Son of Saul BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, directed by László Nemes and written by Clara Royer.

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This is a straightforward narrative. A Hungarian man finds the body of a young boy, he thinks is his son and he wants to give him a proper Jewish burial. To do so he needs to find a Rabbi willing to perform Mourner’s Kaddish.

Transpose that scene to an unnamed Nazi death camp, (Auschwitz), running at full capacity, murdering Jews and burning their bodies. Fling in the babble of languages – German, Hungarian, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, French, Greek, Slovak and Hebrew – and make your central character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) a Jewish Sonderkommdo. There’s a red X on the back of his coat and his job, as is the job of all survivors is to live as long as possible. He’s an old hand at it. Burying the young boy endangers not only him, but everyone around him. Scroll back.

Redemption comes when a miracle happens. A shipment of Jews are herded into the shower-room.  We hear the banging and shrieking as those inside try to escape from Zyklon- B gas. Sonderkommandos wait until ‘the pieces’ are dispatched, until they can get to work cleaning up. Pieces, are, of course, bodies. Saul’s job was, literally, picking up the pieces. And one of the pieces he picks up is his son, who is still alive, but dies later.

Nothing was wasted in the death camps, teeth extracted for gold, hair and even skin used for lamps. Eighty-percent of those arriving were processed immediately and send to the gas chambers. For some trainloads it was one-hundred percent and the ovens couldn’t cope.  Clothes recycled and the hunt for jewellery, gold and currency went on. ‘Canada’ was a place in camp where much of this reprocessing happened.

Euphemisms abounded and the film gets much of it right. While they can show the cruelty that was an integral part of the Nazi genocide, what they cannot show is how a body disintegrates without food and how crowded the camps were. They cannot replicate the stench of burning bodies. What they do well is show how many camps were situated in areas of natural beauty. Prisoners are shown shovelling ash (from bodies) into the nearby lake.

Son of Saul depicts, and indeed educates us, around the existential issue of what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be human, while giving no set answer. What it cannot do is legislate for stupidity and the cultivation of ignorance. A poll taken before Holocaust Memorial day on Sunday found that said the one in twenty Britons, say the Holocaust never happened. And eight- percent say the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated.

The surprising thing about that poll is it doesn’t surprise me. The only exaggeration is how stupid these people are. But with the moron’s moron in the White House and the growth of right-wing neo-Nazi parties across the world, even in Germany, I don’t know whether you should watch this film or weep or look at the poll and weep. I tend towards the latter.


The Commune, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer


Nudity, whoopty whoo. This film was alright. It was kinda you get what you deserve. It began with a man and women, Erik and Anna moving into a big house in the 1970s, the end of the hippy era, with their adolescent daughter, Freja. It’s her idea to set up a commune in Copenhagen. He’s more pragmatic. The house is too expensive, his childhood home, but they can’t even afford to heat it, even though both of them are in good, well-paying, jobs. She’s a newsreader and he’s a lecturer on design and architect. She thinks it will be fun and calls him a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He resists, but relents. We go through the selection process, who the tenants will be and, in that way, it’s predictable. Middle-class twaddle. But then he meets one of his students, a third-year girl and they begin an affair. They fall for each other and his wife who thought it might be fun, finds out that it’s no fun at all. We witness her unraveling. There’s a side story about her daughter hooking up with another adolescent she fancies. And a story about a young boy brought to the commune by his hippy mum and dad, who has heart disease and telling anybody that would listen that he was going to die before he was nine. There are some false alarms, but when he does die at dinner, with everybody around the table, it’s not totally unexpected. I cared when Anna, the newsreader, had a breakdown and lost her job. I guess that’s the elements of a good film. Job done.

Ann Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

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I loved this book and read it in one breathy go, thankful for the nourishment. If you’re a scribbler like me that tries to pour himself into himself, writes something down, always comes up with less than a quart-measure, and that’s on a good day, read on. I loved this book so much I’m going to start standing beside the Jehovah’s at the bridge in the Shopping Centre in Clydebank and handing it out to would-be-writers like me and asking them to come for a chat.

I recently wrote a novel, did all the right things, made the right connections, edit, edit, edited it, blah, blah, blah. Hundreds  of thousands of other folk are just like me, pecking away on their computer, coming up word blind and carrying on. But I’m only a writer when I write. My first love, like Lamott’s was reading.

