Sunday, 30 June 2013


People in Edinburgh familiar with my spoken-word performances will know that images often accompany my writing. Recently I performed my sequence Walking on the Water – inspired by Antony Gormley’s installation along the Waters of Leith, 6 Times. Using my own photographs as visual aids, and interspersing the six sections with Gregorian plainchant made the performance memorable, certainly, if a bit weird.

Combining aspects of the arts is not only important to me as a writer; it is essential to me as an artist. As well as engaging with all art-forms at some level, it is important to support other emerging artists. This year, I went to four end-of-year shows featuring work of students or graduands of our various art colleges. And what a treat it was!

At Edinburgh College of Art, I was able to visit all the departments, over several visits. Being slightly biased, I was particularly pleased to see work by people I know. In Illustration, I enjoyed seeing the intricate paper-cuttings of Alice Spicer. Alice is also a writer, and her work effectively combines both disciplines.

Another illustrator, Jode Pankhurst (who has illustrated one of my poems, which may or may not be published as you read this) combines illustration and ceramics to produce stunning, original and moving work. Call it favouritism, but her work was the highlight for me, and I urge you to visit her website.

One work that especially caught my eye and (although I’m bored with this cliché) captured my imagination. Maria Hadam constructed pieces out of cassette tape, stretched in lines across white board frames. Some were very small, others large, and each contained something extremely beguiling; buried sounds, memories, and the transience of technology and life itself, shimmering and changing colour depending on where the viewer stood. I was fortunate to spend some time in conversation with the artist, whose website is here:

Deep in Leith is a hidden gem that I’d not visited before: the Leith School of Art. A friend who had a picture displayed invited me to the end-of-year show; a curious mix and wide range of talent and ability, from folk who are perhaps following a dream or a passion for art, and others who having completed a foundation level are destined for greater things, whether or not they go on to established Art Colleges. 

I cannot claim to know about the technicality of painting, but I’m picked out one artist whose work I found work profoundly moving on many levels. In her artist statement, Emily Ponsonby said, ‘Through multiple layers of oil, varnish and wax I aim to interpret the essence of my model’s personality and what makes them tick.’

I was immediately impressed by the scale and realism of these portraits, but failed at first to pick up on one essential element. My friend, who I eventually found in the warren of studios in this redundant church, said to me, ‘But did you smell the paintings?’ I confessed I had not. She told me, ‘They smell of honey.’

So we went back to view them, and at that point the artist was having her picture taken with the model of one of her pictures: a beautiful, rugged-looking man with a mass of grey hair and a beard – not the easiest of subjects – in front of his portrait. He was even wearing the same jumper! There was a feeling of pride, pleasure, and above all, a visible rapport between the artist and sitter.

In my conversation with Maria Hadam, at the E.C.A. show, we discussed how rarely people are truly moved by visual art, certainly not in the way other art forms move us. We are stirred by music, provoked by theatre; we laugh at comedy and weep in the movies (well, some do) Perhaps it is our sense of reserve: it would seem absurd to stand in a gallery, laughing at, applauding or sobbing in front of an installation.

And yet, when I returned to the L.S.A. in Leith to have another look at Emily’s paintings with fewer people around, I got up close to the picture, observed the way the layers of wax and paint were built up to give the work immense depth and intensity; and then I breathed in deeply (as a singer might) through my nose. Even more than the joy of seeing ‘Gerry’ in front of his picture, I was quite overcome and found myself welling up. Get a grip, I told myself!

But the thing that really moved me was the thought that this experience (unless I were to put my money where my emotion was and buy one) was ephemeral and, being of the moment, in that sense, unique. What’s more, her work spoke on more levels of eloquence than I can hope to articulate in writing.

Interpreting art, especially modern art, is hard. The Death-to-Death show at the Modern Art Gallery in Edinburgh is tough, since so much of it is provocatively weird, frankly. The multi-sensory experience of the Ernesto Neto installation is another example of how nothing needs explained when experiencing art (although, having heard Neto speak recently, he certainly has much to say, and every word is a gem!)

If the ‘artist’s statement’ should say anything, save explaining or justifying the work we may struggle to interpret, it should contain a glimpse of what has inspired them.

So, what inspires me to write? Art, life, a compulsion to make sense of the world and the transient experience of our short time on earth: all of these. But above all, it is people. As I go about galleries, museums, shops, or sit in cafés, on buses or wander the streets, I am soaking up stories, leaching lives, inhaling the air they breathe.

In these last weeks, I have been inspired, vitalised, moved and thrilled by the new art I have seen, much of which has been greatly inspired. At its most basic, inspiration means ‘breathing in.’ Thanks to Emily Ponsonby, I must remember when I look at all art to breath in deeply, through my nose, and be inspired in every sense.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Humans Remain

I’ve said it before, but here goes.  The Bible, and especially the Gospel narrative, is a great source of inspiration to me.  Not least because there’s a lot of weird shit in there that no amount of warped imagination could ever invent.  This means that scripture must be open to an exceedingly broad interpretation, no matter what a person’s understanding or religious inclination may be.  Except to say that some interpretation is wrong (with scant apologies to those who disagree) – especially when the stories simply do not chime with the world we live in today. 

