andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Tank in the Attic: letting go of a literary career (and the stamps from Zanzibar)

It being a warmish, but not outstandingly sunny, day off yesterday, I decided to do a bit more de-cluttering of our loft. Main target was this Scorpion Tank, although collateral damage included several cardboard boxes I’d thrown up there ‘just in case,’ and my childhood stamp collection.

Before I get onto the tank and its occupants, a word on the stamp collection, which I plan to take to a shop in Edinburgh and, in all likelihood, sell for sweeties. I don’t ever recall being that interested in philately – it was just a thing you did as a kid back then, in those distant late Sixties/early Seventies days, and parents, their friends, and older siblings, all sent or gave you stamps because it was a thing you gave a kid back then. For example, I have a total of three first day covers of the Forth Road Bridge opening in 1964 (I was precisely two years old at the time).

Of course, it’s not the tattered and inexpertly steamed-off stamps themselves which are of interest. One of the FRB envelopes contains the invite to my Mum and Dad to attend the opening ceremony: it even has a plan of which stand they were to sit in to view (no doubt with appropriate decorum) Her Maj driving over the newly-opened Bridge. A couple of years ago, I was at the closing dinner of the Bridge Board, which was the first time I realised that Mum and Dad had been at the opening ceremony, fifty years before.

It was my sister who told me that, and she also features amongst the givers of stamps, with a postcard from Salzburg dated 1972, when I would’ve been 9 and she 17. Neither of these are going to any stamp shop!

Anyway, that tank. Why the hell had I kept it, and its two occupants? I originally had four Action Men, but the other two seem to have disappeared. Maybe they hooked up with a couple of Barbie Dolls and headed down the highway: or maybe they’ll crawl out from behind some other stuff up there when I’m trying to clear it properly in preparation for moving house.

Well, I’m not completely infantile – the rest of my childhood toys disappeared long ago: but the tank, and at least one of the surviving Action Men, held special significance for me. It was my first, and, possibly, greatest value literary prize.

Around the same time I got that postcard from my sister on her trip to Salzburg, there was a competition run by Smiths crisps for a story about Action Men. I wrote something (long lost) which, to my surprise, won first prize: the tank, two Action Men, a bunch of clothes and weapons: you can imagine the effect on an impressionable kid! I always cite a trip to a writing course at Hebden Bridge when I was 16 as the start of my desire to write: but actually, winning that damn tank was probably the moment when I realised that putting words in the right order could bring you stuff you wanted.

Well, many years later, towards the close of a (reasonably) lucrative career putting lawyerly words in the right order, and a much less lucrative one as fiction, non-fiction, poetry and now song writer, it was time to let go. The tank, the ice boots, sten guns, grenades, dynamite, and other accessories of war that came with it, are in the plastic and metal recycling bin, awaiting melting down. It would be nice to think they’ll get made into a plastic and metal ploughshare, but that’s probably not going to happen.

And the Action Men? Okay, okay, I didn’t have the heart to stick them, butt naked and alone, into the green bin. I mean, these soldiers have been through a lot for me back in the day, as the paraplegic nature of the bearded one testifies.

Those damn parachutes never did open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Show Us The Boogeyman: A Review of Hereditary

To our local multiplex, then, for Hereditary, a first feature by writer-director Ari Aster which has, to say the least, been attracting polarised views, from ‘scariest thing since the Exorcist’ (various newspapers, in a nutshell) to ‘worst film I have since in a very long time. Not even worth 1 star’ (anonymous Odeon review). Having seen it, although I enjoyed it greatly, I can see both sides now (which is quite appropriate, as the eponymous Joni Mitchell track is the outro music for the movie).

We join the Graham family just as they’re burying Granny, Ellen, a ‘secretive woman with secretive rituals.’ Dad, Steve, is trying to mansplain his way out of the whole thing; meantime late teenage son, Peter, is diverting his grief by way of the occasional bowl of hash in school break times, and trying to get off with the girl in the row in front of him. As you, frankly, would at that age.

It’s the distaff side that’s are more of a cause for concern: there’s clearly something not right about Charlie, the early teens daughter, who, when she’s not drawing disturbing portraits in her notebook or fashioning what appear to be voodoo dolls out of assorted bric-a-brac, is making strange clucking noises.

And then there’s the central viewpoint character, Annie, Ellen’s daughter. Let me say right at the outset that Toni Collette deserves an Oscar for her portrayal: the camera lingers on her, much of the time right up in her face, and it’s a masterclass in conveying, micro-expression by micro-expression, the shifting levels of guilt, anger, despair, and plain bewilderment that the death of a dominating parent has brought.

