Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category
Since finding myself on the press list for the marvellous post rock and electronica label Fluttery Records (and if you’ve not yet listened to Ana Never’s Small Years, stop reading this and go have a listen), I’ve enjoyed receiving their occasional updates about recent releases.
Given I’m getting the music for free, I feel somewhat obliged to write reviews, however small. Though the task is made somewhat easier by the music being (mostly) excellent.
No, I’ve no idea what any of those words mean either. But Amp Rive are Italian, so we’ll let them off.
Italy is not exactly a country that naturally springs to mind when you think about post rock – my mind is drawn more naturally to countries with sprawling wastelands of nothingness (be that urban or otherwise) that inspire sweeping, dreamy soundscapes. I certainly don’t think of exquisitely pretty nations like Italy. And certainly Irma Vep doesn’t sound anything like Mogwai or other such big names of the genre.
Instead it’s a brighter, breezier album, and while the opening track starts rather suddenly it has grown on me as a fine piece of music that drifts along catchily without being shallow. Later tracks emanate a rich and melodic sound, and while they’re not at the epic soundscape end of the post rock spectrum, Amp Rive have delivered a lovely, warm album.
Also, the last track, The Apocalypse in F, is a candidate for one of the best post rock track titles I’ve heard in a long time.
From Italy to Russia, Neko Nine are, like Amp Rive, a band I only heard about on a mailing last year and I’m finally getting round to reviewing.
And while I’ve suggested above that Italy isn’t natural post rock hunting ground, Russia, with its dark history, vast open spaces and unrelenting winters strikes me as ideal territory for the genre, such that I’m surprised on reflection not to have heard of any bands from there before.
And the music is certainly a lot darker and angrier than Amp Rive, with a relatively explosive opening couple of tracks of heavy guitars drums. Later on, the sound is a softer and more melodic, with pianos and strings helping to add a soothing, and at times feintly sinister, feel.
It’s a good album with a consistent and engaging feel, and something of a grower on further listens.
Apparently a Dutch “philosopher and musician” based in Japan, Gate (real name Lajos Ishibashi-Brons). The media pack explains that name “Gate” summarizes its intended nature: a gate is in between, in between inside and outside, between here and there, between now and then; and a gate is a passageway, both an entrance and an exit, and a point where paths cross.
The media pack goes on to quote the artist’s description of the album:
“Bury your romantic proclivities for harmony, for order, for purpose. All of that is illusion, paint. Look at the world, listen. There is beauty in discord, dissonance, disorder, destruction, decay, corruption, contrast, arbitrariness. Life is discord, life is destruction, randomness, change. Look at the world, look at the powerlines, open-pit mines, rivers and lakes, factories and power plants, mountains and roads, buildings and forests, trash dumps and oceans. Look at them clash, interpenetrate, infest, defile. Look at the transformation of landscapes. Look at the haphazard collections of streets and buildings, and at the people living in them. Look at the dirt, the mess, the disharmony. Just look: it’s beautiful. And listen. Open your eyes and ears. Listen to the sounds of the world, to the crashing, grinding, and banging. Embrace the dissonance, the discomfort, the randomness. Those are our sounds, our world. Listen. And travel in sound.”
As you can imagine, it’s utter shite.
From Italy to Russia to Japan to Portugal, Fluttery’s stable is nothing if not diverse. It’s also not very diligent with grammar, as however many ways I say it in my head, I just can’t get the name “how comes the constellations shine” to make any sense whatsoever.
Neither does the music on Mémoire, initially – with a long, slow build up in the first track failing to deliver any sense of suspense and expectation before rather disjointedly launching into a space-rock-esque melody that does admittedly evolve into a rich and sweeping track. The album as a whole struggles to retain a sense of coherence throughout, despite a number of the tracks being excellent.
Admittedly, though, it is only a compilation of various tracks written over the course of a few years in the run-up to the much flowing and coherent 2012 release Belongs to Mafra.
Mémoire may grow on me. I hope it does, but I doubt it. Belongs to Mafra is much, much better.
Something much more consistent can be found in this album Eternal Glory from the Ukranian artist Olekksii. It’s a thoughtful blend of classical and electronic sounds worthy of Jon Hopkins and the ilk, with lovely strings and pianos joined by soft beats that create beautiful, film soundtrack-worthy pieces. It’s great music to chill out to, with a coherent flow to the whole album.
If I had a criticism, though, it’s that the songs build up so nicely it’s a shame they all seem to be so short, with none stretching much beyond four minutes. Listening to the album I find myself wishing that Olekksii could aim for track lengths of around ten minutes, as he’d surely come up with some absolute belters.
Taking the album together as a single piece of music, however, it is thoughtful, gentle and soothing; and as background music for a journey, a quiet gathering or to set a nice, relaxing atmosphere, it’s ideal. It’s probably the one I’d return to most often out of all those I’ve reviewed in this post.
