Tuesday, 30 July 2013


I swear to God I used to be a writer. A week of spreadsheets and I am sure that the actual performance of these plays will be a revelation again, the eternal rebirth of meaning in a world that appears to have been chained by borders and dissected into tiny boxes.

Remembering... it took me half an hour to walk from the bus stop to the Yelowcraig site. The bus dropped me off by Dirleton Castle - I didn't think to look and see whether it was a real castle. Turns out it was the real deal, a medieval outpost. Another regret but the heat drove me towards the Giants. My failure to hitch a ride past the fields of wheat (bending softly in the wind, pure and white and spreading to the distance) inspired another monologue about man's inhumanity to Vile.

It wasn't as far as I had feared, and it felt like I had arrived at the seaside. There was a fresh wind blowing from the water, the shouts of children in the play park - one of those new-fangled adventure things that I had seen at Bowhill - and the charming Dave Wild, my contact.

Dave Wild just doesn't have the best name for a man dedicated to the preservation of a natural resource - he has the job I now envy. A geography student turned ranger, he gets to patrol Yellowcraig. He has an obvious love for the location - he smirked when I called the coast 'the golf Rivera,' and guided me through the forest to the three Giants.

The Yellowcraig's Giants were surrounded by evidence of local activity. A tree painted white, a forest of heads (tiny, and placed on sticks like staves outside a besieged city, warnings against trespass. We took the path up a small hill, and I tried to film the horizon. Of course, nothing can capture the immensity and scope of the sea, especially when it has cool islands just off-shore.

Dave pointed out the features of the coast - we could see over into North Berwick. He explained that the heads had become a locus for local schools, and all sorts of workshops were going on. He was especially proud of the huge dragonflies scattered around the site.

I was getting envious of Dave. First of all, he got to be called a ranger. That sounds cool, a mythical character striding through the environment, healing and caring for trees.

This was why I wrote - to capture these moments, these memories... to recall, in the middle of the city, the silent calm (filled with birdsong) that allowed me to sit and think and cherish the air across my thinning hair...

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Brahaha Broad Brings Burlesque Back

Comic Capers and Sexy Sirens

Cleaving to the comedy rather than the cabaret scene, and featuring an old school combo of strippers and stand-ups, Kitty Cointreau's Brahaha stood out in 2010's Fringe, the year when cabaret broke.
“I wanted to create a show that was different from the majority of other cabaret shows out there,” says Kitty Cointreau. “I love comedy and was a stand-up for a short while and wanted to bring together the two things that entertain me the most – great stand-up and gorgeous burlesque. We did face criticism at first for bringing the two styles together, but burlesque originally shared the stage with stand-up, so it seemed fitting to return to the roots of vaudeville. Two years later, BraHaHa is still alive, kicking, teasing and twirling and I’m proud to put my name to it.”

The Brahaha has established itself across the country, and at Zoo during Fringe 2010: Cointreau’s ability to pick both local and national performers allowed it to capitalise on the energy of the grass-roots movement and the rise of more professional acts. For 2011, she has added a second show to her portfolio.

Kitty & Jonny’s Speakteasy is an experimental rock n’ roll musical comedy show that I share with my friend Duncan Oakley who is performing as Jonny Wild,” she says. “My burlesque is totally integrated and the tease is carried throughout the show until the big finale. It is a real synergy of my burlesque and Duncan’s musicianship.”

What sets Cointreau apart from the majority of performers and programmers is her interest in adapting and respecting the past. “My grandmother was a burlesque act and ENSA entertainer during World War II. She was also a contortionist and performed as 'the girl in the goldfish bowl' and did all kinds of sideshow routines. She was a great inspiration to me,” she affirms. This family history has given her a broader appreciation of what burlesque means. “I’m a great believer that burlesque should be about laughing too,” she notes. The revelation that she could connect her enthusiasms for burlesque and comedy came later. 

“It wasn’t until 2006/07 when I went to see The Candybox shows in Birmingham that I realised there was a burgeoning scene for this kind of art and an audience clearly crying out for more. I wanted to be a part of it. Seeing that show was a real turning point for me.”

The introduction of the Speakteasy marks a new phase in Cointreau’s career. “The BraHaHa takes a vaudeville approach: Programming the show every day and picking exactly the right mix of guest acts from award-winning stand-ups, to burlesque darlings, to great magicians to music acts and circus artists, is the key. Speakteasy is my rock n’ roll ‘toddler’ that allows me to work more collaboratively. The two shows offer a different style and tone to the fringe audience.”

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Glentress to Yellowcraigs (Giants Chapter 3)

Having spent too long with at the Glentress Forest Pond Trail, I pound down the muddy track to the main road. I am passed by mountain bikes racing into the depths of the woods, and then, as I come out back into traffic, the bus that is supposed to be taking me north to Edinburgh.
My next stop is Yellowcraig, in Lothian, and things are not looking great to make my connection in the capital. After the Bowhill walk, I am not confident, but I stick out my thumb. Within minutes, a van stops. 

