Three brilliant weekends on the hills, all culminating in a Lylecraigs club outing to Knoydart, a place I reckon I would never have visited if I hadn’t wanted to walk the hills – and I would be much the emptier person.
24/4/16 – Glen Etive, 12 miles.
Beinn nan Aighenan (960m) & Glas Bheinn Mhor (997m)
Two hills with Lylecraigs. This end of Glen Etive tends to be done as a pair – huge, looming Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mhor – and Beinn nan Aighenan as a singleton; but Bill hasn’t done these two, so we parcel them up, and I’ll do Ben Starav on its own some time in the future.
Two lovely hills on a lovely day. The views of Gen Etive and over to Ben Cruachan are breathtaking.
A really good workout. Twelve miles and a fair whack of ascent mean the long walk out is bloody weary, and the muscles burn for a couple of days afterwards.
Good company. It’s a big turnout, so there’s a churning over of conversations and craic, so it’s lots of fun.
Just a long, long walk in and a long, long walk out…
1/5/16 – Loch Lochy, 12 miles.
Sron a Choire Ghairbh (937m) and Meall na Teanga (918m)
I’ve had my eye on these for a while because they are very straightforward, and because they are (just) over the boundary of the Great Glen, which is largely alien territory for me. So David Simons and I pop up on Saturday and head off on the Sunday.
Meall na Teanga is a tiddler by Munro standards, but the views –when the weather clears up in the afternoon – are stunning, especially south to Ben Nevis which looks positively Tolkeinian in its grandeur. Fantastic.
Both hills are readily accessible. Sron a Choire Ghairbh has a great winding path up its flanks, and Meall na Teanga is a straightforward shoulder all the way up to the summit – though we have to detour around some steep, slippy, snowy slopes to its lower slopes to reach it.
The weather in the morning is pretty wintry, so Sron a Choire Ghairbh is a bit of a slog with little reward at the top in terms of views.
And a long, long walk in and a long, long walk out…
7-8/5/16 – Knoydart, 30+ miles
Luinne Bheinn (939m) & Meall Bhuidhe (946m)
Ladhar Bheinn (1020m)
I want to die in Knoydart. I may well discover somewhere more beautiful and change my mind, but right now, it’ll do for me. From the boat in (you can’t drive there) to the boat out, it is just stunning. And I get to climb three iconic Scottish mountains, and I loved them all.
I love Saturday. Luinne Bheinn and Meall Bhuidhe are wonderful hills, especially the latter. The morning is wintry, but in the afternoon, the cloud lifts, and we have a great time scrambling up Meall Buidhe’s ridge and along its summit plateau. The views are magnificent, the walking is continually interesting.
I love Sunday. Tired feet that we are, we adopt the easy route up and down what is normally the descent route to Ladhar Bheinn’s summit. As such we miss out on the classic route over Aonach Sgoilite and around the edge of Coire Dhorrcail. That’s probably a good thing because of those tired feet and because of the wind; blowy as it is, I find the walk along the summit ridge, with the narrow path right at the edge of the corrie just at the edge of my comfort zone. As I approach the summit ridge, I’m really tired, and it’s an effort to put one foot in front of the other; looking at the ridge, with that big, big drop to the left hand side that the wind wants to blow me off, I’m along that ridge and back again like a road runner…
Other than that wintry morning and the gusty wind on both days, absolutely nothing.
Oh, apart from the long, long walks in and the long, long walks out. I think I see a pattern here…
10/4/16: Meall a’Bhuiridh (1108m) & Creise (1100m)
17/4/16: Schiehallion (1083m)
A couple of lovely Sundays on the hills to keep my preaparatiuon for a big trip to Knoydart on track.
First up are the two Black Mount hills. Meall a’Bhuiridh’s ascent is typical ski resort stuff; steep and ugly. However, this is a nice hill on the upper slopes, especially on the way down where the snow is perfect for skiing, snowboarding and bumsliding. Then the cracking ridge to Creise, not too narrow but snowy enough and steep enough to cause a few flutters, especially on the descent; without crampons on, I take a tumble and crack my arm off a rock, and then get my foot wedged in between two rocks when I go thigh-deep into snow. Good fun, and all in the company of my colleague and pal Lio and his lovely kids. It’s a real privilege being on the hills with such a fantastic family.
Then a Sunday popping up Scheihallion with my mate David and Liz from the Lylecraigs Walking Club. It’s a doddle, this big whale-backed ridge of a hill; exposed though it is – and it’s a really blowy day at the top – we’re up and down in a couple of minutes over four hours, which is damned good going.
