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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
After my mother’s death last summer, I found myself curating her old photographs. I discovered these, some of the earliest images of me, tucked away in an old album. I’m at most three years old and I’m in the back yard of the tenement in Barnes Street, Barrhead, where I was born. The dog was called, unimaginatively and politically incorrectly, Blackie. A Lab cross, he belonged to my adopted Aunt Elsie and Uncle Jim, who lived in the ground floor flat beneath us. Aunt Elsie was Welsh and therefore exotic; Uncle Jim had emphysema, I think from working in flour mills, and he talked with me about the stars and about how I wanted to be an astronaut. Blackie and I, by all accounts, adored each other.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a book launch in Glasgow for Matt Haig’s treatise on depression, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’. It’s a terrific little book, easy to dip into for information and insights and moments of recognition; I especially like the ‘conversations across time’ he writes, between his past self and his present self. The panel discussion and Q&A afterwards – chaired by Richard Holloway, who is one of those people who never seems to age or has always looked old, whichever you like – was enlightening and informative, though if, as one audience member suggests, mental illness can be cured by opening our hearts to God, I’d just like to ask why God invented the fucking thing in the first place. What shines out from Haig’s talk is the power of artistic self-expression, of simply putting one’s experiences and feelings into images or music or words.
And I’m a writer (supposedly), so – big deep breath – here goes.
Cliché though it is, I have my own black dog. I remember the day he introduced himself, as my girlfriend and I strolled down a sunny street towards her house where her mum was going to serve up Cremola Foam and Iced Gems, and she chattered about something inconsequential. Completely out of the blue, a heavy cloud blew into my brain, a feeling of utter helplessness and powerlessness and of wanting everything to stop. I turned to her and angrily clamped my hand over her mouth and shouted at her to shut up, then jumped back like a scalded cat, immediately ashamed yet still knocked for six by that overwhelming blackness. She forgave me, bless her wee literal cotton socks, but, sadly, it’s the most vivid recollection I have of our friendship.
I was five years old, and I’ve been aware of my black dog scuttling at my heels ever since. Most of the time he’s quiet and obedient, but sometimes he’s snarling and vicious. He’s my pet and he’s my monster. And I know where he comes from.
My mother was an ordinary, heroic, wonderful, complex woman, and there were times when her black dog held her by the throat. I remember at four crying myself to sleep because she had been bereft for days, and threatened my father with leaving us; he came through to hold me and tell me she was just unwell, she wasn’t going anywhere, she loved us too much. Later, there were times I would come home from school and she would be almost paralysed in her chair, a pot of water on the floor beside an old newspaper piled with peelings, a knife in her right hand, a half peeled potato in her left, as if her dog had struck in the middle of a sentence. ‘What’s the matter, Mum?’ I would ask; ‘I could just go and jump in the river,’ she would answer.
Or the argument with my elder brother over a bill to repair his car; in the heat of the moment, he threw out some petty comment about her wasting money on a new standard lamp (every good home had a standard lamp in the early 70s). She collapsed, unable to stand, utterly inconsolable. I have a recollection of my father putting her to bed for the rest of the day, and of being ushered in to her bedroom, the curtains closed, just to reassure me she was still alive. Trembling, chalk faced, she managed a wan smile and a weak hug. My poor brother, I thought at the time. And my poor mother, because I absolutely know it for what it is; an utterly commonplace occurrence which, because of the condition, becomes monumental, the last brick in the wall to crumble before the blackness comes rushing through.
Black dogs are sneaky bastards. Mine has different ways of biting me. There was the long, slow gnarl at the bone in my late teens, when I found myself crippled by clinical depression for the best part of nine months. I spent whole evenings curled up in a ball in the corner of my bedroom, my stomach cramping viciously either from anguish or the fifty fags a day I was smoking. My wee sister tore her hair out asking me what the matter was; my friends put up with me going out to pubs with them and saying not one single word all night; my university career just about ended, limping over the finishing line with a 2nd lower after effectively dropping out as I slowly, by chance, floated back to the surface of the living.
