Author: ajay_admin

In the company of wolves – Hugh Collins

September 23, 2000

There are two standard responses to Hugh Collins: liberal-sentimental and vengeful-cynical. We have seen plenty of both since his release from jail seven years ago. Gangland murderers are good copy whether you believe in the perfectibility of the soul or in leopards who don’t change their spots. The problem with all these profiles, features and interviews is that they are not really about him. The same questions get asked – why did he do it? Is he sorry? Has he really changed? – and he returns the same answers. But once you get past the journalist’s moral tub-thumping, there is precious little sense of the man. So why not take a less high-minded approach, address a different question: what’s it like to spend the afternoon with a killer?

Like surfing a tsunami. For three and a half hours words fire out of him at ultra-high speed. Sometimes I manage to get a question in, sometimes he even answers it, but mostly the monologue goes its own way: razor gangs, drugs, protection rackets, the five attempted murders they couldn’t make stick, the dungeon in Perth prison, the three screws he stabbed, the Barlinnie Special Unit, Jimmy Boyle and, inevitably, the killing of Willie Mooney. He says he is nervous but it is I who end up shaking uncontrollably, the teeth rattling in my head. I blame the restaurant’s punishingly efficient air-conditioning, but it’s something else too. A combination of empathy and alienation. I think the phrase is weirded out.

The thing about Collins is he wants to make an impact, to be admired – and maybe a little feared. His conversation is peppered with threats to third parties: this or that foe he could put in a bin bag. It’s rubbish, of course. As a murderer released on a life licence, he would be back inside so fast his feet wouldn’t touch the ground.

But still he talks the talk. He grew up in the Garngad in Glasgow, a culture steeped in the king-of-the-dunghill bravado of the hard man. Then there’s the other side of him: the searching gaze of the man who craves understanding, the candour nurtured by the Special Unit and his friendships in the Edinburgh arts world. It sounds like Jekyll and Hyde, but in Collins the contradictions are merely expressions of a single urge for contact, a need to get under the barriers.

This may explain why it is difficult to describe him. I can give you first impressions: the high colouring, the pewter hair, that seven-inch cleaver scar biting deep into his jaw line… but very quickly these details cease to register. He has the knack of making those around him see the world through his eyes.

Does this sound cosy? Believe me, it is not. He describes himself as neurotic, obsessive. He takes panic attacks. But still he puts himself on show. Any man who claims he doesn’t like being looked at is a liar, he says; twice. One of his favourite words is “glamour”. He is living his own legend, and for the next six hours I have no choice but to live it too. Glasgow becomes a village with Armani-suited gangsters on every street corner; Edinburgh, a hamlet in which the pin-striped establishment is up to its neck in conspiracies and cover-ups. Yes, I know, you’ve heard it all before, but in Collins’s mouth the clichés come to life. Walking up the High Street with him is like stepping into a film, vivid and slightly alarming. Faces swim in and out of focus. Some shake my hand. There is a sense of event I don’t quite understand until he complains that he is pestered by bampots wanting to be seen with him. For all his talk of vanishing to a cottage in the middle of nowhere, he enjoys holding court.

In Walking Away, the second volume of his autobiography, he describes the weeks after his release from prison in 1993. He is living in a room in Edinburgh’s 369 Gallery with his girlfriend (now his wife) the artist Caroline McNairn, and spending his nights at an endless round of parties and exhibition openings. He is flat broke but there always seems to be a glass of Champagne to hand. One opening is held in a church, a beautiful woman strips naked, another appears at the altar strapped-up with a dildo. He gets drunk with Russian artists, shakes hands with the Leader of the Opposition, discovers how deliciously sexy the word “fuck” sounds on the lips of a titled lady, titillates a roomful of gay men with tales of prison life.

The vengeful-cynical brigade see Collins as the pet monster of “Edinburgh café society”, but then Edinburgh café society is itself pretty monstrous, at least as it appears in Collins’s book: a magnet for exotics and grotesques. He likes celebrity, famous names, bright plumage. He’s proud of his connections with Jim Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Ask him about the night he stalked Ruby Wax at the New Yorker party. Will Self was there, and Martin Amis. He met Salman Rushdie, told him there were a couple of Arab guys outside looking for him…

By this time we’re in his flat, high above the Edinburgh rooftops. “A view with a room,” he calls it. Battered sofas and ottomans heaped with cushions, ethnic and oriental rugs layered over the floor, paintings covering every inch of wall. We could be back in the 1950s, in the Edinburgh of Anne Redpath and Robin Philipson. Gradually I stop shivering, thanks to the two-bar electric fire, a steaming mug of tea, and the steadying influence of Caroline McNairn.

Collins met McNairn when he was still in prison but working on day-release at the 369 Gallery. He remembers standing at the sink outside her studio, running cups under the tap until his fingers were like prunes, just so he could bump into her (“oh hello”) when she stepped into the corridor. They married shortly after he got out of jail. Their backgrounds could not be more different: she is middle-class, from an artistic family in the Borders. She put up with a lot at the beginning. He was drinking heavily, panicking at freedom after 16 years behind bars, trying to get into fights with bouncers, smashing things up. She physically restrained him, and got flung against a window for her pains. She’s no masochist, and took no pleasure in his violent past. A woman with a weaker streak of liberal idealism might have given up on him but, seven years on, they’re still together.

She is wary of discussing the relationship. Once couples start talking about their love the divorce papers are never far behind, she says. But there’s an obvious warmth between them. It seems an easy partnership, with plenty of space. She talks, he interrupts her, she reminds him that she hadn’t finished. He covers his sharp shirt with a baggy jumper, puts on a pair of glasses and calms down. He’s still talking 19 to the dozen but it’s now a conversation. I almost stop feeling alienated.

One of our dominant fantasies about rehabilitated murderers is the idea of the clean break: a new life, away from the background that shaped them. But it is not easy living without the past. Notwithstanding his artist wife, his bookish friends, his reputation as a sculptor, his writing career, Collins misses his old pals. He goes through to Glasgow to see them at the boxing. They sit at the Shamrock table (named after his old gang). “They’re not criminals, they’re just guys ducking and diving.” He takes some trouble to find a poster of three men posing with Mike Tyson at his recent fight in Glasgow. He points to the one on the right. “That’s Albert,” he says.

Albert and Shooey were as close as brothers in boyhood. They were in the Shamrock together, and spent some time in Manchester, shoplifting to order. There they had a falling out. The next three years saw an escalating sequence of tit-for-tat violence involving razors, cleavers, crossbows and shotguns. Albert was jailed for 12 years for a bank robbery but the feud continued. One day in 1977 Collins had a tip-off that Albert’s friends were planning to take him to a party, spike his drink with acid and fling him out of the high flats. Coincidentally (such was the routine violence of those times) he had an appointment to “go for a walk” with an old prison acquaintance, Willie Mooney, the same night. Mooney had growled at Collins’s 14-year-old nephew and honour had to be satisfied. Collins walked into the Lunar Seven pub and found Mooney with Albert’s pals. Fighting broke out and Mooney ended up dead. Collins went berserk and savaged him.

“In that world he wasn’t a bad guy. He was kind of half-cut that day and I just exploded in his face. That’s the side of it I’m ashamed of.”

It was not until two years ago, at his da’s funeral, that Collins met up with Albert again. Both of them had changed. Albert’s a legitimate businessman now and bears no grudge. Collins was profoundly touched by their reconciliation. “I feel more comfortable with him than with anybody I know – I feel I’ve went hame.” Over the course of the afternoon he brings the conversation back to Albert again and again. He talks about coming full-circle. It is almost as if he is trying to undo the events that led up to Mooney’s death.

It is a psychological commonplace that we go through life looking to recreate our earliest relationships. In Collins’s case these were the formidable but loving grandmother he lived with (his mother was only an intermittent presence) and the glamorous father with the film-star looks and hard-man reputation who spent long periods in jail. The five-year-old Hugh stood up in class and announced that his da was a bank robber, a Robin Hood figure. He still hasn’t got over being disillusioned.

He hates men, he says, and men’s company, the nonsense they talk: “‘I’ve fired a gun, I’ve stabbed somebody’ – Jesus Christ… ” As a boy he wanted to be a priest or to play for Celtic. “But when these things start to fall through everybody wants an identity of some kind.” By the age of 21 he was running a protection racket involving every pub on Sauchiehall Street and Buchanan Street. The gangs in Pollok, Paisley, Possilpark, Maryhill, were a joke; whoever dominated the city centre was top dog. That was him: he ran the toon.

He hates men, and yet he is one of them. He is forever trying to square this circle, to find a way of enjoying the respect of men without the violence that underpins so many masculine pecking orders. He takes particular men as models, investing enormous trust and admiration. Albert is the most conspicuous example, but the list also includes his editor Kevin Williamson and the socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan. In the Special Unit his mentor was Jimmy Boyle.

In the first volume of his memoirs, Autobiography of a Murderer, he expresses irritation that, as a fellow sculptor and rehabilitated killer, he will always be seen as following in Boyle’s footsteps; but there is regard and gratitude too. In the new book this ambivalence has become out-and-out loathing. He mocks Boyle’s ideas on deprivation (“a hole in my shoe and I killed a guy”). He is bitter about the fact that Boyle must have admitted his guilt to gain parole, yet publicly maintains his innocence. He believes that, by marrying into money and living the high life as a Champagne importer, Boyle has alienated public sympathy, setting back the cause of other rehabilitated criminals awaiting release. “When I saw him with the Rolls-Royce I thought: that’s five years added onto my sentence.”

His mother became close to Boyle in the Special Unit and has often compared Collins unfavourably. When his father visited the unit he seemed more interested in meeting “Scotland’s most violent man” than in spending time with his son. But when Boyle was released, Collins says his relatives were soon dropped. “I felt he used my whole family, the very people who supported him to get him out of the jail.”

Boyle has branded Collins “damaged goods” and accused him of keeping a foot in both the straight world and the criminal. Collins is enraged by this. “He’s not been tested out here. He’s surrounded himself with people who haven’t challenged him. I’ve been challenged: the art world is a heavy place. He was wrapped up in cotton wool in the Special Unit, he walked out to wealth. I’ve lived in a gallery. I’m under the threat of bankruptcy all the time. I don’t know how long we’ve been on the cream cracker trail: you’re on the dole, you’re off the dole. He’s never faced any of that.” The litany of grievance continues, ending with the claim that Boyle upped the ante for prisoners wanting to start over. “He set standards that every lifer had to marry a millionaire or they were a dead loss.”

Does he not display a pattern of idealising men and then hating them when they fail to live up to his fantasy? He is greatly taken with this theory. “You’ve hit it on the nail about men.” He has done it throughout his life. “I’ve tried to put men that my mother’s had as boyfriends on platforms and then when they fell off I’ve had a big disappointment.” And so it was with Boyle. “He disappointed me, but I put him up into that position.” Not that this insight makes any difference to the hostility he feels. “I’ve got guys saying ‘Do you want us to go through and do him?’. I said: ‘No, please don’t turn him into a fucking martyr. That’s what he wants: St Jimmy’.”

In jail they labelled Hugh Collins a sociopath. He used the tag to bluff the warders. Fear is an emotion he understands. He would confront a fellow con, then inform him “I’ll be back in five minutes.” By the time he returned the terror would have taken hold. “Their legs go like jelly, and you can knock them out.” (Momentarily I feel weird again.) He wasn’t a good fighter when he was younger, but he would use any weapon: chib anybody anywhere. “The crazier you were the bigger the reputation.”

Recently he has read a couple of articles punting the “St Hugh” line. It’s not true. He describes himself as a violent man, present tense. Could he kill again? “I’m much more aware of what’s going on in my brain and what’s inside my emotions.” But he’s still the same guy. “A lot of people aren’t aware of their limitations, their boundaries. They say ‘I would never kill anybody’ but they don’t know. Everybody is capable of killing somebody.”

Maybe if he felt threatened he could lash out, but not in a calculated way. One night a homeless man was trying to break into his flat, kicking at the door. “If I’d’ve had a weapon I might have stabbed him.” (Characteristically, McNairn wanted to ask the guy in for a cup of coffee.) The only answer is to keep well away from weapons. If necessary he falls back on intimidation. People tell him he has frightening eyes. It’s the scars at the outer corners, he says matter-of-factly, looming across to give me a closer look.

He is still angry. He shouts at the television news every night, Caroline has bought him a water pistol to shut him up. He is incensed by the hypocrisy of a government that can bomb children in Iraq for the sake of oil, while locking up men like himself for crimes of violence. He hates the class system, the power of the multinationals. The way he sees it, crime is just another aspect of capitalism. “If I ever went on the rampage again it’d be the multinationals. If I hit 70 they’d better watch out: I’ll be the oldest fucking terrorist in history.”

How do you describe Hugh Collins? Murderer? Former murderer? Socialist? Sociopath? As with the rest of us, it depends to some extent on the company he keeps. Actually, I’d guess, rather more than with the rest of us. So he chooses his friends carefully, stays out of pubs and is working on a disciplined daily routine of t’ai chi and writing, with only the occasional bender. He would like to get back to stone carving, but he’s 50 now: he’s not sure he has the stamina. And he questions his own motives: is it all about being macho…?

By the end of our afternoon together he is good company. Relaxed, amusing, reckless in the details he’s prepared to divulge, slightly vulnerable in his need for human contact. Hardly weird at all. He still feels the pull of reputation: the challenge of running the toon. But as long as his manor is bookish-artistic Edinburgh, that’s not a crime.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Disarming and dangerous – Jerry Sadowitz

October 19, 2002

How much truly shocks us these days? Perversion? Not when Bridget Jones’s Diary can get a laugh out of sodomy. Corpses? A staple of the television news. Terrorism? How quickly we got used to the re-run footage of airline hitting skyscraper. So it is some sort of achievement that a 41-year-old comedian appearing on a variety bill at this year’s Edinburgh Festival managed to provoke half his audience into walking out.

Jerry Sadowitz’s reputation goes before him. Rude, crude and frankly misogynist. No subject is too tasteless, no taboo too sensitive. He’s been banned, booed off, picketed by pensioners, and physically attacked. For a female interviewer he’s a daunting prospect, but I needn’t have worried: no Victorian lady was ever treated more punctiliously. Ravenously hungry when he arrives, he meekly submits to two hours of questions with only a cup of tea to sustain him. Sprinkling his conversation with references to Mahler, Stravinsky and Nietzsche, he outlines his belief in karma and explains his (somewhat abstruse) theory that Nature is God’s unconscious mind.

