On Tuesday 23 July 2019, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party, and Prime Minister of the UK (the 20th schooled at Eton.) Due to the way parliamentary democracy operates, his victory resulted from 92,153 votes cast by his party's membership, representing not only 0.13% of the UK electorate, but the narrowest of demographics (97% white, 70% male, 40% over the age of 66, and one-in-20 earning over £100,000 per year.)
Always more of an extrovert than his predecessor Theresa May (unless Abba was playing), Johnson has long been accused of employing a superficial veneer of charm, coupled with choreographed eccentricity (during the above London Olympics stunt when he 'got stuck' on a high-wire, it transpired this was arranged, ensuring headlines around the world featuring 'plucky Bojo,' a politician who relished laughing at himself.) This clownish persona has served him well. Articles he wrote for the Daily Telegraph in the early 90s seemed straight from a satirical publication like The Onion, containing outlandish warnings about EU bureaucrats imposing straight bananas or 'one-size-fits-all' condoms on Britain. If he reveals an inability to grasp basic facts while being grilled by political interviewers, this is laughed off. Boris is being Boris.
Where Tommy Robinson and his ilk are reviled for racist uttering in a working-class accent, Johnson, like that other plummy-voiced bigot, Prince Philip (with his talk of 'slitty-eyed' Chinese) is able to denigrate minorities at will and get away with it. As with the Duke of Edinburgh, there is a long list of Johnson gaffes, including describing black people as 'piccaninnies' with 'watermelon smiles'; gay people as 'tank-topped bumboys'; Muslim women in burkas looking like letterboxes; and on Scotland: 'government by a Scot is just not conceivable in the current constitutional context.' All just Boris being Boris.
But even his most fervent apologists must agree there are red lines he skirts with reckless abandon. His comment that the police should stop investigating historic pedophile suspects ('money spaffed up a wall') went way beyond curmudgeonly old-Etonian repartee. It was a crass insult to the victims of child abuse. As was his publication of an article smearing the 96 Hillsborough victims while he was editor of The Spectator In 2004.
With such a scattershot approach, where self-deprecation, hyperbole and banter are effortlessly interwoven with more offensive opinions on ethnicity, denying someone's suitability for high office in the UK on the grounds of Scottishness is yet another example of something which he can quickly dismiss as high jinks or irony or a skit or one of the other terms honed at the Bullingdon Club dinners.
There's nothing remarkable about Johnson's patronising dismissal of Scots. Mistrust of a nation which hasn't given his party a majority since the 1950s is ingrained in Home Counties Tories. This attitude has been compounded by Brexit, overwhelmingly rejected north of the Border, but bulldozing ahead by 31 October, with or without a deal, because Johnson has staked his political reputation on it. And 63% of the Tory members who voted for him have admitted they'd rather the UK broke-up as long as Brexit remains the number one priority.
All eyes on Halloween, then.
Sympathetic supernovas. Train carriage secrets. Intergalactic lovestruck geckos. The incomprehensible loneliness of the unknown.
Thanks to a hugely successful crowdfunder, 404Ink Magazine has been revamped and revitalised, and its latest edition (no 5) is showcasing writing 'as diverse as the galaxy itself.' Under the heading SPACE, examples of Scotland's finest fiction, poetry, non-fiction, interviews & more have been ingathered to offer an eclectic collection of space-themed musings.
En route to the cosmos, the reader encounters Brian Binnie, the first Scot in space, catches up with Round Table Books to discuss the importance of creating inclusive spaces in the book world, mourns the loss of NASA’s Opportunity rover, celebrates the world of Doctor Who, and learns first hand from the incomparable Adriana Ocampo how it feels to be a NASA legend. And that’s just for starters.
Also included is my own short story, The Nimble Men, about a curator from the Culloden Visitor Centre whose life unravels when he receives an unexpected text. He seeks solace on Culloden Moor, scene of the last battle on British soil. As the light drains, the rugged terrain and its bloody history gives way to the star-spangled majesty of the heavens.
Contributors: Alycia Pirmohamed, Annie Summerlee, Ashley Cline, Asmaa Jama, David G Devereux, Georgia Dodsworth, Helen McClory (book excerpt), Kathryn O’Driscoll, Lucy Jane Santos, Marcus O’Shea, Mark Fleming, Mark Gallie, Rhiannon Walsh, Rikki Santer, Sean Wai Keung, Stefan Mohamed, Stephen Watt, Stuart Kenny and Tom Pickles.
