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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pictures for an Exhibition - Sheila Mullen

Angus McMillan- Kist

Exhibition of Paintings by Sheila Mullen
 from Saturday 7 December 2013 for two months

Workshop Gallery, 183 King Street, Castle Douglas
Free Admission

Contact: Kenny Livingston 01556 504234

Sheila Mullen was born in Glasgow and learnt her craft as a painter at the Glasgow School of  Art. For the past 35 years, Sheila has lived and painted in Annandale, Dumfries and Galloway. Initially inspired by Scottish landscape, cut-off from the landscape while recovering from a near fatal accident by the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, Sheila turned to the Border Ballads for inspiration. More recently, Sheila’s has drawn her inspiration from the work of living poets.

While examples of  Sheila’s earlier works are included, the Exhibition at the Workshop Gallery focuses on Sheila’s imagining and re-visioning of works by contemporary poets. A selection from the paintings which
are on display at the Workshop Gallery are shown below.

Hamish Henderson- Hey for a Hoor

Alan Riach -Yellow Drumelzier

James Robertson - Twa Cuddies

Angus McNeacail -  Maiden Voyage

Rab Wilson -Somerfield Checkout

Doug  Curran - Aye when Summer Cam

Painted for Sir Kenneth Calman - The Quality of Life
(Sheila was at school with Sir Kenneth.)

Katy Ewing - Katy’s Dream

Robert Burns- A Man’s a Man 

Robert Burns - Corn Rigs and Barley

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sheila Mullen- Painting the Scottish Dreamtime

Sheila Mullen and her paintings

Exhibition of Paintings by Sheila Mullen
Opens Saturday 7 December 2013
Workshop Gallery, 183 King Street, Castle Douglas
01556 504234

Born in Glasgow in 1942 where she later studied at the Glasgow School of Art, for the past 35 years Sheila Mullen has lived and painted near the Kinnel Water in Annandale. Sheila’s early work as a landscape painter has recently been recalled by daughter Katy -

She was never like some genteel ‘lady artist’ with fine brushes and watercolour-paper, sitting prettily admiring ‘the view’. She would strap a massive canvas to her old-fashioned bicycle and an old army bag full of oil paints, turps and big brushes, reach the wildest and truest corner she could, find a final secret magical place, set up her tools and just sit. She told me that after a while of stillness, the life began to forget she was human, the wood would gradually begin to stir – even investigate her.

Then, 13 years ago, Sheila almost lost her life after falling from a roof. For several months the resulting injuries threatened to end her artistic career. Fortunately Sheila managed to recover, but the experience transformed her approach to painting. As she later said  ‘I found the courage to do frightening things in paint.’

For inspiration Sheila now turned to the Border Ballads and to the poetry of Robert Burns, James Hogg and Hugh MacDairmid. Sheila's paintings can be seen on her website.

The Battle of Otterburn

It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Douglas bound him to ride
Into England, to drive a prey....

 "But I have dream'd a dreary dream,
Beyond the Isle of Skye;
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I."

The Battle of Otterburn was fought in August 1388 and although James Douglas, the 2nd earl of Douglas died in the battle, his Scottish Borders won against their English rivals. The main victor of the fight was Archibald the Grim, Lord of Galloway who became the 3rd earl of Douglas. From his castle at Threave, near Castle Douglas, Archibald  now had more power in southern Scotland than King Robert III.
Threave Castle

In 2010, Ann Matheson’s book ‘The Bairns o Adam’ illuminated Sheila’s powerful vision by bringing  together a collection of Sheila’s paintings with the ballads and poems which had inspired them. But as Ann explained, ‘The paintings are almost abstract, they have to be ‘read’, and each reading brings a fresh discovery of the painters imaginative and emotional insight.’ However, given the physical scale and presence of the paintings themselves, to move from reading to writing the paintings is all but impossible. One has to experience at first hand the intensity of this artist's penetrating gaze which renders even darkness visible.
The Graveyard

Sheila Mullen in her studio.

