Feature: The European Super League and the future of football

Own Goal

Following the outrage over the proposed European Super League, Mark Brown argues for a radical shake-up in the organisation of the beautiful game and the ownership of clubs

The recent debacle over the proposed European Super League (ESL) has raised more questions than it has answered about the future of the world’s most popular sport. For sure, the “greedy 12”, the dirty dozen of Europe’s richest football clubs, seem to have been foiled in their bid to create a multi-billion pound breakaway competition.

   However, the dominant media narrative, that football, the sport of the working class, has been “saved” from the Bond villain-style machinations of the owners of the ESL clubs, is a patronising nonsense. It is like a reassuring fairytale told to calm an anxious child whose fears are, in fact, perfectly valid.

   The protests by fans of the English clubs involved in the ESL cartel were superb. I particularly enjoyed the placard held up by a Chelsea fan which preferred the unglamorous side of football tradition to the self-selecting money-making of the ESL. It read simply, “We want our cold nights in Stoke.”

   The supporters’ outrage against the cartel was laudable and important. However, we should be wary of the party line punditry, from Sky Sports to the BBC’s Match of the Day, that “fan power” has pulled football back from the brink of disaster and returned the game to “normality”.

   The “normal” that the very nicely renumerated pundits, from Gary Lineker, to Graeme Souness and Roy Keane, are so keen to celebrate is, in fact, precisely the same slippery slope that led to the idea of a breakaway ESL in the first place. When their beloved English Premier League kicked off its first season in 1992, it did so as a “breakaway” from more than a century of English football tradition.

   With the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television, its competitor BSB and, then, their merger to become BSkyB, the 22 clubs of the old English First Division took the TV money and ran. That is how the EPL became the most lucrative league in world football, with clubs owned by billionaire, absentee businessmen from the likes of the United States and the United Arab Emirates, or, in the case of Chelsea, an ever-present, and highly dubious, Russian oligarch.

   It’s also the reason why Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola commands an annual salary of £20 million, Liverpool striker Mohammad Salah earns more than £10 million a year and former footballer, turned BBC and BT football presenter Gary Lineker is estimated to have a personal wealth of £30 million. Try telling the millions of English football fans who would love to go to watch one of the EPL’s top teams, but can’t afford the exorbitant ticket prices, that “football has been saved for working class supporters.”

   It was back in 2013 that match official John Brooks was caught on a broadcaster’s microphone advising Manchester City players, who were celebrating their victory over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in north London, to walk over to their fans. “They’ve paid 62 quid over there”, Brooks commented, “go and see them”. Eight years later, £62 seems like a bargain compared with some EPL ticket prices.

   The briefest consideration of the history of the EPL makes it clear that the argument between English football officialdom (backed by that paragon of fairness, equality and moral propriety Boris Johnson) and the Super League “rebels” is, as Jeremy Corbyn succinctly put it, a row between “the rich and the super rich.” The Super League plan would have allowed Arsenal (who are, at the time of writing, 10th in the English Premiership) to become one of the top 12 teams in Europe due, not to success on the field, but to the wealth of the club’s owners.

   The far from impoverished owners of clubs like Leicester City and West Ham (both of whom are chasing European Champions League places this season) were outraged at this threat, not only to their sporting success, but also to the riches that the Champions League brings.

   In the wider, European and global contexts, too, the outrage of the football authorities against the ESL has much more to do with self-interest than a love of the sport. As a besotted nine-year-old, I met the great player Michel Platini, who was injured, and, therefore, sitting in the stand at Love Street Stadium for the UEFA Cup match between his French club St Étienne and my beloved St Mirren.

   My inner child still screams to see Platini mired in accusations of malfeasance during his time as president of European football’s governing body UEFA. The fact that the £1.6 million payment to Platini, which is at the centre of the investigations, should have come from world football’s governing body FIFA should come as no surprise.

   From the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the choice of Qatar (where more than 6,500 migrant workers have died building the stadia) to host the 2022 competition, FIFA would lose a moral rectitude competition with Dr Faustus.

   Just like the English Premiership, the creation of the European Champions League by UEFA in 1992 was driven by a desire to maximise revenues from the burgeoning satellite TV market. The old European Cup put the league champions from each of Europe’s countries up against each other.

   In those days, before the massive manager and player wage inflation of the last 30 years, teams in smaller countries like The Netherlands, Portugal and, yes, Scotland could hold onto many of their best players. Consequently, the likes of Dutch clubs Ajax and Feyenoord, Portuguese side Benfica and our own Celtic could triumph in Europe’s greatest club competition.

   The European Cup had finalists from 13 countries, including Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece and Sweden. By contrast the Champions League has had finalists from only seven countries, all of them from western Europe.

   The Champions League is rigged in favour of the major powers in European football. England, Spain, Italy and Germany are guaranteed at least four places each. Meanwhile the league champions in smaller nations, including Scotland, have to try to battle their way into the competition through qualifying rounds.

   UEFA argues, of course, that this guarantees “better quality” matches in the Champions League. What it guarantees, in fact, is bigger names, bigger global TV audiences, and bigger revenues from the TV companies and commercial sponsors (including, needless to say, the massive and growing industry in online betting).

   The European Super League project (to which Real Madrid and Barcelona remain defiantly committed) presented a threat to the golden goose that had been so carefully reared by UEFA. The dirty dozen did what capitalists always do when they see an opportunity to make even greater profits at the expense of their competitors.

   The failure of the ESL project is to be welcomed. However, it should be clear to every football lover that the working class ethos of the game, the values of fairness and community, were under attack by those running the sport long before the Super League idea was thrown so recklessly onto the table.

   Which doesn’t mean that all is lost. There are examples within the beautiful game that another football is possible.

   Many people have noted that the breakaway ESL clubs did not include any teams from Germany. Whilst clubs such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Liepzig are, unquestionably, members of European football’s aristocracy, they were unable to sign up to the ESL, even if they wanted to, due to Germany’s rules on ownership of clubs.

   In Germany’s professional leagues, clubs must be more than 50% owned by their supporters. This gives fans a certain degree of influence in their clubs, and makes tickets for top flight matches far more affordable than in countries such as England and Spain.

   We shouldn’t idealise the German model, however. The game in Germany is hardly free from either big commercial interests or domination by big clubs.

   The country’s biggest club, Bayern Munich, has won the top flight Bundesliga every year since 2013. Clubs from the richer west have dominated teams from the east since German reunification in 1990.

   The sole exception to this is RB Liepzig, a successful club created in the east by the Red Bull corporation. A club with no tradition, which is the child of a huge, multinational company, RB is hated by football fans throughout Germany and beyond.

   A more interesting German success story is to be found in the case of Hamburg club FC St Pauli. The club is better known globally for its anti-fascist, anti-racist and broadly progressive political principles than for its footballing success (at the time of writing, St Pauli sits seventh in the second tier of German football, Bundesliga 2).

   St Pauli fans enjoy good relations with fans’ groups in many countries, not least in their twinning with Celtic supporters here in Scotland. In the 1980s, politicised, mainly young people from the neglected, working-class district of St Pauli started supporting their local team, which was the more unfashionable of the city’s two main clubs.

   Some of them came to FC St Pauli out of disgust at the neo-Nazi chants and symbols that were common among a section of the support of the city’s biggest club Hamburger SV. Within a matter of years the club was committed to the progressive outlook of its new, growing fan base.

