THE intervention in the debate over Scottish independence by David Beckham demonstrates how, even with mere days to go before Thursday’s referendum, it retains the capacity to stupefy. As one of the highest profile celebrities in the world, let alone Britain, the former Manchester United and England footballer’s endorsement for the No camp provides its arguments with extraordinary exposure ahead of Thursday’s vote. His word and smile is coveted by marketeers the world who reward him handsomely for his advocacy; to have him on side has provided a shot in the arm for Better Together in the concluding days of the campaign. “He’s one of the highest profile figures in Britain if not the world, so it’s a big boost,” a source in the Better Together campaign told me last night. “But as well as profile he has the likeability factor. He’s not a political expert but people like him and admire him and that’s important.”
Beckham’s open letter to Scottish voters hits all the notes that have helped make him an icon and, more importantly, an influential brand. It is polite, succinct and emotional, harking back to the golden summer of London 2012 when Scots formed part of an extraordinarily successful sporting alliance. It is, he stresses, “not my intention to tell you what to do.” Whereas some celebrities to declare for one side of the other have been lambasted for their views on specific political issues in #indyref, Beckham steers clear of them all for the heart of sleeve approach that defined his playing career.
The surprise element cannot be underestimated, not least because Beckham has rarely expressed an interest in Scottish civic life and how its shifting tectonic plates are impacting on the rest of the UK. In fact, apart from his support for the Football Association in trying to land major football tournaments for England, he has made plain a desire to shy away from political discussion. In an interview with Esquire last year, he said he does not have political views and, at the time, did not vote because he lived outside the country. Asked if he would were he resident in the UK, he said he would rather not talk about politics.
Why then, has Beckham chosen now to speak up for the No campaign? His role in the London Olympics, where he played an integral role in the campaign to bring the Games to these shores, later acting as an Olympic ambassador, demonstrates how his pride and passion for Britain is beyond doubt. His emotional ties with Scotland are less evident save for the games he played against Scottish teams while wearing the colours of Manchester United.
Recently, however, Beckham has taken a keener interest in Scotland. He has been in the country on at least two occasions this year. In January, he was seen in Menstrie, Clackmannanshire, and Leven in Fife. Earlier this month, meanwhile, he spent time in he Glen Affric Estate in Invernessshire. Unusual destinations, perhaps, for a multimillionaire with an international property portfolio, but there is a common thread. Both visits coincided with Beckham’s role as a brand ambassador for Diageo, the Scotch whisky giant, touring production plants and filming advertisements. Together with celebrity agent, Simon Fuller, Beckham is helping develop the strategy and positioning of a new product, Haig Club, a single grain Scotch.
While Beckham has until recently remained quiet on the issue of Scottish independence, Diageo – which controls 40% of Scotch whisky production – has not. In May, its chief executive, Ivan Menezes, emphasised the importance of the company remaining within the EU and to maintain free trade agreements. His comments were neither overtly pro nor anti independence, but made clear there were concerns in the event of a Yes vote. “What we will fight for is keeping our industry competitive and thriving, and we are very clear on what that requires,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Although Better Together were aware that Beckham was to come out in support for No late last night, he did so not through the auspices of the official campaign, but Let’s Stay Together, a campaign group registered with the Electoral Commission as a participant in the referendum and launched by two senior figures in the advertising world: Andrew McGuinness, the founder of BMB and Seven Dials, and Mary Teresa Rainey, the founder of RKCR and chair of TH_NK.
Two of those firms have previously done work with Diageo, a fact that is unlikely to have come to the attention of David Beckham. Understandably, he may not care. His position on the independence debate appears to be one borne out of a self-assuredness and delight in his national identity as a Briton. It is an authentic and emotional stance shared by a great many supporters of the No cause, but even so, it would be guileless to presume it is the only factor at play in his thunderbolt involvement in the increasingly surreal independence debate.
This is a longer version of a story I wrote for The Scotsman about the role of the nation’s Afro-Caribbean community in the independence referendum campaign. To read the edited version, click here.
THERE is an old Nigerian proverb that says the journey to manhood begins only when a man leaves his father’s house to build his own homestead. Home at the moment for Graham Campbell is Sighthill, a housing scheme to the north of Glasgow, but he is laying the foundations for something bigger. “We get independence,” he says. “We like the egalitarian, welcoming spirit in Scotland, it’s a country that shares traditions close to the hearts of our people. We like what it has to offer but as outsiders, we can also see its potential.”
A Jamaican-born, London-raised Rastafarian poet, musician, writer and charity fundraiser, Mr Campbell is the convener of Africans for an Independent Scotland (AfIS), though his Nigerian friends calls him oga pata pata – the boss. It is a fitting sobriquet, for come 18 September, the slim, dreadlocked figure in a crocheted rastacap, mustard brown tweed jacket and trainers could well influence the decision of a voter bloc the size of Motherwell.
Like many pro-independence grassroots organisations in the orbit of the main Yes Scotland campaign, AfIS has flown under the radar of the mainstream debate, but it has been heralded by key figures in Yes camp, such as Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of Yes Scotland and Shona Robison, the equalities minister. More importantly in a referendum that looks set to go to the wire, its arguments in favour of self-determination carry considerable weight among the African, Caribbean and Afroscots communities who call the land of Jock Tamson home.
On an overcast afternoon in Glasgow’s east end, Mr Campbell and a few colleagues have assembled outside African Embassy, a labyrinthine minimarket catering to those children of the Mother Continent who have wandered far and wide. It is the day before voter registrations close for the referendum and the AfIS band are eager to ensure all who are eligible have their say in little over a fortnight’s time, distributing leaflets in English, French and Arabic.
Inside, the Duke Street emporium is a sensory delight. Its small hair salon does a steady trade in cornrows and braiding while a rack of DVDs offer up Nollywood’s latest and loudest. The aisles, stacked deep and high, are chock full of delicacies such as beef biltong, dried yellow mystus and the irresistibly sweet smell of freshly baked Agege bread. Everyone I speak to, however, believes the choice advocated by AfIS to be even more gratifying.
Sitting in the barber’s chair while he has his head shaved, Kabir Rauph shoots me a quizzical glance in the mirror when I ask how he plans to vote. “It has to be yes, doesn’t it?” the 36-year-old replies. A Nigerian advertising student, he has already returned his postal ballot. For all the setbacks it has endured since gaining independence 54 years ago, he believes his homeland’s autonomy should inspire Scotland to follow suit. “A country deserves to control its economy and its future and the SNP’s argument for that is the best option,” he reasons.
According to the 2011 census, there are around 30,000 Africans and 7,000 people from Caribbean nations living in Scotland – around 0.7% of the population – with South Africa and Nigeria representing the lion’s share at around 11,000 and 9,000 respectively. Once those with refugee status are discounted along with nationals from the likes of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the vast majority are qualifying Commonwealth citizens, able to decide Scotland’s future. Mr Campbell estimates around 30,000 will line up at the ballot boxes.
“Independence is not a journey without problems, but none of us would turn our backs on it,” explains the 46-year-old, one of the few members of Scotland’s Afro-Caribbean community to have stood for office. “Our countries left Britain’s control and understood the challenges that meant, but in this instance, Scotland will have all the advantages we didn’t have.”
It is a topic that has been addressed at the main AfIS level, but also in the multitude of splinter groups that constitute the Scottish African populace. Somali, Nigerian and Cameroonian residents have held talks on the referendum, while an especially engaged band of Kenyans have been staging debates every week in a Glasgow restaurant. Even those nationals of countries unfamiliar with the democratic process, such as the Eritrean and Sudanese people, the inability to cast a vote has not dissuaded them from discussing it.
For AfIS – which draws its members from over 25 different nations and has campaigned alongside other Yes splinter groups like English Scots for Yes – a key motivation is the desire to wrest control of immigration and asylum policies from Westminster and reshape them in a more progressive mould. Chimezie Umeh, the group’s secretary, argues that around 80% of asylum claimants in Scotland are Africans, the majority of whom are women fleeing persecution, dictatorships, war zones and the threat of rape and torture.
The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence stresses the need for a “healthy population growth” and proposes a “controlled, transparent and efficient immigration system.” First Minister Alex Salmond has set a target to increase net annual migration to 24,000, a rise he describes as “modest” compared to the average net inward migration figure of 22,000 over the past decade. Crucially, the government also vows to reintroduce the post-study work visa, which would allow the estimated 30,000 international students in Scotland – around 3,000 of whom are drawn from outside the EU – to continue to stay in the country.
Mr Campbell, the son of a Jamaican father and Grenadian mother, agrees that the ability to take charge of what are at present reserved matters is integral to the community’s support for Yes, stating that such changes would mean a “better life” for Africans in Scotland. “A lot of people who came here ten years ago under the Fresh Talent scheme could be contributing a lot more to the economy,” he says. “The country needs to raise its working age population and most of our community fits that demographic, with two thirds of them holding degree level qualifications. The other big issue in our is immigration. Although around half the community are students, workers and migrants, those who have refugee status have suffered because of the UK Border Agency. It is an organisation that has made our lives hell in terms of establishing a community and we want to see it gone.”
Beyond such issues, those new Scots with ties to Africa and the Caribbean hold a profound and unshakeable belief that self-government is an inherent right. In the words of Chinaka Odum, a University of Strathclyde graduate who has lived in Castlemilk for six years, it represents a “natural state” of being. “Africans get that independence isn’t one vision, it’s a blueprint, an idea, a chance to make something new,” says the 36-year-old.
It is a desire based on ideology and history and as such, it seems impossible not to suggest that the community’s zeal for independence is in part motivated by the ills of British colonialism. It is a topic that is part of the debate, yet too how Scotland might learn from the role it played during the days of empire. For all the good done by men such as Sir John Kirk and Alexander Low Bruce in ending slavery and setting Africa on course for a brighter future (a mention, too, should go to those 13,000 estimable Glasgow residents signed a 1732 petition to abolish slavery, arguably one of the earliest coordinated human rights campaigns in history), it is important to remember how other Scots wrote darker chapters of the continent’s history as well as that of the Caribbean.
As the the second city of the empire, Glasgow was built on the trade of tobacco, sugar, cotton and people, the proceeds from which erected buildings and entire streets that today form the spine of the urban centre. It is thought there were around 80 slave traders from the city, while nationwide, the history books reveal that in 1834, one in seven British slave owners claiming compensation after abolition hailed from Scotland. Indeed, one Aberdonian, Alexander Allardyce, was responsible for taking more African slaves to Jamaica than the entire population of his home city.
In Mr Campbell’s view, the country has done better than most to acknowledge its past, and the renewal offered by independence presents the opportunity to further engage with it. “Scotland was a central part of the empire and in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, Scots were the predominant influence. I’m a Jamaican Campbell. There’s a history and legacy of colonialism and slavery, and Scotland has to own up to its role in it,” he explains. “There are many good historians doing that, and you only have to look at the Commonwealth Games, when artists and cultural practitioners were funded to tell the bad chapters of the nation’s past.
“Glasgow is big, warm and loving enough to tell its truths and that tells you a lot about Scotland. An independent Scotland would be able to build on that and have more of an equal role with countries like Jamaica, Malawi, Zambia and Nigeria, countries where it has left its footprint. The Scottish diaspora, let’s not forget, isn’t just Americans, Canadians and Australians, and I think a yes vote will help Scots think more carefully about their country and its place in the world.”
The group’s Yes vote is not unequivocal. Some Africans, Mr Odum reveals, have fallen for “scaremongering” warning they would be unable to travel to London. Mr Campbell agrees a “minority” have been piqued by ominous threats of the loss of passport status, with some even told “they would have to move to England,” myths debunked by the White Paper’s proposal for a common travel area and the prospect of dual nationality. Other Africans, claims Mr Campbell, believe “a guest shouldn’t set the rules when they’re in someone else’s home.” Even among many committed to the cause, support is conditional on AfIS being party to the negotiations for a written constitution, such is the desire for tangible, lasting equality.
“We want to be part of the negotiations for a constitution to create a fairer Scotland and bring an end to the inequalities we’ve experienced,” insists Mr Campbell, a Glaswegian for the past 13 years. “Unemployment among our young people is much higher than it is for the rest of the country even though our population is twice as likely to have a degree level education than the average Glaswegian. Even so, they are working in the security industry, in bars and nightclubs, areas of employment that are not commensurate with their experience and skills. We want an independent Scotland and we want a fairer Scotland.”
Indeed, though it would be a huge boon, some in the group acknowledge that an independent Scotland’s promise of a more compassionate immigration policy could have undesirable aftershocks, not least the prospect of a backlash from a minority with arms folded rather than open. If the history of other North European nations is any barometer, Mr Campbell reflects, such changes could spark a “right wing” reaction. “We would need to have proper political and community integration tools to deal with that, so I hope the Scottish Government is ready,” he adds.
Yet such potential problems are being embraced. The consensus seems to be that come two weeks tomorrow, Scotland’s Afro-Caribbean will fraternity will vote en masse for change, continuing the long and storied narrative towards self-determination began by their parents, grandparent and great-grandparents decades ago and thousands of miles away. As another old African proverb has it, wherever a man goes to dwell, his character goes with him.