About the Workshop Gallery- Artists and Craftsmen

Photograph of W & T Stewart staff circa 1912

Ever since the ‘Glasgow Boys’ discovered Kirkcudbright in the 1880s, there has been a strong connection between artists and Dumfries and Galloway. Today the region is home to hundreds of artists and the ‘cultural economy’ is recognised as an increasingly dynamic part of this quintessentially rural region of Scotland.

The Workshop Gallery in Castle Douglas is a new and unique addition to the region’s artistic infrastructure. Opened in 2012, the Workshop Gallery is attached to A.D. Livingston and Sons furniture restoring and making workshop. The skills of cabinet making and upholstery practiced by Ian and Kenny Livingston are part of a living tradition of local craftsmanship which can be traced back 170 years.

William Stewart’s apprentice book

In April 1844, William Stewart began working as an apprentice for a Newton Stewart based firm of cabinet makers and upholsterers. After serving his apprenticeship, William moved to Castle Douglas where he and his brother Thomas founded the firm of W & T Stewart. In 1912, James Livingston joined the firm as an apprentice, becoming a partner in 1929. In 1940, James’ son Alec began his apprenticeship at W & T Stewart before becoming a partner himself in due course. In 1981, after W & T Stewart ceased trading, Alec set up A.D. Livingston and Sons with his sons Ian and Kenny.

Kenny 's daughter Charlotte in A.D. Livingston and Sons workshop

Recently, after opening an adjacent shop to display the furniture they sell, the showroom space in Ian and Kenny’s workshop became redundant. In November 2012, after discussions with the Galloway Photographers Collective, the Workshop Gallery was created in the redundant space with the aim of providing a bridge between the work and worlds of artists and artisans.

The Workshop Gallery 

Entrance to Workshop and Workshop Gallery

Monday, November 04, 2013

Where the Wasteland Ends: anarcho-green-punk

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For Kill Your Pet Puppy Number 4 in 1982, we recycled the above Ecology Party leaflet. In 1985 the Ecology Party became the Green Party. In 1990, a separate Scottish Green Party was formed. Living in London in 1990, I didn't pay much attention but I did join the Hackney and Stoke Newington Green Party since the Green Party was opposed to the Poll Tax. Fast forward 23 years and now I am living in Scotland and am a member of the Scottish Green Party.

The Poll Tax has been and gone. Today's big political issue ( at least up here) is Scottish independence which  threatens to break up the UK. I reckon this would be a good thing to happen from an anarcho-green-punk perspective. So I am doing my bit to encourage it. This talk, which I will give to the local Dumfries and Galloway (south-west Scotland) Greens on 6 November 2013, is one of my contributions to the break up of the UK.

I am going to begin my talk with a quote from last year’s Scottish Green Party Briefing Note on the Independence Referendum.

The Scottish Green Party supports Scottish Independence from the conviction that the urgent transformation needed in our society and our economy can best be achieved by Scotland as a small autonomous country. Bringing political and economic structures and decision-making closer to the Scottish people is a core Green principle and ambition. 

My support for the idea of Scottish Independence goes back to the early 1970s. In 1973 I was a student at Kirkcudbright Academy. Back then the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was still an independent council and the schools were run by the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright Education Committee. At that time the only school in the Stewartry which had a sixth year was Kirkcudbright Academy. Students from Castle Douglas, Gatehouse, Dalry and Dalbeattie who wanted to take their Highers had to transfer to Kirkcudbright to do so. My  French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy was George Thompson - who was also the SNP candidate for Galloway.