I love books. Books to me are holy things. But you know that some of them you read are just shite. And Lamott has got the answer to that big existential question what is the purpose of me continually doing what I do? Why him or her and not me? Get over yourself is the answer. I already knew that because I’m smart that way. I’m not interested in cars or houses or all that other stuff. Fuck them. I want readers.

Good writers tell you stuff you already know. A Biblical passage resonates within your heart because it’s true.  Remember when we used to read those articles about when work would become a leisure pursuit? Aye, too fucking right, I do. But writing really is work and pleasure –and it’s not always the pleasure of achievement – and Lamott gets that. It’s the pleasure of doing. Of being. Not a writer, but somebody that writes.

Lamott quotes E. L. Doctorow: “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.’

And when Lamott’s wee brother was struggling to finish a school assignment about birds, her dad, also a writer, put his hand on his son’s shoulder and gave him the wisdom of age. ‘Just take it bird-by-bird.’

That is our life. That is our writing. And she quotes Vonnegut: “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

And makes me wish I felt that good, or that competent. But the great thing about Lamott is although it’s not all about winning, or winning at all, she makes space in her heart to hate, fucking hate, those that succeed. Those without merit.  And they’re not as good as you and you know it. Yeh, yeh, I get that too. The world is not a fair place.

I love Lamott for her honesty. If you can’t be honest don’t fucking bother writing. Stick to being a middle-class charlatan who has a hobby and wants to tell the world how interesting you are. I can shut the book on you. But reading Lamott is like an epiphany. Do yourself a favour. Read on.


Golden Friendship, Jim McLaren and ‘Grab a Granny’.

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I know that all sounds a bit of a mouthful, but I’ll try and explain it to you. Golden Friendship is a club run in the 543 Club. What type of club? Jim McLaren explained it to me a long while ago. And I’m not really sure he knew himself. Like most folk, I said, ‘Aye, Jim,’ while waiting for it to fall on its arse.

His mum said much the same thing today. That first day of the Golden Friendship club, Jim, his mum, Molly Kelly and a handful of folk, some in wheelchairs, in two big, unheated, draughty halls. But Jim stuck at it, the social glue that brought so many diverse groups together and filled those halls. He fills them with hundreds of people. None as daft as him. And I’m still not really sure how he does it, but it is working and his mum said she’s proud of him and who can blame her?

The Lord Provost was there and someone joked that Jim would soon be wearing his gold chain of office. Well, I think they were joking.

Jim seems to do the impossible. When centres and clubs are closing down and doors are shutting Jim is opening them. And it costs nothing.

You got to Jim’s Club and he doesn’t ask you for a £2 or a £1 or ten pence. It’s free. That’s one of the big secrets of his success. Jim recognises lots of folk, just don’t have cash. But they can just walk in the door and be welcomed.

What Jim’s good at is asking those that have cash to give him some. Davie Hamilton of Clydebank Private Hire, for example, joked when he saw Jim he opened his wallet. And Tom Sheridan of Clydebank Estate and Letting Agency said much the same thing. It’s good to be associated with success. And Jim has proven, time and again, he can pull the punters in.

The ‘Grab a Granny’ initiative has a buzzword and it is loneliness. Jim wants more punters to come through the door of the 543, but they don’t need to be grannies, they just need to be lonely and want a bit of company. He’ll do the rest. And they are going to leaflet the fifteen to twenty thousand households in Clydebank to provide those interested with a phone number.

Jim again, of course, has bitten off more that he can chew. What he also wants to happen is for other towns to do the same thing that he is doing. To set up a place in Dumbarton or Drumchapel where people that are stuck inside their own house with nothing to do but watch telly can go out and meet others, play bingo, dance, sing Karaoke, go to a play, or even abroad to Blackpool and ride on a donkey. Have a catered Christmas meal, with three or four courses served at your table and all for hee-haw.

Nah, Jim, I don’t think there’s many like you, pal. But then again, I can remember going to a meeting in the side room of the church hall about thirty-five years ago; Ruth Dorman was talking about something called Dalmuir Credit Union. I wonder what happened to that? Jim, if you run for Provost of Clydebank you’ll get my vote. If you run for MP you’ll get my vote, but nae singing for your supper.