   The club adopted the fans’ anti-establishment, skull and crossbones pirate flag. In 1998, it changed the name of its stadium from Wilhelm Koch to Millerntor, following the exposé of the Nazi associations of former club president Koch. 

   In 2016, on Holocaust Memorial Day, the St Pauli players took to the field with the logo of their shirt sponsor replaced with the slogan, “No football for Fascists.” The club is also well known for its work in the community, including giving match day tickets to people who have fled war or conflict and creating a local football team made up of refugees.

   FC St Pauli also takes a stand against sexism and homophobia, and has, at 30%, the biggest female support of any club in the country. It’s little wonder, therefore, that St Pauli is the favourite team among fans of other football clubs in Germany.

   The extraordinary history of FC St Pauli has at least as much to do with the concerted efforts at community organisation among supporters as with the German model of fan ownership. The entire story of this exceptional club is told in the excellent book St Pauli: Another Football is Possible, by Carles Viñas and Natxo Parra.

   The twin ideas of fan ownership and community involvement resonate in Scotland, too. In Scotland’s Premiership, but a million miles away from the often resurrected idea of Rangers and Celtic “breaking away” to join the big money clubs of the English Premiership, there is the example of St Mirren, the club I have supported since I was a very young boy.

   For reasons that are more prosaic than the dynamic politics at St Pauli, the Paisley club’s supporters will become majority shareholders of St Mirren this coming summer. Following years of careful consolidation of the club’s finances since it moved into its new stadium in 2009, the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association will take control of operations alongside its partner, the Kibble children’s charity and social enterprise.

   The ESL debacle, in which 12 mega-clubs with a global reach attempted to break away, contrasts starkly with the return of real fan power at clubs like St Pauli and St Mirren. We are a long way away from truly saving football from big capitalist interests; that would require international governance that introduced reasonable caps on ticket prices, managers’ pay, players’ salaries, transfer fees and every aspect of the commercial dealings of professional football clubs.

   For that to happen, fans really would have to exert their power at the local and national levels, as they are currently doing in Denmark, where the football authorities are under growing pressure to withdraw the national team from the blood-stained Qatar World Cup. For now, however, fan power in places like Hamburg and Paisley shows that, at a local level at least, another football truly is possible.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on May 2, 2021

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Dive and Odyssey, by Scottish Ballet

Diving into blue and virtual reality in Scottish Ballet’s short films

Dive and Odyssey, by Scottish Ballet

Review by Mark Brown

Imagine, if you will, a creative collision between the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco, dance innovator Pina Bausch, auteur filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and the video (directed by Toni Basil and David Byrne) for Talking Heads’ 1980 hit Once in a Lifetime. Such is the collaboration evoked (in the mind of this critic, at least) by Dive, the short film released by Scottish Ballet on April 29, International Dance Day.

   Created by Sophie Laplane and James Bonas, and directed by Oscar Sansom, the piece’s stated inspiration is the famous shade of blue originated by French artist Yves Klein. Human and humanoid figures, and, in one of many hilarious moments that illuminate this 13-minute film, a domesticated mammal, complement and clash in white and Klein’s startling blue.

   The sound of Schubert’s heart-breakingly beautiful Ständchen is accompanied by appropriately lyrical movement. However, this audio-visual harmony is interrupted, Godard-style, by technically savvy, 21st-century jump cuts.

   These cuts (or, perhaps, cut-ins) hit us, not only with sudden bursts of azure, but also with unexpected, often gloriously comic, juxtapositions in both sound and vision. Imagine a calm, tea drinking Metallica fan making an instantaneous intervention at a ballet danced to Schubert. Then imagine such moments coming at you, in fabulous variety, again and again.

   The movement itself is universally superb, shifting constantly between harmony and dissonance, beauty, sensuality and comedy. There is something vaguely sinister, too, in the blue figure whose head is covered entirely by a mask – it is interesting, given the mandatory mask-wearing of the last 13-and-a-half months, to consider how essential access to facial expression is to our culture.

   It would be criminal to divulge the deliciously surprising specifics of the imagery of the piece. Suffice it to say that Dive is a work of refreshing originality and a genuinely cinematic, absolutely invigorating feast for the senses.

   So extraordinary and accomplished is Laplane and Bonas’s piece that it seems almost unfair to compare it with Odyssey, a film by Nicholas Shoesmith (choreography) and Ciaran Lyons (direction) which is released on Tuesday. If it stood alone, the movie would, I suspect, attract considerable plaudits. As it is, the stunning ingenuity of Dive is likely to garner the lion’s share of the praise.

   That said, Odyssey, in which a young, male dancer takes to a (mainly) empty studio space wearing a virtual reality (VI) headset, is an impressive and engaging (almost) 12-minute film. Indeed, like Dive, one of its notable strengths is that it places great emphasis upon the unique powers and possibilities of film, rather than simply filming a choreography created for the stage.

   The cutting back-and-forth between the protagonist’s physical and virtual realities is inherently and compellingly cinematic. At one moment, the VI has the dancer turning in alarmed circles as he is taunted by threatening, crawling human figures.

   At another, he is charmed by a group of female dancers who surround him. Whether these young women are benign or something more sinister (such as Sirens of an alternative reality) is tantalisingly uncertain.

   The piece, which is danced excellently throughout, is accompanied, fittingly, by disconcerting and premonitory electronic music by Craven Faults and Squarepusher.

   Taken together, this fine pair of short dance films underlines not only Scottish Ballet’s commitment to contemporary dance, but also its remarkable ability to adapt and innovate in times of crisis.

   As we, in the countries of the UK, emerge from pandemic restrictions, dance will return in its natural, live state. However, like the work for film created by Pina Bausch, Dive, in particular, will continue to demand our attention.

Dive (available now) and Odyssey (available from May 4) can be watched via the Scottish Ballet website until May 30: scottishballet.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday National on May 2, 2021

© Mark Brown

Feature: Nicola Roy’s podcast The Cultural Coven

Making a successful podcast out of the Covid crisis

Much-loved stage actor Nicola Roy has broken into a new career as a podcast presenter thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, writes Mark Brown

Nicola Roy (left) playing opposite Siobhan Redmond in Thon Man Molière. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

For Edinburgh-born actor Nicola Roy, as for so many other thespians, the Covid-19 pandemic brought a successful stage career to a very abrupt halt. Just prior to the first UK-wide lockdown in March of last year, Roy had been in Australia for five weeks performing in Liz Lochhead’s celebrated, one-hour adaptation of the satirical comedy Tartuffe by the French bard Molière.

   The production received the coveted Critics’ Choice Award at the Adelaide Festival and was set for a Scotland-wide tour. The show had started its life at Glasgow’s lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie and A Pint, and had been the toast of the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.

   However, barely had Roy, Lochhead and the rest of the company returned from their Australian triumph than the playhouses were shuttered and the tour put very emphatically on hold. Like most people across the theatre industry, the actor began having conversations about what she could do creatively while live drama was suspended.

   In the midst of this brainstorming, producer Stephen Dunn (who was a co-producer on Tartuffe) suggested to Roy that, given her famed love of conversation, she consider doing a podcast. Not only that, but he had the audio equipment needed to make a professional job of it.

   “I’d never thought about doing a podcast at all”, Roy says. “But I felt very excited by it.

   “I have earned the nickname in some theatrical companies of ‘social secretary’, because I love an event. I love nothing more than bringing people together.”

   The actor’s excitement led her to the door of David Greig, playwright and artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Roy has a long association with the Edinburgh company and Greig’s support led to The Cultural Coven, a podcast produced by In Motion Theatre Company in association with the Lyceum Theatre and the Stephen Dunn Theatre Fund.