The winter of 1973-74 was full of drama. The Arab/Israel Yom Kippur war broke out in October and led to a rapid rise in oil prices. At the same time, Ted Heath’s Conservative government was engaged in a struggle with the National Union of Miners which began with a work to rule which reduced supplies of coal to power stations. Combined with the oil price rises this created an energy crisis. From the 31 December 1973 to the 7 March 1974, Heath’s government brought in the ’Three Day Week’ which limited the commercial use of electricity to three consecutive days in any week. Through the winter, shops were made to switch off all their lights overnight and there were regular power cuts for domestic users.

In the middle of this crisis, Ted Heath called a general election for 28 February 1974. John Brewis was the sitting Conservative MP and held the seat with a majority of 4008 over George Thompson. However, although Ted Heath had asked the voters to decide ‘Who governs Britain?’- the result was a hung parliament with 301 Labour MPs and 297 Tory MPs. Harold Wilson emerged as prime minister and called a second general election on 10 October 1974.

By then I had become an enthusiastic supporter of George Thompson and spent my lunch breaks stuffing and delivering envelopes for his campaign. This was also the time when the SNP’s slogan ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’ started to gain traction. The outcome after a recount in  the early hours of the 11th of October was painfully close, but George Thompson emerged as the victor with a majority of 30. Altogether, the SNP ended up with 11 MP s. However it was still unclear who really governed the UK since Labour had a majority of only 3 and were forced into a pact with the Liberal party.

To neutralise the threat posed by the SNP, a plan to create a Scottish Assembly was proposed which led to a referendum held on 1 March 1979. Although this secured a narrow majority of 51.6%, it failed to pass a hurdle introduced by Labour MP George Cunningham. Cunningham’s hurdle required that 40% of the total Scottish electorate voted yes but only 32.9% of the total electorate did so. Then, triggered by the withdrawal of SNP support for James Callaghan’s government, a general election was held on 3 May 1979.

In Galloway, George Thompson lost to Conservative Ian Lang by 2922 votes and Margaret Thatcher’s new government repealed the Scottish Assembly legislation on 20 June. It would be 18 years until another referendum on Scottish devolution was held.

To go back to the 1970s- in 1976 I discovered a magazine dedicated to radical technology and social change called Undercurrents. Although the description ‘Green’ was not used then, the theory and practice advocated by Undercurrents was Green. The magazine had emerged out of the idealism of 1960s counterculture as it was forced to engage with the realities of the 1970s. So as an alternative to the 1973/4 energy crisis, Undercurrents offered advice on how to build your own wind turbine.

Beyond the immediate Do It Yourself ethos of Undercurrents, the magazine also engaged with the political, social and economic challenges the process of transition to a more sustainable world would require. In 1977 I began working for the London Rubber Company at a factory in Gloucestershire. This experience of industry made very interested in the Lucas Aerospace saga which was reported in Undercurrents.

Lucas Aerospace in the early 70s was one of Europe's largest designers and manufacturers of aircraft systems and equipment. It had over 18,000 workers on its payroll, spread over 15 factories, throughout Britain. Nearly half of its business was related to military matters - in production of combat aircraft and the Sting Ray missile system for NATO .Lucas also had small interests in medical technologies.

Both Conservative and Labour governments  wanted a strong and efficient aerospace company to compete with the other European manufacturers. To achieve this aim, the Lucas management planned to rationalise the operations by laying off 20% of the workforce closing several factories  so they could focus activities on the military markets where profit rates were highest.

Faced with this threat to their future, between 1976 and 1978, the Lucas Shop Stewards Combined Committee came up with an alternative corporate strategy. Their plan was for Lucas to move away from military technology and develop a range of socially useful products. These included medical products, alternative energy products including wind turbines and solar cells, a road-rail vehicle and a hybrid petrol/ electrical powered car.

Unfortunately these forward looking proposals were rejected by the company, failed to gain support from trades unions at national level and did not interest the Labour government. In 1979, the creative possibilities for a more sustainable future were sidelined by the new Conservative government. This government also squandered the wealth which flowed from the oil reserves of the North Sea.