Such an unexpectedly civilised encounter brings its own stresses. This is meant to be an interview with Sadowitz the comic brutalist, after all. But – today, at least – he’s gentle, diffident, bizarrely buttoned-up. His front parlour vocabulary and militant sense of propriety would not raise eyebrows in a maiden aunt. Listening to his disapproval of comedians who do their act in T-shirts and jeans, or rely excessively on improvisation when the audience has paid good money to see them, it’s hard to remember that this is a performer who has appeared on stage naked but for ketchup and beans.

Anyone writing about Jerry Sadowitz must first solve the problem of what to call his particular brand of comedy. He hates the tag “politically incorrect”, since it implies a pre-existing genre; “I think there’s my humour which people have copied over the years.” “Rabid” underplays his intelligence. “Scatological” comes close but my preferred option is “profane”, less on account of his liberal use of swearie words than because it conjures the antonym “sacred”, and Sadowitz can only be understood as a fusion of polar extremes.

Paedophilia, cancer, disability, sex with foetuses, the Lockerbie disaster, pensioners … all have been turned into gags. One broadminded punter who attended his Edinburgh show in August describes an ugly evening with two punch-ups in the audience triggered by arguments over his material. Some of his act was perfectly pitched, brilliantly puncturing various forms of hypocrisy, but much of it she found crass: racist, sexist, misanthropic, the most hard core comedy she had seen, far beyond the edgy satire of Chris Morris. “You leave feeling soiled,” she says. “I don’t know how many jokes you can take about shagging your grandmother up the arse, accompanied by very graphic movements.”

What makes this funny? I ask him now. “The fact that everything is so over the top: the delivery, the subject matter.” People rarely walk-out in response to a single joke: it’s the speed and quality and offensiveness of the material. “I’d emphasise the speed and quality as much as the offensiveness.” Later he adds “aggressiveness” to the list, and rightly. There is a palpable air of threat about him in performance. The top hat and suit jacket worn with jeans and Doc Martens recall the droogs in A Clockwork Orange. He’s a comic boot boy, but with a hard-to-gauge ironic twist. Had Bernard Manning’s son gone to art school, he might have turned out like Jerry Sadowitz.

If he kept this stuff to his act, it might be easier to handle, but there’s no hard-and-fast division. His on-stage identity is not a persona, he insists, but a caricatured version of himself. Some of the things he says he doesn’t mean, some he does. Some of the misogyny is real, but exaggerated out of proportion for the performance. With me, he comes across as the old-fashioned sort of gynophobe: too timid to say boo. But a male colleague who went for a meal with him some years ago recalls a string of comments about women sitting at other tables, their clothing, and how they were “asking for it”.

Anger drives his act, he says, then on second thoughts credits “the Art of Comedy” as if he had a direct line to Thalia herself. “Good example: Montreal Comedy Festival. Minutes before going on a voice in my head said ‘you’ve got to say hello moose****ers.’ Another voice in my head said ‘it’s childish, it’s going to create more grief for you’. And the artist won out and that’s what I did.” (He was beaten up on stage.)

The Art of Comedy acknowledges no rules – apart from the rule that nothing should be taboo. “Comedy comes before anything, before your career, before your life. If I think something is appropriate to comment on or if the comedy side of my brain says this would be funny, I’ll pursue it.” It sounds admirable in principle, but on stage the no-holds-barred pursuit of laughter can look awfully like desperation. “I probably wouldn’t like to admit it so much but there’s an element that I’ve nothing to lose. I sometimes describe my stand up as the longest suicide note ever written.”

And yet he never feels so alive as when he’s performing. “It’s the only time I feel … name any positive adjective: strong, worthwhile, useful, engaging. I feel better physically: off stage I’ve got colitis, all sorts of things wrong with me.” In an ideal world, he says, he’d do it most of the time.

Unfortunately life hasn’t worked out that way. Sadowitz’s career is a sore point. It’s no use saying that to have been around for 20 years is success in itself. He’s fiercely competitive, bitterly aware of his peers and their relative good fortune. Jeff Green, Rob Newman and Sean Hughes get it in the neck for doubling their audiences with their pretty-boy looks; Harry Hill for rehashing Harry Worth; Frank Skinner for treading water; Jasper Carrott for employing “about 20 scriptwriters” per half-hour show (“if you can’t do the job, do a different job”); Jonathan Ross and other “bandwagon-jumpers” for copying his style of comedy. “And now the kind of humour I do has become fashionable, I’m still not used that much.”

He was banned by several London comedy clubs in the 1980s for his non-PC act, though it was “very deliberately considered ironic material.” In 1992, when the BBC axed his series The Pall-bearer’s Review, he fell out with his promoter Avalon and didn’t work for four and a half years. He was reduced to serving behind the counter in a magic shop to pay the bills. “I couldn’t watch television: I’d turn it on and see some other comedian doing my material.” Scratch the surface of any performer and you’ll find petty jealousies, but Sadowitz’s disappointments have festered into something approaching conspiracy theory.

He reels off a series of slights he has suffered at the hands of the showbusiness establishment, from not being mentioned in a South Bank Show on British comedy, to not being asked to take part in a tribute to Peter Cook (“whether I would have appeared is different from being asked and being recognised”), and – the one that rankles most – being left out of the first British Comedy Awards. “To not be in the room, to not be mentioned at all, except once …” And that mention, by the compere Jonathan Ross, only made things worse: “You can’t just slit a pig’s throat and go to work, not since Jerry Sadowitz packed it in anyway.”

“I should have sued,” Sadowitz says now, so anguished that I haven’t the heart to tell him that those who dish it out must be prepared to take it too. He harbours particular animosity towards Ross, whom he regards as a blatant imitator. “Of course I’m cross: I don’t go to Channel 4 and sort out the ****ing post which is what he used to do.” Saying this, just for a moment Sadowitz lets go, allows himself to swear, and reveals himself as a funny man. Then he buttons up again.

His problem – one of them, anyway – is doublethink. He craves acceptance from these people even as he despises them. He wants invited to the showbiz party, but reserves the right not to turn up. Play the game or quit griping, I say. And to some extent he is playing it. Hence his obligingness this afternoon, part of a campaign to do away with his “difficult” reputation, counter the dreadful things he suspects the big agents and promoters have been saying about him, and secure more bookings. The obvious strategy would be to build up his live audience by doing more telly work, being careful not to get himself taken off air this time, but he’s terrified of compromise: why not go the whole hog, wear an evening suit, learn a couple of dance numbers and do a Bruce Forsyth …? “There’s a really wonderful quote from Nietzsche: ‘battle not with monsters lest you become a monster’.”

Yet he thinks like a showbiz hustler, has a nose for the hokum that sells. He’d like to have his own comedy video label “like Loyd Grossman has his spaghetti sauces.” He thinks it’d be interesting to franchise his Channel 5 show, The People versus Jerry Sadowitz, to another presenter – someone like Giles Brandreth (!). Meanwhile he wants to try something totally new. Acting maybe, but the part would have to be completely different from anything he’d done before. A Jane Austen adaptation, I suggest tongue-in-cheek? “Yeah,” he says, quite taken with the idea.

The surprising thing about Jerry Sadowitz, notorious misogynist, is that he’s really very likeable. Beneath the paranoia there’s an appealing self-possession. Part of this is physical: that extraordinary face, the cloud of soft corkscrew curls, his distinctive fleshliness. He might not be “comfortable” in his skin but he’s perfect in it. Not that he can see it.

“The off-stage me is a whole bag of misery, very rarely viable as a human being. I haven’t got my own flat, haven’t got my own car, haven’t got a wife. All the models of adulthood I’m too scared and probably too useless to venture into.”

He hates his life, is sick of talking about it (to journalists anyway). If The Scotsman’s readers are interested, it can only be out of nosiness or to make themselves feel better. His background is all very miserable and sad and pathetic and terrible, and he’s not denying it has inspired him, but it’s not his comedy. “You don’t need to know that all Mahler’s brothers and sisters died when he was a kid to appreciate his music.”

At the risk of pandering to the nosy, the bald facts of Sadowitz’s childhood bear repetition. The breakdown of his parents’ marriage. The tearing of six-year-old Jerry from his native New Jersey. The move to Glasgow with his Scottish mother. The desperate longing to see his Jewish-American father. The decades of rancour. Adult life hasn’t been much of an improvement. A recurring theme of his act is sexual frustration. Until renting a flat in north London four years ago he was living with his mother, which was cheap but hardly ideal. However, when his mobile rings and he answers in the softened tones of intimacy, it appears that his love life has taken a turn for the better. Well, yes and no. For the past four years he’s been having a platonic relationship. “It’s very strange: I don’t fully understand it myself.”

The only time in his life he has known happiness was at the age of 22, the year he put down roots in a Glasgow bedsit, wrote the first of his five books of card magic, and lost his virginity. He’d love another taste of contentment, he says. “If it meant no act, so be it. I’d like to know what that’s like: to have a fairly peaceful happy existence for a while.”

Sincere as he sounds, I don’t believe him. He has too much invested in his misery.

In 1997, after four and a half years out of showbusiness, Sadowitz turned his life around. The first step was a close magic show he staged in London and Edinburgh. It won a Scotland on Sunday Fringe First, his first ever award, though he says he “doesn’t really believe in” the accolade. If Sadowitz was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize he’d accuse the judges of rigging the vote.

Stage two was breaking back into comedy. This is a long story and he tells it as if the chain of events has supernatural significance. A friend saw a tiny item in the Daily Mirror claiming he was going to present a chat show on Channel 5. Then he was telephoned by the Scottish Sun. “Prior to that if a journalist phoned me I’d say ‘I’m sorry I’m not talking’ or even swear: ‘piss off’.” He glances nervously at me as if a blush might rise to my girlish cheek. “For a reason I can’t explain I stayed on the phone with this guy.”

Yes, he said, he was doing the chat show. Swearing shouldn’t be a problem, as he would be taking valium … The Sun swallowed this hook, line and sinker. Sadowitz had the tabloid page laminated and hung on his wall. Then he forgot all about it for a couple of months until one day, bored and mildly curious, he rang Channel 5 to see if there was any substance to the story. No one knew anything so he was put through to Alan Nixon, controller of entertainment, who was equally nonplussed but wondered, since Sadowitz was on the line, whether he had any ideas for a chat show? Shortly afterwards, on his way to work at the magic shop, The People versus Jerry Sadowitz popped fully-formed into his brain.

“Complete fate,” he concludes. And that is one way of looking at it. But from another angle all that happened was he picked up the phone and made his own luck. Sadowitz doesn’t care for this interpretation. He prefers to see what happened as a mysterious gift. “It seemed amazing, arbitrary, very random. On the one hand magical, fated by God, destiny or whatever. On the other hand, I think it’s wrong.”

By now I’m getting my bearings in Jerry’s moral landscape. Worldly success is won by the mediocre. He still wants wealth, fame and hero-worship, but loser status offers the powerful consolation of being in the “right”. So he can’t enjoy the golden apple when it falls into his lap. Channel 5 have asked him to write and present a history of magic. They only want him because he’s cheap, he says. He’s about to embark on his first stand-up tour in a long time but instead of feeling that life is getting better, he predicts that with his luck he’ll return to obscurity after the last gig.

The world – fair, unfair, rewarding chancers along with the deserving – is too uncomfortable a place for him. His planet is at least consistent: a realm of totalitarian injustice. One thing you can never call a victim is “wrong”. He may be the shop assistant who talked himself into a £50,000 contract on network television, but in his own head he’s powerless: “I’ve had absolutely zero control of my life this far.” Seen in this light, the racism and misogyny, the polar extremes – profane and prissy, boot boy and maiden aunt – make sense. The problem with Sadowitz is that he wants to win and still keep the moral high ground, and in the binary universe he has devised for himself that’s not possible. Unless you’re female. Or black.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

A Lone Voice – Nina Simone

May 8, 1994

What is the mark of the true star? Champagne and roses, chauffeur-driven cars, floor-length furs, standing ovations, global recognition? Or the chutzpah to walk on stage in bagging sweatshirt, limp leather miniskirt, white tights and suede wellingtons? Maybe it’s just the trick of inspiring paralysing terror in anyone who crosses your path. By any reckoning, Nina Simone sits at the top table.

By Monday blood pressure levels are soaring across Glasgow. There’s the car problem in Tunisia, the dog problem in Paris, her manager is too petrified of her to pass on interview requests, and she has switched to a flight scheduled to arrive all of 30 minutes before she’s due on stage. Then there’s the ticket headache. Simone has pulled out of the Glasgow Jazz Festival twice in the past, seats aren’t selling because nobody thinks she’ll turn up. The word from Mayfest is: ”It’s a nightmare.”

But a nightmare with distinct overtones of farce. By Tuesday anticipation is at such a pitch that newspapers are running entire features about being kept on hold by the switchboard at her Tunisian hotel, news stories based on a 10 second phone call (she hung up). A television crew is kept on standby all day without filming a shot. We’ve all heard the stories: Nina the unpredictable, canceller of sell-out dates, the diva who’s been known to walk off after 20 minutes – no encore – or stop a song to harangue the audience for not listening properly. Yet when the show finally misses its eight o’clock start, it’s because her drummer is late. Miss Simone – Doctor Simone, as she likes to be called – is in the wings and raring to go.

This is the point at which things begin to go right. She walks on clasping her hands above her head like a prize fighter then toyi-toyies around the stage, beaming hugely: South Africa is free. At 61, the voice is a little gruffer, those sorrowing arpeggios a little less fluid, but when she really lets rip, hammering out those swirling classical chords on the piano, she can still sing up a storm. Of course, she can’t resist terrorising the audience a little, breaking into a number called She-lion every so often (”she drinks a little coffee/she drinks a little tea/she drinks a little champagne/and then she go home”) before strolling off-stage. But she’s only teasing.

And we love it. There’s nothing like the possibility that every number is the last to hone a crowd’s appreciation. Even the clothes are a kick: it’s like turning up to see Montserrat Caballe sing Tosca in a shell suit.

The court of Queen Nina is unanimous that there’ll never be a better chance to snatch an audience. Mandela’s in power, the lady’s on a high, and the expressions of numb relief suggest this is not a conjunction you can count on too often. The man from Mayfest is displaying the compulsive garrulity common to survivors of natural disasters and near-death experiences.

So I’m led to a poky nook in the wings set up like a supper club booth, the table lamp casting its rosy circle, a bucket of champagne on the pink cloth, and an assortment of managers, musical directors, security attendants, chauffeurs, champagne-pourers, you name it, in respectful attendance. Dr Simone sits resplendent in leopard-skin coat with a paisley headscarf tied under her chin. So like the home life of our own dear queen.

