Referendum Thoughts (Remastered)

There are some incontestable certainties about the Britain that we’ve woken up to today. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s still actually there. During the last few months, an outside observer might have assumed the physical location of the land mass was going to change; to be anchored further out to sea perhaps, making it even harder for the ‘other’ people to get to. Secondly, the sun will still rise in the east and set in the west. Although – this being Scotland after all – you may have to take that for granted as opposed to witnessing it with your own eyes. Thirdly – and of no interest to you at all, I’m sure – I’ll still be over fifty.

My experiences, attitudes, understanding, perspective etc etc will no doubt change or adapt as this number increases; just as it has since I was a more politically active teenager in the early 80s. That change has come about through interaction with interesting people from all different continental walks of life. My profession (Architecture) is fundamentally about people. It tries to empathise and understand social and cultural need. It seeks to appreciate the values of social cohesion and supported community regardless of location. It aspires to create environments which enrich and enhance the quality of people’s everyday lives, regardless of class or boundary. The profession doesn’t always get it right, but when we do it’s usually because these things have been thought about from other people’s perspectives and the right balance between pragmatism and inspiration has been struck.

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my working life. I’ve had the chance to put whatever skills I have in these areas to positive use in many culturally diverse places around the world. Whether it’s been in poverty-stricken parts of India, or in the various sensitivities of Soweto, or even in areas of China where no-one spoke English, we’ve always found a common language in trying to understand people and their hopes, fears, dreams and concerns and the natural potential for all of those to be taken away without warning.

I was born and grew up in two separate parts of the West of Scotland commonly and lazily described as ‘socially-deprived’: the East End of Glasgow, and North-west Kilmarnock respectively. Whilst life in these two areas remains challenging for many, I’ve always found warmth and a cultural richness in such communities to echo that of those other places around the world which I’ve been lucky enough to visit. They have intangible values that are a part of my soul, and are the essence of pieces I’ve written, whether fictional or otherwise. I see people from communities across Europe like my own struggle daily with the pressures of simply living and existing. Being part of a larger Union addressing the unfairness and inequality in such situations should be the principal driver for those in elected positions of power. But in the UK of today, it isn’t. Other more self-interested and parochial priorities now exist; the priorities of exclusion and the maintenance of privilege.

I am not a nationalist, far from it … more an Inter-nationalist. I am suspicious of boundaries and of any suggestions of such exclusion. Such inferences are ideologically opposed to a core philosophy of welfare and equality that I – like many of my age, I suspect – inherited from family. However, ‘Britain’ as it now currently sits in mid-2019 is an outdated and divided conceit. It certainly isn’t ‘Great’. A more liberal, left-leaning and federalist desire to share out opportunity equally isn’t reflected in an English nationalist-driven UK with other apparent priorities.

My outlook on life has been shaped by people, places, music, literature, arts and culture that are resolutely international as opposed to solely British. They aren’t going anywhere. They’ll still be there to thrill and inspire me for the next 25 years, as they have the last. But like almost all the people with whom I’ve discussed it recently, I’m now uncertain about the immediate future, but equally so for the retention of any nostalgic notion of ‘Union’ as I would be for an independent Scotland that now appears to be inevitable. There are difficult economic issues and challenges for both sides of this most divisive of debates to face and I’ve always been suspicious of those who would profess – with the certainty of knowing the sun will rise on this summer morning – to know exactly what awaits us in either scenario. It’s our misfortune to find ourselves being led into such uncertainty by the most selfish and strategically ill-equipped political generation in Westminster’s history.

But I’m a pragmatic thinker and an optimistic dreamer in equal measure. As unlikely as it might seem now, an opportunity to help create the type of caring, socially responsible and equal society that I want to live the remainder of my life in, and for my kids to mature in and contribute to will always exist. It might just be within a smaller context. However our future in Scotland must become all about people. And all people, not just the more privileged few. That’s an aspiration worth striving for.

I hope that becomes the unifying ethos of the brave new world of independence that is almost certainty now just around the corner.


Dad For Sale

Beth looked out the window to the wet street below. She gazed at four big raindrops that were racing each other down the outside of the glass. She hoped the one on her left would win. It didn’t. It slowed up at the last minute and came in last. Beth sighed. It was supposed to be summer but someone had forgotten to tell the people who controlled the weather over Glasgow. Beth was now in the third week of the big holiday from her primary school and there had barely been a dry day since the final bell of June had sounded.

She sighed again and turned away from the view outside. Inside, there was a loud rasping noise. It was coming from the sofa. It was getting louder. Beth’s dad’s snoring was beginning to shake the whole building to its very foundations. She just wanted him to waken up and build Lego houses with her, or tell her dramatic, exciting stories, or watch Horrible Histories with her. Anything in fact, as long as it involved him being awake.

She was annoyed with him. He worked thousands of miles away for months and months on end, and when he came back, all he ever did was sleep. It was so unfair. She banged pot lids together. She played Let It Go at top volume next to his ear. She even put bright red lipstick on him. But nothing ever woke him up until it was time for him to go away again, to his other life; the one that Beth wasn’t involved in.

She went to the kitchen and brought back a packet of Haribo. She looked for two that were the right shape, and pushed them carefully into her dad’s nostrils. He didn’t wake up but at least the tortuous snoring had stopped. But then he let out a huge fart. It bounced off the walls. Beth laughed. The blocked-up snores had found another route to get out of him, she figured. But still her dad remained asleep. She was completely fed up with it.

Beth knew her dad worked very hard. But she just wished he had more time for her. She also knew her mum worked very hard and although she enjoyed spending time with her mum, Beth was a little envious of the things her school friends seemed to do with their dads. They went to the Safari Park up near Stirling, or they went to the big shiny Science Centre on the banks of the river, or sometimes they simply went to McDonalds. Beth’s dad didn’t take her to these places. He was just always asleep.

The July rain had got worse as the day had gone on. The television was on but all Beth could find of interest was a programme that she’d watched only last week. It would still be a few hours before her mum came home. That afternoon, Beth had an idea. She opened up her laptop. Her dad had brought it back from China for her. He wasn’t completely useless, she figured. Her mum perhaps wouldn’t be happy about her idea but, frankly, Beth was at her wits’ end. Her idea was very simple. She would sell her dad on eBay.

Earlier in the year, when Beth was having a post-Christmas clear-out of her room, her mum allowed her to put some old toys and clothes up for sale on eBay. It had been exciting waiting for people to bid for them and, even better, Beth had been allowed to keep the money. She looked over at the sofa, and wondered what she might get for her dad.

He was as hopeless to her as her old Bratz dolls had been, but he might be worth something to other people. He could maybe cut down trees for a rich landowner, or surely he could milk cows for a farmer who was too busy to do it himself. She was feeling happy. Her ‘dad for sale’ might even fetch a bid of ten pounds! There were lots of things ten pounds could buy. There were more loom bands that Beth wanted … there was the Bear Factory and all its bits and pieces … and there was a new Jacqueline Wilson book out that she wanted.

Once logged into her mum’s Ebay account, she began typing. Beth listed her dad’s good points:
Big strong dad for sale. Can lift any weight. Can fix broken Barbies. Makes good eggy toast. Has checked shirt and tattoos.
Beth was struggling to find anything else to say beyond this brief description, so she added:
Loves children – when awake … because she was sure he did.
Her mum had said it was better to keep the prices low in order to encourage better bids.
She typed: £10 … Buy Him Now.
Beth added a photograph of her sleeping, snoring father and smiled broadly when the whole posting came together. She listed it for 3 days only because there was a new Miley Cyrus film on at the cinema at the end of the week and the ten pounds would come in handy for that. She hit ‘submit’, closed down the laptop and went back to building a Polo Mint tower on her dad’s forehead.

