Tag Archives: Scotland

All Change, please

Whichever way Scotland votes today, I hope this country will never be the same again. The amazing debate that’s been taking place north of the border and the incredible level of public engagement, with 97% of those eligible to vote registering to do so, is the most heartening and revitalising thing that’s happened to our democracy since, well, forever.

PollingDemocracy in Action

For decades, participation in elections and in political activity generally, has been declining across the UK. Membership of political parties has plummeted and there’s a widely held belief that all politicians are as bad as each other. Even more dangerous, there’s a strong sense, reinforced after the 2010 election, that whichever way you vote, nothing will ever actually change. Whoever’s in charge, privilege becomes more entrenched, the poor get poorer, social mobility declines. No wonder so many of us simply decide not to bother.

As we watch Scotland being intoxicated by a new passion for politics, more and more people south of the border are beginning to ask, why not us too? Why shouldn’t we too have more say over how we’re governed and how our taxes are spent? We may all live in one country, but that doesn’t mean to say that a decision that’s right for Basingstoke is also right for Birmingham or Bradford. In fact it very probably isn’t.

               London         Cumbrian lake

What’s good for London isn’t always good for everyone else

It’s high time we had a much less centralised political system. It’s time we had regional assemblies that are much more responsive to local issues and that have control over a high proportion of the revenue raised within their area. The government at Westminster could then be substantially scaled back and would focus exclusively on issues that genuinely are best managed at a national level, such as defence and foreign policy.

A new political settlement is the only realistic way to tackle the growing disparity between London and rest of the country and the only way overcome growing perception that the south-east is sucking in all the resources and talent at the expense of other parts of the country.

We desperately need change, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. No doubt, if the Scots vote ‘yes’ to independence, David Cameron will be pilloried for losing a third of the country. The truth is, if what happens in Scotland today makes the rest of the population wake up to the idea that a top-to-toe rethink of the political settlement in this country is both possible and desirable, he’ll have done us the biggest favour imaginable.

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Filed under politics, Scotland

Setting off alone

In a few days time, it’ll be the longest day of the year. For me, there’s something very magical about the long June evenings. Even down here in the south, it’s light until ten o’clock at night. I love being able to go for a walk after supper when everyone else is settled down with their tablets or the TV. The streets outside are quiet and there’s a secretive, mysterious quality to the woods and alleys around where we live.

In Scotland, where I lived as a child, at this time of year, it doesn’t really get dark until half past eleven and by half-past two in the morning, the first glimmers of light are already streaking the sky.

Rowardennan

Rowardennan

When we were teenagers in Glasgow, occasionally my parents would consent to an evening barbecue on the shores of Loch Lomond up in the Trossachs. We’d drive up to Rowardennan, heap a big pile of drift wood onto the pebbly beach and fry sausages, bacon and tomatoes or perhaps a few Arbroath kippers.

In the ashes, we’d toast sweet sticky marshmallows and afterwards watch the sun go down behind the mountains, while the midges swarmed around us and a heron fished from a rock by the shore. Often we’d linger until the last embers had died away before getting back into the car and returning somewhat regretfully to the modern world.

Much better toasted

Much better toasted

Often on those occasions, I liked to imagine I was on the cusp of a terrific adventure, as if I was about to step into a JRR Tolkien story. Part of me longed to set off into the wilderness and connect with the natural world in all its timeless, elemental grandeur.

As a child, I was convinced I could survive by depending on my own resources and what nature afforded. I knew how to light a fire, how to catch a fish, where to gather nuts and berries. I loved building dens in the back garden and felt confident I could construct some sort of shelter to keep the worst of the weather at bay.

Of course my life took an entirely different path, but even now every so often I feel a strong urge to escape the complications of urban life and get back to something simpler and purer.

I recently saw the John Curran film, Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, the Australian girl who in 1977 took off into the wilderness in order to trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Despite the harshness of the terrain, Robyn did survive, but not without her four camels, her dog and intermittent support from Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who fell in love with her. Smolan helped to secure the funding for Davidson’s trip, but the quid pro quo was that she would agree to be photographed.

Mia Wasikowska in the film 'Tracks'.

Mia Wasikowska in the film ‘Tracks’.

The film is definitely a slow watch and some have found the main character hard to like, not least because of her ambivalent attitude to Smolan, often rejecting him but ultimately relying on him too. However that’s the miss the point; despite her desire to be alone, Davidson never entirely manages to escape human contact and caring. Ironically, after her story was published, it provoked a huge wave of public curiosity and turned Davidson into something of a minor celebrity.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that however much we want to strike out on our own and connect with the natural world, it’s in our relationships with other people that we find the real purpose and meaning of our lives.