”What time is it?” she asks inauspiciously. Half past 10, someone says. (Actually it’s 10.23 but this does not seem the moment for pedantry.) ”You’ve got 12 minutes, honey.”

Right now, face to face with a notoriously temperamental star and surrounded by a rapt audience of hangers-on, 12 minutes seems an eternity. I try Nelson, but she’s never met him; the personal psychics and past lives, but she’d rather not discuss them. Her complicated relationship with her 93-year-old mother? Senile for the past year and now dying. Her home near Marseille ..? At last that powerful face shows a flicker of interest.

This is what happens when you meet one of the all-time legends of popular music, she talks about servant problems in the South of France. The boy left her because his girlfriend got sick, the girl quit because she couldn’t take the pressure, some of them she had to fire … And yet even as the precious minutes tick by, there’s a certain fascination in this, a river of lament rumbling ceaselessly on, like the bass notes churned by her left hand on the piano. If Simone wasn’t born to sing the blues, then she’s had a lot of practice.

Musically or conversationally, the style is similar. Her forte is fortissimo, a vigorous dolour flaring suddenly into thundering wrath or, on nights like this, raucous high spirits.

She laughs, exposing a set of teeth that make the keyboard look undersupplied. ”All the men are always after me, these French cats. They’re always on the phone, at the door. You just have to be attractive and a woman alone. They’re terrible, they don’t let go. I run a lot, I mean that. I had to run to Tunisia 14 days ago, I put my bags in my car and took the overnight trip.” The laughter evaporates. ”I got no business being alone.”

A chastened critic once wrote that seeing Simone in concert was far more effective at re-educating men than any theoretical feminist could be. ”We cannot come away unaware of the harm we do.” She’s been swindled and hospitalised and heartbroken in her time, but she keeps coming back for more. The saddest point in a show with more than its share of affecting moments comes when she remarks that she seldom feels like a woman these days.

”That’s real,” she says now. ”I remember a time I would never dare go on stage in boots and my hair unkempt and a pack at my waist like this. Oh Lord, 10 years ago it was unthinkable. I’d make the audience wait until I put on my make-up and a gown and gold shoes and diamond earrings. I like men, I like men a lot, and I do not get beautiful for a woman or for myself.

”It’s been so long since there was a man I could respect, an agent or a father-image or a friend. I know I’m not alone. I bet you’re not married.” Confirmation of this cheers her up considerably. ”Mmmm-hmmm, got you that time.”

Loneliness is a constant theme, in song and speech. She’s alone in the south of France; all her friends live in Paris. When she travels, she’s struggling to carry 14 pieces of luggage on her own. (Being Simone, no one suggests she pack less.) She’s alone in Glasgow, now, checking into a hotel she doesn’t even know …

This moves Raymond, her manager, an undersized Frenchman in a faded denim suit, to assure her that there is ”no problem” with the hotel. ”No problem” choruses the court. ”I don’t want to hear ‘no problem’,” she snarls, and without warning Raymond is on the receiving end of a spectacular, if repetitive, verbal mauling. The court holds its breath. She turns back and, after a beat, resumes her comedy routine about the amorous persistence of the French.

The next hour is something of a white-knuckle ride. One minute she’s flirting with the municipal security men (a one-way process, it has to be said) drawing up a wish list of furs. ”A nice white mink all the way to the floor – thanks guys – and a brown ranch mink for travelling with a matching hat – hello – and a nice one like this …” She strokes the leopard-skin, but the joke turns to fury. ”They brought it on the goddam airplane. Chick didn’t know how to fold it, trailing it on the floor. Oh Jesus. I’ve had some very beautiful things in my life, and I miss them. It’s awful.” Her lip puckers and she emits the low humming of a child pretending to cry. She’s playing again, reminiscing about all those diamond earrings and gold shoes. ”Clothes when you put them on it takes you two hours and you got to have two men you’ve got your eye on.” Suddenly she proffers a palm. ”Gimme five.”

Here the drummer remarks that you wouldn’t catch him taking two hours to dress for any woman. ”That’s not crazy,” she snaps. ”You don’t know nothing about women. You missed the whole point.”

And so it goes on. No one is safe. Even I come in for the odd basilisk glare, but by then it’s clear that these mood swings are at least as much a performance as the one she has just given on stage.

Poverty and prejudice deprived Nina Simone of the chance of becoming America’s first black concert pianist. She was refused a scholarship at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute, and the disappointment scarred her life. Jazz was just for the money, and to prove the point, leaving no one in any doubt that she was born for better things, she became the difficult diva. It was fine in the 1960s, when her high-handedness was employed in the service of the Civil Rights movement, but there came a day when her blend of blues, gospel, jazz and classical went out of fashion.

The 1970s were the wilderness years, although even then she observed a certain style. Run-ins with the taxman left her broke, but at least she was broke in Paris. There is talk of turning one of her many love affairs, her liaison with the then prime minister of Barbados, Earl Barrow, into a film with Whoopi Goldberg.

In the 1980s she was rescued by Chanel which, in choosing a 1958 recording, My Baby Just Cares for Me, as soundtrack to a commercial for Chanel No 5, brought her into the limelight again. True to form, she sued. (Not that she doesn’t have grounds for complaint about money, it’s been estimated that failing to read the small print of her first record contract cost her a million dollars.) Now she’s not only in vogue but enjoying ”classic” status, the bad behaviour, all those stories about her dancing naked in nightclubs and relieving herself in taxis, are a form of insurance.

It’s a lesson she learned in Paris when, attempting a comeback, she played a small club on the Pigalle and nobody turned up. Stardom was a package deal: if she didn’t stay in the luxury suite and get mentioned in the gossip columns for attending celebrity parties, she wasn’t the singer they wanted to see. You’ll never get her to admit to ring-fencing herself with her retinue’s fear – ”I don’t do that: that’s their own thing” – but it’s all part of a strategy to ensure that she is never undervalued again.

My last glimpse of her is in the back of a car, just before she’s driven off to the unknown hotel. Without an audience she seems less formidable, vulnerable even, gesturing feebly at a briefcase on the seat beside her. ”Help me close this,” she says, not moving. She’s trying it on, of course, she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself. But for the sake of maintaining the legend, it seems a small price to pay.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Interview with David Shrigley

November 8, 2004

Mid-afternoon, once we’ve swapped the rocky ground of question and answer for conversation and laughter, it occurs to the interviewee to wonder what happens if you put a computer CD into the CD player? White noise issues from the speakers, and a look of pure delight crosses his face. The CD sleeve carries a customer service number. “I wonder if you phone them up, do you get this sound….”

Welcome to the world of David Shrigley.

Even if you don’t know the name, the chances are you’ll have seen his work. Maybe years ago, when he was a cartoonist for the List and the Independent on Sunday, or recently in a gallery (no round-up of the happening names in Scottish art is complete without him). Or you’ve caught the video he made for Blur’s latest single, or picked up one of his books… And if you’ve seen his work, the chances are you’ll have thought ‘that looks like it was drawn by a 12-year-old’ – but a 12-year-old highly attuned to the cultural static.

Shrigley does careless, funny drawings accompanied by messy handwriting with frequent spelling mistakes and crossings-out. He is an artist whose work does not look like Art. In this way he pleases the people who feel baffled and excluded by much contemporary art, and he pleases the critics who appreciate the conceptual cleverness of what he is doing. It sounds gimmicky and formulaic, a joke which would quickly wear thin, but somehow it’s not like that. In that ‘somehow’ lies his claim to Art.

Gulled by the work, I was expecting a speccy geek in an untidy bedsit, not a gigantic golden boy: six foot six, rosy-cheeked, rosebud-lipped. He lives in a white-painted flat in Glasgow’s West End: the sort of airy, aspirational space that gets photographed in glossy magazines. A work-in-progress on his desk proclaims ‘KILL YOUR PETS’, but you know he doesn’t mean it. Shrigley’s art is often described as “bleak”, ranging across a spectrum of fear, anxiety, boredom and rage. Yet even in the most disturbing images there’s a tension between the violence and a certain, well, wholesomeness. His drawings represent interruptions of order, not limitless chaos. In this way they have a sort of sweetness.

In the days before he got bored with environmental art he used to specialise in notices. One, attached to a lamppost, appealed for the return of a lost pigeon (“normal size, a bit mangy looking, does not have a name”). Another, placed in front of the ‘Armadillo’ concert hall in Glasgow, read “Ignore this building.” Then there was the filofax bearing the legend “Please do not return this to me as I do not want it back”. It was, of course, returned.

He has just published two books, the entirely fictional autobiography Who I Am and What I Want, and Yellow Bird with Worm. The latter is a collection of drawings presented like a toddler’s picture book. The images include a bear surrounded by the blood and body parts of the person it has just dismembered, blue birds perching on a spiky cactus prettily streaked with their blood, an acid green mutant emerging from the vagina of a many-legged monster (“the miracle of birth”), and a blue squirrel called Timmy opposite five “pigeons Timmy has fucked” (Elaine, Fuckwing, Spam, Bernard and Little-Miss-Turd-Eater).

Did he choose the childish format to nudge his art into a territory we might call “sick”? He looks nonplussed. “I’ve made this kind of work for so long that I don’t really think about it.” Put like that, he can see it’s a bit twisted, but he was seduced by the high production values. Anyway, he rallies: “All types of violence and mayhem and perversity are very appealing to children.” Appealing to children is one thing; sharing their outlook, quite another. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s trying to represent the inner child. “I’m an adult: it’s an adult voice. I’m not trying to pretend I’m six-years-old. I actually think what I’m doing is quite sophisticated graphically, compared to faux naif drawings. I do it eight hours a day, five days a week. I’m searching for something and I do it with great intent, even though I don’t know exactly what it is I’m searching for.”

Knife: what’s for dinner?
Fork: soup

is a typical Shrigley artwork (albeit lacking his trademark beheadings, mutilations, copulating dogs, erect penises, etc). It’s also a fair summary of what happens when you try to interview the artist. Offer him a theory of how his work might function and his face acquires a resistant look. It’s not just that theorising is irrelevant to what he does: it’s potentially inimical. He is an artist who mines the rich seam of the unconscious in a repeated, deliberate, even systematic way. There’s always the risk that the process will implode under the weight of its own contradictions.

The misspellings and scorings-out are mostly genuine but also, he concedes, a bit of a mannerism. He wants the work to contain everything – humour, insight, ambiguity, melancholy – but also to be as uncontrived as possible. It is spontaneous, he insists, but it’s a complicated form of spontaneity. “My working method is probably one of just trying to convince myself that I’m not making art work, that it’s an elaborate form of doodling.” Something happens between the mind and the pen which cuts out conscious thought-processes. “It’s like trying to take your eye off it, get it to go out of focus for a bit.” He never does the same drawing twice. If a work is not right, it gets discarded. “Everything’s got to be exactly as it happens, otherwise it’s no good.”

An hour or so into our meeting I stop trying to interview David Shrigley about his work and a certain tension in the atmosphere lifts. The politely resistant artist emerges as a droll raconteur and mimic. He starts smiling. Best of all, every story seems an artistic parable.

He once took part in a panel discussion of nihilism at the ICA in London. It was a nightmare. “I didn’t really know anything about nihilism but they’re: ‘it doesn’t matter.’ I forgot my slides. I was talking to my brother-in-law and he said ‘get a flip chart, do a Win, Lose or Draw thing.’ It went down like a reggae band at a Ku Klux Klan convention. I thought it’d be very entertaining and they’d be very sympathetic, but the other artists turned really nasty towards me.

“This guy in the audience started on about how he hated contemporary art and how we were all rubbish. The rest of the audience started going ‘yeah, yeah, it’s rubbish, you’re rubbish, you don’t know anything about nihilism.’ There was this guy with leggings and rollerblades: I said ‘if you wanted to be entertained you should have gone to Starlight Express, you idiot.’ It all descended into horrible abuse between the audience and the artists.” Lest I’m in any doubt, he adds “I’m not a nihilist.”

But even if he had been, it’s inconceivable that he could have got his ideas across in such a setting. The essence of Shrigley’s ‘somehow’ is lightness of touch, apparent inconsequentiality, free association. He shuns the conventional grid of action and reaction for an alternative web of connections. ‘Genius’ is one word for this sort of thinking, ‘madness’ another. He spends a lot of time assuring journalists that it’s perfectly normal to have such a warped sense of humour, even a sign of mental health. Though, “if I heard people spouting about how mentally healthy they were, I’d think they were just about to grab the machine gun and run into Woolworths.”

In an interview two years ago he admitted to believing that the attack on the Twin Towers was triggered by him losing his car keys. Reminded of this, he concedes that he may have been mistaken, yet he’s reluctant to dismiss it altogether. “At some level I felt there’s some kind of butterfly flapping its wings in China aspect to the world. It sounds irrational, but when you analyse it, it makes perfect sense.” He laughs. “I suppose if you probe anyone deep enough you’ll find they’re a bit of a spanner one way or another. I’m no different from anyone else.”

To an extent he’s right: we’ve all had some such whimsical notion. That’s why even his most surreal drawings ring distant bells. But where others shrug off these fancies, he nurtures them and turns them into art.

A few biographical facts about David Shrigley. He is 35. He had a happy childhood in a “mean kind of redbrick suburb of Leicester.” He was into art and football. His parents are more interested in A Touch of Frost and PD James. His father was an evangelical Christian. Young David could not understand how Jesus could be crucified at the age of 33 when he was born at Christmas and died at Easter. He attended the local comprehensive, where he liked the teachers but not the kids – though he wasn’t particularly a misfit. He believes there is a supernatural side to life. He is a jolly person when he’s in a good mood. Glasgow School of Art awarded him a 2:2 in his finals.

If I were to impose a grid on the delicate web that is the world of David Shrigley, I’d say that his art evolved partly as an expression of his personality and partly in reaction to his experience at art school. It’s no accident that his drawings appear untutored. Until two or three years ago he also made highly-crafted sculptures (steel flip-flops, giant candles, fibreglass handbags etc). Then he decided to stop making objects that took longer than a day. Craft skills can be a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, he says. “‘I’ve learned something at art school. You can’t do this, I can.’ After a while I realised craft isn’t something I’m interested in and probably hides the things I am interested in.”

