Monthly Archives: June 2017


A wee think about things

I’m watching a short clip on YouTube. I’ve watched it twice already before clicking on it again. It’s is twenty-one seconds long; in it, a man walks through a dreich-looking housing scheme, early morning, streets deserted, shouting, ‘She’s turned the weans against us.’ Arms extended in a show of disbelief, the man is wearing tracksuit bottoms and a jacket, no top beneath the jacket, his pale and paunchy belly visible. He says, ‘She’s turned the weans against us’ a few more times before the sketch ends.

Despite the number of times I’ve seen that sketch, it still makes me chuckle, despite not observing the notional ‘rules’ for structuring a joke: no set-up, call-back, or punchline. If I had to settle on a reason the sketch is so funny, my guess is that my laughter grows from a sense of recognition; the scene is as familiar as it’s absurd. It’s a truth not universally acknowledged, but true all the same, that to live in Scotland is to encounter in the street, sooner or later, an inappropriately-dressed radge shouting something bizarre.

The sketch was written, directed and stars comedian Brian Limond, better known as Limmy. Over three series of Limmy’s Show and, now, two short story collections, Limmy has explored the wayward texture of everyday life in Scotland. Discussion of his work tends to dwell on its weirder aspects. Certainly, it makes for memorable television. In one sketch, a woman discovers her partner has taken to wearing a lampshade over his head; a friend who comes around to talk him out of it is persuaded to wear a lampshade himself; by the end of the show, the girlfriend flees an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers scenario where the residents of her apartment block, like her partner, all wear lampshades. Fear of conformity is a recurring theme.

What is less spoken about is just how melancholic the show is. If sketches often descend into a gratuitous nostalgie de la boue, they’re balanced by others which depict a tragic vision of relationships and work as limiting and frustrating, the consequences of which are mental illness, addiction and violence. One of his more memorable characters, Jacqueline McCafferty, ‘lost three year o ma life on heroin’ (pronounced ‘her-o-wine’) as she wastes no opportunity to share, while perma-stoned Dee Dee’s prospects are so shrunken, a trip to Yoker (ten minutes away by bus) is an adventure to ‘this pure fabled land that sounds like a pure mad egg yolk’. In another sketch, an insomniac Limmy is tortured by his own mind: ‘Hi, it’s me, your mind. Seeing as you’re awake I thought we might have a wee think about things, things you don’t have time to think about during the day. Some concerns, some worries. How are you for money?… Here, forget about that, it’s only money, so long as you’ve got your health. Speaking of your health, no long now, getting on a bit, eh….’ Limmy is a superb actor whose face can collapse into stricken looks you laugh at for fear if you don’t, your heart will shatter.

The son of a joiner, Limmy was born in 1974 and brought up in Carnwadric on Glasgow’s south side. After failing at college, Limmy spent a period depressed and alcoholic, and considered suicide. He began to recover after enrolling in a course run by the Job Centre teaching website design, which led him to start his own company. In his spare time, he set up a website that showcased animations he wrote and directed. BBC Scotland’s Comedy Unit came into possession of a DVD of his videos and he was offered a stand-up show at Glasgow Comedy Festival in 2007. He became known as an ‘internet sensation’ after several lo-fi comedy clips uploaded to YouTube and his Limmy’s World of Glasgow podcasts attracted a wider audience. After a successful run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, the BBC Comedy Unit gave him a pilot that aired in 2009, with his first proper series showing the next year. Even after making the transfer to television, Limmy continued to experiment online, making hundreds of sanity-bothering six-second loops on Vine while raising trolling to the level of an artform via his Twitter account.

Limmy’s Show won acclaim beyond Scotland, with comics Armando Iannucci, Richard Herring, Charlie Brooker, Graham Linehan, Stephen Fry and Matt Lucas declaring themselves fans. It’s surprising, as one might have thought his sense of humour so intrinsically Scottish, it would’ve been difficult for his comedy to gain purchase south of the border. His sketches are performed in unrepentant west coast accents and peppered with idiomatic Scots. Fans appear rarer on the ground, however, inside the BBC’s London HQ. Limmy’s Show was never broadcast outside Scotland except on BBC3 in the early hours during the week, a ‘best of’ compilation drawing on the three series he made for BBC Scotland. Non-Scottish devotees had to seek him out via the iPlayer. The BBC’s decision was perplexing, given that they awarded a national networked slot to the inferior if somewhat more mainstream BBC Scotland comedies Gary Tank Commander and Burnistoun. In 2013, the Guardian went so far as to write an editorial asking the BBC to air Limmy’s Show throughout the UK. Although there are reports he’s currently in talks with the BBC, Limmy no longer has a regular television show. After Limmy’s Show concluded, he worked on a sitcom centred on his character Falconhoof, which the BBC rejected, leading him towards a new outlet for his comedy: short stories.

Fans of Limmy’s Show will recognise the tone that runs throughout the stories that comprise his first two collections, Daft Wee Stories, published in 2015, and That’s Your Lot, published earlier this year. Although Limmy has often mocked the very thought of becoming an author – Daft Wee Stories is dedicated to ‘everybody that can’t be arsed with a real book’ – there is a certain logic in his move from sketch show to an author of short stories, the brevity of his tales, coupled with their dark and surreal tone, mimicking the quick fire feel of his sketch show; there are 29 stories in 314 pages in That’s Your Lot. And like his sketch show – like any contemporary sketch show – the quality control can be hit-and-miss, with the number of side-splitters and head scratchers about equal (although even Limmy’s less successful sketches still contribute to the show’s unsettling mood).

Given his concern with language, it shouldn’t be a surprise to Limmy or his fans that his attention would eventually turn towards literature. His zest for the modern urban demotic is matched only by his dislike of Americanisms, trendy words and incorrect usage. In one sketch, a friend offers Limmy ‘a muffit of tea’, provoking Limmy’s incredulity. He’s never heard a cuppa referred to as ‘a muffit of tea’, although a friend and his partner insist it’s a common phrase. In the next scene, despite misgivings, Limmy finds himself ordering ‘a muffit of tea’ in a café, only for his friend and girlfriend to appear, laughing. It was a joke! Giggling, Limmy says: ‘How stupid and weak-minded of me to start calling something by another name for no reason other than that’s what everyone else is calling it now,’ at which point, he stops dead, looks directly at the camera and says: ‘D’you know what I mean?’

That’s Your Lot is a more sombre collection than Daft Wee Stories. Whereas the cover of the first collection featured a Limmy grinning dementedly on its cover, That’s Your Lot is simply black, no details beyond the title, and reminiscent of a gravestone. Fear of deteriorating mental health haunts the book. In ‘New Life’, a man gathers his friends together to tell them he’s suicidal and will only survive if they never contact him again, allowing him to reinvent himself. Long-term relationships are depicted as sites of psychic agony that cause people to act out of character. In one of That’s Your Lot’s odder excursions, a man is so bored by family life, he develops telekinesis:

You couldn’t just be the type of bored you get when there’s nothing to watch on telly. You had to be a special type of bored. The type of bored you get when you’re stuck in a soft play with no connection on your phone, stuck with a family that you’re bored of. Stuck with a life that you’re bored of.

If it isn’t family life, it’s work that’s the cause of unhappiness. ‘The Dog’ exposes the emptiness of office life, the hollow shows of confidence upon which deal-making depends:

This is where the small talk usually happened, during the minute or two before the taxi arrived. He wasn’t sure if he could do it… Not today. If he could have come up with a good enough excuse to get away, he would have, something about being too busy to talk… Then he could rush off to his room or out the door.

Limmy’s ultimate statement on what office life does to the soul is Limmy’s Show’s recurring character Mr Mulvaney, a middle-aged corporate manager, drowning, not waving, who resorts to shoplifting and setting off fire alarms to alleviate his ennui, although any pressure his petty crimes might release is instantly negated by his comically unnecessary fear the police are after him. Watching a Mr Mulvaney sketch or two after reading ‘The Dog’ underlines where That’s Your Lot goes wrong. Whereas Limmy has proven himself adept on television at creating memorable characters, his short stories’ protagonists are to a man – and most of them are men, women relegated to the role of wives and girlfriends – anonymous.

