The Master Builder

An occasional series on gifted individuals ignored or unknown in their homeland yet celebrated and respected internationally.

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Professor Ian Ritchie, CBE RA, architect, engineer, artist and writer

It is highly misleading to suggest Ian Ritchie is unknown in Scotland. He and his London-based firm of architects are respected among his Scottish peers and our town planners, but unlike activists here who attract publicity such as Richard Murphy, for example, Ritchie is too self-effacing – and busy with commissions! – to be a household name. Nevertheless his celebrity like his firm’s projects is international.

At three score years and ten, Academician Professor Ian Ritchie, CBE RA, master architect, acts as if out in front on the last stages of an Olympic marathon. There’s no stopping him. He’s a veritable whirlwind of creativity and industry.

Try to e-mail him at any two points in a week’s gap and he’ll be in a different European country each time, back in London at the weekend, or perhaps in his beloved Edinburgh. But you’ll always get a reply and on the same day or hour. I keep pestering him by e-mail at all hours and not once has he replied tetchily.

His list of projects is enormous, from designing hand friendly door handles to entire inner city areas, from a domestic house in a rural French setting to a majestic scientific centre. It isn’t generally known he was called upon to help design the glass element of the controversial pyramid at the Louvre. He is currently involved in planning a large area of Malta – twice the size of Canary Wharf – a new central business district, a project anticipating another 100,000 people will move to the island, a real challenge in any architect’s book.

As one would expect of a globetrotting architect he’s garlanded with awards, of which he considers the most significant are the international ones recognising his innovative designs and their impact on global architecture. To get a measure of the man and his achievements readers are referred to his curriculum vitae on the Internet – and set aside half-an-hour to read it.

Some background: Ian’s grandfather electrified early WW1 army tank turrets so that they could rotate in any direction. His father was born in Edinburgh and won a scholarship to study engineering at Heriot Watt University, but he died when Ian was only eleven. His mother was Welsh, a nurse from Blaina in South Wales. She took on sole responsibility for Ian and his two brothers. Ian didn’t have the luck to be born in Edinburgh, but in outlook, emotional identification, engineering prowess, values, value judgments, and stubbornness, he’s all Scottish. He’s a problem solver par excellence.

I got to know Ian Ritchie when I asked for his help to stop the hillside I live on from slip-sliding downhill to new ground. Gabion baskets were the answer, an ancient Roman technique Ian had introduced into domestic architecture 25 years ago, the same industrial technique we see holding back high motorway embankments. Later he invited me as a guest speaker to his Edinburgh conference on its future architecture – an honour and a surprise. I declined thinking he’d made an error, then accepted when he insisted.

As a companion, Ian has the appearance of everybody’s idea of a jovial preoccupied professor. Though he speaks in the soft whisper of a man used to being listened to, and listened to hard, you’d be advised not to assume him an intellectually defenceless senior citizen. He has strong empirical, tried and tested opinions on architecture and the politics that govern, shape and frustrate his profession. Moreover, he can articulate solid evidence to back up his ideas and theories. In imagination, he is fearless.

In typically generous style, he answered my questions with respect and erudition. 

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When angry Irish blew up Nelson’s column Dubliners replaced it with a 120 metre spire

To begin with one of your best-known projects, the Spire in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, the non-monument monument: when you submitted the design for the competition did you think there would be opposition to it?

The Spire is audacious, and on first viewing people are asked to think and to look, not simply see. So, no, I was not surprised by the opposition, but I was by two competitors who thought we had broken the rules and managed to secure a court hearing, which delayed its construction for nearly three years.

I really like the Irish, their wit and banter. I enjoyed the various names for it; ‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto’ was the first to gain approbation, followed by ‘The Rod to God’.

The nicknames showed they were beginning to own it. My personal favourites were ‘Celestial Acupuncture’. At the final lift someone in the crowd of more than five thousand watchers cried out “C’mon Ireland!” and everyone burst into applause. It was home.

You describe your firm as ‘neural’ architects. What does that mean?

This was a term ‘invented’ by John O’Keefe (Nobel Laureate in 2014). He was the acting and then the first director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, and central in its evolution. It describes the process of learning from each other, architects from scientists and scientists from architects, and of a shared language between architects and neuroscientists as we developed the design.

Architects work with light and shadow to give space and objects form – the interior and the exterior architecture. With all that we learned about how our brains process sensory experience from the scientists and their writings during our research into neuroscience, it was inevitable that we would translate this knowledge into how we would design the space for their research.

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The undulating exterior of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre

The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre was a mammoth undertaking – budget £75 million. Judged a great success by architects and public, how did you manage to balance all conflicting needs of the scientists using the building?

Ah! The mind of the architect who can imagine a picture in its entirety, and is open minded enough to be able to fine-tune it as more and more knowledge is brought to bear on the concept!

We were fortunate to have been given a year for research. We travelled to several continents to discuss with some of the world’s most important and esteemed neuroscientists, and to document their opinions and their existing labs, and explore where neuroscience research might go in the future.

It was thrilling, and there was no way my practice was not going to deliver the very, very best that we could for them. It came down to how we could give them a building that would be relevant for the next 60 years. A daunting challenge, but we believed it to be possible. Our answer was to accommodate the twenty plus services (medical, and lots of gasses, and including drainage) in a flexible way within highly adaptable spaces. The scientists would be able to determine and economically modify the interior spaces to their needs – a ‘plug and play’ design approach.

The external envelope of the building is both a metaphor about climate change and to some extent the architectural expression of this adaptability and flexibility. The new kind of translucent, insulated structural cast glass modules we developed is remarkably economical. It incorporates operable windows and louvres, and was half the cost of double glazed cladding on a typical office building in London. We learned that having long vistas in a building is important for orientation, while on the other hand completely open plan spaces can be psychologically uncomfortable – and are not generally popular with the people who must work within them.

It’s hypothesised that humans evolved in the African savannah, a world of spatial endlessness made up of a variety of open and wooded habitats, open plain and endless vistas (horizons) within the curve of the sky (vertical space), all this is apparently ingrained in the human DNA – and it’s interesting to note that subconsciously we still reflect these preferences: it’s taken for granted that apartments with a good view command higher prices than those without a view, but no one asks why that should be.

Awareness of others without the feeling of being invaded, and the ability to spot an opportunity to join others in discussion, creates a sense of self within a community. Interiors that offer both vertical and long views, that offer individual, group and large collective spaces with acoustically and light tempered environments are vital to our psychological well-being.

Add to this, views of the outside, the ability to be aware of the changing weather and changing natural light levels, the choice to have fresh air, gardens and terraces all combine to give the whole interior space diversity and interest.

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High performance, low energy task lighting for North House office, Westminster, London

Like cars, new buildings contain an amazing array of electronics that amount to an artificial brain. Homes are beginning to follow suit. Are we not over-complicating buildings that rely too much on technology?  

We’re in overload because so-called ‘developed’ societies want to measure everything – the age of metrics. This, together with the fact that the emerging human cyborg that we are becoming can’t leave his Mc-iPad alone unless asleep, and can now control his home energy bill, turn on the oven and wake grandma, is a witness to the power of technology and our desire for toys and attraction to novelty (also in our DNA). Weaning us off all this technology would be nigh impossible.

I wrote back in the early 90’s that it is ‘goodbye electron, hello photon’. Now that we have all become more or less conscious of how we have raped the Earth, an all electric future of non-polluting photon energy is inevitable.

Once the technology enabling one photon to activate many electrons is commercialised, solar power will be ridiculously cheap. Photo-bio computers will be here soon, so it will no longer be a question of power cuts. We have just a few more years to live before we see the end of burning carbon to provide us with energy.

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The devastatingly simple Crystal Palace Concert Platform by Ian Ritchie Architects

I’d like to ask you your opinion of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s urban renewal policies. Glasgow in the Sixties wanted to become “the Chicago of Scotland”. Edinburgh is blighted by indiscriminate second-rate construction screwing up its famous Georgian layout. There appears no cohesive policy or vision. How does an architect cope with that?

