Monthly Archives: October 2014

Small towns, bigger sounds


All small towns have their local pop and rock musicians, varying in talent and ambition. Of the smaller towns in Scotland, possibly only Bellshill has ever produced more than its fair share of successful bands with its 1980s/1990s harvest of Teenage Fanclub, the Soup Dragons , the BMX Bandits and Superstar. The time when David Belcher, then of The Herald ,wryly described Bellshill as “a bitch of a rock and roll town”.  Although perhaps we could also single out East Kilbride for its brief but glorious production line of Aztec Camera and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

While my own home town of Greenock has probably produced just as many musicians as the next place, few have impinged on the national consciousness. Before the millennium, the two or three years career of Whiteout during the mid 1990s Britpop era was possibly the most discernible. They signed to a big label, released two albums and appeared on national TV.

Then, during the last decade, I suddenly spotted UK-wide press coverage for My Latest Novel. A bigger outfit numerically, and with a bigger and more varied sound than many, following the now established pattern of singing in their Scottish accents.

To date, they have released two albums, Wolves and Deaths and Entrances. Their musical template – mixing acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, violin and varied percussion with gritty but sympathetic harmony singing – has certainly been used before, but I like their version particularly because it sounds different to the way I expected a Greenock band to sound.

I don’t pay such close regard to lyrics as in my youthful days of regular listens to Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne, so  what has made more impression on me is their overall rough but splendid indie range and the Scottish-accented vocal delivery. Those lyrics which I have noted have subtly recalled other elements of contemporary Scottish culture, for example the male characters from the paintings of Peter Howson or Alexander Millar in “The Reputation of Ross Francis” or the National Theatre of Scotland  production The Wolves in the Walls in “When We Were Wolves”.

To be frank, what press reviews of My Latest Novel I have found on the internet have been distinctly varied in their assessment. Kevin Jagernauth on Pop Matters  heard little in the music which hadn’t already been covered by Belle and Sebastian or Arcade Fire. He described the first album  as “unfulfilling” and “uninteresting”  and “forgettable”  because “ there is no danger, chances, or forward thinking”.   Ben Patashnik  of the New Musical Express described the second album as “over-zealous” and “self-indulgent”. Roque Strew of Pitchfork was a bit more complimentary, referring to the band’s “symphony-to-God harmonies, and poetic, double-edged oratory”.

To my taste, My Latest Novel have been a worthy addition to that list of fine Scottish bands of the past 20 years which has included Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados, Glasvegas, Sons and Daughters, Popup, Uncle John and Whitelock and Honeyblood. However, it does look like their era might have come to an end. Three of the band members are now recording under the name Alphabetical Order Orchestra, keeping the acoustic and light electric side of the previous sound and dropping the rougher, denser, multilayered  parts.


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Blog Action Day – inequality

Blog Action Day


In the modern, civilised UK, we still have a great deal of material  and social inequality.

One of our most valuable resources in publicising and analysing these injustices is the writer Owen Jones. For example, he recently reminded us, referring to The Sunday Times Rich List, that “in the last five years …the wealth of the richest 1,000 people has more than doubled. That surge in wealth – of about £261bn – is worth about two and a half times Britain’s annual deficit. Tot up their fortunes and you come up with the sum of £519bn, or about a third of Britain’s annual GDP. And yet in the sixth biggest economy on earth nearly 1 million people have been driven to food banks to feed themselves”.

Such inequality has come about because of flaws in how  the capitalist system works nowadays. Hundreds of thousands of people earning below the minimum wage, millions needing benefits to support their living and housing costs, but many others retaining huge wealth, often aided by the  unchecked inflation in property prices.

In the same article, Owen Jones was critical of the UK’s elected representatives who have failed to alleviate the inequality. They appear to see their job as “a sport, a professional ladder to climb like any investment bank”, he commented wryly, and  “even if the top salary only puts you in the top 3% of earners rather than the top 0.01%…you can always use a future ministerial position as a launchpad for a lucrative job at a private healthcare firm or defence giant anyway.”

