Atomic Blonde – a review


Charlize Theron showing how angry a woman can get when the elevator is full

If readers want to avoid reading this review here it is on a postcard: Atomic Blonde is another Hollywood boilerplate story about 100 different ways to kill a man, and one way to kill a woman. What brains it has are splattered on walls after a gunshot to the skull.

Dumb Hollywood studio bosses are at it again; get one killer superwoman out there and at least two other studios must have their version, Scarlett Johansson eat yer heart out. And I have no idea why women want equality of opportunity in films yet when in the position to dictate choose to be as stupid as men in their choice of roles.

In the pre-premier hype for this flash, bang, wallop of a kick-ass, thick chick flick, the star Charlize Theron mentions almost casually the loss of two teeth. So much for well-prepared stunt fights. The consummate lead of Monster, (2003) and Mad Max – Fury Road, (2015) is one serious and always interesting actress, not to be tainted as a mere vacant eyed model for Dior perfume. (We must call it a ‘fragrance’.) The commercial is pretty dire, and ought to embarrass any serious actress, but somehow Theron gets off with it.

Oddly, she’s been seen in the company of mean-mouthed Sean Penn  lately, the actor who scolded his colleagues for not knowing whether “they are an actor or a model”. Theron began her career as a model, so I guess she can claim justification for snaffling Dior’s fat fees, and walking around in slinky gold dresses with a gait that makes her look as if thawing a packet of Birds Eye frozen peas between her thighs.

Atomic Blonde is mostly bad, but pretty good at the rough stuff, a revenger’s tragedy without the tragedy. If any reader is perplexed as to the reason good actors who have excellent films in their portfolio suddenly appear in half-baked nonsense – and Atomic Blonde is full-on half-baked nonsense – the answer lies in the contracts they sign.

To gain a coveted star role in a film an actor often has to sign a two or three picture deal with the studio or independent (great word) producer. The actor calculates they can pick and choose given enough time and a choice of scripts, but somewhere in the studio’s in tray is a project they bought at great cost so bad no one wants to make it. Last picture in the deal on the table, sure as hell it’s the one confronting the actor with no choice but to sign on the dotted line. They hope they have enough box office muscle to chivvy the screenplay up in quality, but a dud is a dud, no matter how smart the director.

The inside gossip is Theron owns the rights to the comic strip on which this film is based. If so – and she’s credited as a producer – she needs to find a better scriptwriter.

In this instance the director of Atomic Blonde is a first-timer, former stunt man David Leitch. If he directed the fight scenes and not the second unit director he should get the credit for they are skilled. On the other hand, if he directed the non-fight scenes he should be treated with caution for another movie offer.


The money shot – woman on woman steamy sex

As mentioned earlier the story is pure boilerplate genre. It reminded me a lot of Mel Gibson’s revenger’s hokum Payback, (1999) shot in the same steel grey-blues, locations are low life back streets, or strip joints.

In Payback everybody who is anybody gets whacked in brutal ways, and the hero is tortured until he refuses to speak. The only reason for the hero to spill the beans is to make a false statement that leads the villains off the scent and gets them off his back. Payback’s plot sums up the plot of Atomic Blonde.

Lorraine Broughton, she the blonde heroine of the title with the forgettable name, dresses like a thirty’s movie star – the perfect disguise for a spy.

The story is told in flashbacks as Broughton (Charlize Theron) recounts her escapades to her unsympathetic MI6 senior bosses, a third man watching behind the one-way glass. Officially, this brutish ‘thriller’ –  there is no tension – takes place in Berlin just before and after the toppling of the Wall, in early November 1989.

We begin with that old faker President Reagan demanding of President Gorbachev that he should “take down this wall”, a blatant steal, since a week earlier Gorbachev is recorded in reality confiding in Reagan he was about to do that anyway as part of his plans for Perestroika. But the film doesn’t stretch to political insight.

We cut to Broughton emerging out of a bath of ice, her body beaten, bashed and bruised. From then on its all flashback moments and a lot of close ups of ice, ice on ice, ice in ice buckets, ice on roofs, ice in vodka glasses. Oh, and almost everybody smokes. It’s the only way they can express intensity.

We learn Broughton was sent to Berlin to eradicate an espionage ring – they are all psychopathic killers – get hold of a list of names, and on the journey discover who is the double agent that is a pain in the files of our goody two shoes intelligence chaps. We pretty well know who that is from the start because the character is the most sleazy one on the screen. He even wakes up with two women beside him in bed and doesn’t know how they got there. In among all this silliness there’s a watch shop staffed by a creepy chronologist. And there’s an evil black Porsche 911 Turbo. All spies in disguise must have a flashy standout sportscar.

David Leitch’s film, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, does have a composer credited, yet it lurches from one pop song to the next, only one in my view reasonably well choreographed to the action. George Michael’s “Father Figure” nicely punctuates – or is that punctures – half-a-dozen polizei beaten to a pulp by Broughton our stiletto-stabbing MI6 agent.

Our  peroxided fag puffing superspy spends the occasional night with another glamorous spy, Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a smouldering French intelligence officer. Broughton is femme in the sheets but she’s a riveter in the streets. In fact, that scene had me confused. Didn’t we see her in bed with a male spy at the start of the story? She must be fashionably AC-DC. Ah well, a hard working spy has to take sex when they can get it.

The most coherent moments of this byzantine groin crusher is the seamless fight scenes, (but really cleverly edited) episodes that show off the aloof appeal of Theron. She lays waste to Stasi agents and Russian grizzlies with a zeal that would shame an abattoir worker with a fifty a day killing brief.


Our own James McAvoy plays a Berlin-based British agent and street yapper

How many action flicks have we seen where bodies litter the street, back alleys, corridors, and stairwells, broken glass all over the floor, yet when characters return to the scene of death and destruction next day there’s not a body to be found? Who is cleaning up the place, Winston Wolf for Direct Line?

There’s never a policeman around when you need one, and should one blunder into a scene of carnage by mistake he’s the dimmest in the force and loses his gun, his police car, his dog, and his wife, to the hero in a nanosecond.

Real spies don’t do extended karate sequences, back flips up walls, or dare devil car chases shooting backwards while driving at high speed forward, or shooting through the windscreen while driving backwards at high speed. Life for them is low-key and drab. They dress like a lowly bank clerk and stick a poisoned tipped umbrella into their victims thigh while waiting at a bus stop, or invite him to Fortnum and Masons for a refreshing cuppa of Ceylon’s best Plutonium Tips.

If you like the pornography of violence butch and bloody, this is your film.

  • Star Rating: Two stars
  • Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones
  • Director: David Leitch
  • Writer: Kurt Johnstad (Based on a graphic novel)
  • Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela
  • Composer: Tyler Bates
  • Duration: 115 minutes
  • Rating: R


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

England’s Neo-Colonialism


Or, How to Decolonise Your Mind

In my opinion the seminal document of the first Independence debate was Alasdair Gray’s essay “Settlers and Colonialists“, a document equal in power to the government’s White Paper. It took careful aim at the Scottish arts establishment. His thesis was icicle sharp, straight to the jugular, in a nutshell: settlers enrich us, colonials supress us.

Gray’s ominous elegy to Scotland’s perpetually relegated drama and literature was never matched by what came afterwards. There was not an anti-English sentiment in the essay, but to close it down that’s how it was depicted, attacked savagely by unionists and their media machine despite Gray welcoming English who live and work here. He and us were made to feel guilt for using the term colonial.