Sometimes it can be the occasional nip and nibble, the short bursts in my thirties when the air became overcast, the sudden impression that I was looking at the world through water or glass, everything muffled, indistinct. My voice would drop to almost a whisper and I would be incapable of making eye contact with my partner or her children. At first they thought they were to blame somehow, but whatever it was that had triggered me – a misperceived slight, a look out of place, a comment about a bloody standard lamp – would, at any other time, be so utterly mundane, I couldn’t possibly explain. Those episodes lasted sometimes as little as a long weekend, but I’m sure my family stopped blaming themselves and eventually came to the justifiable conclusion that I was a dick. At the end of our relationship, as I dismantled it at the worst possible time imaginable (her mother had recently died), she held my hand and said ‘I think you have demons in your head’. ‘Occasionally,’ I replied, and out of a lost love and home and family came the curse of a fucking book title.
But it can also do the full on Rottweiler, going for the jugular, bringing along a couple of Pit-bull packmates called Anxiety and Stress for the fun of the kill. Like the first half of last year. Weeks of panic attacks in supermarkets (at those times, I am allergic to Asda), months of intermittent insomnia, catastrophic and obsessional thoughts about my mother’s illness and my own health and failing friendships and too much work, and a final, insane night bouncing off the walls of my home in near hysteria while contemplating serious, serious self-harm because of – oh, serendipity – a car repair bill. ‘Three in the morning,’ writes Haig, ‘is never the time to try and sort out your life.’
A few days ago, a young man I know threw himself in front of a train. At the last moment, he must have changed his mind, and he tried to jump out of the way. He was hit and is now horribly maimed. It’s reminded me of discussions with people I know about the violence young men can inflict on themselves and of the supposed cowardice and selfishness of suicide; I understand where those opinions come from, but I also know that, with the black dog breathing in your ear, your brain allows you no other option than the desperate urge to just get the fuck out. My heart goes out to him: I think it makes as much sense to say that it’s cowardly and selfish to die of cancer.
I was attacked by a big black dog, a couple of days before my mum’s funeral. Really. Actually. I went for a walk over the Greenock Cut, seven easy miles and space to get my head together, to think about her eulogy. As I approached a cattle grid, I passed an old man wearing a pith helmet who held a huge Alsatian. Just as I came level, wondering who the hell wears a pith helmet these days, the dog went for me, managing to take one bite out of my upper leg before I stepped onto the grid so it couldn’t follow. The old man was distraught and claimed he was taking the dog to be put down and this was its last walk, which made me feel not one bit better. We parted, me telling him in language as ripe as I could think of to keep his mutt under control. Hours later, the wound was still pumping blood, and I knew the bruising would make my leg look like raw liver for weeks. I went to the hospital, thinking I might need a stitch. ‘No, it’ll be okay,’ said the doctor, bandaging it up, ‘but another inch or so and he’d have got your femoral artery.’
Black dogs go for the sweet spot, it seems.
And I still have the tiniest of scars on my inner thigh, and that’s what I don’t get about the discussion; panel members talk about ‘coming out’ of it, of being switched on and of loving life and of being artistically productive just after (or even just before) an attack.
So where’s the scar tissue? That’s what I feel most of all: that the scar tissue prevents me doing my job, because it throws my focus all over the place and sometimes I can’t be bloody bothered or can’t bloody get it; that the scar tissue prevents me ever writing anything substantial or important or good again, because it leaves my head like a playground full of litter blowing in the wind, and the prospect of anything longer than a paragraph has me in a cold sweat of self-doubt; that the scar tissue prevents me ever loving again, or ever being loved, or ever giving a shit about it one way or the other, because sometimes it’s so tiring to negotiate my way into and out of yet another disappointment.
