What a wheeze! Scottish Review reports on the “Who’s Who in Scotland” opinion poll to find the greatest Scot of the last 25 years. Lots of politicians, a few writers, a couple of musicians, no actors or sportsmen, The Review asks for nominations for your own personal choice of the Greatest Scot of the last 25 years.
I’d need to think about Great Scots since 1986 (such a bland lot, it seems, and so little history to consider), but my immediate response would be to redefine the exercise by considering the Greatest Scot in my lifetime. A knee-jerk reaction – and I may change my mind, but I doubt it – would be for World Formula One Racing Champion Jim Clark. Hell, I even sent off a nomination to The Review before I realised I’d got my dates all wrong!
Dashing, handsome, quiet and apparently a real gentleman, he thrilled the world with a new form of driving that revolutionised motor sport. And yet, he was always happiest away from the track on his Berwickshire farm, eschewing the playboy lifestyle of the Monte Carlos of the world. He was typical of a thrawn Scottish mindset that turns up in wellies and rolled up sleeves and just damn well shows them how it’s done, then heads off back to the sticks, mission accomplished. It’s the attitude that seemed to epitomise what Graeme Obree brought to cycling, or that prompted the Scottish rugby team to walk – shock horror, walk! – out onto the pitch at Murrayfield to stuff the English in 1990.
I now have no time for motor sport – it’s boring, it’s elitist, it’s technical – but in Clark’s day, when death was a constant companion on the track, racing drivers were the most dangerous men on the planet working in the most dangerous profession. I still remember writing a news report on his accident for my Primary school class newspaper: for all its inevitability, it was up there in the top ten tragic deaths of the 1960s, just a short head behind all those horrendous political assassinations that blighted the USA.
So that’s My Lifetime Great Scot: any suggestions from you?
After my recent post about competition in the health service and the way in which privatisation of public resources perpetuates a low-wage economy in which the working poor are systematically exploited, along comes Conservative MP Philip Davies to show that the depth of the Right wing’s nutjob economics knows no bounds. He’s obviously competing with Francis Maude and John Glen for the title of the Conservative Party’s most obviously out of touch representative.
I won’t go over the story in detail – he’s far too famous now to waste the space – but I love the concept that the disabled and people with mental health problems shouldn’t be “forced” to work for sweatshop wages, but they should be offered the “choice” if they want to.
Choice? What choice is it between starvation and the coppers on offer from the fat cats who would jump at the chance of a pool of even cheaper labour? What choice do the poor ever, ever have in the face of the self-serving machinations of the rich and powerful?
And of course, it comes at a time of vicious attacks on that other vulnerable sector of society, the retired. Public sector pensions, they bleat, are far more generous than those in the private sector. No one seems to be posing the corollary: why are pensions in the private sector – and again, only for low and middle wage earners – so stingy? Why has the financial services sector reneged on so many promises to those investing in their pensions while continuing to pay mammoth bonuses and – yes – obscene pension pots to the executive classes?
It seems that the exploitation of the weakest in society will, indeed, carry on apace: and hell, the country voted for it. We need our own “Arab Dawn”, methinks.
Update: I found some blogs supporting Davies’ approach, including this: http://nhs999.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/philip-davies-and-the-mob/
In reply, it seems to me that if the argument is that accepting lower wages would make the disabled more “employable”, that suggests they are “unemployable” in the first place. However, that is to accept a simplistic right-wing economic definition of employment, when it is actually so much more. Employment is a social contract between employee, employer and society in general. In terms of what anyone can offer to society by being employed, no-one is less “employable” than another. Therefore, as a society, we must make the commitment – and make employers make the commitment – to being “disabled blind” when it comes to employment.
Sad news from my cousin, Eugen, that my uncle and my father’s last remaining brother died on Sunday.
I met Hubert a few times, most memorably in 2006 when I visited him in Siegen. What was so obvious about him was his generosity. His table was laden with goodies to eat and drink, and he piled gifts on me that he wouldn’t let me refuse: I came back with a video camera for the family, and my friend Marisa, who came with me to act as interpreter, left with a DVD player under her arm. That was what he was like, said Eugen, there’s no point saying no.
He was also a bit of a rogue. We spoke to him about his early life, and he told fascinating stories of the bizarre shortages that hit the Polish economy during the periods of hyperinflation in the 1920s. He risked being thrown in prison or worse just to smuggle cutlery across the border, his pockets lined with rags to prevent the knives and forks jingling together. He spoke about my grandfather, and, just like my dad, could find little to say about him that didn’t centre around his work ethic, his ability to provide for his family. As for the war, he was as reluctant as any old solider to talk about the worst of it, but he gave us enough sense of the cold that froze men to their rifles and the battles in which brother found himself shooting at brother.