Overnight colonial became a taboo word, not be uttered in polite media circles. People advised each other not to make the Great Debate one of ethnicity. After days of media generated controversy ‘settler’ and ‘colonial’ were dropped from debates, a small but highly significant victory for the oppressors of political and linguistic freedom.

The meaning of colonialism

By colonialism I mean a society stunted by a deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority. It is governed by a state that dominates and imposes.

What was the moronically repeated slogan, “Too small, too weak, and too poor” if not the manifestation of a colonial mentality that sees its satellite territories as inferior?

Brexit tells us neo-colonialism is alive and thriving – described by the SNP as a power grab by Westminster. Whatever is the outcome of negotiations to leave the European Union, Scotland is told it must take what it’s offered. The Union is not a pairing of equals.

Early awakenings

I understood the process better when researching facts and material for a screenplay on the massacre of Glencoe, (1692) a dramatisation where the action switches back and forth between King William of Orange’s court, the Scottish Secretary of State’s office in Edinburgh, and the slopes of Glen Coe itself.

Clans chiefs and elders (clann means children) were educated in European universities. They were proficient in English, Latin, French and Italian, as well as their own native Gaelic, yet a mixed language filmed production was judged too problematic to communicate to a predominately English audience.

We are taught that to embrace foreign languages is a positive thing, to embrace our own is antediluvian. I was faced with the fatalistic logic of the unassailable dominance of English.

Colonialism by broadcaster

Put simply, the main objection to Glencoe was one of language. I have no evidence of the reverse ever  having happened, that is, a Scottish broadcaster rejecting an English production because it did not take account of Scottish cultural idioms and traditions.

The quality of the project was considered of a high order, major actors attached. The reason for rejection was stark: the British Broadcasting Corporation promotes the culture and language of the colonial power.

Finding historical dialogue on record was imperative to give the screenplay veracity. I wanted key Scots characters to speak in their native tongue, subtitles added, but that meant employing non-star actors. That in turn lowered the commercial viability of sales. No such problem was encountered when we bought the German series “Das Boot.” But then, that was a story of plucky Brits beating the Hun.

As a solution, I evolved a heightened language that was universally acceptable, one to mollify BBC objections. The solution always came back to a version of 18th century English, a faux register quite obviously out of time with the events I was trying to depict.

Here is the irony – in most countries spoken and written language are the same. Not so in Scotland. To communicate beyond our border we must use the Queen’s English. We are happy to comply for we speak a version of it within our border. You could argue we speak lots of languages in Scotland, from the Islands and Highlands, across Aberdeenshire, through Glaswegian to Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders.

I became aware of the chasms of communication and values that separate English from Scots. In the words of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, for the first time I could see how the “materialist, the romantic, and the phenomenological were irreconcilable”.


My capital city

Edinburgh has the greatest proliferation of fee paying public, (US – private) schools in Scotland; no wonder it shamed the nation by voting against self-governance. But that’s the corrosive club that one had to join for advancement. I did not attend a privileged school. I soon discovered it left me at a disadvantage. So, by attention to bourgeois good manners and flattening my accent I learned how to gain access to polite society. By borrowing superficial bits of another’s culture I felt I had gained some self-esteem. That, of course, is exactly how colonialism works. You feel better emulating them.

I don’t see much difference today. I could weep; my home city, crucible of the Scottish Enlightenment is tragically, avowedly, regressively colonial in outlook.

A hallmark of imperial colonialism is the concentration of capital in one place. In our case it’s in the City of London and a smaller group of investment institutions and banks in Edinburgh. Well-heeled bourgeois Edinburgh votes against autonomy, but working class, deprived Glasgow votes universally for control over its nation’s destiny.

Our culture, our language, our resolve is everything. It conveys all our codes of ethics and values. And that’s what I want to concentrate on in this essay.


A shameful past

English colonialism is born out of its imperialist past, one it is determined to reignite. It was an imperialism some Scots took part in enthusiastically, but always as subalterns, that is, we were not part of the hegemonic English power structure.

We were employed to do a job, from policeman to ambassador, from captain of a slave ship to boss of a Ceylonese tea plantation, and often did it better than our masters.

In time we came to believe our inferiority was reality, to accept it as a natural state of affairs. We accepted the demotion or exclusion of our poetry and literature, our heritage, as a small price to pay for belonging to a Union we thought benign and all powerful.

Liberty from theft

After two world wars in which thousands of Scot died for the freedom of others, we started to question our relationship with England. Power and progress appeared all one way. No matter how we looked at it, something was wrong.

The ultimate effect of governance by another country is evaporation of a belief in our names, our language, and our culture. You can see it taking place now. Confidence shaken by the defeat of the 2014 Referendum, some question the goal of self-governance believing it remote, an infantile dream. We invite contempt, castigated because we are ‘divided’, squabbling among ourselves, ‘tribal’, the movement for independence ‘waning’.

Merely talking about it is allegedly ‘divisive’. That’s the propaganda of the bourgeois colonial. The notion changing minds over power structures is only a chat in a Morningside coffee shop – but don’t frighten the  diners – is ludicrous. Somebody is sure to have their sensibilities outraged. No one said the struggle would be over by tea time.

Scorn  and contempt are the tools of a corpus of state capitalists, faux academics, craven journalists, students keen on preferment, working class who believe in authoritarian rule, and weak-witted politicians thinking they are cleaning up the Internet.


What reason colonialism?

Colonialism exists to control a nation’s wealth and redistribute it to the victor. That’s why Scotland had barely seen a penny from our own oil in our own territory. We protest at the closure of our heavy industry but can do nothing to stop it. To attain those ends the dominant nation embarks on a sustained campaign to undervalue the subservient nation’s culture, its history, its wealth, its very language.

The ultimate sanction is warned we will be treated as foreigners should we ever exercise free will. Autonomous, we cannot be one of them. And yet, we never are, even when desperately impersonating ‘one of them’. (Lord Darling please be advised.) Believing in Britishness we become disassociated from our own environment.

That alienation is reinforced in the teaching of our history, (‘Braveheart’ is bunkum, the Duke of Wellington is a hero) geography, (Scotland is a wet and infertile region, England is bathed in sunshine) economy, (Scotland is a basket case, England is the bread basket of the UK) and our music, (it’s all bagpipes and sword dancing, Morris dancing is a fine heritage). I call that oppression.

One antidote is the Scottish Government asking for a degree of Scots literature and history to be taught in our schools. We can afford to dump any of JK Rowling’s derivative Harry Potter door stoppers for any of RL Stevenson’s novels, or for anything by Frederic Lindsay, or Margaret Oliphant, Irvine Welsh, or Ali Smith.

Surviving the onslaught

The obvious contradiction in this thesis is, I write in English, the only way I can communicate to the widest audience. But that’s no reason to subject Lallands Scots, the Doric, or Gaelic, or any of our dialects to extirpation by colonial domination.

The poet and co-founder of the nationalist movement, Hugh MacDiarmid, understood how the rot starts from the top. He saw that process at work and wanted to re-emphasise our separate identity. That’s why we have his masterpiece, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle“. “I’ll hae nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur Extremes meet.” Had that epic poem been published on the Internet a colonial nonentity would pop up instantly to claim “No one speaks like that today!”

MacDiarmid’s analysis of the then Scots psyche is an intellectually challenging work, but also a work designed to draw attention to a neglected literary history.

