Tour de Falkirk

Laughing Boy (LB) lead racer, followed by Andy Rat.

Shared route
From NCR754 to New Lairdsland Rd via 754/NCR754.

Average speed 19 miles-per-hour. Distance 38.3 miles.

Bod, my wee brother, was still in lockdown mode, hoarding Digestive biscuits and t-bags, but he lived in Grangemouth and they’re used to that kind of things. I chapped his door. He peeked through the letterbox, his knuckles showing (this was getting ridiculous, one eye up, the other down).

I explained to his knuckles and squinty eyes about the Tour de Falkirk. How Andy Rat,  LB and me had cycled through from Clydebank. Red nosed as alkies chasing the dream of unlimited opening hours.  Not really to see him, but since he lived locally and it was handy, we’d appreciate a quick cuppa tea and perhaps a Digestive biscuit.

‘That’s fifty miles,’ he said.

Sweat poured from me. The wee woman, next door, came out with a mop to clean the third-floor landing without need for a bucket. Falkirk quines were canny that way.

Bod growled, ‘Who do yeh, think yous are – Dominic Cummings?’ Fuck off back to Dalmuir, where you came from.’ His letterbox snapped shut.

We watched the wee woman washing the floor.

LB’s putty coloured legs had slowed earlier on the cycle path to under nineteen-miles-an hour on the cycle path to a pensioner trickle.

I’d shouted ahead and around the bend of overgrown grass and low-hanging branches of trees, ‘Whit’s the problem?’ 

‘Have you run over another unaccompanied immigrant child trying to swim the knolly and get entry into Clydebank?’

Andy hammered it, drawing up beside my freewheeling bike. His handlebars had become loose after an unexplained bump on the gritty canal path earlier.

‘Nah,’ LB turned his glistening dome to look back at me. ‘Check that out.’

He’d been entranced by a fat bottomed girl on a pink bike.

‘She’s creating a bottleneck,’ Andy remarked.

‘Wow,’ LB almost swallowed his tongue. ‘I know whit I’d dae with that.’

The woman mopping the floor had no pink bike, but a similar rhythm to a pole-dancer.

‘Very professional,’ said Andy.

‘You comin the cunt,’ she snapped.

I translated for Andy since he’d never been to Falkirk, never mind Grangemouth. ‘You coming the cunt?’

Bod’s knuckles reappeared. ‘Fuck off hame.’

I said to the wee quine, ‘Whit is it wae the streets of Grangemouth, up past the swimming baths and the pavements lined with fat, ugly, balding men, clapping us, as if we were NHS workers—and not just boy racers.’

Her yellow acrylic goonie showing speed bumps, she sidled in beside me brandishing her mop. ‘You gonnae sweat any mair? She licked lipstick off the lower part of her falsers.

Bod poked his fingers through the letterbox and gave us the Winston Churchill victory sign. ‘Fuck off.’

The wee wifie leaned against me to adjust her breasts. She wasn’t very tall, but she made up for it by being very broad. Her tits were the Falkirk equivalent of builders’ bum, inflatables, something to grab onto when the ship went under. She had to work her feet hard to keep them in line.  

‘You’re in there.’ LB gave one of his trademark, stuttering, laughs.

‘You ken,’ she said, ‘It’s the 30th May.’

‘I thought it was the 29th, said Andy.

We stared at him, and he took off his specs and cleaned the lenses.

‘No, you ken, it’s the 30th and you ken whit that means?’

LB wondered away to check the lock on his bike. Andy stroked his chin, where he used to cultivate a beard.

‘Is it UFO day?’ I hazarded a guess.

A day when the good people of Grangemouth came out to claim wee flying balls of light left in lock-up garages, disc-shaped objects, unsmoked—aliens had left behind. Other people, outsiders, and unmasked conspiracy doubters said didn’t exist.

‘No, yah, loon,’ she said, grabbing my hand. ‘It’s fallen women day.’

‘Whit does that mean?’ said Andy, who hadn’t read the same biblical texts as me.

She explained it better and blinked a lot as if she’d oversized eyelashes stuck in her hazel eyes. ‘This whole street is full of fallen women. The council moved us here after wee-bit, bitter, complaints from tarts that couldn’t keep their men happy—they were just jealous.’

I turned and looked at his front door.  ‘How come my wee brother lives here then?’

He waved at me through the letterbox, ‘Because I asked to get a house, here. Are you mad? No just fuck off hame. No more will be said.’

I was catching on quick and even LB, who’d come back, was smiling.

‘So it’s a bit like Notting Hill, without the mandatory cut-out photograph of a smiling black policeman – without any kind of law and order at all?’

‘You must have kenned about it,’ she snorted. ‘Outraged letters to the Falkirk Herald, calling it a waste of taxpayers’ money.’ She laughed. ‘We don’t pay any tax, so put that in your crack pipe and smoke it.’

Andy pointed his finger in the general direction of her tits. ‘So are you, one of them fallen woman?’

‘I’m on the third floor, getting on a bit. If you want the real fallen women you need to go to the ground-floor flats. Those girls have a bit of a reputation to upkeep—but I dae my best, yeh ken?’

‘I’ve no brought any money wae me,’ I said.

Andy shrugged. He never brought any money, because it would slow him down.

LB swigged down a drink.

‘I’ll do anything for a Lucozade Isotonic,’ she said.

‘We’re in,’ said Andy.

