Nicola Barry

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Margo MacDonald

Margo MacDonald 1943-2014

The death of Margo MacDonald today will affect every Scot of a certain age. Whatever you thought of her controversial views, we will always remember her as the blonde bombshell of Scottish politics. When she stormed to victory in the astonishing Govan by-election in 1970, she was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise boring political landscape – a force to be reckoned with. Having plied her trade as an MSP at the Scottish Parliament, there are those who have continued to refer to her as the blonde bombshell, if a bit older and a hell of a lot wiser. Margo had Parkinson’s Disease – something we have known for a few years now. She campaigned for the law to be changed to allow her to end her life if the disease became too painful and debilitating – to the extent where she might become a burden on the family she adored. It was typical Margo. The fact that she suffered from Parkinson’s is not the point. The point is that she always took her experience, whether good or bad, and used it to articulate for those whose voice was neither as loud nor as clear as her own. Margo was not asking just for herself but for everyone in unbearable pain. Assisted suicide or euthanasia means hastening the death of a person with a terminal illness. The term comes from the Greek word for ‘easy death’. As far as I am concerned, the vicious debate over euthanasia is galling to say the least – because it is about playing with words. For example, saying a doctor is playing God or committing murder is distorting the truth to a ridiculous degree. Such terms make a mockery of the truth which is allowing death to occur for nothing other than compassionate reasons. People should be allowed to die with dignity and that there is no one better to decide when the pain becomes too much than the person themselves. It would shock you to know that thousands of people out there want to die. They want to end it all because they have some disease or disability which means they themselves are unable to end their lives in a dignified manner. To spell it out, they cannot commit suicide. Maybe paralysis prevents them from reaching for the bottle, who knows? They may be in agonising pain and they may be incapable of functioning in any dignified human fashion. All they can do is see the future unfolding – with a lot more suffering, deterioration and humiliation.


Margo was trying to tell us something. And when someone as tough as Margo McDonald is reduced to asking for a merciful end to her worsening pain sometime in the future, it galls me that anybody in their right mind could think of saying no. She insisted that no legal sanctions be visited on anybody who might assist her in the act of dying. Those who support legalizing assisted suicide claim that we all have a moral right to choose. Opponents argue that society has a moral duty to protect and preserve all life. The religious say God gave us life and God, therefore, is the only one who has the right to take it away. Some people also believe that legalising assisted suicide would violate the rights of others. For example, doctors and nurses might find themselves “compromised” – having to cooperate with a patient’s suicide. In some cases, very few, there must be a fine line between euthanasia and murder. I’m talking about the unscrupulous few who, through resentment, love, whatever, would kill a relative for the wrong reasons and against that person’s free will but such rogues are few and far between. We need controls to ensure that doesn’t happen. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t have sensible legislation in place, with medical and psychiatric provisos making absolutely sure assistance will only be given to those who have reached the end of their tether. By that, I mean people whose lives are so wretched they have to carry on in misery, knowing there is nothing they can do about it. I am sure that is what Margo McDonald envisaged. What we forget is that euthanasia goes on all the time. The fact is that doctors are used to making life-and-death decisions. In some respects, euthanasia is one of this country’s best kept secrets, the ultimate act of love that dare not speak its name; only as far as the medical profession is concerned, though. Mere human beings like us, who are not doctors, have no such options available. We are supposed to stand back and watch while our loved ones die in agony. In this country, an individual who helps another person to die will face legal consequences. Yet, every single day decisions are made about people’s lives such as: should we treat this patient with expensive life-saving drugs? Should that patient with learning disabilities be resuscitated if he or she suffers a heart attack? Is this old man worth treating, or should food and water be withdrawn because he is so near the end anyway? Yes, it goes on, but very quietly. In Parliament, The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill (ADTI, which covers England and Wales) was blocked in the House of Lords, but Lord Joffe, the sponsor of the Bill, has said he is committed to bringing it back before Parliament. In Scotland, MSP Jeremy Purvis’ (Now Baron Purvis of Tweed) Physician Assisted Suicide Bill never garnered enough support in Parliament. Both Bills propose allowing assisted dying for mentally competent, terminally ill adults at their own request, providing they meet certain safeguards. We must acknowledge that the law in relation to assisted dying as it stands is terrible – because it drives the practice underground. There is evidence that assisted dying takes place now, without regulation or safeguards. Every year we hear of more and more people going to Switzerland for an assisted death.


