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A FEW days from now Scotland will go to the polls and make a decision which, whatever its outcome, will define a generation and have far-reaching and as yet unimaginable consequences. It has been suggested that the turnout may be as high as eighty per cent. That is as it should be. Ideally, it would be even greater, for if citizens of a democratic country are not concerned with its constitutional future then what are they interested in?
The debate has been long and intense and, in recent months, increasingly passionate. How could it be otherwise? Here at the Scottish Review of Books we believe it has been conducted civilly and, in general, with restraint and courtesy on both sides. Of course there have been moments and incidents that are best forgotten but they have been few. No one has been hurt and only a few egos have been bruised. Instead, both the No and the Yes camps have set out their stalls to persuade the electorate, through dialogue, to their respective points of view. Though the stakes could hardly be higher Scotland has shown the globe that it is not necessary to occupy squares, vandalise property and fire bullets and water cannon in order to instigate, or thwart, change.
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THE old Scotsman headquarters, which occupied the entire west side of Edinburgh’s North Bridge, managed simultaneously to exude squalor and splendour. At the time I first became acquainted with it, in the late 1980s, it was home to three newspapers, the Scotsman, the Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday, the most recent addition to the portfolio, which was launched in August 1988. Editorial staff entered not by the grand, mahogany-panelled public entrance but furtively, as men in dirty macs used to slip into sex shops, through an unmarked, litter-clogged door near the top of Fleshmarket Close. Once inside, you found yourself in a long, white-tiled corridor, down which exposed pipes ran like those in the bowels of a ship. There seemed to be doors everywhere, some glassed, others not; all were closed, adding to the sense of intrigue and clandestine activity.
Before you came to the Scotsman’s newsroom, there was a grand marble staircase up which few had licence to ascend. You could have been forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a mausoleum. This led to a hall floored in yet more marble off which were several offices. The largest of these was the lair of the managing director, a mystical figure who came and went usually without exchanging a grunt with the ants and beavers who produced the papers and the profits. Once, I was summoned to his presence and I feared the worst, for he had a formidable – and justified – reputation as a cheeseparer. As his brogue suggested, he was from the north of England and declaimed rather than spoke. The conversation was short and, from my point of view, inconclusive. ‘I just wanted to see the whites of your eyes,’ he said, at which point he broke a few bones in my hand and enquired of his secretary the nature of his next appointment. We never exchanged a word again.
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LET us not waste time speculating on how Neil Gunn would have voted. He would have voted Yes. He was all his life a committed Scottish Nationalist. He defended nationalism against the idea that it was intrinsically bad, that it was anti-internationalist and the fundamental source of evils such as Nazism. He would have been irritated, in the present debate, by the endless criticisms of ‘narrow’ Scottish nationalism and bemused by the unquestioning acceptance of British nationalism, which to many of those same critics is either completely invisible or, at times for example of Olympic achievement, marvellously wholesome and entirely benevolent.
In his 1935 book Whisky and Scotland Gunn noted that ‘any effort on the part of any section – such as Ireland or Wales or Scotland – of the Celtic fringe to form itself into a nation is not merely opposed but bitterly resented as if it were something in the nature of a betrayal of human progress.’ Eighty years on, the story is the same. From the Prime Minister of Australia to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen we have been warned that the enemies of freedom and justice around the world will applaud a Yes vote, that the ‘forces of darkness’ will be cheering from the wings. I suppose it is reassuring to know that they care so much.
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IN their garden in East Lothian, my parents sat in the sun a few weeks ago, watching a plane leave a trail of vapour, like an e-cigarette, across the sky. Instantly, my mother was back in wartime London, recalling the sickening sound bombers made as they began to dive before dropping their load. Whenever she hears a plane’s engines change their tone, she thinks of those times.
Her irascible uncle, with whom she was evacuated to Shropshire, had fought in the First World War. When he came home from work and settled in his armchair for a nap, she and her aunt would have to sit reading or sewing in absolute silence. Even a book falling off a lap would rattle him, his nerves still raw from the guns and bombs that had destroyed his peace forever.
