Still buying a VW?


That VW didn’t cost a pony, mate, it cost a monkey

I wonder how many readers knew the shiny Volkswagen (VW) diesel car they bought was tested on monkeys. Not driving the vehicles, though I’m sure a few species could drive better than some humans. I mean breathing in lungfuls of exhaust fumes.

VW did do that, or at least they did until recently. Same thing as locking Beagle’s heads in a vice so they have no choice but to inhale cigarette smoke to check for nicotine poisoning, or rabbit’s eyelids held open to test creams and perfume for the cosmetic market, horrific cruelty in the name of science and commerce that ends up as false descriptions to aid sales. “Our cars are guaranteed emissions friendly.”

The company suspended its head of ‘external relations and sustainability’, (corporate gobbledygook) after admitting he had known about experiments in which monkeys were locked in small chambers and exposed to diesel exhaust. (See smuggled out photograph.)

Thomas Steg, (not Stig) a former government spokesman, who worked for German chancellor Angela Merkel and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, is the first person to be relieved of his duties over the scandal. VW said it was “drawing the consequences” – whatever that bloody means – which has rocked both the government and industry. ‘Rocked’ is the best verb I can think of to describe the scandal we all know will soon subside as we get back to car buying without a conscience.

VW will “investigate the practice immediately”, that is to say, hit on the tried and tested method of delay until the public’s memory fades and something else is newsworthy.

How to keep away from cigarettes – use a holder

The company tried its best to distance itself from the institute which commissioned the tests, the European Research Group of Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), a car lobby group funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. But as ever with the world’s secretive car manufacturers, company managers were informed about the testing before and after it was carried out. They denied knowledge and then confessed full knowledge. Herr Steg knew the experiments were happening. Internal documents seen by German media suggest he had known about them as far back as 2013. (Reuters.)

The interesting sidebar is how Steg got the job. He joined the company in 2012, one of many top managers to have taken a direct route from politics, in what is commonly referred to as a revolving door policy said to highlight the mutual interests of the two worlds.

Informed readers will see similarities with Westminster’s revolving door where politicians move with impunity from wasting voter’s time to highly paid jobs in industry or finance as ‘advisers’. The process is corrupt. Adviser or consultant usually means lobbyist, someone with direct access to old cabinet colleagues socially, at the men’s club.


One of VW’s loyal employees getting gassed, paid a banana a day

Serious monkeying around

What form did this monkey testing take? The tests, carried out in May 2015 by the New Mexico-based Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI), involved locking 10 Java monkeys in small airtight chambers for four hours at a time. (New York Times.)

The animals were left to watch cartoons, Tom and Jerry a favourite, while they breathed in diesel fumes from a VW Beetle.

The ultimate aim of the tests was to prove that the pollutant load of nitrogen oxide car emissions from diesel motors has measurably decreased, thanks to “modern cleaning technology”. And we all know how that cleaning technology was a dud. VW is still recovering from the gross cheating it carried out on diesel exhaust fumes. This is a second scandal.

A wee boy did it and ran away

VW made the expected, well-worn non-apology. It was never company policy – let’s call it for what it is – to gas monkeys. A renegade junior what done it – honest Moses.

The company said a “small internal group” had mistakenly pushed for the animal tests to be carried out. Shock, horror. They didn’t seek executive approval. VW stated the obvious, this did not reflect VW’s ethos.

But industry watchers, such as your humble reporter, complained that that was a bare faced baboon lie. The experiments were well-documented and the results presented to managers at BMW, Daimler and VW. Moreover, the New York Times report said the group that commissioned the studies, known as EUGT, got all its funding from the three automakers. What were the fees attributed on the accounts books – visit to zoo?


VW Chairman, Hans Dieter Pötsch,  yet to express his disgust

 I know nothing, Meester Fawlty

The line of best German suits queued up to express  astonishment. Hans Dieter Pötsch, VW’s supervisory board representative and chief controller, (controller of what is a mystery) said he was struggling to understand how the tests had been approved, calling them “in no way understandable”.

Daimler and BMW tried to distance themselves from the tests, stressing that none of their cars had been used. “We are very clean” they chortled. Sigh.

Meanwhile, because the fees paid by motor manufacturers are lucrative, the practice continued. In a second round of tests, the animals were forced to breathe in the fumes of a Ford F-250 used for the purposes of comparison, because the car was an older model with apparently less sophisticated filter technology.


Animal experiments are impossible to eradicate so long as corporations remain secretive

What can car buyers do about it?

The world is being reorganised to suit big corporations. There are so many scamming us, animals, and the planet, we’d need an army of tanks to run through their buildings to get to the filing cabinets, or a good Russian hacker or computer geek to get to their records. In the US, VW is facing a class action in the courts for cheating diesel emissions. In Europe you can get your car exchanged at a decent price.

In gung-ho Brexit Britain, where suicide is the best solution to welfare withdrawal, standards are in no-man’s land. You can stuff your complaint up your exhaust pipe. VW won’t pay you a penny compensation. Even as I type this the right-wing car press is already defending diesel cars, cranking up a disreputable campaign. Don’t buy those magazines, and don’t buy a diesel car. If you have one get rid of it as soon as you can. They won’t be worth a penny in months to come no matter what the dealer promises you. And that includes taxis and buses and white van man.

As for experimenting on animals, VW has admitted they have also experimented on humans. In those studies humans were exposed to low levels of air pollutant.  (Los Angeles Times.) Dr Joseph Mengele would be very proud.

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The Shape of Water – a review


The water creature, a fish with chips on its shoulder

Guillermo del Toro is happy to praise the inspirational source for this truly weird film, the 1954 classic low-budget horror, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In it, an intrepid group of unlikely looking ‘scientists’, led by a hairy chested boat captain, search for and trap a half-man, half fish, an amphibious creature living in a south American sea water lagoon. Cinephiles will note the story’s ‘jungle’ and ‘lagoon’ are firmly staged in a Hollywood studio.

