In each edition, a personal selection of things of value: we ask each contributor to nominate their favourite book, film, piece of music, work of art, restaurant or pub, and place. This week: writer, activist, historian and novelist, Bob Cant
The highest seal of approval which I can give to a book is to read it more than once and I have lost count of the number of times I have read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song. The book is set in the Mearns village of Kinraddie as it struggles with the impact of the first world war; having grown up in a latterday Kinraddie, I felt well able to recognise many of the patterns of behaviour of the folk in the book. The language can be difficult, combining Scots words, English words and English words disguised to look as though they are Scots, but there is a rhythm to the language and a passion to the storytelling that carry the reader along. Back in the days of my youth, Grassic Gibbon was still a prophet without honour in his own land and I had to move to London to find out about his work. Now I can be quite evangelical about it and I even persuaded my book group here in Brighton to read it.
Films have been an important means of conveying messages about homosexuality. When Victim, a film campaigning against the criminalisation of homosexual activity, appeared in 1961, I couldn't find anyone to accompany me to the Forfar Regal to see it. It proved to be a fine film and I tend to catch it every 10 years or so. But it has been a great relief that film-makers have discovered ways other than victimhood of representing gay people; there has been a positive flowering of story telling about their lives and loves on the screen. Probably the most exciting and the most challenging images of non-heterosexual people have come from the films of the Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar; just don't expect any happy endings there. An unexpected British success was 'Pride', a story of the lives of people who became involved with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the miners' strike in the 1980s. It was unprecedented to see gay people portrayed not just as rounded characters but as people who engaged openly and actively with the wider conflicts of their time.
Favourite piece of music
The music I enjoy depends on my mood at any particular time. One day I might want to listen to John Adams; another day it could be Dusty Springfield or Shostakovich. Today is a day for Michael Marra. Marra (1952-2012) was a folk musician who wrote all his own material and was well known for surreal stories expressed in his pawky Dundonian sense of humour. My favourite song is called Frida Kahlo's visit to the Taybridge Bar. I have been to the Taybridge Bar and, while there must be a reason for the name, it's not particularly near the Tay Bridge and you can't even see the bridge once you're inside. It's a friendly pub; its main distinctive feature is the panelled Walnut Lounge where men take women whom they are trying to impress on the nights when there is no football on the TV in the main bar. Frida, according to the song, died in her native Mexico but St Peter sent her to the Taybridge Bar to await his judgement until he had finished pumping weights; she hoped that, in the meantime, there would be a chance for her to dance there with another eccentric Dundonian, the artist Jimmy Howie.
All went quiet and a vision appeared
With a rose in her hair and a ring in her ear
And she says: 'Buenos dias, boys, this looks like the place
To make my re-entry to the human race'
My favourite place is the Alhambra in Granada in Southern Spain. Situated on a 26-acre site, it began its life as a fortress on a mountainside but was converted into a series of palaces in the 14th century by the Emir of Granada. In keeping with Islamic beliefs, all the artwork and design is non-figurative; many of the designs are geometrically perfect, reflecting also a society which was proud of its mathematical scholarship. The gardens outside are fragrant with the smell of roses, cypress trees and orange blossom. The temperatures in summer are particularly high but the architects have created shaded patios and covered walkways to guarantee cool spaces.
My most immediate memory when I hear anyone mention the name Alhambra is of running water; not only was this a major engineering achievement to make the atmosphere cooler, it also added to the poetic sense that the Alhambra was a 'paradise on earth'. A non-believer like myself has no expectation of any paradise after I have left this earth, and perhaps that helps me to appreciate the qualities of the Alhambra as much as I do.
Visitors to Dundee often complain about the lack of culinary choice in the city. They seem to feel that the only food available is a Dundee peh or, possibly, a stray bridie imported from Forfar. The Castle Hill Restaurant on Exchange Street certainly knocks that stereotype on the head. Castle Hill (which is nowhere near either a castle or a hill) seeks to create a Scots atmosphere without descending into a nightmare of tartan kitsch. Most importantly, it prides itself on using on using delicately and imaginatively prepared local ingredients; it's not a fish restaurant but I would vouch for dishes involving mackerel, salmon, scallops, halibut; its Cullen skink is unforgettable. It's all about taste.
Favourite work of art
I took a closer look at the works of art I live with before I decided which was my favourite. Robert Colquhoun? Joan Eardley? Paul Klee? Robert MacBryde? In the end, I chose Winter in Angus, an oil painting on canvas by the Dundee artist, J Macintosh Patrick. He did a whole series of landscapes in and around the city from the 1920s through to the 1980s and this one was completed in 1935. His technique involved going to the countryside where he would paint watercolours and make drawings in his sketchbook. These and his visual memory, rather than a camera, were what he used to compose the paintings which we see. In 'Winter in Angus', the castle near the front is based on Powrie Castle but the rest of the snowy foreground is invented. The hills in the background are painted in sharp detail, reflecting the precision he had used earlier in his career when he specialised in etching. The people in the picture remind me of busy little Bruegel's. People often visit the sites of his paintings and are surprised to find that they are rather different from the pictures. There is an atmospheric similarity but the paintings are less a matter of historical record than they are works of the imagination.