@ 22/11/2013 – 00:18:59
@ 20/11/2013 – 22:18:28
Tuesday 8th October 2013. The weather’s turned. The evening is cold and drizzly. I’m out to see the comedian Rob Newman at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield with Bernard Docherty. Expectation is half of the fun. But the pre-match pint is a disappointing glass of Theakston’s Best (supposedly) Bitter (tepid dishwater) in the Elephant and Castle over the road from the theatre. The elaborate tiled exterior of the Elephant – baring the defunct Warwick & Co Brewery name – defies a spirit level. There is an illusion of slope. It looks drunk. Which, I suppose, is apt. It’s my favourite pub in Wakefield’s city centre, even though the beer on this occasion was disappointing. Last time I was in there (when I’d been to see Britpop trio Chris Helme, Mark Morriss and John Power at nearby Warehouse 23 on Smyth Street) they had Masham’s better brewery on tap – Black Sheep. But the surroundings almost make up for the deficiency in the booze. The Elephant and Castle drips with Victoriana. History is ring-stained into the original table tops. Glazed tiles. Gas lamp fittings. The orchestrated dividing walls create a sense of cosiness. There are brass elephants adorning the bar and original mirrors (why should lettering be so evocative?) with out of date advertisements on them. There is my namesake Gilbert Lodge’s (no known relation) place at the counter marked with a plaque. Across the road in Wakefield – home to the Mulberry Bush that the exercising convicts used to go around – all the Category A murderers are tucked up with their nightmares behind Clarke’s brewery. Karma postponed but still pending. Trains come and go through Westgate train station.
The Theatre Royal with a nod – ironic? Serendipitous? – to London’s West End, stands on Drury Lane. It is of a comparative date to the Elephant and Castle. It’s easy to imagine Dan Leno or Charlie Chaplin tipping up at Westgate, having a quick Sherbert before crossing over the road and hitting the music hall stage. (The name ‘Theatre Royal’ comes not from any regal association – George III didn’t sit in the dress circle cheering on the Widow Twanky – but dates back to the 18th Century when – in the wake of the Licensing Act of 1737 which aimed to restrict satire by putting censorship into the hands of the Lord Chamberlin – Royal Patents were granted which allowed drama to be performed at recognized playhouses. These auditoria were often given the name Theatre Royal).
It is the smallest Frank Matcham theatre to survive the wrecker’s ball. And it is remarkably small. From the street to the apron of the stage is something like forty feet. The stalls consists of eleven rows of seats. Should I ever finish my Symphony for Spoons I feel that even I would have a chance of selling it out. Matcham’s architecture – hugely overlooked by comparison with other Victorian architects whose work is still in evidence – is rampant. A mix of styles that had only one purpose – to impress. The Theatres constructed in this boom period – from 1890 through to 1916 – (approximately two hundred of them by Matcham in the UK) were dripped in opulence to make the working people who mostly lived in rented terraced houses, and who paid to see acts feel like they were special, if only for one night. Matcham would have fitted in well in Las Vegas. His is the architecture of escapism. Of fantasy. He was also responsible for the County Arcade in Leeds – another recent restoration after decades of neglect. In the mid-20th Century the theatre endured the post-cinema purgatory shared by many others – including, as mentioned elsewhere in my blog, Barnsley’s own Theatre Royal – being first converted into a cinema and then a bingo hall. It wasn’t until 1981 that it reopened with its original purpose restored. The theatre now has Yorkshire playwright John Godber as artistic director.
Rob Newman became famous during the shoegazing scene. Together with Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, Newman and his (then) comedy partner David Baddiel formed (on radio and television) The Mary Whitehouse Experience (running between 1989 and 1992). This was a time when comedy was being hailed as the new rock n’ roll. Before cooking, or home improvements became the new rock n’ roll later in the decade. These were the early days of comedians selling out stadiums (Newman played a sell-out show at Wembley on the back of The Mary Whitehouse Experience). Way before Peter Kay’s Bungalow tour or Michael McIntyre’s ludicrously and self-satisfied chuckling comedy road show. Newman fitted the new look of comedy well – long flowing raven hair and a fragile introspection shattered with sudden bursts of comedic frenzy. It felt like he should be playing bass in the band Ride or Spaceman 3. He had the rock star looks twenty years before Russell Brand. But while Baddiel – significantly less funny, notably more pompous – has walked an established route and has comfortably ensconced himself amongst the Guardian-reading intelligentsia as a thinking man (or woman’s) funny (sort of. Maybe) man, Newman has largely disappeared from the mainstream. To flog unashamedly the rock and roll comparison, Newman is stand-up’s Syd Barrett. Or Lee Mavers. Baddiel, on the other hand, is more akin to Daniel O’Donnell. Or Michael Ball. Though he’d probably reference Leonard Cohen. Or somebody deep and meaningful. And boring. Take your pick.
I’m not sure what Newman does can be called comedy anymore. Not in the sense of simple entertainment. There can’t be many stand-up routines come with a suggested reading list (http://www.robnewman.com/reading.html). Certainly he’d look out of place sandwiched between Bernard Manning and Frank Carson on 1970s stand-up TV show The Comedians. But Newman is a man who’s patently and passionately curious about the world he lives in, and the fame he had in the 1990s serves as a vehicle for that passion. It gives him a platform, from which he uses comedy in such a way that makes you think a bit more. He’s like one of those cool teachers you encountered at High School, who suddenly made a dry subject not only interesting but relevant. Who opened your mind to how amazing information can be.
I get the feeling that Rob might just save the world through comedy. If there enough people to listen. Frank Matcham’s little theatre is a long way from sell out mobs chanting catchphrases at Wembley. A long way from mass hysteria. Newman has gone from banana skins to the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. But is that necessarily a bad thing? That's not to say someone slipping on a banana skin can raise a titter. Or that Del Boy falling down some cellar steps can’t be humorous as well (just ask Stewart Lee). But evolution can also be funny. Because comedy is profound and can tackle a variety of subjects – not just mother-in-laws and garlic bread. Because it is the truth - or a juxtaposition of the truth, or confrontation with the truth - that we find funny. In many ways this a natural growth of the modern satirical/alternative comedy that ushered in Rob and his cohorts in the late 80s and early 90s. Satire is a symptom of this deeper examination of the truth. It uses that humorous cynicism to tackle broader and more profound subjects.