‘Just into Peebles, please.’
‘What are you doing there?’
‘Catching a bus to Edinburgh.’ I explain about the Giants in the Forest.’
‘I’m running a bit late, but I can take you to Edinburgh.’

I notice the driver has a couple of novels on the floor, although the cab is covered in a light grey dust. This looks promising.

My driver trained as an architect, but now specialises in specially treated concrete. He has travelled around Europe, refining his craft – he lives further south in the Borders, although he mostly works in Edinburgh New Town.

‘I’m pretty much set there,’ he laughs. ‘But living out here, you are only five minutes away from loads of beautiful walks. The Borders is really underrated.’

He talks a little about how building in Scotland, beyond the cities, lacks a sense of appropriate design. I tell him my only story about town planning – passed onto me by  a taxi driver, it concerns the plans to build a motorway through Glasgow city centre. Apparently, when they created models to predict the impact on the city, they drew a blank.

‘They did it to find out what would happen. Let’s just say, they never did it again. That might be the best way to understand the conclusion.’

In less than forty minutes, we reach the outskirts of Morningside. The road is straightforward, on all sides surrounded by beautiful hills and fields. The sun isn’t uncomfortable, just warm. I point out a few examples of this thesis, houses clustered along the road that stick out rudely. This route is mostly fortunately, with old farm complexes doubling as homes and urban sprawl largely absent.

I thank him and race across town, in time for the bus to Yellowcraig, It’s an old, bumpy bus, crawling through Musselborough and finally back out into the countryside. When I am dropped off at the newsagents by the road in Dirleton, the sun has become serious about getting me to take off the suit jacket. The half hour walk to the woods circles around cultivated fields, bending and bowing in the wind. The breeze cools me, although I promising myself that next week, I am wearing shorts….

Monday, 22 July 2013

Trigger Warning: Objectification of Women

Yes, I know the Daily Mail is an easy target. Yes, I am sure that everyone has already seen this. But I can't resist putting this up, pointing out that the webpage in which the Daily Mail celebrates David Cameron's internet pornography grandstanding is possibly Not Safe For Work.

I'm minded to start some libertarian rap about how freedom of speech... objectification isn't a matter of degree... celebrity culture... but this is all obvious, isn't it? The writers at Daily Mail knows how idiotic it looks, don't they?

This isn't a copy from the Onion or the Daily Mash, is it?

The Swedge

At some point, I was trying to do a top twenty of female performances at the Fringe. Lack of clear definition - did I mean solo shows, or stuff that was about women, or did there have to be a majority of female cast members, or was being written by a woman enough - made the whole thing impossible. I learnt two important things: there are plenty of women at the Fringe (which might allow some kind of statistical analysis to challenge the idea that women are excluded from the arts), and that gender does not necessarily imply commonality.

The list was full of acts who had nothing in common, except the biological determinism of gender. I even discovered plenty of female stand up comedians - not enough that I now believe it is any less of a drunken boys' club - and noticed that cabaret attracts more women than men.

Here's number thirteen (or wherever I got up to...):

The Wedge: a gripping urban thriller delivered starkly, simply and close-up.

The New Statesman says that this one is 'arrestingly ambiguous' (nice alliteration, but not necessarily helping me to understand what it will be like. Naomi Said wrote it, and is performing it. It is at Zoo Southside, which is a solid recommendation. I have seen some good work at Zoo over the years, usually just outside of the mainstream theatre styles but not right off the edge...

The company, Theatre Absolute, have won two Fringe Firsts. Here's the press release. 

With stark simplicity, the audience is held in an engrossing atmosphere, which ignites the senses. Illusions of other people in the space, shifting locations and fractured time are created through vibrant imagery and a boldly imaginative performance, conjuring filmic visuals in the audience's imagination.

Returning to the fields where she found abandon and adventure as a kid, Jess makes a discovery that changes everything. Directed by Chris O'Connell, The Wedge is a haunting new piece of storytelling about finding out, hiding away and seeking a place to go.

Themes of displacement, secrecy and trust are explored through rhythmic and elliptical text, with the audience drawn deeply into Jess' confession through the honesty and immediacy of the spoken word. A building sense of community, intimacy and privacy empowers a distinctly personal response from each audience member. 

