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IN this edition of the Scottish Review of Books, the last but one before the referendum in September, the interviewee is Neal Ascherson. Born in 1932, the year Aldous Huxley published Brave New World (a portrait of a future that was as repellent as it was repressive), Ascherson is perfectly placed to bring perspective and sanity to a debate that is increasingly fractious and fraught with apocalyptic foreboding at the prospect of a ‘yes’ vote. If we are to believe the Jeremiahs who support the status quo, Scotland six or sixty years hence – no one is quite sure how long it will take – is destined to become as isolated and impoverished as it was in the days of the Picts. Not only will we be the ragged, ignorant, introverted citizens of an economic basket case, we will have no friends and countless enemies. Chances are that without a nuclear deterrent, we will be invaded by the Faroe Islands and subjected to rule from Torshavn.
It is not a vision shared by the urbane and well-travelled Ascherson. In the 1970s he worked at the Scotsman as political correspondent. That decade ended with the first devolution referendum. It was a remarkable period in this country’s history, not least because George Cunningham, a Scottish Labour MP based in London, persuaded the Westminster parliament in 1978 that a simple majority would not be sufficient. For devolution to become a reality, 40 per cent of the registered Scottish electorate would have to vote ‘yes’. Abstentions therefore had the same effect as a ‘no’ vote. In the event, 51.6 per cent, or 1.23 million Scots, voted ‘yes’, while 48.4 per cent were on the ‘no’ side, well below the percentage required by the Cunningham amendment. Moreover, the turnout was just 63.8 per cent which, whatever your point of view, was disappointing. It was, as the historian Tom Devine concluded, ‘hardly a ringing endorsement of Home Rule.’
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I COME from a family of immigrants, though I never thought of us that way until I became an immigrant myself. My father’s ancestors migrated to the Philippines from Madrid, taking the name Muñoz with them. My mother’s grandfather was from Taiwan. As legend goes, the family name was Tan but after arrival, my great-great grandfather changed the surname to Tansingco. The second part was derived from the Spanish word ‘cinco’, indicating that five Tans had made the journey. The change of name also had the effect of making it sound more Filipino and thus tapping in to the most basic desire of most immigrants – the desire to fit in:
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IN my second year at university, in a tutorial that had touched on the work of Edwin Muir, I was asked a difficult question. Remembering that he had an islander in the class, our tutor – Dr Reid, he was – turned to me and grinned. ‘So,’ he said, ‘why has Shetland not produced a writer like Edwin Muir, or like George Mackay Brown?’ I can’t remember quite how I answered, though I do still recall the uncomfortable pause that preceded my response. Had I been more cocky I might have dismissed the question as ridiculous. After all, Shetland has a population of 22,000, roughly equivalent to that of Elgin or Bishopbriggs. Its lack of literary giants can be blamed, indisputably, on its lack of people. But what lay behind Dr Reid’s question was something rather more than good-humoured provocation. It was a point with a barb. For the failure of my home islands to produce writers of world renown is indeed notable, but only because Orkney and the Western Isles have produced so many. We have been shown up, if you will, by the success of our neighbours.
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PEOPLE always meant it as a compliment to the late lamented leader of the Labour party, John Smith, when they described him as being like a Scottish bank manager: sober suit, subdued tie, polished shoes, bald head, owlish spectacles, slight frown as if contemplating a request for an overdraft he felt inclined to reject. This was the stereotype which till the year 2000 or so had allowed the Scottish banking system to survive, rather against the odds. It had lasted through not only three centuries of Anglo-Scottish Union but also the emergence of modern global capitalism, that all-devouring creature which grinds and minces inherited institutions of every kind, social and political as well as economic – grinds and minces, too, the people along with their institutions. A few years later, nobody could take comparison with a Scottish banker as much of a compliment. Bankers have joined politicians and journalists at the bottom of the scale of public esteem. For Scotland in particular, a cherished banking system more or less evaporated into thin air at the hands of a new generation of manic managers. Today it is owned by the British state and run from London, leaving behind in Edinburgh little but elegant classical buildings turned into wine bars.
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A few months ago I visited the Rangers supporters’ club in Sandy Row, a staunchly loyalist area of south Belfast where the pavements are literally painted red, white and blue. I went to talk about Scottish independence with the club’s manager, a pleasant, stocky, tattooed chap named Warren Miller, but we ended up discussing the community’s economic decline. These days, Sandy Row – once a thriving part of industrial, Protestant Belfast – is among the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, marked by high rates of poverty, unemployment and ill health. Inevitably, with this decline has come gradual depopulation, as Miller said: ‘Thousands of people lived here in the 1970s and ’80s, now it’s about 2,000 or 3,000. People couldn’t get jobs locally, so they went elsewhere. It’s a real shame.’
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NOW here’s a fascinating question that’s guaranteed to amaze your friends and break the ice at the most frozen of parties – how many Scots live in London? Go on, take a guess. Number of Scots in London. I’ll have to hurry you . . . And the answer is – somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. The estimates may vary but they all make London the third biggest Scottish city. We must all be down here for the same reasons – the easy commute, the friendly locals, the scenery. That and the jobs, I suppose – that’s why I flitted to London in the late Eighties, swapping a life on the dole in Edinburgh for the chance to become a human sardine twice a day on the Victoria Line.
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Doon the Watter, 1946
Overhead, wire baskets spill petunias.
Left and right, potted palms line the walls.
Far behind, our train’s gone back to Glasgow.
Somewhere ahead, the ferry must be late.
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Neal Ascherson was born in Edinburgh in 1932. He gained a scholarship to study at Eton and progressed to King’s College, Cambridge. Eschewing a life in academia, he became a journalist in the 1950s. He started as a reporter for the Manchester Guardian, and later became commonwealth correspondent for The Scotsman. In the 1960s he was foreign correspondent for the Observer, reporting on central Europe at a time of great political upheaval. During the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland he was politics correspondent with The Scotsman. He has worked for the Independent on Sunday, contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and is currently honorary professor at the Institute of Archaeology in London.
His first book, The King Incorporated, about King Leopold of Belgium, was published in 1963. Other works include The Polish August, The Struggles for Poland, and Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism. The last-mentioned won the 1995 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. In 2002 Ascherson published Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, an account of Scotland’s deep roots and modern history. In it he recounts the Bus Party he helped co-ordinate with Will Storrar ahead of the referendum for a Scottish Parliament in 1997. It travelled around Scotland to engage imaginatively with the people on the ground, and was originally inspired by Gunter Grass who, in 1964, took writers, thinkers, musicians and spirited folk on the road to liven up political debate in Germany.
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The News Where You Are
That’s all from us. Now it’s time for the news where you are.
The news where you are comes after the news where we are. The news where we are is the news. It comes first. The news where you are is the news where you are. It comes after. We do not have the news where you are.
The news where you are may be news to you but it is not news to us.
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Pick a metaphor, any metaphor. That’s right, madam, don’t let me or the audience see it. Okay, slip it back into the deck. Now shuffle them, and hand the deck back to me. Ta da! Is this your metaphor?
DILYS Rose’s new novel doesn’t hold its cards close to its chest. Its governing metaphor is encoded at the level of the title: Pelmanism. Not being a card player, I was unaware of the name of the game, but on reading Rose’s description of the game, I realised I have in fact played Pelmanism. The cards are spread out face down; during his or her turn, a player turns over two cards; if you find a matching pair (two sixes, two kings, so on), you remove them. It’s a feat of memory. Popular in the UK during the first half of the last century, Pelmanism was marketed not only as a way of improving the memory, but also of strengthening the intellect through exercise. No one working in mental health today would make such a claim, and by the 1960s even, according to Rose’s novel, it was chiefly played by socialising grannies, an entry-level card game, edgy as Snap.
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ON A HUMID June evening some weeks before the solstice, I embarked upon my journey. I’d packed carefully, making sure that my pen had plenty of ink and that my wine glass was full. Climbing gingerly into bed so as not to disturb my feline travelling companions, I made a nest out of sweet-smelling pillows and draped a light blanket over my chill-prone feet. Through the open window I detected siren wails, the tapocketa of idling taxis, and the susurration of sedans whizzing past on the busy thoroughfare. Children squealed, seagulls fought loudly over an abandoned pizza, and the beep-beep-beep of the traffic light crossing sounded at irregular intervals. I breathed deeply, inhaling the marine tang of Edinburgh just before it rains, picked up the first book, and plunged in.
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DURING the Franco dictatorship, the use of the Catalan language was banned both in private and in public, so in Catalonia one of the main consequences of the restoration of democracy was the ‘normalisation,’ that is, the assertion of the right to use what Catalans considered their normal language. I met more than one Catalan writer in those days who declared with great simplicity, ‘my nationalism is my language.’
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ONE of the chapters of this always fascinating book opens with a reference to the first papal visit to Scotland, which took place in June 1982. Its author, Steve Bruce, a professor of sociology at Aberdeen University, notes that 300,000 attended the great mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a remarkable event, not least because it so nearly never happened. The Falklands War had started exactly two months earlier. Despite much high level talking and political negotiating, in early May it seemed almost certain that Pope John Paul would not come to Scotland. That he did was largely due to frenetic behind the scenes diplomacy by the then Archbishop Thomas Winning – who was generally not the most diplomatic of men. The decision to go ahead was met with great relief, and not just by Scotland’s Catholic community, but significantly also by Scotland’s political elite.
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THIS collection of journalism was sent to me with a polite inquiry: see if it makes a book. The concern was raised by a newspaper journalist to a newspaper journalist about a newspaper journalist’s work. Self-deprecation may not be the first trait one associates with the grubbers of the press but there is a hesitation in the trade about how significant or enduring daily or weekly journalism can be. This is misplaced. My favourite non-fiction works are Joseph Mitchell’s At the Bottom of the Harbour and Hugh McIlvanney’s On Boxing, culled from the New Yorker and British broadsheets respectively. These show that something of substance can be built on newspaper columns and what were once only regarded as flighty features.