Saturday, 30 July 2011

Agitate! Educate! Organise! - The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town


When a seventy year old Hamish Henderson sang Freedom Come All Ye at the end of an event billed as something called Self-Determination and Power that took place at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow in January 1990, it was the ultimate folk-song cabaret. Here, after all, was the man whose co-founding of the School of Scottish Studies in 1951 had kick-started the Scottish folk revival, and here he was singing the song he'd penned that many believe to be Scotland's real national anthem (with a small n, for Henderson was nothing if not internationalist in outlook). Henderson sang it in his own slightly cracked tones not as part of some officially sanctioned flagship event for Glasgow's status as European City of Culture that year, but for a low-level grassroots initiative that brought together art and activism in an event that would prove to be of huge trickle-down significance.

The Self-Determination and Power event was organised by a loose alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, the Edinburgh Review, then under the editorship of James Kelman advocate Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, edited by Rosemary Milne. Also involved were Variant, then a glossy magazine containing provocations from Stewart Home, Pete Horobin's Dundee-based Data Attic and others; West Coast literary magazine, Here and Now magazine, the radical-based Clydeside Press, and the Scotia bar, then a hub for free-thinking dissent down by the river just across from the Gorbals.

Self-Determination and Power had been set up in part as a reaction to Glasgow's year as European City of Culture, which was seen by many as a cynical attempt to put gloss on what already existed. All the parties behind the Govan event were key players in radical thought who had little truck with political parties and who had more of a grounding in the spirit of punk and hippy inspired grassroots DIY culture. Edinburgh Review had become a major platform for this, as, to a lesser extent, had Scottish Child. The crossovers with the Free University, however, were crucial.

In the days before the internet, such networks required a lot of envelope-licking and paper folding. Leaf through one of Free University Glasgow's pages of contact lists, and it's clear what a disparate body it was. Artists, activists, anarchists and academics were all here, as were curators, musicians, novelists and poets, some well-known, others not so much. Some of the most familiar were novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, both figures championed by Edinburgh Review under Kravitz. Kelman in particular was an auto-didact who captured a working-class voice that would go on to influence the likes of Irvine Welsh and others published by Kevin Williamson's Rebel Inc lit-zinea few years later in Edinburgh.

Kelman too was instrumental in getting no less a figure than Noam Chomsky to be key speaker at Self-Determination and Power. This was a major coup. As a linguist, philosopher and radical agitator who could use the words 'anarchism' and 'enlightenment' together without histrionics, Chomsky was and remains the quietest of figureheads for the none-aligned left and a forensically precise critic of his American homeland. In Glasgow Chomsky spoke calmly but passionately as he would on a much bigger platform at Edinburgh University's McEwan Hall sixteen years later.

It was in this very room in Edinburgh, it should be noted, where the famed international drama conference of 1963 when In Memory of Big Ed, an intervention led by artists Mark and Joan Boyle with dramatist Charles Marowitz, Ken Dewey and Charles Lewson and involving a naked female performer, made front page news.

But in 1990 in Govan, Chomsky didn't need such accoutrements to court and captivate the 330 in attendance. According to an article on the blog, City Strolls, titled Coffee With The Riff-Raff, in his two keynote speeches, Chomsky somewhat tellingly 'disparages nationalism, the exercise of political power by leaders who do not answer to citizens, instruments of social control and isolationism such as television, and the collusion of media in the process of oppression and the spreading of lies.'

Self-Determination and Power, then, with all its break-out groups, plenary sessions and film and audio documentation, was itself something of a Happening. It was too that rarest of alliances; a place where politics, art and activism could co-exist without the flag-waving populist embarrassment of Red Wedge, the Labour Party supporting package tour of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Neil Kinnock that would quietly disband once Kinnock lost yet another Westminster General Election.


For someone who'd left school at fifteen with ideas above their station in terms of what was expected of them anyway, and who, eventually, went on later than most to further education, being exposed to and taking part in the Self-Determination and Power event was a kind of rites of passage and a wake-up call.

Not that there hadn't been other epiphanies, from record shops and bookshops and art galleries and performance spaces and the early days of Channel Four and the revelatory epistles of Scritti Politti, who deconstructed the love song with Marxist theory and wrote pop tributes to Jacques Derrida, and seized the means of production before turning glossy pop entryists. All this stuff took me off-syllabus and into all the left-field ephemera in the library at college and pretty much everywhere else besides. But, and perhaps for the first time, the Self-Determination and Power event wasn't just about ideas. It was about hearing those ideas out loud, ideas about art and politics and philosophy and poetry that weren't readily available to those expected to unblinkingly and unthinkingly follow the school-work-good-and-useful-citizen route.

It was a series of ever enlightening little glimpses through the bullshit fog of misinformation and into something that questioned and confounded and confused with its lateral leaps into the unknown. It contextualised and challenged and embraced the contradictions. It wasn't three R's simplification or some ill-informed and out-of-touch public school-boy prime-ministerial platitudinising about 'education, education, education.'. It wasn 't about well-meaning but ultimately vapid box-ticking notions of social inclusion and access. Like Beatie Bryant, the country girl heroine of Arnold Wesker's 1958 play, Roots, it wasn't about regurgitating hand-me-down information because it sounded right. Blust to all that. This was about finding a voice.


Free University Glasgow had been 'established', as Malcolm Dickson, one of the prime movers behind the Self-Determination and Power event, wrote in Justified Sinners, Ross Birrell and Alec Finlay's impressive 'archaeology of Scottish Counter Culture (1960-2000), published by Finlay's Pocketbooks imprint in 2002 between 1987-91 'in recognition of the potential in cultural activity to push things along and make connections between people. It was about breaking down isolation and people linking up with one another.'

What this meant, according to Dickson, was a series of meetings in flats, houses, galleries and other spaces on such topics as 'Joseph Beuys, Paolo Freire, the German Green Movement, computers in the workplace, art and class.' Two larger public meetings also took place; a seminar on Culture and Politics in 1987, and a Scratch Parliament in 1988. The spirit was of a grassroots sharing of ideas that seized, if not the means of production itself, then certainly the theoretical keys to those means.

The first name mentioned by Dickson, of course, was crucial to Free University Glasgow. It was Joseph Beuys, after all, who had founded the Free international University in Dusseldorf in 1973 as 'an organisational place of research, work and communication'. A loose ad hoc network of Free Universities developed, stuttered, faded from view and were occasionally reborn in Amsterdam, Munich and across Europe and beyond. Beuys' much documented visits to Edinburgh, initially with the Strategy: Get Arts exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970 and the nexus of activities that sprang from it could also be seen as a form of spreading the Free University virus.


Rewind two years before the Self-Determination and Power event to late 1988, and, in a large but packed to capacity church in the centre of Edinburgh, a small but wizened old man is speaking in barely a whisper to the hushed crowd hanging on his every word. The man is Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire, another key thinker discussed by Free University Glasgow, and, like Beuys, a radical in that much overused word's broadest sense.

Freire's 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argued that, as there is no such thing as education systems controlled by those in power, who use it as a tool to keep that power, then those oppressed by that power must effectively educate themselves in other ways in order to be liberated from it. Freire's notion of 'fundamental democratisation' and of not treating students as passive recipients of knowledge by rote, but as co-educators, was a form of self-determination by any other name.

Freire's theories were a direct influence in Edinburgh on the setting up of the Adult Learning Project (ALP), which was set up in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher was elected as Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, as a community resource to explore notions of self-hood through a variety of projects in the Gorgie-Dalry district. These included projects on family, school, national identity, health and parenting, and in form and structure were subjective and experiential. A full history of ALP and Freire's influence can be found in the expanded 2011 edition of Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland, by Gerry and Colin Kirkwood, and originally published in 1989.

Yet, if Beuys and Freire were talismans turned accidental gurus of cultural self-determination, the seeds of Self-Determination and Power were planted a lot earlier.


The person who took me to see Paolo Freire was a man called George Byatt. George was a Glasgow-born playwright, whose dramatic poem, The Clyde Is Red, which was a part revolutionary, part holy piece about how the people of Glasgow learnt to walk on water, had won a Prix Italia award for its BBC radio adaptation in 1988. George was an unholy trinity of Glasgow Catholicism, Marxism and Buddhism, all mixed up in a strident stew of anarcho-syndicalism. In short, he was a believer.

