Recent Reading. The Pure Land by Alan Spence.

Alan Spence writes interestingly on aspects of Scottish Life that few others have explored.  His 1998 novel, Way to Go is a hilarious comedy set in a funeral parlour in Glasgow in which the owner ha reluctantly inherited the business from his father and decides to make a go of it by being “alternative”.  It’s a great read.

This 2006 novel is a far bigger book in its scope and theme.

It charts the industrialisation of Japan from the eyes of an Aberdonian entrepreneur, Thomas Glover, who inspired both Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon; and whilst focusing on his rags to riches to rags to riches story brings in three further generations of the family briefly.

It is set principally in Nagasaki opening, as it does, in the aftermath of the second nuclear explosion in the home of a rich man that sits on a hillside shielded from the worst effects of the explosion but not of the after effects.

It then takes us back to 1850’s Aberdeen where a gallous and up for it freshman is dispatched by his engineering company to “The Pure Land” to help run its fledgling office.

Away from the prying eyes of his bosses and officialdom Glover gradually build an illicit business in trading first cotton and silk, then tea before moving gradually through munitions, ships, mining and heavy engineering.

Along the way he regularly enjoys the pleasures of the Japanese womenfolk, Whisky and Saki and inadvertently starts a revolution (which is wonderful for business.)

The man is a hustler, a rogue, a mercenary and all round troublemaker but Spence focuses on the human side of his character and at very few points in this grand novel do we ever lose our like of his fundamentally caring and genial humanity.

Whilst the novel feels a little heavy handed at the start we gradually find ourselves being drawn into the huge scale of its storytelling and ultimately it becomes an intriguing historical reference point and a great story of empire building and its implications on the people around the Trump’s, Murdoch’s and Hughes’ of this world.

According to his website Spence has long been passionate about the spiritual culture of Japan. He has recently been exploring the work of the Zen Master Hakuin, (1685 – 1786), who was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Overall, very likeable and another good shout from Spence.  Nice man too.  I met him a few years ago and enjoyed his take on things.  For those of you that know it he runs the Sri Chimnoy Centre in Edinburgh.


Recent reading Cormac McCarthy – The Sunset Limited

A novel, in dramatic form is how the publisher’s describe this 2006 two header.  It’s a play right.

It’s also (another) polemic on religion and puts up a white middle class and suicidal university professor against a black ex junkie and con who has only just saved the disillusioned Prof from death on the tracks at a commuter train station just as The Sunset Limited (get it?) comes thundering through at 80 mph.

The pair repair to Black’s flat and debate the meaning of life.

Is Black God’s angel?  We never get to know.

White is representative of the aetheistic world.  Not amoral in any way and not judged particularly but striking in his dismissal of religion.

McCarthy’s recent books delve deep into spiritual territory and make one feel that underneath it all he could be a fundamentalist christian, but in fact, in a  recent interview in the Washington Post he spills the beans on his religious leanings (he was brought up an Irish Catholic but says religion was not a huge part of his childhood).

“I have a great sympathy for the spiritual view of life, and I think that it’s meaningful. But am I a spiritual person? I would like to be. Not that I am thinking about some afterlife that I want to go to, but just in terms of being a better person. I have friends at the Institute. They’re just really bright guys who do really difficult work solving difficult problems, who say, “It’s really more important to be good than it is to be smart.” And I agree it is more important to be good than it is to be smart. That is all I can offer you.”

So no clues there as to why there is such a sustained religious undercurrent to his work; perhaps it’s an age thing (McCarthy would have been 70 when he wrote this) and No Country for Old men (another book about avenging angels – The devil) and The Road (which could not be more nihilistic or meaning of life/spirituality if it tried.) were also written in his 70’s.

But is it any good?

Thought provoking?  To a point.

Subtle?  Nope.

Must read?  Indeed not.  But it’ll pass a couple of hours better than some of the shit that gets to print.


Gil Scott-Heron. The Cremation will not be televised

The music world lost one of its greatest and most influential exponents at the age of only 62 last night.

Gil was known variously as the Godfather of Rap AND the Godfather of hip hop.

I knew him (not personally of course) as a poet, a visionary political voice in the mould of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – although he was more “street” than them.

