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With just four and a half months to go before the referendum that will define the immediate future of Scotland, a strange smell may be detected in the wind blowing from the south. It would perhaps need someone with the cultured nose of a wine buff to identify it accurately but suffice it to say it is not nice; rather, it is like the noisome whiff that emerges from a bottle whose contents are corked.
It is evidence, however, of a growing feeling of Scotophobia among our nearest neighbours. This is most forcefully articulated by columnists in newspapers which hitherto might have been described as ‘quality’. Almost all of them, it goes without saying, are antipathetic to the idea of independence and miss no opportunity to associate nationalism with fascism (and even Nazism) and First Minister Alex Salmond with Nigel Farage, the buffoonish leader of Ukip, and worse.
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Scotland is changing. This is a long story and a more immediate one which stretches beyond the constitutional debate. It is about the kind of society, nation and people we are and aspire to be in the future. For many people this is disconcerting, bewildering and even incomprehensible. There is an element of disorientation as some of the defining landmarks of Scottish public life fall and fade away. For others, mostly pro-independence supporters, there is the opposite: a sense of hope, excitement and even exhilaration about this opportunity. Is it possible to aid these different spectrums of opinion to at least understand each other in the coming months and years? What then is the emergent Scotland, who can lay claim to it, and where is it going? What consequences does this have for the independence referendum and the Scotland which comes out the other side?
It is important, first of all, to look at the superficial explanations for why Scotland has arrived at this point. In some accounts, this is all about the vanity and ambition of one man: Alex Salmond. Or, it’s about the SNP and ‘separatism’. Or, the decline of Scottish Labour. Even that it is concerned with ‘narrow nationalism’ – meaning Scottish nationalism. Or the waning of Scotland’s other nationalism, namely unionism. Finally, there is the call and evocation of the past: Bannockburn, Braveheart, Wallace and Bruce.
- Hits: 349
Anyone seeking to understand the current crisis in the Ukraine would do well to remember that the Russian eagle is double-headed. The people see themselves as part of Asia as much as Europe. All Russians are still either Slavophiles or Westernisers, and many are both. Moreover, they divide all humanity into two categories: Russians and foreigners, and no-one can be both. The question being asked today, from the Kremlin to Kamchatka, is who are Russians and who are foreigners, and which of those foreigners – specifically those holding Ukrainian citizenship – are or should be considered Russian?
This dichotomy goes to the heart of Russians as people. It is a psychological as much as a political condition. Two stories from my own experience may help to illuminate it. The first one concerns a close friend whom I was trying to convince of the ‘Protestant’ virtue of steady labour in one’s trade or profession, rather than indolence and last-minute furious work that is more normal among Russians.
- Hits: 256
I would hazard that it is rare these days for an author to celebrate completion of a novel with a trip to Tiffany’s for a Schlumberger original. Few advances stretch that far and even fewer of us have the poise or indeed the daywear to carry it off. Muriel Spark did, to the delight of her American publisher and fellow jewellery enthusiast Barbara Epler. In Hidden Possibilities: Essays in Honor of Muriel Spark (edited by Robert E. Hosmer), Epler recalls the ‘fabulous brooch in a fish shape’ Spark wore pinned to a ‘gorgeous gown’ on her first visit to New Directions Press in New York. Spark confided that she’d also like ‘an Order of the Golden Fleece collar’.
The first twenty-five of those were made by Jehan Preut of Bruges in 1432, as we learn in one of Spark’s earliest essays, written some four decades before she met Epler. ‘The Golden Fleece’ now lends its title to a much-anticipated collection edited by Spark’s long-term companion Penelope Jardine. Far from the sparkly excess of Schlumberger, the earliest insignia of the chivalric order, ‘was in no sense a rich ornament lavishly set with precious gems . . . The collar was made of steel’. The ring from which the badge of the Golden Fleece hung bore the legend, ‘Not an unworthy reward for our labours’.
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My name is Scotland. I am an alcoholic.
Sexism runs through me as through a stick of rock.
For all my blotchy pinkness, I am determined
To be less prim about my gene-pool, more airily cosmopolitan;
To love my inner Mary, my Floral Clock and John Thou Shalt Knox.
I can live fine without nuclear subs.
I’ve built far too many warships.
All I want now is my dignity back,
To stand on my own unsteady feet,
Sobered up, but not too sober, to renew
My auld alliance with this tipsy planet,
And my independence.
- Hits: 274
Thanks to railway construction workers and their mechanical diggers, a pit was discovered in London last year, beneath Charterhouse Square, where victims of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century had been buried. Though they were laid to rest in a cemetery, beside a monastery, one imagines there would have been little ceremony about their interment, the earth shovelled over them fast, as if that could contain the disease that had killed them.