   The basis for the show is that Roy interviews leading figures in Scottish cultural life. The actor-turned-presenter is fortunate, she says, “to have wonderful friends” in the Scottish arts who agreed to “take a leap of faith” and be interviewed by her for the podcast.

   Those friends include singer-songwriter, radio presenter and Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross, fellow actor Elaine C Smith, author Ian Rankin and, of course, her good pal, playwright, poet and Scotland’s former Makar Liz Lochhead. With that kind of line-up, it should come as little surprise that The Cultural Coven has garnered considerable media attention.

   For example, Lochhead’s always refreshing honesty led to headlines when she told Roy that the examiners at the Scottish Qualifications Agency were “absolute idiots” in their selection of her work. While overlooking her early poem The Choosing, which teenagers adore, she said, the examiners chose instead work that was more relevant to middle-aged women who were “victims of the dating game”.

   Another high-profile friend who came on the show was Outlander star and whisky entrepreneur Sam Heughan. Roy and Heughan go way back to their days as founder members of the Lyceum Youth Theatre.

   The appearance of Heughan on The Cultural Coven led to massive interest from Outlander fans, and thence to coverage in Hello! magazine. As the Heughan interview attracted increasing levels of attention, Roy became a little apprehensive about how the Outlander star’s legion of followers would judge her interview.

   As it turned out, she needn’t have worried. “They were really lovely”, she recalls.

   “They said I got things out of Sam that they had never heard before, and that I didn’t ask the slightly disrespectful questions that sometimes can be asked.”

   Wonderful though the feedback has been for her interview with Heughan, Roy’s most embarrassing moment in making the podcasts also came during her conversation with him. Prior to doing the interview friends had dared the presenter to ask the actor out on a friend’s behalf and, even, to ask him to marry her.

   Roy told Heughan this in the course of their chit-chat, to which the actor replied, ‘I’m waiting for this marriage proposal.’ “I had no comeback”, Roy remembers with shame.

   “I pride myself on a good comeback, but I reverted to the vocabulary of a 15-year-old and said, ‘I’m taking a beamer!’”

   If this self-deprecating anecdote proves anything, it is that, based on the world of the arts though it is, Roy’s podcast has more in common with The Graham Norton Show than it does with a self-consciously artsy programme, such as Front Row on Radio 4. “It was really important to cover various genres within the arts”, Roy comments.

   “I wanted it to have something for everyone. I’m aware that you can say ‘it’s a podcast about the arts’, and that can sound like you have to be a Guardian reader to appreciate it.

   “But that’s just not the case. Hopefully, we’ve made it accessible.

   “It’s green room chat, I set the guests a creative challenge, I do some quickfire questions.”

   Those quickfire questions include a “yes” or “no” to Scottish independence. So far, Roy, says, every single guest has answered “yes”.

   This doesn’t surprise the presenter, who is an ardent supporter of an independent Scotland herself. “The nature of the arts requires us to be pretty robust”, she says.

   Artists are constantly shifting from job to job, she continues. They are “probably less scared of change” than the average citizen, as a consequence. 

   Add to that the much-vaunted “liberalism” of the arts, which Roy thinks is reflected in generally progressive political attitudes among artists, and it shouldn’t surprise us that indy has made a clean sweep among her podcast guests thus far.

   Now that the vaccination programme is beginning to bear fruit and an eventual return to the stage is on the horizon, will Roy be exiting The Cultural Coven? “I actually don’t want to leave the podcast now”, she replies.

   “I’m very much an actress first-and-foremost, but I think there is a hunger to know more about artists. Hopefully, I can have a podcast going alongside my acting work.”

The Cultural Coven can be accessed through the Lyceum Theatre’s website or podcast platforms: lyceum.org.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on May 2, 2021

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: Kirsty Stuart on John Byrne’s Tennis Elbow

Kirsty Stuart on John Byrne’s Tennis Elbow, a sequel 44 years in the making

Actor Kirsty Stuart is thrilled to be playing the lead role in Tennis Elbow, the new play by Scotland’s “coolest man”, John Byrne, writes Mark Brown

During the Renaissance, the Italians spoke of the “Uomo Universale”, the “Universal Man” who could “do all things if he will.” If the Scottish arts can lay claim to having such a Renaissance man it is, surely, John Byrne.

   The Paisley-born man o’ pairts is equally acclaimed as a painter, playwright and screenwriter; not to mention his accomplishments as an illustrator, a theatre set designer and, perennially, Scotland’s best dressed man. Now in his early-80s, Byrne seems to have excelled in every area of artistic endeavour that he has turned his hand to.

   This spring, courtesy of the Covid pandemic, he may be on the brink of becoming master of yet another art form, namely, the audio play. Some 44 years after he made his theatrical debut with Writer’s Cramp (a hit at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe starring the stellar trio of Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett), Byrne has written a sequel, which goes under the title of Tennis Elbow.

   With playhouses still closed, and the likelihood that they will be among the very last public institutions to reopen, the new drama (Byrne’s first original play for 13 years) will make its debut, not on stage, but in a very 21st-century incarnation of the radio play. That is to say that Tennis Elbow will be broadcast (between April 30 and May 8) on Sound Stage, the “audio-digital platform” created in response to the pandemic by Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and Naked Productions.

   The new play is not focused primarily on the central protagonist of the earlier drama, the somewhat autobiographical Francis Seneca McDade, “an aspiring writer and would be artist from Paisley.” Rather, it takes as its central figure Pam, McDade’s estranged wife, who is also a writer and a painter.

   The world premiere boasts a truly brilliant cast. The superb Kirsty Stuart leads the line as Pam. She is joined by some of the most illustrious names in the Scottish acting profession, including: Maureen Beattie, Brian Ferguson, Jessica Hardwick and Sally Reid.

   The play, which is told in flashbacks, unfolds the story of Pam’s often difficult progress through life, including time in both boarding school and prison.

   For Stuart, being asked to take on the role was nothing short of a joy. “It was a thrill to know that he’s still writing and it’s still brilliant”, she says.

   “In that classic John way, the play has these great, big, long sentences, and these long, convoluted thoughts. They’re wonderful because they take you away from the modern world that we live in where everything is quick information. He writes big, almost classical speeches.”

   In fact, Stuart, whose screen credits include Outlander and Closing the Ring, remembers having a moment of real anxiety when she was almost overwhelmed by the excellence of Byrne’s writing. “I suddenly had a massive panic”, she recalls.

   “I thought, ‘I can’t suddenly just start recording this, I need four weeks’ rehearsal… I don’t want to mess this up, this is John Byrne. I’ve got to do it justice.’”

   It wasn’t long, however, before she got down to brass tacks. This is theatre (albeit audio-digital theatre) after all, and, as Shakespeare tells us, “the play’s the thing”.

   As she got deeper into Byrne’s drama, Stuart found it “touching” to reflect on the fact that her character was first created more than 40 years ago. However, she explains, it’s important that she, as an actor, doesn’t allow that history to weigh too heavily upon her.

   “When it comes to the playing of it”, she comments, “you just have to play the character.” Everything around the history of Writer’s Cramp and Byrne’s career between 1977 and today “isn’t really playable”.  

   “It’s nice”, Stuart continues, “to have warm thoughts” about Byrne’s artistic life and how the character of Pam fits into all of that. “Ultimately, however, you just have to play her and what’s on the page.”