On finding the creature they exhibit an unscientific attitude by shooting at it, and it takes its revenge by capturing the only woman aboard their boat, a buxom blonde. (Hollywood monsters always go for the blonde.) Del Toro has modelled his monster on the classic tale, but with today’s advanced prosthetics and animatronics he gives us something more plausible than a tall guy in a painted wet suit and some flippers. And on this occasion the creature takes a shine to a brunette.

In a 1960’s underground research station where everybody goes around in white coats, two cleaners discover the latest inhabitant to be incarcerated is an amphibious human hybrid that cannot speak, needs immersed in water at all times, loves eating hard boiled eggs, and is shackled by the neck until the station’s military generals can decide what to do with it. Those quirks except the last are shared by the woman who takes such an intense interest in his well-being. (The creature proves he is male.)

I repeat, this is a weird story, so I shall begin by letting del Toro spell out its meaning.

“On a certain level the idea is just gathering everybody up who can be represented as the other, quote unquote, all the invisible people coming together to rescue this creature that can either be a monster or a savior or a lover or a god. It was very important for me that with the antagonist, to understand him a little but also see that for him these people don’t exist, they are negated and invisible. That’s for the plot aspect of the movie, but more importantly to make the love story about something more than just a couple falling in love. It’s about also being able to see those other people and love the otherness, love the difference.”

I hope readers are the wiser for del Toro’s explanation for I am not. Perhaps the actor playing the monster can cast some light on the subtext.

6′ 3″ Doug Jones says four hours it took to be transformed into the character each day wasn’t so bad – relatively speaking – in comparison to how much longer it took to embody creatures in other collaborations with Del Toro, including Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies and Crimson Peak.

“It’s a challenge; there’s no question about it. Any role that I do under crazy makeup is a role like any other you have to play. When you’re playing otherworldly creatures, what gets added to that is layers of foam latex and rubber makeup, silicon products and whatever else. Then that emotional state has to come through those layers of makeup. That’s my challenge.”

Well, I am still none the wiser, but the film is a wonder to behold.


Wide mouthed and wide eyed Sally Hawkins is extraordinary as a loveless heroine. She and Octavia Spencer play downtrodden cleaners

The press release tells us Del Toro spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to help conceptualize the creature’s costume before production began. Thankfully the picture got made! I am sure he will get his investment back many times over.

There is no doubting del Toro’s fertile imagination. But after each film you grow more used to his ways and his techniques, and in The Shape of Water you can almost predict what happens one scene to the next. That pre-knowledge, that familiarity blunts this film. It is still engrossing. Magical, thrilling and romantic to the core, this is a fantastical tale with moral undertones.

Del Toro seems able to handle most genres, from horror to science fiction to gothic melodrama, but as 2006’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth made clear, his politics give his work a stronger punch than the conventional genre filmmaker. Only this time I couldn’t quite fathom (excuse the pun) quite what he was getting at, except to say he doesn’t like authority, or fascism.

Elisa Esposito, (Sally Hawkins) begins her working day with a hot bath and a bout of auto-eroticism. She is a mute. She has two best friends in whom she confides, her apartment neighbour, aging out-of-work illustrator, Giles, (Richard Jenkins) and her cleaner partner with whom she shares her shifts, Zelda Fuller, (Octavia Spencer). Giles is really a sign writer with ambition but keeps getting his best work rejected. Zelda is married to a bed fart lazy husband who doesn’t do the dishes. The two women share a life that lacks passion and affection. It isn’t a surprise Elisa is attracted to the Amphibian Man against all reason, and after initial distaste, Zelda offers to help her kidnap it to put it back in the sea.

The wonder is how the actors commit themselves to this outlandish plot making us believe it too: Michael Shannon as the representative of  brutal government authority, Richard Jenkins her gay neighbour yet to show his sexuality, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a compassionate scientist with a stricken conscience. But I suspect if it was only a two-hander, Elisa and the creature, we’d still believe it.


Del Toro (standing) puts Jenkins and Hawkins through their paces

Both Sally Hawkins as Elisa and Doug Jones as Amphibian Man come to this film with extensive and impressive credits in the past, Hawkins with both Paddington films in her pocket and two Godzillas, Jones notably as the Faun and Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, and both emerge  from this film having done the best work of their careers.

Hawkins, Oscar nominated for Blue Jasmine, broke through with Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and had an earlier success this year with Maudie. But the conviction she brings to Elisa is of a higher order and she accomplishes it without speaking a word. If anything is guaranteed to get you an Oscar it is playing a cripple, a deaf mute, or an alcoholic.

Written by Del Toro and former “Game of Thrones” producer Vanessa Taylor, the film doesn’t waste any time immersing us in its heady mixture of the strange and the familiar. Stylistically it is perfection. Not an image, not a set design is out of place. Everything is harmonised. Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, working with Del Toro for the third time, shoots everything in a low light, and begins with an arresting image, Elisa asleep floating in water in her apartment.

Living across the hall is Elisa’s friend Giles a struggling commercial illustrator whose meticulous paintings are gradually being replaced in ads by photography. He and Elisa share a love of similarly outmoded vintage Hollywood movies, which is a good thing because their apartments are located above a classic old-school movie palace called the Orpheum. In one bound del Toro pays homage to films of old and monsters too.

For his B-movie Del Toro gives us a stereotypical villain in the unnerving Michael Shannon, who exemplifies authoritarian menace, never without his electronic cattle prod, (he calls it an “Alabama howdy-do”) used freely to keep the creature he calls “an affront” cowed and in line. His alter ego is scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. As played by the protean Michael Stuhlbarg, Hoffstetler is a cold war spy who pays the price.

Once Elisa is drawn to the creature’s cries of pain we are sucked into the story, and just about able to take its two hours and a bit stretch. Del Toro creates a woman entranced by the creature and not as in old horror movies, repulsed or shocked by it. As shot by cinematographer Laustsen, the film co-ordinates light and colour to create a cohesive imagery composed of an almost infinite variety of greenish hues.