Tara Westover (2018) Educated.


Tara Westover’s Educated has a tag-line from Barack Obama on the cover, ‘a remarkable memoir’ and in terms of sales I doubt there was a bigger selling book in 2018.  I’m a voracious reader but it’s been a long time since a book kept me up to the wee small hours. I’d nibbled at Educated online, reading the first few pages, before getting the paperback and devouring almost 400 pages in one large gulp.

It’s the kind of book I like, because it’s about people like us. Dirt poor people. That never really had a chance.

And I like books about religion that gives the reader an insider account of what it’s like to be saved or damned. Here we have Jeanette Winterson’s sombre yet joyous debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood and middle-class snobbery and sense of entitlement in the vicarage and in the village where her grandparents lived.  Here we have another force of nature with a very simple rule.

‘The whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.’

Tara’s dad ‘Gene’ was Mormon, patriarch of his family of five sons and two daughters of whom Tara was the youngest. Audrey, her sister, was older and most of her brothers seemed like adults to her.

Where the family lives is important for a number of reasons. For the reader it hankers back to a simpler life of living off the land and her mother a herbalist and self-taught midwife adds to that impression of living in the promised land.

Westover’s lyrical prose describes the farmstead with a nostalgic longing.

The range had other mountains, taller more imposing, but Buck’s Peak was the most finely crafted…My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley…All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged piece of Idaho.

For her father seasons are short and long. Before the coming of the snow he’s got to make enough  money to feed his family, keep the homestead running and put enough aside for the End of Days, or the Days of Abomination in Mormon text. It’s a frantic race Gene intends to win.

Tara is nine, or thereabouts, when the memoir begins. She was home-birthed and home-schooled, never seen a doctor or nurse and, until they are issued with a Delayed Certificate of Birth, the state of Idaho and the federal government don’t know she, or her younger siblings, exist.

Home-schooled Tara shows is an exaggeration. The boys worked in the scrapyard outside their window, sorting, cutting and welding scrap metal into sellable chunks and helping their dad in construction. And although Gene was a firm believer in  patriarchy and the division of the sexes, men’ s work and women’s work, Tara, around the age of ten, also found herself in the scrapyard, scrapping, like the boys. Her dad taught her that wearing a hat against the stifling sun slowed her down and gloves made her hands soft. She’d grow callouses and be better off. Metal whizzed by her head and hit her in the stomach. An employee lost a finger and the boys had their scrapes. At an age when parents are running their children to school and sitting parked outside the school gates, Gene is telling Tara to get into a skip of metal and sort it while he tips it, she can jump out. She gets away with a busted and bleeding leg, but she’s alive.

Close calls don’t count. After the Feds raided Waco there is enough military firepower buried around the hills to bring down a helicopter and start a war. A thousand gallon tank of petrol is buried to fuel the vehicles when the End of Days come.

God tested them, of course. When the winter snow came and Gene became almost comatose, her mother said ‘he was like a sunflower’ they piled into the car and across snowy states to visit his mother in the desert and in the sunshine for him to heal. When Gene said they were ‘hitting the road’, he didn’t mean it literally.  But in the snow they hit a utility pole. Nobody, apart from Gene seemed to emerge unhurt from the wreck. Her mother, for example, suffered ‘raccoon eyes’ associated with brain damage, but hospitals were the work of the devil, so she suffered and self-medicated with herbs.

They hit the road again the following year in a snow storm. Gene’s argument that the angels protecting them could fly quicker than the sixty miles per kilometer they were doing on unmarked road flipped to a different story in the end.

Sara escapes, as we know she will, through education –it’s there in the title.  But at what price? She tries to prove to herself her father is bipolar.

In a Virginia Woolf essay she argued that women were constrained by the dominant ideology of womanhood, of being a wife and mother. Par, for the course, here, where Westover recognises in her extensive reading the Mormon practice of polygamy was god’s way of rewarding men by handing out new wives to the righteous like sweeties.

More taboo for Woolf was constraint on women’s bodies, woman having passion. For Woolf this ‘constrained her from telling the truth about [her] own experiences as a body’.