Buy your copy of 404Ink Magazine - Issue 5 (Space): here
Pete Shelley, singer/guitarist with Buzzcocks, one of the original wave of punk bands, passed away this morning.
He was inspired to start playing rock n' roll after seeing the Sex Pistols at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976 (along with punters who would go on to form Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths and Slaughter and the Dogs.) This was a seminal moment in the cultural history of Shelley's home city. Everything that unfolded over the next few decades - Factory, New Order, Spike Island, Madchester, The Smiths, the Hacienda - could be traced back to here.
But Shelley's band were so much more than 'punk rockers.' After original singer Howard Devoto left to pursue more ambitious soundscapes with Magazine, Shelley became the principal songwriter. And what brilliant songs he crafted. Buzzcocks signed with United Artists (at Manchester's Electric Circus on 16 August 1977, the day Elvis died) then went on to release some of the catchiest three-minute anthems to have graced the charts. Shelley's sonic cocktail involved taking the essence of pop - bittersweet lyrics and irresistible hooks - then propelling everything with an adrenaline-rush of guitars.
I saw them at Edinburgh’s Odeon in September 1979, supported by Joy Division. They were touring on the back of ‘A Different Kind of Tension,’ third in a sequence of stunning albums after ‘Another Music In a Different Kitchen’ and ‘Love Bites.’
40-plus years later, his love of music was undiminished. His passing in his early 60s has come as a shock to his legion of fans but the music he created, with Buzzcocks, as well as six well-received solo albums, is timeless.
I was honoured and delighted to be featured in the fabulous website run by local Portobello blogger, Joanne Baird, PortobelloBookBlog. This is another excellent outlet championing literature and writing in Scotland, and is teeming with book reviews and author interviews. You can check out my own contribution here, describing how I first got into writing, scribbling lyrics for a punk band many many moons ago, right up to the present.
Fault Lines by Doug Johnstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Doug Johnstone's ninth novel is an explosive thriller, metaphorically and literally. Unlike so many crime novels set in the capital, delving into the shadows of Old Town closes or foreboding peripheral schemes, the fantastical twist here is Johnstone has created his own setting - an imagined version of the Firth of Forth where volcanic activity has created a new island, The Inch. This premise provides a captivating backdrop to the terrible crime introduced early on.
The central protagonist, Surtsey, is a flawed individual, desperately struggling to uncover the truth behind a brutal slaying while simultaneously fearing the exposure of her own double-life. The problem is someone else seems to know a lot more than she does.
Mentioning much more of the plot would start giving too much away, so here's a broader overview. This crime thriller is a fantastic read, its characters plausible, the plotline harbouring unexpected twists and turns at every corner. The Inch, active and prone to seismic activity, dominates the landscape, an unpredictable and volatile presence mirroring the tension on the mainland. The narrative, terse and unhampered by sentimentality, propels the reader towards a shattering climax.
What resonated with myself was the Edinburgh setting, particularly Portobello, its coastal suburb. It always makes an entertaining read when you can almost recognise the characters, and I could imagine spotting Surtsey in our local, The Espy!
Essentially the performing nom-de-plume of contemporary Merseybeat poet and singer Louisa Roach, She Drew the Gun released their second album, Revolution of Mind in October 2018. A sumptuous blend of 'melodic psychedelic pop' and a challenging anti-establishment lyrical stance, its 11 tracks cover an eclectic and uplifting range of musical bases. Sometimes stripped-back, allowing the relentless vocal drive to strike home, at other times offering layers of dreamy melody to lift the listener, the overall effect is a perfect balance of psychedelic sensibilities and protest music. Check out Something for the Pain as an apt illustration of this wonderful tightrope walk. www.shedrewthegun.com
I am immensely proud to have been singled out by Kirkcaldy High School, specifically Gillian Cunningham (Literacy/Equity) English teacher, to be appointed Writer-in-Residence. In the summer, the Scottish Book Trust announced 10 schools throughout Scotland had been awarded fully-funded author residencies, and over the next weeks authors, storytellers and creators will be working to inspire the next generation of Scotland's readers and writers. Further details of the residencies is available here.
