The rise of Ruthie Tank Commander

The rise of Ruthie Tank Commander

IN THE dog days of my time as a daily newspaper political journalist I was dispatched on the final Sunday of independence referendum campaigning to report back from the streets of my home city, with which I have a love-hate relationship.
My wander around the streets of Edinburgh concluded in my home patch and I concluded the piece in The Herald:

In Stockbridge the No tribe is gathering — hundreds of Union supporters  on the fields of the Grange Cricket Club. The ostensible reason is an aerial photograph of them forming the word NO.
The real motive is for a segment of society to feel comfort in its own company, safe from the barbarians at the gate. Many sport Union Flag umbrella hats in which there is a vigorous trade. One woman teams such headgear with with a matching maxi dress and rucksack.
The men sport rugby tops and sometimes the full Murrayfield kilt ensemble, the kids private school sweatshirts, and strips. They throw around cricket and rugby balls. No-one is kicking a football. That the shape of a ball determines voting intentions in Edinburgh speaks volumes.

And so it came to pass that yesterday this tribe elected the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party as their constituency MSP, and mine. Some Nationalists are whingeing that without Alison Johnstone standing in the seat for the Greens, the SNP would have won. Tough. In the absence of any pact the Greens were entitled to stand, and I am delighted that my vote helped get Andy Wightman voted as a regional MSP.
But to those enjoying the frisson of the success of Ruthie Tank Commander, I say we won’t forget Tory attacks on the disabled, benefit cuts, blocking child refugees and general Bullingdon brutality. The babarians remain at the gate.

Rebellion and the evolution of revolution

Rebellion and the evolution of revolution

LAST night a sixth successive sell-out audience in Glasgow applauded a play rooted in events in Dublin a century ago but containing a very modern take on how rebellious instincts would be channeled in the 21st Century.
I’ve not blogged in a wee while as I have worked on a book contribution, but I broke off to see Rebellion, a play by my friend Phil Phil Mac Giolla Bhain. It was performed in the eaves of a night club by Sweet for Addicts, a not-for-profit theatre company but no-one would mistake their production for amateur dramatics.
Directed by SfA founder member Mark Williamson it skilfully meshed the strands of events in Dublin in 1916 with modern day issues around power, control, feminism, bigotry, class and cyber-subversion.
Elements which appealed to these Glasgow audiences, particularly the Rangers-supporting character who is the butt of many jokes, may not travel far beyond Scotland or Belfast, but the core of the story could be re-told in, say, London’s Kilburn or anywhere in the wider Irish diaspora.
Taryam Boyd plays both Tom Murphy, a young participant in 1916 seen mainly as a prisoner of war in the Frongoch “University of Revolution” camp in Wales where Michael Collins was held, and his great-great grandson in modern day Scotland, John Brown.
This bright youngster not only uses his computer skills to peel back the layers of his maternal family history, he is secretly working as part of a hacking group to unmask the misdeeds of powerful figures; a corrupt politician, a child-abusing human rights writer, and ultimately the Prime Minister who took his country to war based on a lie.
I was privileged to see Rebellion, which deserves a wider audience as a movie or television adaptation. It may be rooted in 1916 but the issues raised are timeless.

Who’s next in line for the bully boys?

Who’s next in line for the bully boys?

IN 42 years in print journalism I have never come across a worse failure of a newspaper to back a writer than that of The Herald and Graham Spiers.
I left The Herald four months ago on good terms and the paper had my loyalty for 28 years. Should a reporter get something wrong there is a duty to raise a hand and accept responsibility. But when a journalist insists on and can prove the veracity of a story an editor should provide full backing. That’s the deal.
Yesterday this apology was carried by the newspaper’s website: “In a recent column for heraldscotland, Graham Spiers said an un-named Rangers director had praised the song The Billy Boys.
“He also questioned the willingness of Rangers directors to tackle offensive behaviour, and The Herald and Graham Spiers accept this was inaccurate.”
But Spiers, himself a Rangers supporter who was once given police advice on threats from the club’s fanatics, did not and does not accept this. “My opinion – as expressed in my column – was based on a truthful account of my meeting with a Rangers director,” he insisted yesterday in a statement saying “the pressure brought upon the newspaper became severe.”
A hard-line fans’ website swiftly boasted that the threat of withdrawal of £40,000 in advertising revenues by motor sales and coach operators Park’s clinched the climb-down. The owner is a Rangers director. I hope this is not true.
The irony is that this website  — the same unsavoury crowd who recently threatened critics and their wives and children — loudly trumpet the merits of the full bigoted songbook at Ibrox. The previous article proclaimed the Billy Boys football’s “haka” for the Protestant Unionist Loyalist community.
It used to be press passes and access which were threatened. If it’s advertising, who’s next?

