- Hits: 142
IN 1933, the novelist Eric Linklater contested a by-election in East Fife on behalf of the National Party of Scotland which, a year later, amalgamated with the Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party. Linklater, who was born in 1899 in Penarth in Glamorganshire of Orcadian stock, recalled that the election was ‘full of comedy’. Indeed, as he added, ‘At one point, in a fevered gloom, I even saw the possibility of a Nationalist victory’. But it was not to be. Of five candidates, Linklater came last. The seat was taken by a Liberal, James Hamilton-Stewart, who in his victory speech complained bitterly of the ‘wrecking tactics’ of his rivals. He held it until his death in 1961.
Linklater, however, put his disappointment to good effect, and immediately produced Magnus Merriman. Rather disingenuously, he was at pains to point out that no one should make the mistake of confusing fact and fiction. Magnus Merriman was not, he insisted, modelled on him, nor was his caper in ‘Kinluce’ ‘a replica’ of his own in the Kingdom of Fife.
We may take all of that with a generous dose of salt for Magnus Merriman draws heavily on Linklater’s own failed attempt to become an MP and contains caricatures of several prominent figures of the day, including the redoubtable Wendy Wood, founder of the Scottish Patriots, and Hugh MacDiarmid, who in the novel becomes Hugh Skene. ‘Those who admired his writing declared him to be a genius of the highest order,’ Linklater wrote of the latter, ‘and those who disliked it, or could not understand it, said that he was a pretentious versifier who concealed his lack of talent by a ponderous ornamentation of words so archaic that nobody knew their meaning’. MacDiarmid, it is perhaps worth pointing out, was delighted with this vignette.
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In the last few years I have visited Queensferry several times to see how the new road bridge is coming along. On one occasion I ran into a grizzled, middle-aged American from Ohio. Over drinks in a nearby hotel he said he had been working on the bridge and was on his way home. What he told me took me aback. ‘You Scotch guys are really sucking on hind tit,’ he said. ‘Every contractor I meet on this job seems to come from someplace in Europe or someplace in the US or someplace down in England. What’s wrong with Scotch people? Don’t you make big stuff any more? If that’s true it’s a real shame. Because it’s gonna be a real fine-looking bridge.’
After we’d parted I drove back to Edinburgh wondering if he was right. If we weren’t building the bridge who was? It didn’t take more than a few hours trawling through the contract details posted on the internet by Transport Scotland - the paymaster and de facto client for this job - to decide that the American had reason on his side. There was hardly a Scottish company on the list. And the harder I looked into sub contractors and sub-sub contractors, the worse it got.
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Robin Robertson is a poet whose work is infused with classical myth and folklore. The gods and prophets who inhabit his poems are shape-shifting and transformational figures, such as Dionysus or Proteus. His visceral and sometimes violent verse displays a carefully controlled rhythm and musicality. Alongside the vivid pictures of humans in thrall to the power of landscape and nature there is an - often unacknowledged - humour. In a poem concerning a heart operation a nurse announces ‘there will be pain’ as she closes the ward curtain, and ‘The Tweed’ is about giving a back-rub to Hugh MacDiarmid. Anyone who has heard Robertson read will know that it can be a bracing and occasionally frightening experience. It is a voice not suited to the cushioned enclaves of many poetry readings but to the boom and echo of a cathedral
Robertson was born in 1955 in Scone, Perthshire, and grew up in the north-east of Scotland. His father was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Before releasing his own poetry Robertson worked for various London-based publishing houses. In this role he brought a great many Scottish writers - such as Alan Warner, A.L. Kennedy and Irvine Welsh - to the attention of the wider world. In 1997 he published A Painted Field, his first book of poetry, and Slow Air followed in 2002. The title of his next collection, Swithering (2006), wasmost apt for a poet who is concerned with ‘flux’ and metamorphosis. That year also saw the publication of The Deleted World, his versions of poems by Tomas Tranströmer, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His translation work continued with new editions of Euripides’ plays: Medea (2008) and Bacchae (2013). His two most recent poetry collections are The Wrecking Light (2010) and Hill of Doors (2013).
Robertson’s selected poems, Sailing the Forest, appeared in October 2014 and allows the reader to grasp the breadth of form in his poetry and the recurring themes, such as the implacable yet changing force of the natural world and the chaos and fluidity of experience. With this latter preoccupation in mind, it seemed only appropriate that Robin Robertson was on the road when he agreed to answer a few long-distance questions from Nick Major on - amongst other things - Dionysus, Tomas Tranströmer and the art of translation.
