Sunday 26 May 2013

David Torrance's Jumper

I start with another photograph! I'm obviously getting in to the swing of this.

And a wee true story.

One of the lawyers who works beside me at Airdrie Sheriff Court is the brother-in-law of the film director Lynne Ramsay. She in turn is one of the judges, this past week, at the Cannes Film Festival. The invitation she received was for hospitality at the event for herself "plus one" and she is currently without a plus one so, not wanting the invitation to go to waste, she seized upon the opportunity to invite along her nineteen year old nephew, my pal's boy.

Now the job of the "plus ones" is to watch films all day with the judges and then to discuss them with the  judges and their plus ones over lunch, dinner or whatever, much as you might do with your own pals at Nando's after a visit to the local multiplex. Except that the people this young chap is having these discussions with include not only his auntie but Daniel Auteil, Ang Lee, Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg!

Now, the only reason I tell that story is because it is, on any view, more interesting than anything that has happened in Scottish politics over the last month, arguably the last six months.

Scotland is supposedly in a state of constitutional fervent. Only there is, frankly, no sign of that. Even the leaflets being distributed by the Party at the forefront of that state of affairs, in their attempt to retain the Aberdeen Donside division, have had much more to say on the rather more prosaic subject of the Council Tax Freeze than the imminent walk to freedom they anticipate us all taking in now (thank the Lord) less than eighteen months.

It is too often forgotten that less than 2% of the population read either the Scotsman or the Herald. Even job satisfaction figures for any Scottish politician except Eck  regularly discloses something like 40% of the population with no view on the performance of anybody else.  The last figures I can find for poor old Patrick Harvie, who the committed on both sides would accept is one of the most interesting and articulate participants in the debate, disclose that more than 60% of the population have no opinion of him at all!

Really, all that's happened over the last twelve months is that the already committed on both sides have reassured themselves mutually of the wisdom of their own position. The vast majority of the population remain at best bewildered and at worst disinterested spectators.

I was particularly taken about this when I followed the Nicola Sturgeon/Michael Moore debate on Twitter from Italy. Everybody, EVERYBODY, who commented on the recommended hashtag, was somebody I knew, and whose views I knew, already. After the event, Scotland Tonight congratulated themselves on attracting 130,000 viewers and they are entitled to do so for that is a goodly number for a programme of this nature. But it's still a negligible fraction of the general population. Indeed similar in number to those who read the Scotsman or the Herald!

Now, at some point this might change but increasingly I'm wondering if it might not. That the whole debate will just spiral on in a groundhog day way with the same people arguing with the same people, using the same arguments, until we expire of boredom. Or until the referendum, whichever comes sooner.

Yesterday saw the launch of Better Together Inverclyde. It seems to have been a great success but it is no disrespect to the good people of Greenock and its affiliates that the best thing about it from a distance was the photographs of the view from the venue sent out by some of the attendees. Here's one.

Which brings me to the title of this piece. Excepting Professor John Curtice, who remains sui generis, arguably the most regular independent commentator on the constitutional debate is the journalist and biographer David Torrance. He is, in media terms, here there and everywhere on the issue. But if ever there was an indication that he is saying the same things to the same people it was when he appeared on Newsnight/ Scotland Tonight/whatever wearing the jumper featured above. Nobody on twitter had anything to say at all about whatever arcane political point brought him to our screens but everybody had a view on the jumper.  Suddenly, old certainties were broken and for and against the jumper alliances were formed between previously sworn enemies. Opinion ranged from the "it's lovely" faction, (mainly formed by aunties of a certain age) to those complaining its appearance had not been preceded by an on screen warning that some viewers might find it upsetting.

Maybe that's what the debate needs. More controversial jumpers. At least it was something new.

Sunday 19 May 2013

A week in the Veneto

As those who follow me on twitter will know, I've been in Italy.

