Tuesday 26 November 2013

Sparks. Two Hands, One Mouth Tour. Glasgow.

Sparks at The Arches, Glasgow.

Gig review 25.11.2013

I will confess that Sparks touring didn't send me racing to buy a ticket, but my brother is a big fan of all this stuff and he did. So when he ended up being hospitalised and unable to use the ticket it fell to me. All that I really knew of Sparks was that as a young kid I found their performances on Top of the Pops funny, the lively wee one doing all the singing, the dour, tall one with the Hitler moustache staring blankly at the camera whilst playing keyboard. The only song I could sing you would be to ape the falsetto singing of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us".


 My brother though has kept closer tabs on them. He is a big fan of 80s electronic music, particularly anyone touched by Giorgio Moroder, as Sparks were in the late 70s, a move that finally pushed them into becoming an electronic duo. He recommended looking up later albums, such as Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1994). That then lead me to find the curio which is The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009), a radio musical that relocates the Swedish director in Hollywood. The breadth of their music is pretty unique, from glam rock, to pop, to electronica and now musicals. I thought that they were always a duo of the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, but you can see on the TOTP footage above that they started out with drummers and guitarists too. I also thought that they were German or English, but although their influences are largely European and they spent a lot of their early career in England and Europe, they are from Los Angeles.

Listening to them in the car before seeing them live I was surprised to find that my kids liked them a lot. The repetitive, sometimes witty or acerbic lyrics seemed to strike a chord. My oldest son called them a modern version of Ivor Cutler, a longstanding favourite of my children. I think he might be on to something there.

Anyway, to The Arches on Monday night to see what a live show by Sparks turns out to be. Aged 65 and 68 years now, they look suspiciously similar to their appearance on footage from 40 years ago, particularly in singer Russell's jet black hair with Phil Oakey style asymmetrical cut. As they have been playing as Sparks since before my first birthday, it was not surprising that there was a mixture of ages amongst the crowd, which was pretty packed and plenty of them were singing along to all tunes.

Sparks take to the stage at The Arches, Glasgow
On stage they line up as you expect, Ron on keyboards (with the Roland brand changed to "Ronald"), Russell cavorting and singing. With the first five tracks they show that they are going to give us the full range of their stuff, with two from albums in 1974, one from 1979 and two from 2003. In the middle of the set Ron dons a beret to talk and play through a couple of tracks from their 22nd studio album, the 2009 pop musical "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman" that they are working up as a film. This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us felt slightly subdued but still got the crowd bouncing. They finished the set with (I think during Suburban Homeboy) Russell pushing Ron off the keyboards at the end. As he sheepishly moved centre stage he suddenly burst into the most ludicrous and unexpected dance, arms windmilling and crowd yelping. Their encore was more electronic and lively with some of the best stuff of the night (When Do I Get To Sing "My Way", Tryouts for the Human Race, The Number One Song In Heaven) and sent everyone home happy.

Sparks - Ron is about to cut loose
It is all a bit contrived and some of their stuff can be very middle of the road, but they were innovators in their day and inspirational for many musicians. I wouldn't ever criticise anyone for ploughing their own furrow. Good luck with the Ingmar Bergman thing!

Sunday 24 November 2013

Julia Holter and Shellac in Glasgow. Live gig reviews

Julia Holter, CCA, November 20th, 2013

Shellac, SWG3, November 23rd, 2013

It is easy to forget how big a country the United States of America actually is, how diverse its people and communities are. We tend to lump them all together sometimes. Musically their differences were apparent in two of Glasgow's cookier venues this week. On Wednesday, Los Angeles musician Julia Holter brought her 78-date tour to an end at the CCA on Sauchiehall Street. Whilst on Saturday, Chicago based Shellac played one of their sporadic gigs, before they move on to play at Camber Sands as part of the last ever All Tomorrow's Parties festival to be held at the Pontins Holiday Centre venue.