There were uncomfortable moments too; talking about horrifying times is so difficult for those who witnessed them – took part in them – first hand. Of course, he had some views about politics and race that belonged to another, less forgiving age; but he was a survivor and a provider, and I suspect that was good enough for him. And I learned more from him about my father than anyone in my family has ever told me.
I hope to visit my remaining cousins in Poland soon. Hubert’s death will be a huge loss to Eugen and Christine – two lovely cousins I met wholly unexpectedly for the first time on that 2006 visit – as well as their sister, Danuta, who lives in Katowice.
For me, it’s another part of my father slipping into oblivion.
Gill Hoffs, Jamie McIntyre and Martyn Murphy all read some thoughtful fiction, while Kathrine Sowerby is a gentle poet who competes well with intrusive noise from the downstairs Arches restaurant (note to management – WPM deserves to be treated better). However, the most successful pieces come from three writers who seem more aware of their audience, and of the difference between a writer’s reading and a writer’s performance.
Andrea Mullaney is an experienced writer who uses a range of interesting voices. One story is written as a one half of a conversation; it’s a style I often find difficult to engage with, but her ability to switch pace and tone is highly effective. Alex Cox of the Glasgow Writers’ Group is doing his first reading, although the way in which he inhabits the heads of a fucked up Presbyterian minister and a bigoted, resentful weegie suggests he’s been doing it for years. Pace is the key, and, despite a couple of fumbles with his copy (staple it, Alex!) he judges that fantastically well. Best for me is fellow Glasgow Writers’ Group member Alan Gillespie, who is first up. His gently told tale is marvellously subtle, the poignancy of a parents’ separation revealed ever so gently through a main plot that involves a football lost down a sewer. The voices and the observation are impeccable.
Sad to see the audience numbers have dwindled, and hopefully a couple of big-hitter events will give what is a fantastic venture that should be treasured a boost. Perhaps the line up for their female novelists bash on Saturday the 9th of July will do just that.
With a vibrant new National Theatre and wonderful writers like David Greig, David Harrower, Gregory Burke, Liz Lochead and so many others, this is a Golden Age for Scottish theatre, and “Dunsinane” deserves a place at the very top of the tree. It is stunning.
It tells the story of the aftermath of the overthrow of Macbeth; it borrows from the Shakespeare but aims for a fiction that is more grounded in historical fact. Macbeth, for instance, is not killed in a duel with Macduff, but is run to ground like a wounded animal; Gruoch, his wife, hasn’t gone bananas and thrown herself off the battlements; it is Gruoch’s line that has claim to the throne, not Macbeth’s; and Malcolm finds himself imposed by the English on a Scotland that had been stable for fifteen years.
The human interest lies in Gruoch, the historical Lady Macbeth. Now let’s get one thing straight; the programme notes pummel heavily the notion of the Shakespearean Lady M as a monster, and that’s a reading of the play that is almost universal. I don’t see Lady Macbeth like that; I believe there is much textual evidence to suggest that Shakespeare saw her in a much softer light, subverting the Stuart interpretation in much the same way as he subverted the anti-semitic interpretation of Shylock. In other words, Lady M is a sweetie, and that’s obvious right from the very first scene when those damnable witches foreground the theme of the whole play; fair is foul and foul is fair.
But that’s just me; if I’d marry Lady Macbeth, then hell mend me. Greig’s Gruoch is what I believe Shakespeare might have wanted to portray her as; a political survivor, a mother with a son to protect and a queen with a country to govern. Siobhan Redmond is brilliantly seductive in the part, svelte and spoiled and manipulative. If her accent occasionally sounds a little too Welsh, it’s a minor fault in what is a great performance.
But the stage belongs to Jonny Phillips as Siward. Phillips – possibly most famous for causing controversy by shooting passengers and then himself on Kate and Leo’s “Titanic” – is outstanding as the grizzled soldier who begins by trying to do his best and ends by doing the worst things imaginable, including the murder and quartering of a teenage boy. He has the impeccable delivery of a man who has to choose his words carefully because he is surrounded by those who use them so much better and so much more fluidly, including Brian Ferguson’s venal Malcolm who gives him a lesson on the political power of the word “seems” that is both hilarious and chilling.
