Nice to see WPM back after a long hiatus as a part of the celebrations for Book Week in Scotland; nice too to see it come to Greenock to celebrate the newly minted Beacon Arts Centre, a lovely facility by the water with stunning views and a great wee theatre. It’s going to liven up the arts in Inverclyde, and the healthy audience suggests it’ll be well used.
The Clutha disaster hangs heavy, though. It’s just been announced that one of the probable victims is John McGarrigle, a Glasgow poet. I don’t think I ever met John, but the Clutha was a favourite meeting point for many of the poets I know like Jim Ferguson and Graeme Fulton, and he was a popular figure among them. Hostess Kirstin Innes and short story writer Alan Wilson read two of his poems, and superstar Tom Leonard reminisces about him. All of the acts pay their respects in poignant and sensitive ways, just as it should be. I read at the Clutha a few times years ago; it has always been a haven for radical writing and music, and I sincerely hope it rises again.
First on the bill is Rachel McCrum, Jenny Lindsay’s Rally & road partner. She has a gorgeous voice, honeyed with Northern Irish. Her poem about learning to sail with her father is lovely. Herald big-hitter Neil Mackay reads from his new novel, ‘All The Little Guns Go Bang Bang Bang’, interestingly about two 11 year old ‘hitmen’ in Northern Ireland. Martin O’Connor‘s writing for theatre and drama projects is terrific, playing and expanding and exploding not just Glasgow vernacular but the very essence of what it is to be Weegie, including a terrific Glasgow singalong party (‘Gie’s a song, Eddie…’) and the fractured prose of a union meeting. Excellent.
Adam Stafford wowed me at WPM 2 a few years back. I really like the way he builds his music live through looped guitars and beatboxing; it’s a fascinating process, and he has a lovely voice over the top of all that. He has trouble with his loop pedals tonight, and unfortunately has to abandon his set after a couple of numbers go awry. No shame there – he gives us enough to emphasise what a talent he is.
The night finishes off with ex-Delgado Emma Pollock. She’s lovely, has one of the sweetest voices you could ever hope to hear and is a real superstar of the indie folk rock scene in Scotland. Just her voice and an acoustic guitar, her four numbers are a delight, and she ends with the hit Paper and Glue. A real touch of class on the water.
But the star of the show for me is the venerable Tom Leonard. I haven’t seen him for years and years, and I am absolutely and childishly thrilled that he remembers me. He’s quite open about having been on the wagon for ten years or so, so I hope he doesn’t mind me telling a wee story about him. When I was Principal Teacher at Linwood High School, I asked him to do a reading for our kids and, of course, he generously agreed. I picked him up from the station and he looked just a bit ragged. He’d been round at Eddie Morgan’s house the night before, he said, and they’d stayed up late sorting out the world, telling stories about mutual friends and had, he admitted, more than a few wee golden sweeties. As a result, I suspect the last thing his head wanted to do was to spend the morning with a bunch of weans. So in he comes, gets himself seated – and he absolutely blows the kids away. They loved him, his humour, his charm, his downright humanity. He and Morgan were gold dust when it came to engaging pupils with poetry and with their heritage. The man’s a legend.
So he dips into his encyclopaedic knowledge to tell stories of poets from Inverclyde, reminisces about his friendship with W.S.Graham, reads a touching poem he wrote for his son’s wedding, lambasts the establishment with ‘Being a Human Being‘ and just about has me falling off the chair at the beauty of ‘June the Second‘, one of those tiny jewels of a poem, like Morgan’s ‘Strawberries’, that captures an infinitesimally small and specific moment of love that, because of its impossible humanity, seems utterly universal. So short, so brief, so seemingly uncrafted, it is one of my favourite poems.
So a good night; well done to Inverclyde Libraries for tempting WPM out of semi-retirement to come doon the watter. In the past, I always fancied reading at WPM, but was never invited. Dammit – it’s a class act.
PS – Rachel McCrum says that Rally & Broad is coming to Glasgow for a short residency at the Tron. I’ve never been to one of their events, but by all accounts they’re fantastic, so make sure you get tickets…
I never really connected with Editors until their latest album, “The Weight of Your Love”. It’s an album that’s had mixed reviews, largely because of the production which takes a swing away from indie rock values into more a by-the-numbers anthemic, stadium-friendly ethic. I like it, I have to say. Lyrically, it’s pretty shocking at times; “Two Hearted Spider” might as well have been called ‘The Beast with Two Backs’, for god’s sake, and ‘Bird of Prey’ is largely meaningless. But that last track indicates the strength of the record: while it may be a semantic mess, it is really quite a gorgeous sound.
