Tuesday, 26 August 2014

It's a knockout!

I approached last night's debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling with some trepidation. While I thought the previous debate, on STV at the beginning of the month, was nothing like as bad for the First Minister as the media were desperate to claim, I won't deny that it was a low key and somewhat lacklustre performance for a man renowned for his barnstorming style. I also strongly disliked the adversarial format STV adopted which, in conjunction with the frequent ad breaks, rendered the debate disjointed and at times infuriatingly shouty as both men talked over each other in an attempt to make their points. Mindful that largely the same format would be used for the second of the two debates, and of the BBC's less than stellar (to put it mildly) coverage of the referendum to date, I very nearly didn't watch it live.

But at the last minute I changed my mind, and boy, was I glad I did. Taking place in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery, the lavish surroundings immediately gave the proceedings a classier feel than the generic studio set STV used at the Conservatoire with its garish primary colours and Jeremy Kyle-style stage and audience gallery. Right from the bat, Salmond seemed to be on form, clearly articulating his vision for an independent Scotland while all Darling could do was angrily jab his finger at "him" and once again fall back on the question of currency. It was the main line of attack he adopted in the previous debate and the subject on which the First Minister came most unstuck last time round. Clearly thinking he was on to a winner, Darling chose to retread the same ground again and again -- something which the audience had audibly grown tired of by the third time he brought it up, as evinced by the chorus of groans that rang out in the gallery.

Faced with clear, concise rebuttals from Salmond and a "Well, what would you do, then?" line of questioning from moderator Glenn Campbell, Darling came unstuck in dramatic fashion. "Of course we could use the pound!" he spluttered in exasperation, and with that the last remaining Project Fear scare story came crashing down. From then on, it was downhill all the way for the former Chancellor, with Salmond seeming to grow in stature by the minute and the audience turning against his opponent in a manner that seemed to suggest a genuine sea change of opinion, at least among those present. Indeed, the biggest body blows for Darling actually came from the impressively clued-up audience, in particular one woman who called him out on his rank hypocrisy regarding his own association with private healthcare providers and told him she hoped he could "feel Aneurin Bevan sitting on [his] shoulder":

As with the previous debate, the most frustrating section by far was the part where the two men cross-examined each other, owing mainly to Campbell's virtually non-existent moderation and Darling's insistence on asking Salmond a question, only to interrupt him three seconds into his answer. To a certain extent, Salmond gave as good as he got, leading to an at times incomprehensible babble of noise, but as his deputy Nicola Sturgeon learned when up against Johann Lamont, when your opponent is shouting you down and talking over you, you really have no option but to raise your own voice to make yourself heard. It wasn't a particularly edifying spectacle in either case, but as with the infamous Sturgeon/Lamont "stairheid rammy", there's little doubt in my mind as to who was at fault.

The cross-examination wasn't a complete dead loss, however. In the STV debate, Darling's biggest Achilles' heel was his inability to name any new powers that would be devolved to Scotland following a No vote, and I genuinely thought he would have come in better prepared this time round. Imagine my surprise, then, as, when asked by Salmond to name three new job-creating powers that would be devolved post-No, Darling again blinked and spluttered before coming out with some feeble line about the UK already providing a wealth of jobs and opportunities. Left defending savage Tory cuts and the hounding of the poor and disabled, he could only feebly insist "Look, I'm a Labour politician" -- a distinction which, most will agree, has long since ceased to be anything more than purely academic.

Since the very beginning, the Yes campaign have been at pains to point out that this referendum is not a vote on Alex Salmond, or Alastair Darling, or for that matter anyone else, but rather about whether the people of Scotland have a right to determine their own destiny, and Salmond made that point again last night. That said, I wouldn't want to underplay the potential for such a strong performance from Salmond to galvanise the broader Yes campaign. Even if last night's debate didn't directly change a single mind, it still provides the "ground soldiers" who are manning stalls, knocking doors and signing up unregistered voters every day with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose as we head into the crucial final three weeks of campaigning.

It's often said that you're only as good as your last performance. As such, if Salmond genuinely did (as I suspect) choose to keep his powder dry and concentrate all his energy on the second of the two debates, then it was certainly the right one to focus on. And with the first postal votes landing on people's doormats (mine included) within the next 36 hours, Salmond the bruiser came to the fore not a moment too soon.