LAST night’s BBC debate on Scottish independence saw the return of the combative and canny First Minister, the one with an occasional penchant for lyricism who was strangely absent from the STV joust of a few weeks ago. Back then, a natural slugger was asked to rein in his hooks and replace jabs with ill conceived jibes. The towel, however, was left at home for the sequel.
Salmond pulled off the difficult sleight of hand in political debating of giving expansive answers without them necessarily being detailed. He had greater presence and purpose and demonstrated his guile by inviting Alistair Darling to put forward positive rebuttals instead of the negativity that has defined Better Together’s campaign. In areas problematic to the Yes camp, the SNP leader adopted his party’s classic tactic of depicting Scotland as David to Westminster’s Goliath. On the currency issue, his focus on a mandate to negotiate a union was opportune and savvy.
Not that Darling let it be. In repeatedly attempting to claw the focus of the debate back to the pound, he mistook desperation for doggedness and by attempting to exploit a weakness, the weariness of his repetition suggested currency and currency alone was the sole folly of the Yes campaign. It was a form of myopia which allowed Salmond to romp to victory on home advantage issues such the NHS and welfare reform. Darling seemed struck down by an ideological paralysis, unable to differentiate Labour from the Tories for fear of upsetting Better Together’s fragile alliance. This, I suspect, was a key battle won in the war for the undecideds – what kind of party is modern Scottish Labour, and does it have the will and means to combat the Tory-led cuts agenda?
Whether last night will have an impact beyond setting the tone of the press coverage in the week ahead is unclear. A snap poll taken immediately after the debate showed 71% of people thought Salmond had won, but asked how they would vote, the same poll revealed the numbers remained unchanged, with 49% Yes compared to 51% No. I’d caution against overestimating the influence of these debates when it comes to the ballot box, other than saying they reinforce existing prejudices. It seems unthinkable now, but we should remember the unlikely wave of euphoria surrounding Nick Clegg after his performances in the TV debates leading up to the last general election. Ultimately, it didn’t translate to the polling booths and although there’s still a wave surrounding Clegg, it consists of something considerably less edifying that euphoria.
There’s also the important distinction to be made between an election and a referendum – personality politics hold less sway. That’s especially true now that the gladiatorial prime time debates are over. Now, barring a catastrophic blunder – we journalists live in hope – the agenda will be refined and pressed home by the grassroots activists. There will be no new answers and no new facts – some sceptics might say we never had any old ones – so those expecting matters to get any more definitively vague should be let down gently. Look on the bright side, at least we won’t have to witness the kind of rammy that tainted last night’s debate for a good quarter hour, but if in the days and weeks to come, the nostalgia pangs become too great to ignore, I suggest visiting a Sachiehall Street chippie at chucking out time. The oratory, I’m told, is just as robust, though the pickled eggs aren’t quite as sour.
Anyone who watched Kirsty Wark’s documentary on Sir William Burrell recently will have an appreciation of how the museum’s father valued only the best of work, and sought the advice and expertise of an array of antiquarians and collectors the world over. One such contact was John Hunt, who accrued numerous items for the shipping magnate. Among them was the Swiss tapestry. A contentious figure who has been subject to numerous yet unsubstantiated claims that he liaised with Nazi art dealers, Hunt offers a definitive link in the uncertain and unseemly journey which spirited the tapestry all the way to the southside of Glasgow.
It is a story which begins with the story of Emma Budge, a notable German-American collector who, along with her husband Henry, amassed more than 1,500 items including paintings, silver, tapestries, furniture, and porcelain. The Budge Collection, as it was known, was regarded as one of the most significant in all of Germany. Based in Hamburg, the Budges were – like Burrell – philanthropically minded, and donated a quarter of a million Reischmarks towards the creation of Frankfurt University. After Henry died in 1928, Emma, then aged 76, resolved to bequeath the cultural treasures they had gathered to Hamburg.
It was a noble intention, but one which would be thwarted by the Third Reich. Seven months after she passed away in February 1937, the Budge Collection was appropriated by the Nazis and systematically sold off for a fraction of its real worth. Over the course of three days at a so-called Jew auction in Paul Graupe’s Berlin establishment, the artefacts went under the hammer. Before long, the collection was broken up, its component parts scattered around public and private museums the world over.
One such spoil was the Swiss tapestry, thought to be have been created by a Dominican nun. Less than a year after the auction, on or before 8 August 1938, it was acquired by Burrell via Hunt. The item’s provenance does not include details of how Hunt took the tapestry into his possession. It may be that the truth behind those gaps in the chronology never emerge.
The ultimate decision over what should happen to the tapestry now rests with the Spoliation Advisory Panel, an expert group set up by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport to scrutinise the claims of heirs who lost possession of cultural rarities during the Nazi era. It has resolved claims involving some of the largest public art bodies in Britain, including both the British Museum and the British Library.
In the case of the tapestry, it is my understanding the panel was first notified of questions surrounding its past last October. When its findings emerge is unclear – the 11 member panel carries out its work in the strictest confidence, understandably so – but it is thought to be at the stage of asking supplementary questions, meaning an end is in sight, possibly before the end of the year.
Glasgow Life, the arms-length organisation which manages the Burrell Collection on behalf of its ultimate owners, Glasgow City Council, is working with the panel, and is committed to establishing the truth of what happened in those dark days towards the end of the 1930s. Those involved in the Burrell’s work will be aware of the spoliation process – only seven years ago, Glasgow City Council made an ex gratia payment over a painting attributed to Jean-Simon Chardin which was in the Burrell Collection.
The heirs of five former Jewish shareholders of an art gallery in Munich – comprising the grandchildren of three shareholders from one family, and the children of two shareholders from another family – successfully presented evidence that their forebears has been unfairly asked to pay 547,599 Reischmarks in taxation and other costs, a wholly unrealistic sum which led to its forced sale – through the same Graupe’s auction house – in June 1936.
In an affidavit sworn 12 years later, Herr Ludwig Schmausser, the tax inspector who handled the gallery’s affairs, related the sorry story. He said: “It is my opinion that this sum was far in excess of the amount of taxes owed. I do not know whether the relevant files still exist today. I heard that Regierungsrat Schwarz [the government official in charge of the tax office] accused the senior partner of criminal matters relating to fiscal or foreign exchange matters.
“No details were made known to me. It is my opinion that there were no grounds for instituting criminal tax proceedings; I have no information as to any incorrectness regarding foreign exchange. Such charges would not appear plausible to me given the fact that I am convinced that the senior partner was a person of absolute integrity.
“When I heard of the outcome of the aforesaid negotiation with Regierungsrat Schwarz, I was enraged as it was my conviction that the person that I held in such high esteem had suffered an injustice. At the time it was supposed to be a question of a declaration of submission. I recall that Regierungsrat Schwarz said that we did not find anything I the files that indicated tax misdemeanours.”
The gallery was left with no choice, and the painting was sold on 16 or 17 June 1936 to Julius Bohler, a Munich dealer. Sir William Burrell’s purchase took place shortly afterwards on 22 June. Though the Spoliation Advisory Panel made it clear Burrell was not culpable in these sinister proceedings, the fact remained that the painting belonged with the heirs. “While no moral blame attaches to the respondents, the claimants have established a sufficiently robust moral case to justify the award of a remedy,” its members stated.
It should be stressed that the Chardin case only came to light thanks to the council disclosing its items of uncertain provenance. In 2000, it carried out a search of its collections, eventually establishing no less than 55 so-called suspect items in the Burrell alone. In its report that year to the National Museum Directors’ Conference, it stated: “Burrell dealt extensively with British and European dealers known to have sold works of dubious provenance, so the threat to our good title, on at least some works, must be considered very real. Unfortunately our records often do not show the whereabouts of the works which allow us to prove a bill of health back to 1933.”
The following year, it published a list of the suspect artworks in detail which prompted the heirs of the Munich gallery owners to come forward. Such a course of action should be applauded. Indeed, both the council and Glasgow Life have demonstrated they are supporters of efforts to declare items of uncertain provenance, not least by listing a welter of items on Cultural Property Advice, an advisory service set up by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council which details artefacts with incomplete histories. The tapestry is included on that site.
Others questions remain, however. If upheld, the latest spoliation claim will stir debate over whether the local authority and Glasgow Life carried out a sufficiently thorough review of the provenance of the collection in the aftermath of the Chardin discovery. Did, for example, the search in 2000 stop short at paintings and drawings, or did it cover tapestries too?
Furthermore, sites such as Cultural Property Advice clearly play a vital role, but are they enough? Several people I have spoken to throughout my research, including Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, have told me they believe museums should be more pro-active in reuniting those works with their original owners or their heirs.
Whether that is their role at a time when our great cultural institutions are enduring vicious cutbacks remains a topic for debate. The Burrell Collection is a wonderful resource where I have happily whiled away many an afternoon, and it will continue to be one of the jewels in Glasgow’s cultural crown. But culture is more than dazzling masterpieces. It fuses the past to our present, and affords us an understanding of what has gone before. The latest spoliation claim clearly demonstrates that looted Nazi art is no mere spectre of history. The shameful legacy of the Third Reich continues to cast a shadow, and all of us are duty bound to ensure its victims receive moral justice and closure.
IN today’s Scotsman, I have a story about soaring hotel costs in Glasgow during next summer’s Commonwealth Games. With tickets having gone on sale earlier this week, people from around the world will be starting to put together tentative travel itineraries, hopeful that they will be able to take their place for one of the biggest events in Scotland’s modern history.
While the hundreds of thousands of tickets reserved for sponsors and corporate partners will stick in the craw of those who miss out on a seat at their chosen events, the organisers of the Games should be commended for their ticketing strategy, with two thirds of all briefs costing £25 or less allied to concessions for the young and old. It forms a keynote of their message – that Glasgow 2014 offers an affordable and accessible means of watching the world’s best athletes.
They have, and continue to work alongside the like of Glasgow City Council and Glasgow City Marketing Bureau to ensure that prices for accommodation are fair and even-handed. Unfortunately, their reach can only go so far. My story points out that some rooms in some hotels will cost as much as £6,000 for the duration of the Games. Even those planning a short stint – for example, arriving on the day of the 100 metres final – are being asked to pay £500 for a bed for the night in modest accommodation which normally asks as little as £32.
These prices are being advertised via major travel booking portals such as Expedia, used the world over by tourists from the Commonwealth and elsewhere. For many people coming to Glasgow, these websites will be their first port of call. No matter strong their resolve to be part of the Games, there is a danger that such excessive prices will deter them from travelling, and give an unfair and damaging perception that Glasgow, that friendliest of cities, is ready to milk its visitors dry.
One of the hotels identified in the search, Jurys Inn, insists that the high prices are an anomaly used to prevent a run on bookings while occupancy levels are established with online booking agents. That may be the case, but why not simply have a ‘not available’ sign in the meantime? The fact remains that the exorbitant rates are there for potential tourists to balk at, and should their pockets prove deep enough, book.
Despite the assistance of the Scottish Government and the nation’s largest local authority, it seems there is very little Glasgow 2014 can do to prevent these prices appearing. Many hotels have yet to accept bookings given that the Games are still some way off, and as always, people should look to book via hotels directly for the best offers. But for the sake of everyone hoping for a successful Games, we should hope that potential international spectators did not scoff at the first page of their Google search, and opt for a week in the sun instead.
THE influx of Russian oligarchs, US tycoons, and private equity vehicles owned by Gulf states may have robbed modern football of much of its charm and capacity for wonder, but delve deep enough, and you will find a past sufficiently fertile to sustain those who appreciate the game’s core values. The record books preserve the names of giants slain by time, the might of their status and success long reduced to idiosyncrasy. A handful – such as Third Lanark, Corinthian FC, and Blackburn Olympic – enjoy a fragile half-life thanks to the mythology which has built up around their achievements like scaffolding, ensuring something of their history still stands. The majority, however, have been not been so fortunate. With every year that passes, memories of them lose their lustre.
If an endangered list for such beasts existed then the Glenbuck Cherrypickers ought to occupy its summit. Over eight decades have passed since its first XI last lined up on the undulating banks of the River Ayr. It was a team whose decline came in tandem with the loss of heavy industry, and before long, the ferocity of that change left an entire village prostate. In the 1880s, around 1,300 people called Glenbuck home, forging a hard life around the Galawhistle, Davie, and Grasshill pits. But by end of World War II, the population had dwindled to less than 200 souls, their trade surviving only by virtue of remembrance. In his history of the Cherrypickers published by the Muirkirk Advertiser and Douglasdale Gazette, the Rev M.H. Faulds steered clear of a romantic depiction of Glenbuck’s ebbing glories. “Glenbuck would rank nowhere in a competition for the prettiest village in Scotland,” he pointedly stated. “It is drab and monotonous, and plainly utilitarian.”
That introduction was written in 1951, two decades after the last pit closed. Little did the Rev Faulds know it, but the future held a crueller fate in store for the village. Today, it is depopulated, its name a mere quirk of cartography. It appears on maps just south of the A70 as the road waltzes with the river through the hinterlands between Muirkirk and Douglas, but only one building – Spireslack, a dilapidated former farmhouse – remains at its heart, punctuating a landscape so pocked by opencast mining, it could pass for a lunar surface. Its appearance is befitting, for long ago, something unearthly happened there.