She won’t get an Oscar, though, because this is a horror movie, and they don’t get Oscars. No award likely either, then, for the set designer who created the rambling wooden house the increasingly-dysfunctional family play out their claustrophobic psychodramatics in; nor, indeed, for the sound guy, whose capturing of every creak and groan the house makes (almost an extra character in itself), not to mention the supernatural effects that insinuate themselves around the auditorium, helps to ramp up the tension by the spadeful. Not to give too much of the plot away at this stage, but when you hear that clucking noise seeming to come from behind your ear, you’d better hope you shaved the hairs on the back of your neck pretty damn close before you joined the popcorn queue.

Really, there is so much that’s good about the movie. You’re absolutely rooting for Annie, even as she snaps at her husband’s well-intentioned interventions, and allows herself to be drawn into some home-made juju that you just know is going to make a bad situation ten times worse. There’s a truly, truly, memorable scene where, by way of the second plot complication, a horrific accident happens, and its aftermath is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and left taut as a bowstring, ready to fire the blazing arrow that skewers the rest of the story’s dark heart.

For a long time, the subtle visual and auditory jolts build the atmosphere towards what promises to be a white-knuckle climax. And then…

Okay, so SPOILER ALERT, don’t read any further if you don’t want to have the plot explained here. As with so many horror, supernatural, or such like movies, eventually the story has to nail its colours to some sort of belief system, and show us the bogeyman behind all this ratcheting tension. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Zombie? Vampire? Ancient undead demon who says Zool when you open the fridge door? William Rees-Mogg?

And that’s the first disappointment. The weird little words like ‘Satany’ scrawled on the wallpaper earlier on were a clue. (As an aside, what’s up with that? Satany? Does Beelzebub get out of bed of a morning and say to Mrs B, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about you, darling, but I feel a bit Satany this morning. Let’s go and char-grill some Jesuits for breakfast’?)

Because yes, it’s your garden-variety secret devil-worshipping cult, prostrating their middle-aged wobbly bits to a tin can idol that looks like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and one of the Flower Pot Men, gone a bit evil. As another aside, always with the naked? I mean, don’t devil-worshipping cults evolve, and like, get to wear some sort of leisurewear at their occult ceremonials? Honestly, it’s not a good look unless you happen to be young and hot. Which, let’s be honest, most of your average devil-worshipping cult members aren’t. Image result for britt ekland wicker man

(Britt Ekland in Wickerman apart, obviously: after that scene where she rubs herself along the wallpaper outside Edward Woodward’s room, I’ll never look at anaglypta the same way.)

 

 

 

Gratuitous opportunity for image of Britt Ekland

The second disappointment is more understandable, and indeed forgiveable. I’m guessing Ari Aster doesn’t quite have the directorial financial pulling power of a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whether or not they still have Harvey Weinstein on speed dial (what, too soon?) so the special scary effects in the denouement are slightly south of impressive.

I mean, when the central character you’re rooting for is hanging from a beam in the attic, trying with some success to take her own head off with a hacksaw, and you’re laughing, something has gone wrong somewhere, either with you or the film. And whilst I might normally think it’s the first of these, I certainly wasn’t the only one in the cinema laughing.

Despite these two criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed Hereditary. The first three quarters gave genuine chills: and if it ended with chuckles, well, that can be good too. Cracking script, great performances, shame about the special effects. Is it ‘pants-wettingly scary,’ as The Verge claimed after its Sundance premiere? For me, only if you have a pre-existing bladder control problem. But then, one man’s Exorcist is another man’s Friday 13th Part II, as I discovered years ago when I went to see both with my best pal Nicky and we each found the opposite one scary.

For me, it was the Exorcist, by the way. Hereditary isn’t that, but in case I’ve misjudged you, pack an extra pair of pants. Or as they say in America, pants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Weekends in May (2): The Fall of the House of Blackie

A long weekend in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house. It sounds like an improbable tale, unless of course you’re impossibly rich and connected to what, I suspect, would be some highly secretive and aged inner circle of CRM devotees.

However, that is what we did in a gloriously sunny weekend in May, with no more financial outlay than we would have spent on short break in reasonably priced hotel, and with no more hidden knowledge than the National Trust holiday lets brochure.

And it was very possibly our last chance to see.

To explain, to some of you coming at this new: Hill House, the Mackintosh-designed Helensburgh home of the Blackie family, has a flat on an upper floor that you could rent out for vacations; despite having visited it twice over the years, I only found this out around the time that the window to do so was closing fast. CRM’s architectural and interior design masterpiece is suffering, due to the Portland cement cladding on its exterior acting as a sponge which is starting to destroy the inside, the warm damp atmosphere washing up the loch reaching its sticky fingers inside.

Hill House is an incomparable mix of incredible, timeless artistry and a domestic setting which, whilst much grander than your average three-bed semi, is still relatable in a way that the castles and palaces of earlier times just isn’t.