Over the next couple of days, Beth’s mum asked her more questions than normal and ones where she couldn’t just answer ‘fine’ as she usually did. The questions were all about her dad. Beth answered but without giving away the fact that she had decided to sell him. Her mum mostly smiled through the questioning. Beth began to think her mum maybe knew about the eBay idea. But if she did, she didn’t seem too unhappy about it. Maybe Beth’s mum secretly wanted to sell him, too! If so, Beth decided her mum wasn’t sharing the ten pounds. Beth had thought of the idea first, after all.

On the day that the bids closed, Beth was more excited than she had been for a while. It was still raining, but that didn’t worry her. With twenty minutes to go, she logged on to the eBay account. It recorded ‘no bids’. Now she was upset. Nobody wanted her dad? Just then, the phone rang. Beth’s mum brought it through and handed it to Beth.

‘It’s for you, Beth,’ she said. Her mum left the living room and Beth was alone with the phone.

‘Hullo, is that Beth?’ it asked. The voice seemed sort of familiar.

‘Em … yes. I’m called Beth,’ she whispered.

‘My name is Barnaby Bumblebee for Barnaby Bumblebee & Sons … the travelling circus. It’s about your offer on eBay. You are trying to sell your dad?’

‘Eh … yes. I am,’ said Beth, checking her mum wasn’t listening.

‘Well, we don’t want to buy your dad, but we wondered if we might borrow him for a few days. We’d still pay the ten pounds, of course.’

Beth beamed. ‘Yes … please,’ she said. This was even better. She could get the ten pounds and then try and sell him again the very next week.

Beth knew she would struggle to wrap her dad up and post him to the caller, so Mr Bumblebee agreed that the circus would collect him the next day when Beth was out with her mum. Barnaby Bumblebee would leave the money on the kitchen table. It was the best of all possible outcomes, Beth thought.

Three days passed. Beth hadn’t seen her dad at home. She was certain he had indeed gone to join the circus. She started to think that this wasn’t maybe such a great idea after all. She missed him. She even missed his snoring – even the super-loud snoring that was louder than the time she accidently sat on the volume button of the TV’s remote control. She wanted him to come home. She decided that she wouldn’t try to sell him again – that is, if he ever came back.

Just as Beth thought she should go and tell her mum what she had done, the living-room door burst open. It was her dad. He was dressed as a clown with big red clown shoes, a funny wig and one of those plastic noses that Beth had from the last Comic Relief Day.

You’re never gonna believe what just happened to me, Beth,’ he said.

He sat down, breathless. Beth sat next to him, her mouth growing wider as he told her how he’d woken up in a lion’s cage with a circus crowd cheering. How he got shot out of a cannon and landed on a great big bouncy trampoline. How he learned to balance on a big tall bicycle that only had one wheel. And, finally, how he had to stand in for the senior clown, Barney Bumblebee himself, because he had twisted his ankle in a fall from the high wire.

Beth was actually sitting on her dad’s knee by the time his amazing story came to an end. The rain continued to fall outside, but Beth didn’t care. She had got what she wanted all along … plus she was ten pounds better off. But the best was still to come. In return for the great favour Beth and her dad had done for Barney Bumblebee, the circus owner had arranged for Beth and her family to go to Disneyland in Paris. This was incredible. Beth saw her dad winking at her mum. It gave her another brilliant idea. If she could get all of this for her dad, just think how much her mum would go for! She was, after all, ten times more useful than her dad.

…Rangers nil.

Why would I write anything about Rangers? Especially now; today, when they’ve just been battered and humiliated by a young exuberant Hibs team who are everything my own team currently aren’t. What could I possibly add to the Mount Everest of popular opinion on the subject? Well, I suppose I could offer a personal perspective. I’d be on relatively safe ground. It’s only my view after all. I’m not enticing anyone to vote for it – or worse – pay for it. So why write it down at all? Well, that’s a more interesting question. We live in the Information Age where to communicate ideas and opinions is the context of immediacy many of us choose to occupy. It may be to do with self-validation. It may even reflect a regrettably narcissistic trait which could well be the central theme here. We extemporise everything and often without full grasp or consideration of all available facts. I’ll try and avoid that route, but you’ll no doubt let me know if I fail.

There have been so many words written about the situation Rangers have found themselves in recently. Some have been funny; many unintentionally so. Often pieces are cliche-ridden and purport to certainty when it’s apparent to even the uninformed reader that they are highly speculative at best. But that’s alright because football itself is about largely uninformed and myopic opinion, and actually that’s what I like most about it. To be a football fan is a wonderful thing. For a few hours a week, we can live on an island with like-minded people where logic and rational thinking are momentarily displaced by passion and loyalty. It allows us to be fiercely partisan and see a relentlessly one-sided view of events that involve the club that we follow.

‘He’s a diving bastard’ at one end of the field and then minutes later, in a carbon copy of the same incident … ‘Did you see that? There was definitely contact …’ at the other. Football fans have elephant-like memories, and only forgive past discretions against their club, if the culprit subsequently JOINS their club and does very well for them. Fans often expect players to care for their club as much as they do and woe betide any of them in a struggling team who don’t appear to play for the jersey. After all, there are thousands watching in all weathers from just beyond the touchline who’d sell their grannies for the opportunity to play for their club. And, what’s more, they could probably do it better. And they’re already stripped and ready.

I love the ridiculousness of football. The crazy arguments which can never hope to find resolution. The barbed humour of rejoicing in a rival’s downfall. The extremes of emotions that – for 90 minutes (unless you follow Manchester United…) – make you feel that Bill Shankly might’ve been right all along. Then, inevitably, real life tragedy intervenes and makes you feel childish and foolish for ever thinking it was so.

So, with that long intro out of the way, what does it have to do with the Shakespearean tragedy currently playing itself out well into the third act at Ibrox? I’m not even sure I fully qualify to write this. I’m not a Rangers season ticket holder. It’s been over 18 months since the last time I watched them without the assistance of Sky Sports. However, my family were all Rangers supporters. My paternal grandfather rarely missed a game, and even went to Lisbon in 1967 because he genuinely believed it to be an astonishing achievement for ANY Scottish team. Any post-match guilt he might have felt about that decision was assuaged in Barcelona in 1972, but I’ve always been proud of the fact that he did it anyway. My dad stopped going to football of any kind after the Ibrox disaster in 1971. My dad, his dad and my uncle John were all at the game. My dad had been a promising footballer and John had played for Stranraer. Yet he turned his back on the game they all loved. It didn’t hold the same appeal or importance for him after that. I started going to Ibrox in his place the season after that with my grandfather and my uncle. I was seven years old. I vividly recall the atmosphere, the cartoonishly obscene language, the macaroon bars, the fountains of urine flowing down the terraces to the wee white wall surrounding the track around Ibrox. Floodlit matches against exotic teams like Ankaragucu. Cup matches and Cup finals. My first Old Firm match. I may not be a paying supporter now, but by default, I once was.

I never thought I’d look at the football club I loved so much in the 70s and the early 80s and wish they were no longer in existence. But I do. This isn’t a piece about the various accusations, counter-arguments or moral rights and wrongs surrounding the Rangers situation. I’m not qualified to make those observations, although it doesn’t stop others in a similar position. Good luck to them. As I mentioned earlier, uninformed speculation propels football, and is often the most entertaining aspect of it. This is simply a personal lament over the self-interested and ludicrously ill-considered mismanagement which has led the club to the precipice of apathy it’s currently teetering over.

The club and many of its supporters are constantly looking backwards. For most clubs, that’s to be expected and often encouraged. Fans indulge in – and feed off – nostalgia. It’s the lifeblood of the supporter. Statistics matter. Long memories triumph in pub arguments. Yet for Rangers, this has become its biggest curse. When Rangers went to the third division, numerous opportunities to rebuild and develop – and perhaps shake off some of the widespread criticism in the process – were presenting themselves. Rather than recognise it for what it was, that old destructive combination of hubris and arrogance seemed to cause unjustifiable business decisions which don’t require the benefit of two and a half years worth of hindsight to be considered as madness.

Rather than reduce the expenditure appropriate to affect necessary financial restructuring everywhere in the organisation, the management team of the time signed experienced but expensive players on unsustainable – and it transpires, undeserved – contracts. My theory (and now I’m only speculating here…) is that it was an arrogant and deliberate attempt at sticking two fingers up at the rest of the footballing fraternity. If the club’s management had only looked forward, rather than backward…if it had accepted the situation rather than look anywhere else for scapegoats…if it had actually contributed to the rebuilding of the club’s longer term infrastructure by clearing out the financial deadwood at all levels and applying a tough, self-imposed self-discipline to blood a team full of talented young players like Lewis McLeod…..

If only, eh?

But to do that would have required leadership, resourcefulness, sound judgement and, crucially, an ability to communicate these clearly to others. This is the very foundation of any business success. It may not have changed the attitude of the club’s rival supporters towards it, but it might at least have created some reluctant empathy. After all, a football fan is someone who follows their team through thick and thin…good times and bad, right? Almost all football fans can identify with fears about their own team’s future these days.

Except Rangers biggest problem isn’t its precarious financial position. Paradoxically, given the previous ebullience about not walking away, its biggest challenge is an apathy which could ultimately be fatal. The ‘owners’, the management, the team on the field and everyone else currently drawing money from the club don’t appear to care too much about its future. Yet they all ultimately rely on the fans – the only ones regularly putting money in – to do so. It takes a substantial amount of opprobrium being brought down on the die-hard football fan’s head for him or her to say ‘enough’. But that’s where the club and its fractured relationship with the growing majority of its fans currently sit. When the paying customer has lost interest, most businesses are in real trouble. When it’s in a business context as precarious as Scottish Football, it’s catastrophic. When it’s Rangers, with all the mounting baggage that is gradually suffocating the club, it’s the death knell.

Rather than see Rangers eviscerated by a seemingly endless line of opportunists – playing AND non-playing – I now think it would have been preferable for the club to have ceased to exist before it entered the lower leagues. Like all football clubs, it means the most to those who take the least from it. They protest the loudest and longest, yet they rarely get listened to. If they are, it’s only to reply, rather than to understand. The fans can’t be criticised for the business decisions the club’s owners have historically taken. Although undoubtedly the subject of good fun for the fans of other clubs, they also can’t be held accountable for viewing every apparent white knight as a potential saviour. Illogical thinking and irrational optimism, remember? They are the traditional life rafts beleaguered football fans the world over cling to in times of crisis.

Rangers’ decision-makers aren’t capable of making decisions which the club’s fans can currently comprehend, let alone rally behind. Whether as a temporary short-term plaything for southern billionaires or as the aggrandisement of a blundering cabal of supposed ‘fans with chequebooks’, a more sustainable, dignified longer term future seems sadly irretrievable now.

Chinese Democracy

The word ‘democracy’ can be a difficult one to pin down depending on which part of the world you apply it to. Most in the West would consider it to refer to a state of Government in which the people hold supreme power through representatives that they have elected. Hand in hand with this is a demonstrable sense of social equality. Even described in these terms, democracy can be a very abstract concept. For China as it gradually emerges from being a closed and relatively unknown environment to one engaging far more directly with the rest of the world, the issue may be less about democracy and more about personal liberty.

Prior to visiting China for the first time in 2009, my preconceptions about the country were fed by the media. I assumed a determinedly introspective, communistic place where individual rights and freedoms which I take for granted are denied. Nowadays, people in China have much more liberty than their parents had in the 70s to love, work, shop, spend, enjoy, travel, speak, believe and fundamentally, to live. With China recently overtaking Japan, becoming the predominant new world order and the epicentre of worldwide economic growth, the basic form of liberty that is required to survive the contemporary Chinese urban life does exist for all her citizens. However it is becoming more evident that the extent of liberty is directly proportional to an individual’s wealth and power. In that sense, the developing Chinese society may be far more recognisable to Western civilisation than the USA and its allies might be prepared to admit.

If Capitalism is defined as an economic system based on private ownership of land, capital and the means of production, China is rapidly moving much closer to this model. But it is the issues surrounding ownership of land and personal advancement where the greatest anomalies still remain. By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, virtually all land was state owned. Private property rights had all but disappeared and land transactions were illegal. Since China is still fundamentally Socialist in ideology, land remains mostly in government ownership. However, private developers can now purchase the rights to use the land. It’s a very interesting and subtle shift in approach born from a policy rooted in socialism which has created a ‘right of use culture’. As a result of this right, it has been granted to those developers who have money – a more recognisable shift from communism to capitalism. Nonetheless, other factors beyond differences in costs and land values are now becoming more important and it is in this key aspect that times must change for China. By paying a huge price in social and environmental terms, China has achieved a strange mix of concern for its ignorance of its people and their human rights, and envy for the uncompromising momentum of its development.

But this shift has also created unsustainable acceleration in the real estate market leading to what many refer to as the ‘Ghost Towns of China’. Built at breakneck speed in only five years, Kangbashi in Inner Mongolia is a state-of-the-art city full of architectural ‘marvels’ (not necessarily my term…) and sculpture gardens. There’s just one thing missing: people. The city stands as a physical representation of an obsession with GDP that makes no distinction between quantity and quality. Similarly, the massive Three Gorges Dam project is considered in China as an historic engineering, economic and social success. The Dam produces electricity, increases the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity and reduces the regularity of substantial flooding downstream by the creation of flood storage pockets. To achieve these things, more than one and a quarter million people were evicted with allegations that the funds for relocating numerous farmers had ‘gone missing’ leaving them with no compensation. Of course, such examples are very negative and the human cost is hard to justify but, applied in other areas, the results of the government’s planning control system can see complicated planning and development issues in China resolved very efficiently and quickly. They are developing one of the best infrastructures in the world with roadways and high speed rail networks that are propelling the internal economy, becoming universally admired and envied in the process.

For other countries trying (and failing) to keep pace with the growth of China’s relentless financial strength, the law, market regulation, the environment and most significantly, the human capital are all highly topical and significant issues. Many expect China to gradually adjust its economic structure and reduce its environmental impact. There are also some small, but nonetheless hopeful signs that after China’s leaders prepared for retirement in 2012 they would no longer be seeking growth at any cost. In President Hu Jintao’s summary, growth must serve a ‘harmonious society’. Harmony in this instance equates with a narrowing of the poverty gap between countryside and city, and more generally that the poorer inland regions catch up with the coastal ones.

It is these very complex contradictions inherent in China’s rapid development which makes it such a fascinating place for architects to work. The search for an architectural identity in an era of increasing globalisation is a relatively universal one and not simply restricted to China. However there is a clear dilemma inherent in how its built environment develops against this backdrop. Chinese culture is recognised as one of the oldest and richest in the world. Many elements of old China – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism – still play an important role today in the society. They are considered not only to be the standard for what is actually Chinese, but they serve to demarcate against cultural imports from other parts of the world. The result of this is unsurprisingly a point of view orientated on the past. On the other hand, the economic boom and the nation reacting to global mechanisms have also created the desire for a new China, partly detached from the old, more restrictive traditions.

This dichotomy has manifested itself in the higher profile architecture promoted by some exceptional international practices receiving significant criticism. Paul Andreu’s Beijing Opera House is seen as being too non-Chinese and not well enough adapted to its context. Moreover, too much steel has been used rendering the project more expensive than it perhaps needed to be. Rem Koolhaas has faced similarly unfair criticism for his CCTV-Tower and even the celebrated Olympic Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron has suffered from the media accusations of foreign architects not understanding Chinese culture and arrogantly ignoring the needs of the Chinese people.

The difficulties of drawing direct references from native Chinese architectural history are obvious. The attempts at making these references have produced conflicting results on my own practice’s original proposal for the Huangshan Theatre. The superficial appropriation of traditional stylistic elements may convince people in China that a building is Chinese and that it corresponds to their culture. An architectural aesthetic based on metal roofs and steel-glass facades is still considered foreign, even though it amounts to the majority of new building activity in China. People are aware that this form of architecture is imported yet they will still look for signals that the symbols of ancient China are being acknowledged.

Our influences for the Theatre’s concept were initially European. We were particularly interested in the qualities of Jean Nouvel’s Concert Hall in Copenhagen which attempts to use a very simple geometry to set its own context. But we were also struck by the Library of Wenzheng College, Suzhou by the Amateur Architecture Studio and the Performing Arts Centre of Datang Everbright Town in Xi’an by Xiang Bingren and Chen Qaing. Both of these latter projects are a clever mix of Chinese pavilion architecture and a defined modernism. The simple form and a logical arrangement of spaces support the clarity and precision of the architectural language. That both of these practices are from the new generation of young Chinese architects who have for the most part studied abroad is significant. They have absorbed influences from other parts of the world and have applied a very subtle approach to regional characteristics with a robust sense of functionality to define their approach.

Another key difference marking China out from the West is the prevalence of a culture of discussion. Terms in commercial contracts are usually not as explicitly spelt out or detailed as we would expect in the west. As a result, discrepancies and differences between various parties are usually resolved by negotiation with each party roughly following the ‘rules’ as stated in the contract. Very often the results of these discussions hinge on the relationship (or ‘guan xi’) of the key people involved. In a western society, contracts are often carried out irrespective of individuals but strictly following the agreed stated terms. Such a significant cultural difference is the main reason for the often complex and non-descriptive nature of statutory procedures, when issues will be resolved as a project is ‘progressed along’, as ‘seeking common ground whilst maintaining differences’ is the key to the spirit of a typically Chinese way of handling various issues.

At a time when UK based architects were immersed in the difficulties of drastic and unsustainable lowest cost fee bidding for reducing public sector programmes of work and the opportunities in more commercial circles remained tentative at best, the opportunities in China for practices such as Keppie initially seemed really attractive. Every second, third and fourth tier town or city still has a 20 or 30 year vision plan which it has only recently developed, usually in anticipation of the positive impact of the MAGLEV network in connecting various regions. Many of these plans are outlined in zonal aspiration but understandably lack the detail by which one can fully evaluate their ambition. Working with Local Design Institutes, we saw a future full of potential where new ideas about sustainable and stimulating design are beginning to be cautiously welcomed, and where the richly poetic symbolism of the past still has a significant role to play in the development of the future.

I loved my time working in China. I found out a lot about how architectural issues are generally universal. The need for shelter, the desire for identity and the hope for enlightenment are the essential foundations for why we build at all. The job of the architect is to understand the cultural, societal and climatic prism through which these considerations are filtered. To be able to do it in such an interesting and diverse context was enriching.

Scotland, the brave new world?

There are some incontestable certainties about the Scotland that we’ll waken up to on the 19th September 2014. Firstly, and most obviously, it’ll still actually be there. During the last two years, an outside observer might have assumed the physical location of the land mass was going to change; to be anchored adjacent to a new Scandinavian neighbour perhaps. Secondly, the sun will still rise in the east and set in the west. Although – this being Scotland after all – you may have to take that for granted as opposed to witnessing it with your own eyes. Thirdly – and of no interest to you at all, I’m sure – I’ll still be forty-nine.

My experiences, attitudes, understanding, perspective etc etc will no doubt change or adapt as this number increases; just as it has since I was a more politically active teenager in the early 80s. That change has come about through interaction with interesting people from all different walks of life. My profession (Architecture) is fundamentally about people. It tries to empathise and understand social and cultural need. It seeks to appreciate the values of cohesion and community. It aspires to create environments which enrich and enhance the quality of people’s everyday lives. The profession doesn’t always get it right, but when we do it’s usually because these things have been thought about from other people’s perspectives and the right balance between pragmatism and inspiration has been struck.

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my working life. I’ve had the chance to put whatever skills I have in these areas to positive use in many culturally diverse places around the world. Whether it’s been in poverty-stricken parts of India, or in the various sensitivities of Soweto, or even in areas of China where no-one spoke English, we’ve always found a common language in trying to understand people and their hopes, fears, dreams and concerns.

I was born and grew up in two separate parts of the West of Scotland commonly and lazily described as ‘socially-deprived’: the East End of Glasgow, and North-west Kilmarnock respectively. Whilst life in these two areas remains very challenging for many, I’ve always found warmth and a cultural richness in such communities to echo that of those other places around the world which I’ve been lucky enough to visit. They have intangible values that are a part of my soul, and are the essence of pieces I’ve written, whether fictional or otherwise. I see people from communities like my own struggle daily with the pressures of simply living and existing. Addressing the unfairness and inequality in such situations should be the principal driver for those in elected positions of power. But sadly, in the UK of today, it isn’t. Other more global priorities exist.

I am not a nationalist, far from it…more an Inter-nationalist. I am suspicious of boundaries and of any suggestions of exclusion. Such inferences are ideologically opposed to a core philosophy of welfare and equality that I – like many of my age, I suspect – inherited from family. However, the Union as it currently sits is an outdated conceit. A more liberal, left leaning and federalist desire such as is broadly represented by the Scotland I understand, isn’t reflected in a London-centric UK with other priorities.

Like many of the people I admire who’ve expressed conflicted and marginal opinions on both sides of the Referendum debate, (actually I admire most of them more now even though many will vote differently from me on Thursday) I too haven’t come to a decision easily. My outlook on life has been shaped by people, places, music, literature, arts and culture that are resolutely British as opposed to solely Scottish. But as I mentioned earlier, they aren’t going anywhere. They’ll still be there to thrill and inspire me for the next 25 years, as they have the last.

Like most of the people with whom I’ve discussed it, I’m uncertain about the future, but equally so for the retention of the Union as I would be for an independent Scotland. There are difficult economic issues and challenges for both sides to face and I’m suspicious of those who would profess – with the certainty of knowing the sun will rise on Friday morning – to know exactly what awaits us in either scenario.

But I’m a pragmatic thinker and an optimistic dreamer in equal measure. And after much soul-searching, I will be voting YES, essentially and simply because I see it as an opportunity to help create the type of caring, socially responsible and equal society that I want to live the remainder of my life in, and for my kids to mature in and contribute to. However, regardless of outcome, our future must become all about people. And all people, not just the more privileged few. That’s an aspiration worth striving for.

I hope that becomes the unifying ethos of our brave new world.