I love Italy. While I was away, idly adding up the various holidays I've taken there over the last twenty six years, I worked out that I must have spent the best part of two years there, North to South, from Sicily to the Alto Adige and at most points, at least briefly, in between,

But with the exception of one night passing through Verona and excluding Venice itself, I have never been to the Veneto. So that's where I took myself last week. Three nights in Verona, three in Padua and, as I shall reveal, a final day in Treviso in anticipation of an early morning flight home.

I've had a lot of complaints that you don't get enough pictures on my blog, so my plan was a "photo essay" on my return but there have proved to be two difficulties in that regard. Firstly, I'm not very good at taking photos, never mind the restrictions of doing so on my phone. Secondly, in the galleries and churches, the taking of photographs, something  that was previously "Vietato", (which despite the literal translation historically meant "mildly disapproved of") has now become "Severamente Vietato" meaning that you're really not meant to do it. So I'm afraid I'm left relying on some stock photos mixed in with my own.

With that foreword, here are my reflections on a great week.

1.Giovanni Bellini

I didn't go to see Bellini's, although he is one of my most favourite artists. But in this part of the world you can't really avoid him, even if you had any desire to do so. This was my favourite. In the Museo Castelvecchio in Verona. Obviously an unusual colour for the Madonna's shawl and pedants might note that the hands are a bit big but nonetheless the Lady herself has that almost mystical quality that only Bellini brings. By the way, it's still not as good as the one we've got in the Burrell.

2. San Zeno, Verona

This was the Church I was most keen to see. Never mind me on my iPhone, I suspect Annie Leibowitz at the top of her game would struggle to do it justice with a camera. Proper Romanesque, arguably the most important second generation Romanesque church in Northern Italy. Too much for me to describe, I leave that to Wikipedia, but I would just like to commend the altarpiece  a copy of the Mantegna original; a copy because, as the accompanying information unashamedly declares, the original was "stolen" by Napoleon.

3. Vicenza

Some genius in the marketing of Italian Tourism came up with the idea of the "Museo Aperto". The idea of a place which does not just contain museums but which is the museum itself. Nowhere better encapsulates that idea than Vicenza. There is nothing particular to see and yet there is everything to see. It is a place of astonishing beauty. You don't need to do anything there, you just need to wander about. That's enough.

4. The Scrovegni Chapel


I wrote at Christmas that I was determined to see this and indeed it was the principal objective of my trip. It didn't remotely disappoint. It is breathtaking, not only in it's artistic achievement and significance but also in the wonder of its survival, almost intact, over more than 700 years. But, and there is a but, in the end it didn't quite bring the wonder of the same artist's work in Assisi. A price has been paid for that survival. You enter (literally) through an airlock, are restricted to a twenty minute visit and the whole thing is just a bit..... sterile.
In Assisi you see the equally great art in the context of a "working" church. That's surely what Giotto at least would have wanted.

5. Religion

This is not the picture I really wanted here. On your "Verona Card" you got "free" entry to the four big local art churches. San Zeno was worth the entry fee alone but two of the others, San Anastasia and the Cathedral were cosi cosa. And the final church, San Fermo, I suspect, I wouldn't have looked out at all without the incentive of a "free" ticket.

I don't really do religion in the sense that I'm a confirmed agnostic but I'm not an atheist for equal reason. San Fermo is on the bank of the river and the whole building is damp. The artistic prize is the lower church, which is in the picture, but in the upper Church there was an "everyday" statue of St Anthony. Now the iconography of St Anthony involves the Christ Child sitting on his shoulder while the Saint, in his other hand, holds a lily, that being his "symbol". Big plaster life size statues of Saint Anthony are familiar to just about anybody who has ever set foot in a Franciscan church. And big plaster lilies.

But in this church it was not a plaster lily but a real lily that the Saint held in his left hand. And around his feet were many more, so that appeared as if he was standing amidst a field of lilies. And I passed on, anxious to see the lower church which was itself beautiful and, as I hope you can see, made use of the damp to cultivate ferns behind and around the altar. But, afterwards, it was the simplicity and yet beauty of the earlier image that stayed with me. And caused me not quite to give up on faith.

