Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Walking in a sensory deprivation tank: two Drumochter Munros

Posted in Hillwalking by raymondsoltysek on January 20, 2016

17/1/16 – Munros bagged:

A’Bhuidheanach Bheag (936 metres)

Carn na Caim (941 metres)

So after missing out on bagging a Munro at last week’s winter skills course in Aviemore because of the weather on the plateau, I took advantage of a guided event organised for free by Steven Fallon. It was the first time I’ve tackled Munros this early in the year, but when someone of his experience offers, you don’t say no.

These are unremarkable hills, two mounds on a huge plateau on the east side of the Drumochter pass. A long drive, but very worth it.

Positives

The weather. It’s a benign day, with little wind (especially on the plateau) and no precipitation. So from that point of view, it’s easy going

Again, this was a really nice group, mainly strangers but a few who have been on several of Steven’s events. Repeat custom is always a good sign of just how respected he is, and how safe his hands are. A mixed bag, we all get along just fine…

A lovely walk in – lots of mountain hares bounding across the hillsides – and a beautiful walk out, with stunning late afternoon sunlight bathing the pristine slope of the shoulder we use as a short cut, an ethereal half-moon hanging above our heads behind us. Late in the day is always when the light is at its most seductive, whatever the season.

Negatives

Wow, this was pretty tough going, one of my more strenuous outings. Even the young guys are feeling it, and I guess I’m the one in the party who has been out least over the winter. Despite the gentle weather, we’re still trudging ten miles with over 2700 feet of ascent, shin deep in powdery snow most of the way. I usually can’t manage to eat all my lunch, but today, every bit of scran in my rucksack – sandwiches, hot and cold fluids, carob bars, seed bars, biscuits, energy gels – is scoffed just to keep my energy levels up. In truth, two Munros was probably a case of me biting off more than I could chew – but, having said that, bite it off I did, and chewed and spat it out, and bagged number 50 to finish off 2015 and number 51 to start off the New Year. Sense of achievement in the bag…

The weather – again. Above the approach slopes, the whole of the plateau is shrouded in cloud. No horizon, no skies visible above, no visibility beyond a few yards. And everything quiet as a graveyard. It’s a bit like walking for five hours in a sensory deprivation tank, nothing outside your head but the sound of your own feet and your own breath. At a couple of points I put my goggles down (I don’t really like wearing them) and the effect is multiplied tenfold, almost like a goldfish in a bowl. The feeling is so disconcerting; I reckon if I was a goldfish, I’d end it all.

So this was an experience I’m glad I had. Did I enjoy it? Perhaps ‘enjoy’ is the wrong word, but I did have a cracking day. And I will do it again, and I’m sure I’ll have worse days than this in the future.

 

 

 

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Winter Skills Course, Aviemore, 9-10/1/16

Posted in Hillwalking by raymondsoltysek on January 11, 2016

 

Had a fantastic weekend skills course up at Aviemore. After a couple of courses at Glenmore Lodge last year, this was through Steven Fallon’s company. What is amazing is the quality of outdoor instruction available to us in Scotland; we really are blessed. Our instructors, Richard Kermode and John Walker, were very different, very knowledgeable and very, very reassuring. I learned a huge amount from them, and would go on a course with either of them again; in fact, I’m just about to book some Glencoe scrambling with John in July…

Positives

Gorgeous scenery. I was revisiting Cairngorm, where I did my scrambling course last year, but only in winter do you get a sense of just how primitive the plateau is. We didn’t venture as far up – day 1 was spent on the ridge between Coire na Cist and Coire Laoigh Mor for some self-belaying and arrest techniques (bumslides are a hoot), while Day 2 was modest because of dodgy weather forecasts, so we ambled up Fiacaill a’Choire Chais and then down into the stunning Coire an t-Sneachda. The Fiacaill Ridge I mostly dodged out of in the summer looked even more intimidating with a winter coat on.

Lovely weather. Other than a bit of bluster on both days, it was all very benign, with some beautiful sunshine and, paradoxically, an even more beautiful mist that clung to the mountain on the second day; it seems to shroud Coire an t-Sneachda in absolute silence.

A great, mixed group; lots of different ages, lots of chat, lots of laughs, no competitiveness, no show offs – just a genuinely nice bunch of people out to have fun and learn. I’d go up a hill with any of them again.

We even managed to see a wee bit of wildlife – ptarmigan, mountain hare and a coastguard helicopter.

The things I learned

I learned that crampons must be the world’s most liberating invention, although perhaps incontinence pads and the sports bra might push them close. I really could dance on ice (though that almost ended disastrously). To stand on a steep slope of sheet ice and feel totally at ease, totally stable, was a joy, so much so that I went out today and purchased the biggest, baddest pair of Grivel Brothers I could find.

I learned that I am actually quite good at falling off mountains. On my back, on my stomach, head first, tumbling arse over elbow: not a problem. And thanks to the guys, I can even stop myself pretty well too.