So next up is Glen Etive with the club, and then a day away to bag the Loch Lochy Munros with David before Knoydart. Someone asked me the other day if this was becoming an addiction. Dunno really; is there a difference between a habit and an obsession? All I know is, right now, it feels kind of essential.
My hillwalking adventures are gathering apace, and at the beginning of May I have a huge trip to Knoydart with Lylecraigs walking group to tackle three iconic Scottish mountains, including the legendary Ladhar Bheinn. Everyone in the group is talking about ‘getting fit for Knoydart’, and basically scaring the bejasus out of me about just how hard it’s going to be. So as preparation – and to make a huge hole in my bagged Munros list – I decided to book up for a weekend around Glenshee with the excellent John Walker working through Steven Fallon’s company.
Munros bagged: Creag Leacach (987), Glas Maol (1068m), Cairn of Claise (1064m), Tom Buidhe (957m), Tolmount (958m), Carn an Tuirc (1019m)
As late as Thursday night, Saturday’s forecast looked decidedly pishy. 20% chance of cloud free Munros, wind, rain and sleet; not nice. But not for the first time this winter, the forecasters got it spectacularly wrong. This is usually bagged as a group of four, with the outliers of Tom Buidhe and Tolmount done separately, but on a good day , there’s no reason why all six can’t be completed. John plans a really nice linear route, and by planting cars at various points along the A93, it means we can bail out at any point. No need; this is an unbelievably good day, with clear skies and an almost total lack of wind all the way round. Just couldn’t be better.
Again, a group of total strangers get together and have a ball. Rolf is an aristocratic German gentleman and oozes class and politeness, even when asking about grouse poo; Julie is a laugh a minute nurse whose infectious enthusiasm keeps us going; Colm is a pal of John’s, a smashing bloke who soldiers through the whole weekend with a cough that makes him sound like a 1930s tuberculosis patient; Andy is an Aberdonian who has all the quiet assuredness of Bear Grylls; and John is funny and reassuring and always keeps an eye on how everyone is feeling, giving us all a real sense of confidence.
The aforementioned weather. We’re all carrying Nanook of the North levels of equipment – down jacket, crampons, ice axe, spare everything – but I manage to spend the day with just a base and a mid-layer on, and I’m never once cold. All the ironmongery we’re carrying is worth it just in case – there are still Arctic levels of snow up there – but it makes for heavy going at times. Luckily, a group of young guys leads the way for us; with their minimal equipment and horrendously fit limbs, they break trail, and John is grateful that we are able to follow in their footsteps. When I get home, I discover through Facebook that one of them is the fiancé of a former student of mine; small world!
The views are astonishing. All the way to Lochnager and Braeriach and Mount Keen, and Mayar and Dreish looking like close neighbours; again, I can’t help marvelling at just how gorgeous the country I live in is. And with three of these being 1000 metre+ biggies, the landscape just lays itself out before us…
Lots of wildlife – hare and deer and grouse. But oh dear, the ptarmigan. The hillsides are hoaching with them, and they’re more or less oblivious to us because it’s mating season and their minds are on other things. The hens scurry around with that head-down-tail-up ‘come and get me boys’ look, and the males are just stupid, doing their daft wee dance and chasing after the ladies as if their lives depended on it. Honestly, if someone up there had played ‘Yakety Sax’, it would have been an entirely appropriate soundtrack for the wee beggars.
Best of all? Bumsliding off of Carn an Tuirc. I had my one and only skiing lesson about four years ago. It was a disaster. I couldn’t get the hang of the balance, and realised that my arse was a much safer piece of sporting equipment to get me off a mountain than strapping two planks of wood to my feet and letting go. John’s an expert, and we have some real fun over a couple of hundred metres or so of mountainside. He really should organise bumsliding skills weekends.
None. Even the exhaustion of 20 kilometres through snow to do six Munro summits is exhilarating.
Munros bagged: The Cairnwell (933m), Carn a’ Gheoidh (975m), Carn Aosda (917m)
Sunday brings the weather we expected on Saturday, and it’s a completely different day, a day just to trudge through it and get the damned things done. This is perhaps the easiest group of Munros of all to do – we hit The Cairnwell summit by 9.30, and arrive at Carn Aosda before 1pm – but the weather blows in and makes the going tough, especially the trudge out to the more remote and exposed Carn a’Gheoidh; with weary legs factored in too, it’s very tiring. As we approach the final summit of Carn Aosda, Rolf suggests someone has put lead in his boots, and I’m just about at the ‘enough already’ stage…
They’re bagged. That’s it.