‘Need to watch your time,’ LB rubbed at his forehead and checked his two watches, synchronising them.

‘Any Digestive biscuits?’ I asked her.

‘Yeh ken, I can snap a Digestive biscuit into four with my fanny?’

I looked around. ‘But there’s only three of us.’

Bod flung open his double-locked door and stood clutching a packet of Jaffa Cakes.

‘You know I can always accommodate you and your Jaffa Cakes, Bod.’

But she pulled my arm, instead of his, guiding me towards her door and the high-volume, face-the-music behind it. ‘And the girls from the first-floor can put on a bit of a show for you and your friends.’

‘Wait, until I nip in and get my Tetley,’ said Bod.

‘Any cocaine?’ LB rubbed his hands and laughed. ‘I’m aff the fags and cocaine kills the craving, but as long as Carla doesn’t find out, she willnae mind…’

‘Och, she’ll never find out,’ I said. ‘Member that time we said we were going to the pub for an Old Firm game and ended up on a Zeebrugger to Amesterdam. Stayed for a week, shitfaced—and she never found out about that—did she?’

‘Nah,’ he admitted. ‘She just thought I was a bit peaky. But that was before we had the dog.’ He pushed out his chest, not as far as his belly, but a pregnant, manful, attempt. ‘I’ve got responsibilities noo.’

‘That was a great weekend,’ said Andy. ‘What was the score?’

‘I think we won about 5—0, I wasn’t really paying much attention to the game.’

‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘Dembele, or even Johnny fuckin Hayes. Who cares?’

‘Well,’ I said to LB, ‘I never thought a fat fuck like yourself would be able to cycle the length of yerself.’

‘Fuck it,’ LB brushed past me, more like his old self. ‘My legs are all wobbly. Where’s the marching powder?’

Bod handed me the Jaffa Cakes. ‘I’ll no be needing these…can I join yer bike gang?’

‘Nah,’ I shook my head.

Bernard MacLaverty (1998) Grace Notes

Grace Notes was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize. Reading this book, over twenty years later and it’s easy to see why. Quality rings true. The narrator is easy to describe. Bernard Mac Laverty does all the heavy lifting for us, when we look over his shoulder and read the programme for her performance of Vernicle, a first performance, just up the road from me, Wood Road, Partick.

Catherine Anne McKenna was born in Co. Derry, and studied composition at Queen’s University, Belfast  and later at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Winner of the Moncrieff-Hewitt Travel Award she studied composition with Anatoli Melnichuck in Kiev. She has now left teaching to devote herself to full-time composition. She lives in Glasgow.

When the reader first meets Catherine she’s going home for her da’s funeral. She’s had a falling away and a falling out. Falling away from her convent school faith and a falling out with her da, Brendan. He’s a publican, well-liked, respected. She’s the prodigal child, gifted beyond her years with an ability to compose music. Her secrets are light and dark.

While she was away o’er the water, from the killing and bigotry, she had a baby, Anna. Bernard had a grandchild he never met or knew about. Her mother never got to dandle on her knee.

The darkness comes from depression. ‘Scorpions in her head.’ She has to negotiate the familiar landscape of her youth with these secrets weighing her down. Going home is the first part of the book. Familiar smells and tastes made foreign. The past rising up to meet her. Transubstantiation.

Derry, is no longer, home. Nor can it be. For one thing, her mother is there. For another her father is not. She admits to being like him in some ways. The father of her child, Dave, like her father, is a drinker too.

‘In a strange way it was he, who’d helped her. The night, the first night he’d hit her – she saw as a turning point. It was the next day she’d slipped out of the house and walked the beech with Anna for most the day…Dave was cooking, getting something greasy into him before going out to the pub – a ‘good lining’ he called it.

…What happened to your mouth? he said.’

Catherine leaves him as she leaves her father and mother. Goes back to the mainland, with the child, a room in a basement at her pal, Liz’s house. The equivalent of a writer composing in an attic. No hope and every hope competing with life and the feeling nothing will get done. Nothing will get finished. And anyway, it will be shite. The same kind of shite that gave us St Celia as the patron saint of music, based on a mistranslation and misunderstanding

Yet, to make time, to find space to create, is at the heart of Catherine’s existence. A possible route out of depression. But more than that. Full of grace, overflowing.

‘For two months now she has written every day at this table beneath the window, looking up at people’s feet as they passed by. Raiding her own bank was how she thought of it.

Bernard Mac Laverty raided his own bank. All writers do. When it comes to the weight and weighing, lead and brass, standard fare, as I know that heavy feeling too well. You’ll find here is where the gold is buried. Read on.

Alan Warner and Brian Hamill (2019) Good Listeners, published by the common breath.

I enjoyed this collection of six short stories from Alan Warner and Brian Hamill. If we went at this alphabetically, it would be BH and AW, but get real. Alan Warner writes an introduction, waxes nostalgically about the time he used to send manuscripts by post! That was before he became an internationally acclaimed writing superstar. He felt sorry for would-be writers like Brian Hamill, whose writing he enjoyed reading, but with nowhere much to send short stories now decided to lend his literary weight to proceedings and jointly publish a book with him.

It’s a book published by the common breath. Just up the road from me in Partick. Hamill has been doing the things I mean to do. His three short stories aren’t as good as Alan Warners’s, but then again, not a lot of folk’s are.