In honour of Synapse Films' upcoming Blu-ray release of Suspiria...

...here's the film's co-star, Italian actress Stefania Casini.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Nice one, Eck

I have it on good authority that David Cameron has refused to accept his challenge, but will still donate a sum to the charity.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The poll you may have missed

With just under a month to go until Scotland votes on whether to remain in the UK or go independent, I'm becoming more and more preoccupied by the outcome. We repeatedly find commentators on TV and in the papers insisting that it's a done deal, that the Yes campaign will be defeated and that pesky Alex Salmond will be sent packing once and for all -- an assertion that they repeat so often and with such insistence that you can tell they desperately hope it's true. Myself, I don't claim to know what the outcome will be. I desperately hope that it's a Yes vote, and the the general impression I get from my colleagues and my own peer group is that that's the way things are headed, but subjective impressions can be very dangerous. My dad, in contrast, is comfortably off and in his 60s, and virtually everyone he knows is a virulent No voter. (He's the sole Yes voice in his wine circle -- and his surprise and disappointment at being the only Yes voter in a wine circle always strikes me as vaguely amusing. It's like coming home from a trade union meeting and expressing surprise that it was dominated by left-wing voices.) Which is unsurprising, because rich, old people are the most No-friendly demographic (the rich because they don't see the need for change, the old because people over the age of 60 traditionally have a much stronger British identity and still remember a time when the standard of living within the union was improving rather than declining).

The point is that you can't just go by your own personal experiences and assume that they hold true for the entire country...

...which is why what the Radical Independence Campaign has been doing is so fascinating. They've been out knocking on doors in the most deprived parts of Scotland, canvassing people on their voting intentions. The results, which never get a lick of airtime in the mainstream media, should be enough to make even the most courageous unionist soil his Union Jack Y-fronts:

Mass canvass figures released 19th August 2014.

It should come as no surprise that support for the union is lowest among those who have the least to lose. These are communities that have been let down by successive Tory and Labour governments, and who in normal elections turn out to vote in depressingly low numbers, because they feel completely disconnected from the political process and believe their vote will make little difference. Except this isn't a normal election -- it's a referendum on the very future of the country, and while the Yes and No camps rarely agree on anything, one thing that both acknowledge is that turnout on the 18th of September is likely to be at unprecedented levels.

This is why I don't put much faith in the "official" polls carried out by the likes of YouGov and Ipsos MORI, all of which have consistently showed a No lead (some fairly strong, others wafer thin). While analysing them can be interesting, and James Kelly over at SCOT Goes POP! does an outstanding job of doing just that, they're all based on guesswork to an extent, with the various pollsters devising complex and often arcane weighting procedures in an attempt to get an accurate result.* Most of these, as far as I can tell, consist of looking at the way people have voted in previous elections and performing various calculations to upweight or downweight respondents accordingly (in addition to other factors like country of birth, social bracket, gender and age). That's all well and good, but what do you do when you have somewhere in the region of a million people who have never voted before but are now expressing a desire to cast their vote on the 18th?

(* What I think these polls DO allow us to do is to identify broad trends. For example, three of the six main pollsters have released polls since Sunday, and all of them show a swing to Yes of between 2 and 4% compared to their previous respective polls. That suggests that some movement from No to Yes has indeed taken place since Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling went head to head on STV. What it doesn't tell us is whether the figures they started out with before the shift took place were remotely accurate.)

As I've said before, I've no idea how the vote is going to go, but if the so-called "missing million" turn out in their droves on polling day, then things could get very interesting.

And for those in the rest of the UK unsure about or opposed to Scottish independence, here's something for you to ponder: a Yes vote will almost certainly lead to the unilateral nuclear disarmament of the UK and could well lead to David Cameron being forced out of office, if not the fall of the entire government. If it was me, I'd be saying:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Lindsey time

I discovered Arizonan musician Lindsey Stirling completely by accident while surfing YouTube one day. Described on her web site as a "dancing dubstep violinist", she combines a traditional Celtic folk sound with dance and electronica, leaping and prancing around the stage like a crazy ballerina. She's quite something to behold:

Oh, and she was told she'd never amount to anything by Piers Morgan, which automatically makes me predisposed to liking her.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Film review: Opera

There is broad agreement on the notion that OPERA constitutes the end of Dario Argento's decade-long golden age. While he would subsequently go on to make a number of good and even great films -- 1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME being the standout -- this 1987 giallo is clearly the end of an era in many regards. It was the final time he would work with a number of his key collaborators and the last time his camerawork truly featured the vibrant, sweeping, Grand Guignol qualities for which he is justly celebrated. It would be six years before Argento directed another feature length project, and it's tempting to lay at least some of the blame for his subsequent decline on that self-imposed hiatus, bowing out at the height of his creativity.

