Alan Cumming (2021) Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.

I was vaguely aware who Alan Cumming is. For independent film consortiums, Miriam Margolyes seems to be the pensioner of choice to go on adventures and sell the results to BBC, ITV or Channel 4. She’s been sent to America a few times and to Australia. The latest wheeze is Scotland. Yes, Bonnie old Scotland. Who’d have thought of that? Monopoly money for old rope. They flung in Alan Cummings as a guide, and driver of their motorhome. He’s Scottish, I didn’t know that. Stanley Kubrick though he was American, so I’m in good company. I wouldn’t know a good actor from a ham. But my partner who watched bits of the scenery in the Grand Tour said Cumming’s dad was bad to him. That piqued my interest. Now is the time to fling in some quotes about happy families being all the same. We’re off to a flyer. Cumming’s da was a sadistic cunt.

The book starts with discord. He’s in a marriage, I wouldn’t call it unhappy. They’re trying for a child. She’s an old acquaintance from drama school. A few years older. She’s the star turn with the operatic voice. The diva.  He’s the man with a childish face that gets parts playing adolescents. I thought Cumming was gay. So being married to a woman (he later marries a man) was the done thing. And if you’re going to do the done thing, you might as well do it early.

Before he went from the West End of Glasgow (the snobby bit) to Drama school he worked for D.C. Thompson and Company near Dundee, and near his home. He wrote the Astrology bits and pieces. You will find a stranger in Uranus. Not quite, but similar. The Fiction department. A Thompson clone was on ever floor.  When we grew up, Cummings being much the same age as me, they produced The Beano and Dandy, but also The Sunday Post, with Oor Wullie in it, a true Scottish legend. Cummings points out D.C.Thompson had a London address to give their publishing empire legitimacy. No unions, but Unionism and no Catholics were a given. Cummings ticked all the right boxes. Gay men or women, of course, didn’t exist and were too risqué for even the Fictional department.

I knew he’d done the MC in Cabaret. I hadn’t seen him in that, but watched (I suppose like everybody else) the film version with Liza Minelli. I’d read the Christopher Isherwood books, Mr Norris Changes Train and Goodbye to Berlin on which the musical is based. Cumming suggests that Isherwood and W.H. Auden et al weren’t there to fight fascism or do anything highbrow, but simply wanting to escape England and sample cock. No big surprise.

Authenticity:

‘It’s hard to be your authentic self when you don’t know who you really are.’

Cummings was in New York, close enough in his apartment to witness 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers. He acknowledges the fear and mistrust of Muslims and those of non-white, pasty, Scottish skin colour that ensued. The finding of a scapegoat and the invasion of Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. And how this all fed into the moron moron’s Trumpism (maybe I’m reading too much into a general observation).

Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Faye Dunaway, Tina Turner, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Halley Berry, Gore Vidal…they’re all here (apart from Rod Stewart and Elton John). The book was five years late. Too early for a chapter on Miriam Margolyes and her observations on bowel movements and the howls of laughter that ensures. Ho-hum. Read on.    

 James Robertson (2021) News of the Dead

The cover of James Robertson’s latest novel, News of the Dead, has a blurb from Ali Smith: ‘A marvellous novelist’. I spend much of my time looking at marketing techniques, when I should be reading, or even writing. Get a big hitter, preferably Scottish, like Ali Smith to say something nice about your writing and copy and paste it to all of your other books. It doesn’t need to be a novelist or writer. Billy Connolly’s good press (Jane Godley Handstands in the Dark). A gold-leaf endorsement of Scottishness and quality. I don’t know Billy Connolly or Ali Smith. I have met James Robertson on the page before. I looked for a review of his debut novel I might have written, but couldn’t find it. His novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack was stupendous. All the fine granular details have fell out of my brain like sand in a broken sandglass.

News of the Dead offers that old trick of bringing things back to life. There’s a ghost that only a young boy, Lachie, aged eight, can see.  

‘Lachie Darroch came to see me, for the first time in a while. It was autumn, the leaves were turning and falling fast, and most afternoons it was cold enough to light the stove before it got dark.’

