Annus Horribilis

 

I know, just as the chalkboard outside my local social enterprise Milk Café on Victoria Road says, the liberal consensus is that 2016 was an annus horribilis, as Lizzie once famously coined it. Yes, 2016 was a year somehow jinxed by karmic voodoo, despite the contradictory liberal consensus that no supernatural agency must ever be acknowledged, as in Charlie Brooker’s wickedly wonderful Black Mirror

 

But here’s my review of 2016. Someone Famous Died. Someone Famous Died. Someone Famous Died. Someone Famous Died. Stupid Vote. Someone Famous Died. Someone Famous Died.  Someone Famous Died. Stupid Vote. Someone Famous Died. Someone Famous Died. Christmas. Someone Famous Died.  Someone Famous Died. Someone Famous Died.

 

In many ways, David Attenborough on TV brought us the perfect visual metaphor for 2016: Planet Earth II’s plucky iguana running past a cavalcade of vicious snakes. Well, we made it.  And now there’s a rush to get it over with, a quick rendition of Auld Lang Syne, new calendar, fresh start – but don’t go wishfully thinking that 2017 will be any better, as we only have 23 more sleeps before Donald Trump gets his tiny little fingers on the nuclear codes….

 

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No matter how upbeat Slade and Wizzard catchily sang in my youth, apparently the best Christmas songs are the sad ones: “Fairytale Of New York”, “It’s A Big Country”, “Blue Christmas” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, which for my money is probably the best actual Christmas song of all, and from one of my favourite movies.

 

The lyrics were written by Hugh Martin and the music by Ralph Blane. It was unveiled in 1944 for Judy Garland’s classic film Meet Me In St Louis. There, Garland sings it to comfort her young sister, who’s upset at the news that the family is in the process of moving to New York.

 

And the lyrics have changed through the years. The film’s director, Vincente Minnelli, thought it was too sad and persuaded Martin to change “it may be your last” to “let your heart be light”. When Frank Sinatra came to record a version on an album called A Jolly Christmas he asked him to change it again. This time “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”.

 

In later life Martin, who was a Seventh Day Adventist, re-wrote his song as “Have Yourself A Blessed Little Christmas” and performed it as “we will all be together, if the Lord allows”, a form of words he claimed were in the original but were swapped for “if the fates allow” to make the song less religious.

 

The reason I bring all this up is that this week – with nothing much else on TV – I caught Larry Lamb and the cast of Gavin and Stacey doing it at the end of a repeated Christmas special. I think “if the fates allow” is actually the best line in the whole song. And as we re-group for Christmas 2016 to reflect on what’s been a veritable annus horribillis, who’s here, who’s not and what’s changed, that’s the line that really tugs at the heart strings.

 

If the fates allow, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

 

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At this time of year, there’s a lot of talk about Christmas movies and which ones are the best and which are the worst. And the debate I overheard between these hard-core Shawlands pub punters outside on a smoking break, reverberated between White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol (including Scrooge and Scrooged), It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Snowman and Love Actually. 

 

But one movie that wouldn’t necessarily come up for discussion here in the UK is a sweet little holiday gem I discovered during my extended stay in the US: A Christmas Story. In a word, irresistible. Probably the best movie about Christmas ever — and not only that but possibly the best movie about childhood ever. Captures everything wonderful and stupid about being a kid at Christmas time; and is funny as hell with it.

 

But for those this side of the Pond who perhaps have never seen this little holiday gem (I can’t ever remember it being shown in the UK), someone has generously uploaded it to Dailymotion for everyone to watch.  So sit back with a glass or two of mulled wine, relax, click here and just forget about the annus horribillis that was 2016 by getting into the spirit of A Christmas Story…. 

 

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It is to our collective shame that in recent years the number of men and women who are street homeless in the city – every city – has increased. Sleeping rough can be a dangerous and traumatising experience. Many people who sleep rough suffer from multiple health conditions, such as mental health problems and physical illnesses.

