Dropped by Waterstones for the launch of “The Flight of the Turtle”, the 29th annual anthology of Scottish writing published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. This volume is an institution in Scotland; what is nice about it is that it allows new writers the opportunity to be published alongside some of the very best and established Scottish talent.
Youngsters Danni Glover (great name) and Leona Garry perform well, and Allan Radcliffe, who was a star at WPM 8, reads a lovely, sensuous tale of gay seduction.
Two poets steal the show or me, though. Jim Carruth is a marvelous rural poet. He reads three poems; best is a fantastic tale of the local barn dance, a young girl forced to dance with the same beery old worthies over and over because of the depopulation of the community. It’s lovely, as pin-sharp a recreation of a ceilidh as I’ve ever heard.
As an academic, Alan MacGillivray has a long career of championing Scottish literature, art and culture: he is erudite, fiercely intelligent, hugely well read and a fine gentleman. He was one of the tutors when I studied at Jordanhill College, and everyone wanted to be in his class. I have always admired him, and couldn’t understand why he didn’t write creatively himself. He’s sorted that out over the last few years, winning a slew of poetry awards. His poetry in the ASLS anthology is wonderful, encompassing a breadth of reference that includes the mythology of Shetland told in the lost language of Norn. His sonnet of a day in the life of Samuel Pepys is warm, witty, light and perfectly constructed. He’s the man.
This year’s anthology is edited by two writers I have enormous respect for, Carl Macdougall and Alan Bissett, so the quality is likely to be high. Unfortunately I have to bale out early and miss a couple of the readers, but what I heard was more than encouraging.
If there was ever a reason to retain BBC4, it’s this. The story of Monika, the daughter of Amon Goth, the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, brought to the world’s attention in “Schindler’s List”. In it, she struggles with her relationship with her mother, Goth’s doting mistress Ruth, and meets Helen, the Jewish slave girl who kept house for him.
Having just been on my own emotional Polish trip into the past, this is stunning television, a must see. Both women are marvels, scarred in such different ways by the same man. I was in bits watching it.
For all its imperfections, The BBC still provides the greatest and most diverse broadcast service on the planet. I love it. A commercial provider would charge us five times as much for a quarter what we get. Sign this petition to protect one important part of that service.
I have a piece in today’s Scottish Review on the civil unrest in England.
It was prompted by an interview on the “Today” programme with Boris Johnson, a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a man who seems to walk into any job he wants regardless of his apparent lack of qualifications to do the job, and a man who, along with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, is a former member of the Bullingdon Club, famed for acts of anti-social behaviour and criminal damage.
When Johnson, without a trace of irony, accused kids from backgrounds blighted by inner city deprivation and who have little chance of anything but the most menial employment of having an “endless sense of entitlement”, I just about choked on my cornflakes.
Thanks to the Scottish Review for publishing my thoughts on the matter.
Steven Spielberg was responsible for a lot of my sniffly moments in cinemas from the 1980s: yes, I cried when ET came back to life, and cried when he went away on his spaceship (“Come” / “Stay”) and don’t deny you did too. And a scene that always has me in absolute tatters is when Schindler is leaving the camp after Germany has surrendered, and his workers press a little gold ring in his hand, and touch and soothe him as he goes to pieces thinking about how many more he could have saved.
It’s all emotional manipulation, of course, but that’s what cinema does. There’s no point in criticising a film for successfully doing what it sets out to do, although when it goes wrong it’s as if it’s been ladled on with a bucketful of sickly sweet honey; the ending of “AI”, for instance, is one of the most dishonest bits of cinema I’ve ever seen.
This is billed and marketed as a Spielberg film, even though it’s directed by JJ Abrams and only produced by the man himself. It’s a definite and deliberate throwback; set in 1979, it feels in many ways just like Spielberg’s epics of that time – although those weren’t clumsily telegraphed with a suitable soft rock soundtrack that includes, of course, “My Sharona”. Thematically, it’s all there; troubled teenage central character coping with emotional distress while trying to grow into adulthood; lost and frightened alien trying to get home; honest, mid-West sense of community threatened by remote and arrogant government forces; sensitive kid, dumb kid, fat kid, mad kid, pretty blonde girly kid. Stylistically, too, some of the touches are distinctly 70s-Spielberg; shots of bicycles being taken from the rack reminded me as much of the beach shots of “Jaws” as “ET”, while there are characteristic scenes of family dysfunctionality (God, do Americans really behave like that at meal times?). Of course, there also has to be the final feelgood signing off as the feuding families realise their commonality and stare in awe at the departing alien in a wistful lineup shot.
However, Abrams’ stamp is on it too, most especially in the portrayal of the creature, which is far too reminiscent of his breakthrough movie, “Cloverfield”: it is savage, panic-stricken, multi-limbed and largely unseen. Keeping the beast hidden until as late as possible is becoming a bit of a cliché; we know it’s ugly, so just show us the damned thing. As such, we never really feel any sympathy whatsoever for the creature; it’s a nasty piece of work because, even if it does keep the nice humans alive for no discernible reason, it slaughters the nasty humans in unspeakable ways.