In the same way a Cornishman is proud of his native language and traditions, so should a Scot be proud of his heritage. It is the language of a specific community with a specific history, a history based on specific values and ethics.

It is the way we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.



The first step to decolonising our minds, throwing off ‘the cringe’, is to take pride in our heritage and culture. The second step is to demand that it is given the respect and the promotion internationally that other cultures are given.

Let no one argue otherwise: the movement to reinstate self-governance is a unifying force. It is the language of honesty and equality. That’s what unnerves the colonial mind. It sees the subversive, it sees a challenge to conventional orthodoxy, the core of its power. The colonial offers a pretence that he frees us from poverty and ignorance. In reality he imposes both.

As political observers have noted, Scots have retained their identity over 300 years of alien rule, against all odds, it has to be said. But we are in the midst of a determined assault to wipe out differences once and for all time, and if we lose a second Referendum disillusionment in our worth is sure to follow. Renaming the Scottish Executive the Scottish Parliament was a deeply political move. There are forces that plan to rescind it.

We must keep a tight hold of the regenerative connection with our roots and reject the primacy of English culture. Suffocation lies in accepting England’s political agenda and its class system. England has ever right to protect its heritage, which it does with vigour, but it has no right to sing of its virtues as superior to all other nations.

The neo-colonial battle for the soul of Scotland is a struggle, no matter how much opposition to it is couched in genteel terms. It is a struggle of opposing forces. Give in to it and we accept the values of the victor. The democratic right to choose is lost.

Suspicious of liberation, the colonial mind will be just as cynical when it sees it in a novel, a play, a film, an essay, or as minor a thing as a tweet. We can see how brutal they can be. As cynics put it, get used to it; the colonial mentality will always want to control.

A Unionist is a colonial whether Scot, English, Welsh, or Northern Irish, whether wanting more powers for Scotland but not their protection, or voting for a Westminster party as a warped way of obtaining independence. We should call them what they are. They are not unifiers. They are pacifiers. They narrow the debate, they constrain urgency, they generalise a sense of fairness, exactly the modus operandi of the veteran colonial.

Reinstatement of Scotland’s self-governance is the basis of internationalism recognised by all nations as a human struggle for equality, justice, peace and progress. We seek full civil rights and ownership of the entire productive resources of our nation.

Argue over the detail all you will, but never lose sight of the essential goal.

Note: This essay follows on from the previous essay, ‘Colonialism is a Crime’.





Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 17 Comments

Valerian – a review


Valerian: The images are as captivating as the story is banal

I still think of Luc Besson’s Léon, (1994) with affection despite the plot being one hell hole of an immoral tale. A solitary professional hit man, (the great Jean Reno, chin stubble de rigueur) reluctantly befriends a little girl, (12 year-old Natalie Portman) in the apartment block where they live, and then teaches her how to kill, after she witnesses the massacre of her abusive parents. For some reason Besson thinks it more acceptable to have nasty parents wiped out as opposed to those who are loving and caring. And hey, what’s wrong with teaching a minor to shoot straight?

On the other hand, I look back at his Joan of Arc biography The Messenger, (1999) and see a director completely out of control, politically all over the place, unable to hold tight to the narrative’s trajectory, or give characters more than a cursory backstory. The project had all the hallmarks of a ‘special’ conceived for a muse.


A healthy looking Besson at The Fifth Element premiere, with Bruce Willis, the former Mrs Willis, Demi Moore, and the lost for a dress Milla Jojovitch

And if there’s nothing else to engage my brain, I’ll watch television reruns of the taciturn, self-regarding Bruce Willis and leggy, pigeon English Milla Jovovich slug it out physically and verbally in the enjoyable The Fifth Element, (1997). For mad keen Besson fans there are other diamonds to cherish: the deep-sea worlds of The Big Blue, (1988) and Atlantis, (1991) plus the verve he brought to the female kick-ass genre in La Femme Nikita, (1989).

But like all prolific film directors Besson seemed to burn himself out,  (with the notable exception of his science fiction caper, Lucy, (2014) as he grew middle-aged. Besson’s output this century shows all the signs of exhaustion – as do photographs of him – tired ideas, and a camp imagination.

If what you’ve just read seems an over-long introduction to this film review it’s because the film is a noble failure, and consequently I don’t have a great deal of praise for it.


An unhealthy Besson at Valerian premiere, with eyebrow twins, Delevingne and DeHaan

Besson claims he has wanted to make Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets since he was ten years old.  Yes, really 10. Presumably that’s when he  discovered Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ French comics Valerian and Laureline. That he conceived of the stories as a film at that age is a bit far fetched. Then again, Mozart composed his first violin and piano piece at five years of age.

Did Besson conceive Valerian as a series of sub-plots within subplots, like a Russian doll – who knows? It’s all visuals, no script, plot and visuals, often very silly, and far too long. And how many clown aliens do we need in a Besson sci-fi epic?

Valerian cost a staggering $200 million USD, and yet they couldn’t afford a scriptwriter. I came to the conclusion many years ago Besson can’t write dialogue, even in his features that are an interminable length, so don’t expect memorable phrases or one-liners.


One of the many dream-like sequences

What’s the story about? Well, I’m not altogether certain. Here is what I managed to glean:  There are two  yoofs we are expected to relate to, both chosen because they are beautiful, and yoofful cinemagoers can project themselves onto as their ideal.

Our heroes are involved in a journey as interstellar federation agents Valerian, (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline, (Cara Delevingne) – Besson has a taste for catwalk models as actresses. As faces they are a youfful pair of flighty eyebrows – Delevingne wins on that score – who spend most of the film’s length trying to find the missing commander of an humungous, ancient-old space station.

I have no idea why they bother going on their quest, for the commander is played by the duck footed Clive Owen, and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that he’s a kind of a sinister fellow. Why they don’t spot that immediately and take a body swerve is one of the mysteries of the plot. Characters and storyline are as thin as potato crisps.

What holds our interest – kinda – for a great deal of the time are Besson’s images. They’re immensely more attractive in comparison to that other sci-fi turkey, David Lynch’s 1984 dystopian, muddled mud pie, Dune. I can still see a scene in Valerian in which mauve coloured aliens wake up beside a beach on the far side of the universe, to stretch in the morning light. But the scene goes nowhere, a side story that loses momentum.

There are a whole list of marvellous images for out ticket money: fishlike beings in diving-bell spacesuits, monkey-anteater hybrids and other tentacular marvels that look as if puppets from Jim Henson’s workshop, and elongated stick aliens with bubbling-liquid necks. Outer space and under water look a wondrous playground. Besson’s creatures put J.K. Rowling’s in a peep.

Try to see it in the 3-D version; it will make up for the poor story.


Besson checking composition on location

What about the actor’s performances? They all do pretty well, no Oscar performances, but more than acceptable. They are not given any character development, none see life differently by revelation or experience. They stay pretty well the same from start to finish. Valerian and Laureline begin at loggerheads, have an infantile courtship before falling into full, passionate love.

A singer called Rihanna (am feigning ignorance of her) does a good shape-shifting pole-dance routine not in the least erotic, more plain eye-popping stupid. The film is all razzmatazz and glamour and no substance.

I am sure Besson knows well his limitations and plays to his strengths, but of late too many of his films have been hit and miss affairs. As a summer blockbuster Valerian and a Thousand Planets is a flop unless you like science fiction. Followers of the film site Rotten Tomatoes give the film only 51% rating.