Last month, a letter was published in ‘the press’ (shame on them, but given that most newspapers are amoral why bother complaining or naming them: that is their modus operandi) publicly attacking the ministry of an ordained priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church.  Why?  Because she (shock, horror) is a woman.  I will, for what it’s worth, name-and-shame the letter-writer, a Mr Donald J Morrison of 85 Old Edinburgh Road, Inverness.  This man is a bigot, a misogynist, and a theologically-ignorant fool.  But don’t take my word for it: Google him, and make up your own mind.

Or, let me cite a couple of sentences in his pathetic missive, and allow whoever reads this to decide. Of the 196 women who are ministers in the Church of Scotland (according to his figures which I don’t entirely trust) he claims, “This is 196 too many.” He seems to think that “The very fact that they are women debars them from the Christian ministry,” and attempts to back this up with a Biblical quotation which he considers “best to hear what absolute truth has to clearly say.”  Apparently, a woman may be “elegant” (I think he meant to say ‘eloquent,’ which clearly he is not) in “public speaking, or proficient in her knowledge of Biblical theology” – again, I question his proficiency. 

It seems, according to Mr Morrison, “The only activity women are restricted from is teaching or having spiritual authority over men.”  And yet he suggests that women “may rise up and hold high office in a nation, just like Queen Elizabeth and as the late Mrs Margaret Thatcher did.”  That will be the present Queen, head of Church-and-State, and former (now deceased, for which I’m only partly glad: I’d rather she hadn’t been born) Prime Minister who was responsible for appointing Bishop Carey to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  Sure, the rot had set in by then, but the Evangelical ascendency in The Church must surely be blamed for the upsurge of aggressive, militant atheism in recent years.

The trouble is, as long as idiots are allowed to vent their views publically; while the various denominations of Christianity are permitted to operate outdated systems of institutionalised human rights violations; and while former Bishops and Archbishops sit in the House of Lords, we are seeing the disintegration of sensible Christianity and the strengthening of that most unholy alliance, Church and State.  Never were there two more incompatible bed-fellows than the Queen and Thatcher, but since disestablishing the Church of England would have seemed as anathema to Maggie as abolishing the Monarchy, so they remained, tucked up and – like all single-sex marriages, according to our deluded Mr Morrison, though not perhaps his choice of phrase – fucked up.

You’ll find his views on same-sex marriage equally derisive.  So, when the House of Lords discusses this, as if they are some kind of legitimate compass of morality, who do we have to put up with? Fucking Bishops who not only should never have been ordained, but who should not be given a seat in The House – least of all by a God who only exists to a limited coterie.  A cliché (but it’s true): the UK is the only one of two democrasies with religious clerics sitting in their Upper Chamber of Politics.  The other is Iran, but I don’t think they have got retired, defunct and idiotic Bishops.  

Take, for example.  Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester.  What an idiot.  Suggesting that the Queen would break her Coronation Oath by letting her Government vote for gay marriage!  Oh for fuck’s sake, Brenda: nobody gives a toss about your holy oath.  And the move to persuade Bishops to abstain from voting, in order to avoid this issue of disestablishment, makes a mockery of everyone involved – from The Queen right down to that ridiculous man in Inverness, who tells us that Her Majesty has no authority to advise him on matters of theology.  Sorry, Mr Morrison: it seems she does.  Unless, you’re up for disestablishing the Church, or abolishing the Monarchy?

But that, alas, isn’t likely to happen imminently.  So let’s do something different about this.  Gay marriage – the right for two people to publically declare their love for one another – is nothing to do with Christianity.  It’s about conferring what should be the inalienable right on all people, without prejudice, to participate fully in the society in which they live.  It is nothing to do with procreation, sexuality or bodily functions – although all of these are naturally a part of being human.  It is about recognising that love is what brings two people together, and that should be celebrated. 

Yes, Love.

Suffice it to say that, in the Bible, we are instructed to ‘love one another with a pure heart, fervently.’  In the spirit of pick-and-mix theology, we could easily find another quote to counter that. But that’s just petty.  Let’s look instead at the person of Christ, who was just an ordinary man, who did all the things that we do, yet had a vision of a world that could be lived in harmoniously by all, no matter what their beliefs.  Through love.  Unless, of course, they were hypocrites – like the ‘Church’ of his time.  And like the Church in our time.  And the government.  And me too, I guess.  I ought to love Mr Morrison of Inverness.  Perhaps I do, even though he’s a poor, deluded fool.  

And so to this month’s Canto from my poem-sequence, pointing out that Christ was only human. 

Twelve Tones of Blue


Canto VI:   The numbers of the beast; basic bodily functions, surely experienced by Christ.

Canto VI

Welcome to the Great High Feast;

I’ll gorge his flesh and rout the devil:

This is the human form to which we all relate.


The second number of the beast,

Shooting up through cold blue steel,

Enters the blood with an animal urge to procreate.


Of all the numbers does the least

Attractive seem the most primeval.

But didn’t Christ himself digest, procreate and defecate?