How commercial companies create inequality around the world  is the theme of a report by Catholic charity SCIAF.  Taking Care of Business argues that, although commercial business  certainly can play an important part in making the world a more equal place, by generating economic growth, by providing people with paid employment and by paying taxes,  there is unfortunately plenty of evidence that, in  practice, the system is not working well.

Around the world economies do continue to grow, but rather less effort is applied in ensuring that the increased wealth generated by this economic growth is fairly distributed.  Large firms frequently crowd out smaller firms, leading to a loss of livelihoods. Multinational companies deliberately avoid paying taxes denying vast sums to developing countries. Abuses of human rights and the environment take place needlessly.

Regrettably, this bleak pattern is more becoming visible in the countries which we used to characterise as developing.  “According to recent research 80 percent of the world’s population who live on less than $2 a day (two billion people) now live in middle-income countries”.  Although it is good that countries formerly thought of as poor have become wealthier, “this graduation… is not eradicating poverty”.

2015 is the deadline for the eight UN Millennium Development Goals and one of Taking Care of Business’ recommendations is that any further international agreements “should encourage a fair balance between equity and growth, with a specific emphasis on tackling inequality”. Among other recommendations are that the UK government should ensure that all large companies  be required to report on any social, environmental and human rights impacts throughout their supply chains and the steps they are taking to mitigate these, and that the Scottish government should require companies who are tendering for public sector procurement contracts to adhere to rules on tax transparency and on ethical conduct.

One of the most persistent and appalling examples of inequality anywhere in the world during my lifetime  has been the plight of the Palestinian people. The injustice began when Britain gave up occupation of Palestine in 1948 and the state of Israel was founded: as a consequence  thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes and their farming land and given nowhere else to go. After the Six-Day War between Israel and various Arab countries in 1967, Israeli military occupation began, and has continued, with very little change, ever since.

In recent years, the most visible demonstration of the mistreatment of the Palestinians has been the increase in the Israeli building both of settlements in the West Bank and of the separation wall, with the resulting demolition of Palestinian houses, separation of families and communities and restriction of movement . The separate Palestinian territory of Gaza has been under Israeli blockade for seven years. Millions of Palestinian refugees live in poor conditions within the West Bank, Gaza and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

In addition, the Palestinians are continual victims of discrimination and harassment from the Israeli authorities and many have been imprisoned without trial. Any progress in peace has been regularly restricted by the spread of false arguments that all Palestinians want to kill the Jewish people or to destroy the state of Israel.  It seems especially cruel that the leaders of the Jewish people, who themselves remember well the pain of past persecution, have been so willing to apply similar treatment to neighbours who are  mostly so much less well off than themselves.




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Views of the Miners’ Strike


Three perspectives on the 30th anniversary of the 1984-1985 UK Miners’ Strike: one older film, Billy Elliot, one new film, Pride, and one new theatre production, the National Theatre of Scotland’s In Time O’Strife. Set in three different mining locations, the North-East of England, South Wales and the Fife area of Scotland.

I don’t know the precise reason why writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry set Billy Elliot during the Miners’ Strike, as its narrative of individual working-class struggle and triumph could have been located in many other periods of the 20th century. However, having chosen that period, they do  include some vivid images and details.

Billy’s widowed father is a striking miner and, early in the film, we see a classic image of industrial militancy with him on a picket line pushing against rows of policemen as he yells in protest at a bus of working miners. However, the intimidating image of the miners’ enemy, the armoured police, is also shown as less frightening by the indifference of Billy and his ballet friend Nicola as they stroll past a tall row of waiting policemen and her scraping stick bounces unnoticed from brick wall to riot shield.  It is Nicola’s more middle-class father, whisky glass in hand but speaking in the same heavy north-east accent as everyone else, who quotes the wider popular argument for the closure of uneconomic pits.

Billy’s older brother Tony, also on strike, is involved in more violent protest activity. As he goes out in the middle of the night with a hammer, his father tries to stop him, leading to physical violence between them. Massed ranks of police, truncheons banging on riot shields, chase Tony and others in and out of houses.  Tony, bloodied, is put into a police van. The police aggression is only slightly softened by the comic moment of the non-miner disturbed during his car washing.

