Echoes of Tom Brown’s School Days: Rabbits, by Hugo Rifkind, reviewed

The year is 1993 and 16-year-old Tommo has been moved from a day state school of 2,000 pupils in brown blazers that ‘when it rained… smelled of shit’ to Eskmount, an elite Scottish boarding school, where boys wear kilts and put their ‘cocks on your shoulder’ when you’re working in the library (easier in a kilt) and routinely hang ‘smaller kids in duvets… out the window’. The horseshoe effect in schooling terms: the more expensive, the more savage. Hugo Rifkind’s Rabbits opens with a bang: ‘When the shotgun went off under Johnnie Burchill’s brother’s chin, word had it, the top of his head came off like the top of a

The pleasure of reliving foreign travel through food

The idea of the kitchen as a space for transformation and transportation is not a new one. Many writers have explored the room’s ability to offer both domesticity and alchemy at the same time – how it allows cooks to travel vicariously through the food they make. This is the subject of Cold Kitchen, Caroline Eden’s memoir of her time spent in her kitchen in Scotland and of her travels to Eastern European and Central Asian cities – and somehow she makes it fresh and compelling. She is an author and critic who has written extensively about the food and culture of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Black

Dazzling – if you ignore the music: Beyoncé, at Murrayfield Stadium, reviewed

Scheduling open-air concerts in mid-May in northern Europe is a triumph of hope over experience. I last spent time with Beyoncé – I’m sure she remembers it fondly and well – in 2016, in a football stadium in Sunderland on a damp, drizzly, early-summer English evening of the type that even strutting soul divas struggle to enliven. I don’t think it was merely the weather which left me underwhelmed by her brutalist attack, the sheer choreographed drill of the show, the lack of engagement, of spontaneity, of joy. By then, Beyoncé was no longer seeking to be regarded as a mere pop star. She had recently taken on the unearthly

Edinburgh’s slavery review is strangely superficial

A couple of days ago a colleague alerted me to the opening of an online public consultation regarding proposals made by the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, a scheme launched by Edinburgh City Council in 2020 to look at ways the city can acknowledge its historical connections with slavery and colonialism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. The public consultation will close in January, and aims to find ‘constructive ways’ that the people of Edinburgh can address the city’s involvement in the slave trade. The Review Group list numerous sites in Edinburgh with various, and for the most part undeniable, associations with the reprehensible history

The death of the Edinburgh Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe has returned after last year’s cancellation but it’s hard to find evidence of the festival on the streets. The atmosphere is weird, unsettling, ghost-like. The defining feature of the city in August is the constant din of music, but as soon as I arrived at Waverley Station I noticed that the pulsing backbeat was missing. The bars that throb with disco and heavy metal have shut up shop. So have the pubs that host free comedy shows from noon till midnight. The insistent tom-tom rhythm has been supplanted by a void. Edinburgh is on mute. Before Covid, there were more than 3,500 shows to choose from. This

The SNP’s nonsensical Covid book ban

Why is the SNP banning books? On 5 January the Scottish government introduced a strict new lockdown in response to the spread of a more infectious strain of Covid-19. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, one particular restriction has baffled me ever since. Unlike in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, the Scottish government decided to ban students from reading, borrowing or even touching books in their university libraries. Even as fears rose over the rapidly spreading ‘Kent’ variant, it seemed that this policy lacked any scientific foundation. The Scottish government’s explanation for its book ban is baffling, and seems to be just copied and pasted advice from public

Did Radio 2 really need to give us four days of the Beatles to celebrate Abbey Road?

This Changeling Self, Radio 4’s lead drama this week, clearly ought to have gone out in August. It’s set — and was recorded — at the Edinburgh Festival and would have been a gift to marketing. ‘I love the festival!’ coos She. ‘All these millions of conversations, listen, listen, oh and stories, lots of stories, the different ways of telling…!’ No one in the real world speaks like this. But it’s just about OK, because she isn’t quite real either. She is a Fairy Queen, come to Edinburgh to spirit away a young pianist named Tam, as in Tamlin, who is a bit wet but really rather nice. The story

Why are so many operas by women adaptations of films by men?

Opera’s line of corpses — bloodied, battered, dumped in a bag — is a long one. Now it can add one more to the list: the broken, abused body of Bess McNeill. The heroine of Lars Von Trier’s uncompromising 1996 film is a curious creation. Striving against the restrictions of her austere, Presbyterian community on a remote Scottish island, she marries oil-worker and ‘outsider’ Jan. But when an accident on the rig leaves him paralysed, a promise to her husband and a bargain with God leads her into increasingly degrading and dangerous sexual encounters. Savant or innocent, saviour or sacrificial victim — Von Trier leaves it unclear. Composer Missy Mazzoli


The old observatory on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill may be the most favourably positioned art venue in the world. Recently resurrected by a group called Collective, the space, with its panoramic views and Enlightenment history, is an ambitious and imaginative addition to Edinburgh’s art scene. In their Hillside gallery there’s a firing-range warning sign on the screen, a few seconds of stillness and silence, then a sudden machine-gun rattle. The sound is revealed to be a stick, dragged by a child along corrugated iron, and the juxtaposition is the strongest moment in Helen McCrorie’s portentously titled video work, ‘If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?’ (until 6 October).

Does Sadiq Khan think Brexit means cancelling Christmas?