That said, Rob follows a traditional path in at least one way – comedians love a costume. From Chubby Brown’s multi-coloured suit and aviator hat, Max Miller’s baggy suit and plus fours and Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and cane. Because despite his radical tendencies and political activism, Newman is no different. On stage, he vaguely looks like he’s attending a Steam Punk convention – bringing off a slightly toned down Victorian appearance that would fit in well in the saloon of the Elephant & Castle back when the advertising on the mirrors are still peddling Warwick & Co’s oyster stout was still relevant. The bulging waistcoat conceals a clockwork brain he’s got tucked into his duodenum. Or middle-aged spread. One of the two.
After the interval the seats have thinned out a little. Which is insulting. As an aside Rob treats us to an impromptu song on ukulele. Even so, this is not Frankie Boyle or Johnny Vegas. There is no fear on the front row. The customary staples of the Stand-up are absent. Rob isn’t going to ask you what your name is, what you do for a living, or the relationship between you and the person sat next to you, and then rip the piss out of you. Though say that you’re into intelligent design and the atmosphere might change. Ah, irreducible complexity, ey...?
@ 02/11/2013 – 16:46:29
From a conversation overheard in the Old Number 7 pub, Barnsley. A poem.
'I once shit on a tortoise,' he blithely said.
This pulled me up short, and, mid-slurp, turning my head,
I looked across the bar to locate the voice
Of the man who'd divulged defecating on a tortoise.
Two tables away the interlocutor sat –
This shameless soul who had, he claimed, once shat,
Though I had yet to clearly ascertain why –
On a Chordate of the order Testudinidae…
He was an ordinary looking bloke
Made interesting only by the words that he spoke –
Certainly you would never have guessed from his face
That he'd ever dropped his guts on a reptile's hard carapace.
A Barnsley football top, blue jeans, shaved skull,
Disreputable trainers and an exceedingly dull
Delivery, and yet the content of his talk
Had caused me to abandon my pint of Blonde and gawk.
Now, not known for their speed, this was hardly a feat
Of precision bombing, not hard to complete
I supposed – no need for careful arse/eye coordination –
But somehow the exploit caught my imagination.
'Have you really shit on a tortoise?' I asked.
A smug grin, you could see that he basked
In his dirty deed's highly dubious fame –
That he was proud of his boastful scatological claim.
‘I did,' he confirmed, ‘and, what's more, I'd do it again.'
For fuck's sake, did this mucky bastard have no shame?
‘But why?' I was duly compelled to enquire.
He put down his glass, and his voice getting higher,
‘In protest, my friend,' he firmly disclosed.
‘Against Blair and Bush and the supposed
Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.'
So that was it – a remonstration in reptile and cack…
Peaceful and visually effective – albeit slightly absurd –
One man's defiance, delivered with a tortoise and a turd.
@ 24/10/2013 – 10:22:57
The Royal Family are to the BBC what Peter Andre and Kerry Katona are to chat magazines. The sycophantic obsequiousness to the inconsequential and pampered minutiae of their lives is breath-taking in its mistimed judgement of public interest and public sympathy. Particularly at a time of such dire economic hardship for most - energy bills rising by 10% this week, job losses at the Grangemouth petro-chemicals plant in Scotland, food prices up, wages and pensions shrinking etc etc. Though it might feel like it at times, this is not the 1930s. We are not going to be cheered by the sight of a Royal waving their flat cap to a crowd of starving unemployed and saying 'something must be done' before buggering off in the Rolls to the Côte d'Azur to buy some diamonds. What sort of docile imbeciles do they think we are?
Prince George got christened. OK. Cue a vacuous debate one 'The One Show' - surely the most patronising programme on TV - about why people christen their kids, and reams of coverage on the news channels (he's having seven God Parents, you know?). It only takes the studied tones of ponderous deference that clog Nicholas Witchell's voice - reminiscent of a funeral director in full punt - to have me reaching for my Guido Fawkes mask and taking to the street with a Molotov cocktail and a length of rope to start lynching 'toffs'.
Oliver Cromwell must be turning in his graves.
@ 07/10/2013 – 22:19:29
By way of an insult, it is often remarked of certain towns, cities, villages, rural back waters, ghettos, unattractive, crime-riddled shitholes and the like, that the best thing about them is the road leading out. Of Braemar and the A93, this same thing might actually be said without any disrespect or depreciating reflection on the small picturesque village of Braemar itself. Because the A93, also known as the Old Military Road, is a remarkable stretch of track. For the road we have, in a roundabout way, Bonnie Prince Charlie to thank. It was – in its original form, since tarmacadam'd over several times and deviated here and there due to modern ideas about engineering in the intervening centuries – laid down in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion/uprising of 1745, in order to provide better transport access for the British/English troops garrisoned at Perth, and the castles of Braemar and further north at Corgarff, before finally concluding at the belligerently named Fort George. It was built by Major William Caulfield, who became the Inspector Of Roads for Scotland – or Northern Britain as the Hanoverians were keen to rebrand the country in a Marathon/Snickers/Opal Fruits/Starburst/Stalinistic manner – in 1732 after the more famous (but less prolific) General Wade. The opening section of the road from the Bridge of Cally up to the National Park feels like it was once a straight road, but had been stretched to its fullest extent and then released, causing innumerable bends and curves to appear apparently at random as the ribbon failed to regain its elasticity. But this is just the warm up stage for what is to come…
Heading north from Perth, nudging passed the Palace Scone into the heart of the Cairngorms, it isn't until you reach Finegand and the glen flattens out, that the true majesty of the A93 makes itself known, with dark green mountains (as green as the tunic of a Black Watch pipe major, with the same blue high and lowlights of the tartan on his kilt) rising up on either side as the trail snakes up and through a succession of valleys. For the next eighteen or so miles you are driving not so much through a landscape as an episode of Top Gear, with the road crossing and re-crossing the Allta'Ghlinne Bhig beck, encouraging you onwards, before at one point rising to 2,199 feet at the Cairnwell Pass (making it the highest main road in Britain – beating England's M62 at Saddleworth which rises a mere 1,222 feet). The climb is a dramatic experience (on the return journey, careering downhill towards the corner is a perhaps even more so). Once over the Cairnwell Pass, Glenshee Ski Centre sits in the bare valley below and then a series of long, exhilarating S-bends take you into Braemar.
