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Neds

Rikers Island <em>Picture: US Geological Survey</em>

Rikers Island Picture: US Geological Survey

Sometimes I think that that the day of rationality has dawned and that humanity has finally achieved civilisation.

I had one of these epiphanies when I heard the radio tell me that the Head Bean Counter of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had been imprisoned on Rikers Island.

At last, I thought, somebody is asking hard questions about the IMF’s doggedly monetarist approach – especially to do with the minor issue of brown people getting food.

About time, I thought, as I reached for the Cohiba cigar (Che’s favourite smoke) that I had been saving for just this occasion. I savoured the prospect of this phenomenon cascading, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg throwing each other to the shower daddies in Joliet. And Tony Blair starring in a new reality TV show called: “Britain’s got life sentences”.

But the radio bulletin explained that the less-than-delightful Dominique is being held not for his IMF activities but for attempted sexual assault. He was (allegedly) trying to do literally to a hotel employee what his organisation has done metaphorically to developing nations the world over.

Reality crashed in. Rampant unfree corporate capitalism roams unfettered. I extinguished my Exquisito in a mug of Campaign Coffee (it made it taste better) and put on the telly to make myself feel better.

What was on? The Scheme – a documentary about everyday folk in the charming Kilmarnock suburb of Orthanc.

For the first ten minutes I was convinced it was a work of dark comic genius dreamed up by Chris Morris and the Chewin’ the Fat team. “Recovering drug-addict Marvin is pinning his hopes on a stable life with a former girlfriend … when she gets out of prison.” (A high point for Marvin is when the methadone-addicted teenager gets her electronic tag changed so they can live together. I don’t think even Clintons have a card for that romantic milestone.) How about the chubby lassie who utters the immortal line: “I’m a pole dancer. If any of you want a go of me. £10 a go”? And who could forget: “He’s never been arrested sober”, or “He called him aw the Bin Laden bastards so they done him for a racial”?

All the comedy staples are there: unusual dentistry, Old Firm tops and Burberry aplenty, pregnant teens smoking heavily and disabled spaces for the clearly able-bodied. Every one a coconut. As for the use of the C word: less is more, chaps, especially in front of a five-year-old who’s supposed to be at school.

It is so tempting to laugh at these people off as neds, chavs, pikeys, schemies and junkie scum. It would be so easy to crack open a bottle of Tempranillo and ponder ethnically cleansing “them” through a combination of sterilisation and dramatically increasing the purity of street drugs.

It is also tempting to take the other course, pursing one’s right-on lips and writing off The Scheme as “poverty porn” that misrepresents the Onthank community or exploits the yadda, yadda, yadda.

We need to stop pretending that The Scheme does not happen on streets all over Scotland. And we need to realise that it isn’t funny. The bottom line is that there are many, many Scots who lead miserable lives made chaotic by an excess of drink, drugs, violence and crime and a deficit of education, opportunity and responsibility.

The tragedy is that many of these Scots are children: with a quarter of under-16s north of the Border living in poverty. 150,000 Scottish children have to deal with substance-abusing parents. Our care system sees too many young people graduate to prison – with more than 25 per cent of those in “jile” having been through it.

People in Scotland – one of the most advanced countries in the world – die of malnutrition. We drink too much, eat garbage and die younger than we need to. Our mental health problems cost the country more than £10bn a year. We have a disgracefully high suicide rate.

Ah, wha’s like us?

And what the hell are we doing about it? Poverty does not seem to be high on the political agenda, despite being the root of crime, ill-health, drug abuse and all the associated costs to society.

But by tackling these issues we’d slash billions from the health, welfare and crime budgets. Where are the radical ideas to solve these problems? As the tragi-comic Scheme shows us, we’re getting nowhere fast.

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Title card for <em>Limmy's Show</em>, BBC Scotland

Title card for Limmy's Show, BBC Scotland

As the Scottish election staggers to a slow run, as Japanese reactors shudder and Libyan despots fume – indeed as the whole crazy modern world beats incessantly on our foreheads – I will admit to one escapist pleasure that literally helps me through the lows of a day: really daft, unrepentantly quirky comedy.

