Death of an Icon

 

It’s a quintessentially modern Seattle tale: downtown Seattle’s Icon Grill on Fifth Avenue will shut its doors this coming weekend to make way for  – yes, that’s right, you’ve guessed it – yet another yuppie high rise development slated for its prime downtown location.

 

To me, Icon seemed like a permanent anchor on Fifth Avenue and Virginia Street, and perhaps more familiar to millions of passersby over the years for its snarky readerboard (like the much-missed ‘Lusty Lady’) below its iconic Icon Grill neon signage; one memorable message in 1999 reading, “Thanks WTO. It’s been a riot.”

 

The Icon Grill was one of my favourite haunts, mainly because it was always right there on my doorstep, and served up wonderful comfort food in a tasteful, flashy interior inside an eclectically adorned dining room, replete with blown glass decorations and local art.

 

Sadly, Icon’s closure follows hard on the heels of other recent departures forced by development, including Old Spaghetti Factory, Tini Bigs and Hula Hula – and again, all were lovable haunts during my lengthy Seattle sojourn.

 

Progress, don’t you just love it?

 

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Every decade has its own kind of cop show, and in the 1960s and early 70s, following years of national love and acclaim we had for dear old Jack “Evening All” Warner in Dixon of Dock Green, there came to our screens on a Saturday evening a new breed of cocky young Brylcreemed policemen with the groundbreaking Z-Cars.  

 

Z-Cars was the BBC’s first proper British cop show that brought with it grit and realism – and an unforgettable Fife and Drum theme tune adapted from a local folk song called ‘Johnny Todd’. It was set in Newtown, a fictional setting in the dockland area of Liverpool, and it captured a time when coppers were leaving their well-trod beats for fast-paced response vehicles that were the ‘Z-Cars’ of the title: shiny white Ford Zodiacs and Zephyrs.

 

It was written and conceived by Troy Kennedy Martin (famous for the original The Italian Job and Kelly’s Heroes) and included young directors such as Ken Loach.  The stars included Stratford Johns (Detective Inspector Barlow), Frank Windsor (Detective Sgt Watt), James Ellis (Sgt Bert Lynch) and Brian Blessed  (PC ‘Fancy’ Smith); there was also Colin Welland (PC David Graham) in his early acting days, before he moved on to cut his teeth as a screenwriter for the series, en route to winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Chariots of Fire.

 

And at last week’s Merchant City Festival Classic Car boot sale, there were no Z-Car Zephyrs but quite a few Zodiacs on show – but even they didn’t last very long on the streets, as high winds and torrential rain sadly forced an early cancellation of the weekend event.  Ah, the joys of a good Scottish summer! 

 

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All politicians know – and often quote – the response from the unflappable Harold Macmillan when asked by a journalist what a prime minister most feared: ‘Events, dear boy, events’.  Put more colloquially, and much less elegantly, shit happens and politicians have to deal with it.

 

Things that happen can transform the political landscape, for better or worse, in a flash…or perhaps a ‘Flashman’, as current British prime minster David Cameron (whose political hero is Macmillan) discovered to his cost that one of those ‘events’ done for him last week: he took a huge gamble and lost with his in/out referendum that not only saw a split with the EU and a ‘Brexit’ but also split the country.

 

It was one of the most disgusting and divisive political campaigns ever in British history, as an often ‘blue-on-blue’ Tory squabble turned a complex debate about openness, tolerance, equality and solidarity into a sequel to Lord of the Flies.  The fear-mongering and outright lies of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, The Sun and the Daily Mail won – and thanks to the cahoots of that cabal, this is probably the most disastrous single event in British history since the second world war.

 

Every region of Scotland voted to remain by a large margin, the overall Caledonian result being 62-38.  In 2014, during the Scottish Independence Referendum, the Scots were told that the only way they could be guaranteed to remain citizens of the EU was to stay in the UK – and this, among others, was the main reason they voted to stay part of the Union.  Now following last week’s divisive vote, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon has no option left to her other than to start the political process of a second referendum here in Scotland – only this time with the current fallout, I can see the vote coming down heavily in favour of independence.

 

The 2014 vote in Scotland came on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.  And if I were a betting man, I’d say the next vote is going to come by 2020, which by coincidence would be the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, without a doubt the most famous document in Scottish history. Like the American Declaration of Independence, which is partially based on it, it is seen by many as the founding document of the Scottish nation. It was drafted on the 6th April 1320 – and 700 years hence, it could well be that Cameron’s successor discovers that Union is no more.

 

Ah, events dear boy, events, as Super-Mac was wont to remind us.

 

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Next year sees the 50th anniversary of when legendary film director Ken Loach pushed housing to the very top of the political agenda with his seminal work in the BBC’s ’Wednesday Play’ series, Cathy Come Home, the story of a young couple’s struggle with eviction, poor housing, and eventually homelessness.

 

The broadcast sparked a surge in public awareness of the housing crisis. And the public reaction to the film formed Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people. And in the days before video recorders, dvds and YouTube, I well remember watching this – and being moved by it – for the first time when it was shown again in the early ’70s, and it still conveyed a grim picture being painted of mid-sixties London, that was so realistic.