Unlike Norway, which took the decision to invest the profits from their North Sea oil reserves in a Petroleum Fund, the UK used the income from Scotland’s oil to bring down inflation through their economic policies. At least that was the claim at the time. Interviewed in 1991, Alan Budd who was an economic advisor to the Conservatives in 1980, was not so sure.

The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes -- if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Interviewed earlier this year, former Labour Chancellor  of the Exchequer Dennis Healey agreed that Scotland’s oil became Thatcher’s oil in the 1980s.

I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5 per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had from that.

From a Green perspective, what I take from all this is that despite Margaret Thatcher’s frequent use of the phrase ‘There is no alternative’ to justify her government’s economic policies, there was an alternative. For what was to become the Green movement, the energy crisis of the 1970s acted as a wake up call and stimulated a whole range of technological, economic and social alternatives to the status quo. To turn the Green alternatives into reality would have required substantial investment through a period of transition from an unsustainable to a sustainable future. The additional 5% on UK GDP from Scotland’s oil could have financed this transition.

Tragically for the millions made unemployed by the Conservatives, neo-liberal ideology trumped Green rationality. The impact of the Conservatives’ economic policies in Scotland led to what have been described as ’the industrial clearances’. As I experienced at first hand, they had a similar impact in England. The factory where I began working in 1977 was closed in 1982 with the loss of a 1000 jobs and, despite being in Norman Tebbit’s Chingford constituency, the factory I worked at in  London was closed in 1992.

In Scotland, political opposition to the industrial clearances led to a revival of demands for devolution. After the collapse of Conservative power in Scotland in 1997, a second devolution referendum was held. From a Yes vote of 51.6 % in 1979, the Yes vote increased to 74.3 % in 1997 with 63.4% agreeing that the new Scottish parliament should also have tax varying powers. With members of the new Scottish Parliament elected by proportional representation, the first Scottish Green Party MSP was elected in 1999 with a further 6 elected in 2003.

Unfortunately in 2007 and then again in 2011, the Green vote was squeezed out in the struggle between Labour and the SNP. The SNP just managed to win in 2007 and then won decisively in 2011. The Independence referendum is a consequence of the SNP win in 2011.

Despite claims that the Yes campaign is obsessed with Braveheart and Bannockburn, the origins of the  movement towards independence for Scotland lie in the recent rather than distant past. The struggle is not against England, but rather to overcome what journalist Neal Ascherson calls Scotland’s ‘persistent trauma of self-doubt’ and which has shaped Scotland’s modern history. As Acherson explained in 2002

The key to understanding Scottish modern history is to grasp the sheer, force, violence and immensity of social change in the two centuries after 1760. No country in Europe underwent a social and physical mutation so fast and so complete. Tidal waves of transformation swept over the country, Lowland and Highland, drowning the way of life of hundreds of thousands of families and obliterating not only traditional societies but the very appearance of the landscape itself. Only England underwent change on a comparable scale. But in England the industrial and especially the agrarian revolutions- the annihilation of the peasantry  and the flow of population to the new industrial cities- were a more gradual process. The unique feature of the Scottish experience is its pace. [Neal Ascherson ‘Stones Voices’ 2002, page 80]

It could be argued that here in Dumfries and Galloway we escaped the full impact of Ascherson’s tidal wave of transformation. But even in this green an pleasant land, there are reminders of the transformation. Barstobrick Hill rises up to the west of the fertile flood plain of the river Dee. On its summit is a monument we used to call Hot Blast. The monument was erected in 1883 to commemorate James Beaumont Neilson who discovered the hot blast technique of iron smelting in 1828. Neilson’s discovery led to the rapid growth of the Scottish iron industry. This growth was centred around Coatbridge in Lanarkshire where coal and iron ore were found together. The impact of this growth on the environment was described in 1869.