ZOO Southside (Studio) Venue 82 117 Nicholson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9ER

Fri 2 – Mon 26 Aug at 3.30pm

£8.00 (£7.00 concs)

50 minutes

Glentress Giants (Chapter 2.2)

Here I am sitting, sitting beneath the first of the three Giants in Glentress Forest. After a little more roadside drama (there are several tracks into Glentress, and I took a route that introduced me to most of them), I realised that I was walking past the discreet path that housed the Giants. It was also the area that was marked as 'closed for maintenance.' I won't mention how I made it over the fence, but I do have a slight rip in my trousers.

The Glentress Giants are in a line alongside a small lake - but the signs of the Dark Woods event (a long weave of wood, decorated with wool, some handmade dream-catchers) are evident. The Giants seem more solitary here - they are ignoring each other. The look out over the lake, and are more hidden in the trees. Again, they are still against the movement of the plants.

Glentress is relatively busy for an isolated spot: there's the shouts from the Go-Ape playground just across the lake, and I was passed on the way up here by several mountain bikers. I have started to reflect on my presence as I travel between Giant encampments. I am lazy, slow, happy to get lost, never quite sure where I am going and inappropriately dressed - the spots of rain have been countered with a neon yellow water-proof, a souvenir from an arts festival.

The Giants here seem to suit my misdemeanour: against the SevenStanes mountain bike centre, they seem relaxed enough not to need any fuss. Peebles didn't give the impress of being too fussed about tourists - sure, there was a fancy computer display on the high street, and plenty of those brown road signs that point to features of interest. The Glentress Giants share that savoir-faire. The mountain bike complex - cafe, special showers for cycles, a big wooden entrance, car-parks and holiday housing on the side of a hill - is all about the visitor.

Of course, I am a tourist, but I don't like to admit it - by using my phone for a map instead of OS sheets, I try to preserve the idea of my casual approach. This leads to the getting lost, getting wet and getting no signal. But I feel an affinity with the Giants.

They don't really care whether I turn up or not. They are just there, biding time, waiting for their stories to be told.

The preparations for the Dark Wood event are humble - the tangle of branch and wool is like a supplication - like markings on the side of a road of pilgrimage. That they are incomplete seems right. The Giants aren't giving up their secrets today, but they will, and the suppliants are reading their announcements.

Or to out it more clearly: the rest of Glentress is a good example of how the Scottish countryside is designed for leisure, a modern shaping of nature for visitors who want the fresh air. The Giants are something else - not sinister or rough, like a mountain that doesn't want to be climbed. They are relaxed and for the first time, I relax in to the countryside.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Some ideas that I stole from Eric about politics

I stole this mans ideas for this blog. 
Although Eric and I have formally divided the radio show (he does the second hour, if you want to escape my rambling and interruptions of good guests), we still argue and bicker behind the scenes. Today it has been politics and theatre. We had the statement 'all theatre is political,' and I just had to ruin a perfectly good afternoon ranting about the intrusion of the political into the private sphere.

My working definition of politics is 'the power structures that manage society,' and everything does engage with these. But if 'all theatre' 'is' 'political'  - a statement that is true, since everything is defined by those power relations, especially when they are hidden - then it begs the question: why bother making theatre if it is merely a subset of a larger field. The artist with political intentions (that is, is interested in either challenging or supporting the existing power structures) would be better off joining the Conservatives and making changes from within.

The problem is  - and note the irony of this sentence - in that word 'is.' It means too much. It suggests a straight association of theatre and politics. I want to know what 'is' means. When I am reviewing, and the certainty of using the verb 'to be' is too concrete, I can use 'seem' or 'appears.' But that doesn't work here.

All theatre might, say, represent, politics. Or reflect politics, or engage with politics - and again, I am reminded of my old pal Billy Bragg (you know, the one who did a duet with Amanda Palmer). He said 'all music is political,' and pointed out how Spandau Ballet's videos, with their glamour and fuss, were as political as his war-weary socialist anthems. Yes, all theatre does reflect the political base upon which it is constructed - that's Marxist aesthetics 101 (I think...).

But pretty clearly, that can be applied to everything - even my chats with Eric have a power structure subtext. Hopefully, that's not all that is going on - I rather hope our friendship isn't a mere facade to hide  the hegemony of communication. I think theatre is the same - and to say it is 'all... political' takes me only so far.

But the talk of political theatre actually refers to theatre that is actively engaged in discussing the power structures - there's a range of issue that make a work political. These days, it is mostly those riots in London. Given that there is that referendum coming up soon, it's odd that national identity hasn't emerged as a 'political' theme in the Fringe this year. Certainly, there has been work during the year that has considered it. But it's not getting a shout in the Fringe, and there is an article in the preview copy of Fest that questions this.

In this sense, not all theatre is political - or even represents politics. And I am back in a world where divided work into 'political' and non-political can make sense.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

No Way To Read The Fringe

I am going to take some time out from the Giants in the Forest and my attempt to put together a Fringe timetable. Instead, I am going to whine about criticism, about the impossible task of putting together any survey of the Fringe that isn't either wilfully obscure (I've been seeking out the Live Art, again, and have a line-up that includes The Wau Wau Sisters starting off naked and then getting dressed)  or just repeats the same golden names that dominate every magazine's coverage (Traverse, Summerhall, the various rising Scottish writers).

