Here’s a link to an opinion piece I wrote published in today’s “Scottish Review”.
The “I done a album” launch party. Darren Foreman, aka Beardyman, beatboxer extraordinaire, combines dazzling beatboxing with a fine line in comedy and improvisation.
Beatboxing alone is cool for about three minutes – about the length of time it takes for one of Foreman’s influences, Michael Winslow, to do a skit in Police Academy – then gets dull. Beardyman, though, is quick witted and charming and musical enough to sustain interest for a whole show (as he did at The Edinburgh Festival, live at The Underbelly, in 2009).
Good entertaining stuff, but obviously with a limited shelf life: I suspect he’s talented enough musically to find many more strings to his bow, probably in production. In the meantime, his improv and technical skills and his range of musical reference will do him nicely. He can sing too – and his mum loves him.
After a reasonably good game in which Scotland did what was expected of them against a much more talented Brazilian side, it was depressing to hear young striker Neymar’s claims of racist abuse being dismissed by the Scottish football authorities. Most ludicrous of all is the rent-a-quote expert Pat Nevin, who seems to be able to read the minds of several thousand individuals at once by claiming that “They were furious with all the diving about, rolling about feigning injury.” Another godlike talent exposed, Pat.
I was at Love Street in 1983 to watch St Mirren play Feyenoord in the UEFA Cup. I was there for a last chance to see Johann Cruyff, but ended up being mesmerised by a young Ruud Gullit. He stole the show in much the same way Neymar did on Saturday, scoring the only goal of the match, and he received the worst racist abuse I have ever heard for it. This wasn’t just banter or hazing: it was outright hatred of a man because he was black and because he wasn’t wearing a St Mirren shirt.
I found myself sticking up for him, cheering him on, telling those around me to leave him alone and let him play. I was looked at as if I came from Mars. I was in the stand, I was wearing a black and white scarf, I spoke with a Scottish accent – therefore I should be using words like “black fucker” and “nigger shite.”
It was one of the most uncomfortable evenings of my life, and given that Gullit – a hard man, capable of dishing it out along with the best of them – still calls it the worst abuse he has ever faced, it must have been much more uncomfortable for him.
The fact is that on the terraces, the most obvious abuse comes unguarded to the lips of the “fans”, whether it be references to colour, sexual orientation, religion or the size of a particular WAG’s breasts. In the heat of a football match, self-censorship is the last thing on a spectator’s mind.
And it’s not helped by a whole sub-culture in which the odious Richard Keys calls a black footballer a “Choco Jocko” while fellow white panellists laugh uncomfortably rather than challenge it. When Keys says he is not racist and has personal friends who are black, I have no doubt he believes it, just as I have no doubt he doesn’t “smash” his wife when they have sex: it is the pack machismo that allows him to blurt such garbage, and if he can’t resist that mentality, then he isn’t intelligent enough to comment on the weather, let alone something as integral to the national consciousness as sport.
So was Neymar racially abused? Having been on those terraces on September 14th 1983 and heard bile of such invention that the KKK would have been proud of it, I find it inconceivable that all Scottish football fans have moved on so far in such a short period of time. We should be honest about that, refuse to become smug and complacent and take a talented young man’s complaints seriously.
Have been spending much of the last week at the BBC Scotland Radio Masterclass at the Scottish Book Trust. The SBT are a fantastic organisation that have been hugely supportive of Scottish writing for ages. They are also lovely people, especially Caitrin Armstrong who seems to be at the centre of just about everything.
The Masterclass is designed to introduce and encourage writing for radio, very possibly the most important market for new drama given that an afternoon play can have an audience of three quarters of a million. It’s an excellent way to push along ideas you have and meet and work with BBC producers who are eager to build relationships with new writers.
It’s revitalised an idea that’s been kicking around for years and which was started in a previous Masterclass. “Rodin’s Dancers” is a tale of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years. A recording of a scene can be found on my website, here.
Details of future media labs can be found at the Scottish Book Trust’s website.
And I’ll be back blogging soon!