George had written for television in the 1960s and 1970s, but had some kind of wake-up call that had made him start writing for the stage. In 1972 George worked as press officer on the great Northern Welly-Boot Show, which Tom McGrath had done the music for and John Byrne the design. Three great playwrights to be, all doing different jobs. Loosely based on the Clydeside shipyard protests in Govan, The great Northern Welly-Boot Show was a riot of grassroots popular theatre forms and techniques that would inspire 7:84 writer and director to create The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil a year later. The Great Northern Welly-Boot Show would also go on to make Billy Connolly, himself a former Govan shipyard worker, a star.

George introduced a co-operative way of working into the Welly-Boot Show company that he would later hone in his own company, Theatre PkF (Peace-keeping Force). This was based on a none-hierarchical idea of discussion, which, depending on how George told it, he'd discovered in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, through Native American culture, or at Sandhurst.

With PkF, and with Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop, which he co-founded, George would hold discussions after every performance. He called this the second act of the play, and, just as he wouldn't work with directors, these discussions would work, not with a chairperson hosting a panel of experts behind a table on a stage that immediately set up an us and them situation, but with a facilitator. This facilitator would then move to each audience member, by now gathered in a circle, in turn, and allow them to say as much or as little as they liked without interruption. If someone didn't wish to speak, they said pass and moved on to the next person in the circle.

It was a wonderful if somewhat time-consuming ideal of participation and inclusiveness as opposed to being talked down to, although of course, George, who would be facilitating, invariably dominated the discussion. But then, out of anyone there, he probably had the most to say.

You never hear George being talked up as some iconic figure of the left the way you do with some people. The way George operated pissed off the powers that be, and you can sort of understand why. He'd worked out his own way if doing things with PkF that didn't fit in with the status quo. Other writers and theatre companies didn't fit in either, but they somehow managed to give the appearance that they had. George didn't, wouldn't or couldn't, and it's a crime his plays are never done anymore. Some say he was his own worst enemy, but he taught me a lot.


By the time the Self-Determination and Power event was set up, Glasgow had long had an oppositionist outlook aesthetically and politically, from poets Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay and the old Third Eye Centre, now the site of the CCA, where original director Tom McGrath introduced the city to Miles Davis, Ivor Cutler and Sun Ra, and where, in 1984, the New Image Glasgow exhibition of painters introduced the world to the audacious romances of Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Stephen Conroy. More recent initiatives included the committee-run Transmission Gallery, which could be said to have set the template for much of the DIY visual art activity that exists in Glasgow and Edinburgh today. Networks were loose and based around the social.

It was the Third Eye, however, as Glasgow's first multiple art form space, that was the catalyst, and it was McGrath who made it all happen. McGrath was a crucial figure in counter-cultural activity, not just in Glasgow, but in Edinburgh where his plays were performed at the Traverse, and in London, where he'd edited Peace News and underground bible International Times, or IT before falling foul of a heroin addiction and decamping back to Glasgow to clean up.

Key figures during McGrath's 1960s years were two fellow Glaswegians; novelist Alexander Trocchi and psychiatrist R.D.Laing. Trocchi was a loose affiliate of the Beat Generation who, after leaving Glasgow University, had decamped to Paris, where he published Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller in literary magazine, Merlin. Surviving financially by writing pornographic novels under a pseudonynom, his first novel, Young Adam, was published in 1957, and in 1960, a second, the similarly biblically titled Cain's Book, followed. By that time Trocchi had acquired a heroin addiction, become involved with the Lettrist International and the Situationist International and had moved to America.

In 1962, the same year he appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Conference organised by publisher John Calder, Trocchi published what amounted to a call to arms, first in New Saltire Review, then in Internationale Situationiste and City Lights Journal. A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds was Trocchi's precursor to Project Sigma, a grand utopian scheme of a global network of artists and intellectuals who would enable a shift in consciousness via a 'spontaneous university', as Trocchi wrote in his actual manifesto, sigma: A Tactical Blueprint, in 1963, an 'experimental laboratory', where art and life were inseparable.

Key figures of the counter-culture such as William Burroughs, R.D. Laing, writer and artist Jeff Nuttall and sound poet Bob Cobbing all signed up to Sigma, exchanging missives and manifestos by post. If such ideas were picked up later on by the London Anti-University, Laing's Kingsley Hall project for the radical treatment of schizophrenia between 1965 and 1970, and fellow anti-psychiatrist David Cooper's Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation at London's Roundhouse in 1967, nothing concrete came of project Sigma itself. But then, maybe that was the point.

Because, when Trocchi spoke of an 'invisible insurrection of a million minds,' he was predicting the internet just as much as Marshall McLuhan's Global Village had done in the Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, also published, incidentally, in 1962.

Put Project Sigma into a Google search, today, however, and top of the list is an organisation offering masterclasses in business management and sustainable development. This probably isn't what Trocchi had in mind. McLuhan, on the other hand, might understand.


In 1965, a man named Albert Hunt arrived at Bradford College of Art to teach something called Complimentary Studies on a proposed Diplomas in Art and Design course. Hunt's background was in criticism and teaching drama, and in Shrewsbury he had set up a young peoples theatre group. The course in Bradford Hunt had signed up to never happened, however, and, frustrated, he drafted a manifesto of what he would have done with the course if it had been approved, and gave it to the college Principal. Hunt was hired on the spot.

Hunt's proposal was to do away with the ten per cent of weekly Complimentary Studies classes students were meant to attend, and to focus instead on projects lasting just a fortnight. In 1966 Hunt worked with Peter Brook – not entirely satisfactorily - on US, a large-scale anti Vietnam war play conceived and directed by Brook for the Royal Shakespeare Company in what was one of the earliest sightings, in Britain, at least, of devised theatre.

The idea for the play had initially been inspired by Adrian Mitchell's anti Vietnam poem, To Whom It May Concern. Mitchell had read the poem at the International Poetry Incarnation, a major event at Royal Albert Hall in London, at which the city's counter-culture came out to play. Allen Ginsberg may have been the big draw, but all the poets who read represented a who's who of the underground. No beatnik, Mitchell was a moralist, and To Whom It may Concern, with it's mantra-like refrain at the end of each verse of 'Tell me lies about Vietnam' his anthem. As seen in Wholly Communion, Peter Whitehead's film of the event – hosted, incidentally, by Alex Trocchi - Mitchell looks and sounds like the era's conscience. To Whom it may Concern was used in US, and Mitchell wrote song lyrics for the play, although, as with Hunt, the experience wasn't entirely satisfactory.

By 1967 in Bradford, Hunt was facilitating a re-enactment of the Russian Revolution to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. In what was part civic spectacle, part living memory project in the subjective spirit of Paolo Freire, and part site-specific epic, the streets and public buildings of Bradford were over-run with three hundred students playing Bolsheviks overthrowing the old order. Another project, The Survivors, recorded the experiences of World War One veterans in a manner that bridged the generation gap.

In 1968, as documented in Hunt's 1976 book, Hopes for Great Happenings, Hunt founded the Bradford Art College Theatre Group, developing original material using extensive researches into real-life events. Looking Forward to 1942 recorded the beliefs of fundamentalist sects and a spiritualist medium, and told the story of World Tar Two in the form of a Pentecostalist meeting. John Ford's Cuban Missile Crisis, James Harold Wilson Sinks the Bismark, The Fears and Miseries of Nixon's Reich and The Passion of Adolf Hitler melded typically hot topics of the day with audacious theatrical techniques that brought history to grotesque life. One play, A Carnival for St. Valentine's Eve, which was about the bombing of Dresden, actually played Dresden, where, after initial hostility from audiences, it seemed to dredge up a series of discomforting and long repressed memories that had finally been given a voice. Again, this was pure Paolo Freire.


In the autumn of 1982, and with dreams of being a teenage performance poet, I made my first ever solo trek to London for an event called the Poetry Olympics. I slept on the floor of the Kilburn flat where Annie Milner, a stage manager who'd worked at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and who'd got a gig with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican, lived with her boyfriend, a young actor who was in a rock and roll musical at the Half Moon theatre with his three brothers. The show was called Yakety Yak, and was based on the songs of Lieber and Stoller.

Not that I knew that at the time or understood what any of all this was about. Outside of seeing Little and Large in a pantomime of Aladdin at Liverpool Empire I'd never been to the theatre, and, although I did know that Annie's boyfriend and his three brothers went by the name of McGann, I could never have predicted the various levels of success they'd all have in the years that followed, Annie's boyfriend Paul especially.

The Poetry Olympics took place over two nights at the Young Vic theatre, which I now know to be just across from the bookshop run by John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras and a myriad of others from the European avant-garde. Calder was also active in the setting up of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and set up the Edinburgh International Writers Conference in 1962 at which Alex Trocchi had appeared.