We come full circle in this set of reviews, returning to Italy to this three member band who have delivered a three-track EP with a delightfully evocative title. It contains very unItalian track names, though, such as “Seljalandsfoss”, which refers to a famous Icelandic waterfall.
The music itself is firmly in post rock, with just guitars, piano and drums doing all the work here – and it’s a lovely sound that exudes a beautiful, careful simplicity, the tracks seeming to last longer than they actually are. The music provides echoes of bare empty spaces and soft snow, while at the same time being uplifting and cheerful in a way that post rock rarely manages.
As I say, very unItalian. But very, very good.
Episode 1 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland makes decisions about the role its own armed forces will play in foreign military action.
Episode 2 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland decides who will be nominated as its country’s European Union Commissioner.
Episode 3 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland tackles big decisions about the future shape of its welfare system.
Episode 4 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland uses its armed forces to protect its citizens abroad.
Episode 5 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland uses its wide-ranging powers to enact new environmental measures.
Episode 6 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland leads a national debate about law and order.
Episode 7 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland plays a key part on the international stage to try to bring about peace in a war-torn country.
Episode 8 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland plays a key part on the international stage to try to bring about peace in a war-torn country… and succeeds.
Episode 9 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland works out a way of developing and managing its own healthcare system.
Episode 10 – The government of a small, independent, northern European country the size of Scotland determines the country’s political future.
But… it’s just fiction.
It couldn’t really happen here… could it?
I hate it when you get spam emails you don’t want. Particularly from mailing lists which somehow you’ve found yourself on, don’t remember signing up for, and to unsubsribe from can often be fiddly.
Such irritation was to the fore again the other day when I received an email from a record company called Fluttery Records, telling me about their latest releases. I was poised over the “spam” button in my email when my eye was drawn to the magic words “post rock”. Aha! Probably my favourite genre of music.
I checked out the website and, in their own words, Fluttery Records are a label especially for “Post-rock, Ambient, Experimental, Electronic, Modern Classical music.” This was very good news indeed.
I read a bit about the bands in the email, and clicked links to have a listen.
One band absolutely gripped me. Called Ana Never, they hail from northern Serbia and have been around for over a decade, though with only a small number of releases in that time.
They’re clearly a band for quality not quantity, though, as typified by their forthcoming album that the email was introducing.
Have a listen to it for yourself via the player on the right or here.
The album is called Small Years, and lasts over 75 minutes. It’s a surprise to note, though, that there are only four tracks on it, with the opening and closing ones both weighing in at over 25 minutes each.
That’s my kind of post rock – music that takes its time to carefully, meticulously build up a complex and meticulous sound, rather than just jumping in.
The result is a beautiful album of epic, soaring proportions, with sweeping guitars and drums softened and complemented by beautiful strings to make a magnificent orchestral composition.
Although firmly post rock, Small Years is gentler than Mogwai, richer than Mono and creates a tone that is mournful and introspective without being unduly dark or angry. It’s a magnificent listen and I’ve played it more than a handful of times in the last few days.
It’s always a pleasant surprise to discover new music, and having listened not only to Small Years but their back catalogue too, Ana Never – who I’d never heard of before and who don’t seem to have much of a high profile – plant themselves as a firm favourite of mine. They’re definitely my number one Serbian post rock outfit, that’s for sure.
I’ve been exploring some of the other bands on Fluttery Records, and it’s a veritable Pandora’s Box, an Aladdin’s Cave of post rock treasure. There’s too much to listen to at once but the little I have delved into has been great. I’ll be back to the website to listen to more in the coming days I am sure.
Having made the discovery of Ana Never’s magnificent Small Years album, I replied to Fluttery’s email. I told them I didn’t appreciate unsolicited email, but thanked them and said I was making an exception because the music was so great.
Curiously, I got no response. They’re rude to have sent the spam, and rude not to have replied to my message.
But hey, the music’s fantastic. So I’ll forgive them.
I’ve been pretty diligent at reading lately, and I’ve read quite a diversity of books for various reasons. Here are some reviews of what I’ve been getting through this summer when not travelling, writing, working and being lazy.
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House
by Elizabeth Keckley
The first was a story I heard about in Futility Closet and was compelled to find out more. It is the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley, an African American slave who buys her own freedom, sets up business as an accomplished dressmaker, and ends up in the employment – and close confidence – of the wife of the then American President Abraham Lincoln. It sounds like a classic rags to riches story, though it is a little more than that. I found it easily on the Kindle – for free, as with so many old books that are out of copyright – and got stuck in.