I learned that I cannot dig a snow hole to save myself – literally. Especially with an ice axe. Gimme a shovel and I might get the fucking thing finished by next Tuesday…

Negatives

Nothing at all.  It was a wee bit disappointing not to bag a new Munro, but that would have meant getting up onto the plateau and going for Ben Macdui or something like that, and when someone of the calibre of Richard or John says ‘not today,’ you bloody well listen. So, I’ll save that for another day in the knowledge that the course has extended my walking season by three months; I’ll feel fine about trying out winter hills now, and am even thinking of adding a couple by myself in the next few weeks. I have my eye on Stob Binnein from the south (a lovely long, broad whale-backed ridge) or perhaps the wee Buachaille. And then, there are several pals such as the Lylecraigs Hillwalking Club who can look after me on more challenging hills.

Here I come…

 

 

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Some of the best events of 2015…

Posted in Gig review, Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on January 1, 2016

Best gigs?

Ane Brun at Oran Mor in December was just fabulous. She’s grown from an obscure Norwegian folk singer into a sensation. She gathers a top notch band around her, most notably bassist Dan Berglund, of the tragically disbanded Esbjörn Svensson Trio; my pal Ian’s a fan of theirs and suspects most of the band may be Berglund’s new group. This is a band that can play anything with consummate ease.

Brun has been updating her catalogue over the last few years, so that even oldies like ‘To Let Myself Go’ sound totally fresh. Once more, there’s enough percussion onstage to rearrange kidneys, and it pounds out the foundations of what she does impeccably; as ever, ‘Worship’ and ‘Do You Remember’ are thumping highlights. The stuff from her new album ‘When I’m Free’ – which has garnered mixed reviews – is slick and expansive, though the whole doesn’t quite get me as excited as ‘It All Starts With One’, underlined by the brilliant and habitual finale, ‘Undertow’. However, there are real gems in there, especially for me the sensuously drum-driven ‘Directions’. She’s incapable of disappointing.

However, gig of the year goes to a half-Norwegian lass, Nadine Shah, at King Tut’s in April. An iceberg when she’s singing, she’s a hoot when she’s interacting with the audience, and takes no prisoners. After ‘Stealing Cars’, I can’t resist and burst out a ‘that’s just beautiful.’ She’s momentarily touched, and says ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Raymond,’ I reply. ‘Daft name’ she says, quite rightly. Brilliant musician, cool, cool woman.

I was very happy to see an old hero of mine, the legendary Bruce Cockburn in October; one brilliant guitarist with a beautiful voice and a line in songwriting that is fiercely passionate about justice and humanity. An activist for decades, anyone who advocates bringing down marauding Guatemalan government helicopters with a rocket launcher can’t be all that bad in my book…

Great to see my pal Jill Brown supporting at King Tut’s, and the headline act, Polly and the Billet Doux were a bit of a revelation; lead guitarist Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen may well be one of the best live guitarists I’ve seen since… like… ever.  Jill is headlining a sell-out Tut’s in January; it’s well deserved for someone who works so hard on her music.

And it was also good to see Pokey LaFarge again at The Art School. After the debacle of a horrendous audience in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, this was a riot, with a crowd that was into him and willing to give him the space to build a relationship, and everyone, including LaFarge, has a ball. Once more, the musicianship was incredible, especially from the genius of Ryan Koenig on harmonica.  Watch them here and marvel…

As for theatre – some good uns, including Benny Cummerbund as the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen. But cream of the crop was undoubtedly ‘Lanark’ at the Citz. It’s a novel I like and recognise the importance of in the Scottish canon, but I’m not the obsessive devotee I know some are. But this is astonishing and confirms David Greig as one of the world’s best playwrights. Sandy Grierson is immense in the title role (he has previous form with Greig, playing Malcolm in Dunsinane a couple of years back); self-absorbed, lost, manipulative and manipulated, he comes across as a true oddity. Direction and set design are amazing too. At over three hours, I wasn’t tempted to nod off once, which is a real feat on a work night these days. Stunning.

 

‘Black Mass’

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on December 21, 2015

‘Black Mass’ borrows so much from true-life gangster movies; right from the off, the echoes of Goodfellas is apparent as mobsters line up to tape their evidence, flipping the narrative into a retrospective that tells of the rise and fall of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp). It’s a well kent tale of small town opportunism clashing with incompetent law enforcement and high politics (Bulger’s State Senator brother, Billy, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch), but is no less rewarding for that.

Depp has form playing real life mob parts, from the undercover FBI agent in Donnie Brasco to the 30s gangster and folk hero John Dillinger. This is, by far I think, his best performance ever, and certainly in this genre. Most of all, it’s because most movies play to Depp’s handsomeness – Dillinger especially, the suave, charismatic psychotic who women swooned over and proposed to – while this plays to Bulger’s innate ugliness. He really is repulsive, the receding hairline and the rotten teeth and the cold blue eyes like some demented cross between Gollum and a velociraptor. He’s as chilling as Joe Pesci’s Tommy – there’s even a reprise of the ‘you think I’m a clown’ scene as Bulger baits David Harbour’s Agent Morris for revealing the ‘secret’ of his family’s steak marinade – and he makes the flesh crawl, most menacingly as he baits his FBI shill John Connolly’s wife in the doorway of her bedroom. It’s a stunning performance, creepy as fuck.