But, you know, Haig is right. There are plenty of reasons to live. Things are good. I’m fitter, healthier, more active than ever. I’m yomping up hills (excellent), going to the gym (not so much fun), climbing up walls (literally, not psychologically, at a climbing centre), even dabbling with learning the Aussie crawl (must remember to breathe…). I’m getting out, meeting people; hell, I even managed a little bit of romance recently, for one whole month. I’m engaging in self-help and group activities that I suppose could be called ‘therapy’. Most of the time – and this is the advantage I have over many others – I’m well; I am, apparently, ‘high functioning.’ And, on the recommendation of Matt Haig and the panel, I’m writing this.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and I’ve been wrestling with this particular piece since last July. My condition – illness, disorder, whatever the hell it is – has already provided fuel for much of my writing; I couldn’t have written ‘Occasional Demons’ if I hadn’t had experience of some pretty grubby, fearful alleyways. I’d also been asked to contribute something to a mental health blog that specialises in inspirational, hopeful stories, and passed an earlier version of this to them. ‘It’s a bit in your face, a bit dark,’ they said; well, if they were looking for compromise, they came to the wrong guy. Read my book. And neither did it fit in with the ‘cry for help’ tales they sometimes used; fuck that, it’s my dog, I don’t need help. If it’s going to obey someone, it’d better be me.
I’ve also been approached to get more involved in mental health groups, as a group facilitator or writing tutor, and it’s something I’d really like to do. So – this is up on my own blog, in my own name, and I have no idea what it will do. I think my fingers are crossed that no-one reads this any longer, and so I won’t get funny looks and a wide berth from people at the university or in the street or in the pub. I don’t know what damage it will do to me, or what benefits it might bring, if any. As soon as I hit the ‘post’ button, I know I’ll regret it.
But it’s what writers do.
And it’s all part of the programme, of getting to know my dog so that I can train him. He’s in his basket in the corner right now (I’m too soft to kennel a dog outside), though he did growl at me a bit this week. Much more alert, I recognised what he was up to, chastised him roundly and fed him a biscuit by going to the gym for two hours. It worked a treat.
But I’m not ready to embrace him yet. I’m a little bit scared, a little bit tentative.
And a whole lot angry at him, it has to be said.
I was thoroughly entertained by an article in The Commentator, an unashamedly neoconservative website that makes some astonishing claims as if they were the ingredients on a cereal packet. How much wrong there is with this, a crowing hagiography from their raison d’etre of a Friedmanesque West that bears no relation whatsoever to the reality of mass populations:
‘… Our economics are in the tank. Budgets are bloated, taxes are too high, existential threats to our interests at home and abroad have rarely ever been more concerning. We seek to shed light on these core ‘civilisational’ issues.
We argue that now is not the time for big government; it’s not the time to bow before tyrants, dictators or terrorists; and it’s not the time to abandon our only true ally in the Middle East: Israel.
Let’s face it — it never should have become and never should be the time for any of those things. But lately, the West has become more than a little self-loathing in its worldview, and we exist to offer a viable alternative.
Never in the history of human civilisation had so much prosperity been created, so many lifted out of poverty, so much evil tackled, curtailed and eradicated than when the West was at its proudest.’
Let’s list some of the questions:
In an era of crippling austerity, whose budgets are bloated? The cancer research budget of the NHS or the executive hospitality budget of Goldman Sachs?
Taxes are too high for whom? Since when? Are we perhaps talking about the richest in the US and the UK, who ‘have paid a lower marginal tax rate over the last three decades’?
Which tyrants, dictators or terrorists are we bowing down to (ISIS, Vladimir Putin) and which are we hand in glove with (Saudi Arabia, the Neo-Nazis of Ukraine)? And in what way is a mineral-poor, minor exporting nation that relies on gobbling up billions in military aid like Israel a ‘true ally’? If we are saying that Israel is ideologically a friend of the West, then that can, of course, only be partially true, since holding different ideologies is a sign of democracy; given their treatment of Palestinians, a Zionist Israel is as abhorrent to me as a fundamental Islamic state. Does that mean I am not a ‘Westerner’? Or that Israel is merely an ally of some in the West?
