Sunday 30 August 2015

Greenland: The Global Warming Frontline


For a long time we have been trying to organise a holiday in Greenland and finally managed it this summer. The plan was to enjoy an outdoorsy holiday in a place which remains fairly wild and unspoiled. Also it is clear that Greenland will not stay this way forever. As the Arctic ice begins to visibly retreat, oil companies are moving in to try to exploit previously inaccessible northern reserves. President Obama recently approved Arctic drilling in Alaska by Shell, and Greenland has negotiated drilling rights with BP.

The least densely populated country in the world, three quarters of the land mass of Greenland (or Kalaallit Nunaat to the locals) is permanently covered in the largest ice sheet outwith the Antarctic. What towns there are, lie on the coast, mostly on the southwestern part of the island. With no roads linking the towns, transport between them is by sea or by air. The population of this country, which has an area two thirds that of India where a billion people live, is 56,000, roughly the same as Inverness in Scotland. A Danish colony since 1814, Greenland is now semi-autonomous after 75% of the population voted for this in a referendum of 2008. Denmark still contributes approximately $600 million per year to the economy, about a third of the money for Greenland's public spending. Fishing is the main industry in Greenland, but with the receding glaciers and melting ice fields, people are now looking towards exploiting their largely untouched mineral and oil reserves to generate income and finance greater independence.

Local children playing in Ilulissat, Greenland

Greenland has seen successive waves of settlement. The earliest were from peoples from Asia travelling across from the Bering Straits. In 2500BC the Saqqaq people settled in the west around Disko Bay, and they lived here until around 1300BC. Erik the Red and Norse settlers arrived from the east around 980AD and the medieval Icelandic sagas credit him with giving this land the name Greenland, to try and entice other settlers. The Norse settlers left about 500 years later. The Inuit "Thule culture" arrived from the north about 1300AD and are the ancestors of the current native Greenlandic people. Now about 88% of the people are Greenlandic Inuit, the rest largely of Danish descent.

The world's most northerly capital city, Nuuk lies at the southern end of Greenland, a town of 16,000 people situated just south of the Arctic Circle. When we visited Greenland we came further north, to Ilulissat, their third largest town with a population of 4,500 and almost the same number of sled dogs.

Two wolf-like Greenlandic sled dogs, Ilulissat, Greenland

Formerly known as Jakobshavn, the town of Ilulissat lies 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on the west coast of Greenland, facing across Disko Bay to Disko Island. Previously in winter this area would be solid sea ice all the way across to Baffin Island and Canada. However every year the sea ice melts earlier and earlier in the year, retreating by about 13% per decade. In 1845 the attempt to traverse the Northwest passage, heading north from here to try to find a sea route above the north of Canada, defeated John Franklin and his men. Now cruise ships can easily make the journey for much of the year. The changes in sea ice also have major effects on the way of life of the northern Inuit peoples. The solid ice that was previously their highways for sled and snow-mobiles, connecting communities and taking them to winter hunting grounds, are no longer navigable for much of the year.

Sea Ice in the southern Greenland Sea, July 2015

When we flew from Iceland to Greenland in July 2015, looking out of the window the first thing that you see is the sea ice lying off the sparsely populated and mountainous eastern coast of Greenland. The ice here has an important role in the circulating sea currents of the northern Atlantic.

Eastern coast of Greenland, July 2015
Eastern Greenland is dominated by the ice cap and steep mountain ranges. 3500 people live on this coast in the isolated towns of Tasiilaq, Kulusuk and Ittoqqortoormiit. Flying over the coast the ice cap is soon seen covering the mountaintops.

Ice sheet of Greenland in the east, covering the mountaintops, July 2015
At its widest point Greenland is about 750 miles across and flying across this all that is visible from horizon to horizon is ice, looking like the surface of an alien planet. The ice cap is 3km thick but currently melting at a rate of 1 metre per year. The problem is that many people now feel that the melting is irreversible. The more that the white ice melts, the less solar radiation is reflected by it into the atmosphere, the warmer the atmosphere then becomes. Also the increased melt water affects the salinity of the northern Atlantic and disrupts the sea currents that control so much of our environment. All indications are that the melting of the ice sheet is accelerating. There is enough water held within the Greenland ice sheet to cause a 7 metre rise in sea levels around the world, so the speed at which it continues to melt will impact upon all of us.