What sort of person thinks it’s acceptable to be flippant about suicide? This ultimate act of self-harm blights families up and down the country and is no respecter of class, gender, religious or cultural background or age. Unless you're a psychopath, suicide is no more a subject to be mocked than cot death or genocide.
Ian Richard Peregrine Liddell-Grainger
During the recent Westminster debate on the Brexit Bill the SNP Leader in the Commons, Ian Blackford, asked the Speaker, John Bercow, what options were available for the devolved administrations. Tory MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, Ian Richard Peregrine Liddell-Grainger, called out: ‘Suicide.’
This casual use of such an emotive term is an insult to people dying in appalling circumstances and is symptomatic of how far society still has to go to remove the stigma surrounding mental health. Liddell-Grainger’s gibe, albeit within the context of an off-the-cuff remark during a heated debate, is all the more crass when you consider this. England’s scenic West Country, location of his constituency, is disproportionately affected by suicides. Between 2014 and 2016 there were 15 suicides for every 100,000 people living in Taunton Deane in Somerset - one of the highest rates in England, and way higher than the national average. Across England 14,277 people took their own lives over the same three year period - around 10 for every 100,000 people in the country. (Somerset Live)
You suspect Liddell-Grainger made a cack-handed attempt to belittle those MPs speaking for Scotland’s embattled Parliament rather than intentionally denigrating mental illness. In fact, he was quick to backtrack by insisting, as a former Territorial Army major, he would never stigmatise anyone with mental health conditions (according to Commodore Andrew Cameron, chief executive of the veteran support charity Combat Stress, one-fifth of all Forces veterans were likely to need help for some form of mental illness and that it could take more than a decade before symptoms presented themselves.)
If Liddell-Grainger had simply blurted out his remark in the fiery atmosphere of a Commons exchange, perhaps some form of apology would be in order. Instead he is now claiming he was misquoted, having actually said ‘political suicide.’ But listening back to the recording (see link below) it’s clear he said nothing of the kind. The two-syllable word ‘suicide’ is audible, and you can tell by the reactions of those on the opposition benches this is all that was said. If Liddell-Grainger claims he used seven syllables he is now compounding his monstrous behaviour by lying through his teeth about it.
SomersetLive website - with video of actual incident
I previously blogged about TV ‘entertainer’ Jeremy Clarkson and his abhorrent remarks about ‘Johnny Suicides’ being such a nuisance for delaying train journeys. You can only expect someone in his position to have a sense of empathy inversely proportional to his ego. Sitting on a personal fortune of £30 million for presenting TV shows about metal objects that go fast undoubtedly places all the real-life dramas faced by the rest of the populace in some sort of weirdly remote perspective.
Whether either public figure pleads their remarks were clearly made in the context of banter and not intended to actually belittle suicide, was either example remotely funny? No. In joking about something that is the biggest killer of male under-45s in the UK they simply perpetuate the stigmatisation, adding to the sense of isolation and worthlessness felt by people in genuine distress. The often inexplicable despair that brings someone to this brink and then propels them beyond afflicts families every day, including my own very recently. On top of the living nightmare of the aftermath of the act, we do not deserve our pain to be heightened by the loved ones we have lost being laughed about.
Neil was discharged from psychiatric hospital just after Christmas but remains on anti-psychotic medication. Nursing a hangover, he is making his way to his doctor's for a check-up.
Strolling by the Union Canal, I cross the aqueduct above the railway. To my right the line heads towards Gorgie. Following the direction of the tracks for a few hundred yards I make out the pipes traversing the steep embankment. The railway was our favourite playground as kids. We delighted in crossing those pipes like demented tight-rope walkers. Stabbing our middle fingers at health and safety. Not to mention the Grim Reaper himself. From this vantage point I appreciate the drop from rusting metal pipe to sleepers is more than 30 feet. The notion gives me a queasy feeling. My hangover exacerbates a sense of shock delayed by several decades.
To my left a moorhen cleaves the canal’s murky waters. Against the sunlight, the water fowl appears to be swimming into flames. I smile at further reckless indifference to danger. But the light also bores into my pounding head. Last night Drew and I ended up in L’Attache until 3 a.m.