One of the books published by Calder was Trocchi's novel, Cain's Book, a first-person narrative about a junked-out smack addict's internal trip as he travels along New York's Hudson River in a scow, much as Trocchi himself had done. The book's predecessor Young Adam, an existential thriller set around the Clyde, was filmed much later by David Mackenzie with Ewan McGregor and Peter Mullan in the lead roles. The film's production company, incidentally, co-founded by Mackenzie, was called Sigma Films. The company's first feature, made in 2002 and again directed by Mackenzie, was The Last Great Wilderness, a road movie in which two men on the run stumble on a Highland centre in which a Laingian style guru figure played by David Hayman holds court over a coterie of residents with serious mental health issues. Until everything turns ugly, the touchy-feely vibe recalls what one might imagine Kingsley Hall to have been like.

The Poetry Olympics, meanwhile was organised by poet Michael Horovitz, who had organised the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall back in 1965, and as a direct result had edited and selected the work for Children of Albion, the definitive anthology of UK underground poets published by Penguin in 1969. Recognising his place in the pantheon, Horovitz was clearly intent on keeping the spirit of the International Poetry Incarnation and Children of Albion alive, both through the Poetry Olympics and his magazine, New Departures.

New Departures was the sort of small press magazine which, thanks to the internet and what used to be called desk-top publishing, you simply don't see the likes of anymore. It was printed in black and white on paper that looked just a couple of steps up from a photocopy, with the text of all the poems clearly rattled out, not in some smorgasbord of fancy fonts, but on an old-fashioned typewriter, not even an electric one, and probably by Horovitz himself. It was effectively a DIY lit-zine of Horovitz and his mates, who'd happened to be in the right place at the right time when everything kicked off.

The Poetry Olympics event itself I remember as a mixed affair, with as few truly memorable moments offset by an occasional air of smugness, as though Horovitz and co knew something I didn't. Which, given that I knew nothing about the Royal Albert Hall and Children of Albion, was fair enough.

Jerome Rothenburg did something shamanic and Fran Landesman was terribly serious. Benjamin Zephaniah used his whole body to perform, and another black poet, Michael Smith, who was shot dead a few years later, was pretty intense. Roger McGough wore a big floppy hat that was possibly plum-coloured, and took to the stage from the row of seats near the front of the auditorium he was sat quietly at, watching the other poets with a suitably beatific woman at his side. Kathy Acker, who'd yet to have her hair cut short and punky and peroxide, gave swear words a brand new sense of rhythm.

One of my favourite performers was Richard Jobson, the singer with Scottish punk band The Skids who'd decided to become a serious artist, and did a freely-adapted male Scots-accented take on Sylvia Plath's poem, Daddy. Jobson's version was a dramatic duologue that had him act out all the parts, and which, years later, would form the basis of his first feature film, Sixteen Years of Alcohol.

Best of all, though, was Adrian Mitchell, who I now know did To Whom It May Concern, which was effectively his greatest hit. It was another poem, though, about walking down the stairs with his little girl, that got me. It was a tiny poem that I now know to be called Beattie Is Three, though it wasn't just the words that proved so evocative. It was how when Mitchell said the line about wishing the stairs could go on forever, he squeezed his own hand in a way that you could see that he saw his daughter right there beside him.

There was a stall at the back of the auditorium of the Young Vic selling current and back issues of New Departures for a pound each. I could only afford to buy one, so had to choose carefully, and ended up buying issue thirteen. Not because of Peter Blake's collage of images of John Lennon, who'd been shot dead by Mark Chapman in December 1980, on the front cover. More than likely it was because there was a new poem by John Cooper-Clarke, who was and still is a hero of mine, inside. There was also stuff by all three of the Liverpool poets, McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, who I'd heard of if never read much by them. Ivor Cutler, who I’d heard on John Peel, had a couple of daft pieces in as well.

In the intervening years, it's the writers I didn't know in New Departures 13 that have had the biggest effect. Three of them, Jeff Nuttall, Adrian Mitchell and Tom McGrath, I've even ended up writing obituaries for. There may be others yet.


As is often the way, sometimes people are educated and subsequently radicalised by default. It happened in 1994 when the UK Tory government introduced the Criminal Justice Bill to put sanctions on the use of 'sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats', while reserving the right to arrest two or more people they believed to be preparing to hold a rave, or ten or more people they believed were about to attend one.

This effectively attempted to outlaw the new dance music scene. Still underground in its early days, rather than hire out regular clubs, organisers and DJs took advantage of the death of old industries by co-opting deserted warehouses or else forests off the beaten track for hedonistically-inclined all-night parties that remained untouched by branding, sponsorship or the corrupting influences of commercialism.

This may have been a political statement in itself, but such a crude attack on alternative culture provoked a show of strength, both among electronic artists such as The Prodigy, Orbital and Autechre, who all attacked the bill on their records, and among the scene's myriad of advocates. In 1988, Angus Farquhar's group, Test Department, who had used tribal, military and post-industrial beats in shows performed on the site of old factories and using metal instruments, even went so far as to revive the ancient Pagan May Day rite of Beltane on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, opposite the Scottish Office. Significantly, Farquhar and Test Department were supported in the revival of Beltane by Hamish Henderson and the School of Scottish Studies, and, while Farquhar is no longer involved, every Mayday since the festival's revival has seen gatherings of considerably more than ten cavorting to the sounds of repetitive beats en masse.

What became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act still stands today, albeit with substantial amendments. As for repetitive beats, they went on all through the superstar DJ era and continue today in arenas both great and small.

Something similar happened again in terms of radicalisation by default in the early 1990s with the Pollok Free State in Glasgow. This was an alliance of road protesters and local residents who occupied parts of Pollok Country Park on the south side of Glasgow following moves to build a section of the M77 motorway cut through the park, effectively splitting it off from the neighbouring housing schemes. Originally home to the Maxwell family for seven hundred years, the park, which is home to the Burrell Collection, was gifted to the then Glasgow Corporation in 1966 by Anne Maxwell Macdonald. This was on the proviso that the land remained a public park.

A camp of tree-houses was occupied by activists to prevent trees being felled. Increasingly draconian tactics by police and security guards, however, had a knock-on effect of mobilising residents of the housing estates to join forces with the protesters and become politically engaged in direct action in ways they might not have considered before. The stretch of the M77 that was eventually built as protesters were removed forcibly from the site may have cost fifty-three million pounds and saw five thousand trees chopped down over a seven mile stretch, but what it has meant to people in terms of their own self-determination is priceless. Much of the story behind the Pollock Free State is documented in Given To The People, a film by Glasgow-based artist Simon Yuill, who interviewed many participants in the protest as it happened for a piece originally commissioned by Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.


The Self-Determination and Power event, it should be noted, as with many of the events mentioned here, took place under the most authoritarian Conservative government ever elected. By the end of 1990, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had attempted to destroy any parts of society that dissented from her philosophy of greed and self-interest that went with a free-market economy, may have been ousted by her own party following the spectacular failure of the Poll Tax that provoked mass protests and rioting on the streets. But she had paved the way for the grinning triumphalism of Tony Blair's New Labour project and the old school tie pomposity of David Cameron and Nick Clegg's Con-Dem Alliance.

Twenty-one years after Noam Chomsky spoke Common Sense and Hamish Henderson sang the internationalist truth in the Pearce Institute, then, the world is a different place, and people and ideas have moved on. Or have they? Sure James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel, How Late It Was, How Late, despite one of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, denouncing the book as 'a disgrace'. Kelman looked magnificently scowly on TV as he was forced through the rounds of media punditry that saw the chattering classes rushing to dissect his novel only to patronise an entire class in shamefully spectacular fashion en route.

And sure, Peter Kravitz left Edinburgh Review the same year as the Self-Determination and Power event, but he did take everything that was achieved in the previous twenty years into the mainstream in 1997 when he edited the Picador Book of Scottish Fiction. Kravitz is now a counsellor and therapist using the methodology of transactional analysis.

Hamish Henderson may have passed away in 2002 and Free University Glasgow may no longer exist, but an entire new generation, weaned on the internet and with history a click away, are doing it, not just for themselves, but for each other.

Malcolm Dickson is currently in charge of Street Level in Glasgow, and has been both before and since the gallery's rebirth on the ground floor of Trongate 103. Beyond the exhibitions, Dickson has retained Street Level's speak-easy vibe via a series of events, including DIY concerts by members of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra alongside visiting guests such as Steve Beresford.