   The actor’s respect for Byrne the writer extends to Byrne the man. “John’s just possibly the coolest man that you’re ever going to meet”, she says.

   “He met my boys a couple years ago [when they were aged six and four], a pair of wild little boys, and they were mesmerised by him… He’s got that kind of aura about him.”

   Given that respect, it goes without saying that Stuart, her fellow cast members and director Elizabeth Newman have done everything they can to make their production of Tennis Elbow a first class piece of audio drama. “Elizabeth is very keen that the work that’s being produced is solid art”, says Stuart.

   “It’s not just a case of saying ‘oh, we’re shut down at the moment, let’s just chuck stuff online frivolously.’ Elizabeth felt very strongly that, whilst the parameters have changed massively for theatre, we can still do something that’s worthy of everyone’s time.”

   Which is not to say that, having recorded Tennis Elbow as an audio play, Stuart wouldn’t jump at the chance to perform it live on stage in the future. “Oh my God, yes! Absolutely!

   “Radio, TV and film are all valid mediums, all fantastically thrilling in their own ways”, the actor comments. “Yet, nothing compares to sitting in a theatre, whether it’s with 12 other people or 200. It’s happening right now, it’s happening in front of me, and there is a collective experience happening.

   “I wouldn’t pay 25 quid to sit in the stalls at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow to hear people speak the way that they would in the queue at Tesco”, Stuart continues. “John’s way of writing is heightened, stylised and poetic. It’s typically John.”

   Byrne’s writing style is, as Stuart observes, instantly recognisable. We can identify it almost immediately, just as we can pinpoint the distinctive style of a sculptor like Henry Moore or a painter like, well, John Byrne.

Tennis Elbow is streamed on the Sound Stage platform, April 30 to May 8: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on April 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Ghosts, Glasgow

Walking with the ghosts of a shameful past

Ghosts, by National Theatre of Scotland, Glasgow City Centre

Review by Mark Brown

Image: National Theatre of Scotland

Buchanan, Cochrane, Dennistoun, Dunlop, Glassford, Ingram, Oswald, Speirs. The list of Glasgow slavers, revered as “Tobacco Lords”, who are celebrated in the naming of the streets and districts of the city is as long as it is shameful.

   Even in recent decades Glasgow City Council has thought it proper to renovate and promote ‘The Merchant City’ without facing up to the central role of African slavery in its creation. Was a second thought given when this hub of music venues, theatres, clubs, bars and restaurants was relaunched under its existing name?

   The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square stands, we are often told, in premises formerly inhabited by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Less often are we reminded that, prior to its purchase by the bank, the grand building was the ostentatious mansion of the tobacco tycoon William Cunninghame, who reputedly owned more than 300 enslaved human beings on his plantations in Jamaica.

   The denial and neglect of this history, even now, in the 21st century, sits uncomfortably with Glasgow’s renaming, in 1986, of St George’s Place as Nelson Mandela Place. Many Glaswegians are, justly, proud that Mandela was granted the freedom of our city, and that he, famously, came to Glasgow in 1993 to recognise our solidarity with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

   However, as the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest work, Ghosts, by Glasgow-based theatre artist Adura Onashile, makes abundantly clear, Glasgow and Scotland have a considerable distance to go in facing up to their, that is our, racial history.

   The piece is a promenade drama conducted through a smartphone app. One begins one’s journey outside the former Ramshorn Kirk in the Merchant City.

   Standing outside the former church, you are beginning on Ingram Street. The thoroughfare is named after Archibald Ingram, former Lord Provost of Glasgow and, with his brother-in-law John Glassford, slave holder in numerous tobacco plantations in the North American colonies.

   Activate the app on your phone and you hear a young African man (played powerfully by Reuben Joseph) speak the undeniable words: “I am this city. I am my master’s house. 
Built with my blood, my sweat, my dying.”

   This unnamed young man will be your guide through the streets and history of Glasgow. At some point in the 18th century, he was torn from his mother as she was sold into slavery.

   She is poked, prodded, evaluated with no more respect than a piece of livestock. Most likely bound for the plantations of the Caribbean or North America, she will be transported in conditions worse than would have been afforded to cattle or sheep. She stands a 16 percent chance of dying of disease while in transportation.

   Her son will be transported to Scotland. He will seek solace in the memory of her song.

   He will be dressed up like a doll, displayed as a curio, and worked as an enslaved servant in the grand house of a tobacco merchant. When he escapes, he will be hunted as missing “property”.

   As we hear this terrible story, we see on our screen the titular “ghosts” of the piece’s title. Brought to us by way of AR (augmented reality) visuals, they represent the almost innumerable, certainly unnamed enslaved Africans whose unconscionable suffering created the wealth of Glasgow’s merchants.

   Our journey takes us to Virginia Street (named, like Jamaica Street, after a location of the Glasgow merchants’ plantations). There, without irony, at the opening to Virginia Court, a bright blue plaque informs us that we are on the “merchant trail”.

   The young man’s story, his hiding, his running from the police, takes us to Cunninghame’s former mansion, now a gallery shuttered against the Covid pandemic. It takes us along Buchanan Street (named for Andrew Buchanan, another Lord Provost of Glasgow and the proud owner of as many as 300 slaves in Virginia) and down to the River Clyde.

   As it does so, the “ghosts” evoke the racial legacy of British imperialism, slavery and white supremacism. A legacy that brings us to the UK today, to black deaths at the hands of racist assailants, and to Sheku Bayoh dying in police custody in Kirkcaldy in 2015.

   Onashile’s writing combines poignantly with the acting, sound, music and visuals of the piece. The outcome is an art work that carries an intense resonance with the abominable history behind the locations.

   One ends one’s journey through Ghosts at the railings on Clyde Street, with the statue of the Spanish anti-fascist fighter Dolores Ibárruri, aka La Pasionaria (symbol of a very different, proud Glasgow legacy), to one’s right. Turn around to face back to St Enoch Square.

   There, on the wall in front of you, emblazoned in colourful defiance, are the words “Black Lives Matter”.

Ghosts runs from tomorrow until May 9. For more details visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on April 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

Feature: The return of the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2021

The shows must go on

As the Edinburgh International Festival and the Festival Fringe announce the tentative returns of their programmes this coming August, Mark Brown envisages a celebration of the arts that returns to its roots

EIF director Fergus Linehan

What a difference a cluster of vaccines makes. One year ago, arts lovers were reeling from the announcements (made on April 1, 2020) that, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programmes would not go ahead for the first time in their 73-year histories.

   The week just gone brought happier news. On Tuesday, EIF director Fergus Linehan announced that his Festival’s prestigious programme would, government guidance allowing, go ahead this coming August.

   The 2021 EIF will, Linehan says, be “reimagined”; which is to say that it will be presented outdoors in what are described as “bespoke, temporary outdoor pavilions.” The programme, which will, it seems, be slanted towards music, will occur in three venues, including the Old College Quad at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Park. For those unable to get to Edinburgh, due either to coronavirus restrictions or health concerns, the Festival will be streaming selected performances online.

   Following the good news from the “official” Festival, the Fringe announced, on Wednesday, that it, too, would be coming back in August. Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Fringe Society, declared that registrations were now open for artists who wished to present their work in this year’s programme.

   The Society announced the launch of Fringe Player, a new online platform for artists who want to create work to be streamed on the internet. However, buoyed by the Scottish Government’s latest pronouncements on the loosening of Covid restrictions, the Fringe also hopes to offer live, in-person shows.