As a teenager my love of Heron was huge.  He sat perfectly alongside the punk sound of the UK because he WAS a punk.

Check out the lyrics to his most famous song.

You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip, Skip out for beer during commercials, Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.

The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell,

General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the  Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.

The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.

The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.

The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run, or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.

NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32 or report from 29 districts.

The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay.

There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.

There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant,

and women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.

The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.

The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.

You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.

The revolution will not go better with Coke.

The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.

The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised.

The revolution will be no re-run brothers;

The revolution will be live.

But GSH was no one song artist.  Johannesburg, Winter in America, ome is Where the Hatred is, Grandma’s Hands…all classics.

And then last year.  Fuck me, did he not bring out one of 2010’s seminal albums in “I’m New Here”.  So good was it in fact that Jamie T remixed it and it was released again as “We’re new here.”

The world is a lesser place my friends.

By the way, did you know his dad, The Black Arrow, was Celtic’s first black Football player?  Well, you do now.

Gill Heron. The Black Arrow.

Hanna – More chases than the Cheltenham festival

I thought Joe Wright’s direction of Atonement was outstanding and the performance by Saoirse Ronan was delightful (how on earth do you pronounce that name?) and so I thought their reconciliation under an entirely new genre would be more than interesting.  And in parts it is.

The first 30 minutes is intriguing, hard to unravel but with enough clues to reel you in.  It transpires that Ronan and her “father” Erik (played acceptably by Eric Bana) are some Arctic based super hit squad training for their “big day”.

When Code Red is announced they set of in their separate directions with instructions to meet at a disused (and superbly evocative) Grimm’s house in a disused fairground in Berlin that affords ample cinematographic pearls.

The early scene where, upon capture, the childlike Ronan kicks some ass and escapes from a high tech “prison” in the Moroccan desert is great and you’re left thinking a treat is in store.

The ridiculously caricatured middle class family that Ronan stumbles upon and drive her from here to eternity add a new dimension and are amusing in parts (especially the daughter played by Jessica Barden) but are just too daft.

And whilst there are plenty of moments that grip, and look sublime, the truth is that from reel one to reel two it turns into a really boring chase movie.

Glimpses of fabulous scenery and photography grace the banality that follows as it becomes monumentally under-edited and, as a consequence way, way too long.

The closing stages drag forever.

Oh, and the deer.

Give me a break.

Cate Blanchett doesn’t impress, even with her green shoes.

It’s OK.

No more than that, despite the Chemical Bothers’ fab soundtrack.


Dunsinane by the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre of Scotland in association with The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

The Godfather Two showed that sequels can better their original by walking the same path but more deftly, building on its foundations with style, wit and great, great writing.

Dunsinane, is technically a sequel but could hardly be described as usurping its predecessor (Macbeth) as David Grieg neatly finds a way of avoiding the direct comparison by writing it in something approaching the modern vernacular.

And so, Macbeth is merely a plot device to set up a thoroughly modern parable on the pursuit of power and the appetite that man (and woman because Lady Macbeth, Gruach, is the hub of all the conflict in this extraordinary play) has for eternal conflict.

“Peace is not the normal state, peace is like the days when the sea is flat calm, the prevailing condition is war.” says King Malcolm (I think, and I paraphrase) to the English commander, and star of the show, Siward played monumentally by Jonny Phillips.  And that’s what lies at the heart of this electrifying production; the fact that war is pretty much the need state of those in power, because war makes things happen. And I don’t mean war results in reshaping of civilisation, no, war turns the wheels of industry and is the dynamo for political momentum.  The second world war was what got the world’s major economies booming after all.  The Gulf War revitalised America’s sluggish economy.

Thatcher knew that when she blasted Argie to kingdom come.

Blair thought he did when he catapulted the UK into the single most futile decade of power-mongering.

