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Features

Various features from The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and The Herald. Copyright belongs to the respective publications. Click the blue links where applicable to read the original web version of the articles

‘Shettleston Man’ from The Scotsman.  Looking beyond the statistics of Glasgow’s most notorious inhabitant.

Shettleston Man

BEHIND the third barstool at the Portland Arms in Shettleston, a small brass plaque is fixed to the bar. “Davie Gerthy’s Spot,” it reads. He was, locals recall, a man who worked hard for his family. But when the work dried up, his life became measured in pints.

Davie died before his time. Like many before him, he drank himself to death. Last Monday, another regular perished by the bottle. He was 47. In this pocket of Glasgow’s East End, the alcohol death rate is now almost six times the UK average, according to figures released yesterday in the Scottish Parliament.

It is a place where statistics and percentages now act as a collective obituary. With his lowly life expectancy of 63, and a one-in-five chance of being on incapacity benefit, “Shettleston Man” – a phrase coined by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith – seems prone to every affliction.

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Yet if you ask them an honest question, the ghosts of Shettleston Road will tell you their stories. Take William Coddy, pictured left. At 2pm on a weekday, he is shaking, the pungent smell of alcohol on his breath. He carries a blue plastic bag. In it, his bottle grows warm in the sunshine. “I drink to get out my face and fall asleep, but I hate alcohol now. I just don’t enjoy it,” he says. “When I was a young man, I fell in love with it. Now, I’m really trying. I want to get right off it.”

Mr Coddy began drinking at the age of 16. As he made his way in the world, working on offshore rigs and at Shetland’s Sullom Voe oil terminal, the intake increased. “I just went wild, really caning it all the time,” he recalls.

Now aged 55, without work and fearful that his two sons are losing respect for him, he calls himself an alcoholic. Next Tuesday, he will attend a nearby treatment unit in an attempt to go dry. He has done so before, for as long as ten months, and even spent seven months in a rehabilitation centre. But he knows that admitting his problem is not enough to overcome it. “It’s hard, because it’s Shettleston, isn’t it?” he adds. “That’s just what we do here.”

Back inside the Portland Arms, where the cheery barmaid, Martha, attends to a steady flow of customers, John Higgins, Hugh McIntosh and Joe Murray nurse pints of Tennent’s. They have spent the morning in Parkhead, buying a racing pigeon for Mr McIntosh. Ordinarily, they will have four of five pints each by early evening, before parting ways.

“I grew up in a good household, where my parents both worked hard for their family,” Mr Higgins explains. “But at the weekend, it was as if they tried to fit five days worth of drinking into two. Every relative was giving you a drink, making sure you were topped up. That’s the environment I grew up in.”

The 58-year-old concedes he has a slight drink problem. “I don’t do it to get drunk,” he says carefully. “I drink because I don’t want to be sober. As long as there’s a can in the fridge, I can sleep easy. But I wouldn’t call five pints a day ‘drinking’.”

While candid about their relationship with alcohol and the wider social malaise that haunts Shettleston, they believe the area is at times unfairly singled out. “The same problems are in the West End of Glasgow, or places like Craigmillar in Edinburgh,” reasons Mr McIntosh, 53. “But there’s a lot of issues in Shettleston – smoking, diet, it’s not just alcohol. That’s why it’s an easy target.”

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Their sincerity is a common trait in Shettleston. For a generation, the analysis of governments, local authorities, think-tanks and health officials has inured people to grim headlines. Importantly, however, they have not abandoned concern as to why their area is one of Europe’s most deprived.

Portland Arms regular Andrew Wallace, 49, bemoans the loss of jobs in the area. “In every pub you’ll find skilled tradesmen, drinking away their lives because there’s nothing else. You get up, go out, and then what?”

Those who choose to imbibe at home, he adds, make the most of cheap alcohol at the Tesco Extra store in Shettleston. “Why has a store selling discount drink been allowed to open?” he asks. In his view, the future is unlikely to bring change. “A boy from the bar died the other day, and the drink is just killing us,” he says.

But for all the numbers and league tables, certain aspects of life in this part of Glasgow remain unquantifiable. “Shettleston Man” is not a crude average deduced from grim statistics, nor is he a figure to be pitied, mocked, or quietly ignored. He is men like Davie Gerthy and William Coddy. They are being destroyed not by drink, but the absence of hope.

‘Teacakes, terriers and tartan: Glasgow welcomes the world’ from The Scotsman. The opening ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Teacakes. terriers and tartan

IT was a typically Glaswegian night out. There was dancing, singalongs and chairs being birled around while a drove of wee dugs scuttled around oblivious to the bedlam. The most illuminative moments, however, came when tumult fell silent and the city revealed to the world its tender heart.

In a sprightly and effectual spectacle that indulged in stereotypes while subverting them, the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games last night offered up a sweeping showcase of Glasgow’s social, cultural and political mettle. Camp but meditative, skittish yet dauntless, the two hour show was a patchwork of contradictions that coalesced into something singularly compelling, taking in the first ever Commonwealth-wide fundraiser.

In the end, the headline performances and celebrity names were overshadowed by the little moments. Yes, there was Ewan MacGregor and James McAvoy, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rod Stewart. Even the Big Yin himself put in an appearance.

But none held a torch to the young volunteer dancer who grinned as he partook in the Games’ first gay kiss in front of the Commonwealth’s heads of state, or the lyric soprano who grew up in apartheid South Africa performing a plaintive rendition of Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye. Glasgow gave a stage to them and many more.

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There was even a return for one of the nation’s sporting heroes, when Sir Chris Hoy presented the Games baton to the Queen, having been handed it by Andy Coogan, the retired cyclist’s 97-year-old great uncle, a former Japanese prisoner of war credited with sparking his great-nephew’s interest in sport.

Blink and you would have missed other implausible chapters of history being written, such as Celtic Park – bathed in blue light – ringing to the verses of God Save the Queen, or fossilised footage of The White Heather Club merging divinely into squawking electro of Calvin Harris. In a printed itinerary, it seemed unwieldy folly; in practice, it was the most curious of triumphs.

The cynics who have waited for this ceremony with the sadistic relish of a hangman over the 2,447 days since Glasgow won its bid may have felt cause to cheer early on. A prefatory sequence akin to a VisitScotland team building exercise where the mint imperials had been swapped for MDMA saw the famous football ground house a melange of Caledonian tropes.

To one side, by a vast 48 tonne LED screen spanning the length of the stadium’s South Stand which beamed a smorgasbord of Scottish landscapes, a scale model of the Forth Rail Bridge – its three double cantilevers buttressed by Irn Bru cans – towered above golf trolleys and clumps of heather. On the opposite flank – separated by a Duke of Wellington statue and a likeness of the Finnieston Crane – was a stockpile of comically large Tunnocks teacakes and shortbread versions of the Standing Stones of Callanish. If ever STV decide to remake It’s a Knockout, the farrago would make an ideal set.

Not all the props were static. Minutes in, a kilt of Brobdingnagian proportions ripped open, revealing entertainer John Barrowman atop a tartan pick up truck. A camp eruption duly followed as the Glasgow-born showman whirled around, taking over an introductory song from comedian Karen Dunbar. The absurdity of the lyrics reached new levels. “We come from a land of heather,” hollered Barrowman. “Where men where kilts and women blether.”

Without pause, he gambolled amongst a cluster of some of the 1,319 volunteer cast performers, planting his lips on those of a male dancer before resuming his sensory assault. It was frantic and playful, and even though it lasted a mere half second, the kiss hinted that profound beneath the couthie cavalcade.

First, though, the crowd – close to a capacity of 40,124 – and the estimated billion-strong television audience were treated to adroit musical turns. Amy /MacDonald began with a rousing version of Rhythm of My Heart, later joined onstage by Rod Stewart and a crescent of dancers, before Susan Boyle gave a serene cover of Mull of Kintyre.

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After the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were welcomed into the stadium by the pipes and drums of the Scottish Regiments, a contingent from the Braemar Gathering and a Red Arrows flypast, the national anthem sung by the Braemar Ensemble punctuated a gradual metamorphosis towards a mood that would soon turn contemplative.

With the floor cleared, two dancers from Scottish Ballet shimmered in a pas de deux to a beautiful arrangement of that most raucous of Scottish paens, The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).

The pace quickened as footage of Andy Stewart singing Come In, Come In was mashed with Harris’ Feel So Close. An improbable pairing, the amalgam was choreographed with an army of dancers using chairs as props, designed to imitate the congenial fracas of a Glasgow house party.

It galvanised the spectators for the athletes’ parade, ordinarily a lull in proceedings. Instead, an imaginative reconfiguration kept momentum building, with each nation’s competitors grouped into regions, allowing for a series of musical motifs.

