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.