It would be far better, far safer, for terminally ill people to have the option of a safe, legal, medically assisted death here. We do not choose to be born but I believe we should respect a person’s desire – if they are sick and in unbearable pain – to die if that is what they choose. Our own Margo MacDonald has gone with all the majestic dignity she possessed in life.


Ian Hamilton – Stone of Destiny QC

Ian Hamilton – Stone of Destiny QC

With customary boldness, Ian Hamilton QC, has said that Westminster is “very, very frightened” at the prospect of an independent Scotland.

Hamilton is one of this nation’s treasures. In 1943, he volunteered for active service while still at school and went before a selection board.

English: Panorama of Westminster North Entrance

Panorama of Westminster North Entrance. Wikipedia)

Deemed suitable to be a commissioned pilot, he was put on deferred service until a vacancy arose. A few years ago, in an interview, he said: ““Not many people know that Bomber Command killed some 55,000 grammar schoolboys like myself. I spent nearly three years in a barrack hut, just lying about doing nothing. It made me so angry. Some 20,000 men were retained for aircrew training. We never saw any action at all while our contemporaries were being killed.  An officer told me he thought there could be another war against the Russians. I said if there was, I would be on the other side. It was the closest I ever came to mutiny.”

The mantel of being the most famous Scot in modern history still sits somewhat uneasily on the shoulders of retired QC Hamilton. His daring feat, on Christmas Day, 1950, with three fellow students, was not done for fame or fortune, but to make a point about Scotland’s true place in the brave new post-war world. And it was there in some lonely RAF base that the daring plan to steal The Stone of Destiny first took shape. A thoughtful, quiet man, obviously proud of his actions as a young man, he is unwilling to be defined by them. Neither is he the sort of person to be carried away by the rhetoric of others. Whether he likes it or not, Ian will always be known as the man who hatched a plot to steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, bring it home thus reawakening the sleeping giant of Scottish Nationalism.

What led up to stealing the stone? “I was at university,” Ian said, “but had hatched the idea on deferred service. After a barrack room, university was an enormous freedom. Life suddenly exploded into meaning for me and the anger I felt gradually gathered a bit like a boil.” At that time the only guard on the stone was The British Empire. “No-one ever imagined anyone would break into the very heart of the British Empire, so, they didn’t bother guarding it.”

Over coffee in his house with stunning views over Loch Na Beithe, beneath Ben Cruachan, he told me how he and three other young Scots, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart stole the stone of destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950 and brought it home to Scotland. The symbolism of what the trio did was not lost on Scots who took to the streets to celebrate, what they saw, effectively, as Scotland’s destiny released from English hands. “I suppose I was a Nationalist but I was always a Scot first. Every single political party these days is nationalist, every single party supports home rule. What is a nationalist but someone who wants extended power for their country? During the war the SNP was run by fascists Dr Robert Macintyre and Arthur Donaldson. They were dotty, completely. They continued to be dotty for about 20 years. The current official line is that we weren’t prosecuted because, to do so, they would first have to establish rightful ownership. Any lawyer knows that is nonsense. With theft you don’t have to prove ownership. Most stolen cars belong to an employer or a hire purchase company. The Lord Advocate does not make the searches to find out who owns the car. We weren’t prosecuted because the Scottish people made it clear by taking to the streets and cheering that there would be riots if we were.  It took them three months to find us. The Glasgow Police had no clues, the crime was unique so there was no modus operandi. My father gave me an alibi and because he was a strict Presbyterian, everybody believed him.”

As part of his research, Ian had withdrawn from the Mitchell Library as many books as he could find on Westminster Abbey
”The police concluded that the perpetrator must have had a deep inside knowledge of the Abbey,” he said, “They went to Glasgow University library but nobody had taken out books on the abbey. However, at the Mitchell Library, however, they discovered one person had taken out every single book.   The police arrived early one morning and asked me to go with them. I told them the law decreed they must arrest me first. But when they told me they had the other two men and that they would get all the grief, I went.  There were a lot of policemen and a chief inspector from Scotland Yard who interviewed me. He held my library slips in such a way that I could see them, whether to intimidate me or just carelessness, I’ll never know. I pre-empted him by saying my main interest was ecclesiastical architecture, true, that I had taken out all the books on Westminster Abbey I could find. It could have been a fraught morning but it wasn’t.”