Bulger’s is a story that has been told before, in Scorsese’s deeply disappointing ‘The Departed’, in which Jack Nicholson played Frank Costello, heavily based on Bulger’s blue collar Brooklyn shenanigans. That film ultimately failed, though, because it was neither fish nor fowl. A remake of the superior and stunning Andy Lau and Tony Leung Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, it was neither the straight-up biopic Bulger’s life required nor the Grand Guignol opera of the original.  The more direct approach, from director Scott Cooper who made the beautiful and underrated elegy for blue collar trash Out of the Furnace, works a treat.

The supporting cast is excellent, though the star names are pretty superfluous. Cumberbatch is included as box office bait and does little that any jobbing actor couldn’t have done, while Kevin Bacon is given little weight as an FBI boss whose myopia prevents him seeing the brazenly obvious corruption in his office. Best are the likes of Joel Edgerton, who has that perfect 70s sleaziness of the Brooklyn thug wannabe given the keys to the FBI kingdom when he hasn’t the brains to use them correctly, and, especially, Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s hitman of preference, Steve Flemmi. Cochrane is superb, a walled up cess pool of seething silence, the ruthlessness with which he despatches a mouthy hanger on providing the shackles that chain him to a course of acquiescence as he witnesses Bulger strangle his teenage prostitute step daughter. ‘Clean up your own mess,’ Bulger tells him, and Flemmi silently bends and strokes the dead girl’s knee. Rarely has a character with so few lines delivered so much.

So all in all, a fabulous film, right up there with Goodfellas or Mesrine or American Gangster as a classic true-life gangster pic. Don’t miss it.

Welcome to SATE!

Posted in Education by raymondsoltysek on December 19, 2015

You can find the new blog for The Scottish Association for the Teaching of English here:

https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/glowblogs/sateblog/2015/12/18/welcome-to-sate/

Welcome to SATE!

This is the first blog post of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of English (SATE).  Affiliated to the UK-wide NATE, we hope to offer teachers of English in Scotland a professional association that provides them with the opportunities to network professional learning in the context of professional update while also giving them a voice in the formulation of policy that directly affects the teaching of English in Primary and Secondary classrooms.  You can read more about us here:

http://goo.gl/ZHT19y 

We have plans for Teach-Meets around the country, using this blog to publicise and report on events members have organised and attended.  We hope in the future to run a major conference in Scotland in 2017, and to encourage action research in the classroom.  To do this, we need your help.  First of all, join NATE.  An individual or departmental membership provides access to journals of the latest research and magazines publicising the latest classroom practice.  Then – participate.  Gary Snapper of NATE is keen to receive items about classroom practice in Scotland for the Classroom magazine, and SATE hopes to form a Teacher Education committee with top academics from universities to support the publication of your classroom research. If you have any ideas for blog posts, please submit them to the Regional coordinator. And, by all means, if you are interested in furthering the development of a strong professional association in Scotland and would like to coordinate events in your local authority, contact any of the SATE officials below.

This is, potentially, an exciting time for English teachers in Scotland.  If you would like to know more, visit NATE at their national website (https://www.nate.org.uk/), or contact any of the following SATE officials.

SATE Regional coordinator: Raymond Soltysek  raymond.soltysek@strath.ac.uk

Highland Local Authority coordinator: Tom Coles tomcoles@gmail.com

Perth & Kinross Local Authority coordinator: Kerry Fraser kerryfraser@pkc.gov.uk

South Lanarkshire Local Authority coordinator: Susan Brownlie sbrownlie@st-a-and-st-b.s-lanark.sch.uk

North Ayrshire Local Authority coordinator: Jane Wilson gw15wilsonjane@ea.n-ayrshire.sch.uk

Glasgow Local Authority coordinator: Nuala Clark gw15clarknuala@glow.sch.uk

North Lanarkshire Local Authority coordinator: Katie Lane mrslaneenglish@gmail.com

Have a wonderful holiday and we hope to meet you soon!

 

A year’s Munros

Posted in Hillwalking by raymondsoltysek on December 5, 2015

 

I’m going to make a resolution next year to blog more often. I’ve been like raging bull of resentment over the state of politics right now, I’ve become the Scottish Coordinator for the National Association for the Teaching of English so I have to start putting my head above the parapet on educational issues, I’m continuing my gig adventures, I’m planning for the day when I can devote more time to writing so need to get my finger out on crafting some words, and I’ve got hill walking plans.

So I thought I’d pop up my exploits in the last of those. My target this year was to get more Munros under my belt, hopefully reaching number 50 by the end of the year. Unless the weather takes a dramatic turn for the better, I’m going to just miss that figure; I’ve done 35 in 2015, meaning I’ve reached number 49, but with a few Grahams bagged as well, I’m not too disappointed.

The most difficult of the year

From mid-March to mid-May, Munros were unpredictable gits, with the potential for blizzards and white-outs. Most harrowing of them all was a Lylecraigs group trip to Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh at the end of April. It was a four seasons in one day hillwalk: winter, mair winter, even mair winter, and fucking scary winter. With no experience of those  conditions, it was a real tester of my mettle, particularly one huge snowfield we had to traverse across on the way down.   This was a steep fucker; I have visions of ending up on my arse and tobogganing at a rate of knots down the mountainside and sailing off into oblivion. A learning experience if ever there was one.

