Monday, 15 December 2014

Old habits die hard

Academy Originals, a YouTube documentary-style video series produced by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, has been posting a series of videos called Creative Spark. These focus on people working in the film industry, with a particular emphasis on screenwriters, detailing their work process and the tools they use. As a (wannabe) screenwriter myself, I find this sort of thing fascinating. It's a real treat to see how these people work, and the dramatic extent to which their approaches differ. I'm not sure I have a "process" as such, but I can certainly recognise something of myself in these people, particularly the procrastination angle and rather weird working hours. (Though most of them appear to be early risers, whereas I'm more of a night owl.)

My favourite so far is the video on Eric Roth, writer of MUNICH and FORREST GUMP, among others...

...probably because, while the bulk of the writers interviewed use fancy-pancy Macs, Roth is a committed Luddite, working on a rather grubby-looking Windows XP machine (seriously, that keyboard is FILTHY!) and running an ancient DOS-based screenwriting program that can't export PDFs and runs out of memory once you hit 40 pages. As someone who jumps between Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter and Highland depending on which one I'm in the mood for, I know the program you're using can make a huge difference, even though they're essentially all just different variations of black text on a white background. As such, while the program Roth uses looks and sounds maddeningly archaic, I can completely understand why he sticks with it.

As I've indicated above, I'm somewhat different. I chop and change all the time, depending on how the mood takes me. I wrote about half of my most recent script in Final Draft, then switched midway through to Movie Magic Screenwriter. The latter is way more clunky (though let's face it, both programs leave a lot to be desired) and in serious need of an update (the last one was in 2007, and it still contains bugs that have been claiming to be working on for years), but I don't know... something about the way the text looks on the screen just works for me, at least for now. For my next script, I may well go back to Final Draft or Highland.

But anyway, here's to Roth and his old habits. Any process that delivered MUNICH is all right by me.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Petition Mission: a Glasgow-based film hub

I came across this petition today on, and it's one that, both as a Glaswegian and as someone who would like to see a bit more in the way of location diversity in UK-based film and television (i.e. not another cop show set in London!), I think is well worth signing:

Recognise that a Glasgow based production facility will be at the very heart of the cultural and commercial screen industry in Scotland.
An Open Letter to the Scottish Film Studio Delivery Group
10th December 2014
After many years of inertia and procrastination, there is now a clear and present opportunity to build not just a film studio, but also a globally significant screen production facility for Scotland.
This facility would deliver double advantages:
1.   The creation of Scotland’s first dedicated studio for the production of international and indigenous film and television projects, alongside a facilities village of companies providing ancillary services to the production industry.
2.     The further development of a creative cluster which would become a nexus for Scotland’s indigenous industry, acting as a catalyst for future collaboration, convergence, and of course skills development and delivery.
The Film Studio Delivery Group was convened in May 2013, and was to be a vehicle by which the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, and Creative Scotland, aimed to deliver ‘a sustainable studio for Scotland’.
Our industry is global, and with that comes fierce international competition, therefore any steps to create a sustainable studio and indeed grow the industry in Scotland would have to be considered, viable, and incremental.
Central to this ambition is location.
We not only have the opportunity to cluster rather than fragment screen and creative industry talent, but also to provide a sustainable commercial income stream to underpin any cyclical use of the studio, workshop and office facilities that would be ring fenced for production use. Pragmatism must come into play, and a stand-alone facility would be vulnerable to the easy-come, easy-go vagaries of the international marketplace.
Star Wars Co-Producer Tommy Gormley reiterated the importance of location in his recent BAFTA Scotland award acceptance speech, highlighting ’I think it should be located in an existing creative hub which we can expand on’.
Undoubtedly, the city of Glasgow has this competitive advantage and baseline of strong screen activity to expand on.
There is an existing critical mass of companies and facilities activity in the city, the major terrestrial broadcasters, over 50,000 sq ft of sound and picture post production houses, new hotel developments, Glasgow School of Art's world leading Digital Design Studio, and existing screen and creative micro-clusters such as Film City Glasgow and The Hub.
Productions using Glasgow will enjoy close links to the city’s existing cultural and hospitality amenities, together with the thicker pools of freelance workers and talent living in the city and surrounding areas. Indeed, Glasgow has the highest density of production crew and facilities companies anywhere in Scotland.
Transportation and access to a Glasgow site is enhanced by close proximity to the major airports and transport hubs, and strategically connects with the new £40m Fastlink system, which opens in 2015. Clearly, Glasgow has the potential to be home to one of Europe’s most connected screen production facilities. Institutionally, in addition to the national cultural and enterprise agencies, a Glasgow based facility would have the added support of a film office, marketing bureau, business support agencies, chamber of commerce, and a tacit connection with one of the world’s strongest city brands.
As evidenced by Game of Thrones in Belfast, a globally celebrated high-end drama production can be delivered from a relatively small footprint in the very heart of a metropolitan environment. Titanic Studios covers approximately 10 acres of land less than 2 miles from Belfast City Centre. Glasgow has at least double this amount of developable land for a screen facility – a tantalising prospect.
We agree with the Film Studio Delivery Group that any development of a film, high-end television, or indeed animation, facility in Scotland has to be sustainable, but such sustainability will only be achieved with the right location, and with a regular and demonstrable commercial income stream.
Glasgow is the right location.
Other sites currently under consideration, such as Cumbernauld and the M8 corridor, are compromises that will not deliver the double advantages of a connected, accessible , facility, married with commercial sustainability. There is little appetite amongst the many skilled workers, screen companies, post houses, or facilities companies to permanently relocate outside an urban centre, and certainly wholly impractical for the many academic institutions delivering screen industry training to align themselves with an inaccessible, out of town screen facility.
Contrast this with a Glasgow based facility, at the very heart of both the cultural and commercial screen industry in Scotland.
Longer term, and once a more tangible critical mass of screen production companies and facilities exists, an Edinburgh based facility could further complement Scotland’s production offer.
We, the undersigned, ask the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland to urgently reconsider any moves to develop a screen facility or studio outside of an urban centre, and to recognize that currently, the metrics of place, connectivity, accessibility and sustainability can be only fully realised within the city of Glasgow.
Alan J. Wands, Producer (STONEMOUTH, FIELD OF BLOOD)
Allan Hunter, Co-Director, GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL
Allan MacDonald, Managing Director, MNE
Allison Gardner, Head of Cinemas, GLASGOW FILM THEATRE
Andrea Calderwood, Producer, SLATE FILMS (LAST KING OF SCOTLAND)
Andrew Orr, Managing Director, INDEPENDENT FILM SALES
Anne Mensah, Head of Drama, SKY TV
Anne Murray, Business Relationship Manager, INVEST GLASGOW
Brian Coffey, Producer (CITADEL, STARRED UP)
Carole Sheridan, Producer, SINGER FILMS
Catriona MacInnes, Creative Producer, JUMP CUT
Colin Kennedy, Director, (SWUNG)
Compton Ross, Financier/Producer, (YOU INSTEAD, BELLE)
Dan MacRae, Head of UK Development, STUDIO CANAL
Daniela Nardini, Actor (SUNSHINE ON LEITH, FESTIVAL)
Danny McGrath, Assistant Director (PROMETHEUS, SHERLOCK HOLMES)
David Mackenzie, Director (STARRED UP, HALLAM FOE)
Dr. Belle Doyle, Screen Industries Freelance Consultant
Dr. David Archibald, Lecturer, Film & Television Studies, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW
Dr. Katherine Champion, Research Associate, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW
Gavin Smith, Creative Director Development, COMEDY UNIT
Giles Lamb, Managing Director, SAVALAS
Gillian Berrie, Producer, SIGMA FILMS
Greg Hemphil,l Actor/Writer (STILL GAME)
Gregory Burke, Screenwriter & Playwright ('71, BLACK WATCH)
Hamish Walker, Production Executive, GLASGOW FILM OFFICE
Jack O'Connell, Actor ('71, UNBROKEN, STARRED UP)
Jaki McDougall, Chief Executive, GLASGOW FILM THEATRE
Jennifer Reynolds, Film Commissioner, GLASGOW FILM OFFICE
John Archer, Producer, HOPSCOTCH FILMS
John O'Neill, Film Finance, THE O'NEILL PARTNERSHIP
Jonathan Olsberg, Screen Consultant, OLSBERG SPI
Kahleen Crawford, Casting Director (FILTH, ANGELS' SHARE)
Kate Dickie, Actor (RED ROAD, FILTH)
Katharine Otway, Film Business Affairs, KENREN MEDIA
Katie Lander, Managing Director, FINESTRIPE PRODUCTIONS
Lenny Crooks, Film Consultant, Visiting Faculty (STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY NY)
Martin Compston, Actor (SWEET SIXTEEN, LINE OF DUTY)
Michael McDonough, Director of Photography (STARRED UP, WINTER'S BONE)
Mike Bolland, Freelancer, Ex-CHANNEL 4, BBC, NFTS
Mike Kelly, Film Analyst & Consultant, NORTHERN ALLIANCE
Paul Laverty, Writer (MY NAME IS JOE, ANGELS' SHARE)
Peter La Terriere, Managing Director, EUROPEAN FILM BONDS
Peter Mullan, Actor/Director (SUNSHINE ON LEITH, NEDS)
Professor Nick Higgins, Director, Creative Media Academy, UWS
Reno Antoniades, Film Lawyer (RUSH, UNDER THE SKIN)
Richard Brown, Producer (TRUE DETECTIVE)
Rob Kettlewell, Financier, RED SKIN MEDIA
Roddy Hart, Musician, Actor (SUNSHINE ON LEITH)
Roland Kennedy, Director, FILM CITY CAPITAL
Sean Gascoine, Agent, UNITED AGENTS
Stuart Cosgrove, Director of Creative Diversity, CHANNEL 4
Sue Bruce Smith, Filmmaker
Suzanne Reid, Production Manager (DA VINCI'S DEMONS)
Tiernan Kelly, Director, FILM CITY GLASGOW
Tommy Gormley, Co-Producer (STAR WARS VII)
Tony Safford, Co-Head of Acquisitions, FOX SEARCHLIGHT
As you can see, it's already attracted the signatures of a number of heavy hitters in the industry, both local and from further afield. Please consider adding yours!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