His final grade stung back in 1991, but now he says the examiners did him a favour. “I’ve always had a massive ambition to do something creative and have never really doubted myself. Getting a 2:2 really made me very determined to make something of my creative talents.” Since he didn’t seem to have what it took to be an artist, he decided to become a cartoonist, but the newspapers he approached were unimpressed. Then one of his friends said he preferred the doodles in Shrigley’s sketchbook to his worked-up cartoons and Shrigley realised he felt the same.

For four years he published his own books under the banner of The Armpit Press. “It was art, but it was a long time before I started calling it art.” Meanwhile he paid the rent working in a gallery, doing DIY and film extra work, and performing with the site-specific cabaret group Mischief La Bas. “I’d have to go to some e-fuelled techno club, stand there in my underpants and get covered in spaghetti.” In 1995 he was approached by an art publisher and invited to exhibit at the Transmission Gallery, and his career took off.

These days he’s a cult figure who is offered far more work than he could possibly manage. Exhibitions, books, magazines… He counts David Byrne, Will Self, Shirley Manson, and now Blur among his fans. The record company hated the video, he remarks. (Something to do with the squirrel biting off the fairy’s head, perhaps? Or the loud leaf-blower sound effect intruding over the song?) Luckily Damon Albarn made a stand for artistic integrity.

There was a time when he said no to the advertising work, but the admen went ahead and ripped off his style anyway. “It’s the worst of both worlds: everybody thinks you’ve done it and you don’t get remunerated. I’m a bit of a lefty and everything but I just think, fuck it, if somebody’s going to get paid it might as well be me.”

By the end of our afternoon together David Shrigley has almost convinced me that he is, indeed, perfectly normal: no different from anyone else. Then I go home and open one of his books, and laugh.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Genius of the Boy – Ken Currie

September 21, 2002

Imagine being Ken Currie. You get up, breakfast with the kids, kiss the wife goodbye and put in a day at the studio. Having done ethnic cleansing, fascism, torture, famine, poverty, self-mutilation, lynch mobs and the Holocaust in your time, you’ve recently completed three paintings of surgical wounds. Currently you’re putting the finishing touches to a canvas featuring four thugs brutalising an unseen victim.

Not long ago he had an exhibition in Carlisle, afterwards they sent him the comments book. Most of the responses were very positive, but there was the occasional note of concern. “One of the most common perceptions is that I’m somehow sick or disillusioned because of the nature of the work,” he says, and smiles his engagingly puckish smile. “At the back of my mind I realise there are people who might think ‘this guy needs help’.”

This is the first and last joke of the interview. It’s not that Currie is a humourless man, but he is one of a dwindling band of artists whose work does not come wrapped in teasing inverted commas. He is serious about painting: morally, technically, politically, intellectually, mortally serious. To spend a morning with him is to recall a time when there was an agreed hierarchy of values with art, ideas and social justice at the top, and shopping, media static and celebrity sex lives pretty near the bottom. We all talk about dumbing-down, but it takes an artist as uncompromising as Currie to illustrate just how profoundly the culture has changed.

In the world of niche marketing, where every idiosyncratic taste is catered to, Currie makes paintings for art consumers who believe that Things Still Matter. That much we can safely say. Now comes the riskier proposition: that his work is more than just another product in the commodity cornucopia. We’re talking about greatness. Not brilliance, that bauble of youth and fashion; or innovation, which so often turns out to be dimestore novelty; but a more timeless quality. It’s a daunting thought for the interviewer: no-one wants to seem over-credulous, the very word carries a wide-eyed suggestion of adolescent earnestness, but the question needs to be asked: is Ken Currie a great artist?

Gulled by his hollow-eyed self-portraits, I was expecting him to look ravaged. In fact he’s sleek as a Labrador. A little grey in that discreet goatee, slightly more substantial than the last time I saw him: 42 years old and in his prime. We met last ten years ago. He was one of the celebrated new Glasgow Boys: the painter who put the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and John Maclean on the walls of the People’s Palace. Though even then his focus had switched away from popular local subject matter to a more harrowing exploration of post-Soviet chaos in Eastern Europe.

In some ways he was cursed by early fame. Everyone loved Currie, Wiszniewski, Campbell and Howson. They were young and Scottish at a time when the Scots were the last bastion against Thatcherism. “If you become successful with a particular body of work at a particular time you become entombed,” he says. He still meets people who expect him to be painting workers with red flags.

He exhibits regularly in London and has been shown in Sydney, Toronto, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Oslo, Milan and Copenhagen over the past decade, but at home his stock has fallen. “The Glasgow Boys are the scum of the earth now.” The national Gallery of Modern Art was approached about holding a modest exhibition to coincide with the launch of a new book about him. It politely declined. The show will now take place at Glasgow School of Art, Currie’s alma mater. Since he has just been appointed visiting professor there, it’s hard to know how literally to take this talk of “scum”. Certainly he’s not the darling of the art world he once was.

His work is informed by an awareness of the history of painting and an engagement with the history of ideas. The contemporary art world isn’t interested in that stuff. “This idea of intellectual seriousness is laughable now, deeply unfashionable.” He’s working against the grain of the age. Not that this bothers him. “Irony is the spirit of the age,” he says. He hates all that: postmodern relativism; the blurring boundaries between the media, advertising and the visual arts; the voices that say “don’t take things too seriously, let’s not get all worked up about things”.

Since the 1980s his work has travelled a dramatic distance. It’s hard to believe the same hand painted the stylishly colourful images of political agitators in 1986, the monochrome death masks suspended in black space ten years later, and the quasi-photographic close-ups of surgical wounds completed this year – though each slots neatly into the encyclopaedia of atrocity that is Currie’s body of work to date. At one point, explaining the influence of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch on his development as a painter, Currie refers to Munch’s death-haunted domestic life, the members of his family carried off by sickness. It’s an interesting connection to hear in the mouth of an artist who claims that the darkness of his own work has no personal dimension.

In that interview ten years ago he talked extensively about his early life. It had all the ingredients of the classic working-class Bildungsroman: the boy misfit in Barrhead, interested in books and ideas, not football; a miserable two years when he tried to put his socialist ideals into practice as artist-in-residence on a Glasgow housing scheme. None of this fully explains his preoccupations. Having children may have influenced his paintings over the past eight years, he concedes – after all, it changes everything – but beyond that he sees no correlation between his life and the work. It’s not about whether he’s happy or unhappy, he says scornfully. “Of course you feel happy, but there are larger questions. It’s not really an issue about my personal state of mind. I’m just taking a responsibility as a human being for being conscious and aware of what’s going on in the world.”

It’s all too easy when writing about Ken Currie to present him as a Calvinist in a paint-streaked T-shirt, thundering from his secular pulpit about the evils of the world, reminding us we’re all worms of the dust. But he is first and foremost a visual artist. He loves looking, and he loves to paint what he sees. Earlier this year he was commissioned to do a portrait of three Dundee oncologists. The research involved watching them remove a bowel tumour. Describing this, his eyes shine. Not for nothing is it called an operating theatre, he says: the surrounding darkness, the spotlit action. He was quaking in his boots, but found it visually irresistible. “The colours were absolutely rich: oranges, purples, greens, blues. It was actually beautiful, really beautiful to watch.” His most urgent thought was: “How do you translate something with this sensuous beauty into a painting?”

He’s an instinctual painter. He doesn’t wake up and decide to do a canvas about ethnic hatred or urban deprivation. He reads books and newspapers, holds conversations, watches television, goes to other artists’ exhibitions, and out of all that gets visual ideas. The image comes first. Doing the small preliminary drawing, the question in his mind is “will it work as a painting?” It’s only as he’s working on the image that he’ll begin to see what it could allude to. “The mystery of the work continues for the artist. If the picture becomes too locked into a particular interpretation it ceases to be interesting as a painting. It starts to die as an idea.”

He wants each canvas to work like a line of poetry, he says, something you can come back to at different points in your life, discovering different resonances. In contrast to his didactic work in the mid-1980s, with its cartoon lines, his more recent paintings tend to be blurred images operating on a number of levels simultaneously. Since the mid-1990s he has employed a distinctive background, a blue-blackness of infinite depth, an emotionally suggestive nothingness. Contemplating this darkness is a visceral experience. On the one hand it is rich, sumptuous, a feast for the eyes, the viewer may even start to salivate; but it is also a representation of emptiness. The effect of placing the image against such a background is hard to translate into words. It may be experienced through a quickening heart-beat, a hollow feeling in the chest, even the prick of tears.

Ten years ago it seemed that death didn’t count in Currie’s work unless it was reckoned in the hundreds or thousands. The paintings were disturbing, frightening, bleakly powerful, but always about “them”, whoever they might be. Now the focus is the individual. Now, whatever their ostensible subject, the paintings are about us. He has worked hard over the years to eliminate the element of painterly bravura. No visible brush strokes, no showing off. “I’m trying to go for a slightly ephemeral, soft-seeming half-gleam in the darkness. There’s movement in it: is it coming out of the darkness or going into the darkness? I want it to be completely purged of the idea of the positive gesture, so people can’t approach these works and say, ‘oh yeah, I know how these are done’. I want people to be completely bemused and bewildered by them: ‘What the hell is that?’”

Three years ago he painted a series of ghostly figures with a haunting blueish aura under the group title “Residuum”. He was trying to achieve an effect like a chemical residue on the surface of something, he explains. First he painted the figures, then he took a bottle of turps and erased each one a little more until, in the final painting, there was nothing there at all. “It was deeply satisfying to me, just a black canvas.”

Like his paintings, Currie’s conversation often contains tantalisingly disparate layers of meaning. Here, there’s the sense of the artist as ascetic, purging himself along with his paintings: a monk-like artistic dedication which, in the early 1990s when the charcoal was getting into his lungs, came close to the hair shirt. But there’s also a suggestion of signs and wonders: the painter’s involvement in the creation of an art which is, ultimately, beyond human agency.

Tom Normand, senior lecturer in Art History at St Andrews University, hints at this in Ken Currie: Details of a Journey. “Painting affords a glimpse into that ‘otherness’ that is metaphysical …,” Normand writes, “[providing] a space where the metaphysical can become ‘real’.” Then there are the motifs which recur in Currie’s paintings: the cloth showing a human outline with its echoes of the Turin Shroud, the aura around his figures, the glowing objects suspended from the void… Is he a mystic?

“It just looks like that,” he says. He’s heavily influenced by the tradition of western art, which has a Christian bias, so he borrows religious iconography. People assume there’s a spiritual and religious element, but he’s using it in a secular way. His theme is mortality. Not death, he says carefully. His intention is to turn the viewer’s thoughts back towards life. “There’s a finite time here and you have to make the best of it. There isn’t something round the corner.”

How much more stark that message is for those given some appalling raw deal just because of where they’re born and then bombarded with images of beautiful bodies, all the beautiful things money can buy. “You can feel people’s anger: ‘how the **** did I end up here?’ The fatalists would say, ‘C’est la vie, you’ll never change it,’ but I think we all know it can be changed, it’s not some eternal set-up, it can be fixed.” In his youth he joined the Communist Party, then signed up to its successor, Democratic Left. Is he still a member? He pulls that puckish grin again: “I still receive mail from them, yeah.”

His art is where he is most politically active these days. A qualified activism. “No-one’s got any illusions about art’s ability to change society, but it can engage in a dialogue with the viewer, and there’s the possibility that the viewer will start to ask questions, and out of that process may realise the possibility of change and act on that.”

In illustration he takes a painting completed four years ago, the whitely luminous figure of a naked child against a black background. “What I’m trying to do is attract the viewer with an image which has a glowing quality, a softness and a light, a gentleness, almost. People gravitate towards those things. I’m trying to lead them in and then reveal the true nature of the painting.” The title of the work is Shot Boy 1. The child is dead, his pale corpse riddled with bullet holes. “It creates this element of dislocation, a slight shock, and out of that shock comes a questioning process: ‘how can this artist have painted this and painted it in such a beautiful way?’ What happens after that is up to the viewer, as long as it produces a thought process that’s enough.”

From socialist realism with an agit-prop edge, through nightmare visions of mob hatred and massacre, to a more individual concern with the eternal crisis of mortality. Does this say something about the world over the past 20 years, or is it merely the trajectory of youth into middle age? He laughs: he doesn’t know. “It sometimes worries me, this: I think I’m having these massive epiphanies every day when I wake up, whereas they’re just the normal everyday epiphanies everyone gets.”

It gets harder and harder to paint, he says. Constantly fighting the obvious, challenging his own abilities, seeing how far he can go. But there are satisfactions too. Knowing that he is now producing less obvious, more slow-burning, stiller work. “I think I might just be beginning to get better as a painter.”

A great artist? It would be fatuous for me to try to answer that. Only posterity can truly provide an answer. But if sensibility, rigour, engagement and mystery are components of greatness, he’s certainly in the running. It might not be fashionable, but he has important things to say. If this guy needs help, then so do we all.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Something about a frenzy? – Peter Howson

April 13, 2002

Picture a man who will talk about anything: the breakdown of his marriage, his terror in Bosnia, his lifelong guilt and urge to self-destruction, his alcoholism, his addiction to prescription drugs, the hurt he has inflicted on those who love him. Now imagine a woman who makes everything public: her sexual fantasies, her multiple identities, her haemorrhoids in pregnancy, her body. What might happen if the man in question claimed to reveal the hidden nature of this woman through a nude portrait?

The controversy over Peter Howson’s painting of Madonna is so riddled with sterile irony that it is tempting to dismiss the whole episode as smoke and mirrors. A manufactured media event. The collision of two skilful self-publicists. But Howson is a capital-A Artist, an original, hailed as one of the Scottish greats. Cashing in on media interest is one thing, but would he prostitute his talent to paint a press release in oils?

Howson and Madonna first met 15 years ago when she was already a collector of his work. They bumped into each other at parties and other social gatherings. There was once a plan for them to rendezvous alone in a restaurant but the word got out and by the time the star arrived a small crowd had gathered, so she turned on her heel and left. Latterly their dealings have been pretty one-sided: he has written to her, she has not written back. He was not invited to her wedding, unlike Tracey Emin.

He has been making sketches for a portrait for the past ten years with the intermittent encouragement of “her people”. The signals were mixed, sometimes she was keen to sit for him, sometimes he was told she had gone cold on the project. Three or four months ago, he claims, he was told to go ahead with it anyway.

In the end he did two paintings which, along with several pre-drawings, form part of an exhibition opening tomorrow in Ayr. The less significant work – a depiction of Madonna squatting in a graveyard – he calls the decoy painting, having fooled the Sunday Times into thinking this was the big one. (“It’s a little game I played. I had a good chuckle for five minutes about it.”) The more important canvas shows the singer naked on a bed surrounded by symbols of Eve, Salome, the Jewish heroine Esther, Thais the harlot from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Until Wednesday both portraits were cloaked in secrecy and the subject of avid media interest, the feeding frenzy being aggravated by the indignation of the Madonna camp. Though her staff were insisting Madonna had seen neither the paintings nor the preliminary sketches Howson faxed to her.