Julia Holter is a 29 year old classically trained, multi-instrumentalist and singer, the daughter of a musician and an historian. Her three albums to date are themed on the ancient Greek play by Euripides, Hippolytus (Tragedy), the musical Gigi (Loud City Song), or quote Virginia Woolf poems (Ekstasis). She is most often compared with Laurie Anderson in style. Despite these high-faluting aspirations she has released ethereal, distinctive, ambient electronica that may not set the pulse racing but creates lovely atmospheres. Whereas I loved the album Visions by Grimes, seeing her live drained the music of any interest for me. The opposite was true of Julia Holter tonight. Playing keyboards and singing in front of a cello, saxophone and drummer/percussionist/singer she was cheery, chatty and tone perfect. Her voice on the recordings comes over as another instrument, but played live the songs had more emotion and the lyrics stood out more. She epitomises cool, breezy, intelligent Los Angeles.

Worth mentioning was the excellent support slot by Ela Orleans. Definitely worth catching if you get the chance.

Over 2000 miles away from LA, and a world away from Julia Holter's floaty vocals is found Chicago and Shellac (or Shellac of North America as they are sometimes know, perhaps so that they are not mistaken for nail varnish). They are a trio of musicians with Steve Albini on guitar and vocals, Bob Weston (bass and vocals) and Todd Trainer (drums). They see themselves as more of a "minimalist rock trio" than the post-hardcore label they are usually stuck with and have been touring and releasing albums sporadically for 20 years. I first heard them when I bought 1000 Hurts, but I got rid of it as the CD came in a big box and took up too much space (I've held on to Excellent Italian Greyhound though - neater packaging). Where Julia Holter is all digital and produces a lot of her stuff alone, Shellac are decidedly analogue. Steve Albini has produced albums for a multitude of musicians in his Chicago studio, often recorded as live, without overdubs. His most famous collaboration was as producer for Nirvana's In Utero album. Their stripped down sound, throbbing beats to the fore with Trainer's drums front of stage, fitted perfectly in the SWG3 space. In Watch Song all three of them end up beating the cymbals, and a highlight of the night was a long version of End of Radio with Trainer wandering about thrashing his snare drum and hurling away the drumsticks as they splintered. The customary mid-gig Q&A was more random than enlightening - "What is your favourite shape of window?", "Do you think Scotland should have independence?", "Could you turn the vocals down a bit?"(hipster question - he is well known for toning down the vocals in production).

I'm still a bit mystified by another random Albinin conversation. Perhaps someone who understands how Americans regard Utah could enlighten me.
Shellac, to Glasgow crowd - "If you are England's Canada, who's their Mexico?"  
Crowd - "WALES!".  
Shellac - "I always saw Wales as their Utah"
Anyway they were a great lesson in the creative benefits of being able to just do whatever you want, not being beholden to record companies, highly entertaining. They in no way take themselves too seriously and look out for their new album, "Dude, Incredible", whenever they get around to releasing it.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Sophocles and The Brothers Grimm - Theatre Review, Glasgow, Nov. 2013

Antigone, Strathclyde Theatre Group, Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow

Guilty, Play a Pie and a Pint, Oran Mor, Glasgow

I have been off work this week and am meant to be doing Christmas shopping. Fortunately there has been plenty of stuff on in Glasgow to let me avoid doing much of that. So pretending I was researching for our holiday in Greece next year I went to Cottiers Theatre, where Strathclyde Theatre Group are performing Sophocles classic play, Antigone. STG are a community theatre group/ amateur dramatics society that has been on the go for 40 years, and certainly has an ambitious programme, heavily flavoured with classics that appeal to people wanting to see a play from their exam syllabus, from Arthur Millar to Shakespeare. They lost their usual home in Strathclyde University last year when they had to move on from the Ramshorn Theatre there and seem to be regulars in Cottiers now. One advantage am-dram can have over professional theatre is in being able to call upon enough willing volunteers to fill every part in a large cast, or a Greek chorus.

As well as seeing this as research for trip to Thebes in the summer, I was also interested in seeing the play, as when I was assistant stage manager at our secondary school drama club, for some bizarre reason Antigone was one of the plays we did, with Rosemary from my year in the lead role.