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As a boy growing up in Durham in the 1970s and 80s, James Wood was given the ideal start for a literary critic. Although his parents lived in the city – his father taught zoology at the university, his Scottish mother was a schoolteacher – he was sent to an ecclesiastical boarding school, where he was a chorister. The school set-up – a pipe-smoking headmaster garbed all in black (‘He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago’), its intellectual rigour, and the daily walk in gowns and mortar boards to sing in a cold and beautiful cathedral - offered the sort of colourful, dreamy, archaic discipline a career in letters demands. Yet while it was an important component of his formation, his olde-worlde education, which now seems so ‘ridiculously remote’ as to have dated from the days of Dickens himself, was not the catalyst for Wood’s addiction to fiction. In the opening chapter of this slim but not slight work, which combines literary criticism with fragments of memoir, Wood pinpoints the influence his parents’ strict Christianity had upon him. It was this that piqued his literary curiosity.
As he grew old enough to ask questions about why we are here, and what lies behind our existence, Wood had ‘the burgeoning apprehension that intellectual and religious curiosity might not be natural allies’. Questions about God, death and the meaning of life were encouraged, he writes, ‘up to a certain point, and discouraged as soon as it became rebellious’. The result was a habit of secretiveness that will be familiar to all who have disagreed with their parents while still under their aegis. For Wood, the discovery of literature offered an escape from such guilty concealment because in fiction he discovered ‘an utterly free space’. He has lived and thrived in that space ever since. A staff writer at the New Yorker who is widely considered one of the finest literary critics of our day, he writes: ‘Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction’. Following this liberating revelation, he went on to enjoy a devotional relationship with books. Indeed, in an earlier collection of essays on literature and belief, The Broken Estate, he outlined the ways in which fiction mirrors faith, and vice versa.
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SCOTTISH CAT AND SCOTTISH MOUSE
The very first Because
(no paws or claws
but logic’s laws)
came once upon a mouse-click
slick as any electronic
tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
through Time’s deleted was.
Binary YES and binary NO,
the cursor showing where to go
(its heartbeat is what matters most
to touchscreen lives
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‘TARTAN noir’ has been used to describe crime fiction written by Scottish crime writers for so long now – well over a decade – we’ve grown numb to it. Strange that a genre, or subgenre more accurately, that prides itself on mapping the moral badlands of contemporary Scotland should accept a label so redolent of national stereotype. Tartan? Noir? Readers unfamiliar with the work of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and so many, many more, would be forgiven for imagining the worst. CSI: Brigadoon, where criminals are pursued by Dirty Harry Lauder. Len Wanner’s flawed study of the genre, does at least make the reader consider the tag afresh, to the extent one realizes that much of the field is neither especially Scottish nor noir.
The birth of the descriptor ‘tartan noir’ is characteristically myth-ridden. Originally the story was that Ian Rankin, then a tyro author, encountered the American noirist James Ellroy at a signing. After explaining that he was attempting to do a Scottish version of what Ellroy had achieved, the American signed his book ‘To Ian Rankin, King of Scottish Noir’. Recently, Rankin has retold the story: now he’s the one who came up with ‘Tartan Noir’ while asking for Ellroy’s autograph. Whatever the truth, it’s fitting Rankin should be present at the birth; his Rebus novels furnished Tartan Noir with its mood, form and language.
It is William McIlvanney, however, who is accorded the honour of having written the first Tartan Noirs with his Laidlaw trilogy. With the first Laidlaw novel appearing in 1977, McIlvanney was a decade ahead of the debut works by a younger generation of writers who were to popularize the genre. Claiming McIlvanney as a literary ancestor is a canny move, his novels giving the subgenre a literary burnish contemporary practitioners don’t attempt to emulate. What his successors took from the Laidlaw trilogy was a setting and tone. The language and spiritual inquiries – think Chandler rewritten by Dostoevsky – were a little harder to pull off, especially when you’re due your publisher a book a year. McIlvanney himself couldn’t manage it: The Papers of Tony Veitch followed Laidlaw in 1983, with Strange Loyalties published in 1991. For some, the true mystery of the trilogy isn’t whodunit, but why should McIlvanney only write three Laidlaw books. Anyone who asks that question, however, hasn’t read the trilogy carefully enough. It tells the story of the defeat of their hero’s values entirely. Over a decade and a half we watch Glasgow lose its soul and Laidlaw struggle – and fail – to hold onto the compassion that set him apart from his colleagues. Further entries in the series would be superfluous. But then McIlvanney had a vision; his successors have contracts.
