On the off-chance that any readers of CloudWorld & CloudWorld At War might want to sample some of my other writing, I've assembled this archive page. Though the topics of these essays and reviews are very different, common threads of autobiography run through many of them.
Star Wars: "So Calm After The Force" (1999)
[*Written to coincide with the premiere of The Phantom Menace. We were so excited about it at the time. Hard to believe now, though I still insist - all 'prequel' evidence to the contrary - that George Lucas is a genius. Make fun of his dialogue and characterisation all you want, but you try having two ideas as good as Star Wars and Indiana Jones. He seems like a genuine philanthropist too.]
Amid the clamour surrounding the imminent release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, spare a thought for those of us to whom the film represents irrevocable proof that we are grown-ups at last.
The 1997 re-release of the original trilogy in a rejigged Special Edition was bad enough. You sat there in the darkness, agog not only at the apparition of your childhood fantasies resurrected in sonorous digital stereo, but also at the realisation that sitting not too far from you were people (people your age) with children (their children) almost the same age as they had been (as you had been) when Star Wars itself first appeared. Soon, instead of being intoxicated all over again by the weird alien life forms and exotic locales, you were plunged into a sober reassessment of your own life. Were you ever going to get married and have children? Were you ever going to find a decent job? Were you ever going to get your act together sufficiently to stop sharing flats and buy a house? Had you unknowingly given in to the dark side of the Force? You began to feel a little clammy and your eyes sought the consolation of the word “Exit”.
Being reacquainted with the books and films of your childhood and adolescence inevitably prompts a certain amount of reflection on the person you hoped to be then and the person you are now. But it’s testimony to the power of the myth George Lucas assembled in Star Wars (no longer just the title of a film but a generic term) that its renaissance should prompt so ambivalent a feeling in those of us who first experienced it 22 years ago and are - by some malicious quirk of nature - older now.
Star Wars was the first modern movie. Not because – as critics concerned about the infantilisation of mainstream cinema often lament – of the way it was marketed as a blockbuster “event” movie. Jaws had already been a blockbuster two years before and Star Wars was only an event after it opened. Before it opened it was a resounding non-event: its trailer provoked groans and sniggers from audiences. Star Wars was the first modern movie because of the way it was made.
I first saw it at the age of six - having elected to do so instead of going to a friend’s birthday party - and I knew immediately that I had never seen anything like it before. Previous trips to the cinema had been devoted to the more obscure productions of the Children’s Film Foundation and Disney films so slavishly in thrall to the legacy of Uncle Walt that they appeared to have been embalmed. The cinema was the same as ever: hazy with smoke, the beam of the projector perfectly defined, an amber constellation of cigarette tips winking in the darkness. But this movie was something different. It didn’t just look different, with its motion control camera shots of spacecraft soaring, spinning and tumbling (until then spacecraft had either wobbled, or, in the case of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, glacially progressed). It also sounded different. Light sabres hummed wickedly, their blades sizzling when they clashed. C-Threepio’s joints clicked and whirred with his every movement, no matter how slight. R2D2 beeped and chirruped in an oddly intelligible way. Darth Vader’s hydraulic breathing chilled the blood. Each spacecraft had its own engine note - the larger ones rumbled, the smaller ones whined like hornets. They all sounded fast. John William’s music - a pragmatic mixture of Holst and Wagner though it may have been - saturated and enriched every moment, lending Lucas’s faraway galaxy a human dimension it might not otherwise have possessed. I didn’t want it to end. When it did end I wanted it to start all over again. I emerged into Ayrshire drizzle and the world around me seemed less real than the one I had just witnessed - the unarguable proof of great escapism. Even Robert Burns, immortalised in a statue opposite the entrance to the cinema, looked vaguely insubstantial.
In the approved fashion I saw Star Wars again three more times. The fact that it wasn’t released on to video meant that it retained its grandeur, its pristine specialness, in the imagination. When you couldn’t see the film itself, you played with the toys instead. Tie-in merchandising allowed Star Wars to become a way of life. I remember being given my first Star Wars figure, a Stormtrooper, and feeling that I held a tiny, perfectly rendered fragment of that magical universe in my hand. I also remember my parents’ exasperation when I announced that what I wanted for my birthday was four more Stormtrooper figures. Why, they asked, did I want four more of the same “doll” (as they called it) when I already had one? I told them - in that tone of weary forbearance that children adopt when explaining something blindingly obvious to adults - that I needed more than one Stormtrooper to muster a proper opposing force for my slowly increasing band of Rebels (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia et al). They relented in the same way as a stone relents under dripping water. But my mother remained understandably exasperated when she had to reach into the Hoover bag yet again to pick out Han Solo’s tiny laser pistol or have the Hoover repaired altogether when, marauding blindly, it ran over Chewbacca and was unable to digest him.
Teaming up with other children, I contributed my figures to a Star Wars game-playing collective that assembled weekly on Troon beach (standing in for the wind-scoured deserts of Tatooine). Inevitably one of the older boys would try to wrest control of the script and it would all end in tears. Few children went home with the same number of toys as they had arrived with and mothers spent the evening phoning one another to secure the return of Obi Wan Kenobi and other hostages, the perpetrator shrilly protesting his innocence in the background. Yet, in spite of recriminations, we all met up again the following week. And, say what you like, those toys encouraged us to use our imaginations. Waving X-Wing fighters around in our sandy paws, we improvised continuing adventures for our heroes. The few short stories I have had published or broadcast bear no similarity at all to Star Wars, but my story-telling abilities, however slender they may be, were developed through exposure to its mythology.
I think most people my age would agree that the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 represented the apotheosis of their Star Wars mania. I was nine when it came out and I remember the excitement beforehand being practically seismic. Empire (as we aficionados refer to it in today’s reductive fashion) represented a gigantic leap forward from a film that was already revolutionary. Everything seemed faster and more agile; every shot was more carefully composed and lit in an almost painterly fashion. The special effects were often beautiful - from the pastel glow of the spaceships’ engines to the burnished, art deco vistas of Cloud City. There was even a rich, Oedipus in space, subtext.
The first time I saw it I cried when it finished, not only because the conclusion was so bleak and John Williams’ score so shamelessly emotional, but because it was over and I had been wrenched back to the real world. I saw Empire six times in the cinema: on its own, as part of a double bill, as part of a triple bill and as a digitally enhanced reissue.
Though George Lucas still had his trilogy to complete, those of us about to enter our teens by 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released, had somehow slipped out from under his spell. During the long haul between instalments, we had developed a taste for the saltier escapades of his womanising archaeologist Indiana Jones and the recognisable suburban fairy tale of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. The curiously sexless Star Wars universe no longer held quite the same appeal. Watching Jedi, you listened to six and seven year olds whooping with laughter at the toddling antics of the Ewoks - bellicose but implausibly cute teddy bears - and realised that this was a movie designed to be appreciated by children younger than you: children the age you were when Star Wars first appeared in fact. I saw Jedi only once.
But that’s as it should be. To become adult is, as we know, to put away childish things - and that includes Wookie cookie jars and Boba Fett bubble bath. George Lucas’s lavishly engineered remounting of old Flash Gordon serials, complete with vague mystical overtones, was a stroke of entertainment (if not actual creative) genius. For a generation of children - some of them experiencing a childhood that wasn’t much fun at all - the Star Wars films represented an irresistible escape route into a more palatable universe.
And now it’s all about to happen again. Though the return of Star Wars is inevitably poignant to people my age - particularly those of us whose lives have perhaps taken unexpected and not always desirable twists in the interim - I’d be more worried if I felt the same naïve excitement now as I did twenty years ago. After some cool reflection I’ve decided that the scary thing isn’t to greet Episode 1: The Phantom Menace with an involuntary spasm and a cry of “Oh my God, I’m old!” The scary thing is not to.