 

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Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Scotland, Screenwriting, Writing

Only Connect

Tough week? Looking for an easily digestible slice of cinematic entertainment – something warm and gooey that will leave you with a soft fuzzy feeling as you step out of the local multiplex into the cold night air? If so, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin probably isn’t the film you’re after. That said, this is without question the best film I’ve seen so far this year.
It tells the story of Laura, an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, at large in modern-day Glasgow where, disguised as an alluring young woman, she hunts for human prey. She’s supported by a squadron of bikers who police her actions and tidy up any loose ends that might betray her. The film opens with the construction of the simulated eyes through which Laura will view the world and at no stage does the film deviate from her perspective. Insulated in her white van, she prowls impassively for victims, as the busy city bustles and flows around her. In these sequences, Glazer used secret cameras to capture ordinary members of the public going about their daily lives, oblivious both to his intentions as a director and to the intentions of his extra-terrestrial heroine. As a distancing technique, this works incredibly well, enabling the audience to share the central character’s perception of human activity as remote and impenetrable. At times, it feels as if we’re viewing ants swarming over an anthill.
The implications of Laura’s other-world alienation are soon forcibly brought home in a breath-takingly charged scene at a remote beach where a family tragedy unfolds before her uncomprehending eyes. Then gradually something begins to change. An unlooked-for gift of flowers brings with it a troubling touch of wet, red blood. She becomes curious. In another scene, the Laura encourages her latest victim, a young man with neurofibromatosis, to reach out to her with the words, “when was the last time you touched somebody?” The moment that follows is excruciatingly tender, full of the young man’s incredulity and longing, so when the time comes for Laura to finish him off, she’s unable to go through with it and he escapes her clutches. Having broken the rules under which she’s operating, she’s left with no choice but to run from her minders. She soon realises she’s painfully ill-equipped to survive alone in the hostile terrain of the planet earth. Struggling to make sense of the human world and realising her only hope is to connect with its inhabitants, her fate is sealed by her inability to feel as humans do or read their intentions.
Under the Skin is not an easy film an easy watch or interpret. Raising disturbing questions about alienation, sexuality and what it means to be human, it’s more of a film to think about and reflect on, than one to enjoy as such. All the same, as a piece of cinematic writing, it works brilliantly with a simple, yet profound story focused on a central character who is forced to change by circumstances beyond her control. The cinematography is likewise fantastic, with gorgeously luminous photography of the Scottish winter landscape intercut with terrifying images from the sci-fi lexicon, which evoke the dark, gelatinous limbo into which Laura’s victims are sucked and digested – a kind of womb in reverse. Yet even here, what survives is the human instinct to reach out and connect. All this is underpinned by a mesmerizingly beautiful sound-track by Mica Levy that brings both coherence and an eerily mysterious quality to the piece.
I confess I find it immensely encouraging that films of this calibre are being made and financed in Britain. Under the Skin may not be to everyone’s taste; it’s about as far as you can get from the usual Hollywood fare. Don’t get me wrong – I love comedies and thrillers as much as the next person and sometimes a bit of mindless escapism is exactly what you need, but it’s good to be challenged, spooked and provoked too and this film does exactly that.

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Filed under Art, Film, Screenwriting, Writing

In Praise of January

The daughter and I have a shared project of trying to lose a few pounds between now and Easter. Neither of us are natural athletes and both of us are fond of pastry and chocolate, so progress has been slow. I have an additional fondness for a good-sized glass of vino at the end of the day, which might explain why she’s doing rather better than I am. Dieting is always painful and working from home doesn’t help one bit; the biscuit tin is only too near at hand and it’s quite possible to avoid leaving house for days on end. Of course the ghastly weather has been a further disincentive – there’s nothing like a bone-numbing east wind to make you realise that maintaining a decent layer of subcutaneous fat is actually what nature intended. If human beings were hibernating animals, we could curl up in a cosy corner at the end of October and live off our fat reserves until spring. One would then emerge again in April, super slim and svelte, having missed the worst of the winter and without having to endure the agony of sustained and deliberate food deprivation. Sounds like a fantastic idea if you ask me.
Still, January does have some good things about it too. It’s a great month for making plans and organising a few treats for the year ahead. Now is the time to dream of the glorious summer to come (well, you never know; it might), filled with long, hot days, and balmy evenings at the beach with family and friends. We can’t resist scanning websites advertising holiday destinations, each of which features azure seas, acres of empty, unspoilt sand and not a hint of the seething hordes that will undoubtedly be there to share it with us if we do succumb to the temptation and book.
Some of the loveliest flowers bloom at this time of year too – snowdrops, of course, but also golden aconites, hellebores and Christmas box. We have a large bush right by the front door, and at the moment, its beautiful, unmistakeable perfume greets me every time I go outside.
January is also the month when we celebrate our Scottish roots with the annual Burns night supper. Burns night wouldn’t be Burns night without a freshly caught haggis (for more information about this mysterious and shy creature see http://www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Documents/haggisarticle.pdf), accompanied by buttery neeps and steaming tatties. Haggis has about two million calories per forkful, but come on, it’s only once a year… It never fails to remind me of the years when I was growing up in Glasgow. It was still a rough city in those days and for my mother, who was a Sassenach through and through, arriving there from the genteel Thames Valley town where we had hitherto lived was a huge culture shock. Being kids, me and my brother and sister soon adapted to the local ways and all of us made life-long friends there. It’s always a pleasure to return and even though it’s more than thirty years since I moved south, it still feels like home whenever I go there.

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