There are two Scottish practitioners, both embracing the web as props to their humour, who are particularly joy-inducing at the moment. Limmy you may know from his BBC Scotland comedy shows – and, for me, he’s also one of the most interesting creative figures in the country at the moment. But for now, let me introduce you to the bathetic genius of Swatrick Payze, otherwise known as SwatPaz.

I first came upon SwatPaz’s flash-based web animations on the diaspora site Dear Scotland, where he’d animated a Christmas message for them: a Santa (sounding exactly like Edwyn Collins) who got so distracted by his “intirnet-laptoap”, searching for Franz Ferdinand concerts, that half the weans missed out on pressies.

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From that gentle start, what opens up is a weird day-glo projection from the Clyde Valley bourgeois unconscious – a pebbledashed commuter-land where a double-act called “Bearsden and Mull-guy” explore the same domestic weirdness and latent violence that the great Jon Kricfalusi explored in his Ren & Stimpy cartoons. Except they sound like censorious frumps and pedants overheard on a northbound train out of Glasgow Queen Street.

Great classic cartoon comedy – as exemplified by Chuck Jones or Tex Avery – is all about the timing. Specifically, the ability to pause momentarily in the midst of kinetic madness, or to repetitively focus or zoom in on an action or phrase, until it yields a laugh of recognition: Yes, I’ve dreamt of being that klutzy.

As far as I can see, SwatPaz has that timing to perfection. See “Living Room Telly“, or his epic of suburban pettifoggery “Terry Runders Kicks A Stone” – though the red sweaty outraged man in his recent promotional video for the Glasgow Short Film Festival comes close.

Scottish humour, like all ethno-linguistic humour, has always done a double service: it chops down the pretentious and the delusional – but it also confirms the specific language and rituals of the community. We are thrilled both by the delicious, dethroning savagery of the joke, and the way it honours the specifics of our most everyday expressions.

The continuity between Stanley Baxter’s Parliamo Glasgow from the 1960s (recently a promotional giveaway for a Scottish Sunday newspaper), and the idle animations of a jobbing digital designer from Scottish commuterland, to me is obvious and comforting. We Scots find out who we are – at least in our most stumbling and incomplete modes – through our humour. (It’s why I’m addicted to a US website called Old Jews Telling Jokes: I don’t get half of the cultural references, but I love the way that you can plug your own ethnic self-derision at the relevant place, so robust and universal is the structure of each joke.)

Who are we as refracted through Limmy’s world, though? Brian Limond’s second sketch series for BBC Scotland, produced through the incredibly consistent Comedy Unit, has just finished its run. It’s strange to say that a show played for laughs can be genuinely haunting and mysterious, but that’s what Limmy achieves.

He wanders through the most anodyne parts of Glasgow – the same high-rise courts and wastegrounds that Peter Mullan set his Neds – like a recording angel in smart-casual dress, observing (and sometimes portraying) junkies, jumped-up office pedants, essentially lost and rudderless men (and sometimes women) of all kinds.

Limmy is a guy wandering around a new-build estate, shirtless, repeating to himself: “She’s turned the weans against me…”. Next, Limmy is the happy guy who sells the neon “Open All Hours” signs to all cornershops in Glasgow – though when he closes each deal, a molotov cocktail is the calling card.

Honest to the sociological reality of his city, Limmy plays two drug addicts – one woman, Jacqueline McCafferty, whose “recovery” has completely fried any remaining empathy or social graces; and a man, Dee Dee, who is the perfect nightmare of workfare politicians everywhere, a half-awake sloth living and fantasising in his own domestic debris.

This is comedy as radar for sociopathy. What policy-makers and academics attempt to substantiate with acres of statistics and studies, Limmy picks up by simply not internally censoring what he sees and hears on the streets of polarised, many-worlds Scotland.

There are smart, efficient Pythonesque skits on subversive policemen, fraudlent psychics, incompetent spies. But sometimes, Limmy goes cosmic. There’s a brilliant sketch in episode four where Limmy buys a picture-frame that happens to open out into a parallel universe: in the face of this wonder, all his equally-cosmically dull dad can talk about are the details of an auntie’s minor ailments. There’s Bill Hicks here, but there’s also a cruel twist on Hugh MacDiarmid: “He canna Scotland see wha’ yet/Canna see the infinite…”. In this case, you can’t see the infinite because you’re maddeningly Scottish.