In what sort of a world that gloats about a cure for Ebola being unsustainable in a free market are people ‘lifted out of poverty’? And are the means by which they are lifted out of poverty – health care, education – funded by ‘big governments’ run by the likes of Aneurin Bevan, or are they provided by the tax dodgers who bank with HSBC?
So into this parcel of rogues comes Tom Gallagher, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University (that means he’s a retired academic). In his ‘Seeds of tyranny being sown in Scotland?’ (note the question mark, just so that he can defend his position as hypothetical in the face of the bare-chested nationalist onslaught he clearly expects, though I’m sure the lads pictured to illustrate the article aren’t artists), he repeats the accusation made by Chris Deerin (chief Scottish columnist of the Daily Mail’s and, in Gallagher’s words, a ‘culturally clued up Scottish journalist’, and in the words of everyone else… well… a Daily Mail columnist) that artists in Scotland jumped on the bandwagon of independence in droves for the sole purpose of self-promotion.
I was amongst the first to contribute a piece for National Collective – or, as Gallagher calls them, in a clearly illiterate use of the quotation mark, ‘National Collective’ – but never contributed as much to the movement as I wanted, largely through illness. However, I kept in touch, and watched dozens of bright young people commit themselves to a cause that they knew was an almost impossible task. I had friends, many of them in full time jobs not in the arts or in full time study, who ran themselves into the ground organising and promoting events, devising publicity campaigns or canvassing communities. Just what self-promotion do Deerins and Gallagher think is possible knocking doors up closes in Govanhill or Provanmill to encourage disillusioned people who haven’t been near a ballot box for decades to even register to vote; ‘Eh, can we rely on you to vote in the referendum, madam, and while you’re at it, here’s a flyer for my one-man show’? If the artists and writers I know went into it all for self-promotion, take it from me; they got a really bad return on the time, effort and sheer hard cash they contributed.
Gallagher goes on to suggest that ‘Scottish culture has been set back a generation by the readiness of so many luminaries to act as performing seals for a political cause.’ Breathtakingly, he describes the art produced by the referendum as ‘shrill protests against the ‘Sassenachs’ (English foreigners) usually ‘toffee-nosed’, thereby combining an ethnic and a class prejudice.’ First, I would defy him to find anything on the National Collective website that could in any way be categorised as ‘ethnic or class prejudice’; in all my referendum meanderings, I have found nothing, seen nothing, heard nothing, read nothing that could be attributed to a member of the respected artistic community that could be remotely described as ‘ethnic and class prejudice.’ Secondly, the fact that Gallagher has to parenthesise an explanation of the word ‘Sassenach’ clearly indicates his intended, non-Scottish audience. Obviously he is writing for those neoliberal Western crusaders who fund The Commentator; so who’s the fucking performing seal now, Prof Gallagher?
He buys in to the whole myth that Yessers intimidated No campaigners to such an extent that the debate was fatally skewed. If it were true that there was a huge reservoir of silent No voters scared to put their heads above the parapet (despite the fact that, as Gallagher himself says, artists are ‘individualistic, edgy and hard to dragoon behind an established position’) why then have, post-referendum, the circulation of pro-Yes newspapers risen, as he admits, or the membership of all pro-Yes parties boomed? Why have Yes groups, from National Collective to Radical Independence to Common Weal, continued to pack out events and attract attention on social media? For heaven’s sake, the Nos WON; you’d think they’d be individualistic, edgy and hard enough to stand up for themselves NOW.
Except of course the No campaigners did; on Friday the 19th of September, when George Square saw what can only be described as a neo-fascist display of British nationalist thuggery.