With its sordid sexuality, allusions to the AIDS virus (it's no accident that the killer wears latex "protection" over his traditional black leather gloves) and a distinctly cruel streak running through its proceedings, OPERA feels very much like the giallo, which grew out of the sociocultural climate of the early 70s, responding to the mood and anxieties of the 80s, and provides a tantalising glimpse at where the movement might have gone had it continued to flourish. Even the camerawork, courtesy of the Oscar-winning English cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, feels aggressive, constantly moving, alternating between sweeping overhead shots and claustrophobic close-ups of the actors' faces. The latter are used to particularly powerful effect in the numerous shots of the protagonist, opera ingenue Betty, with rows of needles taped under her eyes to prevent her from closing them -- surely one of the most uncomfortable and arresting visual images Argento has ever created.

Like much of Argento's output, it's not really an actors' film, but the best performance by far is courtesy of Scottish stage actor Ian Charleson who, a few short years before his untimely death, delivers a nuanced and oddly sympathetic portrayal of a horror movie director helming an experimental production of MACBETH -- a thinly veiled stand-in for Argento himself. As Betty, Cristina Marsillach is a good deal more drippy than both previous and subsequent Argento female leads, serving as far more of a damsel in distress than the likes of Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA or Jennifer Connelly in PHENOMENA, but she does what the role asks of her and acquits herself perfectly adequately. As far as the stable of Argento regulars is concerned, this is the last appearance of Daria Nicolodi (prior to MOTHER OF TEARS in 2007) and the first of three appearances by the wonderfully over-the-top Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who a year earlier made her debut in the Argento-produced DEMONS 2.

Its flaws -- awkward dialogue, the ill-placed use of heavy metal and a plot that doesn't stand up to scrutiny -- are par for the course with Argento's output during this period, but are part and parcel of what gives these films such a distinct identity. Indeed, the sheer audacity of its set-pieces -- of which the infamous "bullet through the peephole" is but one of many -- thoroughly overshadows any narrative shortcomings. It may not hit the dizzy heights of SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED or THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, each of which constituted a perfect alchemy in which every single element worked in tandem to deliver a film that was more than the sum of its parts, but OPERA remains one of the greats and serves as a fitting swansong to the most productive and creatively satisfying period in its director's career.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Big Eck vs. Flipper

So, the big Alex Salmond/Alistair Darling debate. How was it for you? If my experience is anything to go by, I’m willing to bet “frustrating” is the answer.

Frustrating because I heard nothing from either politician that I hadn’t heard before. Frustrating because I felt Darling, true to form, treated the electorate with barely disguised contempt. Frustrating because I felt Salmond missed several opportunities to really skewer Darling and allowed himself to be forced into a corner on the issue that will always be the Yes campaign’s Achilles’ heel -- currency.

I genuinely don’t understand Salmond’s strategy on this matter. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate -- I understand the strategy, but I don’t understand the way he chooses to articulate it. I get that a currency union is the SNP’s preferred option and the one they intend to take to the negotiating table. But really, why is it so difficult for him to articulate an alternative? Why, in the face of Darling’s belligerent repetition of the same question and the growing impatience of the audience, could he not simply have responded “Our Plan A is a currency union, but if the UK Government -- flying in the face of all logic and self-interest, chooses to cut off its own nose to spite its face -- here’s what we will do.” Darling’s jibes about rupees and Panama may have been puerile, but could easily have been swatted aside by pointing to the range of countries that have, at various points in history, adopted another currency without a formal union -- many of them using the pound. Isle of Man, anyone? Because there are, after all, a range of options -- most of which would involve Scotland walking away from all the UK’s national debt.