  “As Scotland navigates its roadmap out of lockdown, much is still unknown about what the Fringe will look like this August”, the Society’s announcement read. “However, a range of scenarios are being prepared for, from socially distanced live events to digital offerings.”

   These are, of course, fantastically welcome developments. The International Festival’s decision to go with an entirely outdoor programme is, in my opinion, entirely correct.

   The EIF is a big beast, its programme is led by some pretty large-scale orchestral, operatic and theatrical fare. In that sense it is like an oil tanker, albeit a glorious and much-loved vessel.

   It can’t be expected to change course at a moment’s notice. It’s only right, therefore, that the International Festival doesn’t leave any aspect of its schedule at the mercy of ever-shifting Covid restrictions.

   Not only that, but, if the artist’s impression of the covered, open air venue planned for the Old College Quad is anything to go by, audiences really can look forward to state-of-the-art outdoor accommodation. Your parents’ flyaway gazebo from the local DIY store this is not.

   However, where the Fringe is concerned, things are slightly different. I’m glad that the Fringe Society has been deliberately vague about exactly what kind of work is likely to make up its 2021 programme.

   I hope McCarthy and her excellent team will forgive me if I don’t get particularly excited about the Fringe Player. Offering an online platform is, unquestionably, a worthwhile and important project in these plague-battered times.

   However, and this has to be said, there has been too much excited talk from some quarters about the “new possibilities” created for the performing arts by the Covid-imposed necessity to go online. This enthusiasm is understandable but, for the most part, wrong.

   Given the terrible threat the pandemic has presented to live performance, it was inevitable that some artists and commentators would make a virtue out of a necessity, leading to grand claims about the glittering future of the “online arts”.

   Calmer heads realise, however, that, generally speaking, online work represents a lifeboat, rather than an epochal change in their chosen art form. The thing about a lifeboat is that it’s only a means of survival until one can be taken safely back to dry land.

   Likewise, with the live arts, online work has been a very welcome haven during the necessary closure of theatres and music venues. But it’s no substitute for the seminal connection between performer and audience member who encounter each other in the same physical space.

   Of course, the internet has the potential to reach much bigger audiences than does live and present performance, but the same was true at the advents of sound recording, radio, cinema and television. There is a reason why every technology that was perceived as sounding the death knell of live performance has, ultimately, proved to be a very different and distinct medium from the continuously thriving live arts.

   Human beings are social animals and we need to experience culture live and direct, viscerally even. So, great though it has been to binge watch Call My Agent and Deutschlands 83, 86 and 89, many of us are straining at the leash to be back in theatres engaging with live drama.

   Which is where the Fringe really comes in. 2021 could be the year in which the Fringe returns to its roots as the home of upstart, troubadour artists who are motivated, first-and-foremost, by the desire, in fact the need, to express themselves in a live and present performance.

   When the Fringe Society talks of “socially distanced live events”, the assumption will be that they mean outdoor productions, such as Grid Iron theatre company’s postponed show Doppler. However, the beauty of much “fringe” theatre is that it can be extremely fleet of foot.

   It is perfectly possible that Scotland’s post-election First Minister will announce, between mid-May and the end of June, that indoor performances at 40 or 50 per cent capacity will be permitted. If that happens, the Edinburgh Fringe will, I suspect, find itself inundated by artists and companies keen to stage work that requires very few performers and a bare minimum of props, sets and lighting.

   Such work will often be rough-and-ready. Some of it will, quite frankly, be awful. But some of it will be highly original and mind-blowingly brilliant.

   I attended my first Edinburgh Fringe in 1989, aged 18. I’ve been to every Fringe since, both as paying audience member and, since 1998, professional theatre critic. Needless to say, I felt last year’s cancellation as keenly as anyone.

   While researching my book on modern Scottish theatre (Modernism and Scottish Theatre Since 1969) in the middle to end of the last decade, I spoke with many of the leading figures in our live drama, from directors Giles Havergal and Gerry Mulgrew, to playwrights (and, it should be said, also directors) Zinnie Harris and David Greig. Every one of them talked about the immense importance of the Edinburgh Festivals, and the Fringe in particular, in raising an awareness among Scottish theatre artists and audiences that what was happening in Warsaw, Paris and, even, Buenos Aires might be as important as, or (whisper it) even more important than, theatre being produced in London.

   This year’s Fringe will certainly have less international work, thanks to the on-going effects of the pandemic. However, Covid restrictions permitting, the festival may well attract artists from around the UK, and, perhaps, neighbouring countries such as Ireland, Denmark and Sweden, who are willing to come to Edinburgh, at fairly short notice, with the kind of experimental work that has often lit up the Fringe.

   To make sure I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree about the appetite of artists to come to this year’s Fringe, almost at the drop of a hat, I put in a call to Guy Masterson, multiple award-winning Fringe actor, writer and producer. Prior to last year’s cancelled festival, Masterson, who is, like his illustrious great-uncle Richard Burton, a proud Welshman, had performed at 26 consecutive Fringes, often with critically acclaimed one-man shows, such as Animal Farm, Under Milk Wood, Fern Hill and Other Dylan Thomas and Shylock

Guy Masterson in Under Milk Wood

   As it happened, when I got in touch with him following the Fringe Society’s announcement that there would be a 2021 programme, Masterson had just spent some time on the Edinburgh Fringe online forum. On that platform, he told me, there is huge enthusiasm for performing in Edinburgh this coming August.

   “Hell yes! That’s the feeling I’m getting from the artists on the forum”, the actor says. “If there’s a Fringe, these performers are going to be there.

   “I do believe they will do it, and they will tailor their work to what the Fringe can provide for them… I have thought the same way. Part of me wants to go up because I don’t want to miss it.

   “I don’t want my consecutive record [of 26 Fringes] broken, although it was enforced that it be broken last year. Forgetting last year, I’d be continuing my consecutive record.

   “So, that’s one of the reasons I’d do it, even if it was just to come up and do some Dylan Thomas.”

   Masterson first presented his solo performance of poems and short stories by his compatriot, the great Welsh author Dylan Thomas, on the Fringe 20 years ago. It is, he agrees, precisely the kind of show that can be staged at the year’s Fringe, at short notice, should government guidelines suddenly allow.

   “That is something I can do in a garden or on The Meadows, if it were allowed. If my [financial] risks were reduced completely, let’s say my overheads were down to about 30 quid a gig, and I had a place to crash, I would take that risk.”

   Those are heavy caveats, it has to be said, not least because Masterson’s typical overheads are, he explains, more than £300 for each performance. Nonetheless, the Fringe veteran is not ruling out the possibility of doing one of his much-loved one man shows in Edinburgh this coming August (even, he says, if it means performing outdoors and charging theatre-lovers a modest £5 a head).

   If even Masterson, one of the biggest names in Edinburgh Fringe theatre, is open to performing this summer, there are certainly grounds for optimism about this year’s festival.

   It is foolhardy to make very definite predictions regarding the live arts at the present time. Our extraordinary NHS may be doing a remarkable job at vaccinating the population of the UK, but the pandemic remains a presence here and, certainly, abroad.

   However, one can hope for a return this year of the original Fringe spirit. Let’s have artists and producers with the idealism and energy of the great impresario and promoter Richard Demarco.

   Sure, his “come all ye” attitude towards eastern European avant-garde performance meant that one might spend an excruciating hour in the company of a highly distressed female actor from the former Yugoslavia whose performance was comprised of little more than going from one audience member to the next pleading “not the children!” However, it also meant that you would encounter wild flights of theatrical fancy from Poland or Hungary that gave you a whole new outlook on life, let alone theatre.

