Has Anything Really Changed?

 

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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Poor America. Such a tough choice of who to vote for today: a lying, misogynist, racist, dangerous, unpredictable narcissist who can’t even be trusted with his own Twitter access let alone the nuclear codes, or a woman who might as well be reading her top-level-security emails off the jumbotron at Yankee Stadium?

 

It’s little wonder they are pissed at everything and not enough cardboard to list their many complaints, as the photo shows. And no, we are not taking you back…hell, as if we haven’t enough problems of our own right now trying to fathom out the self-inflicted mess we voted ourselves into with Brexit.

 

It all reminds me a little too much of Paddy Chayefsky’s wickedly wonderful 1976 satirical/black comedy Network that I recently watched for the umpteenth time, as TV news anchor Howard Beale (fantastically played by Peter Finch, in a true Oscar-winning performance, albeit posthumously), takes a nervous breakdown live on air, ignores the teleprompter and lets out all of his frustrations of the world in which he lives before ranting “I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” and then urges all the viewers to open their windows and do the same.

 

It’s all getting to be strangely prophetic – where’s Wolf Blitzer when you need him most of all?  

 

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Crivens! Help ma boab!  The Broons, Scotland’s most famous fictional family – Maw, Paw, Maggie, Hen, Joe, Daphne, Horace, the twins and the Bairn (not forgetting Grandpa), who live in a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street in the fictional town of Auchenshoogle – are set to tread the boards for the first time in a play by Rob Drummond at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal this month. 

 

For our American cousins perhaps not altogether au fait with the Broons, this is a long-running comic strip published weekly by the fabled D. C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. in the Scottish Sunday Post newspaper with a book collecting the strips being published every two years or so (And it really is long-running, first appearing in 1936, it’s characters are older than Batman and Superman). 

 

The original writer/artist was the great Dudley D. Watkins – who also created the neighbouring comic strip of ‘Oor Wullie’, and also several characters in ‘The Dandy’ – but he died in the late 60s and since then a series of writers and artists have continued the strip in exactly the same style (there have been no Frank Miller-type Dark Knight re-imaginings of the Broons, though it’s an intriguing thought).

 

Each Christmas growing up as a kid, it was alternate annuals of The Broons or Oor Wullie (which I preferred). And I can guarantee you that one (or all) of the four standard Broons storylines will be played out on the stage:

 

1. “The Bairn overhears something”. Simple but versatile, the youngest of the brood overhears someone talking about one of the clan (usually Grandpa Broon), gets the wrong end of the stick, mobilises panic-stricken family members until it all sorts itself out. Key phrase: “Ha ha! My wee lamb!”

 

2. “Paw is mean”: Paw Broon tries to save money in a ridiculous way while lecturing the rest of the family on their spendthrift ways. He always comes a cropper and ends up spending more to get less. Key phrase: “Auld Skinflint.”

 

3. “The But and Ben”: All 11 Broons decamp for a holiday in a two-room house in the Scottish countryside. Key phrase: “Look at that teuchter!

 

4. “The Broons vs Modern Life”: A member of the family will enthuse about a new trend or technology, such as electric shavers or computer games, only for the Broons to put their own stamp on it. In this year’s book, Grandpa Broon comes up with a mince & tatties smoothie, the idea of which is making me feel a bit queasy as I type. Key phrase: “Now that’s what I call a –insert technology name-!”

 

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Apart from inventing the modern world as we know it, did you realize you also have the Scots to thank for Halloween as well? 

 

Halloween is a Scottish contraction of All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints Day) that first entered common parlance in Scotland in 1745.  At this time of year, when the days were at their shortest, it was thought that the ethereal boundaries which prevented faeries, witches, bad spirits, and the tortured souls of the undead from roaming freely in the real world were breached.  

 

Although he was not the first to describe the festival in print, Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, is credited with popularizing the concept of Halloween and the supernatural themes surrounding it. His poem ‘Halloween’, one of Burns’ longest, was published in 1786 and explores many of the festival’s eeriest stories and traditions. One of the lines, “what fearfu’ pranks ensue!”, makes mention of practical jokes at Halloween. 

 

And that brings us to the other Scots’ ‘invention’ associated with Halloween: the globally-recognised custom of trick-or-treating. Until recent times, this was known exclusively in Scotland as ‘guising’, gaining popularity from the late 18th century onwards. Children would disguise themselves as ghosts and evil spirits in a bid to blend in with the free-roaming undead. Simple treats, such as fruit and nuts, would be offered in return for a song or performance at a person’s door. 

 

And an early version of carved pumpkins first appeared in Scotland and Ireland during the 19th century. They were known as “tattie bogles” or “potato ghosts”, ghoul-like faces carved from potatoes and turnips – not a million miles away from modern-day carved pumpkins we see today – to ward off evil spirits.

 

But all of these Celtic traditions – widely believed to have originated in the USA via the large contingent of Irish and Scottish settlers – were soon to be, just like Christmas, commercialized out of all proportions Across the Pond by our American cousins.

 

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As we’re in Halloween week, what better time to tell the tale of the famous Glasgow urban myth surrounding one of the city’s graveyards that’s now been made into a play? It is, of course, the extraordinary case of ‘The Gorbals Vampire’ that gripped the city for the best part of a week, chilled the nation,  mystified the media, and ended up being debated about in Parliament. 

 

It was like Oor Wullie meets Scooby Doo, with hundreds of schoolchildren (armed with whatever they could lay their little mittens on) roaming across Glasgow hunting for a vampire – and such was the outcry it led to new censorship laws in the 1950s for the new craze of American horror comics, that politicians blamed for the root cause of all the hysteria in the first place. 

 

More than sixty years on, the tale is being brought back to life with the help of the people of the community in a new play, The Gorbals Vampire. The play is inspired by the real-life monster hunt is now being staged at the Citizens Theatre, based in the Gorbals, involving performers drawn from the community – and already there’s talk of it being turned into a movie. 

 

The hunt was triggered by rumors which swept around school playgrounds in September 1954 that two boys had been killed and eaten by a vampire with “iron teeth” which was roaming Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis – and believe me, easily the scariest graveyard in the city – as shown in today’s photo.

 

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