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John F Kennedy

<em>Picture: Beverley & Pack

Picture: Beverley & Pack

By Stuart Crawford

Bashing our transatlantic cousins has been a popular sport for as long as I can remember, whether it be for their extraordinary dress sense, extraordinary appetites, or extraordinary rendition – or perhaps all three and everything else in between. But I’ve always rather liked Americans in general terms, and thought perhaps we should remind ourselves of some of the good things that have come out of the good ol’ USA over the years. So here are some of the things I think we should be grateful for, in no particular order.

Breakfast
Nobody does breakfast like the Americans. Down to the diner at some unearthly hour in the morning, sit up at the counter, and immerse yourself in the experience. Good coffee, crispy bacon, eggs over easy, pancakes with maple syrup, ye cannae whack it. Kippers aside, it knocks spots anything we can offer over here. Here’s one tradition we should adopt wholeheartedly in Scotland; why haven’t we already?

Meg Ryan
Hey, I know I’m showing my age here, but what Julie Christie was to the 60s Meg was to the 90s – and still is for the whatever age we’re in now as far as I’m concerned. Every bloke’s (well, almost) favourite actress was America’s sweetheart for a while and no wonder. We just can’t produce them like that over here, so thank you, Uncle Sam.

Coca Cola
“What?”, I hear you say. The funny tasting stuff which, according to my late mother, was “full of dye” and rots kids’ teeth? And which was the most popular soft drink in the civilised world apart from here in sunny ol’ Scotland, where the indigenous Irn Bru pipped it at the post year after year? Yep, the very same, but not for its thirst quenching qualities, such as they may be. For its medicinal applications, that’s what for. Migraine sufferers have long recognised that two soluble aspirin dissolved in a glass of Coke from a glass bottle and consumed at the onset of a migraine can sometimes stop it dead in its tracks. It must be from a glass bottle, mind, tin can or plastic containers won’t work. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know the answer, but work it does.

Lend Lease
Going back in history a little bit here to 1941, when Hitler had conquered Europe and was looking across the Channel at Britain, whose back was very definitely against the wall. And running out of money to continue the war very quickly. Across the Pond, the US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, was sympathetic but hampered in his desire to assist by the Neutrality Acts of the 30s. In March 1941 he signed the Lend Lease Bill, which enabled him to help Britain (and also other Allied countries like Russia and China) by providing military materiel and supplies. Without it, Britain’s struggle would have been infinitely more difficult and might not have succeeded at all. Lend lease material was not a gift and there was repayment required, but much of it was discounted by up to 90%. Britain finally repaid the debt in 1996.

Rock ‘n’ roll
Funny one this one, because the Americans, or white Americans anyroads, didn’t really wake up to the fact they’d invented rock and roll until we Brits repackaged it in the form of the Beatles and their many imitators and exported it to back to them. But invent it they did, emerging in the southern states from a mixture of rhythm and blues, country, soul, gospel, folk and jazz music in the 1940s and 50s, espoused by musicians and singers like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino et al. Its development went hand in hand with the adoption of the electric guitar as instrument of choice for the young. Then the Beatles got hold of it and changed it forever, in the same way as they changed more or less everything they touched in that period in the 60s when the world changed from monochrome to colour. But hats off to our US cousins for letting us have it to play around with.

Henry Ford
Scotland has a long standing love affair with the automobile, and those of us driving around in our Volvo estates (Edinburgh)*/white BMW X5 four wheel drives with tinted windows and personalised numberplates (Glasgow)* (*delete as applicable) have Mr Ford to thank for our motoring joy and freedom. The Americans didn’t invent the motor car, but they brought it to the masses via industrial scale production, even if initially Henry would let you have any colour of his Model T Ford as long as it was black. Before him, motoring was the preserve of an elite few; after his intervention any gangster, ned or ne’er do well can afford a set of wheels. Thanks, Henry…

JFK
History hasn’t always been kind to President John F Kennedy, what with his philandering, Bay of Pigs fiasco etc etc, but for anyone alive at the time he was in office he signified one thing; hope. He signified for many people the beginning of leaving the post war austerity behind and facing a bright new future, and few of us can forget where we were when news of his assassination reached us. His presidency was, for lots of folk, when the sun began to shine again, and for that all too short interlude we should be grateful.

Making Us Look Thin
This one came from one of my offspring, and it might just still hold water in 2012. America’s pole position in the obesity stakes is now under threat – from us as well as from elsewhere – but I think they still have a comfortable claim to top the fatness table. It’s one of life’s great paradoxes that a certain portliness was once the mark of wealth and now it is the mark of poverty. Junk food, once a semi luxury for the relatively well off, now provides sustenance mainly for the disadvantaged. Yes, the Americans still, just, make us look thin(ner), but only just. Be warned.

