Mar 312016

Roughly 39 years ago some bored teenagers in Surrey started making music together. They became The Members.  Their first new album in 8 years was released recently.  What’s this new album like? Suzanne Kelly reviews.

300onelawThe punk anthem ‘Sound of the Suburbs’ summed up suburbia in the seventies. ‘Working Girl’ is a USA poppy but punk cult classic.  ‘Chelsea Nightclub’ was a fun, laddish, cheery youthful drinking song with a twist of sarcasm.  But time’s moved on, and we’re preparing to celebrate 40 years since punk started.  What would the new record ‘One Law’ be like?

Am happy to say The Members have come up with a solid, varied, enjoyable studio album which is a worthy addition to their body of work. They’ve mixed elements of their own sound while time travelling through the ’50s to the present, while pounding on the door of the future of punk as well.

There are tracks that evoke 1960s guitar bands (the sound of the Kinks comes through loud and clear; sometimes very hauntingly).  There are moments when they’re channelling surf music; then the next track is reggae.

It’s a punk album from punk stalwarts – and it’s also an evolutionary step for the band – possibly for the future of a kind of punk as well.  There’s something about the overall feeling of ‘One Law’ which is some kind of new grown-up punk – but not too grown up thankfully.

It must be great to sing / play / write / be cute – but however talented or good looking you are, if you’ve nothing better to say than ‘Bitch better have my money’ or ‘There ain’t no party like an S Club party,’ what’s the point? The Members have quite a lot to say.  People might have different takes on what punk is/should be – but many hold that if it’s not got anything to say about the messed up state of affairs we’re in, it’s not really punk.  If you think that way, this album should find its way into your collection.

The current line up is JC Carroll (a host of instruments and vocals), Nigel Bennett (guitars and vocals), Nick Cash (drums) and Chris Payne (bass, vocals).  JC Carroll wrote or co-wrote all the tracks (there’s 15 on One Law), and he’s certainly not short of social critique or things worth saying. ‘Emotional Triggers’ starts the album – it also has a great video that goes with it – find it here.  If you’ve never considered how cynically we’re all being psychologically played by the media/advertising/marketing powers that be, or if you’re angered/pissed off/a bit sad when you hear The Ramones used to sell you something, or David Bowie (RIP)’s ‘Changes’ used to make you want to buy a car, Carroll’s got it covered.  The song starts with a nostalgic description of the music he grew up with, and takes us to where we are today:  “The songs that meant so much to me are adverts on the tv… we’re social networking; on YouTube we’re twerking; our iPhone are beeping, we’re constantly tweeting… emotional triggers are making us bitches.”

‘Chelsea Aggro’ is a punk song with guitar, harmony, and a beat that evokes the early 1960s. Nigel Bennett’s guitar work might well make you want to do the twist.  Or something.  It’s got the kind of laddish London feeling that ‘Chelsea Nightclub’ had – just not in a cheery way.  A cracking track.

membersFor a nice piece of political commentary, ‘Robin Hood in Reverse’ delivers a nice attack on the powers that be with vocals that are restrained but clearly quietly angry. I thought of the song when ‘Robin Hood in Reverse’ was a newspaper headline this week.

‘Apathy in the UK Part 1’ is just as apt an anthem for 2016 as ‘Sound of the Suburbs’ was in its time.  Again more great guitar work from Bennett.

Tension and stress are given a darkly humours treatment in ‘Incident at Surbiton’, a tale of rat-racing commuter 9-5 stress ending in tragedy: “I never thought my life would be like this.. I worked hard for my GCSE… don’t push me ‘cause I’m way too close to the edge.”

“It really is a shame to live your life like a machine.”  You can easily picture the scene at the train station Carroll’s painted.  Nice syncopation too.

A further video is out for ‘Working The Night Shift’ which comically uses the dark world of voodoo and its mystical figure Baron Samedi.  Carroll’s accordion playing adds atmosphere to the piece – it’s a most unusual fusion of calypso/reggae/ and maybe due to the accordion – there’s something Eastern European.. something Tiger Lillies – something different going on.

The Members have things worth saying which they get over in a straightforward way, using great music, and drawing on their – and our – emotional triggers.  There was one complaint on Facebook about it, amid a large group of compliments from fans.  Someone fumed that ‘…they hate it when punk bands take years to put out an album.’  A bizarre criticism, especially for a band that’s been touring, exploring many avenues and individual projects all this time, and for a band that still managed to play when Bennett was up to his thigh in a leg cast with a nasty, nasty break not that long ago.  If there is a punk work ethic somewhere that albums have to come out frequently, it’s a stupid rule.  You can’t dictate when inspiration will find you, or write on a schedule. This is a great album for 2016.  It’s a thinking-person’s diverse collection of evocative and thought-provoking track to be enjoyed.

On a personal note

This little review, brief as it is, has taken ages to get out. It’s not that I wasn’t listening to it and enjoying it.  It’s one thing writing about straightforward news stories, but I find it a bit hard to write a critique of people who are professional writers.  Some music critique makes me cringe.  A local reporter just wrote ‘rock idols wowing fans’ ‘stomping’ and clapping, having ‘witnessed a masterclass in musical manipulation…’ Other reviewers delve into detail that only the band’s guitar tech would know (but likely wouldn’t appreciate), and still others review with a view to doing as much name-dropping and sophistry as possible.  I’m trying to avoid the pitfalls.  I wonder whether I am.