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ONCE upon a time there was a girl called North, who lived on a floating circus with her pet bear. North was an orphan, but did not mourn her parents. She did ‘miss the idea of a family’ though. The circus, which doubled as a ship called Excalibur, ‘was not a bad substitute’ for her mother and father. There was the captain and ringmaster Jarrow Stirling (also known as Red Gold), his evil lover Avalon, and his son Ainsel, whom Jarrow has decided will marry North one day. There were also three clowns: Cash, Dosh and Dough; two aerialists: Melia and Whitby; the glamours’, who made everyone pretty; and Bero, the fire-eater.
Why a floating circus? It’s because it’s the future, the whole world has been flooded and our great land masses reduced to archipelagos. Kirsty Logan’s debut novel The Gracekeepers is not, however, an environmental and psychological dystopia along the lines of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. It is a fairytale voyage across oceans of whimsy. The Excalibur docks at whatever port will accept it and its striped sails fold out to become a big top. The travelling entertainers earn their living at these carnivalesque events, and then fold themselves back up and cast off again.
Logan conjures a strange future that has its roots in a nostalgic vision of today’s past. If it were an extrapolation of the present you might expect the leftover furniture of our world to go floating by once in a while: a bit of old laptop for instance, or a busted iPhone. You might even expect to find a few people huddled in the hollowed-out shell of a Boeing 747. But this is a world surprisingly well-adapted to a radically changed environment. Logan’s characters burn seal fat in oil lamps, listen to records (on a wind-up record player, presumably), write on rags (using what is not clear – ye olde feather quill and ink blotter?), and are forever eating what seems like delicious home-baking.
- Hits: 206
Driving through the hamlets of Bigton and Ireland at the south end of the Shetland Mainland, the sun was icy bright and the sky a polished blue, barely troubled by clouds. Half a mile away the Atlantic lay like a desert, and beyond, the horizon, a soft, blunt edge interrupting a view that might otherwise stretch all the way around the world. On days like this it is hard to think of leaving. Days like this extinguish all other days.
The narrow road I was on stooped towards the coast, then faded to an unsurfaced track. A mile or so beyond the last house I stopped, parked the car and got out. The air was still and quiet, and warm enough to leave my jacket behind. It felt good to be there, to inhabit the day. Somewhere along this stretch of coast, the sixtieth parallel tied the ocean to the island, passing unmarked between land and water. A few miles or so to the east, it would meet the sea again, connecting Shetland to Norway. As I reached the cliff top, I pulled the map from my bag and unfolded it, exploring the space between where I was and where I wanted to be. The lines on the map were solid and stark, dividing the blue water from the white land. Everything on the page was certain of itself, but the world in front of me was nothing like that. It took a moment to pull these two images together, to merge them, and imagine how they might be reconciled.
I was standing at the top of a steep-sided cove, a geo, perhaps thirty metres above the water. From there the land fell sharply towards a bouldered beach, and then the sea, where a thick mat of kelp was tousled by the ebbing tide. Half a dozen seals, alert to my silhouette, abandoned their positions on the rocks and heaved themselves back into the waves. Once safe, they turned to look more carefully at this figure above them, unable to restrain their curiosity. Just offshore, three skerries lay littered with cormorants, black wings outstretched, as the sea around them shivered and shook in the sunlight. Far beyond, to the northwest, the island of Foula lay like a great wave on the horizon. If my map-reading skills were to be trusted, these skerries were the Billia Cletts, which would place me just a few hundred metres south of where I wanted to be. As I walked carefully along the cliff edge the seals were still visible below, their thick bodies dark in the clear water. I stepped slowly, on grey rocks glorious with colour; each stone was splashed yellow-orange by lichen, every crack and crevice was speckled with sea pinks.
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SCOTTISH by formation, Mick Imlah was an Oxbridge critic and poet and a member of the London literary establishment. With his twin sister Fiona, he was born in Aberdeen in 1956. The Imlahs lived in Milngavie for ten years until his father, who worked in insurance, moved the family to Kent in 1966. Imlah attended Dulwich College — alma mater of PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler and, ahem, Nigel Farage — and won a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught as a Junior Fellow. Imlah also attempted a PhD, on Arthurian influences in Victorian poetry, but abandoned it. Thereafter, he was an editor, first at Oxford Poetry and later as Andrew Motion’s successor at Chatto & Windus. From 1993 onwards he was a critic at the Times Literary Supplement where most of these essays first appeared.
Imlah’s poetry is humorous, darkly brooding and provocative, and was on occasion influenced by his criticism. One can see a relationship, for instance, between his review of Walter Scott’s novels and his verse biography ‘Diehard’ or his review of Tom Leonard’s biography of James Thomson and the gloomy elegy ‘B.V’. In his early years, Imlah may have been overly meticulous with his poetry and admits, ‘... I revise, much too much. In the quest for polish or evenness you can rewrite the life out of a thing’. He produced just two collections twenty years apart; Birthmarks appeared in 1988 and The Lost Leader in 2008, after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and which won the Forward Prize. He died the following year.
Prefaced by his close friend Mark Ford, the essays here indicate that Imlah’s criticism and poetry are grounded in literary history and context. It is often the writer’s background that informs his opinions and leads him later to produce a stanza on their imagined histories. The editors of this volume are themselves poets and critics: André Naffis-Sahely is a translator and editor of a book of essays on Michael Hofmann and Robert Selby wrote a PhD on Imlah. Having picked the cream of Imlah’s prose, they present a triptych of his critical voice: a series of literary musings, followed by essays on rugby and cricket and ending with the poet’s own gently self-deprecating remarks in a brief interview with Oxford Poetry.
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A few days before the General Election a friend who had been campaigning on behalf of the SNP in Edinburgh South texted to say he’d placed a bet on the Nationalists to make a clean sweep and win every seat. If I recall rightly the odds were 5-1 which at the time did not seem to me to be overly generous. Like everyone else, of course, I was reading the polls rather than the runes, spending inordinately more time in front of a computer screen than out and about talking to ‘real’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, doing their damnedest to feed their ‘hard-working’ families and to stay afloat in a sea full of sharks and charlatans. My best guess, transmitted to a fellow journalist in Hong Kong, was that the SNP would do well to take forty seats and that the other nineteen in Scotland would be divvied up between Labour, the Tories and the LibDems. There were, I added, only two certainties in this election. The first was that Alistair Carmichael, the LibDem Scottish Secretary of State, would retain his constituency in Orkney and Shetland and, second, that the only party leader guaranteed to hold on to his or her job when the dust had settled was Nicola Sturgeon, both of which came to pass. But, as we now know, Labour’s vote collapsed and the SNP came within a whisker of capturing all 59 seats in Scotland. Ironically, the one seat Labour did hang on to was Edinburgh South, where the candidate, Ian Murray, increased his majority from 316 in 2010 to 2637. This in an area which encompasses pukka Morningside, Newington and the Braid Hills and which, by rights, ought to be prime Tory territory. But even here, with a less than satisfactory candidate, the SNP came second, which was consolation of sorts for my empty-pocketed friend.
- Hits: 239
TRAVELLING to Scotland has a long tradition in English letters. In 1803, for example, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge embarked upon an expedition north in the aftermath of their Lyrical Ballads. Similarly, their fellow Romantic poet John Keats carried out his own foray into the Highlands, exposing himself to a harsh climate which may have been the initial cause of his fatal tuberculosis. Daniel Defoe, albeit incognito, tread a similar path from south to north. The English novelist’s role as an agent provocateur of the pro-Union parliament from 1706 to 1708 remains one of the most fascinating aspects of his multifaceted biography. Perhaps most famous of all Anglo-Scottish jaunts, is the journey taken by Samuel Johnson and his amanuensis, biographer and friend James Boswell in 1773.
Such experiences proved fruitful grounds for literary harvests. Keats composed several sonnets on his travels, most notably ruminations on the sight of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast and the sublimity of Ben Nevis. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s trip was recorded by the former’s sister, their fellow traveller Dorothy. In Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, the lesser-known Wordsworth provides a vivid journal marked by a voice sensitive to the geography of rural Scotland and its inhabitants. Defoe’s activities in Edinburgh included the publication of what the author himself described as ‘plain, naked, and unbyasst accounts both of persons and things’ via politically-inflected titles such as An Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with Scotland (collected in 1731) and History of the Union of Great Britain (1709). Boswell and Johnson, meanwhile, would produce their own travelogues. Chronicled for posterity in Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, their works testify again to the ability of travelling in Scotland to inspire writing that is lively and vibrant, subtle and sophisticated.
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THE referendum was a model of simplicity. The people of Scotland were asked a straightforward question to which there were two possible responses. But to reduce it to a momentary act in the privacy of a voting booth would be to discount too much. It was also the accumulation of developments spanning decades, distilled into a campaign that was short only in comparison. For all that its universal quality has been remarked on, there were endless individual and collective perspectives. This applied to the roads taken as much as the roads yet to be travelled. How did Scotland arrive at the referendum at that particular moment in time, what was really at stake and how is the result to be explained? These are just three of the questions with which future historians must contend.