The stories in his second collection feel hurried, under-developed and lacking a punchline. Daft Wee Stories was dark, but its nihilism was offset by a manic invention and blunt playground humour. There’s nothing quite as unhinged in That’s Your Lot, which, according to a recent interview, was his intention. Claiming to have been influenced by Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Alice Munro, he said, ‘They’re a slice of somebody’s life, with no particular punchline, no happy ending. It’s kind of like, that’s it, that’s your lot.’

Reading That’s Your Lot, I was reminded of a story from the previous collection, ‘Nothing Happens’. In it, a couple are watching a soap opera. The male protagonist Johnny is moved to comment that far from realistic, soaps, with their need to impose plots on their characters’ daily doings, are travesties of the everyday.

This was real life, this was realistic. Johnny thought somebody should write something like this, and stick it on the telly, or in a film. Or in a book. ‘Who’d want to read this?’ laughed Paula, flicking through the channels to see what else was on. ‘I would,’ said Johnny. ‘A story about nothing.’

Although things do happen in That’s Your Lot, with a surreal twist occasionally, the tone is so relentlessly downbeat, one often finds oneself at the conclusion of a story suppressing a shrug.

In case you’re wondering, ‘Nothing Happens’ ends with Johnny’s Knaussgard-like musings on plot minimalism being interrupted by an alien ‘Doom Ray’ that destroys the earth, a narrative coup of the sort That’s Your Lot misses.

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SRB DIARY: Going Back To Okinawa

The island of Okinawa lies in the East China Sea some four hundred miles to the south-west of mainland Japan. Before I visited it, at the invitation of the Japanese Foreign Press Centre, I knew of it only because of Ry Cooder’s rollicking ‘Going Back to Okinawa’ and its reputation as the site of the last, horrendous battle of World War Two.

The few Japanese I know glowed at its mention. It was a place, they said, that they had always wanted to go to. One described it and the Ryukyu archipelago of which it is part as ‘Shangri-la’. Everyone told me how different the Okinawans are from other Japanese. They look different, speak a different dialect, eat different food and have a distinctive culture and religion. Above all, their attitude to life is different. In my mind’s eye I formed a picture of a tropical paradise with clear blue seas, coral reefs, sandy beaches and hippyish, easy-going people who take things pretty much as they come. One book I read – The Okinawa Way: How To Improve Your Health and Longevity Dramatically by Bradley J. Wilcox and others – reinforced this impression. Thanks in part to diet, in which bitter melon and turmeric tea feature significantly, remarked Wilcox, Okinawa boasts more centenarians per head of population than anywhere else. Its inhabitants are thus the longest-lived people in world. Heart disease is uncommon, breast cancer is so rare that screening mammography is unnecessary, and most aging men have never heard of prostrate cancer. Hence the sobriquet, ‘the land of the happy immortals’.

It was hard to reconcile such sunny thoughts with what had happened at the fag-end of WW2. Over the course of eighty-two nightmarish days, US forces pulverized the islanders into submission. Though the figures vary, it’s believed that more than 120,000 Okinawans, including 94,000 civilians, lost their lives or were posted missing, due either to Japanese or American combat action or suicide, or were murdered by their soi-disant compatriots to prevent their surrender or to steal their food. By way of comparison, some 130,000 people were killed by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That so many Okinawans lost their lives was indicative of the way they were viewed by other Japanese who were inclined to regard them as expendable. Economically, socially and politically, Okinawans had reason to believe that they were second-class citizens and could expect no favours from their masters on the mainland. On the contrary, anyone able to bear arms was conscripted and ordered to fight on even when it was obvious that it would result in their doom. To this day, many Okinawans remain bitter about their treatment, caught as they were in the Americans’ tetsu no bofu – ‘Typhoon of Steel’.

My trip began and ended in Toyko where I spent a couple of days. in between, together with a couple of other journalists from the US and Canada, Mr Murata, our punctilious translator, and Mr Suguwara, a sparky representative of the Foreign Press Centre, I travelled by plane first to Ishigaki island and then Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture. It was an intense itinerary. Over the course of five days there were back-to-back interviews with academics and politicians, fishermen and fighter pilots, representatives of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and the American military. Most of these encounters were on the record though restrictions on note-taking, recording and photographing were politely – if firmly – requested. The ostensible reason for the visit was the growing tension in the area. For the most part this is due to China’s increased expansion in the East China Sea, especially in the corridor between Ishigaki island and the uninhabited Senkaku islands, which are under the jurisdiction of the City of Ishigaki and have long been a cause of an ownership dispute between Japan and China. Of late there has been an increasing – and alarming – number of Chinese government vessels and fishing boats in waters surrounding the Senkaku islands. Meanwhile, the frequency of scrambles against Chinese aircraft in the East China Sea has jumped dramatically. Ten years ago, for example, there were just six scrambles while last year there were at least 644.

For many of the people I met this was seen as sabre-rattling and disconcerting. Of late, fishermen have been told to avoid the area with the result that their catches – and income – have been severely depleted. ‘We are scrambling to defend or protect our territorial air space,’ said Colonel Masanori Tsuji, a Vice Commander of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force at Naha Air Base. Others I interviewed described the situation as ‘dangerous’ and ‘frightening’. The unspoken word was ‘war’. What China’s ultimate aim is was anyone’s guess. Meetings apparently take place at official level but given the increased activity in the air and sea they appear to have little effect. ‘We do not conduct any provocative actions,’ said Mr Tsuji. ‘We do not know the intention of China. We only know their activities have intensified.’

* * *

Travelling by car from Naha to Kadena, the US’s airbase on Okinawa, we passed stores selling stetsons, cowboy boots, army surplus gear and Spam – the canned cooked meat, not the stuff that plays havoc with computers. Hereabouts, Mr Suguwara said, it is regarded as a delicacy and used in stir fries. ‘Would I like to try some?’ I said that if he didn’t mind, I’d rather not. Spam was one of the more visible signs of the American presence. Another was the ear-splitting, repose-ruining roar of F-15 fighters which are a constant reminder to Okinawans that their nirvana is also a potential apocalypse. Over 23,000 people – including 6,600 US Air Force personnel – live or work at Kadena Air Base, which is ‘the hub of airpower in the Pacific’ and home to ‘Team Kadena’ – ‘a world-class combat team ready to fight and win’. Nearly a fifth of the island is given over to it and other bases. There is a golf course, familiar fast food outlets and other facilities designed to counter homesickness. Sean Bryant, a military PR man, welcomed us ‘on behalf of General Cornish’, the base’s commander. ‘We are a team of professionals committed to peace in the Pacific,’ he stressed. He was also keen to underline the US’s commitment to working with the people of Okinawa, many of whom would like to be shot of the base and the F-15s, which are a constant reminder of the precariousness of their existence.

The situation in which the Americans find themselves is deeply ironic. Having been the aggressors they now prefer to promote their role as defenders. Over the years, however, several unsavoury and calamitous incidents have soured relations between the native inhabitants and the incomers and made efforts at rapprochement troublesome. One notorious crime took place in 1995 when three US servicemen abducted a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, duct-taped her mouth and eyes and beat and raped her. Since then there have been numerous other incidents which have not helped improve relations between Okinawans and Americans. For many Okinawans, many of whom are ardent pacifists, the very idea of American forces on their island is an affront. The island’s two main newspapers are against what they regard as an occupation. Increasingly, though, public opinion is said to be shifting. For instance, a majority of young people, who have no memory of the war, appear to be generally in favour of the bases.