Aside from how I feel about writing reviews, there were other things going on.  First, I got bogged down in a story I was working on that took over my life completely for a month, which still hasn’t died down yet.  The ‘One Law’ CD I bought went missing.  My iPod also disappeared, leaving me without the album for a bit.  I had two talks with JC and Nigel, and my meticulous notes wound up in a watery pulp when my roof flooded (again).  Then I decided I’d wait until The Members played a show at Aylesbury to hear the new work live (NB – was a great line-up – Kirk Brandon acoustic, The Members, and Big Country).  However, the sets that night were short, and not much of the new material was aired.  A million and one other things got in the way of getting this simple review out as well, not least the passing away of David Guthrie, an Aberdeen Voice founder.  He was a musician who very much cared about where our insanely greedy government is taking us and social ills.  He’d have loved ‘One Law’.  So, apologies for the late running of this service.  It’s not nearly as worth waiting for as this album was I know, but there you go.  The bottom line – you ought to get this and you ought to go see them.  SK  PS – it’s on orange vinyl too.

Dec 112015

Aberdeen Voice’s ‘poetry mannie in residence’ Bob Smith, who passed away on March 5.

In March 2015, Aberdeen Voice lost one of it’s most prolific writers and best loved team members, our ‘poetry mannie’, Bob Smith.

Bob was a fierce critic of Donald Trump, and would never miss an opportunity to ‘mention’ Trump in his popular poems, which he contributed weekly in Aberdeen Voice for a period of over 4 years.

In all, Bob contributed in excess of 200 poems, and a monthly column entitled ‘Smithy’s Scribblins’

As we digest the news that Donald Trump has had his honorary degree revoked by RGU, His Global Scot status revoked by Nicola Sturgeon, and a petition to ban him from the UK, launched by ‘Voice’s Suzanne Kelly, becoming the most popular petition ever to appear on the Government’s petition site, with, at the time of writing, nearly half a million signatures, our thoughts turn to Bob and how we miss his unique brand of humour.

Bob would have loved to have seen this day, and undoubtedly would be frantically scribbling down some new verses to mark the occasion.

Therefore it seems fitting to republish one of his many poems, this from September 2010, and raise a glass to a warm and genuine friend we were glad to know and very much miss.

– Fred Wilkinson, Editor.

(Noo the Richt Gits University)

by Bob Smith.

The Donald his been awarded
A University honorary degree
His the principal gin aff his heid
At yon learned placie by the Dee?

Continue reading »

Jul 142015

With an avalanche of anodyne music seeping into our living rooms from tedious TV talent(?) shows, the news that Black Grape would play Aberdeen was great news. Their acidic acid observations are set to uplifting, neo-indie music which thrilled fans and critics when they first set sail some two decades ago. What would they be like now? Suzanne Kelly (article) and Julie Thompson (photography) found out.


Many old acts are reforming and hitting the road; their motivations vary.

Sometimes it’s a case of government austerity forcing these reformations.

It can also be a touch of greed, or a touch of poverty (fame does not equal financial security).

Some such reformed acts ache for a bit more adulation/re-lived glory, or just ache to get away from the wives.

Bands which are forced to tour can fool some of the people some of the time. But there are some things you can’t fake.

On Sunday the 5th July, Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom was filled with people who clearly loved Black Grape and who had high expectations. Everyone who entered with high expectations exited in higher spirits. God, I hope they come back.

The support acts were local lad Marc Culleys’ Soul Love, Aberdeen’s Tijuana Sun, and Mancunians Alias Kid. Culley’s set was popular; I was sorry I missed it. More on Culley here.

Tijuana_SunTijuana Sun has some accomplished playing and some memorable songs and riffs.

TS are a are a local act that’s been going for a few years now.

They are Mark Ferguson (Vox), Kris Harris (Guitars), Gregg Bannister (Guitars), John Brown (Bass), Paul Barclay (Drums).

More on them here

Alias_KidAlias Kid were a great warm up act for BG; it’s the kind of young indie act that’s very much needed to stir things up in the industry.

I found out afterwards that Alan McGee had signed them and I wasn’t surprised.  They are Maz, Sean, Col, James, Nick, Chris; follow them here.

There’s a sweet, poppy song ‘Zara with the Henna’ which went over very well on the night.

My favourite was ‘Revolution Sometime’ which impressed the crowd.

The percussion was outstanding; guitarist James has a way with his Gibson, and there’s lots of anarchic chemistry onstage.

Then it was Black Grape time. The current Black Grape lineup is Shaun Ryder, Kermit, Che Beresford, Mikey Shine, Seth Leppard, Dan Broad. Mancunia Promotions invited Aberdeen Voice to the Aberdeen leg of this 20+ date tour, which just concluded. For further information and links to some great BG videos, visit Mancunia’s page here

Black_GrapeThis enthusiasm thing. If Black Grape were faking it, then they should all be in Hollywood collecting Oscars. I wanted so much for them to be enjoying it, and for it to be just as it was when I first saw them 20 years ago. And it was.

Early on it seemed Kermit made a remark to Ryder about his being over 50 years old – and I’d expected the audience to likewise be people around the same age. The ballroom was in fact full of people of all ages.

The people jumping up and down on my right (with me) during ‘Reverend Black Grape’ and ‘Tramazi Party’ were all around 25 – 30 they knew every word and sang every word of this twenty-year-old track.

