John Mclellan brings common sense to the No argument. But it’s a despairing plea.


Show some emotion to grab voters from Yes camp’s clutches pleaded John Mclellan in yesterday’s Sunday Times.

I’ve known John Mclellan for many years in his various editorial positions in Barclay Towers and he’s always struck me a a decent and thoughtful journalist with his head screwed on (well he, like me, went to the University of Stirling so he has that in his favour at least).

So, I was slightly surprised to see him turn up as Director of Communications for the Scottish Tories but didn’t hold that against him.  Somebody had to do it.

But I was very pleased to read yesterday’s article, that entirely echoes the views I’ve been espousing for some time, in the Sunday Times

Rightly, in my view, he stated that your views of the arguments (pro- or anti- independence) are entirely dependent on your preconceptions.

Nobody, with an opinion on this debate has a neutral point of view.  Its simply not possible.  And, like it or not, pretty much all of the big (economic and constitutional) issues will be resolved post vote (if succesful) in a frenzied period of negotiation between an independent Scotland, Westminster, Europe, NATO; you name it.

So, most big head-based arguments are going to go to the finishing line as opinions, not facts.

Mclellan states that oil is a fantastic resource which could help fuel an independent Scotland for years to come or it’s a diminishing and volatile basis for a national economy.  Both are correct he says, so take your pick.  I agree.

Are pensions safer in the UK or more volatile?  Depends on what you want to believe.  There is simply no proof.

So that leaves us with a need to consider what our hearts are telling us. It needs an emotional engagement.

Check out this video that I shared earlier in the year.  It shows you how powerful emotional engagement can be in politics.

People want more good stuff and less bad stuff he argues and again I agree.

That’s what makes the No vote such a difficult one to articulate because we know what we’ve got and we don’t like it.

Yes argues that change can bring undreamed of (albeit that’s just silly) prosperity.  No just bangs on about the risks, the dangers of failure.  Who would  they be kidding if they claimed that the status quo is some sort of nirvana?  They know it isn’t so they can’t go there.

What’s more, how can Labour, Liberal and Conservative find a united voice when frankly they hate each others guts?

The Yes vote, in contrast, has a single voice (with the odd chirrup from Patrick Harvie).

Mclellan wants a sustained and positive campaign for Better Together.  I agree with him, I really do, but it’s a fantasy.  The fact is their only card to play is a negative, (pseudo) fact based one and the Scottish electorate is rumbling that, big style, right now.

‘No’ is on the rack.  ‘Yes’ just keeps smiling.

Check out Bella Caledonia and the endless upbeat, positive (often funny) commentary it shares.

Thanks John.  Great piece.





Scottish independence. “The choice is between warfare and welfare.”


I had the immense privilege of attending a discussion around the play “Union” at the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Henry Irving Room  this afternoon.

I say privilege on more than one level because it was actually sold out and only my relationship with the theatre gave me the opportunity to buy a house ticket.  So thank you very much Lucy Vaughan for looking after me.

The line up was a titanic collection of historical forensic investigators; Tim Barrow, Union’s author, Mark Thomson, its director and Owen Dudley Edwards; Irish (turned Scots) historian, critic and, as it turns out, astounding raconteur.

I’m not going to review Union here as that’s not my place as a trustee of the Lyceum, but I am going to urge you, if you have any interest in the independence debate to see it because it adds an important layer of “poetic” texture to the debate and is an astonishing piece of work.

This is something that, to my mind, has been in short supply in the Independence debate so far, and something I have bemoaned on my professional blog .

But that was not the case today.

First off, Dudley Edwards’ referencing of the seminal work by Stephen Maxwell; Evidence Risk and The Wicked Issues – Arguing for Independence, was, for me, exciting, as it’s the writing that has most inspired me in this often tawdry mud-slinging debate.  It’s an important, intelligent, largely objective (despite his political background) read that is required if you want to have a view on this critically important era in our nationhood.

Mark Thomson made a brilliantly observed point that history, per se, is ‘bevelled’ before we even start deciphering it, because the voice of the common man has (until recently, thanks to the internet) been lost as a result of illiteracy and poverty.  History has largely been written from the point of view of the wealthy classes and that’s why it’s so important that Alan Ramsay (poet and apprentice wigmaker) is such a key character in Union.

But the message I want to share with you and invite discussion is Dudley Edwards’ answer to my question…

“If this play rose above the factual and reached a poetic truth (Mark Thomson) how can the current tit for tat Independence debate do the same?”