Ten months of the best west coast writers’ showcase, and still going pretty strong. Alan Bissett is a late stand in for a sick rapper, and is, predictably, the most polished and accomplished of the readers. His reading, from his first novel “Boy Racers”, is a fine scene of penile humiliation at the hands of the terrifying Rangers-supporting Wendy.
Juana Adcock writes in Spanish and English. Her work is lyrical yet tackles muscular subjects, such as the astronomical scale and inhumanity of Mexican kidnapping. The sound – which seems a bit echoey – doesn’t help her project, but she’s clearly talented, as is Hannah Nicholson, originally from Shetland. It’s fantastic to hear new young writers in proud Scots. Lost a little in the echoes and just perhaps a little fast in its delivery, nevertheless she does well. JL Williams, originally from New Jersey, has just had a collection of poems inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses published. Her work is clever and erudite; unfortunately, lovely though it is, I’m afraid I’d need accompanying notes to understand the layers of allusion and reference, but that is most definitely my fault and not hers. A retrospective showing of Swimmer One’s WPM3 slot completes the lineup: check out the WPM YouTube channel for more.
However, the show is stolen by the musical act, Shambles Miller, who sings of being angry about how kids misuse words like “epic” and “random”. Smashing voice, good guitar and intelligent, witty lyrics. Cannae ask fur mair.
“Never Let Me Go” is one of my favourite novels, for literary and personal reasons. Kazuo Ishiguro is, I think, the best novelist writing in English today, and over the last few years, he has explored alternate realities in the most unsettling ways: “The Unconsoled” is a true masterpiece that could be my Desert Island book, a weird dreamscape even better than “Lanark”.
The problem with converting “Never Let Me Go” to film is that this story of clones bred as human organ repositories has suffered from an audience used to inferior films telling the same story in the Hollywood way, such as “The Island”. Here, Tommy and Kate are never going to rebel, never going for a shoot their way to redemption solution: Ishiguro doesn’t do one-dimensional. He is the master of stoicism, that quiet acceptance of our fate that is ultimately how most humans react to the worst of times. For Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”, his cry against his lot was one day trip to the seaside on an abortive investigation of his feelings for Miss Kenton before his final decision to practice “banter” to please his master; for Tommy, it is one long keening wail when he realises his love for Kate will never gain him a deferral before he acquiesces to the surgeon’s knife for the last donation that will result in “completion”. Both scenes in both books wrench the gut, and, despite filmic tinkering, have much the same effect on screen; but a viewer brought up on a diet of explosions and car chases will ask, “why don’t they do something?” The reality, even in this most unreal of worlds, is that no-one ever does.
I remember seeing “Monster’s Ball” in the cinema years ago, for which Halle Berry deservedly won an Oscar for an outstanding performance as “trailer trash” whose husband has been executed for murder. At the end of the film, the executioner, Billy Bob Thornton, gently outlines his plans for their future together, unaware that she has found out his role in her husband’s death. Berry says nothing, the horror and confusion and dread and hope all played out on her face. As the audience left, I heard someone say, “I didn’t get that. Why did she just blank him?” It’s perhaps the EastEnders generation talking, those who expect every drama to be played out in loud and obnoxious crisis, accompanied by “Riiiiccckkyyyyy!!!” God help us.
This is a gorgeous film, scored perfectly by Rachel Portman. My only query is about a cast that includes Keira Knightley (no I don’t hate her, and think she’s much maligned in some quarters) who is too old for the part of an 18-year-old Ruth. Imagine that – Keira Poutley too old for a part! Andrew Garfield is a sweet lad, suitably gauche and puppyish despite the horrors of his situation, while Charlotte Rampling seems to be settling for those parts in which she’s typecast as a stone-cold bitch. Of course the plaudits go to Carey Mulligan as Kathy, the emotional core of the film, who does a beautiful job of investing utter humanity in a character who is, to all intents and purposes, not considered human. She has the most perfect face to express wisdom and love and compassion in a single look.
Oh My Gods! Well, it is a distinctly pagan play, so the plural is necessary. But I’m just in the door, quarter past midnight, wired from just having seen the best Shakespeare I have ever seen. No lies. Legendary.