6. Poppies

Which reminds me of something which happened earlier. When I arrived in Italy, at Friday lunchtime, it was raining. Not the really spectacular rain that I will come on to, more a sort of "Scottish" heavy drizzle. And it rained like that for the next thirty six hours. But when I woke up on the Sunday, the day I had earmarked for my trip to Vicenza, the sun had arrived and on the back of the previous  rain you could almost see "things" growing.

The main railway station in Verona, like many such in Italy, has any number of disused sidings. And among these sidings were poppies; individually and in clusters, growing through the stones and all along the rusty disused rails. You read the poets writing about something bringing joy to the heart and perhaps too easily dismiss that sentiment. This however undoubtedly brought joy to my heart. After an evil, apparently never ending, winter at home and even then not much immediate improvement on arrival south of the Alps, suddenly here was a harbinger of warmer times and happier days. Suffice to say that affected me.

7. Padova

My objective in Padova was to see the Scrovegni Chapel, Anything else was to be a bonus. I was never more mistaken in my life, Wee Mo and I used to play a game about where our main home in Italy would be if we ever won the lottery really big. Not the Summer house in the Province of  Perugia or the apartment close to the Ghetto in Venice for the Carnival or even the beach house near Siracusa where we'd catch the last of the Summer sun each October. Rather, where we would actually "live". And our consensus was Parma. But I have now have cause to doubt that.

Padova is beyond praise.  Not one or even two great squares but (at least) five. Arcades that would credit to Bologna and shops that would hold court with Milan. No (particularly) great churches but, to compensate, the best public transport I have ever encountered anywhere in the world including a simply wonderful tram system. And food worthy of the Emilia Romagna, of which, in any justice, it should surely form part.

And, as an almost incidental bonus, I was accommodated in a hotel that had not been redecorated since at least the sixties and where the creaking lift, every time it arrived in the lobby, was half expected to disgorge Vittorio de Sica into  the suspicious eye of a young Sophia Loren.

Hopefully you will have gathered that I had a good time.

8. Trams, Trains and Taxis.

This is the kind of political bit. First of all, the trams, under a long standing administration of the Left in Padova, were simply brilliant. As were the buses, travel on both of which came "free" with your museum pass. And the trains, generally, were also brilliant although it is worth noting, in passing,  that the fast, entirely reliable "Frecciabianca" express trains were certainly no cheaper than similar provision here. In the end, you only get what you are prepared to pay for.

I was however taken aback by the issue of taxis in Verona where thanks to different local politics, public transport was largely non-existent after 8pm. My hotel in Verona, claimed to be twenty minutes by foot from the City Centre but that was clearly based on when Mo Farah stayed there. Taxis were however hard to come by and incredibly expensive when located thanks to a local system of regulation that restricted their number and then fixed their prices in accordance with the demands of the limited suppliers. (at one point I paid a 50% "night-time" supplement to be picked up at ten to eight in the morning!). This is of course one of the examples of the sclerotic Italian State that successive Governments there have failed to deal with, Perhaps they need a Margaret Thatcher figure of their own. (only joking).

9 Food.

Needless to say, I ate astonishingly well. It is trite to say that you will never have a bad meal in Italy and from personal experience not entirely true. Nonetheless, I certainly didn't have a bad meal on this holiday. I'm not writing a travel guide so I'm not making any specific recommendations, not least because that would be unfair. For, on my last night, in Treviso, I wanted mainly to eat somewhere near the hotel as I had an early start the next day. As I was going to the Airport, I'd also booked a hotel outside the wall for ease of departure. So, as I'm walking home I find a wee place, busy enough but nonetheless a bit out the way and certainly no tourist haunt. And the food was brilliant. Capesante (small scallops) in oil and lemon; spaghetti with clams; pannacotta. All fresh ingredients, all delicious and, with wine, water and a an Averna (to aid the digestion you'll understand) 32 Euros in total. There are literally thousands of such establishments. It would be unfair to single any one out.