The results of analysis on this collection of skeletons were published last month, and showed that the victims had lived desperately hard lives, many of them suffering malnutrition, and some bearing wounds from conflict of some sort. The implication was that one reason the plague took such a hold on the city – and the entire country – was that people were already weakened by famine and exhaustion. Around 60 per cent of the populace across Europe died during the 1348 outbreak of bubonic plague, a horrifying toll, whose culprit was for centuries believed to be ship rats and the fleas they carried from the Far East. Only recently have scientists revised that opinion, believing that such was the speed and spread of the plague, it must have been transmitted from human to human. So quick was the onset of the illness that, as Italian poet Boccaccio wrote, the afflicted would ‘breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world’.
- Hits: 293
Long ago I asked a publishing house to pay me for a book called Independence: An Argument for Home Rule. My wife, a Scottish Nationalist, says writing it will be a waste of time. Readers who want Scottish home rule will have no reason to read it, and those who don’t want it will ignore it. But I wanted a self-governing Scotland so much that I undertook the job as a duty, while hating duties, even when the Higher Authority imposing them is my conscience. I keep evading that duty by only reading The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and magazines in my doctor’s waiting room. For over a month a slowly healing flesh wound has me waiting there for a few minutes of every weekday.
There is something fascinating in waiting room reading material. It was bound volumes of old Punch cartoons in my childhood, none later than the First World War, though there were hints of a war coming. One cartoon showed an officer’s mess where a Colonel asked a junior, ‘What, Captain so-and-so, do you see as the role of cavalry in modern warfare?’ and was told, ‘I suppose, Sir, it will add tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl.’ In another, officers were discussing a foreign country which was not named. One said, ‘Yes, sooner or later we’ll have to fight them. I only hope it isn’t in the grouse shooting and salmon fishing season.’ I found these fascinating in the immediate aftermath of two world wars.
- Hits: 245
In early November 1935 John Buchan, novelist, war correspondent, historian, essayist, lawyer, politician and publisher, arrived in Canada to take up the position of governor general. He had been appointed to his new role as John Buchan; he sailed up the St Lawrence as Lord Tweedsmuir. Not all Canadians were pleased at this transformation. Many, including Canada’s prime minister Mackenzie King, preferred Canada to be detached from archaic traditions of privilege and preferment, but Buchan was a representative of the king, and a title was deemed necessary.
These were interesting times on both sides of the Atlantic. The 1931 Statute of Westminster had granted Canada constitutional equality with Britain. A dominion with her own parliament since 1867, Canada was now, in theory at least, able to develop her own foreign policy and establish independent relations with other nations. But trouble was brewing in Europe and Canada’s immediate neighbour was the USA. For Britain, sympathetic relations with both her former and her current colonies were crucial. Britain’s man in Canada was required to be astute, tactful, wise and thick-skinned. Did Buchan measure up? J. William Galbraith’s account argues that Buchan not only proved a canny diplomat, but established an affectionate and unusual relationship with the Canadian people.
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Despite late April sunshine, spring was still holding its breath when I arrived on ‘her’ hillside. I was a thousand feet up at Abriachan, where a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pastureland below and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie where at the age of nineteen, writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) came after a year of virtual imprisonment in a mental hospital. She was ‘boarded out’, as the practice was known, living with and helping an elderly woman on her croft. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high and steep that, as she said, ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she rambled freely for the six months or so that she stayed. The visceral thrill of the place in springtime pulses through her writing in different genres ever after.
It was curiosity about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the north-east of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair – a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrol-glazed blue of age. I knew from Isobel Murray’s biography Writing her Life that as Jessie ran and rambled across the hillside here she was followed by a stream of younger girls intrigued by her supposed ‘experience’. With its precipitous pathways of loose rock, I could see the lure for a gaggle of youngsters. This was at the far reaches of Abriachan, at the door to another world, edgy and dangerous and out of sight of the cottage and a watching old lady.
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It may well be that 1914 was an unfortunate choice of year for a literary debut, as Isobel Murray and Bob Tait said of Gillespie on its second republication 35 years ago. Sometimes, though, ‘meaningless’ centenaries throw up coincidences and hidden patterns that go beyond journalistic convenience. How strange to be watching Putin’s sleekit annexation of sovereign territory and then to pick up J. MacDougall Hay’s dark masterpiece again and read its opening line: ‘Somewhat by east of the bay two of the Crimea cannon, each on a wooden platform, lifted to seaward dumb mouths which once had thundered at Sevastopol.’
The reference helps to locate the fictional time-frame of Gillespie. We know that ring-netting was made legal in Loch Fyne in the middle 1860s, a change in the law that Gillespie Strang has already anticipated and exploited, so the memory of a Crimean conflict would still have been fresh and its souvenirs prominent in the community. I’ve no idea if any vestiges of the Crimean cannon survive in Tarbert, which is the unhappy original of ‘Brieston’ in the book. It may well be that they were swallowed up by a hunger for metal in 1914 or in 1939. Though Tarbert remembers its human sacrifice in two twentieth century world wars, and in the South African conflict that began the century, Crimea is very far off now and past the event horizon of folk and family memory. In the past Tarbert has tried hard to forget Gillespie and the author who portrayed the town in such a bleak and unflattering light. It’s said that the book is not sold there, which given that Tarbert is not Wigtown and bursting with bookshops can’t be too great a surprise. But any suggestion of a Dooker Index Librorum Prohibitorum or red-faced fishermen burning copies on the foreshore is more than a shade exaggerated, stories put around with rivalrous relish in Lochgilphead, Carradale and Campbeltown. A scan of Tarbert public library’s online catalogue shows that multiple editions of Gillespie are held and that none of them is under lock and key.
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Contemporary authors, one theory goes, are drawn to the genre of historical fiction because it offers greater dramatic challenges for characters to encounter than the present-day can offer. In the past, this school of thought continues, the stakes were not only higher, but clearer. Power lay within the hands of competing dynasties and scheming cardinals; today, one struggles to locate its true source within a blurred and shifting nexus of career politicians, corporate lobbyists, and the media. In the long-ago, marriage couldn’t be undone with the help of a good lawyer. And people struggled with their faith, not their Facebook settings.
Prior to her latest novel Gone are the Leaves, Anne Donovan set her fiction – the short story collection Hieroglyphics (2001) and the novels Buddha Da (2003) and Being Emily (2008) – in the present. Her themes have remained consistent across her work, pivoting on the question: what do we owe to others – and what do we owe to ourselves? In Donovan’s fiction this is filtered through art and religion, the pursuit of both often coming into conflict with the loyalty owed to loved ones. The question is if anything, Donovan’s readers learn, more potent in medieval Europe than present day Glasgow, with a knock-on effect: Gone are the Leaves is more obviously plot-driven than earlier works.
- Hits: 284
According to a mid-nineteenth century gazetteer, Cowdenbeath contained exactly 127 inhabitants. Its compiler could not find much more to say about it beyond that. Lying to the south-east of Beath, it had a station from where you could catch trains to Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. South of the village was a bleachfield. And that’s about it. Almost a century and a half later nothing much had changed. In their entry to the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, John and Julia Keay drolly note that at some point in the intervening period ‘industrial optimists billed Cowdenbeath “The Chicago of Fife”.’ In the sixty or so years from 1850 to the onset of World War One the town doubled in size every decade thanks to the rich seams of coal which lay deep beneath Fife’s fecund surface. But, as the Keays go on to say, Cowdenbeath’s fall was as precipitous as its rise, and when the collieries closed it had lost its raison d’etre and many of its population took whatever opportunity they had to leave.
Among them were John Burnside’s mother and father, who removed their son and his sister to Corby in Northamptonshire. Corby was supposed to be everything that Cowdenbeath wasn’t. In 1950, five years before Burnside was born, it became a New Town, though signs of human settlement there have been traced to the eighth century. It was championed as ‘car-friendly’, verdant and open-spaced and, more importantly, there were jobs aplenty, especially in steel-making. Such was the influx of Scots to this employment nirvana that it was dubbed ‘Little Scotland’. Of late, however, Corby has notfared so well. As Cowdenbeath lost coal so, too, did it lose steel. It has since become a byword for regeneration; a couple of years ago Stephen Fry was engaged to do the voiceover for a video which hoped to entice people in the congested south-east to decamp north. How successful this was one is ill-placed to say.
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Michael Fry’s title appears on an alluring cover: transposing Baltic Ruegen to the Salisbury Crags. Gleaming chalk roughens into streaky red-brown lava-stone. From its lower centre a slight frock-coated figure looks away from us, not on the sea, but on the piled-up Acropolis of Edinburgh: Caspar David Friedrich, adapted by William Bell Scott. The point’s eloquently made: the painter being metaphysical in the style of Goethe … but he’s confronted by a city impossible to live in for the normal human span, let alone Goethe’s 83 years.
Germany in Goethe’s time was the land of the dialectic, and Fry has already conjured up Professor Tom Devine. The contest of Die Meisterhistoriker von Edinburg takes the stage. Devine has spoken in the Herald: a good flyting pleases us groundlings, and the contestants are Hans Sachs more than they are Beckmesser – but the recent books of both writers create lacunae as well as summits.
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It would be logical to assume that eagles represent a kind of pinnacle in nature writing. If any creature demands that a writer pulls out all the stops, especially the ones marked ‘poetic description’, ‘drama’ and ‘romance’, it would be this one. In the first two pages of The Eagle’s Way, with his lyrical description of a female golden eagle in Glen Dochart, Jim Crumley appears to have done just that. One sighs a little and wonders if this is a prelude to another 200 pages of eagle-induced grandiose prose. Mercifully not. Crumley writes in a way which is thoughtful, insightful and self-aware, and his descriptions of eagles range from poignant to downright amusing. When he does return to the same glen, and the same eagle, at the end of the book, he has more than earned a bit of lyricism. Indeed, after those opening two pages, the book settles down to the pace it sustains throughout, the pedestrian pace of the naturalist, with a destination in mind but always alert to what is happening around him. After thirty years of walking, looking and writing, Crumley is reflecting about what he does and what it means.
He is one of Scotland’s foremost nature writers and though his oeuvre of 26 books takes in mountaineering, a memoir and two novels, he is most often concerned with the wildlife of his home stamping ground, particularly the Trossachs. He has watched golden eagles in Scotland for three decades and has toyed with the idea of an eagle book for almost as long, but no story presented itself to drive the thing forward. Now it does, in the form of sea eagles on Tayside, a stone’s throw from where Crumley grew up in Dundee. After the successful re-introduction of the bird on the west coast after an absence of nearly 100 years, a project began in 2007 to introduce year-old birds from Norway to Forestry Commission land in north Fife. Crumley had a lightbulb moment when he observed four adolescent eagles in the trees above Loch Tay: three sea eagles and one golden. Something new was afoot in the eagle world which demanded his attention.
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This mighty affair’ was the phrase Daniel Defoe used to describe the events which preceded and accompanied the approval of the Act of Union by the Scottish Parliament, and since he was in Edinburgh with a sackful of cash to help persuade legislative doubters or waverers, he should have known. Defoe is a character in Tim Barrow’s Union, but never uses that expression, being too shifty to allow himself such flights of rhetoric. He is a devious spy for the English court, a briber or corrupter, insinuating himself with the sly skills of his modern counterpart, the lobbyist, into the corridors, or at least into the howffs, of power.
But mighty the affair was, and if 2014 may see the end of the union, this play aims to examine the establishment of it in 1707. A massive, solid Union Jack, assembled like an outsize Lego construction, stands centre stage at the beginning. It’s clearly capable of being dismantled, although in the event not into the constituent flags or national colours but into a series of uprights, squares and angles. Upside down, it would be a sign of distress, but the contemporary distress of the union, this mightier affair, is hardly brought to the fore. Curiously the flag never makes any further appearance, although the temptation to use it as a metaphor by pulling it apart or binding it tightly together must have been strong. The refusal to do so and its disappearance after its initial visual dominance can be taken, generously, as a sign of the production team’s determination to remain disengaged or, less generously, as a symptom of a tentativeness which undermines the work. It is not a play which seeks metaphors to deal with the dilemmas of today. Any connection between views uttered in 1707 and those issued now is hardly coincidental or casual, but parallels in the issues under discussion then and now are left to emerge in the audience’s mind.
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Last year FIFA, world football’s governing body, asked Brazilian fans to vote for the name that should be attached to the match ball for this summer’s World Cup finals. More than a million took part, more than 78% of of whom opted for ‘Brazuca’ – a conflation of the name Brazil and Brasuca, the Portuguese word for the US anti-tank weapon the ‘Bazooka’. There were two alternatives: ‘Carnavelsca’ (a nod in the direction of Brazil’s renowned street thrash) and ‘Bossa Nova’ (the elegant Samba rhythm native to Brazil). But neither of those impressed the fans. They preferred Brazuca’s combination of Brazilian nationalism and rocket-powered aggression. So Brazuca it is. It’s a name we will soon be familiar with when the tournament kicks off on 12 June when Brazil play Croatia in Sao Paulo.
As footballs go, the Brazuca is a handsome model. Weighing around 437 grammes and with a circumference of 69 centimetres the ‘casing’, as the outer skin is called, is made up of six interlocking cruciform (or propeller-shaped) panels heat moulded together. Inside there’s an air-filled bladder of carbon latex. Fittingly, the Brazuca is a veritable Samba of colour – vivid swirls of green, orange, blue and black against a dazzling white background. This, FIFA says, is to ‘symbolise the traditional, multi-coloured wish bracelets apparently worn by Brazilians’.