 

In 2015 the housing crisis continues to affect people across the country – and many predict that this year it could well become an epidemic, as the Tory government proposals dangerously continue an already upward trend. The Glasgow Winter Night Shelter is expecting this year to be a particularly bad one – and recently, they were able to extend their opening hours this year from three months to four and provide legal advice thanks only to the generosity of Rangers Charity Foundation.

 

Homelessness is something we all see in each and every city, no matter where we live. Those afflicted say it can feel as if you are permanently living in “Upside Down Land”, as if standing on your head all day – and that’s literally the message being conveyed by “Andy” in today’s photo. After years in steady work, he lost his job and then his home, and can now usually be found on Glasgow’s busy Buchanan Street shopping precinct, as he stands most of the day in a silent protest with his head supported in a bucket, his limbs outstretched.

 

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There was rightly worldwide outrage earlier this year when an American dentist killed a famous lion in Zimbabwe called Cecil. Rather than a routine procedure gone wrong, the medical worker had actually paid roughly £35,000 to hunt the animal, seemingly unaware of the lion’s popularity.

 

Almost immediately, the fight for justice for Cecil was taken to Trafalgar Square in London. One of the bronze lion sculptures in the square was adorned with the slogan ‘Je suis Cecil’, which takes inspiration from the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’, that was used to show solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings in January.

 

There’s also been tributes to Cecil through art. Recently the elusive Tontine Lane in Glasgow had a makeover and was open to the public, albeit briefly. For some time the lane has remained locked to the public, and it’s beautiful neon signs switched off, but for a couple of weeks in July/August the lane housed a pop-up restaurant and live art. Near the end of this run, I was lucky enough to see the legendary Belgian graffiti artist DZIA at work.

 

The artist, who has been commissioned by the likes of Mercedes and Dr Martens, specialises in painting urban settings quickly, completing many of his large scale animalistic murals in just one hour. His mural of choice was a lion to highlight the similarities between Scotland and Belgium, which features on Scotland’s lion rampant flag and the Belgian coat of arms – and in addition, he mentioned it was also a little further tribute for us all to remember Cecil by.

 

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As a kid I always looked forward to Guy Fawkes Night every 5th November. And at school, the poem Remember, Remember was always recited as a way to make us better understand a little part of infamy in our history, when the aforementioned Mr. Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament along with all the politicians and King James in 1605.

 

But funnily enough, Guy Fawkes made a big-time comeback in the guise of the strangely stylised mask with a moustache and goatee by becoming an emblem for the anti-establishment protest groups that came to the fore with the Occupy movement in 2011 – and all spawned from the masked character in the wonderful V For Vendetta movie, based on the eighties graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, about one person rebelling against a totalitarian Britain set in the not-too-distant future.

 

These well-meaning individuals were duped into thinking that Guy Fawkes’ mask symbolised protest against tyrannical government. Nothing could be further from the truth, actually. The “Gunpowder Plot” was all about the pope not wanting God’s Word to be massively available to the common man, as those Fawkes intended to asassinate were set on bringing an English version of the bible (“King James Bible”) to the masses – and this would greatly erode the papal power-base in Britain while boosting Protestant freedoms.

 

And our anti-establishment protester striking a pose in today’s photo could be found in Glasgow’s George Square on Saturday, along with the many hundreds who turned up for Tommy “Swinger” Sheridan’s Hope Over Fear rally to mark the first anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum. I also didn’t have the heart to tell him that the adoption of the iconic mask by hacker and anarchist groups has proved to be quite a significant stream of additional income for Time Warner, thank-you-very-much, who hold the licenses to it as part of its film properties. Since the 2011 Occupy movement started, they’ve seen profits each year of over $2bn on sales worldwide.

 

Graphic artist Lloyd is the guy who created the original image of the mask, says he compares its use by protesters to the way Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Argentine revolutionary Che Cuevara became a symbol for students across the world. However author Moore is more sceptical about this, and even before the movie was released, saw his creation was going to be commercialised by the very people that he wrote his comic strip against, so disowned the movie, spurned the lure of the lucre and requested his name removed from the credits.

 

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“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Has any debut album ever marked its territory with a greater opening gambit than that? Yes, it could only be Patti Smith, and how could I resist not going along to watch her recently when she came to town?  She had the Glasgow crowd – and probably every other crowd for that matter – at “Jesus”.

 

Horses turns 40 this year, and in its honour Smith is in the middle of a string of live performances, from Field Day to Glastonbury, Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo to Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall – a run of venues, grand, intimate, stately, that in its diversity encapsulates her particular role – an artist who is able to simultaneously hold both the Ordre des Artes et des Lettres from the French ministry of culture and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

In 1967 Smith’s life changed when she relocated to New York City, and becoming romantically involved with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she would later lived with at the infamous Chelsea hotel. In the years that followed she became an integral part of the downtown Manhattan scene that circled around Max’s Kansas City and CBGB and included Television, the Ramones and Blondie.