As far as it goes, it’s entertaining enough, but again Abrams isn’t Spielberg. There is none of the subtlety of the master’s use of the surprise; in “ET”, the whole cinema goes “Ah” when the little turd-like thing croaks “ET go home!” because it’s just so damned cute. And sometimes you expect a surprise, and it doesn’t come. Abrams’ surprises are all of the pyrotechnic whizz-bang kind and, while some are undeniably impressive (a shell exploding in a house is a truly visceral moment), they are too one-dimensional.
There’s also a problem with the plotting. For instance, in “ET”, part of the joy of the film was watching the problems the two species had with communication with each other, the developing awareness and understanding. Here, it is deemed essential to tell us of the creature’s emotional state and motivation, so Abrams falls back on the tired old cliché of the “psychic connection”; “How do I know it’s frightened and wants to go home? Well, it touched me and I just knew”. Codswallop.
And while the special effects of the 1970s were, by today’s standards, crude, at least they had some humanity and reality. The train crash which sets the story in motion is preposterous, of course. A tiny pick up truck collides head on with a thousand ton military train built to withstand nuclear attack, and derails the whole damned thing while sustaining only relatively minor damage to its right front wing. The film ends with a “battle scene” in which tanks and jeeps pointlessly drive around shooting up a town with no apparent plan; the alien’s underground at the time, and the tracks of the tracer shells would suggest that these soldiers are so incompetent, they’re much more likely to shoot each other. Finally, I’m sure CGI specialists high-fived each other at how detailed and how accurately they portrayed every single bit of metal in the town as it whizzes through the air in the final scene, but I found it largely unwatchable because of the confusion of it all – and no-one nice gets hit by a flying fork…
The film ends, like “ET” and “Close Encounters”, with a shot of the spaceship leaving Earth; no winding up of the characters, no continuation of the human plotting to see the aftermath of the events. In those earlier films, that works because there’s a sense of loss, a sense that we have been visited by something wonderful and we want it to come back; in this film it’s just a relief, because then the carnage can end.
My cousins have been honest and considerate. I’ve heard a great deal about the war, about poverty, about hardship. It’s etched on some of their faces, which is probably why they are more inclined to smile; every opportunity, as it were. It’s not that simple, of course; Stefania, for one, is ambivalent about the fall of Communism. To her, people were looked after then, in a sufficient though minimalist way. Now, the disadvantaged and the poor and the elderly seem to be left to fend for themselves. As ever, the price of freedom is miserable inequality.
They are also honest about my father. He was a much more complex man than I realised. I suppose all fathers – and mothers – are.
There’s no mileage to be gained in going over old transgressions, not least because there are some still alive who have suffered because of them. And how he behaved would hardly merit a minor storyline in a soap opera nowadays (“PolskaSoap”?). Enough to say that he was as capable as any young man of being ruled by his heart and his hormones rather than his head. Been there myself. Too often. As a result, three families were directly affected, hurt.
In the normal scheme of things, it would all have blown over. It would have been handled, as ever, by the women. Perhaps the whole messy business between my father and his family might have resurrected itself only occasionally, merely as hot-tempered, drunken recriminations at weddings and funerals.
But the War wouldn’t have that. It picked people up and dumped them thousands of miles away, on the other side of national and ideological divides, lost them from sight only to regurgitate them to find their personal landscapes had changed beyond recognition. It separated families, and when those families were going through dysfunctional times anyway, the process of healing never had a chance.
In Wroclaw, there is an unremarkable, iron bridge that connects the cathedral island of Ostrów Tumski to the rest of the city. A tradition has developed recently of lovers coming to the bridge, their names painted or engraved on padlocks which are locked around the bridge’s structure. Then, I presume, they cast the key into the River Odra, and their love affair is permanently commemorated. Padlocks are locked to padlocks, thousands of them: enterprising show-offs have taken to climbing to a higher and higher proof. It’s a lovely thought. I imagine the bridge groaning under the excess weight, eventually giving in and tumbling into the water, the first ever demolished by Love not War.
In the middle of my trip, I get an e-mail from a recent ex-girlfriend. I’d had a nice enough time with an accomplished, pretty, charismatic young woman, the experience marred only by an inability to find time for those shared experiences that build real intimacy and, perhaps, a little thoughtlessness about feelings as we came to the mutual decision it wasn’t going anywhere. So, something positive, but something I need to put in the past if I’m going to get things done.
We’re all guilty of it. We sit in a life with a door open, waiting for that someone who might have been something to walk back through it. They never do, of course, and all that happens is we get a draught on the back of the neck. Or, worse yet, someone else sneaks in and burgles our hearts.