The Inter-tainment Scam

So, here’s the thing. Here’s how it all started…

It’s the year punk rock was born, Concorde entered commercial service and a wee Romanian gymnast changed her sport forever. Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. A bizarre brush with the entertainment business – he ‘saves’ the life of the UK’s top showbiz star Hank ‘Heady’ Henderson – has left him with dreams of the hitting the big-time as a Popular Music Impresario. Seizing the initiative, he creates a new singing group from five unruly working class kids from Glasgow’s East End.

Fast forward almost 40 years and a man sits in a parked car at Troon Harbour, staring out at the water. A home-made CD of songs is playing on repeat, an essay written about the actress Julie Christie 30 years earlier is in his hand, and the body of a controversial Glaswegian politician – who’s been missing for two weeks – is in the boot.

Back to the mid-70s; Shettleston – a district in the East End of Glasgow – had no private detectives. Despite high and increasing levels of local criminality, adultery and missing persons no-one had considered this a viable occupation for middle-aged weegie bampots armed only with a camera and a degree from the University of Life. No-one, that is, until…Robert McAdam Souness…

All three strands are connected; by people, by accidents of time but most of all by the city. The city of wee men and big windaes.



In the second city of the Empire,
Mother Glasgow watches all her weans.
Trying hard to feed her little starlings
Unconsciously she clips their little wings.
(From ‘Mother Glasgow’ by Michael Marra)

One: …Glasgow Belongs Tae Me

The city shimmered in a ridiculous heat. Hottest summer since records began. The hazy evening atmosphere made Govan away to the south barely visible at all. Archie Blunt considered this a good thing.
‘Fuckin’ Huns,’ he whispered.
He loved the Necropolis. He came up here often to look at the city, to try and understand his place in the wider scheme of Glaswegian things; and to get pissed in peace, almost always in that order. He could orientate himself from here. He could normally see the vertical punctuation marks which delineated one social grouping from another. Away in the distance, the Glasgow University spire where the cultured class of the West End started; across the river to his left, the Caledonia Road Church which marked the start of the decayed urban wastelands of the Gorbals, and finally – in front of him as he turned his head to the right – beneath the soot and the smoke stains, the strength and crafted beauty of the St.Mungo’s Cathedral stonework, which indicated where East End bampottery finished and the city centre began.

He found comfort in the anonymity of being amongst the fifty thousand or so who had been buried here, and for the majority, unidentified by name on stone. John Knox may have gazed down on this city of the dead, day and night from the top of the summit, but Archie felt like he was the guardian of the unknown. Paradoxically, the pressure of expectation weighed heavily too. Archie felt sure that to be interred high up on these dramatic elevated contours could only be the consequence of a life of achievement, and since it was his dream to finally end up here, he knew something fucking significant had to be achieved…and pretty sharpish. It was 1976 for Christ’s sake.

As he pondered how few grains of sand the decade had left on this particular summer’s evening, Archie was gradually working his way towards objective number three. He was accompanied by his regular companions; Teresa, Lucy and Sandra who regarded him seductively from their prized place on the side of his Tenant’s Lager cans. He had ‘Lucy’ in his right hand at the moment. In about ten minutes, when its contents were in his stomach, he’d have his cock in the other. His city sprawled in front of him, a few illustrated tins to lubricate the moment, and a good, solid Lucy-inspired wank amongst the monuments. While he waited for inspiration and direction to dawn, this was a decent night’s time-wasting, all things considered.

Archie was 52 years old. He was acutely aware that life was passing him by. Slowly, and without any real abrasion, but none the less, it was a worry. He was funny, or so he thought. At least as funny as Connolly, and look at him now. Mates with Parky, forgetting all about his ain folk. Archie had met him and his manager in a pub a few years ago when the Big Yin was singing and playing his banjo. Archie bought them both a pint and told an old joke about three men from Calton. It had made Connolly laugh, but not apparently enough to buy Archie one back…or to offer a credit when the Cop Yer Whack LP came out, with its opening song ‘Three Men Fae Carntyne.’

Archie Blunt carried that kind of luck; constantly in the right place, but at the wrong time. He hadn’t had a woman since the night Celtic won the European Cup. Well, not one he hadn’t paid to be with him. This perplexed him. He regularly completed the Evening Times crossword the same day he started it. He wasn’t exactly an ugly bastard either, although there’s none so blind etc. And as Lucy could have testified, he had a decent-sized cock. So why was he alone? Unfulfilled. Sitting up here night after night with just the pigeons for company?

But Archie Blunt was a stoical son of Glasgow; an unrequited optimist. He couldn’t be kept down. There was always opportunity waiting around every second Glasgow corner. Admittedly, some wee fuck with a blade was often around the third, but these were decent odds for a bottle-half-full merchant. That was the spirit of Glasgow captured for Archie. Something new and exciting was always just a pub conversation away. Like last week, when he finally got dismissed from the Corporation, after nearly six months of Union blocks and threats on his behalf. He headed straight into the Pot Still and Chib Charnley was in there, canvassing for a new driver. That Chib and his boss, Wullie Wigwam, were indirectly responsible for Archie losing his original job in the first place mattered not a jot right now. Opportunity had knocked and Archie was back in business. The City of Eternal Optimists glistened. He stood up, wiped his cock on his jacket and stretched. Better head back he thought.
‘Dinnae want tae be late on the first day,’ he said, to the seated Charles Tennant; 18th Century chemist, and renowned champion of those far less fortunate.

Refreshed and renewed, Archie’s heart pulsed with pride that he was a part of this great green place. It was exciting, amazing, uplifting. Its succour truly was perpetual. Its nurturing generosity; its relentless pursuit of better things; its people, who would give you the sweat off their ba…….
‘Gie’s a wee swally, son?’ A frail, ghostly jakey-voice wafted in from the shadows, interrupting the stream.
‘Get tae fuck,’ shouted Archie, into the descending gloom. ‘Away an’ buy yer ain, ya cunt.’

This Is The Modern World

What will the architecture of the future be like? It’s an intriguing question and one which – of all the professionals involved in the creation of our built environment – architects are best placed to respond to. Imagining the future is a past-time which all designers indulge in. It is usually supported by other media which has considered the issue for its own ends. Films such as Metropolis, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element or Brazil are traditionally favourites of many architects because of a vivid depiction of a type of future-city which technological advances underpin. As visually interesting and provocative as they are though, the urban cityscapes in such films invariably utilise a utopian vision of mankind’s future as an additional character to propel the plot. As such the focus is often on how technology is likely to triumph over basic aspects of reality such as gravity or the natural rhythm of the seasons.

There are more straightforward explanations for the architect’s interest in the future. As students we were encouraged to understand how things have been and to analyse how they are now in order to explore how they might be. This is the essence of design process but it also recognises that architecture is a relatively slow moving art which must be in tune with socio-economic developments and cultural nuances for its perpetual redrafting of our desired environment. This being the case, and in an acknowledgement of a view that people make places and not the other way around, any assessments of the future must begin with the individual and how lifestyles may need to adapt to the premonitory signs and resultant pragmatic trends that are becoming more prevalent.

The clues to assist the search for a future lifestyle are evident in the changing climatic conditions worldwide. On a more localised level, they can also be found in the developing components of how our lives are actually slowly changing. In the way we learn, in the way we work, in the way we shop, in the various ways in which we relax and in the ways in which we are treated if we are ill.

It could be argued that the dramatic change in our climate is the predominant phenomena of our era. Regular catastrophic flooding from rising water levels is being experienced everywhere from Australia to Brazil, from South West Asia to South West England. These occurrences are not happening once in every two hundred years and sadly, such tragic stories as those recently coming from New Orleans and Brisbane are likely to be far more regular. With the human capacity for adaptation to changing circumstances, perhaps far less of our new buildings in high risk areas will contain basements and more will be on stilts?

Less obvious effects of the need for a more ecologically sustainable future could see the emphasis on transportation infrastructure reduced. Although vehicles might become less environmentally destructive, congestion will still increase in line with population growth. If technology can allow people to work globally but without the direct need for travel, then it might be argued that a better work/life balance might be the incentive for this. More time spent productively and also with family versus increasing time spent log-jammed on the country’s overstretched motorways? As a consequence, new estates comprised of multitudes of small pitched roof shoeboxes and very little else, aimed at the travel orientated nuclear family might also gradually disappear under these circumstances.

An increase in convenience purchasing via the internet will eventually have an effect on the type of retail establishments that we will build. They might get smaller becoming more general and more community orientated. Our patterns of relaxation might also change with leisure pursuits becoming more locally focused as our new communities attempt to become more self sufficient. Localised energy budgeting, generation, consumption and measurement suggests more localised employment and less nationalisation. Extending this argument to wider community services begins to point to models of Scandinavian living in the form of examples such as Hammarsby in Sweden. It would be difficult to argue that the standard of living and the resultant reduced levels of crime experienced by that community do not have some universal attraction.

As our Learning aspirations also change and we seek educational establishments which can contribute more to the communities they are a central part of, these buildings also need to respond to the challenges of social development and a longer term vocational need rather than being predominantly focused on the demonstration of acquired knowledge through an antiquated examination process. Similarly, if logic tells us that people will spend less time in hospital in future as fully invasive procedures become less reliant on long term observed recuperation, the drive towards community based Health & Wellbeing will surely become more desirable. Why build massive multi-bedded temples to Healthcare inspired by a model of care which technology will render redundant in a couple of decades? Who will actually spend time recuperating in hospital beds if complex cardiac and neurological treatment can be given laproscopically where the surgeon and his team might not even be in the same room as the patient? Especially if that recuperation can be proven to be more effective if centred on the patient’s natural desire to be at home.

With the economic downturn still affecting investment, many in public sector organisations are now faced with retention, maintenance and refurbishment of older buildings in a retained estate where previously the imperative to demolish and redevelop might have been seen as less complex. I suspect most architects might welcome this shift in emphasis as breathing new life into old buildings and working within the constraints of an existing established fabric can often be more interesting. In the contradiction between the momentum of global developments and the wish for personal stability, the aesthetic of the past also seems to promise an obvious way out of the dilemmas of the present. That is why sustainability in architecture is so closely associated with the way things have always been. After all if such problems as environmental pollution, resource shortages and alienation from other people didn’t exist before, why can’t we simply go back to ‘the good old days’?

A slightly flawed logic such as this tries to convey the message that what looks like an old building also functions like one, and that what looks as though it is old will also last longer. The drive towards the future then clearly contains an ironic dilemma. How can we develop new and ‘innovative’ responses to design problems when the predominant phenomena of our age suggests that we look backward to a time when local materials were utilized in a sensible and natural manner, when mass was the major consideration in the conservation of energy and patron’s expectations of budget were perhaps more attuned to their aspirations.

Therein lays the basis of this thesis. If our lifestyles are developing in a way where either through personal choice, technological development or moral exigent, a more community orientated environment where people live, work and play in smaller, more self supporting environments which have diversity, hierarchy and character due to an appropriately considered mix of the old, the new, the ordinary and the special, then perhaps the future will resemble the past more than many of us might have been led to expect.

Some Bands Are Better Than Others

A now-legendary John Peel session made me aware of the Smiths but it was ‘This Charming Man’ that sealed the deal. It bolted me to the floor the first time I heard it. I had only recently turned 19 years of age, and like the vast majority of new sounds I was consuming at this time, it was Peel who first played it to me. As context, the ‘80s was shaping up to be a decade to generally forget. John Lennon had been murdered in New York at its birth by a fame-obsessed loner, and furthermore, a favourite book was being cited as an accessory after the fact. Joe Strummer had gone missing and with him as it turned out, the future of The Clash. The Jam had split and although Weller had made a reasonably quick and spirited comeback, it didn’t feel the same. Nothing did after that. The Falklands War had started and although my small group of mates didn’t know where the Islands were, we all assumed it was only a matter of time before we were conscripted and sent to fight Ardiles, Kempes and the rest of General Galtieri’s military junta.

Music was becoming divided on the battleground of the emerging Independent record labels putting up a defiant resistance against the Majors. It would reach something of a peak around 1986. In the early ‘80s though, the New Romantics were the predominant genre. The predilection for males wearing make-up wasn’t new. Bowie had even inspired me to wear some black and purple eyeliner to less than positive effect a few years earlier, but the music of this new era wasn’t up to scratch. The early Spandau Ballet records upon which much of the hype was based were, in my opinion, poor second-rate karaoke versions of Bowie’s Lodger LP. The production was tinny and aimed at radio and the whole culture – exemplified by ridiculous opportunists like Marilyn and Steve Strange – appeared to be a triumph of style over any kind of substance. But then just as it seemed I had lost course, along came the Smiths.

The Smiths were the ‘80s for me. Other bands orbited my interest in music at this time but for the best part of five years the Smiths were the centre of the Universe. And it all started with ‘This Charming Man’. I had honestly never heard anything like it before. Hearing the first Ramones LP in a friend’s bedroom in 1976 was the only time previously that I had felt so similarly euphoric. Of course, as time passed I’d boastfully claim to disinterested fellow students that I first heard of The Smiths as early as May 1983, when that now legendary first Peel session broadcast. Days after, ‘Hand in Glove’ was released as the band’s first single to a generally muted reception. Five months later though ‘This Charming Man’ felt to me what ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ must’ve felt like to millions of previously repressed and directionless American teenagers.

Musically the Smiths neither belonged to this burgeoning ‘New Pop’ nor the parallel universe of the ‘Post-punk’. There was no clear sexual orientation to the lyrics but still they offered a highly literate take on the traditional guitar, drum, bass, vocal rock sound I’d grown up with at a time when synthesizers had virtually rendered guitars obsolete.

There was something immediately unique about Morrissey. He looked like an amalgam of Elvis Presley, James Dean and Albert Seaton. But he wore ordinary if slightly antiquated clothes like those that could be found (and subsequently altered) in your dad’s wardrobe. His words had an archaic sonority which hinted at more literary reference points. I didn’t appreciate it when I first heard it but the multitude of bookish northern influences was very much in line with my own developing interest in modern English literature. A few years earlier, I’d come across an early book by Barry Hines entitled The Blinder. It was a typically northern story of a young footballer Lennie Hawk, whom many believed to be something of a reincarnation of another flawed genius from his club’s past. Lennie Hawk had it all. He was handsome, charming, intelligent, quick-witted and a footballing genius. He was still only 17. As with the real life sixties icon on whom the story was obviously based, it would all end badly as he burned the candle at both ends. The book reflects the social values of the mid ‘60s when it was written. England had just won the World Cup and ‘Revolver’ was the LP of the year. The text remains fresh to me and is a fantastic reminder of those more straightforward times when the local sporting heroes still played for their local team and drank with the supporters in the local pubs after the game.

The book was very descriptive. I could easily visualise the grime of the red brick back courts of Northern England and the small terraced house that Lennie and his mum lived in with its living room opening onto the street at the front and sharing the same tiny cramped space as the kitchen at the back. I loved this book and it led me to A Kestrel for A Knave by the same author, and the outstanding Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. The film of this book had a long-lasting effect on me. It painted a monochromatic picture of a country struggling to come to terms with the end of Empirical power in the wake of two devastating wars. Everyone in Billy Fisher’s world is trapped by these circumstances, apart from Liz, the beatnik girl played by Julie Christie. She represents freedom; an escape from a life of pram-pushing drudgery or factory conditioning. Billy Liar’s influence on The Last Days of Disco isn’t very far from the surface.

When I began to dissect Morrissey’s lyrics, particularly on the debut album, I found a soundtrack to these books and a multitude of associations and pointers to other sources detailing life (and shockingly tragic death) in these northern towns. It’s often said that Bob Dylan’s lyrics read like short stories; Morrissey’s read like the draft outlines for the ‘Play for Today’ shown in gritty monochrome on the BBC during the late ‘60s. The grim up north subtext of the Smiths early songs concealed an extremely funny and identifiable perspective for anyone prepared to delve deeper. When the options included being asked to Wake Up before I Go Go, I didn’t take too much persuading. Underpinning these phenomenal lyrics was Johnny Marr’s incredible music. Uplifting and intricate, it reminded me of everything that was great in my musical frame of reference – yet it still sounded original and unique. For Charming Man, Marr had taken some influence from the Postcard singles of Orange Juice and especially Aztec Camera’s teenage frontman Roddy Frame. It was written in a much higher key than he had previously used. As a result the record had a more upbeat vibe than the previous single. Although it has been included on the re-mastered CD versions of the debut album, it doesn’t feel at home there. Like subsequent singles, it stands perfectly as a one-off.

In truth they were not a band to be listened to on CD. Even though the CD started to make an impact in the middle of the Smiths brief career, the structure of the tracklisting of each album, and the perfection of each single package were made for vinyl. They shared this categorisation with another northern foursome.

The Smiths have often been described as the Beatles of my generation led by the Manc Lennon & McCartney. I realise that this may be an unpopular thesis but in my opinion, they were better. Don’t think so? Okay, as David Frost used to say after watching Loyd Grossman breaking and entering into a complete stranger’s house; ‘let’s examine the evidence’.

First off, there were a number of basic similarities between the bands that make direct comparison appropriate. Both were groups made up of four young northern lads from predominantly working class backgrounds. They were brought together through a love of music or culture from previous generations. They were constructed around a classic formula of guitar, drums, bass and voice although in the Fab Four’s case there was more than one voice and rhythm guitar to supplement lead. Marr dealt with all guitar duties for the Smiths. Their careers were relatively short-lived ending in some degree of acrimony between the band members where petty squabbles degenerated into long-term feuds. Both groups have become synonymous with their home cities with heritage tours of key sites and reference points remaining incredibly popular with loyal followers decades after their demise.

The Beatles have become somewhat synonymous with the birth of popular culture, at least in the UK. They played a key role in the influencing of films, hair styles, pop art and fashion; setting a precedent for large-scale stadium concerts, conceiving popular music as an art form, and in the introduction of eastern philosophy into western society. They are part of the genetic material of our culture and they certainly encouraged a whole generation of young people to assert themselves in a way that had not happened before. However there is a lazy tendency to credit the group for everything of significance that took place in the ‘60s including the gradual thawing of the Cold war. Their music certainly began to permeate Russian youth and possibly persuaded them that English-speaking counterparts might not necessarily be ‘the enemy’. But just as one critic once questioned whether the Beatles ‘lit the fuse or were simply sitting on top of the rocket’, a comparison of the musical output with a band who became their ‘80s equivalents isn’t as favourable to the moptops.

The myth of the Beatles suggests that at the time of their split in 1970 they had created a pop music language that had ceased to be about innovation. Everything from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on would simply be about reworking existing templates. They had said everything that could be said. Sgt. Pepper is also considered to be the point where music made the shift from rock and roll to rock music. It has become the exemplar of what most people would class as a great album. The common argument for its position at the pantheon of musical achievement is that although there are undoubtedly better albums, even from the Beatles themselves, they all assume greatness only when measured against Sgt. Pepper. All of this seems to place Sgt Pepper on a level with Guernica or Ulysses. Undoubted works of art that become far more significant due to the legend that has attached itself and the changing cultural landscape that they were born into.

I don’t think the music itself is deserving of these comparisons. Throwaway songs like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ are obvious precursors to some of Paul McCartney’s more self-indulgent moments. ‘Honey Pie’. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. ‘Ebony & Ivory’. McCartney has always had a fondness for the more vaudevillian side of post war music. Nothing specifically wrong with that though and The Smiths also nod to George Formby in the arrangements for the song ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’. This song’s premise in fact recalls the fantasy resignation speech of Tom Courtenay in the film of Billy Liar. But it has a level of wit missing from most of the Beatles’ output and is one of the factors that made the Smiths absolutely unique.

Although the Beatles albums are correctly lauded as groundbreaking in terms of recording technique and innovative structure, there was always the odd duffer on each album. They usually compounded this by allowing Ringo to sing it. Morrissey and Marr wrote four studio albums in just over four years. Added to the diverse and unimpeachable run of singles, most of which didn’t initially appear on these albums, this adds up to around 80 songs with barely a foot put wrong. The control of the artwork with its iconic cover stars chosen from the Morrissey hero archives was astounding. The whole package exuded taste and originality. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the split in 1986 preserved forever the identity and integrity of the band. All releases had the same Rough Trade independent label imprint. There was no potential for selling out to EMI who had bought their contracts. Like the Beatles, the Smiths legacy and influence has benefitted from not being subject to the relentless repackaging and reissuing that Morrissey scornfully described in ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’. Sadly, his own solo work has not followed the template.

The Beatles versus The Smiths is a battle between pop mainstream and artistic edginess. It is obviously possible to love and admire both at the same time. I’ve just always felt that there’s more depth to the Smiths. Then again, they were the band of my era. The Beatles belonged to that of my parents, and you can never really admit to being completely in love with something that your parents loved first, can you? At least not until you’re old enough to recognise that they were simply part of a musical lineage that you grow to understand.

I saw the Smiths live many times and they were the best I’ve seen. Morrissey’s uniqueness as a lyricist was matched by his stage persona. The NHS glasses, the hearing aid, the torn Levi’s and cardigan combination, the gladioli: an amalgamation of freshness, style and charisma so different from anything else around. Most bands leave you bored after around 30 minutes; an inability to shift gear or alter the template causing you to start looking at your watch after about five or six songs. The most memorable time was in July 1986 when the band played the legendary Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow. ‘The Queen Is Dead’ LP had just been released to universal critical acclaim and the live music had a beefed up sound due to the enhancement provided by new recruit Craig Gannon. The songs, particularly the newer ones were now being reinforced by set piece props. ‘Panic’ was accompanied by the sight of the singer twirling a hangman’s noose whilst a large placard proclaimed ‘The Queen Is Dead’ as their new material continued an attack on the House of Windsor that had started on the older ‘Nowhere Fast’.

The Smiths were phenomenal that night, even accepting that they had come on stage almost two hours late. The official explanation was a delayed trip north following a Top of the Pops recording in London. I went with my girlfriend and it was just after midnight when we left the old dance hall to run west back into the city centre in the vain hope of catching a late bus or train home. A couple of friends we’d gone with had left earlier deciding that it wasn’t worth missing a day at work following a late concert. They were wrong.