Summer wasn’t really much better, and an injury kept me off the hills; I had to abandon a walk round the 4-Munro Carn Mairg circuit when I pulled an Achilles on the walk in. So July was a washout. Picking it up again in August, Lylecraigs had a very wet and windy trip to Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh, a long, tiring walk that turned into a bit of a marathon trek as even the experienced walkers had difficulty pinpointing exactly where we were going.

And that type of weather got even worse. In September, I planned a week away, to really hit some numbers, starting off with the Cairn Mairg circuit which I completed with my friend Lio Moscardini. It was a fabulous day’s waking, after which I popped up to Kintail to try the Five Sisters and Brothers’ Ridges with my pal J. David Simons, my first of the big iconic walks. Wind and rain and slippery ridges and a long, long walk at height made for a punishing and exhausting day, both mentally and physically; at night, as I dropped off to sleep, I saw rocks and paths and dips and rises, grassy knolls and rocky ascents, cliffs and abysses, all in double speed mode, rattling through my brain. Which made the decision to do Ciste Dubh instead of the Brothers’ Ridge the next day the right decision, because in the midst of a howling gale, I have a wobbly moment when my knees buckle and my resolve deserts me, and I’m just about to give up this whole lark. Luckily, hill walking pals are there to keep you going…

The most rewarding of the year

Some days really stand out: a beautiful crisp day on An Caisteal and Beinn a’Chroin just a week before the Beinn Dorain debacle with David and Lio and his son; a really challenging blizzard on Ben Chonzie with David that gave us both a real sense of accomplishment; a couple of solo trips to Ben Challum and Beinn Narnain on beautiful days; a trip to Bynack Mor with David when we communed with very friendly reindeer.

Most memorable of all, I think, was a gorgeous October autumn weekend, when I took a train to Corrour on my own and stayed at the beautiful eco-hostel to bag three Munros over two days. Best was Sunday, a 13 mile hike over Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre. The weather – predicted to be changeable – was fabulous, that golden light and infinite landscapes. I had moments of real clarity, when I was aware of the breath in my lungs and the pumping of blood to my muscles and limbs, a sense of being utterly alive and integral within myself: and at the same time was keenly aware of the vastness of the landscape around me and the miniscule place I occupied in it. I had been reading Sarah Maitland’s wonderful ‘A Book of Silence’ over the weekend, and it was the perfect companion for what I needed to feel right at that moment. Who needs to pay a fortune for mindfulness courses?

Next year

So this year I did well getting Munros on the board. Next year, it’s about challenging myself to face the bigger, scarier aspects of the pastime. I’d like to extend my season by doing more winter walking, and I’m still very unsure about exposure; I am fine climbing thirty feet up a climbing wall, but give me a thirty feet cliff to climb that has a three hundred foot drop on either side, and my insides turn to water. I did a scrambling course at Glenmore Lodge which helped a great deal, and I learned that I have the climbing ability to tackle most that Munros can throw at me on hillwalking routes – but when faced with the last scramble up Cairngorm’s Fiacaill Ridge, I opted to take an easier route rather than tackle it full on. I’d like to be able to take on those biggies – The Cuillins, the Forcan Ridge, Curved Ridge, Liatach, An Teallach, the Aonach Eagach – so I need to overcome those collywobbles. More indoor climbing, more courses, more push, push, push…

Adventures ahead!

Munros completed in 2015 (last first):

  1. Bynack Mor
  2. Beinn na Lap
  3. Carn Dearg
  4. Sgor Gaibhre
  5. Meall Corranaich
  6. Meall a’ Choire Leith
  7. Ciste Duibhe
  8. Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe
  9. Sgurr na Carnach
  10. Sgurr Fhuaran
  11. Carn Gorm
  12. Meall Garbh (Glen Lyon)
  13. Carn Mairg
  14. Meall na Aighean
  15. Meall Dearg (Glencoe)
  16. Meall Buidhe (Glen Lyon)
  17. Beinn a’Chochuill
  18. Beinn Eunaich
  19. Ben Vane
  20. Ben Cruachan
  21. Stob Diamh
  22. Cruach Ardrain
  23. Beinn Tulaichean
  24. Cairngorm
  25. Ben Vorlich
  26. Stuc a’Chroin
  27. Ben Challum
  28. Meall Ghaordaidh
  29. Ben Chonzie
  30. Beinn Dorain
  31. Beinn an Dothaidh
  32. An Caisteal
  33. Beinn a’Chroin
  34. Beinn Narnain
  35. Beinn Chabhair

 

 

 

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Glastonbury 2015

Posted in Festival review, Music review by raymondsoltysek on July 1, 2015
Glasto!

Glasto!

So that was Glastonbury.  My second year, and although I wasn’t really that excited about the line-up, it ended up a damned fine weekend with some absolutely star turns.

Of course, the whole event is a big, bloated theme park.  For all the goodwill – and there is, with political activist, peace and green groups to the fore – it’s still just one big, self-indulgent, hedonistic splurge.  It amazes me how wasteful and inconsiderate huge crowds can be; ‘Love Worthy Farm, ‘ we are asked, ‘Leave No Trace’, and that’s a message that’s lost within about thirty minutes, judging by the discarded beer cans and half-eaten fast food that end up carpeting the fields. Bin it, guys!