As each team was led into the arena by a Scottie dog, the ceremony’s core purpose was unveiled, courtesy of six videos produced in association with UNICEF. The footage was powerful yet unsentimental, with ordinary Scots telling of the children’s charities everyday work.

Emotion ran high, too, when judoka Euan Burton brought the parade to an end. As he led Team Scotland into the arena, Celtic Park witnessed a din unheard since the halycon days of Henrik Larsson. The athletes, marching to the exhilarating sound of The Shamen’s Move Any Mountain, looked taken aback. The big screen bore the words of – who else? – Scotland’s bard, with a perfect line: “Wi’ joy unfeigned brothers and sisters meet.”

With that came the return of the Cockney bard and adopted Weegie, Rod Stewart, with Can’t Stop Me Now, a song from his latest album. At its climax, Glasgow 2014 gave centre stage to UNICEF. Sir Chris and McAvoy urged spectators to donate just £5 towards its Children of the Commonwealth Fund via text. The crowd held aloft a sea of phones, imploring those at home to follow suit. It was among the most powerful junctures of the night, a quintessentially Glaswegian moment of dogged compassion.

A closing coda featured Nicola Benedetti accompanied by the Big Noise Orchestra before Glasgow nearly exploded as Billy Connolly spoke in a video of Glasgow’s unquenchable desire for social justice, not least by supporting the cause of the late Nelson Mandela.

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The comedian then introduced Pumeza Matshikiza, a young woman old enough to remember South Africa at its worst. It was a superb decision to have her sing Henderson’s composition, one of the great protest songs. From Glasgow, its message was delivered around the world in what some will view as an expression of regret for the sins of previous generations.

Formalities such as oaths followed with First Minister Alex Salmond among those to make a speech. The Queen, having received the baton, then read her message to the Commonwealth, prompting a cascade of fireworks.

It was a traditional end to a ceremony that was anything but. A capricious show greater than the tally its lowest common cultural denominators might have suggested, it melded gaiety with purpose, demonstrating a city that can be synchronously daring and delicate. You don’t need to demolish tower blocks to feel the earth move.

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The Yes campaigners using Scotland’s moorlands and hillsides as canvasses for their pro-independence message, from The Scotsman

The Hills Have Ayes

IF sheep could talk, or at least offer an encouraging bleat in the right direction, life on the southern foothills of the Campsie Fells would be immeasurably easier. Dense tangles of bracken and rabbit holes render every step treacherous, while the unforgiving slope cascading sharply towards the farmlands north of Kirkintilloch punish all but the surefooted. Chris, a former advertising man turned locksmith, has already tumbled three times and the sign is still one letter short. “The Y’s in four or five sections, so it’s not the easiest,” he shouts over, pulling and tugging at a long slither of white fabric. In the distance, a flock of six Scottish Blackface shoot their best impassive gaze. “It’s alright for them, eh?” puffs Chris, grabbing again at the material as it catches a clump of gorse.

He is one of a group of strangers united by a desire to conquer geology and the very worst elements summoned by a Scottish summer to erect a vast sign, visible from villages, towns and roads from miles around stretching all the way to the northernmost hinterlands of Glasgow where the monolithic superstructures of the remaining Red Road Flats jut out from the horizon like Lego bricks discarded by a giant toddler. Some 65 metres long by 30 metres high, the sign has three letters and spells out one word, its message as pure and elementary as the air on the Campsies itself: ‘YES’.

It is the magnum opus of The Hills Have Ayes, a coltish collective of activists who have spurned leaflets, placards and other traditional paraphernalia of political campaigning in favour of altogether grander intentions. Armed with swaths of white, permeable geotextile, mallets, tent pegs and boundless enthusiasm, they have conceived a Caledonian-infused Situationist response to the question we all face come a week on Thursday, diligently appropriating the very earth on which the referendum is being waged to transform hillsides and moorlands into sweeping canvases for their pro-independence communiqué.

Under slate grey skies and a rising brume that forms a wall of smirr as it hits the volcanic range, they have allowed me to witness their most onerous endeavour yet. Shortly after 10am on a Friday morning, I am waiting at the so-called car park in the sky, a slither of tarmac hugging a hairpin bend on the B822 as it snakes north from Lennoxtown to Fintry, when I hear the putter of an approaching engine. Moments later, a tumbledown vintage Volkswagen camper van appears over the brow and parks up alongside me. Were it not for foreknowledge, I’d expect Shaggy, Fred, Velma and a relieved Great Dane to come pouring out the side door.

As it turns out, there is no mystery. The Ayes want only to sway those voters in East Dunbartonshire who are as yet undecided and perhaps have a little merriment along the way. Inside the van, which houses a working oven, an old CB radio and a handbrake that groans uneasily on the slightest of gradients, one of the group’s most experienced members gathers the uninitiated for a quick briefing, dishing out bottles of water, packets of crisps and Penguin biscuits by the way of fuel.

“The ethos we go by is to get up there, put the sign up, and hang around for a while having fun and making an impact, but if there’s any complaints or confrontation, we take the sign down as we tend to ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” explains Dave, an affable twentysomething Glaswegian, the veteran of seven previous YES sign installations. “But the fog’s pretty bad out there and I don’t want to pressure anyone into anything they’re not comfortable with,” he adds. “There’s no point people getting cold, miserable and slipping around if no one can see it.” No one in the van raises an objection, not even Stuart, a thoughtful young filmmaker valiantly attired in cut off shorts and trainers. The Ayes, it seems, have it.

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There are eight volunteers gathered at the Crow Road car park today, but cumulatively, the group can call on a membership more than one hundred strong with thousands of other supporters on social media, remarkable figures considering it was founded in inauspicious circumstances just last month. The inaugural sign – measuring just 24 metres by 12 metres – was sited on the Kilpatrick Hills, but when its creator left to take photographs from the vantage point of the Erskine Bridge, a group of locals sympathetic to the continuation of the Union scurried up the hillside, trying in vain to turn it into a NO sign before tearing it up.

Since then, the efforts and locations have multiplied. In the Pentland Hills, a YES was erected at Hillend to the boastful claim that it measured twice the height of the famous Hollywood sign in the Santa Monica mountains. Above the village of Renton at Carman Hill, home to the ruins of a fort some believe once provided refuge to Robert the Bruce, the same three letters were spawled out and pegged in to the terra firma, a sight repeated in Durness, Johnstone, Kilbarchan, Neilston and the Ochils.

One of the most high profile emblems to date was sited on the well-known pyramids running alongside the M8 at Bathgate where, Dave recalls, the response was overwhelming: “We thought the traffic might slow down a little but we didn’t expect people to come to a stop and get out of their cars to take photographs.” As well as the YES signs, the group was also responsible for perpetuating the time-honoured Glaswegian tradition of embellishing Carlo Marochetti’s equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in Royal Exchange Square. Used to ordinary traffic cones, the two-time Tory prime minister found himself wearing a Yes cone, brandishing a flag to boot.

As time has gone on, other innovative approaches have taken root. In Largs, the Ayes enlisted the help of an electrical engineer to ensure not even nightfall could veil their message, thanks to a neon blue illuminated sign on a prominent hummock overlooking the North Ayrshire town. A few miles south, in the cold of the Firth of Clyde, one enterprising adherent swam out to affix the word to a rocky outcrop off Arran’s east coast. As word spreads and local Yes groups take it upon themselves to erect their own letters, the hills of Scotland are becoming increasingly alive with the sound of etymology.

For Dave, the momentum is validation for all those unforgiving slogs to summits around the central belt in the hope of making an incremental difference to the 18 September vote. “Our original aim was to try and reach undecideds but also potential Yes voters who are surrounded by No voters,” he reasons as we begin our tramp up the Campsies. “It’s a way of showing people the grassroots campaign is happening and that’s important. I’ve been out speaking to people as well as doing the Ayes stuff, and a lot of time, you’re the first other Yes person they’ve met.”

An unexpected and welcome offshoot of the group’s work, he says, has been the way it has geed on even the most active independence advocates as they near the conclusion of the longest political campaign in Scottish history. In turn, every email and message of support the Ayes receive via social media emboldens their belief that in some small, incongruous way, theirs is an influential and inspiring role. “It just takes off,” chips in Dave, another seasoned signwriter. “You can be halfway through putting a YES up and people are already sharing images on Twitter and talking about it.”

Laying the foundations for this discourse requires considerable graft. The sign at the Campsies, previously used in the Ochils, consists of around a dozen separate strips of Terram geosynthetic, each given a spray painted identifier – Y1 or E3, for example – and bound by blue polypropylene rope. A bulwark ordinarily used in construction and civil engineering projects, the Ayes procured their haul from a solicitous shop assistant in a branch of builders’ merchants, Jewsons. “The guy wouldn’t tell us which we he was voting but he gave us a good discount,” grins Dave through a bushy beard.