There's something about Léa...

...Seydoux, that is. She first caught my attention, and that of much of the rest of the world, with her sterling performance in Abdellatif Kechiche's BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (alongside Adèle Exarchopoulos), and she continues to impress in GRAND CENTRAL, an intriguing and alluring little film by Rebecca Zlotowski in which she plays the love interest to a nuclear power plant worker. Oh, and she has a leading role in the next James Bond film, SPECTRE, which should ensure that her star continues in its ascendancy.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Top 10 Giallo Films for the Beginner

It's been four years since I last wrote for DVD Times, the site now known as The Digital Fix. I had a few reasons for stepping down, including a degree of uncertainty surrounding the site's future. Thankfully, it survived and has continued to prosper, although I felt it was time for me to make a clean break. After writing more than 300 reviews, I'd burned myself out and was getting to the stage of no longer being able to remember what I'd written. (Or seen. I remember vehemently insisting that I'd never seen David Koepp's SECRET WINDOW, only for it to be pointed out to me that I'd written a review of it.)

Today marks the first time I've had an article on film published on a web site other than my own since 2010. Dan Stephens, one of my former DVD Times colleagues, contacted me asking if I'd be willing to put together an article for his web site, Top Ten Films, with the brief "an introduction to the giallo in 10 films." I said yes, and you can find the finished piece here:

Have a look and tell me what you think of my choice of films. As I mention in the article, I deliberately went for ten films that I felt would be most appropriate for someone new to the genre rather than my ten absolute favourite gialli (though if I did produce such a list, a number of the same films would also appear on it). I doubt I'll go back to writing regular reviews any time soon, but I enjoyed the process of putting this piece together and was surprised by how quickly I was able to "get back on the wagon", so to speak.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Chasing Jessica Chastain

One of the most disappointing aspects for me of Christopher Nolan's ambitious but heavily flawed INTERSTELLAR was its underuse of Jessica Chastain, an actor who I only became aware of in the last couple of years but who's been impressing me in everything in which I've seen her, particularly Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY, a film she carried more or less single-handedly by virtue of being the sole figure of audience identification in what could otherwise have been a meandering and only loosely connected series of events. Of course, it helps too that she's extremely striking-looking. With her red hair and incredibly pale skin, she can't help but be the most eye-catching part of any frame in that film, whether she's standing in the desert or in a room full of grey men in grey suits.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Beam me up, Scottie!

The Herald has released pictures of the interior of the soon-to-be-completed South Glasgow University Hospital, set to be one of the largest hospital complexes in Europe. I'm sure I can't be the only one who immediately thought of JJ Abrams' STAR TREK reboot when I saw them:

All kidding aside, it looks very impressive, and a massive improvement over the dingy old Western Infirmary, in whose A&E department I've spent the occasional evening over the years.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

State of the nation

On the 18th September 2014, approximately 45% of Scotland's population voted for independence. A minority, yes, but a significant one. You'd think, then, that with such a vast number of people all supporting a similar cause, there would be a number of pro-independence newspapers to support their viewpoint -- just as there are newspapers that support the Tories or Labour -- right?

You'd be wrong. Throughout the independence campaign, just one single newspaper supported a Yes vote, and it wasn't even a daily. It was the weekly Sunday Herald, whose sister publication, the Herald, published Monday-Saturday, ultimately backed a No vote, as did the vast majority of the newspapers published in Scotland, either explicitly or implicitly. (The Scottish Sun was one of the only newspapers to make a resolute declaration of neutrality at the eleventh hour.) Almost half the country's population had their opinion reflected by a single weekly paper. A scandalous state of affairs, as I imagine most sane people would agree.

Last week, that gulf narrowed in a small but significant way with the introduction of the first weekly newspaper to explicitly support independence, The National. When it came out for Yes, the Sunday Herald defied all expectations and achieved something that no other newspaper has managed for a very long time indeed: it increased its sales figures. Not merely increased them, but DOUBLED them. Sensing that they were on to a good thing, the publishers behind the Herald and Sunday Herald, NewsQuest, decided to commission a pro-independence weekly using the same editorial team and most of the same contributors. What started off as a week-long trial run was confirmed on Friday to continue indefinitely as the paper broke all expectation in terms of sales figures. In fact, it proved so popular that, by as early as Tuesday, the publisher doubled its print run. There is a healthy appetite, it seems, for a paper that explicitly supports the concept of independence and challenges the establishment narrative.

Myself, I took advantage of the rather generous digital subscription offer of a week's worth of issues (i.e. five -- the paper doesn't publish on Saturdays and Sundays) for £1.50. I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, an avid newspaper reader. For as long as I've had any interest in current affairs, I've been able to get all the information I need online, which I find vastly preferable to picking up a physical paper -- not just because it's less cumbersome to read and I don't get ink on my fingers, but also because it means I can get my information from a variety of sources instead of being restricted to the editorial line of a single publication. In fact, before the Sunday Herald started supporting independence, the only times I'd ever bought a paper were when I was looking for job advertisements. I bought the Sunday Herald most weeks more as a means of supporting the endeavour than because I had any intention of reading it cover to cover (most of their articles are available online anyway), and have decided to do the same with the National. In fact, I just took out a three-month subscription to the digital edition for a very reasonable £16.99.

As far as its content goes, someone -- accurately, I feel -- described it as essentially a Scottish, pro-independence version of the i Newspaper. It's more or less a tabloid, albeit not of the cheap, tawdry variety -- there are no Page 3 girls, for instance, and celebrity gossip is more or less non-existent. (The covers are really its most sensationalist aspect.) The style is accessible, with clear, direct language and lots of large pictures. A few advertisements too, at the moment mostly for pro-Yes outfits like Glasgow's Yesbar and Deacon Blue's upcoming tour, though that appears to be changing, with Friday's edition having been expanded from 32 to 40 pages because of an increase in advertisers wanting to hawk their wares within its covers. Starting tomorrow there's even a crossword puzzle, along with cartoons from the brilliant Greg Moodie. The content is overwhelmingly focused on Scotland and Scottish politics in particular, but there is a decent amount of international content as well. I particularly like the inclusion of a profile of a different world leader each day.