This isn't going to be an attack on a perceived establishment of artists - although I do think one exists, and it seems important to avoid simply including them 'to make sure I have covered the basics.' For the record, I think that the names who are turning up in every magazine (Hurley, Bissett, Greig, Harrower) are talented and intriguing - to the extent that, if they do something I don't like, I am willing to wonder why and not storm off in a sulk.

This won't be much use as a guide for the Fringe punter, either. I'll mention stuff, give a few links, but there is more about criticism. File it under self-indulgence or frustrated artist: that gives a flavour of my mood.

The clue is in the title. It's supposed to be the Fringe - the margin, the bit outside, the playful, the adventurous. Having spent too much time reading queer theory lately, I'm worried that the Fringe is another word for Trade Fair or Alternative Establishment. There are a fair number of big names in the programme - the Assembly and Traverse have performers who are the closest thing that theatre gets to celebrities. To be blunt, the Traverse doesn't really run a Fringe season: its August bookings are effectively an undiluted series of the sorts of work the venue runs during the rest of the year.

Knowing that this is the sort of thing that I know can offend people, let me re-iterate: that's okay. The programme is good. There are real highlights in their list - inevitably Ontroerend Goed (Fight Night) and the new Harrower (Ciara) are at the top of my list. Between them, they'll give me rough, tough political debate and sensitive characterisation in a language both recognisable and poetic.

But I am trying to find out where the surprises are going to be. I am excited about Gecko's Missing, but I know that they are good: I saw them do The Overcoat a few years ago, and The Guardian gave them four stars. 

There are smaller venues that I trust. Zoo has always mixed up the idiosyncratic and the confident - a day at Greenside is always a treat. But having done 'venue of the month' for the past five years, I'm reluctant to lend more weight to the curatorial model of festival experience. 

I might go and read Mark Fisher's book for a few clues, but I am worrying about two things. First of all, do the critics create a vision of the Fringe that privileges artists who are either officially emerging (that is, funding bodies are interested in them) or are who already part of an establishment? There's great stuff going on at all levels - Mark Ravenhill is doing a cabaret style show, a bold move for the man who started off as one of those pesky neo-brutalists. But the madcap stuff at the bottom gets eased out.

Then I am concerned that smaller artists are getting lost in the mix. I'll be unpleasant and say that I am not that keen on seeing forty student productions this year. Again, it is not that I don't like them, it just feels as if they belong in another place. I'm pondering (outside of the Fringe) how youth theatre and community theatre can be critiques (and my answers are brilliant, revolutionary). Setting them toe-to-toe with the NTS or Gecko is a bit pointless. 

But there are professional companies who are working on a scale that means it might be difficult to spot them between the University companies - since the youth companies do take risks, there might be a profound difference between the two gender-blind versions of Hamlet. One might be by students, the other by the revolutionary director who is a celebrity in her homeland, but gets no reviews in Edinburgh because no-one knows her name. 

Next Blog: I find a way to blame comedy.

Finale note: all the artists mentioned in this piece are worth the price of admission. There is no suggestion that the Traverse is anything less than a major venue, and that all of their shows are quality. You might not like them, but that's taste...

Friday, 19 July 2013

Trees Near Bowhill

The auteur in person
In this short extract, Vile's enthusiasm for cheap horror movies is an ironic contrast with the rural beauty of the scene. Taken as he strolled along the path towards the Bowhill Giants, this extract is best explained in the auteur's own words.

'You see, it's like a horror film and you are expecting the monster to come out from around the corner - and it doesn't appear. Instead, you get nice trees. Is that because there is no monster - or is the monster the one making the film? Am I, in fact, the monster?'

A Real Film Critic supplied the answer. 'Since the word monster comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning a show, Vile is right. He is certainly making a show of himself with his camera work.'

However, whatever else Vile thinks he is up to here, it is at least noting that he does capture how beautiful Scotland can be - and in the next extract, we shall see the Giants... the target of his search.

Bonus Giants Footage: Vile leaving Selkirk

While it lacks the precision of his later films, this brief sequence of footage from Gareth K Vile's Border's Journey already reveals the hallmarks of his mature style. The shaking hand - sometimes seen as a reference to the already unfashionable Blair Witch school of horror - and the lack of definition in the image would be used to stunning effect in his magnum opus. The influence of both Tarkovsky and the dogme directors are equally obvious.