The silver lining in this cloud is that evidence suggests that few people in Scotland rate which currency we’ll use as their number one priority. (2%, according to a TNS-BMRB poll.) Rather, in focusing so obsessively on this one issue, we’re following the media/Better Together agenda. Politicians and media pundits are interested in these matters -- the average person on the street is more interested in things that affect them directly, like the NHS, jobs and how much money they have in their pocket. These can’t be COMPLETELY decoupled from the question of whether we’ll be using the pound in a currency union, or the pound informally, or a Scottish pound pegged to the UK pound or whatever, but issues like the Bedroom Tax, food banks, the obscenity that is Trident and the carving up of the NHS south of the border resonate far more directly with voters than the issue Darling spent his entire Q&A session withering on about.

While he certainly landed some body blows in terms of issues like London’s plundering and squandering of North Sea oil and the threat of Eurosceptic England dragging Scotland out of the EU against its will, I was rather bemused to see Salmond spending so much time asking Darling about the bizarre comments many of his Better Together teammates have made about the consequences of independence. These include an increased risk of attacks from outer space (Philip Hammond), having to drive on the right (Andy Burnham) and the forced removal of the pandas from Edinburgh Zoo (I forget who came up with that one). The purpose of this line of questioning, presumably, was to make Better Together appear ridiculous and to diminish their credibility. The only problem was, a lot of people would have been hearing these fantasies for the first time last night, coming out of Alex Salmond’s mouth, thereby running the risk of making HIM rather than Better Together appear ridiculous. Still, Darling’s response was laughable. Oh, he scoffed, those were just jokes. What other threats were jokes, then, I wonder? Ian Davidson’s notorious “bayonet the wounded” comments? Peter Fraser’s “England would have no choice but to bomb Scottish airports”? Theresa May withering on about border posts?

Or perhaps the refusal to enter into a currency union? Was that, too, just a joke? You see, when you keep saying silly things, people begin to wonder if EVERYTHING that comes out of your mouth is equally stupid.

What I thought was utterly shocking, and very revealing, was Darling’s point blank refusal to admit that an independent Scotland could be successful -- a point conceded on various occasions by many of his Better Together colleagues. How hard would it have been for him to say “Yes, it’s possible, but I believe we’d be even more successful in the UK”? But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, even with both Salmond and adjudicator Bernard Ponsonby repeatedly pressing him and the audience jeering at him. That speaks volumes about how Darling and those like him really view Scotland.

Of course, the elephant in the room throughout all of this is that the man who should have been debating Salmond, David Cameron, was nowhere to be seen. In failing to step up to the plate to defend the union he believes in so passionately, Cameron actually makes the case for independence more succinctly than anyone on the Yes side: our current political arrangement has delivered a Prime Minister so loathed by one part of the UK that he daren’t show his face lest his unpopularity contribute to bringing the union to an end. Darling, as a backbench opposition MP who holds no actual power, has no authority to promise anything one way or the other. There’s no point asking him about Scotland’s future within the UK because he has no influence on it. He can demand clarity and certainty from Salmond all he likes, but the reality is that we got the monkey rather than the organ grinder last night.

One of the biggest frustrations, for me, was hearing the same old arguments being trotted out by both sides. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been heavily engaged with the independence debate, reading all manner of articles and comments online, watching videos of debates and speeches given by both sides (though admittedly heavily weighted towards the Yes side, given that they’re the only ones who actually engage with the public on a regular basis). The ambition and breadth of original thinking these exhibit leaves the tired old party politics of Labour vs. Tory or Labour vs. SNP in the dust. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if someone like Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation had been in the studio last night making the case for independence, he would have utterly shredded Darling. The reality is that, in their own ways, both Salmond and Darling are fighting yesterday’s campaigns. The real debate -- the one happening online, in town halls and in people’s homes and workplaces -- has moved on from the politicians. It’s not about whether Salmond or Darling is the better debater. It’s not about politicians and their individual personalities. It’s about us.

Biggest laugh of the night? Darling talking about the UK pooling resources and redistributing wealth from richer to poorer parts of the union. The image of money flowing from wealthy Scotland to help out poor, struggling Westminster and the south-east of England brought the house down.

Second biggest laugh of the night? The audience member who declared that she was fed up hearing about pensions and wanted to know about the most pressing issue: what will be done to encourage the spread of Gaelic?

Picture originally posted by Reasons for an Independent Scotland.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Glasgow girl

The one and only Ms Laura Fraser, who really deserves a higher profile than she's got. As a fellow Weegie, I bear the proud distinction of having issued library books to her once upon a time -- which is about as close to mingling with the stars as I'm ever likely to get!