“Glenbuck was a massive influence on my grandad,” remembers Karen Gill, a recent visitor to the village. “Me and my sister would often stay over at his at weekends, and before we went to sleep, he would always come in and tell us stories about Glenbuck, it was something he always wanted to share. They weren’t just football stories. He would tell us about how he would ride his bike for eight miles to go to the nearest cinema, and the times he went down the mine, or the pranks he got up to at school. I remember he told us how the men would stand on the corner telling stories and if they thought someone was telling a tall tale, everybody would turn their caps upside down.”
Gill’s grandfather was Bill Shankly, born on 2 September 1913 in Auchenstilloch, a cluster of modest cottages in the village known locally as Miners’ Row. He would go on to become one of the most iconic figures in British football history, revered not only for his managerial acumen, but an abiding belief in community and togetherness which helped to politicise and empower a city. On the verges of what once was Glenbuck, by the side of a tarmacadam road north of a quiet loch abundant with trout, an elegant memorial pays tribute. Erected in 1997 and paid for by subscription by Liverpool supporters and the former Scottish Coal, it is routinely festooned with flowers and the club’s colours by those who make the pilgrimage north from Anfield. On black granite, a heartfelt eulogy reads: ‘Seldom in the history of sport can a village the size of Glenbuck have produced so many who reached the pinnacle of achievement in their chosen sport. This monument is dedicated to their memory and to the memory of one man in particular, Bill Shankly.’ Below, in bold, gold engraving, it adds: ‘THE LEGEND. THE GENIUS. THE MAN.’
Shankly’s worldview was moulded in Glenbuck, whether through the long summers spent playing football until last light, the formative days down the mine which would earn him 2s 6d, or the hours spent talking in card schools which assembled on the rolling hills. No matter the honours he won and the plaudits he received, he never missed an opportunity to remind people of his pride in his background, but also its stark realities, once remarking: “Pressure is working down the pit. Pressure is having no work at all. Pressure is trying to escape relegation on 50 shillings a week. Pressure is not the European Cup or the championship or the cup final. That’s the reward.” It was a salutary observation, delivered in that inimitable gruff voice which would be listened to obediently by future managers – Scots in particular – who considered his every word as monumental as those of Mao; Sir Alex Ferguson, ever the great admirer of footballing days of yore, once challenged an assembled press pack when he asked them about the Cherrypickers. Only a solitary writer escaped the famous Govan ire reserved for the ignorant.
Gill, now chair of the Liverpool Supporters committee and patron of the influential Spirit of Shankly group, can see how her grandfather’s way of life has now cohered into a chronicle spanning the graduates of factory floors and Clydeside yards, the latest chapter of which features David Moyes, Ferguson’s successor, as its protagonist. She reflects: “My grandad’s kind of socialism wasn’t a theory, it was just a feeling he felt inside. That came from Glenbuck, he was influenced by a community spirit where everyone helped each other out. I think that was the key to his success at Liverpool, he never put the emphasis on one player, it was the whole team together, being loyal and watching each other’s backs.”
Another of Shankly’s grandchildren, Christopher Carline, told me that without the spell cast by Glenbuck, he may never have scaled such heights. “The importance of Glenbuck to my grandad is a point that should be continually made,” he emphasises. “Everybody thinks of the period between 1959 to 1974, when he delivered so much success to Liverpool, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that the upbringing he had gave him his morals, his mindset, and lifestyle. That was the making of him, and without it, would he have been the same person? Probably not.”
In today’s Scotland on Sunday, I have a story about plans to expand upon the humble memorial by not only commemorating, but reviving the traditions of Shankly and Glenbuck to coincide with the centenary of the great man’s birth. In essence, it seeks to establish a football museum housing artefacts related to Shankly and the Cherrypickers, but also – and perhaps more importantly – launch a series of coaching clinics for local youngsters, with a view to forming a fully-fledged football academy in due course. In Gill’s eyes, that is a masterstroke. “There’s no point in just looking to the past,” she adds. “You can drown in the memories. But by taking the good things from the past with an eye to the future, it’s the perfect recipe for success.”
The Banner of Glenbuck, as the scheme is known, is a decidedly grassroots affair, the brainchild of Robert Gillan, a former footballer once on the books of Clyde U-19s who is now an Scottish Football Association level four youth coach. Enthused by Glenbuck’s heritage, the 45-year-old from the nearby village of Douglas hopes to impart it to a new generation, while inspiring them to emulate the achievements of Shankly. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of telling the story of Glenbuck,” he says. “There’s a lot of digging to do.”
It should be noted that the demise of the Cherrypickers – and the pits – coincided with Shankly’s first steps in the sport, meaning he only ever played a trial game for the side, before heading to Carlisle via a stint with Cronberry Eglinton. His may be the most enduring association with Glenbuck, but he is only the figurehead of its team’s outstanding legacy. From that one small, remote village on the borders of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, no fewer than 50 professional footballers emerged from the Cherrypickers’ ranks, including six Scotland internationals and three FA Cup winners. As Gillan astutely notes: “They were pioneers. No other place of a similar size in the world has produced so many professional footballers.”
The fragmented structure of the early game meant that Glenbuck’s cream never challenged the likes of Queen’s Park’s Corinthian ideal with their aggressive if fleet-footed style, its successive teams squaring off against other stalwarts of the Ayrshire provinces like Glenafton Athletic, Muirkirk Ex-Services Athletic, and New Cumnock United. Victory in such a close-knit environment was a matter of immense pride – Glenbuck’s doughty players contributed a shilling a week towards the upkeep of their ground, Burnside Park – and often, won at any costs. It was not unusual for visiting fans to the banks of the River Ayr to be pelted by stones, perhaps the earliest recorded instance of the lively rivalry which to this day characterises the Ayrshire game. By way of karma, the Glenbuck men had to endure an arduous journey in three-horse brakes whenever the obligation of an away fixture reared its head.
In any case, success was plentiful; no definitive list of honours exists, but the village team secured at least six Cumnock Cups, three Ayrshire Junior Challenge Cups, two Ayrshire Charity Cups, and one Mauchline Cup and Ayrshire Junior Cup apiece. That localised, if keen, nature to Glenbuck’s itinerary has served an injustice upon those men who swapped the pit for the pitch, the vast majority of whom are regarded as an afterthought in the Scottish game. But even a passing examination of their history throws up a welter of talent who not only went on to serve the Old Firm, but the traditional powerhouses south of the border.
Two of the most successful were Alec Brown and Alec Tait, who helped Tottenham Hotspur to victory in the FA Cup of 1901, the first time a team from the south of England had etched their name on the cup in several years. In the semi-final against Sheffield United, Brown scored four goals without reply, at which the defeated side’s goalkeeper – a harassed William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, who tipped the scales at close to 18 stones – to wrest Brown off his feet and swing him around in the air. Evidently, there was no lasting damage from the encounter – he went on to score the only goal against Southampton in the final, footage of which can be found on YouTube. In the weeks following the game, he and Tait were granted permission to take the trophy north and put it on display in a shop window in the village for all to see. For those blackened souls emerging from the mouth of the pits, it must have glittered especially bright.
The roll call includes those employed by other major teams in the English game, such as Bob ‘Reindeer’ Blyth, who, though best known in Scotland for his stint with Rangers, turned out for Preston North End and Portsmouth. Shankly’s uncle on his mother’s side, folklore has it that the diminutive wing-half could sprint 100 yards in 11 seconds in his football boots. The names continue: Willie Banks of Manchester City; Jock Bone of Aston Villa; Johnnie Bone of Everton; William Blyth of Portsmouth and Preston; Tommy Brown of Portsmouth; Robert ‘Laddie’ Crawford of Preston and Blackburn; John Davidson of Coventry; John Crosbie of Birmingham and Blackpool; Walter ‘Wattie’ Ferguson of Sheffield Wednesday; George Halley, an FA Cup winner with Burnley; Archie Garrett of Millwall; Hugh Knox of Sunderland; William Knox of Everton and Liverpool; Alex McConnell of Everton, Woolwich, and Grimsby; John McConnell of Brentford and Grimsby; Peter McIntyre of Preston and Sheffield Wednesday; Jock McKenzie of Newcastle and Norwich; William ‘Gooley’ Muir of Everton; Robert Tait of Carlisle and Spurs; and Joe Wallace of Newcastle.
As if that list were not exhaustive enough, it omits the other members of the Shankly clan who, like its most famous member, made a living in England for at least part of their careers: James Shankly, who represented Portsmouth, Sheffield United, and Carlisle; John Shankly of Portsmouth, Blackpool, and Alloa; and of course, Bob, who played with Alloa, Turnbridge Wills, and Falkirk before becoming the architect of considerable success with Dundee.
Gill, who is more aware than most of Glenbuck’s reputation as a nursery of footballers, is at a loss to explain the magic: “It’s an amazing phenomenon for Glenbuck to produce so many players, I don’t know what the ingredient was but it’s something that I don’t think has happened anywhere else in the world, not even any other mining villages. Maybe it was the location, or the open space – I don’t know, but there was some influence behind it all.”
It was not only the conveyor belt of professionals bequeathed by Glenbuck which made people stand up and take notice. The village also honed an indomitable five-a-side team, playing under Ayrshire rules, which meant the goalkeeper could not handle the ball. Witnesses attested to marathon encounters, with one tie in Lanark beginning on Saturday, and not concluding until Monday morning. Arguably the greatest side comprised of the five Knox brothers – Hughie, Alec, Tom, William, and Peter – who excelled as a family unit, once winning all but one of the 41 tournaments that they entered in a year. Their prize was usually a barometer or clock, but it is said they acquired so many, they would hand them over to fans on the touchline. These were not the spoils of rough and tumble play, however. In an example of the approach later applied by Shankly on Merseyside – a key part of Liverpool’s training regime was the drills of two-aside, three-aside, and five-side games – Hughie Knox once revealed: “The art of the game is to make the ball do the running about.”
The prolificness of its footballing sons, and the elusive secret which lay behind it, may be unique to Glenbuck, but it is often forgotten that it was just one of a welter of mining communities to gift Britain – and the world – men of footballing prowess. Matthew McDowell, a lecturer in sport and recreation management at the University of Edinburgh and a leading authority on early Scottish football history, helped Gillan with the project’s formative stages. A native of Hackensack, New Jersey, who has become an unlikely cheerleader for our game’s genesis, he is keen to emphasise the village’s leading role as part of a wider tradition inextricably tied to heavy industry; Matt Busby, of course, went down the pits at 16, as did Jock Stein.
“That area of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, sitting on the coal rim, provided Scottish and English football with many professional footballers,” he says. “Glenbuck became big in junior football circles in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and almost symbolises this tradition of Scottish footballers and managers coming from heavy industry into football. Places like Glenbuck, Hurlford, and Annbank were very much part of the British economy and it’s probably due to that reason that people from pit villages like Glenbuck could find work with football clubs in heavy industrial areas in the north of England.”
McDowell’s fine observation is illustrated by a yellowing edition of the long-defunct Scottish Referee. In 1890, one unnamed club posted an advert which made it clear they were in search of a skilled Scots player equally capable of graft off the pitch. ‘First-class Centre or Inside Forward required to undertake management of large Hotel and Spirit Vaults, and play with local team in Midlands,’ the classified read. ‘Good Salary. Satisfactory References and Security’.
McDowell adds: “In Dunbartonshire, in Renton and Vale of Leven, there were a lot of players associated with the calico industry, or Dennys. Newmilns, which had a big textiles industry, were heavily important in the early years of Swedish football. In Barcelona’s first team in 1900, the teamsheet featured George Girvan who was from Newmilns. It was a city of industry which featured a lot of migrants who came to work there, of course – it wasn’t until the 1992 Olympics that tourism took over.”
Those bonds are forever broken. Nowadays, a club may be purchased by a magnate who amassed their fortune through steel or iron, but the ownership is no form of patronage, but rather a financial exercise, or an egotistical whim. No one involved in the Glenbuck project is naïve enough to suggest that will change any time soon, but in their own way, they aspire to, in McDowell’s words, “change the narrative.” As he explains: “Shankly, along with Stein and Busby, has become almost globally known as an icon of the industrial working class football spirit. At the same time, football has almost gotten out of reach, and although these things are sometimes remembered falsely, it becomes important to a remember a time when venture capitalists likes [Tom] Hicks and [George] Gillett [the former Liverpool owners] from the US didn’t buy football clubs.”
Gill, unsurprisingly a keen follower of Liverpool’s fortunes, is in agreement that a ritual devoutly followed by her forebears has become a product divorced from its roots. “I think people realise the huge balloon of Premier League football has to be burst to restore some normality,” she reasons. “It’s madness, how long can it go on for? Football without fans is nothing, and people have to realise that ordinary working people can’t afford such ridiculous prices.”
As he begins his work to enshrine the stronghold of Glenbuck, Gillan’s first task will be to organise a gathering at the Shankly memorial on 2 September. A lone piper will play, while supporters of Liverpool are expected to turn out to show their respect to a man who sparked their club’s winning ways, and cemented its customs and institutions. With regards the longer term aspirations, funding remains problematic, but he is cheered by the warm reception from others who share his ideals. He has tracked down relatives of old Cherrypickers players, and has been liaising with the Shankly family with a view to securing some “bits and bobs” to display in the completed museum. So too, encouraging talks have taken place with some of Shankly’s former clubs, including Liverpool, Preston North End, and Grimsby.