It seems bizarre to be celebrating the fact that independence now has the backing of 3% of the print media, but that's the situation we're living with. Whereas Catalonia has its own television networks and press, which are able to take a pro-independence line, Scotland has for a long time been extremely poorly served by its media, with the establishment (i.e. Westminster, unionist) line being piped in on a daily basis... and nowhere was this more apparent than during the final two-week anti-independence blitzkreig, where the BBC News channel essentially turned into a 24-hour rolling propaganda broadcast, prompting at least one former contributor to condemn it for its Pravda-esque antics. 3% vs. 97% is still a sad indictment of our media, but the tectonic plates are shifting. Where the National has led the way, other publications like the Scottish Independent and Scottish Statesman look set to follow. The times they are a-changing...

Friday, 28 November 2014

A snapshot in time

Clearing through the contents of my photos folder today, I came across this little work of horror. It's my desk while I was in the process of revising for my finals circa April/May 2005. I'd like to say I'm more organised now, but the reality is all that's changed is that most of my paperwork is now of the digital variety.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Quote of the day...

...comes from, of all people, Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, commenting on the fact that three of the four "main" parties in Holyrood are now led by women:
In a back-handed compliment to that huge Hollywood blockbuster Three Men And A Little Lady, this parliament is now fronted by three ladies and a little Willie.
The "little Willie" he mentions is, of course, the Liberal Democrats' non-entity of a leader, Willie Rennie.

(Source: STV News)

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The 50/50 cabinet

Yesterday, Scotland's new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, unveiled her reshuffled cabinet -- the first cabinet in the world to achieve complete parity between men and women. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and Education Secretary Mike Russell are out -- replaced by Michael Matheson and Angela Constance respectively -- while Health Secretary Alex Neil has become Social Justice Secretary, his old role now filled by Shona Robison. As was trailed by last weekend's Sunday Herald, John Swinney will step into the shoes of Deputy First Minister, in addition to continuing in his role as Finance Secretary.

I'm not surprised to see MacAskill and Russell go. Both were pilloried heavily in the media and on the opposition benches for a number of reasons -- MacAskill primarily for his rather ill thought out (and currently iced) plans to remove the requirement of corroboration that is unique to Scotland's legal system, and Russell for his less than universally popular education reforms (though it goes without saying that the ire directed towards him pales into insignificance compared to that received by Gove south of the border). Neil too was on the receiving end of an infantile smear campaign cooked up by the Labour party (over his intervention to stop the closure of a mental health ward in his constituency), so in a sense his sideways move could be seen as an attempt to clean the slate. (Incidentally, it was observed by Alex Salmond in his final First Minister's Questions last Thursday that Labour had, at one point or other, called for the resignation of every single member of his cabinet... with the exception of himself.)

As regards the new cabinet's gender equality, while I think it's a laudable achievement, I must admit that I have very mixed feelings about the idea of gender quotas, or indeed quotas of any kind. Given the low number of women in politics in the UK, they may to an extent be a necessary evil, but I'm always left feeling rather uncomfortable with the idea that a person's gender could potentially have played a greater role in their appointment than their suitability for the job. I don't for a minute wish to suggest that any of the women promoted to the cabinet got the job at the expense of a better qualified male counterpart, but such accusations are inevitably going to surface in these situations.

Today Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and Stewart Hosie addressed a crowd of 12,000 independence supporters at the packed out Glasgow Hydro. I was working and so wasn't able to go, but my dad did and was good enough to bring me back a giant foam hand, which unfortunately I'm finding rather difficult to type with.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Musical musings: The Hypnotist

This evening, I watched THE HYPNOTIST, a not particularly remarkable slice of Nordic noir from director Lasse Hallström, based on the novel of the same name by Lars Kepler. The film itself may have been underwhelming, but I did appreciate the score by Oscar Fogelström, in particular the piece that played over the closing credits, available here:

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Changing of the guard

Yesterday, the first day of the SNP's annual party conference in Perth, saw the reins of party leader formally handed over from Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon, in what was easily the most seamless transition of power I've ever witnessed. I'm certainly struggling to think of any other political leader in recent history elected on 100% of her party's vote... though it certainly helped that no-one was foolhardy enough to stand against her.

Sturgeon and Salmond share similar backgrounds. Born in a council house (in Prestwick rather than Linlothgow), she attended a state school and benefited from a free university education (she studied Law at Glasgow University, while Salmond studied Economics at St. Andrews') and joined the SNP at the age of 16 (she was already a member of the CND). She has always been an incredibly shrewd and capable political operator, and opponents underestimate her at their own peril. For instance, in a now-notorious STV debate, she famously reduced Scottish secretary and supposed "bruiser" Alistair Carmichael (seriously, Google his name and "bruiser" and see how many hits turn up) to a blithering wreck who asked moderator Rona Dougall to intervene on his behalf. (Her weary response -- "Answer the question, Alistair" -- was the icing on the cake.) The unionist parties may like to smugly characterise her election as a "coronation" and point out that she has spent the last seven years being groomed to step into Salmond's shoes, but there's little sense of political nepotism in her appointment -- she really is, by a country mile, the best person for the job.

Sturgeon's ascendancy also leads us to the unprecedented situation of all three major parties being led by women. (I'm including Labour even though, strictly speaking, Westminster MP Anas Sarwar is currently standing in as branch officer following Johann Lamont's applecart-spilling resignation. In any event, Labour's interim Holyrood spokesperson is also a female of the species, Jackie Baillie. And as for the dear old Lib Dems... well, does anyone outside of their own rapidly contracting party even remember who their leader in Scotland is?) I'm not so naive as to suggest that a party being led by a woman is automatically preferable to its being led by a man (just look at Margaret Thatcher, or her spiritual successors, the current leader of the Scottish Tories and the outgoing leader of Scottish Labour), but anything that breaks the political stranglehold of the old boys' club has got to be a step in the right direction. More pertinent, I feel, is that Sturgeon, like Salmond before her, wasn't born into a life of privilege and has got to where she is today through a lot of hard work rather than because she went to the right university and rubbed shoulders with the right people.

Yesterday also saw the party's depute leader elected, with Stewart Hosie coming first with 59% of the vote, from a pool of three candidates. The only Westminster MP to stand for the position, Hosie was my first choice (the election used the single transferrable vote system, allowing you to rank candidates in order of preference), primarily because he's a very smooth, capable operator who comes across extremely well whenever he's interviewed. He strikes me as a hard man to rattle, which is good because he'll no doubt be spending a lot more time in the glare of the media spotlight from now on. There is another advantage, though: it gives the SNP a more prominent profile in Westminster -- something that will no doubt be required if the party is to be successful in its stated goal of winning a majority of Scottish seats in the 2015 election. It also allows Sturgeon the opportunity to choose her own Deputy First Minister for the Holyrood parliament -- effectively two for the price of one.

I'm incredibly sad to see Alex Salmond go, and a part of me still wishes he could have been talked out of falling on his sword. He's been such a staple of Scottish political life for so long that the thought of someone else standing at the dispatch box is genuinely difficult to get my head around. There's also the principle of the matter: Salmond has behaved with integrity throughout his political life, and it seems mighty unfair that someone of his character is stepping down while the assorted pirates and cutthroats of the LibLabCon "Better Together" alliance are (for now, anyway) congratulating themselves and each other on a smear campaign well done and/or being measured for their ermine robes. (Little known fact: he donates a third of his salary to charity every year. The fact that he has never publicised this says a lot about the sort of person he is.) That said, it's becoming increasingly clear that, despite standing down as party leader and First Minister, he has no intention of disappearing into the shadows. And it strikes me that a renegade Salmond, unshackled from the responsibilities of First Minister, could well prove to be far more of a thorn in the side of the British state than he ever was in office.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Bona sort, Catalunya!