The story comes basically in two parts, beginning in the first half with a sweeping life story of the author, from upbringing in slavery in the 1800s through to her adult life and her eventual ability to buy her own freedom and start her own business. Her beautiful dressmaking is noticed by women in high society and she attracts the attention of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, soon living in the White House as her personal dressmaker, assistant and – in the end – closest friend. This first part is a dramatic story of triumph over adversity and the remarkable strength of the human spirit. It’s inspiring, enlightening, and mixed with tragedy and cheer. The writing, too, is beautiful – lyrical, rich and of flowing rhythm, and it is hard to read the story without the voice of a strongly-accented African American woman reading aloud to you in your head.
The book pivots on Lincoln’s assassination (hardly a spoiler, I’m sure), with the second half documenting her and Mrs Lincoln’s lives in the years afterwards, and particularly the late President’s wife’s mental and emotional decline. Mrs Lincoln comes over in a less than positive light – selfish, bitter, materialistic and often ungrateful for the writer’s unceasingly loyal support to her.
And here, the book changes tone slightly, from autobiography to historical documentary – the first half satisfies those interested in a gripping personal story of a real, ordinary American, while the second half appeals to those want an expose of a famous person. It is for this second manifestation that the book was apparently controversial at the time of publication, and you can see why – barely some years after Lincoln’s assassination, the dirt is basically being dished on a major public figure, and while the second half is less enjoyable a read because the focus shifts away from the remarkable writer herself and the writing is a little less beautiful, it is easy to imagine what a storm it must have presented in American high society at the time. In that sense, the first half makes the book fascinating, the second half makes it incredibly brave.
Whether womens’ history or American history, or a snapshot into White House life or the experiences of slavery and escape from it, there are many reasons why this book will appeal.
The Street King
by R K Lewis
I can’t remember how I stumbled across this short fantasy story, but I think it was on Twitter. As the book was free at the time, I decided to take a punt. It’s a shamelessly silly and ridiculous tale of an alcoholic tramp on the streets of Aberdeen, whose delusions and halucinations lead him on a a little adventure that involves magical cans of Special Brew, talking seagulls, and dwarves.
It’s a fun, absurd, and entertaining book with a few laugh-out-loud moments and a nice pace. It’s only a short story so is never going to be too much of a gamble; and you’ll never look at Aberdeen’s Union Street in quite the same way again.
Seeing The World My Way
by Tony Giles
I think this was another Twitter-based discovery, and is a quite original travel story by an English travel writer I’d not heard of. Good travel writing, naturally, appeals to all the senses – painting pictures of what the writer sees, hears, smells and so on. But what if you cannot see, and are dependent on the other senses? This is the story of, as the author puts it, a totally blind and partially deaf guy who wants to explore the world.
It’s an enjoyable read, not least at the beginning when the author explains how his wanderlust came about, and how his studies and a year abroad at an American university opened up the prospect of travelling by himself. It’s certainly a challenge for him, and one major theme of the book is his gratitude to the countless friends, fellow travellers and tourism workers who help him out along the way.
Giles has a no-nonsense attitude to travel, throwing himself fully into everything he can possibly do, with drink, sex and extreme sports featuring strongly in his insatiable desire for thrills and fun. As he leads us through his adventures in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and south-east Asia, he describes the things he does, the places he stays, the people he met and the culture he encounters with enthusiasm and vigour. He also offers compelling insights into travelling as a blind man – for instance compiling mental maps of the hostels he stays in (incredibly important when they have swimming pools) and dealing with banknotes in his wallet.
At times, though, the book is slightly repetitive in recounting his sometimes predictable diet of outdoor activities by day and drinking by night, and his drunken antics often come over as irresponsible rather than hilarious – though by his own admission “I was a selfish, arrogant bastard back then”. At times, though, his writing explodes in a multisensory feast – for instance on a hike through the New Zealand bush, he writes
“I enjoyed the smell of the soil and forest all around me. The intensity of the enclosed jungle, the darkness of the area plus the coolness provided by the overhead leafy canopy all added to the adventure. I felt everything, noticed the rugged earth steps, felt the vegetation as it snatched at my clothes and scratched my hands and face, smelt the dampness of the approaching river and heard the singing of the birds.”
Such prose encourages a sighted reader to reflect on whether they just take in the visual side of travel, or instead truly make the most of their other senses too when travelling. Yet the book has frustratingly few moments like this, when the narrative is at its best and is bursting with vivid description. Another strength of the book is when Giles visits Vietnam, which he has studied at university, and he strongly enriches his account with his background knowledge of the country.
I see from his website that he is still travelling, and I hope that there are more books from him to come.
Is That Bike Diesel, Mate?
by Paul Carter
I first stumbled across Scottish-Australian writer Paul Carter through his two excellent, if laboriously monikered, oil industry memoirs – Don’t Tell Mum I Work On The Rigs (She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse) and This is Not a Drill: Just Another Glorious Day in The Oilfield. In them he recounts hilarious and outrageous stories of his time working on oilrigs in all sorts of dodgy and dangerous places around the world, and both books are brought to life by his – how shall I put this? – energetic and characterful use of language.
