Summertime, When the Living Ain’t Easy – Israel and the ‘Tent City’ Protests

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In many ways 2011 has, thus far, been a year of public protest and action, frequently verging on the revolutionary. With the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and Syria, either having proved successful in changing government and/or government policy, or showing no signs of abating until they do, global media attention has become focused on how such outpourings of public discontent are being organised and maintained. Much writing and commentary has been devoted to the internet as a source of free-floating information that circumvents the controls governments have previously been able to exert over their populations. A negative aspect of this preoccupation, has been the increasing ‘threat’ to social cohesion that the internet has come to represent even within supposedly democratic governments such as France, the UK and the US.

 

After the UK riots at the beginning of August, much of the press and government criticism was directed toward the ease with which individuals were able to organise and incite public violence via on-line social media and mobile technology. In many ways this has paralleled the increasing mistrust of the internet amongst more obviously totalitarian regimes, such as Iran and China, which in turn is fuelling the desire for western democracies to crackdown on the ‘too free’ circulation of information via the internet’s various social media sites. Part of the UK government response to the riots was to utilise emergency legislation to prosecute individual’s who were seen to be using the internet to spread provocative and inflammatory information regarding the public violence. In America the S.773 Cybersecurity Act of 2009, proposed by Sen. John Rockefeller and Sen. Olympia Snowe, has been working its way through Congress. This act whilst seeking to tighten the US’s Federal interstate internet security procedures, also includes the possibility for the federal government to seize control of private-sector internet networks (in much the same way as the Chinese government does), in the event of a ‘cybersecurity emergency’.

 

The internet has become a source of intense paranoia for global government regimes, as internet users far from being bound to their desks by the ready availability of frivolous on-line entertainment, have increasingly sought to use the powers of the internet to organise large-scale public activities and demonstrations. Aside from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, there have also been Tea Party and anti-Tea Party rallies throughout the US, all year long, many of which have harnessed similar social media tools to give their movements shape. In Greece and Spain general strikes and protests have been organised, via the internet, in response to vast and rapid cuts to ailing public sector institutions and state welfare services. Throughout Europe and North America regular protests against the Afghan War have similarly been prompted by direct internet action. Whilst in Chile students have organised various actions against the government during August, in protest at the poor infrastructure in the Chilean secondary and higher education systems.

 

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and challenging of recent national protests have been those taking place in Israel for the last six weeks. Whereas the ‘Arab Spring’ protests, were in effect uprisings, whilst the Greek, Spanish and Chilean protests were limited to narrow, if important, political aims, and the Tea Party/anti-Tea Party rallies in the States were more about different, conflicting ideas of governance, the Israeli protests have featured a panoply of social and political issues that have come from middle-class Israel, as well as lower-class Israel, and have sought to blur the strict, dividing boundaries between Palestinian and Israeli concerns. At the core of these protests is a disillusionment with the lack of socially responsible economic reforms made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, which has in turn spilled over into increasingly radical demonstrations against social issues that are, as a result of this inaction, biting at the financial heels of more than just the worst-off in Israeli society.

 

These economic and social action protests have politically energised and engaged a normally relatively docile, if divisive, Israeli population, with over 450,000 people having taken to the streets in various different demonstrations and activities over the last six weeks. Unlike in London, where a slow-acting and alienating government, endured the kind of violence that stems from a generalised breakdown in the relationship between youth and authority, with little or no obviously articulated political agenda underpinning the rage and chaos upon the streets, Israel has seen weekend after weekend of carefully marshalled and organised political and social demonstration. Much of this activity has directly stemmed from the population’s engagement with different internet forums (at the forefront of which have been the ‘Activism’ blogroll and the ‘Wisdom of the People’ portal, which utilises a live chat messenger service to help organise events and actions) and social media, leaving Netanyahu’s government looking increasingly embattled.

 

The origins of the Israeli protests can be traced back to the issue of housing and accommodation in Israel, as well as a more generalised concern with the cost of living, as embodied by the effective protests regarding the price of an Israeli dietary staple, cottage cheese. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has written extensively over the past six weeks about the protests. Initially the protests developed around a Facebook-organised protest instigated by Daphni Leef, which asked for people (at first mainly students) to congregate along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and construct a ‘tent city’. Leef, a filmmaker who had been involved in previous political protests regarding army service and civil marriage, had discovered, when she was looking for new accommodation in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, that rent costs had doubled over the previous five years. Concerned and shocked by this information she set about sounding out students and young people on Facebook, to see what other people’s experiences were of the rental issue.

 

On Thursday 14th July 2011, the first tents began to be erected in and around Rothschild Boulevard. Within days the movement had transferred to other cities and communities (such as Beersheba and Ramat Gan) and the Likud government began to realise that there was a significant Israeli popular political protest underway, for the first time in the country’s brief, but troubled, history. Normally Israeli’s would limit street protests to issues of defence and settlement, fearing that a protest directed at domestic policies of government would destabilise their regional power base in the eyes of external aggressors, such as Iran. Leef’s movement seemed to be establishing a different relationship between Israel and her neighbours, seemingly channelling some of the energy from the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Bahrain and directing this toward Netanyahu’s government and their apparent lack of understanding of basic domestic issues affecting the majority of Israelis.

 

As Bronner points out Likud and their finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, initially were seen to react quickly to the concerns and demands of the protestors:-

“promising construction of thousands of new housing units, along with a set of changes to bulldoze bureaucracies and press landlords to expand the market through a mix of carrot and stick (sell and get a bonus; don’t sell and face a tax)”

Yet some are now beginning to question whether Israel’s government have perhaps been a little too responsive to the demands of protestors.

 

A few weeks prior to the tent protests, Israel’s government had faced political pressure over the soaring cost of cottage cheese. Under fire from various protest groups the Knesset authorised State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to look into the issue of cottage cheese prices, resulting in a 25% reduction in the price of cottage cheese. Clearly buoyed by the success of this particular issue, certain groups on the political left in Israel, such as The National Left, had begun to cultivate and mobilise protest groups against the issue of housing costs. Leef’s decisive intervention in establishing a Facebook site for much of the political dissent bubbling under the surface of Israeli society, has since snowballed into the longest period of political protest in Israeli history and has effectively brought together elements of the political right and left, as well as Israeli and Palestinian communities – one of the most noted ‘tent city’ constructions was that carried out by Palestinian activists in the Israeli-Arab city of Tayibe (or Taibeh).

 

On consecutive weekends during the last week of July and the first week of August, protestor numbers swelled to over 300,000, counting for something like 5% of Israel’s total population, a figure unheard of in Israeli domestic protests. The movement had shifted from its narrow focus on issues to do with housing, to a concern with something it was terming ‘social justice’, with the left-leaning independent mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich listing “education, health care and affordable housing” as the most pressing social issues that the Israeli government needed to address. The general tenor of the protests themselves was seen as being a commitment to numbers rather than issues, with a feeling that the protests whilst being mainly peaceful, were doing nothing more than creating ‘party atmospheres’ in which politics was taking a backseat. Regardless of the protestors intentions, the sheer volume of people on the streets couldn’t be ignored by Netanyahu and his government.

 

As Gideon Rachman puts it in his excellent FT column, 2011 has had a the feel of “the year of global indignation” and whereas nothing obviously links the politics behind the street demonstrations in Chile, Greece and China, with those occurring in Israel, Rachman is right to point out that

“Many of the countries hit by unrest have explicitly accepted rising inequality as a price worth paying for rapid economic growth”

The free market, possibly neo-liberal, economic theories of the likes of Friedman and Stigler have been refined and gradually worked into policy in countries like Chile, Sweden, the US, the UK and, of course, Israel. The aggressive rolling back of the social policy mechanisms of state in many countries, after the economic turmoil of 2008, have left an increasing number of people around the world feeling dramatically disenfranchised from the apparent wealth of their national economies. In Israel, as Bronner points out, Netanyahu’s government has, on paper, managed economic growth superbly. Yet despite the fact that the

“unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, a 25-year low and about half of that of Europe. Its currency, the shekel, is strong. Its exports outstrip its imports. It is attracting foreign investors, especially in the high-tech sector”

it has still being unable to adequately convince large parts of its population, particularly those under forty years of age, that these are indeed times of plenty.

 

Having already extracted numerous ‘assurances and guarantees’ from the Likud government, as well as some noted immediate policy intervention, in recent weeks the protest movement has once again morphed from peaceful protest and demonstration to a slightly more legally ‘dubious’ approach. Esther Witt, a special education teacher, originally from the Netherlands, is one of the figures who has spear-headed the ‘lightning squat’ recently adopted by ‘social justice’ protestors. Witt had been in attendance at ‘tent city’ protests in Independence Park, Jerusalem, earlier in August. In an article featured in Haaretz she had given a very clear, individual picture of some of the difficulties families were facing in Israel just to meet the costs of keeping a roof above their heads.

 

During the last weekend in August Witt, and a coalition of fellow activists, engaged in the first truly ‘controversial’ piece of political theatre of the protests, thus far. The group broke into a vacant building owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), not far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Taking over the four-storey building they christened it the ‘People’s House’ and held a public squat, that Witt hoped would force the government to introduce stricter property-ownership regulations, making it impossible for such buildings to remain unoccupied. In a Guardian report by Luke Brown, Witt claimed

“We’re trying to make a point – this building could easily house four families but it has stood empty for 15 years, … We want those people who own apartments in Israel but only come to the country for two weeks a year to feel that if they leave their apartment empty, it’ll be squatted, and so it’s in everyone’s interest if they rent them out instead.”

Witt, and those like her in Israel, are people newly committed to an old-fashioned idea of ‘society’ in the face of a perceived widening of social inequalities, as a result of aggressively pursued policies for economic growth. Whereas the noises from governments throughout the developed world are mainly of the bemused variety (how can people be protesting when so many nation’s are wealthier than they have ever been?), it is in protest movements like that in Israel that we are seeing the first articulations of dismay with the self-serving nature of much global economic policy and social reform.