Vile is always about attacking the audience's preconceptions: here, the wobble as he lights upon a notice board describing his location suggests that he is trying to remind himself of where he is, both artistically and literally: that the sign is almost unreadable reflects his meditations on the nature of loss and confusion. Nothing is as it seems.

Giants in The Forest (Chapter 2.1: Get Lost)

My contact in Peebles isn't entirely unknown to me: Caroline Adams works at the Eastgate Arts Centre, one of the many venues beyond the central belt that I like to keep an eye on, for touring shows. Inevitably, I ask her about the theatre programme - the Giants in the Forest do connect to this - and she points out that a slightly different sort of performance happens in Peebles, a step removed from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In the cause of forwarding vapid generalisations about the places I am visiting - like the big arts journalists do, - I am comfortable when it comes to theatre. Caroline says that the work that comes to Peebles is more populist (September sees a version of Chorus of Disapproval and there's a poster for a Joyce Grenfell tribute in the cafe). . That seems to be more a matter of content (country and western music gets a few slots in the programme) than form: I see that David Leddy is taking his festival show there soon, and that's part of the Traverse's season.

It strikes me more as a matter of scale - Peebles is a hub for the outlying villages, and there needs to be a big enough pull to get people out for the evening. Frankly, given the beauty of the area (and Caroline agrees when I say the Borders are 'underrated'), theatre seems a bit of a distraction.

Besides, there is a Rumi festival coming soon, a Mapplethorpe exhibition down the road... and The Dark Forest Event in the autumn. Caroline shows me some of the designs for the Dark Forest - they are decorating the area around the Giants, and there's a similarity to the plans for Bowhill's event. She flicks over some relatively 'picture book' sketches, before showing me the final plans.

There is a charm and seriousness in the schemes: they have avoided the stereotypical dell and are aiming for something more appropriate for the site. A storyteller will be working on how the Giants got there, and a whole faery realm is going to be designed...

I start to walk out of town towards the location. It's a simple route, straight down the main road. It's well sign-posted, Glentress Forest is a locus for mountain bike trails and has one of those 'Go Ape' playgrounds in the treetops. I get lost in about five minutes.

There's a lovely looking path that veers to the left, and takes me under a sweet bridge. It's nice ground, ideal for cycling and there's a few people going this way. After half an hour, I check on my Google Map. Yes, I am miles away.

On the positive side, had I been cycled, I would probably be well on my way to the west coast before I had checked - we'll see a few examples of this when I roll out the bike next week. There was a little squall, which meant that I was quite happy waiting in the dark of the tunnel, watching the wind whip up the leaves and, when I finally emerged back onto the main road, seeing that my bus back to Edinburgh went along the same route.

View Giants in the Forest Peebles in a larger map

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Live from the CCA

These days, my blog is mostly being written at the CCA. As I have mentioned before, my house is so untidy,
Wrong logo, Vile
the thought of writing there during daylight hours makes me despair. At night, most of the bulbs have blown out, so I wander Glasgow's arts hubs, seeking internet and human connections.

However, I am also on a grand adventure, touring the country in search of Giants. Then the Fringe, meaning I escape to Edinburgh and eat bacon sandwiches for a month, watching forty shows a week and getting annoyed at Japanese tourists who walk too slow and I am trying to get to a show and the last one was late out and...

The CCA is a cool hub, though. I liked it down the Briggait in my old job, mainly because Mischief La Bas were next door and Conflux on the other side of the balcony. Here, there are more events and the man who makes the coffee for the upstairs bar is utterly charming. As a tip of the hat to the CCA, I am going to give them some play on the blog, for a bunch of stuff I am going to miss. 

Press Release Begins
Playwright’s Studio: Stage to Page
Mon 29 July/ 7pm – 9.30pm / £3 / Ages 16+
These exciting monthly workshops explore play scenes, with an opportunity for informal networking. Playwrights are invited to submit 5-10 minute scenes, which will be matched to directors and actors and worked on in small groups before being performed at the end of the evening.

Dance House: Contact Jams
Sat 10 August / 2pm – 5pm / £3 / ages 14+
A creative session for dancers, musicians, writers and visual artists to work together. React, respond, explore and contribute in an open and informal environment.

I did some Contact once: I liked it, too. My friend Penny is involved in this, and it has been growing over the past year. It's a bit like a multi-art event, with no audience and a chance for dance to be at the centre but not necessarily the only art form on the stage... although there is no stage and no division between performer and observer.

Infinity Pool DJ Set
Fri 2 August / 9pm / FREE / Saramago Terrace Bar
Steev and Simon (Errors) broadcast the results of their entire 20s spent in dark rooms gathering digital audio files from across the blogosphere and beyond, with an emphasis on electronic composition, Acid, 90s, RnB and synthesised library music.