Shape of Water, is Beauty and the Beast under water, or Red Ridinghood and the Wolf with scales on, or King Kong in your swimming pool. It took home the Golden Lion at Venice – well it would. Venice has a lot of water in and around it. It has its fair share of clichés, a laundry basket used as an escape, an insider siding with outsiders, the lonely individual who breaks the habit of  lifetime, and no critic has questioned why such a top secret establishment has such lazy security, but for all that and more it survives intact.

I left the cinema feeling it was not del Toro’s best, yet impressed at its attempt to show racism, fear and intolerance whether unwanted authority or refugees moved in next door. At least, that’s what I think it’s about for it is a truly weird movie.

  • Star Rating: Four
  • Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
  • Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
  • Composer: Alexandre Desplat
  • Rating: 15
  • Duration: 2 hours 3 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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Scotland’s Don Roberto

An occasional series on eminent Scots unjustly forgotten or overlooked


Robert Cunninghame Graham, ‘Don Roberto’ – politician, poet and gaucho!

The real Scottish ‘ward’

The great advantage of Scottish nationalism in the twenty-first century is the robust bulwark it provides against unrestrained British neo-colonialism. It offers the last bastion of resistance in the British Isles to the callous withdrawal of a welfare state, free movement, and an open society.

To Anglophile Scots and blind English nationalists who think Scotland an insignificant nation lying at the north of Britain, Britain a single entity, Scottish obduracy is a constant reminder that the UK is a shaky construct.

Let Scots look after themselves, just not by  self-governance

Through decades of Westminster misrule, followed by British anger at the resurgence of independence, Scots kept Scotland Scottish, a tremendous cultural accomplishment for a small nation without the constitutional mechanisms to alter its fate. Moreover, SNP governance laid bare Labour’s exploitation of the people it professed to represent, Scotland’s working class.

It took a political party dedicated to improving Scotland’s internal and external interests to expose the British Labour Party’s Scottish branch as first and foremost champions of England’s needs. But how many adherents of greater democracy know who the SNP’s founding fathers were and why they turned against the British state?


 National Party founders: the Duke of Montrose, Compton MacKenzie, RB Cunninghame Grahame, Hugh MacDiarmid, James Valentine and John MacCormick (1928)

Come the hour, come the man (and a woman supporting him)

One of the most strident, indeed significant founders of organised national identity was Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, 19th Laird of Ardoch. Loyal adherents of the SNP’s cause will know of him but it’s surprising how few beyond have heard of him.

Before I discuss his appearance on the independence stage, it’s important to draw a brief sketch of the times back in the 1920s. Scotland was beginning to question its ties with England and its empire. Scots luminaries working as subaltern’s right up to wealthy tea plantation owners lived a complicated, dual nationality life. It could not have been easy for some to carry out the orders of their English masters and employers when it involved the repression of local natives, or the exploitation of their land.

The first indication of revolt began to appear in newspaper articles and then in radical essays and books written by Scots. The Russian revolution, Karl Marx, Engels, and French philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre added socialism to that head mix of doubt, conscience and guilt. It is fair to describe the Scottish psyche as a nation in conflict. It was not long before Scottish radicals made their presence felt.

Radicalism wasn’t new in Scots writing; it had a long tradition whether conveyed in English, Scots or Gaelic. Indeed, the flowering of radicalism we enjoy today has been around a long time expressing defiance of British rule. Though we decry Anglophiles who pollute and obfuscate the case for independence, back then the revolt for a better society for Scots attracted aristocrats, landed gentry, writers, poets, and academics.

A man of contradictions

Cunninghame Graham was essentially a writer. Flicking through the titles and subject matter of his books and pamphlets illuminates how much his literary output embodied the tensions and conflicts of the Empire. The Biblical imperative ‘do as I say, not as I do, is affixed easily to his character.

He was a landowner who advocated land held solely in the ownership of the state. He enjoyed wealth and estates yet preached socialism. He believed in the fairness of the English temperament yet condemned English for their overt racialism and colonial conquests. (In the discourse of Scotland’s independence nothing is new!) He opposed the Great War but worked for the War Office. He hated class inequality but lived in a palatial house. Educated at Harrow he preferred free education. And he detested politicians who referred to Scotland as North Britain. Like other men, he managed to split his loyalties but not his scruples.

The contradictions mounted: He advocated Scots should not emigrate in search of a better life instead remain at home to build a new Scotland, yet he was a restless adventurer. He loved horses and had no trouble sending many to drudgery and death in the fields of the First World War.

Gabriela Cunninghame Graham was wife of Graham. Despite being in the shadow of his renown she distinguished herself as one of the literary characters of her age. She was a friend of Wilde, Yeats and Shaw. She wrote historical, biographical and topographical sketches, but is best known for her two-volume biography, Santa Teresa: Her Life and Times (1894). Gabriela died she died of pleurisy, aged 48 at Ardoch in 1906.

She described herself as a Chilean actress and poet yet was firmly English, daughter of a Yorkshire surgeon. Nevertheless, she supported Graham in all he did. She is even less remembered as a pioneer for Scotland’s equality. They had a childless marriage but he fathered lots of children, which is to say, he cherished truth above all else but his marriage was a sham.

If Graham was consistent in anything it was in the matter of empires and revolutions. Graham was all for revolution. He would have loved to see an uprising in Scotland, but we Scots are wedded to the ballot box, not the bullet.


Gabriela, Graham’s wife, as good a writer, but in his shadow

Reading of his life brings to light his influence on other writers of his day, George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, to name only two. As is the penalty of pioneers, though he was prolific, little of what he wrote became standard reading. His literary works included travel writing, histories and biographies, collections of old Scots stories, and poetry too; no mystery then why Conrad was influenced, Kier Hardie too, and of course Hugh MacDiarmid, all friends and confederates.

When he stood as a Liberal candidate in North West Lanarkshire his platform could almost have been composed today: free school meals, nationalise the mines and land, votes for women, abolition of the House of Lords, and Home Rule for Scotland. In that respect he was about seventy years ahead of the rest of us.