‘…What’s a ghost?’ he asked.

…He had this story and he knew he could tell it to me and I would not laugh. Or tell anybody else.

‘…A girl. She had a white dress on. Well kind of grey. It was quite dirty, I think.’

I’ve used that trick too, in one of my longer stories, Lily Poole. There’s a holy man. Saint Conach— the story setting, Glen Conach. I’d written something about that too, but hadn’t finished it. Stories are brought to life by believers, so that’s OK, I’m not sure I believed in it enough. No church recognised Conach as a Saint, but a follower left a Latin chapbook, which showed that like all men, he had failings and was a sinner.

Marj, the old buddy, Lachie visits, has an inkling who the ghost was, or indeed is. Ghosts an echo of the past—I was here—but also for some reason a marker of the present.

The Journal of Charles Kirkliston Gibb, a penniless antiquarian, which begins Sunday, 2nd July 1809 takes us back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and before that to the Jacobites and  Highland Clearances. His transcription of a Latin manuscript of Saint Conach and his miracles takes us back to the time of the Picts. A thread of time runs from the Middle Ages to coming to the Glen of the Corona Virus. A backwater that reflects back what Scotland was and is in a whimsical and realistic manner.  

A good book asks questions of you. News of the Dead leaves you thinking this could happen, or this happened. The circularity of time provides answers. Often, not as we expect, but perhaps recognise. Read on.

The Last Wave, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, Writers Raphaelle Roudaut and Alexis Le Sec, Director Rodolphe Tissot.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000l9rg/the-last-wave-series-1-1-five-hours

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000l9rl/the-last-wave-series-1-2-the-return

I’m a bit of telly snob. If it’s on BBC 4 and its got subtitles I’m usually watching it. Part of my hangover from bingeing on Wallander. The Last Wave is a French drama with subtitles, therefore it ticks one of the boxes. Unfortunately, there’s no introspective morbid detective with a booze problem and a non-existent home life, he’s trying to drown out. But hey, hang on a second. There’s a big cloud hanging over the seaside town of Brizan. None of the adults seem particularly happy and their kids are pretty fucked up. So it’s almost Nordic in its promise, but without the snow and ice and grumpy faces. The ever smiling mayor acts as concierge as she promotes the annual surf party headlined by local-bad-boy made good, Max Alcorta (Roberto Calvet) who is one of the top surfers in the world. He’s joined in the water by other locals. Mathieu Ketchak (Theo Christine) is the black guy whose white dad is a bit of a sleaze. He sets himself up as a self-help guru for people with cancer, which he’s also got. Lena Lebon (Marie Dompnier) is also in the breaking surf. She’s the mother of the girl Ketchak fancies and he fancies back, but it’s complicated. Ben Lebon (David Kammenos) is the geeky science teacher in the school, but his daughter, their daughter stays with him, rather than their mother, because she’s been suicidal and left them after the death of a child. It’s not been explained yet, what happened to the kid, but I’m sure we’ll get there. He watches on the beach as his wife enters the surf and you know they’re estranged, but still in love. Thomas Lewen  (Gael Raes) is the speccy kid that kicks his heels and refuses to go into the water. Mummy is the town’s doctor and daddy is the town’s developer, trying to cash out in real estate and promote it as the new eco-friendly Biarritz. He has to drag his son into the water. He reassures him, it’ll be OK.

You know what Billy Connolly (the Big Yin) says about sharks, also the Big Yin.  Stay out the fucking water. But just like any young virginal looking type with big tits can’t help drifting down to see if Dracula is indeed in the basement, this crowd surf out into the waves.