The strike stretches to Christmas. We see a few seconds of a defiantly celebratory Christmas party but this is quickly undermined by the melancholy of Billy’s dad, chopping a piano for firewood and bursting into tears over their shabby Christmas dinner. In desperation, he is willing to join the working miners  in order to pay for Billy’s travel costs for the London audition, but Tony intervenes to prevent him.  The announcement of the end of the strike, because “the union caved in”,  contrasts with the Elliot family’s exultation over Billy’s acceptance letter.

Pride, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus,  deals with the campaigning efforts of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners. I must confess that, although the Miners’ Strike was a news event which I paid a great deal of attention to at the time, I had never heard of this campaigning support group or of its high-profile benefit concert at the Electric Circus venue in London.

Although the narrative of Pride is more directly imbedded in the events of 1984-1985 than is Billy Elliot, it does equally concentrate on individual stories which are tangentially connected. Much of the film deals with the self-discovery or development either of the LGSM characters Joe, Mark, Gethin, Steph and Jonathan, or of the Welsh characters Sian, Maureen, Cliff and Hefina. However, a main theme is certainly the bonding of two communities who are superficially entirely different but who feel similarly embattled and therefore become comrades in arms. The film closes with the London Gay Pride march in 1985 being led by a NUM  delegation, an event which seems like the unlikeliest possible Hollywood concoction but which did apparently actually happen.

Pride does show brief scenes of picket lines and of the miners marching back to work at the end of the strike in March 1985, but mostly centres around fund-raising and organisation and support.  As in Billy Elliot, Christmas is portrayed as a time of gloom and setback, but at least in Pride the miners’ visitors are available to provide significant additional cash, moral support and fresh campaigning impetus.

In Time O’ Strife was written in the 1920s by miner Joe Corrie, and the play which Graham McLaren puts on stage is still that of the General Strike, although some of his directorial touches refer to the 1980s.

Corrie’s play is a naturalistic one, an authentic representation of working-class life, although his characters are also written as mouthpieces for different arguments about the strike. Most harbour doubts at some point in the play, feeling acutely the division, sacrifice, hunger and illness which it is causing. McLaren has added to the text some of Corrie’s poems  which,  addressed directly to the audience, add extra Brechtian ferocity and empowerment.

The look of McLaren’s production follows the 1920s naturalism of the play in many ways. For example, the set is a huge convincing room of the period complete with patterned wallpaper, lights, doors, exposed pipes and furniture. Costumes include waistcoats, pit boots and loose calf-length dresses.  However, the  “pit clothes” also include 1980s NCB jackets, a TV screen on the wall shows 1980s footage and the radio broadcasts interviews and news reports from that more recent strike. Before the play starts, we are in a community hall where all the characters play and share music:  the arrangements are mostly appropriately traditional, although the songs  originate from various protest periods .

Once the play starts, music and dance seems to show an emphasis towards the 1980s: hints of the Pogues, Talking Heads, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and perhaps even the choreography of music video . Dance movements are often added to conventional characterisation nowadays and in certain sections here the ensemble uses twisting movements of body and anguished facial expressions  to suggest, as far as I can see, the struggle of the mining community under their impossible yoke. A similarly eye-catching scene in Billy Elliot is Billy’s enraged outdoor kicking dance in defiance of his family to the tune of the Jam’s A Town Like Malice. Of course, both Billy Elliot and Pride, like any films set in the recent past, draw readily from the pop and rock of their period, although Pride’s strongest musical moment is the Welsh women’s rendition of the earlier 20th century “Bread and Roses”.

Art and culture are seen as luxuries which must be sacrificed in the desperate scraping to keep living. Billy’s deceased mother’s jewellery is converted to cash in Billy Elliot and her piano destroyed, just as a favourite violin is pawned in In Time O’ Strife.

Although scenes of hardship in Billy Elliot and Pride are vividly depicted and easily remembered by those of us of that generation, you are made aware how life was tougher still in the earlier era of In Time O’ Strife. Both practical help and emotional support were less available, sacrifice was more intense and harsh. Jenny’s fervent desire to have a better life in Canada is pushed aside when the money to achieve it can only be earned by strike-breaking. Her brother Bob, like Tony in Billy Elliot, is arrested, but here he is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his unspecified offence of desperate protest.


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