I would suggest that there are three current ways architects approach the city when they receive a commission.

  1. Those who consider that individual buildings should contribute collectively to the framing of and making of streets and squares. Only exceptionally should an individual building, e.g. a town hall or church. Today, sports stadia are today’s cultural cathedrals.
  2. Those architects who have, since the 80’s, believed that the value of their personal artistic expression matters more than the street, square or city. This is hubris. The results are the over-scaled, twisted, fractured rhythm-less blobs of all shapes and sizes – whether offices or residences – which deny any other building the right to touch them.
  3. I prefer architects who want to contribute to the city in a sensible way, neither aping the past nor denying it, blending subtly rather than scarring violently, using contemporary and innovative ways of building and materials and techniques to leave an intelligent and beautiful contribution to the city which reflects our own age. I am of this last group.
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Ritchie’s refurbished foyer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre

You’re on record loving Edinburgh. Putting a radical modernist building in it is always going to be controversial. Do you think that’s why the city tends to end up with second-rate architecture? How can we be more adventurous without destroying the good that exists?

I love Georgian architecture. I live in a John Rennie designed house! The master-planning by Craig, (modified a little, early on) and the enlightenment of the city fathers was a stroke of timeless genius. Why? Because at that point topography, social structure and the risk of an economic exodus created an opportunity and the response was imagined boldly and holistically.

I see no difficulty introducing moments of contemporary architecture within the historic city provided that there is a believable narrative that shows respect for the existing urban fabric, and does not produce an ugly rupture.

To copy is nothing but to deny our own age. We architects have to up our game and communicate far better to re-establish trust with society.

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The world’s largest glass hall, Leipzig International Exhibition Centre

How does a city secure the best architect for the job, and not be forced to choose the best out of a shortlist of the not so good, as in competitions? 

One tactic employed by some clients, rarely a city authority, I would add, but often by publically funded organizations, is to select a practice that is headed by a ‘name’ to help with fund raising. We’ve won over 60 competitions of all sorts, but of these the ones that have given the most pleasure are those that are totally open.

In the end it always comes down to the client. A good client with a good architect will always deliver quality. Committees rarely do. Honestly, I prefer direct appointment by enlightened clients who have checked us out and know that we will almost certainly exceed their expectations and those of the users, along with a twist of value-added innovation. And when these clients come back again, then we really are smiling.

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Eagle Rock House, not half as expensive to build as it looks

You hold the Utopian ideal that Europe is not just an economic model, but a coalition of many cultures. You were a member of the European Construction Technology Platform, in Brussels, the body that decided in 2006 where €5 billion of R&D funding should be spent in the construction sector. England alone (dragging a protesting Scotland, NI and Gibraltar) is the first nation in 43 years to leave the EU. What are your feelings about this regressive act?

In answer to this question I will quote what I wrote for and was published in the Architect’s Journal on 24th June 2016.

“I have a feeling of utter disgust with the many parochial, narrow-minded and bigoted little Britons who – for of lack of cultural and historical awareness – believe that there exists a nostalgic past that can flourish in today’s global environment. It is palpable nonsense and the repercussions on the freedom and evolving culture of our youth and that of Europe will be felt very deeply. I have developed my values and ethics, and design skills, from the understanding that interdependence more productive than independence. Europeans are as central to my professional and social life as are the Scots, Welsh, English and Irish. I fear the impact of this foolish and misguided decision will lead to not only a dis-United Kingdom, but profoundly shake Europe as a whole. In years to come our young people may feel the bitterness of having been betrayed. It is a tragedy in the making.”

This question may be a little insensitive: the shortlist for a new Band Stand in the capital’s Princes Street Gardens, doesn’t include your firm. Why?

We submitted drawings with a great team, including President of Landscaping Scotland. Unfortunately, I’m seen as an uncontrolled radical. I showed them our Crystal Palace Concert Platform as an example of how imaginative one can be,  but no matter.

Only the Europeans elect us. The UK goes for average ability to tick meaningless boxes.

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Ritchie Architects designed the glazed roof for the Louvre’s Richelieu sculpture courts

Finally, is there a recognizable Scots style, a vernacular in architecture, such as the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or a Hebridean Black House, or perhaps a Fifties council estate?

There is a vernacular I recognise as Scottish. It’s not C. R. Mackintosh as his work and style was little replicated. We have to go back in time to the baronial castles – hardly comparable to the more public architecture of Georgian areas of cities that we see in London, Liverpool and Bath or the Merchant City of Glasgow. Not the island workers’ black houses, but the impressive stone buildings, often carling rendered, that sit upon islands, upon rocks and communicate: “We resist the snarling wind, the snow storms and piercing rain rods, we are curved and upright to face you all and blossom in the sun’s rays and rainbows against dark skies. Our strength is born of this land, and inside our gloomy yet warm and welcoming interior is lit by a raging fire.”

That’s the ‘vernacular’ that comes to mind and presents the soul of Scotland that I sense when I’m there – landscape, music and words that create an atmosphere with its architecture that makes Scotland such a beautiful country. 

CONTACT INFORMATION

Ian Ritchie Architects, 110 Three Colt Street, London, EH14 8AZ. +44 (0)20.7338.1100.

Books: ‘Being an Architect’, Ian Ritchie, Royal Academy of Arts Publishing. ‘Neural Architects- the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre’ by Georgina Ferry, Unicorn Publishing.

More Great Scots

Other in the series are, A.S. Neil – rebel dominie; George Forrest – plant hunter;        Dr John Rae – cartographer and explorer; Adrienne Corri – actress and author.

Posted in Great Scots | Leave a comment

Meeting Nicola

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Nicola Sturgeon – First Minister of Scotland

Readers hoping for gossip will be sorely disappointed. I’m about to describe the events that took place before and after meeting our admired First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, (for the second time) but for those not yet had that pleasure I’ll convey what many  have perceived of her. She’s highly attentive, in control and absolutely focussed. She exudes authority, but not the disengaged aloofness of the moneyed classes, or the verbal correctness of a high court judge. It’s that old fashioned thing called unassailable integrity.

Two further observations: She practises the caution of those who learn a first meeting is what people are selling you, a built-in defence needed by any public person who receives praise and abuse from those it is her sworn duty to protect, and the society they live in. And secondly, she reads Grouse Beater. How often she read it I didn’t ask.

Doon the Watter

The occasion was the opening of Dunoon’s refurbished Burgh Hall, a hefty red sandstone Victorian pile once for demolition, now saved as an arts and entertainment centre.

The Grade B Listed building built in 1874 is imposing. It sits high in the town’s centre, overlooking the harbour where the flat bottomed ferries forever chug back and forth from Gourock piloted by men who’ve held the same job most of their working lives.

The English weather forecaster on the radio pronounced it “Gow-Rock.” A day trip down the Clyde on a paddle steamer – Glass-gow, Gow-Rock, Done-noon, “Doon the watter”.

Dunoon, the Riviera of Scotland, punctuated with unkempt palm trees, has seen better times, and many a Labour and Tory government that didn’t give a damn. The centre offers shops that look as if they’ve not changed their window display since the 1950s. The shoreline is lined with the aging holiday houses of Glasgow’s 19th century wealthy, a boat ride away from the sheeple and hoi polloi of outside toilet tenement dwellers.

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Dunoon Burgh Hall today, spruced up, cleaned, and ready to serve the town

A great asset to the town

The transformation has generated jobs, not only trades in the recasting of the building, but now in administration, exhibition organising, classes, catering and trades. Every room is utilised to its maximum, with a modern café added onto the rear. There’s a room to create paintings, one to make and fire pottery, another to exhibit anything from children’s school drawings to great art, the obligatory gift shop, and a vast main hall on the second floor where plays can be performed, dances organised, or wedding’s held.

I and others were invited to the official opening to see some unusual prints of Andy Warhol, gifted to Scotland’s Museum of Modern Art. Warhol finally made it to Dunoon. There was also prints loaned for the occasion by Royal Academician painter and master printmaker Barbara Rae a Crieff lassie who’s made big in the world of contemporary art.