* * *

Second guessing what China is up to in the environs of the Senkaku Islands is an exercise in frustration. All local people can do is point to what has been happening; more Chinese boats and planes entering Japanese air and sea space and landings by Chinese ‘activists’ on uninhabited islands. The history of Sino-Japanese relations is replete with examples of manufactured crises. It would not be surprising, many commentators believe, for the Chinese to manufacture a situation in which Japan was made to look like the aggressor and fabricate an excuse to seize the islands and take control of the waters around them. In such circumstances, what would the US do? Would Donald Trump rush to defend an ally on whose soil so many of his servicemen and women reside? Or would he simply turn the other cheek and put America first? To the relief of many in Okinawa, US Secretary Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to Japan earlier this year, reaffirmed the strength of the US-Japan alliance and to the defense of the Senkaku islands. For the likes of Yoshitaka Nakayama, the personable mayor of Ishigaki City, such reassurances may be welcome but he is still concerned over the detrimental impact of the Chinese on the local fishing industry. Over dinner, however, at a restaurant specializing in traditional fare, he relaxed and encouraged guests to drink as much beer as they felt able to consume since the tariff was all-inclusive. Plate after plate arrived, the contents of which you would need to be an oceanographer to identify. One of the delicacies I was persuaded to try, perhaps because of its life-prolonging properties, consisted of a tangle of seaweed soaked liberally in vinegar. Suffice it to say, I demurred when asked if I would like a second helping.

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Remembering Yevtushenko

It is a bit disconcerting to read of the death of someone you didn’t realize was still alive. Actually I had no reason to think of Yevgeny Yevtushenko as dead. It’s just that I hadn’t heard of him for a long time. I suppose it should have been no surprise to learn that he had been living and teaching in the USA; it’s where so many Russian writers end up.

His great years were well behind him and I wonder whether his name means much, or indeed anything, to many young people. But half a century and more ago he was a true celebrity: the Soviet Union’s first pop star poet, one of a handful of famous dissidents, author of poems about the Nazi atrocity of Babi Yar and Stalin’s tomb. ‘Dissident’ was, some thought, too strong a word. He wasn’t silenced or persecuted by the regime. You might say he was a licensed dissenter. Some of the fiercest western critics of the Soviet Union – such as Robert Conquest – regarded him with scepticism. Conquest’s close friend Kingsley Amis, who had met him when Yevtushenko was permitted to visit London, gave him a rough ride in an article, repeated later in his memoirs. Yevtushenko was naturally aggrieved. When Anthony Powell encountered him at a writers’ conference in, I think, Sofia, and, seeking to establish some common ground, said ‘I believe you know my friend Kingsley Amis’, the reply was, ‘yes, he’s a shit’.

I met him once myself. In the autumn of 1977 the Soviet Writers’ Union invited the Scottish Arts Council to send what it doubtless called ‘a fraternal delegation’ to Moscow. The invitation was accepted, and so Trevor Royle , then Literature Director there, and Liz Lochhead and I set off. We were lodged in the Hotel Pekin which, I have recently learned from Joseph Kanon’s novel Defector ranked third or fourth among Moscow’s Grand Hotels. The cooking was terrible, the Chinese chefs having been recalled after Chairman Mao’s fall-out with the Soviet Union; but I have a happy memory of Liz breakfasting off caviar sandwiches in the Hotel Bar.

Diplomatic courtesy, if nothing else, meant that we received an invitation near the end of our trip to dinner in the British Embassy. It was a small gathering, the only other guests being Yeny Yevtushenko and his English girl-friend, a product of Cheltenham Ladies College with a county accent. I can’t remember her name and I don’t know if she was the Englishwoman who became his third wife. At some point in the evening Trevor asked him something about Hugh MacDiarmid, perhaps whether he had met Scotland’s most famous Communist man of letters. ‘MacDiarmid,’ was the reply, ‘’e’s a great poet, but politically ‘e’s crazy’. I agreed with the second judgement and didn’t dissent from the first, as I might today.

Dinner over, the night still young, Yeny suggested we might like to drive out to his dacha, drink some more , talk and recite poetry. Why not? Absolutely, why not? One certainly wasn’t, in Brehznev’s Soviet Union, going to turn down such a suggestion. So we said thanks to our host in the Embassy – the ambassador? – and set off, the girl-friend – let’s call her Diana – at the wheel. On the outskirts of Moscow we were stopped by the police. Even fortified by vodka, wine and whisky, I felt a twinge of apprehension. This was after all the Soviet Union, a place where any transgression or misunderstanding might have incalculably nasty consequences. My anxiety was soon dispelled. With all the confident clarity of a voice accustomed to sound over the hunting-field, Diana addressed the police as if they had been tiresome hunt saboteurs and told them to fuck off. They did so obediently and she drove on. Russia was full of surprises.

It was snowing at the dacha and there was already snow on the ground, but the house itself was warm, heated by a wood stove. Yeny relaxed. He had been, I suppose, playing the correct diplomatic game at the Embassy, though I had the impression he was a familiar regular guest there. (Did he enjoy the role of approved cultural representative allotted to him?) Now, at home, he was relaxed, told jokes and stories, sang and recited poetry. Liz recited her poems, Trevor sang – Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, I think. No poet and unable to sing , I was engaged in conversation by Diana, conversation interrupted by her duty to open another bottle. I told her I was impressed by her handling of the police. ‘You have to keep them in their place,’ she said. ‘They can easily become bumptious.’ I hadn’t thought of the Soviet police in that way.

Midnight passed. Bottles were opened and emptied, ash-trays brimmed. Then, when I was perhaps wondering how we were going to get back to the delights of the Hotel Pekin, or perhaps past caring, Yeny said, ‘now we take you to visit Pasternak’s grave’. ‘Was he a friend of yours?’ ‘Very good friend. Very good man. Great poet. But sad.’ Diana drove back to Moscow, intrepidly, without police interference. Perhaps they had learned their lesson. The gates of the cemetery were unlocked. We climbed the hill to the grave, unsteadily. It had stopped snowing. Indeed there was no snow on the ground, merely mud. The moon appeared, like an actor answering his cue. We bowed our heads at the graveside. ‘Great poet, very good man, always kind and encouraging to me, but sad,’ Yeny said again. I suppose now he felt some of the same burden as Pasternak: Russian patriots with few, if any, illusions left about the regime, keeper perhaps ,in their own minds, of the Russian soul.

At the Hotel Pekin thanks, kisses and embraces were exchanged. We flew to London the next day. I had lunch with my publisher and told him that the mud on my boots was from Pasternak’s grave. A year later there was a return fraternal visit from representatives of the Soviet Writers Union. One of them told me he was a connection of Lermontov and therefore a descendent of Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune. Perhaps he was, I don’t know.

I remember Yeny Yevtushenko with pleasure, was ready to defend him from accusations of Sovietologists who called him a fake dissident; there was an attractive vulnerability about him. I guess his balancing act was difficult and stressful. He took trouble with us, though unlikely to meet us again. Our evening was fun, beyond expectation and it was also good to have heard the Soviet police being told to fuck off.

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Ayrshire’s Other Bard

Overlooking the graveyard in Greenock where John Galt is buried, there is now a sheltered housing block named after him. Its residents remember the Renfrewshire town as it used to be, but they also feel remembered by the town itself, as if ‘Greenock’ was fully personified, not just a collection of buildings and bus stops and alleyways and drains, but an organism of history with a powerful memory of its own.

Thirty-four miles down the coast, in Ayrshire, the ancient burgh of Irvine has a plaque to Galt at the house where he lived, and, for years, John Galt Primary School stood to remind locals of the town’s most famous literary son. Galt was born in Bank Street in 1779 to a sea captain and a seamstress. He moved away with his family at the age of ten, trying his hand at Greenock, then in London, Canada, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, but for reasons known to capable nostalgists the world over, or to literary archaeologists of selfhood, it was his birthplace that took root in his imagination and grew large in his work.