The people in front of me were at least my age; and all around were people testing the famous spring in the ballroom’s floor. If I wound up dancing without hesitation, it was the power in that music, the infectiousness of the dancing crowd, and the fact the sprung wooden floor with hundreds jumping on it made standing still a non-starter.

The opening numbers ‘Reverend Black Grape’, ‘In the Name of the Father’, ‘Tramazi Party’ & ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ were stormers. Kermit was amazing. Ryder displayed the personality we expected; he looked good. The bass player smiled throughout, going against the stereotype.

The energy of the music is equal to the lyrics; you have to go far to find anything approaching ‘Reverend Black Grape’ for a contemporary scathing assault on religious hypocrisy.

‘Old Pope he got the Nazis to clean up their messes. In exchange for gold and paintings he gave them new addresses’ – and there you have it – the Church’s dirty hands and the post WWII relocation of Nazi party top officials at the end of the war – summed up succinctly by a band from Manchester in one verse. And we danced to it. ‘In The Name of the Father’ puts the imagery from the video into your head as the band performs.

Black_Grape_Shaun_Ryder_and_Ke‘Get Higher’ features some of the band’s best writing and performance; the audience loved it, and again we were all singing and dancing.

I’d like to think they saw how into it we were. The waving arms and jumping people might have been a clue.

They really have to keep going and to come back. Soon. Is the material as relevant as when it was written?

No. With the way things are going, Black Grape’s music is even more relevant. I’d say we need at least ten more albums of what they’ve got to say. ASAP please.

On a personal note
I ran out and bought the Black Grape album when it first came out; I got a chance to see them in London (was it the Kentish Town forum or the Bull? pass). Somehow we all had after show passes, not that it mattered in the end, because the whole venue seemed to be a giant unending party. It was amazing. You can’t do that at the ballroom, don’t you know, but when BG were playing, it all came back. And it was delicious.

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Apr 012015

By Duncan Harley and Fred Wilkinson on behalf of the Aberdeen Voice team.


Aberdeen Voice’s ‘poetry mannie in residence’ Bob Smith, who passed away on March 5.

Bob Smith has passed away at age 74. He signed himself “Bob Smith © – The Poetry Mannie” and told us all that Doric wirds are mair expressive, than onything else ye micht hear.

In true Bob style he kept his last illness very quiet saying only that he was unable to write at the present.

His daughter Kerry later got in touch regarding his passing. He died at home.

To the best of our knowledge, his last published piece, The Wireless appeared in the February 2015 edition Leopard Magazine. A fitting tribute to the man’s talent, the poem reflects on past times when he was a loon.

Jimmy Shand, Sports Report and that Prince Charles favourite the Goon Show all get a mention.

This extract tells of Dick Barton Special Agent plus ace detective Paul Temple, famous sleuth and amateur private detective:

“The Wireless ah the memories
O listenin fin I wis a loon
On dark winters nichts roon the fire
Oor Ecko radio it  sure wis a boon

There wis Dick Barton Special Agent
Fa took on aa the baddies
It fair sharpened the imagination
O fowk like us as laddies

Paul Temple an ace dectective
As weel as yon PC49
Solvin aa the nations crimes
Their adventures I likit fine ……… “

Robert Smith was born and brought up on a farm in Skene, Aberdeenshire and educated at Garlogie Primary School and at Skene School. He only took up writing poetry after he retired.

Married to Linda, Bob’s daughter Kerry lives in Dubai. His son Steven sadly pre-deceased him in early 2014.

Bob worked for many years at Aberdeen Journals before taking early retirement to pursue his other interests which included the buying and selling of antiques, playing golf and passionately following the Dons. He proclaimed himself as their number one fan.

A deep love of the North East of Scotland, it’s landscape, it’s people, it’s traditions and it’s natural heritage are recurrent themes in Bob’s written work. Such passion would be expressed not only by celebrating such treasures, but also by questioning, satirising and pouring scorn on any figure or process which threatened or detracted from that which he held dear.

Bob reserved his hard hitting political comments for those whom he felt deserved them. Donald Trump, Sir Ian Wood and a good few Aberdeen councillors often got a good bashing both in the form of his letters to the local papers and his poetry, which was usually in the Doric.

Bob was widely published. A search for “Bob Smith” in the Aberdeen Voice search box will return around 100 of Bob’s Doric poems. There are of course many more.

When the man was asked if he knew of a poem in the Doric to use at a friend’s mums funeral, he replied in the negative but said he would immediately pen one. It was duly read out by a grieving grandson last November in an Aberdeen church to an audience of relatives. Bob of course was unrepentantly shy regarding his contribution to the ceremony, only saying that he was glad to help.

It would be comforting to think that this unpublished piece might become a classic. The Catto family have a cherished copy and if asked would no doubt share freely.

Alongside his weekly Aberdeen Voice column his Doric poems featured in Leopard Magazine and his take on the Turra Coo featured in the Scottish Review.

The Bonnie Dunes o Menie, stuff about Fitba and the Spikkin o Doric all came under his wry scrutiny.

Smithy’s Scribblins aboot the naitural warld included lines such as:

“Foo lang afore ess prophecy becomes a reality? And Weel the wye we’re gobblin up the Earth’s resources, maybe seener than ye bliddy think.

“The fowk fa war native tae America lang afore the supposed civilised warld visited their shores kent fine foo tae live alangside naitur.”

His take on Trump was less forgiving. But apart from a ribald comment or ten, Bob was content just to criticise the man thus:

The Donald’s bocht a golf resort
Doon on the Ayrshire coast
A’ll get ti host The Open
Wull noo be his prood boast

Thirty Five million he did spen
He got Turnberry fer a snip
Es o coorse micht mean
Interest in Menie taks a dip

Jist cast yer myn back
Fin winfairms he did detest
The mannie made a vow
In Scotland he’d nae mair invest

Fit ti mak o ess U-turn
As he cums crawlin back
Bein economical wi the truth
The chiel still his the knack

Hud on a wee meenitie tho’
It micht nae be plain sailin
The spectre o affshore winfairms
Cwid yet hae Trumpie wailin

Marine Scotland it his reported
Aboot a site jist oot at sea
Far ye cwid plunk win turbines
They’d be richt in Donald’s ee

Fergus Ewing says ess plans
Fer noo are aff the radar
Yet fair refused ti rule oot
Returnin ti them later

If a winfairm cam ti pass
Wid The Donald then renege?
Or wid he maybe in a rage
Blaw up yon Ailsa Craig

At Doonbeg he’d ti stop some wark
Did he nae hae richt permission?
He can tho’ noo  gyaang ahead
Maybe efter a new submission?

Micht Donald hae fresh concerns
A snail in Ireland is protectit
Bi speecial environmental laws
An ess canna be correctit

Trump says he’s gyaan ti wark
Wi environmentalists an sic fowk
If he’d deen aat ower in Menie
He micht nae bin classed a gowk

Noo ere’s nae doot the mannie
Oot the news he winna bide
Wull we next aa be hearin
The bugger’s bocht the River Clyde …

He wrote about many folk and commented wildly according to his well held views. Bob knew how to make those wee moments special.

In not so far off December 2013 he referenced some prophetic words by a Native American tribal leader by the name of Chief Seattle.

“A’ll leave the last wird tae a Native American tribal leader, Chief Seattle, fa said awa back in 1854:-

Humankind has not woven the web of life, We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves, All things are bound together.
All things connect.”

One of his most heartfelt classics is Spikkin Doric  published in the Voice some years ago, the piece reflects on the banning of the native tongue of the north east during the difficult days when locals were encouraged to speak the queens English and stand to attention when listening to the national anthem. Bob would have none if it.

A’ve ayewis spak the Doric
Sin a wis jist a loon
A dialect still weel loo’d
Fae the Spey tae Bervie toon

Fin a wis at the local skweel
In classrooms it wis banned
Ye were threatened wi the scud
Fit wid hae wairmed yer hand

Bit eence oot in the playgrun
It flowed oot o yer moo
An wi yer freens an neipers
Doric wisna thocht taboo

We canna lit iss language dee
It’s pairt an paircel o oor lan
The Doric an the North east
They aye gyang han in han

A’m  loathe tak in fit a’m hearin
Young fowk canna say “ch” as in loch
Fit’s the warld cumin tae
If ye canna git yer tongue aroon roch?

Doric wirds are mair expressive
Than onything else ye micht hear
Thunk hivvens fowk still spik it
In  kwintra placies like New Deer

The  braw wird  “dreich” a like
Instead o jist sayin “dull”
Or maybe gyaan “heelster-gowdie”
As ye tummle doon a hull

Robbie Shepherd he still spiks it
An a Doric sang he’ll sing
Sin the days o “The Garlogie Fower”
Iss chiel’s bin the Doric “king”

Lits aa fecht fer the Doric
Hae it taacht in aa the skweels
Instead o aa the lah-de-dahs
Thinkin the Doric is fer feels

© Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie

Fred, the Voice Team and I could of course go on. Robert is a man well missed by all who knew him. Well met and well written Bob, we miss you.

Comments are of course very welcome.

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Jan 162015

JeSuisCharlieWith thanks to Gavin Mowat.

French born MSP Christian Allard thanked the North East community for its show of solidarity with the victims of the shootings in Paris last week.
Mr Allard joined around 350 people for a “Je suis Charlie” show of solidarity in Aberdeen on Sunday.

The North East event, which coincided with similar demonstrations across Europe, was organised by Julie Tchao on behalf of French community group Frogs in Aberdeen.

Hundreds of North East residents joined those in the French community to show support for the people affected by the attacks in Paris.

At Parliament Mr Allard also lodged a motion to give fellow MSPs an opportunity to pay their respects and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland stands “shoulder to shoulder” with France in the wake of the deadly attacks.

Commenting, Christian Allard MSP said:

“That so many North East residents have come together to show solidarity with France is fantastic.

“I would like to thank those in Aberdeen’s French community that organised this event – many I spoke to were grateful to have the opportunity to show their support for the people of France.

“The tragic events in Paris have generated an instant response of solidarity across the world – and I would like to extend my thanks to all those who came out at the weekend.”

Note: Motion S4M-12006 (lodged by Mr Allard on 08/01/15):

That the Parliament is deeply saddened by the horrific shootings that have taken place at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris; expresses its sympathy for the families, friends and colleagues of those who have been injured or who lost their lives; believes that the people of Scotland are standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of France following the massacre of the sharpest satirical cartoonists of the French press, and notes that this attack on the freedom of the press has generated an instant response across the world, the message of solidarity, “Je suis Charlie”

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Jan 162015

On 7 January 12 members of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo were gunned down in their offices.   This was a premediated, cold-blooded assassination by radicalised people claiming somehow to have ‘avenged the Prophet Mohammed’.  Following the massacre of the journalists – and others in France unlucky enough to have crossed the path of the murders, worldwide, pan-religion condemnations were issued and rallies held.  Aberdeen, with its considerable French population, joined in with its own rally, organised by Frog in Aberdeen and especially Julie Tchao.  Suzanne Kelly talks to those who attended.


There were many families present, many with French origins. Picture credit: Suzanne Kelly.

Aberdeen’s Castlegate filled up last Sunday with people of all ages and nationalities to stand together in solidarity for those who lost their lives in Paris, their families and friends. Several hundred people rallied, carrying the flag of France, posters, and signs proclaiming ‘I am Charlie/Je Suis Charlie’ – the ‘I am Spartacus’ slogan adopted for those who express solidarity with the magazine and its use of satire and humour to mock the powerful, corrupt and dangerous.

A small shrine was set up with a candle; a book of condolences was readily filled with comments – it is being sent to Paris.

People also wore pencils on their coats as a symbol of the power of the written word and of satire – a representation that ultimately the pen is mightier than the sword or gun.

Organiser Julie Tchao said:-

“I think it is really excellent the turnout we had today, not only from the French community which is good, but also from Scottish and British people who are like us  shocked and horrified by what happened.  It is really great that on this occasion everyone could gather around a good cause and a peaceful event and share our sorrows but also share the fact we say no to terrorism and yes to freedom of speech.   

“I am really touched by the turnout from a small city like Aberdeen.”

Also attending the event was Domenic Bruce; he commented:-

“I think what has happened is very inhumane and a huge distortion of what Islam is as a religion.  I think all we can do is hope that love and light can diffuse the situation and people come together to help the victims’ families – and well the whole world really.”

There were many families present, many with French origins.  Natalie and here family were one such group.  She commented:-

“We decided to come as a family to show our solidarity with what happened in Paris – the atrocities – and to demonstrate that we want to keep our freedoms.”

Her partner Nick added:-

“It’s too easy for the silent majority to stay silent and that’s why we wanted to be here – remembering what happened – not shouting about it – but quietly supporting the people of France, and supporting freedom.”

The historic Castlegate has seen many events over its many hundreds of years as a gathering place, but no one could have imagined it would be used for such an international, interfaith display of unity as it did that Sunday; the dignity on display and the kindness people showed to each other brings hope.

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Mar 142014

The Queen having tea_RL_1_003.tifFor 12 years the establishment and celebrities were grist to the Spitting Image mill; nothing and no one was sacred. If you weren’t laughing, you were outraged. By Suzanne Kelly.

Issues of the day were brought to light, political sleaze was explained and mocked in spectacular fashion, and well, those of us with a sense of humour had a great laugh.
A new exhibition in London’s Cartoon Museum pulls together puppets, memorabilia, news reports and anecdotes. It is a small exhibition in a small museum.

However, while floor space may be limited, the depth and breadth of the collection and the Spitting Image exhibition is deeply impressive.

This is also one of the most important shows you’ll have the chance to see, if press freedoms (facing new threats) and political satire are to be understood, preserved and appreciated.

The Cartoon Museum has been flying the flag for the cartoon as art and entertainment since 2006, and features a great diversity of art going back centuries. There are simple cartoons such as ‘Popeye’ which were simply intended to amuse. There are biting political cartoons from the distant past, and social commentary cartoons spanning decades which, when collected and curated, form an extremely important historic record.

But this Spitting Image exhibition must be the most impressive and engaging of all the museum’s major exhibitions to date.

There is an impressive schedule of evening talks and events featuring those who worked on Spitting Image. Roger Law (a founder of SI with Peter Fluck – listen to them on Desert Island Discs here ) will deliver an illustrated talk on 19 March on ‘The Art of Theft’.

There is a Spitting Image Roundtable on 7th May with people behind the show, and a ‘Design your own puppet character’ session with puppet maker and puppeteer Scott Brooker.

“At 10pm on Sunday, 26 February 1984 British television witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon – a satirical puppet show which would push the boundaries of taste and decency, present the Royal Family, politicians and celebrities alike in surreal yet telling situations, and become one of the most talked-about programmes of the 1980s and 1990s. The country had never seen anything like it.” – CartoonMuseum

We may never see the like of Spitting Image again; it was the reactionary product of a heady mixture of Thatcherism, international issues, domestic political power struggles, the Reagan/Thatcher special relationship, and later on celebrities and sports. Apparently Peter Cook once remarked that the sports vignettes were his favourites.

Perhaps they were, but Spitting Image’s satire wasn’t so much biting as it was scorching. Many times it pushed the envelope just a bit further than people expected; many viewers for instance finding the Queen Mother puppet a bridge too far.

Thatcher Cutting up Britain (c) Spitting ImageMargaret Thatcher in S&M gear likewise provoked a response.

Memorable puppets included a completely grey John Major, a schoolboy Tony Blair sporting an ‘I’m the Leader’ badge, The Queen, and a slobbering Roy Hatterslea will be in the public conscious for quite some time.

In the display was a never-used Osama Bin Laden puppet – it oozes menace.

Imagining what could have been made of this in a sketch is a powerful idea to grapple with; the puppet sits in its case waiting for an opportunity which never materialised.

The exhibition screens Spitting Image episodes, and on the day I visited, many people stopped to watch the segment depicting how Zola Budd came to be English rather than South African, and while doing nothing more spectacular in her Olympic race than tripping up American Mary Decker, Budd nevertheless managed to make a bit of money from her exploits.

Spitting Image was a platform of perfect political satire and the springboard for many of our most important talents – Ian Hislop, Nick Newman, Harry Enfield, Rory Bremner, Hugh Dennis, Kate Robbins and John O’Farrell are some of those who were involved.

The show evolved from the partnership of artists Roger Law and Peter Fluck who met in Cambridge as students. Cambridge and its Granta magazine must have been quite a crucible. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sprang from that Cambridge seam, and were responsible for an increase in political satire in the 1960s.

Cook’s ‘Establishment’ nightclub in Soho must have been incredible; Roger Law was also involved in that venture as an artist.  Cook of course lent his support in many ways to Private Eye magazine, still the zenith of political satire in the UK today.

The exhibition was well attended when I was there; people of different ages and several tourists wound their way through the gallery. Watching the episodes being screened on a wall brought back the importance of the show; we visitors watched in silence except when laughter broke out which it frequently did.

The puppets are quite something to see; the fact they were collected together at all is something of an event. Many were auctioned off and the collection dispersed; one puppet disappeared only to surface years later at a boot sale – from where it was rescued.

The ephemera and historical notes gave insights from many different perspectives; it was safe to say the visitors read the information presented with relish. There are many anecdotes which I won’t spoil by sharing – do go visit the museum if you can.

It’s a gem of a show, and I only wish it could tour the country (with a stop in Aberdeen of course).  Actually, I wish that we could have a new version of Spitting Image for today. However, there are many reasons whatever the next big thing in popular political sarcasm is, it won’t be Spitting Image.  Gallery Director Anita O’Brien had a few minutes to speak; she explained:-

“Satire is one of the great art forms which Britain invented, which continues to thrive. The difficulty with Spitting Image now, though people would like to bring it back and feel it would be wonderful is that the political climate and landscape have changed, and people are not as politically involved. I think when it comes to people the nature of their political involvement has changed. The media has changed; you had four channels then; it is far more fragmented now.

“I think people do different things – there is an emphasis on CGI, and people’s expectations of media has changed – people expect a different look and feel (to the latex puppets of SI). I also have to say cost – I just don’t think the media would be able to bear it – it would be very labour intensive, and a huge number of people would have to come together.

“I think that might be the biggest stumbling block. Also they were all very involved and quite committed to what they were doing. They perhaps hoped they would bring down the government; it didn’t happen [we laugh]. This was the ‘80s; there was a very strong political engagement; very anti-Thatcherite.”

I suggest the fact that the programme existed had an impact on political engagement, and suggest that Spitting Image was the reason people even knew who cabinet ministers were. O’Brien commented:-

“I think a lot of people who maybe might not have read political columns at the time would have watched the programme… Peter Cook said he actually enjoyed the sports more than the politics; if he wanted politics he would have read a newspaper. We’re hoping that people will come who might not have seen it and can come and become more aware of it, and gain a view into satire.”

But what’s the point of political satire? Is it nothing more than childish, vulgar base humour with no hope of achieving anything?

Here’s an example then:-

“In the mid-1980s Gary Trudeau, writer and illustrator of the comic Doonesbury used satire to help put an end to a racially motivated law in Palm   Beach, Florida. The law in question mandated that all workers or employees, including gardeners, retail clerks, janitors and taxi drivers, who were part of a racial minority were required to register with police and obtain and ID card within 48 hours of accepting a job.

“In 1985, upon discovering the continued existence of this Jim Crow legislation, Gary Trudeau illustrated a series of comics lambasting Florida’s government for its continued support of a racist law. By 1986, local politicians drew up the “Doonesbury Act” and repealed the outdated law.” –

Sarcasm and political satire are sometimes the only weapons people have against powerful institutions and powerful people. We now have threats to our free press coming in light of the News of the World hacking scandal, wherein a sledgehammer is being used to crack all the nuts, good ones and bad ones, for the actions of a few corrupt, powerful people in the press, who were buying information from the police.

Compared to the laissez-faire approach and support the government gave to the banking sector in light of the vast scale of corruption it was and is riddled with, does the recent attacks on press freedoms really warrant any new law? Should those who are meant to be scrutinized by a free press have the right in a democracy – whatever that is – to limit the important checks and balances the press provides?

Let’s hope not. It is bad enough that the press is under fire as a whole institution for the actions of a few.  Let’s make sure that political satire remains a protected, powerful and widely-used tool of dissent and change.

And with that, I buy a few posters. As I’m leaving, I’m thinking about Private Eye, Hislop, Ingrams, Granta, and ultimately Peter Cook.

Before I leave, I ask when we’ll see the like of Peter Cook again; ‘Indeed’ is O’ Brien’s answer.

Spitting Image – From Start to Finish runs until 8 June 2014

Cartoon Museum,
35 Little Russell Street,
Tel: 0207 580 8155

Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.

Mar 092012

By Bob Smith.

Noo the mannie a’m thinkin o
Is nae a chiel fae Roman stock
Nae an emperor nor a general
Mair a gairden pinchin bloke

The fowk in the Acsef’ “Senate”
“Hail Seizer” they micht roar
“The plebeians o oor gweed city
Wi them ye’ve settled a score”

Julius Caesar wore a laurel wreath
T’wis ti hide his baldy heid
Oor “Seizer” micht weer a money belt
Ti hide proceeds o corporate greed

Like an assassin in Roman times
Oor “Seizer” he wields the dagger
Syne stiks it in the city’s hairt
An the bonnie gairdens stagger

Anither Caesar kent as Nero
He fiddled fyle Rome burned
Wull oor “Seizer” play bagpipes
As the UTG grun’s owerturn’t?

Oor “Seizer” shud read history
The Roman Empire it did faa
Helpit by “ower the tap” spendin
On thingies nae needed ava

Aa ye fowk o Aiberdeen toon
Faa voted fer the “Web” design
A hope iss ye dinna live ti regret
Somewye awa doon the line

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012

Feb 232012

What a week it’s been for Old Susannah. The pizza party that never was,  PR wars and public accusaltion of criminal activity.  Where to start? And where is it all going? By Suzanne Kelly.

According to the Press & Journal of 21 February, Tom Smith of ACSEF claims to be the victim of internet ‘bullying… harassment… intimidation’ and so on.  The nature of the claims are not spelled out, but allegations are made of an ‘objectionable’ image (no, not one of the ‘concept’ drawings of the Granite Web), e-mail hacking and receipt of abusive emails.

Smith has called in the police.  It seems those he accuses of this broad spectrum collection of attacks are the broader spectrum of people opposed to building in Union Terrace Gardens.

Hacking is illegal.  Threatening is illegal.  When it comes to posting threatening remarks on internet sites, the law still applies.   But we are in a democracy which prides itself on centuries of press freedoms. 

The British Isles may truly be called the birthplace of political satire, a recognised and legitimate weapon of the press, often the only means of attacking people of wealth and power who might otherwise escape scrutiny.

The press has been filled with accounts of the nefarious activities in days not long past at News International.  Police have been bribed; phones of murder victims have been hacked, private correspondence has been intercepted.   The offenses are both shocking and illegal.   Elsewhere online,  threats are issued back and forth; the cloak of anonymity is often mis-used for the benefit of the coward or the manipulative.   As unpleasant as some online banter may be, not all of it is illegal by a wide margin:  the P&J know this extremely well.

If Mr Tom Smith and/or his family have had any bona fide threats (whether electronic or not), or if Mr Smith has been illegally hacked, then I will be the first to defend his rights and demand an enquiry.  (Note:  did you know that council officials can get court orders to snoop on residents for a variety of reasons?  If not, you know now).

However, there are several issues arising from this Press & Journal story which need to be dissected.

From the P&J, the blur between the allegedly illegal and the legal is as blurry as the specific details of the City Garden Project itself.

The timing of this claim comes close to the end of the referendum voting period – Mr Smith seems in the article in question to be making a blanket-bombing attack on all those who oppose the plans to build over Union Terrace Gardens.  I can assure Mr Smith that there was never a looser or more informal federation of people opposed to the City Gardens Project.

Why do he and the P&J feel the need to group political parties, grass-roots movements, students, OAPS, rich and poor into a single entity that is apparently illegally attacking him?

I am keen to hear the specifics of the accusation.  Perhaps Mr Smith is accustomed in his very many roles (1. ACSEF Chairman, 2. City Gardens Project Management Board, 3. City Gardens  Implementation Team Chair,  4. City Gardens Project Advisory Group, and  5. Director of Aberdeen City Gardens Trust) to only being treated with deference.  In social network sites; on newspaper comment pages, there is no automatic right to be treated politely.

Not everyone uses genteel language; one person’s foul language is another’s common vernacular.  What is the specific nature of the abuse(s) being claimed?  From the P&J, the blur between the allegedly illegal and the legal is as blurry as the specific details of the City Garden Project itself.

It is refreshing as well as amusing in the extreme to see the Press & Journal showing such concern to those ‘bullied and/or intimidated’ via internet:  readers of its online comments will be familiar with the abusive, bullying, personal, crude tactics of two of its most prolific, rarely censored anonymous posters, Jock W and the even more notorious Sasha M.

Months ago Sasha M made comments about me which were libellous in my (and my legal advisor’s opinion).  I complained and considered whether or not to sue; the editor of the P&J called me and agreed to take the posts off.  As I reported at the time, the editor told me that since ‘you skate pretty close to the edge yourself, you have to be able to take it as well.’

I reminded him that I write a satirical column, and that if Sasha M writes something about me which appears on a site owned and controlled by the P&J, purporting to be a place for comments on news stories, Sasha’s postings  had better be true. (I suggested ridiculing my overly-large nose; that at least would have a grain of truth in it:  but Sasha had claimed two libels against me which were  published on the Press & Journal’s website as if they were factual.  They were not, and as such I considered them illegal).

But now it is time to look at the Press & Journal. Today’s article is a very odd creature.

I have been sent occasional searing, blistering  emails by those I have satirised.  My satirical subjects have been politicians who have voted to slash benefits, close schools, destroy greenbelt land, and who have been convicted of criminal acts.

I see my small satirical column as my only weapon against a public/private power structure  that, in my opinion, seems to wants to suck as much out of the taxpayer and give them as little in return as possible, while commissioning portraits of themselves, attending concerts and other events.

My writing is certainly not to everyone’s taste – but I am using the legal, accepted, platform called satire.  If I have successfully drawn attention to any injustice and/or incestuous public/private sector overlaps, then I’ve succeeded.  But in any event, I stay within the law, and will continue to write as long as I can find a reader.