Today, the people of Catalonia go to the polls in a historic independence referendum. They extended a great deal of support and goodwill to the Scottish independence campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the 18th September, so it's only fair to return the favour and wish them the very best of luck.

Bona sort, Catalunya! Hopefully you'll manage to achieve what we couldn't.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Flaming effigies and flaming morons

Live from the heart of Middle England...

Last night, Guy Fawkes Night, the people of Lewes in East Sussex participated in an annual local tradition of burning effigies of public figures they don't like. This year, one of the star attractions, and the subject of considerable media attention, was a giant Alex Salmond figure, wearing  accompanied by a smaller effigy of the Loch Ness Monster. This event was gleefully trailed on Twitter by the Tory-controlled local council, and provoked a veritable shitstorm of online attention. The official line is that the police intervened and confiscated the effigies following multiple complaints, though eyewitness reports state that the Salmond effigy, or another just like it, was in fact stuffed with fireworks and blown to smithereens.

Ordinarily I wouldn't get particularly concerned about this sort of behaviour. Politicians, for better or for worse, are public figures and invariably end up on the receiving end of a lot of ire, some deserved, some not. As far as I'm concerned, Alex Salmond is that rare breed -- an honourable politician -- and has done nothing to deserve such opprobrium. That said, if you live deep in the heart of Daily Mail-reading, UKIP-loving Middle England, you may well disagree. From their point of view, Salmond is the monster who came close to breaking up Our Glorious Union (TM) -- in their fevered imaginations some sort of modern day Hitler (you know, as opposed to an actual modern day Hitler like that beer-swilling goon they themselves worship in worryingly high numbers). And of course, stunts like this are nothing new. Plenty of effigies of Margaret Thatcher, for instance, have been burned throughout the UK (though, in my not entirely unbiased opinion, she did far more to deserve such treatment). No, the really sick part is the inclusion in the burning of "Yes" and "45%" symbols. By doing that, the people involved were responsibly for symbolically burning not just a politician but also 45% -- 1.6 million -- of a country's population.

Of course, this is far from the most offensive thing the people of Lewes have done. A couple of years ago, they burned an effigy of Angela Merkel, performing a Nazi salute and wearing the Iron Cross. Stay classy, Lewes.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Harper's bizarre

Striking vintage photograph of Jessica Harper from one of my all-time favourite films, Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Musical musings: Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN is a bizarre and hypnotic film that I'm not altogether sure I actually like. It's certainly unforgettable, though, with a terrific performance by Scarlett Johansson and a view of Glasgow that's totally different from anything I've ever seen before. (It helps, I suppose, that we're seeing it through the eyes of an extra-terrestrial, to whom all human behaviour seems alien.) It's a film I definitely intend to revisit before the end of the year, so I can form a more definite opinion of it before drawing up my annual Top 10.

One thing's for sure, a huge part of what makes the film so eerie and unnerving is the fabulous score my Mica Levi. I normally dislike atonal stuff (I once got into virtual fisticuffs on a message board for rather glibly suggesting that the score to the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, didn't actually constitute music), but for some reason I adore this. The track above, "Death", is my favourite of the bunch.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

I guess that's the "English Votes for English Laws" issue settled, then

Seat projections for the Westminster 2015 election based on the results of today's IPSOS MORI poll.

Memo to Labour: if you lie (in both senses of the word) with the Tories, be prepared to be treated like Tories.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

My Windows 8.1 comedy misadventure

On Monday evening, just after 9 o'clock, I decided to finally replace my Windows 7 installation on my main desktop PC with Windows 8.1. I assumed the upgrade process would be relatively straightforward, taking a couple of hours at most and requiring minimal effort on my part other than putting the DVD in the drive and clicking "Next" where necessary. I should add that I had no burning NEED to install Windows 8.1 -- I just fancied a change after all these years, and am one of those people who likes to be running the latest version of any software. I've been running Windows 8.1 on the secondary partition on my MacBook Pro and have had no complaints about it, once Charms and other annoyances have been disabled and Start8 is installed. And besides, Windows 8.x has a nifty file transfer dialogue.

More fool me.

9:30 PM

My problems started when I discovered that, despite Windows 8.1 being a free upgrade available to all Windows 8 owners, I couldn't actually install Windows 8.1 using my Windows 8 license key. That's right, it demands a specific Windows 8.1 key. No problem, I thought -- I'll install Windows 8, then install the Windows 8.1 update afterwards. After all, it's basically just a service pack, right?

More on that later. First, however, a more immediate problem.

10:00 PM

I updated to Windows 8 successfully and found myself with over 100 Windows updates to install... one of which, I assumed, would be the Windows 8.1 update. I promptly elected to install all 100+ updates in one go and sat back to wait for it to do its thing.

10:30 PM

"Failure configuring Windows updates. Reverting changes. Do not turn off your computer".


Obviously, the system had decided to crap itself when faced with so many updates at once. No biggie, I thought. I'll wait for it to roll back, then install them in blocks of, oh, say, 20 at a time. Problem solved.

Except not.

00:30 AM

Two hours(ish) later, after several reboots and the same error message continuing to appear, it began to dawn on me that this wasn't going to be plain sailing. Realising that there was nothing for it, I pulled the plug and booted into the recovery menu, intending to make use of the system refresh utility that made its debut with Windows 8.

To explain, you have three options when you do this. The first and least invasive of these is a system restore, which takes you system back to an earlier point in time with a minimum of hassle. This has been a standard feature in Windows for many years now, and I've used it on a few occasions in the past without any problems.

Error message telling me there are no usable system restore points. Strike 1.

The second, more invasive option, is a system refresh, which scrubs all your settings and installed programs but keeps your files intact. Not ideal, but oh well. I decided to try that.

"There was a problem refreshing your PC. No changes were made." Strike 2.

Option three is the nuclear option: what Microsoft calls a reset, which is essentially the equivalent of wiping your entire hard drive and reinstalling from scratch. Microsoft claims this means you'll lose your files, though obviously if, like me, you keep all your files on a secondary hard drive anyway, that's not the case.

"There was a problem resetting your PC. No changes were made." Strike 3.

At this point I realised the whole system was goosed to the point that Windows couldn't even nuke itself, meaning I'd have to do the job for it. By this time, it was approaching...

01:00 AM

Not a problem. I've reinstalled Windows more times and on more computers than I care to remember. It doesn't faze me, and it's not as if there's anything irreplaceable on my C: drive.

01:30 AM

And the process of installing a fresh copy of Windows 8 was straightforward enough. Once I'd got myself into a fresh desktop, I set about downloading the 100+ Windows updates all over again and installing them in chunks.

02:30 AM

Success! Windows was fully updated and ready for action. Only... where was the Windows 8.1 upgrade? There was no download showing up in Windows Update, where you'd logically expect to find it.

A quick visit to Google told me that, contrary to all logic, you do not in fact download the Windows 8.1 update through Windows Update, but rather through the dreaded App Store. OK, then. It was easy enough to find: a big button reading "Update to Windows 8.1 for free." Which I dutifully clicked.

And then got this message:


So that's it? No explanation? Just "Something happened." Great going, Microsoft. Really fantastic job with the error message there.

Back to Google once again, and it turned out I was far from the only person having this problem. It appears to be a widespread issue with multiple possible causes, and nothing I tried, from multiple reboots to deleting the Windows Update cache, could fix it.

03:30 AM

By this time I was, to put it mildly, a little ticked off and having trouble keeping my eyes open. However, faced with the choice of admitting defeat and calling it a night, or staying up and persevering, I chose the latter. During my Google search for solutions to the aforementioned cryptic error message, I'd inadvertently discovered that it's actually possible to install Windows 8.1 without owning a Windows 8.1 key. Microsoft provides generic keys for use by businesses which are installing Windows on multiple machines at once, with a 30-day grace period after that to acquire and input a legitimate key in order to fully activate the installation. And, it turns out, you can activate using your Windows 8 key.

That's right. You can activate Windows 8.1 using a Windows 8 key, but you can't INSTALL Windows 8.1 using a Windows 8 key. Oh, Microsoft.