My father followed the plane with more of a trained eye. As a schoolboy he had been in the Royal Observer Corps, before being conscripted into the army and reaching India some time after VJ Day. Even now, he receives a letter every Christmas from his former batman. My father’s father had been at the Western Front, in the Royal Army Service Corps, taking munitions to the front line, since in civilian life he worked as a chauffeur, but could handle nervous horses as well as temperamental engines. He was decorated for bravery by both the French and the British, but never spoke of what he had seen or done, though he did not fully recover from the effects of gas on his lungs.
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Tuesday, 5 August
Our Italian friends arrive, just in time to see the first Darling-Salmond clash on STV. I say Italian, but Margaret is actually Scottish, though she has lived and worked in Italy for over forty years. Her husband Antonio is quintessentially Italian, a retired Rome businessman. He speaks excellent English and is gracious about having to watch our very Scottish spat.
I’m fascinated to hear how he, a genuinely objective outsider, assesses it. He reckons that Salmond just wins, by the narrowest of margins. (The next day, the nay-saying media strongly disagree.) He also says that Salmond comes over as a much more pleasant personality.
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FEW profiles of Gordon Brown omit the word tragedy. The choice of language is odd, even in the devalued currency of magazine headlines. He might not have won every prize he sought, but the member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath could surely claim to have done a bit better than most.
Until hell sent a bankers’ handcart for the global economy, James Gordon Brown was reputed to have been one of the most adept Chancellors of the Exchequer Britain had seen. Until an accumulation of disgust for his predecessor and former friend, Tony Blair, overwhelmed him in 2010, the son of the manse occupied the office of prime minister, for most of three years, with his usual, fastidious attention to detail.
That’s not how the story goes, however. In the usual tale Brown is a brooding figure condemned to pay the price for hubris and obsessive ambition. As often as not, this Achilles in a baggy suit sulks in his tent. He is depicted as a man so consumed by the politics of petty rivalry and personal advancement that he forgets why he became a politician – a socialist politician – to begin with.
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Andrew Greig was born in Stirling in 1951. He spent his adolescence in Fife, before gaining a degree in Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1975. Growing up in the late 1960s, he played guitar, wrote songs and encountered the Incredible String Band. When he was seventeen he first met Norman MacCaig. He published his first poetry collection White Boats in 1973. His second, Men on Ice, was published in 1977. It became a cult favourite in the climbing world, and led to him joining a series of climbs in the Himalayas in the 1980s. The first of these produced the prose work, Summit Fever (1985). He then tackled ‘The Unclimbed Ridge’ on the Tibet side of Everest, which resulted in Kingdoms of Experience. Both mountaineering works were shortlisted for the Boardman-Tasker award for mountaineering literature.
The steep ascent into prose continued, and he published his first novel Electric Brae in 1992, following by the first of his two adventure stories written in the vein of John Buchan. The Return of John MacNab arrived in 1996; the second is Romano Bridge (2008). His other novels include When They Lay Bare, the Second World War love story That Summer, and In Another Light, set in Orkney and Penang, which won the Saltire Book of the Year Award. During his prose excursions he was still publishing poetry, including a return to the frozen territory of Men on Ice with Western Swing (1994), and the short lyric poems of Into You (2001).
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WHEN eventually you put down this exchange of letters you feel not only that you’ve got to know Ian Hamilton Finlay personally, but that you’ve actually slipped inside his mind, watched him think, and got as close as any outsider could to the deeply troubled personality out of which his creativity emerged. It is a vivid insight into the working processes of one of the most original artists of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The letters cover a crucial five year period during the artist’s early forties when he was struggling, with ‘a slow agony’, to find new forms of expression, transforming himself from a concrete poet into an artist of words and a creative gardener. Throughout this period, Finlay suffered from what he called his ‘nervous anxiety’, profoundly unpleasant, frequently recurring panic attacks which prevented him from travelling. All the letters were sent from just four locations: an Edinburgh flat, a rented cottage on a Highland estate and another in Fife, and finally Stonypath, in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, where he took the first steps towards creating his famous garden.