   Let’s have theatrical risk takers who are inspired by the stars of Fringes past, like the surreal, brain-scrambling Akhe from St Petersburg or the razor sharp, radical, American satirists The Riot Group. Let’s have Scotland’s own, irrepressible actor and performer Tam Dean Burn excoriating the Royal Family while dressed in a frock.

   Let’s have Nic Green’s politicised movement and dance, David Ireland’s darkly hilarious play writing, and the up-to-the-minute dramatic insights of Jo Clifford and Adura Onashile. Let’s have, in other words, a Fringe full of inspired artists who care much more about feeding our souls than they do about beer brand sponsorship and the financial bottom line.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on April 18, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Violet, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Power and pathos in Conservatoire musical theatre film

Violet, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Review by Mark Brown

Maren Ovidia in the title role in Violet. Photo: Robert McFadzean

It isn’t difficult to see why the teachers of the BA Musical Theatre course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) selected the award-winning 1997 Off-Broadway show Violet for performance by the class of 2021. The musical by Jeanine Tesori (score) and Brian Crawley (libretto) is set in a southern US in the early-1960s that connects time and time again with the problems of America, and indeed the world, today.

   Covid-19 may, by-and-large, present less of a physical threat to the young, but it has ensured that 2020 through 2021 has been a terrible time for young people, especially those in the final years of secondary education and those pursuing degrees in higher education institutions. No musical theatre student wants to head towards their graduation with a show that is filmed and streamed online, rather than performed before a live audience.

   That, however, has been the lot of the cast of this online production. Add to that the requirements of physical distancing and “household bubbling” among this student cohort, and one can’t help but feel that the performers, musicians, designers and technical crew who have created this show are analogous to a boxer who has been sent into the ring with a blindfold on and one hand tied behind their back.

   Be that as it may, these brave young artists have a tale to tell, and they tell it with undeniable gusto. Their story is based upon the short fiction The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts. It follows its titular hero, Violet Karl (played by Maren Ovidia), as she makes a road trip by Greyhound bus.

   Facially disfigured in an accident, the young woman is making her way from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the fervent belief that she will be made “beautiful” by a television faith healer. On her journey, Violet encounters two soldiers, Flick (who is black) and Monty (who is white).

   The love triangle that follows places Violet at a fascinating junction. At one level she appears like the self-image of the white south in the 1950s, but one “spoiled” by her disfigurement.

   However, despite her seeming commitment to Christianity, she has a liberal attitude to sex that sets her apart from the caricature of “Southern Belle” innocence. Add to that an aversion to racism, and Violet is an unlikely signpost towards the soon-to-be burgeoning political radicalism of much of the US in the 1960s.

   Which is not to say that Tesori’s music follows that signpost. A rock opera influenced by Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground and The Doors this is not.

   Rather, the composer offers a varied score that neatly mirrors the narrative, while staying well within the established boundaries of the Broadway musical. As it does so, it references country and western, the blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

   The film itself faces the same difficulty as professional online movies of stage productions, in that it, inevitably, looks like a fish out of water. That said, despite having minimal props and costumes, and being hemmed in by public health restrictions, its production values are actually superior to some of the professional online offerings I have seen over the last year.

   It’s hard for the performers to truly shine in this context, yet the cast manages to impress across the piece. Michael Ahomka-Lindsay excites, both in song and acting, as the charismatic and decent Flick. 

   Norwegian performer Maren Ovidia is a particular revelation in the title role, singing her part beautifully, while achieving a wonderful balance between her character’s power and pathos.

Violet streams via the RCS website until April 25: rcs.ac.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on April 18, 2021

© Mark Brown

Preview: Scottish Opera spring-summer 2021 season

Scottish Opera returns to a screen… and a car park near you

National opera company announces programme of filmed and live, outdoor performances

BY MARK BROWN

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Mimi), Rhian Lois (Musetta) and Roland Wood (Marcello) in Scottish Opera’s 2020 outdoor production of La bohème. Photo: James Glossop

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic stage artists across Scotland have been finding innovative ways to engage with their audiences, despite the closure of the theatres. No company has been more committed to this noble project than Scottish Opera.

   Our national opera company’s pandemic offerings have included acclaimed films of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Indeed, during a slight loosening in coronavirus restrictions, they even presented a brilliant, physically distanced live production of Puccini’s La bohème, which was performed in the car park of the company’s Glasgow studios.

    Now, as we look forward to a progressively more vaccinated, increasingly “normal” future, the company has announced an exciting programme of filmed and live shows to take us from spring and into summer. There will be two films, Live in South Lanarkshire (which premieres on April 23) and Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (which will start streaming online on June 18).

   The live work will come in the shape of Pop-Up Opera in outdoor venues around the country and a major, outdoor production of Verdi’s comic opera Falstaff.                

   The last live indoor performance Scottish Opera presented was an Opera Highlights show, staged shortly before the first lockdown, in the splendid surroundings of Rutherglen Town Hall. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that the company should kick-off its new season with a recorded performance at the iconic Rutherglen venue.

   Filmed on March 24, the show offers highlights from Bizet’s Carmen, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, as well as operatic snippets from such great composers as Mozart and Puccini.        

   Following on from that, the company will launch the film of L’elisir d’amore. Roxana Haines, the woman behind last year’s screen version of Così fan tutte, will tackle Donizetti’s comedic melodrama of love across the boundaries of social class.

   Superb though Scottish Opera’s filmed work has been during the pandemic, its latest online offerings can only function as theatrical starters, mere tasters for the main, live productions to follow. The first will be Pop-Up Operas, carefully truncated presentations of pieces by Gilbert and Sullivan.

   Taking to the road on June 8 (Covid restrictions allowing), the company hopes to reach more than 12,000 people throughout Scotland with its 25-minute versions of The Gondoliers, The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and Iolanthe.

   Then, on a date yet to be confirmed, comes the big one. Sir David McVicar will design and direct a large-scale, outdoor production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

   The opera will be sung in English, in a translation by Amanda Holden (who also translated the libretto for last year’s glorious La bohème), and performed, like the Puccini, in Scottish Opera’s car park. It will be co-produced with outdoor opera specialists Santa Fe Opera of New Mexico, and will boast a wonderful cast, including Roland Wood and Elizabeth Llewellyn, both of whom performed in La bohème.

   Scottish Opera’s General Director, Alex Reedijk, said: ‘I am delighted that we are preparing to bring live music back to audiences following almost a year without live opera.    

   “Falstaff will be a love letter to our glorious art form, with over 120 people working together on the production. Sir David McVicar offers an amazing vision for our car park as he directs and designs an ingenious show with exquisite 17th century period costumes, promising an evening of comedy, pathos and pure entertainment…

   “We plan to be back in theatres presenting live opera as soon as restrictions allow, but in the meantime we are thrilled to be able to offer outdoor, live performances again.”

   Given the company’s recent, Covid-era successes, it seems certain that audiences will be equally thrilled.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on April 11, 2021

© Mark Brown

Feature: Uncle Eric, the family oppressor

Uncle Eric, the family oppressor

Genealogical research can bring unwanted skeletons tumbling from the ancestral closet, as Mark Brown discovered when he looked into the record of his forebear Eric Medlock of the British Palestine Police

Genealogy seems to become a more popular pastime year-on-year. In part, the trend for researching one’s family history is fed by websites such as Ancestry.co.uk and TV programmes like hit BBC show Who Do You Think You Are?