It was just an e-mail passing on some professional information, with a “hope you don’t mind” message because I’d said that I didn’t think it was appropriate to keep in touch. No problem. I thank her for the details, hope all is going well for her. But it feels as if someone has rattled the letterbox of that door I’ve locked up so carefully, and it’s difficult to resist scurrying up to the spy hole to see what’s going on on the other side.
My father closed a lot of doors back in Poland, apparently. Trouble was, as he got older, they had a tendency to fly open of their own accord. In the late 90s, as his mental incapacity began to take grip and glaucoma was robbing him of his eyesight, my partner and I had a family get together at our home. She stepped out to top up teas and cakes; in his wonky way, he followed her out. She told me he’d grabbed her amorously in the kitchen, said it was so good to see her again after all these years. And then he started telephoning, he’d be round soon he said, don’t tell Raymond. God knows who she reminded him of, or what he was reliving, or how he managed to conflate it with a current timeline that included me. Cardiovascular dementia is a bastard, it seems.
I went to see him about it, hating myself for feeling a twinge of righteous indignation. Upstairs, early evening, he was in bed, like a wee Buddha dressed in Paisley pattern pyjamas. Yes, he said, my partner did remind him of someone. No, he understood now, he said, as I patiently explained that he was confused, and it was okay to be confused, but he should talk it over with me if he felt like this again. As I went out, he called me back. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A few years later, that relationship was gone, sabotaged largely by my own head versus heart versus hormones conflict. Our beautiful house was sold, I was living alone. In the November after it had all been reduced to rubble, I visited my father in the nursing home. He lay on his side, nothing left but a pair of old bellows sucking in air and a pacemaker that kept his heart going. I held his hand, those frost-bitten knuckles like walnuts that scared me as a child now shrivelled and tiny. I spoke about nothing. After half an hour, I told him I had to go to the shops, get some stuff in for tea. I guess he died around the time I was in the pasta aisle. As I left the supermarket, I was aware of a fundamental change in the air, and wasn’t surprised by the phone call an hour later.
My ex-partner was probably the only woman who loved me strongly enough to have been any use to me on this trip; perhaps one other, if things had been different. But they are both out of my life now. So I’m proudly self-sufficient, a happily independent traveller. I gave up looking for “my other half” ages ago; I am no less 100% a person for being single, thank you very much, and have no need of someone to “complete me”, no matter how joyous it can be to be in a relationship.
But on my last night in Wroclaw, I stand in the Rynek in the perfect light; the colours of the façades soften in the warm air. It’s peaceful and beautiful, but thoughts are thundering through my head like the bedlam of a coal mine. This trip has given me so much to do – revision to my novel, short stories that are throwing themselves at me – and only this laptop and the whole world wide web to work it out with, and there’s a nagging feeling which is no longer quite all the way at the back of my head that is uncomfortably like loneliness.
I hope all those couples on the Tumski bridge are still together. If my dad and I are anything to go by, I doubt it, unfortunately.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Creative Scotland. This trip was funded in part by their 2010 bursary award in order to undertake research for my novel.
Most of my family have connections with mining, sometimes spanning many generations; as I mentioned, my cousin Stefan, the son of a miner, has seen his son and his grandson go down the pits too. It’s a closed shop, a tight-knit band of fellow workers who relied on each other for their lives. My immediate family worked more in the metals business – my grandfather was a blacksmith who found more remunerative work in the iron foundries and zinc smelting plants. The photograph on the left gives some impression of the mutual dependence workers felt; they look like a Wild West gang, the James brothers in Silesia.
I do the tourist version of course, at the Guido mine in Zabze, with Milsoz, Przemek and Boezanna. The boys have never been down a pit before, and they are excited by the prospect; me too. There are glimpses of the hell that it must have been, in particular full size models of the horses which were kept in total darkness and trussed up to be lowered blindfolded down 800 feet deep shafts; that’ll appear in a story, believe me, and, knowing me, it won’t have a happy ending. Funny that we often feel most for the dumb animals.
The guide – who speaks Silesian, a linguistic complication of the region I didn’t know about – gives demonstrations of some of the latest machines working in the lower seams. Even the air extractor is cacophonous. With the drills and scourers and chewers that look like monsters from a steam punk comic, and with the rattle of coal trucks relentlessly ferrying the black stuff around, and with the heat and dust and the exhaustion of exertion… how do you capture that with words on paper?
The workers were organised on a military basis, with well-defined ranks and promotion structures. Privates, the face workers, wore black feathers in their caps; red indicated those experienced enough to handle explosives, for example. Medals were awarded for bravery, for long service, for promotion. No wonder these men slipped so easily into the role of disciplined cannon fodder during the many wars that have been fought here.
My father worked away from home most of his life; he officially retired at 65, but worked on at whatever he could find, from highly skilled welder early on until, in his mid-seventies, he was a building yard minder. Anything, basically, that kept him in the company of working men. I think, now, I understand why.