It was such an impressive thing I was moved, after the first visit, to poetry:

 

It’s as if the family’s gone out for the day

and we’re ghosts in a time slip;

the servants off somewhere, toys tidied in the nook

at the top of the stair: a stage set,

a dressing up box, a pirate ship

creaking at noon anchor.

 

No cameras, mobiles, mp3s,

as if they would break the spell

of rising clouds of architecture in the hall,

or Margaret McDonald’s interiors,

the drawing room a solid cube of light

ringing like crystal.

 

Upstairs, purple lozenges in doors

to indicate the master, or the son and heir,

pink for the girls, McDonald’s ghostly ladies

lighting Anna’s way to bed,

the house wrapped round them on

an east-west axis, father’s room

closest to the setting sun.

 

However, this time round was different. First there was the fact that we were, actually, staying there: and whilst the main house was out of bounds to us, the flat we were in was, in reality, just a closed off part of that greater whole, comprising the former school room and the servants’ quarters. As such, it was furnished, simply, but plainly, in the Mackintosh style – I never got around to asking the guides if the stuff in ‘our’ bit was original – but, at night, when the iron gates closed to visitors and the staff left, the gardens and exterior were ours too.

the flat interiors: guitar model’s own. Below, some views from the flat of the main house

 

Second, there was that last chance to see element. The solution to the water ingress the NT have come up with is to build what amounts to a muckle greenhouse over the top of it. This will keep the rain off while they work out how to fix the problem: the displays in the house talked about how there would be a tension between those that wanted to stick to the original vision and not change a thing, and those who favoured a pragmatic solution.

The muckle greenhouse solution. Pic courtesy of National Trust site

Architect’s impression of the Box surrounding the Hill House

Personally I think it’s a no-brainer: unless you want the place to be permanently covered by a space-age conservatory, a pragmatic solution of replacing the failed cement with a similar but weatherproof material sounds like a plan to me. But then that’s maybe just me.

What the displays didn’t talk about, but became apparent from the chats I had with various staff, was just how extensive this ‘temporary’ structure to keep the rain off was going to be. It’s going to have lifts, and walkways, and everything, for goodness’ sake! There was even talk of the House itself being closed to the public for quite some time, with visitors being reduced to peering in the windows from the walkways. On that basis, if you want to see round it, crack on now. It’s later than you think.

I hope the pictures, taken on my mobile, give some impression of the look of the place. In a sense the interiors were less impressive this time round, not so much from familiarity, but because the signs of water damage were becoming ever more apparent: I didn’t remember the walls peeling quite so much last time. In another sense, of course, it was still all deeply fantastic.

Another slightly disappointing, if understandable, development was the dark blinds on the drawing room windows: whilst they probably should have been there long ago, it really spoiled that sense of what the summer function of the room was, which was to stare out over the rest of Helensburgh to the loch beyond. As you can see from the poem, it was one of my abiding images of the house.

But what was it like to stay in this Scottish architectural icon? Well, what struck me most – apart from the sheer pleasure of sitting in the gardens with a glass or two of wine in glorious sunshine like we owned the place – was how the Hill House had become the intertwined life stories of three distinct entities: the Mackintosh/MacDonald partnership, the house itself, and the Blackie family whose home it was for nearly 50 years.

Mackintosh’s life trajectory (and that of his wife, Margaret MacDonald, whose often uncredited artistic genius went into, amongst many other things labelled CRM, the Hill House interiors) is pretty well documented: early appearance as, along with Margaret, one half of a group of bright young things known as ‘The Four’ (or, to their critics, the ‘Spook School,’ for the ethereal style they adopted; the glory years as a Glasgow architect with Honeyman and Keppie – even though at the time his work was not universally liked: the Hill House is only one of a solid hillside of mansions, many of which favoured the Arts and Crafts style of, amongst others, William Leiper; the wilderness years in London and the South of England; and, finally, four all too short years in the South of France, rediscovering his passion for painting, a life cut all too short at sixty by mouth cancer.

One thing I didn’t know was that Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) was born within a year of Frank Lloyd Wright. The difference, of course, was that Wright was still accepting commissions in the 1950s, whereas Mackintosh was long lost to the world of architecture (and forgotten, until relatively recently, in his home town too).

So much for the architect. What of the house? Well, it was sold by the Blackies in 1952, on Walter Blackie’s death. Fortunately, the purchaser was President of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland, so it was treated sympathetically, even though some interiors were lost. It passed to the National Trust in 1982: all the while, from very early in its existence, nursing the water penetration issue like a wound that won’t heal.

In many ways, although disappointed to see how much damage was starting to become apparent inside, I still feel very positive about the House’s continued existence. It is just too well beloved to be allowed to fall. The mega-greenhouse is costing a big bunch of money to put up: with that level of public investment (in every sense of that term) committed, I can’t see the NT being allowed to let the place crumble even if it wanted to.