The Ayes complete their sign at the foothills of the Campsies. Picture: John Devlin. Copyright: The Scotsman

The Ayes complete their sign at the foothills of the Campsies. Picture: John Devlin. Copyright: The Scotsman

“Would it not be easier if you were on the side of the No campaign?” I ask Dave as he grabs an empty Highland Park box rattling with tent pegs. “What do you mean?,” he asks. “Well, they only have two letters compared to your three.” “You’d think it would be easier,” he laughs. “But it’s much harder to do circles than straight lines.”

On the Campsies, an area has been chosen and mapped out several hundred feet above ground level. After humphing the textiles and tools up the terrain, the Ayes take a short breather, looking out through the clearing fog to Kirkintilloch, Lenzie, Bishopbriggs and beyond. It is an arresting vista and one which provides relief and invigoration in equal measure to the drookit party. Shortly after 11.20am, fortified by more biscuits, they dividing into two teams to begin the job proper. Chris, by virtue of working on the ‘E’ on his last deployment, is on vowel duties, aided by Helen, a native of Shettleston who proudly wears a ‘Cybernat’ badge and has taken Mac, her sheepdog, along for the ride. “I like your nail polish,” Chris tells her. “Aye, well it’s not going to last long up here,” she replies.

Stretching out the stem of the letter as Mac, his tail wagging, scampers underneath the fabric, Chris tells me the work of the Ayes symbolises the mood of the Yes campaign. “It accentuates the positives and there’s not been enough of that in the debate as a whole, especially with the negativity of the No camp.” Helen agrees: “I was a member of the Socialist Labour Party when I was 15, but this is the most feelgood grassroots political campaign I’ve ever been involved in.” She pauses and smiles. “It beats being stuck in the hoose fixing my man’s cereal.”

Among the Ayes in attendance today is Allan, manfully working on the lower arc of the ‘S’. Unique among the group given that only a fortnight ago, he described himself as a “staunch” No supporter, his Damascene conversion was sparked by that much maligned Better Together campaign video featuring a housewife holding fort in her kitchen. Where he had hope for politics of empowerment, the film spread a message warning that politics was “scary and confusing.” Fortuitously, the Ayes chose the following day for their Duke of Wellington installation, encouraging Allan to switch allegiances.

“It was just one gesture but it showed that the Yes camp was more in touch with the electorate and was having more fun than the doom and gloom of No,” he says. “The visibility of the campaign changed my mind, it’s not tied to any one party and it feels like more of a movement than a political cause.” The realisation that his political ideology was misplaced was, adds Allan chastening but ultimately rewarding. “When nothing is for certain I think the possibility of better is better than the fear of worse,” he reflects.

With the ‘E’ and ‘S’ in place, the two teams reconvene to pool their efforts into the ‘Y’. It is the trickiest letter of the three, courtesy of some miscalculations that left its upper right branch three metres short. Some careful positioning, however, masks the shortfall and by 12.45pm, after nearly an hour and a half’s toil, the sign is complete. “YES!” the group cheer, standing on a crest admiring their handwork as a south-bound Easyjet flight passes over above, en route to Glasgow Airport. Later, a returning holidaymaker will post on their Facebook page revealing how she saw the sign from the skies.

Just a quarter of an hour later, news reaches of them of the first tweet, an image taken by a Lennoxtown resident that is spreading across social media. After what Dave describes as “by far the toughest” sign they’ve put up so far, the sense of accomplishment is keenly felt. In line with their environmentally conscious approach, the Ayes leave the landscape as they found it, and after an hour or so of taking photographs, they disassemble the sign before heading back down the hill to the van.

The Ayes, environmentally conscious, try to leave the landscape as they found it, and for the most part stay with a sign for a few hours before rolling it up and heading back to the VW camper van for a change of clothing and a trip to their ‘Yes factory’ in Glasgow’s west end to plan for their next expedition. Jewsons, it seems, can expect a windfall; with less than two weeks to go, their plans are ambitious and Dave hints at a “few wee special things” in store over the coming days.

There is a gleeful innocence to the work of the group that may well be viewed as agitprop naivety by some. But in a campaign that has too often been weighed down by a convoluted and irreconcilable web of claims and counter claims over issues such as currency and EU membership, how many of us could claim to have been genuinely inspired by the debate so far? The Ayes may have just the one word to say, yet they pronounce it with sincerity, enterprise and purpose.

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‘Volunteers who ensure Games are running like clockwork’ from The Scotsman. A day in the company of Glasgow 2014’s volunteer army

Volunteers who ensure Games are running like clockwork

IF the army of Commonwealth Games volunteers has a benevolent frontline, it is deployed at Central Station, a place notorious in Glasgow’s psychogeography for the grousing that meets late trains, with worse awaiting those that don’t depart at all. Cutting through its opprobrium takes inexhaustible altruism, a quality Larry Richardson has in abundance.

A silvery, amiable figure who is the custodian of a maritime museum in the West Sussex port town of Shoreham-by-Sea, the 71-year-old has journeyed north with his wife, Barbara, in their trusty caravan, armed with good cheer and goodwill. “Glasgow feels like the centre of the universe,” he says. “It has been simply amazing to be part of it all.”

Larry is one of 15,000 Clydesiders, the tireless shepherds of Glasgow 2014 who tend to their flock with an almost evangelical zeal. Clad in red polo shirts and grey trousers, they direct and explain, greet and console, guide and inspire. Above all, they smile, offering a universal welcome to those saddled with suitcases and fatigue.

A veteran of the voluntary sector who formed part of the purple mass of Games Makers during the 2012 Olympics, Larry believes the intimacy of Glasgow has helped the Clydesiders no end. “In London, a lot of the volunteers struggled to know about the city and the organisation was very professional,” he reflects. “Here, it’s a lot more relaxed. The Commonwealth feel is that bit closer and friendly.”

The image of the Games beamed throughout the world has been of elite athletes and world class venues, where records have been broken and remarkable narratives told. Although the Clydesiders have caught the odd event, most have witnessed little of the sporting glory. They exist in the spaces in-between: the dimly lit concourses of bus and subway stations; windowless offices in the SECC; the boondocks around Anderston, Carmunnock and Tollcross. None of these places have seen medal ceremonies, but they have been graced by a kindness purer than 24 carat gold.

At Central Station, the vanguard is based beneath the terminal’s famous suspended Victorian clock, a fitting locale given the way the timepiece has served as a meeting point for incomers and locals alike for over a century. With a central desk festooned with maps, timetables and pamphlets, around 14 Clydesiders flit among the throng of commuters, working in eight and a half hour shifts.

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Like many of his fellow volunteers, James Millerick -a sprightly figure with a mop of sandy hair -belrience will have a transformative impact once normal life resumes. “I usually work 56 hours a week so even though it’s been busy, it has been brilliant to do something like this,” enthuses the 18-year-old gym instructor from Cumbernauld. “I feel like I could speak to anyone from anywhere in the world now. It’s been rewarding in so many ways. I don’t think I’ll ever take my uniform off.”

With the final weekend of the Games dawning, the Clydesiders do not want the spectacle to end. Some, though, are already making plans to put their newly acquired skills to good use once the Commonwealth show leaves town, bound for Australia’s Gold Coast. Narinder ‘Nina’ Kolhi, a bubbly 57-year-old, is hoping to spend a few days a week helping a friend with voluntary work. In the 40 years she has lived in Glasgow, she has never witnessed such an upsurge in positivity, and is determined to keep the momentum going. “I’ll be honest with you, when it’s over I’ll be upset and I’ll miss it. Glasgow has been good to me and my family, so I wanted to give something back to Glasgow,” she explains. “The atmosphere has been electric, just absolutely brilliant.”

Before Glasgow 2014, Nina regarded herself as a shy type, more inclined to curl up on the couch in front of the television rather than meet and greet people from around the world. The past week and a half, however, has given her cause to reassess her own character. “I always thought of myself as an introvert but I’ve found that I enjoy talking to people and helping them,” she adds. “It’s all changed and I can’t wait to do more voluntary work. It gives you a wonderful feeling.”

Only time will tell whether the Clydesiders leave an afterglow in their wake, but their ubiquitous and courteous presence around Glasgow seems to have heralded a change in ordinary people already. It has always been a friendly city, but the Games have added patience and humility to its long list of virtues. As I leave the glass and girders of Central Station behind, passing through plumes of cigarette smoke into the Gordon Street taxi rank, a burly Celtic fan three sheets to the wind offers up his place in the queue to a young Welsh woman bound for the Emirates Arena. “Ah don’t know a hing aboot badminton, the whole Commonwealth Games is a pile of pish,” he tells her. “But on ye go, I widnae want you missin’ any of it.”