I used to trace the contours of that plaque with a small finger. It seemed incredible to me as a boy that a writer could be remembered in iron, that his name could go forward through the centuries, and that the faces he captured – so alive, fresh, and ruddy – could rhyme with the faces coming down the road in the Irvine of my own day. Galt was Coleridge’s favourite novelist, the first of his kind to draw on the industrial revolution, inventing the political novel whilst exhibiting a Flemish touch for portraying small-town interiors and common faces. The painter David Wilkie loved Galt, and he shared a similar talent for capturing small-town Scots at their social and political business, ‘characters’ in a way people would still recognize, animated by settled notions of their nature and their economic reality, but lightened by laughter, embodying a simple and powerful notion of truth. In his fiction, our little towns cohered into ‘Gudetown’, ‘Irville’, ‘Garnock’, ‘Dozent’, or ‘Dalmailing’: it is in essence a place fully dimensioned nowhere on earth but in the imagination of the author, a place of ghosts, moreover, whose grief and laughter haunted Galt’s own sense of life. The rustic, pre-industrial West Coast town was on its way out in Scotland as Galt sat down to write; the world of Robert Burns – of holy fairs, kirk supremacy, and excisemen inspecting old ladies’ barrels – was dying as Galt conjured with the spectre of his dirty old town. Yet, in some proto-Modernist manner, he brings the place ceaselessly back as a manifest of his own native psychology: his Dalmailing is the blazing negative of a world he can never have fully known, a place that was lost to him, as innocence is lost and one’s parents are lost in the frugality of time, and yet the world of literature, we see, is forever a sphere of newly arriving sunlight. In this way, Galt’s vision of the town is an auspicious and poetical new dawn for the Scottish novel, a magnification of the psychic relationship that can exist between place and character in modern works, nearly a hundred years before the arrival on the page of Proust’s distant Combray, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Samuel Beckett’s luminous Emptiness.

In a manner later taken up by Thomas Hardy – whose Wessex feels like a more serious enbrownment of John Galt’s western world – we find that the action is wholly mediated through the kenspeckle witnessing of a chorus. In Galt’s tales, indeed, it is as if events emerge from the ‘gossipry of the town’, a phrase to be found in his short story ‘The Mem’ (1834), about a fifty-something schoolmistress, Miss Peerie, whose frugal and sedentary ways appear to cheat her both of lover and love. Galt’s examination has the quality not of an individual dissection but of a common observance. We know as much, not because Galt tells us so, but from the energy of the telling, where a loquacious social discrimination is raised into common sense:

At first her forlorn condition made her constant sadness not remarkable: it seemed, in the opinion of every body, natural and becoming; and though many condoled at the way she lived aloof, none thought that she could be drawn from her retirement. Maybe they were right; but they made no effort, and the poor woman was habituated to neglect long before those that were to blame suspected themselves of committing any wrong towards her. Thus she was far above the thirties before it was thought that the carelessness of her neighbours had been in any degree that cause of her loneliness. She was far advanced in life when it was by-hand noticed, and it had grown in to a second nature with her, that would not be altered.

The reader might delight at the delineation of a type, but we might also perceive the tolling of a local bell in the grey edifice of this voice, for it is the voice of the Reverend Micah Balwhidder, the parish’s chief spiritual guide as well as its fiercest gossip. Balwhidder, an embryo of the great gentleman that had narrated Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), brings the town to life as if he owned it, but also as if possessed by it. ‘In the Sabbath evenings,’ our narrator says, ‘when all nature was sedate’ – presumably thanks to his pluming sermons – when ‘the sounds of the blacksmith’s hammer and the wheels of the wagon and market-cart were at rest, Miss Peerie might be seen walking by herself by the river side, or meditating among the whins on the green. As long as I recollect, this was the case. Every one that saw her spoke in passing by, and her words in answer were few and well chosen; but they gave no encouragement to communion.’ And by similar means we find ourselves in the company of a whole town, a whole town with one woman at the edge, venturing into herself as a person of her sort might. Nothing happens in the story, and yet a whole life happens. Miss Peerie is eventually seen no more by her neighbours. Our douce narrator tells us she remained by her spark of a fire and one day quickly died. Yet, in Galt’s hands, it is the town that is characterized in its reaction to the lonely woman’s death. The mothers of the town took heed and worried at the possible course of life for their own unmarried daughters.

This is the painterly Galt – all stasis yet all vision, wherein a seemingly gossipy portrait of a Scottish schoolteacher can become a manifestation of the town’s anxieties, filtered through the consciousness of its greatest worthy. Galt had that tendency of some novelists to understand the world to some extent backwards, returning to the scene of the original blessing, the birth of his own consciousness and love of language, and seeking to find there the kind of wisdom that nature only makes available, to some, in retrospect. For him, Irvine was a magical location, holding a secret beyond the secrets of Paris or Edinburgh or London, for it came to seem, at least when he wrote, to hold the key to the essentials of human nature as he understood it. And this may be the ruling passion in the house of fiction: how life can appear more vivid when recollected, showing us in the deep realms of metaphor a structure of reality beyond the actual. Each of Galt’s fictions of the Ayrshire town are animated by his unbridgeable absence from it, by a certainty that he can only visit it in his mind, making a world whole again. For Galt, as for many a Scottish writer, this uncanny procedure was chiefly a matter of dialect. He only had to apply a word from his youth – the word ‘eyedency’, for instance, meaning ‘industry’ – and suddenly he could see an Irvine spinster at her spinning wheel, a glint in her eye, ‘a reminiscence of our youth,’ he wrote, ‘in itself at once simple, interesting, and pathetic’. If we take the poet Wallace Stevens at his word, and believe, as Coleridge also did, that reality is nothing without the imagination, then the novelist’s task is one of pure felicity to what is known, inflected by a passion for the invisible. The town becomes a simulacrum for the entire world at the same time as it embodies what is lost to the novelist himself.

By the time Galt came to write ‘The Mem’ – taking readers through the closes of Irvine, by the Low Green and down to the harbour – he had lived away from the town for over forty years. It is a fixation, not a location, and we see it in the best of the fiction he wrote in the golden years of his creativity, 1821 to 1823. Galt was to enjoy several decades as a star writer on literary journals and as an adventurer, but he returned to his old town as if returning to himself, a man in search of first essences. It was in these few brilliant years that he produced his four best novels, The Annals of the Parish, The Ayrshire Legatees, The Provost, and The Entail. ‘Galt’s best books do not contain even the rudiments of a plot,’ wrote the critic S. R. Crockett. ‘One day progresses after another, much like a douce householder’s life in the quiet town of Irvine, punctuated only by the yet greater peace of the recurrent Sabbath-day. There is no plot in the lives of such men, no intrigue save that comical one of couthy self-interest, which Galt treats with a kindliness and an understanding that are unparalleled.’ In the smallest way, the drama is of the political sort, the sort, as Crockett says, ‘that you get into the habit of running to the window to see’, and the essence of these people’s lives can be located in a single person’s voice, that of the ironical narrator who subtly conveys the very meaning of the town, caught so perfectly, so freshly, twenty years before the arrival of the railway. There’s a Wordsworthian gladness in the telling, a Burnsian relish in the ‘birr and smeddum’ of the Scottish tongue, whilst the intricate, local heart is warmed there, contained there, and wrung out. ‘Irvine is the foster-mother of most of what is excellent in the writing,’ Crockett adds. It is a habit of characterization with some writers that their people seem, in some measure, to be made of the same stuff as they walk upon, as if they are in some fundamental way constituent with the earth and the air around them. We taste Galt’s milieu. There is always a better world foretold in his fiction, but the town, for all its corruption, for all its gossip, may seem to the reader to be the only heaven that its inhabitants will ever know.

Micah Balwhidder, the narrating minister in Annals, has a certain delicacy and grace, and comedy proceeds from the sureness of his footing. Those are real cobbles under his feet, and yet the mind that lights on them is as manufactured and beautifully maintained as Uriah Heep’s or Isabel Archer’s, whom Henry James saw as a lucid echo from a store of values, some of them set up for her by society and some by her own imagination. ‘The question comes back,’ James writes in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, ‘to the kind and the degree of the artist’s prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which the subject springs.’ In this respect, our Reverend Balwhidder is a supreme representative of Galt’s home-loving sensibility, the Reverend being local to the point where a person from Glasgow might seem to him a foreigner. His heroism may be comic, and his comedy heroic, but there is something serious in Galt’s regard for him; he is a chief among the men and women of a particular parish, in whom he finds an authentic pulse. The author’s genius was to make the concerns of the south-west of Scotland commensurate, in imaginative terms, not only with the Edinburgh of Walter Scott or the Hampshire of Jane Austen, but with any literary world where the panopticon of human wishes is laid out in a clearly designated field. Annals of the Parish shows us a Hogarthian parade of small-town, couthy neighbours and gossips, errant politicos, smugglers, drunken town drummers, spaewives, nosey lawyers, recruiters, farmers, and their docile sons. They tumble through the pages like the blown furze of time itself, landing year by year in these annals, before blowing out again into a vast and unknowable universe of the dead. Galt for me is a wizard of time, bringing a psychology of loss to our understanding of social pattern. I see a graveyard at the back of his work and a sunlit amphitheatre to the fore, where the reader stands. If it snows in Ayrshire, I think of Galt and the snow faintly falling as it does in ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce, another writer for whom the past was a vital spur to vision. Like the lonely graveyard where Michael Furey lies buried in that famous story, Ayrshire exists, for me, as both the centre of things and a backwater of the mind, irrigating everything.