My recollections are distilled into muddy snapshots. Chatting-up numerous women, each of whom eventually saw through my superficial charm and melted into the background. Roaring conversations with Drew about the music of our youth being more passionate than the crap spilling from jukeboxes, while knowing full-well this is an argument destined to be repeated by subsequent generations ad infinitum. Some annoyingly effusive folk band. A scuffle involving a guy wearing an Ireland rugby top and two pricks who kept calling him a ‘fenian’, a disturbance Drew and I got involved in. Me explaining the Irish rugby colours represent all of Ireland, Dublin to Belfast, Baile Áth Cliath to the Shankill Road. A point Drew underscored by chinning one of the Protestant supremacists. Myself on sky blue helmet mode again later, separating Drew from another drunken prick who elbowed his way in front of two shivering young lassies at the Rutland taxi rank. Losing him outside Dario’s. Finally seeing some nurse from Orkney to the Florence Nightingale Home by the Infirmary. The phone number scrawled in eyeliner on my Marlboro packet was indecipherable this morning.
I march up the path by the Meggetland bridge which served as a boundary during childhood forays into enemy territory. Not as in actual gangland but the fantasy world my mates and I created. We were soldiers pitted against everyone from the Nazis and Japanese we imagined from Commando comics to redcoats or Daleks. That we were allowed do embark on these missions at such a vast distance from home seems incredible now, although our parents had no reason to suspect we’d ventured any further than Harrison Park for a kickabout.
Further up Colinton Road I lurch into the surgery. The waiting room is unfeasibly noisy. Seizing a National Geographic, as I study magnificent photographs of the marine wildlife flourishing around World War Two wrecks around Midway, I notice how the images quiver. In my peripheral vision, toddlers seem to be vandalising the box of toys as opposed to playing with anything. My eyes focus on the goldfish floating hypnotically among the lemonade-like bubbles of their aquarium.
When Dr Pattison pokes his head round the door to call me I murmur ‘thank fuck’ rather more loudly than is appropriate.
‘So. Time for your Lithium check again, Neil?’
‘Good, good. So how is everything in general? Keeping well?’
‘I’m fine’, I say, taking my seat. Rolling my right sleeve up. The doctor jabs in the needle. Draws blood into the syringe.
‘My word’, he says, his voice blending shock with humour.
I watch the liquid filling the Perspex container. Dr Pattison initially seemed amused. Now he fixes me with a stare over the bows of his spectacle rims. ‘Neil. You shouldn’t be mixing excessive doses of alcohol with your Lithium. That’s asking for trouble. Again.’
My blood sample looks identical to the pernod and blackcurrants I was necking a few hours ago.
It's the New Thing
I've played in bands, on and off, since the late 1970s, but am still in touch with the vocalist of the first, 4 Minute Warning. It was he who texted in the middle of my latest band's practice to break the sad news of the death of Mark E Smith.
I got into The Fall in 1978 when their 2nd single 'It's The New Thing' came out on Step Forward, the label run by Mark Perry of ATV and Sniffin' Glue fame. Three years later, in March 1981, I saw The Fall for the first time, at Edinburgh's seminal punk venue Clouds, supported by two local bands also championed by John Peel, The Prats and Visitors. It was a particularly fertile period for the Manchester band, touring on the back of 'Grotesque After The Gramme' and showcasing the forthcoming 'Slates' E.P.
Smith leaves a massive legacy. 32 studio albums. 32 live albums. 40 compilations. But the defining aspect of The Fall was that the music was driven by Smith's idiosyncratic lyrics. His caustic writing lay at the heart of The Fall. He could be contradictory, telling one journalist he preferred Bernard Manning's stand-up misogyny to anything that might be framed as 'topical' or 'alternative'; although you suspect that, as with many of his alcohol-laced outpourings, he was merely delighting in winding-up the type of imagination-free, pretentious wannabes he lambasted as 'pseuds.' There was also the fierce integrity that ensured that while The Fall never savoured much in the way of mainstream success (not as if they ever courted it anyway) they retained hugely loyal fans. They may have started by appealing to the leather-jacketed punk rockers who would pogo and spit at most bands preceded with 'The' in the late 1970s, but Smith didn't so much shy away from being pigeon-holed as punk or post-punk as pour utter scorn on the very idea his band could be categorised alongside Siouxsie and The Banshees or Adam and The Ants or any number of The Fall's contemporaries who ended up as Top of the Pops regulars.