And before I finish, did I mention that Besson cannot write dialogue? Just saying.

  • Star Rating: Two stars
  • Cast: Cara Delevingne, DeHaan,
  • Director: Luc Besson
  • Writer: Luc Besson
  • Cinematographer: Thierry Arbogast
  • Music: Alexandre Desplat
  • Duration: 2 hrs 17 mins
Posted in Film review | 2 Comments

A Scottish Nurse

An occasional series on Scots of singular merit, ignored or forgotten


Bourj al-Brajneh today; still without peace, still enduring attack

It’s a measure of Suzy Wighton’s modesty, of her steadfast commitment to her work first in Lebanon and then in the UK, and an avoidance of shallow celebrity, that I do not have a photograph of her. There are none I can find on the web. I used one from her book.

The futility of war

‘One Day at a Time’ is part-diary, part a reflective account of her harrowing time as a nurse trapped in the clinic of a Lebanese refugee camp called Bourj al-Brajneh, in 1986. After it  was over and she herself rescued, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the Palestinian people. For a short time she was a heroine to us all until the Tories kidnapped the ideological agenda, and Suzy slipped out of view.

You’d think every Scot knew of her. As well as the MBE, she was awarded the Star of Palestine, the UN Development Fund Woman of the Year, Scotswoman of the Year, and Nurse of the Year – perhaps that ought to be extended to As Long As She Likes.

The conflagration that is Lebanon is long forgotten in the miasma that is the Middle East Armageddon. Suzy was there when, compared to today’s wildfire wars, it appeared an uncomplicated conflict, Jew versus Palestinian.

Arafat was the Palestinian leader, idolised by his people. He tried hard to get a two-nation settlement as agreed by the United Nations, but there was always an objection to it by Israel, with the US acceding to Zionist Israeli’s endless additional demands, particularly its appropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements. On top of that there was an impotent UN constrained by vetoes from the big bully ‘concerned’ nations.

Memories of that oppressed region fade as the next war monopolises media headlines, but Suzy’s time there should not be expunged from the record.

The lass in person

I met a good humoured, fresh faced plump girl with blonde hair and an open smile. Behind the smile was a resolve of steel. Look closely and listen intently as I did, and there’s something deeper – a sadness mixed with anger.

When she returned home she came back to a disaster that was Thatcher and the Tories making. The Tories were attempting to privatise the NHS in England, and control the one in Scotland. Bean counters almost outnumbered nurses. “John Major and the Conservatives keep on telling us how there is more money than ever before going into the NHS but, if that’s true, it’s certainly not spent on looking after patients. “


Suzy (centre) and nurse Dolly Fong, and Dr Swee Chai Ang who stayed with her in the siege

I recall my many conversations with her explaining the politics. She taught me a lot about what was happening, and who were villains, and who were innocent casualties.

She had never lost her soft Edinburgh accent, nor showed any scars from her ordeal, not in public at least. And she was incredibly articulate.

Suzy is what we used to called a heroine. I think she’d dislike that term. She praise instead the medical staff around her, and the woman who life together. In fact, the only photograph of her in her book – reproduced here – is one with friends promoting the book when revisiting the camp; all the others are devoted to the people and the camp she found herself in. There she was surrounded by the people she saved from certain death by bomb, bullet or starvation, after all her medical colleagues had fled. There she remembered those she was unable to save.

First meetings

I met Suzy after it was all over and she back safe in Scotland doing a brief round of radio studio interviewed to promote her book, and draw attention to the plight of Palestine. She was studying for a Masters in Community Health at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine which she obtained.

I discussed the probability of turning her story into a cinema feature or dramatised documentary, but we both calculated the people who decide on such things, and who hold the purse strings, might not be well disposed to the Palestinian cause. My letters to BBC Scotland drama department were never answered. In one major Los Angeles talent agency, the bigwig literary agent turned the book over few times in his hands and handed it back to me with a wan smile, as if I’d given him sour milk to drink.

Thinking about the horrific experiences Suzy recounted, you realise nothing much has changed. Battles have turned into wars and invasions.

All the proselytising and all the pontificating of all the presidents and all the president’s men since then failed to put Palestine together again. Indeed, the US, the most dogged in mouthing solutions whilst supporting Israel, remains the equivalent of the policeman who’s not in the least impartial, yet insists on acting as referee in a dispute. Only one side trusts him, and it isn’t the victim. The US is still sending billions of dollars of weapons to Israel to oppress the Palestinians, and help build Israel’s Berlin wall.

Eulogising Suzy

Like all the individuals in the series of people who’ve impressed me or shaped my thinking, I cannot do justice to Suzy’s experiences. I can only encapsulate them in a few hundred words. I offer a glimpse. For the real deal you should buy a copy of her book from Amazon. It’s a hard read well written, but it will open your eyes to what goes on in God’s own hell of the West’s making.

The backstory

Suzy was born in Edinburgh in 1959. In 1985, after completing a tropical nursing course, motivated by her earlier visits to occupied West Bank, Suzy found what she was looking for, an honourable cause for which she could use her medical skills. Ideals and training coalesced in the London office of Medical Aid for Palestinians. There she met Dr Swee Chai Ang, a surgeon who had survived the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Dr Swee’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, and her bravery along with that of Major Derek Cooper and his late wife Pamela, was inspirational to Suzy.

The Palestinian medical staff in Beirut were again being slaughtered in 1985 and 1986. They were dragged – along with their patients – from the hospital, which was on the edges of the Sabra and Shatila camps, and shot by militiamen. Health volunteers were required, and Suzy stepped forward, ending up in fated Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut.

Mideast Syria

A sea of tents house people there for decades

The Palestinian refugee population there had arrived from all over Palestine in 1948, mainly from the Galilee. They had left everything behind, locked their front doors, and moved over the border to wait for the fighting to end so they could return to their homes. When Suzy arrived none had managed to return to their homes all those decades before. Tents were replaced by corrugated tin shelters in which babies died sometimes of the heat and sometimes of the cold.

Six weeks after Suzy arrived, the war of the camps restarted, and she stayed for six months in the besieged camp.

As the siege intensified the first to leave for safety were English doctors and surgeons. The pejorative term snowflake was not in fashion then. One day they were there, the next gone. They left death and destruction knowing it would never end.

The various factions fought on, Lebanese Forces, Amal, the Progressive Socialist Party, (PSP) and the communists. Getting food and medical supplies into the camp became a life and death act. Woman smuggled paper and torn bits of cardboard to Suzy for her diary of events, who needed what medical help, who died, and what was happening outside. In time food was so scare internees ate their pets and caught the rats. To get water women chanced the sniper’s bullet dodging between collapsed buildings and debris strewn streets. Bodies were left to rot as a warning. Nobody dare collect them for burial.

A diary entry for two days before Christmas reads: “Now the fuel is running out. There’s supposed to be only enough to facilitate one operation of six hours duration.  The internal squabbling and unwillingness to the hospital is leaving the only solution that each organisation pays for its fighter’s operations in fuel.”

Another entry reads: “A young man, Bilal Shabati, hit by a large piece of shrapnel which fractured his spine. He was intubated and appeared to breathe spontaneously, but as soon as the tube was removed he started gasping and making tremendous efforts to breathe. We cannot evacuate him. He needs a respirator. The decision was taken to allow him to die. There is no morphine. He took a long time to do die.”