By any standard Graham was a bright chap. Of mixed Scottish and Spanish blood, hence the Don Roberto, Graham could speak Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic as well as English and some Gaelic. He spent time in various South American countries which is where he acquired the ‘gaucho’ tag.

Cunninghame Graham

The young Graham, before his moustache was given a rakish twirl

The beginnings of anti-colonialism

His conversion to Home Rule and the nationalist parties has to be seen as an outcome of the political malaise he lived through, a global anti-colonial struggle of the kind we are experiencing now. In the same period the Irish were trying to throw off the yoke of British imperialism, as were nationalist movements in Kenya, and India. To that extent Graham was in the vanguard of British political revolution.

He founded the Scottish Home Rule Association, (SHRA) that became the National Party, later amalgamated with the Scottish Party, thus SNP, and he its first President.

He spent a lot of time lecturing around Scotland, and in Westminster telling the House of Commons where to go. He described the House as the ‘gasworks’. In fact, he was the first MP to be thrown out of the House for swearing. (In his disregard for the suffocating conventions of the House that other professional annoyer Alex Salmond is a follower.) Surprising, therefore, that Graham’s contribution to Scotland’s awakening once so notable is all but neglected today.

Graham’s socialism took him to found the Labour Party with Keir Hardie in 1888. Together they evinced the policy, “Better Scotland’s taxes wasted in Edinburgh than in London”. Like any committed politician he took to street rallies protesting about poverty, and after one street battle in London’s Trafalgar Square – a name given in remembrance of England’s glorious sea battle –  Graham was given six weeks in Pentonville prison for his part in an affray.

By all accounts he was a great orator, and a reading between the lines, something of the showman. In fiery polemics – that often have an eerie echo of my own – he urged Scots to fight for the downtrodden and take their country back into the own hands as a means of joining international friends. I can detect a streak of melancholy running through his efforts as if he knew the worst enemy a Scot has is another Scot. But he had a vision of a confident Scotland, convinced it would happen one day.

For his support of Home Rule Graham was written out of the Labour Party’s history.


No study of Graham is complete without a picture of him on a horse, but here he is on a camel in Morocco pretending to be an Arab, or maybe Lawrence of Arabia

We’re not proud but we value our pride

Unarguably Scotland is as guilty as any nation for taking the British shilling, joining England’s brutal empire building in the nineteenth century. Some eminent Scots were willing employees profiting from slavery and other unsavoury aspects of the empire, but once the Scottish National Party was born Scotland’s trajectory moved swiftly to a vigorous anti-imperialist stance condemning all aspects of colonialism. That change of direction was led by men such as Graham.

As a marginalised nation, rejection of England’s never-ending territorial adventures took rebellious shape in political and literary radicalism of last century that has flowed stronger and stronger until today, which sees the Scottish National Party in power in Scotland’s first parliament in 300 years.

We repeat history

If at the next referendum Scots feel similarly conflicted about their Britishness versus their Scottishness they should heed the appeals of Graham and vote Yes. If they cannot see it as helping their fellow man and woman see it as enlightened self-interest.

Ironically the political panorama has reverted to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s day, endless wars, the greatest wealth in the hands of the fewest people, material and nutritional poverty everywhere, and a xenophobic, corrupt British state. If we vote No again we condemn us all to a society we once thought unthinkable.

Faced with the brutality of neo-liberal Britain, seeing a resurgence of British jingoism, Graham would ask a simple question: “Are we to continue living in a conquered land or a free nation?”

Note: Readers looking for more background information of Graham’s times should purchase Tom Leonard’s excellent anthology of protest poems and songs “Radical Renfrew”, Polygon, 1990. (Aye, ‘Renfrew’ – we shall have no Cringe here!) There’s also ‘Goucho Laird’, by Jean Cunninghame Graham, the great-niece of Graham. A chapter is devoted to him in writer, radio presenter Billy Kay’s anecdotal ‘The Scottish World’, Mainstream Publishing, 2006.


Posted in Great Scots, Scottish Politics | 11 Comments

Phantom Thread – a review


I fine study of giftedness and obsessional love

Having seen this film twice the only conclusion for its making has to be it was written for Daniel Day-Lewis’s swan song, but by luck and audition choice got a superb match for his acting style out of his much younger Luxembourgian co-star Vicky Krieps.

There is no other conclusion because it’s content doesn’t add much to the sum total of human knowledge about relations or relationships. The pace of the story telling is glacially slow. Nothing of that stops it being a riveting study of obsession, one adult for his work, the other for him. Despite a plethora of exquisite moments, almost all throw-away incidents, it will bore the average teenager to death no matter how much they idolise the now aging Day-Lewis.

As one example of the many moments of naturalness that have you giggle with recognition the first comes early in the narrative. We are somewhere in London in the mid-1950s. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Joshua Woodcock, (Anderson’s private joke?) a highly successful couturier for the aristocracy and well-heeled, surely modelled on Norman Hartnell, (1901-1979) designer for the British royal family. Reynolds’ gowns are more stiff, heavy engineering marvels than graceful, diaphanous creations.

Reynolds is a man used to having people follow him around all day, waiting in respectful silence to hear their day’s duties. His models are distant, dutiful, as unquestioning as his admiring clients. From the ranks of his models he chooses a muse, dispensing with her services when he tires of her attention and she whines about it, or she bores him. He is not narcissistic, but his work is his art, his art is his life.

Woodcock has his office and workshop in a Georgian townhouse in Chelsea, his country bolt-hole somewhere in Kent. He drives between the two is a very English car that like the gowns he designs lacks elegance but is highly individual – a rare Bristol Coupe 405D.

He is having breakfast at his local country inn when a young waitress, Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, is waiting on him. She trips on her way to his table, giggles with embarrassment, then jots down his order – Welsh rarebit, scones and sausages – while returning his warm smile with a nervous, playful one of her own. He is smitten. He sees his latest muse and turns on the charm offensive.