One thing that had intrigued me before was the part of the Trust’s brochure which talked about the schoolroom having some sort of ‘atmosphere.’ So was there? Not really. On the first night we were there, late on, there might have been a sense of a gathering presence in the main room (or that might have been the extra glass of wine talking to my limbic system). If there was, it didn’t manifest in any other way: maybe the Blackie household was just checking us out and, satisfied of our good faith, then withdrew.

And what of the Blackies? I called this piece ‘the Fall of the House of Blackie,’ and viewed one way, you could certainly see it as such. The publishing firm, after all, was in its imperial phase when Walter Blackie commissioned Mackintosh to design Hill House: and for the many decades of their occupation of it, a stranglehold on the Scottish educational textbook market ensured their continued existence.

There’s almost definitely a book to be written on how the firm, with its distinctive hardback covers (Talwyn Morris, its artistic director, introduced Mackintosh to Blackie, and was sympathetic to the Four’s style) eventually fell, being taken over by HarperCollins in 1972 and disappearing finally in 1991. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

I suspect such a book would have to focus on Walter Senior, who inherited the business – despite first refusing to join it and spending a year as a lumberjack. The knowledgeable guides gave intriguing snippets of the family history: how the children were quite spaced apart in terms of ages and how, in fact, Mrs Blackie moved in with a babe in arms; how Walter Junior, the son and heir, left home from Hill House to be married at the relatively advanced age of forty; how, on her husband’s death in 1952, Mrs Blackie left the house with the one daughter remaining living with her, the rest of the family having long moved out and showing no interest in taking the place over.

Apparently, some of the grandchildren used to visit the house now and again; but one lasting  – and quite touching – memory of the fallen house of Blackie was a plaque near the front door, which related that Nancy Blackie, not a blood relative, but the widow of Walter Junior, served as a volunteer until the last decade with the National Trust at the house.

Just going back to spiritual presences, I was told that, in the main house, you could occasionally be surprised by a passing whiff of Walter Senior’s pipe smoke. I hope that, in the future, he’s remembered for more than than that. Mackintosh may have been the architect, but Blackie was the inspiration, a man of business who might have required the dark Edwardian wood of the reception room for his clients, but still had the vision to understand why Mackintosh and MacDonald might want to surround the master’s bed with ghostly ladies.

Apparently, even late in Mackintosh’s life, Blackie was still in touch with him, buying his South of France paintings. Perhaps CRM’s most loyal client deserves a book of his own, amongst all the 150th anniversary hoopla. It was certainly a pleasure to stay over at his place for a weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Weekends in May (1) – ReimagiNation: Three Days in Glenrothes

As I said in my previous post, May was quite a month of weekends (the working week was pretty average, thanks for asking).

Let’s talk first, non-sequentially, about ReimagiNation, the Edinburgh Book Festival’s residency in our own New Town. It ran from Thursday 17th to Saturday 19th: and the Friday for me consisted of doing a reading from the The Wrong Box in the Rothes Halls at lunch time, and providing the music (with Venus Carmichael) at night for the ‘Whisky, Words and Music’ event.

As well as meeting lots of new people who said very nice things about my work, at the ‘Glenrothes: A New Day?’ event the next day I encountered one of my Mum’s best pals, 90 years old and still sharp as anything!

It’s always great to promote my book and get a gig, of course. However, to do it as part of a festival in the home town I’ve now spent most of my life in, and which has been so important to my family in so many ways, was, well, intense! It was particularly important to me to hear my Dad still being venerated as the town’s historian by so many people. In fact, that was what made it for me. Glenrothes has its critics, and it’s by no means perfect. But to hear so many of its residents talk about its good bits in positive terms – the garden city design, the sense of community, the remarkable collection of town art (currently sporting, somewhat mysteriously, purple ribbons) was really heartening.

I never meant to live here as long as I have, and I still plan to move to Edinburgh some day not too far away. The Festival did make me think though, what would the 17-year old me, the one who longed to bust out of town Springsteen-style, think of what I’d achieved?

Well, he might have been impressed I’d actually got a novel published, and I was playing in not one, but two, gigging bands that play original material. Of course, he was an ambitious little bugger, so he’d have probably been expecting me to be playing the Albert Hall by now… and he would’ve been disgusted that, in amongst all of this, I had to be in the office on Saturday morning, clearing through the emails.

And the fact I was still in Glenrothes, at the tender age of 55? I’ll take the Fifth on that one. Meantime, here’s a piece I did as part of the Glenrothes Digital Storytelling project earlier in the year, a really fantastic thing that was helmed by the endlessly affable and patient Dan Brown (no, not that Dan Brown…)

 

 I’d love to hear back from you if you have your own thoughts about that sort of thing. What would the 17 year old you have thought of where you are now? Could they have even imagined it?

 

Tribute to Venus Carmichael with, right, our spoken word reader for the night, Jayne Russell. Pic courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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