Negotiating the corridors of power

Negotiating the corridors of power

RECENTLY I got involved in a Twitter debate, one of the joys of social media.

Kevin Williamson, doyen of Leith socialists, asked, not unreasonably in my view: “What do SNP loyalists have to say about ScotGovt decision to allow foreign tax dodgers & shadowy offshore corporations to own Scottish land?”

I tweeted agreement with his sentiments and then mountain man Cameron McNeish offered a counter-view, saying: “It’s a lost opportunity but don’t necessarily blame #ScotGov Blame the lawyers and civil servants?”

At which point I weighed in: “That’s a wee bit of a cop-out. Ministers heading for a 3rd term ought to have learned to stand up to them.”

All good natured stuff, but as the debate continued, with some saying it was wrong to blame the Sir Humphreys and others indicating hope that a long game was being played by Ministers, I got a private message.

This led to a chat over coffee which I admit gave me pause for thought. How did any of us know, across the whole field of Scottish Government activity, the level of interaction between Ministers and civil servants?

If, for example, a Minister decided to reject legal advice and proceed with a course of action, we might never know. If Government lawyers were sent away and told to come up with alternative advice, we might never hear of it.

In short there will be be all manner of negotiation going on in the corridors of power between civil servants and politicians, of which we remain unaware. Sure, at times the former may be more cautious than the latter, but it certainly isn’t as simplistic as wily Sir Humphreys pulling the wool over the eyes of naive Jim Hackers.

Of course if this is true, the buck really does stop with the Ministers.

A farewell tribute to Ian Bell

A farewell tribute to Ian Bell

I’m breaking my self-imposed word limit today for reasons that should be obvious. This is the full version of the tribute I made to my friend Ian Bell at his funeral in Edinburgh today. It was just one part of a flow of warm words in his memory. A little of it appeared in the piece I was asked to write about Ian recently in The National.

I’ll begin and end with songs because song mattered to Ian Bell.

He was a great admirer of Bruce Springsteen, and our time together on The Scotsman in the seventies and eighties brings to mind Glory Days “that pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.”

The Boss sang: “I hope that when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it, but I probably will / telling boring stories of Glory Days.”

Well here I am doing it. But my friend never got old. I hope at least that these stories aren’t too boring.

A quirk of fate saw me in 1973, straight out of school, accepted to be an indentured apprentice journalist — such were the terms of the old craft — joining The Scotsman in the New Year. It was an experiment never repeated. Those trainees who followed were all high-flying graduates and some, such as Andrew Marr, Lionel Barber and James Meek, were to scale the heights of journalism, broadcasting and literature.

But Ian found an unusual foot in the North Bridge door, a post for which his academic record should have rendered him absurdly over-qualified. Hence, as a tyro news reporter in 1978 using the newspaper’s library I found this intriguing new assistant there, soon to be taken across onto the sub-editors’ desk, and in turn to the features department as his writing talent was recognised.

Jim Seaton had succeeded Harry Reid as features and literary editor, and with deputy David Ross, set about assembling a team that could be a powerhouse at the heart of the paper. To avoid losing Ian, Jim gave him the literary editorship. So many talented trainees and staff passed through the department, I cannot name them all.

Melanie Reid is upset to be unable to be here today, but Jim Seaton recalls the day she came back to write up a feature about a course to help women be more assertive in the workplace. As she held forth, assertively, Ian swivelled in his chair and said: “Shut up, Mel!” The whole place collapsed.

But we got the inside joke. No-one was kinder or gentler with male and female colleagues than Ian, as Sarah Nelson has spoken of. He was a tower of strength in his role as union FoC in dire times.

At that time we worked ferociously hard and played harder. I well remember the day a strong rumour emerged from Westminster that Home Secretary Leon Brittan was the subject of paedophilia rumours. We decamped to Le Sept restaurant to celebrate the imminent downfall of the Thatcher Government. We returned from many toasts to discover it had all gone mysteriously quiet.

Only decades later did it emerge that he had indeed been handed a dossier of allegations at that time but the document conveniently disappeared. Our celebrations had been premature.

When Ian left after the lock-out of 1987 he wrote a memorably excoriating take-down of the state of the newspaper he was turning his back on. I read it again last night and three decades on it is prescient.

“Newspapers are fragile things, hard to build and easy to to topple. They depend on an odd, unspoken contract between editor, journalists and public, a contract based on trust (we believe what we write, you believe what you read); mutual respect (we try to write intelligently, believing in your intelligence); some sort of belief in the importance of reliable information (Zircon, Peter Wright, Westland to name but three); and reliable prose.”

Ian left, supporting Mandy and a very young Sean with no job to go to. I secured a ripcord before jumping, and we both ended up courtesy of Arnold Kemp and Harry Reid on The Glasgow Herald as it then was. Others were to take a similar escape route, including Andrew Hood and Drew Allan.