Kansas
A bit of an odd one but I was lucky enough to spend a year in Kansas whilst a student at the US Army’s Command and General Staff School in 1990/91 and have many fond memories of the state and its people. My eldest was born there, in Providence St Margaret hospital in Kansas City, so I own my very own American, complete with dual nationality and US passport. I also learnt to fly there, a lifelong ambition, thanks to the patience and generosity of my instructor Bob Drennan and the Fort Leavenworth Flying Club, something I could never have afforded to do back home. And I’m still in touch with many of the folk I met there, both within the military establishment and the wider community. So, a personal thanks to Kansas for looking after me and my family so well and, in the words of General McArthur, “I shall return.”

Lacrosse
Finally, we’re stretching the definition of “American” a little bit here, because lacrosse was probably invented by Native American Indians in Canada – but, hey. As you may be aware, the game is very much a minority sport in Scotland, mainly played in girls’ independent schools. Apparently the first modern women’s game in Scotland was played at St Leonard’s School in St Andrews in 1890. I had never seen the game before my two daughters started playing it, but I must say it’s great fun to watch. I also saw the Scotland Women’s international squad training once and it was pretty frightening too at that standard, such was the speed and athleticism of play. A real pity it’s only played by private school kids here as far as I know.

There we are then, a personal list of nine and a bit things to thank our American cousins for, and I’m sure I could have thunk up many more. I plan to return to the fray at a later date with some things which we’re not so grateful for, just to bring a bit of balance to the debate, but this’ll have to do for now.

Brigitte Bardot, by Gerald Laing

Brigitte Bardot, by Gerald Laing

By Bill Heaney

The artist Gerald Laing has died at his home, Kinkell Castle on the Black Isle, aged 75.

Laing was best known for his iconic images, which included as the remarkable 1962 portrait of French film star Brigitte Bardot and, more recently, his paintings of Amy Winehouse, who herself died earlier this year.

Always operating on the pulse of modernity, Laing’s early talent was recognised by both his contemporaries and the art establishment whilst he was a student at St Martin’s College of Art in London. He painted many of his memorable images there, including the one of Bardot, which went on to become a bestselling Habitat poster and highly collectable screenprint.

Laing was invited along with other British Pop artists, notably Richard Smith, Peter Blake and Joe Tilson, to attend weekly discussions about the “New Idea”, and at about the same time in New York he was accepted on the art scene in America.

He spent some time living with Robert Indiana and worked in the same circles as the still to become famous Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Rosenquist, among others.

Laing was at the centre of the American Pop Art movement. Before graduating, he had been taken on by a leading American gallery, after which he then moved his young family to New York, where he made a successful name for himself as an “American” artist.

He showed his work at the American Pavilion at São Paulo Biennale in 1966 and his paintings were acquired by leading American museums and institutions. The subjects of his work during this period were mainly based around four themes: the novelty of space travel; the modern and dangerous pursuit of dragster racing; sport parachuting; and his infamous Starlets, the bikini-clad “ideal” women.

Laing had a dedicated passion and appreciation for machinery and young women that lasted throughout his lifetime.

Friends describe him as “a bold and political thinker”, and Laing was also known for using the Pop idiom as reportage to confront controversial issues throughout his career, often provoking strong reactions.

For example, his commemorative work Lincoln convertible, believed to be the only painted record of President John F Kennedy’s assassination by a living artist of significance, was deemed too controversial to display.

It was hidden away from view by his art dealer in a shed for almost 30 years. Again according to friends, so profound was the impact of this on Laing, and such was his disappointment, that it contributed towards shattering his faith in the American Dream.

Similarly, the body of work he produced in response to the wars in Iraq and the 7/7 London bombings are later examples of Laing using his art as a platform on which to confront contemporary values and the establishment.

In this case, despite making highly uncomfortable viewing, Laing achieved immediate success with them and as they have been widely publicised and exhibited as some of the most significant and incisive commentaries on these matters.

Laing, whom friends say was disillusioned with the American politic, moved to the Highlands to fulfil a childhood dream of rebuilding a castle ruin and he purchased ailing but beautiful Kinkell Castle, near Inverness.

Newly married to his beloved muse and second wife, Galina, they departed New York together and returned to the United Kingdom on the QE2. The happy couple were treated to a send-off party on board the ship with a cake Lichtenstein had decorated with the saltire to celebrate the occasion.

Laing was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1936, the son of a soldier from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and Enid Foster, originally from Newcastle. Laing’s relationship with his father was absent and his childhood even with his mother was unhappy, but his response to this was to embark on life from scratch with tremendous energy and zeal.

Gerald Laing

Gerald Laing

As head of an extensive family, what he achieved in his lifetime is both inspiring and admirable. After training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Laing joined his father’s regiment in 1955 as a young officer.