10.The End.

Everything about Italy is just a wee bit exaggerated. The colour and the light; the art; the food; the shops; the fashion; the religion (one church in Padova claims in all seriousness to accomodate the body of St Luke which was conveniently stumbled across in a street nearby at some point in the 11th Century. Just the body, mind you, for some Holy Roman Emperor subsequently removed the head to Prague!)

Above all however, "life" is a bit exaggerated, even when it comes to something as mundane as the weather. My last day was spent in the midst of a thunderstorm of biblical proportion. Think the worst Glasgow Fair Friday ever and then cube it. And the Giro D'Italia was to finish in this weather in Treviso, the very town I was accidentally in.

And I couldn't go, because even my "waterproof" clothing was soaked through, literally, to the skin.

As it turned out, things eventually dried up sufficiently for me to get into town and at least see the end of the show. After which, a bit like Sir Bradley that self same day, it was time for my temporary retirement.

Like him however, I'll be back.

Viva d'Italia!

Monday 6 May 2013

Three Tweets

I've been caught up in a bit of a twitter storm over the last twenty four hours.

I'll come to the cause in a moment.

I'm a great twitterer and I very much enjoy it. You can exchange views with all and sundry about everything from food to football to what's on the telly. And of course there is a lot of politics where people of opposing views will express strong opinions which, even if you don't share them, are accepted to be sincerely held. Including a lot of very good people who believe in the cause of Scottish Independence.

But, to be honest, there is one group who spoil the Party and that is a small group of Nationalists collectively known as the cybernats by even the more sensible on  their own side. Almost all anonymous, I suspect with multiple twitter identities, they will every so often go into overdrive about some supposed offence to their Party or (particularly) its leaders. And they do so without any regard at all for the facts.

My first experience of this was about a year ago. John Swinney was on Newsnight and repeated the falsehood that the reason that the Referendum was in the second half of the Parliament was because that had been in the SNP Manifesto. Kez Dugdale was on for us and tried to make that point but the format prevented her from doing so and I posted a tweet observing that Swinney had been lying. I then went to bed.

The next time I looked at my timeline I was beseiged by cybernat comment that I was lying. That Mr Swinney had said no such thing and that I should apologise to him. Much of this was mixed in with personal abuse directed at me.

I was so taken aback at the vehemence and certainty of this attack this that I began to doubt myself. Perhaps I had misheard or misunderstood Swinney's remarks? Perhaps I would find myself obliged to make a withdrawal, embarassing though that might be. So, eventually I looked at the debate again on the iPlayer and Swinney had in fact said exactly what I had alleged! I pointed this out, even posting a link to the actual programme but still the abuse continued, I can only assume in the hope that most twitterers would not have time to look at the link. This went on for days and even weeks or months later would make the occasional reappearance describing me as the man who had lied about John Swinney. I remain utterly bemused by the whole incident except to say that it worried me that patent and easily verifiable truth seemed to be of no consideration in the attack.

I've been through this again over the last 24 hours. Yesterday I published my usual Sunday blog and one, perfectly sensible, Nationalist tweeted that I seemed to making a case against a No vote. In moments I responded.

Better 100 years of the Tories than the turn on the Poles and the Pakis that would follow independence failing to deliver.

Now, you can agree or disagree with that sentiment and, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have put the words "Poles and Pakis" in quotation marks for it is clearly a sentiment I was ascribing to others. I also accept that, for some people, even when put in the mouths of others the "P word" is never acceptable. But I did not for a moment expect the hysteria that has followed. I myself have been accused of being a racist. An Anti-Pakistani racist; an anti-Scottish racist; even, it appears an anti-SNP racist, whatever that is. And that is the least of it. One cybernat even attempted to report me to the Police over twitter! More worryingly, words have been put into my mouth which I have never uttered and then condemned as wholly unacceptable. Which they would have been had I said them.