Irvine, Ayrshire: ‘The rustic, pre-industrial West Coast town was on its way out when Galt sat down to write.’

In his Literary Life and Miscellanies, Galt writes of The Annals of the Parish and The Provost as attempts ‘to exhibit a kind of local theoretical history, by examples, the truth of which would be at once acknowledged’. It would be a hundred years on, with the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or later, with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, that the parameters between fiction and non-fiction would be blurred to such effect. He believed the books to be deficient as novels, lacking in plot; The Ayrshire Legatees, he adds, ‘cannot be justly appreciated as a novel’. He felt very keenly the closeness of the real-life model: the idea of contrivance did not come naturally to his way of thinking, and yet the work of the heart, the stock of emotion and blatant connection which give to his ‘Tales of the West’ such vigour and such colour, was very much in evidence for every character and every scene. Yet he persists in the idea that inventions are not the same as ‘things of nature’ – indeed, it was by the careful distillation and bottling of the latter that he wished to be remembered, as if art’s true vintage was always discernible in the isolation of a local truth. He wrote biographies of the town. ‘My wish is to be estimated by the truth of whatever I try to represent,’ he wrote simply, or not so simply. Galt later told the story of how he eventually came face to face with his real-life model for the Provost, sitting, years after the book was published, among the magistrates of the town during a ceremony at Irvine tollbooth, aged but unbound, and unchanged by his famous depiction. ‘His speech partook of his character,’ Galt wrote, ‘and evinced a degree of good sense, of tact, and taste, though delivered in the Scottish dialect, quite extraordinary’. (I don’t know about that ‘though’: Galt knew well enough what could be achieved in the way of good sense in the Scots tongue.) He flatters the town’s reality over his own artistry in a way that commends him. Yet I continue to wonder if the old town isn’t a little deeper and more memorable in his rendering, a little more inflected by the durable vision of the artist. ‘Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,’ Emerson wrote, and the idea of the town in Galt’s novels is more indelible than its stonework.

‘It is important to recognise that Galt was groping towards the modern science of psychology,’ wrote his biographer, Jenny Aberdein. ‘He writes to Blackwood (12 April 1826), “If there is any merit in any of my sketches it is in the truth of the metaphysical anatomy of the characters”.’ But we will usually find, in assessing Galt’s gift as a stylist, that he embedded that curiosity about the growth of the mind in an unmistakeable landscape, the Irvine of his childhood. He knitted all interior drama to the seasonal qualities of the town and its environs, which is what affords his style its tremendous demotic power and gives his prose its elasticity and its precision. As with speech, style is place with some people; it relates to primary conditions. ‘My Autobiography will enable the courteous reader to determine what I owe to Irvine,’ Galt wrote, but in fact it is not his memoir but his fiction that most fully displays the debt. His fictional method bears a Wordsworthian grandeur in its attraction to the lyricism of childhood, to the moral openness of country habits, common speech, and local character. These could, of course, be the hallmarks of a sentimental novel of home truths and beaming hearths, what would become, in the Scottish novel, the kailyarders’ paradise, but Galt is never sentimental. There is feeling, but it is held to account always and everywhere with original humour, and his style was forensic, drawing blood from the customs of the town as opposed to wrapping them in sweet-smelling roses. Decency and diligence live in Galt’s fiction beside delinquency and sloth; his towns are multiplicities, and none of his characters is from a stockpile of familiar types. A novelist does not haunt his old house, he is haunted by it, and Galt’s biographer, furthermore, sees a man inching forward, a brilliant literary snail with a town on its back:

Galt frequently alludes in later years to his possession of what he calls ‘local memory’ (today we should call it visual memory) – a faculty for registering a scene in all its detail, even when its full import is not realised, and for retaining the impression throughout life. Galt’s mature reflective powers – powers of analysis, interpretation, philosophy – had thus rich store of remembered experience on which to work. Pictures as well as actual scenes were thus remembered, and a picture of Niagara, seen at a relative’s house in Kilmarnock, so filled his mind with notions of grandeur as for a time to spirit him away from the actual world.

And the ‘actual world’ can bear it, for what is left, after a novelist had done his bit, but a heftier, more subtle town, a more variegated local soul, one in which a recalled story about Robert Burns or a deathless character of John Galt’s can make the town into something glorious, a place in the national literature and a domain where people can live imaginatively. Let the tourists arrive, and let the bands play, for Irvine is rich on the page, and its son, John Galt, can remind readers in his own words that the humanity of the place is a moveable feast. It can go all over the world. There was no baseless fabric to Galt’s vision, and when I close my eyes in 2016 and think of Irvine and its neighbouring town of Kilwinning, I see not only the places of my own childhood, the place where I went to school and where I paddled in the burn, where I sold ‘tablet’ round the doors and played rounders with now-vanished friends on summer evenings, I also see Galt’s town at the same time, and I recognise no great distance between our human stations. In fact, I see a deep connection between then and now, the same closes and wynds, the same harbour, and the same sky as the nights draw in and people make their way home under the lamps.

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The SRB Interview: John Byrne

James Baldwin said that ‘painters have often taught writers how to see’. One could argue that every time John Byrne sits down to paint a picture his writerly imagination is being nurtured. His plays have a vibrancy, wildness and precise detail evident in his earliest primitive paintings.

Byrne excels at portraiture, the form which can distil the essence of a person in a version of their own image. He has painted himself time and again over the years, showing that his inner and outer life contain multitudes. His recent paintings, such as those in his 2012 exhibition The Joyful Mysteries, throw the viewer into the middle of things. ‘Juke Box Jive’ shows two late night lovers mid-sway; ‘Who Me, Never’ depicts two teddy boys arguing outside a cinema in Glasgow. There is a chiaroscuro quality to these works and a sense that we are glimpsing some wider story of Scotland’s imagined and forgotten corners.

It is, of course, humanity’s lot to be thrown into life. Byrne did not waste time soaking up the action. He was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1940 and his first job was working as a slab boy for A.F. Stoddard & Co., a carpet manufacturer in nearby Elderslie. As shown in his 1978 play The Slab Boys, the job was an apprenticeship in colour; he learnt how to mix powder paint for designers. Byrne went on to study at Glasgow School of Art. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he honed his artistic versatility. In his life he has drawn, designed and painted book jackets and album covers, and created stage sets for, among others, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil. In 2013 he was commissioned to decorate the dome of the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, taking his inspiration from Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage…’

Between 1975 and 1991 there were no public exhibitions of Byrne’s paintings. From these years, however, emerged a writer with a broad palette. His famous first play, Writer’s Cramp, and The Slab Boys trilogy explore the dark and light of the world. Byrne’s writing shows that comedy and tragedy are inextricable. The opening funereal scene of Tutti Frutti, his television series about Scottish rock and roll band The Majestics, for example, is both sombre and darkly funny. Music has been a life-long love for Byrne, and Country and Western music is central to his successful 1990 television serial Your Cheatin’ Heart.

John Byrne lives near the village of Colinton, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. He has transformed the front room of his house into a studio. In early May, Nick Major sat down with him in this chaotic bohemian place. The walls were covered in framed paintings and photographs, and a guitar with no strings was mounted next to a drawing of Robbie Coltrane in Tutti Frutti. On Byrne’s desk were pots of brushes, pens, scraps of paper and a small Olympia typewriter, and on the wooden scuffed floor were piles of books, a large grey postbag full to the brim, a few old chairs, and box of wood and coal for his fire.