When first admitted to the bar in 1954 as a young advocate, Ian took another stand and refused to swear the oath to Elizabeth 11. He was told if he refused, he couldn’t become an advocate. In the end, once again, popular opinion forced the authorities to capitulate. He said: “It was bad enough for a young person to defy the establishment,” Ian says, “but when he also forces them to climb down, he is not going to be popular.” Did his rebellion hold him back professionally? “Yes, it held me back for 2 years. Then, by chance, in 1956, someone put me into the appeal court where junior counsel opens for the appellant, with senior counsel only there to sweep up at the end. Within a week, I was offered work by the firm of solicitors who had been on the other side in the appeal court. I worked for insurance companies as well. It was challenging work and I soon built up a big practice. I should have been a writer, like, say, Alan Bennett, the award winning playwright.” In fact Ian is an award winning playwright. In 1957, he won the Foyle award for Tinkers of the World, for the best play in British repertory. The award was won the previous year by Sheila Delaney and John Osborne the following year.” Does he see himself as a writer? “Oh yes, absolutely,” he said, “I do not regard myself as a reasonably successful lawyer but as a failed writer.” In the Nineties, he also wrote his autobiography, A Touch of Treason as well as his republished and unputdownable Stone of Destiny. As an advocate, Ian had a formidable reputation

His biggest murder trials Bluebell woods, in 1986, and the murder of a prostitute, body found in exhibition centre car park, one of six or seven murders of women in the sex trade. “Because of that acquittal, Strathclyde Police became convinced there was no serial sex killer yet the modus operandi in each case was the same. The real evidence just didn’t fit my client. “I have probably done more murder trials than anyone else in Scottish criminal history. Murders tend to happen outside pubs, a phenomenon I call causing death by careless kicking. A young man goes out at night, particularly these days, armed with a knife. I tell you the same person ends up on the mortuary slab as in the High Court on a charge of murder, just because of a flurry of blows outside a pub.”

How does he think Scotland is doing?

“There is a buzz about Scotland because we are getting our self confidence back”, he said. “Nationalism is just another name for self confidence. I believe we will see independence in my time. And we will be able to solve problems like poverty here as well as abroad. In Scotland, you can discount the Tories, the Liberals will always go where there’s a little power and the only election Labour can be sure of winning is the election for a new leader.”

Does he rate politicians? “They are like anyone else although an SNP politician is more likely to be driven by ideals. People vote for two reasons, self interest and idealism. The Labour and Tory Parties have satisfied neither of these in Scotland for all these years. They are imploding on themselves.

“I have always believed independence would come. Becos when I was lying in my barrack hut and the Atlee Government was doing everything to support the British Empire’s hold over the weaker nations, I learned that people are very fond of their own country, and, as soon as you start to acknowledge your country exists, you immediately want a say in its government. Anyway, history is on our side.”

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AIDS Awareness

Aids Awareness is crucial to fighting infection

English: The Red ribbon is a symbol for solida...

The Red ribbon is a symbol for solidarity with HIV-positive people and those living with AIDS.


December 1st – which is World Aids Day – tends to disappear in a fog of complacency bound up in pretty red ribbons. Let’s face it, AIDS is the forgotten plague. We seem content to ignore one unsavoury little fact, namely that HIV is still a killer. In 2011, Aids killed more than 1million people globally. In our haste to save lives in Africa, we have turned a blind eye to the situation here in the UK. Worryingly, recent research revealed that more than half of us are ignorant of how HIV is transmitted. AIDS awareness is at an all time low and our – albeit generous – desire to help other countries has blinded us to the threat here at home. Many of you will remember the brilliant and graphic AIDS awareness advertising campaigns of the early Nineties, the falling icebergs, the grey tombstones, the myriad of scare tactics. Well, they worked. There was never any doubt back then that HIV was the deadly, silent threat perched on every bed post. These days, however, so many people are, singularly, failing to hear the safe sex message. You only have to look at the number of teenage pregnancies to see that. This is bad news, mainly because the prognosis for those people who are diagnosed has changed dramatically. Having HIV is no longer the death sentence of a quarter of a century ago. Now people live with HIV, even if it is thanks to a cocktail of drugs. Make no mistake: we are still facing an AIDS crisis. Tragically, the general public is cooling towards the subject, becoming complacent about what they will and won’t do in relationships. There has always been a tendency to see HIV as someone else’s problem: it’s the fault of gay men, druggies, Africans, anyone but us. The truth is HIV can be spread by men to women, women to men, men to men, mothers to babies, as well as by sharing needles and contaminated blood products.


