Closing Down

 

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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Yes, the sign on the window display of the Oxfam Book Shop in Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square has everything to do with Game of Thrones, as it was timed for the selling of George RR Martin’s fantasy book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, with the ending of its latest TV run, as winter comes ever-nearer.

 

But where exactly does the expression “Here Be Dragons” come from?

 

In old times, mapmaking was a fairly imprecise task, due to the lack of advanced technology for exploration purposes. So, to fill great blank areas on the maps, mapmakers used to include graphic warnings of the dangers of going into uncharted territory. Such warnings took the form of sea serpents, dragons, cannibals and many other mythical and, sometimes, even real creatures.

 

But the saying “Here Be Dragons” soon thereafter fell into folklore, but the actual line was found only once in print (and in Latin, HIC SVNT DRACONES), on the 16th-century Lenox Globe – but is way too cool to give up.

 

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Recent years have seen an explosion of street art in Glasgow, providing a welcome burst of colour in this often, all-too grey city. The playful nature of these murals is a fitting complement to the “gallus” (that’s cheeky, bold, in Scottish slang) character of the city.

 

This hidden, realistic street art gem – which can be found in the narrow Gordon Lane off Mitchell Lane which runs between Buchanan Street and Mitchell Street, leading to The Lighthouse – is the work of the celebrated local artist James Klinge, formerly known as graffiti artist ‘Klingatron’, whom I explained in a previous blog, has now gone ‘legit’ with his work displayed in galleries all around the world.

 

Unfortunately, his striking giant “Glasgow Panda” mural on the rear of the former BOAC building is often obscured by commercial-sized wheelie bins – but is well worth making the short detour from Buchanan Street just to see it. Klingatron used hand-cut stencils to bring the black and white panda to life, almost at times looking as if it is rummaging through the bins in search of some bamboo shoots.

 

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I love the uplifting community attitude of the Milk Café on my doorstep on the very diverse Victoria Road in Glasgow’s Southside – it’s a shabby chic social enterprise with all of the profits going to supporting Asylum seeking women and aiding the local community. There’s a great food choice, and everything is served in gloriously miss-matching old-style crockery with no uniformity whatsoever. The chalkboard menu changes daily, often including unusual ethnic dishes prepared by volunteers from the local migrant community.

 

They also have a policy of donating to the local community – many of whom in these austere times, have to rely on foodbanks – the surplus free bread that’s been donated to them. And this will come as spiffing good news to the austerity pantomime villain that is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative backbencher with designs on becoming Tory leader, who today showed  that one of the benefits of an Eton education is that you don’t develop a moral compass, or the ability to read reports from charities that are actively involved in organising foodbanks.

 

The honourable member for the 18th century – who wouldn’t be out of place in a Charles Dickens storyline – caused a bit of a stushie by claiming today that the very existence of such foodbanks was “uplifting” because it showed how charitable people are and that the state doesn’t need to provide for those in need. Not only that but also the real reason there’s been such a prolific rise in their numbers of late, is that previous Labour governments deliberately didn’t tell the public all about them!

 

Honestly, words just fail me when it comes to politicians of the ilk of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

 

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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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Given the challenging nature of the Scottish weather, it comes as no surprise that there are a whole host of interesting words to name and describe the actions of the elements.  In fact, a recent Scottish Government poll found that the word ‘dreich’ – meaning dull and miserable weather – was the nations favourite word.

 

And while it’s claimed that the Eskimo’s have 50 words for snow, here it’s estimated that there are considerably far more Scottish words for rain.  Dreich tops the list, and other personal favourites include ‘drookit’, ‘bucketing’, ‘hammering’, ‘mizzling’, ‘lashing’ and ’spitting’ to name but a few.

 

But it doesn’t matter what the word you use to describe it, July has been nothing but wet wet wet – though thankfully for everyone concerned, not the Marti Pelow variety! – with just about all the words used throughout the month, as it’s been one of the wettest summers I can recall. 

 

Some would even say it’s been more like the ‘monsoon season’, as the fitting photo from Buchanan Street taken over the July Fair Holiday Weekend would testify to, as all the tourists could be found huddled in the somewhat seasonally overcrowded North Face shop in the elusive search for all things Gore-Tex.

 

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In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, many protests took place across the country to demonstrate that Britain’s social housing is in crisis – a crisis that was the direct result of the legacy left to us by Maggie Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy back in the early 1980s.

 

And, as witness this photo from Buchanan Gallery steps from a day of action in support of the victims of the Grenfell disaster and against landlords and social housing, Glasgow played a vocal part in its support that was attended by a few dedicated hundred or so, as many ask and wonder whether our country’s postwar housing ideal can possibly be revived.

 

I couldn’t but help think that the numbers though had to have been a far cry from another era in the city when Glasgow was at its most vocal and Socialist best over a lack of social housing and bad landlords, as just over 100 years ago housewife Mary Barbour emerged as a very unlikely local hero as she organised the 1915 Rent Strike that one leading academic believed “could well have been the most successful example of direct action ever undertaken by the Scottish working class.”

 

Today, we need the spirit of Mary Barbour and more direct action because our social housing crisis has been the long-term lasting effects of Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy – and the irony here, of course, is that this policy was probably the most popular ever introduced by a Conservative government. It was wonderful for many who benefited from it – even if some found that property ownership was not the promised land they had expected – but very destructive of local authorities’ ability to respond to housing needs.

 

The selling off of publicly owned housing – and not allowing councils to use those funds to replenish their dwindling housing stock – has directly contributed to the ever more immense bill for housing benefits and created the absurd and wasteful situation whereby local authorities have to pay high rents to house people in homes the councils once owned, but have now been bought by private landlords.

 

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Of all the technological feats and wondrous designs to come out of The Great Exhibition of 1851, there is one invention that we still use regularly today without even thinking about its ingenuity; and to many, this will, at some stage or other, have been a life-saver – particularly after a lunch time drink…

 

The designers, architects, and engineers of the Victorian era built public conveniences to a very high standard – and they soon spread across the country for health reasons. A great majority of them were underground, but when conveniences were to be above ground, they were built to be aesthetically pleasing, to blend in, and built with high-quality materials such as marble and copper, and furnished with fine ceramics and tiles.

 

Not many original Victorian public toilets survive today. In most big cities across the country, they are recognizable by the fine and fancy railing work above ground, with steps leading under street-level.  In London, many have become Grade II listed buildings – some were even converted into flats and small pubs.

 

Here in Glasgow, just about all of these wonderful Victorian relics were underground, but now all closed, concreted over, with only a few remaining that still show its Victorian railing works. One of the last to close in the city – and the only one I can ever remember spending a penny in as a kid – is on St.Vincent Street beside Buchanan Street, that was known as “The Palace of Light” because the sun would shine down through the heavy glass translucent pavement tiles.

 

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