In his book The Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union Before and After the Scottish Referendum, Peter Hennessy offers the first account of the referendum campaign from the perspective of someone close to the centre of the UK Government machine. A short book, it comprises mainly diary entries from the weeks immediately before the vote and the days after. These are interspersed with more detached analysis and autobiography, although the ordering feels a little jumbled. Hennessy writes from the outer perimeter of the inner circle, a place where the effect of the referendum campaign on the performance of the pound is regularly commented upon. His days are spent bumping into political notables or dining with former or still-in-post Permanent Secretaries. He likes titles and insists on using them correctly, although telling nicknames are scattered about to indicate his intimacy with powerful figures in politics and media. For instance, there are references to ‘Kev’ Tebbit, former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and ‘Andy’ Marr. Off-the-record comments are attributed to ‘well-placed’ figures and Tam Dalyell phones regularly to convey his increasing pessimism. This, then, is a work by Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield as much as a Professor of Contemporary British History.
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THERE are 89 nations represented in the official pavilions of the Venice Biennale, clustered partly in an area known as the Gardens and partly in the old Arsenal, and 44 semi-official fringe, or ‘collateral’ events as they termed, distributed in deconsecrated churches, palaces, and courtyards all over the city. Every nation, irrespective of population or politics, has to be there, so newcomers this year included the Seychelles, Mauritius and Mongolia and they occupy stands alongside San Marino, China and Vatican City.
For all the grand language used, the initial draw to individual events is likely to be the lavish hospitality offered at the opening ceremonies which are now de rigueur. I dropped into the Philippine venue, hosting a show entitled Tie a String Around the World. The garden fronting the Palazzo Mora was a crush of the art-lovers downing strawberries, chunks of Parmesan, slices of salame and glasses of prosecco, while ignoring a valiant trio of musicians playing ragtime numbers. The party was open to all-comers, as used to happen at the great balls in the eighteenth-century Venetian carnivals when the mask made it impossible to distinguish between prince and prole. Near the gate, stood the anxious husband of an Austrian artist, Beatriz Gerenstein, who was showing off her sculpture, a work mounted on a red board, consisting of two stainless steel tubes which come together in a knot to form a triangle, leaving one tube to slant upwards, ‘towards heaven’, as she explained. She was delighted when it was suggested that spectators could see their reflection in the material of her sculpture, but I had the impression that she would have been equally delighted with any form of reaction as proof that her work was speaking to someone, whatever it said.
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Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
MY O Grade English class did not respond well to a recording of Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’. Chairs were scraped and faces pulled, until all succumbed to outraged laughter. Needless to say, they didn’t start us on Kurt Schwitters anytime soon. On we plodded, believing ‘My Last Duchess’ to be the zenith of prosodic accomplishment. If only we had known we could write to the poet to demand an explanation, as did American high school student Bobbie Hinson when bemused by the poem ‘Orgy’: ‘The poem is about an anteater eating ants,’ Morgan replied, kindly, before providing a lucid and utterly uncondescending explication of Concrete Poetry.
Morgan often kept carbon copies of letters in which, ‘he was conscious of making a strong and reasoned statement of his position, as if to preserve it for posterity,’ writes James McGonigal in his 2010 biography, Beyond the Last Dragon, ‘although it may also have been part of the normal self-reflectiveness of the artist’. From the late 1980s onwards the poet sent these copies to Special Collections in Glasgow University Library. For The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence 1950 – 2010, McGonigal joins John Coyle of University of Glasgow to present a good deal of the source material for the biography, arranged by decade with biographical and bibliographical notes. While Morgan kept ‘much that a weaker personality might have concealed’, it does amount, of course, to another authorized version; he burned all personal letters before leaving to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1940 (he was a conscientious objector but wanted to contribute in a non-violent capacity).