However, where Thatcher sensed the mood of the nation and used the Falklands to reignite her popularity Blair just stuck his big bloody size tens in and created an absolute shambles around him.  It’s Blair’s approach that drives the narrative of this play because the Post Macbethian 12th Century Scotland is a photofit of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whilst the English may have assumed that Lady Macbeth (Gruach) left this mortal coil alongside her beloved husband, we soon find out that as the saying goes “to assume is to make an ass out of u and me.”  Oh no, Gruach is very much alive and well and, as Queen, she believes her offspring are heir to the throne and by God she’s gonna do her damnedest to give them the chance to take their rightful place – even if that means sleeping with the enemy.

And so, Gruach (a mesmerising, flame haired Siobhan Redmond) emerges as the key political figure in this drama; she calls all the shots and she delivers them in an often tense and powerful dialogue between herself and Siward.  Always on the front foot, driving the poor man crazy with both lust and frustration.

Meanwhile, the King of Scotland, Malcolm quietly (weakly?) surveys the scene with an air of weariness and a large degree of slightly camp cynicism, increasingly frustrated by Siward’s inability to strategically manage the conflict.  His performance (by Brian Ferguson) is initially hysterically funny but gradually turns colder and more focused as the drama unfolds.

Both the directing (by Roxana Silbert) and the writing by David Grieg are breathtaking.  Grieg doesn’t write a script so much as a wholesale political essay on the state of the nation that leaves you almost gasping at its vision and insight. Remember this play was written 18 months before Salmond swept to power in such a way that the state of the Union has never been more open to question in modern times.  Surely conflict is a potential outcome.

And it’s the sheer range of this play that impressed me most.  Starting out, frankly, like a Monty Python comedy (it really did stir up memories of Life of Brian) it moves gradually through a series of episodes to darker territory.  Barely a minute passed in Act One without a chuckle, and often a belly laugh.  Act Two starts as it left off, but only for moments before the real meat of the problem is tackled to almost preternatural effect.

Honestly this play reaches right inside of you.  It moves along like a runaway Express, charged as it goes by a brilliant folk rock trio that inject pace and punctuation that is echoed by a duet of Gaelic singing lassies.  And whilst the ending stutters just a little it’s a lean back moment as the curtain closes and one is transported back into the real world.

Or was what we were watching the real world?

This is Champions League stuff.

I’ve seen several immense performances on the Lyceum stage this year; Stanley Townsend, Peter Forbes and Frances Thorburn in particular, and there have been a number of incredible ensemble casts ; Age of Arousal and Earnest spring to mind.

But this has both.

And this has three, maybe four or five stellar performances; Siobhan Redmond of course, and Jonny Phillips, but so too Tom Gill as the boy soldier, Brian Ferguson as Malcolm and Alex Mann as the hilarious Egham.

Mark my words. They will be talking about this show in hushed tones many years from now.

The Cadburys campaign

This campaign never ceases to amaze me with its utter inanity.

This is the worst yet.

So the “gag” is built around the effect you get from inhaling helium right?

Well helium balloons rise, they don’t fall.

This balloon is full of air.

Absolute crap.

Attack The Block written and directed by Joe Cornish

I love Adam and Joe’s 6 Music show on a Saturday morning.  It’s wickedly funny and brilliantly inventive in its humour, audience engaging and cod songwriting skits (Song Wars) so the notion of Joe Cornish writing and directing an Alien movie was intriguing, if difficult to predict what the outcome might be.  But IMDB liked it so I went for it this afternoon.

Total audience?


The concept is built around what might happen if an alien invasion started in a council tower block scheme in South London and the band of brothers that inevitably unite to repel the invasion are a bunch of skanky kids and trainee villians.

It’s a nice elevator pitch, particularly when you throw in the fact that the only female in the posse is adopted, much against her will, after being held up and robbed by the bro’s in the opening scene of the film.

But I’m sorry to say it’s a bit of a curate’s egg if I’m honest.

The issue is that it can’t decide whether it’s a comedy (and if so would have been a challenger to Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland – and lost), a social commentary piece or a full-on monster movie (in which case it would be comparable to low budget shockers like Monsters, District 9 or Cloverfield – and lose to all three of them too).

In the event it’s all of these and none of them.  And that’s the problem.

It’s partly let down by casting with most of the performances at best workmanlike and at worst either amateur (which I suppose most of the cast is) or caricaturised.