 

CODA:- (Since starting work on this article much has changed about the situation of the protests, that can only really be reported, rather than directly commented on. What follows is an addendum tracing outlining recent events)

This latest escalation in the protest movement was followed by a momentary lapse in demonstrations, where the numbers of protestors in ‘tent cities’ across the country dwindled, but on Friday 2nd September the largest protests of all were stage across Israel, pulling in upwards of 450,000 people. The largest protest was staged at Kikar Hamedina, a large plaza in the centre of Tel Aviv. Protest leaders and student groups addressed the crowds asking for action and recognition from the Knesset. In the aftermath of this historic night Israeli city councils poured pressure on the protest movement to begin sustained dialogue with the Knesset and the Trajtenberg Committee instituted by Netanyahu on August 8th 2011 to examine the socioeconomic issues at the heart of the protests.

 

A temporary hiatus was called amongst the protest movements various bodies, but no solid attempt, as yet, has been made to discuss issues pertaining to Israel’s socioeconomic problems with the Trajtenberg Committee (many protestors remain opposed to any talks other than with the Knesset). The protest movement has since intimated its demands are to

“ “eliminate economic centralization”, propose a discussion to end monopolies, dismantle economic pyramids, increase competition, tax reform that would cancel the lowering of corporate taxes while raising taxes on high-income individuals, lowering indirect taxes, and monitoring of the capital market.”

Furthermore there have been increased calls for a return to the ‘welfare state’ model of social governance, that Netanyahu’s government has assiduously dismantled. Within the last 48 hours, a hardcore contingent of protestors that have chosen to ignore the requests of the government, local councils and the protest movements leaders, have been engaged in skirmishes and clashes with Israeli police. It remains to be seen what will happen next in this monumental protest movement, but it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will be able to ignore the events of the past six weeks and attempt to draw a line under proceedings.

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Thoughts Out Loud, No.1:- Lines of Beauty

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This is the true essence of what Apercu was meant to be. A repository for the fragmentary, unworked and inconclusive outpourings of my idle mind. Thoughts Out Loud will be a series comprised of rambling idea-pieces, so please do not hold these writings to quite the degree of scrutiny of other material on the site. These pieces will reveal far more of my flaws than I could ever hope to chronicle.

 

I was recently challenged by the book review published  in The Economist, August 27th 2011, entitled ‘The line of beauty’. Three recent academic publications were put under the microscope: Beauty Pays – Why Attractive People are Successful by Daniel Hamermesh (Princeton University press); The Beauty Bias – The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode (Oxford University Press); Honey Money – The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim (Allen Lane). The review focuses on the central ideas put forward in these books, amongst which are: the implicit notion that beauty is a measurable and quantifiable asset; the idea that beauty, power and wealth form an irresistible triumvirate in our modern world; the sense that beauty is a great, if not the greatest, source of injustice and inequality within our societies; and the idea that beauty can be harnessed as a commodity for the transference and enacting of power.

 

For some it will be an abhorrent notion that beauty be reduced to either a mathematical equation (The Golden Ratio), a logical/rational system (Zeising and Fechner), or a formal series (Vitrius and Pacioli). It becomes more distasteful then to consider beauty, or at least our shared ideals of beauty, as something defined by economic value and power. After all in a highly individualised free-market capitalist democracy (if that conglomeration of terms is even vaguely plausible) it would be expected that a coherent and unifying sense of beauty is unsustainable, if not undesirable. When the very notion of ‘society’ is being challenged by a kind of Randian fixation with the individual self, what room is there for preconceived and idealised notions of beauty? In such a ‘reality’ surely beauty becomes the epitome of subjectivity?

 

A lot of weight is given to the idea that beauty is something inherent in ‘nature’. This, at first, seems to soften the focus of an overly humanistic understanding of the concept. In crudely reductive terms the fact that we find the sight of a mountain peak ‘beautiful’, or that we consider a tree-fringed lake to be a ‘beauty spot’, suggests that beauty stems from something ‘purer’ and more ‘unifying’ than our commerce-fixated modern world will allow for. To some it becomes an expression of the hand of God, a clear demonstration of the genius of creation, beauty and divinity are, in this reading, inextricably linked. However the inescapable interpretative core of any idea of beauty is humanistic, even this obsession with beauty in nature.

 

Classical conceptions of beauty permeate our own modern ideals. The sense of the harmonious apogee of forms is something that we either actively seek to define beauty by, or against. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is modeled on the rational proportioning of Vitruvian architectural/engineering theory, whereby the body is seen to be solid, robust and strong. In this strength and the balanced motion through which this strength operates we apprehend the usefulness of the organism, the human form. Yet Vitruvian Man is assumed to possess beauty as part of this nexus of attributes. How do we know that beauty is to be observed here? Does every human apprehend beauty in the Vitruvian Man? Can beauty manifest itself in non-pleasing forms?

 

These concepts of proportion, balance, harmony, are also at the heart of mathematical attempts to define beauty. The idea that what we perceive as beautiful in ‘nature’, works along the same basic principles as that which we perceive as beautiful in humanity, is one that emerged in Classical thought, but was recalibrated for modern consumption in the early Renaissance period. There is a sense that in proportionate, symmetrical and balanced forms you are beholding the manifestation of health and vitality. As we age, decay and wither, our bodies take on the distorted forms of disease and damage. In many ways our bodies become the repositories for death, maps of pain. Likewise in ‘nature’ the change from summer to autumn sees the decline and deformation of forms that have begun to die. Growth propels us up toward an apex from which we must then fall away into decline. There is a deterministic mode of thought that suggests we intuitively respond to those attributes that are most conducive to the continuance of a healthy offspring. In which case our obsession with beauty could be nothing more than an implicit acknowledgement of what is considered optimally healthful.

 

I’m wary of these assumptions though, as it appears difficult to extrapolate the personal from the ‘normative’, or perception from ‘conditioning’. Human civilisation has a tendency toward hard encoding specific cultural notions (such as the contemplation of the harmonious as preferable to the chaotic) to such a degree that it becomes difficult to think outside of these terms, so that they can be inferred as ‘natural’. In some ways this is why I give more weight to the abstract verification of a mathematical principle such as The Golden Ratio, because it becomes merely a formulation of things apparent within our experienced reality, without necessarily needing to be given any greater value significance, other than it is found within many ‘natural’ forms. The fact that we then might see these natural ‘forms’ as pleasing, is neither here nor there in terms of the mathematics underpinning our apprehension. This, for me, is where the true difficulty lies with the idea of beauty.

 

If beauty were a consistent presence in our reality, then I would argue that we could understand it within universal abstract frameworks, such as can be found within mathematics. However, does our own appreciation of what is beautiful not show a tendency for inconsistency, a lack of the harmonic? Were mountains always a source of scenic wonder and beauty? Have bodies of water always given humanity a pleasing feeling of appreciation? Do healthy forms always attract us? Do human bodies with high degrees of proportionality appear more satisfying to the eye, than those which do not? Most importantly of all, in our mobile modern times, can we honestly say that the Classical conceptions of beauty that informed Renaissance thought and by extension European mercantile and colonial thought, are applicable universally and transcend the boundaries of culture (and geography) that existed for the best part of 6,000 years?

 

This isn’t meant to be an organised and structured assessment of beauty, merely a collection of witterings that have been chiming away through the nether regions of my self-contained little mind. I found it difficult to fathom how a researcher like Hamermesh could compare the quantifiable (i.e. wages earned, earning potential, annual budgets, GDP) with a concept of ‘beauty’ that is surely only verifiable through a particularly narrow aperture of ‘normative’ behaviour. What exactly is Hamermesh presuming to quantify when suggesting that ‘handsome’ people earn $230,000 more over their lifetime than ‘plain’ people? I appreciate that you will carry out surveys and collate statistical data from those surveys, but like any data set how representative is this of an idea that often has the currency of a ‘universal truth’ like beauty?

 

Rhode’s theory seems potentially more problematic, whilst being quite perceptive. In Rhode’s idea beauty is a divisive attribute that fundamentally underpins inequalities within our societies and our systems of law and governance. The perception of physical beauty, or in this case, the perception of adhering to a ‘normative’ sense of the physically pleasing, infiltrates all the key decision areas within our societies when it comes to the dispensing and management of power. Whereas Hamermesh connects beauty to an economic power, Rhode appears to connect beauty with economic power as a means of warping the notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ (a whole different array of questions to be raised). Beauty is then a complex construct, that merges together ideas from various periods of history and civilisation, crucially incorporating that commercial/cultural border-hopper that is ‘fashion’, thus establishing specific conditions against which we base our own judgements, either positively or negatively, about what we see as beautiful. A society can thus pass judgement on ugliness, by placing it against what is considered the ‘normative’ of beauty, whilst still having room for individual expressions of dissent.

 

For a final thought consider that supposed relationship of beauty, power and wealth. Which way round do we correlate things? Does beauty lead to power and wealth? If that is the truth then how do you explain a majority of the worlds powerbrokers and commercial leaders, the Donald Trump’s, Bill Gates’ and Silvio Berlusconi’s of this world? If power and wealth attracts the beautiful, then again we have issues about why beauty isn’t more dominant in the boardrooms and halls of governance. The ‘normative’ beautiful in the Anglo-saxon world seem to be associated with those areas of media that are considered fashionable: film, music, fashion, art, etc. Once again, however, there is a need to see that all of these things are merely predicated on a ‘normative’ sense of beauty and the real question perhaps should be what drives this ‘normative’ (or questionably ‘objective’) idea of beauty. I’d argue that you will find very different ‘normative’ conceptions of beauty in the various ‘cultures’ on this planet. I’d also mention before closing, that the appeal of the beauty, power, wealth nexus is a strong one, however what about that return to the natural, with all of that Romantic ideology freighted into our poetic resonances with landscape? Isn’t it the case that when it comes to ‘nature’ our understanding of the ‘beautiful’ becomes far less dependent upon the commercially desirable wealth and power principles espoused above? How do we adequately place anything other than an aesthetic and experiential ‘value’ on observing a thick coastal fog as ‘beautiful’, for example?