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AN obsession with polished aspirational black music finally carried me to Detroit. Poking my nose against a high window in the MGM Grand Hotel I survey this strung out city. Michigan Central looms in front of me, the morose emblem of the city’s mutation in death. Through the perforations in its eviscerated carcase I see smoke signals rising up from the Poletown Incinerator. No train has left the station since the 353 to Chicago on January 5, 1988. Above Bagley Street, where Henry Ford had his first garage, the people carrier skirts around the ‘Notown’ hub connecting the city’s new casinos with its historic glass dollhouses. On Michigan Avenue a dude on a Detroit Bike gives me the finger and shouts ‘What’s a cocksucking whitey doin down here?’ A few blocks from Campus Martius Park next to a coffee shop, a joker has written ‘Free Coffee with Purchase of Wurlitzer building’ on a clapboard. I enter the Greektown Casino where an unhealthy candlelight and a total absence of clocks confronts me. Solitary jaded smokers man a flashing conveyor belt of gears, brakes and levers while the money-obsessed automations scoop up the last profits. Nigga is still the code name for Detroit but it’s hard to find a friendly dog that likes Motown in this burnt out forest.
Back at the MGM Grand I hire Thomas Bell to take me for a spin in his Ford Cherokee. Thomas is massive, bearded and wears a slate blue suit with matching bow tie and pocket square. When I ask him where it all went wrong for Detroit he chuckles defensively, ‘Kilpatrick was a bad dude that stoled from the 313 but it aint his fault’. Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s former mayor, is presently in prison having been sentenced in 2013 to 23 years on multiple charges; 313 is the area code for Detroit.
I ask Thomas to drop me off in Midtown at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the fifth largest gallery in the United States and home of the city’s crown jewels. The Italian Renaissance marbled hallways that lead to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals are deserted. The almost life size workers on the North Wall of Rivera Court are portrayed as vital cogs in the Highland Park factory wheels. In his memoirs Rivera enthused about his first meeting with Henry Ford. The wealthiest industrialist in the world and the Marxist painter were united by a passion for mechanical precision and technological beauty: ‘In my ears I heard the wonderful symphony, which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men’s service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form.’
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TO a younger generation of Scots, Ronnie Browne is probably better known as that guy fae the fitba (or rugby) rather than the guy from The Corries. His vigorous pre-game rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ has become something of a trademark in recent years. In fact, Scotland’s unofficial national anthem was written by fellow Corrie Roy Williamson who died in 1990. The first international sporting event Browne sang it at was a boxing match - Pat Clinton versus Isadore Perez at the Kelvin Hall in 1992 – and the last was the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. Over the years, he took to inserting a parenthetical ‘C’MON’ early in the song, raising the crowd to ear-piercing levels of dissonant enthusiasm. And the early indications in this remarkable life story are that he intends to write as he sang, holding nothing back.
In the opening chapters, for instance, we discover that he was the recipient of more than his fair share of ‘arse-skelping’. Skelper-in-chief was his mother Anne and ‘maybe that’s why I seemed to spend the rest of her life not getting along with Ma’. Browne returns to this theme periodically: fleshing it out, so to speak, with the various ways in which his mother expressed her disapproval of his wife and at least one of their children. Anne was a spiritualist and Browne later concludes that ‘being a spiritualist medium does not necessarily make you a nice person’. The portrait of his father John is more sympathetic. He was a talented artist but ‘suffered all his life from lack of confidence in his own ability’, preferring to nurture a similar talent that he detected in his son.
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JONATHAN Swift’s Laputans had a very singular cast of vision, with one eye turned down to the ground, the other directed steadily at the zenith. This was meant as a satire on the vogue for the microscope and the telescope respectively, and of a scientism that excluded the human middle in preference for minute detail or cosmic scanning. Laputa may also have have referred to Britain’s ‘other’ island - Swift’s Irish birthplace - which floated in and out of focus in eighteenth century politics in time with its changing demands and tribulations. Lemuel Gulliver’s voyages were a reflection on and of an age of exploration and colonial settlement: America entered the British imagination with Shakespeare’s last play and hovered uneasily in the national unconscious from then until the Declaration of Independence.
It can usually be assumed that whatever their immediate object Swift’s satires were in addition directed at religion and the churches. As an illustration of what Freudians later called ‘the vanity of small differences’ it has rarely been bettered. To the prejudiced, or merely jaundiced, eye, the whole Protestant communion seems afflicted with the Laputans’ extreme strabismus and a Lilliputian willingness to fall out and then walk out over minor matters of doctrinal detail. One of the over-determining myths of recent Scottish history, now partly replaced by the Braveheart alternative, is that Presbyterianism laid a cold and denying hand on the national heart. John Knox always gets the blame, with misogyny added to the charge sheet. He’s the subject of a definitive – which inevitably means revisionist – new biography by Jane Dawson, which is noted here rather than reviewed, as being somewhat prior to the main subject. ‘Calvinism’ is adduced as part of the pathology, usually with scant understanding of what the term means.