I’m with a pal who was into their older stuff, and I have to say that’s where the strength lies. It’s actually surprising how little of “The Weight of Your Love” they do play – the big singalongs of ‘Honesty‘, ‘Sugar’ and ‘Nothing’ for instance, and one of my favourites, the funky ‘Formaldehyde‘, as well as those bloody spiders – despite this being the album tour.
And I kind of get the feeling that the fans in the audience aren’t all that disappointed, and are quite happy with a setlist that is actually pretty retrospective. Despite the fact that I don’t know much of this, it does seem much more direct, more grungy, more honest than the newer material. ‘Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool‘ really kicks on, and ‘Munich‘ gets the crowd revved up. They finish with a metaphorically and literally blinding ‘Papillon‘, a kind of Sisters of Mercy meets Depeche Mode moment that works well.
So – next stop is to track down all the old stuff. This was a good, good gig, but I’ll enjoy it even more when I see them again and can connect with the stuff that really sets the blood pumping.
Just one down note: my pal and I go for something to eat before the show and apparently miss – dammit – the wonderful British Sea Power. A band that strong deserves to be co-billed, and if they had been, we’d have happily gone hungry.
I attended the after conference party of Radical Independence, which was held in The Old Hairdresser’s in Glasgow. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the conference itself, but by all accounts it was a stimulating, inspiring event, with people like David Hayman (who read the Radical Independence Declaration) and Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and one of the architects of the Common Weal Project, presenting to 1000 delegates.
The party was an excellent affair, with dozens of interesting, committed people offering all sorts of perspectives and ideas; more to follow. I didn’t see the acts, other than the lovely Jenny Lindsay, a former student of mine who is a leading mover and shaker in National Collective. The last time I spoke to Jenny, she said she didn’t see herself publishing a collection on the grounds that she felt her stuff was too performance-based. Well, she should forget that idea: certainly, she performs vibrantly, but her work is lucid and erudite and will absolutely work on the page. She finishes with a poem just written imagining 1984′s Julia writing a love letter to Winston, and it is quite stunning. In many ways, the muscularity of her rhythms reminds me of one of my favourite Scottish poets, Graham Fulton. She should go for it. Big time.
Jenny is followed by Lake Montgomery, a singer from Paris Texas (yes, it really does exist) who is smashing. She is multi lingual (English, French, Dutch… any more?) and her guitar playing is very, very good (her final number, I Believe, uses the instrument as percussion). Bad Circulation and Like a Timebomb are fantastic songs too. A must see for the future.
All in all a really uplifting event. However, I think the next challenge for the vast majority of the people who attended – including me – is to move out of the supportive circle of the groups that are now emerging around the independence issue and to engage with the voters, those who are not our natural compatriots and who are as yet undecided.
I’ve felt the need to engage with the new voters, the 15 to 18 year olds who will be voting for the first time next year. They are just not getting the information they need to make an informed choice, largely because of fear in schools or authorities of appearing biased, of ‘brainwashing’ these young people. I think that does them a patronising disservice: if teachers have been doing their jobs right, these ‘responsible citizens’ and ‘effective contributors’ should have the critical skills to make their own judgments, and to separate the wheat from the chaff in whatever is presented to them. And let’s face it, not talking about it favours the status quo; in the absence of the information you need to decide whether or not to change, what would you do, other than play safe?
Young people need the opportunity to talk about their visions of the future, to imagine the Scotland they want to live in. I think the artists, writers and creatives of National Collective are well placed for that, being professionals who are experienced in working with community and youth groups and schools.
So – here’s an offer. If anyone wants to put together a group of young people who might be interested in working with me for a couple of hours on a writing project, get in touch. I’m a Saltire-nominated, BAFTA-winning writer , I have decades of experience of stimulating the writing of young people, and materials I’ve produced are being used in schools up and down Scotland to change the way young people engage with writing. I know my stuff. And I’m good at it.
I’ll offer up to two hours of workshop on the non-political theme of ‘Imagining Scotland’ for groups of up to twenty young people, free of charge. I’ll then talk with them for half an hour – if they want to talk with me – about why I’m voting yes. The young people’s work can / will be published online, perhaps through my website or something more central. Just set up the venue, gather the young people and, if you’re very far away, give me a bed for the night.
If you’re involved in the Indy movement – whether through Yes Scotland, National Collective, Business for Scotland, Radical Independence, Bella Caledonia, Wings Over Scotland, The Green Party or whoever, and you’d like to set up a writing workshop for young people you know, e-mail me at email@example.com and we’ll discuss it.