Being Charlie Adam (Revisited)

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Being Charlie Adam was originally published on my now defunct Imposturous blogspot, on June 22nd 2010. It was an article that partly addressed the serious dearth in creative footballing talent within Scotland at the moment (something Pat Nevin has since pursued in his Radio documentary, The Perfect 10), whilst giving an overview of one of the few Scottish players who has really set the pulses racing over the last few years. Back at the start of last season Adam had resuscitated a career that had looked almost flatlined in his last few months at Rangers, under Walter Smith. This was in part thanks to the midfield responsibilities Blackpool manager Ian Holloway assigned his captain, in what was a very, almost suicidally so, attack-minded team. Everton were seen as the main suitors for his signature last summer. However, Blackpool managed to cling onto him for an entire season, and although he ultimately failed to keep the team in the top division, he didn’t half impress with his spectacular range of passes and his dead-ball excellence. In the January transfer window, Liverpool’s returning hero Kenny Dalglish, attempted to bring Adam to Merseyside. In the event his arrival was simply postponed for six months and now Adam is in the perfect place to realise all of that early promise that the much-maligned Paul Le Guen first saw in him. The impressive start both Liverpool and Adam have made to this new season promises much, particularly if Adam continues to create such a strong on-pitch relationship with young Jordan Henderson and the wily Uruguayan Luis Sanchez. I’ve a gut-feeling this could be a very good campaign for Liverpool, and what better person for Adam to develop into his golden years under, than perhaps the greatest ‘number 10’ figure Liverpool ever had. If only more Scottish players would take a leaf out of the Adam playbook. On the continent he would be heralded as the midfield maestro, he surely is, whereas in Scotland (much as in England, in the recent past), he’s seen as a maverick throwback to the days of Jimmy Baxter and Alan Gilzean. I believe that Craig Levein is trying very hard in a near thankless position at the SFA, but unless that clownish organisation manages to put its house in order and come up with a top-to-bottom regeneration programme for the Scottish game, then the likes of Charlie Adam will continue to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Why are so many talented Scottish footballers so bloody enigmatic when it comes to displaying their talents consistently at the highest levels? Despite the greats of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, such as Laws, Hansen, Bremner, Jordan, Souness, Dalglish and Robertson, there has been a steady stream of untapped, or not fully realised, talent frittered away before a generation of Scots’ fans teary eyes. Think of the sublime gifts of Jimmy Baxter, or Davie Cooper, that, due to the traditional Scottish disdain for healthy living, were so infrequently shared with the Rangers, Raith and Motherwell fans who worshipped them. What about the myriad talents of Giggs’ contemporary Eoin Jess, a player that back in the early 90’s had many Scottish football journalists predicting a similar career trajectory to the Welsh wizard? Aside from his all too brief halycon years at Pittodrie there is now as little to admire of Jess’s career, as there are trophies on his CV.

 

In recent years the youth teams at Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Hearts have developed a number of promising young talents, only for the Old Firm to come-a-calling and set their development back a few years at best (Kevin Thomson, Steven Naismith), or leave them cryogenically frozen at worst (Derek Riordan). Part of this is down to the players themselves, groomed in the goldfish bowl that is Scottish football, they nowadays tend to have an over-inflated opinion of their own talents, achievements and self-worth from a ridiculously young age and quickly fall into all the extracurricular traps their relative affluence allows them. Often it is only on descending down the Scottish League that such players begin to realise a fraction of that potential that initially got them the big pay cheque (just take a look at where some of the journeymen assembled by Derek Adams at Ross County this season started their careers).

One of the most glaring details about talented Scottish footballers’ habits (much like many young English players) in the past few years has been their relative inability to seek out better opportunities in leagues other than their own. Since the tail-end of the Merseyside duopoly of Everton and Liverpool in the 80’s and the likes of McClair and Strachan at United, successful Scots’ players abroad have been an endangered species. Gary McCallister was perhaps the last truly great Scottish player to achieve tangible success abroad, although the mercurial gifts of James McFadden helped David Moyes settle into the Goodison hotseat and perhaps Manchester United’s most consistent performer of the last few seasons has been the tenacious midfield dynamo Darren Fletcher. There really is though no comparison between the current crop of Scots’ players parked in mid-table Premier League and Championship outfits and the greats of the Leeds, Liverpool, Everton and Forest teams of old, not to mention the continental pioneers like Souness, Jordan and Archibald, unless you harbour an ironic soft-spot for Holland’s favourite Scotsman Scott Booth.

Amongst the current crop of Scotland players, I would argue that only McFadden (and where has McFadden disappeared to???) clearly has more natural skill and ability than the former ‘Ger Charlie Adam. Darren Fletcher has grown into a truly world-class talent more through ferocious willpower and sheer, Ferguson-implanted, single-mindedness than by dint of being blessed with fantastic football skills. Adam, much like his former team-mate and club captain Barry ‘pass-back’ Ferguson, comes across in interviews as somewhat lacking in the verbal skills to adequately discuss the weather, let alone his footballing ability (since when has that been an issue for English, French, or Spanish footballers andtheir bland, airbrushed platitudes), yet unlike Ferguson he seems to have an awareness of these limitations. In his most recent incarnation for Championship outfit Blackpool, Adam has literally been following that tired old cliche and doing his talking on the pitch, orchestrating Blackpool’s frenetic brand of attacking football from the centre of the park, turning into a box-to-box midfielder in the Steven Gerrard mould.

As manager Ian Holloway’s club captain and Blackpool’s most expensive signing (at a paltry £500,000 pounds), Adam has embraced the tough fitness training sessions and pass’n’move offensive play of his new club and in the process has blossomed into the player that Paul Le Guen considered to be one of the most promising youth products coming through the Ibrox ranks in his short tenure at the club. It is somewhat troubling to consider that Adam has clearly performed for the likes of Gus MacPherson, Le Guen and Holloway, all managers who demand high fitness levels of their players and yet frequently throughout his time at Ibrox was the object of terrace abuse and derision, due to his ballooning weight and propensity to jog, or waddle, after the ball. He would not be the first player, nor the last, to let Glasgow living get the better of him. I seem to remember Peter Lovenkrands having similar weight issues in his time atIbrox, as well as Riordan, Caldwell and Boruc in more recent times at Celtic.

Despite being given his first Scotland cap by Alex McLeish, at club level Adam clearly did not win Big ‘Eck’s trust on the football pitch, being farmed out first to Ross County and then to his successful stint at St. Mirren under MacPherson. Le Guen succeeded McLeish in the summer of 2006 and after a pre-season goal blitz by Adam the Frenchman regularly selected, and got the best from, him. However, Le Guen’s brutally short reign at Ibrox saw Walter Smith takeover in early 2007 and gradually the dynamism of the last 18 months drained from Adam’s performances. By 2009 Adam was a peripheral figure at Ibrox, seemingly resigned to never quite making the grade for Rangers. It was at this juncture that Adam initially took up a loan option with relegation threatened Blackpool, a move he would later make permanent under the stewardship of Holloway in August 2009.

Adam in the few, mostly dull, football interviews that he has given, has frequently alluded to his need to ‘feel wanted’ and his willingness to ‘play anywhere’ as long as it meant playing regularly. Being a natural left-footer with a thunderous shot, he frequently found himself being asked to play out on the wing at Ibrox, cutting inside when necessary. Yet under Holloway at Blackpool Adam has found himself being utilised in a more demanding central role, where he can show-off his full range of passing and his previously much-maligned capacity to intelligently link up defence and attack with well-timed charges from deep. As a result his goal ratio has also swollen, acceding the near-double figure tally he clocked up in that excellent season in Paisley. A look at some of Adam’s more outrageous finishes against Stuttgart, Celtic, Queen of the South and West Brom, demonstrates his inherent strengths: a precision delivery from dead-ball situations, an excellent first-touch, the ability to turn defenders with intelligent movement and a rocket left-footed finish. Why is it then that it has taken Adam so long to fulfill the potential observed by MacPherson and Le Guen way back in the 2005-06 season?

Adam’s personality in the past has seemed to be a fairly benign one, that demanded the strict motivational abilities of a hard task-master to get the best from it on the training pitch. Adam also seemed previously resistant to playing a strict role within a tactically disciplined side, which both McLeish and Smith frequently demand of their charges. Under MacPherson and Le Guen, Adam seemed to blossom by being given a degree of freedom to run at defences and utilise his strength and balance to break teams down from a number of different positions across the midfield. Holloway has seemed to encourage this with his own preference for open, attacking football, played through the midfield, yet he has also managed to harness Adam to a stronger work ethic by placing the responsibility of the captaincy squarely on his young shoulders. Adam has certainly risen to the occasion this season, dominating a number of key matches for Blackpool with his ability to pick the right pass and his set-piece expertise. In fact Holloway, often derided as a clownish figure in the past, has managed to imbue Adam not only with the confidence to take his abilities to the next level, but also the willingness to sacrifice for the team and also to demonstrate a strong streak of loyalty that few had previously thought possible once Adam’s Rangers dream lay in tatters.

Ominously for Blackpool their captain’s revitalisation has won him a new group of admirers, including McFadden’s former mentor/nemesis David Moyes at Everton. If rumours are to be believed Adam has a tough choice to make this summer between the comfortable existence he has established for himself at the Premiership’s newest club, or pushing himself to achieve further success as part of Moyes robust and competitive Goodison midfield. He would do well to look at the example of a former team-mate who has excelled since arriving on Merseyside. Mikel Arteta had a miserable spell at Rangers in the early part of the decade and yet has become one of the key creative influences for Moyes’ team. Adam may yet become a proper Big Time Charlie.

Free Scots: The Great University Fee Non-Debate

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The SNP rolled back student tuition fees legislation in 2008 by passing The Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland). This established the right for Scottish-born citizens, or legal residents within Scotland, to receive a free higher education at any of the Scottish Universities. However the policy prevents those born in other parts of the UK from enjoying similar privileges at Scottish institutions, whilst, thanks to EU interstate policy, allowing students from other EU countries to benefit from financially unfettered access. In the light of increases in tuition fees expected at most of the English, Northern Irish and Welsh Universities in 2012, questions are beginning to be asked as to whether the Scottish policy is fair and tenable.

 

On the 28th February 2008 the Scottish Parliament, led by the SNP for the first time, flexed its new-found muscle and abolished the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) Act 2001 (Scotland), that had been implemented by the initial Labour/Lib Dem coalition in the Parliament’s inaugural term. The 2001 Act had been a response to the Cubie Committee’s report on higher education funding in Scotland, that suggested a fee repayment model post-graduation, rather than the up-front fee delivery and loan system required by the 1998 UK-wide Teaching and Higher Education Act, introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government (but originally recommended by The 1997 Dearing Report, commissioned by John Major’s Conservative government). By passing the Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland), the SNP were further emphasising a growing schism between Scottish Parliament legislation and Westminister-initiated UK policy.