Of course, a Yes vote was NEVER the ‘established’ position; all those wonderful young people I saw working their socks off knew they were fighting an uphill battle against the position of the establishment, which, in the final week of the campaign, pulled out every lie and empty promise they could to swing a vote they saw the possibility of losing. For me, voting Yes was always an act of rebellion, an act that I desperately wanted to upset the established applecart, to have a broader and wider effect across the globe. For me, it was the equivalent of voting for Syriza, not for the SNP.
Gallagher pours scorn on those from the Yes campaign he sees as indicative of a nationalist bullying mentality. Interestingly, he’s quite prepared to punt his own academic credentials, but describes Alan Riach as a ‘poet’, failing to recognise that Riach too is a Professor; not only that, he’s STILL a professor, serving at Glasgow University, and not a pensioner clinging on to hierarchical titles for his own self-aggrandisement. Nice display of academic respect there, Prof Gallagher (retired). He recounts Riach’s ‘delight’ at showing ‘no trace of deference’ to the Queen at a 2013 reception. So there we have it; a No vote is for the polite, the respectful, the deferent. Yes voters, it seems, are vile, unpatriotic, rude thugs. Perhaps Prof Gallagher should be reminded, though, that Riach is, by law, a taxpayer; the Queen is immune from being sullied by something as crass as tax, and only volunteers to pay a modicum of what might in a democracy be called her fair share out of embarrassment at the size of the silver spoon in her gob. Yes, taxes are far too high, aren’t they?
One of the heroes of Gallagher’s article is James MacMillan, ‘a prolific and widely performed composer’ who, he argues, is ‘in the tradition of energetic and talented Scots who over the last 300-400 years helped to shape the boundaries and content of British culture and disseminate its influence far and wide,’ a giant of the music scene counterpoised with ‘ex-rock star’ Pat Kane. Quite apart from the fact that Kane does not speak for the artistic community as a whole – and would not claim to – the interaction Gallagher describes can hardly be called anything like ‘tyranny’, and the subsequent tweet from MacMillan he quotes (‘‘the wonderful renowned separatist artists must never, EVER be criticised!’) sounds merely churlish rather than heroic. And I’d like to ask the Prof: is this the same James MacMillan who, unprovoked, called a young female activist in a conversation three nights ago between pro-independence supporters which he chose to join, ‘degraded’, ‘debased’, ‘hateful’ and ‘divisive’? Gallagher quotes ‘pro-British Scottish blogger’ Effie Deans, ‘who currently perhaps has the most profound things to say’. She claims that Putin’s Russia is more free than the state of the independence debate; I’d like to see what would happen to Effie were she to throw a few of those epithets in Vlad’s face.
This is, of course, the selective nature of this debate. For every insult hurled at a No voter, there will be a similar zinger directed at the Yes side, and each will hype up what suits them and ignore what doesn’t (I would direct Gallagher’s attention to the ‘Alex Salmond is a wanker’ Facebook page; I can’t find an equivalent for Vladimir Putin, or James MacMillan). But to claim that the arts community has silenced rather than empowered those who wish to take part in the debate is absurd.
As too is the rather wandered conclusion he comes to, in which he seems to confuse ‘the ruling party’ and ‘government’ in the upcoming general election with the SNP; as far as I am aware, the election in May will decide the fate of the current Tory / Lib Dem coalition in Westminster. His last sentence is quite apocalyptic:
‘Russia was once briefly as free as Scotland still is now, but it was a failure to resist creeping tyranny that has allowed the nightmare seen there today to unfold.’
The warning is clear; allow these horrible nasty Nat artists and writers to have their way, and tyranny will ensue. Let me make this clear to Professor Gallagher, who, given that he has worked at Bradford University for however long, probably hasn’t really got a clue about the reality of Scotland as it is now; if tyranny comes marching down our streets, it will be those fabulous young people I saw working their hearts out during the independence campaign who will have the nerve, the resolve, the skills and the courage to man the barricades. And when that happens, I’ll lay money on him still writing for a neo-conservative, culturally imperialistic website that advances the interest of global corporations that would happily strip every freedom we could ever possibly have to make a quick buck.