Looking forward to working with you…
I’ll be reading at the latest Little Bit of Theatre event at 13th Note on Wednesday 27th November. It’s the first for a while, as the lovely Marta Adamowicz was taking a break to produce a beautiful shiny new daughter, so it’s welcome back to her. Hope she brings the baby…
Given the bill is jam-packed with burlesque and comedy acts, I’m sure I’ll be the least interesting set of the night. Still, I never could resist the temptation to swear into a microphone, so we’ll see how it goes…
I’m knackered. Shuttling around the country visiting schools, two gigs in two nights and a day trip to London for meetings. I may sleep the weekend away.
However, I’m glad the energy levels kept up well enough to see The Heavy. They’re a hardcore R’n'B band, heavy on the soul sound of the 60s updated with smattering of grunge, punk, hip-hop and snarling rock. Their latest album, ‘The Glorious Dead’, is very reminiscent of the days of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, with great harmonies over grooves embellished by massive horn sections, strings by the barrowload and acres of backing singers.
Live, the band (singer Kelvin Swaby, guitarist Dan Taylor, bassist Spencer Page and drummer Chris Ellul) are backed by only two saxes, so the reliance is on a much meatier arrangement. If anything, Swaby’s vocals are better unmitigated by the studio production of the album – he has to bellow and hoot and holler – and the sound is much more raw and even more fun. Backing vocals are provided by the audience anyway – they’ve been here before and have a knowledgeable fan base – and it’s a hoot. I know enough of the music to howl along with ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ and to join in the choruses of most of the rest, including ‘What Makes A Good Man‘ and ‘Curse Me Good‘. There really isn’t a bum note all night, and I dance my bollocks off for ninety minutes energetically enough to suffer from excruciating cramp in my left calf muscle at three in the morning; that’s the sign of a good night out at my age…
Support is provided by The Computers, or, as Alex the lead singer informs us, ‘The Motherfucking Computers from warm and creamy Devon’. He is a cross between Elvis Costello and Dennis the Menace, and their loud and proud rock and roll is bonkers. A very hot warm up act, and well worth checking out.
It’s wonderful to see Ane Brun again; once a year isn’t often enough, though. Having just released two compilation albums, she’s on the road to promote them. However, this isn’t a straightforward retrospective in any way, shape or form.
Last year at WOMAD, I asked her about the difference between her first folky acoustic albums and 2011’s fantastic ‘It All Starts With One’, which was huge and sonic and operatic in scale, with washes of strings and keyboards and layers upon layers of thumping drums. Yes, she said, it was deliberately different; a self-taught musician, she had reached the point where she wanted to grow and extend and experiment. That album was a huge leap forward, and an explosion of creativity.
And so this gig is about reimagining those earlier songs, and the results are beautiful and often quite astonishing. Songs like ‘The Fall’ and ‘My Lover Will Go’ are reinterpreted with woozy trip hop beats and seductive rhythms over which vocals soar; a pleasant surprise is the presence of the gorgeous Nina Kinert, a bit of a Norwegian wonky pop superstar herself. She adds great texture to Brun’s already magnificent voice: ‘To Let Myself Go’, already a slow burning moody number, gains oodles by Brun and Kinert howling in counterpoint above thrashing sexually charged keyboards and percussion. Most wonderful of all, I think, is ‘Humming One of Your Songs’ which in the original is melodic and catchy; here, it’s slowed right down and thumps the guts like the best of Portishead, Brun as gloriously and seductively erotic as I’ve ever heard her.
Then, of course, there are the big, big numbers from ‘It All Starts With One’: that bonkers double drum of ‘Do You Remember?; the crushing beauty of ‘These Days’; the almost hallucinogenic mantra of ‘Worship’. Her final encore – after her version of ‘Big In Japan’, which would easily get on my compilation of top ten covers of all time – is, of course, ‘Undertow’, that gloriously delicate piano refrain and that fabulous delicate voice giving themselves up to the biggest, loudest, most thunderous sound on the planet.
Once more, Ane Brun is fabulous. And once more, I’m happy to admit I just love her to bits.
I am a child of the space race. I was right into astronomy as a boy, could (I thought) point out the constellations at the age of 5 (I probably made them up: ‘look, dad, there’s the constellation Stingray’), was crazy for Doctor Who and Gerry Anderson, was allowed to sit up late to watch Moon landings and, in 1970, was beside myself with anguish over the tribulations of Apollo 13. That really was a defining moment in the world for me: yes, there had been other space disasters, but then we watched in real time the struggle of three men to survive in a tin can in the most hostile environment in the universe, the universe itself.