Most important of all, especially to those affected by stigma, no amount of kissing, hugging, crying, sneezing, sharing crockery or sitting on lavatory seats can give you AIDS. Not even casual everyday contact with a carrier can do that. The only known effective transmitters of the virus are, let’s try to be honest for a moment, blood and semen. Drugs are a huge problem in this country, yet we continue to turn a blind eye to the misery and suffering caused to the families of addicts. It seems there are always people ready to protect children from unsuitable adults – from paedophiles and child abductors, but not from parents who abuse drugs. Experts say such children suffer a great deal of ‘hidden harm’, such as poverty, ill health, neglect, poor educational opportunities, abuse of various kinds and, later, homelessness, institutionalisation and the ever-present threat of HIV infection. While there have been great advances in the treatment of AIDS and HIV, studies have shown that a late diagnosis accounts for some 35 per cent of HIV-related deaths among adults in the UK, an unnecessary statistic. People are dying because they never knew they were ill in the first place. And when they did find out, it was too late to have effective treatment. AIDS itself doesn’t kill anybody as such. What happens is that HIV compromises the immune system, decimates the white blood cells – the body’s principal means of protecting itself from infection. And, as the cells are destroyed, AIDS-related infections take hold. Nevertheless, without a test, the virus can take years to manifest itself. Its long incubation period means it moves invisibly so a lot of people don’t know they have it. Saddest of all, our progress in providing drugs to people who suffer has not really been matched by any accompanying change of attitude towards those infected. I wrote about AIDS thirty years ago, when Edinburgh found itself right at the centre of the outbreak. By studying stored blood from drug users, researchers were able to pinpoint the start of the virus in Edinburgh to mid-1983, a predicament caused by addicts sharing needles in what they called shooting galleries. Outside Edinburgh, AIDS was often known as the gay plague. Some people saw it as the wrath of God or the end of the world; others even thought it was a plot by the KGB or CIA – anything but take responsibility.


Even now, in 2013, when it is everybody’s plague, some people still shy away from behaving responsibly where sex is concerned. Despite the increase in heterosexuals with HIV, most people allow themselves to be lulled into believing that AIDS is “dying out” – and the irony of those words will be lost on them. We need to work much harder on prevention, yet some charities and members of the medical profession are struggling to raise awareness. Few people take into account the huge effort made by gay men when AIDS became a problem back in the 80s. All over the world, homosexuals changed their lifestyles. And no, they were not to blame for the virus spreading. Have you ever heard of anyone being blamed for spreading flu? And yes, it is exactly the same. One day, historians will one day record that homosexuals were the heroes of the 80s and 90s. It was they who alerted the world to the disaster of AIDS, the disease which had already killed off thousands in Central Africa. These same historians will hopefully also record that thousands of lives could have been saved had heterosexuals also changed their ways. They will ask why straight people kept pontificating about the evils of homosexuality while failing to do anything about their own practices. This is not a good time to climb onto the moral high ground – because AIDS shows no favours, not to black or white, rich or poor, male or female.  AIDS could probably be eliminated within a generation or two, if everyone took the dreadful lessons of the past 30 years to heart. Of course, Africa matters. But the rest of the world needs to set standards so that we can all live safely. There are already too many people out there desperate to kill us off, terrorists and the like. Surely the last thing we want to do is aim a loaded gun at ourselves?


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Halloween Mental Patient

Severe Mental Illness

Severe Mental Illness (Photo credit: homelesshub)

Asda Halloween Mental Patient Outrage

Such outrage over the supermarket Asda selling a fancy-dress outfit featuring a character covered in blood as a”mental patient costume”.  Asda’s doomed prank was brandishing a meat cleaver and billed as a “mental patient fancy dress costume.” The outfit, designed to look like a blood-splattered straitjacket with ragged edges, was on sale for £20 through the store’s  clothing arm, George, has now been withdrawn.