Let them eat cake

Once I pinned my name badge onto my shirt pocket I did what we all do, check were the free food and wine lay, (there was no wine or beer!) and searched the crowd for familiar faces. Amid the excited staff I recognised only three. John McAslan the principal architect, a Dunoon man himself, flew around the rooms checking last minute detail, trailing the architect’s statutory denim jacket behind him. The head of Creative Scotland, Janet Archer, milled around, severe, stolid, dyed cropped hair, every inch Rosa Klebb of the KGB. Nearby the lanky patrician figure of Sir John Leighton, director general of our national galleries, a Westminster placeman from his shoes to his polished Scots accent.

I waited for the Big Moment in the café chomping on a cube of jam sponge, no reward for a long drive from Edinburgh. I got pinned there by a garrulous oldie who insisted on telling me about all her famous friends, and when my eyes glazed over, proceeded to continue the history of her above-average achievers to an unwary anthropology student next to me. The girl hadn’t learned the art of making the implausible excuse plausible as a quick exit. She remained seated, transfixed, taking refuge as best she could behind a large coffee cup that hid half her face.

An unceremonious arrival

The Big Moment was Nicola there to open the building, and let people know where some of the funds had come from, and that their elected government knew where Dunoon was unlike Westminster politicians. I expected her to arrive in a phalanx of black limousines, saltire flying on the radiator cap, police motorbikes on either side sirens blaring. The only police presence was pleasant beat cops in ill-fitting uniforms who looked as if given a day’s release from a Broons cartoon.

Nicola arrived in a non-descript saloon – it might as well have been a bus – perfectly in keeping with her down-to-earth approach to her day job, which is the considerable task of retrieving Scotland’s sovereignty from the clutches of a belligerent neighbour nation.

After running the gauntlet of press cameramen outside, Nicola was greeted by the assembled staff, and guided to a series of meet the public moments, each set in a different room where she got involved in the activity that took place. I notice that contrary to the strict written schedule I was given she broke it at every opportunity, taking her time to meet and talk to whomsoever she wanted to meet.

There was not a sign of Mayisms – two minute photo-op chats and whisked off to a place of safety from the public.

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Nicola meeting school students at painting. I’m behind the camera

Photays and selfies

Nicola’s ability to concentrate on the person talking to her amid a cacophony of chatter, pushing and shoving, and clicking cameras, impressed. Upstairs, in the large hall where you could shoot ducks, she was given a warm reception by speakers and a musical assembly group.

A frazzled organiser grabbed me by the elbow to ask if I’d like to be included in the group photo shot of the day. Pathologically shy of cameras I made my second excuse of the hour and snuck into the gift shop. Nicola Sturgeon is a politician in the history books. I’m a master of the missed opportunity.

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Architect John MacAslan explains old and new to Nicola

Daylight gobbery

After an hour of meeting and talking to VIPs and staff, Nicola drifted outside. There she was was greeted by people in street who burst into spontaneous applause. I bit my tongue to stop the emotion welling up in my throat from turning into tears.

About to get into her nondescript car she noticed an elderly man behind some railings waving to her. She joined him in conversation. In my mind I compared the low-key, relaxed scene I was witnessing with Ruth Davidson’s idea of meeting the public, a politician unlike Nicola yet to win an election but who feels compelled to sit on the back of a buffalo demonstrating to Scottish farmers how Chinese farmers get to and from their paddy fields.

Three times Nicola tried to reach her car only to be surrounded by young and old. A group of young girls waving iPhones begging for a selfie. She obliged, and then, invited into the local SNP shop, went inside to chat to the staff. From a bench outside the hall I watched her mix with people in the street as naturally as you and I might greet family.

Wurr a’ doomed

Next to me on the bench sat a middle-years man and woman, between them a beautiful child, a girl not yet three years of age. He was Scots, the woman English, the child a painting fit for a portrait on a Dresden porcelain vase. I broke the ice and spoke to the child with the shining blue eyes and naturally curly hair.

“Hello, perfectly formed person. How are you?” She looked at the man with the grizzled face and designer stubble, and then up at her father for reassurance I wasn’t a mad tree logger from the wilds of Alaska.

“What’s going on?” asked the father, nodding in the direction of the crowds. “Nicola Sturgeon is here,” I said.

His face darkened. The woman shifted uncomfortably.

“That’s our excuse to get the hell out of here”, she chuckled nervously. The man let out the hiss of an expletive. “Fuck! No’ her?”

“Has she done you some harm?” I chose words I hoped might throw him.

He checked me out for a few seconds. “You’re not from here?” he said with a tone half-question and half-scorn. “Edinburgh” I answered, “Born same block as Sean Connery,” I added, to give him the impression my large frame might swing a punch if he got mouthy about our First Minister.

The importance of the non-important

There’s no rationale to the syndrome “I hate Nicola Sturgeon,” no reasoning with it either, nor was there to the carping of old, “I hate Alex Salmond”. I heard her denigrated again recently. And each time I hear it I am astounded. A young woman from Aberdeen told me she was shocked to hear her parents say they were voting Tory because they “hated Sturgeon”. “Why vote Tory? she pleaded. “Why do that to your own country? Why not just vote ‘No’ at the next referendum?”

What sort of First Minister do these immature people want? A bird brain Labour version or a budgie strangling Tory version? Can their revulsion have something to do with a Scots accent? Is it the cringe, that terrible affliction inculcated in so many who live in a colonised country? In that case do they prefer a lump of limestone lead them with no ability to think on her feet, a Theresa May type? If all it amounts to is they want to live in a corrupt country then why wheedle their lives away in Scotland? Move south.

The man with the  beatific daughter spoke up. “We got together to save the building”, he said, letting me know Dunoon had people power. “A fine thing to have accomplished,” I said, and meant it. “SNP have a policy of getting power and decision making back to us.”

He stopped his little daughter from moving out of his grasp and launched into a rant.

“They wasted five million on a fancy pier and naebody’s used it since.” The woman  nodded in agreement. “Useless”.

“And ‘they’ are?” I snapped back. I got no answer only a scowl.

It dawned on me he was talking about the pier, the ferry terminal, a project that employed local tradesmen over a few years and spread its budget among the community. I’m told it was a Tory council who commissioned it. The father didn’t explain why the pier was ‘useless’ – I asked what sort of ferry was needed and got no reply – but it was clear he thought his taxes had gone to waste. I’m sure he felt there were more deserving priorities.

“I can see the town needs a couple of billion spent on its rejuvenation, but remember Scotland gets an allowance in return for all our taxes, and we don’t have surplus cash.”

He wasn’t in the mood to exchange political pleasantaries, and beckoned to the woman I thought his wife, but wasn’t, that it was time to go.

As he stood up from the slatted steel bench I gave him a parting farewell. “I’m for the same rights, the same opportunities, the same control of what we earn, as those folk south of the border. I take it you wouldn’t want less than that for your country?”

He gave me a half-smile in return. It was then I noticed his Ranger’s blue football strip.

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A grotesque of the kind on the side of the Burgh Hall

The grotesque on the wall

On the side of the Burgh Hall there hangs a Grotesque, not a gargoyle, not the stone face that takes water off a roof, but a carving to ward off evil spirits. Maybe it did its work that day, or maybe the propensity that lurks in the hearts of some Scots to cheat themselves of their birthright will need more than a talisman against self-harm. For my part, I can’t understand why anybody denigrates the one political party dedicated to giving us back our rights and the land we currently rent.

When I left, Nicola Sturgeon was still in happy conversation with an increasing number of onlookers and admirers. Whatever schedule she had she’d junked.

I got back into my black SUV often mistaken for a taxi by late night revellers, and headed to the ferry and back to the M8 more convinced than ever that the saviours of Scotland and its communities will only ever be the Scots themselves, even the permanent misanthropes committed to nothing but themselves.

The trick is not to let them surrender, dragging us back to last century. They have to understand we share common ground. There’s no going back.

And we bloody mean it!