Along with his relatives, Carline is in the process of launching the Shankly Family Foundation, a charity which seeks to support grassroots football and young people. The Banner of Glenbuck, he says, “ticks all the boxes” which collectively form the organisation’s ethos. When Gillan happened to approach him via social media, Carline quickly realised the stars were aligning.
“It was strange, because when we had informal meetings before we set up the charity, we spoke about wanting to reestablish a link between Liverpool and Glenbuck,” he remembers. “When Rob got in touch, we exchanged emails, then spoke over the phone, and he’s coming down in a few weeks. Straight away, I realised it was a fantastic idea which links in with everything we want to do. We’re going to work with him to try and achieve his goals.
“Glenbuck means a lot to my mother [Jeanette] who went there as a child with grandad in the summers in the close seasons. She has lovely stories of the family from that time, and it’s for reasons like that this is something that really excites the family as well as the charity. We don’t want Glenbuck to be lost or forgotten. Obviously we all know there’s not much there at the moment, so by supporting Rob we can ensure there’s a proper, lasting legacy in Glenbuck that will also help young people with access to coaching and better opportunities.”
With community at the heart of the scheme, local officials are encouraged by Gillan’s ambitions. “Bill Shankly is one of our local heroes so we are delighted to be able to provide civic recognition for the centenary event in September,” says John Campbell, depute provost of East Ayrshire Council. “The Glenbuck project looks like it has the potential to greatly enhance the lives of local people through leisure and educational facilities and I wish the project and the event every success.”
It remains uncertain exactly where the museum will be sited. The dream is to revitalise the village with a new building, but Gillan’s efforts have been thwarted by the collapse of Scottish Coal, which has made it nigh on impossible to establish who owns the slithers of land between the opencast mines. He explains: “I’ve been offered a place in Muirkirk for the museum. Ideally I’d want it in Glenbuck but we might have to start off in Muirkirk and eventually move there.”
As far as Gill is concerned, that would be the perfect scenario. “What better place for my grandad’s artefacts than Glenbuck?” she says. “I’d love to see some of his things there. I went there when I was eight with my grandad, perhaps the only time we all went on holiday altogether, to see his sisters, and I travelled up again last year. I just wanted to see what it was like now. I know people say there’s nothing there, but I really found a great aura about the place. I could imagine him riding around in his bike. It was a great experience.
“I always get little messages and pictures from people who’ve gone up to Glenbuck with their families. They’re educating their children about how Glenbuck is where it all started. The museum and academy would be even more of a reason for people to go. It’s a pilgrimage for them. My grandad have been proud of the fact he’s on a stamp, but he would consider the museum in Glenbuck the greatest tribute possible.”
It is likely a series of arduous negotiations will have be carried out before Gillan and co can finalise where the museum will stand. There is, though, one particularly alluring location to bear in mind. Despite the seismic changes Glenbuck has gone through in the eight decades since the Cherrypickers last played, Burnside Park still remains, albeit veiled by thick clumps of grassland three feet high. In time, perhaps, the crowds will gather there once again to remember a deity and his brethren. That would have made him happy.
I’d like to thank the Shankly family for being so generous with their time during the writing of this article. Anyone wishing to donate to the Banner of Glenbuck project should email Robert Gillan on firstname.lastname@example.org
AN AFTERNOON in Scotland’s biggest city in the company of Willie McIlvanney is akin to taking a donder round the ancient agora of Athens with Euripides. His words may not have defined Glasgow, a city so animate and unbridled as to defy an absolute narrative, but in delineating slithers of its life, he has given the most acute voice to the dynamics which otherwise assume inchoate forms: the rolling gait of the swagger worn as street armour; a language sandblasted to reveal a brusque poetry capable of rebuilding obscenity into terms of endearment; the sudden accost from the stranger whose posture disguises conviviality as carnage. A human cartographer, McIlvanney knows them all, cutting through the topography with his pen to what flows beneath.
Euripides, legend has it, sought sanctuary in an island cave in the Saronic Gulf to compose masterpieces which rendered the ordinary mythic. McIlvanney, though he now resides in a serene pocket of East Renfrewshire five miles south of Glasgow city centre, seldom strays far from the source of his nourishment. On a Tuesday afternoon in Battlefield Road, we meet up in an Italian restaurant, an occasion which will prove wet and lengthy, winding up over Scotch and a mutually glowing assessment of Leonard Cohen some five hours later. “I’m not a great luncher,” he acknowledges early on, an unopened menu lying before him. “I like lunch for talking.”
The author, Tony Black, recently wrote of how a good friend described an encounter with the writer as “like meeting a statue that’s come to life.” It is a fine description which hints not only at the esteem in which McIlvanney is held, but the arresting presence he projects. An impeccably dressed, lean figure of 76, he wears his years like Florentine leather, a sweep of greying hair framing a benevolent face and piercing blue-grey eyes. A neatly trimmed silver moustache last glimpsed on the backlot of the Louis B. Mayer-era MGM ties together a decidedly old Hollywood image. It is as if Montgomery Clift, having wrapped up filming on From Here to Eternity, escaped his sorry fate by cadging an ordnance survey off Deborah Kerr and flitting across the Atlantic to age gracefully in the environs of G42.
Our meeting, which resulted in a story in today’s Scotland on Sunday, was sparked by the creation of a nascent yet flourishing online mosaic of McIlvanney’s work, spanning writing both unpublished and incomplete, as well as extracts from his existing body of work. For those who harshly bemoan his output as slender – it comprises not only nine novels, but a considerable canon of poetry, journalism, and essays – it is a mine of treasure as glittering and expansive as the Staffordshire hoard. Initiated at his suggestion, the archive has skilfully been given shape, purpose, and character by his nephew, Neil McIlvanney, an English teacher at Kilmarnock Academy. The website, Personal Dispatches, has only been live for a few months, but few people outside of the extended family clan are aware of its existence. I happily stumbled across it one night last week while searching for a copy of Surviving the Shipwreck – a 1991 collection of essays and journalism – as a present for a friend. As I delved beyond the title page, the rest of that evening’s plans were swiftly put on hold as essays, poems, and vignettes revealed themselves, supplemented by a generous welter of handwritten notes, audio readings, and photographs.
It may seem incredulous that an established writer would give so freely and fully of their work in a domain divisive among those who make a living from art. Ordinarily, the authorial online presence extends to a cursory digital frontispiece, complete with links to Amazon and an agent’s email address. The concession to a world credited with shifting the tectonic plates of how literature is consumed and paid (or not) for is minimal, the message blunt: buy the book. Factor in the fact that this is the website of McIlvanney, a septuagenarian who has never used a word processor, let alone a computer, and it would not be unreasonable to presume it the invention of an ardent fan, rather than the writer and his relatives.
Any sense of surprise, however, is dulled with some consideration of the man’s craft, and the way he has come to interpret it. In 1977, the year of Laidlaw’s publication – a crime novel where the enduring mystery is the nature of its protagonist – his publisher casually informed him that were he to write a book a year, it would not take long for him to become a millionaire. McIlvanney did not so much refuse, as concede that the idea of embarking on a grinding, systematic schedule was impossible. As he tells me: “I’d like to say it’s the nobility of my purpose, but I can’t even tell myself what to write.” Instead, his focus has always been about the writing; the physical book, though it may be mysterious, tactile, and charming, is only the end. It is the means with which he has always concerned himself. If there is any malaise which has afflicted McIlvanney over the years, it is publisher’s block. The words have never been a problem.
In this light, the internet seems as natural a habitat for McIlvanney as the red sandstone thoroughfares of Glasgow’s southside. While he would never profess even a rudimentary understanding of the medium’s workings, he is keenly aware of its potential. He views his website as a “weird, obfuscated version of a serial,” a distant relative of Sketches By Boz. As lunch arrives – a few bites of a plain omelette make do – he talks of the possibilities it offers. “I know it’s somehow all connected, and I like the riskiness of it,” he explains. “The truth is it’s a chaotic phenomenon. In a way it’s got to be formless and amorphous, the only coherent dynamic in the website is that I believe in everything I’ve written there. It might die on the vine, but we’ll see what happens. It’s a new form of communication for me, and it’s very interesting, a way of resurrecting ideas that would otherwise never be heard of again.”
Along with the new writing, extracts from the novels will appear online, complete with introductions by McIlvanney. Neil is currently scouring through old cassettes and VHS tapes featuring his uncle which he intends to add to the site. There is even a Facebook page set up where McIlvanney is able to interact directly with his readers, at least provided his grand nephew is to hand. As Neil explained via email: “Willie provides the content and responses to people’s posts on his page but, as he has not yet learned to work a computer, my son Euan uploads Willie’s posts. Willie dictates the responses over the phone and Euan types them onto Willie’s Facebook page.”
For many readers, the highlight of Personal Dispatches will be the excerpts from Almost a Book About Sean Connery, a nebulous project which has occupied McIlvanney on and off for several years. No mere authorised account of a life and times, slavishly following a chronological path, it is envisaged as a reflective, impressionistic work, an ambition not readily embraced by a publishing world accustomed to certain conventions. As he writes in the introduction: “I found that the abandoned thought of writing about him was still breathing. I decided to go on with the idea. But I knew my approach was going to be strange. To me it seems that an individual life isn’t amenable to continuous and authoritative delineation. It doesn’t form into a rock of facts. It’s an endless drift of time and place and circumstance, each sifting into and blurring the other, a burial mound of experience. Any attempt to understand such a life can’t seek to be definitive. What it can possibly do is, like archaeology, sink some speculative shafts into those times and, from what it finds, elicit some impression of the nature of the person, arrive perhaps at the salient features of the life. I wanted it to be an original kind of depiction of a life rather than a story.”
Intrigued though some were, the publishers were unable to share McIlvanney’s vision. ‘Couldn’t see how I could make it work in a properly mass-market way’ came one response to his agent, Jenny Brown; ‘A very unusual reading experience – unconventional uncategorisable. I can’t actually think of any comparable books’ stated another. One wrote: ‘Going to have to pass. I’m really sorry about this as I think the material is great and it’s clearly going to be a very special book but, as you know, we don’t really do books unless there is support from every part of the team. And, to my massive surprise, in this instance it didn’t happen.’ Says McIlvanney of the latter reply: “Blessings on the man who wrote it. It was as if he had seen where I was trying to go, although I hadn’t got there yet.”
To date, he has eked out over 90,000 words on Connery, but he is currently stalled, frustrated at his lapses towards the preconceptions of genre, like a man battling against the tide, all the while insistent on conceiving of an entirely new swimming stroke. “I just kind of gave it up for a time, it was too much a biography,” he admits. “So I’ve thought, we can put some of that online. I’ve put a lot into writing the book, and what I’ve written I believe. It’s just that I felt it lost direction. I might finish it and I might not.” That creative stasis is the gain of Personal Dispatches. Currently, an introduction and four chapters from the book have been reproduced online. It is the first time McIlvanney has let a publisher catch sight of uncompleted work, let alone release it wild into the ether, but he is optimistic that new avenues may emerge from the process, explaining: “Just putting it on the internet made me look at it more carefully, and it may come to something more significant.”
McIlvanney’s personal relationship with Connery has been defined by a mutual respect. At various times, the two men have discussed collaborating on an official biography, creating a big screen adaptation of Laidlaw, and working on a 80 page-long film treatment known as Streets, where the Camus-reading detective inspector is retired from the police force, at least officially. At other times, McIlvanney has donned his reporter’s hat to pen profiles of the actor for several quality newspapers. For all their shared beliefs, however, there has never been an uncomplicated kinship between the two men, which might explain the approach to the book. McIlvanney says: “Connery is a very well hidden man, he doesn’t give a shit, basically, and I like that about him. He’s a working class superstar, he’s still the same guy he was. But if you do something wrong, that’s it. He really has iron shutters that can just go down. If you fall out with him, that’s it, and I’m quite easy to fall out with.” If a relationship exists between the two, it is not so much a friendship as the civil terms on which two neighbours meet after one accidentally reversed over the other’s dog.
Almost a Book … is an attempt to deduce Connery’s character, an exploration of the issues the subject himself would never deign to discuss. “He’s not into self revelation,” McIlvanney points out. “All you can do is try to deduce him from his life.” The chapters unveiled so far focus on his childhood, fused with sections where McIlvanney chases the shifting shadows cast by the Fountainbridge boy who became a restless icon. Articulating Connery’s appeal as an actor, the writer compares his screen presence to greats such as James Cagney, Steve McQueen, and Robert Mitchum, musing: “He has the kind of magnetic physical authority that would make him the man you notice in a crowd scene. He has that invaluable commodity for an actor: watchability.” That poise, McIlvanney supposes, transcends physicality. Instead, he notes the unselfconsciousness with which Connery carries his looks, “just as a beautiful woman is more engaging when caught naturally than when she is pouting deliberately for the public.”
If the publishing world is uncertain how to square such probing lyricism with the constraints and expectations of biography, McIlvanney is cheered by the resurgence in interest in his career, heralded by Canongate’s reissues of seminal novels, Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalities, with others to follow. With the food long dispensed of, he takes a drink of white wine and lets an infectious smile spread over his face as he assesses the past few months. “It’s been stunning, a genuine resurrection for me,” he says. “Last year at Edinburgh, I was in a wee tent with three other writers and we got 120 people, and I thought, ‘Aye, this is where we are’. Just before that event, Francis Bickmore [publishing director at Canongate] said to my agent he’d just read Laidlaw and loved it, he thought it was terrific. I remember thinking, ‘That’s great, but it doesn’t pay the rent’. But within the month, he came forward, and the talk about reissues began. Utterly amazing.” Success the second time around, he believes, is more rewarding, even if he is mindful never to take it for granted. “It’s like discovering folk like you. Where I come from, you don’t assume that.”