Flying over the Greenland ice sheet, July 2015

Ilulissat and Ilulissat Icefjord

The town of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland is positioned close to the opening of the Ilulissat Icefjord. A Danish settlement, founded in 1742 as Jakobshavn, many of the 4500 inhabitants are employed in the local halibut fish processing plant, and now increasingly in tourism. Many also supplement their incomes by fishing themselves, and hunting throughout the year. I was surprised at the sight of many people casually walking about with rifles slung over their shoulder and the crack of distant gunfire was often heard. All through the summer huge icebergs float past the town into the northern Atlantic Ocean from here. The iceberg that is believed to have sunk the Titanic in April 1912 is believed to have been from the glacier here. The Ilulissat Icefjord is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a site of international importance.

The town of Ilulissat, Greenland, from the sea, July 2015
Further up the Icefjord, several miles inland, one of the largest outflows of the Greenlandic Ice Sheet from Sermeq Kujalleq, or Jakobshavn Glacier, drains into the sea here, with icebergs "calving" frequently off of the edge of the glacier and into the sea. The icebergs then slowly move down the fjord, which is 1km deep, before becoming trapped at its opening into Disko Bay, where the water is more shallow at about 300m. Once the pressure from behind becomes too great a burst of icebergs floats out into the bay. We were there at the end of July 2015 and two weeks later BBC news carried the story that one of the largest ever sections of ice had calved from the glacier front. The glacier front here moves forwards at 20 metres per day, but the chunk which came away in early August 2015 is believed to be 12.9 sq km in size.

2006 Landsat image showing retreat of glacier "calving front" over 155 years
In the satellite image above from 2006, the retreating front of the glacier can be seen. The glacier lies to the right in the picture with the white tongue of ice heading to the bottom left hand corner being pack ice slowly moving down the icefjord to the sea. The town of Ilulissat lies just north of the opening of the icefjord into Disko Bay. You can see that the glacier front has retreated year on year from the earliest recorded position in 1851.

Jakobshavn Glacier Greenland. Aug 16 2015, after
recent sudden advance in glacier "calving front".

The recent image above is from the NASA Earth Observatory website. Satellite images two weeks apart can be compared on the website showing that a massive chunk of the glacier has now broken off into the icefjord. All over the world it is clear from recordings by scientists that the speed of glacier retreat is at "historically unprecedented" levels. What the images above unequivocally make clear is this happening in real time. Dictionaries may need to redefine what "glacial pace" now means.

Disko Bay full of icebergs, at Ilulissat, Greenland. 20th July 2015

Local people told us that the day before we had arrived there was almost no ice in the bay off of Ilulissat, but that a huge iceberg which was blocking the outflow of the icefjord had moved in the night with a rush of icebergs behind it. What is clear now is that two weeks later, with the cork from the champagne bottle removed, further back in the icefjord this allowed the huge chunk to fall from the glacier, witnessed in NASA's satellite images.

Tourists enjoying the ice at Ilulissat

We had come to Greenland from a cold wet summer in Scotland, prepared with waterproofs and warm fleeces for our Arctic trip. We unexpectedly spent the few days we had there wandering around in T-shirts and putting on suntan lotion. With 24 hour sunshine at that time of year, the midday temperature never fell below 15 degrees centigrade. In the warm sunshine we enjoyed some of the local football matches and went for long hikes out towards the icefjord, past the remains of the pre-historic settlements.

Icebergs visible at the end of one of the streets in Ilulissat, Greenland. July 2015

Zion's Church, Ilulissat, with Disko Island 30 miles off in the distance
The brown, wooden Zion's Church in Ilulissat dates originally from about 1781. It is a familiar site from many photographs of Greenland, with huge icebergs often passing behind it. A large anchor beside the door of the church is a memorial to those who have lost their lives at sea, a not unusual occurrence in these waters. 

Iceberg in the bay at Ilulissat, July 2015

Some of the icebergs can be several hundred feet high and only when close to them do you realise how much of their size lies beneath the water. The "white ice" is made from compacted snow, whereas the more dangerous "black ice" is made from re-frozen melt water. It is more dense and lies lower in the water and a local, upon whose boat we took a trip into the bay, told us that this is the ice which sinks the boats of the unwary in these waters.

Iceberg in the bay at Ilulissat, July 2015

As the icebergs melt, and chunks fall off into the sea, they tilt and change shape as the weight shifts, sometimes flipping right over. This can cause sudden unexpected waves to crash onto the shore or boats which get too near. In the photo above you can see the algae which grows on the underside of the icebergs. This in turn feeds the krill, which is food for the many fish and whales that frequent these waters. So changes in the ice will impact on the local environment in many unpredictable ways.