‘Under a battleship grey sky’ from The Scotsman. Reflecting on widespread redundancies which leave BAE’s yards in Glasgow decimated, but open.

Under a battleship grey sky

ASK Glaswegians what they understand by the term, Clydeside, and the answer will be split along generational lines. For the young, it is the lexicon of marketeers, a phrase peppered across billboards and glossy brochures signalling the city’s evolving transformation, a process that is slowly reclaiming vast tracts of dormant waterfront with conference centres, casinos, media parks and mid-rise flat complexes. Greying residents, however, will look back, recalling an era when their peers forged not only ironclad leviathans, but Glasgow’s sense of itself.

The broad spine of the Clyde is the legacy of the city’s shipbuilding industry. During the reign of George IV, its quaysides spanned just 700 yards. All that would soon change. By 1834, Tod & MacGregor established the first iron shipbuilding yard. Seven years later, Robert Napier opened his yard in Govan, with the famous Fairfield facility rising from the banks two decades later. As the river was dredged and widened, the length of the quays soon sprawled to 11 miles, encompassing not only Glasgow but towns such as Greenock and Clydebank. Come the onset of World War I, the industry directly employed 70,000 across 19 yards, a supreme endeavour exceeding the combined production of France, Germany and Japan.

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But an area which gave to the world iconic vessels like the Cutty Sark and Glenlee saw its status waver in the interwar years as depression struck, a time starkly symbolised by the fate of one vast contract. Known to workers as Hull Number 534, and by the rest of the world as the Queen Mary, its rusting hulk lay abandoned in John Brown’s Clydebank yard for two and a half years, a cause for national despair acutely articulated by George Blake in his iconic novel, The Shipbuilders. The sight, he wrote, was “a monument to the glory departed; as if shipbuilding man had tried to do too much and had been defeated by the mightiness of his own conception.”

The Cunard Line’s flagship would eventually be completed and the yards seemed to have emerged from the gloom. The outbreak of World War II heralded widespread demand for new vessels, strengthening the military’s reliance on the region’s skill and enterprise. Peacetime stemmed the flow, however, as the need for for navy and merchant vessels waned into the 1950s and beyond, as cheaper labour costs prevailed and overseas competitors thrived. There were bright moments, such as launch of the Clydebank-built Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1967, but as heavy industry gave way to the modern era, they were only flashpoints to the pall hanging over Clydeside once more.

Once illustrious firms perished. Names like Scott Lithgow, John Brown and Stephens were lost, as were the jobs of tens of thousands of workers. Communities like Greenock and Clydebank entered periods of hardship from which they have only started to recover and families with three generations reliant on a single company endured terrible hardships. The demise of so many companies at one time brought about the creation of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and with it, one of the most famous episodes in industrial history when Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie led a work-in.

Their efforts thwarted Edward Heath’s Conservative government’s intention to sound shipbuilding’s death knell, and in Govan and Scotstoun the Fairfield and Yarrow yards survived. The victory was not absolute. In the decades that followed, the industry underwent a painful transition, becoming Govan Shipbuilders then British Shipbuilders, before denationalisation saw it pass from Kvaerner to BAE Systems. The defence giant employs around 3,200 people across its Glasgow yards, with a contract to help produce two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, due to be fulfilled in two years’ time. The only other work on the books is for a new generation of Type 26 frigates.

Today, under a battleship grey sky, people passed through Govan Cross, where the Glasgow of old and new meet courtesy of a modern shopping centre sitting next to a statue of Sir William Pearce, the shipbuilder and politician who turned Fairfield into a small empire. As word reached them of hundreds of job losses, the atmosphere was sombre, yet resilient. The weeks and months ahead will be far from easy, but shipbuilding here has been read many a premature obituary in the past. Still, Clydeside survives.

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‘Death at a Distance’ from Scotland on Sunday. The increasing use of unmanned drones by the US.

THE meeting was taking place in the village of Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, a rugged Pakistani tribal region that borders Afghanistan. Inside the small complex was Mullah Nazir, a notorious Taleban commander, and up to ten of his key lieutenants anxious to plot the way ahead for their insurgent group in 2013. To the Pakistani government and military he was something of an asset as early last year he had agreed to stop launching attacks on targets in his host country in return for being allowed to wage jihad with impunity against the allied forces – led by the British and the Americans – across the border. He had even been trying to persuade other Taleban commanders to follow the same policy.

But to those same allied forces he was still a major target – the leader of one of four Taleban groups based in Pakistan – in need of elimination. Last Wednesday evening, retribution arrived in the shape of an unmanned drone strike from the sky above, and Nazir and eight of his colleagues were fatally wounded. They were not alone. In North Waziristan, drone strikes were aimed at other Taleban targets while three al-Qaeda suspects died in a similar attack in Yemen, the fifth by a pilotless drone in the last fortnight. But it was Nazir’s high-profile slaying that has brought the drone strikes strategy back into the global spotlight, where the awkward ethical questions being thrown up by their use are gaining ground.

To allied military commanders in possession of highly sophisticated technology which can inflict damage on enemy personnel and capabilities way beyond their own borders without risking their own forces, the drones have been a huge success. But to the sovereign states over which they are operated by foreign powers, they both undermine their ability to control the military actions carried out in their name as well as having unforeseen consequences. More than 450 Pakistani civilians are believed to have been killed by drone strikes over the last nine years. As critics say, unmanned missiles cannot tell the difference between their intended targets and any innocent non-combatants who may be in the vicinity.

Concern about the US programme as a provocative symbol of power that runs roughshod over national sovereignty has now grown to such a level that the United Nations has announced it will set up a dedicated investigations unit in Geneva this year to examine the legality in cases where civilians are killed in so-called “targeted” counter-terrorism operations. It will be led by Ben Emmerson QC, a UN special rapporteur, who said some US drone strikes in Pakistan may amount to war crimes. In a speech at Harvard, he said: “If the relevant states are not willing to establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms… then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act. Together with my colleague Christof Heyns, [the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings], I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [UN] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks.”

This has set alarm bells ringing in Washington, where military commanders are preparing to step up attacks by their most effective weapon against terrorist leaderships. With both China and Russia observing the international precedent, more CIA drone attacks have been conducted under President Obama than under President George W Bush. The Obama administration has long argued that drone strikes are lawful as part of the military action authorised by Congress after the 9/11 attacks on the American mainland in 2001 as well as under the general principle of self-defence. Under those rules, “targeted killing” – as drone attacks have been labelled – are not assassination, which is banned by executive order.

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Unmanned drones were first used as spy planes in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts in the early 1990s but they have now evolved into long-range killing machines. The US Air Force has more than 1,300 drone pilots – conventionally trained on aircraft – stationed at bases across the United States and the Pentagon projects another 700 will be needed by 2015 to mount combat patrols worldwide in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. They are expected to compensate for the expected withdrawal of allied forces on the ground.

The US operates about 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago, and commanders asked Congress for nearly £3 billion for the drone programme in last year’s budget. And the logic is currently being extended further, to troops on the battlefield, who have been issued mini-drones, called Switch-blade, which can be carried in a backpack and have a hand-grenade sized warhead. Switchblade weighs just 2.7 kilograms and can fly at 150 kilometres per hour when deployed by a hand-held controller. To those commanders – right up to the commander in chief in the White House – drones have become crucial in fighting terrorism. Notorious triumphs include the spying that preceded the attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan by video transmitted from a drone. Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior terrorist leader in Pakistan, was reportedly killed in a drone strike in 2011, part of a drone campaign that helped paralyse al-Qaeda in the region. In the same year, a drone missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born cleric, in Yemen. They were also used to strike at a convoy believed to be carrying Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi near his home town of Surt, shortly before he was caught and killed by his own countrymen. Altogether, more than 1,900 insurgents are believed to have been killed in Pakistan’s tribal areas by American drones since 2006.

So important to the US war effort has the drone programme become that prior to the uncertain outcome of the presidential elections in November – when Obama was given a close run by Republican candidate Mitt Romney – officials speeded up work to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures. The debate centres on whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the US, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.

It is more than an academic talking point, however, with both China and Russia closely watching the outcome in terms of what international law will tolerate in future conflicts. For those countries which are targeted, it is far from academic either. In Pakistan, drone strikes have attracted a torrent of criticism, and are regarded as an infringement of the country’s sovereignty. Many Pakistanis complain that innocent civilians are often killed. Figures from monitoring groups suggest that at least 473 non-combatants have been killed by CIA directed-strikes since 2004, a toll frequently highlighted by critics of the US strategy, such as Imran Khan, the former cricket star turned Pakistani politician.