A perfect case of people in glass houses not throwing stones if ever there was one. How many times have you looked askance at somebody in the past week? Perhaps they looked as if they were not quite right – one sandwich short of the full picnic, the lift didn’t go the whole way up. You know what I’m talking about. We have developed far too many slang words for mental illness: ‘Psychos, wierdos, nut-jobs. Try counting the number you pass on an average day. The result is very revealing. It says a lot about the person counting as well as those being counted. And you have to include every oddity you meet in this particular ‘mental’ tally: smelly street beggars, drunks staggering home, road-rage drivers, mothers screaming at tantrum-prone toddlers, stressed executives. The list goes on and on. After all, statistics dictate that one in five of us is potentially mentally ill.


Like it or not, in this country, most people are prejudiced against the mentally ill. You probably know someone who has been depressed lately or even been in a psychiatric hospital. How did you respond when you first heard the news? Did you back away, mutter a few words and quietly put the person to the back of your mind, at least until he or she was better? Even more revealing – how would you react if the house next door to yours was earmarked as a future home for long-stay patients coming out of hospital – in other words if community care were to come to your back yard. Of course, you thought the concept was brilliant when it was first mooted. It’s great to have people who have been institutionalised for years and years move out of hospital into a home of their own. Then you receive a letter saying they are going to move into the house next door to you. Hey, wait a minute, you thought. What will these neighbours be like? Will they start molesting my children? Will they turn the neighbourhood into a modern-day Bedlam with their mad shouting and screaming? Most important of all: will the value of my house plummet? So, you sign a petition. You tiptoe around it at first. You don’t want to be nasty and say you’d rather they didn’t live next door. That’s a bit much. So you couch it slightly differently. You say the area isn’t suitable for that sort of person – whatever that means. Guess what? You’re prejudiced. You’re discriminating against a group of people because they are ill. What business is it of yours who is moving in next door anyway?

I have never understood why so many organisations consult residents in a street about people who are mentally ill moving into the area. What has it got to do with anyone else? When I move house, I would dearly love to have a survey carried out of the people next door beforehand. Are they noisy? Do they have a stereo blaring all day and night? Do they drink a lot? It would be wonderful to know in advance. That way I wouldn’t waste money on an unsuitable house. But I can’t do that because it would be a travesty of human rights. That is the difference between physical and mental illness. You wouldn’t mind a man with a broken leg moving in next door. But a broken mind, no thanks.

At least Asda has had the decency to apologise and withdraw the Halloween outfit. In a statement on Wednesday evening, Asda, which is owned by US retail giant Walmart, said the sale had been a “completely unacceptable error”.

A step in the right direction.

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Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale, Welsh footballer for Tottenham Ho...

Gareth Bale,Tottenham Hotspur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only word for it is obscene. Real Madrid has paid Tottenham Hotspur 100million Euros – £85million in old money – so that Gareth Bale can kick a football, albeit well, up and down a rather plush field. The obscenity is that Spain is in the grip of a recession which, frankly, makes ours look like a Sunday school picnic. I wonder whether the Spanish have a phrase as ironic as David Cameron’s, “We are all in this together”. Utter nonsense. And Spain, like the UK, is a land of haves and have-nots. As one of Real Madrid’s Galacticos, Gareth Bale will feel right at home among the haves, earning between £170,000 and £300,000 – depending on which paper you read. The other obscenity is that the gap between rich and poor has never been wider. Being poor is a question of not having power over yourself, of not being able to make your own choices about the life you want to lead, about what you want to do, where you want live and with whom. Any measure of poverty has to be one of inequality within a society. It’s not fair. I can’t think of any better way to say it.
It might shock you to know how many British children sleep on a thin mattress on the floor, under an old blanket, in the same room as their brothers and sisters. These children don’t have new toys, never go to the cinema or eat out in a restaurant. They rarely eat fresh fruit and vegetables. How can anyone find real happiness living such an impoverished existence?


Being as rich as your average footballer means being able to dream of a better life and having the opportunity to realise that dream. Being rich gives you self-confidence. No one in their right mind would choose to be poor. Most of us believe poverty means not having enough food or warm clothing but the poor themselves often say that the worst aspect of their lives is poverty of expectation – the idea that deprived people do not have the same aspirations as everyone else. Instead, they are socially excluded and lack opportunities in life because they are discriminated against for some reason. They are left out of things most of us take for granted.
The poor have exactly the same aspirations for themselves and their families as the rich. They want to live in a beautiful home, determine their own destinies, and enjoy all the basics most of us take for granted. They want more than just the basics though. Most people who live in poverty also dream of being a pop star, a doctor, a famous footballer. But what good are dreams when you don’t have the money to pay for those singing lessons or when your education has been so irregular that university is out of the question? You can’t achieve what you want to achieve because you are too poor. On the other hand, you know that your hopes and dreams are the only thing to keep you from sliding into an abyss of despair, so, you hang onto them. At least aspirations don’t cost money.