And so it goes on, children and young adults, brought in for emergency aid on makeshift stretchers, limbs barely attached, leave Suzy and her nursing colleagues to administer heroic care until death is the permanent peace.

A heartfelt diary entry reads; “Dreamt last night I was not cut off from the world, and that many letters were given to me from Mum, Dad, and Poshie, and Ghillie, and Stewart – missing them all. A lovely old lady, Wafiqa’s grandmother, asked where they all were today, and expressed concern  at my being alone in a strange place with a war.”


The tangled mass of electric cables that are left after a bomb explodes give existence to the various warring factions, and those the west supports.

When Suzy was enjoying a retun to metal and physical health here in her capital city Tony Blair took over the British Empire with a landslide victory. Then one day he backed George W Bush Junior on a pre-planned policy to invade Iraq with the public intention of shipping American style democracy to the Middle East, but in private, a long held doctrine of taming the entire region, Libya too. Suzy was outraged.

“I accepted my MBE on behalf of all my unsung Palestinian and Lebanese colleagues and comrades. I have now returned it, also in their name.

It is an utter disgrace that the British prime minister refused to press for a ceasefire, remained on holiday while these war crimes were being carried out and that parliament has not been recalled. It is a disgrace that the US ambassador to the UN described a call for a three-day truce to assist in humanitarian relief and evacuation of the wounded as “unhelpful”. It is a disgrace that this government ignored the concerns of the electorate and all other forms of lawful protest. I have therefore come to the conclusion that to continue to hold on to my MBE, for which I was nominated by the parliamentary Labour Party, is also a disgrace.

I have returned my MBE to St James Palace, with regret, in protest at the government’s complicity in the prosecution of illegal wars and occupations. And I am returning it, above all, in the hope that this small gesture will add to the swell of support for action for the people of Lebanon and Palestine, and to those who wish to see peace in Israel and other nations.”

The last I heard of Suzy Wighton she was living in the bonnie village of Comrie, Perthshire, with her daughter. She doesn’t work for the NHS anymore.

If she ever reads this I hope I’ve honoured her memory, and that she knows an independent Scotland will not forget its outstanding citizens even if the UK does. Her bravery and that of her co-nurses was exemplary.


If it wasn’t so tragic it’s almost an installation fit for the Turner

Others in this series of great Scots are:

Sir John Rae – explorer and cartographer; A.S. Neill – pioneering dominie; Adrienne Corri – actress and author; Ian Ritchie – architect and engineer; George Forrest – plant hunter extraordinaire; Allan Pinkerton – detective and spy.

Posted in Scottish Politics | 1 Comment

Tesla’s Latest Leccy



The Tesla 3. Why 3? The clue is in the numeral, it’s Tesla’s third model

A quick guide to Elon Musk’s latest street legal leccy car.

Much to their competitor’s chagrin – hell had reigned while Tesla ramped up manufactured numbers to meet pre-orders – the new model is delivered on time, and with a few surprises. This is Tesla’s pitch to break into the mass market.

Armed with a press hand-out and some critical faculties, I had a look. Here’s the skinny:

1. LOOKS: The car retains the simple, uncluttered exterior design of its older brethren, agreeably unencumbered by angular lines that go nowhere, miss-matched proportions, or protuberances housing nothing but air intakes that is the lot of design in car fashion. It will wash down as if soap sponging an ostrich egg. To my aesthetic the shape, its proportions and stance, is more appealing than the bigger models, but I’m still of the opinion a new all-electric car for the modern age ought to be clothed in a radical shape and materials. Is a bonnet needed when the magic bit lies sandwiched in the chassis?

2. COLOUR: Black is standard. others on offer you have to order. Tesla has good taste as well as smart economics: you can’t order apple green, burnt orange, or lurid lime yellow to blind pedestrians, and screw your chances of reselling the car. You can plump for metallic silver, blue, a slate grey, (midnight silver), white or red, at an extra £1,000.

3. COST: It’s cheap as chips – well, that depends on how much is cheap to you- the base model from £26,650. The super-dooper model starts at £35,000, the model most will aim for. The former will take you over 200 miles on a full charge, the latter over 300 miles, and accelerate like a sports car.

4. KEY: There’s no traditional key or locks. You unlock the car by a Smart phone. That means nothing to freeze up in a Scottish winter.  The car detects the owner’s phone – so long as it has Bluetooth – and automatically unlocks the car, ready to start and go. If you mislay your phone or the battery runs flat,  Tesla has a backup in the form of an NFC key card thin enough to store in a wallet. Press the card against the car’s B-pillar to unlock it and place it between the seats on a special spot to be able to start the car. It’s designed for USA valet use, but should be good to get into the car and at least charge your phone so you can properly unlock the Model 3 and go.


Nothing to see here – move on

4. INTERIOR: The inside is like most conventional cars, shame really, but without instruments, buttons or gizmos – just a not quite in yer face big 15″ computer screen. It sits centre, and proud. It shows a virtual button display, plus mapping, entertainment and cabin controls. You’ll need time to learn how to use it without taking your eyes off the road for more than a split second, otherwise you might as well text as you drive. The rear seats fold down in a traditional 60/40 split. Someone 206cm (6ft 9in) tall can sleep flat along the car with the seats folded, perfect for those days your other half tosses you out the house for paying more attention to your Tesla than to them. The general quality of materials is good.

5. RECHARGING: If you’re in a hurry and need a quick fix it will recharge 130 miles in 30 minutes; leccy boosts are getting faster! If charging from your garage you need a 240V, 32A home charger.

6. PUNCTURE: There’s no spare! Make sure you’re a member of AA, or RAC, or the other  service whose name we all forget – yes, that one, the green one. Book trailer recovery service from anywhere. The car comes with 18in alloy wheels as standard, perfect to graze on our high kerb stones and bottomless pot holes, but 19in sport alloys can be added for about £1,500 more and increase the cost to replace them.


The perfect roof for studying architecture and seagull poop

7. GIZMOS: All Model 3s come with navigation, 4G and wifi connectivity, voice controls, a reversing camera, dual-zone climate control and two USB ports in the front for keeping that phone-come-key charged. No, it won’t cook an egg or make coffee.

8. EXTRAS: Do you really need extras? What will they do to enhance driving pleasure or safety? Merely impress the neighbours? Extras are where car manufacturers rocket their pockets. The profits are in add-ons that cost you an arm and a leg, most worthless on resale, adding nothing to the car’s value. If you must know, there’s a £5,000 “Premium Upgrade Package” that upgrades cabin materials such as wood, heated seats, power adjusted seats and steering column, a tinted glass roof, heated and power-folding wing mirrors, LED fog lights, a subwoofer and upgraded audio, plus two more USB ports in the rear. Me? I’d want heated seats for quick comfort on cold spells and a glass (probably plastic) roof to let light in on dreich days.

9. SENSORS: The Model 3 comes with a range of sensors to enable the next version of Tesla’s driving assistance system dubbed Enhanced Autopilot. These include one forward-facing radar sensor, seven cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors and new, more powerful Nvidia Drive PX2 processor. To enable Enhanced Autopilot, owners will have to buy a $5,000 upgrade, enabling traffic speed matching, lane guidance, automatic lane switching and self-parking abilities.

10. SUMMONS: Unbelievably, the car can be summoned to meet you by driving out of a parking space or garage to your side by itself. But it won’t purr or hump your leg.

