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.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Like Too Many Custard Slices, email Makes You Fat

It comes as no great surprise to discover, less than 24 hours after being inducted into the ways of the Internut, that I am endangering my health. According to a news report in The Observer newspaper, "experts" - whatever they are - have decreed that the reason the country has run to fat is the email. Instead of walking around their offices in order to have inane conversations, people are sending emails to their colleagues. A Dr Dorian Dugmore, a health adviser to something called Sport England, says "we are losing millions of hours of exercise through the explosion of email".
It is, of course, an interesting thesis, and one trusts that Dr Dugmore - whose name has a satisfyingly Dickensian twang to it - has been well-compensated for his perspicacity. But I think, like much vogueish thinking, it misses the point. Email does not make you fat. Pies make you fat. Fizzy juice makes you fat. Beer makes you fat. Fly cemeteries make you fat. In short, fat makes you fat, and in taking 43 seconds to type that sentiment, I have grown no fatter. If anything, I have lost weight on account of my rage.
Still, the suggestion did prompt me to recall an item I saw in the Observer magazine several decades ago, in an informative cartoon strip called The Rudiments of Wisdom. This was a serious cartoon on the subject of science. It may have been aimed at children, but if it was, I failed to notice.
In one strip, the question was: why do women live for longer than men? It is, I think, an intriguing enquiry, and my immediate inclination would have been to suggest that the longevity of the ladies was due to the fact that it was men, on the whole, who went off and died in wars, and worked in jobs which wore them out by virtue of their physicality (mining, say, or farming) or their sheer, exasperating tedium (all manner of white collar jobs). I might also have added that the ladies lived longer just to spite their husbands by getting the last word.
But, no. Apparently not. Ladies lived longer because of a quirk of biology to which I am almost shamefaced to refer. Why? Because they sat down when they went to the lavatory, while men - on at least half of their visits - remained erect.
It seems no more implausible than the suggestion that emails are fattening, and I believed it for several years. Indeed, for a while I took to sitting down on all my visits to the Gentlemen's Excuse-Me, until the strain of thinking about it made me worry that I wouldn't be able to stand up again.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Drug-Fuelled Myopia of the Conservative Party, pt 56

It is not my habit to intrude on private grief, but the suicidal instincts of the Conservative Party would give pause to a depressed lemming on the clifftops of Beachy Head. It is already hard to recall, but there was a moment, not more than a fortnight ago, when it seemed as if that once great institution - now a fraying coalition of estate agents, pro-celebrity golfers and blunted colonels - had come to its senses. In Mr David Cameron, a young man with the complexion of a well-skelped orphan, it had produced a leadership candidate with the credentials to do well in British politics.
This does not mean that he had anything interesting to say on matters of policy. Indeed, as the wily Fettesian Mr Blair has demonstrated, insight into policy is almost irrelevant to the modern politician: more important is the ability to exude empathy, to ham it up in moments of national crisis, and to - forgive me, Dr Freud - "feel the pain" of the electorate. As has been noted in biographies of the Prime Minister, Mr Blair is a failed thespian. (Personally, I would hesitate to cast him in a production of The Mousetrap, for fear that he would feel the need to inform the audience that the murder was actually "collateral damage", and was executed in the interests of national security.) But the fact that he always looks as if he is acting, especially when he is trying to evince sincerity, seems to strike a chord with the electorate, possibly because the voters acquire their emotional intelligence from unending exposure to the dramatic grime of soap operas and the choreographed unreality of reality television, in which the vain and the desperate are allowed to become famous by being ill-mannered and unremarkable in everything except their banality.
So, while it is true that the views of Mr Cameron on everything except his own ambition remained opaque, he was, at least, personable. In this regard he had an advantage over Mr David Davis, who has the look of a man who would sneak into your hotel room to borrow the trouser press. Mr Kenneth Clarke, on the other hand, is the (ample) embodiment of a man who has supped too long in The Last Chance Saloon.
I have never, praise the Lord, had the misfortune to be in close proximity to Mr Clarke, but his appearance brings to mind a Public Information Film from the 1970s, in which those bell-bottomed buffoons, the Bay City Rollers, employed their glottal-stops to inform their pubescent followers that intimacy with a cigarette smoker was - I quote from memory - "like kissing an ashtray". If Mr Clarke were to become leader, there is, I think, a strong possibility that he would be banned under forthcoming legislation to outlaw passive smoking. By a rough calculation, inhaling the aura of his fabled Barbour jacket would be the equivalent of ingesting 20 Lambert and Butler. Mr Clarke could, therefore, look forward to being the first Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition to conduct his business from a huddled doorway on the pavements of Whitehall.
Does it matter that Mr Cameron has been turned from a politician with a future to a deer in the headlamps by the question of whether, in the past, he experimented with drugs other than Junior Aspro? Certainly it does. By evading the question, he has kept it alive, and the forward motion of the Tories has stalled in the mud of innuendo. But what if he had answered? Perhaps if he had "confessed", in the manner of the late Ms Mo Mowlam, to some youthful indiscretions, the matter could have been laid to rest. The fact that he didn't leads one to suppose that the closet houses livelier skeletons.
On the other hand, Mr Cameron could have behaved as Tories are expected to, and denied - as the fan club of the bloated balladeer, Mr Elvis Presley used to - any illegal drug use of any kind. Would that have worked? Probably not. The drug question has become the Baby Boom equivalent of "and when did you stop beating your wife?"

Friday, October 14, 2005

The White Heat of Rhodesian tobacco

As I take my first steps from the lay-by to the hard shoulder of the "information superhighway", I am filled with the kind of excitement and dread I have not encountered since I last visited Haddington. There is an element of disorientation: this is a place I should not be. And yet, I cannot deny that there is an electrical charge to the enterprise. At last, I am experiencing the white heat of Mr Wilson's technological revolution; forty years too late. The sage of Huddersfield, our last pipe-smoking Prime Minister, the late Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, made his speech about technology in 1963, which is also the year in which sexual intercourse was invented by Mr Philip Larkin. I trust my belated introduction to the 1960s will not be too abrupt. There is only so much excitement a man can take. My threshold is dangerously low.
Nevertheless, here I am, typing in rubber-soled shoes on a borrowed computer. I was enrolled in the Silver Surfers' Club after my attempts to give blood went awry, and I ended up unconscious and in need of an emergency application of hot tea and Chocolate Hob-nobs. As I waited for my fragile sense of wellbeing to return, the matronly commissar, Mrs Bella Wetherspoon, mistook me for a computer enthusiast and frogmarched me to the annexe - more of a hut, really - where she gave me rudimentary instructions in mouse control. I had not felt so dominated since I was given an "MOT" by the District Nurse at the age of 13. I still shudder at the thought of it every time I cough.
But, like Ronnie Corbett, trapped in the baby-seat of a wonky trolley at Fine Fare, I digress.

Mr Elder; in happier times. Portrait by Steve Carroll ( Posted by Picasa