Knightswood Secondary School does Antigone

Antigone is set in Thebes, the greatest city state in Ancient Greece before Alexander the Great conquered the land and destroyed the city. Thebes was also the mythical setting for stories of Dionysus, Heracles and Oedipus. The two brothers of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, have died on the battlefield on opposing sides. King Creon has proclaimed that one shall be mourned as a hero, the body of the other to be left on the battlefield, as carrion, disgraced. Antigone refuses to accept this, disobeys the king and buries him herself. She is caught and sentenced to death. Creon's stubborn pride leads to tragedy for his family, punished by the gods he displeased. This production seemed to be set it in the middle east or Egypt going by the the costumes and music, which jarred a bit for a Grecophile like me. Christian Zanone, as the sentry who discovered Antigone, put on a fine turn, and Creon was suitably proud, stubborn and chastened. The blind prophet Tiresius was kind of played as a transsexual, but on reading up on it later I see that Hera turned Tiresius into a woman for 7 years, so that's that explained. Anyway I enjoyed the story, if a few mumbled lines made it hard to work out exactly why Creon and his son suddenly fell out and how Antigone and Haemon met their end exactly. As tragedies go, Antigone is pretty tragic, and my sympathies lay with the heroine rather than the foolish king. The moral for him is to learn from his mistakes.

My son did the Wizard of Oz in his school's drama club last year. Obviously when I was at school in the 80s drama teachers were a bit more ambitious.

From a cast of sixteen to a cast of two as Lesley Hart and Louise Ludgate take their turn doing a lunchtime play for Oran Mor's flourishing A Play, A Pie and A Pint. This was another co-production with Aberdeen's Lemon Tree Theatre and will be on up there next week. Detective Black is questioning Blanca, who has recently left home to lodge with some geology students, about her missing step-mother. Lousie Ludgate in her lovely north-eastern dialect is stroppy, bullying and just a wee bit scary. As my kids for years have delighted in reading the grim endings of the original versions of well-known fairy tales, I could see what way the story was going but it was good fun watching it get there and a full house of Glasgow's west-end, lunchtime pie munchers was chortling away throughout (quiche is also available though tastes rubbish with gravy or brown sauce I imagine). The jousting of two fine actors, a pie and a pint of Guinness - a bargain at £8 on a Wednesday.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Ben Watt, Oran Mor, Nov 2013

Ben Watt, Oran Mor, Nov 2013

Bernard Butler and Ben Watt at Oran Mor, Glasgow

Everything But The Girl were the kind of intelligent, sophisticated band that it is hard to see any record company bothering with these days. When I first saw them play, it was in the bizarre setting of a foyer in a Moscow hotel in 1985. I was 14 years old and trying to avoid the attentions of a lively bunch of East German girls who found my kilt highly entertaining. We were all attending the World Festival of Youth and Students, me as a delegate from the Glasgow West branch of Youth CND and I was sharing a room with a bagpiper in the Cosmos Hotel. Misty In Roots musically made a bigger impression on me on that trip, but EBTG were there as part of Britain's cultural delegation to the event. Thatcher was in government here and Gorbachev, who spoke at one of the events I attended, had just become leader in March 1985 of the Soviet Communist Party. The Cold War was in full swing. During the days we attended various meetings and festivals, and each night ended with partying in the hotel foyer. Looking back it seems a ludicrous trip to have ended up on without my parents, and some of our interpreters took me under their wing a bit. My memories of it are all happy ones. Forever afterwards seeing Tracey Thorn or Ben Watt takes me back to Moscow.