Byrne sat in front of his easel, which held a painting called ‘The Blind Date’. He was dressed in jeans and a green buttoned jacket. His most famous physical feature is his trimmed broom-handle moustache that juts out above his upper lip and beard. But it is his hands that draw the eye. Byrne is used to keeping them busy. His fingers were blackened at the tips. Throughout the conversation he was never without a roll-up between his fingers, which he lit and relit with a silver Zippo lighter. He talked with a slow, considered voice, only stopping occasionally to flick the ashes and burnt paper off his cigarette toward a fire burning in the grate.

SRB: Where did you live in Paisley?

JB: We lived on Mill Street. There was a Clark and Coats mill at the end of the street. They were the biggest employer in Renfrewshire. Kenneth Clark, who devised and fronted that great television series Civilisation, was part of that family. They owned the entire state of Georgia. The cotton fields provided the raw material for making thread, a huge earner, both in the UK and around the world. The gang masters were nearly all recruited in Paisley, hence the propensity of Scottish surnames among the black slaves.

Did your father work in the mills?

No, he was originally from Govan and he worked in the shipyards as a ‘hauder-oan’ – the guy with the heavy hammer who rounded off the red hot rivets.

Paisley’s now considered quite a deprived area. What was your childhood like?

I didn’t notice that when I was growing up. We moved to Ferguslie Park when I was about 9 or 10. When I was 14 years old I was on the bus and I had a sudden flash of understanding that all the material I would ever need for the rest of my life was to be found in Ferguslie Park. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world. I soaked everything up unconsciously – the whole atmosphere. Paisley’s very different from Glasgow. People tend to lump them together but it is very singular and I celebrated that. Ferguslie Park was on television in the mid-1960s. It was described as ‘the worst slum in Europe’. I thought it was a wonderful place.

Were you drawing then?

My mother swears I was drawing in the pram. That might be a slight exaggeration, but I cannae remember when I first started to draw.

Did you get much encouragement when you were young?

I got every encouragement. When I was eight I was taken to the art shop under the railway arches in the Back Snedden in Paisley. It was run by a Mr Brown, who always wore a three-piece suit and a bunnet. He must have asked my mother to show him some of my drawings. She had ordered some brushes and was about to pay for them when Mr Brown had a squint at my drawings – he promptly took the brushes back and chucked them in a drawer, then went through to the back shop and reappeared with a set of Sable watercolour brushes, the best that money could buy. He said to my mother, ‘there you go, madam…same price as that other lot…’ He leant over the counter and peered at me over his specs, ‘you can’t keep a good man down, Mrs Byrne’. I was all of eight years old but I never looked back from that day to this. They were a badge of honour…the tools of my trade.

Do you still have those brushes?

No, but I still use Sable watercolour brushes. I’ve got hundreds of brushes, bags full of them.

Did you write when you were young?

My first published piece was in the school magazine when I was 12 or 13. It was a parody of RL Stevenson. It was about a cat being run over by a bus. There was a little illustration of a tearful child next to the little coffin with the squashed cat in it. There is a great museum and art gallery in Paisley, and I used to be taken there by my mother and father. My father used to tell me and my brother stories. There is a stuffed lion in the museum and my father used to point out the gun he’d used to kill it in South America. A lion in South America? Anyway, we used to be spellbound by this. Then one time he pointed out the wrong gun…. There was also a great library in the town where I used to get books.

Is that where you first read Stevenson?

I read Travels with a Donkey at school. It’s wonderful. Modestine is the donkey’s name. Stevenson used to stop by a wood or a burn at the end of each day, light a fire, and settle down with a mug of hot chocolate and a fag, under the stars. That was heaven to me. As a boy he lived in Colinton and fished in the river. There is a small statue down there now. He has two books, one a reading book and another one, tucked in his back pocket, for taking notes. We used to have to read Walter Scott at school. I thought it was unbelievably turgid and long-winded. So Stevenson was a breath of fresh air – a modern novelist.

What do you read now?

I don’t read novels anymore. The last novel I read was Brideshead Revisited in 1957. I don’t want any other person’s voice, or thoughts, or outlook on life in my head. I am a great reader of non-fiction, diaries and biographies. I love The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray, and all kinds of theatrical diaries, from Kenneth Tynan, through Peter Hall to Alan Bennett. I am rereading James Lees-Milne’s diaries at the moment. He worked for the National Trust at its beginnings in the 1930s and 40s. He was invalided out of the army during the war. I discovered a book of his in Nairn Library. I just took this book off the shelf, started reading and couldnae stop. So I’ve got all his diaries. I’ve reread them a dozen times.

Nabokov said, ‘one can’t read a book, one can only reread it’.

That’s very true. And Moss Hart, the great Broadway dramatist, said, ‘there’s no such thing as writing, there’s only re-writing’. It’s something nobody knows now. They just use a computer, cut and paste [the changes], and that’s a play. And you can tell. I work on a manual typewriter. I type as fast as I can think. When you want to change something on the page, you put in a fresh sheet of paper, and consequently you tighten everything up. I wrote Your Cheatin’ Heart in Newport-on-Tay in a large coal bunker. It had a window that I blocked out, and I ran a naked bulb from the adjacent garage. I never knew what time of day it was. I would just close the door and climb in to my chair. I stuck the pages I’d rewritten into a black bin bag under my desk. When I finished the six episodes I tidied up the place. I took the bin bag out to the garage where there happened to be some bathroom scales. I put the bag on and it weighed twelve and a half stone.

To go back to your earlier life: when did you attend the Glasgow School of Art (GSA)?

1958. The first two years were a general course and you had to do book-binding, weaving, design, architecture, and a month of composition. I didn’t bother doing any of it so I was kept back and had to repeat my first year. I then did a year in Edinburgh, and my final year in Glasgow. I couldn’t wait to do life drawing, which you only got to do in the third year, so I went to night school to do that.

Billy Connolly by John Byrne: ‘I work seven days a week, morning until night.’

What was the school like back then?

You got a good proper grounding in the basic drawing skills, and drawing the human and cast figure. Now they have no-one on the staff who can draw.


Because you can be rich and famous by getting other people to make your stuff for you. That’s all it’s about. You sit in your little cubicle with a computer and you wait until you have an idea, then you get somebody to do it for you. They call it conceptual art. It creates people like Jeff Koons, who’s never touched anything in his life and cannot draw. All the most prominent artists get other people to do their work for them. There is an animator called Fraser MacLean, who’s from the Borders, and he’s worked for Sony, Warner Brothers and Pixar in California. He now runs an animation workshop and goes all around the world putting on this course. He went to GSA and tried to find some people who would do the course. He couldn’t find anybody who could draw. He was told they don’t teach drawing at GSA. And when John Lasseter – who did The Incredibles – became the head of Pixar he called in all the CEOs to this hangar, pulled out a pencil and said, ‘anyone who doesn’t have one of these in their pockets can leave now’. Three quarters of them walked out. If you want to be an animator you have to be able to draw, and it all starts with a pencil and a piece of paper.

What did you do after GSA?

I worked for STV as a graphic artist. Then I went back to the carpet factory, but into the design department, and worked with a guy called Bill Murray, who was the chief designer. I knew ultimately I had to get out of there. It was the days of the new colour magazines in the newspapers, and there was a feature in the Observer called ‘The Innocent Eye’. It was about primitive painters and galleries like the Portal Gallery and the Crane Kalman that showed those kind of paintings. I thought it looked like a wheeze so I painted a small little primitive portrait of a little naïve man wearing a panama hat and holding a bunch of flowers, and I signed it Patrick. I sent it off to The Portal Gallery with a letter telling them that it was the work of my father. They wanted some more of my father’s work and said they could give him a show. My then wife said, ‘you’ve got to confess to this. It seems like a hoax’. So reluctantly I did, but they didn’t mind. I carried on for a number of years doing that.

And Le Douanier Rousseau was an influence during this time?

Yeah, I love him. He is extraordinary. He creates these brilliant heartfelt images. Picasso loved him as well. He was a great modern painter – my favourite. He inspired me to paint my ‘Self-Portrait in a Flowered Jacket’.