“Will you remember?” he asks, confiscating her notes. She will, and does, returning with the exact meal he ordered and a note with her name and phone number scribbled on it.


That awkward first meeting made easier by mutual attraction

On first viewing I thought Thread was concerned with the shallowness of the rich and privileged, the vacuity of celebrity. On second viewing I’m sure it’s about obsession and control. There is so little drama, so less tension you wonder how it manages to hold together, but it does.

Writer, director and also the man working the camera, Paul Thomas Anderson has made an interesting discovery in Vicky Krieps. In looks she is at one moment pretty and shy, at the next plain and sly. Her character arc shifts from gauche and clumsy through eager to please and serve, to dark and determined to win the battle of the sexes.

After having dinner with Reynolds that evening, she goes home with him and disrobes not to indulge in a Hollywood soft porn scene, but to try on a gown he has half-made, and so he can take her measurements. “I don’t have breasts”, she says apologetically. “I shall make you a pair”, he answers as if God Himself. The process of grooming his latest muse has begun but it isn’t of the greasy scumbag variety. It is gentle and flirtatious.

Here another moment known to us all at times of similar intimacy. In walks Reynolds’ sister who is his personal assistant, business partner, administrator, and book keeper. Cyril, (Lesley Granville) knows Reynolds’ habits and how to cater for them as one might know the well worn path of a silk worm. Alma feels awkward about the situation, she has never met Reynolds’ sister.

“You are perfect”, agrees Cyril, whispering, “He likes a little belly.”)


Dark domesticity, when you can cut the air with a knife

Alma is unhappy to realise she’s the latest model of a line of make ’em, take ’em and  dump ’em models. She resolves to beat him at his own game. She’s not going to be Eliza Doolittle to his Professor Higgins. She will teach him honesty. Her attitude changes from quiet respect to steely determination. She is going to cut him down to size. She is going to confound his expectations at every turn, and does!

Day-Lewis, who, in what is reportedly his final screen performance, has given us a portrayal of great precision and delicacy. For once he is not chewing up the furniture. He has employed his usual Method acting, including staying in character when not before the camera. According to interviews with the Hollywood ingénue Kriegs, he was in character when they first met, and asked for that situation to be stipulated in her contract. I have to say that must be unsettling, and annoying for a new actress unused to his ways. Nevertheless, the rewards of the actor’s process are there to applaud, the suavity of his bearing, the debonair charisma, the silver, slicked-back hair.

Day-Lewis also shows us Reynolds’ worst characteristics, his arrogance, his contempt for poor workmanship, and a fragility that both annoys Alma and keeps her coming back for more. Reynolds adored his mother – an old plot device – and sees her appear before him as if to warn of his mortality. He talks of designing her wedding dress when she remarried but doesn’t know what happened to it, a curious  loss for someone so obsessive about who wears his creations and what happens to them. It is Alma who decides to take the place of his mother.


Lesley Manville (right) as the doting sister on her way to an Oscar

But in praising Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps for an indelible partnership I cannot overlook Lesley Manville without misleading readers into thinking this is a simple two-hander love story. As Cyril his punctilious sister, Manville is in a class of her own. You can see why Cyril has devoted her life to safeguarding the House of Woodcock. Nothing must get in the way of her gifted brother’s art, nothing, and that includes ‘silly’ little models with ideas above their station. Cyril is tightly coiffed, sharp tongued, venomously poised as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She gives us a performance only an actress of her experience could create.

Any gripes? One. Like all Anderson’s past work I just can’t accept the ending. I thought Blood quite brilliant until Anderson has Day-Lewis’ mad oil magnate commit a brutal murder. It made no sense.

From Boogie Nights to The Master, and now Phantom Thread, Anderson proves himself an idiosyncratic craftsman. There are very few American filmmakers like him that get their movie into our cinema halls. There Will Be Blood is the greater work for it has more meaning for our grab-all and sod everybody else age. Phantom Thread is a throw-back to movies of a previous time. Aided by Jonny Greenwood’s lush orchestral music it stands on its own as a study in obsessions.

  • Star rating: Four
  • Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
  • Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Composer: Jonny Greenwood
  • Cinematographer: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Rating: 15
  • Duration: 2 hours 10 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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Cars: Repair or Pimp



Most accidents happen when we take the same route every day

One of occasional pieces on the car industry, this time offering good practical guidance.


When first I became a novice car owner I fell prey to the excessive repair and service costs of flaky official dealers. First time buyers unused to a dealer’s wily ways takes things on trust. These days, I know the drill when  the car gets rear-ended, who best to repair my car, and how to preserve it against Scotland’s weather, and idiot supermarket parkers and trolleys.

Official dealers can be problematic. For a start, what’s their service standards like? You don’t really know until you try them. An inspector of one major British car manufacturer told me out of every ten appointed dealerships three never serviced their pre-owned cars before selling them, going as far as to refuse a mandatory check list. They were maximising their profits. In another, an elitist marque had “engines lined up at the workshop to get fixed”. On the street side of the dealership they were still selling the same pricey supercar. If you cannot trust main dealers who can you trust?

How can you save money on a repair and get a first class job, or simply upgrade your car to keep it in good order? Knowledge of the specialist arrives by the recommendation.

Good dealers value your custom, offering discounts for servicing and parts as a way of retaining your loyalty. Toyota has such a scheme for owners of older cars. Conversely, a ‘service’ can amount to no more than a car wash. Happily, there are exceptions. One of the best services is offered by Mercedes. Mechanics e-mail a video of what’s wrong under your car’s shiny bodywork together with an estimate of costs, an exemplary system.


It’s not that well known that the shiny concept the manufacturer premiers at the motor show isn’t quite the one offered once off the assembly line. To stay on the safe side of statutory regulations manufacturers scale back some of the concept car’s qualities. What you see at the auto show is the ideal, what you get is probably ninety per cent of the ideal. That’s the window of opportunity grabbed by the aftermarket boys.