He soon discovered, however, that the life of a soldier was not for him – and, after a brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a ballet dancer, Laing left the Fusiliers in 1960. After taking art lessons in secret, he enrolled to become an art student at St Martin’s.

After gradual success and finally eminence in America, and a grand retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on his return to the UK, he treated the ruin of Kinkell Castle like a giant work of sculpture, lovingly hand-crafting and repairing it with great expertise and newly acquired skills.

Laing also found time during this period to set up a tapestry workshop, where he taught himself the traditional skills of tapestry weaving. Once content that he had acquired sufficient skills himself, he trained and employed a team of weavers who ran a successful enterprise, and Henry Moore was among a number of famous people who had tapestries made there.

Laing also set up a bronze foundry at Kinkell Castle after experiencing an epiphany at the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

He sought out and worked under the expert guidance of George Mancini, a retired Italian master in bronze whose family used traditional methods passed down from Roman times.

It was from this particular venture that Laing built an incredible body of sculptural work comprising of both personal and public commissions over a period of 30 years.

His earliest surviving examples of working in bronze can be seen in the Galina Series, a group of portrait bronzes depicting the love of his life. Further significant sculptures include: Four Rugby Players and The Line-out at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.

His frieze of The Wise and Foolish Virgins adorns the Standard Life building in George Street, Edinburgh. Axis Mundi, again for Standard Life, and a memorial to Sir Arthur Conan are also in Edinburgh and there are two editions of The Highlanders at Helmsdale in Sutherland.

Notable portrait commissions carried out by Laing include Sir Paul Getty, Sam Wanamaker, Luciano Pavarotti, Johnny Johnson and Siaka Stevens.

Laing’s work is collected all over the world. Examples can be found in the collections of the National Gallery, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and in the Indianapolis Museum.

Other examples of Laing’s work are known to be in the private collections of some of the world’s most famous women, including the supermodels Jerry Hall and Kate Moss, the designer Sadie Frost and the late singer Amy Winehouse.

Laing’s decision to divide his time between London and Kinkell Castle in the last decade of his life created a huge stir in the art world and affected a renaissance period for him that lasted right up to his death.

Friends say this makes the loss of his battle with his illness even more tragic, as the true extent of his renown was just being realised and re-addressed.

Laing died of cancer, and worked right up until his death. He leaves three ex-wives and six much-loved children.

Gerald Laing, artist, 11 November 1936 – 23 November 2011.

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Julian Assange. <em>Picture: Jose Mesa</em>

Julian Assange. Picture: Jose Mesa

For those of us who have marvelled (and sometimes quivered) at the truly revolutionary power of the internet, the current Wikileaks phenomenon is the point where all the hype and idealism hits the hard reality of global politics.

The stream of US diplomatic cables, managed into the public realm by respectable news organisations like the Guardian and the New York Times, has freaked the US establishment so much that it’s shaken the network society like a rag-doll. They’ve not just brought cyber-brandnames like Amazon and Paypal to heel, but they’ve even put the squeeze on Visa and Mastercard, in their attempt to choke Julian Assange’s organisational windpipe.

Now the Wikileaks founder is under arrest, we’ll see whether American power extends even further into the extradition procedures of another sovereign state (er, I think we know the answer to that one). But as the circus proceeds, and the adversaries line up on either side - defenders of diplomatic statecraft on one hand, anarchistic unravellers of state power on another – perhaps we can look at all this from another angle.

It’s not just national governments who’ve had to respond to the Net’s x-rays of transparency. Since the heydays of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in 1999, brand-led corporate capitalism has been grappling with motivated activists who want to rub countervailing facts in the face of glowing public rhetoric.

And a decade later, it’s clearly had an effect. Recent consumer surveys have found that only 9% of people trusted companies to act in their best interests (60% said “sometimes”, and 31% said “never”). In the current context, three reasons are often cited. First, the financial crisis was the final act that confirmed consumer cynicism about the worth of corporate governance and the business sector in general.

Secondly, our mobile media allows us to filter our own information, untouched by the gatekeepers of traditional media. And lastly, the social web allows us to prioritise the opinions of our friends, family and peers over the thudding messages of top-down branding.

In this environment, where information about the sharp-dealing or shady practices of a company are easily and speedily circulated, a new philosophy of marketing is emerging. Instead of pushing people into a preferred way of engaging with a product, companies are now beginning to share their problems (and solutions) with consumers.

Instead of promoting a product’s worth, they try to propagate it, encouraging creative use (and even mis-use) of an “adaptive” brand. Instead of business being all about getting straight to the purchase, it should be about participation. In the words of the UK marketing company New Tradition, you “cement a connection with the consumer” through an open platform (like Facebook) “who may or may not purchase a product at a later date”.

Thirdly, branding shouldn’t be about generating loyalty, but about associating your product with like-minded people, or intrinsically interesting ideas, that already have an existing and vibrant following.