But while the accuracy of the strikes appears to be improving – there were seven confirmed civilian deaths in 2012, down from 68 in the previous 12 months, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – there is no contented consensus surrounding their use. The biggest tensions are in the tribal heartlands where local people are being offered bribes of around dollars 200 – a considerable sum in area where the usual income level is less than a dollar a day – to help the drone controllers target militants. This involves planting tiny electronic devices on the cars and near the homes of suspected terrorists, which then transmit signals to the satellite systems that allow the controllers in the US to pinpoint their attacks.

As a result, the Taleban are being forced to adapt. In 2011, a senior commander in Pakistan disclosed that his fighters had started to scan all visiting vehicles with camcorders set to infrared mode – which detects the devices – to root out potential GPS trackers. The paranoia has led to militants turning upon local communities to find the collaborators. Before being executed, many are forced to speak into a video camera to make taped confessions, which are later distributed. One such recent recording showed a young tribesman by the name of Sidinkay, who said he was paid around £216 to direct CIA drones to their targets. “I am a spy and I took part in four attacks,” he told the camera. “Stay away from the Americans,” he added. “Stay away from their dollars.” He was shot dead moments later.

For some allies, the danger of the drone programme is that, if civilians are killed, attitudes towards western forces in Afghanistan harden. In his 2010 guilty plea, Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, justified targeting civilians by telling the judge: “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.” And anti-drone sentiment does not come exclusively from the targeted territories, however. Last September, a report on targeted killing by CIA drones in tribal areas of Pakistan concluded that the strikes have killed more civilians than US officials have acknowledged, alienated Pakistani public opinion and set a dangerous precedent under international law. The report, carried out by human rights researchers at the Stanford and New York University law schools, urged the US to “conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killing practices,” including “short and long-term costs and benefits”. There have been signs, even before this, that Obama, mindful of wider moral responsibilities, has responded to concerns; the CIA has agreed to downsize the scale of the munitions carried to avoid casualties beyond the immediate strike zone and there is a presidential veto on strikes in which controllers do not have a “near certainty” that civilians will not be injured.

The administration also remains open to legal attack after the report called on officials to make public secret legal opinions justifying the strikes. This followed an action by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in 2011 that sought documents in which justice department lawyers had discussed the highly classified “targeted killing” programme. But last week, a judge in New York ruled the White House does not have to publicly disclose its legal justification for drone attacks and other deadly methods it has used to kill suspected terrorists overseas. In her decision, US District Judge Colleen McMahon chided the administration for keeping its legal reasoning a secret, but said she had no authority to order the documents disclosed. The New York Times said it will appeal, but for now, if the drone operations continue to claim the deaths of key militant figures such as Nazir, it seems such criticism and concern will be regarded by the US as a price worth paying.

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‘The Perfect Crime’ from Scotland on Sunday. The phenomenon of Grand Theft Auto.

The Perfect Crime …

WITH their wiry frames and wan complexions, the gaggle of Scottish computer programmers and digital artists cut a conspicuous presence as they stalked the evening streets of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighbourhood. Armed with digital cameras, microphones and notebooks, the 50-strong contingent perused every street and alley, soaking up the sights and sounds of the Russian-speaking immigrant community. They scoured karaoke bars and nightclubs, restaurants and shops, taking thousands of photographs and making innumerable detailed notes. In the public bathrooms by Coney Island, they encountered wily old emigrants from the Motherland in their string vests, stooped over washbasins to shave their armpits.

Throughout all five of New York’s boroughs, they continued their quest, capturing for posterity every snippet of life. They had been flown in from Edinburgh to conduct this mammoth task, but this was not their first such visit to the US; in Miami, they snapped the bikini-clad skater girls and hustlers in baby blue leisure suits, while the neon metropolis of Las Vegas proved a sensory explosion. The Big Apple, however, brought its own challenges. Though they had police protection, the group had occasion to regret ever leaving home. “One time a bunch of us were taking photos on 125th street and we were told we were going to be shot if we didn’t put the cameras away,” recalled Aaron Garbut, a University of Dundee graduate. “That was relaxing.”

Garbut, the leader of the unlikely touring party, is art director of Rockstar, the company responsible for one of the most successful and controversial computer game series in history – Grand Theft Auto. For more than a decade, the firm’s young, devoted staff have redefined the medium in which they work, helping emancipate a maligned and misunderstood pastime from its awkward adolescence, turning it into the most profitable entertainment industry ever. The most recent entry in the franchise, GTA IV, made more than £197m within a day of going on sale. Sam Houser, Rockstar’s 39-year-old co-founder and president, has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, with the august publication hailing his ability to weave “tapestries of modern times as detailed as those of Balzac or Dickens.” Yet there has been a price for this dizzying success. Houser and his charges have braved not only threats against their lives in Harlem, but a wave of moral outrage which began in Britain before thundering across the Atlantic, culminating in apoplectic denunciations of their oeuvre in the US Senate, accusations of copycat murders by enthusiasts of their products, and multi-million pound lawsuits.

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David Kushner is perhaps better placed than anyone to assess GTA’s influence. For the past decade, the 43-year-old author has researched its genesis, documenting a torrid tale of egomania, guerilla PR tactics and creative genius for his new book, Jacked: The Unauthorised Behind The Scenes Story Of Grand Theft Auto, which gives unprecedented insights into the company. All of it, explains the New Yorker, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, is inextricably bound to Scotland. “One of GTA’s great and largely unappreciated ironies is that a bunch of Scots created the most influential simulation of America ever made,” says Kushner.

The story began in Dundee, the city of jute, jam, journalism, and now, joypads, where in the early 80s, a young programmer called Dave Jones began his career as an apprentice engineer in Dundee’s Timex factory, which at the time was breaking production records as it churned out Spectrum home computers. Jones, though, yearned to make games, not machines. Already a member of the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club, a ragtag collective of coders, he jumped at the chance of a £3,000 voluntary redundancy package and set up his own company, DMA Design. Modest success ensued until the 1991 release of Lemmings, which sold two million copies worldwide. A millionaire at 25, Jones was hailed as a genius, albeit one consumed by grander ambitions as he asked himself: “How could we make something living inside the machine?”

Around the same time in London, Houser, a brash young executive, was finding his feet at BMG Interactive, a gaming division of the German music conglomerate. He was looking for the next big thing when a DMA demo arrived. The game, initially entitled Race’n’Chase, was graphically crude, but was saturated with US pop culture references, and boasted an autonomy never seen before. “It was the defining entertainment product of its generation,” Kushner told Scotland on Sunday last week. “The acronym GTA might suggest indiscriminate to some people, but ultimately its greatest contribution was allowing people to do what they want.” An enthused Houser handed Jones a £3.4 million publishing deal, but one problem loomed large. The player controlled a police officer, and had to avoid streams of pixellated pedestrians. What if, DMA reasoned, you were rewarded with points for running them over?

So emerged the gamer as an anti-hero, capable of killing police and carjacking in a cityscape densely packed with pop culture references. BMG, mindful of criticism, sought “corporate responsibility” advice from Max Clifford, but the wily publicist urged them to embrace scandal. “We’ll encourage the right people that it would be good for them to speak out on how outrageous this is and criticise it,” he advised. His promises were not empty. Ahead of its release in autumn of 1997, Lord Campbell of Croy, the former Scottish Secretary, was condemning GTA in the House of Lords, and an impudent radio advertising campaign featured excerpts from the subsequent debate. Added to a welter of tabloid outrage, the game was a commercial triumph.

BMG was bought out by Take Two in a £9m deal, and while the programmers in Dundee retained responsibility for essential coding work, Houser and his cohorts moved to New York. At their offices on 575 Broadway, the iconoclastic geeks became renegade businessmen, conducting affairs in a frathouse bolthole boasting arcade games and foosball tables. At Houser’s bidding, Brian Baglow, a Scot who moved to NY to became Rockstar’s “lifestyle manager” took to wearing Dockers, hoodies and T-shirts boasting the slogan, “Je Suis Un Rockstar”. He later quipped: “I look more like a Long Island white boy than a dick from Dundee.” The outlaw image even made its way back to Scotland, with DMA staff given blue velvet Rockstar tracksuits. Not everyone bought in – Kushner notes that one employee gave the outfit to his mother, who wore it while walking her dog through Dundee’s streets.

The team, rechristened Rockstar Games, began developing a welter of sequels, featuring visceral, 3D worlds. The Scots programmers, who relocated to offices in Edinburgh’s Greenside Row, jokingly brandished rifles and shotguns, weapons purchased to allow the art department to render faultless in-game replicas. As technology advanced, so did their ethical boundaries. In GTA III, players could kill prostitutes, while GTA: San Andreas featured a hidden sex mini-game, Hot Coffee, which provoked widespread fury.

