Here’s Wishing

 

Well, there goes 2017.  It really flew by, didn’t it? But it’s almost over now and tomorrow morning 2018 looms large for everyone. 

 

Hard to imagine how the new-found dawn of 2018 could be any worse than the last few grains of sands currently dropping through the hourglass that is 2017.  Although with that said, and with the banality of Brexit, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least in 2018 if the UK went full Royston Vasey with Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown staging a coup and declaring himself PM.  Admittedly, it couldn’t be much worse than Theresa May now, could it?

 

I suppose we can all wish that the next 365 days are better and more prosperous than the previous 365 days. And as the photograph from Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street suggests: We can all wish, can’t we?  So, despite my somewhat morbid outlook that more resembles the Hogmanay institution that is the Rev I.M. Jolly with it being “a helluva year”, I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

 

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According to recent figures released, UK retails sales are falling off a cliff, and Scotland is losing shops from its high streets faster than anywhere else in Britain.  Vacant and boarded up shopfronts have now become a permanent fixture in town centres, all a casualty of rough economic times – and don’t expect it to get any better with Brexit playing out now like some piece of surreal performance art that you’d normally expect to see during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

 

Whether or not you support Brexit, it is hard to deny that Theresa May and the Tories are going about it in the most catastrophically incompetent way possible. It’s not a question of hard Brexit or soft Brexit – it’s that we’re getting stupid Brexit. We’re getting the most disastrous, stupid, incompetent version of Brexit led by clueless stupid people, making stupid clueless mistakes – and all because of a schism in the Tory party.

 

Effectively we are looking at a ten-year recession. Nothing ever experienced by those under 50 (been there, seen it, got the “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie Out! Out! Out!” tee-shirt).  Across the board we will see prices rising, more high street shops closing, and we are going to lose a lot of manufacturing. And the irony is that without cheap seasonal foreign workers, domestic agriculture won’t be able to compete. And just don’t get me started on the impact on the NHS.

 

So anyone who considers themselves “Just about managing” right now will wistfully look upon this time as carefree prosperity. Believe me, there are going to be a lot of very pissed off people very soon.  Just remember pitchforks folks, only pitchforks. Nothing will change until the pitchforks come out.

 

Well, that’s that rant out of the system!

 

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One hundred years ago, attacks were fought near Ypres from 31 July to 10 November 1917, in Belgium battlefields that turned to liquid mud and witnessed the biggest loss of life of any battle in the First World War with over half a million British, Commonwealth and German troops killed, wounded or missing.

 

Scottish regiments played a pivotal role in the Passchendaele campaign with extremely heavy losses, and it is remembered as one of the harshest of the war, with heavy rain contributing to the Allies gaining only five miles of ground in three months – or, as it was more bitingly put in Blackadder Goes Forth, “Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.” 

 

And yet a century on, the absurdity of war, that battle, and hundreds upon hundreds of thousands’ of simple little wooden crosses is still best remembered by war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s bleak line from ‘Memorial Tablet’: “I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele.” 

 

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As sartorial elegance goes, it isn’t a sight you see every day, but as is my wont of aimlessly ambling around Glasgow in my sensible Doc Martens, I recently found someone wearing a pair of uncomfortable looking, über pointy-toed winkle-pickers, a decadent, downright underground style of shoe so associated with rock ’n’ roll but, in fact, comes from deep Medieval regal origins.

 

It was once called a crakow or poulaine, and indeed hailing from 15th-century Poland. Worn by the upper class, the shoes had stiff exaggerated beaks, and when rendered in silver or another metal (just as in the photo), they were frequently used as a weapon, sort of like the memorable Bond villain in From Russia with Love, Colonel Rosa Klebb, whom 007 quipped at the end, “had her kicks.” 

 

But the dagger-toe shoe became more popular by their British term, winkle-pickers, famously worn by Teddy Boys through the Fifties and Sixties – and just like loveable Rosa, they used them also as lethal weapons in many a seaside Bank Holiday fracas between the tribal warring factions of the Rockers and the Mods of the era – and the seaside was where they picked up their nickname from. 

 

The main characteristic of the shoe as a winkle-picker is the very sharp and long pointed toe. Imagine you are in one of the many British seaside towns in the late 1950s and having a traditional snack there of periwinkles and you are picking the winkle out of its coiled shell with a long sharp pin…and you soon get the point of how they became known as winkle-pickers.

 

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New study material in schools these days is Susan Hill’s wonderfully atmospheric 1983 horror novella, The Woman in Black, very cleverly written in the style of a traditional gothic Christmas ghost story that we’d normally expect from the late Victorian/early Edwardian era.

 

It has since inspired a movie and an ongoing popular stage production with successful long runs in the West End and Broadway. And perhaps inspired by the title, street artist “Klingatron” unveiled a stunning new addition to the Glasgow mural trail – and with it, Scotland’s answer to Banksy also revealed he’s giving up his anonymous street life and now going legit.

 

His real name is James Klinge, and he hails from Shawlands in the Southside of the city, and he’s now specializing in intricate stencil portraits and showcasing in a number of exhibitions around the world.  Among the collection can be found “Study of a Woman in Black”, which is actually a portrait of a friend.  And in collaboration with the Art Pistol gallery, he adapted it to adorn a wall in the city’s Saltmarket.