POST SCRIPT: To my mind, the significance of this (almost affordable) Tesla car is that it demonstrates a new thinking, as the iPhone did to Nokia and Blackberry. An all-electric car has few parts to wear and tear and service. It needs a garage-type infrastructure that isn’t an entire garage and shop. It needs no catalytic converter. It can fit almost any vehicle, any shape. We have to look at alternative propulsion that’s not just another version of controlled explosions in a red hot cylinder.


Join the electric revolution, or wait to see what other manufactures produce



Posted in Transportation | 11 Comments

Banning Dirty Engines


Don’t you believe it!

Clean air cleans up

Harassed readers occupied with surviving corporate-run DUP Britain might have noticed media chatter discussing the ultimate banning of the combustion engine, that is, petrol (gas) and diesel engines. Hybrid cars are covered too, so you can’t slip a teeny-weeny little Fiat Cinquecento engine under the hood while no one is looking.

The future is all-electric. And nobody mention the first electric car was created in 1828.

It was the great medical item of the week, but of humongous proportion. There’s a medical item every week, from tea causes cancer to superbugs don’t actually wear cloaks. The mainstream media knew they had a big one they could feed off for a month.

Church bells rang out the news from Westminster to the Tory press and back again. Our air will be cleaner, our children live longer, each enjoying a better chance of reaching the state pension, which by their generation will be 80 years of age, giving them roughly two years to cash in, assuming they don’t drink too much Yorkshire tea from Ceylon.

It was a glorious day in Britannia’s history, a day the privileged pronounce dirty, polluting machines of the last 120 years good and dead – nuclear power stations not included.

EU directive.

A Tory Party press release crowed over how wonderful it is to be free of EU interference. Free to make our own laws, free to fly in the face of common sense. Only problem is…..

It was an EU directive.

Last February the European commission threatened Britain with penalties for failing to take action on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.


Exhaust fumes will be banished by- cough! Splutter! Hack, hack… oh, forget it.

Combustion busted

The UK Minister for the Environment, a Scot named Slithy Gove, gave the exact date when we can all stop holding our breath: 2040.

Norway is killing off combustion engines by 2020, France by 2030.

And of course, they will still exist in Britain, for the announcement means no new combustion engines will be made, meaning made by auto manufacturers in Britain.

Tory motor mouth and terribly hot posh totty, Julia Hartley-Brewer, denied on radio the combustion engine was killing people early, shrivelling our children’s brains. That was a bare faced lie. Panellists graciously didn’t draw attention to thousands of Japanese and Chinese wearing face masks daily to block noxious car fumes emanating from their automotive rat race.

Moreover, Hartley-Brewer, (a name conjuring an image of a Chelsea tea drinker) lives in a flat, poor thing, and can’t envisage how long a cable she’d need to reach her car of the future to charge its electric motor, parked in the street. Somehow she manages without a long tube from her car to a petrol station to fill her tank.

I’m pretty sure early electric cars will have a back-up battery for motorists who don’t keep an eye on charge levels, so relax.

Electric BMW MINI

One day after the Smog-Be-Gone! announcement BMW stated it was building an electric MINI in Blighty. In a flash the Tory party boasted this was yet another victory for British industry now free of European domination.

Executives of wholly German owned MINI chuckled into their hand-painted beer steins.

BMW has known about the EU directive for many months, and, seeing their competitors introducing entire electric brands, felt an electric MINI a big seller.

Tories hope we don’t read the small print: the MINI’s electric parts will be made in Europe, in BMW’s e-mobility factories at Landshut and Dingolfing in Bavaria, to be exact, shipped over to their Oxford plant and assembled predominately by robots.


The BMW MINI – no extra jobs for an electric version

Good old Tory Britain.

A modest step is proclaimed a ‘Great Step Forward’. We are years behind most developed nations, even the state of California, setting up electric charging systems.

Presumably the Tory Party hope twenty years enough to privatise the various parts of an electric infrastructure, franchises handed out to friendly corporations, profits to the Cayman Islands. The fear is, by then we will pay the likes of today’s petrol prices and tax hikes for our weekly leccy boost that actually costs a £1 per city vehicle.

The 2040 ban on fossil-fuelled cars has done its headline-grabbing job, making out the Tory Party is the party of modernity, protective of the environment despite having a track-record of slowing down carbon emission reductions at each and every international symposium ever held on the urgent subject of world health and environmental protection.

Behind the smokescreen – pun intended – ministers murmur coyly that air pollution causes as much as £2.7bn in lost productivity in 2012 – worker output is paramount! – ignoring the reality of annual health costs of at least £27.5bn.

A government’s first duty is to protect its citizens from harm: the UK doesn’t give a damn. Tories avoid mention of the progress Scotland has made ever since Alex Salmond noticed energy matters had been overlooked in the Articles of the UK Devolution Bill, and subsequently implemented a radical programme of energy and air improvements.


NIO shows off its designs for all-electric cars – check out the design company


No sooner had the ban on dirty engines been announced when up jumped none other than an automotive manufacturer to object. Andy Palmer, CEO of Aston Martin, maker of iconic sports cars designed to make a loud rasping noise between short-stop traffic lights.

Palmer said, “A worst-case scenario of a full ban would put businesses and the jobs they bring at risk. It’s not thinking about the consequential effects to the 800,000 people in our industry. It’s not taking into account the impact on things like petrol station garages and the [Ford employees] who have been making engines in Bridgend.” Boo-hoo!

He’s another CEO devoid of imagination, believing somehow garages will not install charging points in a jiffy if there’s profit to be had. He’s another CEO who thinks mega-companies are impotent, frozen in fear, unable to adjust to market conditions.

Of course, what he is really saying is, if the British government want wholly foreign owned Aston Martin to remain in Blighty they’d damn well better offer massive financial incentives to shift from petrol to electricity.

Go with the electric flow

Readers of this essay site know I’m a great devotee of electric vehicles of all kinds. I’ve no fears Scottish oil fields will be rendered useless the day we regain independence – the predicted jeer of lesser spotted Tory Boy. Petroleum goes into making a myriad of products, indispensable until alternative elements are ready for manufacturing.

I want to see the pain and expense in pocket, and environment pollution, noise too, eradicated in car ownership. The future isn’t lashings of chrome and cow leather. I want convenience, technology, and simplicity.

We can eliminate the pain points of ownership. Buying a car is a painful experience; parking is a painful experience; commuting is often a daily hell. Car ownership, the entire motoring infrastructure, needs to be reinvented as fast as possible. Personal transportation ought to last a lifetime, not junked every 100,000 miles!

So, we can have a laugh at Tory ministers averring “Poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK and this government is determined to take strong action in the shortest time possible,” ….. in twenty-three years time, or maybe longer if we feel we can get off with it politically.


One design for the interior of an electric BMW MINI – roll on the day of simplicity

Posted in Transportation | 19 Comments

Lost in LaLa Land 2


The giant columns are sculptures that alter colour by the minute


I blinked hard at the blinding light, felt the slap of heat hit my face, and noticed everyone in a hurry to go nowhere. It was my first time in Los Angeles. I had barely got out of Customs when a tall African-American spotted my Boy Scout lost look.

“Looking for a cab, sir?”

“I am, thanks. Can’t seem to see a rank.”

“I’m your man. Follow me.”