Humpback whale swimming between the icebergs in
Disko Bay, Greenland. July 2015
Whale watching trips can be booked in Ilulissat. As these take several hours to get far enough out towards the areas which whales commonly frequent we didn't bother booking one, but whilst just out in the bay on a short boat trip were lucky enough to see two humpbacked whales swimming about, near to the coast. Like seals, whales are hunted by the local people and seal meat and whale meat were available alongside many fish, at a stall in the town centre. Greenland has been granted an "Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling" quota by the International Whaling Commission. Greenlanders hunt mainly minke whales and fin whales, but in 2014 seven Humpback whales were also killed.

A couple of Ilulissat locals admiring the midnight sun. Greenland. July 2015

In summertime in Greenland the sun never sets. At the latitude of Ilulissat the sun does not set below the horizon from mid-May until the end of July. By contrast in winter, after weeks without sunlight, the people of Ilulissat head to Sequinniarfik, a hill near the town, on January 13th each year to celebrate the return of the sunlight.

The rest of the photographs below are some that we took on hikes towards the icefjord and on a flight over the calving front of the glacier. Known locally as Sermeq Kujalleq, this glacier is one of the few from which the ice of the Greenland ice cap reaches the sea. The only other place in the world where glaciers calve icebergs in this way is in the Antarctic.

View across the land towards the icebergs in the Ilulissat Icefjord. July 2015

Many well maintained hiking routes allow you to walk out from Ilulissat town towards the icefjord. Only then does the true scale of the icebergs become apparent.

Hiking out towards the Ilulissat Icefjord, July 2015

Panoramic view of the Ilulissat Icefjord. July 2015

From above the pack ice in the icefjord looks solid enough to walk upon, but it is constantly moving and unsteady. The moving glacier continues to cut the solid rock of the fjord, gouging it deeper. Looking down on the landscape here you can see in action the forces which sculpted the landscape of Scotland thousands of years ago, when our country was covered in glaciers.

Icefjord viewed from the opening into Disko Bay. Greenland. July 2015

From these photographs below it is hard to picture the scale of the glacier. The ridges on the surface appear to be hundreds of metres high, like cliff faces, and vanish off towards the horizon.

Surface of Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn Glacier), Greenland

Surface of Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn Glacier), Greenland

Ridges on the surface of Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn Glacier), Greenland

Although it is hundreds of metres high, the calving front of the glacier, which NASA witnessed retreating the week after our visit, can appear indistinct as the pack ice in the deep icefjord in front of it presents your eyes with a continuous white mass of snow and ice. When ice does break off it is accompanied by distinctive shotgun cracks and deep rumbles.

Calving front of the Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn Glacier). 20th July 2015

Calving front of the Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn Glacier). 20th July 2015

Calving front of the Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn Glacier). 20th July 2015

After leaving Ilulissat our return flight to Iceland first flew down the west coast of Greenland. Although nowhere else we passed had the dramatic icebergs breaking off from the ice cap, the melting of the ice can be clearly seen, with melt-water channels forming new rivers carrying silt down to the sea.

Melt-water channels on the western coast of Greenland. July 2015

Melt-water channels on the western coast of Greenland. July 2015
We had an unforgettable trip, but were also conscious that we were watching a landscape and a way of life which may soon be gone forever. A Greenlandic official, heading the Office of Self-Governance in 2008 is quoted in Naomi Klein's book "This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs The Climate" as saying
"We're very aware that we'll cause more climate change by drilling for oil. But what should we do? Should we not when it can buy us our independence?"
The more that the world continues to rely upon fossil fuels the greater will be the rate of global warming. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Greenland and the Arctic where the environment has already changed within my lifetime. An exhibition in Ilulissat Art Museum included enlightening interviews with local people, giving their views on climate change. They could all see it happening and were aware of changes in the sea ice and hunting opportunities. Some commented sadly that last year hadn't felt like Christmas as by December it still hadn't snowed in the town. However many were happy to see their lives, which can be very tough in this environment, become easier. We cannot preach to countries or peoples who are in the frontline of these environmental changes. We cannot ask them to accept sacrifices for the benefit of us all, when we are carrying on as before.

In the recent Scottish independence referendum of 2014 a weak point in the independence arguments was an over-reliance on the oil industry as a future source of income for our country. The same argument is obviously being made in Greenland, where their reserves are likely to be more vast and untapped than Scotland's now are. The questions of what would happen to the fishing industry of Greenland were an oil spill from drilling to occur, and the huge difficulties capping such a leak would create in this environment, here or in Alaska, have not yet been answered.