Letters were Finlay’s main means of communicating with the outside world. A sense of his isolation hangs around his correspondence with Stephen Bann - an academic and aspiring poet - like a haar. Only the Finlay side of the exchange is included here, but it has required merely the briefest, very occasional, typically self-effacing note by Bann to make every meaning clear. Thus the book reads like a long, discursive monologue. Finlay needed a listener he could talk to about what interested him most: himself. And yet there was genuine warmth in the relationship. Though he begins by signing off ‘aye’, Finlay soon resorts to ‘love’.
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There’s a story David Hayman tells audiences. He and I talked after an independence conference at the end of last year and he suggested that I write a piece for him on the subject of independence. Then he says he hears nothing from me for several months, gives me a nudge and over a weekend I write a script.
I wish. David is not only a terrific actor, he’s a gifted storyteller too.
The development of The Pitiless Storm was a deal more problematic than that. It involved numerous discussions over many pints of Guinness. What exactly did we want to say about the referendum? How were we going to say it? Another round? Who should be involved? Nuts or crisps?
By the time we’re actually up and running there are controversies with local councils and Telegraph journalists, visits from former shadow cabinet ministers, last-minute script changes, invitations to extend the run, tears, coffees instead of Guinness. To put the record straight, here is the writer’s scrapbook of the journey.
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It has long been a commonplace that the protection of Scotland’s key institutions – religion, law, education – was the cause of the nation’s survival after 1707. Scotland, however, did not simply acquiesce in its new subsidiary status: it took the opportunity of the British Empire to create new Scotlands around the world. Wherever Scots migrated they set up presbyterian churches, but since protestantism required literacy the Scottish educational system also had to be imported, initially to what became the United States, where the earliest universities, like William and Mary and the College of New Jersey were founded by Scots, and then to the rest of the Empire.
To sustain these Scotlands in their foreign environments, medical schools were needed – a person cured was also a person ready to believe. Scottish universities were producing far more trained doctors than could be employed at home (ten times more than Oxford and Cambridge from 1750 to 1850), so that Scots made up a huge proportion of the ship’s surgeons and army doctors in the Empire, with the result that the Scottish medical schools became the model for medical schools in all of the settler colonies. Since medicine depended largely on the properties of herbs, a medical school required a botanic garden, and Scots founded botanic gardens throughout the Empire, from Robert Kyd in Calcutta in 1787, to Alan Cunningham in Sydney in 1816 and James Hector in Wellington, New Zealand in 1865.
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THE lighting in Accident & Emergency is never less than brutal in its after-midnight reveal of stricken humanity. By way of introduction, Alan Warner catches Douglas Cunningham in its glare. For the off-the-rails young Scot in London, A & E waiting rooms meet his need for overnight refuge. They are places where he can sink into the anonymity of collective distress, at least temporarily. At Acton A & E, ‘There were no people with axes or knives embedded in blood-matted scalps. Several supplicants leaned into the palms of their hands with despair, as if this would give them priority’. Cunningham could hardly find anywhere less restful – or offering less peace for the ‘wicked’. Booted out of university, shamed and homeless, at the tender age of twenty-one he has blown his parents’ hopes by voiding his ticket into the middle classes. The potential upside is that failure cuts him loose from others’ expectations, free to make himself up as he goes along. So what will he do with this freedom, apart from keeping faith with his tandem addictions, literature and beer?
Cunningham’s efforts to avoid the attention of the A & E receptionist involve staring at his feet and staving off the temptation to pull out a book – Ultima Thule, the first of many novels referenced in Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. For readers not already familiar with them, the flourish of book titles might seem inconsequential, and it might put off those who have an allergy to fiction that dwells on the writing process, so much of which now emanates from factories of further education. But don’t crack open the pack of anti-histamine just yet: Warner is doing something more interesting than writerly navel-gazing, and readers who allow themselves to be coaxed into his literary honey trap will be rewarded by far more than a ‘recommended’ list.