One of the portraits which may, or may not, have angered the pop star.

And that’s all there is to it: a nude image of a subject who did not pose for the artist, though the whole world has seen her in the buff. A portrait of “the real Madonna” painted by a man whose contact with her has always been mediated by her entourage. The outrage of a star, not at the paintings themselves, but at the idea of them. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Howson has pressed his paintbrushes into the service of a smirking piece of conceptual art?

He says not. However tenuous his connection with Madonna appears to the objective eye, Howson calls it a relationship. When they first met in Los Angeles, he was captivated by her as a personality. “Something came off her, an aura, I thought, ‘This woman: there’s something very special about her’. From that point onward I was completely obsessed with painting her in the nude.” She entered his subconscious, turning up in his nightmares. He finds her – not her music, he’s a classical fan himself – “incredibly interesting”.

Unsurprisingly, he has been accused of exploiting the great self-publicist for his own personal publicity. Various newspapers have speculated that he is trying to get past her courtiers and make contact with the star herself, that the paintings are motivated by the fascination an often-bullied man feels for a dominant woman. There seems to be a grain of truth in each of these theories but the one that has him sitting up, wide-eyed with engagement, is the idea that the portraits are payback.

He is aggrieved with her, he says. He sent presents for her children, including one of the best drawings he has ever done, and received no note of thanks. He knows it’s petty but he resents the fact that she presented the Turner Prize to Martin Creed. He’s envious of her success too. “My ego says I’m just as talented as she is, if not more so, and she’s more famous than me. This is my day. There’s nothing she can do about it.” As a control freak himself, he knows how this will affect her. “Men and women are born to hurt each other,” he says. “It’s as if I’m hurting Madonna.” Yet, for all this, he insists the paintings are a tribute. “I’m not taking the mickey.” This is the way he sees her.

Howson has made some extravagant claims for the main portrait: that it shows a humanity absent from her photographs, a deeper Madonna, that it is more real than reality itself. We’re all cowed by the mystique of the artist. If Peter Howson claims a profundity of vision who are we to demur? And yet … The symbols he has placed around her are not so very different from Madonna’s own trash aesthetic of crucifixes and religious whores. Howson seems struck by this point but holds his ground. “You’re talking about a trash aesthetic through her publicity machine. I don’t believe it’s the real Madonna deep down. She’s colluding with it to make vast amounts of money and fame.” Having said this, he doesn’t need me to point out the implications. Suddenly he capitulates.

“God, maybe you’ve hit the nail on the head. Maybe I’m not fascinated by Madonna, maybe I just want to get back at Madonna. I don’t really know. Let’s just say if I was to look at the whole thing honestly, the Madonna paintings are in the gallery but they’re not the paintings I’m most interested in. Maybe this is a subconscious, or conscious, desire to get a hell of a lot of people into the gallery. There’s a possibility that I’m just using Madonna – but she’s fair game. Anyone who expresses themselves in any art form is fair game.”

Plainly he is heartily sick of the subject by now but, working on the fair game principle, it seems reasonable to press the point. What does he really think about Madonna? “From what I’ve read about her – and I haven’t read that extensively – I don’t agree with her philosophy of life, which is to do with strength and no compassion. My philosophy is strength and compassion.”

So all his highfalutin artistic claims boil down to a half-informed philosophical difference, a spot of pique and an eye to the main chance? The portrait “more real than reality” turns out to be a banal distillation of the singer’s own banality? Or should we suspect another five-minute chuckle? Sitting across the table from his candid gaze, I have absolutely no idea.

Peter Howson has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that manifests itself in a phenomenal memory for detail and an obsessional need for routine: phoning his teenage daughter at the same time every day; going to bed at the same time every night. Those affected tend to be poor people-readers, unable to imagine the consequences of their actions, liable to be rude to strangers and hurtful to friends. He once flew from London to Glasgow, remembered a neglected task in London and took the next flight back without thinking to inform his daughter, who was waiting for him in the Glasgow airport terminal.

Many an interviewer has had reason to give thanks for Howson’s condition. Ask him a question and he’ll answer it. He has generated an extraordinary amount of lurid copy over the years: his experience of sexual abuse in childhood, the bullying he suffered at school which he tried to exorcise by becoming a body-building macho man, the breakdown after his stint as an official war artist, his addiction to booze and pills, the lovers who bullied him and ripped him off, the hundreds of thousands he has let slip through his fingers, his illicit sales to notorious Glasgow gangsters. But this journalists’ picnic has its price. Not all his confessions have turned out to be 100 per cent accurate. He subsequently denied the gangster story. He means what he says when he says it, but the next day things change …

At the age of 44 he’s thinning on top, baggy-faced, soft in the belly and long in the tooth, yet there’s something childlike about him. I don’t mean this sentimentally: a clever child, the sort who can lie undetectably while looking you in the eye, but an easy person to be around. Anything can be said. Forget the normal etiquette between strangers, the need to pick your way through the minefield of another’s sensibilities. Howson has his touchy spots, but until he tells you where they are there is no way of knowing. To spend time in his company is to understand how strange communication is without non-verbal cues, how weightless words become. For a couple of hours, autism is a two-way street.

Insights and commonplaces turn up in the same sentence. He talks about Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears in the same voice as he discusses Ingres, Delacroix and Velazquez. And yet it’s not like sitting opposite a Martian. He laughs, makes jokes which are funny, nods in eager assent before I’ve finished speaking. Then mistrusts his own intuition and has to ask me to finish the sentence anyway.

He has been married twice and had several relationships, but the obsessive timetable he lives by put his partners under tremendous strain. He never went out. When people came round to dinner he’d get up from the table in the middle of the meal and disappear into his bedroom. Everything was secondary to his painting. He’s been told by all his lovers that he’s the most boring bastard they’ve ever been with. Such was his terror of being alone that he used to overlap his relationships, causing stress to himself and hurt to the women concerned. He left his second marriage because he was completely insane, he says. What with the drinking and his obsessive nature, he couldn’t relax. Feeling that he did not deserve his happiness, he destroyed it. Now, for the first time since 1976, he is single and at ease. At long last he has started to like his own company.

Howson’s redemption dates from two years ago when he took himself and his quarter-century of alcoholism off to Castle Craig Clinic in West Linton. There he shed his addictions, found God, and had a lot of therapy. His account of himself pre-rehab smacks of the reformed sinner’s self-loathing, but even if he was half as bad it’s hard to imagine anyone getting involved with him. “Unsociable, uncaring, unlovable …” Here he interrupts himself. “Not unlovable maybe, but certainly unemotional, completely focused on the work.”

He is currently working on three commissions and thinks about them all the time, getting up every hour through the night to jot down ideas. “Sitting here talking to you is less real than me painting.” And not just because I’m a journalist: he feels the same with any human contact. “I don’t see this as being that real, there’s a screen.” He waves his hand in front of his face. Over the years some people have penetrated to the real him, but these days there are hardly any survivors.

The exception is his daughter Lucie, who has a more extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome. Gone are the days of leaving her stranded at Glasgow airport, or forcing her to spend a night walking round Kelvingrove Park while he lay in his flat in a drunken coma. He has two ambitions: the lasting impact of his art, and to be with her for eternity, a goal he is confident of achieving thanks to his new-found faith in God. He claims to have a telepathic link with Lucie (though it is tempting to interpret this as the sort of connection those of us without Asperger’s routinely enjoy). They have similar obsessions about routine, similarly phenomenal memories – Howson claims a detailed recollection of everything that has ever happened to him – and similar ways of ordering data. “My mind is very much like my daughter’s. We’re collectors of information. The only thing about my daughter is she can’t process it.”

Howson cares about his parents to a lesser extent. With everyone else it’s a case of trying to be charitable, and learning the social graces. “I can’t interact.” There’s no emotional response, unless you count guilt. “With autism you don’t care about other people’s feelings – and yet you do. Your instinct is not to care but deep down you desperately want to care. You do feel remorse and confusion when someone says, ‘You’ve hurt me’.”

It is in the context of this admission that Peter Howson, the painter who would rather commune with the canvas than engage in human contact, delivers his big surprise. “What I’m trying to do is move people,” he says. “I’m basically a romantic as opposed to the classicists: I’m trying to move people emotionally and romantically rather than intellectually. Although hopefully I can do both.”

Howson first found success in the mid-1980s. His paintings of yobs, thugs and dossers possessed an aggressive power that impressed critics and collectors alike. He was bought by David Bowie, Sylvester Stallone, John McEnroe and Madonna, who was reported to have hung one of his canvases in her bedroom. None of this did his profile any harm. Howson, Ken Currie, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski were dubbed The New Glasgow Boys and acclaimed as an exciting new generation of figurative painters. Howson and Currie had most in common: both politically aware artists with something to say, sharing a darkness of vision and a concern with those marginalised by society.

Julian Spalding, who bought Howson’s work while director of Glasgow Galleries, regards him very highly. “If you think back over the last ten or 20 years there aren’t many artists who have come up with such a powerful sequence of images of modern life. He sees things with a strength and a clarity that other people just don’t. At his best he’s a real observer of our times, a searing looker. What he says isn’t comfortable at all, but then the artist’s job is to tell us what he sees and sees clearly, not to moralise about it.”

Howson’s recurrent theme is aggression. Boxers. Hard men. Patriotic thugs with pitbulls. Lynch mobs. The unspeakable atrocities of the Balkans. Often this aggression is coupled with frustration. The figures in his canvases do not quite connect with each other. The screen Howson experiences in life translates to the canvas. In such works as Broken Boat (1990), and Plum Grove (1994), completed after his time in Bosnia, uncomprehending children are juxtaposed with adult victims of horrific violence.

“They’re certainly disturbing, that’s a form of movement in that you want to move away from them,” Spalding says. “But it’s not like looking at a Rembrandt or listening to Billie Holiday sing: looking into a fabulous deep pool and you know the more you look, the more you feel. There’s a sense of frustrated power and anger in Howson, but I wouldn’t call them moving in the sense of emotional.”

In recent years the fickle finger of fashion has favoured conceptual artists above traditional painters and Howson’s star has dimmed somewhat. This distresses him for good practical reasons, but also because it plays on his personal insecurity. He has kept every newspaper article ever printed about him and sees this archive as an answer to every woman who has ever called him boring. Despite the unreliability of these clippings, he believes that, taken together, they represent some sort of ultimate truth. “One day someone will read through them and say, ‘This guy was either a publicity-mad fiend or …’ ” He tails off. Or? “Someone who’s incredibly interesting’.”

BritArt is shallow, he says, a New Labour stunt. It’s no coincidence that, with New Labour starting to falter, painting is showing signs of a revival. But in his next breath he’s full of doubt. “I’m worried about the world becoming so materialistic that computers mean more than painting.”

Isn’t his mind like a computer, I ask, misunderstanding: it turns out he means computer art, not computers per se – though he hates them too. Even after he puts me right, the opposition of painting and computers seems resonant. In a sense they are the twin poles of his identity: painting carrying his humanity, his ability – or his aspiration – to feel, and computers representing his autism.

But of course, Howson’s art is a product of the whole man. His clarity of vision, his photographic memory, his detachment and his desire to care. His autism is at once a disjuncture from human experience and a point of contact with the alienation of modern life. We’ve all hurt people unwittingly, or looked into their eyes and thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re feeling’, we’re all struggling to get past the data to the emotions underneath. Despite his aspirations as a romantic painter, it’s the ever-present screen that makes him relevant to the 21st century.

Which brings us back to his portrait of the ubiquitous, unreachable Madonna. With her he experienced Asperger’s syndrome from the other side. Maybe that’s what hooked him. What could be more challenging to the autistic artist than the autistic star?

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Heart of darkness – Peter McDougall

May 16, 1993

It’s the title, grumbles Peter McDougall: fine for a series of six plays involving bent lawyers, but now it’s a single film with all that publicity about Billy Connolly playing the bank robber, maybe Down Among the Big Boys wants changing. Sounds like one of those macho sexist numbers…

Macho? McDougall? Not the man who gave us Just A Boy’s Game (violence), A Sense of Freedom (violence, criminal) and Just Another Saturday (violence, sectarian); interpreter of testosterone ritual, expert in the unwritten rules of lawlessness, chronicler of the malky and the chib. Not the award-winning wordsmith who cuts off the air supply to producers’ windpipes; the afternoon drinker who downs his vodka in the company of gangsters and SAS-men.


Like the steam engine, the telephone and the cathode ray tube, the literary hard man is one of Scotland’s great contributions to global culture, a national treasure. To win the title is a short cut to the status of living legend. I could name you any number of hopefuls, but there’s only one serious contender.

No sooner have we covered his worries about the film than he’s describing his panic attacks. They strike during hangovers but it’s only partly the booze; he blames the male menopause, which brings us neatly on to the op to reverse his vasectomy, and those twice-daily applications of wrinkle cream…

The thing about literary hard men is they want to have it all ways: tough and tender, fearsome and vulnerable, new man, old perks. There’s no absolute reason why they shouldn’t manage it; it’s just that they usually don’t. Sooner or later, someone smells a rat.

Eleven o’clock at his flat in a green and gracious square in Glasgow’s West End. Original paintings, oriental rugs: we’re talking a Tom Stoppard set here, possibly even Simon Gray. Later, with a certain inevitability, we adjourn to the Ubiquitous Chip, Last Chance Saloon of the literary Wild West, where he is hailed by a multitude of punters and beckoned to the bar to take a string of telephone calls. The interview lasts 10 hours and 45 minutes.

What do you want me to tell you about Peter McDougall? Tales from Hollywood? How Connery and De Niro can’t act and only a madman would hire Mickey Rourke? The brushes-to-Baftas fairy-tale of a housepainter who discovered his muse while slapping emulsion on Colin Welland’s walls? Heady recollections of Hampstead in the Sixties? The adventures of an Orpheus in the Glasgow underworld? High noon showdowns with the movers and shakers of the television industry? Those lost weekends when he’ll sober up on a plane to where?

Make it up yourself. As flashy, gothic or surreal as you like. You couldn’t come up with anything he hasn’t thought of first.

People often talk about how frightening McDougall looks but, personally, I don’t see it. Barely average height, balding, with a sparse grey ponytail and overgrown moustache: he’s hardly your identikit tough. Even the broken nose is too close to a button mushroom for menace. Hardmen pare themselves – short hair, short shrift, chisel cheekbones – everything about McDougall is generous, superabundant. Well, perhaps not his hair.

Let’s return to that moustache; adjectivally, I fear I’ve done it an injustice. There’s no easy way to describe the ragged curtain, shading from grey to nicotine-yellow, screening the mouth with its missing front teeth, muffling the Clydeside accent so you have to squint to listen to him. When he lights one of those anorectic roll-ups, you expect the whole hedgerow to go up in smoke.

Then there’s the clothes. Today he’s got himself up in immaculately-laundered denim shirt and jeans, belt and tartan braces, floral silk tie and ginger-coloured suede boots. He looks frightening, all right. A man who dresses like this might do anything.

To borrow one of his own terms of approval, he’s exotic. It’s not a new trait. Even as a teenager growing up on a Greenock housing scheme, throwing that mace on the Orange walk, he was a bird of bright plumage, a showman. An interviewer’s gift, once you stop trying to separate the man from his mythology.

Faced with the choice of watching McDougall or McDougall’s plays, I’d take the man every time. It’s not that the works aren’t good, but the personal performance is better. He boasts about his relentlessness, his energy, and there’s no gainsaying it, that’s what he gives off: a teaming, inexhaustible supply of life. Like his maw always said, he’s a crowd.

Much of the energy is confrontational. His writing is fuelled by indignation. His motto is ‘you can’t let them fuck you with impunity’ but, in the venal world of modern movies, it seems a lot of people are willing to try. There’s any number of antler-locking anecdotes involving producers and directors. Somehow he always seems to have the last word. (”Don’t swap dialogue with a dialogue writer.”) Or the last gallon of Evo-stik on a producer’s Rolls-Royce.

You can’t really blame him. Throwing his weight around gets results; it’s not a habit he has any compelling reason to break. For a writer, he enjoys a remarkable degree of control over what happens to his work: casting approval is written into the contract, he keeps an eagle eye on wardrobe and set, his scripts leave nothing to the director’s discretion and, if the big suits do try mucking things around, he can always fall back on physical force, or the threat of it. As a modus operandi it’s eminently successful.

He’s a genius of the scene, staging them as spectacularly in person as he does on the screen. He swears as punctuation, converses in tracer fire, then brings out the big guns. He possesses a mercilessly sharp tongue and, behind the noisiness and swagger, a mind to match. The list of people who’ve taken a swing at him reads like a Who’s Who of the British film industry. Most of them love it, or seem to, dining out on the story for weeks afterwards; only a few take permanent umbrage.

But you can’t have fisticuffs with women, and he’s not a sleaze ball, not even a flirt, so he has to resort to other ways of getting a reaction. Half way through the afternoon, in the middle of some rant against method acting, his chest starts heaving, drawing in great shuddering breaths. A panic attack? Now he’s turning away, hunched into himself, eyes squeezing, hand shielding his face, muttering and mewling, that big bawface shrunk like a perished balloon. This has lasted too long for foolery. Maybe something is wrong.

Warily I ask: ”What’s going on?”

His face pixies into a grin. ”I’m improvising.”

Like all performers he needs an audience. Everyone has their own secret terror. For some, it’s the hard men and no-hopers who walk through his plays; for McDougall, it’s solitude. Those three hours a day at the desk are as much as he can stomach. After that, he’s walking the line between madness and sanity, peering over the precipice of self doubt. That’s when he sees himself in some kind of perspective. ”You go into your head so far you’re in danger of turning up things you don’t want to know.”

So he fills his life with people. Mo (his partner, the director Morag Fullarton) doesn’t bother answering the phone any more. She knows it’ll be for him. So many friends: actors, writers, West End trendies, real people and, yes, the odd bank robber too. Lovely men. ”Lovelier than any producer I’d introduce you to.”

He’s not a slummer, he says steelily. This is where he comes from; he couldn’t sever the ties without cutting himself off from family and friends. ”I was brought up with it. From that kind of background hard men are 10 a penny, really hard men are tuppence a gross. Everybody was like that.”

That’s not to say he fancies himself in the mould. He’s not got a head full of badness, and anyway, he’s middle class now. Try that sort of act in Greenock and he’d have no teeth left. As indeed he hasn’t, he murmurs. He once bumped into a producer friend when he was in the company of a genuine tough guy, a professional pistolero. ”She said ‘isn’t Peter terrifying?’ He said ‘do you think so?’ And I thought: you live on the planet Zanussi, you don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

Inevitably, he finds himself stranded between cultures, a misplaced person, juggling the liberal values of Glasgow’s green gracious squares and the less flexible code they teach in Greenock. He’s a product of his early environment, a world where you don’t peer too closely into the psychological mirror, where you kick over the traces of tragedy with a wisecrack and allow yourself a day to ”get over” a death. Despite his warm manner, all those friends, he can’t – or won’t – say he loves anybody. And yet, middle class life has wrought some changes.

”Sometimes I hold my tongue and I think: my brother wouldn’t have done that. I go to bed and worry about that. It might be right but, right or wrong, if you don’t speak up for yourself that can become a habit.”

When McDougall walked out on his wife after 27 years in London, he could have gone anywhere. He’s a successful writer with 23 films to his credit; despite the chaotic state of his finances, his earning potential is huge. But he came back to the west of Scotland. In a way, he’d never really left; his best work is all set here and draws deeply on his family and experiences. Ask him about being a teenager in the shipyards and he can give you those 18 months day-by-day. He hated it with a vengeance, but it was the most vivid time of his life.

He watched Just A Boy’s Game the other week when it was repeated on telly. Those scenes were filmed up his close, he says, real wonder in his voice. McQuillan slaps the young tough on his old back green. Unexpectedly, he remarks that he doesn’t understand the character he created, the young hard man who reduces challengers to tears with his stare. He can talk about McQuillan’s friendship with Dancer, his feelings for his grandfather, but there’s always something missing. He thinks he knows why.

”There’s this block about making the character complete because it’s the one bit you don’t know about yourself.” In all the plays, whatever the variations in character and plot, he’s always addressing the same theme. ”It’s all that darkness that you can’t put your finger on.”

Here we’re getting close to what makes people uneasy about McDougall, the ambiguity that permits his plays to be at once indictments of West Coast machismo and cult viewing for those who subscribe to the code. You can argue the toss about whether he writes strong stoical women or defeated drabs, but this is really beside the point. His plays are chiefly about men. He exposes the weakness and cruelty of boys’ games, the soul-destroying results of living by their rules, but behind the forensic examination there’s a whiff of awe.

”Jesus Christ, I didn’t ask to be born a man but I do believe quite genuinely I conduct myself like one. I’ve got a wee bit of integrity. I conduct myself the way you’d expect a person to. I’ve got a wee bit of strength. I’m not a fucking patsy, I’m not a putz.”

Macho? Well yes, but spend 10 and three quarter hours with Peter McDougall and you’ll end up thinking maybe machismo isn’t such a bad thing. You’ll be wrong, but it’s some measure of the man that you think it.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

Pop star, poet, poseur and, at last, auteur – Richard Jobson

July 31, 2004

By now we are thoroughly familiar with the stock ingredients of Scottish social realism. Drink, drugs, criminality, unhappy families, gang violence, boozy sentimentality, heavy-breathing in dank alleys… Pop into Blockbuster and you’ll find several examples of the genre. Richard Jobson’s 16 years of Alcohol, just out on general release, ticks most of the boxes, but without the grim literalism we have come to expect. The cinematography is lush and dreamlike, a series of beautifully shot tableaux linked by a narrative voice-over that aspires – not always successfully – to poetry. The effect is at once painterly and naive, emotionally sure and just a little pretentious. Autobiographical content aside, it’s very Richard Jobson.

Jobson has had many careers. Minor pop star, actor, performance poet, model, television presenter, film critic, and now director. It’s a respectable CV, but in his native land he’s something of an Aunt Sally. Mentioning his name to Scotsmen of a certain age elicits a particular smirk. Some have gone so far as to set up websites for the pleasure of being facetious at his expense.

In his teens, Jobson fronted the punk group The Skids, belting out floridly obscure lyrics to a generation of hormonally tormented misunderstood youth. The smirks and the facetiousness are for what the smirkers used to be, as much as for what their erstwhile hero has become. Or rather, they’re for the tormented small-town adolescent who still survives inside Richard Jobson.

Not that you’d know it to look at him. A broad-shouldered, square-jawed smoothie with a toothpaste smile and a gift for eye contact, he has always had presence. In the 1990s he graced fashion shoots in glossy magazines and presented countless forgettable television shows. It brought him a reliable living and minor celebrity status, but – at least, the way he tells it now – he despised every minute of it. He didn’t want to read the autocue on afternoon TV – he was an artist. The problem was, what he struggled to say was so convoluted even he didn’t understand it.

It’s one thing to be an aspiring artist in the suburbs, quite another to attempt it in working-class Fife. Jobson wasn’t unique – down the road in Cardenden Ian Rankin harboured similar ambitions – but Dunfermline’s intelligentsia numbered precisely two: Jobson and his older brother Francis. Local life revolved around football, violence and drink. Jobson had the presence, and the presence of mind, to fit in, joining a teenage gang.

The AV Toi (named after the Abbeyview council estate) had their “uniforms” made by a Glasgow tailor. They’d go to football matches in Edinburgh: 35 skinheads marching through the city, striking fear into all who saw them. On the promotional trail with 16 Years of Alcohol, Jobson has spoken of the fun of mob violence, reminiscing happily about how it feels to be stabbed or to strike an assailant with a hammer, but he has also described his youth as “claustrophobic” and “completely isolated”.

His father was a miner; his mother worked in the docks: young parents with a social life they were reluctant to give up for their five sons. Jobson didn’t have a particularly strong relationship with either of them. Instead he looked to Francis who, after a spell as a skinhead, became a hippie and joined the Hare Krishna temple in Edinburgh. Jobson used to visit him there.

Francis introduced his younger brother to the music of Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed, and took him to movies and exhibitions. They sampled the Edinburgh Fringe, saw Joseph Beuys in a cage. It was a world unimaginable in the mean streets of Dunfermline, and Jobson coveted it. At 16 he took the first step towards escape. By then Francis had moved to London. Jobson met Stuart Adamson and formed The Skids.

If Francis was Jobson’s surrogate father, Adamson was his surrogate Francis. They shared a flat in Edinburgh, wrote songs together, hit the town every night, and had three Top 20 hits between 1978 and 1980. The grandiose obfuscations of “Into the Valley” may seem risible today, but the record captured the mood of the times. For a couple of years Jobson had the heady conviction that there were people out there who understood him, and even loved him.

Then Adamson got married. Feeling abandoned, Jobson moved to London where he met the journalist Mariella Frostrup, later to become his wife. Jobson and Adamson continued to meet up in the rehearsal studio to write and record together, but the alchemy was gone: they were just a couple of professionals doing a job.

Jobson was 21 when The Skids broke up. At a stroke he lost his surrogate family, his artistic outlet and his confidence. He felt the pressure to succeed, not to become a 22-year-old loser whose best days were behind him, but he didn’t know what to do next: he didn’t know what to be. To make matters worse, he was diagnosed as epileptic.

Some journalists have come away from screenings of 16 Years of Alcohol under the mistaken impression that the director himself was an alcoholic. The film is certainly semi-autobiographical (the central character, Frankie, is a composite of Jobson and his brother Francis), but drink is used as a metaphor for a more pervasive problem: what Jobson calls “total despair”.

Between the ages of 18 and 25 he had a very bad time. His marriage to Frostrup fell apart. He was dividing his life between London, Edinburgh and Belgium, worlds very different from the one he had grown up in. As a pop star, too, he had been out of his depth, but energy and enthusiasm had carried him through. Now he was surrounded by people who found his enthusiasms odd, intimidating, even scary. He dabbled in acting with the theatre company Paines Plough, formed the band The Armoury Show (“anthemic art rock” is the kindest description) and read his poetry in obscure Belgian clubs. He even cut a poetry disc, which was pilloried mercilessly on its release in Britain.

The labels “pretentious” and “poseur” have dogged Jobson for two decades now. Indubitably he has his vanities: narcissism was part of the job description for presenters of 1980s “yoof TV”. Though no longer a model, he still dresses like one. But Jobson is the real deal – one of those people who don’t feel complete unless they’re making art. It’s just that for a long time he wasn’t any good at it.

Deep down he knew he wanted to write, but the knack of plucking words out of his subconscious and striking a chord with others had deserted him. He has talked of lacking the necessary skills and confidence to find a voice, but the problem went further: into the vexed territory of meaning itself. “I felt like a person who really didn’t have anything to say,” he told an interviewer last year. “The thing that was in me just ran dry. I couldn’t find what it was that made sense.”

Even today, words can be problematic for Jobson. Or for those listening to him. He’s hyper-articulate, happy to answer any question, but the more he talks, the less comprehensible he becomes. The sentences are fine – subject, object, verb: all present and correct – but, when strung together, their import grows elusive. And yet encounters with him are not empty. There’s an engaging quality about him: an emotional openness and intelligence which translates well to film. He has something to say, but for years he was speaking the wrong language.

A middle-class boy from the suburbs would have picked up a camera at art school, but Jobson took two decades to find his metier. He became a film critic and, by thinking about movies day-in, day-out, began to understand structure and storytelling. He put his theories to the test, in a small way, producing movie documentaries for Sky TV. At the same time he was making contacts. Half-hoping, he gave the Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar Wai (director of In the Mood for Love) a copy of a long poem he’d published in 1986 called 16 Years of Alcohol. But Wong Kar Wai thought Jobson should adapt and direct it himself.

The resulting film has picked up a clutch of awards: a special commendation at the Edinburgh Film Festival; best director at the Festival of British Film in Dinard, France; and best new director at the British Independent Film Awards. The story follows Frankie (Kevin McKidd) from boyhood to premature and violent death, via membership of a skinhead gang, first love, alcoholism, redemption through art, a second shot at love, and the transcendence of the past even as that past catches up with him.

Here and there details betray the tyro director (a tendency to overdo the ticking clocks and tapping heels), but Jobson handles the emotion beautifully. From the first glimpse of Frankie, holding his whisky glass like a communion chalice, there’s a lump in the viewer’s throat. Though Jobson is 43, it’s very much a young man’s movie, immersing its audience in the heightened sensitivity and exquisite agonies of adolescence. The three-Kleenex ending has no direct parallel in Jobson’s life, but it was informed by two deaths: that of his brother Francis, four years ago in India, and Stuart Adamson’s suicide in 2001.