The vote to pass the abolition legislation was a tight one, with the SNP and its allies pipping a Conservative and Labour coalition, by 67 votes to 61. It mirrored an equally tight vote to ward off an inquiry into the issues of tuition fees abolition, which was won by the SNP 65 votes to 63. Critics of the policy, such as then Labour shadow minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, Rhona Brankin claimed that there was no conclusive evidence that scrapping the charge would increase access to University places, particularly for those from the poorest communities within Scotland. Furthermore, there were early warnings that such a policy could only have serious financial repercussions for Scotland in the long-term.

Recently an article by Scott MacNab in The Scotsman, detailed “a looming £263million financial timebom”’ in the Scottish economy, if the SNP didn’t urgently review their policy on tuition fees. These gloomy projections were based on the idea that a funding gap would naturally emerge between Scottish and English academic institutions as a result of the massive increase in UK tuitions, outside of Scotland. Until recently the SNP has claimed that free-access to higher education for Scottish citizens is a central tenet of their manifesto and a crucial electoral pledge. Questions over funding have been partly addressed this year, with new policy in June, enabling Scottish institutions to charge English, Northern Irish and Welsh students increased fees (in line with UK-wide tuition increases), being broadly supported by Universities Scotland, the lobby group set-up to defend the interests of Scotland’s higher education institutions.

Intriguingly the SNP’s actions in Scotland have not led to increased pressure for the repeal of student tuition fees in other parts of the United Kingdom, aside from within the already active NUS and other student bodies. Rather than a debate about the legitimacy of charging tuition fees, what has instead occurred is increased criticism of Scotland’s two-tier approach. This criticism has now become focused upon the issue of English, Northern Irish and Welsh students being forced to pay fees, that not even a Greek or Portuguese student has to pay, seeking to emphasise the absurd hypocrisy of the Scottish Parliament’s position. As pointed out in a recent NS Leader, Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers (a law-firm representing Callum Hurley and Katy Moore, two students who have brought about this action), believes that Scottish Ministers have “misinterpreted the law” and “the Scottish fees system contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and could be in breach of Britain’s Equality Act”. Disturbingly (or not as the NS is after all a Labour rag) the NS Leader doesn’t highlight the fact that this lawsuit being brought against the Scottish Parliament is merely an adjunct to a legal action that Shiner, Hurley and Moore have been pressuring the coalition government with. In effect Shiner has drafted a similar Judicial Review against the UK government, and in particular Vince Cable, back in February, arguing that the increase in tuition fees contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 14, as well as failing to promote equality under the Race Relations, Sex Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Acts. Thus, the Scottish Parliament is being served with an almost identical legal action, not necessarily as a result of their two-tier approach to fees application, but rather as a result of having introduced the same fees policy as the rest of the UK, toward non-Scottish citizens. The NS’s scandalised pronouncement that “It is absurd that EU students receive a free University education in Scotland while UK students pay full fees”, seems a little less scandalous when one of the central linchpins of their argument is duly contextualised.

Away from these legal distractions and shenanigans there is actually a more pertinent  and pressing discussion to be had. Is it possible to fund “world-class” academic institutions, in the highly competitive global environment of the 21st Century, from central government coffers? Also, is the Scottish approach to funding, one that can be justified considering the trend toward increasing global mobility amongst relatively affluent national populations?

It has taken a long time for many European nations to even consider the notion that Higher Education, at University level, needs to be paid for by the student utilising the service. This is in part down to the fact that with often prohibitively high levels of taxation, it would be seen as a particularly hard sell to an electorate. There has also been a culture within many European nations, post-World War II, to see the expansion of University education as a direct correlative to an enlightened and socially mobile society. The trend, therefore, has been toward viewing a University education as not just a desirable asset in the jobs market, but as a prerequisite of good, solid career and personal development (with all the meritorious benefits that faith in such a system may bestow).

The rapid expansion of Universities in the United Kingdom has led to the situation where there is now over a hundred such institutions throughout the country. Some of these institutions will undoubtedly provide specialist courses only provided by a handful of Universities, however the vast majority of these institutions replicate the core subject areas of the Arts, Humanities and Sciences, with varying levels in teaching standards and facilities. Going back to the pre-1998 model of University funding is it genuinely credible that central government would have been able to fund such a vast array of institutions, whilst competing with the very best universities around the world and ensuring that year-on-year increases in student numbers were catered for?

A considerable concern was expressed in the Dearing Report with regard to the continued provision of a quality educational experience in circumstances that saw a rapid expansion in student numbers, a 45% increase in public funding requirements for higher education costs (not related to the already dwindling grants and bursaries scheme) and no significant ‘positive’ effect being felt in terms of GDP, as a result of higher educational standards. The decision by the Labour government to follow the suggestions of the Dearing Report and implement an initial £1,000 tuition fee, combined with a larger low-interest government loan, helped to relieve central government of some of the burden of spending, but only deferred much more important decisions indefinitely.

With approximately 115 Universities in the UK by 2009, the academic year 2009/10 saw 2,493,420 (2,087,615 domestic, 125,050 EU) students involved in some course of study at higher education institutions in the UK. These figures meant that over half of UK citizens aged 17 to 30 were in University education in 2009/10. Despite considerable budget cuts, lay-offs, staff restructuring and other cost-cutting measures approximately 20% of universities were running an annual deficit. The new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government came to believe that there was an urgent need for Universities to have more flexible means of acquiring funding. The decision to dramatically cut Higher Education funding by central government (slashing £450 million from annual university budgets), was balanced off with the possibility for institutions to charge up to £9,000 per year, for a degree from the 2012/13 academic year. Since the government announcement of a tuition fee increase in November 2010, there has been notable unrest and continued demonstrations from students and activists, although this hasn’t deterred some academic institutions from charging the maximum available fee. For some this appeared to be a Conservative government barricading off the hallowed halls of academia to a those incapable of finding the finances to afford a University education.

Paying for a University education is nothing new if you happen to live in the United States, where the average domestic tuition fee is approximately £4,000 per annum (many of the most prestigious institutions charge much greater sums, with a four-year degree at Harvard totalling $50,000). Tuition fees are also charged in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany (with, funnily enough, a few regional exceptions), Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (amongst others). If you look at the countries where the greatest tuition fees are charged (the US and now the UK) you should see a significant number of academic institutions in these countries ranking high on the annual QS World Rankings (bearing in mind that tradition, the international spread of the English language and prestige also play a significant role). Within the top 100 Universities in the world 32 are based in the US and 19 within the UK, meaning that fee-charging institutions make up around 50% of the best academic institutions in the world (remembering that Scotland’s Universities no longer contribute to this tally). Of countries that do not charge tuition fees, only China (5, including 3 former HK institutions), Denmark (2), France (2), Finland (1), Norway (1) and Russia (1) appear on the list. It should be noted that both Norway and China charge considerably higher rates of annual taxation than the UK, whilst countries such as Belgium charge comparatively low annual tuition fees (totalling around 500 euro in most cases). Tuition fees would appear to have the benefit of not only unburdening the central government of the need to fund continual academic expansion, ideally freeing up money to be focused on things like healthcare, but they also seem to help institutions compete globally in terms of research and innovation.

If you have private businesses that are willing to pay astronomical wages to get the best designers, technicians, specialists, theorists and practitioners working within their organisation, how on earth can a state-funded academic institution compete? If Universities cannot compete in terms of wages, then what they can attempt to deliver are the more relaxed and ‘liberal’ conditions in which certain types of research are more likely to thrive. The kind of infrastructure that is required needs high levels of funding, something that is frequently overlooked when focusing too intently on the cost accrued by a student.

How else is a University to find necessary funding than by introducing a fee for the services it provides to the clients that utilise them? Here the Scottish funding model actually offers a possible alternative solution, but one that goes against are current concerns, within Europe, for an equality of access that is international, rather than national. If the nation-state were to take care of the educational opportunities of its own citizens, by offering a free, or heavily subsidised University education, then all other nationalities wishing to utilise these services would have to front a fee cost, that they wouldn’t otherwise contribute in the form of taxation. This sounds quite similar to how things operated post-grant, but pre-fee, back in the UK of 1997. What this system relies upon too heavily is that there is enough money in central coffers to handle educating 50%, or more, of the national population (between the ages of 17 to 30) at any one time, so that in the event of a lack of ‘International’ student funds the Universities do not run a shortfall.

Perhaps a more coherent policy approach would be to dramatically restructure the UK Universities. Is there really a need for 115 academic institutions? Clearly the fact that 20% of them are running an annual deficit, even with the injection of fees, suggests not. Would it not be more beneficial to curb the financial failings within the higher education system itself, by closing institutions that are running deficits, or by merging successful institutions with failing neighbours, where possible? Yes, there are arguments to be made about the unique regional role that certain academic institutions provide, but how many of these institutions are running a deficit?

The partly difficult nationalist position that the Scottish Parliament may appear to have taken, vis-a-vis University access, certainly can be read as going against much of the EU’s ethos about free movement and parity of access amongst member states. However, a more careful reading than that put forward by the belligerently Labourite NS would have noted that the issue here isn’t really that Scotland is penalising the English, Northern Irish and Welsh, but that in fact the Scottish Parliament is being hindered in implementing a broader fee-charging system for foreign nationals, by ill-fitting EU legislation. The SNP have actually proposed that if Shiner’s legal action is successful, then they will have little option left than to question the validity of the EU’s policy on ‘discrimination between states’.