So I performed a complete reinstall of Windows. AGAIN.

05:00 AM

Seven and a half hours after I started what I thought would be a seamless and fast operating system update, I finally had a working, fully updated copy of Windows 8.1... with none of my programs and settings, of course, but by this time I was grateful just to have a functioning computer. I'll no doubt end up spending much of today reinstalling things, tweaking the OS to my tastes and so on.

So, at the end of the day, I guess the question has to be "Was it worth it for that fancy file transfer dialogue?" I'll leave you to figure that one out. For now, all I'll say is that this was a somewhat different experience to upgrading my MacBook Pro from OS X Mavericks to Yosemite, a process which took all of 25 minutes and required no user input whatsoever beyond restoring the privileges for a couple of tools I've installed to help OS X make more sense to my poor Windows-infused brain (Karabiner and ShiftIt).

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Ding dong...

I woke up this morning to the news that Johann Lamont, "leader" of "Scottish" Labour, had resigned with immediate effect, giving an exclusive interview in the party's house journal, the Daily Record. In doing so, she has become the fourth SLab leader in a row to be seen off by Alex Salmond since he became First Minister in 2007. This just shy of a month after giving an interview to the same newspaper in which, following mounting speculation that the knives were being sharpened for her, she insisted that she was going nowhere and proclaimed her ambition to be the next First Minister. (OK, stop laughing...)

Artist's impression of Lamont's political fortunes
in the Yes-supporting Sunday Herald last week.

With her excruciating performances on Thursday mornings at First Minister's Questions and a knack for soundbite gaffes that would make George W. Bush blush, Lamont never appeared comfortable in the role of party leader, and has looked like a (political) dead woman walking for at least the last year. She also came across, either as a result of her actual personality or the scripts prepared for her by her spin doctors, as a bitter, spiteful individual -- a perception given credence by the hand grenade she lobbed at the party's Westminster leadership on her way out the door. She claims to be sick of being overruled by London, whom she accuses of running the Scottish division as little more than a regional branch office, and of failing to understand that Scotland's political centre is now Holyrood, not Westminster. (We could have told you that, Johann.)

That's right, the woman who campaigned so strenuously for Scotland to remain governed by Westminster has resigned because she doesn't like being governed by Westminster. I presume she doesn't "do" irony.

In my view, Lamont's departure is both a blessing and a curse to the Yes side. A blessing, because she leaves SLab in such a state of utter turmoil that it's difficult to see how it can recover. There is no heir apparent to her "crown" -- calling the talent on the Labour benches at Holyrood third rate would be overly charitable, and her accusations of London interference means that any "big hitter" parachuted in from the Westminster benches is going to have about as much credibility as... well, Johann Lamont. On the other hand, Lamont's ineptitude has long been viewed as a gift to the SNP. Truly, she was so poor that whoever replaces her can't help but look better by comparison. Then again, much the same was said of her predecessor Iain Gray...

One thing's for sure, I doubt the BBC's James Cook had any idea he was writing the epitaph for Lamont's career when he made this observation to her on a panel show back in August:

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

To the polls I go

As a new fully paid up member of the SNP, I've just cast my vote in the deputy leadership ballot -- Stewart Hosie as first choice, Angela Constance as second, both for more or less the reasons stated here by James Kelly.

I've nothing against the third candidate, current transport minister Keith Brown, and I suspect he'd make a solid Deputy Leader/Deputy First Minister, but the other two have impressed me more, both with their candidacy statements and with their words and deeds to date. Hosie's greatest work to date, for me, is his resounding defeat of human windbag George "Forces of Darkness" Robertson in a debate at Abertay University just over a year ago:

Friday, 17 October 2014

The shifting sands

Today is a momentous day. Today, polling companies YouGov and Populous each released data on Scottish voting intentions for the 2015 Westminster election. That in itself is hardly newsworthy, as polls like these are two a penny. What IS interesting is the numbers. As with most recent polls of this sort, both give the SNP a clear lead. Quite jaw-dropping, however, is the fact that both also place Labour in third place, behind the Tories.

SNP - 41%
Conservatives - 20%
Labour - 19%
Liberal Democrats - 9%
UKIP - 6%
Greens - 5%

SNP - 35%
Conservatives - 24%
Labour - 21%
Liberal Democrats - 10%
Greens - 4%
UKIP - 4%


It's important to stress that the Tory vote hasn't risen in any meaningful way. They remain as toxic as always in Scotland, where they've never recovered from the backlash they suffered as a result of their policies in the 1980s, most notably using Scotland as a guinea pig to test out the Poll Tax a full year before unleashing it on the rest of the UK. What has happened instead is that the Labour vote appears to be in freefall, dropping to a record low of 19% in the YouGov sample and 21% in the Populous sample. This in a country where, until recently, the joke was that you didn't count Labour votes -- you weighed them.

Something I really found fascinating about the referendum was the apparent eagerness with which Labour willingly put themselves forward as the Tories' foot soldiers. Because make no mistake, the No campaign was bankrolled by Tories, with a Tory prime minister its de facto commander, relying on the Labour campaign machine to carry its message to the masses. In doing so, Labour not only made itself interchangeable with its supposed sworn enemy, it also cemented its position as the party that did Scotland down. The sheer amount of footage that exists of well-known Labour faces poo-pooing a country's hopes and aspirations is quite ming-boggling, and I suspect that even hardened No voters will have a hard time forgetting this, let alone the sight of Labour and Tory politicians linking arms to dance and cheer as the results were announced in the early hours of the 19th of September.

The Scottish Statesman, a pro-Yes online newspaper that has emerged from the ashes of the referendum defeat, has a really interesting article on the changing fortunes of the Labour Party in Scotland, suggesting that, "in blunt terms, Labour is toast." Well worth a read.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

On establishing a writing schedule

Like a lot of writers, I'm a great procrastinator. I'm more than capable of starting the day full of good intentions, sitting down in front of the computer at 9 AM thinking "Just a few minutes to check my emails, then I'll get underway." And before I know it, I'm checking my YouTube subscriptions, reading an article about voting intentions in the 2015 General Election, reading all the comments attached to said article... and then the next thing I know, it's gone midday and I know there's no point trying to get anything done till I've had lunch.

I work best when I have strict deadlines I adhere to, and particularly when those deadlines are fast approaching. When I was researching my PhD, I did most of my work in the fortnight or so before I was due to submit a draft, spending the rest of the time metaphorically sharpening pencils and rearranging my file system. Once I even spent a whole afternoon going through all my documents, changing the font from Times New Roman to Trebuchet MS. (I changed back to Times New Roman before I submitted the final draft.) One of the curses of being an unpublished writer, though, is that there are no actual deadlines, meaning it's entirely possible for me to while away the hours achieving nothing when I really should my nose to the grindstone, churning out the words.

I recently saw a documentary on the BAFTA-winning screenwriter Peter Bowker on the development of his miniseries FROM THERE TO HERE. He talked specifically about the dreaded writer's block (which many people argue is, more often than not, just another word for procrastination) and detailed his own strategy for how to beat it. The Bowker Method, as I'll call it, involves setting yourself specific, brief windows in which to write -- say ten minutes at a time. For those ten minutes, you write. It doesn't matter what, as long as you get something done. It might be crap -- in fact, it almost certainly will be -- but at the end of those ten minute, you walk away from the keyboard and do something else for ten minute. Then you return to the keyboard and start writing again. The idea is that having these brief windows in which to write focuses the mind and forces you to make the most of every second. Gradually, you increase the length of the windows in which you're actively writing and decrease the downtime.