MG enthusiasts have one of the best aftermarket service in the world. MG suppliers can upgrade everything to turn a sixties MG into a modern car to drive. There’s the apocryphal story of the Ford owner who had to wait 10 days to receive a replacement part, and the MGB GT owner who got his in the post next day. Often the MG part is a better quality than ever provided by the old MG factory.


Three companies I recommend, for repairs, improvements, or just pimping, are all slightly off the beaten track, each accessible to car owners living in Scotland’s central belt. Indeed, as well as all-Scottish owned they’re so good at what they do it’s worth getting your vehicle to them wherever you live!


No matter how good a driver we are there’s always an idiot around to dent your car


We all hate accidents, the pain, the inconvenience, the tardy insurance company, but it happens to us all. I got to know of Edgefield, a family business, when I noticed the biggest UK insurance companies demanding repairs taken to them, not to the dealership’s body shop. That was significant. What did Edgefield do better than a main dealer? The answer is, from minor bumps to major collision as good a job if not better than any expensive dealership. They don’t have a massive warehouse with a staff of twenty; so, overheads are low and charges fair. They can offer you a temporary car meantime, and will collect and return your damaged vehicle as good as new. They will fix something minor as a favour, their attention to detail second-to-none.

Gary, the workshop manager, takes you through the process of repair so you understand what is involved to achieve a perfect finish. And if it’s only a kerbed or rusted wheel made like new again he can attend to that too. They have facilities to repair any make and model of car up to 7.5 tonnes including tyres, exhausts, brakes, suspension, servicing clutches, air con and vehicle geometric checks. (How many of us get a wheel alignment on a regular basis?)

I’ve a 25 year-old original three-door Toyota SUV, the pioneer of SUVs – pimped. It looks so showroom new people ask where they can buy one. As well as damage to my other cars, Edgefield helped recreate that RAV, as did Transcal the Coach Trimmers who I discuss next. Perhaps because they are a small company Gary and his young colleagues try harder than most, but they don’t have to make excuses for their repairs and paint re-sprays. They offer that old fashioned thing – pride in their work.

Edgefield Coachworks, Unit One, Eldin Industrial Estate, Loanhead, EH20 9DX. 0131.441.3108. Reached via Edinburgh ring road, not far away from IKEA showroom.


No matter how complicated a seat’s design Transcal can reupholster it


Transcal is an odd name attached to creating car interiors, one not easily remembered, though well known in the Scottish motor trade. Once you see inside their premises the standard and extent of their workmanship is jaw-dropping. This is a company that makes seats for aircraft and railway carriages as well as retrimming your classic car, or upgrading your latest pride and joy.

I’ve remarked before on how people will wash or change the cover on their sofa every few years, but not the seat covers on their car. Drivers seem happy to sit among years of hairs, skin follicles, potato chips, dirty squabs, and lop-sided Transcal can do that for you. They can re-pad wonky car seats, or cover them in beautiful leather, and even emboss your initials or crest. Not enough? Ask them to embroider an insignia on the headrest; they can do that too, and give you better quality carpets at the same time. Veteran car, classic, or your modern car that looks as tired as you feel after a bad day at work, Transcal will rejuvenate it. They can recreate or redesign almost anything automotive.

The man to ask is Sam. Sam is a guy unperturbed by the state of some cars that arrive at his door, and used to owners with too much money and no taste, as well as a tight budget, he will ensure the workmanship is second to none. And Transcal are ace at recovering worn steering wheels – check the illustration at the end of this essay.

Transcal, Coach Trimmers & Engineers, Firth Rd, Houstoun Industrial Estate, Livingston EH54 5DJ. 01506.440111. Access by the M8, second left to the estate.


A stainless steel exhaust can rejuvenate an engine and last a lifetime


It’s not that well known that the shiny concept the manufacturer premiers at the motor show isn’t quite the one offered once off the assembly line. To stay on the safe side of statutory regulations manufacturers scale back some of the concept car’s qualities. What you see at the auto show is the ideal, what you get is probably ninety per cent of the ideal. That’s the window of opportunity grabbed by the aftermarket boys.

In the USA there are any number of aftermarket companies that can recreate, or even re-purpose your car even if it’s a wreck. The UK is just beginning to wake up to that old fashioned craft in which it once excelled – the car builder. More people want their car to look different from others. The trick is not to go mental and throw good money after items that depreciate soon as installed. Leather upholstery will keep its value, a sunroof will not. (USA: moonroof.) A stainless steel exhaust is worth its weight in gold, thousands of pounds of hi-fi equipment is like leafing a holdall with money in the street.

Stainless Steel Creations in Falkirk is one such company that, given your car for a decent length of time, with provide it with a new heart and lungs. Their stainless steel exhaust systems bespoke fabricated to be snorting loud, or  limousine quiet, can alter a car’s performance better than when it left the factory. And if you want to uprate engine parts from basic to long-lasting and durable they can turn a dirty, greasy engine bay into a sculpture with silicon hoses, chrome everything, and stainless steel brake lines. Those upgrades might sound the province of the petrolhead, but if your car isn’t garaged, left to the elements, improving parts that get a beating extend the life of a vehicle.

They are a small company with big ideas and a ton of expertise. The man to talk to is Graydon. Whatever you want improved under the bonnet or the suspension he will find a way to do it if it doesn’t already exist off the shelf.

Stainless Steel Creations, Unit 20 Burnbank Rd, Falkirk FK2 7PE. 01324 622832. You can get lost on any of the roundabouts on the way there, so use a sat-nav.

Post Script: No money or booze changed hands in the writing of all this praise. I’ve used the companies a few times, and yet to be let down. It was Transcal who re-leathered the little RAV’s steering wheel – note the lovely blue double stitching to match the body colour – and added this embroidered insignia. Cool, or what?