Well, there’s the weather, but The Cairnwell is also just about the ugliest place I’ve ever seen. The ascent is a relentless pull up scarred slopes underneath the chair lift, and the summit is reminiscent of some desultory, abandoned set from a 1960s World War II movie – think The Heroes of Telemark or Where Eagles Dare, or any film with Richard Widmark in it, and you’ll get the picture. I can see no reason for ever climbing this hill again, thank you very much…
So 9 summits bagged in about 28 hours; that should do a bit for my hill fitness, and that big, big trip to Knoydart.
Stob Coire Raineach (925m)
Stob Dubh (956m)
A fantastic day on the wee Buachaille on Sunday. The weather forecasters had predicted cloud and wind, and they were, thankfully, spectacularly wrong.
I’d been eyeing up Buachaille Etive Beag for some time now, since I haven’t done much walking in Glencoe so far. I bagged Sgor na h-Ulaidh about twelve years ago, then popped up Meall Dearg last year to take a look at the Aonach Eagach, but that’s been all. I’ve scrambling plans for Beinn a’Bheithir and Bidean nam Bian later in the summer, and perhaps – perhaps – a crack at Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor with the Lylecraigs walkers. So this was a good chance to scope it all out.
And it is a beautiful day. Snow is rapidly disappearing from the hills but, strangely, when we get to the 902 metre cairn, Stob Dubh looms up intimidatingly, still almost fully clothed in white. It must be sheltered from wind and sunshine, because most of the surrounding hills are almost naked. And the snow is fabulous, packed and hard and just perfect crampon conditions; I still can’t get over how much security those Edward Scissorfeet shoes give you, and feel like the human fly, especially descending steep snowfields.
The snowline accentuates the narrowing of the ridge, and it’s only when the venerable Donald – veteran of three Munro rounds and about to compleat the Corbetts, a man who always makes walks feel safer with his presence – says that conditions are okay, do we dump our rucksacks and crack on to the summit. And what a summit, and what a view down Glen Etive, and over the Etive Mor and the complex, knobbly Bidean, then over the Aonach Eagach looking remarkably benign in the glorious sunshine.
Then it’s back along the ridge. Sharon and I haven’t done either of these, so Liz and Jean head back to the cars for lunch, and Donald accompanies us up Stob Coire Raineach. I don’t know what happens, but a switch inside me goes off and lets loose the nitrous oxide. Once more freed from rucksacks, I set off blasting it up the rocky, snow-free slope, and we’re at the top in twenty minutes. Not exactly fell running, but not a bad performance for an old bloke. Then a quick turnaround and back down the glen.
Lots and lots of positives. Good company, gorgeous weather, fantastic scenery and lots of practice with ice axe and crampons. We’re looking at a spell of unsettled weather, so this may well be the best day out for some time now.
That’s fine; it’s one that’ll live long enough.
The Scottish Association for the Teaching of English held a seminar last Wednesday, in association with The University of Strathclyde. Simon Gibbons and Bethan Marshall, from King’s Colege London, had a lot to say that was very pertinent to the introduction if standards testing in Scotland. Their conclusion – evidence suggests it does little to close the ‘attainment gap’. Check out the SATE blog for a report (coming soon) and other news.
Here’s my Introduction to the seminar; my views, not the views of SATE or Strathclyde!
‘There’s never been a more appropriate time for Scottish teachers of English to join a strong subject association. I’m in the middle of interviewing next year’s applicants for PGDE, and I think every year since 2001, I’ve told them that this is a time of great change in Scottish education; this year, that is true more than ever, and as I approach perhaps not the sunset of my career, but definitely the twilight, I don’t think I have ever been less optimistic about the future.
There are good things on the horizon, to be sure. If PRD is as supportive as it is said to be, teachers will have a real structure in which to plan their own professional development. As English teachers, membership of NATE offers access to the latest research and classroom practice, as well as resources, and is tailor made for the PRD process. Social media, Teach Meets and Pedagoo mean that teachers are coming together to cater for their own development needs, plugging the gaps in CPD that denuded budgets and the loss of curriculum advisers have allowed to develop, and NATE offers an umbrella under which we can all shelter and share. These, then, are exciting times for teachers who are doing it for themselves, and the one huge improvement I’ve seen over my fifteen years in teacher education is how the professional knowledge and skills of teachers has grown, almost exponentially. When I left Jordanhill College, I knew on average it would take about 8 years to be promoted; I now see my students achieving promoted status with two or three years, and I have no doubt that they are absolutely ready for it.