It’s easy to get a sense of the old days of business by watching any episode of Mad Men. Here you have a patriarchy of secretive, arrogant image-builders, unremittingly cynical about how they manage the gap between the aspirational images of advertising they pump out, and the sordid reality of poor products and corrupt business practice.

Now, what does that sound like? And how does that map over to our current clash between the world of nation-state diplomacy and statecraft, and the anarchistic information-idealism of Wikileaks and their allies? Pretty well, in many ways. The political classes of the developed West have been largely mistrusted for at least a decade now – and let’s not forget our own local data-driven crisis, the Telegraph‘s drip-feed of information about MP’s expenses.

The street-level disrespect of social media is never-ending, all-pervasive, democratically exhilarating. On a tiny level, I’ve particuarly enjoyed the website featuring four YouTube videos of Nick Clegg implacably opposing tuition fees before the UK General Election – “on a loop for ever and ever and ever”, as the cheeky website owner says.

But as marketer Ian Thomas says, Wikileaks really raises the game here – expanding the ambition of this informational scrutiny from a national to a global level of governance, appropriate to where the real decisions take place.

Yet what does this scrutiny reveal? There’s been a real storm of interpretation of what impact the cables so far released will have. Writers like John NaughtonGlenn Greenwald and Assange himself claim that out of the blizzard of material, we can now see that our leaders have always known that Afghanistan is a hopeless, corrupt, Vietnam-like quagmire – but that they cannot fully face their tax-paying, soldier-expending electorates with that fact.

Added to the Iraq disclosures of a few months ago, this is Wikileaks attempting to lay bare the infernal mechanisms of the “War on Terror”. They regard themselves as a “fifth estate” practising what Assange calls “scientific journalism” – a data dump so comprehensive that it will spur the fourth estate to rise out of its investigative torpor and establishment collusion.

But beyond the bloodthirsty ravings of some members of the American establishment, there is another consistent take on Cablegate – which is that they show an American diplomatic service trying to do their best, as their post-Cold-War empire slowly declines. For them, as Neal Ascherson puts it,”preventing [nuclear] apocalypse has become more important than striving for world leadership… this is a diplomacy clearer about what it doesn’t want than what it does”.

In the aftermath of all this, let’s return to our brand discussion. If we think of Western statecraft and diplomacy as a brand now damaged and tarnished by the demystifications of info-activism – as the Nikes, Gaps and Shell Oils had been in the past – how should they respond?

For one thing, that intriguing netherworld – where politicians and diplomats conduct gentlemanly double-bluffs between the members of unaccountable power elites – will now never be the same. And if they think that any amount of new regulation, individual imprisonment, or coercion of networks will return them to the status quo ante, they are deluded.

So perhaps they should listen to these clever brand marketers. Instead of pushing hard for their right to conduct international double-speak in order to promote the nation’s interests, maybe they should share out those same global problems with all those citizens who may want a voice in the process.

What’s the geopolitical equivalent of the vibrant users’ online forum, where all can go to explore, inquire and test out solutions? How can statecraft tap into the kinds of participative enthusiasm for peace-making, community-building and conflict-resolving that so many netizens already display? Gordon and Sarah Brown‘s new website lauds the activist network Avaaz as exactly this kind of endeavour.

And as large brands now look towards associating the values of their product or service with authentic movements and social groups, perhaps there is a future concordat to be struck between Wikileaks-style organisations and their currently enraged American pursuers?

As Evgeny Morozov wrote in the Financial Times earlier this week, Assange’s movement could become “either a new Red Brigades, or a new Transparency International … But handled correctly, the state that will benefit most from a nerdy network of 21st-century Che Guevaras, is America itself”.

At the very least, we have an immediate branding glitch: Hillary Clinton was making speeches about the power of free information to create healthy societies only a few months ago, but is now squeezing the fibre-optics of the internet like the most enthusiastic Chinese firewall manager.

As Morozov says, better to harness the power of these hackers “as useful allies of the West as it seeks to husband democracy and support human rights” – that is, make them a complement of Western soft power or public diplomacy – than to martyr their main representative and thus radicalise his followers.

The leaked US embassy cables themselves hardly show a steely American empire bent on world domination – more a faltering hegemon, resigned to world mitigation. There’s surely some grounds there for mutual understanding. A YouTube video of John F. Kennedy has been flying around the wiki-sphere. In it, JFK reminds his fellow citizens that the very First Amendment the Founders struck was to guarantee a free press, empowered to investigate and criticise the state

When the current idiocies die down, perhaps the cerebral Obama can channel his great Democratic forbear, and think his way through to a better accomodation with the Wikileakers – whose aim, as Assange has often said, is to make themselves unnecessary. Barack was, after all, Brand No. 1 for a while.

- For more, go to Pat Kane’s ideas-blog, Thoughtland.