Ben Watt started as a solo performer before forming Everything But The Girl with Tracey Thorn at Hull Uni. They later married and he has since become a dance music DJ and producer, ran his own record label and written a book about about his near fatal auto-immune illness. Now he has written another book, which will be out in the new year, about his parents Tom and Romany Watt. His dad, he tells us at his gig in Oran Mor last night, was a jazz musician, born in Partick before living in Knightswood and Anniesland. I hadn't heard this before, but was living in Knightswood myself at the time of my Moscow adventures so will definitely be looking out for his book. In researching the book, he started putting some of his thoughts down as songs and has recorded an album, which will be out in 2014. So tonight he didn't have anything to sell, but is trying out his solo stuff live and was accompanied by friend and collaborator Bernard Butler. There was just the two of them on stage, plus a Wurlitzer keyboard and about a dozen different guitars. Almost everything played was new, although he did play a lovely song he'd got Robert Wyatt to record with him when he was 19 years old. ("I thought I lived in a Bohemian household, but that was nothing compared to Robert's.")

Many of the songs were melancholic, or connected with personal memories or an "Old Flame". The storytelling in "Bricks and Wood" of re-visiting his childhood home and "Nathaniel" of a roadside sign seen in Oregon were especially touching. The guitar playing of Bernard Butler, fringe flick and all, was mesmerising in that song in particular, although I did have echoes of Jeff Wayne's "oh no Nathaniel" at the back of my mind. Despite reflecting on the past in these songs he was clear that he'd "rather play new material to 200 people than play the old stuff to 2000."

Looking forward to his new book and the new album, and great to see Bernard Butler in such an intimate setting.

Monday 11 November 2013

Reflections on Scottish Independence Inspired By James Connolly's Songbook

In Glasgow's Glad Cafe recently I attended an evening of music from Mat Callahan. He and fellow musicians have made a recording of some songs by and about James Connolly and were reprinting his book from 1907, "Songs Of Freedom". He talked of the lengths he had to go to in order to see a copy of it (afterwards Eddi Reader offered a copy she had) and gave a rendition of one of the songs printed in the original book, by Irishman Connell, "The Red Flag" but with a "Motown feel" to change it from the traditional dirge it has become. James Kelman had got involved when Mat was in Ireland and persuaded him to also visit the country of James Connolly's birth, Scotland, for two nights. It was a fantastic evening, with James Kelman in fine form, talking at length about the influence that Connolly had on Scottish socialists such as John MacLean.

As we approach our Scottish independence referendum it made me want to read a bit more about Connolly and why he took up arms for Irish independence from Britain. What did he think independence would achieve for Ireland? I asked my dad if he had anything on him. He said "I've got a few of his books. I used to have his Songbook, but I think I loaned it to someone and never got it back." (Aaaargh!) I consider myself not so much as an 'undecided' on the referendum question, but as a 'yet to be persuaded'. Too much nationalist language in general is about being better than others, whether it is the rest of the world, or a close neighbour. This is something that can only be negative and parochial. Nowhere in the current debate am I hearing about the ideals that we can aspire to in an independent country. Perhaps we could aim to be greener, more peaceable, more just, fairer. Liberty, egality, fraternity - that sort of thing.

Looking at the headlines on a newspaper website by searching the word 'independence' the lofty subjects include "would face greater security risk", "face tough choices on tax", "jobs fears" and "we're all doomed" (I made that last one up). It is almost as if a country of 5 million people is unheard of. People can apparently only succeed as a giant supermarket of a nation, there's no room for a worker's co-operative corner shop on these streets. Maybe one angle the 'Yes' campaign should emphasise is that becoming independent has not stopped Bosnia-Hercegovina getting to the World Cup finals in Brazil next year, and Croatia are also still in with a shout. But maybe this highlights part of the problem. Scotland has always been a wee bit of a separate country from England anyway whether in law, sport, education, history or perspective. None of these benefits other states may fight for can be so prominent in our debate as they may be in other parts of the world. So I think we need to hear about what Scots, given a blank canvas, think they could achieve. What virtues could our country aspire to?
James Connolly
James Connolly is known as a socialist and trade unionist who fought, and died for the Irish Nationalist cause. He is maybe more well known in Ireland than in the country he was born. In Dublin a statue of him stands outside Liberty Hall and he is remembered in the name of Connolly Station, whilst it is reported that all his life he spoke in a Scottish accent. He was truly an internationalist. He opposed the false divisions of people along lines of religion or gender, and the nationalism he fought for was not nationalism for nationalism's sake, but for the establishment of an "Irish Socialist Republic". As he said
"If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed."
He was born to Irish immigrant parents in the Cowgate of Edinburgh in 1868 where he was reportedly a fan of Hibernian football club. He left school aged 10 to start working, and aged 14 lied about his age to join the British army. The time he spent in the army in Ireland opened his eyes to the treatment of the Irish people at the hands of the British. He met his future wife here, Irish protestant Lillie Reynolds, and returned with her to Scotland in 1890 where he became active in trade unionism and the socialist movement. He was involved in the Independent Labour Party which Keir Hardie established in 1893. In 1895 he moved to Dublin where he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party. After a speaking tour of America in 1902 he returned to Edinburgh and launched the Socialist Labour Party before emigrating to the USA for 6 years. Working initially as an insurance salesman, then in a Singer sewing machine factory in Newark, he became involved in the IWW (International Workers of the World or the "Wobblies") and became paid as the national organiser for the Socialist Party of America. He had established various socialist newspapers and was publishing his ideas in pamphlets and on speaking tours. Whilst in America he published "Songs for Freedom" in 1907 and the words of the songs clearly encapsulated his ideas. As he says in the introduction

