to reason with the youths, telling them that collecting money for the guy traditonally involved the presence of a guy - an effigy of the fabled dandy and terrorist, Mr Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, in opposition to the Union of the Crowns, and the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne.
Ignorance of history is not uncommon these days, but there is something peculiarly topical about the story of the Gunpowder Plot. The word was not in use, but it was certainly terrorism, and the response of the state was uncompromising. On the day after his arrest, Mr Fawkes was questioned by the King, and revealed little of his motivation, except to say that he had hoped to blow the Scots back to Scotland. The King ordered that the "gentler tortours" be applied to the prisoner, "et sic per gradus ad mia tenditur, and so God speed your goode worke". [Readers without a classical education (and Mr Jack Straw) may be able to guess the meaning of this sentence: roughly it means "squeeze him until his pips squeak".]
The torture produced a confession, and Mr Fawkes was duly hung, drawn and quartered. Thereafter, a tradition was born, of a bonfire on which a "Guy" was burned.
Does it matter that the tradition continues, yet no one knows why? A little, I think. Just as it matters that Scottish children now expect a "jack o'lantern" made of pumpkin, and not the traditional turnip; and that they no longer "guise" but demand money at Halloween by means of the more brashly materialistic tradition of "trick or treat". Guising meant dressing up and performing a "turn". Trick or treat is an unlicensed form of extortion. It should not be rewarded, except, perhaps, by a dose of the "gentler tortours".

Monday, October 24, 2005

As Lift-Off Approaches, I Struggle With The Thermos, and the Worrying Suggestion That Nothing is Happening in Peebles

As some readers may have guessed, I am but a Learner on the b-roads of the Information Superhighway. At the risk of straining the metaphor, I travel into cyberspace with the confidence of a man mounting the launch ramp at Cape Canaveral in a Morris Minor. All around me, I can hear the voice of Mr James Burke - or sometimes the peculiar Celtic brogue of Mr Scott from Star Trek - and the numbers are counting down [10 - 9 - 8 ...]. Lift off approaches, yet I find myself struggling to unfasten the lid of my Thermos.
And then, doctor, I wake up, to discover it is not a dream, and the countdown is at 5 - 4 - 3 ...

However, thanks to the Silver Surfers' initiative of the Peebles County-Council-in-exile, my expertise is increasing. Now, when I turn on the computer, I only get an electric shock on two out of three occasions. This, I am assured, is my own fault.
At today's lesson, for which I wore support stockings, a pith helmet, and rubber-soled shoes, the class was encouraged to seek out local news on the "Internut". Apparently, the profusion of news on the Nut has caused newspaper circulations to decline (though this may also be because they are edited by gentlemen who, were they to audition for the role of a Shakespearian fool, would be advised to: "tone it down a little in the interests of believability").
Eagerly, I turned to the forum of the Peeblesshire News. Here, I imagined, the citizenry would be eagerly debating the sad decline of morning milk deliveries, or the problem of boys in "hoodies" chasing cats with bangers. But, no. Instead, I found a hymn to miasmic torpor which might have been penned by Mr Samuel Beckett. Roger in Shetland was complaining that the site was out of date. Greg, "a Peebles exile working abroad" asked: "What is the point of a newspaper website that contains no new news?" To which, "Big Eck" could have responded that newspapers have been filling their pages with no new news for years. But he did not. Instead, he observed, with forceful certainty: "It just could be that there is *** all happening in Peebles."

Mr David McLetchie is No Marlon Brando, and We Must Be Spared the Sight of Him Wearing a Saggy Vest

Only Mr David McLetchie, the troubled leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament, knows why he has spent so much time in taxis, and whether it was taxpayers' money well-spent. But, still, the affair is deeply troubling.
Taxis, as I have noted before, are the devil's transport, and not to be encouraged. It was, I think, fitting, that the career of the great Mr Marlon Brando was defined by a scene in the back of a cab: in On the Waterfront, where the Method actor mumbled famously that he could have been a contender.
History, I feel, need to be in a generous mood if it is to bestow such a verdict upon Mr McLetchie. With his peculiar verbal hesitations, he is nobody's idea of a plucky pugilist, and I suspect he looks even worse in a vest. There is every chance that his contribution to public life will be viewed as being less significant than that of, say, the former First Minister, Mr Henry McLeish, who fell perspiring on his toy sword after embarrassing the nation in front of Mr David Dimbleby on an edition of Question Time.
Usually, after these scandals, there is frenzied talk of enquiries and codes of conduct, an outcome which satisfies no one. To borrow an Americanism, I think the time should fit the crime. Mr McLetchie should be ordered to eschew taxis entirely. If he must attend meetings outside parliament, he should be transported in a pedal-powered rickshaw at which the public could be encouraged to throw sponges, old kippers, and rolled up copies of the Weekly News.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

In a world without Wilma, what could be worse than a hurricane called "Keith"?