The Arctic is being damaged by climate change and by the threat of oil drilling. In Glasgow we maybe feel that our winters are getting wetter and the summers maybe getting less sunny, but in Greenland you can see change happening in front of your eyes. As a tourist travelling to the area in an airplane powered by fossil fuels I know that my curiosity is contributing to the global problem, whilst the local people are striving to draw in more tourists to help their economy. This shows the problem that the world faces. Increasing demand for rare minerals and fossil fuels is leading to financial incentives in those nations that can access these resources, and further hastening environmental damage.

I knew that I was heading to Greenland to find out what was happening to the environment there, I just didn't expect to come home and find it making the news a week later. Yet despite that important story that I mentioned above, this in fact got very little news coverage anywhere else. We all know things have got to change, but all vaguely hope that something will turn up. Capitalism doesn't work that way. Whilst profit remains the only incentive, we may as well start building higher sea defences now, and yet again the poorest countries are going to come off worst in that situation.

Sunday 23 August 2015

48 Hours at Edinburgh Festivals 2015

Edinburgh Festival Reviews 2015

Like most Glaswegians I am vaguely aware of Edinburgh as a thing, and spend most of the year oblivious to what it is up to. However, in August each year this becomes impossible as the Edinburgh Festivals draw the London media, the combined population of every Oxbridge Drama Soc and 1000s of visitors to the city on a daily basis. This year I had the chance to spend a day off work in Auld Reekie, and take in some of the festival attractions. On Friday I managed to see two concerts from the Edinburgh International Festival, two plays from the Fringe and several exhibitions from the Edinburgh Art Festival. To help me remember what I actually did, I'll knock up a quick review of what I saw. Not only was this a good chance for me to overdose on some culture and entertainment, but as I was using some friends' unused complimentary tickets and gallery passes, I saved myself over £100. Much as that was pleasing for me, it does flag up one of the problems here at the festival, that not everyone gets to join in.

One highlight of this year's Edinburgh International Festival is the new stage adaptation of Alasdair Gray's classic book, Lanark. I caught one of the preview performances in Glasgow (review here) before it transferred to Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. After its run in Edinburgh it will return to Glasgow's Citizens Theatre in September, where the tickets are about half the price of the Edinburgh ones. There will also be discounts for those living in the Gorbals and concessions for the unemployed reducing the price of the best seats in the house to £2. I mention this only to highlight the point that ticket prices do not need to be as prohibitively expensive as many appear to be in Edinburgh, where even a student doing an hour's monologue about cheese can expect to charge £12 a go.


A frequently used device in some of Alasdair Gray's art is the drawing hand of the artist appearing in the work. I was thinking of this whilst seeing the same idea used to such great effect at the wonderful MC Escher exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, "The Amazing World of MC Escher". They have pulled together a fantastic quantity of his works, from the very familiar, to his early etchings and sketches of Islamic tiles, flat Dutch fields and the Alhambra Palace that you can recognise in his later material. Seeing them in the flesh, instead of in reproduction, you can appreciate the effort and attention to detail that went into producing his work. Also his skill as a craftsman shines through. 

A cancelled etching plate created by MC Escher

I also had the chance to swing past Jupiter Artland, a slowly growing sculpture park of modern art on the outskirts of Edinburgh where I was mesmerised by Tara Donovan's exhibition. Her large sculptures made from Slinkies, plastic cups and the material used to make helium balloons (Mylar) are beautiful. 

Untitled (Mylar) by Tara Donovan

St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
On a more personal level I found the exhibition about the men who served on the boats of the Arctic Convoys during the second world war interesting. The men shown here received the Ushkanov Medal in 2014 for their efforts to try to supply the Russian people. The exhibition itself, in the beautiful St Mary's Cathedral, of photographs and small tapestries inspired by their stories is a bit sparse, but fascinating information about their lives is explored in more detail in the accompanying booklet.

My own interest in hearing about this was because my gran's brother died at sea during the war, off of the coast of Norway (I've written about him here). I now have the Arctic Star which my great uncle was awarded after his death, and I could recognise this medal, amongst others, on the chests of the men in the photographs here.

