Live It Up 19: Elstree

Everyone remembers the Buggles big hit Video Killed the Radio Star but I always had a soft spot for this lament about the old film studios.

The Buggles: Elstree

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2012, 166 p. Translated from the Italian L’ultimo dei vostiachi by Judith Landry.

 The Last of the Vostyachs cover

Marani wrote one of the best novels I read last year – any year – New Finnish Grammar. His interest in Finland and its language is again in evidence here. In many ways this novel is the one which the title of New Finnish Grammar promised it would be. It may in fact be unique in having a plot which depends on comparative philology for its motor.

The titular last of the Vostyachs is Ivan, survivor of a gulag in which, twenty years before, his father was killed trying to escape. For all those years, until the guards quit due to lack of pay and left the gates open for the inmates to wander off, Ivan did not speak. He is a misfit in the locality, communes with animals and believes the wolves are other Vostyachs who changed form to evade the world and cannot get back. Olga, a Russian linguist studying the Samoyedic languages thereabouts is asked to help understand what he says. She recognises his speech as Vostyach, the long thought extinct oldest language of the Proto-Uralic family, a kind of linguistic missing link between Eskimo-Aleut and Finno-Ugric.

Trusting to his scientific curiosity, she writes to tell Professor Jarmo Aurtova, organiser of an imminent Finno-Ugric conference in Helsinki, of her discovery, making great play of Ivan’s velar fricatives and retroflex palatals, his use of the fricative lateral and labiovelar appendix. (Somewhat improbably, given the time scale involved, she suggests to Aurtova, “Perhaps your ancestors included some Sioux chief who fought at Little Big Horn!”) She tells him Ivan has problems with the modern world, does not like aeroplanes in particular, so while she attends a meeting in St Petersburg she will despatch him by train to Helsinki, and asks Aurtova to meet him at the station.

Aurtova has a portrait of Finnish wartime leader Marshal Mannerheim on his wall and thinks Finland and Finnish the pinnacle of human development, that Finns were the first Europeans, connected to neither Mongols nor Eskimos. As a result he does not take kindly to the prospect of a living rebuke to his beliefs. The scene is set for a tragedy, played out in the coldest night in Helsinki for fifty years and involving the release of animals from Helsinki zoo.

This may seem forbidding but the novel flows extremely smoothly and, despite the instances of linguistic vocabulary, is very easy to read. Marani creates compelling characters, can structure and tell a story and the translation (with a couple of exceptions*) serves him very well.

Marani has Olga express the preciousness of a language. During their encounter within the book she tells Aurtova that Vostyach has a word, powakaluta, for “something grey glimpsed vaguely running through the snow,” a word which will vanish if Vostyach does – though the thing it describes will not. And that disappearance would be terrible. She also reminds him that Finnish doesn’t have a future tense. (Something which is apparently common. English hasn’t, but can utilise an auxiliary verb to enable one.)

If I have any criticisms it is that the book may be romanticising slightly both Ivan’s relationship with nature and that of native North Americans and that Aurtova’s actions are perhaps a little unbelievable.

The Last of the Vostyachs was a delight to read just the same.

*The issues with the translation were firstly that ice hockey isn’t played on a pitch and its scoring system does not have points, “a few points short of victory,” plus the sentence, “One of the six thousand languages still spoken on this earth die out every two weeks.” Dies, surely? In a book dealing with philology, it’s perhaps as well to nail down the grammar. And that “ancestors” isn’t the correct word; “many times removed cousin” is nearer the mark.

The Stuarts on BBC 2

I watched the first episode of The Stuarts on BBC 2 tonight.

It seemed, like on its first showing on BBC 2 Scotland earlier this year, an odd decision to start with James VI (or James I if you prefer.) There were no less than eight Stuart monarchs before him. In the year of the Scottish Independence Referendum that could be interpreted as a slight, another piece of English ignorance/dismissal of Scottish History.