Even I, a card carrying fatalist with a phD in pessimism, take no pleasure from the appalling sequence of natural disasters which has struck the planet over the last few months. As I write, Hurricane Wilma is hovering over Mexico, and pondering an attack on Florida.
Wilma, I'm sure, is a terrible event, but a proper consideration of the hurricane's destructive power is made no easier by its name.
Wilma, to me, will always be the loving wife of Mr Fred Flintstone. Fred, like many men, is a hapless fool, kept on the straight and narrow by the care of the loving Wilma. As The Flintstones takes place in the Stone Age, its attitude to the gender wars is admirably pre-historic; hence, Wilma is a proud housewife, aided in her chores by such labour-saving devices as an elephant vacuum cleaner. As such, Wilma is the dream of all men, though some might plump for Ms Betty Rubble, who is the same, but with dark hair, to Wilma's reddish brunette.
Somehow, I can't see Wilma as a Hurricane. Rita, I think, was more easily imagined, possibly because of my own complicated feelings about Miss Rita Hayworth, and her more domesticated namesake, Coronation Street's Queen of the Kabin, Miss Rita Fairclough. (I understand that Rita's surname is supposed to be Sullivan these days, but she will always be Fairclough to me).
The naming of hurricanes is a peculiar business, with names being drawn from six lists, in which male and female are alternated. (One of the less-celebrated victories of "Women's Lib" was the introduction of male names in 1979.) The desperate nature of these times is indicated by the fact that, for the first time ever, the list of 21 names (the alphabet, minus Q, U, X, Y and Z) has been exhausted in a single season, and the reserve list, the letters of the Greek alphabet, may have to be called into use.
On reflection, many of the approved names have an odd ring to them. This year we have already endured Stan and Tammy, and other years may bring forth the horrors of Wilfred, Barry and Beryl. Sometimes, when a storm has been particularly infamous, a name will be retired, as happened to the surprisingly powerful Keith.
Keith has been replaced by another K, who is scheduled to appear at some time next year. Batten down the hatches, and stock up on the condensed milk: Hurricane Kirk is coming!

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Conservative Party are Robot Undertakers Controlled by a Cartel of Fondue-Eating Goblins

I have long been of the opinion that Mr Michael Howard was, and is, a robot controlled by a team of malevolent criminal masterminds living in an air-conditioned bunker beneath the mountains of Switzerland, but there has not been much external evidence to support this view.
Until now. Mr Howard was on the Today programme this morning, along with Lord [Norman] Lamont and Mr John Selwyn Gummer, to discuss their appearance together in a photograph at the wedding of Mr Kenneth Clarke. Also in the photograph are Mr Leon Brittan and Mr Norman Fowler.
The picture - which can be seen on the website of Today ( - is a fine document. The men are smartly attired in the style of 1964. Their hair is short and well-combed. The smell of Vitalis pollutes the air. Mr Clarke cradles a top hat.
With the distorting glow of nostalgia, they look a little like the "Rat Pack" of Mr Frank Sinatra, off to cause havoc on the "crap" tables of Cambridge. Or, they could be a group of rural undertakers who have forgotten where they parked the Bentley.
It is a photograph from a different time, made powerful by what me know of these men. Five of them are future cabinet ministers. Mr Gummer will become famous for feeding a beef burger to his daughter Cordelia at the height of the BSE panic of 1990. Lord - then Mr - Lamont will be remembered for his radical decision to emphasise the first syllable of his surname, and for "Black Wednesday". Mr Clarke will campaign tirelessly for human rights; particularly the right of a gentleman to wear brown suede shoes with a business suit in the town.
And what sadness, now, to realise that their time has passed. The Conservatives are in hurry to appoint as their leader another man in a hurry; velocity and ambition being substitutes for substance in current affairs.
In their interview with Mr James Naughtie, Mr Gummer, Lord Lamont, and (the increasingly louche) Mr Howard, were keen to deny that they were not yesterday's men, but their efforts were hampered by a series of electronic whirrs and clicks. Mr Naughtie said the noises were interference from the BBC "radio car". But, really, it sounded like the death-wheeze of a group of yesterday's robots.
In that bunker in Switzerland, the gnomes of Zurich were pulling the valves and coils from their robot control devices, and tranferring the power to the microchips of their new model, The Cameronator.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