Arctic Star medal of Donald Bailey

The works from the official Edinburgh Art Festival are scattered throughout Edinburgh and most can be reached by a quick walk around the city centre. Charles Avery's work Tree no. 5 (from the Jadindagadendar) greets you in Waverley Station as you get off of the train from Glasgow. A wee bit harder to find, but worth seeking out is Holoturian by Ariel Guzik. This is in Trinity Apse, a disused church off of the Royal Mile which I can remember coming to when we came through to the Edinburgh Miners' Gala, in the days when it was the brass rubbing centre. Now the space is filled with Ariel Guzik's nautical drawings, collected material, whale sounds and his submersible. The mirror below it reflects the depth of the church tower. 

Ariel Guzak's Holoturian
At Gladstone's Land on the Royal Mile Hanna Tuulikki performs a vocal duet, SING SIGN:a close duet with Daniel Padden on film, and at other times live further down the hill. I am a fan of her work and loved the recent piece she created, "Away With The Birds" (a version of which is now online as an interactive website). The commissions from the Art Festival have taken Italo Calvino's book "Invisible Cities" as inspiration under the theme The Improbable City. This is captured nicely here by the performers, on a two-screen film installation singing a composition based on the strange topography of the medieval closes leading off of the Royal Mile. I was never sure if the seagulls and car engines I could hear in the background were outside this ancient room, in the street, or were part of the film, which all added to a sense of place.

Other exhibitions under the umbrella of the Art Festival include Phyllida Barlow's set at the Fruitmarket Gallery, a work on a disorientating scale. I was a bit disappointed by Here Comes Everybody, an exhibition by kennardphillips at the Stills Gallery which is less finely honed than some of their other work (google kennardphillips, if you don't know the name, you'll recognise their work).

More biting photographic work was on show in the foyer of the Scottish Parliament with the World Press Photo exhibition. This could really have come with some warnings about the graphic nature of some of the content, particularly photos from the Ukrainian conflict and the downed MH17 Malaysian aircraft. A sharp reminder of the powerful storytelling ability of good photojournalism.

A small part of Phyllida Barlow's set

Within the Scottish National Gallery I found the works of 18th century Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard a bit underwhelming. He is not an artist I had ever heard of but his hyper-realism style drew my attention from his wacky self-portrait used on the publicity for the exhibition. The exhibition, largely of court portraiture, doesn't seem to merit the £9 you are charged to view it.

More photography is on show at the Scottish National Gallery, £11 for "Bailey's Stardust" seemed a bit steep and if we had come as a family to these two exhibitions instead of me coming alone using someone else's free pass, this would have been a ludicrously expensive visit. This is a David Bailey retrospective with over 250 photos from over 50 years of work. His early work from 1960's East End London is the most engaging material, where the characters pictured do seem to sparkle. His later court portraiture of the great, the good and the fashionable of the swinging sixties I felt no connection to. Maybe you had to be there.

Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival


Musically my day started with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie and friends at the Queen's Hall.

I have seen Colin Currie play several times before, usually his interpretations of Steve Reich's work, and Reich's "Quartet for Two Vibraphones and Two Pianos" was one of the pieces performed here. Before that we had John Adams's Hallelujah Junction, played on two pianos and nicely echoing Reich's style it reveals the piano as the percussion instrument it is in this crisp performance. Both pieces fizzed with jazz-tinged energy. The second half opened with a warm, solo piece for marimba by Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin and ended with Bartok's Sonata for Two Percussion and Piano feeling strangely muted in comparison. It was a great way to spend two hours, even if the highlight of my day was accosting Nobel prize-winning physicist Professor Peter Higgs at the interval. If anybody knows what "star struck" literally means, it is this unassuming man whose achievements I would rather see proclaimed in exhibitions on Princes Street than the images currently there. After texting my science-mad son that I had spotted him, he was dead keen that I get an autograph of one of his heroes. I am grateful to Professor Higgs for tolerating my interruption to his day in the charming manner he did. As my son continues to harbour ambitions to study physics himself this wee memento will mean a lot to him. 

My day finished off with a concert by celebrated Chinese pianist Lang Lang at the Usher Hall. Like many of his performances at the festival this year this concert was sold out. His traditionalist piano repertoire, playing Bach, Tchaikovsky and Chopin this evening, isn't the type of thing I'd normally come to see (as I said above, some of these tickets ended up with me when others weren't able to attend) however it was an entertaining evening, if not exactly the most dramatic performance I have ever seen. For two hours alone at the piano he had the audience eating out of his hand. He began with Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, twelve short pieces Tchaikovsky wrote for the amateur pianist evoking each of the twelve months. I got a bit lost through the year and struggled to get a feel of which seasons were passing. Bach's lively Italian Concertos received "whoops" and applause from the audience for an energetic performance. A Chinese journalist was asking me at the interval if I thought he brought an "Eastern" rather than "Western" interpretation to the music, but I could only offer that he brought a "Lang Lang" interpretation to it, not wanting to say that it was Harpo Marx I was thinking of at times as he pointed, gurned and emoted. The second half, consisting of Chopin Scherzos, was performed with skill and bravura, but didn't give me the warmth and enjoyment I'd felt from the performances earlier in the day. Also particular audience members whom I was sat near were insufferable.