 

Each December 1st, from the warmth and comfort of our own homes, we open the first door to our advent calendars.  But here in Glasgow, December 1 saw the opening of a very important door for those less fortunate than ourselves, with it being the doors to the Christmas sanctuary of the Winter Night Shelter run by the Glasgow City Mission.

 

The charity say that they are preparing for what they expect to be their busiest ever year this Christmas, as they’ve seen an “unquestionable marked increase in the visibility of street homelessness” in the last year and they expect to exceed the record 605 people that used the service last winter. And last year, the Glasgow Rangers Charity Foundation raised enough funds with a sleep out at Ibrox Stadium that helped the shelter stay open for an extra month. And recently, the Rangers Charity Foundation repeated their sleep out fundraiser to continue supporting the shelter.

 

It’s not easy being homeless at Christmas, as the poor unfortunate in today’s photo could probably testify to.  On the opening day of the House of Fraser’s Nutcracker brand-sponsored Christmas window display, he stoically sat head bowed as hundreds crammed into Glasgow’s premier department store.  But he was only there for about an hour before security moved him on, as they didn’t want any riffraff spoiling the image of their Christmas window display.

 

So much for the spirit of Christmas then!

 

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Fifty years ago, housing association Shelter was launched on the back of a TV programme and it immediately took to examining Britain’s many slums and rogue landlords – after photographer Nick Hedges snapped a series of very powerful images of some of the country’s poorest families that accompanied Ken Loach’s gritty and seminal docudrama Cathy Come Home

 

Hedges went on to collaborate with Shelter for their first Christmas appeal for the homeless. The unavoidable truth about life in Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Bradford, Peterborough and other disadvantaged areas depicted in his very raw images provided a stark contrast to the idealised image of the swinging 60s.

 

And earlier this week, Channel 5 tracked down the kids in Hedges’ distressing photos, as they went in search for an update on their lives for their new documentary Slum Britain: 50 Years On. The programme contrasted the often-cited slums of the 1960s with the 21st-century housing crisis many are experiencing today. So it does indeed really beg the big question half a century later: Has anything really changed?

 

Channel 5 used the documentary to  promote the latest Shelter Appeal that will support the 120,000 British kids who will wake up homeless on Christmas Day. 

 

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If anyone is looking for something out-of-the-ordinary to visit, dare I suggest ambling along to ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery at Glasgow University?  If nothing else, it will give you a cheery day out with an insight into the lives of individuals (Neolithic, Pictish, to the Black Death and through to the Victorian era and their many pauper funerals), including fractures and trauma, multiple myeloma cancer, the effects of syphilis, rickets or  arthritis, and tooth decay.

 

The exhibition has been jointly created by the Museum of London, which has one of the largest collections of human remains taken from one location anywhere in the world, the Wellcome Collection, and the Hunterian medical museum in Glasgow, which has contributed remains from its own collection and from other Scottish museum collections.

 

It’s a powerful image seeing all those broken and decaying bones laid out in front of you in the darkened, atmospheric setting for this exhibit.  And what’s even more impressive is watching the deft hand of the very talented artist Lisa Temple-Cox at work, who specialises in “experimental work inspired by methods of preserving the human body documented in the medical museum, framed by the aesthetics and discourse of the vanitas.”

 

And yes, the inner-child in me just couldn’t resist it: As I walked around it, what continually reverberated around my head was the wonderful scene in Dennis Potter’s singalong noir The Singing Detective, as Michael Gambon and the hospital cast broke into a rendition of ‘Dry Bones’…Toe bone connected to the foot bone / Foot bone connected to the heel bone / Heel bone connected to the ankle bone.

 

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It outraged many on its release in 1971 with scenes filled with extreme violence, shocking murders and the first known occurrence on film of telephone sex. But, more than four decades on, Get Carter still remains, for me anyway, the greatest British movie of all time – and for those reading this across the Pond, please don’t mistake it for the film of the same name that was re-made in the U.S., a pathetic shambles that starred Sylvester Stallone.