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 17 Comments

Westminster Armageddon

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Grenfell Tower, London, June 2017 – symbol of neo-liberal Britain

As American satirists might put it, witnessing the utter chaos that is Westminster politics, this is a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

If you stand well back, see the disarray that is the Northern Ireland assembly, stare in jaw dropping amazement at the pathetic inadequacies of Westminster politicians under stress, and accept that the Welsh Assembly still doesn’t know if it’s administrating a province or nation, you come to the inescapable conclusion the only truly “strong and stable” parliament in the entire UK is in Edinburgh. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

During Thatcher’s era the cross channel ferry Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over on its side when somebody forgot to close the bow gates on leaving port. 193 passengers perished. It stood as a symbol of Thatcher’s era. Today, the fiery inferno of Grenfell Tower that will be deathly May’s symbol of extreme capitalism.

By a dire response to losing an election, a pitiful response to the Tower conflagration, we see the disintegration of Westminster as an interventionist force for good.

Delay upon delay

Before the conflagration, while the Tory party reeled from the outcome of an election no one needed, Brexit negotiations got delayed, the Queens Speech also delayed, normal Westminster work delayed, all while the Tory Party discuss tearing up the Good Friday Agreement to save their skins and retain power.

Just as Ruth Davidson saw bigots and extremists recruited to her Scottish ranks, so May is faced with marches by the Orange Lodge as the price she must pay for retaining power. What will HRH have to say in her speech to open England’s Parliament? “My government will ban homosexuality, introduce Creationism and the teaching of flute playing in all schools”.

Meanwhile apologetic new recruits to the Tory party and old promoted ones continue to spout inane Mayisms – they explain how May felt she needed a gigantic mandate to renegotiate the best deal from the European Union in place of the big mandate she already had but didn’t want. This time, journalists react with derisory laughter.

This is a government in chaos  by any standards.

Independence marches on

The loss of some Westminster SNPs was easy to predict. When you have almost filled your quota of 59, (the dice loaded against Scotland ever governing England) the only result next time around has to be fewer elected. The SNP still won in Scotland by a large margin. The few Tories elected claim they won.

However, with Labour and Tory and Lib-Dems exalting the electorate to dump their scruples and vote tactically to oust sitting MP’s, there had to be collusion between the parties to achieve the result they managed. It was well organised, not a random result in odd places. This has nothing to do with honest political choice, everything to do with undermining the Scottish state. In a word, sedition.

The idiocy of tactical voting in this case is, 12 fewer Tory MPs and Corbyn would be in No 10 Downing Street. Well done the Labour Party of Scotland – they got less than nothing out of it.

Nothing in that act of self-harm spells the death knell of the grass roots movement for self-governance. The last poll logged over 50% in favour. Events we witness since the election ring alarm bells loud and clear – governing our own affairs is critically overdue.

A second plebiscite for electorate of Scotland to judge any deal that issues from Brexit negotiations is the people’s right. And the SNP are correct in asserting they were given that mandate in the last Scottish election, and in the General election. It was the Tory’s plan to impose the result of Brexit talks on Scotland. It was ever thus.

Reservations were few

If I had a concern about setting a precise date for a second independence referendum it was the certainty anything could happen to alter the time lapse: another terrorist assault, a law passed by Westminster blocking more than one referendum within a given time frame, an act of God. And so its transpires.

The casualty of May’s grab for extraordinary powers is the loss of the right of a Tory party to govern England or Scotland. The case for Scotland’s autonomy within a better constitutional framework is thus bolstered.

The Tory party has collapsed in ignominy and recrimination. We watch them bump into walls, repeat hackneyed phrases, and avoid answering questions. In fact, the doomed UK Prime Minister has been described by her old friend George Osborne as a ‘dead woman walking.” He’s right. He makes a better newspaper editor than he ever did a chancellor.

Of fishermen and farmers

Those who sent Tory MP’s to London in the illusion they’d be represented are the same who will scream blue murder at any loss of business grants and tax  reductions. They want to keep free prescriptions, education, and pensions, an SNP priority. The men and women of Aberdeenshire are no different from the Anglophiles in the Borders, similarly  far-right fans. (Maybe we should move the border up a few miles.) Those in the Borders are happy to see the new rail line bringing in investment and new residents – an SNP innovation, and nip down to the chemist for their free prescription.

A selfish vote in an election isn’t the same as one in a referendum that determines who governs Scotland, and how they will do it. The wish for real civil rights is too ingrained, too educated to let it all slide now.

Many of the new Tory MPs came from the fishers and farmers of Aberdeenshire. Some surprise. I have sympathy for fishermen’s wish to monopolise the North Sea, but what do they expect a devolved, hamstrung administration to do – send a gunboat to frighten off Russian boats fishing in Scotland’s appropriated waters?

In any event, the whole ambition of the MPs they elected is driven in one direction only – south. The newly elected wide boys fly off to London to celebrate only to find its a wake.

Of firemen and furnaces

The horrendous furnace that was Glenfell Tower brought an image of Auschwitz. Victims screamed for their lives in vain, others accepted imminent death. They were trapped in a capitalist scenario – cheap housing, cheaply built, for a society no one cares about. I believe even London’s fire engines have been gifted to a private company to rent out to save maintenance costs.

You watched people in a human filing system wail and weep and cling to each other, and you harbour morbid images of hanging racist Farage and his Blackshirts from the nearest lamppost. I can hear Farage saying in so many words it’s nothing to do with him.

May arrived late to the catastrophe. Her cabinet had deemed the fire and its consequences a civil matter, but then heard the cries of vengeance from the crowds. She dodged those shouting “Coward!” at her disappearing derriere. Interviewed in a safe studio somewhere, her answer was to throw £5 million as aid at the tragedy.

The poor are not worth it

I was reminded of a Hammer Horror film about the French Revolution. It begins with an aristocrat’s carriage running over and killing a little child. His distraught parents cradle the lifeless boy. A curtain is drawn back at a carriage window and the aristo tosses a gold coin at the parents before instructing the driver to move on. The boy’s father climbs under the chassis and holds on tight planning to murder the aristocrat when he reaches his mansion. The scene is a precursor to the start of the French rebellion against the obscenely rich in the same way the crowds in London are demanding heads roll.

Back in Blighty the old Queen did a better job of talking to casualties than Theresa May, or the totally out of his depth Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. She talked to those involved in the nightmare while one screamed in despair somewhere nearby. That clip should be replayed over and over again.

But I didn’t hear her say she will cancel the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace predicted to cost many tens of millions, and donate the cost to rehousing the survivors.

What a farce

The artificial General Election is estimated to have cost £130 million, enough to have  installed high quality sprinklers in every room in Grenfell Tower, and given each person living in it £100,000. “Lesson’s will be learned” said key executives and we know they will not. But the tide is turning, for this time direct action is the result. Angry residents let their representatives know where power should lie.

Television pundits and columnists whisper they’d never seen the likes of such demonstrations in London before, as if the Toxteth riots never happened, or recent mass demonstrations in London were never ‘kettled’ and ignored by the media.

Shock economics

Grenfell Tower sees the aftermath of neo-liberal ideology – shock economics. No sooner had survivors found a floor to sleep upon than the council announced it could not house them all in the same burgh.

When the people are still in shock that’s the neo-con moment to alter regulations and laws, to grab land before the traumatised casualties have time to recover. Developers have wanted that land for years, its a sought-after plot.

Enter the DUP

To stay in power, May cuts a distasteful deal with the DUP. The Orange Lodge boast they are back with a bang, and will get all they can out of propping up one of the worst administrations that ever sat in a Downing Street. Or put another way, neo-fascism is here to stay. Sinn Fein perceive the danger. The party’s Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, said: “I will be making it very clear that any deal between the Tories and the DUP cannot be allowed to undermine the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.”  You can be sure Sinn Fein will do more than send a strongly worded letter to Downing Street.

Nicola Sturgeon demands that we know the detail of any pact with the Devil. In that too, May and her cohorts dodge questions and the press.