Originally published in The Scotsman, July 15th 1999
James Bond: "007 & I" (1999)
[*I hawked this one round all the Scottish broadsheet newspapers - The Herald, The Sunday Herald, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday - but no-one was interested. Nor were The Guardian or The Observer. I did, however, get the chance to talk about it with the much-missed John Peel on Radio 4's "Home Truths".]
This November sees the release of the nineteenth official James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. Whether or not you think this constitutes an exciting event pretty much depends upon your opinion of the previous eighteen James Bond movies. If you’re not a fan you’ll probably regard it as a pointless clone of something that wasn’t very interesting in the first place. If, on the other hand, your subconscious is littered with confused early memories of giants with steel dentures, gold painted women and bald men with mittel-European accents stroking tranquillised white cats, you’ll treasure its familiarity. But even then you might not realise how remote a prospect the gloss and spectacle of The World Is Not Enough - Pierce Brosnan’s third appearance as 007 - seemed at the beginning of the decade.
One thing is certain: it will adhere to a number of strict principles. First of all there will be a boisterous mini-film which will establish its mise en scène within a few seconds then plunge you into a high speed chase and culminate in a stunt/explosion of such preposterous audacity that certain members of the audience will feel compelled to stand up and cheer. This will segue into a quasi-surreal title sequence in which lissom, silhouetted women will cavort amid tumbling guns and diagonally whizzing bullets against a background of burnished infinitude. The story proper - sometimes tenuously linked to the mini-film - will then unfold. Once again, certain preordained things will happen: Bond will engage in sexual banter with Miss Moneypenny; he will express thinly disguised antagonism towards figures of authority; he will be equipped with a variety of gadgets disguised as expensive accessories, their manufacturers’ names - Omega, Erikson, BMW - prominently displayed. Sometimes he will be given a car, which he will swiftly write off in improbable circumstances.
The whole venture will be informed by an irrepressible - some might say insufferable - air of self-confidence and executed on the sort of scale that only exorbitant expense can achieve. Pierce Brosnan will add further refinements to his cuff-twitching, tie-straightening interpretation of Bond. It will be hard to remember a time when 007 wasn’t the world’s most durable pop culture icon: the man who marched on undaunted after Elvis bloated and the Beatles broke up.
However, as any devoted - though not necessarily uncritical - fan will tell you, it wasn’t always like that. There was a time, not so very long ago, when Bond, incarnated by the increasingly decrepit Roger Moore, then the staunchly humourless Timothy Dalton, looked like an irrelevancy - the epitome of uncool. A fatigued swinger, he seemed unable to adapt himself to the post-AIDs, post-Glastnost world. By the mid-1980s he was being usurped by the sort of muscular, monosyllabic heroes with whom audiences from Iowa to Kuala Lumpur (united by their limited grasp of the English language) could more readily identify. Forced to defend his constituency on inflation-ravaged budgets, he looked doomed. In borrowed clothes (Don Johnson’s from Miami Vice) he made an ill-advised attempt to imitate his usurpers, then sloped off into obscurity.
It was a bad time to be a Bond fan - particularly if you weren’t sure why you were one in the first place. Born in the early seventies, I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t Bond. He was always the virile fantasy figure to which Britain, its global influence withering, had grateful recourse. On a black and white portable in the tiny kitchen of my parents’ Ayrshire flat I watched Sean Connery serenading Ursula Andress with “Underneath The Mango Tree” as she emerged from the Caribbean surf clutching a conch shell in each hand. I understood little of what was going on but John Barry’s music - its texture already familiar from even earlier viewings of Born Free - spoke resonantly of adventure and open spaces. A few years later I lay in front of a larger, colour t.v., drowsy with repletion after Christmas dinner, and watched Connery being made over as a laughably unconvincing Oriental, then storming a hollowed-out volcano with an army of Ninjas. From his armchair, shrouded in cigar smoke, my father chuckled appreciatively.
He was a professional golfer (Scottish champion in 1969) and we lived in a golfing town. I was bookish and unathletic. My manifest lack of interest in golf was a source of disappointment to him, though he refused to admit it. Conscious of this, I withdrew from him and went further into books. One of the few things we could do together with an equal degree of enthusiasm was watch You Only Live Twice or Thunderball. It was a sort of temporary adhesive that was the closest we ever came to bonding.
My father told me that he had taken my mother to see You Only Live Twice when they were engaged. I suspected that he regarded his batchelorhood and early married life in the Sixties (when he had worked in Barbados and travelled to tournaments all over Europe) as a version of a Bond movie - Goldfinger probably, with the golf match eclipsing all the other stuff about Fort Knox and neutron bombs. By the early eighties, when he was mainly a teacher of golf and repairer of clubs, we went to see Never Say Never Again together. Emerging from the cinema, he observed that Connery had lost his edge and I could tell, from the brief and uncharacteristic softening of his expression, that he suspected the same about himself. After he and my mother separated I used to take a Bond movie on video with me when I went back to spend an evening him. He tolerated Roger Moore as an amiable buffoon but thought Timothy Dalton an unspeakable drip. Neither could ever hope to emulate Sean Connery - the Scotsman’s Scotsman - in his prime. The last Bond movie I ever saw with him in the cinema was Licence To Kill in the summer of 1989, by which time he was terminally ill with lung cancer. Struggling with the discomfort of having to occupy a cramped seat for more than two hours, he was dismayed by its dour brutality - this wasn’t the Bond he remembered.
Neither of us realised it at the time, but Licence To Kill marked the beginning of 007’s wilderness years. After its relatively poor box office performance the Italian businessman Giancarlo Peretti bought MGM/UA, the studio which released Bond movies, and the franchise was ensnared in legal wrangles which kept it off the screen for the best part of seven years. During this period, however, 007’s enforced retirement yielded unsuspected benefits. Audiences wearied by almost thirty years of biannual escapades had time to forget about him, grow even wearier of the alternatives, then rediscover him with a fresh perspective. The process was assisted to a great extent by the efflorescence of Britpop and its offshoots in film and fashion. There was also the proliferation of glossy magazines aimed at the kind of new lad likely to include 007 among his formative influences. Suddenly British cinema icons of the Sixties like Terence Stamp, Michael Caine and Connery’s Bond were in favour again. So was easy listening, its erstwhile ambassador, Burt Bacharach, officially anointed by Oasis as the coolest man on the planet. Even John Barry was being discussed by a few brave souls in terms of guarded approbation. I began to sense that we might be re-entering a world in which James Bond could thrive once more, without compromising his basic lack of integrity. Nonetheless, when GoldenEye - tentatively planned as 007’s comeback movie - was first announced, the news was greeted with widespread scepticism.
Even I was worried. The years after my father’s death had not been easy. Having worked abroad for a number of years and been self-employed most of his life, he had no pension to speak of. My mother and I lived on her unemployment benefit and my student grant in a flat we couldn’t afford to heat and, due to the collapse of the property market, couldn’t sell. But any time there was a Bond movie on TV we settled down to watch it, each clutching a hot water bottle, grateful for a couple of hours’ nostalgic escapism.
By the time the new film’s release was imminent, in November 1995, things had been hesitantly getting better for some time. I had got my degree and had a couple of short stories published. Somewhere in that part of the brain where illogical thoughts are free to flourish, unmediated by reason, I felt that a triumphant return for 007 would somehow consolidate the recovery.