As well as writing about the Self-Determination and Power event in Justified Sinners, in 2006 in its still rough and ready space, Street Level hosted a tribute night for John La Rose. La Rose was a radical Trinidad-born poet, essayist, publisher, film-maker and director of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. He had also taken part in the Self-Determination and Power event. As well as screenings taken from La Rose's archive, performers at the 2006 event included James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

During an exhibition of photographs of the 1960s counter-culture by John 'Hoppy' Hopkins that featured images of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall and a myth-making, lascivious-looking editorial board of International Times, Hopkins appeared with prime mover behind Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre Jim Haynes before a packed room to discuss the era's influence.

That influence is something that can certainly be felt in Instal, an almost annual festival of 'Brave New Music' that has existed in Glasgow for the last decade, taking place initially at The Arches and more recently at Tramway. Initially Instal operated within a recognisable remit of putting on various strands of avant-garde and experimental music that up until then had a fairly minimal platform in Glasgow or anywhere else in Scotland. Early editions of Instal featured an array of left-field contemporary artists including Merzbow, Philip Jeck and Boredoms, as well as twentieth century icons such as Henri Chopin, recent Instals have explored a more critical notion of how a festival such as Instal should actually operate.

In an offsite event to accompany Gustav Metzger's revisiting of his notions of auto-destructive art as examined in his 1966 Destruction in art Symposium held in London and attended by Yoko Ono and other key artists and thinkers, Metzger attended an event at Glasgow School of Art which looked at similar ideas.

Crucial too to recent Instals has been the presence of Glasgow Open School, a loosely defined initiative set up by assorted activists in Glasgow. 'A participatory proposition for redefining of education,' the Glasgow Open School's website reads. 'This school is yours. The City is our campus. Come along to any event or propose your own! Let's work together to imagine and implement new futures!'

If this new body that sounds like a twenty-first century take on Free University Glasgow, or Project Sigma now we have the technology, or the grand-children, not just of Albion, but of Joseph Beuys and Paolo Freire, have a manifesto, this is it.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, Archive Trails is a new initiative set up by micro-indie DIY music promoters Tracer Trails, who would rather co-opt church halls and other off-beat venues to host their events. Archive Trails has enlisted three musicians, Alasdair Roberts, formerly of Appendix Out, Drew Wright, aka Wounded knee, and sound artist Aileen Campbell, who has frequently played as part of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra at low-key gigs at Street Level, all of whom have some connection with what we can broadly describe as 'folk' culture.

Each musician is then let loose in the archive of Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies, and, with a free remit, will develop a new piece of work of some kind informed by their researches. Which brings us full circle, from Hamish Henderson co-founding the School in 1951 and helping kick off the Scottish Folk revival, to singing Freedom Come All Ye in the Pearce Institute, Govan, in 1990. If anyone's responsible for everything that followed, Henderson – and Chomsky and all the rest, must carry the can.

To sum up how much the oppositionist spirit of self-determination and autonomy has trickled down into the collective psyche, one only has to look to Glasgow-based band Mogwai's 2011 album, Hardcore Will never Die, But You Will. Released – crucially – on the band's own Rock Action label, Hardcore Will Never Die, But you Will is a typically apocalyptic-sounding affair for Mogwai, of instrumental bombast tempered by textured subtleties and nuanced atmospherics amidst the storm of guitars. One track stands out, a heavily vocodered affair on which you can't quite make out the words, but which sounds by turns celebratory and defiant. It's title? George Square Thatcher Death Party. As far as self-determination and power goes, that's quite a day to look forward to.

Neil Cooper
May 2011

Line Magazine Number 5, Summer 2011


The Wheel - Zinnie Harris Turns The World Upside Down

What would you do if you met Hitler as a toddler, forewarned Dr
Who-like of the mass genocide the future Nazi leader would inflict on
the twentieth century? Would you do the world a favour and kill him
quickly and without fuss? Or would you embrace the seemingly innocent
mite to one's bosom, vowing to protect him from whichever ills would
otherwise corrupt his infant sensibilities with such disastrous

Such a dilemma is the hypothetical sort of stuff usually played out by
liberal intellectuals on The Moral Maze. It's also the starting point
for The Wheel, a major new play by Zinnie Harris for the National
Theatre of Scotland, which plays as part of the Traverse Theatre's
Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme in a production by NTS artistic
director Vicky Featherstone. As with many things about the play,
though, looks can be deceptive.

The play may open in a nineteenth century Spanish village on the eve of
both a wedding and a war, and initially captures the stultifying
passions of a Lorca play. As its female heart Beatriz defies the
warlords who descend on her, however, it has already become something
else again. Even when it is clear that something as epic as Brecht's
Mother Courage is about to be set in motion, once a silent little girl
appears one's expectations are upended even more as we're taken on a
journey through an all too familiar set of warzones that can't help but
dehumanise all those who bear witness. Or can it?

“I think there's something about children who commit atrocious acts,”
says Harris, “we kind of demonise them without thinking about it. I
wanted to explore if that perception can be altered if we go round
again. What happens in the play is that this little girl is given a
huge amount of power, and that's what corrupts her.”

As Harris observes, when things go wrong, children have always been
regarded as either little devils or little angels. Think of the tabloid
outrage whenever one apparently evil minor kills an innocent of their
own age or younger. In this respect, while Harris puts all this on an
altogether grander and less personal scale in The Wheel, she is
effectively talking about psychological notions of nature versus
nurture, or rather, the points where genetic and environmental
influences intertwine.

“It's neither one thing or another, “ maintains Harris. “It's a

At the time of talking, Harris is taking time out from rehearsals of
The Wheel for a short family holiday in Wales. It sounds idyllic, but,
as a mother to young children herself, Harris recognises the perils of
child-rearing first-hand.

“As a mum I hear stories and know of situations,” she says, “and
recognise certain parallels, but when these horrific things happen, you
have to try and unpick things and try and find the moment where things
went wrong, and we must be careful that we're raising our children in a
healthy way.”

As with her play, this is a theme Harris returns to again and again in
conversation. It's as if by taking this one idea as her starting point,
it's opened up a nightmarish set of scenarios that constantly come back
to the same umbilical root.

Harris is no stranger to such troubling material. Indeed, war and human
responses to it have formed the backdrop to an entire trilogy of plays,
with Midwinter and Solstice being produced by the Royal Shakespeare
Company, while the final part, Fall, was seen at the Traverse. This
back-catalogue of brutality seems at odds with Harris' own, ever so
slightly blue-stockingish demeanour, something which she has already
been made aware of..

“When Graham Whybrow was literary manager at the Royal Court,” Harris
says of one of her early mentors, “he said that the contrast between my
work and my personality was unrecognisable. But I'm aware as well of
how easy it is to create a bubble around our children and still be
aware of all the shit going on in the world outside. We've a
responsibility to them, but in the play this is different. This is
about the nature of evil and how we raise children.”

With a cast of twelve plus two all but silent children onstage, The
Wheel isn't short on ambition or scope. Yet, while Harris herself
happily acknowledges her piece as a response to Mother Courage - “I'm
obsessed with that play” - as well as aspects of the conflict between
Bolingbroke and Mowbrey in Shakespeare's Richard 11, she takes things
further. Without giving too much away, it would be fair to suggest that
The Wheel takes an uncharted and all too rare leap into magical-realist

“I wanted to lull the audience into a false sense of security,” says
Harris. “So that in the first scene, you think you've got a handle on
what's going on, but then something else happens and you're somewhere
else, and it becomes this tremendous journey. It's such a complicated
piece of work, and I remember handing in this very embryonic first
draft which probably made no sense, but Vicky getting very excited by
it. One of the things about being a playwright as well is that you're
only ever asked to write things for four or five people, but having a
woman walking round the world and being changed by it was never going
to be a play for four or five people.”

Whatever its form, at The Wheel's heart lies an innate humanity that is
Harris' all too personal stock in trade.

“What I think you do when writing plays,” she says, “or what I do, is
ask what makes a person, and what happens when things don't work out
and we end up damning these people. Basically I think that we need to
wake up and smell the coffee and look at how we raise children. We need
to go into these situations with a high degree of care, and if they go
wrong we need to pull things back and ask why. I'm both a parent and a
playwright, but the two interface, and one reflects the preoccupations
in my own life.”

If that sounds like Harris is bestowing both her life and work with a
massive sense of responsibility, it's probably only because she is. Yet
there's that equally huge contradiction again, between the weight of
the world's ills that The Wheel takes on board, and its author's innate
niceness. Besides which, on paper, at least, The Wheel most expressly
doesn't hammer you over the head with a set of pat ideological kill or
cure solutions. For all its ugly truths, as well, according to Harris,
The Wheel is a play full of something resembling hope.