That the first episode dwelt on James’s desire to unite the two kingdoms as Great Britain might also seem like a dark Better Together plot as the Guardian noted today.

Yet (some, though not all, of) James’s ancestors were spoken of in the programme so the ignorance/dismissal angle can on those grounds be discounted. And the differences between the two countries that then existed (of religion principally,) and in some respects still do, were not glossed over but I was left wondering who on Earth thought broadcasting this was a good idea now. It can only lead to accusations of bias

I had another such disjointed TV experience with the BBC recently. Janina Ramirez in her otherwise excellent Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years War – on BBC 4 last week, this (and next) but also a programme that has been screened before – kept on emphasising how the events she was describing played a large part in how the country “we” live in now came to be as it is. (Note also the “us” on Dr Ramirez’s web page about the programme.)

Yet that country was/is England. Ramirez seemed totally unaware that her programme was to be broadcast not on an England only channel but one which is UK-wide. Indeed that the country all the BBC’s principal audience lives in is not England, but the UK. [Except for powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies legislation at Westminster is for the whole of the UK. No English elected body oversees the equivalent powers to those devolved elsewhere (arguably there ought to be one;) it is the UK Parliament that performs that function.]

Two parts of the UK share none of the history Dr Ramirez was outlining. Wales (having been incorporated earlier) was involved directly in the Hundred Years War but neither Scotland nor Ireland were. Yet she spoke as if that circumstance didn’t exist.

This sort of thing does contribute to a feeling among many Scots (and I suspect Welsh and Northern Irish viewers too) that the BBC is a broadcaster with a mind for England only and too often forgets the three other constituent parts of the UK.

MH 17 and Russia 2018

The shooting down of airliner MH17 over Ukrainian airspace was a tragedy – but more likely arising from the cock-up rather than the conspiracy wing of history. Surely no-one seriously thinks that the powers behind either side in the Ukraine fighting intended their minions to shoot down a passenger aircraft? It was clearly done by a trigger-happy clown not subject to much in the way of discipline or command and control as in a regular army. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens in civil conflicts.

The consensus that it was “Russian” rebels who did it is probably correct. That they ought not to have had the weapons to allow them to do it is also a given. But I suspect that Vladimir Putin is raging that it has put him – as the overwhelmingly likely ultimate source of the arms involved – in the wrong. One more reason for the US and EU to portray him as a villain and to increase sanctions.

Yet, unless it blows up into something bigger – in the hundredth anniversary year of the devastating fall-out of an assassination in the Balkans that prospect cannot be overlooked – in four year’s time will most people, apart from the families of the deceased for whom it will linger forever, remember it? Very few gave a toss about the contretemps Russia had had with Georgia in 2008 during the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year.

Yet we have our Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for the World Cup due to be hosted by Russia in 2018 to be stripped from that country. I wish him luck with that. The site of World Cups is in the purview of FIFA and that organisation doesn’t take kindly to outside interference.

What makes his remarks even more counter-productive in terms of his stated objective is that Clegg has said that England might host the tournament instead. Anyone who had any knowledge of FIFA at all would know that is a non-starter.

Twonk.

Art Deco Cinema in Danger, Cheltenham

Today I had a comment on my Art Deco in Cheltenham post.

It contained this link.

Apparently the Odeon Cinema (which I did not encounter when I was in Cheltenham but I have found the photo below at cinematopia.co.uk) is in danger of being demolished and in particular the friezes of two naked ladies which adorn its frontage may be lost to Cheltenham.

Odeon cinema Cheltenham

The link in the comment – which I repeat here – is to a petition to save the friezes (- and I would hope the whole building.) I urge anyone interested in Art Deco to sign it, as I have.

Stranraer 3-2 Dumbarton

Petrofac Training Cup, Round 1, Stair Park, 26/7/14.

And so it goes.

Again.