The special effects are really quite good, albeit done on a budget, but imaginatively so.  In particular the monsters with their ultra-black bodies and fluorescent green teeth (nothing else) are a bit like honey monsters gone bad which gives them an air of the humorous but at times downright creepy.

I wanted to like this movie more and I suspect it’s Joe Cornish’s winning personality that has got him the funding for it and the, mostly, kind reviews.

But the truth is, it ain’t that great.

If you stumbled upon it on the telly I think you’d be pleasantly surprised but for a full ticket cinema admission it’s pushing its luck.


Who put the Sars into Sarsaparilla?

That's not how you spell Saparilla! Is it?

Following the successful completion of a most difficult crossword in which one clue was “Carbonated soft drink (12)” I had much fun at the weekend asking my friends how to spell Sarsaparilla.

Most (like me) knew it as Sasparilla, the American carbonated soft drink, and indeed that’s what it is, but that’s not how you spell it.

Not a single person got even remotely close to the correct spelling.

Bet you wouldn’t have too.

Scottish Theatre Awards shortlist revealed

Six of the Best for the old lady.

Mark Thomson’s stunning season at The Lyceum has been rewarded by no fewer than six nominations at the CATS (Critics Awards for Theatre Scotland).  That’s as many as the NToS.  He’s up against some tough competition, not least in Roadkill which I fancy will do extremely well.  But many of you will have read my reviews of the two shows in particular that are attracting attention;

Age of Arousal, is a stunning new co production with Stellar Quines.  It has received nominations for best ensemble, best director (Muriel Romanes), best design and best production.  Here’s what I thought of it in February;

Although I said previously ‘Our two leads’ this is in actual fact as ensemble a show as one could imagine…This is a play that is richly and deeply textured; interestingly realised with beautifully subtle sound, video and lighting design and costumes (designed in a third year project by Edinburgh School of Art Students) that for me were the best I’ve seen on the Lyceum stage in a long time….This is an absorbing two hours of entertainment with a feisty and often hilarious script that batters along holding you firmly in its thrall throughout…It’s a gem.

The Importance of Being Earnest .  This was a hilarious theatrical evening and Joyce MacMilllan absolutely loved it, naming it as one of her theatrical highlights of 2010 in her annual round u.  Mark Thomson got the recognition he so richly deserves as he is nominated as best Director.  Here’s what I had to say at the time about Mark.

Mark Thomson is on fire.

His last six or so productions have not only been outstanding in my personal opinion, but also in that of the critics.

There are more stars kicking around the foyer of The Lyceum right now than in the Milky Way and that is because he, as artistic director, is mounting productions that are great.  Really great.

Earnest is no exception.  Although four acts long (usually three) it passes in the blink of an eye.  Rarely have I seen a show crack along at such a ferocious pace.  You really do need to keep your wits about you to catch all of the gags in this script.

Educating Agnes.  I saw this show twice and my review of Peter Forbes seems vindicated as he is nominated for Best actor.

Peter Forbes as Arnolphe performed as commandingly as anyone I’ve seen on this stage in recent years.  He stands alongside Stanley Townsend, in A view From The Bridge (for me at least), in this respect.

On stage for almost the duration and with at least 50% of the dialogue he never put a foot wrong.  But much more than this, the interpretation he put into poor old Arnolphe’s twisted character, the labyrinthine logic that he applied to the morals and ethics of creating a concubine out of Agnes and the despair that ensues as it all goes horribly wrong is expressed through shrieks, hollers, quasimodo-like grimaces and bodily twists and turns that make you squirm in your seat.

He is epic.

Not bad to have three out of seven shows on the shortlist.  So good luck Mark, Muriel and co at The Festival Theatre in June.

It’s nice to see also that Ria and I chose a goodie when we went to Dundee Rep to see Sweeney Todd because that too has been nominated (no fewer than five times!)

A very mixed bag of performances by Holyrood returning officers.

The returning officer has little to do other than count a few bits of paper and tell folk the outcome.  However I feel a good returning officer has a duty to do so with good presentational skills.

Here are a few examples from last night of good protocol.

The first is near perfection height management, as you’d expect, from Edinburgh.  The RO herself has modestly taken her place out of centre shot.