“I hope the final moments will be a positive experience,” she says.
“Some of my work is very dark, but I don't necessarily think this play
is. There are a lot of light moments in The Wheel as well. There are
moments that are tough, but I hope it's not a totally bleak

The Wheel, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, July 28th-August 28th

The Herald, July 26th 2011


Made In Scotland 2011 - The Rise of Remarkable Arts

When the Made In Scotland showcase was founded three years ago to
support home-grown theatre and dance companies who wished to perform on
the Edinburgh Festival Fringe before a host of international promoters,
no-one really knew what to expect. Since then, not only has the strike
rate been high in terms of work picked up, but it is work which only a
few years ago for it to be produced within a Scottish context would
have been nigh-on unthinkable. Shows like Cora Bissett's site-specific
sex-trafficking drama, Roadkill, and David Leddy's labyrinthine
back-stage tour, Sub-Rosa, speak volumes about how much theatre-making
in Scotland has raised the level of its game in terms of scope and

Funded by the Scottish Government's Expo fund, Made in Scotland has
developed it's remit this year as well to include a new Scottish
Performing Arts Symposium and Promoter Plus, a means of pairing
international promoters with at the very least a guaranteed five
[pieces of work.

“These new initiatives are specifically aimed at promoters,” explains
Federation of Scottish Theatre director Jon Morgan, “in terms of
finding out what the arts in Scotland are about and how they're being

While some of the seventeen works selected by a panel of theatre
professionals have already been road-tested, some, including Grid
Iron's new show, What Remains, have yet to be seen.

“That's a calculated risk,” according to Morgan, “and it's one that
makes things exciting, because, while we know the company's work, we
won't know what this show will be like until we see it.”

With one year's Expo funding left to run, Made in Scotland is clearly
paying dividends. Yet, while Morgan is confident of the showcase’s
future, he is also keen to point up this country's already thriving
theatrical infrastructure that shapes it.

“Made in Scotland is a really important initiative,” he says, “but it
couldn't happen if there wasn't already serious investment in the arts
in Scotland. That's what we want to make our masters aware of, that
this couldn't happen if there wasn't already some remarkable work being
developed. Something like Nic Green's Trilogy, which was an
extraordinary piece of work, and which was quite rightly included in
Made in Scotland, that would have happened anyway. What I like about
Made in Scotland is that it feels quite democratic, and that off-radar
artists can get a platform, which is why it's important that funders
continue to support places like the Arches, where Trilogy was first

One of the main beneficiaries of Made in Scotland 2011 is Remarkable
Arts, the fledgling Edinburgh-based organisation who last year took
over Hill Street Theatre, and this year expand into St George's West.
Despite being one of the newest kids on the block, Remarkable Arts find
themselves hosting an unprecedented eight shows across both of their
venues out of Made in Scotland's total of seventeen. These range from a
revival of the Citizens Theatre's production of One Million Tiny Plays
About Britain, a compendium of miniatures based on a newspaper column,
to work by left-field companies Fish and game and Poorboy. Also
featured is Untitled Love Story, the latest piece by Leddy, whose
influence on how Remarkable Arts is perceived might well prove to be

It was the challenges faced in housing Sub-Rosa, which required an
entire wall full of venue posters to be taken down and put back up
every day in order to accommodate it, that arguably convinced other
Made in Scotland recipients that Remarkable were committed and credible
enough to be approached.

“It was a big commitment,” admits Remarkable Arts artistic director Tim
Hawkins, “but it was worth it.”

This is a typical statement by Hawkins, who set up Remarkable Arts with
associate producer Dani Rae in 2010.

“The idea of setting up Remarkable was to be a producer of remarkable
work,” Hawkins explains, “and not do fringe-lite, where people have to
cut down their shows. That seems to be a negation of the whole fringe
process. I want the work we put on at Remarkable to be ambitious, and
we try to make our guarantees fairer to companies coming in than maybe
some venues operate. With that in mind our first year was quite
successful, in that we didn't make any money, but we didn't lose any

The spate of Made in Scotland shows rushing to Remarkable Arts may be
in part down to the Sub-Rosa factor, but experience counts as well.
Rather than a new kid on the block, Hawkins has almost thirty years
previous running Fringe venues including Old St Paul's, the Roman Eagle
Lodge and indeed Hill Street with its former residents Universal Arts.
Hawkins was also a partner in the much missed Aurora Nova venue based
at St Stephen's church in Stockbridge.

“The great tragedy about Aurora Nova, “ Hawkins points out, “is that no
matter how successful it was and how acclaimed it was, there weren't
enough seats.”

Beyond Made in Scotland, Remarkable's programme of forty-four shows
includes White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a co-production between Remarkable,
Canada's Volcano company and former Aurora Nova director Wolfgang
Hoffmann, and Audience, the latest intimate one-to-one experience from
Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. Also in the frame is Viewless, a new
piece created by the increasingly ambitious Cumbernauld Theatre.

One Scottish show appearing in the Remarkable programme but not part of
Made in Scotland is Orlando, the Glasgow-based Cryptic company's
heartstoppingly sensual multi-media adaptation of Virginia Woolf's
gender-bending ode to a lover. Arguably the best thing Cryptic has done
in the company's colourful history, Orlando's exclusion from Made in
Scotland is baffling, and proves that, even with such a high-calibre
programme as this year's, Made in Scotland isn't foolproof.

“One of the things not well known,” Morgan points out, “is that there
is an additional touring fund available, not just for Made in Scotland
shows, but for any Scottish company in the Fringe. In a way that
acknowledges that we’re not perfect and might have missed something.”

This is something organisations like Remarkable Arts can capitalise on.
As for the future, with or without Made in Scotland, in the current
economic climate it's as certain as anything else.

“If you've got great shows you hope everything else will take care of
itself,” Hawkins says. “It's always a gamble, but if you get
interesting companies coming to you, you've got to trust there's an
audience for it.”

The Herald, August 28th 2011


The Pitmen Painters

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
4 stars
Art, life and revolution, as anyone who heard Sex Pistols cover artist
Jamie Reid speak in the National Galleries of Scotland last Thursday
night will understand, categorically aren't the preserve of a bourgeois
establishment who buy such notions into submission. Lee Hall recognises
this too in his loving impressionistic portrait of The Ashington Group,
the alliance of Tyneside miners who came together in 1934 at a Workers
Educational Association art appreciation night-class under future head
of Edinburgh College of Art Robert Lyon, only to end up an artistic
cause celebre in their own right.

First seen at Live Theatre Newcastle in 2007 before transferring to
London and Broadway, Max Roberts' co-production with the National
Theatre is a gloriously feel-good take on social history, which
nevertheless talks about aspiration and the transformative power of art
in an intelligently expansive manner. With the men's work projected
onto screens in-between Brechtian-style captions, it's the conflict of
Trevor Fox's Oliver that forms the play's heart, as he rejects the
patronage of the wealthy Helen Sutherland, losing any chance of
developing as an artist as he goes.

The committee room banter between the men may be simplistically drawn,
though the harsh realities of the daily grind are brought home by the
din of work and war that punctuates each scene. For anyone who ever put
faith in post World War Two liberal orthodoxies, given their ongoing
destruction by every government since Margaret Thatcher's inglorious
reign, the play's final triumphant predictions of a fairer life for all
are heartbreaking. Looking at the current political climate, however,
Hall's play suggests that the worms might just be turning.

The Herald, July 27th 2011


Saturday, 23 July 2011

Marc Almond - Ten Plagues

Wilton's Music Hall is the perfect place to meet Marc Almond. Tucked
down a lane in London's east end, one would never guess that such a
dramatic landmark exists so discreetly off the beaten track. As the
former vocalist with 1980s electro-pop duo Soft Cell Almond steps into
the high-ceilinged expanse of the UK's oldest working music hall, the
same could be said about this most singular of torch balladeers.

Almond may be about to make his first foray into musical theatre in Ten
Plagues at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, yet his shades, black jeans
and v-neck with the wings of a blue-bird tattoo peeking over the top
seeks to repel rather than invite attention. Once inside the building,
however, the shades are removed, and, as Almond settles into a chair
with a cup of herbal tea, what emerges is an erudite and open figure,
who's as willing to talk about his troubled childhood and the 2004
motorbike accident that put him in a coma as he is about his creative
back-catalogue. It is Ten Plagues, however, that's occupying his mind
the most.