His storytelling was the sort of engaging and readable style that would have lent itself to pretty much any personal experience, as he had a rich ability to bring characters and situations to life, even the most mundane. I was hopeful that he would write about other things, and in ITBDM he does.
A far cry from rough oilrigs, he opens his third book in a new world – fatherhood, a desk job, married life and bland Australian suburbia. To cut a long and enjoyable introduction short, his itchy feet and desire for the open road leads him to conceive the idea of driving around Australia on a biodiesel motorbike, a prototype university experiment powered by vegetable oil.
I say long and enjoyable introduction – it’s fully halfway through the book before the journey gets underway; but that’s no problem because the first half of the book is packed with humorous anecdotes about his new life away from rigs, his family, the genesis of his idea, and the people he meets along the way to making it happen. He then describes the technical and physical challenges of doing the trip, with lovely descriptions of the people, places and scenery he encounters on the road, and the difficulties he and his support team have to put up with – such as aggressive drivers, poor quality roads, and intense heat.
Indeed, there’s a refreshing interlude in the book thanks to one particular problem – a nasty crash in which Carter damages some ribs and spends a week or so in hospital. The one criticism I would make of the book is that as someone with no interest in cars, bikes or engines I found the detailed descriptions of the technical side of the challenge, such as the components of the bike and the difficulties in finding spare parts, a little boring in places. As such, for me, the book bursts back into life as Carter brilliantly relates the pain, frustration and boredom of being holed up in a Queensland hospital, with cracking anecdotes and dry wit. I’m rather ashamed to say I was a little disappointed when he recovers, gets back on the bike, and cranks up the petrolhead content again.
But it’s a funny book, with Carter, his friends and support team, and various characters encountered along the way, all providing great company. It’s also a fantastic advert for hitting the road down under. Australia, above all, comes out enticingly in this book.
Brave the Scotland
I went to see Brave at the cinema the other night. You’ll perhaps have heard the fuss – it’s a Disney/Pixar film set in a mythical Scotland about a young princess who tries to get out of being married off. With a cast packed full of well-kent Scottish actors, it promised to be a fresh and entertaining film about (if not technically from) Scotland. The Scottish Government, sensing an opportunity to sell the country as a brand, jumped on the bandwagon, and lo, the hype began.
Given the huge publicity, I felt it would be interesting to go and watch it. Not that this blog post is a mere review. Though if I can indulge you for a paragraph, I’d say that the characters were fun and splendidly voiced, the animation was gorgeous, the script was funny in places and generally avoided stomach-churning cliche, and the story a little thin, plodding and uninteresting.
No, instead, my thoughts drifted – and this may be an indictment of the film – towards the marketing hype. Given the lush portrayals of dramatic Scottish scenery (apparently heavily researched by the film-makers), there was a clear opportunity to push the brand of Scotland to a world of potential tourists.
But the problem is, the Scotland of Brave simply doesn’t exist. The setting is entirely fantasy, and is portrayed via animation. While apparently real places, such as castles, informed the shapes and texture of what we saw in Brave, there is nowhere you can visit to say “this is Brave country”. Not only is this a non-starter, it’s actually a potentially dangerous line of thinking – attracting and receiving tourists should be about exceeding expectations, and not about building up unrealistic expectations that will only be dashed by the eventual truth.
It makes me think about the misused opportunity of Tobermory, dressed up to be the setting for the popular childrens’ TV show Balamory. There was a huge tourism boom from the show, but I’ve heard more than a few stories of people whose children were sorely disappointed by the reality. Their favourite characters, it turned out, didn’t actually live there, the weather was miserable, and there’s frankly not a lot to do in Tobermory unless you fancy visiting a pub, the distillery, the arts centre or the chocolate shop, or engaging in hikes and other outdoor activities. That’s not to say that Tobermory is a disappointing destination – far from it, it’s beautiful and there’s lots to do. The problem is that it is Tobermory, not Balamory. Of course it will be a disappointing place when you present misleading or inaccurate images of it.
The problem extends to the big screen, too. Think of the most famous films that aren’t just about or from Scotland but heavily feature its scenery, culture and very essence. They mostly fall in to one of two camps: horror, and cheese.
The horror and cheese camps
In this first category of films, I would argue, are ones like The Wicker Man or Trainspotting. Now by “horror” I don’t mean the horror film genre, though The Wicker Man clearly belongs there. I mean horror in the general sense, in that this category of film presents a horrific view of Scotland. Trainspotting, for instance, is a magnificent film – grim, gritty, funny, poignant, and a brutal potrayal of drug abuse and addiction in Edinburgh. What it doesn’t do, however, is make you want to visit the city or the country. Meanwhile The Wicker Man boasts some lovely scenery, but it’s hardly an advert for warm Scottish hospitality.