He picked up my suitcase. A friendly cab driver is a good start. He asked if I’d a good flight, which part of “Scat-Land” I hailed from, small talked proudly of LA’s famous smog banks banished, and asked if I had any relatives in the town. We walked for several minutes this way and that. He stopped at the edge of the ‘sidewalk’. He called it curb. In time I would find out American-English has a different word or phrase for everything.

He nodded across the busy road to a row of cabs. I burst out laughing at his chutzpah. I was an easy mark but not a schmuck.

“Hey, you’re not a cab driver at all?”

The neon white grin on his face got wider. “No, sir. I just helps folks get orientated.”

“Well, that has to be the friendliest con I’ve fallen for. Here’s two dollars for your cheek.”

He took the money and we shook hands, both chuckling at the recognition of two unemployed guys hoping to make a fast buck in LaLa Land.


Immigration Control: An eye for an eye, a visa for entry

A brush with fate

LAX airport holds any number of memories for me. It’s both a welcoming destination and an intimidating arena. Rich and poor of all races and religions line up to get their passport and visa and intentions examined, or cross-examined.

Children whine and whimper from travel fatigue, VIPs wearing heavy duty shades to maintain anonymity by drawing attention to themselves are shown through to a waiting chauffeur. From the aircraft walkway tunnel, down corridors, the string of weary humanity spills out into a vast assembly area. In my case I’m filled with hope. There’s work to be had if I can make it across the 100 yards of no-man’s land to the exit.

Twenty cubicles staffed by black suited officers spread across the access point to freedom, all there to cope with three jumbo jets disgorging passengers simultaneously. Airport security guards toting guns watch your every move. “This cubicle, please!”

When I first arrived it was a simple task of answering a few questions, “How long is your visit?”- a smile, and your passport is stamped. “Have a pleasant stay, sir.”

Today you stand in line hoping you get the immigration officer that looks a nice guy. You suffer the intrusion of an eye identity, customs forms checked and registered, passport portrait zapped to see if you’re a wanted hoodlum.

I’m categorised a “Person of Exceptional Artistic Merit”, flattering, but it doesn’t guarantee me a warm welcome, or a quick exit. My grandfather told me it was easier to get into the Soviet Union than it was to get into America. He was right.


That guy with the designer stubble and one satchel looks suspicious

Negotiating your way through airports, the gift shop first, security points second, tells you terrorists and surveillance corporations won the war against the west.

One time I got stopped by Immigration. Completely jet-lagged I had filled out the wrong form. My skull was humming with a constant high pitched tone, my eyes unable to focus, my breathing shallow. He turned the green form this way and that, looked up at me, saw the designer stubble and no luggage.

“Where’s the luggage, sir?”

“I only have hand luggage.”

“A long stay and no luggage?”

“My maxim is, take half the clothes you need and twice the money. Clothes you can buy as you need them.”

I always travel light. It helps get out of airports quickly. Instead of being the airlines’ favourite passenger I am treated with suspicion. No luggage? He must be a terrorist.

“Don’t make sense.”

Immigration Control Man glared, and told me to go to Room 101, at least, that was what it sounded like, Orwellian.

I sighed, swung my satchel over my shoulder, and accompanied by a security guard trundled over to a nondescript door in the corner of the Arrival Hall.


Entertainer James Corden gets a backpack past customs packed with old jokes

I entered and sat down on a bench next to two grey suited Homburg hatted Mexicans. They sat as if in prayer, one turning the brim of his hat in his hands like rosary beads.

At the desk counter a man of Chinese origin was talking in Cantonese to a young female interpreter. The officer behind the desk was not impressed. “He’s told us that already!”

The interpreter asked for more information, got it, and passed it to the officer in ‘Merican-English. The officer’s patience ran out. “No, that’s not good enough. He lied to us so he’s going back”. And with that he stamped his passport ‘Blocked – Entry Refused’. The interpreter told her client the game was up. He pleaded again.

“Nope. Forget the pleas. Get the dumbass outa here, Miss.”

I turned to the Mexicans beside me to offer a sympathetic smile for the Chinese guy’s plight and then caught sight of their feet. They were shackled to each other by the ankles. Jeesus! This place is serious. What have I got myself into?


Investigating  officer Gandini, tall, swarthy, pock-marked, straight out of a tough New York cop series, scowled in my direction from his open topped booth. Skin tone and swept back greased hair said he was of Italian extraction, like me.

I looked at the Mexicans. They gave me a wan smile and shook their heads. “You, senor. Eez you ee-iz lookin’ for.”

Okay, it was my turn for the knife. I got up, went over, and sat on the only seat in the booth. I broke the ice immediately.

“I’m sorry, officer. I know I look a beat up terrorist, but the truth is, as soon as I reached home in Edinburgh, Scotland-“

“I know where that is,” he side swiped.

“Well, I got a call to come back for a meeting. Twenty-four hour turnaround screws with my head. Know what I mean? Even my hearing’s blanking out. I’m so jet lagged I can hardly form words. (‘Words’ came out as wi…ur…dsss.) I filled out the wrong form. The guy in the hall decided it was a first degree felony.”

“I decide that. What’re you here for?”

“A meeting.”

“Got that first time. What kinda meeting?”

This is Hollywood. Everybody is a star struck out of work actor. I knew how to inveigle my way into his good side.

“I’m a screenwriter. My legal representative sent it to Tom Berenger for the lead role and he wants to do it. He called me in Edinburgh to ask I come back to talk through the project. He only has a few days window between his movie shoot. Here’s the script.” I pulled my magnum opus out of my satchel, knocking my bag of toiletries over his desk.

The officer with a face like Swiss cheese narrowed his eyes and flicked a few pages, unconvinced. It was time for Escape Plan B.

“I can identify who I am exactly. I have film awards.”

“Give me one, and the movie.”

I did exactly as he asked. He punched the information into his computer. I waited. He waited. I nearly fell asleep. The computer screen lit up. So did his face. Without looking at me he stood up and addressed the other officers in the room loudly.

“Hey! This guy is ligit! He makes films an’ stuff!

His grin told me I was out of trouble. Relaxed, his intimidating stare morphed into a buddy-buddy smile. He got into his stride.

“Why don’t you guys write television series about us, immigration inspectors? This place is full of crooks and villains, and that’s just us. Every day is different – ain’t that right, guys?” His colleagues concurred. One shouted back, “I got the most interesting life. I gotta be the star.” Laughter all round. I sat listening to the anecdotes rolling off their tongues.

“Day is all good for stories, yeah?”

“Good material. Yeah. I’ll include an episode where a Scots guy gets roughed up for filling in a white form that should have been green.” I got the guffaw I was praying for.

“Okay, sir. Next time make sure ya get tha papers in order. Sorry to have held ya back. Good luck with tha film … NEXT! Right!” shouted officer Gandini. “Next stop for you crows is Palookaville. An’ don’t give me any of your stoopid bullshit!”

I nodded to the two Mexicans on the bench as I left. The one with his hat in his hands giggled. “This time eez our neck, senor.” I didn’t waste time saying goodbye.

I looked at my  watch. First off the plane, but last out the airport by two hours. Terrific.


Only halfway up Decker Canyon Road, Pacific Coast Highway below

A place to lay my head

Los Angeles has arguably the greatest domestic architecture in the world. It’s a free expression city. Houses in a single street can be of any design, any era. Build what you want, almost where you want. For the rest there’s cheap housing in run down areas and condos, short for condominium. Latinos gravitate to the poorest areas. For the homeless there’s the street to sleep. It’s warm enough most days to bunk out in doorways or behind a topiary hedge.