Limmy is a web-designer by trade, a Flash animator: his TV show is built on video-podcasts he’s been putting together since 2006. When you go to his homepage, you come across two sections called Playthings and Pictures, which has a list of web-experiments going back to 2000. The expected laddish cruelty is there, but there’s also surrealism and conceptualism – monstrous morphings of Limmy’s body tangoing with itself, or playing with serial samplings of a ned’s request: “I’m freezin… gie’s yer fuckin’ jaiket”.

Is this the multiphrenia of the chemical-and-digital generation – all these “dividuals” (as Gilles Deleuze once put it) chasing tiny intense experiences, unable and unwilling to hold themselves together? (OK, I can just imagine Limmy reading that sentence out on his Justin.tv livecasts.)

The Comedy Unit also produces Burnistoun, Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights and Gary Tank Commander. So never mind trailing-in-the-dust intellectuals like me – these are cultural entrepreneurs out there making “the national sphincter twitch on the velvet”, as one of their veterans, Phil Differ, once defined his comedy ambition to me.

I’ve been promoting the power of play for the last decade – and occasionally, somewhere in the world, I’ll get a response along the lines of “what does a dour, Presbyterian-defined culture like Scotland know about play?” I suppose a majority of Scottish managers in the English Premier League is one answer. But the super-modern, irrepressible energy of Scottish comedy is clearly another.

For more on Scottish current affairs from Pat Kane, visit his ideas-blog, Thoughtland.

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Channing Tatum <em>Picture: David Shankbone</em>

Channing Tatum Picture: David Shankbone

In the world of fashion, two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend. Right now, 2011 sees a decided trend of Scottish directors making films in Scotland.

On Friday, Glaswegian Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, is released. McDonald, famous for The Last King of Scotland, stayed in Scotland this time, in Wester Ross and at Loch Lomond.

David MacKenzie, who is well versed in shooting in Scotland after Hallam Foe with (him again) Jamie Bell, has two films on the big screen in the next 12 months. Perfect Sense sees him reunited with his Young Adam star Ewan McGregor as an irascible Scottish chef (hmm) alongside Casino Royale’s Eva Green.

You Instead was shot over four days at T in the Park and is about two indie rockers handcuffed together at the festival. Which might have been awkward if they’d been stuck in Slam’s dance tent for a whole weekend without access to a bar.

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Peter Mullan’s Neds has already won awards this year and Scottish directors are doing well beyond northern Britain. Once he’d made two movies with Josh Hartnett, Bellshill’s Paul McGuigan went back to TV, but it’s big, event TV – two episodes of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock last year, ITV’s biggest contemporary drama of this year, Monroe, with James Nesbitt, and Damage Control, the new political drama from Shonda Rhimes, the one-woman force of nature behind Gray’s Anatomy.

Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s book We Need To Talk About Kevin is due soon. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is doing the music, Nairn resident Tilda Swinton stars. As for films made in Scotland from girders, Harry Potter has visited Glenfinnan railway viaduct, and Gladiator director Sir Ridley Scott has been reported as making plans to head to Inverness and Fort William in August to make the prequel to Alien, Prometheus, with Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron.

While it might be over-egging our pudding to say that the Scottish film industry is in rude health, we’ve come a long way from the days in 1995 when Scotland’s favourite son was portrayed by an Aussie in a movie written by an American and shot in Ireland.

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Poster for Peter Mullan's 'Neds'This is a tale of two movies.

One, The King’s Speech, you may know about, and the other, which you may also know about but only if you live in Scotland, is Neds (see end of piece for trailer).

The main characters couldn’t be more different, they’re set about 30 years apart and the swearing by George VI is in fairly controlled doses. Peter Mullan’s film is less discerning with its swear words. It may take a more enterprising film writer to do the actual maths on it, but it surely rivals Nil By Mouth and Casino on dropping the F and C-bombs.

Those who have seen Neds will know it also unsentimentally looks at how a young man’s potential is derailed by parental and educational neglect, and inevitable peer pressure.