Where were you when the cloud rolled in? Anyway, to jump ahead a bit because I’m getting bored writing this. Max comes out of the water changed, as they all do. It takes a wee bit of time to find out what their new superpowers are. Max seems to be able to breathe underwater, which is useful trait for a surfer and for fish. The speccy kid no longer needs specs. His mum’s a doctor and she explains to her perplexed husband, that the colour of his eyes has also changed. Dads in my experience don’t notice things like that, but if you fluff a chance at schoolboy fitba they certainly don’t miss that one. Speccy kid now can see through things.  Lena Lebon’s powers are more ambiguous. She gifts her ex-husband the horn and they seem set to give back together. The injuries to her wrists, slash wounds, disappeared after her return from the surf, but I’d guess her ongoing gift of the clould is love (generally and not the horn, specifically) or something similar.  Ketchak’s powers is to heal. He’s starts with a pigeon and then heals his dad’s leg pain and then one of his patients. Sleazy dad is quick to claim the credit.

I claim credit for treating myself to the first two episodes and would have binge watched all six, but they’ve been rationed. Look forward to more.

Derren Brown (2016) Happy: Why more or less everything is fine.


I like Derren Brown which makes everything easier. As Billy Connolly said when people approach him they are usually smiling. Derren Brown doesn’t make me happy. You can only do that yourself and he’s not really sure that happiness exists, except as a transitory experience, a bi-product of something else. Derren Brown’s book reminds me f those chap-books heroines in nineteenth-century novels, written by Jane Austen, who were, for example, always scribbling in it remembrances such as   ‘Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also’.

I’m not knocking it. That’s what this blog is. Derren is a great debunker. I like that too. He’s got an inside track on how magic works and debunks mystics, especially charlatans that prey on the needy searching for answers that involve the afterlife. For Derren there’s no after life. The theme of his book is it’s this life we should concentrate on.

First up on the firing line are those selling the notion of positive thinking as a panacea for…well, just about everything positive. The negative stuff is your fault, for not being positive enough. If you’ve got cancer, it’s your fault for not being positive. As it progresses it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Derren isn’t saying positive thinking isn’t a good idea, but it’s not a cure, but a marketing strategy to hook the gullible and snake-oil for the most vulnerable and needy.  We don’t for example give a dog a tablet and tell it to think positively about it, or give a horse an injection and then complain that it no longer gallops as fast.

The problem as Derren (and economists) see it is our needs are limited our wants unlimited. The solution is asking why we want something, what story is being told to sell it? When we change ourselves we change the narratives of our lives.

Derren looks at the considered life. Stoicism and hedonism as propounded by the ancient Greek Epicureans. He flings in a bit of everything: Aristotle, Christianity, Renaissance and Marxism and stirs with a big spoon. (I’m going to look at that bit again, I’m always interested in Marxist dialectic because it sounds quite intellectual.)

The next major means of achieving happiness and redemption from the encumbrance of society was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.  

(No it willnae, I hear myself saying).

To Marx, a bourgeois society alienates its working class from rewarding or creative labour.

(That’s more in line with my viewpoint. We all tell ourselves stories that resonate within us and seem true.)

Next up are the Stoic building blocks for a proper life. I can’t remember what they are, but they sounded to me like one of the steps in the AA handbook about powerlessness. To paraphrase, accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference. You can get somebody (like Alexander the Great) to step out of the way so you can get the sunlight, but you can’t move the sun.

Derren rattles through more of life’s lessons, regarding being famous, being rich and being loved. As Meatloaf says 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But Darren gives us the secret magic formula for success (which I’ve forgotten and will need to look up, again, but I’m happy too).

TALENT + ENERGY = SUCCESS

STYLE + ATTITUDE = BEING A STAR

Twinkle, twinkle I say, but Derren does allow for the Greek idea of FATE. This is shorthand for saying I don’t know. I often use it to bemoan my own fate. I’m often happy to do so.

The ending of the book is about death and happy endings. Funnily enough they’re not mutually exclusive. I recently came face to face with death. I like Derren’s take on all that positive thinking crap. He’s reiterating what I’ve often thought and written about. ‘How to Die Well’ is not often on the agenda. We ignore death until we cannot. His idea of ‘a good-enough death’ is lovely. He quotes Donald Winnicott:

I have extended the ‘good enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are at times so obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at…the fastest at…the cleverest at…’ I genuinely worry about all this positive thinking/ life coaching!