Beginning this week, I started applying an adapted version of the Bowker Method to my own work. I haven't gone as far as to split my writing into 10-minute windows, but I have set myself specific times in the day to do specific tasks. I have two projects on the go at the moment -- one a script, the other a prose piece. I actually find it quite beneficial to be working on two separate (and very different) projects at the same time. It means that, if I run into a brick wall with one, I can put it down for a while and work on the other. The process of working on something very different will hopefully stimulate some lateral thinking and provide me with a way of getting round that impasse once I return to it. So, each morning, I draw up a schedule for the day, splitting my work on the two projects into sessions of about an hour and a half to two hours each. A typical day might look like this:

10 AM - 12 PM -- Project A (script)
12 PM - 1 PM -- Lunch/email catchup
1PM - 2:30 PM -- Project B (prose)
2:30 PM - 3:00 PM -- Go for a walk
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM -- Project A
5:00 PM - 6:00 PM -- Email catchup/reading/general downtime
6:00 PM - 6:30 PM -- Dinner
6:30 PM - 8:00 PM -- Project A or B (depending on which I feel I've achieved the least on over the course of the day)

Obviously, this all goes out the window on the days when I'm out to work. In those instances, I just grab a moment to write when I can -- and 15 minute train journeys are often surprisingly productive, which sort of confirms the principle behind the Bowker Method. And of course there are other variables to disrupt the equation -- I quite often go to the cinema on a Monday morning, for instance, or I might (gasp) end up doing something that involves actual human contact. But on an ideal "writing day", the above schedule is pretty much the template I intend to adhere to.

I'm definitely going to keep this process up for the rest of the week at the very least, and, if it continues to prove productive, for the foreseeable future. So far I've manage to crank out 14 pages of my script over the course of two days, whereas prior to adopting this approach, I'd done nothing more than noodle what I'd already written for the last fortnight.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Where the Yes campaign went wrong

As the dust continues to settle in the aftermath of the independence referendum, the inevitable post mortems into both campaigns are well under way. I definitely don't want to sell the Yes campaign's achievements short, and while I appreciate that there's no such thing as a consolation prize for coming second in a two horse race, convincing 45% of the electorate to vote for independence, in the face of the most relentless bombardment of threats, scare stories, false promises and emotional manipulation I've ever witnessed, and with 99% of the mainstream media arraigned against it, is no small feat. To put that into perspective, if the referendum was held again tomorrow, only 1 in 20 of those who voted No would be required to change their vote in order to secure a Yes victory. As Alex Salmond put it the day after the vote, it's more productive to concentrate not on how far we fell short, but on how far we've travelled. When the referendum was originally announced, support for Yes stood at between 25 and 30%. On the day of the vote, we were only 5% short of victory. In other words, in the space of just over two years, we covered between three and four times the ground now required to close the gap in a hypothetical future referendum. That's amazing.

That said, I think it's safe to say that there were areas in which the Yes campaign's approach couldn't help but contribute to the defeat, and I'd like to focus on that in this rather long-winded piece. I'm not going to talk about the obvious stuff that was beyond our control -- e.g. the aforementioned media bias and the UK government's blatant abuses of its position, for instance using the Scotland Office to brief against independence in the international arena. I'm also not going to go into specific policy issues such as currency, which I feel weren't particularly well handled, due in no small part to the fact that we were essentially locked into the SNP's White Paper script on these issues whether or not we agreed with it. Instead, I want to focus on a handful of broad areas in which I feel the Yes campaign made mistakes that could have been avoided.

The echo chamber effect

Yes undoubtedly dominated social media, but I think some of us mistook online dominance for universal dominance. Wings Over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland, Wee Ginger Dug, Bella Caledonia... they were brilliant for deconstructing the propaganda issued by the No campaign and/or the press, they gave Yessers ample opportunity to talk to one another, and I'm of no doubt that they reached and "converted" a great many people who would otherwise have voted No. But they failed to reach a great swathe of people who never go on the internet, or at least never venture further afield than a handful of mainstream (and therefore most likely No-friendly, if they took any stance in the debate) pages. Days before the vote, there were people on Facebook and Twitter claiming that it was clear Yes was going to win 70:30 on account of the much bigger online Yes presence. Many of these are, I suspect, the same people who are now indulging in far-fetched conspiracy theories about vote-rigging and widespread electoral fraud.

A few days before the vote, I said, based on my own subjective impressions, that "Scotland doesn't feel to me like a nation that's about to vote against its own self-determination." Replace "Scotland" with "Glasgow", and you'd be right. Glasgow voted Yes by majority, and my perception of the state of play was, not unsurprisingly, primarily based on the feeling on the ground in Glasgow. If you weren't there, it's very difficult to describe with words the feeling of being in Glasgow's city centre in the week leading up to the vote. I've never taken drugs, but I reckon likening it to a great acid trip is the best way to explain it. The whole atmosphere was one of light-headed euphoria, with spontaneous gatherings of hundreds of people singing in the streets, George Square occupied for days on end by people partying and waving flags... Even the arrival of a hundred Labour troughers to attempt to convince us to vote No took on a carnivalesque air thanks to a guy in a rickshaw who pursued them all the way from Central Station to the top of Buchanan Street playing the Imperial March from STAR WARS. It really felt like we were on the cusp of a glorious, irreverent, peaceful revolution.

So in a way my perception was accurate, but it failed to take into account the bigger picture, i.e. what was happening across Scotland as a whole. I doubt there were too many people in the Borders engaging in hundreds-strong impromptu renditions of Caledonia and Flower of Scotland, for example. The success in Glasgow was mirrored only in three other constituencies: North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee, and the fact that these are among the largest in terms of population was still not enough to swing the vote in Yes's favour.

The "scary radicals" factor

The Yes campaign was admirably inclusive, bringing together nationalists, internationalists, socialists, environmentalists, feminists, trade unionists, human rights activists, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Scottish-born Scots, Italian Scots, English Scots, Asian Scots... in other words, people from pretty much every walk of life. I've heard it mentioned that some members of the world's press who descended on Scotland in the week ahead of the vote came expecting to find something similar to Golden Dawn or some other sort of neo-fascist movement, and were bewildered to discover people of every creed, colour, gender and background united under the broad Yes banner.

Still, in one respect, there was a broad level of consensus: Yes was very much a left-wing movement, and one that made Tory-bashing part of its daily rhetoric. The chief executive of Yes Scotland, Blair Jenkins, specifically stated that one of the best reasons he could think of to vote Yes was so we would never have to endure another Tory government ever again. As inclusive as Yes might have been, it nonetheless immediately excluded a substantial minority of the electorate: the comfortably off, socially conservative upper middle class who, rather than being filled with hope when hearing talk of wealth redistribution and a root-and-branch restructuring of the economy, were instead filled with dread and focused not on what those worse off than themselves might stand to gain but rather what they themselves might stand to lose. True, the SNP's official proposals, as laid out in the White Paper, were relatively conservative, edging the country's economic and social structures towards a Nordic-style social democratic model without doing anything particularly revolutionary, but every one of the most prominent voices that made up the grassroots campaign -- from Tommy Sheridan to Cat Boyd to Robin McAlpine to Lesley Riddoch -- was calling for revolution, not evolution. The Yes campaign lacked a prominent centre-right conservative voice, which could have reached out to the sort of people that were never going to give the likes of Common Weal or the Radical Independence Campaign the time of day.

Similarly, though not unrelated as there is some definite overlap in terms of demographics, the Yes campaign failed spectacularly to engage a majority of the elderly. The polling by Michael Ashcroft on the night of the referendum makes for sobering reading, suggesting that fewer than 30% of people over the age of 60 voted Yes. In fact, if those over 60 had been excluded from voting, then according to the Ashcroft figures, Yes would have won. In some respects, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack: the over-60s are the only generation that have any widespread residual sense of Britishness, and there's not much you can do to persuade someone of the benefits of independence when the very concept is an anathema to them. However, I think any future pro-independence campaign would have to look long and hard at how to reach older voters, because it seems pretty clear that it failed spectacularly in that regard. Relating back to the echo chamber issue, the majority of people above a certain age get their information from traditional sources, i.e. newspapers and the BBC. These people weren't, by and large, popping on to Facebook or Wings Over Scotland to see the Daily Record's latest scare story being debunked. For the most part, they were only hearing one narrative, and it was the unionist one.

How do you deal with that problem in future? Well, the most morbid answer is that this demographic not going to be around indefinitely, but I think most would agree that something more proactive needs to be done than simply waiting for a certain proportion of the electorate to shuffle off the mortal coil. I don't have any definitive answers here -- I'm simply flagging it up as an issue that needs to be tackled.