The village of Braemar is at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park (more of which later). It was here that John Erskine, AKA ‘Bobbin' John' due to his tendency to change political allegiances, AKA the 6th, AKA the 11th, AKA the 22nd Duke of Mar (from where the settlement takes its name) – depending when you start counting from due to the family's tendency to fall in and out of favour with monarchs (again, due to their wobbly ideas about loyalty) – whether those monarchs had been coronated in Westminster Abbey or the Palace of Scone, raised the Royal Stuart Standard that marked the Jacobite uprising of 1715. The Braemar shopping mall now celebrates that moment in Scottish history. The village sits in the picturesque bright green bowl of the glen, surrounded on all sides by picturesque hills, one foot either side of the picturesque river Clunie that tumbles picturesquely through the village, complete with a picturesque waterfall (or in the picturesque language of the Scots – linn) beneath the picturesque bridge. It used to be, thanks to its conflicting landowners, classed as two villages – Auchendryne with its allegiance to the stolid-looking Fife Arms on one side of the burn, and Castleton whose standard is raised at the capacious and gloomy Invercauld Arms glowering from the other. Showing my English neutrality in this clan feud, I had a pint in each. The village has that clean perfection of Trumpton or Candlewick Green. If Postman Pat's van were to trundle through, Jess perched on the dashboard, I wouldn't be surprised. It's Hollywood – or rather Disney's – idea of a Scottish village. The kind of Scottish village that Jessica Fletcher might solve a murder she wrote in – The Mystery of the Poisoned Haggis. The effect is beguiling. And the irony is that it is we who are passing through the village that are the real spectacles on offer. Because there is more historical interest to be noted in the cars and the fashion mores of the visiting tourists, than there is in the buildings or surrounding fells, because in ten years time they (we) will have changed while the village will have resolutely remained the same.
Though, as will be seen, some of the visitors are as unchanging as the hills and yon babblin' beck.
Since 1832 Braemar has been home to the Highland Gathering which takes place on the first Saturday in September. ‘Gathering' (apart from sounding like the title of a Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel) is one of those peculiarly Anglo-sized Gaelicisms, along similar lines to the query ‘where do you stay?', when wanting to know where one is habitually domicile. Though smaller than the Cowal Games in Dunoon on the West Coast, the Braemar sports day has the cache and kudos that a Royal attendance will bring to the most mundane tree planting/ribbon cutting event. The games acquired the Royal soubriquet in 1866 after two decades of attendance by Queen Victoria and (up to his death in 1861) Prince Albert – both decked in tartan off cuts of what was left over from the curtains at nearby Balmoral Castle after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony's makeover of their Highland retreat. Due to these associations the games has an ineffably 19th Century feel to it. If it were to have an official painter, it would be Edwin Landseer.
A carnival atmosphere overtakes this remote village on Gathering Day. There is tartan coloured candy floss, Haggis burger vendors flipping beef pates the size of dustbin lids, pipers eating neeps and tatties from copies of the Inverness Herald, porridge fountains where attendees dip Lorne Sausage and Clootie Dumplings, there are scones – lots of scones – Irn-Bru flows like industrial effluent through the burn, 90 shilling Caeldonian Heavy tumbles over cheese sculptures of William Wallace made from Lanark Blue and woad face-painted kiddies wander through the thronging crowds, clutching still sizzling battered Mars Bars. All competitors– regardless of nationality – must compete in ‘traditional' Highland costume – note the Cliff Richard-esque inverted commas (more of which later). As well as the so-called ‘heavy' events – the traditional hammer throw, stone throw, etc – the sort of thing you'd expect to see illustrating a box of porridge oats – there is track and field, Highland dancing, and the various bagpipe bands. Looking through the souvenir programme (sold by Scouts), one of the most refreshing aspects to the games is the list of prize money. Having knocked the wind out of their pipes all afternoon with running, chucking and dancing, the competitors can hope to take home between £70 and £100 per event – if they win. There's something noble about this, somehow.
As for the attendees, these are split into two distinct groups – the spontaneous tourist who has gathered to gawk and eat ice cream (me), and those who have some cultural investment in the event and its opportunity to give expression to their Scottishness. It reminds me of my trip to York racecourse where you have hardened gamblers who study form and consider how the ground conditions will affect the mounts and those there to sup Pimms/lager/bitter/cider that will back a horse based on its name or the colour of the jockey's silks. Ignoring the casual day-tripping voyeurs , in their breathable Berghaus, North Face, Jack Wolfskin and the like, there are women in tweed with milky complexions and long auburn hair straight from the pages of a Sir Walter Scott novel who it's easy to imagine are called Catriona or Isla, there are tax-inspectors, call handlers, policemen, bank tellers, taxi drivers etc, who spend the day pretending to be deer stalking ghillies or Rob Roy or Allan Breck Stewart. Kilts are ubiquitous. In fact, kilts are almost as popular in Braemar on Gathering Day than they are at an Essex wedding. But more than these expected stereotypes, there are Scots in kilts speaking the cursèd tongue with American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand accents, Scots in Kilts speaking Swedish, Scots in Kilts speaking Spanish, and Scots in Kilts speaking Hindi. There is even a family of Germans (who, credit to them, speak rather good if not particularly expressive English) in Kilts.