When I saw the trailer I knew instantly that I needn’t have worried. To the subdued strains of a familiar theme, disjointed phrases loomed: “It’s A New World…With New Enemies…And New Threats…But You Can Still Rely…On One Man.” Immaculate in a tuxedo, Pierce Brosnan strode across the screen, his heels clicking with measured confidence. He spun round and carved the number 007 out of the phrase “On One Man” with a salvo of bullets. Then he approached the camera and, surveying the audience, coolly enquired, “You were expecting someone else?”
Rarely has a rhetorical question prompted so ecstatic a response. Everyone cheered as we were plunged into a mêlée of explosions, gunplay, sex, duelling sports cars and digital countdowns, punctuated by some choice soundbites, foremost among them the immortal words, “The name’s Bond…James Bond.” It was so comfortingly familiar it made you want to laugh out loud, yet edited without an ounce of fat to spare and propelled with all the oomph of modern technology.
As – when I finally saw it – was the film itself. A 60’s caper for the 90’s, its conventions neatly inverted, GoldenEye was gratifyingly sure of itself, with Pierce Brosnan (no longer the glib lightweight of Remington Steele) its greatest and most surprising asset. Numerous interviews recounted how he had survived an impoverished Irish childhood, reinvented himself as a mid-Atlantic smoothie, missed out on Bond in 1986, overcome the death of his wife and bided his time until the part became available again. In the interim he had acquired the depth and maturity which enabled him to pull off the trick of humanising Bond for a new audience without weakening him.
Borders: "The New Curiosity Shop" (2000)
[*This one seems positively quaint. From 1998 - 2001, after getting my PhD, I worked in the Glasgow branch of Borders Books & Music as a bookseller and occasional barista. I wrote this in 1999. In 2000 I smuggled a truncated version of it into the The Spectator - not my first choice, but the only place that would take it after The Herald, The Scotsman, Prospect, the London Review of Books and The Observer all turned it down. Now both Borders UK and Borders US are defunct. Tempus fugit.]
In November 1936 George Orwell published an essay - or perhaps jeremiad would be a more accurate description - entitled “Bookshop Memories” in the literary periodical The Fortnightly. It was based on his experience of working in a second-hand bookshop, which, he revealed, “ stood exactly on the frontier between Hampstead and Camden Town. ” The same period would form the basis of his third novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying. Indigence in Paris and London lay behind him, success as a wartime broadcaster and literary editor of Tribune was yet to come.
I work in a markedly different kind of bookshop: one of those modern, multi-storey edifices in which one can simultaneously enjoy live jazz, a vanilla flavoured decaf. latte and a shiatsu head massage. Nonetheless I was amazed, reading Orwell’s essay, at the extent to which his experiences coincided with my own and how little has really changed in the intervening sixty-three years.
I applied for my bookshop job when the mixture of University tutoring, writing and admin work with which I'd supported myself since gaining my PhD suddenly dried up. Bookshops are, as Orwell states, "so easily pictured, if you don't work in one, as a kind of paradise." I pictured mine as a temporary expedient: a relatively civilised stopgap until I found the job I really wanted. Little did I realise that the chain superstores may be selling books but might as well be selling tins of beans – stacked high and aggressively discounted.
I've had my fair share of irritating and surreal experiences with customers. There was the one who demanded "Are you illiterate or what?" when I asked him to spell a word in the title of a book he wanted. (It’s a common misapprehension, propagated by films such as You’ve Got Mail, that the chain superstores are staffed by assistants who are automatically ignoramuses). There was another who accosted me to complain that she couldn’t find any books in the shop on remote viewing. But I don’t think I ever experienced the remorseless loathing that Orwell conveys with such gusto. "In a town like London," he writes elsewhere. "There are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places you can hang about for a long time without spending any money." All this is tonic and not a little disturbing from the left-wing polemicist of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell would doubtless be appalled to learn that modern developments in book selling have increased this trend to an undreamt of extent. When a shop is open - as mine is - from eight in the morning until eleven at night and has a licensed cafe and lots of comfy chairs distributed around every floor, it becomes a practical Mecca for the narcoleptic and the bewildered.
Orwell's clientele ranged from "First edition snobs" to "students haggling over cheap textbooks" to "vague minded women looking for presents for their nephews." The chain bookstore plays host to an equally exotic cross-section of humanity. But it tends most often to attract the devoted Saturday shopper who treats it as if it were just another department store - which, to all intents and purposes, it is - and its staff as rude mechanicals, placed there to indulge their whims and chant the retail mantra ("Next please...thank you... sign there please... you receipt's in the bag...have a nice day").
Not long ago a man asked me if we had any books by James Joyce. He wanted "a hardback one, with a nice cover" for a convalescent friend. I obligingly reeled off the titles of Joyce's most celebrated works. He stared at me, unimpressed, as if I was making his task much more complicated than it need be. "Well, what's his latest one?" he demanded. "Just give me that." To my credit I remained stoic throughout.
On another occasion - Christmas Eve in fact - I was shelving stock when a young woman prodded me in the ribs and asked, "Do you have any of Woody Allen's novels?"
The booksellers in my shop, mostly in their mid-twenties with degrees in English, History, Philosophy, Psychology and modern languages, work there because there's nothing else. Some of them intend to continue in bookselling, which is fair enough – it's a honourable profession. But I can't help feeling that there's something terribly wrong with a society that seems obsessed with cramming more and more youngsters into higher education when the majority of them - apart from the well-connected or exceptional few - are going to end up working in shops or call centres. To be honest, I think we’re seeing the emergence of a disenfranchised generation: encouraged to indulge in the luxury of a liberal education and assume huge debts to pay for it when, due to qualification inflation, there just aren’t graduate jobs for them to do. It’s this aspect of working in a bookshop - rather than the "rarity of really bookish people" or the incidence of "paranoiac customers" bemoaned by Orwell - that has made the biggest impression upon me.
I also found it hard to share his despair at the literary tastes of the public: "Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women. Men read either novels it is possible to respect or detective stories." Perhaps the way in which the electronic media - particularly television - have so thoroughly eclipsed reading for most people means that the modern bookseller expects to spend a substantial part of the day on his or her knees constructing squat monoliths of novelisations and books by stand-up comedians. In my shop a select group of best sellers shouldered their way to prominence at front of store, the men - Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Wilbur Smith - by virtue of their muscularity, the women - Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Barbara Taylor-Bradford - through the sheer width of their shoulder-pads. Meanwhile, the sensitive winners of obscure literary prizes cowered in small quantities at your feet or in dim corners.
After inveighing against the shallowness of the public, Orwell asks, somewhat redundantly, "Would I like to be a bookseller de métier? On the whole - in spite of my employer's kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop - no." Nor would I. Dealing with the book buying public, especially today's public – made peevish and infantile by the coddling Holy Grail of "customer service" - is a thankless task. It demands cosmic detachment, inexhaustible chirpiness and a fanatical sense of mission about selling books — with a soupçon of masochism for good measure.
"But," confesses Orwell. "The real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro." Being a bookseller does tend to demolish any fond notions you might entertain about books as aesthetically pleasing objects. Instead they become a mere source of manual labour. You regard them with the same dispirited fatigue you would a pile of building bricks or a stack of two-by-four. And the bookshop becomes, instead of a Mecca for lovers of the written word, an artfully lit, softly furnished warehouse – just the place you work in. Someday I’ll miss it, and probably remember with affectionate indulgence that woman who informed me I just was not good enough when I was unable to provide her daughter with the third Harry Potter book in paperback because it had only just been published as a hardback. Someday — but not today.
Originally published in The Spectator, September 23rd 2000
"Golf Is A Four Letter Word" (2000)
[*This one was written to fill a sudden hole in The Scotsman's sport pages. It's full of self-deception. I actually always hated golf. And, even as a child, growing up in Troon, I couldn't stand it when adults constantly asked me, "Do you play golf?" then lost interest as soon as I said I didn't.]
My late father, Gordon Cunningham, was a professional golfer. Scottish Champion in 1969, he was of an era with Tony Jacklin and Peter Allis. He played with Palmer and Trevino, once won the Tooting Beck medal for the lowest single round shot in the British Open, was the first resident professional at the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados and was, latterly, club pro at the Municipal Courses in Troon.
It sounds like a glamorous conjunction of people and places and to some extent it was. But it all occurred during professional golf's Bronze Age: before big prize money, before lucrative sponsorship, before the sport was widely televised. The pros on the European tour aspired to little more than enjoying their golf and covering their travelling expenses (when my father won the Scottish championship he received a cheque for £300 and a bottle of single malt). On the other hand there was a degree of fun to be had undreamt of within the professional game today. My favourite of Dad's stories was about the time one of the pros stealthily approached his friend Clive Clark (now a frequent commentator) while he sat waiting to tee off and altered the lettering on the side of his golf bag with a brush and a small pot of paint. Soon after Clive strode off down the fairway oblivious to the fact that he was carrying a bag that now bore the legend "Olive Clark."
Much as I enjoyed these stories, I always found growing up the son of a professional golfer in a golfing town fiendishly difficult. Throughout my boyhood conversations with adults conformed to a well-worn pattern. First they would ask my name. Then they would ask, "And are you going to be a golfer?"
I would blush and root about in the ground with the toe of my shoe as if it might uncover an answer that would get me off the hook.
"Maybe," I'd hedge in a small voice.
Later, as an awkward adolescent, I'd fix them with a basilisk glare and reply, "No!"
The problem was, I did like golf: I loved the festive atmosphere of the tournaments, the bracing air of a links course, the scent of freshly bruised grass, the collegial warmth of the clubhouse. At a Turnberry Open I was to be seen scurrying around informing startled strangers that my Daddy was going to beat Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. But, back home, actually trying to play golf involved walking on jelly legs to the first tee at my father's club, the back of my neck hot with the critical gaze of countless pairs of eyes (his included). Under such circumstances I would usually miss the ball, skim it low across the ground at an obtuse angle that endangered the legs of people standing on the adjacent practice ground, or execute a passable drive only to have the club fly out of my palsied hands on the back swing and land ten yards away in the rough. I suppose more lessons might have helped to conquer my nerves. But my father ordinarily a patient teacher found it hard to comprehend why I couldn't just absorb his talent by a mysterious process of osmosis. Every time I hit a duff shot I could hear, from over my shoulder, a muted but distinct tut, accompanied by a long-suffering sigh.
All this contrived to make me a non-golfer and inevitably placed a certain amount of distance between us. He died in 1989, still a relatively young man, and I think he went to his grave regretting the fact that I didn't play golf. For my part, I always felt as if I'd let him down. These days I watch golf on T.V. keenly, but with an ache of nostalgia. Sometime I suspect I'll take the game up again. When I do, and I stand there addressing the ball, I'm sure I'll feel his presence at my shoulder hopefully not sighing anymore.
Originally published in The Scotsman, October 7th 2000
"Museum of Flight, Seattle" (2003)
[*I wrote this after visiting Seattle on my one and, sadly, only trip to the US. I was also writing CloudWorld at the time, so old-style aeronautics were much on my mind. In spite of 2003 being the hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, no newspaper or magazine wanted to publish it. Later, I cannibalised some of the factual stuff for a short story, also called "Museum of Flight", which, thankfully, was published in the London Magazine.]
If you fly to Seattle any time soon and feel even the vaguest curiosity about the machine that will carry you around the curve of the world across the grey fathoms of the Atlantic and pristine emptiness of the Northern Territories you really should visit the city's Museum of Flight. It's located at Boeing Field, just ten minutes south of downtown Seattle, and is the largest aerospace museum on the West Coast, with over a hundred exhibits in its collection.
I've always loved flying. I was lucky enough to fly very young to the Caribbean, where my father taught golf for a while. We took a VC10 to New York then a Boeing 727 to Trinidad then a tiny Piper Twin Comanche to Tobago. Somewhere in my mother's loft there lurks a tattered booklet proclaiming my membership of the BOAC Junior Jet Club. On the first page there's a photo of a BOAC pilot named Captain Massie who confirms that I have been deemed eligible to join the club after clocking up 25,000 infant air miles. He looks exactly like the avuncular 1950s character actor James Robertson Justice, his beard trimmed to an aerodynamic point.
My father died when I was in my teens and there followed a long non-flying phase, when, as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, I could scarcely afford to buy a bus ticket, let alone a plane fare. But I think it was during that time that my interest in aeroplanes deepened into fascination. After all, who yearns for transport more than the involuntarily earthbound? On my first trip to Seattle, therefore, the Museum of Flight was high on my "must-see" list.
The museum's experience is divided into three distinct parts: the Red Barn, the Great Gallery and the "Rendezvous in Space" display. The Red Barn, bought by William Boeing in 1914, was Boeing Aeroplane Company's first workshop. Today the company is the largest manufacturer of aeroplanes in the world. The Red Barn was floated up the Duwamish River in 1975 and houses the museum's most antique exhibits.
If you've ever doubted how powerful the dream of flying is for some human beings, you only have to take a look at the kind of contraptions early aviators were willing to climb into in order to become airborne. Wings were made of ash or hickory and covered in hand-sewn fabric. Fuselages were initially non-existent (vide the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer), then, for some time, flimsy beyond belief. Pioneers of powered flight in the States a significant number of them female were clearly a slender bunch. Should an averagely proportioned American of today attempt to board one of the aeroplanes in which they flew, he would reduce it to kindling before he had even got one leg into the cockpit. The most arresting theme of early aviation is expendability. You expect a lot of the unhinged barnstormers to have died prematurely, or "bought the farm" as they used to say; but the life expectancy of the sane flyers wasn't much higher. The glass display cases in the Red Barn are full of paraphernalia that reinforces this point: a torn leather helmet, a cracked pair of goggles, a dented compasses that some fog-bound mail pilot was doubtless peering at quizzically when he flew upside down into a hill side.
Chastened by the evidence of human dauntlessness on offer in the Red Barn, you move on to the Great Gallery. This six-storey glass building contains 50 aircraft, more than 20 of which are suspended from the ceiling thanks to an innovative truss suspension system. I don't pretend to understand how it works but the result is stunning. Gaze upwards and you see a fleet of aeroplanes from different eras all pointing in the same direction as if they were flying in formation through a time warp. There are far too many to describe in detail. But each era has its unequivocal stars.
From the 1920s there's the Ryan M1. A mail plane with a fuselage covered in silver scales, it looks endearingly like a flying trout. But even non-aviation buffs would have little trouble in recognising it: the "Spirit of St Louis" in which Charles Lindbergh made the first transatlantic flight was a modified version of the M1. The early 1930s offer the Boeing 247-D, the world's first true airliner. Styled far more elegantly than boxy predecessors like the Boeing SOA-1 (dubbed the "Flying Pullman") it was versatile, easy to manoeuvre and economical to operate. In 1936 competition from the 247-D inspired McDonnell Douglas to build the legendary DC-3. Able to carry 28 passengers in unmatched comfort, the DC-3 inaugurated the first transcontinental sleeper service from New York to Los Angeles. More than any other plane, it evokes a golden age in commercial air travel when cabins were finished in mahogany, each passenger seemed to have a minimum of two stewardesses assigned and first class was the only class there was.
The piston-engine phase gradually ended and the jet age got off to a promising start in 1949 with the de Havilland Comet svelte and powerful, its four Rolls Royce Avon 525B engines mounted in the wings' leading edge rather than jutting out beneath. But two deadly crashes within a fortnight in 1954 grounded the Comet and by the time it flew again Boeing had stolen the lead with the 707. The Museum's Comet, currently being restored at its Everett Field site, used to fly the "Golden Aztec" route from Mexico City to Los Angeles.
In the modern era of mass air travel the aircraft have grown ever larger and more powerful, but look dispiritingly similar to one another. The only exception is Concorde. The Museum's great jewel, it sits slightly apart from the other exhibits, like an aged but still graceful dowager in the private room of an exclusive retirement home. Inside, the passenger cabin surprisingly cramped. Yet the leather upholstery and shielding strip lighting convey an unmistakable sense of luxury. It's as if the lounge of a five-star hotel had been compressed and elongated. Long term aviation buffs who never flew on her can only wistfully imagine what it would have been like to cross the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound, while sipping Krug Brut Grande Cuvιe and watch the sky shading from royal blue to black. Only one other aircraft in the Museum's collection has flown higher than Concorde: the SR-71, commonly known as the Blackbird. Occupying centre stage in the great gallery, it is the fastest, highest flying air-breathing jet ever built. The inordinate size of its engines and blunt malevolence of its outline seem to symbolize everything that was most terrifying about the Cold War: implacable hatred allied to destructive technology developing at an awesome speed. The most amazing thing about the Blackbird is that although it entered service in 1963 and last flew in 1997, it still looks like something out of science fiction as if it had been beamed back from a future you'd rather not live to see.
The Blackbird flew to 100 000 feet, the edge of our atmosphere. If you go much higher than that you're effectively in space. The machines that took human beings there are also well represented. Few people interested in aircraft are not also interested in spacecraft. The first American and Soviet astronauts restored the spirit of the early aviators: scarcely credible heroism summoned in pursuit of a tantalising dream. But their heroism didn't dwell in trying to control wayward machines; it was the more passive heroism you need in order to strap yourself on top of an ICBM that has a history of blowing up on launch more often than not.
Pete Conrad, Apollo astronaut and Seattlite, to whom the Museum's "Rendezvous in Space" exhibit is dedicated, put it succinctly: "You're lying there on top of 600 000 gallons of fuel, in a machine that's 365 feet tall and contains over six million moving parts all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract." As well as commanding the mission that rescued the crippled Skylab space station in 1973, Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon in 1969. Having survived the radiation scoured vacuum of space and the perils of launch and re-entry on several occasions, he died, freakishly, in a motorcycle accident in 1999. The Museum's space displays are eloquent testimony to his achievements and those of his peers. But they also provoke mixed feelings in the avowed space buff. The Apollo exhibit boasts an original capsule in which astronauts travelled to the moon, plus scale models of the Lunar Excursion Module and the Saturn 5 rocket. The contours of these objects are as quaintly redolent of the 1960s as a lava lamp's. But they represent something we're no longer able to do.
Touring the Museum's exhibits at the beginning of the 21st century offers some strange realisations. On the one hand it brings alive the extent to which the apparent routine of modern space flight belies the scorching danger lurking just beneath the surface particularly after the Columbia disaster. But it also inadvertently demonstrates that the evolution of human powered flight has, in many respects, stalled. There are still no passenger aeroplanes faster than Concorde indeed supersonic passenger flight is a thing of the past. No jet has flown higher or faster than the Blackbird. In another decade there may be no one left alive who has walked on the moon. The evolution will start again when new, more powerful propulsion systems like scramjets and plasma rockets, become available. But it won't happen for a while. In the meantime it's fascinating to visit the Museum of Flight and see just how far the first hundred years has brought us.
"Look To Windward" by Iain M. Banks (Orbit; £16.99)
[*Back in the day, before CloudWorld & CloudWorld At War, I was literary editor of "Caledonia" magazine, a 'soft glossy' that was mainly preoccupied with tweed and grouse-shooting, but did occasionally bestir itself to review new Scottish fiction. Being in charge of the books pages, I was able to choose for myself which author was in the spotlight each month. It was great fun for while, then they sacked me and dropped the arts section. In many ways it was a portent of things to come...]
If recent reports in The Bookseller that he is planning to take an extended sabbatical are true, this might be a propitious moment to observe that Iain Banks is one of the most imaginative novelists currently writing in the English language. Though his fluent, but undeniably nonchalant prose style may elicit faint snorts from toffee noses, his work is a feast of invention. He is Scottish literature's truest heir to Robert Louis Stevenson, sharing Stevenson's ability to imbue tales of horror, fantasy and adventure with intellectual complexity. Both authors also share a preoccupation with the dark side of human nature though Banks, writing principally in the late-twentieth century rather than the late-nineteenth, has enjoyed greater licence to describe, with unapologetic gusto, its manifestation in episodes of sex, violence and drug-taking.
Since the appearance of The Wasp Factory in 1984 he has published seventeen books. From Iain Banks there have been thrillers (Complicity), baroque fantasy (The Bridge) and a boisterous family saga (The Crow Road). From Iain Menzies Banks (self-confessedly "the most penetrable pseudonym in literary history") there have been eight space operas, of which Look To Windward is the latest. Such productivity would reduce most authors to wizened, feebly croaking husks. But though his recent mainstream opuses like A Song of Stone and The Business have drawn accusations from both fans and critics that he is not so much running out of steam as steaming around in ever tighter circles, Look To Windward is a melodious, magisterial and riotously fertile work.
Like several of its predecessors, the novel is set in the Culture: a galactic group-civilisation of Manichean complexity. Banks has spent the last twenty years evolving the world of the Culture but the uninitiated reader may struggle to orientate himself within it like someone suddenly pitched into zero gravity who can no longer tell which way is up. Chapters begin in severely abstruse fashion ("Uagen Zlepe, scholar, hung from the left-side, sub-ventral foliage of the dirigible behemothaur Yoleus by his prehensile tail...") and baffling phrases like "gigalithine lenticular entity" abound. But, if you persist, a structural principal begins to emerge by which initially bewildering and disparate episodes gradually coalesce to form a compelling narrative about Mahrai Ziller, a celebrated composer. His voluntary exile on the paradisal Masaq', one of the Culture's Orbitals (vast, ribbon-shaped worlds), is complicated by the fact that his people, the Chelgrians, have lost a war to the Culture. When the Chelgrians send an emissary to Masaq', Ziller suspects that they wish to kill him as a traitor. However it emerges that the Chelgrian emissary who was widowed in the war with the Culture has a far more sinister mission, the true nature of which not even he will understand until almost the moment of its completion.
Not only does Look To Windward avoid the traditional science fiction pitfall of forsaking any emotional dimension for a preoccupation with sleek spaceships and exotic aliens, it ultimately emerges as a lucid, affecting and, paradoxically, a profoundly human epic.
[*09/06/2013: RIP Iain Banks. There's always a scarcity of novels that are both vividly imaginative and thought-provoking - particularly from Scottish authors. This made Iain Banks all the more precious. When CloudWorld was published, an acquaintance called it "Banks-lite for kids," thinking I'd be annoyed. But I was actually flattered. I met Iain at the Glasgow launch of “Look To Windward”. I made some faux clever comment similar to the "zero gravity" observation above. He was gracious, witty and patient. He'll be very much missed.]
Originally published in Caledonia, 2000
"The Movie Traveller" by Allan Foster (Polygon; £14.00)
[*At the age of 18, I spent a misbegotten year as a film student at Glasgow University. I worked really hard to get onto the course and thought I'd be learning the practicalities, but was subjected instead to hermeneutic analyses of Jean Luc Godard and the semiotics of Coronation Street. Any time I mentioned David Lean or Steven Spielberg, the lecturers looked at me like I was pathetic. I hated it and was very bad at it. But my love of the movies has never diminished, so I grabbed the chance to review this book...]
Having trodden the highways and by-ways of the British Isles (particularly commendable considering he's a film buff a species disinclined to leave the house if there's an old MGM musical on), Allan Foster offers the first sight-seeing guide devoted to the movies. Possessing a nimble pen and (presumably) aching feet, he bombards the reader with all sorts of recondite information about film locations, stars' birth and burial places, movie-themed restaurants and pubs, unusual cinemas and film archives. Though only about a sixth of the book relates to Scotland, it offers some useful pilgrimages to the cinephile tourist.
Foster pinpoints the locations of celebrated films: Alexander MacEndrick's The Maggie (Islay) and Whiskey Galore (Barra), Michael Powell's austere The Edge of the World (Foula) and magical I Know Where I'm Going (Mull), Breaking The Waves (Mallaig and Skye), Robin Hardy's weirdly absorbing The Wicker Man (Dumfries and Ayrshire), Gregory's Girl (Cumbernauld, the author making sly reference to the new town's "soporific architecture") and, of course, Local Hero. His entry for the last yields the interesting fact that the fictional village of Ferness was actually two places: the village itself is in Pennan, Aberdeenshire, while its beach is actually Camusdarrach Beach, on the road to Mallaig confirming suspicions that scenery is writ larger on the West Coast.
Yet even for a keen, if unscholarly film fan such as myself there is one glaring omission and several minor ones. No mention is made of Billy Wilder's witty and graceful 1971 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, ravishingly photographed by Christopher Challis on and around Loch Ness. In 1990 David Lelland shot The Big Man in North Ayrshire and Glasgow. Sean Connery whose birth place at 176 Fountainbridge is sedulously noted returned to Scotland not only for Highlander but also for 1999's Entrapment, making sterling use of Duart Castle on Mull.
Given these omissions, it's all the more surprising to hear, now and then, an odd, abrasive sound, which turns out to be the author scraping the bottom of the barrel. For instance there's an entry entitled "The Origins of William Cameron Menzies." Menzies, the Hollywood production designer most famed for Gone With The Wind, was apparently born in Aberfeldy. No, wait a minute his father, Charles Menzies, was born in Aberfeldy. William Cameron Menzies was all-American, born in Connecticut, yet still he's granted two paragraphs.
Nonetheless Foster provides plenty of fascinating stuff to compensate for such tenuousness and the occasional bκtise. I didn't realise, for instance, that Helensburgh has produced not one, but two great stars, in Deborah Kerr and "the debonair" Jack Buchanan; nor that Eric Campbell, who menaced Charlie Chaplin in numerous silent comedies, and Jimmy Finlayson, the perennial foil of Laurel and Hardy, were born in Dunoon and Larbert respectively; nor that Benbecula has an active film society. But my favourite entry concerns Doune Castle, location of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, which, to this day, plays host to Python fans from all over the world, "many of whom arrive with their own coconut shells and gallop around the Castle, while the staff smile politely and try to look busy."
Originally published in Caledonia, 2000
Interview: "George MacDonald Fraser"
[*Though I was paid little more than pocket money to edit Caledonia's book pages, one unforseen perk was that when the editor got a bee in his bonnet about doing something, money was suddenly no object. So in early 2000 I was flown - flown! - to the Isle of Man to interview George MacDonald Fraser, author of the enduringly entertaining Flashman novels. He was a bit right wing in his outlook (to say the least), but I was far too in awe of him to quibble with his views. I even managed to slip in a few questions about his Hollywood scriptwriting experiences. For what it's worth, I think Flashman – with his amorality and 'me first' attitude – will not only endure but grow ever more popular.]
Just up the road from where my grandparents lived in Saltcoats there's a pub. In its car park stands a statue depicting a Victorian infantry officer wielding a sabre astride a rearing horse. The pub is called Harry Flashman's. You might win the Booker prize and be force-fed to generations of school pupils, but when they start naming pubs in Ayrshire after your central character you know you've arrived. J.K. Rowling and Louis de Bernieres might be distressed to learn that the area boasts not a single Harry Potter's pub, nor any fish and chip shops called Corelli's.
Arriving at the Mount Murray Country Club which sounds like an equatorial bastion of colonialism but is actually on the Isle of Man George MacDonald Fraser looks sturdy and vaguely belligerent, like a retired scrum-half. Close up, he exudes the genial modesty of a man secure in his abilities and wise enough to appreciate his good fortune. When he's describing his childhood, his school career and his spell in the army, the phrases "I was very happy" or "I was lucky" recur like leitmotifs.
The son of a Scottish doctor, born in Carlisle in 1925, he was educated at the Glasgow Academy. At the age of eighteen he was conscripted and served in Burma in the Gordon Highlanders. After his demob. number came up, he returned home and was found a job on the Carlisle Journal because as a twenty-two year old who had displayed a flair for English at school but was somewhat light on formal qualifications "I wasn't fit for anything else." He married Kath, a fellow reporter, and they moved to Canada, working together on a paper in Saskatchewan.
By 1966 they were back in Scotland and he was Deputy Editor of the (then) Glasgow Herald. Bored by a job "I could do standing on my head," he promised his wife he would "write them out of newspapers." Working back shifts, he wrote Flashman at night at the kitchen table. He completed it within the space of a few weeks, in one draft. However the fact that he'd read Tom Brown's Schooldays as a child and had always been fascinated by the Imperial Victorian period leads one to suspect that the novel was written with such conspicuous ease because it had been subconsciously gestating for years. The manuscript duly embarked on a series of world travels. After two years it was finally accepted and published pretty much unaltered. Foreign rights were sold. A gaggle of gullible American critics believed it to be the genuine memoirs of a Victorian scoundrel, rather than a learned and exuberant confection, and reviewed it accordingly. Having executed his escape from journalism with great aplomb, Fraser has since written ten more Flashman books, a memoir of his wartime experiences, non-Flashman novels like Mr American and Black Ajax and numerous screenplays, including the The Three Musketeers and the James Bond movie Octopussy.
Though quick to ascribe most of the credit for the Flashman's enduring appeal to Thomas Hughes (who invented him then quickly disposed of him in Tom Brown's Schooldays), Fraser has great fun recounting the more tendentious interpretations of his oeuvre. "The Catholic periodical The Tablet " he recalls. "Said that he does a great service to morality and ethics!" Fraser waggles his eyebrows in mock disbelief and raises his hands in a gesture designed to absolve himself of responsibility. "Well I don't mind. I mean I'm all for it if he does. And when he was first published in Germany a friend sent me a newspaper with a review in it. Now I don't read or speak German. But when I looked at the review my eye fell on the word 'Proust.' That's troubled me ever since." In a piece for the Daily Telegraph, written a few years back, he speculated that the German reviewer was perhaps contending that he used more semi-colons than the French master. His anecdotes boast the polish and the immaculate timing of the frequently interviewed. Nonetheless, he is thoughtful and penetrating when cajoled into discussing Flashman as an ironic figure of British Imperialism: "He's an anti-hero who dislikes much of the hypocrisy and many of the Victorian values he sees around him. He's very cynical about human nature in general. But he is not, as many people seem to think, anti-Imperialist. In so far as he's proud of being anything he's proud of being British because Britain is Top Nation. He's all for the Empire. Personally I think its virtues outweighed its vices to a large extent."
This is unfashionable stuff. Fraser who says he is "right of centre but not Conservative" confesses to being exasperated with new revisionist interpretations of Imperialism and the propitiatory urge to apologise for a nation's past crimes. "I suppose each generation is brainwashed in its own way. It's always Britain apologising for things it did, never the other way round. The Indian government never apologises for the atrocities carried out by its people during the Indian mutiny. Only the person who committed the crime can apologise for it. I mean, recently Tony Blair apologised for the Irish Famine! Did he cause it? Was he responsible?" Here he allows himself a sly smile. "The little brute? I'm astonished by the way that the British intellectual establishment has fallen for political correctness. I like to believe that Flashman has become more and more relevant in being more and more against the grain. He says the things people think but don't like to say"
Amused though he may be by the odd interpretations that his books occasionally provoke, he is perfectly happy to locate himself in a long, and seldom discussed, Scottish literary tradition. "It's astonishing," he observes. "How many writers of adventure stories turn out to be Scots. There's Walter Scott, Stevenson, Buchan, Neil Munro, Sapper, Alistair Maclean, Ian Fleming. I owe an immense debt to Scott. I wrote a screenplay of Quentin Durward that's still kicking around California. But the one that really took me by surprise, years ago, was The Antiquary. I thought, 'Good God. This is the first man in literature who makes people talk the way they talk. But Buchan. He belonged to my father's generation terribly douce, absolutely straight up and down, stiff upper lip etc etc. In many ways Flashman is not that. But the mistake people make is to assume that I despise the qualities in Buchan. I don't. He's a wee bit pompous, a wee bit asking to be deflated. But no, thank God for the Buchans of this world because it would be a very bad place without them. And he's not only a very Scottish, but also a very English writer. It's surprising how many quintessentially English writers do turn out to be Scots the three most obvious being Kenneth Grahame, A. A. Milne and J. M. Barrie."
In response to this I cautiously expound my own theory: that one can trace a direct line of descent from Buchan's Richard Hanney (bluff, moralistic and courageous) to Fleming's Bond (more amoral but still a hero) to Flashman, the amoral coward who, in spite of his period setting, is very much a modern figure in his unwillingness to engage in or be moved by acts of conventional heroism. An indulgent smile spreads stealthily across George MacDonald Fraser's features. Clearly I too have placed too weighty a burden on Flashy's shoulders. Perhaps it's testimony to the crafty intelligence with which Fraser fabricates his hero's memoirs that people detect so much in them. Still, as he bids me farewell, I think I detect, in the purposeful squaring of his shoulders, an aura of relief that his job is just to write the damned things.
Originally published in Caledonia, 2000
[*When Caledonia sacked me, early in 2001, I moved to the South West of England and finally started writing CloudWorld, which had – pretentiousness alert! – been haunting my imagination for nearly a decade. The magazine stumbled along for another couple of years, getting worse and worse. At one point they contacted me to ask if I had any literary-flavoured articles they could use. I had this one. They duly published it, but when I enquired about a fee, I was told that, in spite of being owned by millionaire Philip Healey, they couldn't afford to pay me anything for it. Writing for nothing another portent of things to come.]
Clinging to the edge of Sicily at the foot of Mount Tauro – and suggesting that it might tumble into the Ionian Sea if Mount Etna were to heave its shoulders with more than usual vigour – Taormina, when you first arrive there, fits so perfectly the image of a exclusive Mediterranean resort that it makes you want to laugh out loud with delight at its gleaming prettiness. I travelled to it in late Spring by catamaran from Malta and stayed in the comfortable if unostentatious Pensione Villa Gaia, situated near the town's cathedral on the Via Fazzello.
Sealed in a benign microclimate thanks to the proximity of Etna, Taormina is an eruption of fertility in an otherwise parched coastline the sets its craggy features towards Africa (only eighty miles away). It boasts an incredible profusion of plants and flowers: magnolia, hibiscus, bougainvillaea, cacti, lantana and marigolds, as well as olive, palm, cedar and cypress trees. The most intense concentration of colour can be found in the Trevelyan Gardens a folly bequeathed to Taormina by Lady Florence Trevelyan, an English aristocrat who fell in love with the town in the late nineteenth century. It's the perfect spot for a picnic: cool, shady, pervaded by a blissful (and delicately scented) air of tranquillity.
Taormina began its life in the 5th century BC as an extension of Naxos, the first Greek colony in Sicily. The whole area from Sicily up to Naples is Magna Graecia (once memorably described by Gore Vidal who lives in Amalfi as being "to Greece rather like Texas or California is to the eastern seaboard of the United States a bit too rich, a bit too vulgar, a bit too showy.") The Greeks were superseded by the Romans in the 1st century AD, with Taormina eventually becoming part of Byzantine Sicily.
During the early twentieth century Sicily was adopted by Edwardian aristocrats as a place to as Paul Theroux put it "droop and be decadent." By 1940 it had become, along with Capri, the most successful Mediterranean resort south of the French Riviera. Then World War Two intervened. The German General Kesselring had his HQ in Taormina and it was pummelled by Allied bombers (flying sorties from nearby Malta).
In 1950 Truman Capote stayed in Taormina and evoked the town with uncharacteristic accuracy, reporting that its most luxurious hotel the San Domenico was never more than a quarter filled (these days it is rarely not full and a single room costs almost half a million lire per night). Gradually, however, the tourists found their way back. By the 1960s Taormina was thriving once again, with the Wόnderbar Cafe being patronised by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Packed with shops, cafes and pasticceries, the Corso Umberto I is Taormina's main street. The shops sell ceramics, letter openers, liqueurs and multi-coloured pasta twisted into every imaginable shape. The cafes are pretty expensive, but do try a Sicilian delicacy, like arancini rice-coated meatballs, fried with peas. Do not, incidentally, attempt to practise your conversational Italian on the waiters. They will put on a theatrical display of forbearance service in Taormina is swift, efficient and impersonal.
If, in spite of its outstanding beauty, the town has a drawback, it's the studied professionalism with which the locals attempt to separate you from your cash. Ejected from one of the main thoroughfares by the constant surge of acquisition, you can sometimes end up feeling a little queasy about the whole unedifying spectacle.
At such times the best remedy is to totter down to the Piazza IX Aprile, from which there is a stunning view of the Ionian, with Etna over to the west snow-capped and slumbering but belching out a constant plume of smoke. Below you, to the left, lies the secluded cove at Isola Bella Taormina's most exclusive beach where, as Capote says, the water is "as clear as barrel rain". There are invariably a couple of enormous cruise liners anchored in the bay, their sleek prows pointing snootily out to sea.
For a small town (albeit an exceptionally beautiful one) Taormina has attracted a great number of celebrated writers. D.H. Lawrence stayed in a house on the same street as Capote the Via Fontana Vecchia and spent most of his time trying to thwart his wife Frieda's energetic adulteries with the local youths. In his 1930 travel book, Labels, Evelyn Waugh was perversely unimpressed by Etna at sunset: "the mountain, almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a whisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting."
On the other hand, Goethe (in 1787) had this to say about the view of Etna from the town's Greek theatre: "...the eye falls on the whole of the long range of Aetna, then on the left it catches a view of the seashore as far as Catania, and even Syracuse, and then the wide and extensive view is closed by the immense smoking volcano, but not horribly, for the atmosphere, with its softening effect, makes it look more distant and milder than it really is."
The Teatro Greco is one of the most famous Sicilian monuments in the world and one that you must visit, even if only passing through Taormina briefly. It was built in the 3rd century BC by the Greeks, then remodelled in the first century AD by the Romans, who, characteristically, demolished the stage and the orchestra pit so that the structure became less a theatre, more an arena dedicated to gladiatorial combat. Much of the Roman remodelling has crumbled, but the theatre, which originally had a seating capacity of 5000, retains a powerful air of antiquity. (Sit high up in the amphitheatre and imagine sword-wielding men in sandals and leather mini-skirts hacking each other to pieces.) Devotees of Woody Allen oeuvre might also recognise the theatre from Mighty Aphrodite: the film's droll choric interludes were shot there.