With Globalisation, Everything Tastes of Ribena

One of my correspondents, "seriousmince" - not, I am guessing, his or her given name - makes the point that Maynard's Original Wine Gums have grown softer over the years. This, regrettably, is true. Whether it is connected to the need of the National Health Service to import dentists from Poland I couldn't possibly guess.
But I have been worried about Maynard's ever since they were taken over by Trebor, who themselves are part of Cadbury Trebor Bassett, which - I believe - is also part of Cadbury Schweppes.
Recently, Trebor - for which, read Schweppes - has added a blackcurrant flavour to its other classic brand, Sports Mixtures. The effect is quite disastrous. Previously, the joy of Sports Mixtures - other than the puzzle of trying to equate the freakishly-shaped sweets with a sport - was the pungent cocktail of flavours which could be experienced while chewing. There was lime, there was orange, there was a flavour that can only be described as "red", and there was licorice. The black Sports Mixture is the most controversial of all. It is the Marzipan of fruity chews. Some love it (I do), some hate it. Even the mighty Pontefract Cake pales in comparison.
But now, when you chew on a handful of Sports Mixtures, everything tastes of Ribena.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I Am Shaken, But Not Stirred, by the Traceless Rise of Mr David Cameron

Watching an interview with Mr Mikhail Gorbachev on television last night, it struck me how quickly the world is spinning. It seems like only yesterday that "Gorby" was plotting with the star of Bedtime for Bonzo - dear old President Reagan - to bring about the end of the Cold War. The fact that Mr Reagan may have been under the impression that he was starring in a sequel to Hellcats of the Navy when he negotiated away half of the United States' nuclear arsenal only brings further poignancy to the recollection. How safe we felt in those days of Mutually Assured Destruction!
But looking at the face of Mr Gorbachev now was a poignant experience. His features have thinned, and his pallor is pale. Were it were not for the beetroot stain on his forehead, he would have been unrecognisable. Destiny has left him. Now he has only the whims of fate to deal with.
I thought of Mr Gorbachev as I watched the reports of the Conservative leadership elections. There was Mr Clarke, with his puffed-up personality, deflating in front of the cameras. The windbag was a burst balloon.
All eyes have now turned to young Master Cameron, who is said to have the qualities to appeal to the youth of the nation. Frankly, as my old Uncle Bert - the philosopher and scaffie - used to say, "I ha'e ma doots". Even with my limited experience of the Youth of Today - garnered mainly at bus stops - I cannot imagine him "connecting" with that broad swathe of barbaric immaturity which is to be found, eating, drinking, and variously mewling around our town centres with its collective hood up and its earphones in. Mr Cameron has the unconcerned look of Billy Bunter about him, and is thus well-placed to appeal to those who imagine that life and its various complications are similar to a term at Greyfriars School. Without wishing to sound like Master Bunter's form master, Mr Quelch, it is rather more complicated than that.
According to today's reports, there are signs that the Conservative leadership election may turn into a coronation, which is splendid news for those of us who believe that politics is best when it is conducted as a beauty contest with no reference to policies. If elected in this manner, Mr Cameron will stand only for youth; a strategy which worked wonders for his predecessors, Mr Hague, and Mr Duncan Smith. Of course, Mr Cameron has hair, which may be significant.
Even so, my mind wandered to a significant coronation at another conservative institution. Earlier this week, it was announced that the role of James Bond is to be played by Mr Daniel Craig, who will, apparently, take the character closer to the intentions of its creator, Mr Ian Fleming. If he does, then Commander Bond will need to abandon his martinis and become a whisky drinker, as well as a heavy smoker. According to the character, Vesper Lynd, in Casino Royale, he will be reminiscent of Mr Hoagy Carmichael, yet possessed also with a cold ruthlessness.
The cinematic Bond has never had much to do with Mr Fleming's intentions. That great screen Dracula, Mr Christopher Lee, once suggested that the ideal Bond would have been Mr James Mason, who had the right air of sophistication about him. Though I realise that there are some practical difficulties with the suggestion, I would be happy to see Mr Mason as the leader of the Conservative Party. But Mr Cameron as 007? I'll eat my steel bowler hat if it works.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Drink Was an Ice Cream Omelette Until I Visited Plato's Retreat