But there are dark forces gathering in Scottish education that seek to change it irrevocably. Because of our proudly independent system, we tend to feel that we are cushioned against the worst excesses of the wider world, excesses that have been chillingly demonstrated by the Westminster Government’s ideological obsession with taking all schools out of local authority control, to be managed centrally by government and locally by a patchwork of individual school boards, interest groups and private enterprises. The disingenuous rhetoric in which those ideas are framed– ‘choice’, ‘parental voice’, ‘flexibility’ – masks what is fundamentally an economic driver behind reform.
In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina destroyed all but 15 of its 168 publicly funded and controlled schools; in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole school system was privatised, every child went to a school publicly funded but managed for profit by private corporations. The vast majority of teachers were fired, most being replaced by deunionised Teach for America apprentice teachers teaching a denuded curriculum concentrated on a brutal testing regime that is cheap to teach but casts the most vulnerable into poverty and failure. For private enterprise, Katrina was not a tragedy; it was an opportunity.
It was also a crisis created by unprecedented natural events; but man can easily create crises, through underfunding and deregulation, crises in which a system is systematically and deliberately broken and then deemed to be irreparable by anything other than management from a supposedly more efficient private sector. It is this man-made disaster that is driving the move towards the privatisation – wrapped up in the educationally aspirational term ‘academisation’ – that George Osborne is building a large portion of the Budget around.
There is a much resistance to such moves in Scotland, where we are proud of our state funded, local authority managed comprehensive states system. It has served us well, for all its faults. But those forces which would dismantle that system are undoubtedly gathering, forces which range from groups of parents (usually middle class) rightly anxious about local school closures to influential think tanks to former highly paid public education executives who have slickly managed the transition to become champions of (and I quote) ‘increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility.’ And in a world run by TTIP in which private corporations have the legal right to siphon off profitable parts of public services uninhibited by the democratic will of the people, education services and even individual schools may well find themselves being circled by some very ravenous wolves.
There is less resistance, however, to apprenticeship models of teacher training. Tom Hunter’s ‘exploration’ of Scottish education recently highlighted a successful academy in London, employing ‘Teach First’ teachers, described as ‘the very best graduates’, as if anyone not on such a scheme is somehow the underqualified dross of the teaching profession. The Scottish Government’s warm response – a sort of ‘if it works, we’ll do it’ common sense – suggests that they may well look at different models of teacher training. Let’s be clear, though. Apprenticeship models of teacher training work on exactly the same principles as your electricity supply. Power is brought to our homes from the same power stations, along the same cables, through the same substations; it is only when the envelope with the bill arrives that a multitude of companies clamour and compete for the right to charge us for that same electricity. Training providers – whether individual schools, local authorities or – most likely – private corporations – will still place student teachers in the same schools with the same mentors, still access the same university courses and tutors, will still employ the same accreditation bodies as ever. But with a product to now sell, with a contract to protect, with profits to enhance – what is the chance that the need to be ‘outstanding’ will (and I use the word advisedly but appropriately) trump the need to adhere to rigorous quality standards?
This is all going to happen, as sure as the sun rises and sets. After the Japanese earthquake, news outlets had panels of experts that included earthquake scientists, nuclear power station engineers and financial consultants, as if economic activity is as immutable and inevitable as tectonic plate shifts and radioactive meltdown. And, in the world we live in, it is. Neoliberalism will have its way.
But people can – should – speak out; otherwise, we will lose all that we value without a whimper. Whether it is on these global issues that threaten to swallow education as we know it, or whether it is on the – not unrelated – issues of the closure of school libraries, or the development of a vocational curriculum, or the place of Scottish culture and texts in our classrooms, or the reintroduction of national testing, English teachers can and should have a voice. For decades, that voice has been NATE, and we have two of its most influential members here tonight. I won’t say much about them, since most of you quoted Bethan Marshall in your last assignments on assessment and therefore know her work well. And when Conservative Home (The Home of Conservatives), a body deliciously unacquainted with the concept of tautology, describes Simon Gibbons as a ‘classic Leftist elitist’ who ‘uses impeccable standard English’, you know he’s worth listening to. That same august body said of NATE, ‘it’s time is up.’ That was four years ago. It would be nice to watch it grow in Scotland.’
I reckon half of Scotland must have been out on Sunday, a perfect, perfect winter’s day, whether they were on the hills or out on boats or walking in the park. I was out too, with my pals in Lylecraigs Hillwalking Club. Two lovely little Corbetts above Glen Orchy, these sit in the middle of a ring of iconic hills: Ben Cruachan, Ben Starav, Ben Lui looking magnificent in a full winter coat, Stob Binnein and Ben More, Beinn Dorain – the views are astonishing.
You haven’t lived if you haven’t seen Scotland looking like this…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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…
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’ 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.