The plans for new novels, meanwhile, continue to evolve circuitously. In confidence, McIlvanney tells me of several defined works in progress, as well as one concept for a book he concedes may sound “pretentious and doo lally,” but nonetheless remains compelling. Even in the twilight of his career, he remains restless, mindful not of the novels he has produced, but the genesis of books to come, of sheafs of ideas squirrelled in the desk drawer. “If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder,” he once emphasised. “What you did before defines what you don’t need to do again. You have to find something else to do, the way to go further.”
He writes as he always done: in longhand, and by compulsion. Whatever the focus of his energies, it is likely that Glasgow will be a character lingering in the background, quietly informing the tone and the theme. Should the idea present itself, he is unconcerned by the prospect of bringing to life the city of 2013. “It wouldn’t trouble me to write about now, because if you’re serious about writing you always try to go beyond the surface of the now,” he reasons. “People still feel understandably alienated from society, and I don’t think human nature changes.”
There are also tentative discussions underway to make a three-part adaptation of the Laidlaw books for television, a pursuit which would go some way to assuaging the unsavoury circumstances surrounding the birth of Taggart (It would be an understatement to describe McIlvanney’s DI as a formative influence on the long-running STV series. The first book in the trilogy even features the line of dialogue, ‘There’s been a murder’). “With television, you have to trust the people doing it,” he says. “I’ve met the people involved, and to me it sounded very convincing. But it’s the chance you take. You can’t take the money and then say, ‘Wait a minute’.”
Another first has been an audiobook of Laidlaw, an unabridged seven-hour version which gave he writer cause to revisit the work in its entirety for the first time since its inception, even if the proposition of narrating it was “slightly terrifying” at first. “It was something new and I enjoyed it,” he enthuses. “It’s the first I’ve read the book line by line, and I thought it was like a historical novel. It’s only set in the 1970s, but the changes between then and now … the conductor on the buses, the pubs shutting at 2.30pm in the afternoon, the way the internet and mobile phones have changed our lives. Laidlaw wouldn’t know what he was doing. I quite liked the fact all he had was streetwork and brains. Now, so many crimes are committed and solved with online elements. The loneliness of the detective would be less now.”
The project, to McIlvanney’s irritation, also revealed an error which has been perpetuated in every edition since the first, even creeping into the Canongate reissues. He explains: “There were moments where I realised I could have written things slightly better. There’s a misprint in the book from the very first edition which is still there in the reissue. Laidlaw is trying to meet John Rhodes, and the barman is being evasive. Laidlaw says, ‘Maybe you should tell me the code. Then we could talk ov that’. It’s meant to be or, a very Glasgow phrase, that, ‘Then we could talk or that’. It’s a strange thing, but it’s very Glasgow. But I’ve never been able to catch the mistake, I think some people read into it, but it’s haunted me for thirty years.”
Typography aside, McIlvanney’s greatest frustrations lie with the quality of the dialogue surrounding next year’s independence referendum. If the ruinous effects of Thatcherism roused him in the 1980s, today’s muddled and misleading debate draws his ire. “The main feeling is obfuscation,” he reflects. “Like most punters, I’m getting so many contradictory messages – ‘This is a huge problem’, ‘No it’s not’ – I would like some kind of authoritative clarification of where we are. I doubt that will come, but that is what people deserve; not just the decoration of an argument to support a case effectively, but a serious, neutral attempt to define the issues, the problems, and the possibilities. The country deserves as much honesty as can be mustered.”
It is easily forgotten that for the space of a generation, McIlvanney’s political fervour made him a talismanic figure, advocating home rule. As recently as the summer of 1997, the devolution question impelled McIlvanney to join a diverse cabal of writers, artists, and academics known as the Bus Party. Commandeering a 15-seater, the group – including Neil Ascherson, Tom Nairn, and Billy Kay – toured the nation. The only consensus was to impress upon punters the significance of the times, and the influence they could have at the ballot box. In 2013, it is unlikely the bus will once more take to the road, but McIlvanney believes the need to caution against apathy remains the same. “This time, I would mainly just want people to vote so that the decision is significant with a serious majority taking part,” he explains. “It’s a ‘come ahead’ moment for Scotland, and whatever the decision is, a massive silence wouldn’t impress … for several generations, this is the last throw of the dice. This is not going to recur for a long time.”
Long associated with the SNP’s cause – he memorably gave a speech to the party’s 1987 annual conference in Dundee, describing himself as “an interested layman” … “a thoughtful layman” – McIlvanney’s politics are not so much nationalist as egalitarian. When he articulates what Scotland means to him, he offers a gentle but certain faith that the nation he experienced in the microcosm of post-war Kilmarnock – where a commitment to social justice and equality reigns – remains. “It has sometimes vanished into the mists of authority, but it’s there, I think, and one of the things that will guide my decision is the desire to celebrate and perpetuate that spirit,” he says.
Last month, the national press ran a series of stories which seemed to have been sourced from Alex Salmond’s inner circle. The crux of it argued that the white paper on independence ought to inspire, and a writer of McIlvanney’s calibre would be best placed to do the job. He has not, however, been approached so far. In any case, he has no inclination to follow in the footsteps of Bernard of Kilwinning by drafting such a monumental document in a nation’s history. “If I felt I’ve cracked it and I know what everyone should do, I would say, but I don’t,” he concedes. “What’s the point of saying, ‘This is what I think, but I don’t know if you should think that’?” I think I know how I’m going to vote, but I don’t know if I’m confident enough in my decision to try and persuade others to do the same.
If the prospect of being a figurehead in the independence question rests uneasily with McIlvanney, he offers little in the way of ambiguity when asked about Westminster. “If the status quo continues as an undisturbed continuation of where we are, that’s it. I think British politics is dead in the water, there is no Labour party, just two different forms of management systems – one, Labour, hopefully marginally more benign – but neither are about to interfere in the status quo. Politics isn’t about management systems, it’s about creatively trying to form a new kind of society. The NHS, along with the emancipation of women, was one of the great legislative acts, and it’s in danger of going down the tubes. Folk say, ‘Willie, are you still a socialist?’ I am, but call it a social idealist if you want. If you lose the desire to create as benign a society for all as you can, you’ve lost the will to live. It’s a humanist philosophy, I don’t see the point of politics without the desire to create justice.”
Genial yet exasperated, as purposeful as he is pensive, Glasgow’s Euripides drains the last of his small Grouse and water, shaking hands and exchanging warm words with a wellwisher on his way out the door. In the shadow of the new Victoria Infirmary, he lights a cigarette, surveying one of the latest additions to a city where nothing or no one is innominate. The axis shifts, but McIlvanney will always be at the centre.
THERE are inconspicuous nooks of Scotland which few people could pinpoint on a map, yet which serve a vital purpose in furthering the nation’s social history. One such locale can be found on the verge of an anonymous stretch of the A814 which clings to the eastern shores of Gare Loch, five miles from Helensburgh. It is home to Britain’s oldest peace settlement, and the only one ever legally recognised by a local authority.
A ramshackle strip of caravans, minibuses, and makeshift huts, Faslane Peace Camp sits in the shadows of HM Naval Base Clyde, guardian of the UK’s Trident-armed nuclear submarine force. To the passer-by, it is a scene of coarse expediency and transience, but look closer beyond the dizzying play of colour and you will see the roots of a long-established community – a waste connection, a landline telephone, even a post box for the steady stream of supportive messages which arrive from the world over.
On the walls of the Tea Room, an askew carbuncle which serves as the kitchen and main communal space, previous inhabitants have scrawled menus on the walls, each grounded in the principles of self-sufficiency. One plats du jours is the Kingdom of Fife pie, hearty fare dating back to the 18th century. The residents know it by another name – Roadkill Rabbit.
With scant comforts, residing full time at the camp may well be a chastening experience, but for more than three decades, it has been like any community forged out of brick and mortar; the roll call of people has ebbed and flowed, lifelong friendships have been forged, and children have been born and raised in its grounds. Life has gone on. But not, it seems, for much longer.
On Friday, I visited the camp with photographer, Robert Perry, to spend some time with those who stay there. The occasion for my trip was an exclusive report in today’s Scotland on Sunday detailing the site’s end of days. Its fortunes have waxed and waned down the years, but it is now at its lowest ebb. The current four-strong collective in situ have been left feeling exhausted and isolated, now little more than curators rather than vanguards of a movement.
Unless their numbers are bolstered between now and June, the few left have resolved to dismantle the site’s humble infrastructure altogether. Angus Chalmers a 20-year-old from Edinburgh who has lived there for the past two years, offered a pragmatic and regretful assessment of what has gone wrong when we met. “I think there has been a failure in the peace movement in general to bring on young people,” he said.
In an open letter circulated to supporters, he and his fellow residents offer a candid view of where things stand. They state: “We believe that maintaining supportive community living here, as well as active campaigning, can only be sustainably achieved with a significant increase in numbers, possibly eight residents. The potential and capacity of the camp is also severely limited by the lack of wider input and practical support for its its inhabitants.
“Throughout our time here we have increasingly felt like caretakers of a souvenir. We have felt a strong and increasing sense of moral support for what we are doing but with this has come mounting pressure of responsibility and expectation coupled with inadequate and dwindling practical support.”
The group add: “In short, we feel that the camp can only have a future if a larger group of people decide they wish to be based here and the wider peace movement assumes a degree of collective responsibility to support these people, emotionally and practically, and take active measures to ensure their welfare.”
Should the plans come to pass, the camp will officially close on 12 June, the 31st anniversary of its founding, to be replaced by a peace garden. The symbolism of such a proposal is not to be underestimated. Its grounds are well kept and amidst the rustic charm revealed on a sunny day, there is genuine poignancy, such as a cherry tree planted in 1985 by two survivors of Hiroshima.
A garden though, is a place of contemplation, not action. Ultimately, the demise of the settlement would signal a bitter blow not just for Scotland’s longstanding anti-nuclear campaign movement, but at a time when our nation has much to discuss, our tradition of political radicalism and non-violent democratic opposition.
FASLANE’s naval ties date back to World War I. During World War II, it became an emergency military port for fear the country’s main harbours would be obliterated. Over the years its scale grew, and by the 1960s, the base was converted to nuclear capability, as officials realised the constant squalls of rain and cloud which bore down on the loch made it an ideal home for Polaris, the first of Britain’s nuclear deterrents. Innumerable protests took place in that era, both at Faslane and Coulport.
It was, however, the advent of Trident and the Vanguard-class submarines during the era of Thatcher and Reagan which turned occasional demonstrations in the grassy hinterlands outside HM Naval Base Clyde into a full-time pursuit. In those early days, a smorgasbord of people were taken into police custody, from politicians and churchmen to Buddhist monks and an eight-week-old baby.
The cause was spearheaded by Bobby and Margaret Harrison, veteran peace campaigners in their sixties who pitched their tent in the shadows of the base one day on 12 June 1982. Their fledgling camp was encouraged by authorities supportive to their cause, with Strathclyde Regional Council granting a lease of the plot for a peppercorn rent of £1-a-month. Though the couple would leave after six months, they returned regularly down the years to support those who picked up the baton and helped a small act of defiance become a thriving movement.
“When we pitched the tent I had no plans to stay,” Mrs Harrison, a retired Sunday school teacher, would recall. “I was 64 and wasn’t tough enough to live in a tent with no water and a lot of midges. Quite a few of the sailors were very friendly at first and the Ministry of Defence even supplied us with wood for our campfires.”
During its early years, the site was envisaged by many as a Scottish equivalent to Greenham Common. In fact, it has outlived it by decades, and numerous seasoned activists from Greenham – which lasted for 17 years – have ventured north to Argyll. At its peak, dozens of people lived there side by side, and it is estimated that more than 10,000 people from around the globe have made similar pilgrimages to undertake a tour of duty, lasting anything from a few days to a few years.
Flashpoints in the camp’s long and colourful history saw Argyll and Bute Council – an administration with markedly different political views to the old Strathclyde sympathisers – go to court in an attempt to close it down and reclaim the roadside. Such was the the opposition, the residents were aided by veterans of the Newbury by-pass and Manchester Airport demonstrations, who dug tunnels and reinforced tree-top fortifications in case the worst case scenario unfolded in the early hours one morning. Only a decade ago, meanwhile, the camp’s 20th anniversary sparked a three day celebratory workshop and protests.
Why, then, at a time when the government has committed £1.5bn to preliminary design work on Trident’s successors, has the camp’s ranks depleted to the extent that it can count open four hardy souls resigned to marking the latest anniversary with the valedictory gesture of upping sticks?
THERE can be no doubt that some of the figureheads who played a pivotal role in raising awareness about Faslane have seen their influence flounder of late. Two notable examples, Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway, have accumulated more baggage that the lost property office in Glasgow Airport’s domestic arrivals hall. Equally, the quantity of issues capable of sufficiently riling individuals to take to the streets, placards in hand, has increased considerably in the past thirty years. These are valid explanations, but they do not address the peace camp’s problems with any specificity.