I confess I am a late convert to 24-hour drinking.
For the last six decades or so, my alcohol intake was limited to handfuls of Maynard's Original Wine Gums, which - I'm happy to report - have no wine in them at all. On special occasions such as Hogmanay, I would treat myself to a Snowball before retiring to bed at 10.30pm with cotton wool in my ears.
Drinking a Snowball is not exactly pleasurable, unless the idea of an ice cream omelette appeals, but the mix of egg and alcohol always sent me straight to sleep. This allowed me to doze through the festivities outside and rise early on New Year's Day to chip the frozen carrots from my window-sill.
My objection to alcohol was not a matter of principle. Indeed, only after relaxing my regime did I realise that it was based on my broader aversion to pleasure. My mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am), was no pleasure-seeker, and used to take a dim view of my father's excesses, which were no more than a bottle of India Pale Ale on a Friday night, unless there was a game of dominoes on, when he would stretch to a pint. The ale made father's nose glow slightly, and Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) would compare him unfavourably to a Belisha beacon while she prepared a supper of toasted cheddar, butter biscuits, and Nescafe with hot milk from the pan.
This feast was designed to sober father up, but, more often than not, it sent him into a state of agitated torpor in which he would find himself unable to settle in front of the television. Usually, he waited for the National Anthem, which he greeted with exaggerated enthusiasm, in case Her Majesty or any of her loyal lieutenants might happen past the window. On domino nights, he would bolt down his Toast Topper and swig wildly at his coffee, often causing a moustache of cheddar and milk-skin to solidify on his top lip. By morning, feathers from the pillow would have attached themselves to his face, giving him the look of a distressed chicken. We were all thankful when the foam pillows arrived.
So it was that alcohol had no great positive associations for me. The bottle of Asti Spumante, which I won at a beetle drive in 1972, gathered dust, waiting in vain for something to celebrate.
And thus it would have continued.
But, late last year I had a moment of revelation. The public house at the end of my street changed hands, and changed its name. The Gravedigger's Arms became Plato's Retreat, and among their many promotions was a Philosophy Night, every second Monday. As was obvious from the sudden lack of noise, the Philosophy Nights were spectacularly unsuccessful, culminating in a night on which the advertised topic was: "If the Philosophy Night Happens, But Nobody Comes, Did It Happen at All?"
Well, I am not one to shirk a challenge, and I visited the pub that night just in case the enactment of a philosophical paradox caused structural damage to the neighbouring buildings.
I saw many strange things that night in Plato's Retreat. Now, I must drink to forget them.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Devil Drives a Hansom Cab with Tartan Seat Trims

Occasionally, in my lucid moments, I experience a flashing vision of the improvement to public life which devolution was supposed to bring. We, the Scottish people, would be in charge of our own affairs. There would be no more experiments with poll taxes; newsreaders would be permittted - and in some cases, forced - to glottal stop; children would once again be raised on a diet of McCowan's penny chews and macaroon bars; community steamies would be re-introduced, and housewives would, again, be able to spend their days discussing the many and varied ways in which their menfolk enjoyed mince, rather than making bonfires of their brassieres and driving buses. (I may have paraphrased the Scotland Act slightly).
Well, some of this has come to pass, but I must confess to a growing feeling of disillusionment with the realities of life in our brand new land.
You may recall that in the mid-1990s, it was fashionable to talk of a "Braveheart spirit" in the country. I have not seen the picture, but I understand that Braveheart offered a fabricated and sentimental version of history, replacing fact with sentiment; all of it rendered in the kind of accents which in olden times would have caused the tutors at the RSAMD to gnaw the carpets in frustration. The film's director, Mr Mel Gibson, was - like the publisher Mr Rupert Murdoch - an Australian who had become an American, though I dare say that both of them would be able to purchase a pair of trews in the family tartan if they ever walked down the Royal Mile.
Braveheart was never my dream for the devolved Scotland. I rather hoped it would be like Whisky Galore!, with the feisty natives reclaiming their natural rights from the dimwitted bureaucrats who imagined they were in charge of the country's affairs. Or, if a more modern parallel were required, there was Local Hero, in which the heartlessness of globalisation was knocked out of Mr Burt Lancaster by the simple means of exposing him to a red telephone kiosk in Pennan.
But what do we have? Well, one advantage of my advancing senility is that I have no time for useless detail, so the flim-flam of contemporary politics escapes me. Instead, I am left with impressions. Currently, my vision of devolution comprises a handful of images, all of which are related. The parliament building has won the Stirling Prize for architecture, though it resembles a concrete factory in Helsinki. The green statue of the Father of the Nation, Mr Donald Dewar, has been removed from a Glasgow shopping mall to the Powderhall bronze works for renovations, following repeated assaults on his spectacles. Lord Watson has fallen from grace after mistaking the curtains at Prestonfield House for a post-prandial cigar.
And now we have the affair of Mr David McLetchie who has, it is said, made several errors in his claims for travelling expenses. Among the trips he made were jaunts to the Playhouse Theatre, the National Gallery, his dentist in Montgomery Street, Edinburgh, and - for reasons that I have attempted to forget - to the medieval hamlet of Midlem, near Selkirk, in 2003. It takes an unfashionable level of desperation to spend £90 on a journey to Midlem, though I would happily pay a shilling to avoid such a fate.
Much has been made of the expense of Mr McLetchie's travels, and rightly so. Public money should be spent on useful things, such as sunbeds and computer games for our public libraries. My quibble is more spiritual. It is not, I think, part of the Scottish character to be at ease in a taxi. I was raised by my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am), to believe that to enter a cab was to engage in a pact with the dark side. "The devil drives a Hansom cab," she used to say, "and he'll tak ye to Hell."
She didn't have much time for motorcycles either.