The best of the collection is It All Pours Down Like Silver. A stoater of a story with the protagonist going back to live with his—once best mate—Angus in the kinds of shitty Scottish town beyond Fort William that Warner portrays so well in his novels.

Angus opened the front door just enough to let the dog out. Its leather muzzle busied with fury at the two inch gap. Angus said, ‘Must be fifteen years and you turn up and I haven’t done the hoovering.’

‘I’ll forgive you.’

…The dog was called Aleister Growley.’

So what’s changed in fifteen years? Nothing. What’s going to change? Nothing. When everything’s fucked up it remains fucked up. How fucked up can life be is the theme of the story, if that can be the theme and not the story? Nothing makes me more unhappy than a happy ending.

Both writers trade in Scots noir, which is relation to Tartan noir, and it’s a crime not to read it. I hadn’t heard of these terms until recently and might just have made them up. William McIlvanney is the baseline.

Hamill does a decent job of sending it all up in The Writing Tutors. We’ve all been there. I remember a similar story on a website I inhabit like a gang hut (ABCtales) at the far end of the etheric universe. This writer’s class was full of lawyers. They imagined because they could spell Ferrari writing fame and fortune beckoned. I’d a similar experience with an arsehole that liked to pontificate and swap jokes with the tutor. The worst part was when I read his writing it was fucking great.

Here we have the much vaunted opening line.

‘Daniel O’Brien was a simple person.’

A simple first line.

‘At the age of twenty-five, he decided he wanted to be a famous novelist. He knew nothing about writing so enrolled in an evening class.’

I guess that pretty much describes Hamill and my own experience. But given a choice I’d rather not be famous. I would like to be widely read.

Daniel O’Brien’s writing tutors say contradictory things. Daniel was trying to understand the best way to be a famous novelist, but also the best way to be himself. If I was hyping the story up, I’d say something clichéd like… and with hilarious results. But I’ll just say, aye, that could have happened and I recognise these characters.

The Red Rabbit is the longest of the three stories and his best.

‘It was my second chance at being a student again. Mature this time. I wouldn’t fuck it up’.

The reader, of course, knows, or kinda hopes, he will. Otherwise what’s the point of reading? The narrator is called ‘Brian by the way’, I’ll let you decide, if Brian Hamill is Brian.  A good story is when you can’t separate fact from fiction. This happens here. I know people like that. I’m people like that. Brian is Brian because good writers—and Hamill is a good writer—inhabits many characters, many skins. Read on.

BT Sport Nine-in-a-Row Tribute to Celtic.

Celtic’s number 9.

Bit of a damp squid. Hosted by Darrell Currie, with Johan Mjallby, Chris Sutton and Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, on split screen, it was three-quarter hours of not very much. Adverts took about 15 minutes. So there was around a half-hour of chat. Neil Lennon being congratulated (and so he should be) and fielding some not very difficult question.

Sutton for example, asking Lennon if he thought he’d still be in a job if he hadn’t won a trophy in two years?

Lennon, pondering, emmm, I wonder why he was asking me that particular question, before answering honestly, he didn’t think so.

Listen, anybody that knows anything, understands Lennon had to win the treble after Judas, Brendan Rodgers, walked away. Anything less than treble-treble, which seemed inconceivable all those years ago when Ronnie Delia was manager, would have led to Lennon being seen as a failure. He’s smart enough to know that.  

I can remember a Ranger’s pundit all those years ago remarking that Lennon and Celtic with their financial muscles should have won more trebles. This was in Lennon’s first outing as manager. I’m sure Derek Ferguson will be now delighted that he was proved right. Celtic did keep winning treble trebles and under Lennon they were in line for a quadruple treble.

I’m sure that Lennon, like most Celtic supporters, wanted to see the season out. Rangers supporters, yes, they do exist, seem to live in some parallel universe in which they could have turned the 13 point deficit around. It could have happened. But let’s not forget Hearts the team that was relegated beat them twice, once in the Scottish Cup and in the league. Hamilton who seem to beat the Old Firm once every decade managed it at Fortress Ibrox. Morelos, their top scorer and icon had scored around one goal since Christmas. In a word, they were rotten. Miracles do happen, Leicester City did win the English Premier League a few years ago, but the odds were 1500/1. If any Rangers fan wanted to place a bet, I’d punt my house against their house, put the keys in a bowl. I’m sure there’d be few, if any takers. They can keep their money for another share issue, when they burn money for free.  The Scottish League did the sensible thing. Celtic were awarded the league and that’s that. Not luck—merit.

Next year, is this season, and it’s ten-in-a-row. We can argue over semantics, but who really gives a fuck? If we win we’ll party. If Rangers step up to the challenge and Lennon admitted they had got closer, then I’ll not wish them well.

Here we had guest spots from wind-up merchants Moussa Dembele, hammer of the Huns; Mikael Lustig without his police hat and Leigh Griffiths with a hat on, obviously a home- haircut weave and split roots during lockdown.

If you’re a die-hard Celtic fan this is a programme you’ll watch. If not, don’t bother.

Nine-in-a-row champions, twice over. Glasgow Celtic.

Kilmarnock was Scottish League Champions in 1965. Celtic won the Scottish Cup that year. In 1966 Celtic won the first of their nine-in-a-row league titles. Rangers won the Scottish Cup. 1967, and Celtic won everything, including the European Cup, with a team of players that lived within a twelve miles radius of Parkhead. Bobby Lennox was the furthest away from Paradise, one of three players, with ‘Caesar’, Billy McNeil, and to have played in all nine Championships between 1965-1974.