But it’s about the music, so here goes:

1. Amy – the new film about Amy Winehouse. A  lovely intimate documentary biopic from the maker of ‘Senna’, but not much added to the accepted rhetoric of a life wasted by insecurity and indulgence and by weak, selfish men, some who were close to her and some who only knew her through a lens. Well worth a watch even if, like me, you weren’t into her music that much.
2. Martha Tilston – lovely woman with great values and a wonderful voice.  Great to see her again and an excellent start.
3. Michael Clark Company – bonkers dance group.  Say no more.  One of my Facebook friends who has danced with them asked what music they used; ‘they like Bowie and Iggy Pop,’ she said – yep, both were on the bill…
4. Raghu Dixit – Lovely to catch a wee bit of him filling in on the West Holts stage. Such a charismatic happy band. Third time I’ve seen him live and he always makes me smile
5. Steve Knightley – Red hot protest folk with a good audience of fans who know all the words.  ‘Country Life’ and ‘Galway Farmer’ are fantastic. My pal Gordon’s recommendation, and a good one too.
6. Catfish and the Bottlemen – so-so.  I was expecting a bit more but found myself wandering off.  They were on The Other Stage, though, which is about the most soulless and most dirty.
7. Benjamin Booker – not what I was expecting.  Tough, hard guitar.  Feedback, it seems, is definitely in this year.
8. Sharon van Etten – impeccable and lovely.  Brilliant lass.  Another I’ve seen recently and was happy to see again.
9. Christy Moore – nails ‘Ride On’ and ‘The First time’.  A real troubadour.
10. The Unthanks – Clog dancing to utterly gorgeous orchestration – who’da thunk it?
11. Courtney Barnett – brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Relentless poetry of everyday life AND stonking riffs: cool as fuck.
12. Sinkane  – starts off cool African jazz funk that is very danceable, but goes off the boil to generic licks.
13. Gregory Porter – simply The Man.  In a Hat.
14. Vintage Trouble – there is NO better live band.  Ty Taylor blows Glastonbury off the map, crowd surfing from the stage to the lighting rig and delivering two numbers from 30 feet up.  This band is genius for the way they package their music.  As a live experience, easily 12 out of 10.
15. I Am Kloot – wonderful.  A band I sort of know – but having now seen them live, I intend to get right into them.  But for the right image and a break or two, they could be headlining the festival. Beautiful song writing that matches any Brit rock outfit you care to name.
16. Songhoy Blues – delivers the clean, clear desert blues I though Sinkane might.  Lovely stuff.
17. Hozier – the requisite amount of tousledness to win the ‘Van Morrison when he was fuckable’ impression award.  Spot on vocals, but he’s come from the BBC Introducing stage to The Pyramid in a year on the back of one song, and the lack of depth is a bit apparent.  Too soon, lad, too soon.
18. Patti Smith – accompanied by the Dalai Lama.  Freaky but just about the most monumental experience of my musical life.  Awesome.  Fucking awesome.
19. The Bevis Frond – a wee psychedelic band that’s influenced such biggies as Teenage Fanclub.  We spend half an hour watching these old blokes.  The lead singer looks like the less handsome brother of Phil Harding (the archaeologist from Time Team) and talks like a Wurzel, but he sings and plays guitar like a rock god.  Bloody brilliant.
20. Alt-J – sweet sound, but washes over me.  ‘Left Hand Free’ actually sounds shockingly bland compared to the raw guts of the recorded track.   Bail early.
21. Lianne la Havas – sweet lass, but washes over me.  Wasn’t helped by the wanker in front of me who arrived half way through and proceeded to bellow at his pals about why he had to buy a fish earring to replace the feather he lost, and why he changed his gym to one more ‘rad’.
22. Death Cab for Cutie – not bad at all.  Slick and danceable indie.  Will listen more.
23. The Who – well, I saw them.  They were fine in the sense that they trotted out all the hits I wanted to sing along to in a very professional manner, and the backing singers did a grand job of filling in the strangled bits of Roger’s once perfect rock voice.  Glad I saw them.

Oh, and one song from Billy Bragg – ‘Between the Wars’. My absolute favourite just as I was passing the Leftfield tent and he was finishing his set.  Always makes me tear up, that gorgeous, gorgeous song.

I also had my annual overdose of falafel (I reckon my mum could have done just as well with a packet of Paxo), so am feeling healthy and culturally uplifted now that my poor wee tired feet are recovering.  Roll on next year.

Things wot I’ve been up to…

Posted in Music review, Publications, Reading review, Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on May 4, 2015

I’ve stopped blogging reviews of gigs I go to – so much effort – but in the spirit of reminding myself of where I’ve been and what I’ve done so that I can remind myself in the nursing home where I was in my youth (!), here’s what I’ve been up to so far this year.

Prides, Liquid Room, 7/2/15: Prides were one of my favourite discoveries in 2014. Once more, their slick electro-pop is brilliant. Big, big anthems and a heaving, appreciative crowd. A great night out!

‘Love is Strange’ , GFT, 15/2/15: Yes it’s a bit contrived, idealistic and features unnecessary skateboarding – but ‘Love is Strange’ is quite beautiful. The quiet dignity and unshakability of the love between Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) is poignant and uplifting. Their tragedy is ordinary and hateful and heart-breaking. Loved it.