Throughout I have attempted to make the simple point that the part (and it is only a part) of the Nationalists support that currently blame the English for all our woes, would, inevitably, on finding that Independence is not a cure for all our ills, look round for somebody else to blame. All historic precedent suggests that will be an internal minority as it was, to a greater or lesser degree of seriousness, for the Jews and Gypsies in Hungary; for the Anglo-Irish in de Valera's Ireland; for the Russians in the inter-war Baltic Republics and indeed for the Asians in Uganda. It is the inflated hopes that (some) have for Independence: the automatic eradication of poverty; full employment; the reversal of all benefit cuts; the insulation from all world economic factors and, on top of that, tax cuts all round, that leads one to the inevitable conclusion that many of these hopes would  be dashed. After all, in the small print, the best claim that the SNP themselves make is that we'll all be £500 better off. Not a small sum but in no way justifying that kind of transformation in our living standards.

Now perhaps Scotland could dodge the historical precedents on what usually happens in that circumstance.. Happy to have that argument but on the basis of what I have said rather than what I am claimed to have said.

And that leads me to my final tweet, one which I do regret.

While I was at the Party Conference, I nipped out for a fag and tweeted

"Two separate conversations about the fear of some Nationalist suicides on 19th September 2014. Their Party has a duty of care here."

In this I was only reporting conversations I'd had moments before but it was, nonetheless, an inappropriate topic for twitter. And its brevity made it sound flippant, which was not my intention.

But what had been the basis for these conversations, for they were in no way maliciously intended?

There is a small element of the SNP support, particularly drawn to the internet, who seem to me to winding themselves up in to a state of near hysteria about the Referendum. They are not being helped by remarks such as those made by Nicola Sturgeon that the alternative to a Yes vote would be "nothing". Yes or No, the world will go on and it is incumbent on both sides to make that clear. For there are vulnerable people in all political Parties who might not appreciate that what they are being told is mere rhetoric.

It is our great good fortune in Scotland that we do not have to make the choice "Liberty or Death". We are free already. What is on offer is only a different sort of freedom. It might not be my choice but it will be decided democratically and should be decided on fact rather than on base false assertion.

And that will be my last word on this matter.

Sunday 5 May 2013

This isnae working

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Governing Parties lose seats in mid-term Local Government Elections. Tony Blair lost mid-term seats between his landslides in 1997 and 2001 as did Margaret Thatcher between her's in 1983 and 1987. I'm trying to keep my blogs a bit shorter so I won't diverge into why this happens but rather stick to how it happens.

It happens in three ways.

1. Previous supporters of the National Governing Party show their disillusionment by not voting at all. Those many who vote at a general Election but who do not turn out for local polls are not the same people every time. Far from it. In the bigger picture however this group is almost unimportant. If they haven't switched to the opposition (or anybody else) mid-term then they are unlikely ever to do so. And they will still vote at a General Election.

2. People vote for protest Parties. Historically this is one of the reasons the Lib-Dems traditionally do well in mid-terms. Certainly they have a genuine tradition of "pavement politics" which plays better at this level but the most honest of them would admit that there is also a "none of the above" element to this (part of their) mid-term vote. This vote might be important for the recipients of it, particularly if they believe they might hang on to it, but it's effectively useless to the main opposition. If they can't get this vote from the government mid-term they are unlikely ever to do so.

3. Previous supporters of the Governing Party switch to the opposition. This is the only really important group. Those who aren't just pissed off with their own side but sufficiently impressed with the alternative to (at least) consider giving them their support.

Now, having urged the Libs towards a bit of honesty above, I'm now going to do the same for my own side. Last week there weren't nearly enough of this last group. And that's a major problem.

Now, I know all the caveats: That these elections were only (largely) in parts of the Country that have never been sympathetic to the Labour Party; that in the few marginal Parliamentary Seats actually being contested we did quite well; that even if we didn't do particularly well, nonetheless under First Past the Post, UKIP is a major problem for the Tories.