Dudley Edwards’ response was to say that, fundamentally, an ideological core has to emerge and hasn’t yet, but he suggested one that I felt touched an interesting and raw nerve.

Independence, as the quote in this title references, could be wrapped up in a singular thought.

Warfare or Welfare?  

Alex Salmond paints a picture of a Social Democratic state (more European than British) that eschews the fundamentally conservative politics of Southern England and that shares wealth and opportunity without resorting to outright socialism.  I like that.

He demonises Trident (the symbol of warfare and a hill of financial pain).  I like that.

He advocates our green economic potential through renewable energy R&D at the core of our economy.  I buy that.

And he seeks a nation where we look after the less fortunate.  A nation of welfare. A nation that creates opportunity for all (free University education, although I fear he has undermined vocational FE in this crusade).  So, I support that too.

No one, but no one, has captured that essence as well as Owen Dudley Edwards.

So, thank you sir.  You are a scholar and a gentleman.




The Grand Budapest Hotel.


Wes Anderson divides opinion.  Of that there can be no debate.

This movie will divide opinion.  Of that there is no doubt.

But it is a work of very great merit because it takes the medium and turns it upside down.  This  movie melds slapstick with performance art, melodrama with interior design, comedy with tragedy and it makes Ralph Feinnes a little bit godlike (something I never thought I’d never catch myself saying).

Feinnes’ central performance in this movie is mesmerising.  Half terribly polite, terribly gay aristocrat, half rampantly heterosexual (having bedded half the female population of the fictitious Zubrowka, a European alpine state).  He swears like a trooper, in the most inappropriate way in an ever so pukkah accent that just doesn’t seem right.

He leads us through the proceedings with such dexterity that you cannot possibly guess what is coming next, aided throughout by his sidekick – the 17 year old Lobby Boy Zero Mustapha played by Tony Revolori (he looks about 10, perhaps exacerbated by his hilarious hand drawn moustache).

The movie is mainly shot in flashback as the older Zero Mustapha (H. Murray Abraham) recalls the tale of how he came to own what was once a grand edifice but is now entirely run down and frequented by a bunch of random loners.

The tale is, of course, ridiculous and involves murder, robbery, disputed wills and the most outrageous jail break you will ever see in your life.

The flashback element is framed in a perfect square – a screen shape not seen since the silent era (it’s not even 4:3 aspect ratio it’s 4:4.  Although it’s described as 1:37 on IMDB – not so).

Frame after frame brings delight.  The attention to detail in propping, in background asides, in costume and in the comic use of animation or manipulated film speed (the sledge scene is a hoot) adds layer upon layer and makes the movie a must see again to pick out what you missed the first time.

The cast list is too long to list here but I counted 13 bona fide A listers.  Spot them if you can as some of them aren’t on screen long (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, for example, departs after about 5 minutes).

Repeatedly Anderson uses repetition in his script and it’s laugh out loud funny every time.

How good was it?

Well, put it this way, I ain’t ever seen an audience burst into almost universal spontaneous applause on a rainy Tuesday night outside of a film festival.

That’s how good it is.

“Like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas fronting New Order … they’re obviously quite weird people”

Like many people, including my brother in law Nik Sutherland and Guardian blogger Tim Jonze I was sideswiped by this completely unexpected discovery on the David Letterman Show.  A desperately badly named band called Future Islands; but what a song this is and what a performance.

This is the single best musical interpretation of a song that I’ve seen since, Oh I don’t know, ever?

Frontman Samuel T. Herring (great name unlike the band’s)  looks like a young Marlon Brando ripping the guts out of a tortured Shakespearian soliloque whilst student-dancing in a low ceilinged room.

It’s frankly miraculous.

And if you like that try his Gary Numan look in this Tiny Desk Concert…

Under The Skin: Review


You have never seen a movie even remotely like this.

It’s been a long time coming.  Ten years in development, to be precise, and I’ve followed the saga throughout.

My interest was based on my love of the source novel by Michel Faber which is a modern classic.

Clearly the 10 year development period demonstrated the difficulty with which the novel would translate to the screen but, in my opinion, it was worth the effort, and the wait.

When I heard that it was in Jonathon Glazer’s hands (Birth and Sexy Beast) I was encouraged, and when I found out that Scarlett Johansen was to play the central character Isserley (unnamed in  the movie but credited as Laura for some reason) my heart skipped a beat.

I was not disappointed, but let’s make no mistake, this us a Marmite movie.