…It is undoubtedly excellent to try to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for living a ‘good-enough’ life with its shares of wonders and disasters…

We’ve came to the end, as does Derren Brown, with a chapter And in the End. And Now. He’s perhaps gone too far, but hey, it’s entertaining and informative and I do like the guy.   

John Kennedy Toole (1980) A Confederacy of Dunces

john kennedy tooole.jpg

I got to page 35 of this book and gave up. The tale of Ignatius J. Reilly who has a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of humanity and his poor, put-upon mother whom he lives with, and is dependent on, could be described as farce. Anthony Burgess on the cover describes it as ‘A Fine Funny Novel. This is the kind of book one wants to keep quoting from.’ I don’t feel any great need to do that.

The story of how I and so many others came to be reading this book is more interesting to me than the book itself. Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland mentioned John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces as being the kind of book he loved. He’d he’d given it to one of his friends and he loved the fact he heard them laughing through the walls of his cabin (he was on a cruise, Billy Connolly is loaded, but he’s still one of us – kinda- Made in Scotland is his swansong).

Libraries across Scotland were swamped for requests for A Confederacy of Dunces. It jumped up the Amazon ratings like a Yeti coming out of cold storage.

The foreword by Walker Percy is the best part of the book. I’ll quote it rather than the book.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this novel –which on my third reading of it astounds me even more than the first – is to tell the first encounter with it. While I was teaching at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown to me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to go to my class. It was her son, who was dead had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it’s a great novel, she said.

…somehow it came to pass that she stood in my office and handed me the hefty manuscript.

The rest is history, or her story, the story of John Kennedy Toole’s mother, whose persistence, like the mother or Ignatius J. Reilly,  paid off. Her son’s genius was recognised. Not by me, but people that matter. All readers matter, but some more than others.  There’s a lesson there for all us would-be novelists. Have a persistent mother and be friends with the god of luck and The Big Yin above.   Read on.

Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, Part 1, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Mike Reily.

Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, Part 1, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Mike Reily.

billy connolly.jpg

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bwzhy6/billy-connolly-made-in-scotland-series-1-episode-1

Billy Connolly is one of our most successful exports. A bit like Sean Connery, but with a beard and a lot more hair. Nobody comes away with the usual shite, oh, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he doesn’t speak proper English. Well, fuck off then. I must admit I wasn’t a fan. Obviously, being that age, I got what he meant by The Crucifixion, that LP which was meant to be, oh, so funny.

You know it’s one of those jokes when somebody tells you all about it, I think it was Summy and they’re laughing so much, you think it must be hilarious. Judas goes up to the cross and Jesus tells him to come closer and closer and the punchline is Jesus sticks the heid on him. Ho. Ho. So fucking what?

As Billy Connolly admits, you get guys telling you funny things like that all the time. Only now do I appreciate when I’m a grumpy old cunt do I appreciate what Billy Connolly was doing then and is doing now. He’s telling it like it is, or at least like it was. That’s your da, that’s my da, when they’re pissed. Here’s your daft auntie, singing at the Christmas party, a song without any words but lots of shoulders and tear-filled emotion. Billy Connelly gets it, which is initself a gift, but his genius is he translates it into Glasgowese. Don’t try and get above yerself or somebody will knock you down.

He was a welder in the shipyards, those men only spaces where everybody let rip and you had to shout to be heard. And everybody took the piss out of everybody else because that’s how you got through the day. Dour men would find their voice in that other men-only space of the boozer. And of course there was bigotry. I’m not a Billy, you’re a Tim.

Billy recalls calling an old guy in the yard a blue nose and being held down and his nose painted blue. That’s funny in a lot of ways. It couldn’t happen now? Keep parroting and peddling that line until you believe it.  Billy called bigotry ‘a hobby’. The best of men, became the worst of men, for a few hours and after a few drinks brought their life back to normal. We’re still here. Especially in the build-up and aftermath of an Old Firm game. We’re still here today. Billy Connelly tells it like it is. Long may he last. Truth will out.