Scotland’s Literature and Scottish Independence

Last Saturday, in its Review section, the Guardian printed the views of a few Scottish writers on the Scottish Independence Referendum taking place on September 18th this year. Most of them seemd in favour of splitting from the UK.

Alan Warner, while in favour of a “yes” himself, pondered on the implications of a “no” vote. Think on this: if there was a no vote, has there ever been another European country where a “progressive” – and to use two pompous words – “intelligentsia”, has united in a liberation movement, yet the majority has finally voted against the aspirations of this movement? With a no vote, a savage division will suddenly exist between the values of most of our writing – past and present – and the majority of our people.

Leaving aside the question of whether inclining to yes is necessarily progressive does he have a point? While the tradition of the country has been to strive towards literacy it is undoubtedly true that reading has declined in my lifetime – as it has elsewhere in the UK, and beyond. Many Scots nowadays do not read and – as Warner himself acknowledges – probably don’t care that those who cater for those who do are “progressive” and favour yes.

But does it necessarily follow that a no vote will negate the whole Scottish literature “project”? Warner sees independence as a liberation from the internal war in the Scottish psyche that has raged since the Act of Union. (I presume he means being on the one hand Scottish but with no institutional focus for that identity and on the other not “really” being British as by sheer force of numbers English attitudes/attributes overwhelm all others in the UK.)

Might it be, though, that it was precisely that lack of institutional focus that fuelled Scottish literature? That, in the absence of a country to call their own, Scottish writers clung ferociously to what they saw as their distinctiveness? Would that same imperative not still apply in the event of a no? Might it even become more important?

It is at this point that the promises of the no campaign are relevant. All three main UK parties say that Scotland’s Parliament will be granted greater powers in that event. (Those of us with memories of the 1979 devolution referendum might greet that with a hollow laugh.) Even in the minds of younger voters these powers can by no means be guaranteed. There hasn’t been a Bill to enact them. Even if there had it is an established tenet of the informal UK (lack of) constitution that no parliament can bind its successor. Consider the return of a Conservative Government in the General Election of May 2015. Can we seriously believe they will cede power away from themselves? Will Scotland’s relative insulation from the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the dismantling of the education system down south survive a no vote? Even under a Labour Government the Barnett Formula (under which Scotland is granted a slightly higher sum per head of monies from the UK Treasury than elsewhere in the UK – but this takes no account of government spending on things like defence and procurement) will most likely be abandoned. Hard(er) times may be ahead – as, of course, they may be if the vote is yes.

Later in that same Guardian Review in a companion piece (the website contains an extension compared to the printed version) Colin Kidd reflected on the link between literature and nationalism in Scotland stating that for the first two hundred years of its existence the union was unquestioned and largely uncontroversial. [If that was so might it have been due to the fact that any questioning was beside the point? Until universal adult suffrage - which, don't forget, did not arrive until less than one hundred years ago - what mechanism existed to attempt to alter the union? (Apart from rebellion; and that option didn't work out too well for the rebels.) Efforts to change things were understandably channelled into extending the franchise.]

Kidd also says the great unionist novel doesn’t exist but he adds Nor, surprisingly, has a lost nationhood been the dominant subject of the modern Scottish novel. The morbid excesses of Calvinism provided a far more meaty bone to gnaw, from Scott’s Old Mortality and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 19th century to James Robertson’s ingenious updating of these themes in The Fanatic (2000) and The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006).

I haven’t read Old Mortality but the others I have and they certainly do address nationality; in Hogg’s case prototypically so (and I might add bang in Kidd’s “unquestioned” period.) As I wrote to the Guardian once before and I alluded to above; what struck me on reading his Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 1990s was the doppelgänger concept as a metaphor for the Scots psyche. Probably since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 that creature has not known what precisely it should be, neither wholly Scots, since the country lacked an institutional focus, nor indeed British, notwithstanding the attachment some Scots may have felt to the Union – Britishness was to a large extent hijacked by the overwhelming bulk of England and English concerns in the so-called United Kingdom.