The previous year, I’d made one of my customary Saturday afternoon cinema trips to see ‘Marooned‘, a largely forgotten film that occasionally reappears on BBC on Sunday afternoons. With Gregory Peck, David Janssen and Gene Hackman, it told of 3 astronauts stranded in orbit, and the frantic efforts to rescue them. Watching it now, it’s long and a bit dull and oscillates between talkiness and boring sequences of silent space; at the time, it mesmerised me. I wrote stories about the scenario, did a film review for my Primary classroom newspaper, spoke eloquently (!) about the dangers astronauts faced to my teacher – and then, less than a year later, the whole thing played out for real.
So this topic really connects me to my childhood. I really liked Hanks’ ‘Apollo 13‘: dull though my family at the time found it, I just loved it, for all its tension as opposed to action, for all its downplaying as opposed to hysteria. So I just had to see this, and on the big, big IMax at Glasgow Science Centre in 3D (‘Sixty Feet Tall, Eighty Feet Wide!’ the announcer says: he might as well add ‘It leaps tall buildings in a single bound!’).
And, generally, it’s a hoot. Yes, it goes for the big, heart-stopping action sequences – it is a spectacle rather than a microscope (does that image work?) – and it is absolutely, breathtakingly thrilling in places. I found myself gasping and jumping up and down in my seat and going ‘Mammy Daddy!’ at far too many points to make the guy sitting beside me feel comfortable; the destruction of a space station around Sandra Bullock (and us) is stunning (though the music soundtrack might have been better replaced by a realistic but dissociative silence). As an action movie, it is brilliant.
It’s not particularly character driven though. Clooney and Bullock are, of course, excellent, but the roles are limited, and the one attempt to establish some sort of connection with these as people – the uptight Dr Stone (Bullock) telling the flirtatious, wise cracking Kowalski (Clooney) about her daughter as they traverse 100 kilometres towards a Russian space station – feels bolted on. So I don’t think it’s Oscar material for the actors, though it’s undeniable that we do invest in them emotionally: by gum, do we root for Stone as yet another thing goes to shit around her…
There are a few infelicities, I have to say. Two scenes are stolen straight out of ‘Barbarella’ and ‘Wall-E’, and neither of them work because one of them is more than a little exploitative and because they are such blatant steals. Neither do I find the way in which Bullock gets inspiration for how to power up the Russian spacecraft convincing: I’ll resist the spoiler, but does a woman always need a man to tell her what to do? Not the women I know, that’s for sure…
What it is, though, is a technical triumph. I’m not a fan of 3D, and a trailer for the new Hobbit borefest convinces me why: it’s as realistic as one of those View-Master toys from the 1960s, or the 3D panoramas you used to make in a cornflakes box, gluing characters one behind the other. Blurry, over-complicated, distracting – it’s just bloody awful. There are, however, exceptions, and I think it may have to do with space. ‘The Life of Pi’ worked because of the wide open spaces of the ocean, ‘Star Trek’ worked because of the wide open spaces of… well… space. Here, it’s magnificent, especially as the fragile little tin buckets man has littered space with (and one revelation of this film is just how much fucking junk is up there, and how close together it all is) bullet their way across the magnificence of blue earth or, best of all, Bullock tumbling out of control against the mammoth backdrop of the Milky Way.
So if you do go to see it – and I recommend you do – see it on as big a screen as possible and in 3D. Then go bungee jumping afterwards – it might be the only way to come down from the high.
Well, that was fab…
A last-minute opportunity to grab a ticket for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds saw me catch one of the most eclectic, gloomy, surprising, ambitious, infuriating songwriters I know - and the man who wrote the script for one of my favourite all time Westerns, ‘The Proposition’.
Cave has a new album out, the brilliant ‘Push the Sky Away‘, itself a gloriously brooding, beautiful song he finishes the main set with. It’s a fabulous album: he starts the gig with “We No Who U R” (Warren Ellis with that trademark flute the Seeds use so often) and includes ‘Mermaids‘ – I mean, what the hell do you make of ineffably wonky lyrics like ‘She was a catch / We were a match /I was the match /That would fire up her snatch’ , that then turn into just one of the most gorgeous refrains known to man? Then there are the two stonewall epics they perform: “Jubilee Street” and, my favourite from the album, “Higgs Boson Blues” are monumental.
There are a number of similar biggies thrown in to the setlist, including the misanthropic ‘Tupelo’ and simply psycho ‘Stagger Lee’, both of them howling and cacophonous (as they need to be), and brilliant sinagalong oldies like ‘Red Right Hand‘ and ‘Deanna’. The unutterably lovely ‘Into My Arms’ heralds three piano-acoustic numbers mid-set (along with “Watching Alice” and the gorgeous “People Aint No Good”) that shows Cave is a true romantic at heart, but a heart that’s just a little on the black side.