An absolute delight. Handel’s Messiah was one of my first ever record purchases, ordered from Readers’ Digest for me by my mum. I think I paid her back 50p a week from my pocket money, but that probably lasted about three weeks before I forgot…
I’ve heard it live a few times, but always in a devotional setting, like Paisley Abbey (twice). That adds emotive appeal – even for an old atheist like me – but the acoustics are never right; all those high vaulted arches just suck up the sound. So hearing it in the Concert Hall was a real treat, where all the singers and the orchestra and the chorus are all in the right place acoustically. As a result, it sounds fabulous.
Star turns for me are Sophie Bevan, a beautiful soprano who raises the hairs on the back of my neck with ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, and Alan Clayton’s ‘Every valley shall be exalted’; they’re my favourite tunes, and neither disappoints. Claire Wilkinson (whose mezzo-soprano is perhaps a little lost in the big mix) and baritone George Humphreys are excellent too. The orchestra and chorus are spot on. Conductor Laurence Cummings also plays harpsichord, which was a little confusing visually, and I would like to have heard the instrument a little more, but he’d done a brilliant job. Of course, the Hallelujah chorus is spine-tingling, and the finale – Worthy is the Lamb – is just thunderous.
A grand day out.
Round about half way through this year, I realised I wasn’t in good shape at all. My inability to handle a whole heap of worries – my mum’s health especially – led me into a very dark place. Cue a good talking to myself, and a realisation I had to get myself fit mentally and physically. Part of that was getting into hillwalking. I did wee bit years ago, and really enjoyed it, but let it slide; I’ve decided not to be so complacent about making time for me from now on.
So in July, I connected with a friendly local walking group to get back out onto the hills. The first, Ben Lui, damn near killed me because I completely overestimated what I could do, and it’s a bloody big lump of a hill when you combine it with its wee Munro neighbour, Beinn a’Chleibh. But perseverance has paid off, and there were some real highlights in the remaining six months of the year.
Finding myself on Stuchd an Lochain with the mountain totally deserted; a great weekend with my friend and colleague Lio Moscardini’s friends and family to do his compleation on Ben More on Mull; a dreich day on Meall Chuaich philosophising with the lovely J. David Simons; meeting a gorgeous red head on Ben Lawers. I think I’ve got the bug, and intend to bag lots more next year, as well as having a two week hiking holiday in Bulgaria or Morocco.
One thing I have to do, though, is get used to heights. Never been too keen on big drops, and the walking group plan to do the Aonach Eagach next year.
Jings, my palms are sweating already…
I haven’t done nearly as much theatre as I should have this year, but I’ve seen some beauts. Good to experience some actors I’ve never seen before, like Antony Sher; ‘Henry IV’ was sleep-inducing (what does anyone see in the histories?) but Sher was having a ball, chewing the scenery as Falstaff.
Best of the year: one ensemble piece, one male performance, one female performance.
‘Much Ado…’ at the beautiful Royal Exchange was a delight. I rarely laugh when reading Shakespeare’s comedies, but when they’re successfully brought alive they’re great fun. Some didn’t like the big-headed dancing, but I thought it was gorgeous, and Paul Ready as Benedick and Ellie Piercey as Beatrice were brilliant foils.
Tom Hiddleston was fabulous as Coriolanus: I’ve said it all already. But probably the best performance of the year goes to Gillian Anderson as Blanche in the second half of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
The first half – I’ve never liked. It’s all too loud and hysterical and self-indulgent. I confess to nodding off. Then, after the interval, Anderson proceeded to grab the audience by the throat and scream in their faces with a portrayal of a disintegrating woman that in the space of half an hour left me breathless and gobsmacked. She was stupendous, and how she did that night after night after night without going bonkers herself is a miracle. Along with her performance in BBC’s ‘The Fall’, she’s actress of the year, I think.