In this one the Glaswegians show a thorough understanding of the exposition of the craft.

This would have been excellent had the RO not spoiled it all by putting his titchy wee self in the middle.  And the guy on the right was too busy preening to make a really great exposition.

Although creating beautiful “form” this RO from Falkirk mucks it up by taking centre stage.

Here is a good example of returning officer FAIL.  Although the numbers are good and the overall effect is reasonable the guy in the white shirt four from the right and the white haired bloke both totally ruin the RO’s efforts.

The wifey in the ginger wig is also a major aberration.  Not only is she out of height synch.  She’s too far forward and she’s clapping like a performing monkey.


What were you doing on the 5th of May 2011?

If you were Scottish I hope you were voting for a historic moment.

Sadly half of you couldn’t be arsed getting yourself down to your nearby polling station.

Those of us that could be bothered contributed to the sending of one of the most vocal messages in the history of this fantastic nation’s politics.

To see the Liberal vote collapse  was not all that surprising given Nick Clegg’s appalling act of virtual treason by bedding with the Antichrists.

But for the Labour vote to fail to materialise so spectacularly in the face of this ripe political climate (for them) is far more remarkable.

Part of the reason for that was Iain Gray’s utterly hapless presidential performance in the face of a tour de force by Alex Salmond.

This is a MONUMENTAL result.

It is absolutely jaw dropping because the whole voting structure in Scotland, designed by Labour, was intended to keep the SNP out of power.

Not only has it failed to do that but it has returned what political experts deemed impossible.  An overall majority in a PR chamber.

I doubt we will ever see a day as dramatic in politics again in my lifetime.

I doubt Iain Gray will see the week out as Labour leader in Scotland.

I doubt many people will see anything like as effete a collaboration in Liberal Democratic clothes as Nick Clegg and Tavish Scott in their lifetimes. (Total amateurism.  Tavish Scott made Iain Gray look almost workmanlike at times.)

I doubt we will vote for Scottish independence.

The Crimson Petal and the White

I love Michel Faber’s writing and it’s  a toss up between this and Under The Skin for his greatest work.  The two could be no more different; Under the Skin is a taught contemporary sci fi horror set in Scotland and this; an 800 page monstrous take on Dickensian Victorian London.

Both are really great books and consequently both run the risk of taking a good pasting when put on screen.

There has been many year’s of talk that TCPATW would be Hollywood-made and for a while rumour had it that Kirsten Dunst was to be the heroine, Sugar.  However it fell eventually to the BBC to make this near epic adaptation.  I say near epic because big and bold as it was I think it had even greater potential.

The previews did not make great reading; the panel on Newsnight Review, with the honourable exception of Maureen Lipman, annihilated it, so I approached fearing the worst.

I needn’t have worried.

The, at times, over tricksy focus pulling in the camera work was a bit heavy handed but this was overcome on balance because otherwise it was excellent (moody, creepy, almost surreal in places and beautifully emphasised by a particularly odd (in a good way) score written by newcomer Cristobal Tapai de Veer).

The set and costumes are astounding and the acting of the entire cast, but Particularly Chris O’Dowd (the IT team) and Romola Garai were of BAFTA winning standards, and had to be to pull it off.

In particular O’Dowd’s tortured portrayal of sappy rich boy William Rackham is magnificent.  It’s as if he can’t decide how to play the role, but that’s just how Faber wrote it.  In the end he comes across as merely a weak sap who is  only in it for himself.  Perhaps he cannot help it as we frequently see when he is led astray by his particularly vulgar “friends”.

Romola Garai, by contrast, is nailed to the tracks in the conviction of her character, as the upwardly mobile Sugar; pulling herself out of the stench thanks to the interest of Rackham who gradually exalts her social profile in a London where status was everything (and boy did she have status in the underworld, starting off as the top prostitute in London).  Her gritty but sometimes tender performance is the beating heart of the book and this ultimately excellent adaptation.

It’s still on iplayer but I’d wait for the DVD and splash out.

For me it would play out better as an epic four hour movie rather than a four part TV series.

Wonderful.  Bring on the BAFTAs. (And the Emmys).