 

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There’s a widely held belief that Elton John’s 1971 hit “Levon” (and let’s not forget with lyrics by Bernie Taupin) was inspired by the one and only Levon Helm, the legendary linchpin drummer and gravel-throated singer for the Band. But in Susan Black’s biography Elton John in His Own Words, Mr. Crocodile Rock explains all: “It”s about a guy who just gets bored doing the same thing. It’s just somebody who gets bored with blowing up balloons and he just wants to get away from it but he can’t because it’s the family ritual.”

 

And this also could be the case for the chess world’s very own “Levon”, Armenia’s Levon Aronian.

 

Here’s a creative force in the game who could well have gotten “bored with blowing up balloons” of playing solid, risk-free chess as he attempted to become an official challenger for the world crown. The affable Armenian had a rough couple of years attempting to and failing, but now he’s back to his brilliant and creative best with a series of big wins in 2017 – and I wouldn’t rule him out achieving the dreams of his nation by going on to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world crown.

 

And it was nice to meet up once again with Lev during my recent sojourn to the US Midwest and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis for the day job at America’s Foundation for Chess – and for those wanting more of an insight into this true artist of the chessboard, then look no further than the July issue of The New Yorker magazine that can be read by clicking here.

 

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An advertising hoarding for a coming new shop on Glasgow’s bustling Buchanan Street, featuring a pair of knee-length black leather boots, was all it took to transport me back to my youth and the late 1960s, as it immediately brought back vivid memories of the then oft-repeated late night cult action spy series The Avengers – one of my favourite adult shows as a kid.

 

It began life as a tough, no nonsense spy-thriller vehicle for the multi-talented Ian Hendry, with his sidekick being the non-dapper and bowler hat-less Patrick Macnee – but it soon came to incarnate the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when Hendry left after the first season, the show having a very surreal makeover and retooling, as suave and sophisticated John Steed (Macnee) went all Savile Row on us and memorably partnered in turn with Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson, until its demise in 1969 (a victim of poor US ratings).

 

Dapper Steed’s first foxy sidekick, Cathy Gale (Blackman), caused particular excitement with her ‘kinky’ black leather costumes, especially the then-fashionable titular footwear, that lead to the two TV stars in 1964 going on to record a novelty single for Decca, ‘Kinky Boots’, that was not initially a hit, but a 1990 re-release peaked at No.5 on the British singles chart in December of that year.

 

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Rachel Maclean’s Billy Connolly tribute, entitled “The Big Yin”, is now part of the Glasgow City Centre Mural Trail and can be found in the Gallowgate – and the young Edinburgh creative multi-media artist’s offering is the most outrageously outlandish and striking of the three official portraits commissioned for the comic’s recent 75th birthday. 

 

Her digital print of Connolly in a specially created outfit features references to many of his fabled jokes from throughout his career, such as ‘mini bike parked in bum’ epaulettes, a sporran with an ‘aged’ nose sprouting hair and makeup reflecting his famous ‘pale blue Scotsman’ joke. The crowning piece though, literally, is his tea cosy crown of one of my favourite Connolly stand-up jokes: “Never trust a man, who when left alone with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on.”

 

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This is the second of two commemorative Billy Connolly 50ft high murals – based on a series of three portraits by leading Scottish artists to celebrate the Big Yin’s recent 75th birthday – installed by street artist Rogue One, and can be found located on the gable wall in the beer garden of the Glasgow Hootenanny Pub in Dixon Street.

 

It is a reproduction of the Jack Vettriano painting taken from a scene from the comedian’s much-vaunted World Tour of Scotland series for the BBC in 1994, which – for reasons only fathomable to the artist himself – he titled “Dr. Connolly I Presume”, and features a very windswept and somewhat drookit Billy on a storm-lashed coast near John O’Groats at the very tip of mainland Scotland. (And thanks to one blog reader commenting below, there’s also a time-lapse video of this mural being done that you can watch by clicking here.)

 

The portraits, by leading Scottish artists Jack Vettriano, Rachel Maclean and John Byrne, all now hang with pride of place in the People’s Palace, the Big Yin’s favourite Glasgow Museum. The journey of the artists and the comedian, from first sitting to final portrait, was captured recently in a BBC documentary, Billy Connolly: Portrait of a Lifetime.

 

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Billy Connolly has always stood tall in Scotland – but the Big Yin has just got even bigger.  Bigger by 50ft in height, to be precise, as three new murals recently went up across his home city of Glasgow, and based on official portraits commissioned by BBC Scotland to celebrate the comedian’s 75th birthday.

 

The portraits, by leading Scottish artists Jack Vettriano, Rachel Maclean and John Byrne, all now hang with pride of place in the People’s Palace, the Big Yin’s favourite Glasgow Museum.  Not only that, but the journey of the artists and the comedian, from first sitting to final portrait, was captured in a recent BBC documentary, Billy Connolly: Portrait of a Lifetime.

 

But there was a further twist to the story for Connolly, when the City Council surprised the comedian by replicating – with the permission of the artists – the portraits on murals erected at Osborne Street, Dixon Street and the Gallowgate.

 

Two of the murals were done by legendary Glasgow street artist, Rogue One; and this is the first, located on Osborne Street – behind the Trongate, and just across from the St. Enoch’s Centre – and based on John Byrne’s portrait “Billy Connolly”.

 

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