Which prompts the question, what is national identity? Or rather National identity, with a clearly defined capital ‘N', which is perhaps different to what's stamped, without let or hindrance, on our passports. This question of Nationalism is particularly pertinent to Scotland, with the referendum on Independence (also with a capital letter) looming twelve months away in September 2014. Rod Stewart – that most Scottish of rock stars – was born in London. Sean Connery – that most Scottish of film stars – lives in Spain, or the Caribbean, or somewhere other than Scotland, regardless. Billy Connolly that most Scottish of comedians… well, no, perhaps Frankie Boyle now wears that particular tartan bonnet… anyway, Billy Connolly who is Scottish and a comedian lives in Los Angeles. Does it matter? Would I be any less English if I lived in Spain, or Los Angeles or… Scotland? Identity is a state of mind. And the tribal instinct is strong within us. The need to belong. So much so that it adopts itself to the changing times. We ascribe our modern loyalties to a football team, or a rock group, or a particular cultural movement (Mods, Rockers, Skins, Teddy Boys etc), or a particular make of car, or even, incredibly, a computer operating system. The sight of Windows and Mac OS devotees brandishing Stanley knives and kicking the smoke out of each other on Brighton beach can't surely be too far away. We can't help it. This clan mentality is bonded in our DNA and encouraged by our instinct not just to survive but to conquer. Because it allows us to become part of something bigger than ourselves. By donning a Manchester United top you are part of the history of Sir Matt Busby, George Best and Eric Cantona. By wearing the blue and green tartan of the clan Campbell you have a link to the Glencoe massacre, and some rather tasty and nutritious soup. Not to mention a Rhinestone Cowboy.
But Nationalism carries complications. And uncomfortable implications. Some of which may not be as historical as we'd like to comfort ourselves. The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei were very good at Nationalism. And the Nationalism of the E-E-EDL is (perhaps – he disclaims) the Nationalism of William Hazlitt, who propounded the aphorism that, ‘the definition of a good patriot is a good hater'. The general, and media-accepted Nationalism of the United States of America is the Nationalism of moral complacency that finds comfort in always being right. These brands of Nationalism – and branded clearly they clearly are, with the Swastika, or the Stars and Stripes (spangled or otherwise) or the CP Company logo – that have all too often had as much to do with fear as they have hope. A Nationalism that concerns and promotes itself with death as much – if not more – than it does glory. It is the style of Nationalism that panders to simultaneously to self-pity and self-delusion. It is ego-centric. It confuses or contrives tribalism with mass hysteria. It allows a Nation to murder six million people, to inflict its own democratic preferences on others or see something heroic in smashing up a pub on an away day to a strange town of a Saturday afternoon.
But these political Nationalisms aside, surely for most people Nationalism is a (seemingly) harmless cultural rather than geographical association? And in this modern world – where everyone on the island shops at Tesco, all watch Sky TV and all rely on our gas, electricity and water being supplied at rapidly inflating cost by some big multi-national (foreign) corporation – what is its significance? Is Nationalism a political right? A political irrelevance? A political distraction? What is self-governance? Is it simply one group of politicians wresting power from another group of politicians, but still the same vested interest of big business manipulating the rules for their own ends? Do the people really benefit?
The 1707 Act of Union was a political mechanism akin to George W. Bush/Tony Blair's United Nations resolutions prior to the Second Gulf War. Naked aggression with a political/economic agenda, clothed in speciously legal terms. It was designed to validate a political takeover – one set of Royal inbreds (the Hanoverians) usurping another set of Royal inbreds (the Stuarts), who were already inbred with each other – as is the way with the European Royal Cartel. The Union has since become a habit, particularly for the English. For those living south of Berwick-on-Tweed, Scotland has overtaken Yorkshire as the largest county in England, with the playing of the Calcutta Cup match being perhaps the only time when the English feel any motivation to admit to a National demarcation. But Scotland clearly is a different country. It's accents, it's cuisine, it's architecture, it's traditional music, it's dress (though more of this later), in short – it's culture. Fundamentally what is the difference – in terms of political independence – between Scotland and Kenya (independent in 1963) or Scotland and Canada (independent in 1867) or the United Arab Emirates (1971), or Australia (1901) or any of the other fifty-four countries who were once joined in some way to Britain? Had the tectonic plates cut the land mass off at Berwick and we had thirty odd miles of water between us, this would have been settled by now. Though, that said, incongruously, the need to cling onto Northern Ireland runs counter to this argument. It's an odd thing this Nationalism. It's a state of mind. Or a matter of pride. Or a political hangover. Or something. Which is what makes Gibraltar British. And the Falklands too. Because they have red phone boxes and Best Bitter. And while due to proximity the Spanish might have reason to wonder why the Rock is British Sovereign Territory, geographically the Argentinian claim is peculiar. Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands is 1180 miles from Buenos Aires. That's like us laying claim to Tunisia, or Iceland or… Gibraltar… Hmmm… Yeah… This Nationalism lark really is confusing. And subjective.
The naming of the Cairngorms National Park – through which the aforementioned A93 rolls – highlights a particular cultural phenomenon related to Nationalism. Because it's another example of an unconscious – or not so unconscious – attempt to re-map the landscape in our own – English – image. (The Irish playwright Brian Friel's Translations, which I read for A-Level, spins this premise out to three acts). But the naming of the Cairngorms also a mistake. A glaring 4,528 km² example of Sassenach ignorance and cultural bulldozing arrogance. (Even though the park was set up by the Scottish parliament in 2003, and the error given credence). Because Cairngorms is a misnomer – an English misnomer – that – like many other English misnomers, or English misappropriations, or English thoughtlessness, such as Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya) and Ayres Rock (Uluru) – has stuck. The word is Anglicization of a Gaelic expression relating to just one of the peaks, corrupting the original to make it easier to slip off tongues used to speaking English – the least lingual of all nations – but, through common use south of the border, ended up lazily re-naming all the peaks as being the ‘Blue Mountains', as opposed to the ‘Red Mountains' as they were to the indigenous Gaels, and still are to those who read Gaelic on the signs, as Pàirc Nàiseanta a' Mhonaidh Ruaidh. It is an established scientific and geographic fact of the space time continuum that the British created the world in the 19th Century, because nothing existed until the English stumbled across it and gave it a name.
