Laissez-faire

It’s been a while since I was in Scotland for something other than Christmas. Over time it becomes a character in your head rather than a place you call home. From the Angus glens, which shine as brightly as a yellowhammer to the beautiful arches of Old Edinburgh. I take my luggage with me, but I still can’t let go.

I began thinking how I could live in a grand Edwardian flat close to The Meadows. Avoid the bagpipes and walking tours, and live undetected with a metropolitan glare. Scotland is a complex, frustrating and deeply beautiful place. I have my reservations, but maybe here I can construct a narrative that someone can believe in.

Back in London, where I’ve lived for nine years, days become weeks, weeks become months and you tally up the slow, incremental inches of progress. But it takes so fucking long doesn’t it? Why does it have to take so long?

For every moment I’ve endlessly replayed in mind to the point of fixation. Like you’re on the cusp of something brilliantly promising and then it just disappears. Its the beauty and rhythm of her mind that I miss the most. How it just took off like a swift in the summer wind. For she’s a far cry from this artificial paradise – a home to everyone and none at all.

Dieter Roth Diaries

Skipped behind my bookcase lies a collection of diaries and notebooks I have curated over the years. They serve no purpose. A decade’s worth of illiterate jottings, betting plans, groceries, to-do-lists and scored out lines. With inspired quotes squashed in the margins justifying their existence, I keep filling out notebooks and skipping them alongside their older colleagues. A scrapheap of memories no one will ever read.

German artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998) undergoes a similar process but unlike me his diaries are being exhibited at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Documenting his life through the medium of art, sculpture and writings, Roth’s dystopian centrepiece Solo Scenes is a CCTV installation that recorded his final year on earth.

Commanding squeamish levels of attention, the 128 video tapes show Roth brushing his teeth, sleeping and painting alone like a melancholy tramp. By filming the sheer banality of his everyday existence, Roth has revealed the seemingly innate human desire to turn everything into a routine. These homely reminders of grocery lists, gifts to buy, domestic chores to be completed and a bubbled note commanding you to pay the gas bill by the fifteenth.

Likewise my old notebooks remain firmly in place behind the bookshelf and I consistently refuse to bin any of them. In some respects they are physical reminders of my narcissistic desire to be exhibited just like Dieter Roth. That my life actually meant something. But if I am lucky they’ll eventually be boxed and kept upstairs in an oak wooden loft.

Maybe they’ll be sparingly reopened for an old quote or a nostalgic rummage through the past. Only to be put back in their place again, a written bond with a young man that no longer exists. Where just like my childhood toys locked away in my family home, these notebooks will keep on ageing, and eventually become Grandad’s possessions. And then over the passages of time they will find themselves skipped. Quality control. A lifetime of thoughts destined to lie unread on a skip.

I’ll watch it like a hawk, and every day
I’ll make at least – oh – half a dozen trips.
I’ve furnished an existence in that way.
You’d not believe the things you find on skips.

Dieter Roth Diaries will be running at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until October 27th.

Blink

Kindred spirits are often romanticised in modern culture, but Blink is a little more surrealist in tone. A character play set in a world just like our own, Jonah and Sophie talk about a voyeuristic love story and one fitting of a society obsessed with making connections.

Written by English playwright Phil Porter, Blink addresses how virtuality has become the next phase of evolution; a world in which you can fall madly in love with complete strangers before even making a call. An online commune of language, love and dreams created entirely with words and grainy pixels – a fantasy world where you write all the rules.

Running at the Ed Fringe throughout August, Blink relies on two protagonists – an impish northern nerd Jonah (Harry McEntire), who somewhat unconvincingly emerges from a Presbyterian boot camp with a flair for voyeurism. Meanwhile the wonderfully gifted Sophie (Rosie Wyatt) has been looking after her dying father and loses her job in a software company for a perceived ‘lack of visibility’.

It this lack of visibility that crystallises the essence of Phil Porter’s play, where Jonah follows Sophie (with her loving consent) on a webcam and they both take solace from their weird and childlike sense of isolation. It is something they cannot necessarily touch but can only feel. They inhabit a world in where virtual souls find love in the anonymity of strangers.

For you see loneliness doesn’t necessarily stem from being on your own. Solitude can or will inevitably contribute but even those with regular human company can feel lonely. It is the inability to share private thoughts, desires and acute observations with like minded souls that accentuates many people’s sense of isolation.

Like sitting on a bus two rows behind a stranger you’re to painfully shy too approach, the same aches and desires apply and in many ways it can be even more painful. Blink is a story about love. A story about how it’s easier to confess all to a bleeping box on Facebook than it is to call a childhood friend. To lapse into an inexplicable world where you believe the other to be perfect. When you haven’t even heard their voice and as quicksands of love shift, which they always do, you blink and the feeling has gone.