The deconstruction of Westminster

The world and Scotland look on, puzzled at how a nation keen to recreate itself as a great empire again can act like a banana state and drive itself into oblivion.

When May was re-elected she gave her speech while standing on a stage alongside Elmo, who got three votes, as well as Howling Laud Hope of the Monster Raving Loony Party, who got 119 votes. That’s the level of the UK’s premier politician, and she thinks she can remain in the job for the next five years.

Westminster is imploding. And as many seasoned political watchers predicted it would, it’s the English electorate who will see it change, not the Scots.

The sound of English packing their bags to live anywhere but England can be heard all over that once green and pleasant but soon to be orange and ugly land.

 

 

Posted in Scottish Politics | 26 Comments

Wonder Woman – a review

Wonder Woman (2017)Gal Gadot

When you have to use a sword, that’s some itch! Gal Gadot as Mrs Wummin

I can sum up the film in one sentence: A good looking chic who can deflect bullets with a shield and swing a sword, needs mansplaining to help her get around.

I almost feel guilty being a man reviewing this film, but I refuse to change my gender to do it. At least a woman directs this on-off project, Patty Jenkins, but oddly written by a man, Allan Heinberg, or credited to a man, to be precise. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, stars the visually knock-out Gal Gadot in the title role, offering an idealised version of a woman created by a man, directed by a woman. (This review is fraught with feminist potholes.) Lovers of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May might take comfort.

The character first appeared in All Star Comics in 1941, and incidentally for Trivial Pursuits fanatics, a few years after Superman and Batman. One supposes she was an attempt to capture a female comic consuming market. She’s the creation of William Moulton Marston, and a very American idea of a healthy woman, probably one who can play basketball well. Reading about his creation tells us he felt his type of woman should “rule the world”. Two who ruled are Golda Mier and Angela Merkel and neither look remotely like Gadot. After Marston’s death, in 1947, the superhero all but disappeared until she reappeared in the Lynda Carter TV series in the 1970s.

The comic book Wonder Woman is not without controversy. I recall complaints from women that the superhero’s “impossible proportions” were over-the-top, and her scanty costume plain silly. They had a point. Women have the same objection to the charmless Barbie doll. In addition, the character was dropped as an ambassador for a U.N. campaign for gender equality, and it has a history of being  scripted and spiked by various directors and writers. Jenkins should be applauded for getting the script to screen. This is her second stab – if that’s the right word – at a larger-than-life character since her superb Monster, (2003) about rape victim and killer Aileen Wuornos. That study gave Charlize Theron her Oscar in the title role, curiously another former model-cum-actress.

I’m trying to think of a story where the woman is gifted intellectually and actually outwits the misogynist man who’s after her body, not her mind. This Boadicea without a chariot is a conundrum for us confused males. Her greatest superpower is never yearning for a child or suffering period pains.

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When you’re famous you get to meet other wonder women, like Ellen DeGeneres

Wonder Woman is the story of a young woman reared in an extraordinary place by extraordinary people – the age old comic book backstory to superheroes. She’s raised on the isolated island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons – broad shouldered, strong limbed women – I nearly said ‘to a man’. The place sounds rather like a lot of run-down areas of cities where women hold the home together.

The woman are all fighters, and Diana obviously wants to emulate her elders. Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, (Connie Nielsen), doesn’t want Diana to become a fighter, but the willful Diana gets her way and is coached by her aunt Antiope, (Robin Wright) to be a top notch warrior. Now an adult, played by Gadot, she rescues an American airman, Steve Trevor, (Chris Pine) from the sea. Overnight their tranquillity is destroyed when the island is besieged by German soldiers in pursuit of him.

Why would a troop of swastika helmets be after sweet Chris Pine? Well, because he is attempting to stop production and deployment of poison gas by nasty Nazis against our soldiers and civilians. Convinced by his intensity of purpose (sarcasm intended) she follows him to London to join the battle, the battle that is the First World War. Talk about leaping out of the frying pan into the fire.

The film embodies an attempt to express lost innocence, most of it told in flashback, a technique I thought had past its sell-by date. Though it sticks to the tried and true formula of exceptional individuals born into a small tribe in a hidden idyllic valley who talk in pseudo-poetic verbiage, it does hold an intelligent simplicity in its story-telling, avoiding some of the cloudy mysticism of hero stories.

Does this attempt to put a vile male hating Amazonian on the screen work, or is it a gym instructor gone wild? In truth, it’s a bit of both.

Wonder Woman tries hard to have us believe she’s real, in my opinion, because she’s compensation for the lack of progress in western woman’s rights. And she’s white. Snow white. The film, it seems to me, is trying to be all things to all women, and a bit of titillation for the men.

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Director Patty Jenkins and co-star Chris Pine realise it’s not Shakespeare

The early scenes hold interest where the narrative takes Diana back in time, to young Diana’s upbringing in the all-female Themyscira, that is, Utopia, a place where there are no men to screw things up. After that, it’s a simulacrum of action sequences we’ve seen before only set amid the First World War, with the addition of a magical golden lasso. Sadly, though it reaches for symbolism, this isn’t a war story to teach us much we don’t already know. We know war is futile, and as a species we are addicted to it.

So, how does Diana  react to manly men?

The tribe of women Diana belongs to are not too keen on men; where they met them and how they came to be conceived themselves is not told, one supposes they did without them entirely. “Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you,” warns Hippolyta. (I’ve been saying that for years!) When Chris Pine comes on the scene Wonder Woman’s misandry evaporates.

But like any wayward daughter, Diana takes not a blind bit of notice of that wise counsel. She insists on sailing off with the Yankee soldier and spy to protect Tommy and Yankee from the brutal Hun and mustard gas.

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Wonder Woman can wield magical powers but she needs a man for directions

Gal Gadot doesn’t have an illustrious portfolio of acting prizes. She’s first and foremost a model. She can be seen selling Gucci perfumes, Captain Morgan’s Rum, and Jaguar cars. She spent time in the Israeli army, that and her basket ball height giving her a surface believability as the world’s most glamorous wrestler. She does her very best here to appear an actress with a reasonable emotional range while striking any number of catwalk poses. In fairness I should add, Gadot received lessons in swordsmanship, Kung Fu and Kickboxing for the film.  She can certainly kick her height.

Gadot, (Hebrew for Goldstein) has done most of her acting confined to the Fast and Furious franchise. When you’ve seen two boy racers glare at each other as they rev at the stop lights, you’ve seen the entire Fast and Furious franchise. Characters devoted to octane injected engines who sniff petrol for a high are not my idea of people to emulate.

Gadot spends most of the film as a kind of well-honed gym teacher who’s not very bright. For example, she may be able to translate Sumerian – mysteriously one of the “hundreds of languages” Amazons can speak without listening to language DVDs – and, when wearing her skimpy body armour, deflect bullets with her magic bracelets, but she’s in ‘wonder’ (pun intended) over ice cream, and captivated by snow. She needs a man to tell her about those things and more. In steps Steve. You half-expect her to nod in approbation while taking a few long serious seconds to assimilate the new input of knowledge, before striding off to beat up another German. Still, photography and special effects are excellent, elements we’ve come to expect will balance thin storylines.

Whenever anybody begins to theorise or pontificate, particularly on the island, actors deliver their lines in an unintelligible garble. I found it hard to make out what was said.

Critics who should know better read all sorts of symbolism into the story, from Iraq to the Falklands, but it’s all hooey. This is Hollywood’s idea of a very fit chic who is a challenge to bed, but might be worth the effort.

I don’t want to give any more away of the plot, but the upshot is corny cliché. (Clears throat, evades eye contact, and shuffles feet): “Only love can save the world”.

The multiplex cinema I was in was full of noisy, chattering girls on their iPhones and some mothers with young daughters, but they were not there to see our own Trainspotting Ewen Bremner do his bit in the story for women’s rights.

That notwithstanding, the film is top box office here and in the States. Obviously I need a woman to explain why.