Some people I spoke to in the wider peace movement while researching the story pointed to voter turnout levels, suggesting that apathy – that great malaise of the 21st century – is to blame. Personally, I do not agree with them. Though representation at national, local, and European elections of late offers a stark warning that increasing numbers of people have become disenfranchised by mainstream parties, it is lazy and disingenuous to simply assume that condition has spread to matters which anger citizens of conviction who happen to be active without aligning themselves with any one party political affiliation.
Few are bigger or more emotive than Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and the vast numbers who attended the year-long Faslane 365 protests are testament to that, and also disproved the notion that the passing of time has somehow lent a tacit acceptance of Trident’s place in our country. Those demonstrations alone resulted in 1,110 arrests (although, by way of an interesting side note, only 33 convictions followed) and while that particular movement gained significant movement and press attention, there are countless smaller demos which have taken place around the camp’s environs, all of which are treated with due concern by the relevant authorities (speak to anyone in the MoD and privately they will tell you the peace camp has done wonders for Faslane’s security measures).
Arthur West, the chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, suggested as much when I spoke with him last week. Warning against those inclined to view the camp’s lingering demise as a blow for the broad church that constitutes the peace and anti-nuclear coalition, he said: “It’s a significant personal sacrifice to stay at the peace camp and I think personally, there is only so long people can do it. There’s been many people involved in it down the years and they remain involved in the peace movement. We don’t think there’s any fragmentation – we’re very united to try and get rid of nuclear weapons.”
The overriding issue, in my eyes, is the fact there is a world of difference between attending a rally or blockade in the dawn hours or co-ordinating a social media campaign to making a pledge to dwell in Faslane Peace Camp for a considerable period of time. The latter proposition represents a distinct commitment. One of most telling lines in the residents’ open letter is the call for the “wider peace movement” to assume a “degree of collective responsibility” for the camp. It points to obligations other than blockades, rallies, and marches; duties which may not spark a rush of adrenaline or herald direct results, but duties nonetheless.
The urgent fears of the Cold War era may have largely rescinded, but just like the peace movement itself, the threat of nuclear strikes has never gone away, it is just that its profile has diminished down the years. It is impossible for peace movements to either succeed entirely, or fail entirely, but that they bear witness is of importance to society. Their demise is surely something to be regretted, especially in an age when successive administrations have strived to curtail the public’s right to assemble and demonstrate against government policy.
In a corner of Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum, the exhibition includes one curio from Faslane Peace Camp, a dilapidated caravan based on the roadside verge during the early 1980s. It was refurbished courtesy of a £3,500 grant from Glasgow City Council and put on display in the old Museum of Transport before being moved to its current location. The sight of it may bring back memories for some, but the perilous state of the camp should not be cause for nostalgia. It is a time to reassess what we mean by protest, and what we as individuals are prepared to do to aid and abet issues which quicken our pulses. These are flames which must not be tended by curators alone.
Photographs courtesy of Robert Perry and copyright of The Scotsman / Scotland on Sunday
A QUICKFIRE quiz. What do the following organisations have in common? Axa, the global insurance giant whose European arm makes annual profits of £3.6bn; VISA Europe, the association owned and operated by over 3,700 European banks, thought to be worth around £2bn; Barratt Developments, Britain’s biggest house-builder, which recently announced that its profits for the six months leading up to the end of December jumped 113% to £46.1m; and Scottish Borders Housing Association, a registered social landlord and charity with 184 staff which, on average, charges its tenants the modest sum of £244.80 a month in rent?
The red herring may appear poorly hidden, but all of the above have recently enlisted the services of Chelgate, a Southwark-headquartered public relations and lobbying firm. It may not be a company immediately familiar to civic Scotland, but that can be attributed to what Chelgate describes as its “discreet and low key approach,” specialising in “high level, discreet and effective crisis management support for clients with acute issues on both a domestic and international scale.”
The company has previously acted for clients even more notable, none of whom are listed on the public affairs register of the Public Relations Consultants Association. It has, for instance, represented the interests of energy and petrochemicals behemoth Shell in Nigeria, and worked for Francis Egerton, the 7th Duke of Sutherland, during the £50m sale of the peer’s Titian masterpiece, Diana and Actaeon, to the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London. Everyday life in the quaint Royal Burgh of Selkirk and its surrounding environs, you might reasonably suspect, would be humdrum in comparison. Yet as of this week, Scottish Borders Housing Association (SBHA) has been a member of this illustrious roster, with press enquiries to the organisation being handled personally by Chelgate’s chairman and chief executive, Terence Fane-Saunders.
As with Chelgate, few people north of the Southern Uplands have likely even heard of SBHA before. Governed by a board of management comprising one third tenants, one third council nominees, and one third independent community representatives, it took over ownership of 6,728 properties from Scottish Borders Council a decade ago last month. According to its own surveys, the vast majority of its tenants appear satisfied with the service it provides, and it is on course to meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard by 2015.
The reason for its incongruous addition to Chelgate’s clientele is a series of articles I have been writing in The Scotsman (see articles below) concerning Dr Eamonn O’Neill’s long-standing grievances against the association. The academic and journalist’s complaints centred around why it could not evict a neighbour and SBHA tenant who pled guilty in court in September 2011 to threatening and harassing behaviour, and who was instructed not to contact the O’Neill family as a consequence. During the case at Peebles Sheriff Court, the tenant’s defence agent told the presiding sheriff, Kevin Drummond, his client had surrendered his tenancy. In spite of this, the tenancy remained live. Last Thursday, I asked SBHA a question I considered reasonable and straightforward. Why was the tenant not evicted? To date, I still do not know, as the query has never been directly addressed.
Having liaised initially with SBHA officials, Mr Fane-Saunders has been dealing with my story since Tuesday. As revealed in The Scotsman today, the tenant in question has now departed the property following a “process of negotiation'” although the circumstances of his exit remain unclear. SBHA has declined to say whether he has been rehomed in another of its properties. In a statement, issued through Chelgate, SBHA said that it was “unable to respond” to the media coverage while the tenant’s departure was pending, “both because any comment might have jeopardised a successful outcome, and because they were legally prevented from disclosing matters relating to the tenant concerned to Dr O’Neill or to the media.” Even though the tenant is now gone, SBHA is unable to offer further clarity, citing proposed legal action by Dr O’Neill.
The case has raised questions over how SBHA deals with anti-social tenants. In the year to March 2012, SBHA initiated 55 court actions to see through the process of eviction. It was successful in 28 of those cases, but none concerned the issue of anti-social behaviour; indeed, all were for the non-payment of rent. Throughout the same period, however, the association received no fewer than 197 complaints regarding anti-social or nuisance behaviour. It applied for just 11 full ASBOs, and was granted only eight.
On a wider scale, it has sparked debate about the hinterland of accountability which SBHA and other housing associations inhabit. Christine Grahame, the SNP MSP who has been supportive of Dr O’Neill’s cause, and who has called for chief executive Julia Mulloy to stand down pending an independent inquiry, was offered a meeting with the association’s officials on a “privileged basis,” without Dr O’Neill in attendance. She rejected the notion out of hand, reasoning that as it was a highly contentious constituency matter, her constituent ought to be present.
Under its regulatory standards, the Scottish Housing Regulator states that a registered social landlord must be “open about and accountable for what it does.” It adds that governing bodies have “a wider public accountability to the taxpayer as a recipient of public funds.” The regulator rightly exists to protect the interests of tenants and those unfortunate enough to find themselves homeless, but not, unfortunately, everyone. Anomalies exist, an example being owner occupiers like the O’Neills, who are indirectly – and also very directly – affected by housing association issues.
Similarly, no housing association is covered by Freedom of Information legislation, arguably the best means with which to uphold the regulator’s lofty principles. It is welcome that the Scottish Government plans to extend the scope of FoI to include bodies such as sport and leisure trusts. The law was envisioned as a means of restoring public trust in government and other public bodies, and to an extent, it has done this. But 11 years have passed without an overhaul, and as things stand, ministers will continue to have the discretion to designate other arms-length organisations and, crucially, housing associations. Their exclusion has long been lamented by many, including Kevin Dunion, the former Scottish Information Commissioner, who offered a simple but powerful argument. The laws, he submitted, ought to “follow the public pound.”
The lion’s share of SBHA’s £17m turnover comes from the rent it collects from tenants, but it also receives a grant from Scottish Ministers, a sum which totalled nearly £200,000 last year. That may not be regarded as an astronomical figure by those who scrutinise the nation’s purse strings, but allied to the association’s vital social services and responsibilities, it ought to be reason enough to expose it to the culture of transparency which pervades the greater part of the Scottish body politic. There has always been a good deal of money swishing around the Scottish Borders, but will we ever know just how much of it has gone to Chelgate?
IF Burger King’s senior executives are in a forgiving mood this morning, they will likely take pity on their besieged in-house social media gurus and offer them redeployment within the company. Their smartphones replaced with spatulas, they will be ushered in the direction of the nearest grill, where at the very worst, they will wrongly slice a sesame bun, as opposed to scything millions off the share price.
The hacking of the fast food giant’s Twitter account (below) is the latest, and arguably the most high-profile example of a multinational enduring a very public meltdown on the social networking site, quite possibly because Dave from IT thought ‘rodeoBBQ123’ a paragon of infallibility, only to awake yesterday morning to find his out of hours work mobile phone had been ringing more than the collective eardrums of a My Bloody Valentine audience.
For vast firms like Burger King, it is easy to see why they take the risk. The flowing, open nature of Twitter means it is a wonderfully rich resource, where a message or thought can be sent the world over by the ebbs and flows of others taking an interest, before ushering it on through their own little social tributaries. To big brand companies, such concepts are doubtless irresistible, but if they are incapable of appreciating the volatility such freedom brings, they deserve no sympathy.
It need take just one slovenly conceived password to turn the tables and spark into life a multimillion pound damage limitation PR assault, invariably spearheaded by a twentysomething external strategist called Chad, who perches on on his chair backwards, rolls the sleeves of his shirt up around his pastel-coloured Abercrombie & Fitch sweater, before making entirely earnest pronouncements about the importance of “encouraging brand advocates to spread the magic.”
What shocked me most of all about the whole affair was not how a firm of such immense scale had allowed its account to be hijacked, but the sheer volume of people who witnessed every scurrilous off-message announcement which followed. Prior to the story going viral, the @BurgerKing feed could already lay claim to a following more than 80,000 strong. In the hours which followed, that number spiked significantly, as curious users – scoffing vegetarians no doubt among them – signed up to see every tweet which contributed to a full blown public relations meltdown.
There are numerous brands which are understandably popular on Twitter, from news providers such as the BBC and CNN through to tech firms like Apple and Samsung. They provide valued, unique content for a demographic eager to learn new information, whether it be topical events around the world or fanboy firmware updates for their tablet. But other than in the dull, leaden hope of receiving a voucher which can be exchanged for a thin, grey beef patty, the benefits of following Burger King do not strike me as immediately obvious. A glance at the genuine timeline entries prior to yesterday’s balls-up reveals witty, insightful 140 character-sized gems such as “How many bites does it take you to eat a BK® Chicken Nugget?” and “RT if you wish you were eating BK® French Fries right now.” Rob Delaney and Caitlin Moran, I’d suggest, can sleep easy.
But still people sign up, insistent on explicitly declaring their affinity for brands with no discernible personality, voice, or charm. Burger King, by way of follower numbers, is merely, er, small fry. Taken together, the accounts of McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Starbucks can claim over five million people reading their every word (granted, a good few of those are probably Ukrainian sexbots with a fine line in pre-programmed inspirational aphorisms, but they’re still outnumbered by the real people).
Twitter, I should add, is not the only place where this curious phenomenon is gathering pace. I am no less perplexed when browsing Facebook, making mental reminders to either hide or unfriend anyone who cares to share their affection for Amex, Amazon, or Asda by clicking the ‘like’ button in the manner of a sugar-high toddler playing Whack-a-Mole. Both sites appear mindful that their userbases are nearing saturation – indeed, Facebook is now losing members in Britain – and is therefore doing what any business would do, whether old or new media: grab the money.
The proliferation of paid-for pages and promoted tweets only serves to encourage people to hitch themselves to the brand wagons. There are even companies dedicated to forging unsavoury marriages between celebrities and companies so as to spread sponsored endorsements. Take ad.Ly, a marketing agency which has been hired by the likes of Warner Brothers, NBC, Microsoft, and Sony to hawk their wares via well-kent actors, musicians, and sports figures. The company promises to “create and amplify branded social content at scale” and “spark authentic conversations between celebrities and their fans. The topic of conversation? Your brand.” If that doesn’t leave you wanting to scrub yourself with a wire brush and carbolic soap, consider the fact the firm counts well-rounded, financially threadbare figures such as Charlie Sheen and Mariah Carey among its eager brand pimps.
I don’t for one minute consider this form of advertising any less insidious or morally bankrupt than the kind we see on our television screens and read in glossy Sunday supplements – the omnipresent, addictive brand allure will continue to exert a hold over people, no matter how it manifests itself. What is does highlight, however, is the hollow, characterless presence that brands like Burger King have on social media, and the pointless, unfulfilling charade of following them. But still people do. Why? When I expressed incredulity about this on Twitter – where else – an equally resigned follower made a sage observation in light of Krispy Kreme’s recent arrival on these shores. Even in Scotland, we now live in a world where people will queue for hours for a box of doughnuts. And who knows – if you tweet about how tasty they were, you might even get a free one.