"No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and hopes, the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of a few and not the faith of the multitude."
In 1910 he returned to Ireland and became involved with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The police brutality against workers in the 1913-14 Dublin 'lock-out' lead him to found a workers' militia, the Irish Citizens Army (ICA). He spoke out against the division of Ireland, wrote to warn Orangemen in Ulster from being blinded to the common cause they should have with the working people of Ireland, against their capitalist bosses "hiding their sweat shops behind orange flags". With regards to women he wrote that "of what use...[was the re-establishment of an Irish State]...if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood". He saw the First World War as an imperialist war and campaigned against sending Irishmen abroad to fight. Today's conflicts around the world could be being referenced with these words
"If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their own class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their own brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?"
In the rising in Dublin of Easter 1916, James Connolly and members of his ICA tried to make their stated aims a reality. Whilst Commandant of the Dublin Brigade at the GPO he was badly wounded in the fighting. He was one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. Following the surrender he was arrested and at his court-martial again mentioned the role of women and the war in Europe,
"We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British government has been asking them to die for in Belgium . . . I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth and to seal it with their lives if necessary."
Sentenced to death he was taken to Kilmainham Goal, still seriously ill from his wounds, on a stretcher where he had to be tied to a chair to be shot.
My mother-in-law in the yard of a wet
Kilmainham Gaol
He had crystal clear aims for the nationalism for which he was fighting, something I have yet to hear in Scotland's current debate. His programme included a republic
"based upon public ownership by the Irish people of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange."
Also, there was to be nationalisation of the railways (and canals), abolition of private banks and government financed loans at cost price, graduated income tax, universal suffrage, establishment of a minimum wage, free maintenance for all children, free education up to higher university grades and public management of schools. What was the point of self-determination if it didn't provide a programme to benefit all of the ordinary citizens?

Prompted by James Kelman talking about him as though we were all familiar with his ideas, I recently sought out a book on an early Scottish Marxist called Willie Nairn. He was born in 1856 in Brechin, and aged 18 he gravitated to Glasgow where he worked as a labourer and stonebreaker. He lived in exciting times. Agitated by questions of land ownership in a country still reeling from the Highland clearances and by the ideas of the Paris Commune of 1871 he studied the writings of Marx and Engels in his evenings. The Communist Manifesto (first translated into English by Barrhead's Helen MacFarlane) and Das Kapital were hot off the presses when he first read them. As John MacLean later would, he spoke at meetings and in Cathedral Square and Glasgow Green trying to spread the ideas he found there. He was a founder member of one of Glasgow's first Socialist organisations, the Social Democratic Federation and active in the infant Cooperative movement. He was president of the St George Cooperative Society which stood at St George's Cross. Nothing is left of this building except for the statue of George and the dragon which once stood atop it, but now marks the junction beneath the Great Western Road flyover. Like Keir Hardie and James Connolly he spoke out against the Boer War and criticised the socialist leaders who could "out-jingo the jingoists" as they fell in behind the war bandwagon. In 1902 he died, aged 46. Despite his origins, the poverty and hardships he endured, he looked for a better way and tried to put it into effect.