Jimmy Johnstone has been often polled as Celtic’s best- ever player, but Stein was ruthless, when his legs were gone, wee Jinky was gone. Celtic also won the Glasgow Cup in 1967. With Rangers in it, the year they got to the Cup Winners Cup final, Celtic had to win it and they did. Nothing has come close to that year, with the added bonus of beating Real Madrid in the Bernebeu, playing in Di Stefano testimonial, but the talk was all of the mighty Jimmy Johnstone.  

Stein had a Quality Street reserve team coming through to maintain standards. Kenny Dalglish, Davie Hay, Danny McGrain, Lou Macari. Despite being favourites, Celtic lost the European Cup Final to Feyenoord, after extra-time and having scored first. Ironically at the home of Inter Milan who were first to score and were beaten 2—1.Celtic were also outplayed. Time for a changing of the old guard.

Neil Lennon came in as Celtic manager after Tony Mowbrays’s Celtic team were thrashed by St Mirren and Celtic lost narrowly to Rangers in the league that year. Lennon led us to our first of the current nine-in-a-row titles, but at Rugby Park he looked to be on the way out.

Lennon led us to three league titles in a row and that magnificent win over Barcelona, arguably, the best team ever to arrive at Parkhead.

Ronny Deila was appointed manager of Celtic in June 2014. He was a bright new manager, a gamble on the Celtic board’s part,  who went on to lead Celtic to two consecutive league titles, but never had control of the dressing room. Remember Kris Commons, Scotland’s Player of the Year and a twenty-plus goal a season man, reduced to the bench and flinging his shirt ad Deila after being substituted against Molde in the Europa league, despite having scored. Jimmy Johnstone once did something similar with Jock Stein, he shouted through the door in the manager’s room something—thought to be derogatory—ran away and hid in a dark room for a week, before the other players told him it was safe to come out. Deila was on the way out when Rangers beat us in the Scottish Cup, despite their team being in the First Division. Media talk was of the Rangers being back. (Hibs beat them in the Scottish Cup final).

  In May 2016, Brendan Rodgers was announced as Deila’s replacement and around 12 000 fans turned up at Parkhead to welcome the new manager. He delivered two-and-a-half treble trebles of Scottish League, League and Scottish Cups before turning Judas and leaving for Leicester City. It was no secret he was leaving, but to leave half way through a season lacked Celtic class.

Neil Lennon came in as Celtic caretaker manager and he finished the job of another treble. In his first season in charge he had another treble in his grasp, having won the League Cup, a victory over Rangers. Still in the semi-finals of the Scottish, favourites to win it and 13 points clear of Rangers before being declared Champions once again because of the Covid-19 virus pandemic.

Celitc’s best eleven in the years of Lennon, Delia, Rodgers and Lennon again.

Goalkeeper: Fraser Forster. His European displays under Lennon in his first outing and then as a loan player also in Europe and in the League Cup final against Rangers, where he was head and shoulders above everybody else on the pitch makes this an easy one to pick.

Right back. Mikael Lustig held the spot for most of the nine-in-a-row years. He scored against Rangers a few times and was largely dependable. But his time was up. I wasn’t sad to see him go.

Virgil Van Dijk, European Cup winner with Liverpool. Touted as world player of the year. He oozed class because he was class. Simple.

More difficult to pick who to play beside him. Nobody really stands out. I’ll go with Christopher Jullien, he scored the winner in the League Cup final against Rangers and I think he can go on to great things. Put it this way, I was thinking of Charlie Mulgrew as an alternative.

Left back, easy, easy, Kieran Tierney. Celtic class. His only opposition would come from the man he largely replaced. Emilio Izaguirre under Lennon in his first shift as manager was outstanding.

Scott Brown is the Brownie. He’s had his critics, including me, but against Rangers and everyone else in general, he’s that clichéd 110% man. Leads on the field and off it. He’s been in every Celtic team that won nine-in-a-row and captain for most.

Callum McGregor has played almost every outfield position in the team, because he’s so gifted. Best midfielder in Scotland by some distance. Long may it last he signs another five-year deal. Gives you goals too.  Outstanding.

James Forrest, I’m being a bit hypocritical here. Like Scott Brown he has nine league medals to his name. Neil Lennon used to tell us what a great player he was. We’d watch the match and say, what the fuck? But Forrest scored in big games; he’s got pace and is always a threat. He does the doggies, getting back and helping to defend too. Underrated.

Two strikers up front. Number one striker, Moussa Dembele. Pace, strength, goals. He’s the beast that bullied Rangers. Top class.

Odsonne Edourad can do everything Dembele can do and more, but hasn’t got his strength. It remains to be seen which of the French strikers will go further. We have little chance of keeping Edouard, he’s only 21. But he’s been a joy to watch. Player of the Year in waiting.

Rodger’s played Olivier Ntcham behind the strikers in some matches. The French trio, as you’d expect, were outstanding. But here I’d go for Ryan Christie or Tom Rodgic. Ironically, neither of these two is guaranteed a start in the current team.

Picking between Lennon and Stein is quite a simple choice Jock Stein is the best football manager Scottish football has seen. That includes Alex Ferguson, his understudy in the Scotland job.