The somewhat daunting confidence with which it markets itself aside, Taormina is indisputably one of the Mediterranean's great jewels. Small wonder it has attracted so many writers it makes you want to wax lyrical.
[Addendum: There's no online archive of content for "Caledonia." The world isn't very much diminished by this fact, but I'm republishing some of the reviews I wrote for it on the charity website BFKbooks, so that they'll still do some good at least. So far, you can read my reviews of That Summer by Andrew Greig and The Rising Sun by Douglas Galbraith - fine novels both. The people who run the site do great work raising money for the Disabilities Trust and have been very kind to both CloudWorld and CloudWorld At War. You can support them by making a donation here.]
Originally published in Caledonia, 2003
Scottish Writers in Bulgaria
[In 2001, I travelled to Sofia to take part in a literary festival called "Scottish Writers in Bulgaria". It was an interesting experience, in all sorts of ways. I wasn't really supposed to be there at all, since I was far too marginal a figure to be classed alongside the 'real' authors in attendance (three novelists, two poets and an academic). All I had done was interview each of them for a British Council literary magazine. But one of the original invitees dropped out at the last minute and off I went, to fill a sudden gap in the programme. A couple of the Scottish authors present seemed to think I had muscled my way in and treated me accordingly. The real low point came at lunch on the fourth day, when one of them, in a voice loud enough to ensure she was heard by the entire table, said, "So, tell us all, David, how have you managed to make so little go such a long way?" Ah, well. Maybe she was right. My week in Sofia cured me of any desire to hang out with 'literary' folk. But the city itself was lovely and I wrote this when I got back ]
I originally visited Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, as the most junior member of a group of Scottish writers attending a four-day British Council literary festival. The festival was held in the baroque gloom of the old military club on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. Spectres of the old days lurked everywhere not least in the form of the bored little old lady who sat scowling at you while you entered and exited the toilets. The simultaneous translation and the earpieces we had to wear, which constantly fell out, made the whole thing feel like a hastily convened UN summit. And it soon transpired that decades in thrall to Soviet-style rhetoric in which everything is said at such inordinate length that the audience is stupefied into submission have left Bulgarians unable to put anything simply; or perhaps unwilling to be too explicit in their opinions. Invited to contribute, writers and audience members alike embarked on epic orations, in which the phrase "so my question is " frequently recurred but was almost never followed by a question. Meanwhile we Scots participated rather embarrassedly in discussions sessions with titles like "Writing in Times of Political Change," feeling that recent political change in Scotland rather paled in comparison with that experienced by our hosts, who are still up to their necks in its consequences.
Nonetheless we all tried to make a meaningful contribution. And though Irvine Welsh vanished on all sorts of unguessable adventures, he turned up right on time on the last day to deliver a brilliant, ferociously profane reading. But an uncomfortable feeling persisted that I was a man way out of his depth, taking part in an aquacade when I should have been discreetly signalling to the lifeguards for help. Perhaps because of this, as the week wore on I attended fewer official functions and spent more time exploring the city.
Though it boasts many little known jewels, it would be wrong to suggest that Sofia, like the rest of Bulgaria, doesn't also contain a good deal of poverty. Arriving at the airport, you're immediately struck by the blunt functionality, the resolute lack of ornament. It's not that anything is dirty or dilapidated; it's just that the texture of prosperity detectable throughout Western airports in the soft furnishings and brand names is absent. Driving through the suburbs does little to dispel this impression. Anonymous apartment blocks loom on either side of the road, their balconies festooned with clothes. But then you reach the city centre and all your deepening prejudices about post-Communist Eastern Europe are demolished. Wide, chestnut lined boulevards stretch before you, packed with designer shops that are just as stylish as any back home but feature unfamiliar and, hence, far more interesting styles. The Stalinist accommodation gives way to traditional Bulgarian architecture. This is predominantly early 20th century neo-classical. But there are also many intriguing survivors from much earlier eras. The Roman Rotunda, tucked behind the Sheraton hotel, was originally built when Sofia was part of the Byzantine Empire, then transformed into the early Christian church of St George in the 4th century AD. And, next to the public baths, there is the Turkish Banya Bashi mosque, a "Sultan-style" edifice, which dates from 1576, when the city was under Ottoman rule.
The most stunning example of traditional Bulgarian architecture is the Alexander Nevsky Church. Built in the neo-Byzantine style, it was completed in 1924 to commemorate the quarter of a million Russian soldiers who died helping to liberate Bulgaria from the Turks. Fifty metres tall, it's essentially a cluster of copper domes sitting on top of one another, crowned by a gold-plated nave. The "huge condiment set" impression, which strikes you when you first set eyes on it, is hard to overcome. But there's no denying the sense of awe that settles, unbidden, upon you once you step into its vast interior. The altar and the patriarch's throne are sculpted in multi-coloured Italian marble and the crypt houses a collection of masterpieces of Bulgarian icon-painting, some of which date from the end of the 9th century.
Near to the Alexander Nevsky, in the City Garden, lies Sofia's other great emblem, the National Theatre. It was built in 1907, in neo-Classical style, and its faηade is a beautiful confection of white pillars, red brickwork and gold-inlaid carving. Between April and October the area of the City Garden in front of the theatre is taken over by a vast outdoor cafι. You'll also see older citizens perched on benches playing chess. If you were beamed down to this spot on a summer night and found yourself sitting at one of the cafι tables music drifting through the air, fountains juggling glowing water, impeccably stylish couples wandering by you'd think you were in Prague, or even Vienna. You'd never imagine it was Sofia. The atmosphere is familiarly European, but overlaid with something more exotic, more Oriental.
A similar mixture of the familiar and the exotic characterises the food in Sofia. Bulgarians love their stews, which they cook in terracotta pots. The most celebrated is kavarma, a spicy meat stew made from pork and veal, which tastes very like goulash. In a traditional Bulgarian restaurant you'll most often be served with shopska salad as a starter. This contains chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers, and is liberally sprinkled with feta cheese. It should be eaten with a glass of rakiya, a trouncingly potent spirit usually made from grapes, plums or apricots.Almost equally potent is Melnik wine. People who know nothing else about Bulgaria know that it produces a variety of robust, affordable wines. But Melnik wine is something else. I first had it on tap in the Happy Bar, part of a nationwide chain that exudes a lot more charm than the British equivalents. Having had two glasses, I was suffused with a sense of well being and a disregard for everything going on around me that I've only previously experienced in hospital when pumped full of opiates. After the third glass I had to be restrained from jumping over the bar and embracing the cask.
Magnificent architecture and volcanic alcohol aside, Sofia's other great asset is the beauty of its citizens. In no city on earth have I seen so many stunning people. The women come in two basic physical types: fair haired, blue eyed, ethereally pretty Slavs and dark haired, black eyed, sullenly sensual Bulgars. The men no less striking are swarthy and vaguely pugilistic, in a Marlon Brando sort of way. Both sexes look utterly different from my mental image of the former Communist Bloc's inhabitants, in which brutal haircuts, grey pallor and ill-fitting clothes figured prominently.
But then that's the greatest delight of Sofia: its capacity to surprise you. I went there expecting a dour place, irretrievably brutalized by its Communist past. Instead I found a mellow, cosmopolitan, frequently beautiful city. If you visit it even briefly you won't be able to ignore its problems, but you'll be enchanted by its unique character and want to wish its soulful, captivating people well."