For Jobson himself, the desperate years seem to be over. He lives what he describes as a simple life in Bedfordshire with his Italian wife Francesca and their two children. The lack of metropolitan distractions allows him to control his epilepsy without drugs, and to work non-stop on his movie projects.

These include adaptations of the Gregory Burke play Gagarin Way and the children’s story The Night Before Christmas, and a car chase movie set in Glasgow. There’s also talk of him directing The Contract, a David Mamet script set in New York. The Purifiers, his martial arts B-movie, is to be premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Like 16 Years of Alcohol, it was shot on a tiny budget.

Keeping things small reminds him of his teenage days with the Skids: the same feeling of confidence and excitement. And, so far, similar success. At long last he’s found his voice. Asked to describe himself recently, he said: “I’m partial to lyricism, I’m melancholy, I have a visual grammar, music’s very important…” It would be hard to come up with a neater definition of quivering adolescence. Fortunately for Richard Jobson, and for his career as a film-maker, there’s a bit of that in all of us.

Movies and Shakers – Hollywood people

March 20, 1994

The thing about Hollywood is, everyone knows where you mean, but once you get there it’s impossible to find. Sure, there’s Hollywood the place, but Paramount is the only big studio still making movies there. A lot of the industry is out in the Valley. The executives, producers, directors, agents and, of course, the stars are to be found on the affluent Westside, in the privately-policed suburbs of Bel Air, Westwood and Beverly Hills. Even the famous sign on the hillside is a replica. Geographical Hollywood starts where the Armani Exchange gives way to 99 cent burger joints and fluff-and-fold laundromats on Sunset Strip, but that’s not Hollywood. It’s as if the closer you come, the further away you get. The thing about Hollywood is, it’s a state of mind.

You can tell they’re nervous. A foot-jiggling, hangnail-chewing anticipation heady enough to rearrange the ions, positive to negative. They worry about that sort of thing in California. Forty grown men dressed in singlets, sneakers and baseball caps, awaiting a two-minute audition for a 30-second commercial where the lucky ones will be at best a blurred human backdrop, extras to screen out the distraction of blank space. But less of the negativity. Even stars have to start somewhere.

”Aaaah – no.”

Bernard Wright, casting director, consigns another career to the trashcan, although number eight, a well-built, good-looking Afro-American now on his way down the stairs, doesn’t realise it yet. Enter number nine, a pasty-face with drop shoulders and incipient receding hairline. A polaroid snap to compare with the airbrushed resume photo, and ten seconds on camera talking about baseball. Exit number nine. Bernard smiles. Him? ”What was good about him was he looks like poor white trash: a lot of baseball players have that look to them.”

Sometimes he likes them because you can tell they’re not actors, sometimes he’s impressed by their professional form, some decisions are explicable, some gut instinct, sometimes he just doesn’t like the guy (”I’m supposed to be better than that but I don’t have to be”). Once in a while discrimination strays into the realms of the perverse. ”I love him because he said everything wrong,” he remarks after one particularly bumbling contender. “We hire people like that all the time, they’re great: totally fuck up. It’s really funny.”

The point is, however insecure Bernard may be about his career prospects, his position as a 6 foot two Afro-American in a company run by white Englishmen, this afternoon, for these 40 hopefuls, the casting director is God.

That’s Hollywood.

”It was one of those nights I’d had five events to do, and a couple of my friends had been observing me. I was really hyped up. And at the last party one of them said ‘we don’t know who you are any more, you’ve just become Mr Hollywood’. It hurt me. No, I wasn’t flattered.

”Well, maybe I was a little bit.”

Steve Valentine is a publicist, one of the multitudes who never set foot inside a studio, and yet seem indispensible to the functioning of the dream factory. Flamboyant in black silk, golden goatee and chunky silver bracelet, this Mississippi boy has long since wiped the mud off his Guccis. His clients range from restaurants and nightclubs to Hollywood hot property Denzel Washington and the more tepid celebrities Tia Carreras and Bernie Taupin. Right now, however, nothing matters but tomorrow night’s Oscar party.

Time was there was only one party worth talking about on the night of the Academy awards: Swifty Lazar’s do at Spago’s restaurant on Sunset Strip. Swifty now permanently decelerated, the battle is on to fill his shoes. Steve’s celebration at the Roxbury nightclub (haunt of Madonna and Arsenio Hall) is up against the Vanity Fair party at Morton’s, Elton John’s Aids benefit at Maple Drive, and dozens of lesser soirees. But it’s looking promising. He’s got Bonnie Rait, Michael McDonald, Tia of course, and a good chance of Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen. Officially all these parties are good-cause fundraisers, but everyone knows their real purpose. The only reason anybody does anything in Hollywood: to be a player.

If you want a crash course in Hollywood lifestyle, spend a little time with Steve Valentine. Personal trainer, cellular phone, pet chihuahua (he must find a walker), end-to-end appointments where business and pleasure inextricably mix. Steve doesn’t just do lunch, he power breakfasts, and has been known to swallow two dinners of an evening. Thank heavens for the Stairmaster in his office.

Restaurants are important in Hollywood, a town which tends to the neurotically underweight. Most stars seem to have a financial interest in some eaterie. Newspapers employ columnists who do nothing but chronicle who’s eating where and what they have on their plates. The primitive cult of celebrity throws up curious superstitions. You are what you eat (and maybe if I eat it some of the magic will rub off.) Preferable to cannibalism, I suppose.

Steve lives off the crumbs of celebrities’ tables. That and adrenaline. Two to three hundred phone calls a day. He’s turning away clients – ”I have to have a vibration” – but he’s careful not to offend. This may look like a big town but it’s really very small. ”A lot of people know someone that you know, and that can make or break you. You can’t burn your bridges, you see the person at lunch the next day.”

Being glamorous is such hard work, he sighs, tongue in cheek (as far as you can tell with a man who converses in italics). You have to go to the right trainer, the right parties, the important movie premieres. Home is the place he worries if he sees too much of. Open the fridge, you’ll find dog food and a bottle of water. He says yes to every invitation, quintuple-booking himself, just to make sure he’s on the guest list. Sometimes he thinks about slowing down, maybe making time for a relationship, seeing his friends instead of catching up on the phone, spending an evening out without having to work the room, but to be a has-been in this town, even by choice, is unthinkable.

”I hate myself for it sometimes, but if I’m sitting at home it’s ‘my God, I could have done this deal, I could have seen this person’ and I just freak out. The other night I made two deals out in the parking lot.”

There are no pedestrians in Beverly Hills. Round the clock, the city vibrates with the bass and treble of traffic, the river of frosted metal, but the sidewalks are empty and immaculate. To set foot there is to proclaim yourself a criminal, or a psychopath. Even the homeless stick to the central reservation, hurling their appeals at the blurring cars. There are no pedestrians in Beverly Hills but, mornings, they’ll power-walk around a 200 metre cinder track. Just once, towards Melrose, on a side road clustered with sound studios and colour labs, I spot a grip in high-top sneakers jogging backwards. They say it strengthens different muscles.

Hollywood is America’s second largest export, an $18bn industry staffed by people in bed by midnight so they can be in the gym at dawn, men and women who go to work on cholesterol-free eggs. A society dedicated to long life and beauty, built on a massive geological fault.

The earth moves the first morning I wake up in Beverly Hills, a bed-jarring aftershock measuring four on the Richter scale. Driving around town you see doorways secured by the yellow plastic tape signalling quake damage, but nervousness soon dissipates. Once you acclimatise to this extraordinary eco-system it’s inconceivable that anything could destroy it. Everyone’s jogging backwards in Hollywood.

You can buy earthquake survival kits, boy scout affairs with their battery radio, flashlight and block of tofu, but these are mere symbolic offerings to keep the angry gods at bay. The real survival kit consists of status, power, money, looks. Like the child’s game, Scissors Paper Stone, they represent a shifting hierarchy, but their collective supremacy is never in doubt.

Premiere magazine publishes an annual list of the 100 most powerful figures in town and, less formally, everyone else gets put through the same process. To set foot in Hollywood is to empathise with the egg in the egg packing station: you’re sized and graded instantaneously. Beauty is less a positive asset than a sine qua non – if beauty’s the term for those women whose expressions of perpetual surprise betray career-dieting and the surgeon’s knife, the male bodies built by pec implant and calf job.

And then we have the mysterious alchemy of fame.

Cameron Docherty has been to Swifty Lazar’s party (twice), plays tennis with Warren and Jack, lives rent-free in Roger’s guesthouse and once, inadvisedly, beat Sean at golf. A while back he was dating Emily Lloyd.

In 1989, as a 20 year old freelance journalist working Glasgow’s rain-swept streets, he turned up to write a location report on a Michael Winner movie and its star Roger Moore jokingly told the boy he could take off that jacket, ”You’ve won the bet.” Today the pair are more like family. The actor admitted later that Docherty’s blend of arrogance, enthusiasm and naivete reminded him of himself at the same age. A year or so later he asked the journalist to help write his autobiography, in which capacity Cammie turned up at the doors of 100 industry powerbrokers, starting with Moore’s closest friends Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Gregory Peck. There are worse introductions to Hollywood.

So now he’s known as the tactful hack, a trustworthy interviewer. Stars know they’ll recognise themselves in his words. Which is not necessarily the same as showing them as they really are. For a pro who cut his teeth on the tabloids, it’s a mixed blessing. Do a bum interview and word gets round fast. ”If you cross someone here they don’t forget.”

Docherty runs with the Britpack, which means he gets to enjoy the Hollywood lifestyle – white convertible, personal shop assistant at Ralph Lauren on Rodeo Drive – and take the mickey out of it. Roger may not be on the A-list as he was a decade ago, but he’s still on the fun list, and that opens most doors.

Stars earn their place on the A-list by being able to greenlight a movie with one phone call, which in turn reflects the gross on their last picture. That’s what counts. The beach house in Malibu, the Range Rover, the Mexican gardeners, the maid and the pool men hoovering dead leaves out of the water are just the trimmings.

People talk about their bodies, and who’s doing well in the movies, and interior design, he says disbelievingly. ”They sit and worry all day about whether they’ve got the right sort of wallpaper, really mundane things, because they’ve got nothing else to worry about.”

Hollywood is turning the former Sun reporter into a moralist.

Doherty has seen how it works from the inside. The A-list parties, B-list parties and, God help them, C-list parties. (Guests do not overlap.) The A-list restaurants, Morton’s, Chasen’s, Spago, where you know exactly how powerful you are by whether they miraculously find you a table when it’s fully booked, and where exactly that table is placed. Status is everything. They even rate you by your telephone exchange: 310 numbers (Beverly Hills) always get their calls returned before 213s (surrounding area), and if you’re 818 (the Valley) you can wait all day.


Don’t be fooled by the crew cut, the residue of a teenage skin problem, that frayed collar on his fifties bowling shirt: Chris Gore, 28, is editor-in-chief of six publications, Los Angeles Magazine rated him 41st of the 50 most interesting people in LA, his office is on the 6th floor of a smoked-glass skyscraper in Beverly Hills, he has a 310 phone number. Chris Gore is a player in this town.

No one could mistake him for a fan of the industry, yet he is eternally in its debt. Were it not as vapid, paranoid, and morally bankrupt as Film Threat magazine is always saying, it would not set him off to such advantage. Only in Hollywood are intelligence, honesty and a vigorous line in invective a gimmick. Chris Gore has made a name for himself because the emperor has no clothes.

A Swiftian among the Barbie dolls, he describes a town full of opportunists weight-pulling, ass-kissing, “fucking over their friends” and sleeping their way up the ladder. It’s like ancient Rome. ”Nero’s in charge, he’s acting crazy. In order to survive you’ve got to act just as ruthless, just as crazy.” No one has the guts to point out that the product is crap.

One night, over dinner with a producer, he explained his idea for a low-budget horror film. The guy didn’t go for it. ”He said ‘I’ve got a better idea: a horror film for dogs. You shoot the whole thing from a low angle, you show things like fire hydrants, swatting newspapers, feet. You show this thing to your dog and he gets scared. Whaddaya think?”’ No prizes for guessing his answer.

We’re sitting in an industry restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard but we’re a little early for the lunch crowd so he gives me his impression of what happens when anyone new walks in, his head swivelling like a lighthouse. ”Is this someone I should be talking to? Is this a producer…? Hollywood parties are even worse. ”If you think people rubberneck in restaurants, we’re talking Rubberneck Central. He used to take it as read that this town was full of assholes, but editing his other magazines he finds people pleasant, helpful, polite.

“I realised not everyone was a prick. It’s industry-specific.”

Anyone will tell you there’s a lot of opportunity in Hollywood. Compared to New York, it’s wide open. But you have to know the right people. You’re either in the loop or you’re not. There are so many go-getters, so much success, why waste time with the flops? Being associated with Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero is not exactly a social asset right now. On the other hand, you don’t burn bridges…

”You really watch who you step on, especially coming up. The production assistant you work with today, five years on is the producer of a TV series. You never wash anyone’s laundry because you never know when it’s going to come back.”

Bernard Wright grew up in the hills. He started out following his mom into acting but switched to casting when he realised that six feet two inches of looks, charm and long-limbed, easy grace wasn’t enough. Too many guys out there looked better than any girlfriend he’d ever had.

His mom always told him: be nice to everybody, but he had to learn the hard way. There was this producer who’d slept with a famous groupie and when her kiss-and-tell book came out the guy wasn’t name-checked. Boy, he was mad. It was hysterical. Then one day Bernie went touting for work with his company. Who knows who shopped him? He shakes his head. “I must have told that story 150 times.”

There’s no formal training in movies, most jobs can be done by most people. The only real qualification is an ability to get on with the names who can give you the breaks. Whether you’re a producer, casting director, or actor, those are the rules. And sometimes they’re rules that work to his advantage.

Sure, he hires girls he’s sexually attracted to. He gets to spend 12 hours chatting to them on the set. And why not? ”It would be very hard for me to believe a man or woman who has never ever done something for somebody because they liked that person.” If he needs a big cast his mom’s working, his neighbour’s working, his tennis coach… ”It’s very natural.”

The problem with the wannabes who flock to Tinseltown is that there’s nothing to choose between them. His mom used to say it’s better to be ugly than pretty in Hollywood. ”But you gotta be the right kind of ugly.” There are a million girls with long legs, great shape, blonde hair. ”It’s like, ‘hi, I just moved out here from Nebraska’. I tell them it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”

But do they listen?