“I was very daunted when I was first approached,” says Almond. “We did
a workshop at the Royal Court, and there were originally two other
singers involved, one of who was a trained opera singer, while the
other one had appeared in west end musicals. I can't read music and I
don't know how to follow bars, and there was little undisciplined me
trying to get to grips with this really serious music when I'm more of
a verse and chorus sort of man. But all I could bring to it is
something of myself, which is story-telling.”

Storytelling has always been at the heart of Almond's work, from early
cover versions of Lou Reed and Jacques Brel songs with Almond's post
Soft Cell troupe, Marc and the Mambas, right through to Ten Plagues and
the recently released Feasting With Panthers album of musical
interpretations of homo-erotic poems by Count Eric Stenboc alongside
works by Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, Verlaine and Rimbaud.

With a libretto by Shopping and F****** author Mark Ravenhill set to a
score by composer Conor Mitchell in a production by former Citizens
Theatre director and designer Stewart Laing, Ten Plagues focuses on
London's great seventeenth century epidemic. The show's origins date
back to a visit Almond made to see Ravenhill's play, Mother Clapp's
Molly House. This tale of gay life in eighteenth century London
appealed to Almond's sense of history, and it was suggested to
Ravenhill that if he ever needed a singer he should get in touch. While
such a proposal remained vague, Ravenhill called Almond's bluff with an
entire song-cycle with him in mind that formed the basis of Ten Plagues.

Given his penchant for high drama, both in his well-documented personal
life and in his professional one, why, exactly, has it taken Almond
until now to tackle a fully-fledged piece of theatre?

“I've always been somebody desperate to stay in my comfort zone,” he
confesses. “But whenever I put an album together I always imagine them
like a musical show, with a big opening and a finale, and I always
invent my own story-line, so I've always got some kind of narrative to
work with. So that satisfied that side of me, but once I'd recovered
from my accident, I felt that it was time to get out of that comfort
zone and challenge myself. I'd lost my voice, I'd lost my confidence,
I'd lost my energy. My eardrum burst, my lung collapsed, all these
things that are a singer's nightmare happened, and I had to take
singing lessons to get it all back. Once I'd got this new lease of
life, it sounds like a cliché, but I felt I had to make the most of it.”

Before his accident Almond was offered the part of Emcee in the west
end production of Cabaret.

“I turned it down,” he says. “I was always making excuses to say no to
things. Then when I was offered Ten Plagues, with this new lease of
life I jumped at it. I just thought I had to do it, and if I fail, then
I fail, because as an artist you've got to be prepared for failure.
You've got to be fearless, otherwise you're not an artist.”

If things had worked out differently, Almond might not have become an
artist at all. Born in the Merseyside satellite resort of Southport,
Almond discovered singing at school near Leeds and as a teenager joined
an amateur dramatics group. His original ambition was to be a dancer,
but, dyslexic, with a stammer and bodily co-ordination so bad as to
“fall over my feet,” Almond sang with a heavy rock band doing covers of
Free and, crucially, David Bowie. Despite having no qualifications,
Almond applied for a place on Leeds Polytechnic's art course, and was
allowed in largely at the behest of lecturer, poet, painter, performer
and key figure in Britain's 1960s counter-culture, Jeff Nuttall.

“Jeff was an amazing inspiration to me,” says Almond. “He'd make fun of
me, but without him I would never have got in. At school I think I had
many learning difficulties which are given names now, but which then
make you appear stupid, so I went along and Jeff asked me to do some
little performance, and it was him who recommended me for a grant, and
I owe him a lot.”

Nuttall's influence on Almond's artistic practice is significant too in
the appearance of Ten Plagues at the Traverse. As a co-founder and
stalwart of live art troupe The People Show, Nuttall himself was a
regular visitor to the Traverse, making Almond and co keepers of a
loose-knit grassroots theatre flame where lo-fi cabaret and live art
meet in a way which has become increasingly prevalent of late.

Almond moved into a bedsit beneath a brothel which provided material
for early Soft Cell songs, and arrived at art school alongside members
of the Gang of Four, The Mekons and Scritti Politti's Green Gartside.
He also met future Soft Cell collaborator Dave Ball.

“It was life-changing,” Almond reflects, “just to be able to find your
own little niche in that world and to be able to express myself. But it
was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper as well, so it was a very dark
time as well as an exciting one. There was a lot of very experimental
electronic stuff coming out, and musically that changed everything.”

Through listening to David Bowie, Almond picked up on Brel, Scott
Walker and other artists who “sang things that were never sang about in
this country, but who appealed to anyone looking for something
alternative. I had quite a troubled childhood, with an alcoholic
father, and with not many friends, so I was always drawn to the
peripheries, and the rebel in me wanted to get out of where I was from.
From Leeds, Almond moved to London, then, in an ongoing journey, to New
York, Barcelona and Moscow.

“I've always found the places with the most interesting stories to tell
are those that people say you shouldn't go to,” Almond says, “but
they're the ones I've always felt most at home in.”

Which brings us back to London and Ten Plagues.

“I love the idea of doing the same thing every night,” he says. “As I
get older I look for something that has more of a regular routine. Ten
Plagues is perfect for that. Otherwise I'd go back off into chaos.”

Ten Plagues, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 1-28

The Herald, July 19th 2011


Gravity's Rainbow

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh until July 23rd 2011
4 stars
The acid house smiley face on the sunny yellow ball of Peter
Liversidge's shelf-load of single-hued detritus speaks volumes about
this colour-focussed group show of eight artists that takes its title
from Thomas Pynchon's baroque noir. It begins with a joke by Yves
Klein, who in 1954 published a booklet of coloured paper rectangles
that purported to be the creations of some hip young kid on the block,
but which were actually found off-cuts. The fact that Liversidge too
has painstakingly remade his own rubbish out of clay and placed it next
to the original adds to the gag.

Kay Rosen's wall paintings ape Pynchon and Klein by using colours on
the basis of their aspirationally inclined names, ending up with mint
choc chip style blocks as demonstrated by 'Mud Hut between Willow Tree
and Apple Tree beside Rocky Road separated by Hedgerow from Copper
Canyon'. This is painting and decorating as art, as are Ian Davenport's
candystripe paintings in which rivulets drip down to form mixed-up
splodges on the floor, where David Batchelor's giant balls of
single-coloured rolled up cables await a giant kitty-cat to bounce them
into touch.

The List, July 2011


Durer's Fame

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh until October 11th
4 stars
German handball star Pascal Hens gazes out from a black and white
poster, his torso naked, gaze serious, his pose one of
self-deification. This is enhanced further by a tattoo on his stomach
of two disembodied hands clasped together as if in prayer. It's an
image made familiar by its own iconic status which, in the context of
the poster, borders on a state of heroic kitsch. Further down the
corridor in a glass case sits a green-moulded plastic hare taken from
an installation that filled a Nuremburg square with seven thousand of
the little critters. Again, it's familiar twenty-first century apparel
points to both parody and homage.

Both works, in fact, are two of the most recent examples that take from
sixteenth century German maestro of woodcuts and engravings, Albrecht
Durer. Hens' buff-bellied tattoo is taken from Durer's 'Study of
Praying Hands', while the electric green hare looks to one of Durer's
most vivid images for inspiration. This isn't some recent post-modern
appropriation, mind, but, as this striking selection of Durer's own
explicitly monochrome works set besides some of his contemporaries and
acolytes proves, Durer was in fact one of the earliest examples of art
star, whose fan-boy copyists manufactured their own output in his image.

The opening woodcut in this laterally-inspired show, 'The
Circumcision', has no less than three homages by Durer's
contemporaries, while nineteenth century Scottish artist William Bell
Scott depicts the man himself looking out over Nuremberg in the
nearest thing here to a pin-up as the cult of personality pervades.
Beyond the romanticised image, Durer's biblical works for the tellingly
titled 'The Apocalypse' are knee-deep in an ecclesiastical and
transcendental melodrama that holds an eternal appeal for serious young
men everywhere, whatever century they're in.

The List, July 2011



Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
3 stars
Leaving aside the questions over the actual authorship of what may or
may not be the bard's most scattershot work – half Shakespeare, half a
couple of his not quite so clever contemporaries, the scholars say –
cut through the morass and its not a bad yarn. Bard in the Botanics
director Gordon Barr's ninety-five minute version for four actors
situated in the Kibble Palace goes some way to prove this in what
becomes a near Dickensian mythological romp.