My wife was bored to tears.  And I can see why one IMDB reviewer headlines his review “Tedious. Thoughtless. Empty. A failure in all ways.”  But I disagree entirely.

It’s fair to say that the pace is laconic, but it’s a  thing of beauty and a movie packed full of ideas, unique special effects and greatness.

If you haven’t read the novel you might be forgiven for asking what the hell is going on in this story and, yes, there are elements of it that are fully explored.  The long section of the movie where Isserley combs the streets of Glasgow, looking for her victims, with the help of hidden cameras bringing a documentary feel to the whole proceeding, is long and a little repetitive.  But it’s necessary to show the exhaustion of her task and her eventual disintegration.  What’s more, it does not paint the city in an entirely positive light.  To that end Creative Scotland should be commended for supporting it.

It’s a movie packed with visual metaphor.  There are some moments of horror but they are far from gratuitous and all completely emotionless which is to be expected given that Isserley is an alien, devoid of emotion, sent to earth to farm unattached males for her home planet (not that you’d work that out).

From the opening sequence in which Isserley’s eyes are created, to replicate humans’,  the imagery is breathtakingly disconcerting.  It’s underpinned by an outstanding soundtrack by Mica Levi.

Johansonn is magnificent.  Isn’t she always?  She is brave to take on a role this opinion dividing, and she manages to exude a total lack of emotion throughout in such a way that, unbelievably, you kind of sympathise with her role as human culler.

Glazer is magnificent.  But he always is.  Birth is a much underrated movie and anyone who saw his debut, Sexy Beast, cannot fail to love the guy.

This is a great movie.  Rammed to the rafters with original thought. It’s just a great pity so many of you will dislike it so much.

Pronoun. Lyceum Youth Theatre


Sorry, but I just have to plug this.

I was at the opening tonight of Evan Placey’s Pronoun and I have to say it’s a brilliant piece of writing about sexual identity, transgender issues, gender stereotyping and adolescent identity.

Here’s what Placey has to say about it.

Evan Placey wrote the play for National Theatre Connections, of which Lyceum Youth is a regular contributor.  It will play on the main stage in the summer but you can see its development performances this week at The Traverse.  And I would urge you to do so.

It’s about childhood sweethearts Josh (Louis Plummer in a very funny and mature performance) and his girlfriend Isabella who is the (perhaps surprisingly female) transgender subject of the play.

Isabella changes her name to Dean in thrall of her movie idol James Dean who takes on a role that resembles the Moonboy character that is played by Chris O’Dowd in that he exists in an imaginary space.  It’s an important construct in the play and it works incredibly well because James Dean is played superbly by Keir Aitken.

It’s an excellent play;  thought provoking, intelligent and  challenging.

The cast universally rise to the challenge.

They are supplemented by a Greek Chorus of a dozen or so who had, earlier in the evening, presented a selection of short plays developed in the very laudable and interesting Traverse Scribbles initiative.

Eilidh McKellar. Hold Steady.

Our neighbour’s second single and another cracker.

You saw it here first!

See her live at;

March 8 – Proud Camden – London

March 19 – Oporto – Leeds

March 25 – Blues Kitchen – London

March 31 – Smokestack – Leeds

April 6 – Greystones – Sheffield

April 18 – Voodoo Rooms – Edinburgh

June 24 – The Islington – London

Recent reading. The Psycopath test by Jon Ronson

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I’m new to Jon Ronson.  This was a gift so I approached with no preconceptions.

At first I was bowled over by his really great writing style.  Self deprecating, very amusing and, well, bloggish.  But as the book wore on, despite remaining constantly interesting, I began to wonder what the point of it was.

It’s neither a text book nor a novel.

In fact it feels like a series of reasonably closely connected essays on a subject he does not profess to be expert in and yet has written at least four books on the subject.

That subject being, and I apologise for the crassness of his own byline, madness.  (A journey through the madness industry.)

It’s part Louis Theroux, part Michael Moore, part Bill Bryson but the sum is not quite as satisfying as any of them because I got the feeling he was pulling too many punches.

He has a go at psychiatrists, the pharmaceutical industry as a whole and the process of evaluating possible psycopaths (sociopaths) but he typically fails to land any real killer blows.

The result is a bit of a curate’s egg.

Sure it’s really well written, stylistically – and interestingly researched – but my question is; Why?

I’m not trying to put you off because I found it an interesting, and enjoyable, read but it really does fall into a category I can’t find or describe.

I will explore his back catalogue deeper nevertheless.