The man is 7’5″ of sheer goth charisma, easy in himself and with his audience: this is the first time I’ve seen him and wondered if he’d be all glum and introspective, but not a bit of it. Dammit, the man’s a real rock star. The Barrowland audience is hot and fractious – within six feet of me, one girl faints and two guys start fighting – but absolutely committed to having a ball. And we do.
Awfy, awfy guid.
My second NT Live and second dose of Rory Kinnear in a month, my fifth visit to a theatre production in five weeks, my third Big Will Big Tragedy this year: I think I’m becoming cultured.
This is a rebroadcast of Kinnear’s turn as Hamlet from two years ago, and it’s very, very good. It should probably be compared against David Tennant’s similarly t-shirted shot at the RSC from 2009: from what I remember of that (and I’ll need to watch it again), Kinnear’s is a more naturalistic interpretation: while Tenant goes for the moody, reflective, actory approach, Kinnear’s ‘to be or not to be’ seems to pop up out of nowhere, unheralded and unbidden. There are similarities though: I like the coward soliloquy ‘(I would have fatted all the region’s kites with this slave’s offal’ – what a fabulous line that is) and each delivers it with venomous self-loathing.
Kinnear’s naturalism comes from his apparent lack of presence: some commentators have described him as looking like a middle manager in some regional company, and it’s easy to see what they mean. He underplays beautifully, relying on cyncially-raised smirky eyebrows and that blank look of astonishment his father was such a master of: indeed, during his mad scene with Polonius, he mugs to the audience on a couple of occasions and looks exactly like Roy. It’s this touching ‘everyman’ appeal that made him so successful as Iago and in this allows us to engage with a real, live young man rather than a spoiled Prince who, in some versions, has come across as more than a little hysterical.
The production does something unusual with the plot too. Of course, the standard reading of the play is that Hamlet has a thing for his mum, and delays so long in avenging his dad because the old bastard scared the life out of him and he’s actually quite pleased he was bumped off: after all, it’s only when Gertrude is poisoned that he gets up off his arse to do something about his uncle. Here, though, that is reversed. James Laurenson (my goodness, as soon as I see his face, I’m taken back to watching ‘Boney’, the somewhat culturally insensitive but really well made Australian series about an Aboriginal detective, in the living room of my parents’ house, eating toasted rolls in the evening in 1973 ) plays the ghost as an avuncular, gentle and altogether paternal figure, while Claire Higgins’ Gertrude is a middle-aged lush poured into a leather skirt two sizes too small and ten years too young for her. Thus, Hamlet really is avenging his father, and his anger at his mother is not that she has let her son down, but that she actually has let her husband and herself down. That’s new: not a jot of the old Oedipus here.
There are irritations that are inherent in Hamlet for me. The ‘swear’ scene after the ghosts’ consultation with Hamlet is tedious and a bit daft – I never saw the need for the ghostly incantations from underground – and of course, one has to suspend disbelief to accept that two young men who had in one scene been at each others’ throat would in the next agree to a playful duel. But that’s all part of the politics of the court, and Kinnear makes that absolutely clear. Possibly the most memorable Hamlet I’ve ever seen was a performance in Russian at the old Tron in, oh, 1985? What was so good about that was that, freed from listening to the words, the audience was able to concentrate on the maneuverings of the characters around the politics of the court, and it was played as a chess match, characters moving across a checkered marble floor in and out of spotlights. The Machiavellian atmosphere came across brilliantly, and this production achieves something similar, though not so vivid, with its Secret Service agents sneaking around the place, talking into their microphones, adjusting their earpieces as they round up the players and march them off at gunpoint.
The other characters are solid without leaving me feeling gobsmacked. Claudius is a great part, and Patrick Malahide is a great actor, but, for some reason, he feels a bit like a double glazing magnate rather than a king. Ruth Negga is a lovely, winsome Ophelia, though it’s a part I’ve never really warmed to. Alex Lanipekim’s Laertes isn’t quite the full monty – there’s just a little swagger lacking, I feel. Best of the rest, I think, is David Calder’s Polonius; wandered, puffed up and verbose, he is genuinely funny and a genuine loss.
Oh, and the final sword fight was very realistic for a change, which was a pleasant surprise.
So I liked this, a lot. Despite being delayed and arriving a little late to find myself in amongst a school party (and perfectly behaved they were too) and despite a glitch in the streaming that almost ruined the coward soliloquy, this was a fine production. That’s three of the big four done by NT Live recently: I wonder who’ll be doing Lear for them next?