We went to Central Station hoping to see someone who knew my Dad. He worked in the Parcel Service under the main concourse, but since he no longer lived in Kilmarnock I hadn’t seen him in a while. Finding such a person took around half an hour but he couldn’t suggest anything positive beyond phoning a parent from a call box which I wasn’t about to do. He also advised that bumming around the station would draw the attention of the police. The first train home was at 7.15am and although it was late summer it was pretty cold. In a fair degree of desperation I figured the best option was to break into a ‘parked’ carriage and sleep there until morning. I found one on platform 3 which clearly wouldn’t be going anywhere soon and when the few people around weren’t looking we bolted down the platform and onto a dark empty coach at the front. Despite one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent anywhere and a whole series of bizarre noises keeping us awake thinking we’d been rumbled, that night remains the best concert I’ve ever been at.

Of those 80 odd songs, ‘This Charming Man’ is The Smiths’ Strawberry Fields. Not just the record that pushed them over the top into the land of Saturday morning television and daytime Radio One, but arguably the most life affirming piece of seven-inch vinyl ever produced.

The Greatest Goal Ever Scored

Forty-four years ago, me, my Dad, around twelve of his mates, and the neighbours of our top-floor tenement flat crouched around a small television set in our living room and watched the greatest goal ever scored. Before, since and forever more.

 My entrepreneurial father had swapped our budgie and its cage for a loan of the TV in order to watch the 1970 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy. He hated the bird and an opportunity to get rid of it as part of a bizarre pre-Bosman style transfer deal was too good to miss. It was called Joey – the budgie, not the telly – and his failed attempts to get it to talk were the justification for its permanent ‘early bath’.

I missed Joey; well for about the first five minutes of a match apparently being played in some footballing technicolor Oz.

But I’m typically digressing. In a match which has become synonymous with the pinnacle of what football can achieve, that fourth goal is now routinely considered to be the best ever scored. Like most in our living room that day, I didn’t appreciate that then. I was too young. Half a lifetime later though, here’s the three reasons why it is…and none of them actually involve Carlos Alberto.

 01: Clodoaldo’s dribble.

Naysayers might now contest that when that last goal was scored, Italy were already on their knees. However consider the wider context of the poetic part that started the whole move. When I was younger, I considered myself to be pretty good at football. A potential contender, scraping layers of skin on the blaes in the west of Scotland admittedly, but I still thought I could make it. I had no chance. I made it as far as Amateur level with a ludicrously brief possibility of lower level Junior status. I was miles away from succeeding at that standard, and that is a far greater distance away from the Scottish lower leagues, which in turn is light years away from the upper levels of our national game, and the tiny, tiny percentage of players who make it to this level are still highly unlikely to be good enough to get capped. Even by Scotland; a country with players by some considerable measurement short of the quality required to play for Italy, and an Italy good enough to reach a World Cup Final in another hemisphere. Can you see where I’m going with this?

Almost without touching the ball at all, Clodoaldo – a holding midfielder; a defensive ‘fetcher and carrier’, remember – made four Italian internationals look like four versions of me. Think about that, the next time you watch Ian Black.

 02: The ball

As it made its way effortlessly up the touchline, propelled by Rivelino’s left foot direct to Jairzinho’s right, glinting like a diamond in the sun, that ball seemed to know its destiny. It seemed to appreciate the iconic status that it was about to achieve. It was Elvis’s pelvis, Lennon’s smirk and Johnny Rotten’s sneer all wrapped up in a spherical leather ‘fuck you, I’m brilliant!’ Every ball since has wanted to be that ball…and has failed miserably. This year, we’re going to have something that looks like the result of an open-air colouring-in contest at Butlin’s for four-year-olds, which got abandoned halfway through due to torrential rain.

Every football should look like the one which flicked the V’s to an entire stadium that day in 1970.

 03: Pele’s nonchalance

Taking his cue from the attitude of the ball, the stand-out player in a team of footballing geniuses casually rolled it into the path of the eventual goalscorer as if he was playing against that same group of toddlers who designed the ball for Brazil 2014. Watch him again…and again…and then again. His body shape is perfect; all poise and effortless balance. His part in the move is the bit that I love most. He’s like Muhammad Ali dropping George Foreman in Zaire and knowing; just knowing that he didn’t need even that final punch, drawn back but unused. Arrogantly brilliant.

 It’s the greatest goal ever scored. It’s a work of art as memorable as Guernica. Its undoubtedly been seen by more people. If you disagree with me, you’re simply wrong and I feel so unbearably sorry for you.


(Follow the entire World Cup competition on Twitter with the brilliant @ByTheMinSport team. It starts on Thursday 12th June @ByThe MinWC2014)  

Glasgow School Of Art


On Tuesday, I am due to contribute a small part to a radio programme about Scotland’s impact on the Arts, Culture and Sport in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. I’d initially been approached to talk about architecture. Unsurprisingly, it would have focused principally on Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Since I was given the opportunity to suggest a location for the recording, I chose his masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art. Naturally.

In considering what I might say, I thought about the significant influence of Mackintosh on the direction of 20th Century architecture. I thought about the Mackintosh building and how its order, finesse and pre-occupation with light are timeless, inspiring and resolutely Scottish. It took a fire on Friday to remind me that I should have been focusing on the personal relationship I have with it.

I first pitched up at Renfrew Street in 1985. After a few years of bizarre and thankfully short-term employment in sectors as diverse as undertaking and ice-cream-making (a long story…I’ll save it until I know you better) I found myself accepted as a part-time first year architecture student. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mackintosh had also studied this way, as ‘an apprentice’. For six years, I developed and grew as an individual, constantly being inspired by the uniquely creative environment around me.

I remember those hot afternoons in the Hen Run sketching the city in front of me and in the process, gradually understanding the fabric of all cities. How order, balance, character, diversity, scale, proportion and connection are the prism through which successful cities manage inevitable change.

I remember the weekly lectures in the most uncomfortable lecture theatre I’d ever sat in. Uncomfortable only because dozing off on its unrelenting wooden seats was impossible. It hadn’t occurred to me then that that might have been the point, and that most of the things said to me in that room I’d actually remember. (In 2012, I got the chance to give a talk in it to a group of visiting teachers as part of a design initiative. It will always be a personal career highlight.)

And of course, I vividly remember the first time I walked through the doors of the library. It was the first time I’d experienced what architecture was capable of. I know the building – and that room in particular – like the back of my hand, yet I saw something different in it every time I went into it. Perhaps in the way the changing light catches a detail or when it’s more contemplative spaces almost appear to comfort those who might be struggling with their course.

Mackintosh was a partner of the design firm I’m now a director of. I’m incredibly proud of being part of such a lineage. The Glasgow School of Art is a vital part of our practice history and heritage. We still sponsor its students from across the Arts via a scholarship scheme set up in the name of John Keppie, the practice founder. I continue to take kids on our work experience programmes up to the building to help them consider what architecture, or the arts generally, might offer them.

To see the building in flames just a few days ago was heartbreaking. It is the greatest building in the world in my opinion, although admittedly I haven’t been in them all. It wouldn’t matter. The others couldn’t compete. The building is a part of my soul. More than any individual, it has influenced the type of person I am today.

Muriel Gray – a person I’ve always been impressed by but now with an even greater level of admiration  – wrote on Saturday confirming the extent of the damage but also that the building was largely saved, and it felt like a member of the family had made it successfully out of critical care. Those who haven’t spent time with the building might feel that to be an overwrought reaction without perspective. They might consider that a composition of stone, glass and wood – albeit a brilliantly crafted one – doesn’t deserve that. But they’d be wrong. It’s a building with Glaswegian characteristics. One with a nurturing personality. Wee men and big windaes. Muscular on the outside, but delicate and all too combustible on the inside.