One possible solution here would be to review the EU legislation, making the necessary amendments so that ‘discrimination’ was not viewed as originating from the actions of the state to which a person was moving in the EU, but rather as part of a comparative analysis of conditions between member states. In such a case, Scotland may continue to provide a free education for its own nationals and any EU nationals who come from countries in which they would also be provided with a ‘free’ (i.e. state-funded through taxation) education. However, as would be the case with many of the nations within the EU, Scotland would be able to levy a comparable fee for education within Scotland’s Universities, to those students coming from an EU member state that does charge student tuition fees. This system seems to take into account the fact that discrimination must be based upon depriving someone of the ability to do something that they would have otherwise been able to do within their own nation, not something that they would have been unable to do. Of course, there is still the issue to be resolved as to how England, Northern Ireland and Wales relate to this proposal, seeing as Scotland has used the loop-hole of non-EU status so effectively in its current policy. I’d like to think that this issue may well be resolved by the end of this Scottish Parliament, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

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High seriousness and the Brothers Coen do not an immediate marriage make. The first ten minutes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest effort A Serious Man, far from altering this impression, rather shocks the viewer into remembering how effectively the Coens utilise the mechanics of horror in their best films. Joel Coen started out as assistant editor to Sam Raimi on the comic-horror masterpiece The Evil Dead and the brothers have maintained some of the horror aesthetics on display in that movie, in their own most effective nightmarish visions, such as: Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. Alongside their undoubted love for film noir, the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, screwball comedy and the pointed satires of Preston Sturges, the Coens have frequently utilised suggestive imagery, horrific violence, supremely eerie camera angles and lighting and the unsettling soundtracks of Carter Burwell, as only true pioneers of horror, such as Jacques Tourneur, Tod Browning and Georges Franju, could. Where the Coens excel yet further is in the quality of their writing which, whether focused on the verbal or physical, unerringly hits the right mark of wry humour, or encroaching menace. In A Serious Man the Coens are intent on using Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ as the filter through which all dialogue and action must pass, thus making the movie their most unsettling experience to date.

The movie opens in the 19th Century, in a Polish Shtetl, with a husband returning to his wife to inform her that he has met a Rabbinical relative in the snow, who helped him fix his cart. The wife is certain, however, that the person in question, Treitle Groshkover (yet another fabulous Coen Brothers character name), died three years earlier and therefore her husband must have come across a Dybbuk (a troubled spirit, either kind or malevolent, that cleaves to an individual in a time of difficulty, or crisis). The husband has unfortunately invited the relative to eat with them and on Groshkover’s arrival the wife sets about proving her suspicions. This opening section of the film is shot in Yiddish, with English subtitling, and plays fast and loose with the commonly held Jewish folk mythology of a Dybbuk. That aside it is a wondefully atmospheric and chilling exordium that sets the tone for the seemingly wholly unconnected events that follow.

The Coen Brothers display a frequent fascination with the visual depiction of orifices, as elaborated in the bowling ball sequences of The Big Lebowski, the schematics of the hula-hoop in The Hudsucker Proxy and the frequent lingering shots of various piercing wounds and punctures in almost every one of their films. A Serious Man actually presents the most startling of all such shots as part of its impressive credits sequence. Jefferson Airplanes ‘Somebody to Love’ (a recurring joke throughout the movie) is played over the opening credits which end upon a black screen. Gradually a small speck appears and expands in the centre of the black screen, taking on the metaphorical import of a birthing canal, or yet another hole in a Coen character’s head. For the briefest of moments it is suggestive of the central spoke on a spinning record deck, but is revealed to be the direct passage from the dark emptiness of the head, down through the ear canal and into the earpiece of a portable tape player, being listened to by Danny Gopnik, the errant pot-head son of the film’s protagonist (although not the earnest man of the title) Larry Gopnik. Danny is in Hebrew school and it should be considered as to whether the nightmarish opening sequence is in fact no more than the overactive imaginings of an otherwise bored teenage boy.

Much like Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers evocation of another earnest Jewish male, A Serious Man appears to be primarily concerned with the questionable state of mind of its central protagonist, when placed under the unremitting trials, stresses and strains of external forces. Larry Glopnik, however, unlike Barton Fink, has no airs or pretensions. He is a Professor of Physics in Minnesota, a family man, living in a predominately Jewish community in the suburbs. The audience first encounters Larry undergoing a regular checkup with his doctor, a sequence that is brilliantly and disorientingly cross-cut with Danny’s classroom mischief. The film already seems hell-bent on reinforcing uncertainty as its primary theme through its formal choices. How does the audience connect the parallel events portrayed? Are they even meant to be connected? How should the pre-credit intro be regarded in relation to what is now being portrayed? All of these questions, and many more, are left hanging, some to be answered, others to have no such luck. The Coens would appear to be positing early in the film the premise that is later espoused by the rather sanctimonious Rabbi Nachtner, namely that our questions are not raised to be answered and that Hashem (God) has no responsibility to his creation, to reveal the methodology of his actions.

Larry Gopnik is such a benign presence within the movie that it seems almost masochistic on the part of the Coens to hang the framework of the narrative upon his unassuming shoulders. Whereas other ‘nobody’ Coen protagonists, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, however reluctantly, allow their survival instincts to force them into decisive action, Gopnik throughout A Serious Man strongly decries his ever having done anything. To some degree this is true, as the things that befall him seem primarily to be as a result of his inaction, rather than any impulse, or volition, on his part. In talking about this project the Coens have described it as their take on the Book of Job and Gopnik seems to endure his fair share of torments with quiet torpidness. First of all he is confronted by the inscrutably direct deviousness of a dissatisfied Korean student, who seems to have thoroughly understood how Heisenberg’s principle should be applied to actual human interaction, even if he sucks at the maths. Then there is the small matter of Sy Abelman, a widower of three years (another source of wry Coen humour), who appears to be far more aware of the condition of Larry’s marriage than Larry is himself. Gopnik’s living purgatory is fleshed out by the persistent and unrestrained selfishness of Larry’s son and daughter, the indefinite stay of Larry’s mentally unstable, goiter-draining, maths whizz of a brother (wonderfully portrayed by Richard Kind), the surly gun-toting NRA survivalists who live next door and seem to be under the impression that more of the lawn is actually theirs than they are truly entitled to, the tongue-tied yet recklessly verbal Dean of the faculty who creates a pervasive sense of paranoia in every reassurance of tenure, the rather too liberal, middle-aged housewife whose recreational activities involve pot-smoking and naturism, the friendly, but high-fee charging legal representation that Larry takes on initially to help with his unwanted divorce proceedings, and most disturbingly of all the Columbia Records Store that Larry’s son has joined and whom now hound Larry for the cost of records that he has no idea about.

Intriguingly, throughout the movie Larry is heard to be asking questions. Questions of his family, questions of his work colleagues, questions of Rabbis, questions of his legal representation, yet not once in the entire film does he actually receive, what he considers to be, an adequate answer. More often than not his family ignores him, leaving him in a seemingly perpetual state of catch-up. Whilst the Rabbis, lawyers and work colleagues merely give him an assortment of convoluted avoidance statements. The only people in the movie that ever really get to grips with Larry’s enquiries are the various portly, middle-aged, slightly owlish secretaries he comes into contact with, who offer contrite and frequently rebarbative responses, that fail only in the fact that they do not answer Larry’s questions in the manner that he would wish them to be answered.

The smug platitudes and odiously false understanding that Sy Abelman (the ‘Serious Man’ of the title, as designated by Rabbi Nachtner at his service) foists upon the reluctant and unwilling Larry are by far and away the most comic of all the sufferings he is forced to endure. The esteemed voice artist Fred Melamud is superb in the role of Abelman, turning Larry’s cuckolded situation into an opportunity for them to bond, yet proving unwilling to listen to Larry’s suggestions for how the divorce from his wife, Judith, should go ahead. Abelman’s death is yet another of the moments in the movie where the Coens deliberately cast doubt on what the viewer is actually seeing, cross-cutting between Larry and Sy driving to work and the golf course, respectively. The expectation is that they are driving toward some literal or metaphorical collision with one another, however this is simply not the case, although Larry later sees some significance in the fact that both Sy and himself were involved in car accidents at almost the exact same time.

Curiously, the Coens seem to take the theme of uncertainty to unprecedently subtle extremes. The frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell creates a musical score that is often incongruously unsettling and sinister. Furthermore, it proves to be yet another layer of uncertainty to those fans of the Coen Brothers movies, as it strongly resembles the score of their debut work Blood Simple, a film that evokes comparable dread from the most mundane of situations. The score is most significant in the way it isolates sounds such as the scrolling of the yad during a reading of the Torah, or the soft squeaking of a leather chair, by surrounding them with a suspenseful passage of music that breaks into silence. The score is also used to full horrifying effect when underlining the sections involving the Rabbis, denoted visually by a title insert.

The Coens seem to take a certain cruel glee in depicting the domestic horrors of 1960’s Jewish-American life, which lacks the affectionate ribbing of Phillip Roth and strays into the territory of profound disgust. The Gopniks all sit around the kitchen table greedily and noisily slurping their soup. The wise old Rabbi Marshak is seemingly so bored by his own congregation that he refuses to see any adults and only speaks with the Bar Mitzvahed sons of the congregation (leading to the at first sinister and then hilarious cross-examination of Danny about members of Jefferson Airplane). Nobody seems to know what a ‘get’ is, including the Junior Rabbi. The Hebrew school is staffed by an assortment of aged, crusty men, who seem wholly out of touch with reality, let alone their students. The decor and fashions are suitably flock and pastel, whilst the community Larry lives within seems to very much operate along the lines of a modern-day Shtetl. The characters are fundamentally loveless people, with even the seductive, yet almost catatonic, Mrs. Samsky (surely a Coen play on the Dybbuk author S.Ansky), married but seemingly alone. Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire film is the most troubled, with Larry’s brother Arthur being unable, or unwilling, to find work and accommodation, getting busted for gambling and also for the solicitation of a rent-boy at the hilariously entitled ‘North Dakota’ club. Yet this sympathy for Arthur, is surely based on nothing more than pity for a fundamentally wretched existence. At times A Serious Man ascends far beyond the misanthropic view of humanity that the Coens detailed in No Country for Old Men. Whereas in that movie the shocking revelation was that Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters are only divided in the reasons they have for deploying authority, power and violence, here the shocking revelation is perhaps that the Coens see absolutely no revelation to give. The Gopniks aren’t cursed, Hashem has not forgotten them, it is simply that there is either no Hashem worth considering, or perhaps more distressingly Hashem, like the Rabbi Marshak wants absolutely nothing to do with all the Gopniks’ inane questions.

The wonderfully self-contained piece of silliness that Rabbi Nachtner tries to fob off on Larry about a dentist in the community who sees the hebrew letters that spell out ‘help me’ written on the back of a goy’s teeth, seems an almost perfect summation of this stylish exercise in disconcertion by the Coen brothers. Rabbi Nachtner offers this, what we later understand to be pat, tale as an answer to Larry’s straight questioning of what ‘it’ all means. However this answer only provokes the need for further answers to new questions, the last of which involves what happened to the ‘goy’, to which Nachtner responds ‘who cares about the goy’. With A Serious Man the Coen brothers appear as truly serious men, who are more than aware that the most profound and unsettling of topics are most often best approached through the prisms of humour and horror. The rough ride that faith, religion and tradition seems to superficially take in A Serious Man is undermined somewhat by the consideration that if we are to take ‘uncertainty’ as the only truth of existence, then we either have to accept faith as a ‘rational’ reaction to such circumstances, or we have to consider the implications of ‘uncertainty’ as a constant, as surely oxymoronic. This thought should return the viewer to that wonderful piece of pop wisdom that is used as a motif throughout the movie, the opening lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’: ‘When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies’. This is perhaps sound advice to bear in mind when considering the full import of A Serious Man, alongside its questionable prefaced quote from Rashi: ‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’. The Coens are after all serious about one thing in particular – namely, misdirection.

This essay was originally published on July 17th 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.

A Scottish Journey from the Clyde to the Tay

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An Idiosyncratic Exploration of 20th Century Scottish History and Culture

In 1935 the Orcadian poet, translator and writer Edwin Muir returned to his homeland for the first time in over a decade. He had been approached by the publishers Heinemann and Gollancz to write a companion piece to J.B. Priestley’s an English Journey, but rather than choose to compose a slight chronicle of Scotland’s scenic delights, Muir opted to use this commission as an opportunity to revisit all those aspects of Scotland that had alienated him, in an attempt to try to define that which was essentially Scottish about the Scots. Muir crossed the country – quite literally – in a borrowed 1921 standard car. He started off in Edinburgh from where he travelled down to the Borders and then up through the mining and industrial communities of Motherwell, Airdrie and Greenock, to Glasgow. His survey of the Highlands he left till last, perhaps because this was the region to which he felt the closest affinity and the most certain happiness. In all the journey took in the northern places he knew as a child, the Glasgow city suburbs in which he endured so much early grief and loss and the smaller communities of Scotland that he had come to understand and appreciate more fully in his self-imposed exile.

Tellingly in Scottish Journey, Muir comprehends his nation as a land of schisms and dualities. The North of the country does not really relate to the South of the country and vice-versa. The regal capital Edinburgh was at complete odds with its largest industrial cousin in the west Glasgow – the city that Muir believed to be the true heart of Scotland. The Kirk had held a great deal of influence within Scotland which had drastically altered both the private and public spheres of its citizens, and yet Muir, like so many of his generation, had wholeheartedly embraced a socialism that viewed society far more atheistically. There was also the minor issue of Christian sectarianism that divided Glasgow, and to a lesser extent Dundee and Edinburgh, along catholic and protestant lines, a division most clearly demonstrated in the footballing affiliations of each of those cities supporters. In his section on Edinburgh, in Scottish Journey, Muir also takes a moment to differentiate between the Nationalist risings in Ireland and his own perception of Scottish Nationalism by stating that:

The unfortunate thing for Scotland is that it is not an obviously oppressed nation, as Ireland was, but only a visibly depressed one searching for the source of its depression. (Muir, 2004, p. 29)

Muir was keenly aware of Scotland’s long, often bitter, yet frequently mutually beneficial relationship with England. From the early 19th Century onwards Scots sought out opportunities throughout the British Empire, out of necessity or curiosity, leading to wave after wave of migration from the Forth, the Tay and the Clyde. Muir had himself joined the exodus of educated Scots to London, and then Europe, in the period between the World Wars. Prior to this many Scots had taken up postings in the Raj, or traversed the Atlantic in search of greater economic opportunities in the United States and Canada. In the 1950’s and 60’s a new wave of Scots migrants would leave behind the decaying industrial quagmires of Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and North Ayrshire and seek out North American or Antipodean dreams. My own family was part of a slightly later migration in the late 70’s as the old industries such as mining, textile production and steel finally gave out, leaving many large towns throughout the most populous ‘central belt’ of Scotland without any viable employment opportunities. The general consensus seemed to be, from as far back as Adam Smith’s time and given further credence by the example of the ‘man of parts’ such as Andrew Carnegie, that to ‘get on’ in the world a Scotsman had to leave Scotland behind and search out better opportunities in England or further afield. Many Scots would have found themselves in a similar situation to Muir in the early 1930’s, not at home in Scotland, or in exile, but rather inhabiting some strange liminal, unidentified country of their own devising, not necessarily of their own volition.

Describing the intention behind writing a Scottish Journey Muir wrote that:

in the beginning it was to give my impression of contemporary Scotland; not the romantic Scotland of the past nor the Scotland of the tourist, but the Scotland which presents itself to one who is not looking for anything in particular, and who is willing to believe what his eyes and ears tell him. (Muir, 2004, Preface ix)

My own intention is, I would like to presume, something similar to Muir’s. What follows here is by no means a thorough and exhaustive analysis of Scottish History and Culture throughout the 20th Century, if such a thing were even possible I am not the man for such a task. Rather this is a brief and, as the title states, idiosyncratic look at the myriad influences that have poured directly from that Scottish spring down into this prodigal son, an impressionistic essay on that most mutable and indefinable of notions ‘heritage’. Unlike Muir my journey is a metaphorical one that deals in the various wynds and highways of memory and imagination. My knowledge of ‘home’, similar to Muir, extends to the far northern isles of Orkney, but bypasses much of the Highlands – for ashamedly I have only passed through the likes of Aberdeen and Inverness. It takes as its main focus the ‘central belt’ duopoly of Edinburgh and Glasgow, whilst ensuring there is a brief dalliance with my home region the old Pictish Kingdom of Fife. My primary concern, and what takes up the centrepiece of this study, is the oft-commented ‘divisiveness’ in the Scottish temperament, which leads me to take a high literary example from the Scottish Renaissance, Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy’ and compare it with an example of pop culture in Billy Mackenzie’s lyrics to The Associates single ‘Party Fears Two’. A more extended survey of this theme might have seen me take in other writers of the Scottish Renaissance such as Naomi Mitchison, as well as Edwin Morgan and contemporary writers such as W. N. Herbert, Don Paterson, Ali Smith, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and Elizabeth Young. It would have probably extended to coverage of Dundee and its scarily popular comic strips of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, that reinforced much of the ‘kailyard’ school of Scots literature’s twee imagery. I would also have been keen to emphasise the range of distinct Scot’s voices that have been heard in pop and rock music since the late 60’s. Scotland has always had a thriving local music scene, with each of the cities having a very distinct style and sound. It’s my assertion that the lyrical content of songs by bands such as Arab Strap, The Associates, Franz Ferdinand, The Proclaimers and Teenage Fanclub are as expressive of a ‘Scot’s psyche’ as anything that we find in the less populist art forms.

Angus Calder in his collection of essays Scotlands of the Mind attempts to make sense of the convoluted mythologies and outright falsehoods of a romanticised National history that seems, at times, almost the albatross around the nations neck. A historian and journalist, Calder, like Muir, was a Scot in exile, spending many years in London and Africa, before returning to Edinburgh. Calder proclaims:

Scottish ‘identity’ is of course, a myth. It is given substance only in the corporealities of persons who imagine that they have it. There is nothing outside consciousness which is ‘identity’, though Scots may invest their individual identities in Scottish landscape or Scottish football, Scottish poetry and music or Scottish beef cattle. (Calder, 2008, p. 24)

For Calder the Scottish Nationalism that emerges as an electoral presence in the 1960’s in Scotland is simply another impressive confection of ‘ideals’ and ‘inventions’ – the Scot’s mind constantly striving to remain creatively fertile – that harks back to the similar shenanigans of Sir Walter Scott and James Macpherson. However the Scottish Renaissance, spearheaded by Christopher Murray Grieve (aka Hugh MacDiarmid), which partly informed the ideology of the early Scottish National Party, was not attempting to look backwards toward a Scottish history of gallant defeat and patriotic support of the Stuart monarchy, but rather was trying to formulate a progressive and modern ‘Scottishness’, based upon a pursuit of excellence in the arts and technology and, I would argue, a precise understanding of the Scots divided identity as a source of adaptive strength. The eclectic tastes of polymaths such as MacDiarmid, Patrick Geddes and Naomi Mitchison ensured that the Scottish Renaissance did not develop the populist base of Walter Scott’s ‘tartan-Romance’, but it still stands as a defining movement in the Scottish cultural landscape, fuelling future generations of writers and artists, as well as planting the first seeds of a National politics that remains strongly bound up with the political-left to this day.

In 1934, the year prior to Muir’s publication of a Scottish Journey, MacDiarmid had worked upon a curious tome with the novelist, journalist and essayist James Leslie Mitchell (aka Lewis Grassic Gibbon). This publication was known as Scottish Scene: or The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn. It comprised a series of essays, stories and poems written alternately by Mitchell and MacDiarmid, wholly independently of one another, with the exception of a brief ‘Curtain Raiser’. This book illustrated quite clearly Muir’s point about the divisive nature of Scotland as a distinct ‘identity’, for here was a lowland Scot and a highland Scot demonstrating in one volume the utterly different feeling they had for their nation. Mitchell – yet another exilic Scots voice – was from the farming community of Arbuthnott, a small village just south of Aberdeen. Much like Muir he had a hellish experience of the Glasgow slums early in his adult life, which contributed to his embrace of the socialist fervour of Clydeside in the 1910’s and 20’s and his eventual decampment to the leafy London suburbs. Mitchell’s writing was split between anthropological treatises and fiction, with his most famous works A Scot’s Quair and The 13th Disciple, as well as many of his short stories, being written under the pseudonym of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. These latter works were strongly rooted in the landscape of Mitchell’s upbringing and delineated a schism in Mitchell between the local as Scottish and greater International concerns (his anthropological writings were on the Mayan civilisation and many of Mitchell’s writings had little to do directly with Scotland). Mitchell appeared to use Scottish Scene as an opportunity to critically attack the backwardness and deprivation of his homeland, particularly in the Industrial centres of Glasgow and Aberdeen. Yet the fiction included in the volume speaks strongly of the affection he held for a certain quality in the Scottish character that lends itself to the title of the most impressive tale in the collection ‘Smeddum’. Smeddum is a Scots dialect word that describes a combination of determination, resourcefulness and common sense, and Mitchell seemed to see this spirit as a crucial quality in the best that Scotland has to offer, a quality of bloody-minded endurance.