These days, those who are relatively well-off have been extremely vocal about their plight. They are trying desperately hard to keep pace with what is happening to the things they have always taken for granted like savings, investments, credit and long-term prosperity. The credit crunch is everywhere – rising food and fuel prices alongside plummeting house values. The perpetual coverage of the credit crunch has told us one thing loudly and clearly: it is the suffering of the people with money in the bank which matters; not the suffering and hardship of those who have nothing. I like to call them the Nouvea Pauvre. A bit like the Nouveau Riche, people who acquired a lot of cash unexpectedly, the Nouveau Pauvre are finding out, rather suddenly, what it is like to go without, but not in any real sense. These are people who THINK they are poor, who are having to cut down on expensive facials, on bottles of champagne and holidays in the South of France. This is the haves pretending to be the have-nots. Nothing more.
Footballers like Gareth Bale are fortunate enough to be recession-proof. Tragically, the people feeling it most are those who have to pay at the turnstyles to see their wealthy heroes play the beautiful game. Even in the world’s lower leagues, players earn a million times more than the wages of Joe, or even Jose, Public.

All in it together? Don’t make me laugh.

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Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Festival Out of Control

I never believed I would turn into one of those people who moaned about the Edinburgh Festival; a Philistine, in other words.But, lo and behold, that moment has arrived.I have never been indifferent or hostile to artistic and cultural values, always loved theatre, cinema and books. It’s this packing people into a small city until it is, quite literally, bursting at the seams I hate.I would join the Edinburgh Complaints Choir, some locals who have become part of the Festival and are voicing their disapproval of the city’s most annoying features. Their complaints were collected and set to music by two local composers. Top of their pops are the trams – a £776m project due to begin running next July, years behind schedule and hundreds of millions over budget.Another complaint is The Edinburgh Festival, which is now out of control. The Fringe, for example, is far too big. Why can’t we have quality, not quantity? Nine times out of ten, you end up paying to see a load of rubbish. So much of the so-called comedy is not funny and many of the plays are badly acted and boring.

Ian Rankin, writer

Ian Rankin, Edinburgh’s top crime writer


Please don’t bring up the old chestnut about the Edinburgh Festival being elitist and inaccessible. If only. It isn’t elitist. Anyone can come: the more people trampling over the locals, the better, apparently. Money, not art, is the big draw. Tourists can only be good for Edinburgh’s coffers. There is nowhere to stay since hotels and bed and breakfasts are booked up months in advance.If you happen to live in the city, long-lost friends always seem to manage to track you down – people you haven’t seen for thirty years or more. You will be familiar with the old adage: a friend in need is a bloody nuisance? Well, never were those words more apt as during the Edinburgh International Festival. The call always comes in July: someone you haven’t seen for years.“Hiya. It’s Judy. Remember me?” You have absolutely no idea who she is.”We were at primary school together. I’d love to see you again. My husband and I are going to be in Edinburgh for the Festival and wondered whether we could pop in and, er, well, stay for a few weeks?”Long silence during which you try to say no. However, instead of saying ‘no’, you hear this other charming voice say: “I’d love to have you, of course, no problem. Stay as long as you like.”Yes, it WAS your voice saying all that. You replace the receiver and try to calm down, even forget about Judy.Then, a couple of weeks later, the phone rings again. It’s Judy. Again. No, of course you don’t mind driving out to the airport at 8 o’ clock in the morning to pick them up. No, of course, you don’t mind getting the theatre tickets. Two shows every night for four people, certainly? They’ll pay you back. Of course, they will.”Just one little problem,” she goes on. “My husband, Roger, is a vegan, and, er, he only eats organic meusli.” They arrive. Would it be too much trouble if they both had a bath and a meal early because they planned on taking in a couple of shows straight away?Fine.At two o’ clock in the morning, they come staggering home, waking the whole street in the process. Everyone hears them coming into YOUR house, everyone knows they are YOUR friends. The next night they stay in, so you immediately decide to go out. You come home at midnight to find your so-called friends absolutely legless, having drunk all your booze. They let slip that they have invited a Danish juggling troupe to stay as well for a couple of weeks. Before you know where you are, your house has appeared in the Edinburgh Festival brochure as venue 143. When the Festival is finally over and your awful guests leave, your houseis a tip, your cupboards are empty and you are flat broke. You are not the only one. This happens to a lot of people who live in Scotland’s capital.