 

But it was that debut release of Horses in 1975 that positioned Smith as “punk’s poet laureate”.  She has described the album, with its distinctive portrait by Mapplethorpe, as “my aural sword sheathed with Robert’s image”. She chose her outfit carefully: a shirt she bought at the Salvation Army on the Bowery; the monogram on the breast pocket reminded her of a Brassai shot of Jean Genet. She wore it with her black jacket, a horse pin that Allen Lanier had given to her and her favourite ribbon.  Its release and her looks established Smith as an artist who believed she was serving something greater than herself.

 

Nevertheless, everything following the main set was an anti-climax. It’s impossible to top the tumultuous psychodrama of Land and the comedown of Elegie – that was touchingly dedicated to fallen comrades such as Smith’s late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. But isn’t that fitting? Horses was arguably her one-shot flash of musical genius.

 

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This year marks the bicentenary of one of the major events that changed the course of European history – the Battle of Waterloo. The countdown to the official June anniversary date is already underway, including a 3-D film and the biggest re-enactment of the battle ever staged. But for most Glaswegians, there will be a big surprise when they discover that the Duke of Wellington didn’t charge into battle on his trusty steed, Copenhagen, to take on Napoleon while wearing an orange traffic-cone top hat on his head – after all, for many, that’s the only hat they’ve ever seen him wear.

 

His once imposing equestrian statue, located outside the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) on Royal Exchange Square, has now become an iconic part of Glasgow’s heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow than imperialistic figure-head Wellington himself ever has. I can barely still remember a time when, as a kid, the duke didn’t have his cone hat. The tradition is believed to have started in the early 1970s during a Glasgow University student “Rag Week”; and no matter how many times council workmen removed the traffic cone hat, by the next morning he was sporting a new one. Even the city cops couldn’t – or perhaps didn’t want to – crack the case of just who the cone culprits were.

 

But our killjoy city fathers say that they spend £10,000 a year removing the cones and other various items of clothing (such as flowery Hawaiian shirts and cravats) from the statue that appears on the list of the “top 10 most bizarre monuments on Earth”. So, in 2013 – citing the all-catching Health & Safety rules – they announced they were going to raise his plinth by another six-feet, at a cost of around £60,000, in an attempt to “deter all but the most determined of vandals”. And after all, raising the statue is a very sound idea because, as we all know, if there’s one thing every Glaswegian loves it’s being told what they can and cannot do.

 

They soon had to back down though after a campaign was launched to “Keep The Cone“, that almost immediately attracted 10,000 people signing an online protest petition and 72,000 Facebook likes within 24 hours. The campaign also discovered that figures over the last four years, showed that the council received only 10 calls complaining about the traffic cone.  And besides – and you really have to laugh at this bit – it was also shown that the council actually made money on the duke sporting the cone! The GoMA does a thriving business selling to tourists postcards, greeting cards, posters, tee-shirts and cups featuring the cone-crowned statue of one Arthur Wellesley, aka 1st Duke of Wellington.

 

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There’s rarely anything grey about colourful Glasgow writer and painter Alasdair Gray. This year, the man many describe as Scotland’s greatest living artist – and by himself as “a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian” – celebrates his 80th birthday, and it is being commemorated with a retrospective of his works, and a series of exhibitions around Glasgow’s museums and galleries in his honour.

 

And recently, as part of the celebrations, there was the ‘Up a Snake and Down a Ladder’, a week-long programme of gaming events with an artistic twist to them, that took place at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Glasgow. It included a light-hearted chess afternoon – but not with any old standard chess set. The special Cowboy & Indian-themed chess set and table is the creation of Canadian artist Victor Tiede; and competitors had to wear cotton gloves to play.

 

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Some headlines just write themselves. My heart skipped a beat a year or so back when I learned that an old Glasgow Pub favourite, which has been closed for a number of years, was going to open its doors once again – rising, I thought, like the proverbial pub phoenix from the ashes to quench the thirst of hard-working Glaswegians.

 

The Mitre Bar in Merchant City was a small and intimate city bar – so small and intimate, in fact, that it was a full house with half a dozen punters in it. It first opened in 1927 and served generations of thirsty Glaswegians until the key was finally put in the door for the last time around a decade ago. The pub lay a graffitied mess in a street that has seen better days. It’s probably no different from the countless thousands of other pubs around the country that have had to pull their last pint and bid their fond adieus as they go to the wall.

 

Alas, I was to be disappointed on hearing further details of its re-opening. While it was a re-opening of sorts, it was only as an exhibit in the new £75 million Riverside Transport Museum on the Clyde, and not as a working pub with beer for sale, as I had hoped for. The entire pub; fixtures, fittings, signage, lock, stock and beer barrel had been removed and relocated to become part of the Museum’s Flagship exhibit – a typical Glasgow High St from the early twentieth century complete with a grocery store, butcher, cobbler and even The Rendevous Cafe from Glasgow’s Duke St that has also been given the Mitre treatment and moved brick by brick to the museum.

 

But for the purists for this wonderful city pub, there lies – not far from where it originally served the public – one of its landmarks: its original neon sign has been erected in the back alley of Tontine Lane, not far from Douglas Gordon’s “Empire” sign, as seen in a recent blog entry.

 

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