The fact that the whole affair is kicked off by Pericles' ability to
decode King Antiochus's incestuous confession disguised as a riddle
speaks volumes about the play's taboo-busting intent. Barr opens
proceedings with all four actors itinerising chest-loads of booty as if
they've just discovered buried treasure only to find themselves in the
same story-book they relate each act's prologue from.

As Pericles does a runner, he finds himself courting even more trouble,
his wooing of Thaisa – another king's daughter – leading to the birth
of their daughter Marina and a whole load of stormy weather for all
concerned. Giant waves are illustrated by a mug of water thrown in the
mush, while the tournaments Pericles competes in are of the It's A
Knockout style egg and spoon variety. Pirates wear eye-patches,
villains sport toppers, and the knights appear to be straight out of

Kirk Bage, Beth Marshall, James Murfitt and Amie Burns Walker have
great fun with all this hat-changing, frock-swapping stuff as they flit
between oceans as well as generations. If the play was already
something of a collectively constructed collage, this piece of
picaresque Victoriana is as valid a rendering as any.

The Herald, July 22nd 2011


Saturday, 16 July 2011

Whatever Happened To Benny Hill? - Grant Smeaton Reassesses A Lost Comic Icon

Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson, A Clockwork Orange author Anthony
Burgess and rap star Snoop Dog may be artists rarely mentioned in the
same breath. When it comes to comedy, however, this fantasy
dinner-party quartet have all at different times outed themselves as
fan-boys of one of Britain's great lost comic icons. Not that Benny
Hill, who died in 1992, three years after his long-running prime-time
TV sketch show was cancelled, is celebrated much in his own country.
While France hails Hill as a farceur on a par with Jacques Tati and
America airs endless re-runs of his shows, in Britain there are no
retrospectives shown or statues put up in his home town as with other
funny-men of his generation. Yet Hill emerged from a similar music hall
background as his peers, and, during his hey-day, was arguably bigger
than them all. So what happened?

This is something actor and writer Grant Smeaton puts under the
spotlight in Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?, Smeaton's latest
excursion into pop cultural iconography, which examines Hill's rise and
fall through a mock-up of one of his TV specials. These ribald one-offs
featured Hill and his regular ensemble performing sketches with Hill
playing characters such as the eager to please
Fred Scuttle and a Chinaman whose accent often led to a series of
misunderstandings, ending with a finale of a silent-movie chase scene
set to a parping saxophone theme and usually involving a troupe of
scantily-clad young women. While Smeaton's show, co-written with
Raymond Burke, will feature only three actors, the spirit of Hill,
observed during a mis-spent youth, will be much in evidence.

“He was a big part of my growing up through the 1970s,” says Smeaton.
“I remember watching the shows alongside Stanley Baxter and Morecambe
and Wise. But then I realised that Benny Hill had done so much more
stuff than everybody else, and had made TV series over four decades,
churning out four episodes a year and doing this huge amount of work.
Then there was the way he fell from grace towards the end of his
career, and was dead within two years of having his show being
cancelled. He was really just an ordinary man who devoted his life to
his work, and I think when that was taken away he found himself living
in a vacuum, and went out of control, eating more and drinking more,
which ultimately led to his death. I thought that was an interesting
tale to tell.”

If it hadn't been for Ben Elton and the early 1980s alternative comedy
set, Smeaton might be telling a different story. Up until the early
1980s, The Benny Hill Show was a British institution, on which a
mixture of schoolboy humour, slapstick and deceptively clever wordplay
had arguably influenced more revered peers such as The Two Ronnies and
Morecambe and Wise. Smeaton singles out the famous Morecambe and Wise
sketch in which making breakfast becomes an elaborately choreographed
tour de force as a direct lift from Hill. Yet only when Hill's
nudge-nudge innuendos became blatantly smutty with his Hot
Gossip-inspired troupe of leggy lovelies, Hill's Angels, it seems, did
the comedy police clamp down.

Motor-mouthed stand-up Elton was particularly vehement, going so far as
to suggest that The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for
incidents of rape during the period. The irony of Elton's stance, of
course, is that he and his generation went on to become the new comedy
establishment, whose university educations may have set them apart from
Hill and co, but whose willingness to embrace the mainstream saw them
chum up with some very strange bedfellows. Elton himself teamed up with
composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for musicals The Beautiful Game and
Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies, not to mention his
collaboration with rock band Queen on jukebox musical We Will Rock You,
both liaisons a long way from Elton's roots.

Yet Hill's showbiz background too was infinitely different from the
Hills Angels years. Born Alfred Hawthorne Hill in Southampton, the
young wannabe's career began as a prop boy in a touring review before
joining the army's Combined Services Entertainment division after being
drafted. Hill took on the name Benny in honour of his favourite comic,
Jack Benny, and toured the club circuit before becoming straight-man to
future On The Buses star Reg Varney. After stints on radio and in
sitcom, the earliest incarnation of The Benny Hill Show began in 1951,
with Hill one of the first comedians to recognise television as a
creative medium in itself in terms of his use of technical trickery and
sped-up film sequences. It was this aspect of Hill too that appealed to

“I was always interested in the style of Benny Hill's humour,” he says,
“and try and recreate that very televisual style onstage. So each scene
looks like a Benny Hill sketch, but there's a twist that looks at
different aspects of his life. He was very pioneering in a way, and was
really the first comedian to break television, and use different ideas
like split screens and so on, and in a way he was much more
sophisticated in his early days than he became later on when he pushed
things too far. Those later years with Hills Angels are what most
people remember, but that was right at the end of his career. Up until
then it was all about schoolboy humour, and that immaturity was part of
the appeal.”

Whatever Happened To Benny Hill? Isn't the first-time Smeaton has
picked up the mantle of such a familiar real-life pop culture idol. In
his Herald Angel-winning show, Bette/Cavett, Smeaton dragged-up as
Bette Davis to recreate the ageing screen goddess' legendary TV
appearance on Dick Cavett's chat show. While Smeaton's take on Benny
Hill looks set to be different in form, his fascination for myth-makers
remains unabashed.

“I guess it's just exploring my memory from my childhood,” he explains,
“looking at the TV when things were so bright and optimistic then, and
relooking at them now.”

Smeaton's first experience of Hill was as a ten year-old buying Hill's
novelty record, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), an epic yarn
of love, death and gold tops which was 1971's Christmas number one. Two
years previously Hill had appeared in patriotic caper movie, the
Italian Job, having previously been seen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, while in 1964 he was
taken seriously enough as a comic actor to have played Bottom in a TV
production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. None of this
mattered much, however, when Hill was unceremoniously dumped by TV.

“With Benny Hill the whole alternative thing came in and swept
everything that had gone before away,” says Smeaton. “It was dismissed,
and I don't think it should be. He did go too far towards the end, and
that polarises peoples point of view of him, so people in this country
don't want to remember him or reassess him. But all that stuff was only
one little part of his career, and you have to look a bit closer and
deeper at what was going on beyond that. We don't overlook the critical
aspects of how things turned out, but there's a whole lot more going on
with Benny Hill that I think needs to be celebrated.”

Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 20th-23rd

The Herald, July 12th 2011


The Blue Aeroplanes – Anti Gravity (Art Star/Albino Two)

4 stars
Long before REM lost their edge, Bristol's Blue Aeroplanes were their
English counterparts, ploughing an urgent furrow of spikily jangular
folk-rock with multiple guitars zinging about every which way to
backdrop lead auteur Gerard Langley's tumbles of opaque, semi
spoken-word murmurs. Thirty years and forty-two members on, several
generations of Aeroplanes combine for this fresh-as-a-daisy sprawl
through more of the same. From the opening firework bursts that precede
the forboding swirls of 'Sulphur' to the elegiac 'Cancer Song' that
closes things, this is a dense epic chiming with wisdom and experience,
art-rock's rich tapestry personified anew.

The List, July 2011


Fake Eyelashes – A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese (Creeping Bent)

4 stars
Katy Lironi's pedigree as a chanteuse dates back to C-86 swoonsters
Fizzbombs followed by a stint fronting bubblegum stompers The Secret
Goldfish. This latest vehicle for Ms L's sublime cooing is an
infinitely more laid-back affair. Think Saint Etienne-style ballads
sans London-centric reference points but with a melancholy worthy of
bedsit-era Tracy Thorn. This solitary, gal in exile feel is fleshed out
on a still lugubrious 'If You Made It Easy For Me by a mellowed out
band arrangement, while electronic skitters underscore the equally
plaintive 'If I Could Only Cry' on a late-night affair that sounds in
need of a cuddle.