From the steeple of the parish church, which stands on a considerable eminence, the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen. In the daytime these flames are pale and unimpressive; but when night comes on, they appear to burn more fiercely, and gradually there is developed in the sky a lurid glow similar to that which hangs over a city when a great conflagration is in progress... Dense clouds of smoke roll upwards incessantly, and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything…
Summerlee Iron Works 1859 - Coatbridge, Scotland

Before 1828, the Lanarkshire landscape had been  as rural as that of Dumfries and Galloway. Now, although the hot blast furnaces have passed into history, Lanarkshire and central Scotland are still marked by the legacy of industrialisation and urbanisation. The concentration of Scotland’s population in the industrialised central belt had a political effect.  In the 19th century, it was the Liberal party which benefited from the extension of the franchise to working class men. Only after the Liberal party had torn itself apart over the Irish problem was the Labour party able to achieve its 20th century political dominance in Scotland.

Now, with less than a year to go to the Independence Referendum, a significant re-alignment of Scottish politics has emerged. The No campaign has united Labour with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in an unholy alliance which jokingly refers to itself as ‘Project Fear’. With the willing  support of the press and broadcasters, the No campaign have produced a string of scare stories designed to frighten voters in to sticking with the status quo.

Rather than retaliating with their own scare stories, the main Yes campaign has adopted a gradualist approach, concentrating on building up a strong, positive grass roots campaign. At the same time, the wider Yes campaign has been developing a radical vision for a future Scotland. In Dumfries and Galloway, this vision has been supported by a local branch of the Radical Independence Campaign which I have been involved with.

Since March we have had public meetings in Dumfries, Castle Douglas, Newton Stewart, Sanquhar and Wigtown where Andy Wightman and Lesley Riddoch were invited speakers. We have also had many and lengthy discussions on our Facebook page and on our blog. There is a very strong overlap between the themes which have emerged from these meetings and discussions and the Scottish Green Party’s vision for Scotland’s future.

While this is very encouraging, it is important to remember that many of the undecided voters - the ‘don’t knows’ -  are worried by the stream of negative stories produced by the No campaign. It is amongst this vital group of voters that the Scottish trauma of self-doubt identified by Neal Ascherson is strongest. Many are looking for reassurance that an independent Scotland will not be a radically different country. They are looking for continuity rather than change. There is a very real challenge here, especially for the Scottish Green Party. As last year’s Independence Briefing Note concludes.

Independence is an inherently radical step. The referendum in 2014 offers a truly historic opportunity to effect systematic change, but independence is not an end in itself. Only a transformational vision for an Independent Scotland will be enough to convince people, as The Scottish Green Party believes, that a YES vote will lead to a fairer, healthier, more sustainable society and a better future for all Scots.

I share these sentiments, but at the same time, thinking back to the failure of the Lucas Aerospace project and the ‘persistent trauma of self- doubt’ identified by Neal Ascherson, I am reminded of Karl Marx words.

Men and women make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Marx was writing in 1852, reflecting on the coup d’etat by which Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became Napoleon III, ruler of the Second French Empire. Britain was then the workshop of the world, an imperial superpower. Across central Scotland, pillars of smoke were rising from the fiery hearts of the blast furnaces which were transforming rock into molten iron. Iron which was then forged into the steam ships and locomotives which were the sinews of empire.

With benefit of hindsight, we can now see the human and environmental costs of industry and empire. Where now is the wealth that flowed from the millions of tons of coal burnt in the furnaces? Where now is the wealth which flowed from Scotland’s oil? All that once seemed so solid has melted into air, as Marx predicted. The millions of tonnes of coal and oil we have burnt have become a toxic legacy, become the carbon dioxide which is warming the planet and altering its climate.

We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. If, as James Joyce’s once said ’History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ then next year we will have the opportunity to waken from the ‘nightmare’, from the destructive and unsustainable patterns of Scotland’s  past and begin our journey towards a Greener Scotland. The first step on that journey will be, as American President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1933, to recognise that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …