Matthew Zajac is an actor. Acting is a precarious profession. The same old faces crop up with regularity. Trying to make a living from acting is akin to trying to make a living from writing. I’ve did a few shifts as an extra. I’ve no interest in being the next what-ever-you-call him/her. Writing, well, that’s a different story.
Writing is my game. I don’t expect to make a living from it. And with over one million self-published books appearing on Amazon every year if you’ve been paying attention, as I have, then you’ll know why.
Matthew Zajac in his downturn between acting and being invisible wrote his own play, The Taylor of Inverness. He took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and with the help of a fiddler, and some projections acted out the part of his dad. It received plaudits. Plaudits don’t pay the rent.
Next his—let’s call it an award winning play, because if it didn’t win something Edinburgh’s culture elite have fell asleep at the wheel—is taken up by BBC Scotland. The peasants up North, us, receive a fraction of the BBC budget to produce content for the fraction of the British population that are interested in that type of thing.
Matthew Zajac gets to play his dad again, for the cameras, in his award-winning play. But he also gets to travel to the Ukraine where his da was born, to put on the same performance for the natives of his father’s home town. But the programme also becomes one of those finding about your past kind of road trips where the viewer see nice scenery and meets quaint folk that don’t speak our lingo. Money for old rope.
One of Zajac’s Ukrainian relatives tells him (and us) how a fox is hunted. Cornered in a field in every decreasing circles until its captors can bludgeon it to death. Money for old rope is a cliché. What it refers to is the rope hangman such as Albert Pierrepoint in Britain used to sell to members of the public per inch, as a trophy, after they have used it to hang convicted criminals.
Ukraine used to be thought of the bread-basket of Russia. Soil so rich that to plant a stick was to grow a tree. I’m going off at a tangent here as Zajac did with his da’s story. His dad was buried in Inverness. Whisper it, as a head mason. He’d given up his Roman Catholicism to join the order and risen through the ranks. (My understanding is you can be both a Roman Catholic and a Mason, as my da’s pal, Jimmy Mac, was). Zajac’s dad, despite coming from the Ukraine, fought with the Polish army for Britain in the second world war against their common enemy, Nazi Germany.
It all kind of adds up. Before the first world war Glasgow was booming and growing at a rate faster than London. In the interwar years this growth declined, but it was still enough of a metropolis to take a refugee from the Ukraine and for him to find a job as a tailor in Glasgow. And then head to the back of beyond to Inverness to find a shop of his own, a life of his own, a new life and kids. It’s the refugee made good narrative.
The Ukraine of the interwar and postwar years was one of bloodshed. Let me fling some figures at you. 20 million dead. Stalin brought the Ukrainians to heel by mass starvation. Most children under ten would die first. Millions more sent to gulags such as those in Siberia. Ukrainian nationalists fighting the Soviets who had ‘liberated’ them shot and their families deported. Acts of savagery, mass murder and rape. Teenagers, in particular, in the vanguard.
Let’s remember the death camps in the East and the Jews. Jewish tailors that had trained Zajac’s dad. We know around six million Jews were exterminated. But around half, as they were here, were taken into forests and fields and shot.
Zajac finds in the old reels of his father’s tape something unnerving. His story of being swept up by the Soviet machine and being deported to Uzbekistan has a facsimilia of truth. His escape along the Soviet railway, with its own gauge system for train that took three months, seems possible. Syria and up into India an incredible journey in which the good guy prevails. He joins the British Army.
An alternative story and shadow self emerges that is completely compelling as narrative, as history, or as drama, and a combination of all these. This is much-watch TV. It shouldn’t be given a graveyard slot on BBC Scotland, but a Sunday night slot at 9pm. The kind of slot Small Axe: Mangrove demands and gets because Steve McQueen is a somebody. Zajac is a Scottish yokel, he’s give what he’s got and likes or lumps it territory. Listen up, I watched both and Zajac is better. Watch and learn what a thing man is.