In the afternoon my random Fringe choices brought me to Assembly Roxy to see an hour of Dylan Thomas: The Man, The Myth. Narrated by Thomas's grand-daughter Hannah Ellis and performed with Guy Masterton's mellifluous tones, we learned about Hannah trying to find out about the grandfather she never met, and whom I never really knew beyond the image of the drinker poet. What came out most strongly from this was the strength and character of his powerful wife, Caitlin Macnamara, and as I left I passed by Blackwell's bookshop and picked up a copy of some of Thomas's poems. Bizarrely, although I've read all of his prose fiction I've never really given his poetry a go. I also didn't realise how autobiographical many of his writings were until hearing this performance.

Echoes, a play by one-time Spitting Image writer, Henry Naylor, is performed at the Gilded Balloon by Felicty Houlebrooke and Filipa Braganca. They play two 17 year-old women from Ipswich who, separated by over 100 years, go to Afghanistan and Syria to marry and to do their perceived Christian/Muslim duty. The parallels become apparent once we learn that British women were needed to go and marry British soldiers, out in the east fighting for the Empire and trade. As their overlapping monologues unfold we see history repeating itself and gain some insight into the hopes, expectations and disillusionment of both women. It was a fascinating idea, well acted and well told.

Hearts 3-0 Partick Thistle. Tynecastle, 22nd August 2015

On Saturday I was back in Edinburgh with the hottest ticket in town. A sell out crowd filled Tynecastle to see Hearts play Partick Thistle in the SPFL match of the day. Sadly Thistle didn't turn up and Hearts had a straight-forwards 3-0 victory. After this I was in the mood for some uplifting theatre, but as we had tickets for Antigone, we settled for Greek tragedy instead.

I do like the ancient Greek plays, and always try to catch them whenever a version comes around. I have seen some really memorable adaptions of Sophocles and Euripides works, particularly I'm thinking of Theatre Babel's productions of Medea and Elektra. More recently I enjoyed a very traditional performance of Antigone by Strathclyde Theatre Group. My earliest exposure to Antigone was as assistant stage manager at the Knightswood Secondary School Drama Club when our teacher had us perform it for the school. A trifle ambitious I feel in retrospect.

The production at the Edinburgh Festival had already played at the Barbican Theatre in London and featured Juliette Binoche in the lead role. A new translation by Canadian writer Anne Carson and directed by Ivo van Hove, this was a mouthwatering prospect. The thing about Antigone is its ongoing relevance and the fact that it can be so open to interpretation. After the two brothers of Antigone on opposing sides of a civil war die in battle, King Creon decrees that one will be buried with honour, the body of the other left on the battlefield for the birds and wild dogs to eat. Antigone cannot countenance this and defies her uncle, the king, to bury her brother with the dignity she feels everyone deserves. From here we can decide whether obedience to our rulers must come first, trumping family, tradition, personal beliefs, or not. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" as George W. Bush put it. The programme notes suggest that the Ukranian conflict was an inspiration behind this production, the bodies from the shot down MH17 flight lying ungathered between the opposing forces. We could alternatively think about refugees with this play, or even the Greek economic crisis. Do we obey EU rules above all as Creon may, or act as responsible, feeling human beings as Antigone does? If any of these ideas were floating about, it was the case that they decided against exploring them in this production. Antigone does not seem to have a moral or solid reason for her actions as Juliette Binoche plays her like a rather stroppy teenager. The stripped down setting and modern dress drains a lot of the melodrama of the play, the ending feels underplayed, losing so much impact. The amplified voices of the cast sometimes make it hard to identify who has spoken. The phenomenal story at the heart of it all survives, despite some clunky modern phrases that don't fit well, but it all feels like a missed opportunity. It was good, but it didn't seem to say anything or speak to us.

This was all that I managed to squeeze in with my 2 days at the other end of the M8 motorway. There is another week to run and a thousand other things out there to see and do that I didn't get the chance to. Many of the exhibitions will run on for longer or tour to other places.  Book festivals, comedy, political theatre...aargh, too much choice.