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It was only relatively recently and with great delight that I learned the V in DVD referred not to ‘video’, as I’d assumed, but to ‘versatile’. We use it to mean adaptable, or merely useful, but it has the appealing and suggestive original sense of having the quality of turning easily. There has never been any mistaking Ali Smith’s adaptability as a novelist and storyteller (though I suspect she resists adaptation in the usual current sense) but in How to be both, which is both novel and tract on fiction writing, she takes the idea of versatility as her subject matter, as well as demonstrating it in a double narrative of playful sophistication.
The basic outline is easily enough described. Her primary character is a smart, picky teenager called George – for Georgia – living in Cambridge, grieving for her mother, watching her father grieve, watching a slow drip in her bedroom ceiling invest walls, posters, piles of books with a dripdripdrip that’s too briskly described to seem like any kind of intrusive symbol and too insistently not to be. This house of fiction has many windows, but it also has a slate off. At school, though she scarcely seems to need schooling, George runs verbal rings round the grief counsellor, a Mrs Rock who’s been appointed to help her through. In an environment where anything one does is liable to end up on Facebook and YouTube, she’s protected and befriended by a tough, charismatic girl known as H, whose interest may be romantic and sexual as well as supportive and empathetic.
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Born Under a Union Flag is an interesting title. It may derive from the song ‘I was born under a Union Jack’ which was adapted by Rangers fans from Lee Marvin’s hit record ‘Wanderin’ Star’. The words of the adaptation, according to Rangers historian Graham Walker in one of thirteen essays contained here, promoted ‘a Britishness that was edgy, insecure, suspicious of betrayal and requiring, in the old Orange catch phrase “eternal vigilance”.’ However, there is also an echo of Albert King’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’ may not echo around Ibrox as ‘Union Jack’ once did, but it is closer to the spirit of the times.
The overall purpose of the book is also not entirely clear. In the foreword, Professor Adam Tompkins states that ‘the argument is not about ‘Scottish or British’, as if we can be only one of these things, but ‘how do we best realise our mixed and complex identities: together in Union or together simply as neighbours who share the same island?’ This promises some form of Linda Colley/Christopher Smout multiple identity approach to the relationship between Rangers, Britain and Scottish independence which sounds interesting if a bit old-fashioned. The first paragraph of the editors’ introduction, however, asks ‘where does Scottishness end and Britishness begin?’ There is no place there for Tompkins’ ‘complex identities’.
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THAT the name of the protagonist of Michel Faber’s spellbinding, heartbreaking and mind-bending new novel, The Book Of Strange New Things, is Peter is hardly coincidental. The book opens with Peter and his wife, Beatrice, having impassioned but melancholic sex in the back of their car before Peter departs to take up a new job. Indeed, it is more than a mere employment opportunity: it is a mission. Just beforehand, Peter had confessed to loving the man-made lighting on the way to Heathrow, and was musing on how the idea that ‘unspoiled nature is supposed to be the ultimate in perfection’ buckles when one considers what travelling in the ‘total darkness’ of the ‘natural state of the world’ might actually be like. That conversation will haunt the reader, as will the neat foreshadowing in the ‘vaguely humanoid shape’ of a hitchhiker the couple pass before their elegiac tryst. This is very much a book that rewards re-reading; its subtle echoes and wisps of allusion reverberate across the text like the minimalist music of Philip Glass.
The first reveal: Peter and Beatrice are committed Christians, who use the word ‘crisis’ whenever an unbearable urge to break the third commandment and take the Lord’s name in vain steals upon them. Peter goes to the airport’s Prayer Room and reads the plaintive, angry, tender and sarcastic comments in the visitors’ book. The two of them worry about the divine sanction of his decision to accept the position: ‘You don’t feel God’s hand in this?... Do you think He would send me all the way to – ’. So far this novel could be social realism until we reach the second reveal. We already know that Peter’s career change is being funded by the shadowy acronym USIC (I can’t help hearing ‘you sick’ when leafing back through the book in order to write this review) and that the transport alone is costing millions of dollars. Peter is being sent to Oasis, humanity’s first extra-terrestrial colony, because, we later learn, the indigenous aliens – a lovely paradox – have demanded a man of the cloth. Peter, of course, was the first earthly apostle, originally named Simon and renamed by Jesus as a pun on petrus, stone, the rock on which the Church is founded.