MacDiarmid, although a lowland Scot hailing from Dumfrieshire, spent a large part of his life in the northern-most islands of Scotland, the Shetlands. Muir makes frequent reference to his own Orcadian origins as detaching him somewhat from the idea of a homogenous Scottish nation, for Orkney seems to function as an island community of its own. By all accounts the geographic isolation of the Shetlands makes it an even more detached part of Scotland and yet MacDiarmid chiselled out his own sense of ‘Scotland’ from his sanctuary upon those farthest shores. Despite this connection to the extreme North MacDiarmid remained attitudinally a creature of the Border regions, ensconced upon the imaginary geographical dividing line between England and Scotland. Where Muir sought to find some integrity in his use of English as the language given to him by history and best suited  to his creative expression, MacDiarmid fought to develop a form of ‘synthetic Scots’, constituting dialect and phrasing that exaggerated the everyday spoken language of Scottish people. Muir did not agree with such an assumption made by MacDiarmid, as he felt no one idea of a Scots language could account for the variety of vernacular Scots found in the different communities of the country. Mitchell in his Scottish works created a lyrical approximation of the Kincardineshire dialect he grew up in, with its subtle manipulations of English syllable sounds and sentence structure. All three figures were in some way caught between their poetic / literary ideals and their Nationalist / Internationalist politics. They were knowingly (without doubt in MacDiarmid’s case) or unknowingly, embodying a facet of the Scottish character recurrent throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century in works such as James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters, Mitchell’s own Sunset Song and Neil M. Gunn’s Highland River, namely the notion of a ‘self-division’, or the Scottish identity as being exemplary of a ‘divided self’. Cairns Craig in his study The Modern Scottish Novel: Narrative and the National Imagination utilises John MacMurray’s analysis of existentialism, Persons in Relation, and R. D. Laing’s existentialist study of the way modern psychiatry distinguishes between madness and sanity The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness to correct the commonly held notion that a divided identity is a flawed, or failed identity:

Too often in studies of Scottish culture the apparent lack of unity of the self is taken to be the symptom of a failed identity, of a self-contradictory and self-destructive identity, rather than that the healthy self is always a dialectic operating within and between ‘opposing’ elements of self and other (Craig, 1999, p. 113)

MacDiarmid takes this idea farther still in his famous poem ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy’ in which he explores and interrogates a phrase coined by the Scottish literary critic George Gregory Smith, suggesting that the Scottish ‘divided self’ is actually the embodiment of the Scot’s keenly adaptive strength:

I write now in English and now in Scots

To the despair of friends who plead

For consistency; sometimes achieve the true lyric cry,

Next but chopped-up prose; and write whiles

In traditional forms, next in a mixture of styles.

So divided against myself, they ask:

How can I stand (or they understand) indeed?

Fatal division in my thought they think

Who forgot that although the thrush

Is more cheerful and constant, the lark

More continuous and celestial, and, after all,

The irritating cuckoo unique

In singing a true musical interval,

Yet the nightingale remains supreme,

The nightingale whose thin high call

And that deep throb,

Which seem to come from different birds

In different places, find an emotion

And vibrate in the memory as the song

Of no other bird – not even

The love-note of the curlew –

Can do!

There is MacDiarmid’s typical playfulness and sharp wit at work in this poem. Although he didn’t write everything in ‘synthetic Scots’ – and certainly his post-World War II output was far more conventional in its use of English – this poem seems to be deliberately spiting itself, utilising odd nouns like curlew, that hint at Scots phrasing. It is also self-analytical, self-aware, describing its form as part of the opening stanza, chopped-up prose, traditional forms and an obliging lack of consistency as the oxymoronic constant. The opening line of the second stanza sets up the ‘you’ and ‘I’ division in the ‘they’ and ‘my’, and with this self-division established against the Other, MacDiarmid plays ‘fowl’ and fair with his avian metaphor of a richness and purity in the dissonance of the dissembling nightingale’s song. The exclaimed final rhyme, is a suitably strident piece of agit-prop from MacDiarmid, a two-syllable call to arms.

This self-affirmation that Scotland provides the Scot is demonstrated rather more succinctly in Edwin Muir’s observations of street life in Edinburgh as opposed to London. In one particular section from Muir’s Scottish Journey he claims:

In Princes Street you are seen, whoever you may be, and this knowledge, partly alarming and partly exhilarating like a plunge into cold water, forces the pedestrian to assemble his powers and be as intent as his neighbours. The concentrated force of observation sent out by the people he passes is sometimes so strong that he has the feeling of breaking, as he passes, through a series of invisible obstacles, of snapping a succession of threads laden with some retarding current. In London he can walk the most crowded streets for hours without feeling that he is either visible or existent: a disconcerting, almost frightening experience for a Scotsman until he gets used to it. (Muir, 2004, p.17)

The Scottish public existence, particularly in the island communities and southern towns and cities was for many years morally policed by the Kirk, which as Muir demonstrates has leant it a quality which is almost the equivalent of our modern surveillance culture. Perhaps this is where some of the stifling nature of Scottish communal life stems from, as illustrated in John Galt, George Douglas Brown and James Leslie Mitchell. The migrant Scot is perhaps attempting to escape the claustrophobia of ‘home’ – the antithesis of a big country. Yet Muir’s nightmare landscape is that of the Glasgow industrial slums and it is in such a poisonous environment that Muir’s observation is put into its proper context, for as a Scot he finds himself a willing victim of that Caledonian Antisyzygy MacDiarmid details.

For fifteen years of his childhood and early adulthood Muir had lived in a Glasgow suburb, not far removed from the industrial slums that surrounded it, yet it is not just the commission that has compelled him to go back to the city in which he suffered and endured. Glasgow forms the heart of Muir’s travelogue in the same way it forms the heart of Scotland in Muir’s imagination, the antithesis of Elysian Orkney. Exiled from paradise, Muir found himself not in hell, but rather the purgatory of the nineteenth century industrial city existence. Yet Glasgow’s dissonance is melded perfectly to the harmonious childhood rhythms of his Orcadian upbringing. This revelation of two utterly distinct Scotlands forges in Muir’s imagination, as the Shetlands does in MacDiarmid’s, a sense that division, lack of a unified cultural identity is in fact something that adds a strength to a national culture. The Scottish exile is forever fending off the disapproving eye of public condemnation, yet frequently remaining unhappy, or unfulfilled without that sense that they are being publicly met by the observant eye of each passer-by.

My own upbringing straddled the twin positions of Scot at home and Scot abroad. Each year of my childhood was divided into the two-thirds spent living and going to school in London and the one-third spent on holiday at New Year and during the long summer months in my hometown of Kirkcaldy, Fife. Despite two decades spent in London, a wholly English education and a not overly-patriotic family background I preserved my Scottish accent to the extent that on returning to Scotland in my mid-twenties, it was assumed that I was a Fifer by my new friends and work colleagues. I now think that the subconscious decision I made in preserving my accent was purely the acceptance it gained me on my family holidays in the Kingdom. Being a Scot in London was infinitely more bearable than being a London-accented Scot in Fife and moreover this acceptance must have been something that made my London existence more satisfying. The dislocation seemingly felt by so many Scots on arriving in London – a dislocation that helps propagate the stereotype of the Scottish drunkard – was bypassed in my case because I had grown up with an internalised sense of Fife, that was refreshed and recharged twice a year. The loneliness of London, to which Muir makes reference, was not my experience as the area of South London I knew was very much a home to me and my imagination seemed more than capable of merging Kirkcaldy and Crystal Palace into a incongruous, but functional reality, a Rod Stewart parody, perhaps.

Beyond my father’s tins of Tartan Bitter, the bottles of Irn Bru, my gran’s homemade tablet and coconut macaroons, the comedy sketch shows like Naked Video and Absolutely, the football updates in the Sunday Mail, the Oor Wullie or The Broons annuals at Christmas, my first and strongest connection with a deeper facet of Scottish literature and culture, was with the works of the aforementioned James Leslie Mitchell. Mitchell’s work, particularly his short fiction, was so keenly observant of landscape and the way the landscape inhabited people, that it immediately made an indelible impression upon me. Being in Fife during those summer months introduced me to a very Scottish expression – itself of Old English origin – which was the ‘gloamin’. The ‘gloamin’ is what gives me my distinct physical sense of Kirkcaldy and its Fife siblings – Cowdenbeath, Kinghorn and Burntisland. The quality of light shortly before the onset of twilight, when the sunlight is bleeding low in the sky and rich earthy colours such as moss-green and brown take on a curious otherworldly phosphorescence, as if this light were an animator, reviving decomposing life. This stands out stark in my memories of my hometown by the Firth of Forth, exactly opposite the city of Edinburgh to which I eventually returned. There is something quite literally in the air in southern Fife, balanced as it is upon the now all but barren Wemyss coal-fields, perpetually whipped by the saltwater spray of the North Sea that the undulating hills of the interior do well to fend away. Kirkcaldy ‘the Lang toun’ has recently enjoyed its most sustained coverage in the British media since the football team’s surprise success in a domestic cup competition almost two decades ago – never underestimate the Scottish obsession with that particular game. The now departed UK prime minister and former chancellor called Kirkcaldy his home and in many ways Gordon Brown epitomises the towns dour muted, somewhat earnest, charms. Kirkcaldy was the place Adam Smith and Sandford Fleming both escaped from, yet both returned to during those moments of their peak creativity and ingenuity. What is this perpetual yo-yoing back and forth in the Scottish identity?

I seek to conclude these erratic ruminations with a sweeping upswing to the murky banks of the Tay, a river that no matter what time of the year, seems to be perpetually swathed in a low-lying mist. The city of Dundee has produced its fair share of intriguing Scottish characters, but the one that captured my generations teenage imagination was a wordsmith and vocalist of extravagant and perplexing beauty. If MacDiarmid and the writers of the Renaissance laid the foundations for a correcting of the negative view of the divided Scots identity by appropriating that divisiveness and division as a source of strength, then Billy Mackenzie brazenly wore his fractured sensibility like a tattoo on his forearm. The song ‘Party Fears Two’ is, I would argue, a progression of the Renaissance train of thought, except the Caledonian Antisyzygy is now shot through with an urgency of intent that suggests the genuine fear of a possible relapse into the apathetic acceptance of the Scottish identity as a failed homogenous identity. Mackenzie details in his lyrics the crisis of personality that ultimately disables the most basic process of simply being:

I’ll have a shower

And then phone my brother up

Within the hour

I’ll smash another cup

Please don’t start saying that

Or I’ll start believing you

If I start believing you

I’ll know that this party fears two

And what if this party fears two?