I’d even add Gregory’s Girl into this category. It’s a heartwarming story of adolescence, though by the way I found it an underwhelming, boring and incredibly dated film. It’s “horror” for my purposes because it shows a dreadful side of Scotland: the ugly and soulless world of post-war new towns. Nobody will watch Gregory’s Girl and say “that’s beautiful, let’s go there”.
In the cheese camp are those films which misrepresent Scotland visually, culturally or otherwise to an over-the-top degree. Brave, of course, fits in here, as does the historical void that is Braveheart. Brave I have already commented on; and Braveheart gives only a Hollywood picture of Scottish early medieval history; and even the scenery is mostly Ireland.
By misleading people about the scenery, and by overdosing on the tartan and “hoots, mon” cliches, you will either put people off or disappoint them. Though perhaps anyone who wants to visit Scotland on the back of the scenery portrayed in Brave is probably stupid enough to deserve being disappointed.
Striking the balance
Now my point is not to deconstruct the artistic and creative merits of these films, but to put them in the context of Scotland’s tourist industry and the government’s commendable desire to “back a winner” that can turn cinema seats into hotel beds. Whether or not they are good films or not is irrelevant to my argument that they are counter-productive to the idea of selling Scotland to potential visitors.
Sell them horror, and they’ll not want to come. Sell them cheese, and at best they’ll see through it; and at worst they will visit then be hugely disappointed.
What films, then, exist in the middle ground between horror and cheese? What cinematic portrayals of Scotland have the right balance of beauty and realism, painting an attractive picture of Scotland without being way off the mark? And which ones, more importantly, back up that balance with good quality film-making that is likely to sell cinema tickets, stick in people’s minds, and be attractive to Scottish marketing budgets?
There are very few films in this middle ground that I can think of, that are or would have been attractive “riders” for the Scottish Government and tourist authorities to back. So I asked on Twitter, summarising much of the above in a few tweets and seeking suggestions for titles.
Examples of middle ground films
One response I got was Local Hero. With a mix of beautiful scenery and a classic tale of the oligarch versus the everyman, it’s a positive sort of message to get behind. Though I must confess to being less than wowed by the film, and the sad decline of the village of Pennan is testament to the lack of significant impact the film had in terms of tourism to Scotland.
Another suggestion was a marvellous film I had until then forgotten about: Restless Natives. I watched it once years ago, and while this 1980s film will I am sure it feel dated today, I really enjoyed it and ought to track it down to watch again. It tells the story of two young men in Edinburgh who, seeking a thrill, don ridiculous disguises and begin holding up tour buses on Scottish roads and extorting money. Far from terrifying and deterring visitors, their cheery, non-violent demeanour turns them into cult heroes and major tourist attractions, with visitors flocking to the country in the hope that they might meet them. I don’t remember everything about the film, but remember laughing a lot and seeing a lot of beautiful countryside. Maybe this, with a balance of good Scottish humour and good Scottish scenery, is the key. The film was not successful abroad, but maybe it was the sort of thing that should have been jumped on by the tourist industry and government.
Wracking my brains, only two other “middle ground” films come to mind.
One is Doomsday, which I reviewed here, a science fiction thriller. Admittedly there are elements of both horror and cheese in this film, and while both are done firmly tongue-in-cheek it’s probably not politically correct enough to be the sort of film that would sell Scotland to the masses. Also, although there is a lot of great scenery, key elements of it are filmed in South Africa, which is a disappointment.
The second is Seachd, the first feature film to be made in Gaelic. It made some headlines upon its release, not least because of its pioneering move to bring Gaelic to the big screen. I’ve not seen it, but from the little I’ve heard and read, I understand that it has some fantasy elements but is nevertheless rooted in real ideas, real culture and – importantly – real scenery. And not just any scenery, but some of Skye’s and Scotland’s most stunning. Was this a rider that the Scottish tourism moneymen failed to back?
So with only two films in that middle ground that I can think of, I’m left wondering whether the Scottish Government has been backing the wrong horses simply because there aren’t enough of the right kinds of horse. In which case, that’s a separate debate about the support of film-making in Scotland. Of course, I’m far from a cinema buff, so perhaps I’m missing some titles that would be fine examples of how to sell Scotland.
And please don’t mistake this post as resting on the premise that cinema exists only as a hook for tourism. It doesn’t, and it should never exist as a creative industry purely for economic or political ends. However, occasionally there will be big hits that unintentionally or otherwise have the potential to sell Scotland abroad, and in those instances it’s only right that the government and tourist authorities look at how they can get involved in supporting the film and encouraging people to visit on the back of watching them.
The problem is, of course, and the point I’m hopefully making in this post, is that there is a lack of films that might work as a magnet for tourists that portray neither an ultra-realistic image nor a cliche-ridden schmaltzy image. Brave, I’d argue, fails to do this no matter how good it is as a film.