 

The original was based on Ted Lewis’s classic canonical crime novel Jack Returns Home, and this cult British gangster movie charts the story of Jack Carter, played by Michael Caine (in arguably his finest acting role), a London enforcer in a well-cut suit who travels to the north-east for his brother’s funeral following his suspicious death.

 

It caused a sensation when it was released not only because of its violence but its images of Britt Ekland, wearing black lingerie and indulging in telephone sex with Carter and of Caine appearing naked in a shoot-out that put a whole new twist into being “held up” by a double-barrelled shotgun.

 

As Carter, Caine delivered some of the most memorable lines in film history – but alas, not “Carter is Terug!”, as the wonderful find recently of the Dutch movie poster would have it  – including the often quoted “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape. With me, it’s a full-time job. So behave yourself” in the superb scene where he slapped around Coronation Street’s mild-mannered shopkeeper, Alf Roberts. 

 

But for Mike Hodges’ movie adaptation of it, the director decided to move the setting of Lewis’ story from Scunthorpe to Newcastle, and the film makes much of the city’s decaying industrial landscape, and also all the swirling corruption scandal unfolding at the time around former city Labour leader T. Dan Smith and architect John Poulson.

 

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It’s time to dust off the tinsel and open the box of baubles – or should I say bottles?  Yes, I do miss the Seattle Christmas scene, especially Belltown’s beloved Rob Roy Cocktail Bar, who came up with the wonderful wheeze of a special Advent calendar where, when you opened a box for each day of December leading up to the big day, you would find a different bottle of craft beer.

 

Not to be outdone in the Yuletide drinking makeover stakes, Glasgow has come up with its own version with a Buckfast drinking duo taking a Blue Peter approach to their decorations this year by making a Christmas tree out of all their empties of the fortified wine normally associated with squalor and violence.

 

Yes, 98 empty bottles of Bucky turned into a Christmas tree – only in Glasgow!

 

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As I was photographing this shop window, a man passing by asked what I was doing. I replied that it was a beautiful window of ladies lingerie. He looked me up and down and said “No, son, there’s something wrong with you!” and marched off. It was pointless for me to explain that I’d read the book, A Vision of Paris, with photographs by Eugène Atget and words by Marcel Proust that contained a wonderful image of a similar little corset/lingerie shop.

 

But no matter what explanation, cultural, artistic or otherwise that might have been offered, his only thought was – and this is somewhat typical of Glasgow and Glaswegians here – “No, son, there is something wrong with you!” Good job then I didn’t tell him about my online habits, eh?  

 

So, in the spirit of Atget, this is how it turned out. 

 

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With a true sense of the timing and the moment of the man, Leonard Cohen released his final studio album, You Want It Darker, just as his American neighbours were in the process of electing Donald Trump to be their next president – and as they did so, sadly the legendary Canadian poet and singer-songwriter asked the same question of himself, as he shuffled off his own mortal coil last night. 

 

He was the poet of sex and death, who made music to nourish the soul; not only to nourish but also noirish the soul, as often his mordant words and mournful voice hauntingly resonated like the image of a soulful black and white photograph from some  bygone era – and I was a late converter to Cohen and his wonderful body of work; and arguably his body of work was more worthy of a Nobel prize for literature than Bob Dylan’s.

 

Cohen was luminous and often wryly funny. In recent years, I was lucky to see him a couple of times in Seattle during his long 2008-2013 tour.  What set him apart from so many others of his generation was that he actually got better over 60 with such brilliant songs as ‘The Future’ and ‘Almost Like the Blues’; he didn’t just churn out his back catalogue. 

 

And no sooner had I broken the seal of You Want It Darker – I hesitate to say his ‘last album’, as I’m sure he has other, as-yet-unreleased recordings to come now –  news began to filter through of his death at the age of 82 in the early hours of this morning. So to paraphrase one of his famous songs from his back catalogue, So long, Leonard. 

 

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