This crisis of dual identity was of course memorably explored by another Scotsman, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the tradition of doppelgänger literature still looms large in Scottish writing.

I suspect a no vote (which is the most likely outcome as I write) will see that fissure in the Scots psyche sustained, if not exacerbated.

Not Friday On My Mind 23: Night of the Long Grass

In one of my early posts about The Troggs I mentioned a promotional film they made while walking about in a forest and that I could no longer find it on the web.

Well, now I have – except their stripy jackets are nowhere in evidence.

The Troggs:-Night of the Long Grass (forest video)

Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

TTA Press, 2014, 159 p. (Novella no. 3 from TTA Press, publishers of Interzone and Black Static.)

Cold Turkey cover

I don’t know why I was sent this. I had agreed to read TTA Press Novella no 2 (Nina Alan’s Spin) and review it on my blog but had thought that was a one-off. Yet this too has turned up in the post (though it was actually sent to my old address.) It seemed only polite to accord this book the same courtesy.

I had not realised before starting it that it would count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge but the author is a Scot whose blog is here. (She now lives in Essex. I did that for two years.) The first clue was the mention of Fir Park – one I have still to cover in my series on Scottish Football Grounds. (The story is set in a Lanarkshire town.)

Raymond Munroe is a Primary School teacher in Glengower. His mother and father have had gruesome deaths due to smoking. Raym is trying to give up. Again. This time his attempts are accompanied by the sound of a nursery rhyme and memories from his childhood, of the tally van and the grotesque figure of Top Hat – a creature with black tails, “really long ones, like party streamers.” Raym is also losing time. Each cigarette lapsed into eats up an hour in the real world. Johnstone has Raym explicitly acknowledge to himself that he could be suffering hallucinations due to nicotine withdrawal, but some of the children can also see Top Hat and what occurs in the lost hours is not remembered by anybody else.

Raym’s slow decline while trying to maintain his mental equilibrium under this joint barrage is the meat of the story but the other characters are equally well drawn, with Raym’s girlfriend Wendy very acutely observed. Only teaching assistant Caitlin seems too pat, too designed to the purposes of plot.

Despite Cold Turkey being in essence a horror story there are flashes of humour – “You are a fine teacher; even if you did pursue your degree in Dundee.”

Towards the end a drunk he encounters tells Raym that the phrase “cold turkey” is derived from a US saying and means the unvarnished truth. In any novel the truth has to be varnished. Johnstone is good with the brush.

Note to non-Scots readers. At one point Raym is described as “careering along the road like an escapee from Carstairs.” Carstairs is the location of a State Hospital (that is, an institution to house the criminally insane.)

Pedants’ corner. Raym is said to work in a “small rural primary school on one of the worst estates in Lanarkshire.” If the town is big enough to have an estate (which here means housing scheme) then it’s hardly rural. The staff room (I’ve been in a few – though admittedly mostly secondary school ones) seems excessively sweary to me. There is a reference to town meetings. (In Lanarkshire? I’ve lived in Scotland for all but two years of my life and never known of such things here.) The impression is given that primary schools have their day structured by periods and that basic trig is part of their curriculum. (They don’t and it isn’t.) Though “totilly waddy an’ a hauf” is new to me, neither “absolute mince” nor “the old heave-ho” is an obscure catchphrase. There was a shrunk count of 2 and 1 sunk. We had “site” for “cite,” “snuck” for “sneaked,” a “gotten,” “scroat” for “scrote,” starter blocks (starting) and a faux “Macintosh” chair.

Leslie War Memorial

Despite the demolition of the Regal Cinema (two posts ago) I was able to take some photographs in Leslie. The War Memorial is in a lovely situation by the Green. It’s a simple tapering obelisk.

Great War names are in the cartouches on all four sides. The Second World War names are on the base plinth on the south and north sides.

At the top of the memorial here is the word “Sacrifice.” “Duty,” “Valour” and “Endurance” surmount the other three faces.

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