Braemar and its Royal Gathering, as already stated, sit in the centre of this misnamed National Park. As do the Royal Family, with Balmoral Castle, their modest three hundred bedroom family home (as an elderly lady in receipt of State benefits, HMQ is said to be worried about the bedroom tax, especially with Buckingham Palace and Sandringham to consider) sat in fifty thousand acres of grounds, just under ten miles further along the heroic A93. The Royal Pavilion overlooking the showground has the appearance of a summer house bought flat-pack from Homebase with rather shaggy and unconvincing astro-turf on the roof, the Royal Standard flying on a disproportionately high pole above it. This is no Field of the Cloth of Gold. This is not the levee of Louis XIV in the gardens at Versailles. The Queen – who tipped up at 3:30ish in an antique Daimler the size of a boat, to catch the last couple of hours, in company with her geriatric coterie of ladies in waiting – scowls at the participants, the stench of poor people's fried food in her nostrils, her legs wrapped in a car blanket (tartan, obviously), flanked by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, both exposing knees in kilts that would look just as comfortable in lederhosen. But despite their Teutonic roots, and their Teutonic patella, the Royal Family consciously exude Scottishness. They are the clan McWindsor. She may have the body of a weak and feeble (not to mention miserable) women, but she has a heart made of haggis with fifty-year old Macallan Whisky coursing through her veins. It's part of a PR makeover by the House of Hanover/Saxe-Coburg-Gotha that has made them as synonymous with Britain as fish and chips and uncompromising taxation. New Labour and its Mao-ist forced diversity programmes during the short march to Multi-Cultural Britain would have done well to take a note out of the Hanover/Saxe-Coburg/Windsor's seamless integration (after the initial teething problems in 1689, 1715, 1745 etc). Because I'm sure there were some Scots present during those early games who resented Victoria and Albert, whose Grandparents had been butchered at Culloden and whose family had been elbowed out of the country by the Clearances which had taken place under Her Majesty's grandfather and uncles' reigns and were still continuing during Her own. All that is now buried under time and tartan. Because the Royal Family have draped themselves in tartan. Whether it be the home at Balmoral Castle – as synonymous with the Monarchy as Buckingham Palace, perhaps more so, as it seems like a personal rather than constitutional choice of home, to Prince Charles' childrens' story The Old Man of Lochnagar. The Germanic link was hidden further with the deed poll change of name during World War I – at a time when the level-headed, Patriotic Britons were showing their solidarity to the boys on the Western Front by having their German Shepherd dogs and Dachshunds put to sleep – when the family became Windsor. But of all these steps to remove their German heritage and appear more British generally, in particular the Royal Family have especially associated themselves with Scotland.
Some might say that, as sunshine follows thunder, this Royal (with a significantly and capital rolling Rrrrrrr) affiliation with Scotland is a cynical or political (I find the two words are interchangeable) ploy, given their descendants previous troubles with this tetchy northern part of the island. Because what it's meant is that the 1745 rebellion/uprising and the Act of Prohibition which followed it a year later have had little more effect on history than to provide a back story for a modern Scottishness that has its real foundations in two events. The first was George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and the second was the publication of Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842.
First to cover the back story. The Act of Proscription (1746) was made law by the Westminster parliament in the wake of Bonnie Prince Charlie's over-reaching, greedy attempt to take the English Crown as well as the Scots one. Amongst other restrictions of Scots life and the oaths of allegiance school children were forced to recite, the Act made it illegal to wear ‘Highland Dress', which included tartan. Clothing has a long and even recent history as a means for those in authority to identify troublemakers. Anyone who went to a nightclub in the latter half of the last Century will know how jeans and trainers were frowned on. And New Labour had similar ideas about hooded tops in the first decade of this Century. The Act of Proscription wasn't repealed until 1782, and it wasn't until George IV's visit to Northern Britain forty years later that the wearing of tartan got an official thumbs up… Which is where (sic) some aspects of what we most readily associate with Scottishness – as exemplified at the Braemar Gathering – has its roots.
The newly crowned George IV's visit to Scotland was orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott. Scott came up with an itinerary of events which were published in a pamphlet beforehand. And it was this pamphlet which caused a rush for tartan, because the dress code for the Highland Ball held on Friday 23rd August 1822 at the Assembly Rooms on George Street, Edinburgh stipulated that everyone was to attend wearing ‘Highland Dress'. Which most of those, if not all, due to attend didn't have. George IV only wore his own tartan (the freshly minted Royal Stuart tartan that is now synonymous with tins of shortbread, the Bay City Rollers and Sid Vicious) – which had cost the British taxpayer in the region of £100,000 in today's money (though George – as had been noted by Beau Brummell a few years previously – was considerably overweight, so there may have been a significant quantity of tweed to spin) – once. And then with bright pink ladies stockings to camouflage his bloated legs. And not to the Highland Ball. But all the others there that summer night did. Newly bought and itchy. And so German George unconsciously and unwittingly invented a heritage industry that still flourishes today – clan tartan. That is, specific tartan designs associated with specific Scottish families. Something which hadn't existed before this time. As even Sir Walter Scott – the most Romantic of Scotland's romantic romancers – remarked: ‘The idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date.' But tell that to Gene McTaggart in Illinois or of Blessings McHonesty in Nigeria, as they listen mournfully to Big Country's Crossing album and sip Iron Monkey cocktails (Irn-Bru and Whisky)… This clan association with tartan patterns which the Highland Ball prompted, was then formalized in the Vestiarium Scoticum (which roughly translated means, dress of the Scottish). The book was the product of two Englishmen who had been born in Wales. In one way it does follow a tradition – a dubious one, admittedly – in Scottish literature, that of forgery and fiction passing itself off as legitimate fact. Such as The Book of Ossian, edited – if that's the word – by James McPherson and published between 1760 and 1763. Like McPherson, the two English/Welsh authors of the Vestiarium Scoticum claimed to have pulled the material together from ancient Scottish/Gaelic sources – none of which they ever produced – and in colour plates mocked up a history that you can still buy in shops, petrol stations and McGift Shops from Gretna Green to John O'Groats – not to mention worldwide sales online. Snobbery will create its own identity. Snobbery thrives on tradition. Because tradition – no matter how new or how artificial – excludes just as much as it inducts. It's like Nationality – it creates a dividing line. Us and them. Why else would Magdalene College in Oxford be pronounced ‘Maudlin'? It says, you can join us, but only if you embrace our rules. No matter how nonsensical or stupid.