All these things are true but a strategy based on an advantageous result between the Tories and UKIP is surely not where we should be now? The analogy is with a football team who, losing 2-0 in the last game of the season might yet avoid relegation dependent on other results. It's better than being actually down but hardly an ideal end to the year if you're more interested in what's happening on the radio than what's happening on the pitch.

I've thought long and hard about alternative explanations for why Labour is in this pickle but it is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion: there is simply no enthusiasm for the idea of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.

I've been going to Scottish Labour Party Conferences for a very long time and the Party Leaders speech is always a "big thing". A much "bigger thing" than the Scottish Leader's. Nationalists might protest that this is not as it should be but they should accept from me that it is nonetheless the case.

But this year, Ed came and went from Inverness largely in a spirit of indifference. We weren't unhappy to see him, we just weren't that bothered. Young members weren't pressing forward to get in the background of his photographs; older hacks to announce, on shaking his hand, that they had now done the same with every leader since Gaitskell. And no member of any age looked him in the eye and stated with any sincerity that they couldn't wait for him to be in Downing Street. Johann's speech on the following day generated an altogether greater buzz although she is, in theory, much, much further from power and, for the Labour Party at least, also a much more minor figure.

So, if Ed generates so little enthusiasm in the Labour Party, is it any wonder that he fails to do so in the Country?

Why is that? Sure he might be accused of being policy light but all Parties are policy light at this point of the electoral cycle. Sure he looks a bit odd, but Gordon Brown (who, let's not forget  pre-office at least, was longed for by much of the Party and even a significant part of the electorate) was nonetheless no oil painting.   John Major, the unjustly forgotten man who got the biggest Tory vote ever, was portrayed on spitting image as a grey man obsessed with peas.

No, Ed's problem is that he has go no back story. He is a professional apparatchik who has never had a job of any sort outside politics. And back story is important in politics. Cameron is in some ways open to a similar criticism but the Tories built a back story for him. Even the bits that Labour didn't like; the silver spoon upbringing; the high-jinks at university; the "born to rule" Eton narrative provided a certain colour. Some of the rest of it was created, such as the famous bicycling incident. And one bit of it, the tragedy of his wee boy, struck a chord across the political divide. By the eve of the Election however, like it or loath it, you felt you knew something about David Cameron.

What do we know about Ed? That his dad had a much more interesting life than him and, eh, that's it. For there is nothing to know. He moved seamlessly from University politics to Special Adviser; from Special Adviser, on the back of patronage, to being Member of Parliament for a place with which  he had no previous connection; from Member of Parliament to Cabinet and from Cabinet to Leader, pausing only to lose a General  Election on the way. The only turbulence on that journey was that he beat his brother for that  final post but no matter how that came about its difficult to see how it might be woven into a positive narrative. It is not enough

So is it any surprise that he proves less appealing to potential Tory defectors than Nigel Farage? For Farage is the master of back story. We on the left might shout about his Party's xenophobia; about their wholly unrealistic spending and tax cutting pledges; even about a false narrative as to how Farage himself is where he is. That's not the point. Who would you rather have a pint with is the question many, many voters ask? Who would be more entertaining company? Above all, who wouldn't lose sight in the pub argument of the importance of buying his own round?

I want to finish however with a blunter analogy: the reality talent show. Much as it is mocked, "the journey" is an important part of their narrative.

So it's the middle of December and you've got one vote. The finalists are on the one hand somebody who went to stage school; who then trained with one of the leading musical artists of the day, who also happened to be  a family friend, and was then found a job in their backing group. If they don't win they've got a cast job lined up in a new West End musical. Their rival is somebody who left school at sixteen to work  in a hairdressers and who, before the show, made a bit of extra money singing in pubs and clubs. If they don't win, they've managed to keep their hairdressing job open and secure bookings from a number of Miners' Welfares.  Before either sings a note, who are you voting for?

Narrative is important. And regrettably Ed's narrative does not have the X-Factor.

It's no excuse that he (only) beat two others with almost identical career paths.

We can do better.

Time to think again.