Get the Records On!
Sat 3 August / 9pm / FREE / Saramago Terrace Bar
DJs Craig Reece and Aitor Zair dig deep into the vaults with a selection of psychedelic rock, rhythm n’ blues, garage and soul, with a touch of latin, ska and jazz. The duo invites a guest along every month.

I like to hang out in this bar on a Friday, because I once saw the former members of Arab Strap having a quiet drink here. I am not sure they appreciated my twitter hashtag #GETTOGETHERAIDENMALCOLM

Robert Beavers screening in conversation with Luke Fowler
Fri 3 August / 8pm / FREE
CCA is pleased to announce an evening of three screenings, a talk and conversation around American filmmaker Robert Beavers, who is considered as one of the most influential avant-garde filmmakers of the second half of the 20th century. Three of Beavers’ most crucial 16mm works - From the Notebook…, the Stoas and The Suppliant - are shown in order to provide insight in the personal motivations of filmmaking and life. Followed by a short talk on his own work, Robert Beavers engages in a conversation with Glasgow based filmmaker Luke Fowler who shares his personal relation to the the oeuvre of Beavers. The evening concludes with a Q&A.

In the Footsteps of Others (Chap 1.5)

I know that I am not the first blogger to have sought out The Giants. When I called up Helen before I arrived at Bowhill, she had a memory of the last man who came past. I feel a little in his shadow: and I just realised that I borrowed one of his pictures for a post.

I have deliberately ignored his blog so far, but Daniel Bergsagel cycled to the Giants - it is a moment of shame when my contacts look at me and realise that I am taking the easy journey. I'll try and claim that walking is just as hardy - and hitching is risky, so I am some sort of tough guy. However, I am looking over his response to Bowhill - and he is far better at the historical context.

I am now worried about reading more of his blogging - he uses  footnotes and clearly remembers more of his geography than I do. It's a fine read, though, and it may bear comparison with my latter musings: there are obvious changes from his visit to mine, including (at Bowhill), the very glade that houses the Giants. He arrives just as the space is being cleared by the tree-felling experts. For me, the felling has grown back in and far from being a detail of wood management, it has made the Giants dominate a perfect stage.

He is also a great photographer. Here's the image I used earlier in my blog - this time, giving credit to the source. In it, he captures much of what I was trying to say in my meditations on Bowhill.

The reflection of the trees in the lake and the light shimmering across the water - the calm and drama in a single moment. Add on the feeling that Bergsagel was far more immersed in the environment, since he was out on the road, finding his path and not letting the bus driver do the work.

Quiet in Bowhill (Chapter 1.4)

Sitting in front of the Bowhill Giants, I notice something that will become evident at all of the sites. Although the surrounding area is full of motion – the longer I wait, the more dynamic nature appears – the Giants themselves are static. Everything else is swaying in the wind, or being ruffled by the activity of the fauna hidden behind the blossoms. But the Giant heads are still.

Their edges – in particular, one of the heads has a spectacular branch protruding like a single horn to the left – are occasionally shifting while their bulk remains solid. Being the only man-made object in the scene, they become a focus, a point around which nature can rotate. Their stillness enhances the vibrancy of the surrounding flora.

The Giants have taken on a quality of architecture. They are far more discreet – it did take me some time to spot them, and in photographs they blend into the background – but have a different quality to their context.

Ironically, they draw attention to nature’s wildness, to its energy.

Back at the House, I am lucky enough to meet with my Bowhill contact, Helen Currie. I had not expected to see her. As important as my visit undoubtedly is, she had a prior engagement with the queen.

This had been the talk of the Selkirk visitor centre. I hoped that my schedule might bump into the monarch’s route. I was content to chat to Helen over tea in the House’s refectory instead.

Her enthusiasm for both the Borders and Bowhill is infectious – she isn’t native to the area, but has lived there for long enough to recognise its beauty. She is the first person to say that it is ‘underrated,’ which I can only use as my epithet for the area.

She tells me about the estate – it has the oldest theatre in the Borders (still active) and there are two shows arriving during the summer. She also points out that there are residents in the house, and the Estate is very much a going concern, and not just a tourist destination. Between the plays and the adventure playground – and the various walks around the tended grounds, Bowhill estate is a hub of all-age activity.

Helen also describes how the Giant heads were made: local school children added the detail to the framework that Vision Mechanics provided. She offers me a few clues about the Dark Forest event – storytelling will be involved – and remembers the previous year’s show with evident pleasure.
Since these are my first set of heads, I can’t quite take it all in, or understand how they work. A few ideas – they provide a reason to visit a beautiful location, get children out into nature and making. But I am ready to learn more.

First Sight of Giants (Chapter 1.3)

The descent to the glade where the Bowhill Giants have been installed is gentle. Part of the route is even tarmac, and it is the shortest of the routes around the gardens. It follows the curve of the lake, dipping in and out of the forest. I am alone as I walk past a nesting swan and cygnets. I sit by the water and look out over to the far bank. The trees have grown high and tall on the other side, and the summer heat has them full of leaf and life.