I thought that was a portrait of Frank Zappa.

I look exactly like Frank Zappa. It’s a sheer accident. In 1978 we were in Los Angeles and I was walking along Sunset Boulevard with the children when I saw this big black guy coming towards me. It turned out to be B.B. King. He said, ‘Hey man, I haven’t seen you in years!’ He had a wonderful warm handshake. I said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve made a mistake.’ He wasn’t really listening, and he just kept on talking about some session we’d done in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Then I took the children to a drugstore and Al Kooper was sitting at the bar. He said ‘Hey man!’ I said, ‘Don’t you start.’ I saw a black and white photograph of Zappa before he grew all the hair and he was still the spitting image of me – a jutting jaw and bad teeth.

Quite a lot of your work draws on early 1950s rock and roll.

Well I grew up [listening to] Bill Haley and The Comets. He was a country singer, which is very close to rock and roll. The people in my paintings are Teddy Boys because I was a Teddy Boy in ’55 and ’56. I had a double-breasted waistcoat to measure, a D.A [duck’s arse], and crepe-soled shoes.

Thinking of the early period of your career, did you ever doubt that you could one day make a living from your painting?

I always wanted to make a living from painting and I was always told it was impossible, but I didnae believe that. I was fairly quick off the mark. My first show was in a gallery in Blythswood Square in 1962, then I had a show at Aitken Dott in Castle Street, Edinburgh in 1965. In 1969 I did a Penguin cover of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes for Alan Aldridge, who was the art director of Penguin Books. That was my first book jacket. I went on to do the frontispiece for The Beatle’s Illustrated Lyrics. John Lennon is holding Yoko Ono in an small bubble.

So the trick to survival is to paint anything?

You just welcome anything at all. I did a Patrick picture for a car magazine once. The art director was a fan of mine. Those were the days when if someone asked you to do something you just said ‘yes’ rather than ‘I’ll think about it’. It’s a long haul but you just have to stick it out.

You did album covers for Gerry Rafferty. How did you two meet?

When I was a slab boy I worked beside Gerry Rafferty’s older brother, Jim. I’d bought a three-stringed banjo for ten bob off somebody in the design room and I hung it behind the slab room door and covered it with a dustcoat. We would play it occasionally, but one day Jim said, ‘can I take that home? My wee brother wants to learn to play’. So that was the first stringed instrument Gerry had, and we became close friends after that. I knew him all his life and I still listen to everything he made. It was a great loss when he died.

When you sit down to draw or paint do you have an image in mind?


You just start with a line or a colour?

Yeah. I didn’t do that originally. When I was young I used to ask my mother what I should paint, and later I had to think, ‘what shall I paint?’ Now I just sit down and do it and something always appears.

Do you have a routine?

I work seven days a week, morning until night. There’s no other way to do it. I have a show coming up in September in Bond Street, London, for the Fine Art Society and I have a schedule written up here [points to a small piece of cardboard next to his easel]. A deadline is a great encouragement.

Do you ever finish a painting in one sitting?

I have done. I’ve done some in two days, and others in two weeks. I just know when I’ve finished because I cannae do any more.

I was looking for some landscapes in your work. The only one I found was called ‘At the Far End of the Western World’.

That was a challenge to me. Patrick Bourne, who used to run the Bourne Gallery in Dundas Street, asked me if I had ever painted a landscape. I said, ‘not really’. So then I painted that in 2012. It’s my first proper landscape.

It’s pretty good for a first attempt.

It’s no’ bad.

My copy of The Slab Boys has a few sketches of the characters in it. Do your paintings ever become plays, or vice versa?

Absolutely, they cross-fertilize. When I’m writing I have to draw the characters beforehand or as I’m going along. Painting and writing are very akin to one another. I have to see the characters when I’m writing them. When I got the chance to do Tutti Frutti I drew the characters and thought about who would play them. Then I drew a whole map of Scotland and [decided] to send the band out on their silver jubilee tour to all the places I’d never been to in Scotland.

Like Methil?

Yeah [laughs]. I’ve since been to a few of the places.

How did Tutti Frutti come about?

I worked down in Leicester as the Associate Director of the Haymarket Theatre. When I got back to Scotland I was totally skint. The next day I got a call from Norman McCandlish at the BBC in Glasgow. He said Bill Bryden was running the drama department. Bill and I had crossed paths when I worked at STV in the early sixties. Norman said, ‘can you meet up with Bill sometime this week?’ I had lunch with him and he just gave me the title and I went away and started it. I sat at home and wrote the whole series. We got Tony Smith to direct it because I’d seen a series on BBC2 called Inside Out and I liked the way he’d shot it. I never saw the shoot because I was stuck at home doing an illustrated book of the show. I was going to write another series but the BBC in Glasgow dropped it. Apart from Pat Chalmers, who was the head of BBC Scotland at that time, everyone hated it.


I surmised it was because it had intelligent scruff [in it], and scruff are not supposed to be intelligent. It was a mini-snobbism.

You wrote for the theatre before you wrote for television. When was Writer’s Cramp first performed?

It was in 1977 at the Festival Fringe. I knew Billy Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett, whose putative brother-in-law Steve Clarke Hall had just bought the Calton Studios in Edinburgh. The first performance was to be on the Tuesday but the fire department came on a Monday and said we couldn’t play because there were no exits. So the first performance was for the press and it was 50p to get in. It led off the reviews the following day, and there was a rave review from Duncan Campbell, and every small theatre in London phoned me up. By then I’d got Margaret Ramsay as my agent – she was the doyenne of agents.

How did you find her?

In 1975 I was in pole position to open The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and Tom McGrath asked me who I’d like to invite. I wanted to invite John Betjeman, and I thought of putting on [a production of] David’s Hare’s Teeth and Smiles. I had to ring Peggy up to ask permission. She would answer the phone herself. I said, ‘Hello Ms Ramsay, my name is John Byrne and I’m interested in putting on a production of David Hare’s – ’ She said, ‘Go to the West End darling,’ and hung up. In 1977 I phoned her back to tell her about Writer’s Cramp. She said: ‘Send it to me. In two weeks I’m going on holiday. I expect you to have written another play by the time I get back.’ Then she put the phone down. I’d written The Slab Boys by the time she was back so I rang her up again and said, ‘Hello Ms Ramsay, I’ve written a play and, unlike Writer’s Cramp, it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end.’ She said, ‘How fucking bourgeois darling. Send it to me.’ And put the phone down. It was the success of Writer’s Cramp that pushed The Slab Boys to the front of the queue at the Traverse Theatre in May 1978.

Do you prefer writing for the stage or television?

The stage every time.

Because you get more artistic control?

To a certain degree. I always make sure the casting and the stage are right. I can be a pain in the arse to everybody but I have to get it right.

In recent years you’ve put on modern productions of plays by Chekhov – Uncle Vanya, for example. Who for you are the other great playwrights?

Shakespeare, first and foremost. I like Simon Gray, The Common Pursuit in particular. The best play I’ve seen in forty years is Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

Also, thinking of recent work, you had a recent retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery called Sitting Ducks. Why do you paint so many portraits and self-portraits?

I’m curious about the world and what I’m doing in the world and I think I might get a few clues from painting myself.

It helps you work out who you are?

Yeah, I’m trying to solve the puzzle of what we’re doing in the world, how we came into the world, and where we go after we leave the world, along with the complexity of human nature. If I could explain it in words I would do. Whenever you produce any art it is some kind of self-portrait, to a greater or lesser degree. Giorgio Morandi only painted bottles, but every one of them is a self-portrait.

Do you find a great freedom in painting yourself?

I can adopt different guises, or facets of myself – sometimes comical, sometimes not so – all of which are led on by the ridiculous wonder of life. Life is a kind of detective story, and I feel like Inspector Clouseau in a detective story I don’t understand.

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Flowers of Scotland

Some books, like old sepia calotypes, have a way of freezing a moment in time. The scenes captured by Victorian photographers were largely unpeopled, thanks to their long exposure times. A child may pose on a doorstep, face screwed up against the sun, a fishwife may stand guarding her creel; otherwise ghostly images, like drifting ectoplasm, leave silent unfocused traces in the eternally still air.