Like so many modern films, it suffers slightly from being around half an hour too long, but nonetheless it is a remarkable and powerful piece of work. It manages to be funny, moving, poignant and disturbing. It speaks powerfully about the importance of choices made in adolescence. Be warned if you haven’t seen it: it is not for the faint-hearted, and unlikely to be confused with a Judd Apatow movie.

It is made all the more moving when you read Mullan’s own story of his alcoholic father, time spent with street gangs and struggle to make it to higher education.

Although Neds won the Best Film at last year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, Peter Mullan will probably not be partying down the front with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush at all the award ceremonies but the film’s star Conor McCarron should be. His performance in its own way is just as powerful as Firth’s. Voters at BAFTA must have taken the day off the day they screened Neds.

Like most of the cast, he was not a trained actor when he turned up to Mullan’s open audition. Unlike most of the 300 others who auditioned, it would be amazing if McCarron didn’t pick up an agent or was cast in something else soon.

Whether you credit actor or director for McCarron’s performance, another piece of praise should go to those who ensured the film made it into cinemas, including Scottish Screen and the UK Film Council. When The King’s Speech wins its Oscars, the support of the Film Council is likely to be mentioned in the speeches – particularly as George Osborne is committed to scrapping it.

Director Tom Hooper says that “without the Film Council, The King’s Speech wouldn’t have been made”.
The King’s Speech features an Academy Award-winning Best Actor and Bafta-winning Best Actor, is about the Royal Family, and touches on a world war, and is in addition part-funded by mega mogul Harvey Weinstein. These are all arguments to suggest it would have had a chance of reaching the multiplexes without the UK Film Council.

A film about Glaswegian Non-Educated Delinquents? That’s more debatable.

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<em>Picture: Glasgow Survival Guide</em>

Picture: Glasgow Survival Guide

Walking down from the train station, Coatbridge on a Sunday night: and out of the depths of your podcast, someone’s finger jabs you in the arm. There’s a nano-second of tension and readiness, until I see the broad, clear-skinned face of a mid-teen girl, tall and warmly dressed. But she’s obviously scared, and already talking as I pull out my earphones.

“… So mister are you going down this hill? I canny walk on ma own, see there’s people I might meet here who are gonnae do me, they’ve said they’re gonnae get me the night if they see me…” I quickly agree. As we walk, I try to sift through her babble.

How’s school? “No at school. Hit a teacher wi’ a chair when I was seven. She shouted right in ma face, there wis spittle coming aff her! So ah gave her an answer!” Are you going back to your mum or dad? “My dad’s in jile for murder. I don’t talk tae ma mum. I’m in care.”

We march along, as she spiels out a tangled skein of boyfriends, territories, intoxicants. I try another note of concern: don’t you think you should be getting away from this bunch? “Oh I canny … but … In two years I’m going down to Derby?” Why? “All my pals from the home went down there”. What are they doing? “Some at college, some working. That’s where I’m off tae, fuckin’ ooty here.” What do you want to be? She turns her shining face to me, deadpan. “I’m trainin’ to be a beauty therapist.”

We get to her safety zone, at the corner of the town’s West End Park, and the aspirant beatifier strides off. You take care now, ok? “Aye, ah’ll dae ma best,” she says cheerily, skipping along like a universal daughter.

It must be a combination of my non-driver’s life on trains, combined with freelance hours that put me in the deadspots and dregs of a day, but I do seem to harvest stories like this. A few months ago, late at night again, a broken wee guy with a red crescent scar on his cheek unstoppably told me his story. “On the methadone, I’m no’ doing too bad… but I’ve gottae stay away from ma brer [brother], he’s bad news, always gets us intae it…”

Suddenly a change of tack. “You gettin’ ready for holidays?” I might do Italy in summer. “Aye I’ve done Italy. Poland, Germany, France too”. That’s busy: how, when? “I used to represent Scotland fur Tai-Kwan-Do. I’ve no goat ma medals now. It was my care worker in the home, he was a trainer, goat me intae it.” Now that I look at him, he’s a wiry guy – though there’s glue poured into his consciousness, a slurring on his lips.