Blink runs at the Traverse Theatre until August 26th and the Soho Theatre from Wed 29 August – Sat 22 September. 

Boys

Boys is a brilliant angry piece of writing that captures the indignation and apathy of the modern era. Europe is facing the cold bloom of austerity (the history books are already been written) and in a five-man student kitchen in Edinburgh, four young boys are facing a future that has no place for them. On approaching the fag end of their final term, the party is almost over for the boys, and in the kitchen lies a Barclays sign – ‘We’ll loan you the best years of your life’ – just like Greece.

An unexplained death hovers over the student debris of spilt cereal, tea cups and celebrity posters as Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam face uncertain futures. Is being young really as good as it gets? Throughout Europe new graduates will come to realise this summer that aspiration has its melancholy consequences. Living in a neo-Thatcherite world, I think it’s probably a good thing we don’t know what the future holds. Many people quickly realise, through no fault of their own, that the age of potential is the briefest of windows.

Although it goes without saying that the vast majority of people in the UK will survive comfortably enough in the decades to come. First world problems have to be put into a global context. However, I think the sadness and anger descends from a brooding sense of unfulfillment and the searching emptiness of never being able to achieve anything.

The politics of identity have long since surpassed ideological principle and success is wearily defined by ‘timing, image and nepotism – so always try and be in the right place at the right time, suck as much cock as you can and find a way to be better looking than God intended you’. Timing, image and nepotism – it rings uncomfortably true doesn’t it?

Something wholly dependent on luck and self-confidence inherited from wealthy families and postcode approved schools. There are now almost three million people aged 20-34 still living at home and that number is only like to rise as slow economic growth, an ageing population and exploitative rents stunt any hope of renewal.

Like a revisionist version of Peter Pan there is a sadness in boys final days and the agnostic helplessness of a generation that no longer has anything to believe in. Ella Hickson captures this angst beautifully and provides a universal message  for our times, where one’s youth appears to be only commodity but as many people soon find out these years are loaned to you too.

Boys runs at the Soho Theatre until June 16th 2012

A Stateless Nation

On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

The Illusionist

After leaving my university town of Glasgow in search of a media career in London, I have often found myself trying to preserve my Scottish identity. By living and working in a global metropolis, I fear my Scottishness will eventually become so diluted that I’ll lose touch with my Aberdeenshire upbringing.

Nostalgia can be very misleading but on recently watching Slyvain’s Chomet’s animation The Illusionist , I immediately knew that I wanted to return to Scotland for the festival season. Chomet’s visual love affair with the Scottish capital is a melancholy fairy tale and offers a romantic throwback to a seemingly more innocent era of steam engines, roast fires, whisky drams, red post boxes and candlelit evenings.

The Illusionist is about an elderly French magician who has become increasingly marginalised and ignored after the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Unable to sustain his vaudeville show in France, the magician travels over the English Channel and performs on stage in empty theatres in the far north of Scotland. Such is the remoteness of the Hebrides in the 1950s they represent one of the few remaining indigenous communities in Britain unaffected by the cultural impact of America.

On a remote Gaelic island, the magician meets a young girl called Alice, who secretly follows him back to Edinburgh. They quickly form a paternal relationship and spend their lives surrounded by eccentric miscreants, loners and forgotten souls. They are the moths of the world with troubled hearts, living beyond their means in a cosy domestic abode. Struggling to communicate in their adopted tongue, the pair slowly drift apart in a sad and beautiful tale of two outsiders trying to find their way in a lonely world.

Slyvain Chomet creates a melancholy vision of Scottish capital and it is set around the death of the British Empire. This fading spectre of imperialism would have been keenly felt in Edinburgh, which even to this day represents a kitsch romantic version of Scotland wrapped in kilts and colonial union jacks.

Chomet’s love affair with Scotland explores the green fringes of the city and takes you on a cinematic journey northwards towards the Forth Railway Bridge and the luminous fields of Fife. While to the south you can marvel at the gentle rolling hills of Lothian, which fades aimlessly into the horizon like an electric green sea.

Edinburgh is a beautiful place and during the summer it is comparable to classic European cities like Paris or Prague, especially when every accent in earshot is almost inevitably from outside of these shores. What is so remarkable about The Illusionist is the grainy imperfection it lends to its adopted landscape. This beautiful animation captures the sensation of walking through the Old Town at night, where it literally feels like you are walking in ink.

Chomet’s elegiac vision of Écosse is tinged with a homely sentimentality and dangerous as this might be, I am looking forward to walking in the Illusionist’s footsteps this summer. The textural grace of the Scottish tongue may be slipping from my grasp but I hope to reacquaint myself with my homeland, while listening to the sound of pneumatic tyres rippling over the cobbles of the past.