The alcohol loves you while turning you blue

View it from here

From closer to near

Awake me

Don’t turn around

I won’t have to look at you

And what’s not found

Is all that I see in you

My manners are failing me

I’m left feeling ugly

And you say it’s wonderful

To live with I never will

So what if this party fears two?

The alcohol loves you while turning you blue

View it from here

From closer to near

Awake me

I’m standing still

And you say I dress too well

Still standing still

I might but it’s hard to tell

Even a slight remark

Makes nonsense and turns to shark

Have I done something wrong?

What’s wrong’s the wrong that’s always in wrong

I’ll have a shower

And then phone my brother up

Within the hour

I’ll smash another cup

Mackenzie was writing in the aftermath of the failed 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution / independence. He had ran off to the States in the mid-70’s seemingly fed-up with the stifling lack of opportunities for ‘a young man on the make’. On returning to Scotland in 1976 Mackenzie quickly absorbed a change in what he saw around him in Dundee and Edinburgh, the exile on returning could now see all that was not found. He met Alan Rankine, a musician keenly following the latest trends in synthesiser technology that informed much of the ambient and New Romantic sound of the early 80’s music scene, and they formed the band that would later be known as The Associates. The Scottish National Party’s referendum endgame had failed because in total close to 40% of the Scottish electorate failed to register a vote and thus despite a majority ‘yes’ vote the bill was vetoed due to having failed to reach the minimum voter turn-out. Against this backdrop of generalised apathy Mackenzie and Rankine created the album Sulk in 1981, which featured alongside ‘Party Fears Two’ the striking dissection of early 80’s decadence ‘Club Culture’. This was the record that propelled Mackenzie briefly into the mainstream, his powerful vocal delivery a distinguishing mark, despite the wide-ranging choice of musical styles from the immensely popular Scottish White Soul of the period, to the early electronica that fed into later ‘rave’ culture in Scotland and England. After Sulk Mackenzie found himself isolated and increasingly volatile in first London and then Amsterdam, before returning to Scotland and his family home in the late eighties.

The Associates revealed a surprising degree of political nous in their lyrics, that broadly aligns them with bands like Bristol’s The Pop Group, rather than with Scottish contemporaries such as Orange Juice. Crucially in the song ‘Party Fears Two’ Mackenzie openly discusses that bane of Scottish domestic life alcoholism, which MacDiarmid, Muir and Mitchell all devote substantial passages in their own work to discussing, but not necessarily in the context of a societal problem. Scotland had of course endured periods of enforced abstinence, when the Kirk had taken the policing of alcohol consumption into their own hands. However far from eradicating the often chronic dependency on alcohol as a verbal laxative and integral part of Scots socialising, it had just added another layer of division into the Scots psyche, establishing private spaces in which social drinking was acceptable, such as social clubs, gentleman’s clubs and the hard-to-find brewery bars, that were always talked of in hushed tones, yet were frankly an open secret.

What’s particularly intriguing about Mackenzie’s referencing of the ‘alcohol problem’ is that it underpins the apathy that he observed around him in the Scottish society of the time. The alcohol fuels pointless rages, ‘I’ll smash another cup’, and also brings about those intense periods of introspection we poetically refer to as ‘the blues’. Once again Muir in his earlier journey contrasts Scottish drinking habits with that of their southerly neighbours drawing the conclusion that: ‘Scottish people drink spasmodically and intensely, for the sake of a momentary but complete release [the ‘awake me’ of Mackenzie], whereas the English like to bathe and paddle about bucolically in a mild puddle of beer.’ (Muir, 2004, p. 14). The instability of the Scottish psyche, even if perceived as a strength allowing for creative and inventive acts, ultimately can have its erratic nature further amplified in dabbling with the ‘demon drink’.

The final verse of the song plays the border-line nonsense games so beloved of MacDiarmid by using repetition, that alters and amends the original utterance, whilst barely changing the phrasing. So we get the quite wonderfully inexorable line ‘What’s wrong’s the wrong that’s always in wrong’, which ties in with Muir’s assessment that ‘the Scottish character has a thoroughness, or in other words an inability to know where to stop’ (Muir, 2004, p. 26). In case of falling into the same trap myself I will simply draw your attention to the lines ‘Even a slight remark / Makes nonsense and turns to shark’, which has some of the alacrity of poetic meaning that we find in MacDiarmid’s ‘not even / the love-note of the curlew – / Can do!’. Whereas MacDiarmid had the conviction of his beliefs, that his sense of Scottishness, however outwardly shambolic, exhibited a powerful national character in its voracious pursuit of internal and external conflict, the modern apathetic political landscape introverted and internalised this tussle over identities as exemplified by the songwriting of Billy Mackenzie. A regression, of sorts, that so suitably contradictory would ultimately give impetus to the modern devolution process in the Scotland of the 90’s. The resultant blossoming of literature, music and art in Scotland since devolution, allied to, until recently, a consistently developing economy, has seen a gradual reversal of the migrant trend in Scotland. How long can the Scottish psyche maintain this stasis?

This lengthy essay was originally presented, in edited form, at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), in June 2010.

Where the Truth Lies, lies the Truth

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Book Review:-  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

It’s perhaps the most significant lack of that three-letter article in recent literature. Carey in dispensing with ‘The’ in the title to his slippery, metafictional reworking of the Kelly history and mythology, demonstrates slyly his approach to that most overly lauded virtue – ‘truthfulness’. This avoidance of the definite in the title of the work, is echoed in the manner by which Carey constructs his narrative of the Kelly Gang in fragmentary form, gradually suggesting the ways in which Kelly’s supposed testament could have been altered, edited or generally influenced in an attempt to adjust the ‘reality’ of events – not to forget that the testament itself is Carey’s fictional creation.

The very fact that Carey chooses to focus his undoubted narrative talents on what, for an Australian at least, is a particularly familiar story suggests that Carey is perhaps concerned more with how the story has been told, than in presenting any definitive and accurate summation. A legendary figure such as Ned Kelly is too embroiled in the story of the birth of the Australian nation, for an accurate picture of the person to emerge. The author is aware of this and in subsuming his own voice in the carefully crafted nuances of Kelly’s intelligent, yet uneducated diction, Carey embraces the legend while diminishing the distance between us and the bushranger outlaw.

The novel is presented as a collection of journals – of various size, colour and paper quality – outlining the chronological history of Kelly from his early childhood, to the birth of his daughter and the Glenrowan massacre that saw the police finally bring him and his gang to justice. These journal accounts are presented as the direct voice of Kelly, the man’s testament to his daughter, written presumably as he awaits his execution. The fact that this work is written with his daughter in mind suggests why it is that Kelly erases the curse words and foul language from the text and why he also cloaks the carnal nature of many of the family shenanigans behind a number of sanitised euphemisms. Also present in these journals is a carefully cultivated persona of Kelly as an upright man of slightly muddied morality, who feels himself the victim of a pernicious and conspiratorial police state and to this end it often appears as if Kelly is either wilfully ignorant of events, or extremely slow to register them. The personality that comes off of the pages of these journal entries runs counter to the images presented by the media accounts that are dotted throughout the text and constitute a significant part of the final third of the book. Supposed source material is referenced in the prologue account of Ned Kelly’s last stand and in the return to this event at the book’s close. As well as that we also have the testimony of Thomas Curnow, which conflicts drastically with Kelly’s summation of events within the journals. There is also the insertion of Mary Hearn’s (Kelly’s lover and mother of his daughter) voice into the text in the form of annotations redressing the newspaper accounts of Kelly. Finally the way in which the journals are presented, the fact that they are not present more importantly, brings us back to the divining voice of Carey the author. The journals are artefacts described for us in short paragraphs under each successive chapter heading. The extraneous material has also been sourced from somewhere, or at least made to appear as if sourced and in closing Carey presents a series of acknowledgements thanking various academics, historians, friends and family for their contributions in the research carried out. Is Carey really trying to get at the truth, or is he indulging in a subtle deconstruction of the Kelly mythology which is so bound up in the birth of his homeland?

It is of great significance that Kelly, when not being a lawless brigand and general black sheep, is found to be writing his story. Early in the gang’s enforced outlaw status Kelly shows himself to be keenly aware of the importance of image and also the importance of telling a good story well. On at least three occasions he writes a testament only to place it into the hands of those who side with law and order. At the end of the text we are led to believe that Curnow is actually acting as editor of the grand Kelly opus, despite his role in the Glenrowan massacre. The presence of so many narrative attempts within the actual narrative itself allows Carey some leeway when it comes to presenting Kelly’s voice as intelligent and relatively articulate. The references to R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone go some of the way to informing the texture of the exposition – an adventure story straight out of the early 19th Century. In many ways the book is in a similar vein to those other rabidly egocentric and equally serpentine first-person narratives, such as Banville’s The Book of Evidence, or Nabokov’s Pale Fire. In particular it shares with the latter a supposedly academic origin, that subtly reveals the massive discrepancies between the narrator’s account of things and those other accounts of things that the narrator in his arrogance refers to and dismisses. So convincing is Carey’s narrative ventriloquism that it is quite easy to accept Kelly at his supposed word. But are these really Kelly’s words? Are they not actually authorial approximations of Kelly? Just more layers of mythmaking, beneath which the person himself is left suffocating. After all, Kelly the person ceased the moment that Kelly the legend began. What is perhaps interesting is why it is that our various national cultures require the presence of figures like Kelly? Are nations built from these projections of lawlessness and moral reordering? Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men focuses on this notion, as does Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York. Myths are cultivated from the excess of culture within a given society. Everything that authority wishes omitted from society is comfortably exercised in story, in narrative, in fable. The myths of the American West, the Australian Outback, Sherwood Forest and the lawless Highlands of Scotland are perhaps expressions of the initiatory impulse that a society in construction must excise to become governable.

This essay was originally published on June 23rd 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.

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