When Ian took to cyberspace he blogged under the name Prospero. The hero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest used supreme intellect to work magic for the cause of good. Given Ian Bell’s relentless flow of journalism, biographies and who knows what else still to be published, it was apt.

He recorded in that blog exactly two years ago his love of his forebears who fought and strived for a better world and lamented the way the Labour Party seemed to have lost sight of that, particularly in the side it chose in the independence referendum.

He wrote: “We can live without a Labour Party. I’m not sure we can live without the beliefs that first brought Labour to birth. When that party remembers as much, our politics will be respectable again. But I won’t hold my breath.

“The important thing about those old, departed folk is that they didn’t think for half a minute they were being radical. They believed they were being human. We could try that. There’s a country yet unmade, and a politics waiting.”

Ian’s writing was simply that, articulating being human.

I doubt Ian would have expected he and I to meet again to argue the merits of Hearts and Hibs. I know I don’t. But if we are pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong by those among you of faith, I’m ready with how to greet my old friend:

“We’ll meet on edges soon, said I,
Proud ‘neath heated brow,
But we were so much older then,
We’re younger than that now.”


Sarah Nelson, now an academic at Edinburgh University but back in the day a features writer and education correspondent at The Scotsman, adds:
“After the sudden quite untimely death of Ian Bell most tributes have featured his fierce and crafted writing and his breadth of intellect, alongside his many years with the Herald.
“Ian’s writing repeatedly revived and gave heart to those of us on the Left of politics, who had become too depressed or too exhausted with the turn of political events to respond with his own unquenched spirit.
“As an ex-colleague I also want to mention his time in the features department of the Scotsman under Jim Seaton.
“I most remember Ian’s quiet  supportive presence, his dry and acerbic wit and the years of fun and friendship we all had, in the days when we took our work seriously, but did so during happier times for journalists everywhere.”

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

I RETURNED from my regular morning walk with an added spring in my step today, thanks to the recently departed Willie McIllvanney.
He was a regular visitor to The Scotsman features department when I worked there in the eighties and always the most fantastic company. He was generous, broad-minded, full of anecdotes that didn’t centre on himself. What is the opposite of bumptious? Not just unbumptious but actively anti-bumptious. That was Willie, holding court, but modestly. That cliche of the thriller blurbs was apposite: “Women want him. Men want to be him.”
I didn’t have that much contact with Willie over the next decades, brushing briefly during the occasional literary/political interface. But to know him and his wonderful, smooth malt voice — even through broadcasts such as the re-run of a beautiful  Janice Forsyth interview this week — was to think you were close, a tangible link with the word on the page.
His politics — non-partisan socialist and supportive of independence — were mine too, but the beauty of Willie and evident in his passing was that you did not have to share his views to admire him as a writer and a man.
The evidence was there in the wake of his death at the weekend, when writers as diverse as Alex Massie and Kevin McKenna united in magnificent tribute.
So why the spring in my step mentioned above? His passing made me realise that while I had read all of his novels I had never read his poetry, an omission I thought to put right. On my morning walk I dropped into the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge and there was In Through the Head, his 1988 collection of new and collected verse.
I open my new purchase, read: Love’s counterfeits are endless and a bore. I’m in.

A response to IS which doesn’t simply dig a deeper hole

A response to IS which doesn’t simply dig a deeper hole

I HAVE put off writing about the slaughter in Paris for two reasons. The first was a sincere wish to spare the world another of those “our hearts go out” or “we are all Parisians now” expressions of maudlin self-importance.
The other involved grave personal uncertainty about the appropriate response. And by that I mean military response. As I made clear in a previous post I’m no pacifist. I just like the fights carried out in my name to be justified and intelligent; to have more than a “shock and awe” entry strategy but an endgame which leaves the world a better place than when we intervened.
Or, to put it in President Obama’s sage words this week: “It’s best if we don’t shoot first and aim later.” OK, that’s a wee bit rich for a commander-in-chief whose forces recently bombed a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Afghanistan, but you get the idea.
The Islamist-Fascists of IS have, I believe, clearly declared war on ordinary citizens of nations they deem to be Christian or Jewish or atheist or generally hedonist. Since the latter two categories  affect me, I have started to thinking.
Clearly there can be no Western “boots on the ground” as the presence of “Crusaders” would be welcomed by Islamists. But as the MSF hospital bombing shows precision targeting can be anything but.
So limited bombing and drone strikes may play a part but can do only so much against a shifting enemy using guerrilla tactics, and must be conducted as air support of the enemies of IS on the ground, particularly the Kurds. Can pressure be applied to Turkey to stop attacking our best allies on the ground in Syria and Northern Iraq? As for economic weaponry, I commend Ian Bell today.