Typical Edinburgh scene during festival.
A man plays a didgeridoo in Princes Street Gardens,
ignored by everybody including the seagulls

Sunday 16 August 2015

Lanark: A Play In Three Acts. Citizens Theatre Company

Lanark: A Play In Three Acts. Citizens Theatre Company. Glasgow, August 2015

(David Greig's adaption of Alasdair Gray's "Lanark" had it's preview showing in Glasgow last night and this is a brief review. If you haven't read the book before going to see the play, and don't want to know the story, look away now as it may contain some spoilers.)

Saturday 15th August promised to be an exciting day. First up Partick Thistle were taking on Kilmarnock in the afternoon at Firhill, followed by the opening night of Lanark, Alasdair Gray's classic book adapted as a play by David Greig at the Citizens Theatre. Both left me with the same nervous feeling of anticipation, hoping that they would live up to my hopes.

The players take their place at Firhill

At Firhill the one character that never disappoints is that one created by an artist. Kingsley the mascot, the work of David Shrigley. This surreal, untalking vision wanders around the ground before games and is greeted as if it is perfectly normal to raise a smile at a piece of spikey sunshine walking around in Maryhill. More people around Britain, around the world even, are able to imagine a club called Partick Thistle from Glasgow now because of the work of an artist (and the ongoing efforts obviously of the man inside the costume). The Guardian had a photographer following Kingsley around for a couple of hours yesterday, so it still goes on.

The football itself was a piece of theatre in three acts. In Act One Partick Thistle were all over an agricultural Kilmarnock team for half an hour, but despite numerous chances only managed to get one goal. Those in the audience who have seen this type of performance before could guess what the final act would bring, as Kris Boyd warmed up on the touchline like Chekov's gun. In Act Two Kilmarnock equalised, and before the interval could have been ahead. Then the referee nudged things along by reducing Thistle to 10 men. In Act Three we were amazed to find hope as Kris Doolan put Thistle in the lead, before Kris Boyd came off the bench to inevitably snuff it out. It was a great game of football...for the neutral, but left a feeling of injustice and of a missed opportunity for those of us of a Partick Thistle persuasion.

"Man is the pie that bakes and eats himself, and the recipe is separation." - Alasdair Gray, Lanark

I don't think Alasdair Gray had the Firhill pies in mind when he wrote that, which today could generously be described as "well fired".


As a huge fan of his work I've written about Alasdair Gray before, when a series of events and exhibitions celebrated his 80th birthday last year. That year focused largely of his artworks. His first novel, which cemented his reputation, is "Lanark: A Life In Four Books". First published in 1981 it was apparently written over several decades and, as is the case in most of his books, has both words and pictures provided by Gray creating a unified vision. It tells the parallel and intersecting stories of a young man, who takes the name Lanark, awakening in the sunless city of Unthank (which has a passing resemblance to Glasgow), and of a young man called Duncan Thaw (who has a passing resemblance to the author). "A life in four books" their stories are told in the order of book three, one, two then four, with Duncan Thaw's story being sandwiched in the middle of Lanark's when read this way. Neither men truly fit in or understand their worlds, which seals their fate. In an extended epilogue the "author" meets Lanark and discusses the book and the plagiarisms he filled it with (some real, some invented). He tells Lanark that...
"The Thaw narrative shows a man dying because he is bad at loving. It is enclosed by [Lanark's] narrative which shows civilization collapsing for the same reason
The book is full of nods to other stories, artists, authors and ideas. An "index of plagarisms" in the margins of the epilogue contains refences as varied as William Blake, Joseph Conrad, Walt Disney, Tom Leonard and HG Wells. Of note is the mention of Robert Burns
"Robert Burns' humane and lyrical rationalism has had no impact on the formation of this book, a fact more sinister than any exposed by mere attribution of sources" 
The artwork of the separate book frontispieces also references those that have gone before such as this from "Book Four". The frontispiece of Hobbes Leviathon is redrawn with a landscape of Scotland in the foreground, complete with Dunoon, Faslane and the Forth Rail Bridge. (If you want a colour print of this beautiful image to own, Alasdair Gray recently reworked these for the Glasgow Print Studio).

Hobbes Leviathon, Lanark Book Four
In this spirit the theatre company have created a wee Pinterest board of plagarisms that they may have used, and they suggest that you look out for more in the play.