What is ironic is that the landowners who were so keen in the early 1800s to re-introduce the kilt as a mark of Scottish identity, and to propagate the fiction that certain designs were a uniform for their clans, were the very men – such as Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, the self-proclaimed last Chieftan of Scotland – addressed in his poem ‘Beelzebub' by that most Scottish of poets, Robert Burns due to this Chieftan's mercantile views on his tenants/fief men – who were keen to either have their tenants AKA Clansmen AKA fodder working for next to nothing – or nothing – or ship them off to America and Canada during the Clearances/Improvements which were carried out from the mid-18th to latter 19th Century, when the Clan Chieftains realized that sheep were more profitable than men. Clan fealty is a marvellous thing, especially when it gets you free labour and puffs up your self-esteem at the same time. And gets people to fight for your cause, whatever that might be. And the same thing can be said about Nationalism – one way or another. As the lads who died at Flanders, and Flodden, and Afghanistan know all too well. We – the little people – should never forget that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. So said Henry Kissinger AKA Heinz Kissinger. Which underlines the fact that all politicians are wankers – as they love no one more fully or more frequently than they love themselves. You should never underestimate the politician's need to stroke their own throbbing, luxuriant, tumescent egos.
@ 28/09/2013 – 07:37:40
At the beginning of the month I visited Scotland. After a trip to the Highland Games in Braemar I was queued in traffic at some lights at Blairgowerie as I drove back down the A93, heading South. As I sat waiting for the signal to change, I looked at a house at the side of the road - bearing in mind I was in the Cairngorms - called 'Truro'. Sometimes I think there's something in human nature that means we always want to be somewhere else. And then immediately back where we’ve just left.
@ 31/08/2013 – 22:30:26
I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.
Travel is a purely imaginative experience. Ask the long distance lorry driver for his thoughts on Nottingham or Leeds or Bristol, and he will talk only of the vagaries of the M1’s restricted speed limits and the almost deliberately obtuse layout of Gravelly Hill Interchange. But his sense of place is unreal, and only given any sentience in the markings on a tachograph disc or the shallow grave of a hitchhiker on a sheltered, anonymous verge off the M5. He has visited all these places without being there. The annual holiday is the same, following the herd down to Greece and Spain to add another layer of Cuprinol. A change is as good as a rest. And a rest is as good as a change. It is perhaps a British phenomenon that we want wherever we go to be like home. Only hotter. Heat and epidermal searing UV light are the only real necessities of the British Tourist. With perhaps Strongbow/Tetley’s/Guinness/Carling/HP sauce/Heinz Ketchup/The Sun newspaper/Coronation Street/free health care as secondary considerations. The businessman/woman who shuttles between LaGuardia, Logan, Hartsfield-Jackson and O’Hare to attend one meeting/conference/expo after another, will be able to tell you little about New York, Boston, Atlanta or Chicago. Especially as the world becomes more homogenized with Starbucks, Subway, McDonald’s, McCetera, McCetera, McCetera… painting our urban travel experiences in the same bland shade of taupe the whole world over. So many people travel without really going anywhere.
And yet the idea of travel is inherently exciting. Maps, for instance, I find fascinating. Whether it be the fantastical cartography of Gerdus Mercarator or Google’s latest interactive privacy-busting street level view of the world. I love to explore this semi-three dimensional representation of the landscape, with its contours and shading, the symbols and unfamiliar places names. But again, perhaps this has more to do with the romantic notions in my mind than the actuality of the places I might pass through or by on my sojourn; where though there may be a Tesco Express or a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Costa Coffee or a Toby Carvery, there certainly be no dragons. We travel with our minds. Literally and figuratively. In the 1990s in particular I would lose myself in the pages of Weinreb and Hibbert’s The London Encyclopaedia and the Readers Digest’s Treaures of Britain & Treasures of Ireland. I mingled in the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese with Dr Johnson and Goldsmith (stooping not to conquer, but to hide under the table) and lived again the fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens with Beau Brummel. I learned of the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the water gardens at Studley Royal. And I did this, mostly, without leaving the confines of the house. But when I did physically move then I found that the places I visited were more alive to me thanks to the historical figures and events that accompanied me there. Because historical places can be problematic. Bosworth Field is essentially that – a field. Bunker Hill – (as the name implies) a hill. The Little Big Horn – erm, apparently not a horn. But you get the idea. It’s easy to get a sense of ticking cultural boxes. St Paul’s cathedral – check. Stonehenge – check. Edinburgh Castle – check. What’s next, Muriel? Unless you can convert the experience into something that has a presence in the imagination.
But even with my experiences enriched by what I already know about a place before I ever get the chance to arrive, I find my actual physical presence in these places somehow frustrating. No matter how blue the sky and the sea, how white the beach, how glorious the sunset/sunrise, the experience is somehow deflating. Somehow in some way I always feel that I should be making more of the moment. And so beyond my own knowledge of what has already happened there – this is the bedroom that Winston Churchill was born in… this is the spot where Nelson was standing when he was shot on the deck of The Victory – the need to record my own presence in a particular landscape becomes overwhelming. To capture a moment which, even as I live it, is already slipping away from me. On some level it’s a human response to our own vulnerability. It is why we keep a diary, snap a shaky video on our phones, or hoard a receipt from a particular restaurant on a particular night that we shared with a particular person that we wish we could live over and over again. And as we get older this sense of trying to cling to the slippery instant becomes increasingly acute. The Japanese have a word for this compulsion – Shunkan. This is a cultural act which sees Japanese tourists taking photographs of everything. They believe that by recording we claim our place in the timeline of human existence. Facebook and the camera phone have collided to bring this once peculiarly Eastern phenomena to Western culture, because thanks to the internet, we all now have an autobiography of kinds. According to the UN more photographs have been snapped in the past ten years than in the previous hundred and eighty since the first blurry Daguerréotype was exposed to the light in 1837. The over-rated New York art charlatan, Andy Warhol’s Nostradamus-esque extrapolation that we would all be famous for fifteen minutes has come true. Even if that fame often comes posthumously as the media rake through our social networking sites in the wake of a violent death.