  • Star rating: Two and a half
  • Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston
  • Director: Patty Jenkins
  • Writer: Allan Heinberg
  • Cinematographer: Mathew Jensen
  • Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
  • Duration: 2 hours 21 minutes

 

Posted in Film review | 4 Comments

The Madness of May

 

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A politician given power who wants more power should be removed from power

Theresa May embodies all the hallmarks of instability, which is odd because she speaks about stability all the time. Her party wants to make society stable by deconstructing it.

Before middle-England decided that it was a repository of hard working, underprivileged racists, Theresa May stated forcibly the UK should remain in the EU in order to enjoy a strong and stable economy. Having lost the vote she said exactly the opposite but with the same conviction. Staying out of the European Union ensures strength and stability.

Think about that: one day preaching strength in unity, the next strength in disunity. What is troubling to my mind, is the way she expects the public to accept shouting ‘forward!’ in both directions shows strength of character and not schizophrenia.

We try to rationalise her odd behaviour. We think she’s probably hell bent on grabbing maximum power to impose unpopular authoritarian policies. It makes sense to claim a false mandate. But we watch is astonishment as she feels admired for acting tough rather than clever and considerate. You’re left wondering what it is you’re voting for.

She’s the person, remember, who appointed chairperson after chairperson to the Child Abuse Enquiry – a state of affairs that now feels like last century.

It gets worse. May appears happy to inflict pain on the needy and the innocent.  You don’t give permission to rent-a-bailiff to confiscate wheelchairs from the non-ambulant, or women who’ve been raped to fill in a form proving it, unless you have a heart of solid cement. Either that, or you believe the population are the problem, not the government.

The state reserves the right to be the sole interpreter of the needs of society – Benito Mussolini 

Observing the process of social rot teaches you how easily Franco’s Spain gathered momentum. Some people are willing to do the most cold hearted tasks for a living, and believe they’re doing the right thing for the public good, or being patriotic.

It reminds me of the psychology experiment that sought to discover how far humans can be pushed before they rebel. Members of the public were asked to give greater and greater electric shocks to an unseen ‘guinea pig’ who refused to answer questions. (There was no electricity charge just a fake dial, and the guinea pig is an actor behind a screen.) Most volunteers accepted the order from the ‘medical consultant’ to increase the electric charge, and they do so without question. Even the few uncertain about the morality of the instruction still wind up the dial. We have a need to please, to be part of the team, and it overrides good judgement, and our humanity.

An ability to communicate silence

There’s something deeply troubling about the way Theresa May refuses to get involved in debates, sends deputies who can’t cope, she preferring the personal interview where, no doubt, questions have been presented to her spin doctor for scrutiny.

Moreover, there is the strange sight of her repeating the same empty phrases day in, day out, without understanding the accumulative impact they make on a discerning public. Scots readers will be bored to death with her moronic rejoinder “Now is not the time”  repeated ad nauseam whenever asked about a second vote on Brexit terms.

I think May’s utterances and convictions  – they’re not ideals – her convictions are fascist in content and tone, that is, extremely authoritarian, a precursor to the totalitarian. Totalitarian arrives when absolute power is achieved.

Fascist leanings

The few times I’ve used fascism in essays it’s chosen carefully for the simple reason the insult has become the fashionable scare word. But when you look carefully so much of fascism lies below the surface in most of us.

Study the rise of Nazism and you are surprised by how swiftly a great cultural nation like Germany could so suddenly descend into barbarism. Today we see elements of fascist ideology an acceptable creed, fascist structures cloaked in ‘caring’ right-wing politics, (a contradiction in terms) all, of course, without the crematoriums, the place you went after you had a shower in a gas chamber.

Fascism breeds on unemployment, gross inequality, and power in the hands of an elite. We have all those elements now, but a fascistic outlook isn’t confined to the uneducated, the Golden Dawns, of this world. It can consume the nicest of people.

We do not exterminate foreigners, but we do put them into interment camps. We like to call them ‘transit’ camps. Then we repatriate them. Or save on taxpayer money by letting them drown in the sea, men, women and children, from overcrowded boats fleeing wars we began. For some, this is acceptable because it ‘keeps England white’.

Endemic racism is the first sign of fascism. Endless war is another.

Three cheers for the war. Three cheers for war in general. Peace is hence absurd, or rather a pause in war. Benito Mussolini

Fascism always needs a charismatic leader. Trump is well on his way to a kind of fascism but he’s a clown, and yet … and yet we’ve had the sight of Theresa May and he hand-in-hand. Dictators see everything in terms of themselves. Trump talks of himself endlessly. Whatever May says, invariably it’s about her: it’s ‘Mayism’.

She uses the possessive continually, for example, here:

“As we face this critical election for our country, I’ve launched my manifesto for Britain’s future.” [My emphasis.]

May has ninety per cent of the predominately right-wing British press on her side, including the Daily Mail which espouses dangerously imitative fascist principles, though it will never admit that.

I know there are many like me profoundly worried by the way Britain is moving politically and socially: the intolerance of ethnic differences, the withdrawal of civil rights, funding constant wars, making an enemy of Europe, protecting legal tax havens, hatred for the poor and the vulnerable, and the relentless whittling away at the welfare state to create a political system that announces its arrival in the phrase, only the strong survive. It stinks of England über alles.

If you wish sympathy of the broad masses, you must first tell them the crudest and most stupid things. Adolph Hitler

Neo-liberal capitalists and fascists

Compare some of Theresa May’s UKip-cloned utterances with those of Europe’s past totalitarian leaders and it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference  between them and her condescending presidential style of behaviour:

I’ll show them I am a bloody difficult woman to deal with“. Theresa May

What Italy needs is a strong and stable government. I shall deliver thatMussolini

We have been rendered defenceless: we are without rights: we have become the pariahs of the world. What are our organs of government today but organs for executing the will of foreign tyrants? Hitler

The press in Italy is free, freer than other countries, so long as it supports the regime. Mussolini

I am responsible only to God and history. Francisco Franco

We have only one task, to stand firm and carry on the racial struggle without mercy. Heinrich Himmler

The socialists ask what is our programme? Our programme is to smash the heads of the socialists. Mussolini

If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved, they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable, and thus illusion becomes reality. Mussolini

Perhaps we shall also have to hold in check other coloured peoples who will soon be in their certain prime, and thus preserve the world, which is the world of our blood, of our children and of our grandchildren. Himmler

The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Hitler

The Government has been compelled to levy taxes which unavoidably hit large sections of the population. The Italian people are disciplined, silent and calm, they work and know that there is a Government which governs, and know, above all, that if this Government hits cruelly certain sections of the Italian people, it does not so out of caprice, but from the supreme necessity of national order. Mussolini

People are tired of liberty. They have had a surfeit of it. Today’s youth are moved by other slogans…Order, Hierarchy, Discipline. Mussolini

The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. Hitler

The corporate State considers that private enterprise in the sphere of production is the most effective and useful instrument in the interest of the nation. Mussolini

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. Hitler

An absence of empathy

I’m sure May can show kindness. I am sure she’s is aware of everyday etiquette. She’s sure to have attended a friend’s funeral, sent a suitable wreath of flowers, worn the right hat for the occasion, and spoken her condolences in a whisper, “So sad to hear of your loss. Be strong and stable”.

I’ve no idea why the Tory party thought to sell her on personality alone when she doesn’t have one.

One has to question May’s sanity, and indeed that of her supportive colleagues, who try to convince us we can exist without Europe. “No Deal is better than a bad deal“. That’s an absurd position to argue, and ultimately disastrous for any nation’s well being.

One thing is certain: wherever the enemy lands, if once we can get to grips with him on the Continent, where we are not dependent on supplies from overseas, that ought to be, and will be, all right with us. Himmler

In summary

Remember, fascists know the greatest weapon to keep a population quiescent is fear. British nationalists who opposed Scotland’s rights called it  ‘Project Fear’.

We’ve reached a stage where Theresa May can ignore Scotland’s constitutional right to  a second referendum if blocked from European membership, and she attract wide praise for doing so from public and press alike. May excludes Scotland from all discussions. And we hear May’s Scottish megaphone, Ruth Davidson, say she will not respect a win of even as little as 51% on a second plebiscite – a statement that crosses the line from democracy to oppression. That is shocking.