The peace and quiet stays with me until I reach the opening. The Giants were originally placed beneath large trees, but necessary cutting of branches has opened up the location, making it a sudden break in the cover of the treetops. The Giants – my first Giants – are in a triangle formation, staring across at each other, high above my head.

Their heads are decorated with foliage. I’d been told that the harsh summer last year(wet and dour) had preventing the plants from blooming  within the frames, and their colours are darker than the surrounding trees. I find a good space to sit, at the foot of one Giant bearing tree, and look out beyond them.

There’s a view across the lake, right back to the House. On the lake, a few feet from my seat, a single boat is moored, and the only sounds I hear at first are the lapping of the waves against the boat and the creak of its old wood at it knocks against the moorings.

Gradually, bird songs flicker through the air. I rotate my head, trying to take in the panorama. For the first time on the trip, I feel my muscles relax. Travelling is exciting. Arriving is a relief.
There’s a row of trees in the distance that nod in the wind. I stare out at them, gradually detecting shapes in the branches. The tallest tree has a regal air, crowned by leaves. I turn back to the Giant Heads.

They become a focus for my observations. I notice how they have been decorated with local branches, pinecones and earth. One head is dense, like a crosshatched illustration. Another is sparser, revealing the lines of the lattice and a wide-open mouth. It appears to be laughing.

The Giant directly above me has a flat nose, like an elderly man, weather beaten but friendly. I am amazed at how quickly each Giant reveals a personality. They remind me of cartoon characters – sketched but not photo-realistic, suggesting personality and allowing my mind to fill in the rest.
The apparent failure of the blooming plants, conversely, allows the Giants to blend into their environment. Looking at them through the screen of my video recorder, they are flattened out and the leaves behind them add shape to their contours.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Selkirk to Bowhill (Giants in the Forest, Chapter 1.2)

Although it has taken me the best part of the morning to reach Selkirk, I am not tired when I arrive. The short stop over in Gallashiels allowed me to take a walk through the shopping centre and pick up a few supplies, and I was ready for the walk out to the Estate. It would have taken about twenty minutes on the bike, but I balanced the distance against the potential trouble of carting my bike on and off local buses. I was optimistic that I could hitch it, anyway.

I couldn’t orientate myself in Selkirk. The bus turning point was at the top of a hill, heading towards the river but the town map didn’t point the way out to the heads. Fortunately, there was a tourist information centre around the corner, connected to the local museum.

The old man who furnished me with directions didn’t actually work in the centre: he had an enthusiasm for the area and not only pointed me to the road, but filled me in on local history. My route to the estate would take me past a battlefield, and he even mentioned a good place to stop where I could see the salmon – perhaps not at this time of year, unfortunately.

I did try and catch the battlefield – there’s an archaeological project going on just outside Selkirk. The original plan is to excavate the site of the battle (1645) but the discovery of an older habitation had stalled and expanded the process.

While I don’t feel qualified to comment in any depth, the battle of Philiphaugh was part of something called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which has been branded as The English Civil War. The least I can say is that this part of Scotland has a tighter connection to events usually associated with England.

I realise that wandering along the site of the battlefield might be safer (there’s a huge hedge between me and the road), it won’t help me in my hitching. I cross back onto into the traffic. I reckon it will take thirty cars before one picks me up, and begin counting them as they pass.

Thirty-two cars later – and about an hour of walking – and I arrive at the estate. I am regretting the three-piece suit. I am not regretting the stroll, however. It’s a beautiful day, and the green of the landscape – flat and fertile – is a generous companion.

The road into the Bowhill Estate is laden with promise. There is an adventure playground to the left of the road, and the gardens disappear off on both sides. The greenery is broken by flowering plants, the air smells sweet and clean, and the House itself has a majestic presence. It’s a stately home that still has the air of a castle – although perhaps the battlefield has put me in mind of drama past. 

The Night Before I Depart (Giants in the Forest, chapter 1.1)

The night before I depart, I spend a few hours looking over maps and my schedule. The first week is going to be spent in a part of Scotland that is unfamiliar – the phrase I’ll hear, and begin to use, is ‘underrated.’ The Borders conjures up ideas of conflict – I am sure that 7.84 did a play about it in the 1990s at Tramway. Since my main guide to the Scottish landscape, a battered copy of Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian, seems not to have a section dedicated to Peebles and Galashiels, I am stepping into the unknown.