What, then, would work? What films fit that difficult middle ground?
If you can think of any films that are neither horror nor cheese, and which portray the very best of Scotland in a way that could sell the country better than Brave, Braveheart or any others, then let’s hear them.
Nicole and I spent our first Saturday afternoon since getting back from holiday on a wee expedition to Gruinard Bay, a lovely little beach – well, two adjacent beaches, really – on the Wester Ross coast.
Sheltered from the road by a small, thick forest and then a longish walk over dunes, it presents a secluded image, though one when we visited of quite a bustle, with campers, daytrippers and hikers in evidence. There’s a nice wee peninsula out to a small hillock overlooking the bay that presents lovely views.
I didn’t notice at the time Gruinard Island, home – so I’ve just discovered from a quick Google – to anthrax testing during the Second World War and some subsequent biological warfare shenanigans. Read the story on Wikipedia. I have to say I had never known about this. But the Highlands has a fascinating history regarding the war, from testing and exercise locations to downed planes and other dramas. I’d love to look into it in a little more detail.
On our way home, we got caught in traffic from Dingwall, as a stream of cars and buses headed south, clearly from the mighty Ross County’s historic Scottish Premier League debut at home to Motherwell.
I’m convinced that now there are two Highland teams in the SPL, pressure to dual the A9 faster than the current timetable will increase. And with one of those being in Dingwall, that is bound to extend to the stretch between the Ross-shire town and the Tore roundabout.
I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about the pinnacle of my acting career. It happened towards the end of my time at university.
Well, I say “pinnacle”; “totality” would be more accurate.
A group of friends of mine were active in a drama society during my last year at Aberdeen University, when I was undertaking my sabbatical year as president of the students’ association. They were working on a short one-act play, and while I can’t quite remember how I got involved, they roped me in to play one of the key parts.
The play was the comedy farce The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard. I’d never heard of either the play or the playwright, but as I got more involved I found it a rather fun story.
Essentially a play within a play, The Real Inspector Hound begins with two critics meeting up in their theatre seats to review a performance. They chat away, noting that a third colleague of theirs hasn’t turned up. The action switches to the subject of their review, with the commencement of an early twentieth-century murder mystery which is shamelessly packed full of all the best parodies of Agatha Christie-style stories. The set is a large dining room in a lonely but grand country house, the characters are all very posh, and over in the corner of the room lies a corpse, as yet unnoticed by the characters.
The action switches backwards and forwards from cliched mystery in the form of the play within the play to the sanctimonious banter from the two theatre critics, both still unsure as to where their third fellow critic has gone. At one point, in a break in the murder mystery, the critics’ chat is interrupted by a grand old telephone ringing on the set. Inexplicably, one of the critics marches on-stage and answers it. It’s his wife.
From that point, things get ridiculous, with the line between the two realities completely blurred, and more than a few connections emerging between the lives of the critics and the the lives of the characters in the murder mystery. Perhaps predictably, the corpse in the corner turns out to be the missing theatre critic.
It’s a delightfully silly story, and not a little complicated in places, the absurdity adding to the sense of farce and parody.
To quote Wikipedia:
I played the corpse.
It was quite a challenging role – for the best part of an hour I had to lie completely still; no easy feat on a cold, hard floor. As I liked to declare at the time, it was a hard part to get because the competition was very stiff. The student newspaper, alluding to my student officer role at the time, described it as “the best presidential death since JFK”.
The subsequent offers failed to flood in for someone capable of playing a pivotal character despite remaining motionless and emotionless for the duration of a performance.
I suppose Tom Hanks gets all those sorts of roles instead.
You know you’re in a unique place when you’re watching an exploration of gay experiences of spirituality told through the mediums of poetry and dance, and where one of the poems has the quite magnificent title of:
“The visit of the Queen of the Lesbians to the gay men’s prayer group in West Belfast”.
Not least when that’s followed up by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in full moderatorial garb, playing on-stage with his band.
I must add, though, that much as the poem title above is funny, the poet responsible, Pádraig Ó Tuama, told me when we spoke later that the story behind it is sad. The men involved have churches and often even close family members who do not know about, and would not approve of, their homosexuality. Thus they are forced as a result to live a lie and meet each other for fellowship in relative secrecy.
That’s a little snapshot of the sights, sounds and issues of Solas Festival, where I spent the past weekend.
It was a remarkable place and event: a small, family-friendly festival of arts, music, discussion, spirituality and not a little wind and rain in the south of Scotland. I’ve been to Glastonbury and T in the Park once each, and while they were fun neither of them come close to Solas for the atmosphere.
Set in a field next to the little village (and old YMCA lodge) of Wiston in South Lanarkshire, the festival has a laid back, inclusive feel to it, with all age ranges and a diverse calendar of activities. It’s been running three years now, and this is the first time I have gone, thanks to an invite to speak. It was, above all, a friendly place, and I met loads of interesting people, and rather delightfully bumped into around a dozen familiar faces.
The most remarkable thing about it, though, is its size. Just a few hundred people attending, Solas is mostly run by volunteers, with dedicated enthusiasts working hard throughout the year to create each festival. That dedication manifests itself in the atmosphere – it’s friendly, inclusive and really feels like a labour of love on the part of those who make it happen.
I took in quite a bit of music, the outstanding highlight by far being Wester Ross band Grousebeater Soundsystem who, besides having the best band name I’ve heard for a long time, purvey a terrifically catchy blend of Celtic and electronic sounds. Check out their music on SoundCloud.
But mostly – and this is maybe a sign of me getting old – I was into more of the talk stuff. There’s a strong ethos of generating debate around society and justice, and so there were quite a few well-kent faces there from the political world on top of various other talks about matters spiritual.
I saw an interesting talk with Gerry Hassan and Douglas Alexander MP, which was mostly notable for the amusing attempt by a certain SNP MSP in the audience to bite his tongue and sit on his hands at some of the bizarre things Douglas Alexander was saying on the independence issue.
I also really enjoyed two presentations from land reform campaigner and author Andy Wightman, whose clear presentations on the relationship between land, poverty and economic development persuaded me of a number of things, not least the need for a land tax.
I’d never really thought much about the politics of land a huge amount before, but came away really enlightened as to how it underpins so much of politics as a whole, both here in Scotland and elsewhere in the world, and how it is not just the concern or domain of those in rural areas who work on it.
Another highlight was the champion slam poet Harry Baker, whose geeky verse on maths, dinosaurs and all sorts of other random topics were hilarious and well worth looking up.
I was there principally, of course, for my own talk on the Sunday about travel. I think it went well, at least from the bits of feedback I got, and I enjoyed talking about various bits and pieces of travel and doing some readings from my first book and forthcoming sequel.
When there was nothing particular to take in, though, Solas was an easy place just to amble around. The atmosphere was friendly, relaxing, undemanding, and I felt quite comfortable wandering camera in hand, taking in the sights and sounds.
There was a particularly engaging and eerie atmosphere very early on the Saturday morning, when the rain had woken me in the wee small hours, and I explored the ghostly, empty site before anyone else was up. So while my experience of Solas was full of fun and colour, there might be a slight misrepresentation of the weekend in the more muted photos I’ve uploaded.
I’d love to go back to Solas next year. There was a real sense of the artistic, the spiritual and the political all coming together and shaping each other. It was quite a special place.
Not because it’s an excellent read (though it certainly is that), but because something happens towards the end that casts confusion and doubt over everything you’ve read so far.
And when you do read it again, you realise just how clever the opening is at setting the tone for the rest of the story. Then throughout, you see clues that you didn’t pick up on the first time around, but which on the second read scream so loudly about what they so blatantly point at, that you think you must have been stupid to miss them the first time.
Or maybe it’s just me and I really was being stupid the first time.
When I read this originally two or three months ago, I remember thinking that I was quite enjoying it but not as much as the author’s first book (more on which later). Then I got to that “game changer” near the end. I’ll not spoil the book by revealing it here, but if you read A Method Actor’s Guide… then you’ll see what I mean and will understand why I’ve chosen not to spoil it.
The novel is set in Edinburgh, and revolves around the life of a struggling actor, Robert, who is finding it hard to get on with his forthcoming performance, a stage version of Jekyll and Hyde, and who has more than a few personality clashes with his fellow cast. Though clearly a thoughtful and and intelligent character, Robert’s ability to rub people up the wrong way and tendency to self-destruct leads to an enjoyable and often tense tale of man versus world.
To say more would reveal some of the twist, but suffice to note that the story deals with issues of our sense of self and sense of place, in a way that clearly draws on the author’s own interests in philosophy and his love of the character and nature of Edinburgh.
Having just recently finished my second read-through of it, I’m now a little clearer about what precisely it’s all about and what happened, though the book is so rich and deep that there are still questions in my mind I can’t quite figure out.
Maybe I was being stupid the second time too.
While it’s a great book, and highly recommendable, it would be remiss of me to blog about Kevin MacNeil without mentioning his first, and in my view better, novel The Stornoway Way.
Given it is about his native isle of Lewis, and is a less than complimentary portrait of its main town, Stornoway, the first thing to say, therefore, is that this is an exceptionally brave book.
The characters, both central and background, are vividly described and their real-life inspirations are probably quite easily identifiable to those who know the town. However the book is all the better for its brutal honesty.
The main character, who carries the pseudonym R Stornoway, is a drunken waster, a man struggling to come to terms with both himself and the town in which he lives. His ambition and failings embody the curious personality of the town.