Books, on the other hand, can bring the peopled past to life when there’s a good storytelling voice. One image from the 1860s is particularly haunting. It offers no floating ectoplasm, no posed humanity. The only feature connecting this abandoned archaeology with human activity is the sign James Doull. Joiner, Cabinetmaker & Undertaker fixed to an agglomeration of stone, slate, and pantiles known as Society Buildings, which once stood in the shadow of Edinburgh’s Flodden Wall. A century after that picture was taken sepia had given way to psychedelia. Doull’s ramshackle workshop had gone, its site occupied by a former Victorian school building alongside a classical stone doorway which, like a Roman fragment, had outlived the building it had once been part of. Society Buildings, for the most part, remained intact, until it was torn down – sweet irony! – to make way for the Museum of Scotland.

The 1960’s image frozen in time for this writer is of an eighteenth-century tenement at the end of Chambers Street. Its ground floor housed a Chinese restaurant, then a capital novelty. A yellow E-type Jaguar with the number plate ‘JIM 1’ would often be parked outside, suggesting a mystery to be unravelled. The car belonged to a dentist, Jim Mitchell, who sometimes worked at the nearby dental hospital, and it added a touch of surrealism, for its owner had married Babs of the Beverley sisters, and he would later be shot in the bottom in the Bahamas after a legal dispute. The word ‘colourful’ applies.

Colour was not in short supply then. Society Buildings stood opposite Greyfriar Bobby’s statue and fountain, complete with chained cups, then still in use. John Grant’s outdoor selection of cheaper books was displayed alongside. There was an Angela Carter-esque quality of otherworldliness, a hint of the magic theatre in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, about a block which began with Society Buildings and ended with the Dolls’ Hospital on Lindsay Place, next to Donaldson’s Bristo Port Crockery Warehouse.I have memories of my own of this time and place, as it happens, so before considering that brief incandescent era which Mike Heron and Andrew Greig relive in You Know What You Could Be: Tuning into the 1960s I confess to being gobsmacked from the off, and inescapably subjective, since their joint chronicle unnervingly opens a door on my own Edinburgh past.

I often passed by Society Buildings after school, and recall drifting chords of an ethereal music with reedy voice accompaniment which, if not quite folk, certainly wasn’t rock or rhythm and blues. What I didn’t know then, but would quickly find out, was that I’d stumbled upon the birthplace of the Incredible String Band. Soon, word was out about a duo which played George Square Chaplaincy Centre. The music of Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson was very different from the rollicking stuff Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor were belting out in the nearby Charles Tavern, or the strumming singalongs of The Corries, then packing the Waverley Bar. More medieval courtly than Arran knitted pullover, to this untutored ear the high jangly notes and wailing fiddle had hints of Gypsy European, Indian sitar, or Kentucky Blue Grass. Months later a few of us lied our underage way in to the Crown Bar in Lothian Street where, for a total of 3/6d (1/6d for a half pint, 2/- for entry) we could sample a nightly line up which might include Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, Archie Fisher, Owen Hand, and a now expanded Incredible String Band. Mike Heron had since joined the duo, while Williamson’s girlfriend Licorice, could shake her tambourine with gusto. Context is all important. The mid-’60s was a Ceausescu moment for Edinburgh, in a naively benign way. A dour, life-denying old order was crumbling. The ruling elite – strangely known as ‘Progressives’ – had long decreed that pubs and cinemas should be closed on Sundays to safeguard public morality. Prohibitions on films like Fanny Hill and The Killing of Sister George, or even Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, were commonplace. Catching Joyce’s Ulysses necessitated a bus ride to Musselburgh, where the curious were invariably disappointed by its lamentable paucity of raunchiness.

The Incredible String Band: They didn’t jam.

From this hodden-doon civic gloom came forth brilliant sparks of cultural creativity. A groundbreaking 1962 Writers’ Conference was followed a year later by a Dramatists’ Conference which stole the headlines when a nude model was wheeled around on a BBC lighting trolley. Since the lady in question remained stock still, the organizers could not, technically, be charged under the obscenity acts. The more po-faced city fathers, outwitted and outvoted, often ended up as performance artists manque. When Lord Provost Brechin decreed that bare breasts were permissible provided they were black under some specious National Geographic ethnological exemption, the puritanical, if droll, Councillor John D Kidd, in a line worthy of Peter Cook, compared that same sight to ‘being blinded by headlamps’. Later, despite the city firemaster’s advice, the kenspeckle councillor supported a renewal of the Traverse Theatre’s licence to general astonishment. Asked why, he explained his reasoning in three words. ‘Let them burn’.

Edinburgh unshackled seemed, at times, like the coolest city anywhere. 1966, the year the Incredible String Band recorded its first album with Elektra Records, began with the grand-daughter of a rector of St John’s Church, Princes Street rediscovering her Scottish roots. Her name, Joan Baez, the venue, The Place in Victoria Street. Four months later the boy friend she’d lost the previous year, Bob Dylan, was performing to a packed ABC Cinema in Lothian Road – somewhere, I still have the 7/6d ticket. He would later praise the Incredibles’ October Song as one of his favourite tracks.

In Edinburgh’s year of miracles there was so much glamour around it was easy to miss out on groundbreakers like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, playing at the Cranston Hall to near empty houses, until the critics arrived. This feckless scribe was working at The Traverse, serving at table, peddling poetry, helping with lights and sound for The Scaffold, and selling tickets. When Marianne Faithful wandered in asking ‘Have you seen Mick?’ who wouldn’t be happy to help? The following year – the Summer of Love – brought erstwhile Pablo Picasso and Jimi Hendrix collaborator, Mark Boyle and the Soft Machine with The Psychedelic Light Show UFO.

Yet the most striking feature of You Know What You Could Be is not the glitz, but the grit. The unassuming laid back observations of Mike Heron and Andrew Greig fit into a risky format which, had it been a star struck nostalgia trip, might easily have fallen flat. It succeeds because of, rather than despite, the duality and disparity of authorship. Greig, once described as ‘Scotland’s Renaissance writer’, is responsible for most of the text. Though he adopts a junior role, he is not so much amanuensis in awe of his subject as pal to a genial troubadour who just happens to have played Woodstock, recorded with Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, and John Cale, and turned down an opportunity to jam with Eric Clapton because ‘we don’t jam, man’.

This is a book grounded in a city which, in one sense, no longer exists. Mid-’60s central Edinburgh was a doomed paradise awaiting its end as council planners made arrangements for its elimination. There was, however, one incidental benefit. Asked why there was such a remarkable cultural efflorescence at this particular time, Greig has an unromantic answer, ‘cheap rents’. For a while, at least, it was possible to live in a Georgian flat awaiting clearance for a peppercorn pittance, and there were plenty of informal venues around for poets and musicians struggling to get by on a shoestring. Then came demolition Armageddon, and the technicolour dream ended as the walls came crashing down.

Unlike Society Buildings, the music of the Incredible String Band will never vanish entirely, however. It’s just too appealing. It can sometimes stage a surprise re-appearance, as I discovered around five years ago in New York, where Mike Heron’s Little Cloud accompanied the final credit roll of the Juliet Binoche film, Summer Hours. Talk about that old feeling of deja vu all over again! The undertow of You Know What You Could Be is Edinburgh, its presence unavoidable. It is good to learn from Greig that Heron’s lyrics for ‘The Tree’ were not, in fact, celebrating some noble specimen in a rolling landscape, but were suggested by a humble apple tree in his parents’ suburban garden, with its distant view of Arthur’s Seat. At one point I began to suspect that the mercurial Williamson-Heron relationship was just the Watson’s-Heriot’s rivalry in another guise, though having myself been taught by Heron’s father in the same tower room where, I imagine, he too had once laboured over ‘Kubla Khan’ and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

This moment frozen in time is a revealing, if quirky, social document, a glimpse into a slice of history which, for a few magical years, made the Scottish capital a very special place. It should be read by everyone with the least interest in Edinburgh and its recent past – and it should certainly be a fixture on George Heriot’s school’s required reading list.

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