Rally & Broad, Stereo, 22/2/15: Excellent stuff curated by Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum. Top marks go to Harry Stiles for redefining Scots language, Rose Ruane for redefining everything, Genessee for the most beautiful cover of ‘Teardrops’ I’ve ever heard and The Jellyman’s Daughter for some of the best harmonies since The Civil Wars.

Twelve Angry Men, 28/2/15: Some hammy moments and some dodgy American accents, but still a wonderfully plotted classic of 1950s liberal drama. Tom Conti plays Tom Conti really well.

Coves, Nice-n-Sleazy, 8/3/15: mmm… took a chance, let down immensely. The band is okay, the lead singer is okay – but the mix doesn’t work. Soft pop vocals are lost in a grunge backdrop – I’m always suspicious of a girl in an LBD fronting a double denim clad band. We bail early…

Graham Fulton Book Launch, 14/3/15: yet more fantastic stuff from one of my favourite poets; ye cannae get enough of Graham Fulton. Check out Photographing Ghosts – it’s brilliant!

Glasgow Orchestral Society, 23/3/15, Royal Conservatoire: lovely programme including Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. A stunning young conductor and violin soloist playing with a damned fine amateur orchestra, including my pal Lynsey.

Sofar Edinburgh, 1/4/15: Lovely living-room gig from contemporary trad group Dowally and singer-songwriter Annie Booth. Star of the show though is the wistful and sweet Bec Sandridge; see her here.

Vintage Trouble, O2 ABC, 3/4/15: Ty Taylor is phenomenal, easily the most charismatic lead singer I’ve seen. Sexy, witty, full-on fun. Great as the rest of the band is, I can see him ploughing a lone furrow soon; it would be a shame, but this guy’s too big for anybody.

2015-04-13 23.24.13

Me and my pal Nadine…

Nadine Shah, King Tut’s, 14/4/15: gig of the year so far. Shah is fabulous; her 2014 single ‘Stealing Cars’ is a thing of real beauty, and she herself oozes charm and cheekiness. Spent so much time chatting to her I forgot to get her to sign my LP; an absolute delight and a lovely, generous lass.

The Districts, King Tut’s, 30/4/15: Good head down boogie in the style of Boy & Bear. An excellent, energetic band. Their encore, ‘Young Blood’ is a 9 minute epic.

And then seven new Munros, with many more to come. At least all this walking is keeping my alcohol consumption well under control..

A Grand Coalition against the people?

Posted in Politics by raymondsoltysek on May 4, 2015

Growing up in the 1960s, I remember a time of huge political debate on matters of principle. The great social architecture of the post war years was still fresh and shiny and new, and neoliberal economics was a tiny maggot growing in the reptilian brain of a still largely unheralded Milton Friedman. Newspapers then were awash with major disagreement not just between left and right – there was still such a distinction at Westminster in those days – but within those wings, between the patrician right of Heath and the barking racism of Powell, between the apparatchik pragmatism of Harold Wilson and George Brown and the somewhere-left-of-Azerbaijan idealism of Tony Benn. Parties weren’t homogenous entities of Stepford Suits and Ties, but were broad coalitions that attracted a wide variety of intellectual positions under distinctly leaky umbrellas.

Nowadays, the debate seems very different. Disagreement within parties is seen as a sign of chaos, not of a rich, intelligent dialogue based in fundamental philosophical and moral precepts (though, in UKIP’s case, it does actually seem to result from chaos). Debate isn’t about whether something is right or wrong, but is about how we’re going to pay for it. This obsession with the bottom line rather than the kind of society we actually want to have and let’s find out how to fund it later, has reduced political discourse to simple, narrow considerations of how we might maintain a system in which those who control the purse strings – the banks, the hedge funds, the 1% of the global population who own 50% of the global wealth – can continue to flourish while the rest of us push ever diminishing scraps around our plates in the vain hope that it will look enough to sustain us. And the key to winning elections, it seems, is to chuck a few leftovers on in the hope we’ll smack our lips and give them our cross on their ballot paper in thanks; we’ve now sunk to the state where a political party refuses to engage in the very principle of whether or not those who commit criminal and fraudulent acts should take personal responsibility in a court of law, but instead crows about using the fines we impose on those criminals’ organisations to buy essential equipment to prop up a health service that should be resourced regardless. Imagine if we said that drug dealers didn’t need to go to jail because the few assets we could seize from them could pay for road maintenance…

That the establishment at Westminster is hand in glove with this is in no doubt; Miliband’s pathetic responses to Russell Brand’s questioning about dismantling global elitism was a spineless whinge about how change ‘takes time’ (in other words, it takes too long, so let’s not bother ) and how change requires ‘international action’ (in other words, others aren’t going to do it, so we should just go along with them). Indeed, there really is now no distinction between the political and the financial establishment, with a revolving door for politicians into directorships of financial institutions and for executives from the banks into advisory or even ministerial roles. That is reflected in the media: I have largely stopped listening to the Today programme, simply because the only source for economic and political comment they seem to give any time to is The City.