‘I’ve heard he’s a great guy, this mayor,’ shouted Sadiq Khan to no one in particular as he arrived in the foyer of the Gilded Balloon at the Edinburgh Festival. He barged past me and headed for the auditorium. ‘Treat him gently, please. No heckling,’ he added, talking about himself. The audience moved into the sweltering venue where Khan answered questions from Iain Dale for 60 minutes. Some had been submitted in advance by the audience. ‘How confident are you of winning a second catastrophic term?’ That came from a disgruntled London voter. Khan looked a bit uncomfortable and muttered something about avoiding complacency. ‘It’s going to be very hard

Memories, dreams, reflections | 23 May 2019

This mesmerising retrospective takes up three floors of the City Art Centre, moving in distinct stages from the reedy flanks of the Pentland Hills through fractured half-views of Venice and Scotland and into fresh, twilit forests. Mirrors and windows reflect and refract, rigid faces stare from the shadows, animals flit and bare branches twist. It’s 50 years of painting, and half a century of observing, finding, losing and remembering. Victoria Crowe, born in England but long since adopted by Scotland, is one of our more distinguished painters. She is a respected portraitist but it is her other work that dominates this show, and rightly so. We see the trajectories of

Diary – 6 September 2018

I begin my 87-day reading tour of the US, UK and Canada on a BA flight that will take me to Edinburgh for the book festival. I catch up on my Ab Fab and Peppa Pig and eat some back bacon. I land around 10 p.m. and take a walk through the city. I love Scotland! The young people seem so ebullient: ‘Feck this. Feck that. Feck you.’ I stumble around the old town and new town taking in the endless adverts for all the plays. Should this much art exist in any one city? I guess so. I mean, why not? Probably it’s OK. I wake up with a

Edinburgh Notebook

The brilliant Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell describes doing stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe as ‘exams for clowns’, and even though I first appeared there in 1981 (when the Cambridge Footlights Revue featured Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery), I felt an overwhelming surge of nervousness as I began my short run this year with the peerless mimic Jan Ravens (who herself had directed that illustrious 1981 cast). By the middle of the week, I’d finally managed to reach the zone that stand-up requires, being both relaxed and focused. Watching my favourite stand-ups (Hal Cruttenden, Simon Evans, Justin Moorhouse and Maxwell himself) and some exciting new discoveries —

Diary – 16 August 2018

Taking my new stand-up show Girl on Girl to the Edinburgh festival this year and playing at the prestigious venue the Gilded Balloon, was hand on heart the most stressful thing I have ever done — and I lived through the Ed Stone. My nerves were off the scale. Will anyone come to see the show? Will it be a massive disaster? Is this a very public and expensive cry for help? Why don’t I just go on a yoga retreat? These are all the things which swirl round your head seconds before you go on stage. Stand-up is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s just you

Northern lights | 16 August 2018

The Rembrandt show at the National Galleries of Scotland (until 14 October) has a problem. A mighty haul of Rembrandt paintings and prints are arrayed against a backdrop that mines the historical impact of his work on British artists and collectors. This is interesting. The problem is that the Rembrandt works are so astounding that there’s a danger you won’t bother with the rest. You should, because here Reynolds and Raeburn and Ramsay and more, all inescapably influenced by Rembrandt, tell fascinating and sometimes complicated tales of artistic heredity and homage. There’s no disgrace in going only for the Rembrandts, though. Hell, go there just to see the one wall

Outsider art

The complexities of Schleswig-Holstein run deep. Here’s Emil Nolde, an artist born south of the German-Danish border and steeped in the marshy mysteries and primal romanticism of that landscape. In 1920, he sees his region, and himself, become Danish following a post-Versailles plebiscite. An already well-established German nationalist bent — pronounced despite, or perhaps because of, his shifting national identity and shaky grasp of the German language — is inflamed. He moves back across the new border before eventually joining the local branch of the Nazi party and writing a volume of autobiography entitled, Jahre der Kämpfe in which he rails against the Jewish dominance of the art world. National

The joy of Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a peach of a city, is it not? Last week, I walked up to the castle on a crisp and sunny morning. Crossing high above the railway line, I watched the trains slink out of Waverley station and snake along the valley floor, a giant Hornby set beneath my feet. The path to the castle is tarmacked and rough, but still slippery with morning frost, so I tread carefully as I follow the zigzag to stand under the castle walls at the top. A young man next to me breathes: ‘Awesome, man.’ Absolutely. And the more so when you think the volcanic plug on which the castle stands

Winter Notebook | 13 December 2017

Edinburgh is a peach of a city, is it not? Last week, I walked up to the castle on a crisp and sunny morning. Crossing high above the railway line, I watched the trains slink out of Waverley station and snake along the valley floor, a giant Hornby set beneath my feet. The path to the castle is tarmacked and rough, but still slippery with morning frost, so I tread carefully as I follow the zigzag to stand under the castle walls at the top. A young man next to me breathes: ‘Awesome, man.’ Absolutely. And the more so when you think the volcanic plug on which the castle stands

How Sean Hughes (1965-2017) transformed comedy

Not many people can say they’ve transformed an entire art form, but Sean Hughes, who died yesterday, aged 51, did just that. His one man show, A One Night Stand With Sean Hughes, changed our preconceptions of what stand-up comedy should be – not by being strident or political, but by rejecting trite one-liners and letting his imagination run riot. I was lucky enough to see this ground-breaking show on its first run at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, before or since. In the summer of 1990, so-called alternative comedy was all the rage – but though the style of stand-up had shifted,

Notebook | 5 October 2017

To Skibo Castle for a four-day wedding, a dream of super-luxury and great good fun. I was struck by how the American rich are saving the Highlands. Skibo is supported by a band of mega-wealthy Americans, some of whom have invested heavily in the nearest town of Dornoch, which is thriving as a result. They are following a great tradition: Andrew Carnegie, having made his fortune in the US, returned to Scotland and rebuilt Skibo. He also donated libraries and halls ‘big enough for dancing’ all over the world, many in Scotland. A great combo: reading and reeling. I live in the Cotswolds, where the rich often splendidly transform derelict