“We do not believe in government through the voting booth. The Spanish national will was never freely expressed through the ballot box.” Franco

You will recognise fascism when your point of view is the only one tolerated because it coincides with the orthodoxy approved by the state. You have been warned.

What luck for governments, that the people are stupid! Hitler

 

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 18 Comments

Churchill – a review

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Hats off to Brian Cox – his Churchill does the business

Film fans will know this is the third British war time drama this year. The previous English set drama being the disappointing Their Finest. No wonder so many Scots are paranoid. (Scotland got a truly mirthless remake of Whisky Galore.) Every time there’s an election or a referendum the media splurge on the ‘Great British Everything’, Britain’s glorious wartime history uppermost in their propaganda arsenal.

It will sound unkind, especially because I’ve met Brian Cox and took an immediate liking to him, but in some roles he can be truly hammy. Scots actors get so little exposure to film camera work that they have a tendency to bring their theatre techniques to it, the larger than life gesture or big expression for the benefit of the people in the rear seats. They over-project rather than internalise. But Cox is always watchable.

In support roles Cox always excels, one only has to recall his broken father to Dennis Quaid’s  baseball player in the The Rookie. In Churchill he carries the central figure of the great statesman for the whole film. He’s by far the best thing in this thin, dubious story.

I’ve lost count of how many actors played the cigar chomping nemesis of the Nazis. Some, such as Robert Hardy, made it a life’s career playing the role in radio, television dramas and voice-over documentaries when not playing a grumpy vet on television. Other than Sir Anthony Hopkins, I doubt many can claim to have played the range of famous men Cox has tackled. He’s taken on J. Edgar Hoover, Trotsky, and Stalin, among others and excelled in every one. And before going further, I should add, Winston Churchil represented Dundee for fourteen years, from 1908-1922, a nice coincidence

I thought there were no stories left to tell of Winston. We’ve seen young Winston the colonial adventurer, Winston the flip-flop politician, Winston the family man, Winston the amateur painter, Winston the ego-centric historian, Winston the speech maker, Winston the great liberator of western society, and finally, the elderly Winston rejected by the electorate but enjoying fame and adoration. This film confirms there are no more stories to tell of Winston.

What does the cinemagoer do when it dawns that what unfolds before them is clunky, emotionally false, and factually bogus? Churchill is so full of movie clichés and silly melodrama you can’t stop yourself sniggering, and then giggling, and then guffawing.

On particular scene tells you immediately that you’re in for a whole lot of cinematic tosh. Summer, 1944 – Churchill is in a flap. He’s determined to stop the Allies’ June D-Day invasion of Normandy. Yes, stop it.

Standing on an English beach in the opening scene he envisages the sea foam turning red, just as the seas are said to have run red with the blood of soldiers during the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli, a World War I campaign that Churchill championed and that led to some 40,000 Allied deaths.

I can hear the director, “I got this great visual idea – he’s walking a beach, the water turns red, and we cut to Churchill’s face full of horror!” Very original. Why not in his bath?

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Just a good character actor’s luck to get a starring role when the script is pants

This Churchill is hyper-careful of his reputation, determined not to make the same blunder twice. He scoffs when presented with D-Day plans – Operation Overlord – by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, (an unbelievable John Slattery) and England’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, (an okay Julian Wadham). Churchill flaps about like a wounded bird. They’re used to Churchill’s tantrums and black moods but persist. They sigh and roll their eyes at the excitable prima donna.

Right there and then you drop any belief in the plot. A green history student will tell you the D-Day plans were months in the making of which Churchill was a part. To present us with a scene in which he’s supposed to see them for the first time three days from the actual event is insulting.

The script is by a first-time screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, which in itself might be excusable were he not already known for writing about his opinions on truth-juggling historical dramas. Even allowing for the cinematic editing of time, this film is one long historical howler, a blunder that should have been junked on the producer’s read of the first draft. Actors are not specialist historians, so the blame can’t be laid at their door. Despite creative liberties, Braveheart was Tolstoy in comparison, but I bet you won’t hear a British nationalist make a peep against Churchill.

The Winston we meet is at the end of his tether. A whisky-swilling drunk – true, he was often drunk – a boring pedant, and a brilliant if purple wordsmith. He is woken up on the floor of his office recovering from a bender. Knowing his moment in history has come, he begins work on a speech, drafting and redrafting, deliberating on using the word “trials” or “tribulations.” What does that add to the sum knowledge of ‘Winnie’?

The scene moves on: alarmed at the idea of a potentially disastrous amphibious assault (like Gallipoli), he orders his men to draw up plans for an Italian invasion. His staff treat the old buffer like a doddering fool, and ignore him.

This far from the Second World War I suspect new generations of youth in Britain will read of Churchill as a great speech writer and war time leader, and think not much more of him. They might come across a street named after him in their city and take no notice.

Churchill was not well liked in his day. The novelist Evelyn Waugh disliked Churchill intensely. Through a character in his trilogy The Sword of Honour, Waugh’s alter ego, Guy Crouchback calls Churchill “a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the popular front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George”.

Listening to Churchill’s famous speeches now on YouTube you’re conscious of sonorous, plodding, neo-Latinate sentences, and a capacity for the portentous.

As with all American sourced biographical films there has to be a large portion devoted to the main character’s sex life. The last biography I saw was Surviving Picasso starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. It had next to nothing on why he chose his subject matter, or what drove him as an artist, but a hellova lot about why he chose and then dumped his women. In Churchill who knew that the Prime Minister’s wife, (Miranda Richardson) felt so neglected in her marriage that, even with the invasion clock ticking, she packs her bags to leave, all huffy? (Outside Wonder Woman, are there any good roles for women in American films that are not frustrated housewives?)

Who knew Winston was so self-pitying his wife tried to slap him to his senses? Or that it took a speech by a secretary, (Ella Purnell) with a soldier fiancé to shame the clinically depressed leader into getting off his arse and doing his job?

It’s all very parochial, boringly convenient and terribly theatrical.

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Director Teplitsky, in black. Best dressed you will ever see Dundonian Brian Cox

And so it goes. Cox’s delivery of Churchill’s “We will fight on the beaches” D-Day speech surely ranks among the best, but impact is diminished when you  know the speech and others like it are lifted out of context for a melodrama that never rises – let’s admit it –  above television soap.

Cox looks absolutely right for the role, gets Churchill’s stentorian voice spot on, his face skin is all saggy, baggy-eyed, the cigar brandished about like a weapon, but he deserves better. The film simplifies Churchill’s character and the events around him. It makes Churchill out to be an impotent meddler at a critical time in Britain’s history. There are moments he seems the least interesting person in the room. The folks behind Churchill deserve the grief they’re sure to attract from WWII purists.

The pedestrian drama is full of mono-dimensional characters and too much explanatory dialogue that sounds like a boring history lesson: “Operation Overlord will require 200,000 vehicles, a fleet of 7,000 ships, swarms of planes, two tons of water-resistant bog rolls …” I made that last bit up, but you get the drift.

The Scottish-shot locations provide plenty of scenic backdrops, though keen-eyed cinemagoers will question why wartime London looks uncannily like Edinburgh. Lorne Balfe’s twinkly score has a touching delicacy at first becoming repetitious after a while.

In good Hollywood fashion when one studio makes a film about Britain’s greatest war hero, another studio executive without an idea in his head instructs his studio to make a film on Churchill. The other being Darkest Hour (2017), stars Gary Oldman, I think I’ll give that one a miss.

As for this one, two stars and Cox earns both of them. Nil stars for the film.