Jack Thompson, a conservative attorney who attempted to bring a £156m lawsuit against its makers, while Hillary Clinton was among many politicians to condemn its wanton content. Even Jones, who departed DMA in 1999, expressed misgivings. “Some of it does make you grimace,” he said. “It is like watching Goodfellas. There are some scenes when you ask yourself, ‘Did they really have to do that? How far will this go?'”

For his part, Kushner believes the series shone a light on his homeland’s complex political and ethical standpoints. “Rockstar realised America is a different country,” he said. “For a generation of people who’d never played video games, GTA seemed like something reasonable to blame. The Hot Coffee scandal showed there was nothing more American than our aversion to sexual content while we celebrate violence.” Yet be believes the controversies surrounding GTA simply served to highlight just how supremely creative and immersive the series is. “A lot of it came down to people infantalising the medium of video games,” he added. “There was a generational divide in the media, but I think that era of controversy in games is over. We’re moving past that now.”

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Several Edinburgh employees of Rockstar are millionaires, and live in some of the capital’s most sought-after addresses, such as Royal Circus. It is a reward for their prodigious drive and attention to detail. As well as touring real-life cities, the key programmers undertake forensic research. For GTA IV, they hung plasma televisions over the desks in Greenside Row, featuring non-stop footage of ordinary life on New York’s streets, including time-lapse video cameras so as they could accurately replicate traffic patterns.

They studied blueprints of the city’s sewerage system, pored over census data to determine an approximate ethnic make-up for each borough, and grilled the Taxi and Limousine Commission to establish the precise ratio of cabs to other cars. As Kushner points out, “Though the Rockstars insisted that their pixellated city was a dream version of reality, GTA IV was one of the most passionate love letters to New York City ever written.”

At present, the Edinburgh coders are working around the clock to apply the finishing touches to GTA V, the next eagerly anticipated instalment in the series, which is due for release later this year. With Rockstar’s fiercely guarded secrecy, little is known of the game other than that it is set in LA and southern California. Whatever its content, it will doubtless smash a host of sales records and consolidate the company’s position at the vanguard of an industry expected to be worth £57bn by 2015. Not that they will rest on their laurels, according to Les Benzies, a key figure in Rockstar, whose work as the series producer has given him a multi-million pound fortune. “Until we’ve simulated the world outside,” he says, “we’re not going to stop.”

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‘Gray Matters’ from The Scotsman. Interviews with Alasdair Gray and other leading writers on 30 years since Lanark.

Gray Matters …

THE infectious chuckle on the end of the line grows louder, each intake of breath giving the laughter fresh impetus just as it appears to be tailing off. Why, asks the bemused novelist regarded as the greatest living Scottish exponent of his craft, should anyone wish to commemorate an anniversary marking 30 years since the publication of his most revered novel, Lanark? “I don’t know about any parties to celebrate 30 years of Lanark,” laughs Alasdair Gray. “All I could do is stand around blushing very modestly, which is no fun.”

Gray is speaking from his flat in the west end of Glasgow, an area he, more than any civic figure, has helped infuse with vibrancy and a sense of place. Characteristically prodigious, he is eking out his latest writing project. That I should telephone seeking his re-evaluation of work completed three decades ago is the trigger for the chuckling, especially when asked if he thought it had changed the face of Scottish literature. “If I was arrogant enough to think so, I would not be fool enough to say so,” he says, still fighting back the giggling. “I don’t mind other people claiming great things for it, but I’m certainly not going to do it myself.”

Not, mind you, that there would be any need, as Gray and his magnum opus could hardly be considered short of cheerleaders. Since it was first printed by Canongate, Lanark: A Life in Four Books has acquired a formidable reputation, and is generally held up as the best Scottish novel of the 20th century. Upon its publication, no less a critical mind than Anthony Burgess hailed Gray as the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott, and comparisons were made with Dante, Blake, Joyce, and Kafka. The praise has been forthcoming as generations anew take inspiration upon discovering his evocative epic.

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To coincide with the anniversary, Glasgow’s Mitchell Library is hosting Life and Lanark, an exhibition which traces the creative genesis of the tome. On Saturday, Gray will give a talk at the library as part of the Aye Write! festival. Now in his 77th year, he finds the exhibition pleasing, and he has promised to “have a look” while in the building to deliver his speech. He seems relieved, however, that his appointment is to speak about his work as a visual artist and his latest autobiographical collection of words, paintings, and illustrations, A Life in Pictures. “I’m glad people are still reading it and it’s being reprinted, but the thing is, I thought everything I could say about Lanark I had said in in the book,” the polymath explains.

If there is some reticence on Gray’s part to speak about his most famous work, it is perhaps because he has lived with it twice as long as his readership. The first tentative notions of a narrative concerning a boy and his plans to produce a great artwork came to him when he was just 17. He made entries in notebooks as an art student, gradually accumulating ideas and fragments. The boy, Duncan Thaw, and his life started to take shape, as one narrative blossomed into several. His creator would read out chapters to friends, who convinced him he was onto something. Excerpts found their way into literary magazines as far back as the 1960s, before, aged 46, Gray’s vision became reality. On 26 February, 1981, his tome struck the Scottish literary landscape like a fork of lightning.

“Lanark came out two years after the failure of the devolution bill, and in certain ways Scotland was in the process of creating a cultural autonomy which it hadn’t achieved politically,” recalls Randall Stevenson, professor of 20th century literature at Edinburgh University. “Having a major novel which greatly expanded the range of perspectives through which the country, particularly Glasgow, could be seen was very convenient for that project. Gray answered a cultural need.”

Dr Matthew Wickman, senior lecturer in Scottish literature at Aberdeen University, said: “The memory is that of a very important book in Scottish literary history. It was such an enigmatic work, part science-fiction, part ‘artist novel’, with a multitude of different genres within one wider tome.”

So too, young writers starting their own engagement with the creative process found themselves enamoured by the book’s vista, and its treatment of Scotland. Andrew O’Hagan, who first read it at the age of 14, said: “Lanark was a rallying call for my generation of Scottish novelists. It introduced a great new expansiveness, a sense that nothing was too big or too small for the modern Scottish novel. I was thrilled by its international character, the way it was a product of Scotland that clearly could speak to the world, and speak of the world. I still believe it’s the most compendious piece of literary art out of Scotland since The Heart of Midlothian.”

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AL Kennedy, meanwhile, who was 15 when Lanark was published, remembers spending “money I didn’t have” on the text as a struggling student, but considered it a prudent investment. “I think I had the experience a lot of people have with the book,” the author and stand-up comedian said. “It was the first time I’d seen the Scotland you recognise and an interesting Scotland portrayed seriously in art, and apart from anything else it’s a great read. It’s a book informed by a particular imagination. This was one person’s vision, and it was credible and fantastic. There was a maturity and confidence to it.”

Alan Bissett, the author of Death of a Ladies’ Man, who moved to Glasgow because of the book’s depiction of the city, agrees: “It’s a cathedral, a book you disappear inside. It’s vast in its scope, ambition, playfulness, and its humanity. I don’t think you’ll find any writer in Scotland who hasn’t been touched by it.”

Gray, unsurprisingly, plays down such claims. “I’m not really aware of any influence I’ve had on writers,” he insists. “I know that Iain Banks has said he was strongly influenced by Lanark, but I can’t see why or how myself. I’m delighted other writers found something useful in it, but I honestly can’t see anything of myself in what they do.”

For all the confidence Lanark gave to young Scots writers, with Gray showing that a Scottish book can be a thing of wild-eyed imagination, some urge caution when seeking to assess its wider appeal. Historian Professor Tom Devine, regards Gray’s work as one of several modern Scottish books which has helped change the way artists view the country, but believes that crucially, its literary style has prevented it becoming more widely read.

He said: “The question about the impact of Lanark reminds me of the impact of Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s and 1930s, when his poetry was praised but the knowledge of that poetry was limited to an arcane circle. That was partly because it was difficult, and I honestly do think Lanark is also difficult and challenging. I would say is that its impact must be regarded, at least among the majority of Scots, as minimal. This is a point which literary commentators rarely make.”

Dr Eleanor Bell, who teaches the book at Strathclyde University, regards it as “the most important Scottish novel of the 20th century,” but she believes its popularity is limited to certain circles. “It’s a novel which tends to be taught at university,” she said. “I would say most Scots wouldn’t have read Lanark and wouldn’t necessarily go about reading it. It goes back to Scottish literature not being promoted as well as it could be in schools, and so it’s not something people are drawn to read.”