THE undignified reemergence of Richard III from beneath the tarmacadam of a Leicester car park has rightly generated a bevy of press interest over the past week, sparking a spirited debate over the legacy of a king who continues to divide opinion centuries after his death. There has, however, been significantly less interest in a story which shed new light upon another age-old myth capable of quickening the pulse of musicologists the world over – that of a newly authenticated photograph (below, on the left) of Robert Johnson, the spindly, skittish phantom bluesman whose influence upon 20th century music is arguably greater than any other figure.
Like many before and since, I first encountered the recordings of the twentysomething from Hazlehurst, Mississippi during my teenage years, when the excitable, inimitable process of musical exploration is so fleeting as to take in obscure gospel compilations one day, followed by an ill-advised foray into the netherworld of black metal the next. My fledgling reconnaissance of the blues shelves of Greenock’s Rhythmic Records would unearth other gems which I cherish to this day, but never has a record spoken to be like King of the Delta Blues Singers, originally released by Columbia in 1961.
Time and innumerable expensive purchases would later afford me a greater appreciation of Johnson’s magic, but even now, I recall the attraction of the compilation to my teenage self, its tracks teeming with eloquence and aggression, the bottleneck guitar complemented by a voice which, for all its muffled diction, could soar lithely, and with a ferocious intensity. Those songs were among a mere 29 Johnson would commit to acetate during two sessions between November of 1936 and the following June. During those two dates, as he crouched in front of a microphone in a San Antonio hotel room, he would have been unaware that he was singing for posterity.
Yet barely twelve months later, he would be dead at just 27, making him the first member of that so-called club of the same age which continues to hold a macabre attraction for so many. Some say bluntly that he succumbed to syphilis; others that he was poisoned by a house manager who had hired him to play, only for Johnson to flirt with his wife. The story goes that Sonny Boy Williamson, who was also playing, grabbed an unsealed whisky bottle from Johnson’s grip, warning him: “Man, don’t ever drink from an open bottle. You never know what’s in it.” Johnson is said to have retorted: “Man, don’t you ever knock a bottle of whisky outta my hand!” before draining a second open bottle and sealing his fate.
Over a century on from Johnson’s birth, it is anecdotes such as these which thrive. As with all greats who meet a premature end, it is his mythology which has proved to be his most pervasive and ever-present bequeathal, perpetuated by wave after wave of samplers, anthologists, and curators. Mack McCormack, one of his many biographers, acted as perhaps the most eloquent cheerleader of them all, describing a man who represented “a chilling confrontation with aspects of the American consciousness … a visionary artist with a terrible kind of information about his time and place and personal experience.”
Musicians, above all, have taken delight in those 29 eerie, existential poems of Delta primitivism, each a tale of estrangement in which the echoes of the human condition can be forever heard. Those who have tended Johnson’s flame range from the denizens of stadium rock (Clapton is a self-confessed Johnson obsessive) through to those who have let inspiration speak to them away from the public eye, such as Thomas Fraser, a fisherman from the Shetland Islands whose plaintive home recordings were greatly influenced by the man raised on the fertile plains where the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers meet. Arguably the most famous guardian of Johnson’s work is Keith Richards, who offered up an effusive tribute to him in his recent autobiography. “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself, some of his best stuff is almost Bach-like in construction,” enthused the Stone, before adding an inimitable epitaph: “Unfortunately, he screwed up with the chicks and had a short life.”
It was, of course, the generation of Richards and Clapton which was the first to take notice of Johnson, either gleefully channelling his spirit on stage, or canonising him through a dry, almost academic appreciation of the blues genre which sprung up around the stables of Alexis Korner and John Mayall, where young, middle class men seemingly destined for an uneventful career in the civil service suddenly became transfixed with replicating every note of Johnson, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed. In unison, however, both schools helped spread the message, and the doctrine of Johnson has prospered.
To what extent, though, has the deity of Johnson been created by Clapton, Richards, and the great many other musicians who have come to idolise him ever since? Nearly two decades after my impulse purchase, I find it almost impossible to separate my love for his music from the allure of the lore which surrounds him, and what is more, I have no desire to. A few years back, I learned that the fabled crossroads where Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his gift is now buffeted by a McDonald’s restaurant on side, adjacent to a gaggle of streetside chancers hawking tawdry T-shirts and miniature, memento guitars. It was, of course, a dispiriting discovery, but it did nothing to truly dampen my enthusiasm. Equally, some blues aficionados are already voicing displeasure at the new image of Johnson, claiming that to demystify the opaque genius is to devalue him, especially when the discovery – made by an eagle eyed eBay buyer – had no grand, romantic backstory. But to me, the picture signifies nothing. It is the portrait of a ghost. The image of Johnson has long been set in my mind’s eye, forged by his sweet, sorrowful music, and maybe a pinch or two of good ol’ blues folklore.
When the first XI of Chelsea and Bayern Munich walked out onto the pitch at the Allianz Arena one Saturday evening last May, it represented the opening skirmish of a battle that would be waged until the following year. The prize on the night was the Champions League trophy, but the most coveted bauble of them all belonged to the team who most successfully played the long game. Now, we know the winner.
Pep Guardiola’s decision to resume his managerial career in the rarified surroundings of Munich represents a significant shot in the arm for the Bundesliga. More importantly, it ought to caution followers of the Premier League against emulating the arrogance of the gilded few who ply their trade at the summit of the English game. Since news of the Spaniard’s appointment was confirmed, there has been an unsavoury reaction from some quarters. Some appear incredulous that the youngest Champions League-winning manager in history should snub Stamford Bridge or the City of Manchester Stadium in favour of the comparative backwater of the German top tier.
There is, it seems, an unfortunate sense of entitlement among some fans in this country that the recklessness which has ushered in playing stars from the world over ought to guarantee delivery of the most coveted managers also. But if the playing game is a short, fleeting affair, management is a decades-long pursuit. The smartest bosses seek gradual career progression at clubs which share their ethos and, most importantly, value time as a far more important commodity than money.
Evidently, this is not a move Guardiola has taken hastily. For months now, we have been party to a curious hybrid of sports reporting and paparazzi tactics, with the back pages often featuring photographs of a casual, bearded Guardiola strolling around the streets of New York like Hemingway patrolling the Montparnasse Quarter. After the stress of Barcelona, the sojourn in the US afforded him time to weigh up his future, and quite simply, it seems he has favoured the romance of a glittering doyen of European football aristocracy over a hasty, seedy temptress of Russian heritage.
Roman Abramovich, it is understood, was prepared to sanction a salary of £10m to bring the 41-year-old to Chelsea on a long-term contract. Doubtless, he will be well-remunerated in Germany, though his primary concern in choosing Bayern was never with his bank account in mind, but rather an outfit offering parallels to the scene of his greatest successes to date.
Like Barcelona, Bayern has forged an enviable reputation for responsible governance – it is more than 80% owned by ordinary members, supplemented by investment from Adidas and Audi – and can count on a youth development programme to rival any club in Europe. It is the latter which is likely the most appealing factor to Guardiola. Bayern’s academy, based in the anonymous suburbia of Säbener Straße dates back to 1902, and the club is focused on bringing through local talent – it employs 25 scouts in Germany, 15 of which are dedicated to Bavaria, to create a robust, identifiably local spine similar to the famous Catalan production line.
Furthermore, Bayern, winners of Europe’s elite club competition four times, take immense pride in their prudent budgeting. It is now 19 years since the club last failed to record an annual profit, and the company generated more revenue last year from commercial activities than any other side on the continent. Chelsea, on the other hand, remain reliant on the whims of their increasingly impatient oligarch, who will no doubt be left fuming by his failure to install a ninth manager in the space of a decade.
“In Britain, we remain obsessed with broadcasting revenues, somehow convinced that just because the English game secures a hefty slice of Rupert Murdoch’s fortune, it is somehow the best in the world”
In the context of their environs, meanwhile, Bayern are members of a league with the highest crowds yet lowest ticket prices in all of Europe. But we hear very little of these facts in Britain. Instead, we remain obsessed with broadcasting revenues, somehow convinced that just because the English game secures a hefty slice of Rupert Murdoch’s fortune, it is somehow the best in the world.
Granted, not everyone is in thrall to Bayern’s model. The club are disparagingly referred to as FC Hollywood by some Germans on account of their propensity for cherry picking established star names from rivals. Given the absence of graver crimes, however, it represents the only ammunition available to the club’s detractors. In any case, theirs is the Hollywood of Clark Gable, Joan Fontaine, and Gary Cooper, whereas Chelsea and Manchester City have more in common with the Tinseltown of Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson, and McG.
In time, the mercurial Guardiola will sample both worlds. He will come to these shores one day to ply his trade, but in the meantime, it will be fascinating to watch him do battle with the rest of Europe during his tenure with Bayern. He may struggle to match the wages being offered by the Premier League’s nouveau riche, but he is one of the few modern managers to appreciate the difference between price and value.
NEARLY 15 years ago, Q Magazine published an article speculating at how the rise of the internet might impact on the fortunes of traditional record shops. The text was accompanied by a mocked-up image showing the Tower Records store in Piccadilly, its doors and windows boarded up. It was a stark, sombre illustration designed as a wake-up call. Even so, I doubt anyone would have considered it prophetical.
Yet less than a generation later, here we are. Ownership of the symbolic retail address of 1 Piccadilly Circus has tumbled carelessly from Tower to Virgin before grinding to a halt under the Zavvi mast. Today, it is home to The Sting, a Dutch clothing firm. All three of those now deceased music stores will doubtless hold fond memories for many (personally, I would put Our Price on a loftier pedestal, in large part thanks to a furious summer of discounting in the mid 1990s which allowed me to purchase Black Sabbath’s back catalogue at a fraction of its true value) but none compare to HMV in terms of its historic iconography.
This is a company whose first store was opened by none other than Sir Edward Elgar back in 1921 – just in time to ride the wave of Cliff Richard’s debut long player. It was also HMV which led to Sir George Martin discovering The Beatles after Brian Epstein used its Oxford Street in-store studio to transfer the group’s infamous 15-track demo to disc, during which an impressed engineer had a quiet word with the producer and Parlophone executive. It seems a trite, nostalgic statement to make in light of its demise, but HMV has made a far greater contribution to British music than its retailer role suggests.
Back in 1998, when that Q article came out, HMV launched the first incarnation of its website, a cursory affair which seemed like an afterthought from a boardroom consumed by hubris and scornful of the need for change. The dipping of the toe into the digital pool appeared to be a means of expanding the customer base by a few percentage points, and nothing more. In an interview that spring, Gennaro Costaldo, a spokesman for the company, reasoned: “Our store is more like a lifestyle experience. You can’t compensate for a stimulating atmosphere. At the end of the day, the challenge is to get a balance. We can be optimistic about the future of the high street so long as our stores reflect what that future entails.”
“While I and many others yearn for the fetishistic joy of browsing in record shops, the truth is that no such experience could be had in HMV in recent years”
It was a half-hearted and ill-conceived policy which would have faltered regardless of the considerable challenges the recession posed the retail sector. While I and many others yearn for the fetishistic joy of browsing in record shops, the truth is that no such experience could be had in HMV in recent years. Of late, its branches have been sorry, confused examples of a retailer which knows neither what it is selling, nor to whom.
I stopped by its Argyle Street branch before Christmas, only to be meet with an eerie, Omega Man-style silence. Whereas once, the stores offered well-stocked racks of specialist genres, they had been been replaced by tawdry, poorly built speaker docks, enough Family Guy t-shirts to clothe Africa, and most curious of all, confectionery. The downsized music selection was, meanwhile, vastly overpriced. If that is a lifestyle experience, then I’ll seek my thrills filling out a Halifax secure confirmation form on the website of a Jersey-based e-retailer.
At various points down the years, HMV and its ilk have stood accused of trampling over independent retailers and sucking the oxygen from traditional shops. Now, it is being mourned as the latest victim of a high street where the only survivors are pound shops, fast food outlets of dubious hygiene, and overstocked warrens peddling third-party mobile phone chargers. The way things are going, It will not be long before one of them takes over stewardship of 1 Piccadilly Circus.
IF there were any doubts surrounding the insatiable dark appetites of Jimmy Savile, the shock and dismay with which seasoned child protection officials greeted yesterday’s report by the Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC (see my report in today’s Scotsman below) has driven home some very uncomfortable truths.
His craven opportunism claimed far more victims over the course of six decades than first thought. The likelihood is that more will emerge, and we should hope they find comfort in catharsis, having been denied justice.
Focus will now inevitably turn towards the flurry of compensation claims in what may become the largest action for child sex abuse in British legal history, targeting the Savile estate, the BBC, the NHS, and even the myriad police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service who time and again, refused to give credibility to those making serious allegations against a national institution.
“The question of redress has no correct answer in such a complex and emotive case, but it ought not to be exclusively defined in terms of financial compensation”
The question of redress has no correct answer in such a complex and emotive case, but it ought not to be exclusively defined in terms of financial compensation. Those who spoke out in vain decades ago must have the opportunity to be listened to, ideally by a commission or panel. Their testimony may not bring Savile to account, but if we are to counter the growing idea that he “got away” with a lifetime of abuse, such small steps are vital.