My great-great uncle Robert
standing beside Keir Hardie
Early Scottish socialists often had a desire for Scottish independence. Keir Hardie is often quoted as an advocate of home rule for Scotland. He first stood for election, in 1888, as the "Labour and Home Rule" candidate but as Bob Holman points out in his biography of Hardie "this was to let the sizeable number of Irish residents in the constituency know where he stood on the question of home rule for Ireland". I have struggled to find any statements or writings by him on the issue of Scottish Home Rule. Later in 1888 Keir Hardie founded the Scottish Labour Party (not to be confused in ANY way with a party currently using that name), soon to merge with the Independent Labour Party he was to lead into parliament. In 1908 Hardie travelled to South Africa and was unusual in his day in condemning the treatment of blacks there. He also visited New Zealand, Australia and India on his tour. Writing in his book on India he writes about the Indians' desire for self government. He felt that the Indians had a right to self-determination, for their benefit and the benefit of future relations between Britain and India.
"Concerning political reforms, I am certain that no matter what is done for India there can be no real pacification, no allaying of discontent, no breaking down of the barrier rising between European and Asiatic, until the people of India have some effective form of self-government."
His book, which he wrote of his two months in India, is a fascinating read. The effort he goes to in order to meet people, to research facts and figures to support his arguments is just not something that you see in political analysis now. The fact that in the USA of the 1960s it was thought acceptable to segregate public transport on racial grounds seems even more bizarre than it was, when a Victorian mine worker from Holyton found it so obviously odd in the India of 1908.
"When I entered the train at Madras there were  two Indian gentlemen in the compartment. One of them rose as I entered and said: "Shall we move to another compartment, sir?" I stared at the gentleman and asked whether he had paid his fare.....Now I knew that in parts of America the colour line was strictly drawn, but I was not prepared for this kind of thing in India. Here, be it remembered, is a people who have inherited a civilisation which was old ere the West had begun to emerge from savagery." 
Again, like Connolly, Hardie was a man from a previous age who shaped his opinions through no narrow, parochial viewpoint. Hardie's colleague in The Scottish Labour Party it's president, Robert Cunninghame-Graham later founded the National Party of Scotland, forerunner to the Scottish Nationalist Party so there were other socialists at that time who did feel that Scottish home rule was an important issue of the time.

John MacLean took this idea and ran with it, calling for
"a Scottish Communist Republic as a first step towards World Communism with Glasgow as its headquarters."
No matter how many times I read over that statement, the only response I can think of is "Build a Scottish Communist Republic, and make Glasgow the centre of this world. Bloody brilliant. Think big - when do we begin?" He also issued a leaflet in 1920, 'All Hail! The Scottish Communist Republic' with echoes of Connolly's call for an "Irish Socialist Republic", in which he made his views clear.

"Scotland must again have Independence, but not to be ruled by traitor kings and chiefs, lawyers and politicians....The control must be in the hands of the workers only, male and female alike...".
10 days before his death in 1923 at the age of 44,  he wrote in his last political address that
"Before England is ready I am sure the next war will be on us. I therefore consider that Scotland's wisest policy is to declare for a republic in Scotland, so that the youths of Scotland will not be forced out to die for England's markets."
Sitting to write this and trying to find the views of these men, I struggled with my lack of knowledge about these thinkers from Scotland's recent history, and that is from someone brought up as a child in a politically active, trade unionist household. I could lay my hands on some of their writings I've bought from obscure online bookstores over the years or borrowed from relatives. Even then, what I could access in these days of the internet being the font of all knowledge, the amount of detail I could find was very limited. This is where the gap is in the current debate. It is a knowledge gap. We don't know about these working class people with sparkling, positive, idealistic ideas. We aren't taught about these men in school history, or of the tanks in George Square in 1919 or the UCS work-in. My granny, living in the Gorbals had seen and heard John MacLean, my great uncle was involved in the UCS work-in but they are dead now. The link to these words and ideas dies with that generation unless it is documented and today's children are shown what working people can and have achieved.