Others, though, believe Gray’s work has played a more important role in bringing Scottish literature to a greater international audience. Professor Willy Maley, of the department of English literature at Glasgow University, who helped found the creative writing course on which Gray taught, said: “Whenever I’ve travelled around the world and taught Alasdair’s work, I’m astonished at the reach of Lanark and the impact it had. I’ve talked about him in Santiago and Cleveland and they get him. The book was a profound literary landmark.” Stevenson agrees: “It’s one of the books which helped Scottish writing to be read and admired outside the country.”

For all that, even Gray’s admirers believe the 30th anniversary offers reason to remind the world of his talents. “The book has an international reputation but it hasn’t spread as far as it should,” argues Bissett, who said Gray was “unknown” to people when he taught creative writing at Leeds University a few years back. “It isn’t talked about it as much as it should be, but I think if was it set in London or New York, it would be discussed in the same breath as Bonfire of the Vanities. But because it’s set in Scotland, it limits its prestige – exactly the sort of thing the book is trying to regress.”

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‘Dart and Soul’ from Scotsman. The heady world of the Professional Darts Corporaton, as seen from Aberdeen.

AN XXL-sized Hawaiian shirt and matching Bermuda shorts, boasting colours seldom seen outside of Reactor One at Torness, are not the easiest garments to procure in the humble shopping thoroughfares of Aberdeen, especially when spring has only begun to rear her head.

But nor, incredibly, are they the most obscure. That hallowed status, Big Deek concurs, is reserved for size-11 fluorescent pink plastic flip-flops. A factory worker from Peterhead with the complexion of a stewed teabag, Deek has been drinking for eight hours. It proves sufficient time for him to realise he is in love with his footwear. “I got them aff eBay,” he slurs. “Four pound. Bargain, naw? Ah ‘hink so. Comfy too, an’ a’. But ma wife says I’m kippin’ oan the couch when I get back in.”

Deek will not be the only one. Tonight only, it is excess all areas in the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), as the Whyte & Mackay Premier League Darts contest rolls into town.

At one sprawling table, seating two dozen revellers – each with at least two pints of lager – Fred Flintstone, a ginger Mexican, a band of Forres vikings, and a gaggle of bearded monks let rip the bawdiest of roars. “Come on, Phil, f*****g kill him!” bellows Fred.

One of the Vikings clambers atop his seat, whooping and cheering. The monks, meanwhile, break their vow of silence with great aplomb, screaming the unprintable.

To their left, a short, middle-aged man in a blue shirt marches stoically down a red carpet. He is surrounded by four burly security guards, and a three-strong camera crew. High above, a giant projection television magnifies his squat, podgy features. Forks of CGI-rendered lightning crash down around his image, while crunching guitar chords blare from the speakers. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor may look like the sort of man who ekes out a living furtively selling snakes and terrapins in the backrooms of downtrodden public houses with wallpaper the colour of the inside of a teapot. His entrance, however, need leave no-one in doubt – this 48-year-old former sheet-metal worker is a multimillionaire sports star.

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Yes, the S word, once as readily associable with the oche as customer service was with British Airways. It may be a game which asks minimal physical exertions of its competitors, but if we are to assess it using modern guidelines – namely money, audience share and broadcasting rights – then darts is indubitably a sport, and a successful one at that.

The AECC has drawn a sell-out crowd of 3,400, the vast majority of them young men. The average age of an audience member at a darts event is now 25, compared to 45 just five years ago. There are also couples and a sizeable female contingent in the hall, an example of the top-end auditoria darts now calls home. On the walls of its cavernous corridors are posters for the usual inhabitants of such venues: James Blunt, Katie Melua, Boyzone and Shayne Ward. What was once a working-class anachronism, it seems, has become classless entertainment.

That, at least, is the party line in Barry Hearn’s camp. An esoteric promoter with an eye for profit, it was Hearn who catapulted snooker into the mainstream consciousness in the 1980s. At the helm of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), he is presiding over the revival of yet another bar-room pastime. The tourney has a prize fund of £340,000, with the eventual champion taking home nearly a third of the pot. Even the overall loser will pocket a handsome £20,000.

“The only secret to making darts a success is remembering it makes for a bloody good night,” he says. “I promote it because I’m a fan. It’s about entertainment. People have a good time and get involved. It’s like American wrestling. Or pantomime. You can’t do that with any sport. I’d rather stick cocktail sticks up my nose than watch F1.”

At the AECC, the Bacchanalia is in full swing. The venue will shift around 30,000 pints of lager, and the PDC will further line its coffers courtesy of a merchandising stall, where manufacturers have trademarked the game’s many idiosyncrasies. Replica shirts bearing the legend “Bellies and Bulleyes” prove popular, as do the PDC teddy bears, piggy banks, and, yes, torch fridge magnets.

The real entertainment, though, is taking place on the red carpet of the oche. Taylor is in full flow, dominating his match against 23-year-old Adrian “Jackpot” Lewis. The crowd are divided. Some laud the performance of the 13-time world champion; others, fortified by drink, jeer. Taylor, though, raises his game once again and scores five 180s in the space of a few minutes, a feat which wins over the Aberdonians. With a three-dart average of 103, he sees off Lewis by eight legs to three, before strolling off the oche contented.

Moments later, Taylor finds himself alone in a sprawling corridor backstage. All is quiet here; only the odd Geordie or Cockney sound-engineer milling around in search of coffee. Taylor, though, is unfazed when I approach him, and offers a humble account of the game he has ruled for more than a decade.

“I’ve seen the game change altogether since I started out. It’s constantly changing, and for the better,” he says. “It’s amazing what darts has now. There’s more money, bigger sponsors, bigger venues, better equipment and nicer gear,” he adds, tugging at his shirt. He has no intention of retiring. “I love it, I just love it. I’ll die up on the stage one day, I think. I’ll just fall down and collapse. But I’ll be happy.”

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As the action begins again, Peter Manley takes to the red carpet. He revels in an equally bombastic entrance, even if the camera crew are forced to work a little harder to keep him in frame. Manley’s nickname is “One Dart,” but, in truth, “Five Courses” would be more apposite. His frame smothered by a pink shirt, he treats the crowd to a surefooted dance to the tune of (Is This The Way To) Amarillo. Quite how all this transfers to television, God alone knows.

It is the job of Dave Clark and his two-dozen odd crew – which includes Eric Bristow, one of the game’s 1980s stars, who performs mathematical calculations to work out where the next dart will be thrown – to ensure this frenzy makes for good viewing. “It’s a cross between a German beer festival and a gladiatorial arena,” he jests.

The anchorman of Sky’s darts coverage for several years, he has lost none of his sense of amazement. With viewers in their millions, the game, PDC organisers claim, is now the second-most watched sport on satellite after top-flight English football. “All the players have great, strong identities, very well branded,” Clark adds. “And they’re such down-to-earth guys, too. This afternoon, Peter Manley realised he’d left his favourite shoes behind. He phoned a mate who drove all the way up here with them.”

Not a trick is missed in the television coverage. Adrian, Sky’s sound engineer, explains that five mics along hang by the dartboard itself. When a flight lands, the noise is compressed so as to suggest the sound of a crossbow. There are 25 further microphones hung around the AECC to pick up every holler, even if half must be subsequently censored. It is a challenge, Adrian adds, comparable with “juggling custard”.

The night rolls on, and games come and go. No-one can quite rival Taylor, who reclaims his position at the top of the league. By 10:30pm, the last flight has been thrown, and the crowd, sufficiently sated, roll into coaches, buses, and taxis, Hawaiian shirts fluttering in the cold wind. The PDC crew and the Sky workers begin to dismantle the stage. By 3am, they will be gone, already working out the plans for their next leg in Liverpool.

The darts fraternity are too busy, too happy, to care about the debate over whether their game is a sport or not. Healthy profits are being made, record crowds are leaving satisfied and the players seem humbled at their new status. Whatever characteristics make sport great, many could learn a thing or two from those who walk the oche.

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‘What Lies Beneath’ from The Scotsman. The secret social history of Glasgow’s notorious Red Road flats.

What Lies …

THEY are vast, steel-framed structures reaching up to the heavens, cities in the sky which afforded thousands an existence above terra firma. For better or worse, the Red Road flats have become an iconic feature of the skyline in Scotland’s biggest city, their looming presence a titanic symbol of a social experiment designed to cure Glasgow’s poor, yet which came to ail them. But far down, deep below the dizzying summits of their towering blocks, there exists another life to the Red Road, a subterranean bolthole where, over a dram or a game of bingo, those from the 30th floor could mix with those from the third.

