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I had a little laugh with myself when I began writing this because I suddenly thought about what my mother used to say about the Scottish Sundays of her childhood. Scotland on Sunday? That would have been a contradiction in terms. Scotland closed down on Sundays, the Presbyterian torso at least, to allow miserable sinners to reflect on... well, miserable sinning, I suppose. There was no time for reading (the Bible excepted), laughing or frivolity. Happy days! (I'm joking, of course, but only just.)
Nowadays, however, Scotland DOES exist on Sundays and some of its inhabitants - when not shopping, watching football or playing golf - might want to read a Sunday newspaper. One such paper is the aptly titled 'Scotland on Sunday'. I'm not a regular reader of Sunday papers but when I do have a spare hour or so to lounge on a Sunday morning it is usually Scotland on Sunday that I buy. It's the Sunday version of one of Scotland's leading broadsheets, The Scotsman, and basically reflects the same opinions and displays the same format as its weekly cousin. In other words, it's slightly New-Labourish and just-left-of-centre, politically, and is made up of a main tome garnished with a sprinkling of supplements. So what do we get for our £1.40?
The main tome is, predictably, about headlines, news and comment. A first criticism might be that the headlines are often rather bland. This Sunday past (May 4 2008) the front headline was about a cancer drug that just might, theoretically, be ready to begin trials in around five years time. This is very noble and important but it is hardly the kind of headline that would force you to eagerly snatch the paper off the shelf. That said, the bulk of the news stories ARE usually quite interesting and there are several columnists on board to give an extra twist to the week's political revelations.
Over the last month or two there has clearly been an agenda running at the paper to 'Get Salmond'. Alex Salmond is Scotland's First Minister and leader of the minority S.N.P (Scottish National Party) Executive in Edinburgh. He is also the 'bête noire' of New (and Old) Labourites everywhere; and as the Labour Party in Scotland is still in a somewhat confused state after losing power to those pesky Nationalists its buddies in the press have been laying into chubby Alex with reckless abandon. My passions are fairly ambivalent as far as politics goes ('A plague on ALL your houses' is my cry of choice) but it is quite amusing to see the chubby one deflect almost all the blows directed at him and the mounting irritation that his Teflon talents are causing among his enemies.
But this Sunday past, Edinburgh politicking was forgotten for the moment as the paper's attentions were devoted to the mounting troubles further afield of the biggest Scots politico of them all, Gordon Brown. There were a couple of stories about possible plots against him (unthinkable even a month or two ago) and also an in-depth profile of his Tory tormentor, David Cameron. Away from politics there were musings on the continuing car-crash-in-slow-motion that is Amy Winehouse and also a lengthy piece about the Austrian house of horrors currently captivating the media. Actually, I often find myself skimming through the stories and reading the columnists instead; newspaper stories are, after all, yesterday's news.
I would say that the columnists, the political ones especially, are Scotland on Sunday's biggest strength and the main reason I buy the paper (now and again, admittedly). Apart from the already-mentioned and excellent piece on the boy Cameron there was a good reflection-piece on Calamity Brown. SoS has clearly always been a devotee of Mr B but it's interesting to see their support waver as doubts about the PM mount and the potentially-awful truth slowly dawns: Middle England just doesn't like Gordon. The paper is not afraid to lay into him and although this may just be driven by mounting panic it is an interesting sight to behold. SoS also does a good job of straddling the parochial divide between the insular Scottish political-scene and the wider Westminster arena. It is not a navel-gazing Edinburgh rag.
The non-political columns are a mixed bunch. Hardeep Singh Kohli has a witty turn of phrase, although his column does give the impression that it was knocked out in minutes: new London supremo, Boris Johnson, was the main subject under scrutiny this past week. Probably the best article of the week was a piece by Danni Garavelli about the forthcoming X Factor auditions and the havoc they will cause to coming school exams. It was an interesting, but prescient, look into the obsession that so many teens seem to have with fame and their single-minded pursuit of it, to the detriment of all else (Amy Winehouse, kids, Amy Winehouse!).
International news is ably covered in the last few pages: the mounting woes of Hillary Clinton, Zimbabwe and a report about the growing number of British Jews moving to Israel were the prominent features.
As with the columnists, the supplements are a mixed bag:
The sports supplement is naturally focused on Scottish sport - football, golf and rugby union mainly - but the net is also spread wide and there is plenty about sport further afield: the English Premiership, cricket and horse racing in particular. This week there was a good article about that great enigma of English football, Leeds United, and a special pullout-feature on Rangers FC's march towards the UEFA Cup final. The writing is good and, thankfully, free of the cliché-ridden guff that can pass for sports writing elsewhere.
'Spectrum' is the 'lifestyle' supplement. 'Lifestyle' is one of those irritating (and meaningless) modern buzzwords beloved of media types and it is peppered all over this mag (on a whim, I Googled the word: 270 million results!). Spectrum is slickly laid-out and covers all the subjects that a hip, urban, toned-and-tanned style-monkey needs to keep abreast of: fashion, health and fitness, recipes and restaurants, shoes (yep, shoes!), wine and travel. Standout features this week included an article about Scottish chef, Nick Nairn, and an interesting and informative piece about travelling to New Zealand. For me personally, these kind of supplements are all icing and no cake, to be leafed through absent-mindedly and quickly forgotten.
The 'Review' section is where I spend most of my time: books, films, music, video games and articles aplenty about all of them; it's a good read. The writing is excellent and interesting, deepish without being painfully so. I often come across books to add to my must-read list and the selection of reviews is fairly eclectic and designed to satisfy all tastes. This week there was an article about Channel 4's very own Bristolian, Justin Lee Collins, and also a good review of a book that stirred my interest, 'The 60s Unplugged' by Gerard DeGroot. The only criticism of 'Review' is that the TV guide is hopeless. It's put together very well but as it seems in places to bear no resemblance to the programmes that are actually on TV it is not to be trusted.
There are two more supplements, 'at Home' and 'Business and Money', but as I have little interest in houses (other than my own) and no knowledge of business and money other than earning and spending the latter my opinion of either is not really credible. 'at Home' certainly looks glossy and two things at least seems to be certain: if you're looking to buy a house in Scotland then you will be spoilt for choice; and trendy people seem to have an aversion to carpets. There are always a few profiles of shiny well-heeled people 'at home' in their shiny (and carpet-free) houses; large red Agas seem to be popular, especially among people who employ young Polish women to do their cooking for them and load up the dishwasher after the last mint has been savoured.
To sum up, Scotland on Sunday is a perfectly acceptable and interesting Sunday rag. Its main Scottish rival is Glasgow's own 'Sunday Herald' and, if we're honest, there doesn't seem to be much to separate the two. I just happen to be biased towards Edinburgh and for that reason alone it's SoS for me. The London 'Sundays' are another possibility but I prefer to buy a paper that doesn't require a day to read or a forklift truck to deliver it to my door. SoS doesn't need either yet it does cover all the bases: it's interesting, well written, Scottish-centred but outward-looking at the same time and despite its political leanings is not afraid to host the occasional columnist that shouts from the opposite corner. Good on them for that and good on them for occasionally brightening up my Sunday mornings.