Though its greatness has always been screamingly obvious, Lear is a play I’ve never quite got in a lot of ways – all that dissembling and madness, real or feigned, all that downright stupid gullibility about people’s motives. I’ve seen three or four versions (including Anthony Quayle yonks ago), and it’s never quite gelled for me. I got it tonight though, thanks to the beauty of the performances: at its core, a simple tale is told of how age and dementia saps our parents of everything they once were, and how we cope with it in different ways. In true Shakespearean fashion, though, what leeches away from a pompous old man is not only his sanity but his kingship too.
Where to begin. The set is incredibly sparse; whitewashed boards underfoot, right, left, back, with one single prop the chair brought on for Lear to be wrapped up in, asleep after his trials in the storm, waiting to be woken so gently, so beautifully, by his lost daughter. The bleakness of the set creates different effects: first, it’s framed like a puppet theatre, perfectly appropriate given the horrible game the gods play with the characters; secondly, the drabness of the costume starkly contrasting with the set makes it seem like an animated film at times; and lastly, the bleached walls create the sense of pagan granite, as if the whole tragedy plays out in the shadow of the gods’ standing stones.
It is also brilliantly and viscerally realised, Gloucester’s eyeballs being stamped on and kicked by a gleeful Cornwall, his bloody sockets gaping far too convincingly at the audience. And, of course, that final moment when Lear carries Cordelia onstage, howling at the moon – a scene which has failed to move me in every previous production I’ve been to – had me tearing up. It was an exhausting experience.
The performances are uniformly excellent. I particularly liked Alec Newman’s Edmund, all cocky nastiness and wide boy opportunism, and Paul Jesson (who I saw do an excellent Willie Loman in Edinburgh a few years back) as an erudite, compassionate and ultimately convincing Gloucester. Gina McKee is predictably perfect as Goneril, including a lovely moment when she grabs Albany by the balls and threatens to rip them off to assert herself as the driving force in the marriage.
But Lear is about who plays Lear. Derek Jacobi is, of course, a “national treasure”, which means he’s done some fantastic stuff for the canon (who doesn’t know “I, Claudius”) and some pretty dire things to pay the electric bill (Scrooge in that bloody awful Sony Christmas ad?). My pals and I were all a wee bit doubtful about whether he could carry it off – doubts he expressed himself – but we’d read glowing reviews so thought it would be okay.
Okay? He was monumental. Commanding and spry at the beginning, full of petulance and whim and spite, the stripping of his outer layers reveals a fascinatingly vulnerable old man, desperately hanging on to values that are cruelly out of date in the world of his acquisitional elder daughters. I really did believe the madness, twittering and capering about the stage like an unruly patient in an old folks’ home. And that scene of awakening: god, it was perfectly judged, the sleepiness rising off him like mist on the moors, that “where am I?” moment we have all experienced magnified a millionfold. I have seen some magnificent performances on stage – Tim Piggott Smith as Salieri in “Amadeus” always springs to mind – and this was up there with them, if not way out in front. It was one of those moments that defines a career: I hope his Lear is always mentioned in the same breath as any of the “greats”.
Unforgettable and absolutely perfect theatre.
Val McDermid is my favourite crime writer – along with Denise Mina, that is. I don’t need to know the title of her latest book (it’s called “Trick of the Dark”, by the way) – I just need to know there’s a new McDermid out, and I’m off to the bookshop.
She’s a polished guest, covering everything from the influence of the Chalet Schools books (which several people pick up on – what is it about them?) to her early Oxford days to her writing process to being stuck in a perspex box at the airport because her prosthetic knees set off the alarm (providing the basis for her next standalone novel). Funny, witty and effortlessly charming.
Cynthia Rogerson, Ronald Frame and Carl Macdougall discuss the short story in the graveyard slot, hosted by Adrian Searle. It’s an interesting discussion, and the old chestnut of short stories being unpublishable comes up again. As Searle points out, new media may well breathe new life into the form, though my feeling is it has never really gone away, especially in Scotland.
It’s nice to see Carl again, for three reasons. First, his novel “The Casanova Papers” is one of my favourite books, a beautifully written and utterly humane love story. Every time I see him, I promise myself I’ll go back and read it again, but re-reading has never been my style.