But this unexpected fame aside, the internet has the capability to be the greatest tool for travel since the wheel was invented. It allows us to move not only through space but time. It is a library where, largely thanks to Google, everything is easily accessible. We can go to places and meet people from all times. You just have to let your brain take the strain.
@ 29/07/2013 – 22:05:29
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@ 21/07/2013 – 18:22:03
Imagine that you are an Extra Terrestrial life form. A wise Elder with a head the size of a beach ball from a remote planet on the edge of a distant galaxy. You have been chosen by your big-brained peers to undertake a great quest. Because your planet has a problem. As a civilization you have hit a wall. The limits of your species’ knowledge have been reached. You have solved the mystery of negative fusion. You have achieved speeds beyond light. You can even keep ice cream chilled in the warmth of your five baking hot suns using the energy produced by the chocolate flake in the top of your cornet. And still your thirst for understanding is un-slaked. But you can think of nowhere else to go. There are no new leaps in wisdom. No new developments. What more is there to be done? What else is there to understand? What other knowledge has eluded you…?
And so you have been dispatched on a mission to reach out to sentient beings from other planets in the hope of furthering knowledge and advancing evolution. To learn what they have learned. To know what they know. You have voyaged from the edge of the Solar system, travelling at incredible speeds, but even with your advances in engineering your journey has still taken many decades to accomplish, your body and huge, huge brain nurtured in a capsule where you have been in space hibernation. Finally, your expedition comes to an end. Below you revolves the planet Earth. Blue and beautiful.
Hovering just outside the Earth’s gravitation pull, cloaked and out of sight, you scan our news information and social media communications. You learn about us. You come to understand our values and what is important to us. And so what do you learn, Yoda? What is it that you see, wise one? What do we prize as the pinnacle of our achievement and endeavour? Is it our sciences, our identification of genomes and the amazing hopes for cures suggested by stem cell research? Is it our engineering? The amazing feats accomplished with steel and glass? No…? What then? What is it, Yoda…?
It is, apparently, the ability to hit/kick a ball over/into a net/hole/basket.
Assessing the data, the Elder frowns, his forehead the size of a loaf of bread, wrinkling. What? Run that past me again… What is it that homo sapiens, the dominant species of this planet, prize above all other accomplishments?
The ability to hit/kick an air filled ball over/into a net/hole/basket.
The Elder shakes his head. You cannot, as one genius of the ball hitting skill once said, be serious? The wise Elder scans one more time. Yep, I’m afraid so. That’s as good as it gets.
Particle physics? DNA engineering? New alloys to make structures stronger, bigger and safer? Attempts to travel through time? No. Get a net and string it up, and then hit a ball over it. That’s how we roll. We’ve flummoxed you, Dr Spock, haven’t we?
Seeing the tabloid newspapers and the online feeds, I can’t help but think that E.T. would be totally fucking bewildered by our apparent sense of priorities. And not only in sport, but what generally passes as an acceptable level of intelligence in the media. Internet sources reckon that aliens made some tentative attempts at communication back in 2002, but then caught sight of Richard Madeley and thought, fuck that for a game of soldiers and promptly had it away across the universe.
But, going back to sport, it is amazing how highly ball hitting skills are held in modern society. In ye olden days, you had at least to disembowel a political enemy on the field of battle to get knighted. Whereas David Cameron can’t wait to get out the dubbing sword and get present top ball hitter Andy Murray to stand up a Knight of the Realm. Though I can’t help but feel that could backfire when Sir Andy comes out in favour of Scottish independence a year or so down the line.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m against sport. I just feel that we have it out of perspective. Too much money and too much adulation for playing a game most of us got tired of after we left school. And it lacks ambition. Sport should be trying to better what the human body can achieve. Why was Lance Armstrong’s use of steroids etc castigated? If sport wants a totally even playing field, surely one mile runners should be breakfasting on porridge and then having a suet pudding for lunch, just like Roger Bannister back in 1954. Then wearing hobnailed boots and running on cinder. For fuck’s sake, even war takes technology forwards. Why shouldn’t athletes push their bodies as far as science will allow…? At least then E.T. and his pals will learn something from our ability to grown biceps the girth of telegraph poles and run a hundred metres in under five seconds.
It was recently announced that British scientists were asking for £1,000,000 of funding to search for extra terrestrial intelligence. I can tell them now – they’re wasting their time and someone else’s money. It’s like Benny from Crossroads (for those of you who can remember him. For those of you who can’t use your imaginations – think halfwit in a woolly hat) trying to pull Angelina Jolie. She is going to ignore him and keep walking. He has not got a cat in fucking hell’s chance. Before we look for any extra terrestrial intelligence, we ought to try and locate a bit down here on terra firma. Do you know the reason why we have never been contacted by life from beyond this planet? It’s simple. David fucking Beckham. That’s why. Old Golden Balls. Because, if you take any notice of the newspapers and the television, see the fawning Royals and politicians hoping for a bit of the PR magic to rub off, David Beckham is the pinnacle of Human development. David basically is it, we will go no further. And why is David Beckham such a primus inter pares of human kind? Because he’s got nice hair and can keep a ball off the ground using his feet. For fuck’s sake, the same can be said of a chimpanzee. Is this really the limit of our aspirations? Is this really the best use we can make of our bodies and brains? Is this it? Yoda and his mates may have got stumped once they could levitate X-Wing fighters, we called it a day when a man passed a hundred at keepy uppy. We look like inter galactic halfwits. I don’t care how much they turn the volume up at Jodrell Bank, no one from out there is going to be transmitting to us Earthling knuckle draggers. They’ve probably had a look at us and though, hmmm, we’ll give ‘em another couple of million years. They kick a ball well, though. Credit where it’s due. Perhaps they think the value we put on someone’s ability to kick a ball is part of our evolutionary development. That our feet will become the same as our hands. Or would they even view as the most intelligent beings on the planet? For a start ants are very industrious. Not known for their first touch with a long ball, though.