I can’t help asking: so what happened, then? “Aww…” Head down and to the window. “My brer again. He’s a header, pulled me intae it. But it wis me that showed the blade, I wis the one that got done … I can only blame masel’, mucker, it’s ma fuckin’ load.” He rallies again, wanting to present well. “I mean, I got intae a fight the other day cause this guy wouldn’t give’s seat up for an auld doll. I fuckin’ made ‘im … But, ‘er ye go, wrang again.”

I had these two in my head yesterday, as my feet turned me away from another train journey and towards the Glasgow Film Theatre, to watch Peter Mullen’s new movie, Neds. The first thing to say is that Neds shouldn’t be read too sociologically.

The journey depicted – bright dux of his primary school is dragged down by early 70′s gang culture, oppressive father and brutal schooling, and turned into knife-wielding, overcompensatingly-violent street thug – seems to be, going by his interviews, mostly Mullen’s own (with a few symbolic embellishments). The film’s main character ends up a crescent-scarred delinquent bashing out metal in the remedial classes – but even so, he’s reading Jung and Marx under the workbench.

And it’s only someone possessing an innate dramatic talent that could come up with a closing scene as profound as Neds. Two boys, both bent out of shape by their casually violent circumstances, one of whom has already beaten the other into imbecility, tiptoe through a pride of lions in their local safari park (their tour bus has broken down). As the boys pass among the animals, desperately holding onto each others’ hand in their crumpled school uniforms, these natural predators sit with an implacable magnificence: a reproach to every tooled-up tough-guy.

Mullen’s point here is, I think, truly ambiguous. As an academic noted in the Sundays, some current street gangs have been around for nearly a century – cross-generational rites of male teenage passage for school-age youth, in industrial (and now post-industrial) localities.

So do we read the boys shuffling through the lions as a sign of how artificial and consciously willed their human disputes are – and thus, how remediable too, with enough mindfulness and social resources? Or is Mullen saying – along with many recent psychologists – that there are no “good old days” for the potential for gangs and violence at this stage of young male development? That it’s as natural as a lion pride?

If the latter, then reports of current initiatives that aim to woo the neds away from their gangs with alternative exuberances and solidarities – mostly sport, it would seem, and new jobs as “youth workers” – will work. If gangs are a form of play, then most attractive, less destructive play-forms should be promoted.

But games and sports that siphon off excessive energies, or social employment that amounts to a bribe not to fight, are ultimately poor development options here. World history is going to be so much more demanding of these kids than that.

We live under a globalisation where more and more of the Western ex-proletariat will be surplus to economic requirements. Other workshops of the world are making their ascent. Human-substituting automations of all kinds are creeping their way into business strategies.

Our only hope in Scotland is a democratic intellectualism worth the name – a mass cognitive and creative society, in which Scottish skill levels and products/services are practised at a high, non-outsourceable level.

If we don’t get there, we will consign millions of our compatriots to permanent economic redundancy – as Jimmy Reid once explicitly warned – and all the downward spirals of self-esteem which that generates. Do we want community tribalism, or vampiric drugs culture, filling this gap where purposelessness and uselessness lives?

Yes, I’ll allow myself a light bang of the drum for independence, as one way of fomenting general Scottish positivity and can-do spirit, through national control of our structures and resources. But in the phrase of our universal daughter at the beginning of this piece, this country also needs as large a dose of “beauty therapy” as it can take.

However much I enjoyed Neds, when I finished I immediately wanted to see 10, 20, 50 Scottish movies that filled in the gaps between this and, say, the softer elements of Gregory’s Girl. The more powerful stories we can tell about the subtle struggles between conformity and transformation in the everyday life of Scotland, the better.

The very existence of Mullen’s films would seem to be a testament to the fact that a strong sensibility can burn through the most unwelcoming of environments. But perhaps we need more ned filmmakers, not just registered beauticians or refereed combatants – and that’s before we even get to the scientists or engineers.

Perhaps we need more compelling audio-visual narratives about the latent and diverse talents of Scottish life – more than just the occasional art movie, or the simplicities of crime or soap operas: and this is a real challenge to whatever we might mean by a “creative” Scotland. If my regular commutes are anything to go by, it’s not as if the stories aren’t out there.

- For more from Pat Kane on Scottish current affairs, please go to his Thoughtland blog.

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