Mixing R Stornoway’s whisky-fuelled introspection with powerful demonstrations of human capacity for self-destruction, it might not be too far off the mark to suggest The Stornoway Way is like Trainspotting, but with whisky and Stornoway replacing heroin and Edinburgh as its two backdrops.
Growing up in the Uists, Stornoway was in a sense “the big town” to me, and I remember noting on a school visit aged around nine or ten just how big and scary the place seemed. From my experiences of the town over the years, there is an odd duality about it – its people are worldly: intelligent and great travellers. But there is an insularity about it too; as if people think it’s the best place in the world even after checking out all the competition.
This is summed up perfectly in one of the most powerful lines from the book, when our anti-hero declares “We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond.” In those words, I have never read a better description of the character of Stornoway or Lewis.
The Stornoway Way is not just an immediately local book though. Things wider than the personalities of Stornoway are sent up, including aspects of island and Gaelic culture, and anyone who has watched more than a little Gaelic TV or spent time in the Highlands and Islands will laugh knowingly at the biting references to everything from the Mod to the area’s tragically rampant alcoholism.
The book should therefore be useful reading for anyone with an interest in the contemporary Highlands and Islands, smashing as it does the romantic view of this part of the world as a quaint, picture-postcard land of earnest faith and friendly locals. It’s probably the only novel set in the Highlands that I’ve read which doesn’t contain an ounce of cliché or kitsch, and that has to count for a lot.
On a wider level, though, a broader audience will recognise the themes of small town life, the struggle for personal meaning and identity, the fickle nature of friendship, and the humorous reflections on humanity as a whole.
Like A Method Actor’s Guide, The Stornoway Way demonstrates the author’s magnificent powers of observation, his brilliant characterisation, and his immensely poetic use of language. Indeed, I shouldn’t understate the poetry and language in either book, nor the fact that MacNeil is as renowned a poet as he is novelist (not to mention playwright and musician).
I am not, I must confess, a voracious reader of Scottish fiction, but Kevin MacNeil is probably my favourite Scottish novelist, past or present. Both the above books are a pleasure to read, and ones I’d heartily recommend.
Called The Last Projectionist, it’s something of a departure for them. The Liverpool-based purveyors of beautful, arty post-rock have produced their first concept album, and this interview explains in a bit more depth that they aimed to produce an album that evoked something of the impact – both positive and negative – of technological progress. You perhaps get the idea from the album cover (right) – a retro, steampunk hint at the blend of the human and the technological.
The title in itself, The Last Projectionist, hints at some of those ideas, and I was delighted and privileged to be given a digital copy of the album to listen to and review.
I suspected I would love the album, as I have enjoyed their previous output, ranking one or two tracks from both the debut album and Arecibo as among my favourite tracks in the post-rock genre, easily comparable to the greats such as Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky or Mono.
Indeed I did enjoy The Last Projectionist, but I confess it took me a while to get into it. I eventually realised that it was because The Last Projectionist represented a slightly deeper, richer and more mournful sound than their previous work, and is different in that it attempts to capture the concept that inspired the album.
The opening track, This is Fucking Glorious, has a dramatic start with cathedral-like richness in the initial keyboard tones, soon joined by a pulsing drumbeat and then tense guitar rhythms that build up with great suspense to an eventual crescendo. This releases the track into a soaring, funky screech of guitars that that is so catchy and compelling that the song feels a little too short. It is followed by Rockets Don’t Need Fuel, a similar fusion of tense guitar, deep bass, edgy drumming and atmospheric keyboards, blended to create a sense of expectation, anticipation and almost danger.
The next track, A Show Of Hands feels initially like a gentler and barer offering, with its lighter and perhaps more cheerful feel nevertheless delivering a tantalising, catchy riff and heavy conclusion; and it’s followed by another more gentle track IR Monster with a real haunting film-score melody.
She’s A Sleeper, the one track available for preview (above), returns to rich, heavy and dark guitars, and is perhaps the angriest on the album, hinting at some of Mono’s heavier tracks or The Smashing Pumpkins’ later works. The album’s finale, eponymously titled The Last Projectionist, is another change of mood, back to soft, thoughful and mournful, hinting at the more negative, nostalgic elements of the album’s theme.
And that theme is something that, if I had a criticism of the album, I struggle to truly see in much depth outside the final song. While they are all great tracks – particularly the first two in my view, which are among MinionTV’s best – the sense of nostalgia for a technologically simpler era doesn’t come out so strongly except in the last track. That’s not to say it’s not an evocative album as a whole (it is, like most of their music), and it’s maybe a matter of interpretation as to how much the concept shines through.
Either way, for me personally, it doesn’t really matter. As it is, concept or not, The Last Projectionist is an energetic, thoughtful, rich, deep album that is up to and perhaps even exceeds MinionTV’s own high standards.
Disclosure: I was given a free download of The Last Projectionist by MinionTV.
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