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THE INDEPENDENCE referendum, it seems, has divided my family yet, despite the hysterical noises coming from the No camp about all the beastliness that’s around, I won’t be calling in the social services just yet. My oldest son Brendan has become a fervent No man and has been moved occasionally to espouse some of the rhetoric of the free market economists. On my next visit to his grandfather’s grave I should not be surprised to see evidence of turbulence in the earth above his tomb. Brendan is a scratch golfer, having been messing about with clubs since his early teens now. I put his rightwards lurch down to having spent far too much time in the lounges of some of the country’s best golf courses.
While supporting him and his younger brother Martin in assorted tournaments over the years visiting these places is unavoidable and when I do I experience the same feeling that Texan transsexuals must when they choose to come out. My oldest daughter Clare, though, is as fervent a Yes supporter as it’s possible to be and will often call me to ask me to accompany her to a political meeting, which of course, I can’t do as I am still officially ‘undecided’ and have to write about this as objectively as I can. Last week she and her friend attended a Yes meeting in Rutherglen where Tommy Sheridan was holding court. ‘He was just terrific,’ she said and texted a photograph taken afterwards showing the two of them with the Arden Aristotle.
Last year she and the same friend also experienced one of George Galloway’s ‘Just Say Naw’ events at the City Halls in Glasgow. She insisted on attending, even though she thinks Gorgeous George is ‘mistaken’ on Scottish independence. Doesn’t she realise that George is never mistaken? If Arthur Scargill has more memoirs to sell any time soon then he ought to ensure that Glasgow figures prominently on his publicity tour for a small quorum at least is waiting for him here. Red Ken too, for that matter.
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IAN Stephen was born and brought up on Lewis and still lives there. He worked for many years as a coastguard and from his previous books it is evident that he is a skilled fisherman and sailor; his passion for and knowledge of the sea, tides, winds, fish and boats are manifest in his writing. Though he has published short stories and has written plays, he has mainly been known as a poet, and despite this doorstopper of a prose work, I think that will continue to be the case.
At their best his poems are refreshingly lucid, exact in their language and expressive of a real engagement with the environment, especially where the natural world and the human world meet. He does not allow himself to be overly lyrical or use poetic vocabulary, but chooses his words economically and with precision. He often uses the technical or scientific names for their expressive power as well as their accuracy. In that respect, his poetry leans towards that of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Like Finlay, Stephen is not so much interested in the picturesque qualities of a landscape, but is more intent on reading it to reveal its character and history and human significance, as in ‘Skyline’:
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MY favourite part of anthologies of new writing is often the author biographies. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the contents. And it’s not because I’m nosey – although I am. Parked at the rear of the book, the biographies let slip hints of the writers’ hopes and vanities. I’ve often thought, while thumbing through these sections, that an enterprising spirit could spin a short story out of a mock version, something in the order of Pale Fire-era Nabokov.
Connoisseurs might find New Writing Scotland’s author biographies disappointingly straight-ahead, at least when compared with its more youthful rival Gutter’s back pages. New Writing Scotland favours dutiful recitals of awards gathered and writing courses attended, garnished with a list of publications. Still, it would be untrue to say you can’t get a sense of the men and women behind the words in Songs of Other Places, as the latest volume of the New Writing Scotland series, number 32, is titled. ‘He never has enough time to do any writing…, one frustration of a career in teacher education,’ writes one contributor, not entirely successful in tugging the heartstrings. ‘Dedicated cyclist, avid reader, but never at the same time,’ another sums himself up, revealing a strain of ingratiating humour. Not for the first time it strikes me that these miniaturised autobiographies are reminiscent of dating profiles. Would you go for a drink with any of these guys?