Educated is also a love story to herself, her body, a coming-of-age story. The wolf here is her brother Shawn. When she is a little girl, she is sweet. But when she hits adolescence and thinks about boys and wearing lipstick Shawn treats her like a slut and re-educates her. In a word, he’s a manipulative psychopath and even a Mormon bishop classifies him as such.

There’s a kind of naivety here of the truly desperate. If I do this…If I didn’t do that…I shouldn’t have done this. Shawn knows how that narrative goes. You read about the Shawns of this world in court reports that outline how they beat and murdered their partners for making the wrong kind of stew. For being out late. For talking to another man.

Here Westover hopes her family will take her into the fold if they find out how evil Shawn really is, how he played the same games with Tara’s sister, Audrey and if her father Gene, the great white patriarch, knew, really knew, he would shun Shawn, cast him out of the family and into everlasting damnation. The lies we tell ourselves are often the cruellest. That’s the moral of this epic narrative.

Best seller for good reasons. Beautifully written. Beautifully told and bold, but really, like father, like son. The foolishness of man is here in all its glory.


Rudyard Kipling (1901 [2010]) Kim.


Rudyard Kipling (1901 [2010]) Kim.

What can I tell you about Rudyard Kipling and Kim, you don’t already know? I’ll start at the beginning. No, I’ll start at the end and try and explain my beginnings. Kim is a work of art, a classic text that captured me completely from the first to the last, 306 pages later and roams through India, some of Afghanistan (I think) and takes in Tibet and China. It looks at the world through a lens of mysticism and secularism and politics and yet is a spy novel, where the Great Game is played abroad and a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist, Kim must learn to be a man. Rudyard Kipling, like Kim, was a polymath and poet. If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream- -and not make dreams your master;
If you can think- -and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on! ‘

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings- -nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And- -which is more- -you’ll be a Man, my son!

So, here we have it. All the things I love. Kim is a holy book and a secular book. A must read and –yet- for me a must not read. Kimball O’Hara is Irish and British and most importantly his mother was as white as his father. When the reader meets him on the first pages he is an orphan,

O ye who tread the Narrow Way

By Tophet-flare to Judgement Day,

Be gentle with the heathen’ pray!

To Buddha, at Kamakura!

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on the brick platform, opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who holds Zim-Zammah that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, holds the Punjab…

Britain, of course, holds the Punjab and India and the world in its grip. Three-quarters of the known population paying political and economic homage to the island nation. All is right in the world as long as the empire holds firm and the local populace know their place. If…Kim, for example, had an Indian mother, he would no longer be that rare breed, just another ‘nigger’ to be kept in line. After the Indian Mutiny the Empire rocks and Kim’s part in the great game would have begun earlier.

Kim’s pedigree is established early. His role is to establish at home in Britain, all is well in the world when we have people like Kim batting for us.  Pedigree or caste is as important in India as class is in Britain. And Kim, ‘The Friend of All the World’ is of the lower class, but not the lowest caste, but the exalted and highest in India. The lowest in Britain, the kind of boy that blacks his master’s shoes and fetches his horse and gig.

The women who looked after him insisted with tears that he should wear European clothes –trousers, a shirt, a battered hat. Kim found it easier to slip into Hindu or Mohammedan garb when engaged on certain businesses.

The Friend of All the World had to be white for it to be right that his Anglo schooling need taken place. A coloured child was a small thing. Colonel Creighton admitted such, he could have begun work as a disposable thirteen-year-old child and not a man-of-many parts of sixteen, working ostensibly for the British Ethological Society, but spying on what the Russian are doing in the mountains, what allies they have made and what promises of money have been made to kings and Raj. The Great Game is the only game. The bedrock of society is the white man, the Sahib, the master and that more than anything stuck in my craw.

But Kipling may be jingoist but on the page the fools are the white man and wisdom comes from the East. Characters live not because they are stereotypes but through the arc of who they are and where they want to go.

The Friends of All the World is servant to a Tibetian Lama who seeks a river to wash his sins away from and from the first pages to the last there is love here. And great beauty, I cannot give justice to. No straight lines wander the many paths of Kipling and Kim’s journey to manhood and knowing and find insight through all the ages as you travel. Read on.