One of the main characters in the story is Glasgow, with the necropolis in the East End featuring as a gateway to another world (or to a building resembling Stobhill Hospital if you prefer). The book is witty, political, confusing, poignant, frustrating and brilliant. When I heard that David Greig and the Citizens' Theatre planned to make a stage version of the book the obvious question was "How the hell are they going to manage that?" Some of the challenges that they faced are maybe evident in the fact that the first preview night at the Citizens' had to be cancelled, meaning we were watching it tonight on its opening night in Glasgow, before it transfers to the Edinburgh Festival. David Greig seemed to me a perfect choice to interpret the book. He has had success with adaptions as diverse as Euripides' The Bacchae with National Theatre of Scotland and a musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I've enjoyed his plays Dalgety, Dunsinane, The Glasgow Girls and The Events. If you don't already follow David Greig on twitter I would heartily recommend it for terrible puns, political rants and energy sapping tales of his hill running exploits. His works are the kind of things a country can produce when art is funded and supported. To quote Alasdair Gray...
“People in Scotland have a queer idea of the arts. They think you can be an artist in your spare time, though nobody expects you to be a spare-time dustman, engineer, lawyer or brain surgeon.”
In the year that the Citizens Theatre celebrates its 70th anniversary "Lanark: A Life in Four Books" now becomes "Lanark: A Life in Three Acts". Of note in the theatre tonight there was a palpable buzz of excitement amongst the gathered audience. Also they were a more diverse crowd than you often see in the theatre with both young and old drawn to it.

The solutions that they have found to some surreal passages in the book is evident from the first minute with the clever use of projections and animation throughout, often with a nod to the authors original artworks.  Sandy Greirson, who recently played Ivor Cutler on this stage, plays the role of Lanark, and seems to fit the role well. Never manic or hysterical, he presents an essentially good man beneath an emotional carapace.

“He watched them with the passionate regret with which he saw them play football or go to dances: the activity itself did not interest, but the power to share it would have made him less apart.” - Alasdair Gray, Lanark

Jazz tinged music adds an atmospheric sense of place and time as Lanark and the audience arrive in Unthank and a huge degree of choreography goes into revolving the seemingly simple stage set to create a variety of scenes. Greirson is supported by a fantastic ensemble cast, with several well-kent faces from the Scottish stage (Andy Clark, George Drennan, Jessica Hardwick, Paul Thomas Hickey, Louise Ludgate, Helen Mackay and Gerry Mulgrew. Camrie Palmer and Ewan Somers). The first act (Act Two, obviously) finds Lanark trying to work out who he is, trying to fit in and find love in a world where people inexplicably disappear. As his itchy patches of skin inexorably reveal themselves as dragonhide, a metaphorical carapace made real, he descends in a literal sense to a futuristic (in a 1970s Logan's Run type of way) Institute, where those who seem to run the world reside. 

The second act (or Act One - keep up), connects Lanark to Duncan Thaw, the real life of a "Proletarian snob" from the east end of Glasgow determined to be an artist. The cast lead Thaw through his life from the scaffold that becomes Ben Rua and his workplace on an epic church mural. A child with asthma and itchy eczema becomes a man unable to find love and falling into despair and mental illness. Again the script and Greirson don't play this with melodrama but with pathos and an ebbing away of hope.

The final act thrusts us back to Unthank after the characters wander aimlessly and surreally across the Intercalendrical Zone, where the actors break through the theatrical "fourth wall". Whilst civilisation is descending into chaos Lanark must try to save his city and try to connect with his wife and man-child (Ewan Somers doing an impressive turn in the style of Baby Brent from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). In the book Gray smashes through the fourth wall with his epilogue to talk to Lanark, on stage this is done in a clever and incredibly imaginative way which chimes so well with the book.

It is a book rammed full of ideas, images, metaphors and devices and it feels as if almost everything in the book has managed to find a place in the play. If you asked 100 different uber-fans of the book which bit had to be kept in for the play you might get 100 different replies. Whilst satisfying the geeks, the play also opens up the book to those who have never got around to reading it in a way that is accessible, whilst entirely in keeping with the unique spirit of the original. That feat may have taken almost four hours of work this evening by all involved in the production, but it was a fantastic and mind-spinning evening of theatre.
"Glasgow is a magnificent city," said McAlpin. "Why do we hardly ever notice that?" "Because nobody imagines living here," said Thaw... "Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he's already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn't been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively." - Alasdair Gray
I hope that these words by Alasdair Gray are no longer true and that his works help ignite the creative energy of Glasgow and its people. The play certainly feels like it adds to this legacy.

Alasdair Gray's mural on the wall of Hillhead subway station, Glasgow