Why fight for a new state which will keep people as enslaved as the old state? That is a question that is not being heard in the current referendum. What sort of Scotland do you envisage in the future and how can we get there? 'That's no fair' is something we see as an unbeatable argument when we are schoolchildren. We should start with this fine axiom as adults too. Surely it is clear that the historical, socialist beliefs and feelings of our country should still be our guiding principles. Take Connolly's programme and start from there. Add in the maintenance of a free NHS, the scrapping of Trident and highlight the benefits of creating a country welcoming immigrants and I'd vote for that country. Free education and childcare, minimum wage and a graduated income tax (not tax breaks for the wealthy), nationalisation of essential services. Why not add democratic control of our rich energy resources too? Yes, hoist the Scottish flag over Edinburgh Castle, but not if we end up being run by the same capitalists, financiers, commercial institutions and individuals as before.

The politicians debating the referendum all look and sound like middle management people discussing how they'll run the office stationary fund better than the other mob. Come on, people.
Raise the level of the debate, as so far the politicians are grinding it down to their mundane level.  Think a bit bigger. Okay, you could regard a lot of what I've written above as complete pie in the sky. But if we aim for the pie, we might miss and land in the beans.

There are people trying to look forwards and see what benefits we could all gain with a vote for independence, such as the Radical Independence Campaign. The Jimmy Reid Foundation, named in honour of the union leader at the heart of the UCS work-in, launched their "Common Weal Project" with the aim of starting a debate about how Scotland could develop socially and economically with "mutuality and equity" as guiding principles. I agree that we should take advantage of this juncture to start from scratch. The question shouldn't be whether we want independence or not, but what type of society we want. If independence will be used to make a better society then I'd vote for it. If not, I really don't see the point.

Lenin famously said that for a revolution to occur required "mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, 'falls', if it is not toppled over”. I quite like the idea of jolting our political situation enough to dislocate our current politics.

A simple cairn in Pollokshaws is the only memorial we have in Glasgow to John MacLean. It reads
Start with this as a simple aspiration for a new nation and I think it would be off to a good start. Pioneer working class education and forge Scotland as a Socialist link in a worldwide chain.

Scotland is a small country. However people should try to think a bit bigger.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Rainy Day Indoor Distractions - Glasgow Exhibitions

House Style - Tramway

Lucy Skaer: Exit, Voice and Loyalty - Tramway

Release: The Koestler Exhibition for Scotland - Tramway

Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective - Kelvingrove Art Gallery

Roman Ondák: Some Thing - The Common Guild

Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment - Hunterian Art Gallery

Chris Johanson: Considering - The Modern Institute

Jeremy Deller: English Magic - The Modern Institute

So the weather is miserable in Glasgow this weekend, rivers of water running down the cold, grey streets. Yet again there is no Partick Thistle match on this Saturday afternoon and the weather has put me off casting an eye over a Juniors match, or even Albion Rovers vs Deveronvale in the Scottish Cup, which I half thought about for a couple of minutes. So what better distraction than a random stoat about some of the exhibitions on (indoors) in galleries around Glasgow this weekend.

Dragging the kids away from the warmth of the house we started at the Tramway, on the southside. The stuff on there is usually wacky enough to entertain the kids, even if the Hidden Garden out back was at risk of turning into a swamp today. In the first room we found House Style, a series of four short films commissions using material from the BFI institute archive. This has been plundered very effectively already by Public Service Broadcasting who are still touring with their album (Inform Educate Entertain). If you fancy trawling through this phenomenal archive, you can do it with a Glasgow library ticket at Bridgeton Library. The results on show here varied from the pompous (Travis Jeppesen's "I, An Object") to the entertaining and thought-provoking (Rob Kennedy's "What Are You Driving At?").