Now a new exhibition is to revive the underworld of the colossal edifices that have lain unseen for a generation, documenting a lost era when an architect’s dream had yet to turn into a nightmare. Red Road Underground, which opened yesterday, aims to chart the social history of the blocks, featuring stunning photographs and memories of those who lived there. It comprises images, drawings, and videos, and the focus of the exhibition is a little-known space once home to a bingo hall and bar, where residents could reaquaint themselves both with one another and solid ground. the exhibition is part of the Red Road Cultural Project – a partnership between Glasgow Housing Association and Glasgow Life to recognise the legacy of the flats – and the timing of the project has particular resonance. Soon the hulking towers will be levelled, as the city’s authorities gradually bury all signs of the high-rise accommodation projects so in vogue during the 1960s.

When completed in 1969, the towers, located between Balornock and Barmulloch in the north-east of Glasgow, were heralded by the city fathers as a fresh start for the people of Springburn and further afield, removing them from blackened, overcrowded Victorian tenements to a fresh new civic space, complete with shops, play areas, lock-ups and landscaping. It is an era perfectly captured in the month-long exhibition, which is being held at the New Glasgow Society. In the making for two years, it is not simply a look at the imposing architecture of the Red Road flats, but the memories of those who called them home.

Photographer Chris Leslie and illustrator Mitch Miller were among the first people in nearly two decades to visit the underground space, found under the car park at 10-30 Petershill Court. Its star attraction is the Mecca Bingo and Social Club, a dilapidated yet poignant symbol of Glasgow’s past. With seating for around 1,000 people, the auditorium held prize bingo, part of national games, and boasted a function suite for weddings, christenings, and other social occasions. Buses brought players there from all over the city, and they descended beneath ground, took their fill from the buffet, and settled down for a game in the hope of victory (winners would receive a special Red Road cheque, which could be cashed at the Bank of Mecca). Next door stood The Brig, a nautically themed bolthole where punters could enjoy a drink and, appetite permitting, a roll and sausage.

Miller says: “Even in the derelict condition we found them in, the bingo hall and The Brig were signs that life at Red Road was full of warmth, good humour, eccentricity and plenty of surprises. For the last few years we’ve worked closely with the Red Road Cultural Project. When the New Glasgow Society asked us to exhibit at their gallery we saw an excellent opportunity to celebrate some of the work we’d done as part of the project.”

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Indeed, it is in the little details that the exhibition truly comes to life, despite the ravages of time. Both the bingo hall and bar were decimated and forced to close in the mid 1990s when a fire in a supermarket above brought a deluge of hosewater down below. A generation later, the decay is evident, with pools of water dominating the floorspace, and the ceiling has collapsed in several places. Yet, as Mr Miller points out, it is a place of “beautiful desolation”.

The exhibition photographs offer glimpses of a heady past, showing a glitterball still hanging from the roof, and ticket stubs strewn across the seats. “You can still sense the grandeur, sense your way back to what it was,” Miller says. “If I came across a mummified bingo player, game book and pen in hand, I would not be unduly surprised.”

In The Brig, meanwhile, the team discovered keys and glasses left on the tables, as if the drinkers had just popped outside for a moment, as well as paintings still hanging on the walls. Miller also drew on the anecdotes of those who frequented the hall to design what he calls a Bingo Dialectogram. A charming sketch of the space based on residents’ memories, it also features their recollections of enjoying an evening out. One Red Road regular, Helen McDermott, recalls how the bingo hall was “grand” compared to others in the city, and says: “You could win prizes, or you could win money – you could save the vouchers up. I’d go every afternoon, sometimes nights. I liked quiet nights, there was a better chance of winning.

“It’s the excitement of bingo. You’re sitting skint, right, and you’ve maybe got a fiver in your purse, and you say, ‘Och, I’ll jump out into the bingo, see if I have any luck.’ I used to go with the last of my money and many’s a time I’d come out skint and have to borrow money.” Another player, Mary McDonald, remembers the superstitious bingo enthusiasts: “There was a lot of people, fanatics. They’ve got to sit in the same seats and do the same things all the time.”

With the end for the high-rises now in sight, those charged with yet another renewal of Glasgow’s housing stock believe the exhibition – also featuring author Alison Irvine giving a reading from her novel, This Road Is Red – will allow the much-maligned flats to be celebrated. “We’re delighted to be playing our part in celebrating the rich history of the Red Road flats over more than four decades,” says David Fletcher, Glasgow Housing Association’s assistant director of regeneration. “This exhibition is part of the Red Road Cultural Project, which is providing a lasting legacy of the flats for future generations.” Soon, the long shadows cast by the Red Road will be lifted. Once they are gone, Glasgow’s skyline will never be the same, but the memories of the high life, at least, will remain.

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‘Goodwill Shunting’ from The Herald. The tireless work of the volunteers at the Keith and Dufftown railway.

THERE once was a train driver whose visits in the early 1930s to the Banffshire town of Keith heralded such regular delirium that the story of his exploits has lost none of its colour, even now. Timekeeping was one of this man’s few virtues and the 8.05am Inverness express under his charge was seldom behind schedule. The driver would direct an uneasy nod and a wave as his green 4-4-0 locomotive whistled past the crowded platform, hurtling on for a few hundred yards before trundling to a halt by a secluded thicket. Stone drunk, he would park himself on the cabin seat and shut his eyes for a brief, blissful moment, bathing in the noxious aroma from the nearby Strathmill distillery. The regular commuters knew the driver was content waiting in his fug of malt and yeast. Easing down from the platform, they would traipse along the trackside gravel to board the carriages. The more heated complaints would come from visitors, yet the protestations made no difference. The only thing ever to terminate at the station was the passengers’ patience.

It was a queer custom, but one which, like many traditions of the railway, has refused to die. Take Peter Wood, a retired schoolteacher from Somerset, and his cocker spaniel, Dora. Their every weekend is spent at the immaculate station of Keith, amid its wheelbarrows and mops, updating ledger books and polishing plaques. “It stops me vegetating, ” says Wood. Timetables from 1956 for the London and North Eastern and Midland railways adorn the waiting-room walls, while signs promote the wares of WF Hartridge – Meat Salesman.

With Laurie, a council maintenance worker, and Michael, a retired Methodist minister who helps clean up, they form part of a three dozen-strong volunteer pool at Keith and Dufftown Railway Association. The organisation emerged 14 years ago in response to British Rail’s declared intention to lift the track between Keith and Dufftown. It did not seem an unreasonable proposition – passengers had last travelled along the 11-mile stretch 30 years before, while freights of cattle, grain, manure and agricultural lime had also departed.

While modest in number, the association possessed mountainous resolve. The line had been a part of the community for nearly 150 years, ever since the rise of the Great North of Scotland Railway in the mid-1800s. Convincing British Rail of the merits of preservation, the volunteers set about restoring track and strengthening bridges. Much of the work was manual, and engineers and maintenance workers, especially younger men, were – and continue to be – in short supply. Nevertheless, word spread through heritage railway enthusiasts – there are 350 miles of such track throughout Great Britain – and diesel locomotives, shunters and railbuses were donated from museums and distilleries northwards. Six years ago the graft paid off as a two-coach class 108 diesel transported scores of locals who had last used the line in the 1960s. There was not a dry eye around.

Work has since progressed, with the railway now a fully functioning, if largely anonymous tourist draw. Many combine a trip with visits to the nearby Glenfiddich distillery, while families lunch at Dufftown station in picturesque 1930s Brighton Belle Pullman carriages. Home to a portfolio of now-withdrawn locomotives such as the Spirit of Speyside and the Wee Mac, the route does attract individuals of a certain disposition. Beards and anoraks are common. One recent visitor from Birmingham, a volunteer confides, went as far as to call his nephew every day of his visit to ensure his model railway was still working. The association even runs “driver experience days”, during which enthusiasts learn how to drive mainline diesel locomotives. Certainly, some of the association’s helpers share such long-derided passions. Keith, a town planner in his early thirties from Erskine, travels to Banffshire once a month. Somewhat coy, he will only admit he has “always been pretty interested in trains”. Others simply relish the association’s strong community identity.

By 12.14pm, it is time to board the Spirit of Speyside to Dufftown. Its twin green carriages amble by tufts of gorse and the streams running down from Loch Park. Lambs and hares dart through the farmland, while the occasional sheep crosses the line. It is a beautiful trip. More than 20 passengers are spellbound by the gentle, affectionate pedantry of it all; the guard, for instance, punches our tickets despite knowing everyone has paid.

Frustrations common with mainline train services receive no voice here. This is not a commute, but an experience, albeit one proving increasing hard to sustain. In time, it is hoped an extended track can welcome the Royal Scotsman, but knowledge of the diesel stock, replacement parts and membership numbers succumb yearly to the rigours of time. Those involved with the association believe it is a social enterprise, keeping alive the heritage of this swath of the north-east. In another 70 years, they hope, the stories of the railway will live on, stronger than ever.

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