   However, if you are tempted to start raking through your family’s past, you have to be prepared to come across some uncomfortable facts.

   I remember Alexander Armstrong making a darkly hilarious comedy sketch about genealogy television programmes in which he ended up abandoning recording after some unwanted stories came to light. One family member turned out to be a brothel madam and another, a factory owner, had a sinister predilection for young children.

   Sometimes reality can have an even deeper sense of irony than comic fiction, as I have discovered in my own dabbling in family research. Suffice it to say that my genealogical inquiries have brought an embarrassing and shameful skeleton tumbling out of the family closet. 

   To start at the beginning, like many Scottish people, my family background is a mixture of folk from around Scotland, the United Kingdom and beyond. My paternal grandparents hailed from Aberdeenshire and Lanarkshire, my maternal grandparents from Inverclyde and the English county of Norfolk.

   The “skeleton” belongs to the Norfolk branch. Growing up I knew my Norfolk family, the Medlocks, as farming folk.

   My grandfather worked around Scotland as a farm manager and his father and brother back in East Anglia worked farms and had their own smallholdings. Occasionally one would hear talk of “Uncle Eric”, my grandfather’s uncle and, therefore, my great grand-uncle, who had “been in the British Palestine Police.”

   In my barely politicised childhood I thought little of this distant relative from an almost forgotten past. However, recently, I became aware of a seemingly innocuous event (namely, a sale in a London auction house in 2011) that shed very clear, and disturbing, light on Uncle Eric’s time in Palestine. 

   Collectors of British military and imperial medals had sold a number of items through auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. One of them, going for the not insignificant sum of £500, was a British Empire Medal (BEM), awarded by King George VI in 1937, “for meritorious service”, to one Eric William Medlock.

   It transpires that Uncle Eric was somewhat more than “in” the British Palestine Police. Indeed to describe him as simply a “policeman” in Palestine would be akin to classifying Sweeney Todd as a mere “barber”.

This citation for Medlock’s British Empire Medal was published in the UK state gazettes

   Eric Medlock had joined the Palestine police force in 1929, and, by 1936, he was a Mounted Sergeant. He was promoted to Inspector in November 1938 and to Acting Superintendent of Police in September 1939.

   In 1941, he was recorded as serving in the ominously named Mobile Police Striking Force in Nazareth. The “meritorious service” for which the King honoured him was “gallant and distinguished services during the April-October 1936 riots.”

   The language in the citation was deliberately disingenuous. The Arab rebellion that Medlock had played such a notable role in trying to suppress was no mere series of “riots”, nor was it over by October 1936. In fact it marked the beginning of a fully-fledged revolutionary insurgency – an early-20th century Intifada, if you will – that would last until 1939.

   Britain had established its “Mandate” to govern Palestine, under terms established by the League of Nations, in 1920, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The indigenous Arab population of Palestine had very good reason to distrust their new imperial masters.

   Just three years before, in 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour (a Scottish Tory) made his famous “Declaration”, in a letter to Walter, Lord Rothschild, that there should be “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This would mean the partition of Palestine between the Arab and Jewish populations (the latter of which was, at that time, very much in the minority).

   Balfour had added that, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” However, Britain’s imperial history suggested that the Arab population should be extremely suspicious of the word of “perfidious Albion” on the question of their future national rights and liberties.

   By 1936, with Jewish migration to Palestine on the increase, much of the Arab population was in revolt against the forces of the British Mandate.

   At this point, it should be noted that the actions of the British Government, both in supporting the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine and in providing the conditions for a significant rise in Jewish immigration, were not motivated by any kind of solidarity with the Jewish people.

   Indeed, Balfour, during his period as Prime Minister, had overseen the passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, a pernicious piece of Priti Patel-style anti-immigrant legislation. The notorious Act had a particularly brutal impact on Jewish people seeking refuge from murderous, anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian Empire.

   The denial by the British Government of shelter for Jews fleeing persecution extended into the 1930s and resulted in the refusal of entry to the United Kingdom of tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. In their 2017 report Refugee History: The 1930s Crisis and Today, scholars Becky Taylor and Kate Ferguson record the refusal of as many as 520,000 visa applications by Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.

   We can only imagine how many of those “failed asylum seekers” died in the Holocaust as a consequence.

   In truth, when Uncle Eric joined the British Palestine Police in 1929, he was signing up to a project motivated, not by solidarity with Jews facing persecution, but by altogether baser, colonial objectives. Sir Ronald Storrs, British Military Governor of Jerusalem from 1917 to 1920 and District Commissioner of Jerusalem from 1920 to 1926, let the cat out of the bag when he opined that the purpose of the Balfour Declaration had been to create in Palestine a “little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”

   The likes of Balfour, Storrs and, indeed, William Churchill supported the Zionist project to create a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, by way of partition, on the same basis that the declining British Empire proposed partition of Ireland in 1921 and India in 1947. If Britain could not retain a territory, in part or entirety, it should, at least, find a way of continuing to exert power and influence.

   What that meant for Eric Medlock in 1936 was “pacification” of Arab rebellions. One didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the Balfour plan to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews would lead to growing tensions as the Arab population was gripped ever more strongly by the (as we now know, entirely justified) premonition of their being “ethnically cleansed” from their land.

   The British Palestine Police Association itself records the inevitable conflicts that arose in 1936. “The flash point occurred on 15th April, 1936 when Arab bandits murdered two Jews on the Tulkarm-Nablus Road. On the following day, members of the Irgun murdered two Arab workmen in a hut near Petah Tikva. Events escalated from then on.”

   It is noteworthy that this colonialist recollection refers to the Arab insurgents as “bandits”, while the ultra-right wing Zionist militia the Irgun (which would, infamously, carry out the terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946) receives no such pejorative epithet.

   Eric Medlock himself is recorded in the imperialistic history of the British Mandate in Palestine. In particular, his exploits are noted in Edward Horne’s distinctly colonialist 1982 book A Job Well Done: A History of the Palestine Police Force 1920-1948.

   For instance, Horne describes a battle in 1938 between British forces commanded by Medlock and Arab insurgents. “[Sergeant Medlock] found himself in a trap when about seventy riflemen in well concealed positions poured fire into the party.

   “The site was well chosen, and as the sun rose the police were blinded by the light and had difficulty in returning effective fire. In his own words, Medlock later stated ‘The position was a bit difficult.’

   “Luckily a company of the Leicestershire Regiment arrived to help out. The Sergeant arranged with the Company Commander to drive up a rough track leading towards Tarshia village and to cut off the gang, while the Leicesters followed.

   “At some distance the police came across a road block which the troops cleared, and while this work was in progress the army opened up with a two inch mortar which had some effect upon Fawzi’s men, who preferred to withdraw.

   “Once free, Medlock pressed on for about four kilometres and ran into another ambush. This time the gang poured shots into the car from above and McBride found his Lewis gun had jammed. Impervious to danger he quietly went through parade ground practice of dismantling the gun to rectify the stoppage, while Medlock engaged the gang from a distance of some twenty yards or so, in the rocks nearby.

   “Between police and army, a number of casualties were inflicted upon the Arabs and some prisoners were taken.”

   To read this account, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the Arab militia were the aggressors and the British police were defending their own territory, in Hertfordshire, perhaps, or in Medlock’s native Norfolk. If the colonialist narrative fails to acknowledge that the British were, in fact, an occupation force in Palestine, there is no question that the Mandate police, and Medlock in particular, were despised by the indigenous Arab population.