Obviously it’s not just because David Beckham has an educated left foot that we value his opinions on style, the economy, politics and so on. It’s money. He’s loaded. He’s rolling in it. He could wipe his arse on £50 notes and not notice it. Society as we know it is built on money. Not on kindness or humanity. Its foundations are cash. And money elevates the significance of sport and a sporting event. Cash validates it as being something important. Money can do that. Tiddly winks is, like football or tennis, a game of skill. A game, like football or tennis, that we all played as children. There is fuck all money in tiddly winks. No one cares if you can gromp your squidger with a crud under competition conditions. Yet, if someone were to pay you a hundred grand a week for doing it, suddenly you be a super star. Suddenly your opinions would count. And why? Because you could flick a plastic counter into a cup from twelve inches and money got chucked at you for doing it. Genius.
Looking at it, Yoda, you might as well just fuck off now. When it comes to inter-galactic intelligence we’re non-league Sunday morning toe bungers. We’re shit, and we know we are, we’re shit, and we know we are…
@ 14/06/2013 – 00:05:28
The Gibson Les Paul 1960 ‘Joe Walsh' is the latest in a series of Gibson re-issuing of guitars that were made famous by certified platinum, volume turned to ELEVEN, 110% Rock Gods. And it is a lovely instrument. Or should I say, the Gibson Les Paul 1960 ‘Joe Walsh' was a lovely instrument – when it rolled off the production line at Kalamazoo. It gleamed. As Gibson say: It marries a solid, lightweight, one-piece, Grade-A mahogany body with a top carved from maple that has been hand selected to match the look of Joe's original guitar. Then a quarter-sawn Grade-A mahogany neck is carved to an accurate 1960 profile that measures 0.800 at the 1st fret and 0.854” at the 12th, and topped with a one-piece, Grade-A rosewood fingerboard with trapezoid inlays made from period-correct cellulose nitrate, and a nylon 6/6 nut at the top end… It's loaded with a pair of Custom Bucker pickups, made with Alnico III magnets and wound to precisely match the specs of Joe's original PAF humbuckers. The traditional four-knob Les Paul control complement includes "bumble bee” tone capacitors on the tone potentiometers, and a three-way pickup selector… John Keats would appreciate its loveliness and perhaps immortalize its beauty in a Spenserian sonnet. And then it got passed into the hands of Hank. Believe it or not, Hank chucked it about the factory floor, banged it into the walls, clipped it on chairs, dropped it when he went to the rest room and generally gave it a good cobbling. Now, you're expecting that after this shoddy treatment of a perfect guitar, Hank would have got fired. But you'd be wrong. In fact, Hank got a pat on the back and is hoping to be a cobbling legend one day, like Tom Murphy. You see, Hank works right at the end of the Gibson Custom process. Hank's cobbling is called ‘Vintage Original Spec' (VOS). His job is to knacker up the guitars so that they have that ‘lived in' look and feel the acquired in the hands of a legend. He rummages through the old boxes to source his rusty nuts that he replaces the shiny new galvanized ones for, he knocks off chunks of wood, and makes sure the tuning pegs have the right amount of dents, leaves it leaned up against radiators overnight and basically treats guitars in a way that most musicians would deem unconscionable. But Hank's ‘cobbling' is very very scientific. Take the Gibson Les Paul ‘Ace Frehley Budokan' for instance – this cherry red sun burst with DiMarzio pickups authentically replicates the one used by the KISS lead guitarist for their series of Tokyo show in 1977 right down to the all-too obvious chip in the body work that must surely have caused Frehley – were he not too far in orbit by that time – to have his head in his hands in consternation when he saw the damage to his beautiful instrument. And there are others. There's the Les Paul ‘Joe Perry; the Toxic Twin's LP – in Desert Burst – looks like it's been dragged through a buzz saw. Hank really went to work on that one. And with varying degrees of damage, it's the same story with Marc Bolan's Les Paul, Paul Kossoff's, Peter Frampton's and Billy Gibbons' and a generation of other rock legends.
The slightly ironic thing about the Gibson LPs made famous by the likes of Walsh, Perry, Bolan, and so on is that they spent the first few years of their lives neglected. The golden age of the sunburst LP was 1958 – 1960, with most of the iconic guitars made in 1959. But Gibson couldn't sell them. The dye used didn't hold well, resulting in the cherry red sunburst fading in some unusual – and now highly desirable – ways. Hence the ‘Iced Tea', ‘Desert Burst', ‘Stanley Burst' etc finishes they now imitate in their standard models. So the Les Pauls used by Perry, Bolan, Walsh etc, spent much of the 1960s in second-hand shops. Where they probably got most of the VOS bumps and bruises that Hank takes such pains to replicate. If you wanted to buy Clapton's Beano, you can have an aged and signed ‘Beano' LP in your hands for – wait for it – $29,412 dollars. But what are you buying for that? Is it intrinsically worth $30K? Nope, the parts are basically the same as go into a standard reissue. OK, so what about the intangible history and it's… erm… heritage… Erm, it was made in 2013. This is not the guitar that Clapton played ‘Hideaway' on. This is not the guitar that Eric used on ‘Double Crossing Time'. And certainly, this is not the same guitar that old Slow Hand got stolen from him in 1966. Which if it turned up would be worth considerably more.
The Gibson Les Paul 1960 ‘Joe Walsh', like the ‘Ace Frehley Budokan', Eric Clapton's ‘Beano' and so and so on, perhaps typify the current state of popular music and the bands that keep on re-inventing the wheel. The instruments aim to acquire a history that they haven't earned. They are post-modern imitators. They want to live someone else's life rather than carving out their own legend. I'm surprised Gibson don't go that extra mile in VOS with the Les Paul ‘Eric Clapton Beano' and actually nick the guitar back from you to really make it authentic. Leaving you with a certificate of authentication and an empty hard-shell custom case, obviously; so that people know you own a genuine reproduction stolen iconic guitar. If you know what I mean.
If you want a 1960 spec Gibson Les Paul, or a 1959 Fender Stratocaster (Fender's own custom shop has some seriously knackered looking new guitars as well), to capture the vintage sound, I can understand that. But make your own history. You want to look at the dink in the neck and say: ‘Ah, yes, that's where I whacked against the hand dryer in the lavs when we played the Staincross Working Mens Club!' or the scratch on the headstock where you knocked it against the door frame when coming off stage at the Pig & Whistle. Don't let Hank mess it up for you. You can do that yourself.