Celtic’s nine-in-a-row team under Stein weren’t great for goalkeepers. Ronnie Simpson, John Fallon (never saw him play). Evan William and the rest were distinctly average.

The best of both nine-in-a-row teams.

Goalkeeper Fraser Forster.

Right back is an easy pick: Daniel Fergus McGrain. The best full back in the world was sometimes moved to left back to play for Scotland and give Rangers player Sandy Jardine a game. Danny McGrain could play left back almost as well as he could play right back.

Virgil van Dijk and Billy McNeil, what a central defensive pairing that would have been. In reserve, I’d have Pat Stanton, who was a truly elegant sweeper.

Left back pits Kieran Tierney against Tommy Gemmell who scored in a European Cup final to win the trophy. Need to go for Gemmell. Like Tierney he could defend and get forward and had a bullet-type shot.

Lennon, Auld, Murdoch and Johnstone would fill the midfield slots.

Kenny Dalglish, the best of the Quality Street Kids (apart from McGrain) would also be in the team.

Striker, I’d go with Moussa Dembele and not Stevie Chalmers or Dixie Deans. If I could play Henrik Larsson the pick would be easy. Henrik is King of the non-nine-in-a-row teams. Long may it last. Waiting for ten or more.    Hail, Hail.

Dana – The Original Derry Girl, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer.

I can’t remember watching Dana (Rosemary Scallon) winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970, singing All Kinds of Everything, but I was only seven or eight. I would have married her, Catholic, and cute as a button.  She was eighteen and sitting her A-levels and became Ireland’s first Euro winner. Instant celebrity, the government send a plane to Amsterdam to bring her home to an adoring crowd. A guy in a milk float took her home after she sneaked out of a teacher’s house, who proposed himself as her manager. She became Ireland’s version of Lulu appearing on Top of the Pops and every twat show.

She also ran as an independent candidate hoping to be elected President of Ireland twice.

When she became an independent MEP in the European Parliament, aligning herself with the Christian Coalition parties, they sang All Kinds of Everything back to her. That’s fame.

She also song for the Pope twice, John Paul II, has a certain ring to it.

Had an operation to fix a growth on her vocal cords that threatened her careers (plural).

In the seventies she also nearly became an American, moving to Alabama with her husband, Damien Scallon and children. They ran a religious network in which Dana performed.

Dana’s sister and husband tried to steal copyright to her music and almost succeeded. Her brother was tried and found not guilty of two charges on indecent assault.

There’s the good, the bad, and the ugly here. All Kinds of Everything indeed.  Well worth watching. You can turn the sound down for Something’s Cookin’ in the Kitchen and other such hits. Northern Ireland has given us enough Troubles. The programme ends with Dana going back to her roots, joining a local choir, in the Guildhall in Derry. Sweet, very, very sweet.

Bernard MacLaverty (2002) The Anatomy School.

I’m a fan of Bernard MacLaverty’s writing. He makes it seem so simple (try it at home) which is the mark of a craftsman. I was well into this book before I realised I’d read it before. There’s no harm in reading a good book again.

It’s a coming-of-age drama. The narrator, Martin Brennan is still at St Colum’s school in Derry. Londonderry if you’re a Prod. It’s set just as the troubles in Northern Ireland were kicking off. He has to re-sit because he failed his ‘A-levels.’ That glorious path to University and a better life.

His mum had scrimped and saved and prayed for him. His da posted missing. She’s sure he can do it, if he applied himself – and she’s sure he would, with the help of God.

Brennan’s not so sure. The book begins with him setting off on A Weekend Retreat with other schoolboys in which they stay in a dorm and examine their conscience. Ask the question, if God is calling them to the religious life. Brennan applies himself and God says ‘No’, a firm ‘No,’ even God doesn’t want him.

A priest, as far as him mum is concerned, is the voice of authority, to be consulted on all matters secular and sacred. Father Farquarson had the best seat in the kitchen. He was first served with tea and her home baking when her friends Nurse Gilliard and Mary Lawless came for supper and polite conversation.

‘Could you use a pepper seller for salt then? asked Mrs Brennan.

‘I suppose you could. There’s no law against it…’ said Mrs Lawless.

Kids today had it so easy and were so ungrateful was a backdrop to other troubles. Brennan found he’d a cock, before he was seventeen, and it betrayed him more often than Judas. His consolation was he was mates with other boys at school that didn’t seem to have the same quibbles. He gloried, for example, in being best mates with Gus Kavanagh, who didn’t get red faced talking to girls and claimed he’d had his hole. Kavanagh’s parents was a doctor, his sister was a doctor, it was a given that he too would follow in their paths and become a doctor. His grades were good, much better than poor old Brennan, but there was no guarantee. Kavanagh was also popular with the local jocks at school that played Gaelic football and met for a fly smoke in the locker room and toilets (the daffs).

‘Any jokes?’ Sweeny asked.

Everybody gathered around and Kavanagh grinned and they all leaned forward.

‘There was this guy, right?’ he said. ‘I kid you not. From the county – a big fuckin ganch – and he took this woman out. She was lovely, a real cracker—beautiful hair, big mouth, big tits out to here. Anyway, after the night out, she says to him would you like to come back to my place? And she takes him up the stairs and into the bedroom and lies down on the bed with her legs wide open. And your man says to himself, Jesus, if I play my cards right I might be onto something.’  