My intention for this week is to travel light. Unfortunately, I am breaking my travels at Falkland for a weekend of camping. My rucksack will contain my tent but, realising that I have plotted a couple of long walks (long by my lazy fitness levels), I dump the sleeping bag for a cotton slip. I take a single book – Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, it’s slim enough and doesn’t have all those distracting proclamations about God’s mortality that I don’t understand. In retrospect, a water bottle would have been a good idea.

The Giants in the Forest are an intriguing project: they have been placed around Scotland in collaboration with local groups, designed by Vision Mechanics – a company I know as one of the imaginative contemporary puppet masters that Scotland is breeding. I have an outline of their purpose – once in place, they become both a focus for local activity and a nice surprise for unsuspecting walkers. My own purpose, a blogger travelling between the sites, is less clear. I am part of the documentation, at least. I’m winding myself up to bring something more dramatic to my responses.

I’m more used to cities, and theatres, and art galleries.  I relate the locations to pop up versions of an art space – although most of the Giants were put in place last year and have already seen a summer and winter, I am focused on them as sculptures. Going out into the countryside, I am worrying about long walks and how well my choice of suit will hold up in what appears to be the height of summer. Having decided that I would risk hitching for certain sections of the journey, I’ve gone with a natty pin stripe. It does clash with the red rucksack.

I check the schedule. I am looking at the first three days out, ignoring later excursions – my brain gets confused at the complexity of different transports over the month. It’s Bowhill first, and a long journey. It starts on the train, then goes to a series of buses. Finally, I am going to walk from Selkirk to the Estate. I am hoping that the final stage, down to the Giants, isn’t going to be a problem for my smart shoes.

I have a look at the introduction of The Birth. This copy has some useless notes, and seems to clarify the entire idea in two pages. Its vision of nature – wild, untamed and probably hostile – doesn’t cheer me up.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Cabaret versus Mogwai

One of my speculations about cabaret’s status as performance – it gets short shrift compared to
scripted theatre or even Live Art (which few people really like) – imagines that it is disregarded because it is the domain of ‘the other.’ It covers life-styles rarely represented in high drama, and has a larger proportion of female and LGBTQ performers than other genres. It adds the taint of musical theatre, thanks to the musical choices and aesthetic – Gary Barlow’s notorious ‘too cabaret’ comment really referred to the musty and cheesy melodrama of singers who would be happier belting out one of Lloyd Weber’s numbers than the diverse styles of the various artists who joined Frisky and Mannish in their protest song.

Debbie Chapman does come from that particular musical tradition. She has been in The Wizard of Oz and done her time on a cruise ship. Her show, Queen of Hearts, threads together her personal experiences and ‘heartfelt song’ in an attempt to understand why ‘she’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride.’

Chapman's influences are not mine - when I think of cabaret, I think of Dusty Limits seducing male members of the audience to sing along to Portishead. She references Judy Garland and Barbra Streisland. It's a reminder that cabaret isn't as monocultural as Barlow suggests and, like my abortive attempt to make up a top twenty of female performers for the Fringe, an example of how picking a broad genre to discuss or define rarely does justice to the individual artists.

TREMers in association with
Theatre Bench presents
18th August 2013 - 18:10pm
19th-21st August 2013 - 15:55pm
Space Cabaret (V54) - Edinburgh Festival

Cabaret's strength is perhaps in its sense of play: Mogwai, by contrast, seem to be getting more and more serious as they age. I remember them as the cheeky chappies who called their first album Young Team: now they do art projects, like their soundtrack to Zidane, a film by Douglas Gordon (conceptual artist) about a footballer.

A quick blast from the press release helps make my point.

One of the most beguiling portrayals of an individual in recent cinematic history, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a football film like no other. Using 17 cameras, the film tracks the legendary French midfielder Zinédine Zidane throughout a 2005 Spanish league match at Madrid’s imposing Bernabéu Stadium — on and off the ball, in the thick of the action and on its periphery. The result, from directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, is a dramatic, hypnotic and deeply beautiful depiction of one of the world’s finest footballers performing on one of the sport’s grandest stages.

The film’s soundtrack was composed by Mogwai — and for the first time, the band will be performing it live alongside the movie in a series of three UK concerts beginning with the World Premiere of the event at Manchester International Festival ‘13. The Glasgow quintet have built a deserved reputation for the fearsome intensity of their live shows, and this show at the incredible new event site 220 Broomielaw offers a rare chance to see them in action in a very unique setting.

Sunday 21st July, 2013, 6pm
Venue: 220 Broomielaw, Glasgow, G1 4RU
£25 in advance STBF
Over 14's (over 18's bring ID for bar service)

I have been taking football quite seriously lately - mainly because Watford FC started giving it the old champagne style and almost got into the Big Corporate Division in England. But the respect afforded to Zidane in this film goes beyond my childish cheering for the Horns. It seems almost... hagiographic?

Compare and contrast - cabaret and post-rock. Can they learn from each other?