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YOU’ve got to read it to believe it.’ says Amazon of its Kindle Paperwhite. It is but one among many Kindles, several of which are called Fire. Why we know not. Once you’ve taken the plunge there are countless ‘accessories’ with which you can embellish your Kindle and ‘customise’ it. There are styluses, chargers, and ‘skins’, which protect it from the elements and your own negligence. For example, you can buy a ‘zebra’ skin or a ‘blossoming almond tree’ skin or a ‘moon meadow’ skin. Alternatively, if you’re the kind of person who is eager to broadcast your patriotism, there’s a Union Flag skin.
We own a Kindle and were enthused by the idea of carrying it on our travels where, we were told, we would have instant access to a library the size of that of the Mitchell. What we did not quite grasp was that every time we wanted to add to it we would have to pay. Nor were we told that we would not be able to pass on our purchases to friends. Nevertheless we added a few out of copyright titles to it and prepared to embrace the reading future.
And for a while we were enthused as we invariably are when we acquire something new, such as a breadmaker. The Kindle was light, looked smart in its green leather cover which cost little more that fifty quid, and was loaded with enough high-minded and previously unread literature to last a lifetime. We then had fantasies about the amount of space we could recover by dispensing with the paper we had accumulated over the decades and the dust-free environment in which we would soon be living. There was much, it seemed to us, to be said for the Kindle, which was no bigger than Bill Gates’s wallet.
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Richard Holloway is the author of more than twenty books, including Godless Morality: How to Keep Religion out of Ethics, Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity, Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning and Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition. His most recent is Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. It documents his education in an Anglo-Catholic monastery, his subsequent life in the Anglican church and his wavering dedication to his religious beliefs. His latest publication is a pamphlet entitled A Plea for a Secular Scotland.
He was the Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church until his resignation in 2000 and Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council from 2005-2010. In 2009 he was guest director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He is currently Chairman of Sistema Scotland, a charity that seeks to use the power of the orchestra to help and inspire disadvantaged young people.
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Thucydides, the great historian of the war between Sparta and Athens, gives an account of the fate of the Athenian prisoners captured by Syracuse after the disaster of the Sicilian expedition. They were imprisoned in a stone quarry, now converted into an elegant garden, deprived of food and drink and exposed to the chill of the night and the heat of the sun. Those who survived were later led off to be executed or sold into slavery, but Plutarch adds a curious detail. He writes that the fastidious and plainly refined Syracusans spared the life of those Athenians who were able to recite a passage from one of plays of Euripides.
It is an idle fancy to wonder why the Syracusans chose Euripides as the life or death test, but let us advance the (implausible) hypothesis that it was because they saw the plight of the defeated, enslaved Athenians as similar to that of the Trojans in such works as The Trojan Women, later adapted as an opera by Berlioz, or Hecuba, the work which gives rise to these musings. Hecuba was revived in a deeply moving, magnificent production in October by Dundee Rep in a version prepared by Frank McGuinness from a so-called ‘literal’ translation by Fionnuala Murphy.
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A work acquaintance – a born-again Christian – once charitably shared with me that he guessed I’d been round the block a couple of times. Perhaps because of my love of secondhand bookshops, I chose to take this as a compliment. The great thing about used books is that they’ve been round many blocks, and for me the marks they bear of previous relationships make them objects of desire. So I’m like the pig in the proverbial, being based at Main Point Books in the West Port, which has become known as Edinburgh’s book (and lap dancing) quarter – hence our slogan: ‘For only £5 a book will sit on your lap all night long’.
Our proximity to Edinburgh College of Art means that customers often have plans to transmute books into something else. The future destiny of a book never fails to fascinate me – often it’s nothing so simple as being read. Hamer Dodds, an artist who explores the interface between art and science, leapt on a 1960s I-Spy Wild Flowers as a source of inspiration. On the botanical theme, he likened our books to spores disseminating unanticipated ideas, connections and trains of thought. Another artist, Donald Urquhart of ECA’s ‘Land Space and Nature’, picked up three Scottish Mountaineering Club volumes, seeing them as elements in an exhibition he’s having in Japan next spring. Books with marginal notes were the quarry of a young art student, for a project exploring the relationship between handwritten and printed text. This triggered a conversation about Fermat’s Last Theorem, referenced concisely in the margins of Arithmetica; 385 years passed before the theorem was solved, in 1995, by Andrew Wiles. Buzzing with ideas, she left the shop with a copy of Amir Aczel’s account of Wiles’ impassioned quest.