The List, July 2011


Casablanca – the Gin Joint Cut

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
The timeless allure of the ultimate big-screen romance was plain to see
when Morag Fullarton's contracted stage version appeared as part of
Oran Mor's lunchtime Classic Cuts season in 2010. This speedy revival
may have upgraded things for the night-time set with nary a pie in
sight, but Fullarton's supreme grasp of populist theatre sensibilities
remain undimmed in a glorious three-actor affair which in lesser hands
might have merely ended up as one great big daft industry in-joke.

There are elements of this, of course, particularly in the newly added
B-movie homage to westerns, an extended fifteen-minute sketch that
somehow manages to shoehorn the Marx Brothers into the rootin',
tootin', sharpshootin' fun. It's the main feature, however, that fully
delights, as we're whisked off to Rick's bar, where worlds collide and
old flames linger in a cut-price no-man's land of scarlet drapes,
silver-sashed doorways and low-lit lamps that appear sepia-tinged.

The fun of all this is watching the miked-up onstage trio work overtime
to play the film's cast of thousands. Jimmy Chisholm nails the pop-eyed
menace of Peter Lorre as he changes hats and accents with abandon,
while Claire Waugh flits from a Nazi more kinkily akin to Charlotte
Rampling in The Night Porter to the still lovelorn Ilsa in an instant.

It's Gavin Mitchell's gloriously studied resemblance to Humphrey Bogart
that captivates, however, both when Fullarton's production is playing
it for laughs and in the series of genuinely tear-jerking encounters
between Rick and Ilsa that punctuate the show's moral heart in an
otherwise affectionately cheeky affair. Watch out too for piano player
Sam, who'll probably never quite play it the same again.

The Herald, July 14th 2011


Saturday, 9 July 2011

Blondie - Chris Stein and Debbie Harry's Second Coming

Blondie mainstay Chris Stein is spending the day on the beach
with his kids. It feels as far away from the 1970s Downtown scene that
sired the band Stein founded with vivacious front-woman Debbie Harry as
it does from Balado, where a reignited Blondie will perform tracks from
their new album, Panic of Girls, at T in the Park this Sunday. Panic of
Girls is the band's first album since 2003's The Curse of Blondie, and
is released, not on a major record label, but by the band themselves as
part of a special 'Collector's Pack'. Given that tracks were first laid
down as far back as 2009 before assorted record company wrangles made a
long silence even more protracted, one could be forgiven for thinking
that the title of the last Blondie album had become a self-fulfilling
prophecy. The truth, however, for Stein, at least, is much more mundane.

“I took time out to be with my family,” says Stein. “I had two kids who
are now six and seven, so I sort of stumbled into a full-time dad
situation, and that's taken a while. Also, it can be difficult for us
because of our age. Touring can be physically exhausting compared to
how it used to be. When we started out we were in our twenties, and
no-one our age now was doing anything, but now Bob Dylan’s just turned
seventy and is still out there doing stuff, and we're still here, and
the next record's already halfway there, so there won't be as much of a
gap this time.”

Back in a near-derelict, pre-beach New York, Stein and Harry were
mainstays of CBGB and Max's Kansas City, the two clubs that defined the
Big Apple's pre-punk and post-punk scene alongside now seminal fellow
travellers including Television, The New York Dolls and Talking Heads,
with the likes of The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop's Stooges and Beat
poet paraphernalia still heavy in the air in terms of influence.

“Everything came out of glam rock,” Stein recalls. “Suicide pre-dated
the New York Dolls, and the scene was very exciting. Then I went to see
Debbie play with her band The Stilletos, and became part of them.”

When The Stilletos broke up in 1974, Harry and Stein endeavoured to put
together a new combo. Originally called Angel and the Snake, by late
1975 and a few personnel changes, the band changed their name to
Blondie, and a still underground legend was born.

Where some acts were content with cult status, however, Blondie's pop
sensibilities took from classic American jukebox rock n' roll and
quickly crossed over into the mainstream. By the time of Blondie's
first ever television appearance performing a spunky Rip Her To Shreds
on Factory Records head honcho Tony Wilson's tea-time arts magazine
show, What's On, during a tour of northern English punk clubs, the
original Blondie line-up of Harry and Stein, who had become a couple
personally as well as professionally, drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary
Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri had already released their
eponymous major label debut album. A flower-wielding Wilson was clearly
already smitten with Harry, whose sassy appearance in over-the-knee
boots as she snarled through the song was a captivating introduction to
a female singer who combined sexiness and strength enough to compete on
equal terms with the rock and roll boy's club that still prevailed.

“The first time we came over to the UK was with Television,” Stein
recalls, “and it was very different in terms of audiences. In America
audiences were still very bohemian and a little bit coffee shop, but in
the UK it was much more physical.”

Within a year, on the back of second album, 1978's Plastic Letters, a
cover of Randy and the Rainbows 1963 hit, Denis, went to number two in
the UK chart, while it's follow-up, (I'm Always Touched By Your)
Presence, Dear, made the top ten. It wasn't until the same year's
follow-up to Plastic Letters, Parallel lines, however, that Blondie
really hit pay dirt. Despite a whopping six singles taken from the
album, including Hanging on the Telephone, Picture This, Sunday Girl
and Heart of Glass, Parallel Lines shot straight to number one. The
following year's Eat to the Beat album sired Dreaming, Union City Blue
and Atomic, while 1980's Autoamerican diverted away from New Wave power
pop and Phil Spectoresque epics to dabble with reggae on The Tide is
High and, most notably, New York's burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene on
the Grandmaster Flash referencing Rapture. Inbetween the two came the
Giorgio Moroder produced theme song to the film, American Gigolo, Call

By 1982's The Hunter, however, Blondie's commercial peak had passed,
the band was in personal and financial disarray, and a split was
inevitable. Especially after Stein was diagnosed with Pemphigus, a rare
autoimmune disease that causes blistering of the skin. With Harry
taking several years off to nurse Stein back to health, Blondie
appeared to be history, with a perfectly constructed set of pop
classics as their legacy.

Then, in 1997, with Stein fully recovered though no longer romantically
involved with Harry, Blondie reconvened with their original line-up,
one of the first bands of their era to reform in an ongoing avalanche
of artists riding the nostalgia-wave to claim a glory that should have
been rightfully theirs first time round. Yet, while Blondie did the
hits, they weren't about looking back, releasing No Exit, a Jean-Paul
Sartre referencing collection of newly recorded material, in 1999. If
fans feared the worst, No Exit was a long way from any
legacy-tarnishing hotchpotch of hastily cobbled together material that
some older acts fall prey to as they singularly fail to catch the
chemistry that once fired them. No Exit even spawned a number one
single in Maria, a joyous return to form that found the now
fifty-something Ms Harry in finer voice than ever on a song that could
sit proudly alongside Blondie hits of old.

“It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said there were no second acts in
American life”, Stein muses while his two kids play about him. “But
we've kind of proved him wrong about that. And there wouldn't have been
any point in just doing the old songs. We didn't want to get stuck in
that way. We had to keep on moving forward in the way that Blondie have
always been out front. More and more musicians were referencing
Blondie, so it seemed the right time to reform. Now we see a lot of our
peers are out there doing it. We played with the New York Dolls a while
back, and now The Cars are back together with Ric Ocasek, so it's all

With Harry, Stein and Burke now the only remaining original members,
Blondie have been revitalised on Panic of Girls by a raft of younger
players who add to the album's multi-cultural breeziness.

If one thing always singled Blondie out, it was their willingness to
embrace sounds and influences that went beyond their trademark pop
bubblegum bounce. Panic of Girls is no different, with the reggae-lite
of Girlie Girlie on a par with The Tide is High, while elsewhere
accordions and other eclectica abound as Harry sings in both French and
Spanish. Stein is a particular champion of the Latino music scene.

“The Spanish and Latino music scene in America is very exciting just
now”, he observes somewhat anthropologically. “Latinos make up one
sixth of the population here now, so it's only natural that Latino
music is heard more. There are still a lot of great bands coming out of
urban areas, but it's hard for them to sustain things compared to when
we were starting out now the rents are so high. But in terms of
listening, I get much more turned on these days listening to Spanish
language radio stations.”

With such diverse interests pre-dating the faux world music of the
likes of Vampire Weekend, Stein and Blondie are still savvy enough to
show the kids how intelligent pop should be done. As Stein has already
observed, however, “The challenge now is our age. I see Debbie as
someone on as par with Nina Simone or something, so as long as people
still come to see us we'll keep on playing, but I try to be smart about

Blondie play T in the Park, Balado, Sunday June 10th

The Herald, July 9th 2011