That’s the setup, or plot. Everything is going well for Kavanagh and not so well for Brennan. Schoolboy living much the same life and living in fear of the psychopathic priest,  Condor, head of discipline at school, not a Redemptorist, who had a low view of adolescent boys and was quite prepared to whip them all the way into heaven.

Throw into the mix, Blaise Foley, with the large house and the kind of money that makes Kavanagh look like a car salesman. Foley is a live-in boarder at the school. He’s been expelled from other schools. He’s the catalyst for disequibrium, with strange ideas that are so far out they might even be Protestant. It was Foley’s idea to steal the ‘A-level’ exam papers they needed to sit.   

It’s a heist movie, in reverse. They need to return the exam papers, after copying them, so they don’t get caught.

In the final section of the book we have the return to equilibrium. Our narrator is working as a technician in the Anatomy School of Queens University in Belfast. Kavanagh is studying medicine, but put it off for a year to do a Bsc, while he pursues the virginal, Pippa, who’s  quite prepared to wait, however, long it takes to please and worship God. She too is studying medicine. Brennan agrees to run an experiment for Kavanagh in the Anatomy rooms, an overnighter, and that’s when he bumps into a backpacker from Australia. A real girl and she seems interested in him. Will Brennan find salvation between her legs, is not the whole of the question or the answer. That would be too easy. Fling in the return of a drunken Foley. There you have it. Read on.  

Simon Sebag Montefiore (2003) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Simon Sebag Monefiore won the British history book of the year with his portrait of Stalin and his followers. They were always one step away from being shot, tortured in the Lubianka, and beaten to death. Their families facing the same fate, or being sent away to the gulags. Stalin only wanted true believers in Stalinism, in Marxism, in Leninism, in his leadership to a mythical Bolshevik and true socialist revolution. Self-taught, a voracious reader of books and men. Stalin saw plots and conspiracies everywhere. If they didn’t exist he would invent them. Yet when Hitler betrayed him and his troops invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin refused to believe he’d been duped, despite countless reports telling the Communist leader the day, Sunday 21st June 1941, Operation Barbarossa would take place. The Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Leaders termed it, had begun and because its dictator refused to believe, the Soviet Union was unprepared.

The Soviet Union paid in blood. Around 27 million war deaths in the USSR, compared to less than 5.5 million German war deaths. British and American casualties of less than half a million. Around two million German women raped in the advance to Berlin.   

Montefiore gives us other rough figures of Stalin and his henchmen’s tyranny. Two famines, constant hunger, ‘perhaps 20 million killed, 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the gulags.’

‘Yet,’ Montefiore notes, ‘after so much slaughter, there were still believers’.

When what Churchill termed ‘the iron curtain’ had descended, the Allied nations that had won the war had split, Truman was in the Whitehouse, Labour were in power in Britain and Churchill like his country and the British Empire was bankrupt. America had the atomic bomb they had used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soviet spies had made copies of their plans and the USSR was the second nuclear power with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb. Two world powers stood nose to nose.

True believers, then, as now, with Putin, suggest all this bloodletting and suffering was necessary. That the Soviet Union wouldn’t have been able to industrialise and mechanise in constant five-year plans and drag a largely rural nation in a short amount of time to face the existential threat of fascism and Hitler’s subjugation of what the Nazi leader thought of an inferior breed of Slavic people.  

Stalin, with his pock-marked face, false teeth and birth to a Georgian drunken father that beat him, and a mother that beat him even harder, would have fitted into the Nazi category on inferior. As it did to the Tsarist forces of Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov, before his abdication, 15th March 1917 and the rise of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Montefiore deals with this in a chapter termed, That Wonderful Times, Stalin and Nadya, 1878-1932. And Montefiore despite the over 600 pages here, deals with it more fully in his book Young Stalin.   

These of course, weren’t wonderful times for all Soviet Citizens. The Politburo’s war against the kulaks, Stalin compared to Ivan the Terrible’s  culling of the boyars. Grain deliveries were taken from the peasants and millions such as those in Ukraine, the former grain basket of Russia, starved and mothers ate children. Montefiore focus is not on this, but in the semi-cult like activity of those close to Stalin, physically close; they lived beside each other and were in and out of each other’s apartments. Stalin allocated each family a car and an allowance. They held elaborate parties and some women dressed in the latest fashions from Paris. George Orwell got it pretty much right in his book, Animal Farm, with the red court of Stalin mimicking that of the late Tsar’s.

In 1922 Lenin effectively appointed Stalin as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. After Lenin’s death, the threat to Stalin’s power came from Leon Trotsky. He didn’t forget or forgive. Laverenti Beria’s present to Stalin was to send assassins to Mexico and on August 1940 they finally succeeded in murdering him.

Beria was ‘one of the talented dirty trick specialists in quiet and quick deaths’. But he was also head of the NKVD, KGB, and SMERSH. He was prepared to torture, rape and murder in person, but also like Stalin to give others their head before torturing and killing them in turn. Stalin trusted no one. He deified his wife Nadya who committed suicide. He’d know her as a three-year-old girl, but courted and married her when she came to work for Lenin. A culprit had to be found and punished for her death.  Incestuous relationships between members of the Politburo were commonplace. Beria’s son, for example, almost married Stalin’s daughter, Svetlania, who called Beria, ‘Uncle Lara’.  