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Hillary Clinton concluded her keynote speech at the 2013 Women in the World Summit by saying that ‘Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights’. A neat soundbite, and exactly what Catherine MacKinnon was getting at when she posed the question Are Women Human? back in 2006. Now, as then, it seems the answer is no. So let’s be glad that Clinton has reiterated the point, offering an idiot’s guide for those unable to grasp that feminism is a simple matter of equality.
Marion Bernstein, writing in the late nineteenth century, would not have been familiar with the term feminism but she was quite certain that women’s rights were human rights. She wrote about it in poem after poem, imagining how emancipated women would ‘give fair play, let come what might, / To he or she folk, black or white, / And haste the reign of Human Right’ (‘Human Rights’). Bernstein’s views were public too. Published mainly in the Glasgow Weekly Mail and Glasgow Weekly Herald, her poems could reach an audience in excess of 200,000 readers (the circulation of the Weekly Herald in 1880). Scottish newspapers today – and Scottish poets – can but dream, and yet Marion Bernstein has a good claim to being the greatest Scottish feminist we’ve never heard of.
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There’s every opportunity here for wry reworking of some well-known phrases and sayings. The past is, indeed, another country and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Some rejigging of clichés may be required, though. As no historian of the 1960s fails to remind us, Philip Larkin thought something wonderful happened between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. But nostalgia, driven by wishful thinking and self-serving ideologies, truly isn’t what it never was. ‘If you can remember the 1960s, then you weren’t really there’ might be usefully recast as ‘nobody remembers the 1960s as they really happened’. There’s a revisionist spirit among those slightly too young to have benefited from the invention of sex at the start of the decade or old enough to have been an earlier adopter of that new-fangled pleasure. Sceptics and the merely envious (the usual reason for hating the Sixties is not having been there) take the position that the following decade was by no means as dull, disillusioned and compromised as it is routinely painted and just as committed to high purpose as any other ten-year historical slice. In retrospect, dullness may be worse than compromise, but even that isn’t so. There’s been a leap to defend the 1950s as well, partly in recognition of the truism that every cultural phenomenon has a back-story and prehistory, but also in response to clear evidence that most of the liberations attributed to the 1960s, political, social, sexual and aesthetic, are more properly attributed to the previous decade. This is an argument developed in W. T. Lhamon’s excellent 1990 book Deliberate Speed. Even so, it’s a position that enrages Sixties loyalists past measure: historian Arthur Marwick gets into quite a bate if anyone declines to accept that 1960 to 1970 was the most noble period in the whole history of humanity.
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12 July, 1968
I arranged to photograph Hugh MacDiarmid at his home on 11 August 1968, his seventy-sixth birthday. I mentioned this to Marian McNeill [the folklorist] who said he was an old friend and hoped to visit him at Brownsbank before she was too old. I phoned MacDiarmid and asked him if I could bring Marian with me and he said he would be delighted to see her.
11 August, 1968
I drove Marian down to Brownsbank today and we were made very welcome. MacDiarmid was looking extremely well on his birthday and full of jokes, threatening to advertise Valda [his wife] for sale in the Scotsman.
As we walked up the path outside his cottage I admitted I knew very little about poetry and asked him where I should start. MacDiarmid suggested I read the book of Proverbs in the Bible.
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Books obviously mirror events, therefore it is possible to track the contemporary Scottish debate via various publications. By ‘contemporary’ I mean the period since Winnie Ewing’s by-election victory in Hamilton almost exactly 46 years ago. That SNP breakthrough was responsible for all the constitutional debate that followed, not to mention an awful lot of dead trees.
The specific study of Scottish politics actually preceded that Parliamentary upset, but only just. In 1966 Ian Budge and Derek W. Urwin published Scottish Political Behaviour, with the intriguing subtitle ‘A Case Study in British Homogeneity’. This can lay claim to being the first modern volume on Scottish politics, for it argued that such a thing as ‘Scottish politics’ existed.
At this point, there wasn’t much to go on. True, the Conservative vote had begun to decline in 1959 following its post-war high four years before, and at the 1962 Linlithgow by-election the SNP had shown its first signs of life in the Central Belt. Nevertheless, Budge and Urwin argued there were indications that Scottish political ‘behaviour’ was departing from the British ‘norm’ (the politics of Northern Ireland had obviously been a case apart since the 1920s).
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THE Great Karoo, the vast semi-desert at the heart of South Africa, holds near-mystical potency for South Africans, and tongue-twisting challenges for Anglophone visitors. The prevailing language is Afrikaans, which makes mischief with vowels and consonants. How could I possibly know that Matjiesfontein is pronounced Mikeys-fontayne?