IN today’s Scotland on Sunday, I wrote a story detailing plans for a long overdue memorial to Tom Weir on the banks of his beloved Loch Lomond, which he considered one of Scotland’s great natural treasures. If the statue is physiologically faithful to its subject, it will stand only a little over five foot, with perhaps an inch or two more stolen should Weir’s trademark bobbly hat adorn his likeness (it is difficult to fathom him without it). Be in no doubt, though, that though short in stature, this spry, diminutive man boasted a immense presence to whom a memorial can only begin to do justice.
During his lifetime, it was only fitting that Weir was the recipient of the John Muir Trust award, made in recognition of his contribution to the “wider understanding of the value of Scotland’s wild places.” In an era when environmentalism was little more than a niche and warnings of a thawing permafrost were heeded only by those with tickets to Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on Ice, Weir blazed a trail for future generations who would devote their life’s work to the preservation of natural habitats both in Scotland and further afield.
He did so not through scientific rationale or political discourse, but as a modest, self-trained man who loved nothing more than a striding yomp, whatever the weather. The wondrous natural places he showed us on television were his only argument, but sufficiently convincing to encourage others to escape the cities – tentatively armed with Pac-a-Macs and Thermos flasks – and rediscover their country. Graham Hendry, the founder of the statue campaign, is one such disciple. Growing up in Glasgow’s Springburn area, where Weir and his sister, Molly, were raised, he took heart from one man’s travels beyond the urban sprawl.
Nowadays, Weir is enshrined in cult status, thanks in large part to STV’s twilight repeats of his seminal programme, Weir’s Way, at the turn of the millennium. The show began life in 1976 as a series of eight-minute fillers aired during Scotland Today, for which its star received £50 a pop. Their success led to a stand alone series which ran until 1987, amassing a loyal fanbase in the process. The broadcaster’s decision to dust down the shows from its archives was one borne out of frugality – Weir was denied further payments in the process – yet it proved an unlikely triumph of scheduling, with as many as 72,000 bleary-eyed revellers – a 30% audience share – tuning into the third channel at 3am, where they found a man who derived as much pleasure from crags as they did from clubs.
“It would be a disservice to Weir to simply label him as an undergraduate fancy, and the statue – planned for the centenary of his birth in late 2014 – will, I hope, assist in trumping such lazy stereotypes”
Welcome though this new audience was, it would nonetheless be a disservice to Weir to simply label him as an undergraduate fancy, and the statue – planned for the centenary of his birth in late 2014 – will, I hope, assist in trumping such lazy stereotypes. He belonged to age of television whose creed dictated that passion and eloquence trumped condescension and a Colgate smile. The subject matter may have appeared couthy and lumpen to some, but Weir helped elevate it to a charming travelogue. Had he not been the presenter, it is possible that the awful scenario dreamt up years later by Armando Iannucci in his dazzlingly brilliant sketch, ‘Except for Viewers in Scotland,’ may well have come to pass – “a Paul Coia quiz show about hills.”
Indeed, in the wake of Weir’s death, the hillwalker and writer, Cameron McNeish, recalled how Dermot McQuarrie – one of the early producers of Weir’s Way, and a supporter of the campaign – bemoaned how his presenter’s curatorial knowledge was almost overwhelming at times. In one episode, ostensibly an interview with a Western Isles crofter about Bonnie Prince Charlie, Weir seized the narrative. Addressing his subject, the film rolling, he said: “This was the house where Prince Charles Edward Stuart and Flora MacDonald sheltered before setting sail for Skye when the Prince was on the run from the Duke of Cumberland’s forces after the battle of Culloden.” The crofter looked at Weir, entirely lost for words with which to add, but for a simple, “Aye.”
In the process of writing the story, I had the pleasure of speaking to Weir’s widow, Rhona, a retired primary school headmistress, who still lives in the Gartocharn home the couple shared for many a happy year, and from where Weir would set off, sometimes at midnight, to ascend the hillock of Duncroyne, better known as the Dumpling. Now a sprightly 92, Mrs Weir told me how Tom cared not a jot that he was not being paid for the STV repeats, telling people that the enjoyment viewers received from the shows was “payment enough.” She spoke modestly about her late husband’s influence and said he would have been glad of the memorial in his honour. A few minutes after our conversation, she called back. There was, she said, one more thing she wished to add. On his gravestone, below his name and age, she explained, were engraved three words: ‘Who Loved Scotland’. How fitting that Scotland should now give something back a man who did so much to further our nation’s understanding of itself.
WHENEVER Bob Dylan takes pause from his never-ending tour to record and release a new collection of work, all that be certain of its reception is that the audience will include a chorus line crying foul over plagiarism.
So it is with his 35th studio album, Tempest, out this week. Only days after its release, a glowing critical welcome is being eclipsed by a dawdling controversy which seeks to chastise ol’ Bob for failing to include the kind of left-justified bibliography in his sleeve notes one would expect from an emeritus professor of anthropology. It is like accusing Dulux of stealing blue.
In the past decade alone, the bedraggled troubadour has been accused of training his magpie eye on a multitude of archaic, esoteric sources, from the memoirs of a senior Japanese yakuza to a largely unheralded Civil War poet. Tempest is no different, with a crumpled riverboat gambler’s hat cocked to the likes of Quaker poets and the dirt-floor blues of the Mississippi Sheiks.
Such influences are testament to Dylan’s encyclopaedic and insatiable cultural appetite, but he is right to feel slighted when his detractors demand of him an academic’s authorial rigour. In an uneasy interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan declared himself sick of the age-old argument, reasoning that such appropriation was a “rich and enriching tradition” open to “everyone but me.”
Any hopes of a conciliatory end to the conversation were shot down in flames when the 71-year-old claimed his accusers were cut from the same cloth as those who branded him Judas for turning electric. “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff,” he spat. “It’s part of the old tradition, it goes way back … all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
I wouldn’t regard myself as a Dylan obsessive, but I’ve enjoyed going through his back catalogue in the past couple of years, charting his progress as an artist, whether he is stepping forwards, backwards, or sideways. As such, there’s probably several bookcases’ worth of Dylanology better placed to offer a more convincing riposte to the man’s detractors than myself, but I don’t think you have to be a devout fan of his to realise that accusations of plagiarism are a fundamental misinterpretation of his work.
“His entire five decade-long career has been an open conversation with his musical antecedents”
A failure to acknowledge sources in many fields is unscrupulous and indefensible, but Dylan takes discriminatingly, forming new contexts. His entire five decade-long career has been an open conversation with his musical antecedents – whether Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Blind Lemon Jefferson – and he has forged the results with snippets of references summoned up from literature, the Bible, folklore, even nursery rhymes. It is no surprise that one of his heroes is Greenock-born Captain Kidd, denounced as a pirate in one draft of history, yet hailed as a privateer in another.
If there is anyone Dylan is guilty of misappropriating most down the years, it is himself. I watched him play live in Glasgow a few years back, but even having braced myself for the unexpected, he appeared to take his meddling to new levels. It was Dylan in his element, the elusive ringleader of his circus, audibly working news incarnations old favourites with a steam-powered calliope and a staccato growl. If I was taken aback, I can’t imagine what the gaggle of Grand Ol’ Opry regulars made of it, their pink cowboy hats resolutely failing to bob along with the ever-changing meters and melodies echoing around the SECC.
Having toured near continuously since 1988, it is clear that Dylan thrives on those moments during his concerts. He never looks back, yet he gains sustenance from what has gone before, forever attuned to the distinction between thieving someone’s work and plundering their vision. “Steal a little and they throw you in jail,” he sang in 1983’s Sweetheart Like You. “Steal a lot and they make you king.”
THERE are innumerable reasons why Kelvin MacKenzie’s apology for The Sun’s contemptible coverage of the Hillsborough disaster ought not to be greeted as an unequivocal show of candour, but rather a derisory and disingenuous sham. Many on Merseyside, quite rightly, point out that no apology, no matter how earnest, could ever suffice for a story which besmirched a city, pained families reeling with grief, and cast a shadow of the fourth estate for years to come.
Sincerity, however, has seldom been a trait readily associated with MacKenzie, editor of The Sun between 1981 and 1984, and the statement he issued yesterday in the wake of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s remarkable report continues that long and ignominious tradition.
I wrote about the independent panel’s findings extensively for The Scotsman (below) and the dizzying scope of its disclosure meant that the controversy surrounding The Sun’s infamous front-page report, ‘The Truth’, played second fiddle to the key issues of the day – the calls for criminal prosecutions, and the scale of the deceit on the part on South Yorkshire Police.
However, the panel’s website has made available to the public the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of documents its members have pored over during the last 18 months. One in particular pours scorn on MacKenzie’s statement that he had “absolutely no reason to believe that these authority figures would lie and deceive over such a disaster.”
It emerged yesterday that a primary source for The Sun’s story was Irvine Patnick, a Tory MP who was knighted in 1994, and lost his seat in the House of Commons three years afterwards. MacKenzie claimed that the story came from White’s, a Sheffield news agency. Indeed, the original report quoted several anonymous police officers, but Patnick went on the record to back claims that police had been assaulted and urinated on by supporters, having spoken to officers. “I have kept quiet about this because I did not want to inflame a delicate situation,” Patnick told the agency, “but it is a fact that these are the stories they told me and they had no reason to lie.”
However, in the dark days which followed Hillsborough, it seems that Patnick took a leap of faith in placing such fulsome trust in those officers he spoke to. In a letter to the chief constable of West Midlands Police, written on 19 April, 1989, Patnick recalls how he was far from Hillsborough as the gruesome scenes were playing out. Indeed, at around 3pm, he was cocooned in his home office, typing on a word processor, when his wife alerted him to the fraught scenes playing out on television.
At around 9.30pm that night, Patnick visited the transport department of South Yorkshire Police at, where he was asked by a chief superintendent to speak with some of the officers who had been on duty at the stadium and were “down in the dumps.”
Patnick related a “frosty” atmosphere among the rank and file, and was approached by one, unnamed officer, who asked of him, “Did I want to know the truth?” The allegations which followed included some particularly lurid details which were even excised from The Sun’s copy.
To directly quote from Patnick’s recollections (below) he said: “I was taken back to his table and from police officers around this table I heard the following which I will try to convey. Just as I heard it.
“’Some of the supporters were pissed out of their minds. They were pissing on us while we were pulling the dead and injured out they were swearing at us kicking and punching us and hampering our work’.
“One seated showed me the marks of the kicks on his left trouser leg and the marks on his skin. Another one informed how the crowd had lifted up a police horse, how the fans had been crawling beneath the horses and inquired if I was like him and gave them a wide berth I affirmed this.
“One said ‘I picked up a girl she was dead she was in my arms her blouse was torn she had no bra on her breasts were exposed when someone shouted at me throw over here we’ll fuck her. It was booze that did it – you speak up for us tell them in Parliament wbat happened.’”
Significantly, Patnick recalls some final exchanges, held with an undisclosed number of senior police officials, adding: “I was advised by senior officers to take what had been said ‘with a pinch of salt’.”
Towards the end of the correspondence, Patnick admits that he was aware of neither the names, ranks, nor numbers of the officers he had spoken with initially, but said he believed “they were telling me the truth.”
What is unclear from the tranche of correspondence unveiled yesterday is whether Patnick related to press agencies in Sheffield, or indeed, The Sun, the circumstances by which he learned of events at Hillsborough – namely, not just that accounts came second-hand, but that he had been explicitly warned about putting faith in their credence.
As editor, it is unlikely MacKenzie would have spoken to Patnick directly, but given the contentious nature of the story, it was surely incumbent on him to ascertain from his reporter, or the press agency, the origins of the claims. Even if Patnick was not forthcoming with such details, it was The Sun’s duty to ask him. The most rudimentary of questioning would have shed light on the fact there was no consensus among police regarding what happened, and his credentials as a source were negligible at best.
With the candid disclosure brought about by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, there are calls for Patnick to be stripped of his knighthood. Certainly, his actions were remiss, but the focus should instead fall on Mackenzie and South Yorkshire Police. Patnick may claim he did not know the identity of the officers who spoke to that night in April 1989, but unwittingly, the former Sun editor may be able to shed light on that.
Back in 1993, when he was still at the helm, he appeared before the the Commons National Heritage Select Committee. “I regret Hillsborough,” he told MPs. “It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was I believed what an MP said. It was a Tory MP. If he had not said it and the chief superintendent had not agreed with it, we would have gone with it.”
It is reasonable to infer from that statement that MacKenzie, or his staff, did not just rely on the agency copy, but instead sought to corroborate the claims – in the White’s article, there is no explicit mention of a chief superintendent. Did The Sun speak to him or Patnick directly, and if so, were they warned against trusting the accounts, just as Patnick had been?
This, of course, is just one of a raft of questions to emerge after yesterday’s report, and while others may assume more importance over the coming days and weeks, the scrutiny of MacKenzie’s sources ought not to be ignored. Having already been rejected out of hand by many, his “profuse apologies” mean little to the people of Liverpool, where he will remain a vilified figure. But we must not construe his supposed atonement as closure to 23 years of hurt. ‘The Truth’ has yet to out.