The oafish Nikita Khrushchev who outwitted Beria to become party leader, but was thought be Stalin to be so dumb as not to present much of a threat to his leadership. Stalin sometimes made him dance for his amusement. Stalin slept little and conducted much of the Party business at all night parties where the Politburo members were forced to attend and drink vodka and other spirits. Some became alcoholic. Stalin held meetings in the darkened  ‘Little Corner’ outside his office where he paced and would dictate policy, head to head, no records. Here he orchestrated search for ‘Rightists’, which led to the purging of the old Bolshevik guard and the Moscow Show Trials. Doctors, Jews, Foreigners, there was always another Rightist around the next corner, ready to be denounced in the Little Corner. Khrushchev was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

At the Court of the Red Tsar all members had blood on their hands. And in a note from history the current Tsar, President Vladimir Putin’s grandfather worked as a chef in on of Stalin’s many houses. Before that he’d worked for the Tsar and served Rasputin. He’d served food to Lenin and then Stalin. A former Russian KGB officer is the new Tsar, much like the old Tsar, spreading disinformation and intent on keeping Russia’s place in the sun. Trusting no one is always a good place to begin. Social isolation, monomania, madness. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The saviour destroys what he tries to save. But he can never be proved wrong. World will tumble before that happens. Stalin died aged 73, his courtiers stood outside, waiting, too scared to intervene, to save him.

Darkest Hour, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, Director Joe Wright, Writer Anthony McCarten.

Gary Oldman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. A snapshot of the leading Tory M.P.’s gilded life in May 1940. The phony-war stage at Blighty, where the British bulldog is the underdog. War had been declared and troops had been sent off to fight in France and Belguim, before falling back to Calais and Dunkirk.  German Panzer division and blitzkrieg tactics roll through Eastern and Western Europe. Churchill, finally gets what he most covets, the chance to lead the nation and become Prime Minster. Here it’s portrayed as a poison chalice.

Neville Chamberlaine (Ronald Pickup) after coming back waving a piece of paper, the Munich Peace Agreement with Hitler was no longer the man to lead a national coalition government with mainly Labour M.Ps. He’d also got cancer, which would shortly kill him. The Conservative Party, of which he is leader, all agree on the anybody but Churchill option. Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) an old Etonian, friend of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) seems the right sort of chinless wonder needed to lead a divided nation. But Halifax isn’t keen, Britain is broken, a German victory inevitable, and he turns the job down. The King is also not keen on Churchill, who’d backed his brother Edward VIII as King, only for him to abdicate and marry an American divorcee. Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor apart from being notoriously mean, committing acts of fraud and treason can hardly be condemned for falling in love and acting like any other King.  Churchill’s many failings, including losing an army at Gallipoli were trotted out.  As was his boozing, if he didn’t have a glass of whisky in his hand, he had a glass of champagne, or some other alcoholic drink.

(This was a later advantage at Yalta when dealing with Stalin, who also did most of his work during the night hours and insisted on endless toasts. More than one British aide ended up unconscious with drink and had to be carried away, but Stalin and Churchill continued dividing up Europe while Franklin D. Roosevelt looked on, also with glass in hand, ready to cut a deal.)

Roosevelt plays a bit part on the phone. Stalin’s USSR is at that time was aligned with Germany and they were not yet our allies. Churchill in desperation for war supplies phones FDR, who promises the British Prime Minister, nothing much but grudging vocal support.   

Churchill was reminded that second to the King the Prime Minister’s office was the most powerful position in Britain. Hokum of The King’s Speech variety that by properly articulating some words on the radio, King George VI, who had a stammer, was able to deliver and rousing speech and save the nation.

Darkest Hour is the same film, but Churchill has no stammer, was in fact a former journalist that as Prime Minister employed six secretaries in sixteen hour shifts to take down his notes and ideas. Here we have one secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) always on call, day and night, in awe of Churchill’s brilliance, but also afraid of him. He even dictates to her when in the toilet, which lacks decorum. A tactic also used by former President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, but in this case to manipulate and intimidate those below him. Let them know their place in the world. In Darkest Hour, it’s a bumbling, comic, note.

Somehow Churchill has to make his mind up and write a speech about ‘fighting them on the beaches, fighting them on the…’ and end with that bark of ‘Never, never surrender!’  But he’s been undermined by the snake-oil salesman Halifax, who wants to cut a deal with Hitler, through official channels with Mussolini’s Italian diplomats. With Chamberlain he has prepared the stab in the back and was waiting for the right moment. He could be in fact be playing Boris Johnson to Prime Minister David Cameron, pre-Brexit, offering his whole-hearted backing.  All around Churchill are enemies.

Then Churchill goes to the people, takes a subway ride. Foreshadowing, in an earlier scene he admitted to having never being on the subway. Stalin did the same thing on the Russian subways system build by slave labour. Crowded by curious onlookers wanting to shake his hand. On the London Tube, Churchill asks the honest commuters, what would you do if the German’s arrived.

‘Fight!’ says a woman.

‘Fight!’ says a man.

‘Fight,’ says a black man.

We know, of course, Churchill advocated that the Post Office and public bodies should not employ black people, but here he was having a chat with the young fellow, who tipped his hat to the British bulldog and said he too would, ‘Fight’.  He’d find it funny fighting on the streets of London (where people spat on him, told the nigger to go home and wouldn’t rent him a house).  A politically correct symbol of Britain’s glorious Commonwealth. 

The clincher was the little school girl. She wasn’t to be left out. She wanted to fight too.