The Salmond effect

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are, by a country mile, the most popular political figures in Scotland. They have approval ratings that other UK politicians can only dream of. However, there's no denying that Salmond is a marmite figure. While a great many people respect and admire him, a great many also loathe him with a passion. Particularly in the Labour party ranks, blind hatred of the SNP in general and Salmond in particular is endemic, and I was shocked by how many people I encountered who articulated only a single reason for voting No: "Because ah can't stand that Alex Salmond." The media and the No campaign (and I really should stop referring to these as two separate entities) capitalised on this by seeking to portray the Yes campaign as Salmond's personal vanity project, focusing on him to the exclusion of virtually every other player (except perhaps Nicola Sturgeon) and essentially conducting a two and a half year long character assassination. And I suspect, incidentally, that they'd have been even more effective if they'd been able to unearth some skeletons from his past. The fact that, as far as we can tell, Salmond's personal life is squeaky clean to the point of being boring must have been a continual source of frustration for the No campaign's spin doctors. I'm actually surprised we didn't see some sort of fabricated "Salmond kicks puppies" scandal in the final days of the campaign.

It's easy to demonise a single figurehead. This was harder to do with the No campaign because it was like a Hydra. While Alistair Darling was nominally the head of the campaign, in truth plenty of other figures ratcheted up as much screen time as him, or more. Particularly in the final stages of the campaign, following his crushing defeat by Salmond in the second of two televised debates, Darling was sidelined almost completely, with the likes of Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown enjoying far higher profiles. It was far harder to run the sort of campaign against them that was run against Salmond, because frankly you'd have had to discredit at least a dozen of them. While that wouldn't be too hard in the case of Darling (i.e. the man who was in charge of the Treasury during the crash of 2008, who flipped his home four times to abuse the MPs' expenses system, and who somehow made the transition from Trotskyite radical to being warmly applauded as a guest speaker at the Conservative Party conference) the likes of Brown -- nasty, venal man though he is -- still inexplicably command a great deal of support and admiration from Labour supporters in Scotland. While to a certain extent it was the media that focused unrelentingly on Alex Salmond, I suspect the Yes campaign could have done more to push other, less divisive figures into the spotlight. This matter does need to be looked at, because in the hypothetical case of another referendum, I would imagine the press and Westminster parties will, given the opportunity, simply do to Nicola Sturgeon what they did to Salmond.

The smile factor

The No campaign's success proves one thing: fear works. If you bombard people with scare stories about their pensions, currency, EU membership status and even the bloody BBC every day for two and a half years, then a significant number will be brow-beaten into submission. Alex Salmond repeatedly claimed that the only way a negative campaign could win was if the opposition was equally negative. The result gives lie to this idea. Many of us on the Yes side spent a great deal of time laughing at the No campaign for constantly trotting out the same debunked scare stories regarding pensions, EU membership and the NHS, but the truth is that these scare stories were carefully chosen and deployed for maximum impact. As Alex Salmond put it in a speech in his constituency shortly after the referendum, frightening old people is a cheap, nasty thing to do, but it's not hard. The No campaign was the epitome of cheap and nasty, but it worked.

The Yes campaign spent a great deal of time on the defensive, rebutting the No campaign's threats and scare stories without offering up any of their own. It was only in the final weeks that the Yes side finally went on the offensive with a "scare story" (I use quotes because what they were warning about was and is very real, in stark contrast to much of the utter bilge Better Together spewed out) of its own: the threat of a No vote to the Scottish NHS. I think the official Yes campaign tried too hard to replicate the template the SNP harnessed in their 2007 and 2011 election campaigns to such great effect, setting out their stall on the basis of can-do positivism in the face of their opponents' can't-do negativity, but this wasn't an election and they shouldn't have assumed the same rules would apply.

I think the Yes movement can be proud of its campaign for a great many reasons, not least the fact that for the most part it refused to stoop to the level of its opponents. However, the unfortunate truth is that, if your opponent goes around telling lies about you and calling you every name under the sun, it does you little good to behave like a perfect gentleman, smile and say "I love you too." With the odds stacked so highly against it, the Yes campaign needed to be willing to fight dirty. I lost count of the number of times it seemed that, in interviews and debates, Yes representatives appeared to miss open goals out of a desire to appear "nice" and "reasonable". I'm sorry, but when the people you're up against include proven liars, war criminals and expenses cheats, who describe you as "a virus", Nazis and "not genetically programmed to make political decisions", who are willing to tell the elderly and the terminally ill that their pensions will be cut off and that they will be ineligible for organ transplants in the event of a Yes vote, then "nice" and "reasonable" go out the window.

That's about all I've got to say on the subject, for the time being. Obviously, this is still a raw wound for me, and there's little to be achieved by playing out an endless series of what-ifs. Still, I very much hope we're going to get a second bite of the cherry sooner rather than later, and if/when we do, it won't do us any good if we just make the same mistakes all over again. So let's be proud of what we did right, but realistic about what we did wrong, and start figuring out NOW rather than at the last minute what we're going to do differently next time.

A message from the 45%

Today in Freedom Square (formerly known as George Square), the message to Westminster was ringing out loud and clear: "We're not going anywhere."

(Photo by Paddy Gordon)

Asterix enters the third dimension

I'm a big fan of the late René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's Asterix books, though the various film adaptations have been more of a mixed bag. The full length theatrical trailer has now emerged for the upcoming CGI-animated ASTÉRIX: LE DOMAINE DES DIEUX (ASTERIX: THE LAND OF THE GODS in English), and, while I was somewhat sceptical about the idea of a computer-generated Asterix film, I must admit I'm actually pretty impressed by what I'm seeing. I love the snappy timing, and the animation has a pleasingly pliable quality to it, even if the characters do have that all too familiar look of being made of rubber. Of course, Uderzo's drawings always had an amazing sense of dimensionality to begin with, making the transition from 2D to 3D less awkward than something like, say, Tintin. It also happens to be based on one of my favourite books in the series, THE MANSIONS OF THE GODS.

Directed by Louis Clichy and Alexandre Astier and produced by M6, the same studio that co-produced the previous animated Asterix film, ASTERIX AND THE VIKINGS, this one appears to be far heavier on rapid-fire dialogue and wordplay than any of the earlier films in the series, which may well end up bringing it closer to the spirit of the original books, whose speech bubbles were packed full of puns and cultural allusions. I'm certainly intrigued to see how this turns out, and hope I don't have to wait too long beyond the French theatrical release date of 26th November.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Snow queen

Because it's all been a bit heavy here recently, what with all this talk of politics, referenda and the crushing of dreams, here's a picture that combines two of the best things in life: redheads (in this case the glorious Emma Stone) and snow.

Friday, 3 October 2014

What now?

I've deliberately avoided writing about the Scottish independence issue for the last week or so. I spent most of the weekend following the referendum feeling numb, angry and completely hopeless, with the double whammy of losing the vote followed shortly afterwards by Alex Salmond's snap decision not to stand for re-election as leader of the SNP in November leaving me devastated. (And how galling it was to watch the man who'd safeguarded our NHS, delivered free prescriptions, university tuition and care for the elderly announcing his resignation, while war criminals, expenses frauds and proven liars smirked and patted themselves on the back.) I wanted to take some time to let my emotions settle and to mull over the main question that must be on every single pro-independence campaigner's mind -- namely "What now?"

It seems reasonable to suggest that the independence movement will not go quietly into the night. In fact, I've been surprised by just how quickly so many people came to terms with the crushing despair of having lost the referendum and immediately began to regroup, speculating as to what the next step should be for the movement. It will undoubtedly change in terms of its immediate goals and tactics, but the long term aim -- independence for Scotland -- remains firmly on the agenda. It certainly remains my aim, though I'm pragmatic enough to assume that, at present, it's off the menu for at least a few years. The people have spoken, and all that. Many of them may have been cajoled, intimidated and deceived into voting No, but vote No they did, and as democrats we have to accept (I almost typed "respect", but decided against it) the result.