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Early Man – a review


Look closely: Aardman guessed correctly early Brits were black skinned

An Aardman animation is always a safe bet. Plasticine antics and eccentricities, an old-fashioned sense of humour, love of nostalgia, and safe japes add up to fun. Take children to see the film and they won’t run up and down the aisles in boredom, and nor will you.

When you think about it, Aardman founders and creators have done incredibly well since they offered us a series of extremely funny talking zoo animals animated to real human conversations caught on tape.

Over the years through Wallace and Gromit adventures and chickens in prisoner of war coups, they hold their own against giants Disney and Pixar. And they are still inventing mirth and madness after a devastating fire that wiped out their entire stock and workshop. They deserve another Oscar to add to their many industry awards just for surviving what might kill any other company. Then again, their television commercials could keep any company afloat through the worst recessions.

I particularly admire the primitive – the correct adjective in this case – painstakingly laborious, labour intensive stop-motion the company has retained from its inception, an unmistakeable style where you can see the animators thumb prints on the modelling clay. Modellers are free to can create an eccentric universe right down to the smallest detail. Facial features are exaggerated as a matter of course causing you to crack a grin soon as a character appears. The small things happening in the background are often as smart and humorous as those in the foreground.

Release right on time with news of Cheddar Man, Early Man is their latest big screen offering. The cast, with the exception of the villains, can be seen in advance of the film cavorting in a television commercial for a furniture store, a nice bit of free advertising, but they got paid to make, the perfect symbiosis.


Aardman model faces to suit the actor and his voice. Eddie Redmayne voices Dug 

Keeping one eye on the commercial element Nick Parks and his co-writers Mark Burton and James Higginson fashion their story around a game of football, winner takes all.

A small group of inter-breeding – one is forced to assume – Neanderthals, a stone-age tribe, live in a large wooded crater caused by a meteorite that wiped out dinosaurs. The tribe speak in different  accents, English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, to keep us all happy we are represented and know the tribe is essentially British.

Other living creatures are small furry animals and large woolly mammoths, the first eatable, the second tameable. Life is good, life is predicable – hunt rabbits, avoid all ambition. But one young member of the tribe has ideas above his station, goofy-toothed Dug, voiced by Eddie Redmayne. Dug thinks the tribe should hunt bigger prey, mammoths, an idea spurned by the tribe elder, Chief Bobnar, (Timothy Spall) since they find it near impossible to catch a single rabbit.

One day their sylvan safe territory is invaded by a hitherto unknown tribe that has discovered metal – a Bronze Age tribe of superior ability in almost everything, except common decency and the ability to recognise other’s people’s possessions. The Bronze colonisers have advanced weapons, armour, and mammoths as tanks encased in the stuff, an unbeatable combination against the Stone tribe’s sticks with a pointy stone tied to the end. (We accept there’s a way down the sheer-edged cliffs into the crater.)  Leading the Bronze tribe is Lord Nooth, (Tom Hiddleston) an over-bearing, vain, pampered warrior who speaks in tortured mock French. Comparison with the current political chaos between England and Europe is escapable.

As an outlet to energy the Bronze tribe have perfected the beautiful game of football to stadium standard in the style of gladiatorial combat. Just as our heroes are getting carted off to some horrible fate up jumps Dug to propose a duel. Stone Age play Bronze Age in a match. If Bronzers wins it gets to keep the crater. If the Stones win Bronzers must leave them in peace. Thinking the Stones are “ee-dee-ots” who cannot play football for toffee, Lord Nooth agrees. It’s a ticket sales winner.

Tom Hiddleston plays gold loving Lord Nooth, who doesn’t understand message pigeons

The Stone tribe have a few days to learn how to play the game and practice moves. To everyone’s surprise except your reviewer, the star player on the field turns out to be a girl, (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) and she takes it upon herself to be the Stone’s coach. Audiences beyond the shoogly UK will probably lose out on the local references and very English humour, but they’ll still appreciate the timing of delivery and the superb ultra-crisp editing by Sim Evan-Jones, an Aardman hallmark.

Football practice transpires to be full of problems, with the Stones chosen players mostly two-left feet, or flat footed. The only person who can play it well isn’t a person at all but Dug’s best pal, a wild boar, a friendly porcine companion named Hognob, (grunts and snuffles from Park), a Gromit stand-in with a massive under-bite and stubby body.

As luck or skill would have it, Dug’s team are quick learners. The match becomes an easier a challenge than first envisaged, much owed to Lord Nooth’s team named Real-Bronzio, a bunch of hair stylists used to winning every match – a squad of preening, prancing, photo opportunity loving, overpaid show-offs, not unlike some of England’s best teams are now.


Aardman has no competitors to its attention to detail, and minutia of quirks

Yes, Aardman have come a very long way since they gave BBC children’s art programme ‘Take Hart’ a lively little Plasticine character called Morph.

I took along my five year-old grandson, Ethan, (I’m almost six!) and he enjoyed every minute. He giggled and laughed at the prat falls and the silly voices, long-faced at the sad bits, attention rapt every minute, absorbed in the story, engrossed as he should in a children’s adventure. He had a ball. He’s still a bit young to catch all the anachronistic puns and gags playing on modern idioms, but that’s okay, we adults spot them.

I have awarded Early Man three-and-a-half stars mainly because it is uneven in pace and surprise though at 89 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I risk scorn. I fully expect my grown-up grandson to visit my over-grown grave one day and mutter at the headstone, “What a dufus. Nice guy, but he thought Early Man was flawed.”

  • Star Rating: Three-and-a-half
  • Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall
  • Director: Nick Park
  • Writer: Mark Burton, James Higginson, based on a story by Parks
  • Puppet Designer: Kate Anderson
  • Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
  • Duration: 89 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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All You Need To Know


A driver disconnects his electric car from a free recharging station in Oslo, Norway.


As Norway leads on the daily use of electric cars, backed by its government’s wide range of generous incentives and perks, our UK government is slothful. It is plootering about when it comes to establishing a UK-wide battery recharging infrastructure. The UK offers grants as incentive to buy electric but lack of charging points anywhere has slowed sales. Moral: When you want to change people’s habits you need a government to do that, so sucks boo to the thick skulled anti-democratic squad demanding ‘less government’.