”People do anything from breast implants to shooting their lips up. I’ve had people ask me ‘is your hair real? are your teeth real? are your lips real? are your boobs real?’ It’s like, excuse me, this is me, what you see is what you get.”

In any other town in the world Greer Mexic would be extraordinarily beautiful: 27 years old, 5ft 11 inches tall, legs the length of the Pacific Coast highway, curly blonde hair, Maryland via New York, Kim Basinger out of Daryl Hannah. In Hollywood, she’s the standard product.

She waits tables to pay the rent, has sat 100 auditions over the past year, but has yet to land a job. Not that she’s despondent. That’s the biggest obstacle, you see: your own negativity.

These days spirituality has replaced analysis in the self-improvement stakes, ambition dressed up as inner peace. Even hard-headed executives have their personal gurus. One in three still see a therapist, but they don’t discuss it over the dinner table any more. Greer has only just started learning but already it’s helped her so much, and let’s be honest, she needs something to sustain her through the humiliations of the casting call.

Giving your all in front of a couch full of people eating lunch: being told to turn up in a swimsuit and finding yourself in silicon valley, some bimbo beauty contest from hell. Faced with this, who’d begrudge her the fantasy that she’s going to be a star? She could even be right: however daunting the odds, someone has to make it.

After a while Hollywood glamour subverts even the Calvinist soul. All that positive karma, year-round sunshine, gentle shirt-rippling breezes. The smog gives great sunsets. Dusk arrives with a flattering clarity that makes everyone look studio-lit. Golden light on cream stucco, palms silhouetted against oyster skies, biscuit-coloured dust mixed with the scent of eucalyptus. OK, so the palm trees aren’t indigenous; the gingerbread houses, haciendas and Tara-style mansions are 20th century pastiche… They’re easy on the eye.

Nice meeting you, she says. And it was. She shakes my hand, slim fingers tipped with long, whitish nails.

Acrylic, since you ask.

Last year five million visitors paid their $29.95 to file through the turnstiles of Universal Studios. These are the Americans who, despite their dayglo sportswear, tend not to work out at dawn. The smell of warm confectionery mingles with exhaust fumes, leaving a sweetish film on the back of the throat, toxic but delicious. On the 420 acre backlot, sets half-recognised from Dirty Harry and Back to the Future await their next incarnation. Special effects are deconstructed. Behind the facades of wild frontier town and Roman forum, chicken-wire is revealed. The intention is to make movie-making seem accessible – a seductive possibility, but as much of an illusion as anything you’ll see up on the big screen. Breaking into pictures will cost you a lot more than $29.95.

“There’s a lot of very unhappy, monomaniacal people in this business, who will do anything, anything, to get the next deal or the next promotion. Literally sell their soul. And many of them don’t know they’re doing it.”

Lance Young was the executive who did everything right. Caught Steven Spielberg’s eye with a student movie, worked as associate producer on ET, improved his management potential with a spell at Harvard business school, worked his way up the ladder to senior vice president of Paramount and then shifted across to the same rank at Warner’s. He was overseeing 15-30 projects at any one time, films like Black Rain, Regarding Henry, and The Pelican Brief. A year ago he quit, by mutual agreement. He was 33.

So now he’s back at the bottom again. It doesn’t take long to lose your profile in this town. They don’t return his calls as fast but at least he’s not going crazy with office politics, and he doesn’t have that stress-related back problem any more. These days he’s ”writing and growing”, polishing off a screenplay for a movie he hopes to direct if he can raise the money. Three million dollars. Approximately the sum they flushed down the toilet trying to devise an underwater special effect on The Hunt for Red October.

At Warner’s you needed ten people round a table to agree before a movie could get made. It’s one way to run a business, but not necessarily one that makes for the best movies. His mistake was fighting for scripts well past the point where the yes-men abandoned ship.

The way he tells it, the job was a cross between public executioner and whipping boy. You carry the can for unpopular decisions because the company president doesn’t want to jeopardise a relationship. You push for a project and they hate you because you’re being a pain in the ass. Then a rival studio gets interested, the company loses a bidding war, and it’s all your fault. If you’re good, you just make the boss feel threatened.

Many successful people love the process. Loving movies is optional. “It’s lunches and dinners and a lot of contact with a lot of agents and producers and writers and you find yourself being social, having hundreds of associates but no real connection. I loved it in my twenties, but when I got in my thirties I had to get off that train. It was killing me. Ultimately you’ve got to find out what your price is as a human being.”

Star Wares, down in the shoreline settlement of Santa Monica, carries the usual stock found in suburban thrift shops. Static-generating synthetics, jersey just starting to bobble, yesterday’s modes. Admittedly that drab chiffon triangle happens to be the scarf Sharon Stone wore in Sliver, they’ve got Madonna’s bustier and Rod Stewart’s shiny silver shirt, but it’s hard to muster much awe. For $25 you can acquire Kiefer Sutherland’s socks (slightly foxed), Bob Hoskins’ slacks are a snip at $15, and you could furnish an entire wardrobe with Cher’s cast-offs. If you had a penchant for white leather, rhinestones and mock-giraffe.

Browsing through the rails raises fascinating philosophical questions. Why does Joan Rivers favour brown rayon? What possessed Jaclyn Smith to buy that blue candlewick dressing gown? Can any pair of flip-flops, even Mel Gibson’s, be worth $300? Mostly, though, the experience serves as a reminder that Hollywood is infinitely more beguiling at arm’s length.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications

The Fest of Steven – Steven Berkoff

August 15, 1993

How terrible to be victimised. To be a pacific person, a classicist, an artist, and to be told to piss off by the simpering, bogus, corpulent slobs in that piece of turd, the theatrical establishment. To be kept out by these robbers, still holding their flabby guts in from five-course meals, licking up the arseholes of the nation’s wealth just to stage the same masturbatory rituals, giving nothing but ulcers and a bad attack of wind. And then to be misrepresented in the press, twisted into some sort of raving monster by the fruity tosspots from Cambridge quivering in their seats, turned into a white skinhead yob, the guy who does villains in movies, the maverick enfant terrible megalomaniac.

How terrible to be Steven Berkoff.

”He’ll be incredibly rude to you,” one source predicted. ”No, no, he’ll try to seduce you,” countered a second. But the man in the deserted theatre foyer seems disposed neither to rudeness nor seduction. How could he be? For that, he’d have to acknowledge I exist.

Hello, he bids the air eight inches to the right of me in the languid drawl of a Feydeau fop. Er, hello. Leading the way to a soulless cafeteria, he provides a weary exposition of the challenges of the one-man show, delivered in a surreal sing-song, occasionally rolling his eyes to heaven in a prayer for fortitude through this imbecilic ordeal. The Edinburgh Fringe promotional interview must indeed be a tedious ritual, but does he have to make it quite so apparent?

Interrupted in full-flow, Berkoff is not pleased. For a moment he shifts his gaze from that spot eight inches to my right, his face showing the sort of distracted, uncomprehending distaste generated by fruit flies and sudden, unpleasant odours. I asked him a question, he’s answering it: ”What do you want me to do? Leap across the table?”

It’s not a good start, but things are to get better. Before they get much, much worse.

While he’s continuing with the monologue, let’s take a look at him. A big man wearing what looks at first glance like top-to-toe leathers but turns out to be some black, sheeny synthetic. Jeans, puffa jacket, Nike cap, heavy belt, fancy snakeskin cowboy shoes: an intriguing ensemble, so butch it’s almost camp.

His face is tangerine-tanned and finer boned, less menacing, than those mephistophelean publicity shots suggest. Much has been made of the pointy ears and steely blue eyes, the identikit psycho stare that has made him such a popular Hollywood villain, but far more fascinating is the button of flesh, neither spot nor mole, dead centre of his forehead, like the superfluous snub on a moulded plastic toy. Assuming he wasn’t made in Hong Kong, might it perhaps cover something extra in the brain, a nodule the rest of us, for better or worse, do not possess? But what faculty could it control?

My money’s on the rage.

It comes out of nowhere, breathtaking bursts of foul-mouthed invective, a freak typhoon which devastates all in its path and then disappears. Is he raving? Well, yes, but is he raving mad? He certainly admits to a morbid and exaggerated response to stimuli. His radar screen is so stretched, sensitive to such fine vibrations, that sometimes, like the military, he’s in danger of firing an anti-nuclear missile when all he’s picking up is a flock of birds. But that’s all right. ”The nature of the artist is bordering on insanity and schizophrenia.”

One thing you learn quickly with Berkoff: there is no such thing as a short answer. No question is too small for rhetoric, epic soliloquies of Shakespearean rhythm and Rabelaisian imagery. You can’t not admire, but the effect of this verbal superabundance is a curious imprecision. Speech becomes a matter of texture. What he says is variously acute, absurd, and self-contradictory, but you might as well try to isolate a snowflake as take issue with a sentence in this avalanche of words. Objections are deflected with scorn or simply swept up and carried along by the force of his vocabulary.

Dialogue is not, you gather, his natural mode of discourse.

To accuse him of inconsistency is to miss the point. Berkoff is omnigenous. You can see it in the accents which switch, apparently unconsciously, from London demotic to Muggeridge-donnish to stagey-sonorous, to mid-Atlantic drawl. There’s even a slight lisp which comes and goes. The man is all things, even, he insists, woman, with a strong female streak in his character.

If this is true, she’s gone AWOL this afternoon. Never have I met anyone with less empathy, less instinct to please. It’s more than ”having no time to deal with bourgeois niceties”. After a while he starts to signal the end of anecdotes with an ingenuous, even sweet, little-boyish smile; the encounter is starting to approximate normal human contact. Open your mouth and the smile is whipped away. Offstage or on, the world is his audience, and the function of an audience is passivity in the dark. Anything else constitutes a challenge and is dealt with accordingly.

This generates two reactions. Firstly, you start to sympathise with the flabby, bourgeois, Oxbridge-educated, often-deserving targets of his wrath. And secondly, tentatively, you start to needle him.

Berkoff grew up the child of a broken home, living in one rat-infested room in the East End of London. He plays his background for pity, but it’s also a source of pride. Whatever the material privations, culturally he was privileged, a hybrid of his family’s Russian-Jewish heritage and the exacting code of the Stepney streets.

He was a bookish, sensitive youth but he soon learned he needed other talents to survive. No bourgeois niceties in Stepney. ”You were there on your own two feet, you had to assert who you were and sometimes you got clobbered for it. I was only picked on for a while. Then I did my own picking.”

Leaving school at 15, he began five years of ducking and diving, a succession of jobs which gave him ulcers through their shame, humiliation, ugliness and horror. ”Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful work.” How dreadful exactly? He twitches the question away a couple of times but eventually persistence is rewarded and he mumbles ”shop assistants, things like that.

”I should have been there, reading, studying, going to Cambridge, walking down stone-cool steps, along riverbanks, going to lectures …”

These aren’t his standard tones of foaming indignation. Even after 40 years the thought cuts him to the quick. And of course he’s right, he should have had the opportunity, but would he have been the same Steven Berkoff?

One metaphor crops up repeatedly in his speech, the image of the closed door. He feels shut out, from the seat of power, from cultural respectability, from the bourgeois establishment, from all those things he despises so vociferously and still seems to covet.

He has laid siege to the National Theatre since its inception, and bitterly resents its refusal to take him on board. On the odd occasion when the management has – only through cancellations, he says – offered him a stage, he has ”broken his balls” to accommodate them.

His great hero was Laurence Olivier, yet they never met. He auditioned for one of his productions but the casting director, ”some screaming queen”, cut him off half way through. Berkoff duly wrote to the grand old man of British theatre, a long letter: ”You’re my spiritual brother and this piece of crap that you have working for you has acted to bollock up the system whereby I might finally meet you.” Later he bumped into his adversary in the loo at the National. He becomes a Carry On caricature of mincing petulance: ”Sir Larry was very upset at your letter.”

He’s laughing now, as I am, but I’m not sure we’re agreed on the butt of the joke.

From the outside, it can be hard to take Berkoff’s grievances seriously. He is an extraordinary theatrical talent whose productions employ a range of skills both rare and precious on the UK stage. Despite his desire to epater le bourgeois, plays like West, Kvetch and Decadence (now remade as a movie starring Berkoff and Joan Collins), have made him big box-office in the London West End. And yet, for all the packed houses and industry awards, he feels under-appreciated, misunderstood.

He’s still seen as a punk yob, he says, even after the adaptations of Kafka and Aeschylus, his lyrical, sensuous version of Wilde’s Salome. So what if he plays blockbuster villains. ”Really I’m a lover. Really I’m a comedian. I’m an amazing comedian.”

While continuing to stare into vacancy most of the time, he’s started to vary the formula with protracted spells of eye contact. Then the face snaps shut. I’ve had an hour, which is twice what he intended. He’s walking away before I’ve shut my notebook.

But fate decrees differently. His next appointment has been sent away by a clueless stagehand (cue apocalyptic abuse of the state of London theatre). Now he wants to share a taxi. The driver stops short of his destination and Berkoff suggests we get out and walk. Strolling through Soho, he’s reminiscing about married life in Edinburgh in the Seventies. Is he married now? ”No, I’m looking for a wife.”

Turning down Archer Street, with its casinos and strip joints, he suggests a coffee, heading into a formica kiosk where olive-skinned punters cluster around the Italian satellite channel. He seems to feel the interview is terminated, but as we’re still talking about him it’s hard to be sure.

These days he lives in Docklands. A little bourgeois, surely? Oh no, you mustn’t misunderstand, his tirades against the bourgeois, all that stuff about crushing the vitality of the common man, are professional and political, not personal. He gets on very well with his neighbours.

I’m struck by the irresistible image of Berkoff as the Dr Jekyll of yuppie-land, attending bijou dinner parties behind the micro-blinds and then rising for another rabid day savaging middle class affectation. Watching him sipping cappuccino in his disco-tough clobber, I wonder if all that aggression isn’t really just a form of theatrical camp, a mannerism, a luvvie’s tic.

He doesn’t like this at all. Camp is gay, showy, overstated; exaggeration is satiric. The conversation is reaching a low ebb, he remarks, draining his cup abruptly. Outside, a buxom black woman in shorts and plunging tee shirt is bouncing on high heels in the doorway of Casa Rosa (London Amsterdam Live Shows).

”If you ever need a job go to Casa Rosa,” he says, not entirely pleasantly.

I don’t think they’d take me.

His gaze flickers momentarily from its usual resting place. ”No,” he murmurs. ”I don’t think so either.”

Like he says: really, he’s a comedian.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications