Saturday, 7 January 2012


It's the birthday of novelist and nonfiction author Nicholson Baker, born in New York City (1957). He grew up in Rochester and went to an experimental "School Without Walls," where students studied only what interested them, didn't receive grades, and typed up their own transcripts. "At the time I thought: Give me structure!" he told The New York Times. "I yearned for a more traditional school. But now I think it was the best thing. I learned what it was like to be incredibly bored." His wonderful first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), is an account of one man's random thoughts as he rides an escalator up to the mezzanine level of his office building on his lunch hour.

I subscribed this morning to a new blog focused on Govan, heart of the vanished British kingdom of Strathclyde. The Russian word for 'harbour' is 'gavan', and I have asked the author of the blog, Tim Clarkson, whether the two words might be connected. I recommend Tim's The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland

There is an exciting possibility that Eowyn Ivey, Alaska-based author of the predicted best seller 'The Snow Child' (featured in this blog on Dec 22) will visit Moffat on Feb 18 while she is in the UK to promote her book.

I finished Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen last night. It is a real page turner, but I suspect that Hollywood will have changed the rather downbeat ending in the forthcoming movie opening in the UK on March 9 2012 - you can see a trailer on

Thanks to The Commonty for passing
on an excellent article by Jan Patience, first published in The Herald, about Glasgow Dadaist George Wyllie
Exactly 90 years ago today, George Ralston Wyllie was born in Shettleston, Glasgow; the first of Andrew and Harriet Wyllie's two sons.

It would another 50 or so years before Ralston, as he was known, became the maverick bunnet-wearing artist called George Wyllie, who would dangle a Straw Locomotive from the Finnieston Crane and launch a Paper Boat on a global journey from the Clyde via New York and back to Scotland for an ignominious end.
George Wyllie - 'Straw Locomotive' Glasgow 1990
Wyllie's Straw Loco and Paper Boat both had a profound influence on all who saw them. Recently, the actor Alan Cumming, who lived in the city at the time, said: "It [The Straw Locomotive] was an act of whimsy, bravado and passion that connected on an emotional level with the Scottish people. It changed my view of what art could be."
Following Martin Boyce's Turner Prize win at the beginning of this month, there has been much chattering in the art world about how Glasgow has managed to produce so many leading contemporary artists.
David Harding led the Environmental Art course at Glasgow School of Art from the late 1980s until the late 1990s, which hot-housed figures such as Turner Prize winners Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce. He is in no doubt Wyllie exerted a profound influence on his former students' approach to making art.
"George's risk-taking and commitment were the things that exerted influence," he says. "I brought George in to the department to work for a wonderful week around 1986 with the year group of which Douglas Gordon, Louise Scullion, Roddy Buchanan, Ross Sinclair, Craig Richardson were a part.
"At the beginning of it, George came in and asked if anyone had a book. A book was produced. Then he asked one person to open it and another to find a page in the middle. The next person was to pick out a line in the middle of the book. Then someone had to find the middle two words in that line. The words were 'and I' and that became the theme of the week, which concluded with a big dance in the art school to raise money for our student trip to New York.
"One of the students made a Berlin Wall out of cardboard boxes. At the dance, George jumped up to it and wrote 'and I' in huge letters on it. Recently, at a gathering at Martin Boyce's, I asked one or two of the artists there if George had influenced them and the answer was a resounding 'yes', especially with the Straw Locomotive and The Paper Boat."
Wyllie now lives in a care home for ex-mariners in Greenock. The sound of heavy engineering formed the backdrop to his early life and forged the man he would become.
His father was a rate fixer for a machine-tool engineering company on the Clyde while his mother was a housewife with a talent for drawing, painting, music and dance, who later ran her own business.
In 1922, the family moved to the Craigton district of Glasgow. Wyllie, "disadvantaged by a happy childhood", recalls making the best bogies or carts in town, spending hours constructing Meccano cranes and model airplanes and being taught by his mother how to draw, paint, and play the ukelele.
Harriet also taught her boys to dance and in the late 1930s, Wyllie and his younger brother, Banks, had a brush with fame when they were winners on a popular radio talent show, Carroll Levis and His Discoveries, which drew in 20 million listeners.
Somehow, it seems entirely appropriate that George Wyllie, given the Dadaist approach he took to all his art in later life, used to dance unseen for millions of listeners.
He started his working life as an office boy in the docks, which led to an engineering apprenticeship, then he joined the Royal Navy. His war ended with a visit to Hiroshima two months after the H-Bomb was dropped there in 1945.
Back home, and married to his lifetime soul-and-help-mate, Daphne, he became a customs officer, maintaining his link with all things maritime and forging the mantra, "Be suspicious', a line he later used to great effect in his memorable play, A Day Down A Goldmine, which ran in various guises throughout the 1980s. John Bett, Russell Hunter and Bill Paterson all starred with Wyllie in this multi-media spectacle, which took a sideways swipe at the absurdities of the global monetarist system.
By the end of the 1980s, a sixtysomething Wyllie, who had started his career as an artist in his 40s, was making grown men weep by torching his Straw Locomotive in a disused engineering works in Springburn in a Viking funeral for Glasgow's past glories.
In 1990, the writer Naomi Mitchison launched his flagship of the Origami Line, The Paper Boat, on the Clyde as thousands looked on. It was eventually seen by millions as it went on its journey from Glasgow to Liverpool, London and New York. When it sailed into New York and berthed under the shadow of the mighty World Financial Center, it even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

George Wyllie
Although George Wyllie has been creating thoughtful work during the last two decades, there is now a generational gap in terms of his audience. Next year under the banner title The Whysman Festival, his family and friends hope to change this by mounting a series of exhibitions and events, with the overall aim of promoting and protecting his legacy.
The Whysman Festival will include the first retrospective of Wyllie's work in his home city, to be hosted by Glasgow Life at The Mitchell at the end of 2012. Wyllie's old friend, filmmaker Murray Grigor, who has just issued a DVD version of the 1990 Channel 4 film he made about Wyllie, The Why?sMan, thinks it is about time.
"The Straw Loco was as much a potent symbol of the city's industrial decline as a promise of Glasgow's reawakening in the arts. 'The context is half the work,' as the great conceptual artist John Latham once said. Yet no gallery or museum thought it worth preserving Wyllie's internationally acclaimed requiem for Glasgow's lost engineering prowess."
George Wyllie At 90, The Whysman Festival throughout 2012

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