But now it is time to look at the Press & Journal. Today’s article is a very odd creature.  It voices Mr Smith’s complaints – but it mixes illegal activity such as hacking and threats with totally legal (if undesired) activity such as online posts.  It stops short of accusing anyone of libel, but it hints at it.  What is the P&J actually trying to say is the subject of the police investigation?  Are the police roping together all internet items which offend Mr Smith – legal and illegal?  The P&J certainly seems to be doing so.

For quite some time P&J editorial staff have been aware of the over-the-top, racist, nationalistic, insulting behaviour (in the opinion of many) of some of its posters.  Mike Shepherd is only one target of Jock, Sasha and their vitriolic crew.  Mike and the others have not gone to the police as far as I know, but by Mr Smith’s standards they certainly would be within their rights to do so.  In reviewing randomly the writing of Jock and Sasha, I’ve come across highly offensive, possibly illegal posts including:-

*  references to ‘incomers’ in less than flattering contexts, which certainly sound nationalistic and insular and to some degree threatening to me

*  references to specific politicians such as Lewis MacDonald which are extremely insulting

* stereotyping of anyone suspected of left-leaning politics

*  a remark from Sasha:  ‘let’s kill off these protestors once and for all…’  not kill off the protest – but the actual people – the protestors.

*  Jock W invokes the Nazis in an insult directed towards Mike Shepherd  – Jock references ‘Goebbels’ and alludes to ‘Chemical Ali’ by way of typing ‘Comical Ali’.

Nazi related insults?  Threats to kill protestors?  What has been allowed on the Press & Journal online editions for all these past months? 

They are surely responsible for posts put on their website.  A feeble addition of links whereby readers can ask for a quote to be ‘reported’ is by no means a substitute for the responsibility the P&J have as the owners of this website.  I have had scores of people tell me they used these links to complain, all to no avail.

Clearly the P&J need to look at their own house.

The real point here though is that the Press & Journal knowingly allows this type of comment to go on, refuses to police its own comments pages, and yet has the gall to support Mr Smith in his complaints that people are being intimidating and bullying to him online, mixing illegal and legal activity in what seems like a very crude attempt to smear anyone who stands up against the City Gardens Project or those who support it.

A kind word to Aberdeen Journals:  things are changing.  Your circulation and profit margin are apparently not what they once were.  People are saying openly that you seem blatantly biased towards any hype the pro CGP teams throw at you.  Have you gone too far this time?  Just a thought.

I welcome any police investigation into any illegal activities – threatening people, hacking and so on.  Our police will be well aware of guidelines protecting free expression, satire and online comments.

One recent complaint I had threatened me with legal action and the Scottish Football Association (!)

If any attempt is made to curb, censor or halt normal rights of the individual, then this small writer through to the NUJ and all responsible news agencies will be there to safeguard our journalistic rights and day-to-day free expression.

In point of fact I am trying to make up my mind:  should I stand up to Sasha M and launch a suit against him and/or the Press & Journal now after all (don’t worry – I still have screen shots of Sasha’s remarks about me – in an item about the Lord Provost giving away expensive gifts which I neither commented on nor had any involvement with whatsoever)?

This could stop any further written threats to ‘kill protestors’ or nationalistic rhetoric about ‘incomers’.  For that matter – I thought the garden ramps project was to encourage newcomers to the area?  With Sasha’s rants against newcomers, this will indeed be hard work.

Back to my legal, online writing.  For every piece of fact I have written about, I can assure my detractors that I will have a source, and that source will be doubly – if not triply – backed up.  I have in the main while writing received many letters of support (for which I am sincerely grateful).

One recent complaint I had threatened me with legal action and the Scottish Football Association (!) if I did not print a retraction of my article.  Instead my source material was reviewed, not only fully vindicating my assertions, but also paving the way to printing further details the complainant may not have wanted publicised.

Finally, here is a nice way to illustrate these points, which I will call The Casablanca Gambit.

Classic Film readers will remember dialogue from the iconic (the word is well used in this case) film, ‘Casablanca’.  The Chief of Police in Casablanca, Captain Renault, has been ordered by Nazis to close Rick’s Cafe by any means.  This is what transpires:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

I leave it to you to decide who in this current Aberdeen drama are the Nazis, who is Rick, and who is Renault.  (I wonder if the P&J may wish to reconsider its position, or if it will continue to collect its winnings while it can).

Feb 162012

By Belle Mont

Robbie, ma loon, jist turn aroon
Pit doon the daisy, boot up yer Mac
A twenty-first century parcel o rogues
Hell-bent on destroyin fit lies at your back.

Wallace, my friend, when it came to your end
You were tortured and flayed, stretched oot on the rack
But tak up yer shield to show we’ll nae yield
‘til the vandals and money-men are driven richt back.

Salvation, look doon o’er the apron afore ye
Verdant and colourful, unspiled and free
Replaced by a latter-day usurer’s temple?
Frown sternly upon those fa wish it to be.

Hey Byron min, look roon the corner
And wonder, ‘far’s next for concrete and tar?’
The Gairdens destroyed? The wreckers micht lobby
To fill in the corrie of dark Lochnagar

Granite-hewn monuments, proud parts of heritage
We call on your spirit, for now is the hour
And, toonsers a’wye – fae Bucksburn to Pointlaw
Save these great Gairdens. We have the power.

Belle Mont
February 2012