  • Star rating: Two stars
  • Cast: Brain Cox, John Slattery, Miranda Richardson
  • Director: Jonathan Teplitsky
  • Writer: Alex Von Tunzelmann
  • Cinematography: David Higgs
  • Composer: Lorne Balfe
  • Duration: 1 hour 38 minutes
Posted in Film review | 2 Comments

A Churchillian Hatred

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Davidson and Mundell, Tory twins paid to scorn and block Scotland’s hopes

Things happen in threes, it’s said. Three times in one week I’ve heard the same comment. The first from a friend, an intelligent man, runs his own computer servicing business, the guy you call to locate the virus and install security systems, a staunch independence voter. The second was on an e-mail, the third on a tweet.

My friend said, “It’s all getting too divisive; we voted with the United Kingdom, maybe  should accept the result of Brexit.”

Whatever he said next, I didn’t hear it. I rolled his words over and over in my mind trying to make sense of them. I knew instinctively what he had said was irrational.

I can just about accept his reckoning if Scotland had elected a Labour government or the Tories had the majority, unionist parties both, but I can’t accept his sentiment while the nation has elected a party entirely dedicated to protect Scotland’s interests.

We are democracy

Why elect a party, give it a healthy mandate to make the decisions we expect them to make, and then withdraw when it meets resistance? Our responsibilities don’t end with a cross on a ballot paper. Losing our nerve when the going gets tough doesn’t say much for our resolve.

Being perceptive, my friend took note of the Tory Party in Scotland shamelessly signing up known neo-Nazis and fascist sympathisers to their colonial cause, and was appalled at the situation. Some phony candidates have taken to camouflage, canvassing under the banner of ‘independent’. If embraced by a political party their twitter account is cleaned up overnight, and the Facebook pages locked from public scrutiny. All is well, time for a photo opportunity with Ruthie, or Kezia, history has been Cillit Banged.

This unexpected development was one aspect of local and national elections that had him wonder if accepting Westminster belligerence will somehow disperse the advance of extremists. Well, no; it will encourage the worst in society to do their worst.

Scotland wants to stay in Europe. We wish fervently to remain Europeans with all the benefits that that bestows. We voted No to full autonomy on the promise we remain Europeans part of the European Union. Brussels doesn’t ‘govern’  the UK or Scotland. That’s the smear spread by British nationalists keen to govern Brussels.

Sell your pith helmet

We are witness to a disgusting right-wing resurgence of England as a colonial power, a last dying fart. Not all English are so disposed, not all see themselves riding the back of a camel like Lawrence of Arabia and telling Arabian tribes how to massacre Turks, or shooting elephant and tiger, just those who have power and those who want power.

Flaky Tory MP Liam Fox, international trade secretary, a man who would have sold his incubator had he the physical ability as a baby to advertise it in the Times, describes glorious England as, “A small island perched on the edge of the European continent that became a leader of world trade.”

Cue Edward Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Tory’.

Fox is one of those mini-monsters of politics, a Scot … on the make.

In one sentence he reminds us of English foreign policy made simple: that all other nations are inferior. They should be Anglofied to ensure trade dominance. You see, there it is, the Treaty between Scotland and England rests solely on trade, who prospers by it.

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Churchill’s  savage legacy

Of Englishmen who dominated the British Empire, preeminent was Winston Churchill. Not often cited is Churchill’s infamous boast of killing “savages” in Sudan. He took part in raids as part of his duties, raids laying waste to whole valleys, destroying houses and burning crops. He bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages”.

As an MP Churchill demanded more conquests based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”. As for the unfortunate children of savages killed, Churchill felt they would be  “glad to include themselves within the gold circle of an ancient Crown”.

His doctor, Lord Moran, opined that Churchill had a way of “judging everybody by the colour of their skin.” A British nationalist from his Cuban cigar to his ugly bulldog, Churchill advocated the troublesome little Kapher “Gandhi be bound and gagged and trampled on by elephants.”

He had his detractors. Churchill’s colleagues thought him antediluvian, not fit for promotion to high office, but he still became Prime Minster, and used his considerable dislike of Johnny Foreigner to beat ‘the Huns’ at their own game. It’s our luck Churchill and Nazism arose at the same time. Churchill knew a creed worse than his own.

In direct decendency, May, Farage, and now Trump, encourage us to be thugs. Their intellect is so rancid flies must think them dead. They fear the truth because to speak it will age them decades.

Peas in a colonial pod

Today’s zealots opposed to Scotland’s constitutional progress embody the same Churchillian disdain of  ‘inferior’ nations asserting themselves. Given up offering alternative policies and false choice, they’ve taken to poisoning the waters.

We Scots, we’re told, are so obviously useless at anything, especially governing ourselves Westminster is compelled to rule us. In reality, the attack on our education system and NHS is just a variation of  the racist argument. Our children are poorly educated, they aver, and we cannot heal the sick, because we are illiterate savages.

The blitz on liberal sentiment is cloaked in the moronically repeated phrase, ‘divisive politics’. The preposterous line normal political discourse is divisive, that it breaks up families and sets apart loved ones, requires, to put it at its crudest, kicked in the badoolas.

If those people spouting that  idiocy were a building they’d be condemned.

But there’s amusement in seeing unionists getting hot under the collar while arguing that only Westminster rule keeps people cool, calm and collected. Westminster rule is often callous, inflammatory, and always reactionary.

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Tory and Labour attacks abuse free speech with extreme racist opinions

To ignore racism is to invite it

If readers still don’t see the struggle as democrat versus colonial they should have been present at UKip’s predicable chaotic launch of their racist manifesto. BBC’s Scots-born Laura Kuenssberg tried to ask a simple, straight-forward question and got silenced by jeers. “Learn to speak English!” she was told in no uncertain terms, and from people who pronounce ‘month’ as mumf.

A prime example of the criminal waste of media airtime is the unspeakably repulsive Katie Hopkins. Bile pours out her like molten lava, synthetic, fired up to shock.

She wrote of Scotland’s First Minister, “the Ginger Dwarf from the North,” and the much liked and admired SNP MP, Mhairi Black needed to learn “some useful life skills, like how to talk, write, or use shampoo.”

Hopkins writes this in the wake of Manchester’s horrendous atrocity:

“22 dead – number rising. Schofield. Don’t you even dare. Do not be a part of the problem. We need a final solution Machester [sic].” [My emphasis].

She lost her job as a broadcaster, (but still employed by the Daily Mail) since uttering that calamitous thought, a phrase Goebbels would have been proud to have coined, and probably did.

(Satire on.) How awful – you can’t call for race or religious extermination these days without someone taking offence! (Satire off.)

The fans she incites are not happy that her soap box is getting smaller, but who cares about those dupes? Hopkins is the same who compared migrants to cockroaches.

Scotland has no control over UK immigration. We are witnessing good people forcibly deported, here in Scotland, industrious and hard working people, people integrated with the community. Do we want to submit to that sort of rule? Where is the justice?

Rather than give in and accept her provincial abuse, wouldn’t it be pleasant to live in an nation where her ferocious stupidity was not a paid job? Hopkins has no attachment to anybody but herself. The talentless, thick end of a spatula, Katie Hopkins of this world won’t go away if we cave in and agree to leave Europe and accept Westminster diktat. Only a fool agrees to be a loser twice.

As I try to demonstrate, attacks on Scotland’s integrity are nothing new. They’ve been part and parcel of colonial propaganda for centuries.

If divisive now, they were divisive then, so what’s the problem? We’re still together as a nation, resistant to subjugation. Let’s build a society where those people can’t function.

Our English friends

Not all English are comfortable sharing a colonial outlook.

There is English reserve to take into account; one may think it, but never say it. And there are genuine internationalists. They talk of justice and freedom as easily as we do, only I’ve a suspicion, only a suspicion, mind, those who live among us probably hold the key to whether or not we get those ideals as our own to nurture. They represent in one group more than the five per cent swing in votes we need to win back our freedoms. I hope their internationalism includes Scotland.

Churchill lived to see stalwarts of the democratic spirit regain their lands – charismatic nationalist leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, first leader of free Ghana, liberated from the British Empire in March 1957, Aung San in Burma, and Jawarlal Nehru in India.

They used Churchill’s own words and his braggadocio against him, as we will use the insults of today’s divisive racists to bury them and their hostility, once and for all.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 14 Comments