And this is where the whole notion of this ‘grand coalition’ is coming from; the establishment’s fear that their cosy club will be threatened by newcomers to the block. All it does is to put under a spotlight the lie that there remains any real difference in principle between the Labour and Conservative parties, that there remains any distinction whatsoever beyond a few million quid here and there, beyond the priority they will give to the different scraps of the rotting resources government actually has any control left over. Philosophically, there isn’t a cigarette paper’s difference between the two parties, on tax, on benefits, on commitment to Trident renewal, on immigration… on and on it goes. The venerable Political Compass website is quite clear on this; both the main parties have moved to a right wing authoritarian stance that isn’t just in the same ballpark as Thatcherism, but is playing first base for the team. And it’s so obvious too that the Green Party has now been left to occupy the ground once held by Labour before their shameful ditching of Clause 4.

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UK parties, 2015

historical

Movement of party philosophy since the 1970s

The rhetoric is softening us up for this grand coalition idea. If Milliband is pushed into renouncing the possibility of a deal with the SNP, where is he to go? If Cameron wants to be seen to ‘listen to the people’, what is he to do? Given that the core differences in their policies are so minimal, the prospect of working together is mouth-watering for them both. Labour want to cut a little less and tax a little more; in a coalition, Cameron can present himself as a tough-minded mediating force on the ‘tax and spend’ party that caused the financial meltdown in 2008. Conservatives want to cut a lot more and tax a lot less; Miliband can present himself as a humane mediating force on the ‘nasty party’ that has driven a million people to the food banks. Remember that garden shot of Cameron and Clegg? Don’t for one minute think that couldn’t be repeated with David and Ed.

The basis of the coalition would be simple. Around 35% of the voters are going to plump for Labour; a similar number for the Tories. Between 60% and 70% of the electorate who bother to turn out will be represented in such a grand coalition; is that not democracy? The majority of the people want the UK to remain united, want the defence of the realm to be maintained by renewing Trident; who better to protect it than the two main parties, working hand in hand? It worked during World War II, when politicians put their differences aside to defeat the common enemy. And this time there is an enemy, and it’s an insidious enemy within.

There’s no point rehashing the post-referendum climate; Nicola Sturgeon does that more than eloquently every time she points out that those politicians who accuse Scots of becoming ‘irrational’ (David Blunkett) or of being akin to terrorist hostage-takers (John Major) or of creating a constitutional crisis (Theresa May) only six months ago were begging Scotland to stay in the Union. You wanted us; you got us, and that is democracy. I have no idea how that rhetoric is playing in England, but there is an undeniable concerted effort to portray Scotland as wreckers, and it is becoming accepted that a large minority of the electorate who want to fundamentally reform Westminster have no right to be represented in Westminster; are you listening, suffragettes? The message seems to be that Westminster is some gigantic children’s party into which you will only be admitted if you like the host, bring lots of gifts and play every party game by their rules. Damn the democratic process if you don’t like what democracy brings.

So I really do fear a grand coalition that will present itself as the protector and saviour of the UK, cutting off from representation whole swathes of people – not just Scottish nationalists – whose face doesn’t fit the establishment. Would that not mean the end of Labour, even Nicola Sturgeon asks? Well, that is to assume that Labour actually stands for anything any more. In a fixed term parliament, Milliband would be guaranteed five years of some power and some influence. Strategists will see that as more than enough time to turn around any negative perceptions. And besides, five years is more than long enough to continue the neoliberal revolution that is the main parties’ raison d’etre. The obscenity of TTIP is supported by both parties, with Labour merely making some anodyne noises about how they’ll protect the NHS. If TTIP is such a threat to the NHS, why is it not a threat to every other public service on which our civil society depends?

Tell a career politician that they have two choices. One; stay out of power for a guaranteed minimum of five years on some principle that you can’t really remember any longer (how many candidates really know their manifestos) and win the affection of the masses; or two; accept Satan’s pact for a guaranteed minimum of five years, troop through the lobbies, claim your expenses, vote for your own pay rises and secure yourself a nice wee directorship in a Fortune 500 company or a Canary Wharf hedge fund at the end of it. What would you bet on them opting for? Why would they give a damn about their ‘party’?

Should a grand coalition come about – and I’m more than convinced it’s a real possibility – we would effectively see the end of democracy in this country, sold as the will of (70% of) the people. The only ray of hope is that, even as they present it as a strategy designed to ensure stability, it will result in the constitutional crisis Theresa May fears so much. The Holyrood elections in 2016 would surely see a landslide in favour of pro-separatist parties from an electorate who see that they have been excluded from an English parliament that we were told we were welcome in. That will set a very large cat amongst some very frightened pigeons. Let’s hope we can wait that long

I’m a member of the Scottish Green party, but I’ll be voting SNP at this election. I’m no nationalist, but I do believe that if the opportunities to change a situation from within are completely denied to you, then separating from that situation is the only possible alternative. I’m hoping that my vote will be a little part of throwing one huge fuck-off spanner in these very, very corrupt works.