That said, I was intrigued that Nicola Sturgeon, when launching her bid for leadership of the SNP (and there can be little doubt that she'll succeed, given that so far no-one has come forward to challenge her, with every other potential candidate giving her their backing), refused to rule out calling another referendum in the future. It would be absurdly unwise for the SNP to go into the next election with the promise of another referendum in their manifesto -- I expect they would be slaughtered at the ballot box by an electorate that's had its fill of rederenda after two and a half years of argument -- but keeping it on standby as a potential weapon to whip out in the event of a dramatic change of circumstances is a wise move.

What would constitute such a change of circumstances? Well, for one thing, the three Westminster parties reneging on the vows they dreamt up on the back of a fag packet in the final weeks of the campaign. For another, the looming EU in/out referendum the Conservatives are promising in 2017. If a scenario were to emerge whereby England voted by majority to leave the EU and Scotland voted by majority to remain (as the polls tend to suggest), then in my view the Scottish Government would be entirely justified in calling a snap independence referendum on the grounds that the tectonic plates had shifted. And they'd probably win it comfortably.

In the meantime, the SNP's immediate goal appears to be holding Westminster to account over the grandiose promises it made in the run-up to the vote. The words "DevoMax" and "federalism" were trotted out several times -- words with specific meanings, but which both the politicians and the media cynically used to make what they were offering sound more impressive than it actually was. "DevoMax", for the avoidance of any doubt, means maximum devolution, i.e. full control of all matters except defence and foreign affairs. Nothing the three Westminster parties have offered (and all are proposing different packages, with Labour's by far the most feeble) comes even remotely close to fulfilling those criteria, but DevoMax we were promised, so DevoMax we will demand. There can be little doubt that Sturgeon will be all too willing to remind them of the language they used when the negotiations begin.

Apparently, in the most recent issue of the Sun on Sunday, David Cameron stated a desire to give Scotland the power to raise and spend all its own money. I have my doubts that he really means this, as it would mean saying goodbye to all those lovely oil revenues. However, let's take these comments at face value for a moment. Realistically speaking, Cameron has little to lose by offering Scotland as much autonomy as possible. There is, after all, only a single Tory MP north of the border, so in a sense Scotland is already a write-off from the Conservative Party's point of view. Any significant transfer of powers would undoubtedly mean reducing Scotland's presence at a UK parliamentary level to compensate, but something tells me Cameron wouldn't lose much sleep over axing a single MP. On the other hand Labour, with its 40 Scottish MPs (at least until the 2015 general election), has far more to lose, which probably explains why Labour's devolution proposals are so toothless. Indeed, Cameron's "English votes for English laws" drive, announced the morning after the referendum in his victory speech, looks more and more like a cunning trap laid for Ed Miliband and his party.

(Incidentally, I have absolutely no problem with the idea of "English votes for English laws", and indeed I commend the SNP's Westminster MPs for adopting the principled stance of not voting on matters that are devolved to the Scottish parliament. That said, there are certain caveats, the most significant one being that the budget Scotland receives is set by Westminster, and a situation could potentially arise whereby Scottish MPs are unable to vote on motions that impact on the Scottish budget.)

Allow me some pie-in-the-sky thinking for a moment. Imagine a scenario by which the UK moved to a truly federal settlement whereby each of the four nations was completely financially autonomous. If such a situation came to pass, then in many respects the question of independence becomes a moot point. I'm not a hard line Scottish nationalist, and wouldn't have too much of a problem with the idea of a union called the United Kingdom continuing in some form, provided Scotland was allowed to govern its own affairs within that union. The only downside (and it is a major one, I admit) is that it does nothing to extricate us from the UK's disastrous foreign policy or resolve the presence of nuclear warheads just miles from our most populous city. That's why, at the end of the day, while I would take DevoMax or federalism as the next best thing, it's still a lesser alternative to true independence, which I believe must remain the ultimate goal. For the time being, though, I believe the immediate task must be to, as Alex Salmond put it, "hold Westminster's feet to the fire" and ensure that they deliver on their promises.

Crucial to this is going to be getting as many pro-independence MPs sent to Westminster in the 2015 general election as possible. Scotland currently has 59 MPs, of whom a mere six are SNP. The rest consist of 40 Labour, 11 Liberal Democrats, and a solitary Tory in the rather weird Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency. The Lib Dems are, it's safe to assume, pretty much toast, barring in their strongholds in the Highlands and Islands, so the main priority must surely be to unseat as many Labour troughers as possible. That's a hard ask -- many of them have massive majorities, and in many constituencies the SNP came third or fourth in the most recent general election. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Labour annihilated in Scotland -- words cannot express how much I despise them and the way they cynically wrap themselves in the flag of social justice while doing nothing to alleviate the poverty the blights their strongholds -- but I'm pragmatic enough to accept that this is unlikely. The "ah vote Labour cuz ma da voted Labour" force is still strong.

That said, the ground appears to be shifting. The Labour citadels of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire both voted Yes by majority (in fact, every single constituency in Glasgow recorded an overall Yes vote), so it may be that the idea of the safe Labour seat is coming to an end. YouGov president Peter Kellner published an interesting article the other day speculating as to the likely makeup of the 2015 parliament, going to far as to suggest that the SNP could potentially hold the balance of power in the same way that the Liberal Democrats did in 2010. If that's the case, then the main precondition for any sort of coalition or confidence and supply arrangement must be a guarantee of full DevoMax.

When 2016 and the Scottish elections swing around, the picture is slightly different. The SNP already hold an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament under a system of proportional representation -- an anomaly that was never supposed to happen. It's feasible that they could return to being a minority government, which they previously managed successfully between 2007 and 2011, but I wouldn't like to suggest that a second majority is completely out of the question. It's certainly highly unlikely, barring some sort of scandal that rocks the incumbent government, that Labour will be back in power in 2016, and as for the Tories and Lib Dems -- forget it. The Tories might just cling on, as there's a core bloc that continues to vote for them come hell or high water, but the Lib Dems have already been reduced to a rump of five MSPs, and are for all intents and purposes irrelevant. The Greens currently only have two MSPs, but they stand a strong chance of increasing their presence, and the fact that the vast majority of their new members will be disillusioned Yes voters (membership has trebled since the referendum) means that the party is unlikely to abandon the pro-independence stance that it only reached after considerable internal debate.

So for the time being, the primary goal seems to be to pack both parliaments with as many pro-Yes MPs and MSPs as possible, and to use that position to agitate for a far more impressive package of new powers than what any of the three Westminster parties are currently proposing. I believe we should dismiss any thought of planning to hold another referendum in the immediate future, but to retain it as an option should (a) Westminster renege on its vows and/or (b) we find ourselves being dragged out of the EU against our will. The matter of independence has not, despite the wishes of the No campaign, been settled, and it's entirely possible that we could find ourselves at the ballot box once again within the next decade.

UP NEXT: My thoughts on why the Yes campaign failed.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

A bumper box of spooktacular fun

With Halloween just over a month away, I decided to treat myself and picked up Anchor Bay's recently released 15-disc deluxe HALLOWEEN: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION Blu-ray box set, containing the eight original HALLOWEEN films and the two Rob Zombie remakes. Having only ever seen the first film, HALLOWEEN H20 and the first Zombie film, this is a bit of a gamble for me, and I'm aware that, as is invariably the case with long-running series, most people are of the opinion that the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly.

That said, the HALLOWEEN series is more or less required viewing for any horror fan, and it's always been a source of mild embarrassment to me that it's taken me so long to correct this oversight. Besides, this set includes the holy grail that is the producer's cut of HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS, in addition to correcting the botch job that was done on mono audio track of the standalone release of the first film. (I sat down to watch it back in July and it would be no exaggeration at all to say that the balance between dialogue, FX and music was so bad as to render it unwatchable. I ended up watching it with the 7.1 remix selected instead.)

I'm not sure whether I'll have the time or inclination to do a write-up for each film in the series, but I'd quite like to write up my overall thoughts in the series once I've had the chance to see it from beginning to end.

Wish me luck!