 Vox populi, the people had spoken. Churchill got the answer he wanted to a question he was asking himself. What would you do?

I know what I’d do, I’d get rid of all war metaphors and sack all Tories from office, starting with the charlatan-in-chief, little Trump, and biographer of Churchill, leader of the war cabinet against the Covid-19 virus, Boris Johnson.

 Vox populi, the people has spoken. ‘Stay Alert’. The people of Scotland have spoken.  I wish politics and life was that simple.

Barry Brennan R.I.P.

Barry on the left, Eon holding the beer, in Seville 2003.

Barry Brennan  7/5/2020 RIP.

I last saw Barry Brennan at Charlie Mac’s sixtieth. I hadn’t seen him in years. He was sitting with his wife Christine. He a bit of a gut on him and his blonde, teddy-boy quiff had retreated into his head, but he’d a big fuck-off beard. Looking at me out of the side of his eyes it seemed he wanted me to do the same. But I sat down anyway and shook his hand and Christine’s.

I guess he was still pissed of about a stupid Facebook post—I’d stuck him in at left back in the worst Dalmuir team ever, but really he could have played anywhere. As I explained, it was nothing personal. We only really had one good fitba player and that was Stevie Mitchell.

‘You still writing books?’ he asked.

‘Aye,’ I said. ‘But nobody wants to publish them, or read them,’ which seemed to satisfy him. That was us even.

‘You no drinking?’ I asked.

He made a face, and said he was driving. He was better at driving than fitba. Barry drove lads from the pub: Gary Forbes, Danny Doc, not to mention, Charlie Mac, and me to Seville in 2003 for the Uefa Cup Final. His co-driver was his brother Eon. Barry was no longer manager of the Drop Inn, but a customer. It was hard to keep up with the number of new managers we had with the number of few customers. But none of them were reckless enough to employ the bell as a sales gimmick.

Barry was more of a speed drinker than a marathon drinking man—with endless lock-ins—and that suited his style.  If you wanted to drink responsibly you could fuck off to the Park Bar. Barry’s innovation was the Crazy Half Hour. He’d dink a bell and suddenly drinks were half price. In economics there’s a good reason for this involving the laws of elasticity and price. At a lower price people will buy more than they would normally leading to increased sales and an increase in profit. Good idea, wrong pub, wrong planet.

Then there was the pub-till dip. A bit like the church scrambles you used to go to when you were younger. Eon would empty the till. Barry would empty the till and at one point, Elaine wandered in …who thought she had a half share in the pub would try and take her half share. Cash float? We were fucking steaming. No way to run a business, but a great way to run a pub, living from Dial-a-Keg to Dial-a-Keg. Borrowing money from customers to buy beer. And in Fiona, Fi-Fi’s, case taking money from customers to buy drink for herself, which seemed a good deal then. It was the only pub where the bar staff where drunker than the customers. Barry was ahead of his time inventing the idea of the social enterprise.

As Ernst Hemingway put it in his novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (it tolls for you). All we see is the past speeding behind us.

We didn’t know that when we set off on the mobile home Barry had hired from Yoker to take us to Seville. After a few drinks we set off from the pub, with loud jeers from those left behind. Protestants to a man, even though they included Agnes Pickering.

The camper van made it 100 yards along the road and we came to a stop. We fuelled up with enough drink from the off sales to take us over the Sassenach border into France and Spain, just-in-case cases of beer in case good Catholic countries ran dry.

When we got underway we quickly established some ground rules. Charlie Mac should shut up. And nobody should use the chemical cludgie on board for a shite. That lasted to Scotstoun when I’d an unlucky run of the skitters. And Charlie Mac never shut up from Dalmuir to Seville and back again, unless he was unconscious, which wasn’t often enough. We’d a stopover in a car park in Spain, while Eon watched and I tipped the contents of toilet into a Spanish field and made it forever Dalmuir. Ready to go again.

We’d a few other stop offs, but it was pretty smooth sailing. I was surprised when we hit the over 100 degrees tropical heat of Seville I could speak Spanish, ‘Hola’.  But it was unnecessary, Clydebank had been tipped on its edge and everybody had fallen out of planes and trains. Glasgow Airport reported its busiest day in decades. Banks ran out of Euros.   We took over the town, squares, pubs, with not even enough ground to pee on. T-shirts with the Road to Seville and the Hoops was a must wear. Barry found us a camp site and we were good to go.

Food wise we went continental, picking oranges that were superglued to trees for us to try. Danny Doc went into a restaurant, pointed and jabbered and ended up with a bull’s balls.

‘I’m no eating that,’ he said.

‘A bit chewy,’ I said, after scoffing it.

We went to the square to watch the game with thousands of others. Henrik did the business and Bobo Balde and Rab Douglas let us down. The same Porto team went on to win the European Cup the following year, but that was no consolation. Barry picked up a few strays, Sonny and Lynn Carrick on the way back. She remained sober enough to cheat at cards and win Danny Doc as a consolation prize. Everybody loves a ginger.

Back to the pub for a few beers and ‘Fuck the Pope’, Wullie Dalziel, back to a sense of normality. Barry’s death came out of the blue.  Seventeen years ago in Seville. Time moves faster when you got older. I’d have liked to have gone and paid my respects at Barry’s funeral. To drink a few beers with friends and catch up on old times. That’s not to be, we live in strange times.    RIP.