One wonders how long Edinburgh will be able to go on sustaining all these festivals. There are so many: there’s the Big One, on now, and The Fringe. There’s the Science Festival, The Television Festival, The Children’s Festival, one for jazz, books and films. There is even a Festival of Politics.As soon as these horrors are over, the wretches start preparing for the Hogmany Party, the biggest in the world, I’m told. Could council worthies not have come up with something more imaginative than a lot of pigs in kilts getting drunk, vomiting and urinating all over Princes Street? Scotland was once a country where, every New Year, people wandered into their neighbour’s house with a bottle of whisky and something black for an impromptu get-together. Not that difficult to re-invent, you’d think. It surely beats standing in Princes Street for five hours, knee-deep in people, staring vacantly into the sky in the vague hope of seeing a firework.It was a Labour Government who decided to lift the post-war gloom by creating an international celebration of the Arts, selecting Edinburgh as the prime location.And why not? Edinburgh is, after all, a literary city. The list of writers is impressive: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J K Rowling. The Book Festival is selective and does bring in good names. That isn’t true of the Fringe, however. You are far more likely to see Joe Bloggs from Neasden’s Amateur Dramatic Society than any respected actor.

Unfortunately, downtrodden residents who dare to criticise The Festival are the pariahs of this 21st century; written off as ignorant Philistines. There’s more stigma attached to a Festival basher than someone in the advanced stages of leprosy.Yet, thousands upon thousands of people descend on our small space. They deposit all their rubbish, and, three weeks later, they go away without it.By September, Edinburgh looks as if five major hurricanes have swept through it. The city is deserted, bereft, like a former war zone. The battered residents cautiously crawl from beneath the heap to see if the space invaders really have gone.The Festival used to be a showcase for real talent: comedians such as John Cleese and Michael Palin. It was never a midden for endless talentless drivel. Not an infestation of comedy, if you can call it that. Comedy, I mean. You can certainly call it an infestation.Still, I do have a solution to the vast numbers descending on Edinburgh. Move them all to Glasgow and let us, for God’s sake, reclaim our city.


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Mel Smith

Mel Smith: My Last Interview

"Snow in the cottage"

Mel Smith with Griff Rhys Jones

Mel Smith has one of those unforgettable faces. Best known as a founder member of Not the Nine 0’ Clock News and as comedy partner to Griff Rhys Jones, the multi-talented Mel has turned his hand to almost all aspects of showbiz. He has been, variously, comedian, film and theatre director as well as actor. I spoke to him in 2009 when he directed Peter Straker in a wonderful cabaret called, Early Long Island Iced Tea, at The Pleasance.

He told me how, in 1981, he and Griff Rhys Jones had founded TalkBack Productions, a company which has produced many of the most significant British TVcomedy shows of the past two decades, including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show, I’m Alan Partridge and Big Train. In 2000, they sold the company to Thames TV for £62million.

Here is the interview:

Like his great heroes Tony Hancock or Eric Morecambe, Mel has the perfect face for comedy; the flattish features, those deadpan eyes and the irresistible droopy mouth. In fact, before he lost a lot of weight, Mel’s face bore a close resemblance to a collapsed sponge cake.

“I am afraid I have had this face a long time now,” he says, smirking. “And, it has stood me in good stead, thank you very much.” But he has changed. His face is thinner, skin smoother. It is all natural, he insists, laughing out loud at the suggestion he might have had “work done”. Sitting in the Pleasance courtyard, puffing on a cigar, he says, as a toddler, he enjoyed putting on plays for his family. Since the age of six, he has been directing masterpieces. He says: “I was fairly bright as a child. My primary school teacher told my parents, Ken and Vera, I would probably end up going to Oxford or Cambridge. God knows how she knew.”