Not surprisingly, Anderson and Hiddleston won the Evening Standard luvvies’ award – well deserved. Honourable mentions go to Meghan Tyler for her portrayal of another woman off the edge, Ophelia, in the Citz’ otherwise patchy ‘Hamlet’, and to Richard Armitage for a perfect, powerful, sexy John Proctor in The Old Vic’s ‘The Crucible’.
|1. The Crucible||7/12||8||Old Vic Live|
|2. A Christmas Carol||5/12||8||Citizens|
|4. A Streetcar Named Desire||16/9||9||NT Live|
|5. Henry IV||14/5||5||RSC Live|
|6. Much Ado About Nothing||28/4||9||Royal Exchange, Manchester|
|7. War Horse||9/3||7||NT Live|
|8. Coriolanus||4/2||9||NT Live|
I’ve been silent really since the summer, concentrating on getting well, dealing with family, etc. Nobody reads my blog any more anyway, so this is just a round-up of the year as a bulwark against dementia; I may need to remind myself in years to come that I really have seen these acts…
So here they are – all the bands I’ve seen this year (or the ones I can remember) along with venues, dates and a rough mark out of ten that simply records how memorable the gig was. Hate marks out of ten, but in the absence of a review, it’s the best I’m gonna do.
Which means my gigs of the year were Joan as Police Woman at Liquid Rooms and Angel Olsen at Mono. If you were to hold my hand in a candle flame to make me choose, it’d probably be Angel Olsen. As wonderful and vibrant and reinvented as JaPW was, Olsen was new and fresh and fantastic. Great stuff.
|1. Fatherson / We Were Promised Jetpacks||13/12||8/7||QMU|
|2. Rodrigo y Gabriela||6/12||7||O2 Academy|
|3. Sharon van Etten||25/11||7||Art School|
|4. The War on Drugs||8/11||5||O2 ABC|
|5. Dancing Years / Boy & Bear||4/11||7/7||Oran Mor|
|6. Marissa Nadler||5/9||5||Broadcast|
|7. Joan as Police Woman||5/8||9||Liquid Room|
|8. The National||10/7||6||Usher Hall|
|9. Anti Flag||29/6||5||Glastonbury|
|10. The Portraits||29/6||3||Glastonbury|
|11. St Vincent||29/6||7||Glastonbury|
|13. Juana Molina||29/6||8||Glastonbury|
|15. Bryan Ferry||28/6||7||Glastonbury|
|16. Manic Street Preachers||28/6||7||Glastonbury|
|17. Rev Peyton’s Big Damn Band||28/6||6||Glastonbury|
|19. Angel Haze||28/6||3||Glastonbury|
|20. Aoife O’Donovan||28/6||5||Glastonbury|
|21. Billy Bragg||27/6||7||Glastonbury|
|23. Wild Beasts||27/6||6||Glastonbury|
|24. Rodrigo y Gabriela||27/6||7||Glastonbury|
|25. The War on Drugs||27/6||6||Glastonbury|
|26. Turtle Island||27/6||4||Glastonbury|
|27. Seize the Day||27/6||3||Glastonbury|
|28. Wye Oak||13/6||7||King Tut’s|
|29. Angel Olsen||9/6||9||Mono|
|30. Smoke Fairies||30/5||7||SWG3|
|31. Jill Brown||28/5||7||Barlinnie|
|32. The Flaming Lips||26/5||4||Usher Hall|
|33. Prides||22/5||8||King Tut’s|
|34. Revere||15/5||7||King Tut’s|
|35. Pokey LaFarge||2/5||8||Paradiso, Amsterdam|
|36. Snarky Puppy||1/5||7||O2 ABC|
|37. British Sea Power||6/4||6||Liquid Room|
|38. Parlotones||3/4||7||King Tut’s|
|39. Dar Williams||14/3||5||CCA|
|40. Suzanne Vega||1/2||7||City Halls|
|41. Raghu Dixit||24/1||6||Oran Mor|
|42. Mayra Andrade||21/1||7||GRCH|