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Looking for a scapegoat? If you can’t blame a jihadist, a lunatic will do…

Posted in Media, Mental Health, Society by raymondsoltysek on March 29, 2015

In the hours after it emerged that Andreas Lubitz had deliberately crashed his plane into a mountainside, the media scrabbled desperately for traction. Initial reports contained basic information, and almost invariably added that police had given no details about the pilot’s ‘ethnicity or religious affiliation’; what wasn’t said became the news. The implication was obvious; they had set themselves down the terrorism road, preparing the way for Lubitz to be announced as a Turkish immigrant, a Muslim, a fanatic, a jihadist.  Such rhetoric is easy meat nowadays, allowing for the recirculation of old news, lazy analysis and rampant scapegoating.

But then it became obvious Lubitz wasn’t either Muslim or dark skinned, and the other rhetoric emerged; he was, in the words of The Sun, a ‘Madman in the Cockpit,’ a ’crazed rookie pilot’. The Daily Mail, reporting Lubitz’ depression, asked ‘why on earth was he allowed to fly?’ If you can’t catch a Muslim out, it seems, go for the trusty backup of the lunatic.

There was an immediate backlash against this type of reporting, from mental health charities like Mind, Time to Change, and Rethink Mental Health, to reasoned and empathetic articles in the broadsheet press; on noticeboards too, casual prejudices were challenged.

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From ‘The Independent’ comments.

But of course, in the wall-to-wall media age, the initial trumpet call is the one everyone remembers as the loudest, the one that got their attention. Depression, because of a few screaming headlines, is now associated in the minds of the great British public with mass murder.

It makes those who speak out about their issues – including, just last week, me – more than a little wary. If the biggest selling newspapers in the country are demanding restrictions on the ability of people with mental health issues to work, then that drip feeds into the public consciousness, despite the fact up to 25% of that public consciousness will be suffering a mental health issue at that very moment in time.

Think about that 25%. It means that of the 150,000 commercial pilots worldwide, 37,000 of them might be suffering from depression. If the screaming headlines and easy stereotypes had any basis in truth, planes would be falling from the sky; they aren’t. Andreas Lubitz says as much about people with depression – or about airline pilots – as Harold Shipman says about doctors or Peter Sutcliffe says about lorry drivers.

That’s because this wasn’t a suicide; it was a mass murder, a spree killing. Such occurrences are exotic, sensational, a tabloid’s wet dream, and the chase is always on to find the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s family, the motive, the cause. News agencies are lost when such copy isn’t available; I remember the almost total nihilistic vacuum after the Hungerford massacre, simply because no-one had any details and could tell nothing about the inscrutable Michael Ryan. Such a blank slate does not make good news.

So a hook is needed. Never mind that Lubitz was 150 times more homicidal than he was suicidal; his depression made him a crazed loon (despite the fact that the cockpit data clearly indicates he was quiet, breathing regularly, totally composed – much like Ryan was as he prowled the streets picking off his victims). He was depressed, he killed 150 people, so depressed people are dangerous.

Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, was a Muslim, a pilot and, according to criminal justice professor Adam Lankford, arguably a depressive. None of these, even combined, explains why he did what he did. Throw in the psychopathy of fanaticism, the influences of religious mania and political dogma, alienation, and we may just begin to find a tenth of an explanation for what he did, if any explanation could ever be adequate. Now, reports are beginning to filter through that Lubitz had told an ex-girlfriend that he would ‘do something… and everyone will know my name and remember”; and so psychotic narcissism is woven into the rhetoric.

And the rhetoric is carefully constructed. On March 20th, New Orleans airport was attacked by a man wielding a machete who was armed with Molotov cocktails. It was a classic attack using the classic weapons of the amateur terrorist; but given the man was a 63-year old and white, the prospect of him ever being dubbed such is minimal. ‘Mental health issues’ have been identified as a ‘component’, but the tone is one of sadness; no innocent was killed and the attacker, who was shot dead, is largely given a free pass. Similarly, the news media singularly fails to identify the 2010 Austin federal building plane attacker Joseph Stack as a terrorist, and right wing terrorists in the US have committed almost 6 times as many terrorist attacks resulting in homicide as Muslims between 1990 and 2010. The authorities and the media, though, drastically under-report these ‘because of cultural double standards’.

So we have to question every narrative. We have to ask not only what truth there is in what we’re being told, but also what truth we aren’t being told. We have to interrogate the political motives of those who want us to believe that narrative. And then we should probably reject it all, because such glib chattering does us no good, offers no enlightenment, adds nothing to our humanity.

Just released is Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, ‘The Price of Shame’. I’ve always thought Lewinsky to be a proud, beautiful, resourceful young woman who was thrown to the wolves, as women always are by men in power. She says, with a hint of a shake of the head at the stupidity of her younger self, that at 22 she fell in love with her boss, and at the age of 24, ‘learned the devastating consequences’, becoming painted in headlines and the ensuing social media shitstorm as a tramp, a tart, a slut, a whore, a bimbo and, by the very man she loved, ‘that woman.’

She makes an impassioned plea that I think has a lot of relevance here; she asks for a new culture of compassion and empathy. At one telling point, she asks the audience to ‘imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.’ That’s something that is lost on today’s tabloid journalists; despite the fact that 25% of them will walk in a headline that demonises a sufferer of depression, they are too well paid or too afraid of their editors to make the leap of empathy necessary to just shut the fuck up for a moment.

Lewinsky finishes with an explanation for her talk; it’s time, she says, to ‘take back my narrative.’ We should all follow her example.

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