He did go and loved his time at Oxford although he says he did not do much work. “Unfortunately, drama was not a study option back then,” he muses, “so I read experimental psychology but did not spend much time learning. “I spent most of my time doing plays and going to the races.” He met Griff Rhys Jones early on. They are still friends and Mel watches his friend’s many TV series when he finds the time. Mel says: “The funny thing is that Griff is actually a very good presenter. Yet, we spent years doing spoof presenter skits; looking at the camera and pretending to be straight. “After that, when you start doing it for real, you can find yourself slipping into satirical mode. Not Griff. He is good. “Strangely enough, Griff was President of the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as I presided over the Oxford equivalent. We got on well.” Mel used to come up to the Edinburgh Festival in his student days with the Oxford Theatre Group. He did the odd revue and wrote a few shows for The Traverse. “The Fringe has changed,” Mel says. “Back then you got a piece of paper telling you what shows were on. Now it reads more like a novel. There is just so much. “I mean, you walk past a greengrocer’s shop and there are 12 posters all for comedy shows in the window and you think, “How can that be?”

He doesn’t think the recession has adversely affected the Festival. “Comedy tends to prosper in hard times,” he says. Most actors would give their right arm to have started out like Mel. He did not leave Oxford with a degree but a job. “At university, I did a production of The Tempest,” he says, “and people from The Royal Court came to see it and offered me a job as an assistant director with them.” Just 20, he accepted. “My parents were very good about it. They trusted me to make the right decision.”

He then worked at the Bristol Old Vic and Sheffield Crucible. After five years of being immersed in theatre, he began to have second thoughts. He resigned from his job, telling his father he would take over the betting business, only to get a call the next morning inviting him to join a new satirical sketch show, called Not the Nine o’ Clock News; his first big break in television, in 1980. The series featured satirical sketches on current news stories and popular culture, as well as parody songs, comedy sketches, re-edited videos and spoof television formats. It also featured Griff Rhys Jones, Pamela Stephenson, now Mrs Billy Connolly and Rowan Atkinson.

After its demise, Mel continued to work with Griff Rhys Jones for their sketch series Alas Smith and Jones. The highlights were the ‘head-to-head’ conversations between brassy Mel and a very bemused Jones.  The pair were reunited in 2005 for a revival of their previous TV series, in, “the Alas Smith and Jones Sketchbook”.

“It was great fun,” he adds, “and we are firmly committed to doing more together. You don’t throw that sort of chemistry away. Of course, I’ll have to pretend I like Restoration.” In August 2006, Mel returned to the stage, at the Festival, in Allegiance – Irish journalist and author Mary Kenny’s play about Churchill’s encounter with the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins in 1921. The play created a lot of controversy, with Mel proposing to flout the Scottish ban on smoking in public places.

After gaining a lot of free publicity, the scene was adapted. “Allegiance was the reason I got back on my hind legs,” Mel says. “I have never really pushed myself as an actor, but I can act.” That same year, he starred opposite Belinda Lang in a new comedy, An Hour and a Half Late, by French playwright Gérald Sibleyras, which Mel adapted. He then directed a West End revival of Charley’s Aunt, starring Stephen Tompkinson. His family background belies a successful showbiz career.


Born and brought up in West London, Mel’s father, a miner-turned-grocer-turned-bookmaker, opened the first betting office in Chiswick. His wife of 25 years, Pam, is a former model. The couple have homes in St John’s Wood, Oxfordshire and Barbados. “I met her through a mutual friend,” he says. He does not have children, but Pam has a grown-up son. He likes reading and horse racing and owns several race horses. He had successes with films such as The Tall Guy, in 1989, a quirky and successful comedy starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum, then Radioland Murders, in 1994, and High Heels and Low Lifes in 2001, a gangster comedy featuring Minnie Driver and Michael Gambon. His biggest success, however, was directing his Not the Nine o’ Clock News colleague, Rowan Atkinson, in Bean -The Ultimate Disaster Movie. “That film made the best part of 300 million bucks,” he says. Then there was his strange departure into musicals, when he took to the West End stage in the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway import, Hairspray. He knows more about musicals than people realise. As a young director at the Sheffield Crucible, Mel staged My Fair Lady, which he remembers principally because he “Turned down Elaine Paige for the part.” He still enjoys musicals; one reason why he is directing Peter Straker in Early Long Island Iced Tea. Last year the two worked together on Jacques Brel. Born in Jamaica, Straker is a unique and versatile performer. In 1968 he starred as Hud in the original London production of the seminal musical Hair.

Our conversation is suddenly over and Mel is on his feet, going back to supervise Peter’s performance. Then he is rushing off to catch a train back to London.

“My work here is done,” he says grandly, stubbing out his half smoked cigar and turning on his heel with a wide grin.

I can just imagine him saying that now.


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