Attacked by a drunk
'Totale's Turns,' The Fall's 1980 live album, was so far removed from conventional live rock n' roll it was hilarious. According to Smith's sleeve notes, it was partly recorded before an '80% disco mating audience.' Two tracks were taped at home while 'said home was being attacked by a drunk.' Smith was also at his acerbic best, antagonising the punk fashionistas in the crowd: "Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah!?! Well don't make a career out of it." But he seemed to reserve his main gripes for the rest of his band, and by the last song, 'No Xmas For John Quays', he is berating them for perceived slackness: "Will you lot fucking get it together instead of showing off!"
Never destined to become a stadium-filling band like the U2s or Coldplays of this world, The Fall were nevertheless a huge 'cult' band with a diverse fan base and a habit of cropping up in places you'd least expect them to. They soundtracked the BBCi football results ('Theme from Sparta F.C.') They provided the sinister backdrop to the serial killer's murky lair in 'Silence of the Lambs' ('Hip Priest.') Their ragged anthems made an unlikely but apt soundtrack for Scottish choreographer Michael Clark's ballet 'I Am Curious, Orange.'
I saw John the ex-fox, sleeping in some outside bogs
The immediate post-punk era in Edinburgh spawned an outburst of creativity, with musicians exploring new horizons, record labels springing up and clubs like J Js (above Valentino's in East Fountainbridge) celebrating the innovative soundscapes. We'd go there on Thursday nights and listen to everything from Pete Shelley to Heaven 17, Blue Rondo A La Turk to Bauhaus, Fire Engines to The Higsons. You could take your own singles along, and on one occasion I handed the DJ a batch of 45s including The Fall's latest, 'Lie Dream of a Casino Soul.' When the rattling drum intro crashed across the club's PA, the floor cleared, leaving myself and a mate dancing shambolically to this paean to Northern Soul, against a backdrop of bemused New Romantics.
"Craig. Give the lad a beer."
I saw The Fall a number of times in Edinburgh and Glasgow over the years. One particular highlight was in 1985 at Coasters, the latest incarnation of what had been Clouds, just after 'This Nation's Saving Grace' had come out. At one point I spied Smith dodging into the cloakroom that was doubling as the changing room on the night. Nervously I knocked on the door. The man himself opened it and eyed me suspiciously. "I've got some stuff I've written to show you," I blustered, digging out some typewriter-written short stories I'd jammed into my pockets earlier 'just in case.' (These were sub-James Kelman efforts; although one, 'Legless in Gatsby's,' about my getting barred from a long-gone Edinburgh nightspot, did get published in my local newspaper, Gorgie Dalry Gazette.) Compared to anything this Mancunian wordsmith could produce I'm sure Smith crumpled them into the nearest bin after skimming the first few paragraphs of Scottish dialect. But I did arrest his attention. He looked over his shoulder and snapped to his guitarist: "Hey, Craig. Give the lad a beer." I was duly handed a tin of Carlsberg Special from Mark E Smith. I arsed it before the end of the night, but it was eventually given pride of place on a shelf in my bedroom, like some sporting trophy, until my Mum mistook it for one of my Dad's empties and chucked it out.
Customary adjustments of amp settings
My last Fall gig was in Edinburgh's Liquid Rooms in the early 2000s. They were as fabulously unpredictable as ever, or at least Smith was. The rest of the band churned out all their new riffs with professional tightness. But Smith appeared from stage-left long after the others had kick-started proceedings, his gait unsteady as he proceeded to perform his customary adjustments of guitar amp settings before repositioning elements of the drum kit. Eventually the drummer got so pissed off with this that he kicked his kit apart before storming off stage. As gigs went, it was chaotic and mesmerising in equal measures.
The Fall's final performance was at Glasgow's Queen Margaret Union on November 4 2017. Smith's last song was 'Stout Man.'
The Fall, as featured in the music press, 1978-1982
Finally, a montage of my own cuttings of The Fall culled from Sounds and NME at the peak of my obsession with Mark E Smith's band 1978-1982.