My entertainment lawyer gave me a leg up for my first long-term stay, a basement room in an actor’s pad at the top of a canyon in Malibu, off Pacific Coast Highway, called Decker Canyon. It’s a long way from the movie studios but cheap.

I’ve no idea why the property owner called himself an actor. Twenty-five years earlier he had a minor role in a road movie. His wife brought in the salary and fed and clothed their little kid. He walked around in a pair of Ugg boots and talked gossip, that and keeping his ear to the floorboards to hear what his house guest was doing down below.

My rent was his pay cheque. (They spell it check.) The heat was unbearable. I kept doors and windows open, insect screen shut. There’s no mosquitoes or midges, it’s too dry, but there are snakes, scorpions, and other unfriendly bugs. Few birds inhabit the mountains. There’s no dawn chorus. But there are cougars! Don’t go for a moonlight walk.

The room – impossible to call it an apartment – had a television. I left it on most days. My ear attuned to dialogue, I learned American politics and obsessions, as I clacked, clicked and thumped my keyboard. As a typist I’m a two-finger hunter-pecker, but hair raising fast. I’ve fingers of fire. I got a lot of scripting done. Nights were funereally peaceful, company sparse.

I spent a lot of time listening to dialect and sentence construction. It didn’t stop me making some embarrassing howlers. On one occasion I offered to collect a female producer from her home nearby and drive her to the studio, both aiming for the same meeting, same time. I’ll knock you up at 9am, I said.  There was a long silence over the phone. “The hell you will,” she chuckled, realising “knock up” has a different meaning in Edinburgh.

For civilisation I drove to movies a lot, the tiny one in Malibu patronised by movie stars still wearing slippers. Places to meet movies stars were Ralphs supermarket, Coogies lunch diner, and the Catholic Chapel. I had a good chat outside the chapel with Ed Harris and his wife Amy Madigan after both picked up awards for the leading roles in ‘Pollock’.

The other great place to meet successful actors is AA assemblies. “My name is Joe. I am an alcoholic.” Los Angeles has the biggest concentration of alcoholics of any city, over 370,000 registered, thousands more deluding themselves. You won’t believe the famous faces I met. Trouble is, attending a meeting has you marked as an alcoholic. I’m a non-drinker. You meet an actor days later in the street and she asks, “What stage are you on?”

For an alternative I tried the Britannia British Pub in Santa Monica – a tautology – there for agreeable company but soon left. Too many cockney geezers shouting “Landlord, anovver fuckin’ pint for me mate!”


A tiny picture house for big movie stars

With a spread of 36 miles in all directions you need a car to exist in LA. I had an old Land Rover Discovery. That Disco was the worst car I every drove since the last worst car I every had, all British built. Bits fells of it, the dash warped in the sun, the engine leaked like an official in Trump’s cabinet. The electrics were iffy. My savings soon took a hit.

The girl in the dealer’s service department kept my repair bills low, goodwill I took advantage of. She loved the Scots accent, so I thickened it shamelessly. “I’m gay, living with my partner,” she said. “But I could fall in love with that accent any day.” “It’s mah pleasure, lassie,” I roared back.

One day, driving into the dealer’s forecourt for the umpteenth fix, I passed a Discovery owner sitting on the top of the exact same model in black I had. He held aloft a large sign on which was written: “Do not buy this car!” Land Rover’s finest was decorated with large yellow lemons.

My heart sank. Of all the cars, in all the world, I bought that one.


The car miraculously resting on cliff bushes feet below is hauled up

A mystery solved

Late night shows were my staple diet. I typed at night, sometimes on a little rickety table outside on the porch. The television stayed on for company.

In my Decker Canyon oven I caught a documentary about the mysterious disappearance of bass guitarist from the rock group Iron Butterfly, Philip Taylor Cramer. It was one of LA’s enduring enigmas motivating a ton of newspaper articles and theories, including murder. What caught my attention was the last journey he took four years earlier. He’d been depressed some months, drank too much – the two tend to go together – had driven over the mountains by Decker Canyon, but never reached the airport to collect a friend and his wife. It seemed an odd time to commit suicide, on your way to meet friends.

Like other canyons that cut deep into Santa Monica mountains the road up is narrow, steep, and in  a lot of places without crash barriers. Meet a two ton pick-up coming at you at speed, its rear wheels sticking out a few miles more than the front wheels, and you’ve nowhere to go but over the cliff edge. Ravines run as deep to the creek as three hundred feet. Headlights blind you coming around a bend. Americans drive on the opposite side of the highway to us. Going downhill you’re on the scary side – the cliff edge.

I did come upon one driver who went over the edge. The skid marks identified the spot and the vehicles trajectory. I parked, ran to where the tyres met air, and looked over the edge. As I did the young driver appeared, a teenager, hauling himself up the slope grabbing bush roots with one hand, and eating a hamburger with the other.

It was a surreal moment. He was eating his lunch hundreds of feet from certain death.

By chance and the Gods, his car had stopped from free-fall caught on bushes growing out from the side of the cliff, feet below the road edge. It lay upside down over horizontal branches. I pulled him up the last few feet.

He plonked himself down on the ground, feet dangling over the edge while he got over his shock. My daughter, visiting me at the time, dialled 911, the US version of 999, and asked for an ambulance and tow truck.

“Man, that was something. Shit. I need to go back to get the radio,” he said, phlegmatically chewing his Big Mac. I told him he wasn’t going anywhere except hospital for a check up.

“No, I gotta get the radio. It’s new. That’s my dad’s car. He’ll kill me if I lose the radio.”

“Go ahead,” I said, “Your weight will take you and it to the bottom. In fact, that half-hamburger might do it.”

After checking no bones were broken, and making him promise he’d leave the radio to the Triple A driver to fetch, I drove off to my appointment slower than I’d ever driven down Decker Canyon. And I drove home again that evening just as slowly. I remember saying to myself and then my daughter, anybody driving over the edge any time day or night would never be found. The bushes can hide a truck for yonks. And so it proved.

A veteran hiker was taking his weekly trek from the gash at the base to the boulder at the top of the canyon via the snaking ravine, a steady, winding climb, carefully between sharp rock and thorn bush. The walks are an Angelino’s equivalent of Munro bagging. He’d barely gone a few hundred yards along the base when he discovered a car crushed like a Coca-Cola can  among the scrub shrubs sitting squat and half its original length, some bushes growing through its broken windows. The round white object inside was unmistakeably a human skull. He called the cops.

Later that day I heard on the television news the body had been  identified as Philip Taylor Cramer the Iron Butterfly bassist. His bones were strewn around. Coyotes take what they can find. Reports from his family say that Kramer had been working around the clock, and hadn’t slept for close to two weeks leading up to his disappearance.

At midday on the day of his disappearance he made a strange 911 call. “This is Philip Taylor Kramer. I am going to kill myself,” he reportedly told the operator. It was the last anybody had ever heard from him.

His father remained unconvinced his death was suicide. “Taylor had told me a long time before, there was people giving him problems. “Several of them had threatened him. He told me ‘If I ever say I’m gonna kill myself, don’t you believe it.”

Hell, suicide or murder, what a way to go.

Hardly in LaLa Land and already my life was beset by high drama. I was there to get projects produced, determined to succeed. But that as they say, is another story for another day.

If you enjoyed this you might like ‘Lost In LaLa Land 1’ and ‘Lost in LaLa Land’ 3.

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