House Style - Tramway
Next door is a major exhibition by previous Turner Prize nominee, Lucy Skaer who plays with ideas of memory, representing or abstracting things from the real world. You enter via a recreation of the corridor she used to walk down on the way to her studio in New York. Afterwards these ideas are played out in film, print and sculpture - stretching from the worn steps of her childhood home to casts of pre-historic axeheads and images created from the Guardian newspaper's printing plates. My kids' favourite were the ceramics laid out on the floor of the exhibition space as a terracotta army.

Lucy Skaer - Tramway
Upstairs in the Tramway there is the return of the annual exhibition of artworks by inmates of Scotland's prisons, Release: The Koestler Exhibition for Scotland. This always presents an interesting and varied body of work including painting and drawings, sculpture, music, video and some excellent poetry.

The imagination and originality on display in the Tramway exhibitions was what we found completely absent in the basement of Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective chunters on. So many of his images are very familiar from posters, tea towels and greetings cards but seeing room after room after room of them really brings home the banality of it all. They are also much smaller in the flesh than I expected. My 11 year old son, unbidden, asked "Why have all the ladies got hardly any clothes on?". Quite.  If you like the styling of Downtown Abbey, but think that the women are all a bit over-dressed, then this is the exhibition for you. The only painting which made me pause in front of it was a rather sheepish self-portrait. Beyond that I'd save your £5 and have a coffee and some scones upstairs.
An Allan Ramsay selfie
At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, showing what it is possible to achieve when painting people, look no further than the Hunterian Art Gallery at Glasgow University. To mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, they have an exhibition of portraits by Allan Ramsay, entitled Portraits of the Enlightenment (I think that the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh also have an exhibition of his work on just now). Born in Edinburgh he travelled to London and Italy to learn his craft and became painter to the court of George III. The portraits on show here include a surprising number of women, painted as real and intelligent people with real stories to tell (and all of their clothes on) such as Flora MacDonald and Frances Boscawen. In that sense he also encapsulated the times, whether painting surgeon William Hunter, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or the Duke of Argyll. Each portrait makes you feel very much as if you are coming face to face with the real person, none moreso than in his self-portraits.
Roman Ondak
Still raining so it was time to head back towards town via Park Circus and The Common Guild. They have a free exhibition (and they often offer you tea and biscuits too) by Slovakian Roman Ondák there at present (titled "Some Thing"). Much like Lucy Skaer above, he plays with ideas of memory and interpreting reality as many of the pieces show paintings or drawing he did as a teenager 30 years ago, alongside (or interacting) with the original objects from the still life. We all enjoyed that one.

Then finally off to Parnie Street to The Modern Institute to see what they had on. Downstairs is a selection of paintings and constructions by American artist and musician Chris Johanson ("Considering"). Well, considering the fun, childlike style of it, I found it hard to get any humour or engagement with much of this stuff although I did quite like the flimsy structures down the middle of the room, Glasgow windows apparently.

What did keep me from dashing back into the deluge though was the small selection of stuff upstairs by Jeremy Deller ("English Magic"). Deller brought his inflatable, bouncy Stonehenge to Glasgow last year. The highlight here is the light hearted and shambolic "Procession", a film of a project he did through the streets of Manchester in 2009, a parade of the most odd, the most wonderful and the most normal local groups. All human life was there, from football mascots to "unrepentent smokers". Worth catching if you want to feel a warm glow. Like his Stonehenge bouncy castle, his stuff is fun and engaging, but has further depths, for example the simple signs on the wall presenting song lyrices in the style of fluorescent posters outside a church. Sean Ryder's words are funny seen like this, but you can also ponder whether musicians are taken as prophets, or whether churches extract the best lines from folk tales, presented full of portent, to tell a different story. Then heading home I kept going over other songs in my head, to pick out my texts. The best I managed was "Do the dog, not the donkey." Terry ch6 v1.

Sign by Jeremy Deller
In the end Albion Rovers won 1-0 and I did miss seeing a (Partick Thistle on loan player) Mark McGuigan goal there in Coatbridge. Ah, well. Another time.