   A letter sent to the Inspector of the British Police in Nablus in 1936 indicates that Medlock was noted among the Arab people as an especially brutal officer. The letter read: “Warning. It was ascertained by us that Sergeant Medlock still commits all kinds of torture, beating and contempt against the Arabs in your area.

   “He brings to memory his atrocities and murder of the innocent in Jaffa. We warn you to send him away and dismiss him from the Police Force.
   “If you neglect this request, our reaction will be soon against you and all the English, by demolishing and blowing up all Police stations and your heads as a punishment.
   “Signed: The ill-disposed and revolting souls.”

   For many, one would hope most, people living in the UK today, it would be distressing to read the above description of a forebear as someone who brutalised, tortured and murdered Arab people in Mandate Palestine. For me, it carries a particularly bitter irony.

   Since the age of 17, I have been a passionate supporter of the Palestine solidarity movement. As a teenager, I joined the Anti Apartheid Movement against the racist regime in South Africa, and, as I learned about the plight of Palestinians living under the Israeli Occupation, it was natural that I also join the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

   I was educated in my pro-Palestinian politics by the great socialist, and Palestinian Jew, Yigael Glückstein (who went by the pen name of Tony Cliff). Cliff explained how the partition of Palestine in 1948 and the subsequent creation of the Israeli state as a junior partner of Western, particularly American, imperialism was a disaster, not only for Palestinian Arabs, but also for Jews.

   In his 1998 essay The Jews, Israel and the Holocaust, he recalled the day-to-day anti-Arab racism he witnessed among Zionist activists in Palestine. “The Histadrut [the Zionist labour union] organised pickets against orchard owners who employed Arab workers, forcing the owners to sack them…

   “I remember in 1945 a cafe in Tel Aviv was attacked and almost entirely broken up because of a rumour that there was an Arab working in the kitchen washing the dishes.”

  Having experienced this growing, right-wing nationalism among the Zionists in Palestine, it came as no surprise to Cliff that the State of Israel would become an oppressive force in the lives of the Palestinians.

   When Cliff was growing up, the oppressor power in Palestine was the British Mandate. It is a source of no little shame to me that my great grand-uncle, Eric William Medlock, played such a brutal role in that colonial regime.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on April 11, 2021

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview of Ghosts, by Adura Onashile

A walk in the city with the ghosts of Scotland’s slave-owning past

The National Theatre of Scotland’s new “augmented reality” art work gets to the heart of an anguished and shameful history that has shaped our modern day society, writes Mark Brown

Adura Onashile. Photo: Eoin Carey

If, between April 26 and May 9, you see someone in Glasgow’s Merchant City, standing on the spot, headphones on, staring intently at their smartphone, the chances are that they won’t be watching the latest YouTube video. It’s more likely that they will be participating in Ghosts, a new work of AR (augmented reality) street theatre by the National Theatre of Scotland.

   The piece is written and directed by Glasgow-based theatre-maker and actor Adura Onashile. Presented through an app on the audience member’s smartphone, it addresses the anguished subject of the involvement of Scots in the genocidal horrors of the colonial enslavement of African people.

   Assisted by researcher Adebusola Ramsay and historian Dr Peggy Brunache, Onashile has created a dramatic art work in which a young, 18th-century African man, played by Reuben Joseph, (one of the titular “ghosts” of Glasgow’s past) guides us around the Merchant City. As the journey unfolds, Joseph is joined by a supporting cast of Lisa Livingstone, Fiona MacNeil and Simon Donaldson. 

   Together, they tell a story that Scotland is beginning, finally, to wake up to. Namely, the role that Scots, principally tobacco merchants, played in the murderous so-called “African slave trade”. In reality, the human beings “traded” were treated with a brutal disregard that the European slavers would not have visited upon livestock.

   Lest we need to be reminded of the hellish realities of African slavery, we need only turn to The Black Jacobins, the classic account of the successful slaves’ uprising in the late-18th and early-19th centuries in what are now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, written by the great African-Caribbean historian CLR James. “The slaves were… fastened one to the other in columns, loaded with heavy stones of forty or fifty pounds in weight to prevent attempts at escape, and then marched the long journey to the sea, sometimes hundreds of miles, the weakly and sick dropping to die in the African jungle…

   “At the slave ports they were penned into ‘trunks’ for the inspection of the buyers. Night and day thousands of human beings were packed into ‘dens of putrefaction’ so that no European could stay in them for longer than quarter of an hour without fainting.”

   Britain’s central role in this slave trade became connected with the international outpouring of anger over the killing of African-American man George Floyd by Minneapolis Police in May of last year. Following the spectacular toppling of the statue of the notorious slaver Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, calls increased for Scotland to face up to its own role in African slavery.

   In Edinburgh there were demands for the removal of the statue of Henry Dundas, whose parliamentary manoeuvre delayed the abolition of slavery by Britain by 15 years, from 1792 to 1807. In November of last year, Edinburgh City Council appointed Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first Black professor, to head a review of the statues and street names in the city that are connected to slavery.

   Meanwhile, in Glasgow, activists placed signs carrying the names of Black liberation fighters alongside those of the merchants who traded so profitably in tobacco and African blood. It was a long-overdue reminder that the great architecture of the city, from the marble staircases of the City Chambers to the splendour of the Merchant City, was paid for in the anguish, torture and, often, brutal murder of African slaves.

   UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who demands that we venerate the British Empire, would have us forget that the Empire was built, in large part, on such dehumanising and brutalising of African people. Indeed, Johnson’s pushback against the anti-racist movement in Britain found expression in the publication last week of the UK government’s Sewell Report into “race and ethnic disparities”.

   The report, effectively, denies the existence of institutional racism in the UK. It has been widely decried by anti-racism campaigners and experts in the field.

   When Johnson appointed Black academic Dr Tony Sewell to head up the report, he knew that Sewell had already said that evidence for institutional racism in the UK was “somewhat flimsy” and that Black Lives Matter protests were a “sideshow”. It came as little surprise, therefore, that his report sought to downplay the impact of racism in Britain.

   Dame Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence, the Black teenager murdered by racists in South East London in 1993, was scathing of the Sewell Report. “They [the report’s authors] are not in touch with reality”, she said.

   “[They] need to speak to the young boys who are stopped and searched [by the police] constantly on the street.”

   By contrast with the authors of the Sewell Report, the people at the National Theatre of Scotland are determined to acknowledge just how closely 21st-century Britain, Scotland included, is tied up with the history of African slavery, colonialism and racism. After all, the NTS’s Glasgow headquarters are situated beside Speirs Wharf, which is named after the 18th-century tobacco baron – and, of course, large-scale slave owner – Alexander Speirs. 

   For her part, Onashile wants to focus minds on the perversions of colonialist historiography, which reveres the perpetrators of slavery, such as Speirs, Andrew Cochrane and John Glassford. The central character of Ghosts, she says, comes to us from the nameless margins of that history.

   “The young man that audiences will follow is our attempt to make real over 500 years of history, rebellion, resistance and protest”, the writer explains. “When enslaved Africans liberated themselves from their masters, they started a process that continues today.

   “We don’t know what happened to him, and history hasn’t afforded him a name or presence, but this is our attempt at saying that he existed, and though we can’t be sure whether he ever found the refuge he was seeking, this is our attempt to put his ghost to rest.”

Ghosts can be experienced in Glasgow between April 26 and May 9. For more information, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on April 4, 2021

© Mark Brown