Secondly, he is a wonderful reader. So many writers irritate me with their lack of preparation for readings to a public they want to buy their books. Nerves are fine, we can forgive them; but writers who can’t be bothered to print out their work with the page throws sorted so that they don’t have to stop in mid sentence to turn the page deserve a good finger wagging. Carl paces his work fantastically, varying his intonation and lulling the listener into his world with that seductive accent of his.
Thirdly, he was kind enough to write a reference for me to the Arts Council which helped me get a big award in 2010. I reckon I owe him a pint at least. Or dinner.
Nice too to bump into Gerrie Fellows, who was the hugely supportive Writer in Residence when I began attending the Paisley Writers’ Group in the early 90’s. She’s just a lovely person, and her book “The Powerlines” contains some of my favourite poetry of the last 20 years. It’s gorgeous.
Oh well, it’s late, so I’m off to bed with my new, signed Val. No doubt I’ll still be awake at 2am…
Over and over again, we hear about the demise of the western, about how it is an outdated and archaic cinematic form: and then a western pops up and, all of a sudden, it’s been “revived.”
Fact is, it’s never gone away, and there have been some cracking examples over the last few years. I particularly liked The Proposition, still a western because of its theme of frontier conflict between corrupt authority and equally corrupt anarchy, but genre-bending in the sense it is set in Australia. There have been plenty of more traditional examples, such as the disappointing 3:10 to Yuma and the underrated Appaloosa. Then there are those that are updated, such as the stunningly nihilistic The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, or the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. And then, of course, the genre has been spun into the future, with another Cormac McCarthy tale, The Road, and the sublimely cool Serenity.
But there have been two cast iron classics recently. One was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just a gorgeous and – okay, it’s a cliché – elegiac telling of the end of the wild west hero/villain: and now this, another Coen brothers masterpiece.
There is so much that convinces about this film. The performances are superb: Jeff Bridges hasn’t been so charismatically grizzled since The Big Lebowski, Matt Damon has never been so convincingly gauche. Josh Brolin excels in the tiny part of the seriously mentally subnormal villain, Tom Chaney, the unlikeliest assassin of a US senator you could ever imagine. Hailee Steinfeld is perfect as Mattie Ross; hopefully, unlike the original’s Kim Darby, she will do a Natalie Portman or Jodie Foster, and get the chance to develop as a real talent in further roles.
Then there’s the landscape, of course, the whirling snow flurries and the denuded woods and the desert edges all filmed so perfectly. But the shining feature is the script, lovingly recreated from the source novel by Charles Portis. I’ve rarely heard more erudite dialogue, certainly never in a western. All the characters – even Chaney – speak with an elegant formality that just smacks of truth. There is none of the spitting spaghetti western here (though God knows there’s nothing wrong with that), but rather the haughty bearing of the Victorian age transposed across the Atlantic. They speak in sentences, not grunts, and there is hardly a contraction in the whole text. Take these simple, beautiful lines, spoken by Chaney as he is abandoned by his gang with Mattie:
“Chaney: They will not wait for me at The Old Place. Lucky Ned has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.
Mattie: He is sending a mount.
Chaney: That was a story. Keep still now. I must think over my position and how I may improve it.”
Mannered, delicious words. It’s a dream of a script. I’ve downloaded it and am treasuring reading it and learning from it. Utterly magnificent.
“Fractured West” is a new Scottish-produced magazine of flash fiction edited by the ubiquitous Kirsty Logan and Helen Sedgewick. Logan seems to be one of the hardest working young writers out there at the moment, and what is refreshing is that she’s prepared to commit huge chunks of her own time and imagination to promoting new writing and new forms, through ventures like this and Words per Minute (which she now co-hosts).
The prettily produced pocket-sized book – now on issue 2 – includes some lovely stuff from around the globe, including Arkansas, NYC, Oregon, Hamburg and Turkey. There’s a heavy US influence, reflecting the popularity of the flash fiction genre over there, and Logan and Sedgewick are right on the button tapping in to that market.
Highly recommended and well worth supporting – and only four quid.