Jimmy Logan got his tongue round it; not the late great comic actor, but an emigrant Scot from the Tweed Valley who bought three local farms when he was district superintendent of railways at nearby Touws River, which the line from Cape Town reached in 1878. He turned the farms into a 100,000 acre estate called Tweedside, and soon became known as ‘the Laird’. Another Scotsman on the make, and one who succumbed to ‘the spell of the limitless Karoo.’ By his early 30s he had made a fortune, transforming a small Khoikhoi settlement into a fashionable health resort, famous for the clear, dry air which fortified his own weak chest. European royalty visited, along with Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling. Matjiesfontein is a relic of Britain’s imperial past.
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I’ve read Watership Down, Doctor Zhivago, The Year of Magical Thinking, Never Let Me Go, All Quiet on the Western Front and Tender is the Night – and none of these books has induced in me a mood of misty sadness to the degree that Nuala Naughton’s Barrowland – A Glasgow Experience has. This melancholy is not teased out by Naughton’s breathless history of the music venue or even the knowledge that her account is amongst the last volumes to be published by Mainstream. No, it is a simple list that inspired my tristesse: a spreadsheet-style rundown of every band to play the Barrowland, complete with date, ticket price and the name of the support band. I cannot resist the temptation to mention the words ‘Proustian’ and ‘madeleine’.
Although raggedly written, Naughton’s appendix engrossed me. Was it really in mid-December 1998 that I saw PJ Harvey for the first time, then touring an album featuring a song that shared a name with a woman I was on the verge of dating? I remember seeing it as a sign that this song was performed. The subsequent relationship was as doomy as the one depicted by Harvey; should have listened harder. I see listed the November 2002 Morrissey gig, which my friends and I left only to discover our car had been broken into. And did I really go to three Barrowland gigs in little over a week in 1999? I haven’t been to three this decade so far.
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One: Like a bird (for Kay)
Long ago, remember,
when we lived on the beach
at Takapuna, a Texan
teacher of maths bought a
fisherman’s dizzy wife for
one thousand pounds – a good
price, equal to one year’s
All three – the fisherman,
the Texan maths-man, the wife –
were pleased with the deal and
partied to celebrate.
We were there. I recall
the fact more clearly than
the party. Much wine was drunk,
and so, soon, were the drinkers.
There was a moon on the sea
right out to Rangitoto.
You were beautiful, and I
sang, as I could in those days
all the way home – like a bird.
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The managers of our grandest football institutions must soon be compelled to publish their collected memoirs in the manner of prime ministers, presidents and five-star cabinet secretaries. They would be made aware of this responsibility long before their tenures ended and would be provided with the appropriate paraphernalia. An encrypted Dictaphone would be the least of it. There would be a discreet personal secretary well-schooled in collecting and filing private and public correspondence and a suitably perjink publishing house would supply a permanent editor. As much as possible the manager would be encouraged to write down his own thoughts and remembrances rather than to deploy the dubious skills of an insipid and obsequious football chronicler. Such a semi-official process would ensure that an appropriately significant expanse of time would have elapsed between retirement and publication. Thus memories and opinions would be allowed to breathe and character analysis would bear scrutiny long after the tabloids had scattered their peremptory labels. As such the manager would be advised to delay taking up his UNICEF peace ambassadorship just yet.
Of course only the memoirs of a gilded few football bosses would be deemed important enough to sit alongside those of such as Thatcher, Benn or Healey. In my own lifetime I can think of no more than seven or eight: Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsay and Don Revie; perhaps Brian Clough and certainly Alex Ferguson. It is easy to become facile and supercilious when attempting to quantify the impact men such as these had on British society let alone the world of sport. One is tempted to say that the influence and reach of each ‘transcended’ the worlds of sport and politics. They are all ‘working class heroes’ who, though lacking in a ‘formal education’ (whatever that is), were possessed of ‘street wisdom’. What we really mean when we discuss their achievements in our salons and on cultural away-days is that of course they’re not as bright as us but they carry a certain appeal for the masses. It’s like expressing wonder at the cognitive behaviour of dolphins or at the tender voices of Millican and Nesbitt, Hughie Green’s singing miners.
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For most of us, the question of whether or not Scotland ever had a Renaissance is academic in every sense. After all, so many centuries later, who cares, and why, indeed, should we? As Dr Andrea Thomas writes in the opening paragraph of her engrossing, eye-opening history, ‘the associations with Italy are so strong that the very idea of a Renaissance in Scotland has sometimes seemed absurd.’
How right she is. The leap of imagination required to bridge not merely the miles but the magnificence of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and those at work in the chilly, backward north – a place less famous for encouraging the arts than for censuring and stifling them – requires a mental athleticism few of us possess.