Meanwhile, Jaguar announces it’s shifting some production abroad because of Brexit just as it is about to launch its first electric vehicle.

At any rate, BP says it will add rapid charging points for electric cars at its UK petrol stations within months, the latest sign of an oil giant adapting to the rapid growth of battery-powered cars. Petroleum have got the message at last. BP aims to provide motorbike-sized charging units at forecourts to top up cars in half an hour. Half-an-hour. Travelling Edinburgh to London means your one motorway café and toilet stop for sausages, beans and a sticky bun is all it takes to reach your destination. But you’ll need a charger at almost every parking bay for overnight stays.

BP’s Anglo-Dutch rival Shell is also installing charging bays while quietly on a buying spree of electric car infrastructure companies and opened charging points at some of its service stations. There’s a race to own a monopoly.

Regular readers are aware I keep a eye open for new developments in the car world, from VW criminality to what’s new in car technology. I’m asked now and then to explain what electric cars mean. Here is the extent of my knowledge on the subject, currently, so please don’t ask subsidiary questions! 
Audi future performance days

Audi Q7 e-tron 3.0 TDI quattro, drivetrain with battery components

What are the advantages of electric (EV) cars?

Advantages are many: emission’s free; few moving parts therefore less wear and tear; opens up greater interior space, there’s no transmission tunnel; digital everything; supersonic acceleration, almost silent propulsion, but above all, really cheap to run.

Scandinavian nations offer free charging bays. Once Scotland is independent and has its profits from North Sea Oil we can have free public charging bays.

What sort of chargers are there and how much does it cost to recharge?

The easiest way to check the location of public charge points is online at Motorway networks are covered by Ecotricity, which also has an online map. Public chargers can be free but there’s a tariff for most. Ecotricity charges 15 pence per 1kWh.  An EV with a 40kWh battery and a range of 200 miles would cost around £5 to cover the distance compared with around £20 for a supermini doing 55mpg.

You can charge your car four different way: (1) Slow: A domestic three pin socket will take 12 hours. At today’s rates that’s about £2.85 for 150 miles.  (2) Fast: A home charging point equivalent to a cooker can reduce that to 5 hours. Special fast chargers offer 2 hours. (3) Rapid: Charging at 43kW or 50kW respectively some EVs reach 80% in 30 minutes or so. An account with the supplier is usually needed. (4) Supercharger: A Tesla EV charge the large-capacity batteries to 80% in 30 minutes. Model S and X owners get 100 miles worth (400kWh) of free energy per year. Beyond that, the charge is 20 pence per kWh. At that rate, 1500 miles will cost £90, compared with around £240 to cover the same distance using conventional fuel.

Does rapid charging screw batteries?

The technology is very new, experts are unsure. Experts say daily rapid charging can degrade lithium ion EV batteries. In reality, most EVs are charged at home or work using lower-rate charging and are rapid-charged infrequently. BMW says it is not seeing measurable battery degradation for cars regularly using rapid charging. Tesla says it does a lot to preserve its batteries through software control.


Honda claim its forthcoming electric cars will have a 15 minute recharge

Will I qualify for an EV grant?

It’s always down to money. A government plug-in grant will knock 35% of the purchase price of a BEV up to a maximum of £4500 for eligible EVs and the government has pledged to maintain support until 2020. The Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme provides a further £500 (or 75% of the cost) to install a home charge point.

How long is the life of an EV battery pack?

How long is a piece of string? The truth is that manufacturers are not sure. Modern production EVs have been around for a relatively short time and all manufacturers offer long battery warranties. Check the warranty and check the small print in the warranty!

Surely EV’s will never replace conventional petrol cars?

The average round trip in the UK is 17 miles, perfect for an affordable EV. It won’t need charging every day. Once recharging points proliferate sales of small EVs will rocket.

Driving 400 miles, from (say) mid-England to Edinburgh takes around five hours in an economic Ford Fiesta cruising at 70mph on the motorways and using less than a tank of fuel. At the moment only a Tesla EV is capable of reaching Edinburgh without a recharging stop. However, the new higher-capacity batteries coming on stream will make a significant difference. As the technology improves and recharging times drop, the future is rosy.

EVs don’t seem to hold their value

A small market and uncertainty about battery replacement cost worry used car buyers, plus the anti-EV trolls are still doing their best to deprecate electric cars. It’s up to car makers to offer cast iron residuals.

How much will a new battery cost?

EV manufacturers hate that question. Battery packs comprise a number of modules made up of individual cells. Modules can be replaced but a complete new Nissan Leaf battery costs £4100.04 plus labour, (two to three hours) and VAT, including an £820 cash-back on the old battery. Tests show some EVs approaching 200,000 miles on the original batteries and some high-mileage customers have lost only one bar on the 12-bar capacity display. Four bars must be lost before the warranty kicks in. But as usually, the more expensive the car, the more expensive the battery. A BMW i3 battery is £9926.40 including VAT, pretty well the price of a new engine, but battery pack prices are falling.

Can I rent a battery?

Leasing a small 22kWh battery at 9000 miles over three years costs half that amount of buying one and removes any question of battery liability.

I don’t want a ton of cables everywhere!

Charge points can be tethered – with a permanently attached cable – or untethered, that is, sockets only, so you need a cable. Think of a cable stored in the boot as a spare wheel.

Should I buy an electric car?

Buy a small vehicle for city use. For long journeys take the train rather than also owning a petrol driven car. Pretty soon you will see, (not hear) EVs everywhere. When your neighbour has one you will want the luxury version to show you have greater status in the community. That’s how it’s been since the car was invented, indeed, since the carriage was invented! Queen Elizabeth doesn’t ride around on a Ducati motorbike.


Siemens, the people who make your oven and fridge, are working on this, battery and solar powered. And yes we do get sunshine in Scotland

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