The character reminds me of another soldier caught out and dragged down by politics – Pizarro, in Peter Shaffer’s “Royal Hunt of the Sun”. Indeed, there are many structural similarities, including an occupying force seeking treasure in a hostile land, a captive monarch with whom the soldier forms an unhealthily close relationship, a horrific regicide, and a young soldier / muse.
I have only one minor gripe. I absolutely understand the change in Siward between Act 1 (when he reins in Malcolm’s murderous tendencies, and restrains his troops for the higher cause of peace) and Act 2 (in which he embarks on a bloody campaign of repression); his queen has fled to the hills, and the love that he thought might save him has proven to be a betrayal. However, happening as it does over the interval, it just seems a little too sudden, and the audience has to wait for Siward and Gruoch’s final confrontation in the snow to gain a full realisation of just how deeply she might have hurt him. Other than that, it is an absolutely emotionally truthful script.
Of course, much of the play’s politics resonates in the age of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the insanity of attempting to make sense of a cold, wet, argumentative and thrawn Scotland brings a great deal of recognition – and laughs – for the audience. At almost three hours, it’s a major work of art and undoubtedly a new Scottish classic.
The Times Educational Supplement have been asking me lately for my pearls of wisdom on various behaviour management issues sent in by worried readers through the Forums. Here are two so far:
“The problem: I have a group of Year 2s who are always in trouble – outside the head’s office, on report or in the naughty corner. They don’t seem to care, and see being sent to the head as exciting. How do I get them to care about being punished?”
My only concern is that TES introduces my opinion with the words, “The expert view”. Given previous problems I’ve had with some classroom teachers objecting to anyone who isn’t teaching all day every day saying anything about classroom management, I’m surprised I haven’t been subjected to a barrage of abuse already!
Nice to read Graham Linehan’s thoughts on Monday’s “Today” interview about his adaptation of The Ladykillers. Seems he really was set up, and it raises once more the adversarial nature of the programme.
Here’s a link to the interview: what do you think?
There was an uncomfortable interview on the Today programme this morning when playwright Graham Linehan found himself being baited by Justin Webb. Linehan has adapted the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers for the stage, and found himself on the end of repeated “What’s the point?” questions from Webb.
Webb began with the most ridiculous question – “Have you changed it?” – to which Lineham gave the perfectly acceptable if rather spiky answer that there would have been no point doing it if he hadn’t: “Then I’d just be a secretary,” he said.
Why change what was already perfect, he was asked: well, a perfect film doesn’t make a perfect play, he replied, and then, quite rightly, ummed and arred to avoid giving away too much of the plot. Roll on Michael Billington – a theatre critic I admire hugely – to wonder why such an iconic film needed the theatre treatment.
Webb continued to push and hector, even as Linehan bemoaned coming on a programme to be plonked unannounced into an adversarial piece after working on the script for a year. And Webb backed Billington into a position where he preposterously complained that theatre shouldn’t constantly suck the blood of cinema, citing stage shows of Shrek, Legally Blonde and The Graduate as evidence of theatre’s parasitical nature.
That may be so. However, what about film’s tendency to feed off of everything from Shakespeare’s oeuvre to Twelve Angry Men and A Man For All Seasons?
Come think of it, why do both theatre and film hijack novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Harry Potter series? And why should prose writers earn a crust “novelising” films?
What Linehan has done is simply part of the cross-fertilisation that goes on between the Arts. While I won’t be going to see it – well I might, given that it hasn’t been turned into a God-awful bloody musical – I think that Linehan can do whatever the hell he likes for a pay check.
Things eased as egos were soothed, but what was particularly nasty was the way the Radio 4 presenters then needled and humiliated Linehan for the rest of the show. Sports presenter Rob Bonnet made a tasteless joke to Sarah Montague about her “robust” introduction, and then Andrew Marr, in the spiel for his “Start the Week” show, outrageously bantered with Webb about not having come on the programme to be “set up with questions like this”, to gales of laughter in the studio.
Bordering on pack bullying, it was not nice listening, especially in a programme I have admired for years. If I was Linehan, I’d have “set up” a question to Marr about his tendency to wield injunctions to prevent the publication of his adultery; either that, or I’d have swung a punch or two.
Here is the collection of 7 videos of me discussing various aspects of the writing process, aimed at supporting teachers and school students.
Videos of three other Scottish writers – Alan Bissett, Cathy Forde and Eleanor Thom – can be found at
together with a range of resources to stimulate writing in the upper stages.
Influences and Motivation:
Writing from Personal Experience:
Editing and Redrafting:
Hope these are interesting or useful to you.